Thursday, 12 November 2009

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

T-Rex Finally Has a Buyer, We Just Don’t Know Who

Posted: 12 Nov 2009 11:50 AM PST


The Tyrannosaurus rex that was featured in a Las Vegas auction in October finally has a home. We just can't tell you where.

Samson, as the giant fossil is affectionately known, failed to fetch enough at the live auction to satisfy the owner. In October, Tom Lindgren, who curated the natural history auction for Bonhams & Butterfields, estimated the skeleton was worth between $2 million and $8 million and could go for more than $10 million.

Now the auction house says it has a new owner, but won't reveal who that is just yet.

"Bonhams & Butterfields was very pleased by the post-auction interest and ultimate sale price, and we expect 'Samson' to be displayed publicly in the future," Lindgren said in a press release.

We hope he's right. Of the 46 T. rex skeletons unearthed to date, Samson is the third most complete and has what may be the finest skull. It would be disappointing if such a beautiful, rare fossil wasn't kept in a public setting where it can be properly admired.

The October auction featured around 50 awesome specimens, some of which sold at impressive prices including a $485,000 duck-billed dinosaur.

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Video Close-Up: The Sun’s Surface in Swirling Detail

Posted: 12 Nov 2009 10:12 AM PST

A telescope carried by balloon to the edge of Earth's stratosphere has returned the most detailed video of the sun's surface to date.

Released Wednesday by an international research team led by astronomers from Germany's Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, the video shows what the naked human eye could never see, even if we could look at the sun without blinding ourselves.

Near-ultraviolet wavelengths and magnetic fields are visualized on the video, which is all the more clear because telescope's stratospheric positioning puts it beyond the light-scattering veil of Earth's atmosphere.

If you can't get enough solar video, then check out the footage below, which was taken by NASA's STEREO spacecraft and released in October. It takes a wide-angle perspective, and shows filaments formed by cooling gas and bound by magnetic fields as they waft across the sun.

Videos: 1. Max Planck Institute 2. NASA

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Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.

Secret Math of Fly Eyes Could Overhaul Robot Vision

Posted: 12 Nov 2009 09:21 AM PST


By turning the brain cell activity underlying fly eyesight into mathematical equations, researchers have found an ultra-efficient method for pulling motion patterns from raw visual data.

Though they built the system, the researchers don't quite understand how it works. But however mysterious the equations may be, they could still be used to program the vision systems of miniaturized battlefield drones, search-and-rescue robots, automobile navigation systems and other systems where computational power is at a premium.

"We can build a system that works perfectly well, inspired by biology, without having a complete understanding of how the components interact. It's a non-linear system," said David O'Carroll, a computational neuroscientist who studies insect vision at Australia's University of Adelaide. "The number of computations involved is quite small. We can get an answer using tens of thousands of times less floating-point computations than in traditional ways."

The best-known of these is the Lucas-Kanade method, which calculates yaw — up-and-down, side-to-side motion changes — by comparing, frame by frame, how every pixel in a visual field changes. It's used for steering and guidance in many experimental unmanned vehicles, but its brute-force approach requires lots of processing power, making it impractical in smaller systems.

In order to make smaller flying robots, researchers would like to find a simpler way of processing motion. Inspiration has come from the lowly fly, which uses just a relative handful of neurons to maneuver with extraordinary dexterity. And for more than a decade, O'Carroll and other researchers researchers have painstakingly studied the optical flight circuits of flies, measuring their cell-by-cell activity and turning evolution's solutions into a set of computational principles.

In a paper published Friday in Public Library of Science Computational Biology, O'Carroll and fellow University of Adelaide biologist Russell Brinkworth put these methods to the test.

"A laptop computer uses tens of watts of power. Implementing what we've developed can be done with chips that consume just a fraction of a milliwatt," said O'Carroll.

flyeyeequationThe researchers' algorithm is composed of a series of five equations through which data from cameras can be run. Each equation represents tricks used by fly circuits to handle changing levels of brightness, contrast and motion, and their parameters constantly shift in response to input. Unlike Lucas-Kanade, the algorithm doesn't return a frame-by-frame comparison of every last pixel, but emphasizes large-scale patterns of change. In this sense, it works a bit like video-compression systems that ignore like-colored, unshifting areas.

To test the algorithm, O'Carroll and Brinkworth analyzed animated high-resolution images with a program of the sort that might operate in a robot. When they compared the results to the inputs, they found that it worked in a range of natural lighting conditions, varying in ways that usually baffle motion detectors.

"It's amazing work," said Sean Humbert, a University of Maryland aerospace engineer who builds miniaturized, autonomous flying robots, some of which run on earlier versions of O'Carroll's algorithm. "For traditional navigational sensing, you need lots of payload to do the computation. But the payload on these robots is very small — a gram, a couple of Tic Tacs. You're not going to stuff dual-core processors into a couple Tic Tacs. The algorithms that insects use are very simple compared to the stuff we design, and would scale down to small vehicles."

Intriguingly, the algorithm doesn't work nearly as well if any one operation is omitted. The sum is greater than the whole, and O'Carroll and Brinkworth don't know why. Because the parameters are in constant feedback-driven flux, it produces a cascade of non-linear equations that are difficult to untangle in retrospect, and almost impossible to predict.

"We started with insect vision as an inspiration, and built a model that's feasible for real-world use, but in doing so, we've built a system almost as complicated as the insect's," said O'Carroll. "That's one of the fascinating things here. It doesn't necessarily lead us to a complete understanding of how the system works, but to an appreciation that nature got it right."

The researchers drew their algorithm from neural circuits attuned to side-to-side yaw, but O'Carroll said the same types of equations are probably used in computing other optical flows, such as those produced by moving forward and backwards through three-dimensional space.

"That's more challenging," said O'Carroll. "It may involve a few extra neurons."

Images: 1) Flickr/Tambako the Jaguar. 2) PLoS Computational Biology.

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Citation: "Robust Models for Optic Flow Coding in Natural Scenes Inspired by Insect Biology." By Russell S. A. Brinkworth, David C. O'Carroll. PLoS Computation Biology, November 6, 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.

The Fight for the Ninth Planet

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST


If there's still someone out there who thinks science and politics never mix, the story behind the Battle of Prague should change your mind.

Some have cast the debate that took place in the Czech capital during the summer of 2006 as a battle against American scientists who wanted to keep the only planet discovered by an American on an unreasonably high pedestal. On the other side of the argument, there are those who suspect that the rest of the world wanted to see Pluto demoted to punish America for its unpopular foreign policy.

But we're not talking about that kind of politics. We're not even talking about a battle between the fans and foes of Pluto per se. Instead of thinking in terms of Republicans versus Democrats, or Plutophiles versus Plutoclasts, you have to think in terms of planetary conservatives versus liberals — or, more accurately, dynamicists versus geophysicists. The skirmishes over the definition of planethood that took place in Prague weren't so much about poor little Pluto, but about two different ways of seeing the solar system.

One way focuses on the dynamics of a planetary system: How are things moving around, and how do those things affect one another? If a celestial body doesn't have much of a gravitational effect on other bodies, that object is hard to detect and hard to track. If lots of celestial bodies are in similar orbits, they all tend to blur together.

Pluto may be the solar system's brightest object beyond Neptune, as seen from Earth. It may account for as much as 7 percent of the entire mass of the Kuiper Belt, a ring-shaped region that covers more real estate than the space inside Neptune's orbit. But because there are lots of other objects in the Kuiper Belt, dynamicists see a crowded celestial neighborhood in which Pluto doesn't stand out.

Much of what astronomers have learned about the solar system since William Herschel's day has come to light because of dynamical analysis. This is how Le Verrier and Couch found Neptune. It is how Clyde Tombaugh could figure out how far away Pluto was, even though he saw it as a mere speck of light. And seventy-five years later, it is how Mike Brown identified Xena, the dynamical blip that was farther away and bigger than Pluto. So you can't really sell the dynamicists short.

Another way of looking at a celestial body would be to look at it rather than around it. What's it made of? What kinds of geological processes are at work? Does it have a crust and a core? Is there an atmosphere, and weather? Are there volcanoes, and if so, what are they spewing out? Water? Sulfur? Methane?

Such a world doesn't have to be a planet to be of interest. In fact, some of the most interesting worlds nowadays aren't planets, but moons. The Saturnian moon Enceladus is just 300 miles wide, far smaller than Pluto's diameter of 1,430 miles, but it boasts geysers that could conceivably be spewing life- laden water.

This is the province of the planetary scientists — a breed of astronomers who focus on the way a world is put together. As a rule of thumb, if it's big enough to crush itself into a round shape due to self-gravity, it's big enough to be a planet. If it's not big enough to get round, it's a failed planet, taking on the potato or peanut shape normally associated with asteroids or comets. "These objects that we call planets have shaped themselves into spheres," said Alan Stern, the planetary scientist who worked for seventeen years to get a probe sent to Pluto.

The significance of the shape isn't merely that a round object makes for a pretty, planetlike picture. Rather, the important thing is that such a degree of self-gravity makes it possible for a planet to have a layered composition, an active geology, perhaps even volcanic activity beneath the surface, or an atmosphere above. "It's about the physics," Stern said.

Stern likes to talk of a Star Trek test for planethood: "The Starship Enterprise shows up at a given body, they turn on the cameras on the bridge and they see it. Captain Kirk and Spock could look at it and they could say, 'That's a star, that's a planet, that's a comet.' They could tell the difference."

Roundness would provide an instant way for Mr. Spock to tell. In contrast, Stern said, having to determine whether the round thing was one object among others at the same orbital distance would force Spock to put Kirk's question on hold: "We have to make a complete census of the solar system, feed that into a computer, and do numerical integrations to determine which objects have cleared their zone."

For dynamicists, roundness just doesn't cut it. If Kirk and Spock are looking at a point of light from tens of AU away, as Clyde Tombaugh did in 1930, they might not be able to tell if the object they're looking at is round. But by closely monitoring its motion, and the motion of other bodies, they could figure out where everything fits in a planetary system — even if it takes sixty or seventy years, as in the case of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. "We dynamicists know all about the orbits and can say what's going on," Brian Marsden said, "but the physical people can't say a damn thing."

This back-and-forth between the dynamicists and the geophysicists was what stymied the initial efforts to resolve its planet problem. Whenever the question was considered by the nineteen members of the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on the Definition of a Planet, one faction would essentially filibuster the other. "Achieving a consensus among them was about as hard as trying to herd a group of 19 feral cats into a room with several open doors and windows," said Alan Boss, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington who was a member of the panel. In addition to the scientific differences, there was a cultural split as well, having more to do with language than physics: Should the planets of the solar system be a category so special that you can count their number on two hands, or would it be okay if the category was open-ended, with the potential of adding tens or hundreds or thousands of members?

For planetary conservatives, the idea of recognizing even thirty or fifty planets in the solar system was just too much. The liberals, however, were fine with having hundreds of planets. You could break that category down into subcategories: giants like Jupiter, terrestrials like Earth, and dwarfs like Pluto. And even if you had scores of planets, you wouldn't have to force kids to memorize them all, just as you don't force them to memorize all the world's rivers or mountains.

All these issues — the scientific as well as the cultural considerations — were dropped into the lap of a brand-new panel set up by the IAU in preparation for the Battle of Prague. This seven-member panel included five astronomers who were familiar with the issues but not counted among the leading Plutophiles or the Plutoclasts: MIT's Richard Binzel, the Universit é Denis Diderot's Andr é Brahic, Junichi Watanabe from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Iwan Williams from Queen Mary University of London, and the IAU's president-elect, Catherine Cesarsky. Another member was science writer Dava Sobel, the author of Longitude, Galileo's Daughter, and The Planets. The chairman was Owen Gingerich, an astronomer and historian who worked alongside Brian Marsden at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

In April 2006, the committee was told to come up with a definition of planethood in time for the IAU's triennial general assembly that August, and to keep its deliberations secret, to avoid the kind of sniping that had stymied past efforts.

Gingerich tried to avoid dwelling on the particulars of Pluto's case. "We never asked who wanted Pluto in or out," he said. But the ground rules favored an approach that would lean more toward the geophysicists than the dynamicists. "We wanted to avoid arbitrary cutoffs simply based on distances, periods, magnitudes, or neighboring objects," he said.

After flurries of e-mails, the panel met in person to hash out their decision in June at the Paris Observatory, where Le Verrier had once worked to calculate Neptune's orbit. According to Gingerich, it didn't start out smoothly. "On the second morning several members admitted that they had not slept well, worrying that we would not be able to reach a consensus," he reported. "But by the end of a long day, the miracle had happened: we had reached a unanimous agreement."

The resulting definition emphasized Stern's roundness requirement, but also distinguished between the solar system's "classical planets" — that is, the planets identified before 1900— and the "plutons" in the Kuiper Belt. Any world that orbited the sun and had a roundish shape due to its self-gravity, a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, would fit under the definition of a planet.

But what if the planet's shape couldn't be seen in detail? In that case, there was a rule of thumb based on estimated diameter and mass: Objects at least 800 kilometers wide with masses of at least 5 x 10 20 kilograms, or about 4 percent of Pluto's mass, would be brought into the planet fold, with borderline cases decided as further observations became available. That would put Pluto as well as Xena in the pigeonhole for planets, along with the eight bigger planets and smaller Ceres, the rocky world that was hailed as a planet in 1801 but reclassified as an asteroid decades later.

And what about Charon? Pluto's moon is nearly half as big as Pluto itself, and so, unlike every other planet, the two worlds actually orbit a common center of gravity in space, like two stars in a binary system. Some astronomers thought that would qualify Pluto and Charon as a binary-planet system, and that's what the earlier IAU panel on planethood had suggested in a footnote to their report.

"That footnote in the previous committee's report got stuck in without my quite realizing it," Gingerich said. It was one of several twists in the deliberations that he would come to regret.

Another twist had to do with the hush-hush nature of the panel's work. The IAU's Executive Committee insisted that the resolution be kept secret until the Prague meeting began. "It worked out that keeping it secret, in effect, backfired," Gingerich said. Word that Pluto would stay in the planetary fold leaked out a few days before the Prague meeting — and although the members of the panel thought their proposal would be widely accepted, others had grave doubts.

Boss recalled the tempests he and his colleagues had weathered during past discussions of the planethood issue. In an interview with the journal Nature , he predicted that a definition based on roundness would be met with "a long line of people waiting for the microphone to denounce it." And he was right.

Excerpted from by The Case for Pluto by Alan Boyle. Copyright © 2009 by Alan Boyle. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Images: 1) NASA. 2) Robert Hood/

Pluto 2015: Journey to the Rim of the Solar System

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST


An epic 10-year, 3-billion-mile journey from Cape Canaveral to the rim of the solar system is almost halfway complete, and in 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will allow us to lay eyes directly on the mysterious, beloved Pluto for the first time.

"Every time that we go to a new kind of place, we find out stuff that just blows our minds," said planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, leader of the New Horizons Mission.

When the spacecraft launched in 2006, NASA called it the beginning of "an unprecedented journey of exploration to the ninth planet in the solar system." Of course, after Pluto's official demotion from planet to dwarf planet, the mission can no longer claim to be exploring the final planet frontier. But regardless of the controversy, Pluto remains an intriguing object that astronomers and the public alike can't wait to learn more about.

And after conducting the first in-depth, close-up study of Pluto and its moon Charon, the unmanned spaceship will venture even further into the Kuiper Belt, a vast strip of icy objects that sit just outside of Neptune's orbit, roughly 50 astronomical units from the Sun.

"When Pluto was first discovered in 1930, it just looked like an oddball," Stern said. "We had the four rocky, terrestrial planets and the four big gas giants, and then we had this odd thing Pluto."

But with the discovery of the Kuiper Belt in the 1990s, scientists discovered that the small, icy orb was hardly unique. "We found out that there are a lot of Plutos," Stern said. "In fact, it's the dominant class of planets in the solar system. This transformed our view not only of the solar system, but also of the importance of sending a spacecraft to Pluto. We realized that we had never sent a spacecraft to the most common type of planet."

In 2001, a special committee from the National Academy of Sciences met to advise NASA on its 10-year goals for planetary exploration, and the group picked exploration of the Kuiper Belt, including Pluto and Charon, as its highest scientific priority.

Part of the motivation for exploring the Kuiper Belt was the recognition of just how little we know about this cold, dark region at the fringe of our solar system. Late last month, an astronomer from Queen's University in Belfast reported the existence of a red spot on the surface of Haumea, one of the largest and weirdest objects in the Kuiper Belt. Scientists guess the mysterious crimson streak is either evidence of a recent collision or a gas leak coming from Haumea's hot interior. Either way, it's the first time astronomers have observed this kind of surface detail on an object in the Kuiper Belt.

By sending a spacecraft to Pluto, we'll get much closer look. Stern expects that the most exciting result of our mission to the Kuiper Belt will be something that we can't possibly predict ahead of time. "No one expected Venus to be the poisonous hell that it is, or Mars to have the river valleys that it does," he said.

jupiterBut launching an unmanned spacecraft on a 3-billion mile journey to a planet with a surface temperature of -387 degrees Fahrenheit is no easy task. Initially, the New Horizons engineers were also racing against the clock: By getting a gravity kick from Jupiter, the spacecraft could shave three years off its total mission time. But to get this slingshot boost, New Horizons had to launch right on time — being just a few days late could have extended the 10-year mission to more than 13 years.

"It was a horse race to make that launch," Stern said. Remarkably, everything went without a hitch, and in February 2007, New Horizons got the necessary push from our solar system's biggest planet, snapping a few beautiful pictures of the red giant along the way.

Currently, New Horizons is midway through its eight-year "interplanetary cruise" from Jupiter to Pluto. During most of this trek, the spacecraft is in hibernation mode, with all but the most critical electric equipment turned off to conserve energy. During these periods of "sleep," New Horizons is powered by a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which uses less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.

Once a year for about 50 days, the spacecraft turns back on for a checkup and recalibration. So far, Stern says, NASA engineers have had to do very little in the way of trouble-shooting. "You know, it's amazing," he said. "Everything on the spacecraft works, and we're not using any backup systems. We've had some software glitches and put up some software patches, and there are some differences in the way we run it compared to how we expected to run it. But overall, we are right on course and right on schedule."

Once New Horizons reaches Pluto, she'll use her seven different scientific instruments to map the surface of the dwarf planet and characterize its unique atmosphere, which is thought to contain trace amounts of carbon monoxide and methane gases. All data collected by the spacecraft will get beamed back to Earth using a radio transmitter and an 83-inch diameter radio antenna.

"It will take months to get it all home, and I'm sure it will take years to digest it all," Stern said. "But we will likely have great pictures and other kinds of data sets even on the first day."

Of course, that first day isn't for another five and a half years — a long time to wait if you're one of the eager Plutophiles who wants to see your favorite dwarf restored to its former planet status.

For Stern, however, 2015 seems right around the corner. "I've already been waiting since 1989," he said, "so five and a half years sounds like we're almost there."


Images: 1) Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute. 2) NASA/JHU/APL. 3) The New Horizons mission bumper sticker/APL.

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Dwarf Planet Rebranding Contest

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST


Pluto is no longer a planet. Sorry, folks, those are just the facts.

But that doesn't mean that Pluto will be a lonely exile without any friends. In fact, there are four other dwarf planets to keep it company, and maybe even more on the way.

Dwarf planets have been defined by the International Astronomical Union since 2006 as celestial bodies that are roundish like their larger cousins in the solar system, but which haven't gobbled up all the other planetesimals near themselves.

Pluto-lovers are outraged that the ninth planet in our solar system has been transformed into a mere dwarf among gas giants, but we think they're just looking at it the wrong way. There's no reason that Pluto and its four merry friends have to be just also-ran planets. They just need renaming, like Patagonian toothfish, now known as Chilean sea bass, or x86 Intel processors, which became known as Pentium.

The new name for dwarf planets need not reference their size or relation to locations like Earth and Mars. We say it's a new day and they should get a new, better name. Perhaps something like "darksiders," because they are as far out as Pink Floyd.

Yes, we know that's lame. That's why we're asking you to submit your own names for the celestial bodies formerly known as dwarf planets in the Reddit widget below.

And while you're at it, maybe you can come up with names with a bit more pizazz than Ceres, Haumea, Makemake and Eris — the current names of Pluto's new buddies. Not that their current names are bad, but they don't seem quite as stage-ready as, say, Venus.

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Underdog Planet: Why We Love Pluto

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST


For such a small member of the solar system, about which relatively little is known, Pluto has an impressive following. When the news that the ninth planet had been stripped of its planethood got out, the public outcry was immediate. From school children to space enthusiasts, and many in between, people leaped to Pluto's defense.

How did the little guy inspire so much support from so many corners? Why did the International Astronomical Union decide to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet? Is there any hope the popular celestial object will regain its planetary status?

To find out, spoke with science journalist Alan Boyle, who reported on the events that culminated in Pluto's ouster for his blog Cosmic Log as they unfolded. Now Boyle has reported the rest of the intriguing story in his new book "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," which comes in an appropriately endearing little package.

——— Why does the public care so much whether or not Pluto is a planet?

Boyle: Some people say it's because of the Disney dog, that kids that grew up with Pluto the pup just have a natural affinity for Pluto the planet. And that's definitely part of it, but I think that there's something more to it.

Throughout most of the history of that little world, we've thought of it as a poor little oddball that didn't fit in with the rest of the kids in the solar system and really needed to be protected. So to my mind it's really not so much about the dog, but it's about the underdog. Why is it important to scientists whether we call Pluto a planet or not?

Boyle: Some scientists will go to the barricades to make sure that it's called a planet and other scientists will resist that idea. I think when you get right down to it, I'm not sure the name makes a lot of difference in terms of the scientific study of these planets. It's more a question of how, for example, the general public thinks about how our cosmos is structured.

There might be a slight difference in the way projects are funded if there's a perception that these are just cosmic leftovers and they really don't count for much in the solar system. That might have a marginal effect on what sort of space missions are funded, what sorts of observational campaigns are taken on. I think that the scientists are really keyed in on that. And even Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, whose twitter handle is @pluotkiller, even he is fascinated with these objects that are out there. How does Pluto's planetary status affect how the general public views the cosmos?

Boyle: I think the case of the asteroids is a good illustration of what's going on. When people memorized the nine planets they completely forgot about this string of small bodies, the asteroids. The biggest of these, Ceres, is now a dwarf planet. Strangely enough this whole controversy has elevated the profile of Ceres at the same time that it's made people wonder a little bit about Pluto.

We're finding out that for all sorts of reasons, the asteroids are a pretty important element in the solar system. They could be a great source of resources in the future. They could pose a threat as we've seen recently with July's great black spot — the collision of some object with Jupiter. And just this month there was a pretty significant bolide, what people think was an asteroid came into the atmosphere over Indonesia and was one of the biggest blowups that has been observed yet.

I think you can extend some of that example of asteriods to the far zone of the solar system as well. We really need to keep that in consciousness when we're thinking about the solar system. If you just limit your understanding of the solar system to just memorizing eight or nine names, you're really missing out. So the asteroids and the rest of the outer solar system has benefited from Pluto being demoted?

Boyle: It's kind of like what celebrities sometimes say that I don't care if you speak ill or good, as long as you spell my name right. The fact that people are finding this interesting enough to quarrel over helps put the spotlight on those regions of the solar system that were maybe in the shadows before. And I think that having a wider view of what you call a planet really helps to 1) emphasize the diversity in the solar system, and 2) keep in mind that there are very interesting objects that could be weirder than we imagined but still can fit into the planetary tribe. How was Pluto first discovered?

Alan Boyle: There had been another planet, which came to be known as Neptune, which was found by figuring out how the gravitational interactions of all the planets came together. They figured that there had to be something extra there.

So some people thought it was the same situation as after Neptune was found: There had to be some sort of extra gravitational pull. A lot of people theorized that there had to be another planet, planet N or planet O, P, Q or whatever. So this guy named Percival Lowell tried to find that planet but couldn't do it. He died in 1916, and it took a while for the Lowell Observatory, which he founded, to get back into the search.

But eventually this guy named Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas farm boy, started the search. Tombaugh was a really interesting guy because he was a very detail-oriented young man. He undertook a very meticulous, dedicated search of the parts of the sky that were imaged by the Lowell Observatory's telescope, and eventually he found it just by sticking with it. At first they didn't know what it was, people started talking about the tenth planet, and the rest is history. Where did the name Pluto come from?

Boyle: There were three names that had been bandied about. One was Minerva but people found out there was already an asteroid named Minerva. One was Cronus, but astronomers at the Lowell Observatory decided that they didn't want to name it Cronus because an astronomer that they didn't like came up with that name, and they were afraid that the astronomer would steal the credit if they used that name.

pluto_waterAnd the third name was Pluto. There had been talk about maybe if we found another planet we would name it Pluto, and so that was definitely on the list. The bad thing about it was that there happened to be a type of laxative water known as "Pluto Water." And so the trustee of the Lowell Observatory thought maybe that wasn't the right name for it.

But, on the other hand, they did have this telegram from Britain where an 11-year-old girl named Venicia Fair had suggested this name. So there was really definitely a cute factor from the beginning of Pluto's christening. And they went with that. And then the Disney dog of course. That added to the cuteness factor. Pluto was found in 1930, so why did it take until just recently to find any of these similar things?

Boyle: The simple answer is telescopes and patience. The telescopes had to be powerful enough to find dim objects on the edge of the solar system. And it also takes a lot of patience to do the sort of thing that Clyde Tombaugh did where you compare pictures back and forth. So really, it took a couple of patient people, David Jewitt and Jane Luu, to get the imagery of the area where these far away objects might be found.

They also employed computers which were coming onto the scene, and the computers could automate these sorts of tasks. That has really revolutionized the field. It's unimaginable that people could do this sort of astronomy without having some sort of high-powered computers to help with the task. Why do scientists care so much about Pluto?

Boyle: Pluto, when you look back at it, was actually the first object of the great third zone beyond the part of the solar system that people knew about: the inner rocky planets and the outer giant planets. Clyde Tombaugh was the first to find one of these icy worlds on the very rim of the solar system, and that sparked a lot of discussion about how it got there and how are solar systems created anyway. And whether you call Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet or a sleazy ice ball, you've got to admit that Pluto really pioneered the exploration of that icy zone of the solar system and helped us to find the ice worlds, the rings of ice that exist in other solar systems as well.

So naturally astronomers want to find out more about this frontier, and there are a lot of interesting attributes. It could have been the place that provided the building blocks for life. It could be something that could be the last redoubt of life millions of years from now when the sun gets big and hot. There's a lot to look at in that area of our solar system, and it sparks great questions about what's happening in other planetary systems as well. What does it take to qualify as a planet now?

Boyle: The way the [International Astronomical Union] sees it, it's an object that's going around the sun and has the mass sufficient to crush it into a round shape — so called hydrostatic equilibrium. And then you've got the standard that it has to have cleared out its orbital neighborhood. And that is the one that caused all the controversy and continues to cause all the controversy.

Even people who were kind of in favor of the way the IAU decision turned out admit that that standard really needs to have some work done. It depends on how you define the neighborhood, and how you define the biggest thing in the neighborhood. Arguably, Pluto could be the biggest thing in its zone becaue it makes up 7 percent of the Kuiper Belt by mass.

Some researchers have tried to come up with a quantifiable way of deining that "clearing-out-the-neighborhood" standard, but there is some strangeness involved in that. For instance, if you were to put Earth out where Pluto is, it would not be considered a planet. So a lot of people say that any standard that does not have an Earth-size object as a planet is not an acceptable standard. But that sparks a whole other debate about whether Earth would exist or if it's possible for an Earth-size object to exist in that kind of environment.

That gets into the whole question of Planet X — the idea that there might be a pretty significantly massive body out in the even farther reaches of the solar system known as the oort cloud. The folks who are trying to shore up the IAU standard argue that such a planet, even if it was as big as Earth, could not be considered a planet. They're trying to come up with another term for that kind of body, for example calling it a scattered planet. It's a little tricky to work out all the implications of this somewhat confusing standard. How many fellow dwarf planets does Pluto currently have?

Boyle: Right now, going by the IAU's criterion, there are four dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt, in that far zone of the solar system. And then you have one in the asteroid belt — that's Ceres. So there are five in all, including Pluto. It could be that there are more. We're using the IAU criterion here that a dwarf planet is something that is massive enough to crush the object into a round shape, but that the object is among other objects at the same orbital distance — they don't meet the so-called clearing-out-the-neighborhood standard. What happened at the IAU meeting in Prague in 20XX that led you to name a chapter of your book "The Battle of Prague"?

Boyle: It just really demonstrates how political the scientific process can get. When you look at the deliberations that came before the general assembly and the maneuvering that came during the general assembly, it reads almost like one of these political novels where one side is trying to put forward one idea, and the other side becomes the opposition and uses the bureaucratic process to do a little bit of jujitsu and get the outcome that they wanted. Will Pluto ever be a planet again?

Boyle: The IAU, I don't believe they have any intention of touching this issue again with a 10-Au-long pole. They don't want to get into this again. It was so divisive and so unpleasant. I think it will be a long time before the IAU goes anywhere near trying to define a central concept in science like this again.

And then on the other side, some people might ask, why don't the defenders of Pluto's diginty come out and try to get it reversed by the IAU? And the answer is that these are the very people who say the IAU has lost their legitimacy. So it wold be like someone saying that such and such a tribunal is a kangaroo court and we can't get a fair hearing there, and then the next year coming back and trying to get something from that very same court. It just wouldn't work. Where do you stand on Pluto's planetary status?

Boyle: I would say that it should be considered a different kind of planet. I'm fine with calling it a dwarf planet or a minor planet or whatever. But I don't think that it's really the right decision to say that dwarf planets are not planets. I think that is what's going to confuse people.

I really favor having a big tent for the planet category, and it's ok if you have 50 or 100 or 200 or 500 planets out there. These things that are massive enough to have a round shape have lots of important characteristics that bring them together into a very broad category. The point is not so much, 'gee it's in a nice round shape,' the point is that when you have that massive of an object you have differentiation, you have the potential for geologic activity. People think that there might be ice volcanoes on Mars, there happens to be an atmosphere on Pluto — these qualities are things that are central to planetary science. So I think it would be wrong to try to make this formalistic how-many-pigeon-holes-do-you-have type of decision on this very central term in planetary science. What was your gut reaction when you heard Pluto had been demoted?

Boyle: I was intrigued. One of the stories I worked on in the wake of that was, what's this going to do to all the websites, all the textbooks, all the toys that are out there? Are people suddenly going to be selling just eight planets in their solar system kit rather than nice?

I did think that it was kind of a done deal, that ok, the decision's made and we'll just kind of move on, and sure there are problems but they'll get ironed out as time goes on. I said so in the Cosmic Log, that no matter how you stand on it, now that the IAU has spoken, that's gonna be something that scientists and the general public are going to have to live with. That's when I heard from the people on the other side of the question who said it ain't over yet. And I found that intriguing, that even though an authoratative body spoke out on this, there was still debate that continues to this day.

So that's an interesting phenomenon in science to see that. There are parallels to other controversies, over stem sells or climate change or whatever. And it illustrates that science is not something that's decided by a vote. It's almost like you have a quantum state of superposition where something is a planet, and is not a planet, at the same time, and it takes a while for it to collapse into one state or the other.

I think it's still a little bit up in the air. We have some uncertainty about this whole question yet. And I think that will continue at least until 2015 when the New Horizons probe goes to Pluto and people see with their own eyes what this thing, whether you call it a dwarf planet or a planet or whatever, what this thing looks like. Will Pluto's status affect how we handle planets outside of our solar system?

Boyle: Of course there are about 400 extrasolar planets that have been found right now, and some of them are as weird as Pluto, if not weirder. There's one planetary system where you have two planets that are about Saturn- or Jupiter-size that are stuck in the same kind of resonance that Pluto and Neptune are stuck in, and it's fascinating to see. This is obviously a planetary system where neither planet can clear out its orbit and yet they're both considered planets.

So it's another argument for not trying to get too precise about how you define a planet at this point. That's going to be a big thing going forward with Kepler and Corot and all the exoplanet searches: As we see more diversity in planets, I think that will cause us to rethink our basic concepts on this whole question of planets.

Images: 1) NASA. 2) Advertising Ephemera Collection - Database #A0160, Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Stellar Lithium Points Way for Exoplanet Hunters

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 11:46 AM PST


Astronomers have identified an easy-to-measure chemical fingerprint for determining which sunlike stars are likely to host planets. The marker — a low abundance of lithium in the atmosphere of these stars — could prove an invaluable guide for planet hunters trying to determine which of the myriad sunlike stars to select for long-term study.

sciencenewsIn their study, Garik Israelian of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Tenerife, Spain, and his colleagues relied on data from a census of 133 sunlike stars, most of them monitored for several years with the European Southern Observatory's HARPS spectrograph at the La Silla observatory in Chile. Tiny wobbles in the motions of 30 of these stars indicate the gravitational tug of unseen planets.

In the Nov. 12 Nature, Israelian and his colleagues report that the majority of sunlike stars hosting planets in the HARPS sample have, on average, one-tenth the amount of lithium of those without planets. It's been known for decades that Earth's sun shows such a depletion.

"Those sunlike stars with low lithium will have a higher chance to bear planets," Israelian says.

One explanation for the lithium finding, he notes, is related to a star's rotational history. According to a leading theory, stars born with a swirling disk of dust and gas — the disk from which planets coalesce — tend to rotate more slowly than stars born without such disks. The planets that form out of the disk retain some of the rotational energy that the star would otherwise have. The slower a star's rotation, the easier it is for lithium at the top of a star's atmosphere to mix into deeper, hotter layers, where it burns up.

"There is a good case to make that the rotation of the parent star is influenced by whether planets form around it or not," says astronomer Marc Pinsonneault of Ohio State University in Columbus, who wrote a commentary accompanying the report in Nature. "The bottom line is that planets aren't just debris left over from star formation," he says. "Planet formation changes the basic properties of the star that they orbit."

The link between low lithium abundance and planets holds true only for sunlike stars, says Israelian. Cooler, lower-mass stars destroy most of their lithium early on, during their first 10 million to 100 million years of life. Stars more massive than the sun and with temperatures some 200 kelvins warmer can't mix as much lithium into deeper layers, making it difficult to destroy the element.

Researchers have previously found evidence that any star, regardless of whether its mass approximates that of the sun, is more likely to have planets if the star has a high abundance of metals such as iron. Looking for sunlike stars that have both traits — small amounts of lithium and high amounts of iron and other metals — may offer the most powerful strategy for finding planets beyond the solar system, says Israelian.

Image: ESO/L. Calçada

See Also:

Cover Shmover: Judge an Old Book by Its Odor

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 11:12 AM PST


Take an antique leather-bound book, open it up, and inhale deeply. There's just something about that old-book smell. And thanks to a new analytical chemistry technique, the volatile organic compounds that compose the aroma could help preservationists keep their collections safe from old-age damage.

Just sniffing an old book can tell chemists a lot about the state of the paper in a vintage volume, including its level of acidity, lignin and rosin, which are all important variables for deciding how to approach preserving the text.

"During my research work, I noticed that conservators would often smell paper as if they could tell whether certain degraded papers smell differently to others," said Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, and lead author of a new paper in Analytical Chemistry. "Being a chemist, I thought, if that's what they do, perhaps there is a scientific way of sniffing out the degraded paper."

"The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library. A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents. It is a result of the several hundred identified volatile and semivolatile organic compounds (VOCs) off-gassing from paper and the object in general."
—Matija Strlic, et al, in Analytical Chemistry

The solution he developed is called "material degradomics." It relies on identifying the set of compounds associated with degrading paper, using chromatography and spectroscopy. Using a benchmark set of papers of varying ages that have been well-characterized, the researchers were able to associate different smells with different papers in varying states of preservation. Eleven smell components were correlated with important paper qualities.

Though Strlic noted that this first journal article was just a proof of concept, once the details are worked out, he thinks the technique could be used on site at the world's archives and museums.

"I can imagine that in the future, one might have even a handheld instrument to sniff objects and try to tell which ones are more or less degraded," he said.

How could knowing the paper's profile help preservationists? Paper produced until about 1850 was made to last for millenniums. The development of new wood-pulping techniques in the middle of the 19th century and the use of rosin sizing reduced the longevity of paper. The acidity of paper made with these techniques causes them to degrade more quickly than the older papers — or newer ones made with different methods after 1990.

"These papers are particularly unstable," Strlic said, with lifespans that are measured in only hundreds of years.

Now, paper made in 1850 or so is getting old, and some of it has begun to degrade. It's become imperative to identify which texts are most vulnerable — and that's what Strlic's new technique allows.

Other conservation tests can also tell conservators how badly degraded paper is, but they all destroy at least some of the material they're trying to preserve.

"All of the tests I know of are destructive, meaning they consume some of the material or one needs to touch the object," Strlic said. "In some cases, especially if you are dealing with a very valuable object, even touching is something that is not allowed, so conservators very often like to see methods which are entirely noninvasive."

If they do find that a book could be susceptible to degradation, preservationists have options. They can dip the paper in a chemical bath that neutralizes its pH, as seen in the photo below. It could also be placed in special settings like the Declaration of Independence.

While the paper and digital realms are usually seen as competitors, this is one area in which the power of computation is helping to preserve, not destroy, print.

"The computational power had not been there until about 10 years ago," Strlic said.


Top photo: Jim Merithew/
Bottom photo: Center for Book Preservation, Leipzig, Germany

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Google Reader feed, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Human-Chimp Gene Comparison Hints at Roots of Language

Posted: 11 Nov 2009 10:44 AM PST


By comparing how a gene critical for language works in humans and chimpanzees, researchers have identified an entire network of genes involved in the incredible linguistic powers of Homo sapiens.

The findings don't explain how language functions at the biological level, or exactly what changes were needed to put an otherwise unremarkable monkey on its chattering, Earth-dominating trajectory. But they do give researchers a foundation for investigating these questions.

"We know a fair amount about the brain structures involved in speech and language, but we know very little about how that evolved, or how genes contribute to that," said Daniel Geschwind, a University of California, Los Angeles neurogeneticist.

The target of Geschwind's analysis was FOXP2, a gene that rose to scientific prominence during the study of a London-based family afflicted by hereditary speech disorders. Of the extended family's 30 members, one-half have severe linguistic deficiencies, as well as a FOXP2 mutation. Those who don't have the mutation are able to speak normally.

That connection was revealed in 2001, and subsequent research has shown FOXP2 to be play a role not only in acquiring grammar and syntax, but in developing motor skills and helping brain cells form new connections. Studies also suggested FOXP2 had mutated rapidly in the Homo sapiens lineage, and worked differently in humans than in chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative.

But though FOXP2 has been dubbed "the language gene," language is certainly far more complicated, involving hundreds and probably thousands of genes, interconnected and ever-shifting in their activity. Researchers needed an approach that delved into this complexity, and in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, Geschwind and fellow UCLA neurogeneticist Genevieve Konopka provide this approach.

"We were able to identify a network of genes connected to FOXP2," said Geschwind. "Maybe this will give us an entry into to the broader view of what's going on. We won't just study one gene, but the whole biological network related to language. FOXP2 is the window, but the network is going to be the story."

foxp2activationGeschwind's team engineered lines of brain cells in which they could turn FOXP2 on and off, and measure what happened to other genes as they did so. Then they did the same thing with brain cells into which the human version of FOXP2 had been replaced with its chimpanzee counterpart.

Armed with a list of genes linked to FOXP2 in both species or just one, the researchers then measured the activity levels of those genes in brain tissue samples from humans and chimps. This revealed 116 genes connected only to the human version of FOXP2, which indeed appears to have accumulated many new functions in humans.

"We found that the targets of the gene are not only involved in brain function. Some of them are involved in the development of non-nervous system tissue and cranial structures involved in speech production. That's remarkable," said Gerschwind.

"This is a fascinating and important study with important implications for human evolution," said Ajit Varki, a University of California, San Diego glycobiologist who studies the molecular differences between human and chimpanzee cells. Varki was not involved in the study.

His assessment was echoed by Yale University neuroscientists Pasko Rakic and Martin Dominguez. In a commentary accompanying the analysis, they call the findings a "starting point for future studies of the molecular basis of language and human evolution."

Geschwind's research "does what important discoveries usually do: It answers many questions, but raises even more," wrote Rakic and Dominguez.

Among the questions is what this gene network actually does, which other genes and networks they're connected to, and what part they might play in language and developmental disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia.

"Now that we have these targets, we can ask what each of them does," said Geschwind, who envisions running the same type of experiment with the new genes, and using brain imaging techniques to connect their activity with neurological function.

"Because this identified pathways and networks, there are a bunch of directions to go in," said Geschwind.

Images: 1. Flickr/Hryck 2. A map of the gene networks activated by human and chimpanzee FOXP2 genes. Overlapping genes are in red.

See Also:

Citations: "Human-specific transcriptional regulation of CNS development genes by FOXP2." By Genevieve Konopka, Jamee M. Bomar, Kellen Winden, Giovanni Coppola, Zophonias O. Jonsson, Fuying Gao, Sophia Peng, Todd M. Preuss, James A. Wohlschlegel & Daniel H. Geschwind. Nature, Vol. 462 No. 7269, November 12, 2009.

"The importance of being human." By Martin H. Dominguez and Pasko Rakic. Nature, Vol. 462 No. 7269, November 12, 2009.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecosystem and planetary tipping points.