Sunday, March 28, 2010

Evo Devo on Nova

I watched a wonderful 2-hour Nova special on my iPod this weekend, one of several recent Nova episodes available as "Vol. 4" at the iTunes store (only $1.99 per episode - bargain!). "What Darwin Never Knew" explores the mechanisms of evolution at the level of embryonic development, a field now called evolutionary developmental biology (or evo devo). It is based largely on two books by biologist Sean Carroll, including The Making of the Fittest which I read and discussed here in 2008 (I called that post "Evolution: Under the Hood"). Carroll himself is one of a number of researchers who are interviewed about their research in this episode of Nova.

Charles Darwin was an amazing scientist - his explanations of the power of natural selection to produce "endless forms most beautiful" has truly stood the test of time. But there was a lot that Darwin couldn't know that scientists can and do know know now, thanks to their ability to read and interpret the genetic code. Of course "interpret" is the tough part, since just knowing the sequence of DNA (e.g. the remarkably similar genomes of humans, chimps, fruit flies, etc.) is just the first step. It's a great detective story involving genes that activate other genes that in turn control still other genes. Scientists have not only found intermediate fossil forms such as a fish with leg-like front fins, they have figured out how the genetic control methods work to make huge changes in function (fins, hands, wings, etc.) from relatively small changes in the DNA.Great stuff!

Update: Embryos of fish, dogs, and other creatures are amazingly similar. See if you can tell what's what in this interactive quiz.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Einstein in Full

I've read a few books about Albert Einstein and his scientific achievements, but it's been a few years, and I've had Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe on my must-read list since 2007. I finally got the Kindle edition and have been reading it in those odd Kindle iPod/Blackberry moments the last week or so. It really seems to be a balanced portrait of a man who was a rather complicated human being in addition to being an iconic scientific genius. There were some real paradoxes with this guy. He was open minded yet stubborn. Peaceful and caring toward all of humanity, but sometimes not so nice to his family. I still like him.

New Blog Design

How's this for breaking news? I've got a new blog layout! Blogger has a new feature where you can customize each of several basic formats. I didn't do much customizing but I picked out the basic template and chose the Earth background.

Otherwise things are just staying busy and my blogging brain is too boggled to blog much.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Conservation of Books

I read a lot of books, and recently I've been trying to get as many as possible in electronic form, using my iPod Touch, Blackberry Storm2, and occasionally my PC (I have Kindle and Barnes & Noble reader apps on all three devices). Not only does this take up no physical space, but I can have a variety of books with me all the time, allowing me to read a bit while waiting for the dog to do what dogs do (bark at the neighbor's dog) or whatever.

But I still have shelves and boxes of physical books, loved and unloved, read and unread, old and not so old. What to do with them? Many of them I will keep in case I want to read them again (it sometimes happens) or for sentimental reasons. Too many actually. I've donated several boxes to the town library for book sales. I've even thrown away a few (things like ancient programming reference books). But recently I found another solution.

OK, it's actually not a solution, but it's a pleasant problem: a web site called PaperBack Swap. Basically it's a book trading site. First you sign up as a member (it's free). Then you list books you want to give away, and when someone requests one, you mail it to the other member (this costs about $2 to $3 for most books and requires a trip to the post office, though there are ways around this). When the other member receives your book, you get a credit with which you can request a book from the many listed by other members (there are over 4 million books listed). The site has many features that make this all pretty painless (book search, wish lists, labels, reminders, etc.).

But since you get 2 credits just for signing up and listing 10 books, it's not really a way to reduce the number of books I have in the house. But it finds good homes for books I don't need and serves my need for serendipity at very low cost.

Carnival of Space #146

Simostronomy is hosting the carnival of space this week. Check it out.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fire-hose Rocket Pack

Jet-Lev Flyer is a water-driven "rocket pack." It's not that hard to explain, but watch the video. I don't think this is quite my style of personal flying machine (though probably much cheaper than a Cirrus or a Cessna), but it's pretty cool as long as you don't mind flying over a body of water to a maximum altitude equal to the length of the intake hose. I like this statement on the company's safety page: "For a jetpack, the Jetlev has excellent inherent stability" (they go on to explain why in terms of center of gravity and such).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Launching the Space Age in 1926

On this day in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the world's first liquid fueled rocket in a field in Auburn, Massachusetts. It reached an altitude of 41 feet and traveled 184 feet downrange. At the time, Goddard was a professor of physics at Clark University in nearby Worcester, MA. He had published papers on rocketry and had discussed the possibility of a rocket reaching the moon. He was ridiculed for these ideas, most famously in a 1920 New York Times editorial which questioned Prof. Goddard's understanding of basic physics, "since there is no air in space for the rocket engine to push against." It wasn't until 1959 that Goddard would be recognized as the father of modern rocketry and the space age, and it wasn't until July 1969 (after Apollo 11 had landed on the moon) that the Times would correct its 1920 editorial and say "the Times regrets the error."

There's more on this historic event at Mass Moments. Thanks to my main Clark University contact for reminding me of this historic day!

If you'd like to try your (virtual) hand at re-creating Goddard's first launch, you can install Mark Paton's "Early Rockets" add-on for the Orbiter space flight simulator. One of my test flights is shown below.

Goddard's First Liquid Fuel Rocket 3-16-26

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Voyager's Grand Tour

I've been reading a book I found on a sale table at the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene, NH last weekend (great bookstore, BTW). Voyager's Grand Tour: To the Outer Planets and Beyond by Henry Dethloff and Ronald Schorn (2009). Among other things, the authors do a great job of setting the scene in terms of how little anyone knew about the outer solar system before Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 flew by Jupiter and Saturn between 1979 and 1981 (and in the case of Voyager 2, Uranus and Neptune from 1986 to 1989). Pioneers 10 and 11 had gathered some information (we were really clueless before 1973), but the quality and quantity of imagery and scientific data was so much greater for the Voyagers.

The moons of the outer planets were hardly known at all, but were somehow considered unlikely to be very interesting. Voyager 1 dramatically altered that view when it sent back imagery and data showing that there are active volcanoes on Io. The Voyager program was an amazing success. Of course we now know much more about Jupiter (Galileo orbiter) and Saturn (Cassini orbiter), but Voyager 2 is still the only spacecraft to have visited Uranus and Neptune.

Stellarium Revisited (now with satellites)

I haven't looked at Stellarium for quite while so I decided to see what might be new. If you're not familiar with it, Stellarium is a great freeware (open source) planetarium program. I installed the latest version (0.10.3, January 2010) and was pleased to find that it now supports plug-ins, including one called Satellites that uses NORAD TLE (three-line elements) data to add many artificial satellites to the sky objects the program can display. I fast-forwarded the time to see what might be around near sunset tonight and found that the ISS will be making a visible pass from west to northwest between about 18:34 an 18:40 EST - it won't get very high for me on this pass but it's a clear night so I should be able to spot it through and above the trees. Of course there are other resources on the web like Heavens Above for finding ISS and other visible satellite pass data for your location, but this is an especially nice visualization method.

Stellarium is a great program, and the developers keep adding features and improving the interface. It's available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Carnival of Space #143

Carnival of Space #143 is at Next Big Future. The amazing Mars avalanche picture above was created from HiRISE imagery by Bernhard Braun and is discussed in the carnival post from Universe Today.

David Shrigley. Simple. Sick. Funny.

I was going through some papers and found some postcards by David Shrigley. I bought them a few years ago at a bookshop in Oxford, England. His artwork is simple (when he draws people, they remind me of Beavis & Butthead, remember them?). His ideas are often quite bizarre. But he cracks me up. Here are two I have that I was able to also find online by searching for "David Shrigley postcards." He has a few books. I should buy one of them in case I lose the postcards again.