A timely refresher

Following on from that post about watchmakers, here are a couple of videos explaining how mechanical and quartz watches work. In this opaque and bewildering hi-tech world of ours, it’s refreshing to find something complex yet still understandable.

First, this 1940s explainer from Hamilton. (I love the narrator’s accent!) Ironically, the pacing for this short documentary is a little slow by today’s standards, but I found that quite helpful.

How a watch works (1949)
A simple demonstration of the basic design and operation of a watch, including stop-motion animation showing a watch being assembled from many parts.

Science YouTuber Steve Mould brings us up-to-date with this look at quartz watches. I didn’t realise how similar they are to mechanical watches, in a way. 

How a quartz watch works – its heart beats 32,768 times a second
Quartz watches have a tiny crystal tuning fork inside that vibrates at 2^15 Hz and there’s a really clever reason for that. This video also talks a bit about how mechanical watches work.

Who’s a good dog (owner)?

Yes, our little cocker spaniel puppy brings us lots of joy. But plenty of stress, too, it has to be said. “She’s just a puppy, she’ll grow out of that”, I’m forever being told… Some people seem to take to dog ownership easier than others. But why? Here’s something to add to the on-going nature/nurture debate.

Our love for dogs may be coded in our DNA
While this kind of twin study can’t tell us exactly which genes are involved, they do demonstrate for the first time that genetics and environment play about equal roles in determining dog ownership. The lead author Tove Fall commented, “We were surprised to see that a person’s genetic makeup appears to be a significant influence in whether they own a dog.” She then went on to suggest that some genetically determined personality factors might underlie this when she speculated, “Perhaps some people have a higher innate propensity to care for a pet than others.”

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What a load of crap

The world is full of it.

The curious history of crap — from space junk to actual poop
That’s the thing about our garbage: We have become experts at acting like it doesn’t exist. Space trash, in fact, barely registers as a blip compared to the enormity of the waste our species generates. In disused home appliances, computers, mobile phones, and other electronic equipment, or e-waste, we generate close to 45 million metric tons of waste every single year. That’s the equivalent of over 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Trash that could obstruct a city skyline. But not only do we not see it, most of us don’t even know where it goes. […]

But even then, what we toss out is just the tip of the proverbial trashberg. Most garbage comes from the manufacturing process. What we throw in the bin—the final product—represents a mere 5 percent of the raw materials from the manufacturing, packaging, and transportation process. Put another way, for every 150 kilograms of product we see on the shelves, behind the scenes there’s another 3,000 kilograms of waste that we don’t see. In total, the world produces approximately 3 million metric tons of garbage every 24 hours. That number is expected to double by 2025. And if business continues as usual, by the end of the century it will be an unfathomable 10 million metric tons of solid waste a day.

Some people produce more crap than others, though.

‘Staggeringly silly’: critics tear apart Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book
“Absolutely abysmal”, “anathema to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common, sense”, “a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions”, “yet another bit of self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician”. […]

“No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg’s book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them. But there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published.” […]

“The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.” […]

“Before I started, the prospect of Rees-Mogg in Downing Street struck me as a ridiculous idea. But if this is what it takes to stop him writing another book, then I think we should seriously consider paying the price.”

Less of us in Leeds

Some good local news for a change.

Leeds becomes first UK city to lower its childhood obesity rate
Almost a third (28%) of all children aged two to 15 in England are overweight or obese. … The obesity rates there and across the country have not shifted. “For England it’s absolutely flat,” said Jebb, who added that the dropping rate in Leeds appeared to be a trend. “This is four years, not one rogue data point,” she said at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow where she presented the research, also published in the journal Paediatric Obesity. “Everybody is going around saying Amsterdam is doing something amazing. Well, actually, Leeds is too.”

Jebb, a former government adviser, says they cannot be sure what has turned the tide in Leeds – but it could involve a programme called Henry that the city introduced as the core of its obesity strategy in 2009, focusing particularly on the youngest children and poorest families. Henry (Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young) supports parents in setting boundaries for their children and taking a firm stance on issues from healthy eating to bedtimes.

Here’s some more about that, from GOV.UK.

Health, exercise, nutrition for the really young (HENRY)
In Leeds, where HENRY is part of the city-wide obesity strategy and delivered in children’s centres across the city, obesity rates at reception stage have fallen from 10.3% to 8.7% over a 7-year period. The national trends have remained almost static. The gap between obesity rates at age 5 in the least deprived and most deprived areas of Leeds is narrowing, with obesity rates dropping from 13.8% to 9.7% in the most deprived areas over the last 5 years.

Singing appliances

Living with perfect pitch and synesthesia sounds like being in a Disney musical.

Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like
That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

(Via Laura Olin’s newsletter)

Pics in space

So black holes are really real, then?

The first photo of a black hole
We have the first photo of a supermassive black hole, from imagery taken two years ago of the elliptical galaxy M87 (in the constellation Virgo) by the Event Horizon Telescope project. The EHT team is a group of 200 scientist that has been working on this project for two decades. The image was created using data captured from radio telescopes from Hawaii to the South Pole and beyond using very long baseline interferometry.

This animation, via the Event Horizon Telescope project website, explains what we’re looking at.

Zooming into a simulated black hole accretion system in M87

As always with space stuff, I have a problem with scale. This helps enormously, though.

xkcd: M87 Black Hole Size Comparison

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That’s pretty big. But how about these images of Jupiter.

NASA has released new images of Jupiter, taken by the Juno Spacecraft
Favourite comment: “God I wish Vincent van Gogh was alive to see this”

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Yes, I can just imagine Van Gogh looking at these with a ‘told you so’ smile on his face. NASA has some more images from their Juno mission.

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Spoilers

Here’s how it all ends.

Timelapse of the future
A regular time lapse of that voyage would take forever, so Boswell cleverly doubles the pace every 5 seconds, so that just after 4 minutes into the video, a trillion years passes in just a second or two.1 You’d think that after the Earth is devoured by the Sun about 3 minutes in, things would get a bit boring and you could stop watching, but then you’d miss zombie white dwarfs roaming the universe in the degenerate era, the black hole mergers era 1000 trillion trillion trillion trillion years from now, the possible creation of baby “life boat” universes, and the point at which “nothing happens and it keeps not happening forever”.

Better off without it?

It seems every day there’s a new delete-your-Facebook-account article doing the rounds, but what happens if you did? Would the effects on your wellbeing really be as positive as people suggest? New research would suggest the answer is yes.

What would happen if Facebook were turned off?
Those booted off enjoyed an additional hour of free time on average. They tended not to redistribute their liberated minutes to other websites and social networks, but chose instead to watch more television and spend time with friends and family. They consumed much less news, and were thus less aware of events but also less polarised in their views about them than those still on the network. Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

So, farewell then, Opportunity

15 years. That’s not bad at all.

NASA’s record-setting Opportunity Rover mission on Mars comes to end
Designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,100 yards (1,000 meters), Opportunity vastly surpassed all expectations in its endurance, scientific value and longevity. In addition to exceeding its life expectancy by 60 times, the rover traveled more than 28 miles (45 kilometers) by the time it reached its most appropriate final resting spot on Mars – Perseverance Valley.

Nasa confirms Mars rover Opportunity is dead
“We had expected that dust falling out of the air would accumulate on the solar rays and eventually choke off power,” Callas said. “What we didn’t expect was that wind would come along periodically and blow the dust off the arrays. It allowed us to survive not just the first winter, but all the winters we experienced on Mars.”

A dust storm has killed NASA’s longest-lived Mars rover
In 2005, Opportunity overcame a sand trap and the loss of one wheel to arrive at the Victoria crater, a 2,400-foot hole that it explored for two years, finding features at its bottom again shaped by ancient water. It next explored the Endeavor crater, 13 miles away, starting in 2011. Most recently it had traversed a narrow valley leading down into the larger Endurance crater.

As this video from NASA shows, the Rover had been on an incredible trek these last 15 years.

Opportunity: NASA Rover completes Mars mission

Here’s xkcd’s surprisingly moving take on it.

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xkcd: Opportunity Rover
Thanks for bringing us along.

Absolutely.

Five minutes?

Via Laughing Squid, a video from the BBC on the correct-according-to-science way of making a cup of tea. Yes, getting rid of the styrofoam cup makes sense, as does filtering the water first, but waiting five minutes? Really?

How to prepare a proper cuppa using a tea bag
“It is a long time but it’s gonna be too hot to drink anyway, so you’ve got to leave it. There’s more (of) the flavor coming out and also the more caffeine comes out, the stronger the tea will be. There’s also more (of) the antioxidants coming out. Tea is a great source of antioxidants and these are natural substances that our body uses to help fight disease. So it is important that you leave it to brew.”

How you’ve been making tea wrong your entire life – BBC

Let me just check with the proper authorities…

How to make a proper brew
Wait patiently. Tea needs time to unlock all its flavour, so give it 4-5 minutes to do its thing. This is a perfect time to munch a sneaky biscuit or daydream about holidays.

Hmm. OK then, you win. Now get that kettle on.

Don’t just sit there

I blogged ages ago about Colin McSwiggen’s loathing of chairs: “Not only are chairs a health hazard, they also have a problematic history that has inextricably tied them to our culture of status-obsessed individualism.”

According to Guardian, they’re going to be the death of us.

Sit less and move more to reduce risk of early death, study says
Previous research from the same team found people should move at least every 30 minutes to reduce the chance of premature death, but now the researchers say simply breaking up sedentary periods is not enough – overall time spent seated must be cut to lower the risk.

Here’s the Independent’s write-up of that previous research from 2017.

Desk jobs double the risk of premature death, finds new study
Whether you sit down all day long or prefer to put you feet up periodically, racking up prolonged inactive time increases your risk of early death, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

I like to go for a walk during my lunch break, but what about those of us tied to our desks all day? Not a problem!

I’m old, sedentary and slouch a lot – will standing up at my desk help me live longer?
The posture and physical ergonomics need fine-tuning. I have got my screen balancing on one pile of books, keyboard on another, mouse on a third. I’m going to find out who’s in charge of desks, and then I’m going to actually physically go and see them about getting one of those proper standy-uppy ones. Don’t forget that movement, remember?

But this is just about what it’s like to not sit down all day. And, you know what? It’s really not so hard. A touch of the museum/art gallery squirms creep in after two hours. But I’m finding I can shake them off by thinking of all the extra time I’ll be getting at the end.

Or you could try some of these exercises from the oddly-named Art of Manliness website.

7 simple exercises that undo the damage of sitting
These dynamic stretches and exercises are designed for loosening tight hips that come from sitting too much. I try to incorporate a few of them in my daily workout warm-ups or even sneak some in when I’m hanging out with the kids (who think their dad is pretty odd). Every now and then I also dedicate an hour on Saturdays to just hip and glute work, along with some intense foam rolling.

I don’t know what that means.

If you’re really tight, take it nice and easy. As physical therapist Kelly Starrett says, “Don’t go into the pain cave. Your animal totem won’t be there to help you.”

I don’t know what that means, either. But I like the illustrations, so why not give it a go?

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Aluminum metalized polyethylene terephthalate

I can honestly say I’ve never really considered what glitter is and where it comes from, but this article from the New York Times is fascinating.

What is glitter?
What is glitter? The simplest answer is one that will leave you slightly unsatisfied, but at least with your confidence in comprehending basic physical properties intact. Glitter is made from glitter. Big glitter begets smaller glitter; smaller glitter gets everywhere, all glitter is impossible to remove; now never ask this question again.

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There are a couple ways to achieve a rainbow effect on individual glitter particles, so useful for politics. Holographic glitter is made by embossing a fine pattern onto film, so that the surface reflects different colors of light in different directions — there is nothing intrinsically rainbow-colored about the glitter itself. Contrast this with more subtle iridescent glitter, which reveals various luminous colors depending on the angle at which it is viewed, and is made from a multilayered clear film, composed of polymers with different refractive indexes.

How many layers is multi?

“Two hundred and thirty three,” said Mr. Shetty, and grinned as he waved an almost invisible sheet of plastic. “It gets very technical,” he warned. “You know, the visible spectrum, and all.”

I nodded, indicating I followed.

“Each layer is half the wavelength of light,” he said.

“WHAT?” I wailed.

The best data visualisation work of 2018

Another end of year roundup, this time looking at data visualisation design.

Information is Beautiful Awards 2018: The Winners
Let’s raise a glass to dataviz that pushes boundaries, illuminates truth, and celebrates beauty. Thank you to everyone who joined us on the Information is Beautiful Awards journey this year – now see which entries took home trophies at tonight’s spectacular ceremony.

There is so much to pour over, here. Two that stood out particularly for me was this visual representation of a Beethoven string quartet and this unusual view of our lively planet.

Dynamic Planet Interactive Scientific Poster
The Interactive Scientific Poster „Dynamic Planet” was designed and developed for the exhibition „Focus Earth” of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. One of the main advantages of a digital poster is that it can display dynamic content. This is at the same time the essential statement of the scientific poster “Dynamic Planet”: our earth never stands still, is permanently shaken by earthquakes. These tensions are measured by three measuring points of the GFZ and their data is visualized in real-time in an interactive poster in the exhibition context. The viewer is given a direct impression, he can be a “witness” to current measurement and research.

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This video demonstrates how people can interact with the poster, to navigate the large amount of data presented in an intuitive, visual manner.

Dynamic Planet – Scientific Poster
The challenge for the interface design was to ensure a clear overview, despite of the massively many events. The solution consists in an interactive graphical representation of the events by filtering the earthquakes by eg. magnitude and depth. A special visual feature of the scientific poster “Dynamic Planet” is the representation of the earthquakes depth in a transparent, rotating globe.

Coffee to the rescue

It’s Monday, so put the kettle on.

How coffee protects the brain
Scientists have now proved that drinking certain types of coffee can be beneficial to brain health, but how does this popular brew support cognitive function? A new study identifies some of the mechanisms that allow coffee to keep mental decline at bay.

Yes, I know this is one of those health pendulum stories — coffee/bacon/red wine is good for you one week, bad for you the next — but I’m happy to think of all this coffee I’m drinking as an investment for my future.

NASA’s impossible images

You know those Golden Records NASA sent into space in the 70s, on the Voyager spacecrafts? They contained images, music and sounds from Earth, as well as greetings in 55 languages. If any alien were to come across these disks, accessing their contents is far from straightforward.

Decoding images from the Golden Record
You might think that the images were included in some printed or digital form, such as a .jpeg or .tiff. But back in 1977, there was no technology available to put images on analog disks. Voyager’s computer systems could only hold 69 kilobytes of information, barely enough for one image, let alone 115. So NASA invented a way to include image data on the LPs.

By projecting images onto a screen, recording them with a television camera, and then turning those video signals into audio waveforms, the images could be properly pressed onto the records. The reversal process — turning that image data back into images — is what any extraterrestrial (or curious human) would have to figure out how to do.

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Nevermind the contents of these records, the instructions alone will have the aliens scratching their heads. If they have heads, of course.

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A new moon?

I can’t help but think this comes under the ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’ heading.

Chinese city to replace street lights with orbiting artificial moon by 2020
Within two years, the city of Chengdu aims to swap out its ground-based street lighting with the soft glow of an artificial moon, casting light across 50 square miles of the urban landscape. […]

Reflective panels on board the machine will pick up and redirect the sun’s rays. The satellite will actually glow multiple times brighter than the moon itself, creating a dusk-like atmosphere on demand. The precise illumination can be varied in different sections of the city as well.

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I’m sure it’s very technically impressive and will put Chengdu on the map, but…

A Chinese company has plans for an artificial moon to replace streetlights
Meanwhile, other groups are trying to make the world dark again. A 2016 study showed that more than 80% of the world, and 99% of people in the US and Europe, live in “light-polluted” areas, where the sky’s natural glow has been altered by artificial light from buildings and street lamps. Entire cities, like Flagstaff, Arizona and Ketchum, Idaho, are actively working to reduce light emissions at night. Both are certified “dark sky communities” by a group called the International Dark Sky Association, which offers dark sky designations to towns, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and other places actively working towards a “more natural night sky.”

I remember first reading about dark sky initiatives when we went to the Kielder Observatory, within the Northumberland Dark Sky Park. This fake moon does seem to be a move in the wrong direction.

It’s getting crowded up there

The Economist has a very effective, scrolling infographic on the changing pattern of states and companies that are filling up our skies.

The space race is dominated by new contenders
Some 4,500 satellites circle Earth, providing communications services and navigational tools, monitoring weather, observing the universe, spying and doing more besides. Getting them there was once the business of the superpowers’ armed forces and space agencies. Now it is mostly done by companies and the governments of developing countries.

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In the past decade the West’s space-launch market has become more competitive thanks to an innovative new entrant, SpaceX. But state-run programmes still lead the way in emerging markets. In 2003 China became the third country to put a person into orbit; India plans to follow suit in 2022. Both sell launch services to private clients. China did legalise private space flight in 2014, but no companies based there have yet reached orbit on their own.

But looking at this, you wonder if there’s any space left up there.

A beehive of satellites
The launch of the first artificial satellite by the then Soviet Union in 1957 marked the beginning of the utilization of space for science and commercial activity. During the Cold War, space was a prime area of competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

In 1964 the first TV satellite was launched into a geostationary orbit to transmit the Olympic games from Tokyo. Later, Russian launch activities declined while other nations set up their own space programs. Thus, the number of objects in Earth orbit has increased steadily – by 200 per year on average.

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The debris objects shown in the images are an artist’s impression based on actual density data. However, the debris objects are shown at an exaggerated size to make them visible at the scale shown.

Thanks for clearing that up.

Straightforward data science intro

This looks to be an interesting response to the call to be more data literate. Via Flowing Data, a straightforward and potentially free way to get skilled up with R, without needing to install any software, it seems.

Chromebook Data Science – a free online data science program for anyone with a web browser
The reason they are called Chromebook Data Science is because philosophically our goal was that anyone with a Chromebook could do the courses. All you need is a web browser and an internet connection. The courses all take advantage of RStudio Cloud so that all course work can be completed entirely in a web browser. No need to install software or have the latest MacBook Computer.

Here’s some info on what the courses cover, including introductions to R and GitHub. Worth a look?

Stylish science and sedentary religion

A couple of videos via Aeon that caught me eye recently. Are science and religion two sides of the same coin? I guess it depends on your point of view, everything’s relative.

This clever and stylish 1960 film is the most fun you’ll ever have at a physics lecture
Directed by the pioneering UK documentarian Richard Leacock, Frames of Reference is a slick and surreal dive into physics fundamentals and, in particular, why everything is indeed relative. Produced for high-school physics classes, the 1960 film features the physics professors Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey of the University of Toronto explaining, through an intertwined series of lectures and clever demonstrations, how frames of reference shape perspective. Using rotating sets, camera tricks and a visual style that suggests the film noir of Alfred Hitchcock, this is perhaps the most peculiarly entertaining half-hour physics lecture you’ll ever have.

Honk for Amen: worship meets convenience at the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church
The Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church has been offering worshippers in Florida Sunday services in the convenience of their cars for more than 60 years. Operating much like a drive-in movie theatre, the congregation parks and tunes in on the radio for Bible readings and sermons from the presiding minister in the altar building. Even pre-packaged consecrated wine and communion wafers are provided. Respectfully filmed yet imbued with dry humour, the US director Lauren DeFilippo’s observational short documentary Clean Hands guides us through a regular Sunday service here, prompting the viewer to ask: does Christian communion lose its meaning when shared from the comfort of a parked car?

To the moon… and beyond!

Fresh from our trip to Kielder, my son’s very excited about this news story.

The lunar gateway: a shortcut to Mars?
“The moon has lain virtually undisturbed for the last 4.5bn years,” says Parker. “It is a museum of the history of our solar system. And yes, we visited it when we briefly landed Apollo spacecraft there. However, that was the equivalent of going to a museum, heading straight to the gift shop and then leaving. It is the dusty corners of a museum where you find the really interesting stuff – and that is where we are going to go with Gateway.”

And our boy’s keen to go, too, on his way to Mars. That may take some time, though.

How far is it to Mars?
If the Earth were 100 pixels wide, the moon would be 3000 pixels away. Mars, at its closest, would be 428,000 pixels away.

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And who knows what else is out there.

The unending hunt for Planet Nine, our solar system’s hidden world
Astronomers are deeply divided, but intent on finding the truth. They’re using the world’s largest telescopes and most powerful supercomputers, and enlisting the help of thousands of amateurs like Forbes, who plays her part in this epic, astronomical search in between episodes of Love Island. Together, they will either pinpoint the location of this mysterious world and give the solar system a ninth planet, or rule out its existence once and for all.