Science + Technology

Incorrect Command May Have Doomed Virgin Spaceship

Nov 3, 2014
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Down a narrow gravel drive and a short walk past cactus and scrub cedars outside San Antonio is a gaping, dark cave mouth, 60 feet wide, nestled at the bottom of a steep hill.

This is the Bracken Bat Cave. Each night at 7:30, millions of bats spiral out of the deep cave and streak off toward the darkening Southern sky.

Thanks to a $20 million deal signed Friday by San Antonio, conservation groups and a local developer, the night sky around the cave will stay dark, and the mother and baby bats inside will have a buffer between them and the hazards of city sprawl.

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Officials in Hawaii are sending National Guard troops to the town of Pahoa on the Big Island, where a lava flow is creeping toward a main road, threatening to cut off the community.

Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira said 83 troops have been sent to the town of fewer than 1,000 to help provide security. They are to aid in a road block and with other safety issues, The Associated Press says.

"These are local troops, people from the community. They'll be here working to take care of their family and friends," Oliveira said.

Last week, I came across George Johnson's piece for The New York Times, "Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space," where he writes, in his usually engaging style, about two recent books with opposite viewpoints concerning what we can and cannot know of the world.

Last week, our own Tania Lombrozo ignited an intense discussion of the differences between factual and religious belief. I want to take off from there and examine a no less controversial issue, one that has been in the limelight of cutting-edge physics for the past few years: Do some scientists hold on to a belief longer than they should? Or, more provocatively phrased, when does a scientific belief become an article of faith?

In 2009, a man named Barry Beck suffered a series of strokes, which caused extensive damage to his right occipital lobe and to the brain stem. The geologist and author of several books was left completely unable to communicate, in a state known as locked-in syndrome.

The condition was famously described by Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which he dictated by blinking.

But thanks to a team of researchers and some technological advances, Beck had another option.

The other day, I was giving a public lecture when someone asked me a question that I wish people would ask me more often: "Professor: Why are you a scientist?"

I answered that I couldn't do anything else, that I considered it a privilege to dedicate my life to teaching and research. But what's really special in this profession, to me at least, is that it allows us the space to create something new, something that will make us matter. It gives us an opportunity to engage with the "mystery," as Albert Einstein called our attraction to the unknown:

Whether they admit it or not, many (if not most) scientists secretly hope to get a call in October informing them they've won a Nobel Prize.

But I've talked to a lot of Nobel laureates, and they are unanimous on one point: None of them pursued a research topic with the intention of winning the prize.

Weekly Innovation: This Drone Fits In Your Pocket

Oct 10, 2014

The narrative around drones is that they are killing machines. Unmanned tools of war that the government uses to avoid putting boots on the ground in conflict zones around the world.

The most powerful typhoon so far this year is barreling toward southern Japan for a landfall in Okinawa on Saturday.

Stephen Hawking will bring his iconic synthesized voice to Pink Floyd's new album, The Endless River, set for release in November. It's the famed physicist's second collaboration with the British band, having appeared on the 1994 track "Keep Talkin' " from The Division Bell.

Rolling Stone says the new song, "Talkin' Hawkin,'" will not be a sequel to the earlier track.

A colleague accosted me at the coffee machine the other day with an urgent question. "Why are pine nuts so expensive?"

I promised to find out. And I did. But along the way, I discovered something remarkable about pine nuts.

They connect us to a world of remote villages and vast forests, ancient foraging traditions that are facing modern threats.

Pine nuts don't generally come from orchards, or fields, or plantations. They come from pine forests. (And pine nuts are expensive because most of these areas are so remote.)

If you missed the total eclipse of the moon in April, you might have another chance: On Wednesday morning, the second of four lunar eclipses this year and next will occur.

A trio of scientists, two from Japan and one from the U.S., will share the Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which led to a new, environmentally friendly light source.

Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and U.S. scientist Shuji Nakamura were selected by the committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to share the 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.1 million) prize. says:

To everyone reading this story: This is not about you. This is about the 4.4 billion other people on this planet who have never been online.

Ah, I remember it like it was just last spring. The flurry of rumors, the initial shock, the charge of surprise, the sheer delight before a major scientific discovery. Yes, I remember it like it was last spring because — it was.

And now it's all dust.

Embracing 'Deep Time' Thinking

Sep 29, 2014

The past two Sundays I reflected, here and here in 13.7, on my anthropological fieldwork among experts developing a Safety Case supporting what might, in Finland in the early 2020s, become the world's first working

When Richard Larson co-wrote a scientific paper about the perils of up-and-down funding for the National Institutes of Health, he noted that the research cycled between states of "euphoria," and a "hangover" far greater than you'd expect.

The tiny, island nation of Iceland is in the middle of a growth spurt. For the past month, the country's Bardarbunga volcano has been churning out lava at a prodigious rate. And the eruption shows no signs of abating.