A few weeks ago, I read, enjoyed, and reviewed Phil Plait's Death From the Skies. After I caught my daughter looking at the book a couple of times, I managed to bribe convince her to write a review of the book. The result is the following review. I fixed the formatting a little bit, but I had absolutely no role in the development of the text.
Death From the Skies
When I got death from the skies I thought that it would be about people getting an unpleasant visit from flaming meteors, I was wrong. It was about the ways the world will end. I then got depressed and then got an unsettling rush of emotions all at once. Now many people are convinced that I'm bi-polar! But seriously, the book is good. I'll give it that much.
I like that the book isn't full of made up stuff. I like that it has something to do with people getting a wake up call from meteors as well. But what I like the most is that Philip Plait addresses it calmly. He says it as calmly as saying that dinner is ready. So that makes me a little calm instead of losing my mind and making my will with crayons.
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We're pretty familiar with hotspot volcanoes on earth. A rising plume of magma reaches to the crust, creating a volcano. The magma plumes can that cause the hotspots stay in the same spot for tens of millions of years, but plate tectonics works to keep the crust moving above the plume. The result is a series of volcanoes, with a small number of active volcanoes over the hotspot, at the end of a line of extinct volcanoes that trace the plate's movement.
The Hawaiian Islands are the classic example of this process on earth.
In this Google Earth view, the Big Island of Hawaii (at the lower right) is active. Moving toward the upper left, Haleakala has erupted in historic times, but the West Maui volcano, Lanai, and Molokai have not. Oahu and Kauai are older yet. A string of atolls stretches to the northwest from Kauai to Kure, with the Emperor Seamounts to the north of Kure providing us with the oldest traces of this hotspot's activities.
That's what a hotspot can do on Earth, where the crust is in constant motion. But what would happen if there was a hotspot somewhere without continental drift?
This is Olympus Mons, on Mars. It's the largest mountain in the solar system, at least as far as we know. The Google Mars picture above is at more or less the same scale as the picture of the Hawaiian Islands. But if we want to get a better idea of the scale of Olympus, Photoshop can help:
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Google just released a major upgrade to Google Earth that includes some features that science enthusiasts are going to love. Besides the regular Earth stuff, new layers have been added that cover Earth's oceans and the planet Mars.
Image copyright Google 2009)
The new stuff is undoubtedly going to chew up thousands of person-hours in the workplace over the next few days, resulting in a major drop in productivity and sending the economy spinning further into recession going to be a lot of fun to explore. Just trying to use the flight simulator feature in Google Mars could be a major time sink.
This is going to be a lot of fun to play with, even before I start to explore the science content.
Ozymandias was a piker.
He left us his legs, most of his face, and a clear statement of what he wanted to achieve. When you get right down to it, he's not much of an enigma.
The people who built this left an enigma. Stonehenge was constructed to stand proudly forever, a monument to the greater glory of something, but we don't know what. Their engineering withstood the test of time. They - and their cultures - did not.
Stonehenge stands today, on a plane covered with the barrows of the unknown lords of long forgotten peoples. It reminds us, far more than Shelley's statue ever could, of just how fragile all of our hopes and dreams really are.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
My scientific background leaves me more inclined to trust laboratory results than people, and I'm no more inclined to give athletes the benefit of the doubt in doping cases than anyone else who's been paying attention over the last couple of decades. When I heard that Jessica Hardy had tested positive for a banned substance at the Olympic Trials, and most likely will not get to swim in the olympics, I wasn't really surprised. Swimming hasn't been plagued with the same sort of doping scandals that other sports have seen, but it would be shocking if there weren't at least a few cheaters out there waiting to get caught. That's why there are tests. Someone tested positive? Toss them off the team and move on.
But when I took a few minutes to read the full story, something didn't make sense. I looked at a couple of more stories, and the situation made even less sense. At this point, I'm hopelessly confused, but I'm going to keep writing this anyway. If you keep reading, one of two things will probably (hopefully) happen: either you'll be able to spot something I missed, and unconfuse me in the comments, or you'll join me in confusion and the hope that someone else will be able to clear this one up for us.
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As you may or may not know, there's been some conflict in the scientific publishing industry over the last few years. Traditional business models have been challenged by an "open-access" model, where the papers are freely available to the general public. In the traditional model, the money comes through subscription charges, and the readers pay for the privilege of access to the research. In open access publishing, the papers are freely available. The costs are covered through a variety of means, including fees paid by the authors.
Many of the traditional publishers have clearly felt threatened by the open access movement, and have taken fairly aggressive action to try and curb the perceived threat. (Back in early 2007, for example, an industry group hired a public relations pit-bull, and launched a massively dishonest lobbying effort in an attempt to derail efforts to require free access to papers that report results funded by federal grants.) Apparently, at least some of the major "traditional" publishers are still feeling threatened. Yesterday, an article by Declan Butler appeared on the Nature website that discusses the current state of financial affairs at PLoS. That would be fine, of course, if the article was reasonably objective and neutral in tone. Unfortunately, this one wasn't. The article was not entirely unfair, but it certainly fell far short of what I would have hoped to see from a journal with Nature's history and reputation.
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Wilkins just tagged me with one of those blog meme things. Apparently, he thinks that I've nothing better to do with my time (and, unfortunately, he's totally correct about that). This particular meme involves historical figures. The rules are simple:
1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
3) Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
4) Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.
I'm going to do what both Wilkins and Myers did, and pick someone who probably wouldn't ordinarily come to mind. Those two aristocrats picked members of the nobility. I'm commoner than they are, so I'm going to go with a clergyman who started out from more middle-class roots: The Blessed Niels Stensen (1638-1686), Titular Bishop of Titiopolis.
If you're familiar with geology, you probably know Stensen better by the Latinized version of his name: Nicolas Steno.
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