Archive for January, 2011

How To Film The Earth From The Stratosphere…using Duct Tape

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Using some duct tape, a helium balloon and styrofoam, Alex Baker and Chris Rose, PhD students at the University of Sheffield, sent a camera and a GPS tracking unit into the stratosphere and captured some pretty cool aerial footage.

They did this on 17 December 2010, (thought it was reported on the BBC today) and the flight time was about 2 hours and 50 mins as stated on their flickr page, which has a cool panoramic photo stitch from their footage from an altitude of about 35 km.

What to Look For in Your First Telescope

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

If you read this blog, then it’s probably safe to assume that you have at least a mild interest in science. You probably enjoy looking at stars and really sweet astronomical pictures, which is what got me interested in science too.

You may even have considered buying your own telescope so you can check out the stars and boost your nerdiness factor up a notch.

Telescopes come in a huge range of sizes, types, and most importantly: PRICES! Picking your first telescope can be a daunting task. So I wanted to point you to an article by Mark Thompson on Discovery News about the basics of buying your first telescope.

The key points are:

  1. Consider starting out with binoculars, since they are cheaper than telescopes.
  2. Magnification means nothing! The aperture of the telescope is most important!
  3. Of the two types of telescopes (Reflectors and Refractors) Reflectors will give you the most bang for your buck.
  4. Try before buy.

Your local astronomical society will often hold events where you can go and check out some different telescopes. Even some stores which sell telescopes will let you try them out for a while before buying it.

My personal advice: GO TO AN EXPERT!

Please do not buy your telescope from Wal-Mart or Radio Shack or somewhere like that. Talk to someone who knows what they are talking about. Nerds will always look out for other nerds, so they will be happy to give you all the help you need.

Happy Gazing!


January 27, 2011 1 comment

A new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (my fav cartoon from when I was kid) called “Fight the Foot” has hit YouTube.

And it deserves all the hype its been getting. Its really well done for fan-film, and just makes me hungry for more.

The last news I heard about a big-budget TMNT movie was this piece stating that Viacom, who recently aquired the TMNT label from Nickelodeon, listed a TMNT movie as a project they would look to release probably in 2012. Its not much, and Michael Bay is attached to the project (who I think sucks), but its something.

With the new Spider-Man reboot coming up, it would be great to see TMNT get a “Batman Begins”-type treatment as well. But we’ll have to wait and see.

Of Psychics and Serial Killers

January 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It was announced on Monday that the remains of four women who were buried near a Long Island beach were most likely the victims of a serial killer.

The women are supposedly prostitutes who advertised on Craigslist, which is where the killer most likely targeted them.

It is a horrible and sad story, and hopefully the police will catch the bastard before he hurts anyone else.

But of course, the media has found a way to make the story even worse with this little gem about a psychic who “predicted” where the bodies would be found. As reported in the New York Post:

A psychic eerily predicted where the victim of a suspected serial killer could be found — nine months before cops dug up the corpse and that of three other young women on a Long Island beach, police sources said.

In April, the clairvoyant, hired by the desperate family of Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of Buffalo, chillingly saw “her body buried in a shallow grave overlooking a body of water,” the police source said. The psychic also said “there was a ‘G’ in a sign nearby.”

Fox News has also run the same story on their website.

This makes me sick. Melissa Barthelemy was missing since July 12, 2009. So 10 months later, a desperate family willing to do anything to find her, turned to a psychic to try to find her.

This psychic took these bereaved people’s money and gave them nothing. Absolutely nothing in return.

What did they actually predict? After being missing for 10 months, the odds of the poor girl being dead were unfortunately pretty good. So nothing there.

Next the “psychic” told them that her body was buried “overlooking a body of water”. You are in New York! On the Eastern seaboard! There is water everywhere. If the poor girl was killed, odds are pretty good that she would turn up somewhere near a “body of water”.

The “psychic” also said that there would be a “G” in a sign nearby. And Melissa Barthelemy was found near Gilgo Beach. That’s pretty good, right? *facepalm*

They didn’t say if the “G” would be in the name of the lake, or the town, or a nearby store, or the hi*g*hway.

Simply looking out the window of my office, I count no less than 5 signs that contain the letter ‘G’. She certainly played the odds on that one.

But psychics don’t care if their predictions are vague. That’s the whole point. Horoscopes do the same thing. “You will face a difficult decision today.” Thanks horoscope, even though I face difficult decisions every day, you got that one right I guess.

If this “psychic” had this great power, why couldn’t they predict anything useful? Like the name of the lake, or a road, or the face of the serial killer? Because psychics don’t have a great power. They makes vague “predictions” and, after the fact, overzealous news outlets try to fit the facts to the vague predictions. This person is a con-artist who takes the money off grieving people.

So whoever this “psychic” is that took advantage of the Barthelemy family should be ashamed of themselves. These people have lost a family member and the idea of someone profiting off their misery makes me physically ill.

Update (April 14, 2011):

As it turns out, this psychic was even more off than I had originally thought. It seems that Barthelemy was not buried in a grave at all. She was found above ground in a wooded area, just like the other victims.

Also, even though she was found at Gilgo Beach, there was no indication that there was a sign nearby at all.

So again, chalk this one up to psychics taking blatant misses and spinning them so they seem like hits.


No Children, But Science Getting “Left Behind” in the US

January 25, 2011 1 comment

In 2002, the Bush administration instituted the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act (NCLB). The act was designed to institute standards-based education reform, in which standardized tests would be given to students all over the country, and largely increased funding in public schools.

Although some statistics show positive results, it is very difficult to measure success of the program since it was instituted in every state, giving no basis for comparison.  It has also been criticized for putting too much focus on the standardized testing, possibly encouraging teachers to “teach to the test”.

This teaching to the test problem has started to show itself in the science scores of many American students. Because NCLB focuses primarily on reading, writing and math, many other subjects get ignored.

The National Assessment of Education Project (NAEP) released the results of the 2009 Science assessment today. As reported by Science Magazine, the results are not good.

The 2009 assessment, which focused on science, found that 40% of high school seniors perform below the basic level in science and only 1% at the advanced level. Younger students did marginally better, with 29% of fourth-graders and 38% of eighth-graders falling below basic and 1% and 2% at the advanced level, respectively.

How does this compare to previous years? It is actually difficult to say:

Test officials, which call NAEP “the nation’s report card,” say the content has changed so much that the results can’t be compared with previous assessments in 1996, 2000, and 2005.

The test has been revamped in recent years to better reflect what the students learn in a particular grade, and also measure how students are able to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real life situations; a skill particularly useful in the field of science.

Science is simply not getting enough attention in the classroom. It seems to be getting passed over in favour of teaching more reading and writing skills.

Reading and writing are certainly important, but does that mean these subjects should be emphasized so much that other subjects start to suffer? This seems like the wrong direction in which to go when it comes to education reform.

So how does the US of A compare to the rest of the world in science, math and reading scores?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released its 2009 country rankings in these skills. The USA ranked 23rd of all countries tested in science scores. Shanghai-China ranked #1 in the science category, with Canada placing 8th.

Standardized testing has a lot of drawbacks. And although reading, writing and math skill are important, if students don’t learn how to apply those skills to their daily life then what was the point in learning them in the first place?

Simply regurgitating facts from a textbook is not an effective learning strategy. Application is how we truly get math and writing skills mastered, so science education should not continue to be neglected.

Math Can Be Cool. No, Seriously!

January 25, 2011 1 comment

I did physics in University, and I had to take math courses. I hated the math courses.

And I like to make jokes at my friends who did Applied Math or Pure Math as their degrees, because I just found it so boring.

But dammit if this isn’t the coolest thing I’ve seen all day:

Notice it starts with the Fibonacci Sequence, makes a Fibonacci spiral, and from there it just keeps going.


What if Lady Gaga Were a Science Grad Student?

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I was a grad student once, and EVERYONE feels like this at some point.

Great nerdy fun.

Editor’s Selection!

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment


And I don’t mean to toot MY own horn, but my post “Redefining the Kilogram” was chosen as an “Editor’s Selection” at!

Maybe I’m not too bad at this blogging thing after all. :)



January 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Want to make your day better? Watch Spock say “fascinating” 46 times in 91 seconds.

Turning Boring Data Into Awesome Movies

January 21, 2011 Leave a comment

As reported today on Scientific American, the Advanced Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), turn terabytes worth of data into majestic astronomic visual treats.

They talk more about the process in the Scientific American piece.  For me though, sometimes you just want to see the Universe in all its awesomeness, and leave the data analysis to the experts. (That last statement is a bit ironic since I am a data analyst, but that’s not important right now…)

The first mini-galaxies formed when the universe was just a few hundred million years old. Over time, these small galaxies interacted and merged to build up ever larger galaxies, including big spirals like our own Milky Way. Credit: NCSA/NASA/B. O’Shea (MSU) and M. Norman (UC San Diego)

Two spiral galaxies undergo a protracted crash lasting two billion years, eventually merging into a single elliptical galaxy. Credit: NCSA/NASA/B. Robertson (Caltech) and L. Hernquist (Harvard Univ.)

Beginning when the universe is about 20 million years old and continuing to the present day, this visualization provides a glimpse of how the cosmic web may have developed. Credit: NCSA/NASA/R. Cen and J. Ostriker, (Princeton Univ.)

You can see a few more videos like these at the James Webb Telescope page.