Space Wombats and Penguin Poop: Spying on Animals from Orbit

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Penguin Spotting, and Other Cool Satellite Tricks

You’d be surprised what you can see from 300 miles up

For Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:

At first glance the picture might be an abstract oil painting or, less artistically, poppy seeds scattered on cream cheese. The “cheese” in this case is a field of ice off the coast of Antarctica, and the black seeds are emperor penguins. The photo was taken from space, and is a good example of how satellite imagery is helping biologists study wildlife populations in new ways. No scientist needed to set foot near the penguin colony or fly an airplane overhead: High-resolution images from an orbiting QuickBird satellite were good enough to monitor the colony’s health over time.

“The advent of remote sensing allows us basically to see some of these areas that you physically cannot get to, no matter how hard you try,” says Michelle LaRue of the University of Minnesota. She and her colleagues use high-resolution images purchased from DigitalGlobe, Inc., one of a few private companies that license satellite imagery to governments and academic researchers. Other scientists use free satellite images from Landsat and other government-run programs. Although those tend to be lower in resolution, they demonstrate how remote sensing is important for the literal big picture: The huge areas of land surveyed by satellite make possible research that couldn’t be done otherwise. That’s true whether the location is (like Antarctica) hard to get to, in a conflict zone, heavily populated, or just too darn big.

[Read the rest at Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine…]

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Elon Musk’s plan for humanity’s survival lacks vision

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Elon Musk Isn’t All He’s Cracked Up to Be

Elon Musk cares about humanity’s survival, but his stated vision about how that survival should be achieved is not exactly inclusive or practical. My latest comic for The Nib with Maki Naro discusses why a white tech billionaire may not be the best source for such a plan, and features wisdom from DN Lee.

Yerkes Observatory: 1897-2018

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A few years ago, I visited Yerkes Observatory while driving across the country to gather material for a book that never came to fruition. It’s a marvelous relic of astronomy on the cusp of modernity, so when I heard it was closing its doors, I knew I had to write about it. Thankfully, Astronomy Magazine let me use some of my research from my book, including a few photographs. The following is a story of robber barons, huge telescopes, and an early unrecognized discovery of Pluto.

Yerkes Observatory is closing its doors

Once state of the art, this Gilded Age observatory has been left behind by progress. Now astronomers wonder what will happen to this piece of history.

Yerkes Observatory dome for the 40-inch refracting telescope. I rendered this photo in black and white for an old-timey feel, because why not? [Credit: moi]

For Astronomy Magazine:

A piece of astronomical history is closing its doors this year: Yerkes Observatory, which opened in 1897, will cease operations on October 1, 2018.

In many ways, this closure isn’t surprising. Yerkes is very much a relic of a past era, not the type of observatory that is used for major discoveries in the modern day. The University of Chicago, which owns and operates the facility, has decided the observatory is not worth the expense of maintaining it. However, we can hope someone will take over the operations and keep the building open to the public, because it’s truly one of the great pieces of scientific history and architecture. Yerkes Observatory is an impressive late-19th-century structure, housing what is still the largest refracting (lens-based) telescope in the world. The primary lens in the main Yerkes telescope is 40 inches (102 centimeters) in diameter. The observatory was named for the impressively mustached railroad tycoon Charles Yerkes, who bankrolled it in Gilded Age style. (The name is pronounced “YER-keys,” and the less said about how Yerkes ran his businesses, the better. “Yerkes was jerky” is a good mnemonic.)

The observatory stands on the shore of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, just across the border from Illinois. The land is sits on is parklike, and the building itself is a marvel of astronomical architecture and engineering from the dawn of the modern era of big science.

[Read the rest at Astronomy Magazine]

Like a tiger’s stripes, Jupiter’s colorful bands are more than just pretty colors

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Jupiter: The Large Adult Son of the Solar System

“We are really learning about a brand new Jupiter in many ways.”

For The Daily Beast:

Everything about Jupiter is large. The planet’s diameter is 11 times Earth’s size, and it is more massive than all other planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, and moons put together. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a storm bigger than Earth that has lasted for as long as we humans have built telescopes to see it.

Jupiter’s mysteries are also large. NASA’s Juno mission currently in orbit around the planet is teaching us that we really don’t understand the solar system’s large adult son. Four new papers published in Nature on Wednesday outline the strangeness of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and how none of our current theories about how planets work are adequate to explain that weirdness.

[Read the rest at The Daily Beast]

Swarming in time, synchronizing in space

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This article is a little different from the fare you’re used to getting from me: it’s for SIAM News, which is the glossy magazine for members of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. The audience for this magazine, in other words, is professional mathematicians and related researchers working in a wide variety of fields. In this case, I covered research by mathematicians looking at a type of system that occurs in biology and materials science. While the article contains equations, I wrote it to be understandable if you skim that part.

Self-organization in Space and Time

For SIAM News:

Self-organization is an important topic across scientific disciplines. Be it the spontaneous flocking of birds or dramatic phase transitions like superconductivity in materials, collective behavior without underlying intelligence occurs everywhere.

Many of these behaviors involve synchronization, or self-organization in time, such as activation in heart cells or the simultaneous blinking of certain firefly species. Others are aggregations, or self-organization in space, like swarming insects, flocking birds, or the alignment of electron spins in magnetic material.

Despite their conceptual similarity, self-organization in space and time have largely been treated separately. “I was curious about whether the two fields had been wedded, and it turns out they hadn’t, at least not fully,” Kevin O’Keeffe, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said. “I knew all these tricks and mathematical tools from synchronization, and I was looking to cross-fertilize them into the swarming world.”

[Read the rest at SIAM News]