Saturday, April 30, 2005

Way Cool Worm

Cooler. Pompeii worms tolerate scalding temperatures but temper the environment for other creatures.
CREDIT: Ifremer/PHARE/O. Dugornay

"Discovered in the early 1980s, the Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) is the most heat-tolerant animal known. It can survive at temperatures as high as 80°C, according to some scientists. The worm makes its home in thin-walled tubes anchored in the sides of hydrothermal smokers that spew acidic seawater heated to 300°C or more by magma. The smokers are coated in a 10-centimeter thick layer of gel teaming with bacteria."
--- Vent Worms Make Good Neighbors in Science Magazine

Pompeii Worm Page
at the University of Delaware.

Friday, April 29, 2005

"The Tempest", by William Shakespeare

Philip Goodwin and Daniel Breaker (Photo: Richard Termine)

directed by Kate Whoriskey at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. March 22 - May 22, 2005.

This production featured a truly aerial Ariel, played by Daniel Breaker high above the stage, often upside-down in a flying harness. Stephano was played by Floyd King, who did a hilarious job. The shipwreck in the opening scene was fabulous.

Full fathoms five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange

New Hubble Images

Eagle Nebula
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Hubble Image Gallery

"Automatic effects of alcohol cues on sexual attraction", by Friedman et. al.

Alcohol is traditionally believed to effect libido, but in a test of 82 male undergraduates at the University of Missouri at Columbia, they didn't even have to drink the stuff! Just a subliminal flash of the word "beer" on a computer screen was enough to influence the perceived attractiveness of depicted females, at least for the "Show Me State" males. It didn't seem to change ratings of the female's intelligence however.

The Nature News Article

"Modigliani: Beyond the Myth", edited by Mason Klein

A beautiful book from Yale University Press, it's a catalog from a recent exhibition which just ended at the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. In fact, I saw it today, the final day of a multi-city tour. I also got a great Modigliani T-shirt, lucky me. I'd never been to the Philips Collection before, it's in lovely Dupont Circle, conveniently located on the Metro.

Metropolian Museum, New York

Photograph of the artist as a young man

Salt Fingers, Ocean Mixing

In the mix. Warm salt fingers (light-colored) dribble down as fresh water (darker) rises.
CREDIT: B. Merryfield/ Institute of Ocean Sciences/ Office of Naval Research

Bill Merryfield's salt finger tutorial

"Salty Fingers Do the Mixing" in Science Magazine.

Human Genetics Project from National Geographic, IBM

Earlier this month, the National Geographic Society and IBM announced a project to produce a sharper picture of human migrations by analyzing DNA samples from 100,000 people (Science, 15 April, p. 340). The Web site of the Genographic Project is worth a look for the lavishly illustrated backgrounders on genetics and migrations. A timeline depicts what we know about the human expansion from Africa beginning about 60,000 years ago, stopping at landmarks such as the controversial Cactus Hill site in Virginia. Evidence found there suggests that people reached the Americas thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Another section explains how to send in your DNA and find out where your ancestors originated. Genealogical curiosity will cost you $99.95 plus shipping for the test kit.
--- Science Magazine Netwatch

National Geographics Gengraphics Page

Exploding German Toads Baffle Scientists

Undated but recent filer shows a dead toad in a Hamburg, Germany lake. More than 1,000 toads have puffed up and exploded in a Hamburg pond in recent weeks, and German scientists still have no explanation for what is causing the combustion.(AP Photo/Florian Quand)

BERLIN - Why are toads puffing up and spontaneously exploding in northern Europe? It began in a posh German neighborhood and has spread across the border into Denmark. It's left onlookers baffled, but one German scientist studying the splattered amphibian remains now has a theory: Hungry crows may be pecking out their livers.

Local environmental workers in Hamburg have described it as a scene out of a horror or science fiction movie, with the bloated frogs agonizing and twitching for several minutes, inflating like a balloon before suddenly bursting.

"It's horrible," biologist Heidi Mayerhoefer was quoted as telling the Hamburger Morgenpost daily.

"The toads burst, the entrails slide out. But the animal isn't immediately dead — they keep struggling for several minutes."

Disappointingly, the Nature magazine web site poo-pooed the exploding German toad phenomenon: Has bubble burst over exploding toad tale?. "Evidence points to bloated toads and hungry birds, but not explosions" according to Nature. Party poopers!

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Giant Gamma Ray Flash On 27 December 2004

Artist conception of the December 27, 2004 gamma ray flare expanding from SGR 1806-20 and impacting Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA

An artist conception of the SGR 1806-20 magnetar including magnetic field lines.
Credit: NASA

In this weeks Nature, there's a series of articles on the giant flash of Dec 27, 2004: Nature article

This was a truly mind-boggling event. It was so powerful that it bounced off the Moon and lit up the Earth's upper atmosphere. The flash was brighter than anything ever detected from beyond our Solar System and lasted over a tenth of a second. Two similar flares had previously been detected from different sources during 30 years of observations. But it outshone both the preceding events by two orders of magnitude, releasing in its first fraction of a second as much energy as the Sun releases in a quarter of a million years.

SGR stands for soft gamma repeater, because they flare up randomly and release gamma rays.

A strange coincidence in timing has been noted (see this site, for example) - the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami occured the day before, December 26, 2004. Hmmm, maybe gravity waves, whatever, the day before that was Christmas, can't forget that either.

Link to a NASA article on the flash

Arnold's Cogent Analysis of the Situation

From an article in today's New York Times Paying on the Highway to Get Out of First Gear:
"Californians can't get from place to place on little fairy wings," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in announcing a plan in January that could allow private investors to build toll roads. "We are a car-centered state. We need roads."

The Governor himself utilizing California transportation systems

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Philip Morrison, 89, died April 22

New York Times Obituary

His book reviews in Scientific American, written with his wife Phylis, used to be one of the highlights of the month. Every holiday season they had a children's book column, which was a wonderful source of gift ideas.
I attended one of his Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence lectures in 10-250 at MIT. On the one hand, the whole idea was to find bug-eyed monsters in outer space, on the other hand, he was full of practical nuts-and-bolts communication and engineering details. Here's article of his on the PBS web site: Hunt for Alien Worlds.
He and his wife regularly attended the ART theater in Cambridge. I was there with a friend who excitedly pointed them out at the front of the theater (he was in a wheelchair). I was very surprised that she had even heard of this particular MIT physics professor much less be able to pick him out of a crowd. It turned out his PBS series was currently showing, he had become a TV star!

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

In case you're dead and didn't know, the book has been made into a major motion picture with a very fancy official website.
I re-read the book today, it had been awhile so I wanted to be sure I could say, with confidence, "but the book was much better".
While I remembered the book quite fondly, this time it started out as rather a disappointment, but about 2/3's of the way through I finally started snickering appreciatively.
My favorite passage from the book is so good, I quoted it for years having forgotten where I'd first seen it. Here's a mild paraphrase.
"The history of civilization passes through three distinct phases: those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication; otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases.
The first phase is characterized by the question: How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"The Road to Reality" by Roger Penrose

I've been dipping into Roger Penrose's new book, which presents an introduction (and beyond) to mathematical physics beginning with very elementary math - fractions!
Complex numbers are basic to understanding mathematical physics, especially quantum mechanics, moreover they're a useful and elegant tool throughout mathematics and physics. In particular there's quite a bit in the book about complex analysis. Basic texts and references for General Relativity and Quantum Theory (I myself own stacks of them) don't usually require much, if any, complex analysis - though it is certainly beautiful math and there are certain important applications in physics and elsewhere. That's an example of Penrose's idiosyncratic point of view, which sometimes I find a bit obscure but in other cases interesting, refreshing and provocative.

Here's a link to Martin Gardner's review in The New Criterion and to the review in the New York Times

In the beginning of the book Penrose presents a nice proof that the square root of two is an irrational number. This is hardly news, it dates to the time of Pythagoras, when it was supposedly considered so scandalous it was kept as a deep, dark secret. Probably this proof is well-know to everyone but me, but I had only remembered a proof involving prime decompositions and this one is more direct.

Assume there are positive integers p and q such that
(p/q)^2 = 2
so p^2 = 2q^2 and p must be even (because the square of an odd integer is also odd, but the square of p is even)
and hence p=2r for some positive integer r.
p^2 = (2r)^2 = 4r^2
2r^2 = q^2
So q is even as well, and q=2s for some positive integer s and furthermore p=4s.
2r^2 = 4s^2 and now s must be even, s=2t and p=8t.
This process can be repeated indefinitely, so p ends up having an infinite number of factors of two and hence p can't be a finite integer.
So the square root of two cannot be expressed as the ratio of two positive integers and hence is irrational.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Friday, April 22, 2005

"Atlas of the Medieval World" by Rosamond McKitterick

Oxford University Press 2004.

Beautifully illustrated, the maps themselves are often good, but sometimes I found them to be a bit overly busy and complex. Perhaps medieval history was in reality a bit of a jumbled up mess, the book does tend to give that impression.

If you want to learn how to present complex information well, Edward Tufte's book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd edition is the classic. Here's a great map of Napolean's Russian campaign, discussed in Tufte's book and on his web site:

"Kung Fu Hustle", a film by Stephen Chow

It looks like a lot of fun.

Saunders MacLane, 95, died April 14th

His book "Category Theory for the Working Mathematician" is a masterpiece and a great way to get an introduction to a lot of mathematics very quickly. Category Theory is compelling, in part because it is presented almost entirely in diagrams, giving a visual texture to possibly the most abstract branch of mathematics.

Category Theory has been influential in Computer Science, see "Category Theory for Computing Science" by Barr & Wells, and in mathematical logic: "Introduction to higher order categorical logic" by Lambek and Scott.

New York Times Obituary

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Microglia on the Move

On patrol. For 20 minutes, this microglial cell extended (green) and retracted (red) arms in many directions.
CREDIT: Nimmerjahn et al., Science

Basic information about microglia

Movies of Microglia in Motion

Here's the abstract of a recent paper in Science.

Resting Microglial Cells Are Highly Dynamic Surveillants of Brain Parenchyma in Vivo
Axel Nimmerjahn, Frank Kirchhoff, Fritjof Helmchen

Microglial cells represent the immune system of the brain and therefore are critically involved in various injuries and diseases. Little is known about their role in the healthy brain and their immediate reaction to brain damage. Using in vivo two-photon imaging in neocortex, we found that microglial cells are highly active in their presumed resting state, continually surveying their microenvironment with extremely motile processes and protrusions. Furthermore, blood brain barrier disruption provoked immediate and focal activation of microglia, switching their behavior from patrolling to shielding of the injured site. Microglia thus are busy and vigilant housekeepers in adult brain.

Science 10.1126/science.1110647
Copyright © 2005 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.
Science Magazine article abstract

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"Irrational Exuberance: Second Ediiton" by Robert J. Shiller

The first edition predicted the collapse of the dot com bubble, the new second edition bodes ill for the current real estate boom. Schiller is skeptical about the "efficient markets" hypothesis, skepticism which has proved well-founded. Pity, I liked that theory! His professor at MIT was the late Charles Kindleberger. I sat in on Kindleberger's International Economics class when I was at MIT, it was great. Schiller doesn't really offer much to replace the "efficient markets" concept, he mentions feedback several times, but doesn't really develop that much in the book - perhaps he does in his more scholarly work, which I haven't really dipped into. But the book is entertaining, lots of data and graphs, but not overwhelmingly quantitative.
The classic on this topic dates from 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds by Charles MacKay. It discusses the Dutch Tulip mania, the South Sea Bubble and various financial scams and frauds of those days. Still worth reading today.

Princeton Press
Updated Information

Microscopy Web Site

Mammal tongue papillae (cat). Papillae project toward the back of the tongue. They form backward-facing hooks which help hold food and provide the abrasiveness needed for self-grooming. They do not have taste buds. The taste buds are carried by mushroom-shaped papillae at the tip and sides and the cup-shaped papillae at the back of the tongue.

Woodland skipper butterfly compound eye and proboscis (Ochlodes spp.).

More images and demonstrations on the web site:

Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc. Education Web Site

Sunday, April 17, 2005

"Never Let me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

I just finished the new book by Kazuo Ishiguro, "Never Let Me Go". His first three books: "A Pale View of Hills", "An Artist of the Floating World", and "Remains of the Day" were brilliant. They were quiet, subtle, bittersweet and mysterious. His next two books, "The Unconsoled" and "When We Were Orphans", were bitter disappointments. I wasn't even able to finish the "The Unconsoled" and "When We Were Orphans" was terrible but slight enough to trudge through.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up his new book. It was an improvement over the previous two and quite similar in tone and style to the first three. But alas, not nearly as good. There's an old recommendation about storytelling - "Show Me Don't Tell Me", which Mr. Ishiguro seemed to have forgotten along the way. He is apparently disturbed about certain potential developments of modern medical technology and in his anxiety to make a point he left seems to have left much but not all of his craft behind.
"Remains of the Day" was a great success for Mr. Ishiguro, it won the Booker Prize and was made into a well-regarded film. Sometimes it seems that success destroys the foundation upon which it is built. Unfortunately this seems to be the case for this author.

Ishiguro's Better Days No Longer Remain

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Green Flash

Over Thanksgiving 1986, Lori Lamel and I went scuba diving on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. The island is claimed to be the site of the first landing in the New World by Columbus in 1492. After a day of diving, Lori and I were relaxing on the veranda of the Riding Rock Inn, overlooking the sea and the beautiful evening sky. We were joined by another couple, an eye surgeon, and his wife, a nurse. They had been married for seven years, had a practice in the States for part of the year, but every year journeyed to some tropical country where, at their own expense, they set up an clinic and performed eye surgeries on village children. They described all this in a very lovely, serene and modest fashion.
As the sun began to go down, they told us that they had heard of a spectacular optical effect called "The Green Flash", that occurs at sunset. They themselves had never seen it, but they had been watching sunsets for years, hoping to see it together. The wife disappeared into the Inn for some reason, while the three of us remained watching as the sun dipped below the horizon. Then an incredible emerald flash left Lori and I gasping. We were excitedly jabbering away when the wife reemerged onto the veranda. When she realized the three of us had actually seen it and she hadn't, the faces of both the husband and wife fell. Lori and I caught the looks passing between the two of them and our excitement sputtered to a halt. They had so wanted to see it together, they had been watching for years and now their charming fantasy was ruined. Alas.

I've watched for the Green Flash many times since, and while I've seen a couple more pretty good ones, most of the ones I've seen are more like a green tinge.

The Green Flash is the result of two different optical phenomenon. The atmosphere bends short wavelength light more than long wavelengths; and in addition it scatters blue light. So at a certain point as the sun is setting, blue and green light are bent enough to go over the horizon, but red and yellow are not. The blue however is scattered away and we are only left with green.

An Introduction to Green Flashes is a web page devoted to the Green Flash, it's also the source of the photograph at the top of this post. After returning from the San Salvador trip I found the following article, and recall enjoying reading it at the time: "The Green Flash," by D. J. K. O'Connell, in Scientific American, January 1960, pp. 112-122.

This year I've started hearing about another, probably unrelated Green Flash phenomenon. It's been reported that after drinking several bottles of Heineken beer, if an empty bottle is held up to the setting sun, a green flash can sometimes be perceived. These reports tend to originate in Cabo San Lucas, Spring Break and other similar venues.

Higdon's Law

Higdon's Law:
Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.

"Seven Gothic Tales" by Isak Dinesen

The Monkey
"What is it," she said very slowly, in the manner of a sibylla, "which is bought dearly, offered for nothing, and then most often refused? - Experience

The Supper at Elsinore
"Hanne, is it not terrible that there is so much lying, so much falsehood, in the world?"
"Well, what of it? It would be worse still if it were actually true, all that they tell"