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Is a cat’s time really that valuable?

Pharyngula Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 1:54pm

A cat cafe is opening in Minneapolis — the grand opening of Cafe Meow is tomorrow. It sounds like a fine idea, especially that they’ll be housing cats from a local shelter and will be encouraging adoptions. So, sure, if you like cats, you can get a bit of cuddling while drinking your morning coffee.


It’s $10/hour to hang out with a cat. I’m sorry, I go home at night and try to get some work done, and our cat will flop down in my lap and demand that I pet her, and that I don’t move because she wants to take a nap, and if I do try to type while accommodating her, she will pop up and decide to stroll about the keyboard. She should be paying me.

If this cat ever sends me a bill, it’s gonna get ugly.

Categories: Science

Strong winds send migrating seal pups on lengthier trips

Science News Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 1:32pm
Prevailing winds can send northern fur seal pups on an epic journey.
Categories: Science

What are the Chances Musk’s Space Tesla is Going to Crash Into Venus or Earth?

Universe Today Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 1:26pm

On February 6th, 2018, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit. This was a momentous occasion for the private aerospace company and represented a major breakthrough for spaceflight. Not only is the Falcon Heavy the most powerful rocket currently in service, it is also the first heavy launch vehicle that relies on reusable boosters (two of which were successfully retrieved after the launch).

Equally interesting was the rocket’s cargo, which consisted of Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit in the driver’s seat. According to Musk, this vehicle and its “pilot” (Starman), will eventually achieve a Hohmann Transfer Orbit with Mars and remain there for up to a billion years. However, according to a new study, there’s a small chance that the Roadster will collide with Venus or Earth instead in a few eons.

The study which raises this possibility recently appeared online under the title “The random walk of cars and their collision probabilities with planets.” The study was conducted by Hanno Rein, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto; Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Planetary Sciences (CPS) and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA); and David Vokrouhlick of the Institute of Astronomy at Charles University in Prague.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the Falcon Heavy’s payload capsule. Credit: SpaceX

As we indicated in a previous post, Musk’s original flight plan has the potential to place the Roadster into a stable orbit around Mars… after a fashion. According to Max Fagin, an aerospace engineer from Colorado and a space camp alumni, the Roadster will get close enough to Mars to establish an orbit by October of 2018. However, this orbit would not rule out close encounters with Earth over the course of the next few million years.

For the sake of their study, Rein and his colleagues considered how such close encounters might alter the Roadster’s orbit in that time. Using data from NASA’s HORIZONS interface to determine the initial positions of all Solar planets and the Roadster, the team calculated the likelihood of future close encounters between the vehicle and the terrestrial planets, and how likely a resulting collision would be.

As they indicated, the Roadster bears some similarities to Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) and ejecta from the Earth-Moon system. In short, NEAs permeate the inner Solar System, regularly crossing the orbits of terrestrial planets and experiencing close encounters with them (resulting in the occasional collision). In addition, ejecta from the Earth and Moon also experience close encounters with the terrestrial planets and collide with them.

However, the Tesla Roadster is unique in two key respects: For one, it originated from Earth rather than being pulled from the Asteroid Belt into the inner Solar System by strong resonances. Second, it had a higher ejection velocity when it left Earth, which tends to result in fewer impacts. “Given the peculiar initial conditions and even stranger object, it therefore remains an interesting question to probe its dynamics and eventual fate,” they claim.

The Falcon Heavy Rocket being fired up at launch site LC-39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

Another challenge was how the probability of an impact will change drastically over time. While the chance of a collision can be ruled out in the short run (i.e. the next few years), the Roadster’s chaotic orbit is difficult to predict over the course of subsequent close encounters. As such, the team performed a statistical calculation to see how the orbit and velocity of the Roadster would change over time. As they state in their study:

“Given that the Tesla was launched from Earth, the two objects have intersecting orbits and repeatedly undergo close encounters. The bodies reach the same orbital longitude on their synodic timescale of ~2.8 yrs.”

They began by considering how the Roadster’s orbit would evolve over the course of its next 48 orbits, which would encompass the next 1000 years. They then expanded the analysis to consider long-term evolution, which encompassed 240 orbits over the course of the next 3.5 million years. What they found was that on a million-year timescale, the orbit of the Roadster remains in a region dominated by close encounters with Earth.

However, over time, their simulations show that the Roadster will experience changes in eccentricity due to resonant and secular effects. This will result in interactions more frequent interactions between the Roadster and Venus over time, and close encounters with Mars becoming possible. Over long enough timescales, the team even anticipates that interactions with Mercury’s orbit will be possible (though unlikely).

Don’t Panic StarMan, Don’t Panic. Credit: SpaceX

In the end, their simulations revealed that over the course of a million years and beyond, the probability of a collision with a terrestrial planet is unlikely, but not impossible. And while the odds are slim, they favor an eventual collision with Earth. Or as they put it:

“Although there were several close encounters with Mars in our simulations, none of them resulted in a physical collision. We find that there is a ~6% chance that the Tesla will collide with Earth and a ~2.5% chance that it will collide with Venus within the next 1 Myr. The collision rate goes down slightly with time. After 3 Myr the probability of a collision with Earth is ~11%. We observed only one collision with the Sun within 3 Myr.”

Given the Musk hoped that his Roadster would remain in orbit of Mars for one billion years, and that aliens might eventually find it, the prospect of it colliding with Earth or Venus is a bit of a letdown. Why bother sending such a unique payload into space if it’s just going to come back? Still, the odds that it will be drifting through space for millions of years remains a distinct possibility.

And if there are any worries that the Roadster will pose a threat to future missions or Earth itself, consider the message Starman was looking at during his ascent into space – Don’t Panic! Assuming humanity is even alive eons from now, the far greater danger will be that such an antique will burn up in our atmosphere. After millions of years, Starman is sure to be a big celebrity!

Further Reading: arXiv

The post What are the Chances Musk’s Space Tesla is Going to Crash Into Venus or Earth? appeared first on Universe Today.

Categories: Science

Who all is going to see Black Panther this weekend?

Pharyngula Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:33pm

I’m tempted to stay up way past my bedtime to catch it — we’re having a midnight showing at the Morris theater. I’m encouraged by the trailer and a few reviews. I only have two reservations, which are actually common complaints about the recent crop of superhero movies.

  • Please don’t let it be about yet another cosmic villain with godlike powers threatening the fate of the entire planet. Smaller stories are better. You’ve already got unbelievable heroes, don’t overwhelm the audience with even more amplified conflicts.

  • Please let there be some sense of humor about the whole affair. The protagonists are bouncing around in colorful tights. They shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.

Good examples of why you don’t need to blast us with gigantic world-shaking, universe-spanning battles are Logan and Ant Man. Perspective, please! Also, look at Thor: Ragnarok — despite the daunting title, it turned out to have quite a bit of humor about the whole romp.

I’ll be able to handle it if it violates either suggestion, but not both: deadly sober comic book movies about vast cosmic consequences will just put me to sleep. Especially if I do go for the late night showing.

Categories: Science

Duckling rescue

Why Evolution is True Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:00pm

I’m a tired boy and have a children’s book to work on. It’s nearly finished, but whether it will get published remains a mystery (my agent doesn’t handle this stuff, so I have to use other approaches). One thing I’ve discovered, and should have realized, is that writing children’s books is no walk in the park: it takes a completely different skill set from that used in technical and trade books.  And you have to be able to put yourself inside the mind of a child, yet I’ve never had offspring. It’s been a challenge, and I’ve worked harder on those 1200 words than on any similarly sized piece I’ve ever written.

But I digress. Here is a nice guy rescuing a baby mallard caught in some wire. Notice how protective the mother gets when she thinks her baby is being harmed. But in the end all is well.  (And when will my own mallard hen return?)

This duck mom got so nervous when this guy started rescuing her baby — but the moment she trusted him is amazing

Categories: Science

Physicists speed up droplet-wrapping process

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:46am
Experimental physicists report that they have developed a fast, dynamic new process for wrapping liquid droplets in ultrathin polymer sheets, so what once was a painstaking process taking tens of minutes can now be done in a fraction of a second.
Categories: Science

Witness The Power Of A Fully Operational ESPRESSO Instrument. Four Telescopes Acting As One

Universe Today Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:39am

It’s been 20 years since the first of the four Unit Telescopes that comprise the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) saw first light. Since the year 2000 all four of them have been in operation. One of the original goals of the VLT was to have all four of the ‘scopes work in combination, and that has now been achieved.

The instrument that combines the light from all four of the VLT ‘scopes is called ESPRESSO, which stands for Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations. ESPRESSO captures the light from each of the 8.2 meter mirrors in the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT. That combination makes ESPRESSO, in effect, the largest optical telescope in the world.

The huge diffraction grating is at the heart of the ultra-precise ESPRESSO spectrograph. In this image, the diffraction grating is undergoing testing in the cleanroom at ESO Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. Image: ESO/M. Zamani

Combining the power of the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT is a huge milestone for the ESO. As ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO, Gaspare Lo Curto, says, “ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s: bringing the light from all four Unit Telescopes on Cerro Paranal together at an incoherent focus to feed a single instrument!” The excitement is real, because along with its other science goals, ESPRESSO will be an extremely powerful planet-hunting telescope.

“ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s.” – Gaspare Lo Curto, ESPRESSO instrument scientist.

ESPRESSO uses a system of mirrors, lenses, and prisms to transmit the light from each of the four VLT ‘scopes to the spectrograph. This is accomplished with a network of tunnels that was incorporated into the VLT when it was built. ESPRESSO has the flexibility to combine the light from all four, or from any one of the telescopes. This observational flexibility was also an original design goal for ESPRESSO.

The four Unit Telescopes often operate together as the VLT Interferometer, but that’s much different than ESPRESSO. The VLT Interferometer allows astronomers to study extreme detail in bright objects, but it doesn’t combine the light from the four Unit Telescopes into one instrument. ESPRESSO collects the light from all four ‘scopes and splits it into its component colors. This allows detailed analysis of the composition of distant objects.

ESPRESSO team members gather in the control room during ESPRESSO’s first light. Image: ESO/D. Megevand

ESPRESSO is a very complex instrument, which explains why it’s taken until now to be implemented. It works with a principle called “incoherent focus.” In this sense, “incoherent” means that the light from all four telescopes is added together, but the phase information isn’t included as it is with the VLT Interferometer. What this boils down to is that while both the VLT Interferometer and ESPRESSO both use the light of all four VLT telescopes, ESPRESSO only has the spatial resolution of a single 8.2 mirror. ESPRESSO, as its name implies, is all about detailed spectrographic analysis. And in that, it will excel.

“ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes gives us an enticing foretaste of what the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will offer in a few years.” – ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons

ESPRESSO is the successor to HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, which up until now has been our best exoplanet hunter. HARPS is a 3.6 meter telescope operated by the ESO, and also based on an echelle spectrograph. But the power of ESPRESSO will dwarf that of HARPS.

There are three main science goals for ESPRESSO:

  • Planet Hunting
  • Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
  • Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies
Planet Hunting

ESPRESSO will take highly precise measurements of the radial velocities of solar type stars in other solar systems. As an exoplanet orbits its star, it takes part in a dance or tug-of-war with the star, the same way planets in our Solar System do with our Sun. ESPRESSO will be able to measure very small “dances”, which means it will be able to detect very small planets. Right now, our planet-hunting instruments aren’t as sensitive as ESPRESSO, which means our exoplanet search results are biased to larger planets. ESPRESSO should detect more smaller, Earth-size planets.

The four Unit Telescopes that make up the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, at the Paranal Observatory> Image: By ESO/H.H.Heyer [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants

This is where the light-combining power of ESPRESSO will be most useful. ESPRESSO will be used to observe extremely distant and faint quasars, to try and measure the variation of the fundamental physical constants in our Universe. (If there are any variations, that is.) It’s not only the instrument’s light-combining capability that allows this, but also the instrument’s extreme stability.

Specifically, the ESPRESSO will try to take our most accurate measurements yet of the fine structure constant, and the proton to electron mass ratio. Astronomers want to know if these have changed over time. They will use ESPRESSO to examine the ancient light from these distant quasars to measure any change.

Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies

ESPRESSO will open up new possibilities in the measurement of stars in nearby galaxies. It’s high efficiency and high resolution will allow astronomers to study stars outside of the Milky Way in unprecedented detail. A better understanding of stars in other galaxies is always a priority item in astronomy.

We’ll let Project Scientist Paolo Molaro have the last word, for now. “This impressive milestone is the culmination of work by a large team of scientists and engineers over many years. It is wonderful to see ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes and I look forward to the exciting science results to come.”

The post Witness The Power Of A Fully Operational ESPRESSO Instrument. Four Telescopes Acting As One appeared first on Universe Today.

Categories: Science

Consumer and industrial products now a dominant urban air pollution source

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:18am
Chemical products that contain compounds refined from petroleum, like household cleaners, pesticides, paints and perfumes, now rival motor vehicle emissions as the top source of urban air pollution, according to a surprising new study.
Categories: Science

Immune system simulation shows need for multi-target treatments for sepsis

Computers and Math from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:18am
Using a computational model of the human immune system, scientists have shown that efforts to combat sepsis might be more effective if they targeted multiple steps in the molecular processes that drive the illness.
Categories: Science

CRISPR-based diagnostic tool advanced, miniature paper test developed

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:17am
The team that first unveiled the rapid, inexpensive, highly sensitive CRISPR-based diagnostic tool called SHERLOCK has greatly enhanced the tool's power to work with a miniature paper test, similar to a pregnancy test, allowing rapid and simple detection in any setting. Additional features greatly expand both the breadth and sensitivity of the diagnostic information, including the ability to detect multiple targets at once and quantify the amount of target in a sample.
Categories: Science

Chemists harness artificial intelligence to predict the future (of chemical reactions)

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:17am
A team of researchers have developed state-of-the-art software to predict reaction yields while varying up to four components. Their software can work for any reaction on any substrate, using Spartan data. The researchers hope it will prove to be a valuable tool in expediting the synthesis of new medicines.
Categories: Science

CRISPR scissors, Cas12a, enables cutting-edge diagnostics

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:17am
Utilizing an unsuspected activity of the CRISPR-Cas12a protein, researchers created a simple diagnostic system called DETECTR to analyze cells, blood, saliva, urine and stool to detect genetic mutations, cancer and antibiotic resistance and also diagnose bacterial and viral infections. The scientists discovered that when Cas12a binds its double-stranded DNA target, it indiscriminately chews up all single-stranded DNA. They then created reporter molecules attached to single-stranded DNA to signal when Cas12a finds its target.
Categories: Science

New CRISPR-Cas9 tool edits both RNA and DNA precisely, U-M team reports

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:17am
A tool that has already revolutionized disease research may soon get even better, thanks to an accidental discovery in the bacteria that cause many of the worst cases of meningitis.
Categories: Science

Physicists create new form of light

Matter and energy from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:17am
Physicists have created a new form of light that could enable quantum computing with photons.
Categories: Science

Physicists create new form of light

Computers and Math from Science Daily Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:17am
Physicists have created a new form of light that could enable quantum computing with photons.
Categories: Science

Household products make surprisingly large contributions to air pollution

Science News Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:00am
A study of smog in the Los Angeles valley finds that paints, fragrances and other everyday items are a growing component of the problem.
Categories: Science

Three photons stick together to create a new form of light

New Scientist Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:00am
Photons don’t normally make friends, but now three have been bound together into a brand-new form of light by tricking them into acting like atoms
Categories: Science

Shampoo is causing air pollution, but let’s not lose our heads

New Scientist Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 11:00am
In Western cities, household products like deodorants and paints are a bigger source of air pollution than vehicle exhausts – so here’s what we need to do
Categories: Science

My profile in the Chicago Maroon

Why Evolution is True Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 10:45am

Well, I’m informed by the writer, Lee Harris, that the Chicago Maroon has just posted her profile of me, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below.

I suspect it will be controversial since I repeat my support of euthanasia for terminally afflicted newborns, call out the Identitarian Left for its shenanigans, and promote the idea of determinism and lack of free will. But it also has cool stuff about my lab wall (something I haven’t written about here) and about my beloved squirrels. Photos were mostly taken by Lee; the one below is for an upcoming book and was actually taken by photographer Mike Myers (I’ll ask them to correct it).

If you read it, remember that this is a transcript from a conversation, not written prose. But I’m pleased with it; it’s fair and balanced and—I hope—interesting.

And some photos with the Maroon’s caption:

Categories: Science

Fossil footprints may put lizards on two feet 110 million years ago

Science News Feed - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 10:19am
Fossilized footprints found in South Korea could be the earliest evidence of two-legged running in lizards.
Categories: Science


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