Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form

Sept. 20 2016 9:00 AM

March … I Mean April … I Mean May … I Mean June … I Mean July... I Mean August 2016 Is the Sixth … I Mean Seventh … I Mean Eighth … I Mean Ninth … I Mean 10th … I Mean 11th Temperature Record-Breaking Month in a Row

N.B. If this article sounds familiar, it should. This has been happening so frequently I just copied the post for March April May June July and updated it.

October. November. December. January. February. March. April. May. June. July. And now August.

For the sixth seventh eighth ninth 10th 11th month in a row, we’ve had a month that has broken the global high temperature record.

According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, March April May June July August 2016 was the hottest March April May June July August on record, going back 136 years. It was a staggering 1.28°C 1.11°C 0.93°C 0.79°C 0.84° 0.98° C above average across the planet.* The previous March April May June July August record, from 2010 2014 2015 2011 2014, was 0.92° 0.87° 0.86° 0.78° 0.74° 0.82° above average; the new record beats it by well over a tenth of a degree.

Welcome to the new normal, and our new world.

Note: NASA has created a short video describing its efforts to measure global warming, specifically pointing out that the first six months of 2016 have all been the hottest months on record of their kind:

As you can see from the map above, much of this incredible heat spike is located in the extreme northern latitudes. That is not good; it’s this region that’s most fragile to heating. Temperatures soaring to 7° or more above normal means more ice melting, a longer melting season, loss of thinner ice, loss of longer-term ice, and most alarmingly the dumping of billions of tons of fresh water into the saltier ocean which can and will disrupt the Earth’s ability to move that heat around.

What’s going on? El Niño might be the obvious culprit, but even earlier in the year when it was strong it was only contributing a small amount of overall warming to the globe, probably around 0.1° C or so. That’s not nearly enough to account for this. Also now, even though the Pacific waters have returned to more neutral conditions, we're still experiencing record heat.

Most likely there is a confluence of events going on to produce this huge spike in temperature—latent heat in the Pacific waters, wind patterns distributing it, and more.

JMA August temperatures
The Japanese Meteorological Agency measured similar temperatures as GISS (though it uses a different baseline for the average). Note the trend. See a "pause"? I don't.

Japanese Meteorological Society

And underlying it all, stoking the fire, is us. Humans. Climate scientists—experts who have devoted their lives to studying and understanding how this all works—agree to an extraordinary degree that humans are responsible for the heating of our planet.

That’s why we’re seeing so many records lately; El Niño might produce a spike, but that spike is sitting on top of an upward trend, the physical manifestation of human induced global warming, driven mostly by our dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

Until our politicians recognize that this is a threat, and a very serious one, things are unlikely to change much. And the way I see it, the only way to get our politicians to recognize that is to change the politicians we have in office.

That’s a new world we need, and one I sincerely hope we make happen.

*GISS uses the temperatures from 1951–1980 to calculate the average. The Japanese Meteorological Agency uses 1981–2010, which gives different anomaly numbers, but the trend remains the same. Realistically, the range GISS uses is better; by 1981 global warming was already causing average temperatures to rise.

Sept. 19 2016 9:00 AM

What Is the Largest Galaxy in the Universe?

You might think this question would be easy to answer. If it’s big, it should be pretty straightforward to find, right? Yeah, well, the Universe isn’t always that simple.

First, what’s a galaxy? Basically, it’s a collection of stars, gas, and dust (as well as invisible dark matter) bound together by its own gravity. Some are elliptical (giant puff balls), some have disks and spiral arms, some are irregular (shapeless), and some peculiar (they have a shape, but it’s … weird). If you need a refresher, this episode of Crash Course Astronomy explains them:

Most galaxies have billions of stars. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has hundreds of billions strewn across a disk about 100,000 light-years in diameter. Some galaxies are much dinkier, and have only millions of stars; those are hard to find, even when they’re nearby, because they’re so faint.

I like to think of galaxies as the basic building blocks of the Universe. They’re like towns and cities strewn across the cosmos. Back when we were first figuring out their true nature, they were sometimes called “island universes.” Poetic, and not a bad description.

Galaxies can grow pretty big, usually by eating other galaxies. They can collide and merge to form a bigger, more massive galaxy. In a few billion years we’ll crash into the Andromeda galaxy, forming one around twice the size we are now.

So, how big can they get? What’s the biggest galaxy?

It turns out that this isn’t easy to answer for two reasons. One is that it depends on what you mean by “size,” and the other is that, paradoxically, the biggest galaxies may be very faint.

Let’s tackle the second one first. There exists a class of galaxy called Giant Low Surface Brightness galaxies. As the name implies, they aren’t terribly bright, even though they can be quite large. They’re rare, so they tend to be far away, and that means they’re hard to spot. One, called Malin 1, was only discovered in 1986, and was recently found to be far, far larger than previously thought: It’s a spiral galaxy a colossal 700,000 light-years across. At least. That’s five times the size of the Milky Way.

UGC 1382
In this corner, contender for the all-time heavyweight championship in the Universe, is UGC 1382.

NASA/JPL/Caltech/SDSS/NRAO

Another, UGC 1382, has a disk of stars about the same size as Malin 1’s but has gas measured out to a distance of 720,000 light-years! Malin 1’s disk is about that same size, within measurement error. Malin 1 also has a gas envelope that is 720,000 light-years across.

These GLSB galaxies are way bigger than normal galaxies, but they’re faint. There could be more of them, even bigger ones, but they’re really hard to find. Malin 1 looks like a relatively normal spiral until you take really deep images of it.

So there could be larger galaxies out there, and we don’t even see them!

And then there’s another complication, and that’s what you call a galaxy.

Let me introduce you to IC 1101. If UGC 1382 and Malin 1 are huge, IC 1101 is a behemoth. Its diameter has been measured at a staggering, overwhelming 2 million light-years. If one end were placed at the Milky Way, it would stretch two-thirds of the way to Andromeda!

But wait a sec, because it may not really be that big.

IC 1101 sits in the center of a large cluster of galaxies a billion light-years away called Abell 2029. Because of this it’s enjoyed the largesse of the cluster’s larder; it’s collided with a lot of other galaxies. This has made it grow large, but it’s also been puffed up; the way galaxies interact makes them swell in size for a while before settling down again.

Worse, IC 1101’s gravity has torn smaller galaxies apart as they merge, and its surrounded by all this debris. It’s hard to separate that from the glow of the cluster itself (it’s full of gas that adds to the light) so IC 1101 may be far smaller than generally claimed. It may still be bigger than Malin 1 and UGC 1382 though. We just don’t know.

And apropos of all is the final problem: What do you call the edge of the galaxy?

UGC 1382 has a disk with stars in it, and that fades away with distance from the center. But as I mentioned, it’s surrounded by a huge halo of gas. Do you count that? If you want to compare apples to apples, you need to be able to see if another galaxy has such a halo and that observation may be hard or even impossible.

So where does this leave us? What’s the biggest galaxy?

I think it’s a safe bet that IC 1101 is as far as we know at the moment, but with an asterisk due to not really being sure where it stops and the cluster environment begins. If it gets disqualified, then Malin 1 may edge out UGC 1382, but they’re so close it’s hard to be sure.

And of course, bigger ones may exist.

I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I’m not comfortable putting things into tightly regimented bins. Nature doesn’t, so why should we? There’s no real border between a planet and a brown dwarf, and even the line between brown dwarf and star is fuzzy. Would you say something the size of a beach ball orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter is an asteroid? What about a baseball? A pea? A grain of dust?

Whenever you push boundaries, things get fuzzy. The same is true here. There may not really be a biggest galaxy. Instead, there may be the biggest galaxies, a porous container encapsulating specimens in which we needn’t be too concerned with individuals as far as records go.

Instead, we should study them to see how they tick, what made them so big, and how that might affect their own history and the evolution of other galaxies and the environment around them. That is a far more interesting task than picking out one and hanging a blue ribbon on it.

Sept. 17 2016 9:00 AM

Retro Posters Promote an Ancient Battle: Humans vs. Disease

Regular readers know I’m no fan of infectious diseases. Well, no one is, I suppose, but there are those who court them, thinking our body’s natural defenses are enough to prevent infection.

Sometimes that’s true. But tragically, many times it’s not. That’s why we need vaccines.

We also need to study these diseases, figure out how they behave, how they’re structured, and what we can do to prevent them from getting out of hand. One group at the forefront of this is the Center for Infectious Disease Research, a nonprofit organization that focuses on diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and more. They have a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group I have a great deal of respect for.

To increase visibility and public outreach, CIDR put out a series of very cool retro posters promoting their fight. I really like this style of art, and they’ve used it to great effect. The one at the top of this post is my favorite of the lot, with a superhero feel to it (and make no mistake, scientists researching these bugs are indeed heroes).

Here’s another one I really like:

HIV poster

CIDR

I have to think the artist has seen the 1979 movie Meteor; there’s a scene where the Soviets and the Americans launch missiles at the incoming asteroid and it looks a whole lot like this artwork.

On the CIDR website, scientific director John Aitchison explains why the center is making these posters:

Our aim is to highlight the creativity, imagination, and passion that infectious disease scientists bring to this battle each day—and the optimism we see right at the epicenter of the struggle.
[…]
It is an interesting time to work in the field of infectious diseases. Zika and Ebola captured the world’s attention and concern like nothing we’ve seen since the dawn of the AIDS pandemic.
With the eyes of the world on these diseases, mountains were moved. Research dollars flowed in, red tape was cut, and the resulting forward progress over the ensuing months and years—researching and understanding the viruses, developing a pipeline of potential cures—amounts to more than has occurred in the previous decades for these diseases.
What this plainly demonstrated to me was the importance of public attention. When our will is there, when we are focused, when we have the imagination to see that life can fundamentally improve, we achieve great results for our collective health and safety.

Well said. But then he also says this:

Improving our world’s health starts with science. Period.

Hot damn! Yes, I couldn’t agree more. This is not why we humans invented science, but it may be one of the most important results of it. When we understand our world better, when we see reality for what it is, we can make all our lives better.

Not-so-incidentally, the CIDR takes donations.

Sept. 17 2016 9:00 AM

Does Climate Change Affect Our Weather? Yes. Yes, It Does.

What’s the different between weather and climate?

There are lots of ways to answer this. Weather is what’s happening now while climate is what you expect long term. Weather is your mood; climate is your personality. Weather is a dog walking with its person while climate is the person walking with the dog. Over time, say in 30 year chunks, weather kinda merges into climate.

But however you describe it, one thing is clear: Climate drives weather.

You don’t expect hurricanes at the North Pole. The conditions aren’t right to generate them. You don’t expect long, sustained rainstorms in the Atacama Desert for the same reason. Weather is the local and ephemeral effects of climate.

So what happens as the globe warms, and climates shift? As more water can stay evaporated in warmer air, and precipitate down in places not used to it, or not used to it in such amounts? Hurricanes are driven by warm water, so as water warms, hurricanes change (they don’t get stronger necessarily, but the strongest ones get significantly stronger).

Have no doubt: Weather is changing as climate does. But why believe me? Here are some professionals who can make their case well:

That video was put together by Peter Sinclair for Yale Climate Connections, and he’s made many more terrific ones about climate change.

The recent floods in Louisiana, the extreme heat and drought, the records broken all over the world … it’s hard to pin any one of these events to climate change, but taken as a whole?

Weather is your mood, climate is your personality.

This video also points out something important: Climate change may be slow, but it’s not some nebulous threat in the future. It’s happening now.

And come November, we can do something about it.

Sept. 16 2016 9:00 AM

Blue Origin Will Test Its Capsule Abort System ... in Flight!

Come October, the private space company Blue Origin will put on quite a show.

The company has already flown its New Shepard rocket four times into space—above the arbitrary but common-sense 100 kilometer height above Earth’s surface—and landed it successfully on its tail. It also have tested the crew capsule on top, deploying it more than once, including the last time when one parachute of three was purposely not used, to see how the capsule would do with only two (it landed just fine).

But the fifth flight of the rocket will be very different. To get certified by NASA for crewed flight, Blue Origin has to show that the crew capsule can escape rapidly on its own if the rocket below suffers a catastrophe (even if it only goes with private customers, Blue Origin still needs to prove it can do this). On the old Saturn V Apollo missions, this was done using a rocket mounted on a tower above the capsule (the so-called tractor or puller method). That added a lot of weight, and if it wasn’t used (it never was), it was ejected and thrown away after launch. That’s a waste of fuel and a perfectly good rocket.

Blue Origin has engines mounted below the capsule, which can be used to push the capsule away from the rocket in case of emergency. They tested this system dramatically in 2012, but it hasn’t been tested in flight, which is critical. And that brings us to the fifth flight of New Shepard: On that flight, scheduled for October of this year, the capsule will use the abort rocket to propel itself away from the main rocket during the ascent, which is when a catastrophe is most likely to happen. Not only that, but the company plans on doing this when the rocket is undergoing the maximum pressure from atmospheric passage during the flight, when the rocket will be moving faster than the speed of sound.

I guess that if you’re going to test a system, test it hard.

Here’s an animation of what this might look like:

The capsule will roar away from the rocket rapidly, and then (hopefully) parachute back safely to Earth. The rocket itself will not be as stable without the capsule on top, and will get a helluva kick as the capsule roars off. It may very well break up under the stress. Even it it survives the initial trauma, it’ll likely fall the rest of the way to the desert floor and impact at high speed. It’ll still have quite a bit of fuel on board, so, as CEO Jeff Bezos notes in an email, “…its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”

Most impressive. But if it does survive and lands, Bezos says it’ll be placed into a museum, which is fitting. It’s the first rocket ever to go into space and then land again vertically, let alone do it again three more times. It’s quite an accomplishment.

I’m interested in the fact that Bezos made this announcement at all; it was only a couple of years ago that everything the company did was kept secret until after it was accomplished. It seems that the string of successes has made Bezos (deservedly) more confident about Blue Origin’s ability to get things done.

I also have to wonder if SpaceX getting so much publicity is behind this as well. Elon Musk’s company has been sending cargo to orbit for some time, and has made huge strides in being able to reuse a vehicle. The loss of a Falcon 9 on the pad during fueling in early September was a major setback, of course, and will no doubt delay the first launch of a previously flown booster, which was set for later this year. It’s not clear when that will happen now.

Still, Bezos suddenly announcing events beforehand is interesting. They’ll even hold a live webcast of the launch when it occurs. I’ll have more information when we get closer to the time of launch. Stay tuned.

Sept. 15 2016 9:00 AM

I Didn’t Even Know Mars Had a Southwest

Since 2012, the Curiosity rover has been tooling around the surface of Mars. It landed in Gale Crater, an ancient impact site nearly 100 kilometers across, and its destination has been the base of Mt. Sharp, the informal name of Aeolis Mons, the crater’s central mountain that towers 5.5 kilometers above the ground.

One of Curiosity’s science goals is to look for signs where conditions for life may have been good a billion or more years ago. This means finding things like clays and other minerals that form in water.

Or, say, like sandstone.

Curiosity is currently in a spot on lower Mount Sharp called the Murray formations, named after planetary scientist Bruce Murray. This area used to be a dune field an eon or two ago, but then filled with water and formed a lake. That water is long gone, but it profoundly affected the sand it soaked into. It deposited sediments in between the sand grains, cementing them together to form sandstone. When the water went away, winds began to erode the sandstone, and after enough time, carved the Murray Buttes.

Mars buttes
I see scenes like these not far from my home when I drive through Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. But these are buttes tens of millions of kilometers from Earth.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Aren’t these beautiful? They look like they could’ve been photographed in Utah or New Mexico, but this is Mars! Curiosity took them on Sept. 8, just a few days ago.

The layering you see is from when this was still a dune field. The wind would blow the sand off the dunes, sorting and layering it. Some of the layers were on the dune slopes, and were tilted with respect to the other layers. Once mineralized it formed angled layers called “cross bedding,” and created incredible scenes like this:

Mars sandstone
Jagged layers formed as sand was deposited at angles.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Seriously. What a view! And different regions eroded at different rates, giving a profile of sharp, jagged edges against the butterscotch Martian sky.

Mars Sandstone
Erosion by the thin air over the eons create knife-like protrusions into the sky.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The reddish color is from iron oxide—rust—in the dust of Mars, and in fact is the same reason there’s so much red sandstone in the American southwest. Long ago there were the ancestral Rocky Mountains, before the present ones, which were rich in iron. They eroded over millions of years, and the rusty remains formed a sea bed. That inland sea went away, and now we have red sandstone everywhere (it’s a very common building material in Colorado).

All that happened here on Earth from about 300 million to 50 million years ago. It’s possible the sandstone you see in these images on Mars was already old by then.

I love this mission of looking for life on Mars. When I see pictures like these I am strongly reminded of how Earth-like Mars can be, and how clement it once was. When the Earth was still too hot after its formation to support life, Mars was cool enough to get a head start. We know life here started up relatively easily, so why not Mars? It was doomed, since the planet’s lack of a magnetic field allowed the Sun to strip away most of its atmosphere and its water.

But it’s possible Mars once had life, and we could find the remains of it, or some other indication it once existed. I hope we actually do find it, because the implications of that would be profound.

But I also love that we, as a species, have chosen to make this search at all. I think it says something important and special about us that we do.

Sept. 14 2016 9:00 AM

To Beat Trump, Clinton Needs to Bring Science to the Debates

What do the presidential candidates think about science?

Normally, these topics barely get a head nod from the hopefuls. But this year is very very different. Donald Trump, who barely can make two coherent sentences in a row on any topic, has released a torrent of anti-science nonsense. Most notably he’s called climate change a hoax, picked a global warming denier (and creationist) as his vice president, and hired a denier as his energy adviser. He’s anti-vaccination, thinks the California drought doesn’t exist, and has said NASA makes America look like “a third world nation”.

Heck, the cohort of candidates is so bad that when Hillary Clinton said “I believe in science” when she accepted the Democratic nomination, the internet practically carried her around on its collective shoulders.

But these are generalities. What do the candidates really think about scientific topics, like space exploration, mental health, energy, public health, what to do about climate change, and more?

A coalition of scientists wanted to know just that, so they drafted a series of 20 questions for the candidates. Calling this challenge Science Debate 2016 (this was also done in 2008 and 2012), they asked the candidates to answer.

Well, three of four have. Gary Johnson has not responded as yet, but Clinton, Trump, and Stein have. And their answers are interesting.

Well, not Trump’s so much. I’ll get back to him in a moment.

Hillary Clinton science
Someone running for president has to.

Hillary Clinton Facebook page

The most surprising answers to me were Stein’s. Some of her stances I agree with: We need more renewable energy, for example. Many I don’t, like completely dumping nuclear energy, and demilitarizing space. For the former, nuclear energy in this country is decades behind cutting edge, and it’s time we at least look into making it cleaner, safer, and more secure. Also, like it or not, there are bad guys out there, and military use of space is needed to be able to collect intelligence. That actually saves more lives than it costs.

I was fascinated by her statements on vaccines; she hasn’t been entirely anti-vax in her earlier statements, but she’s pandered mightily to that group. In these answers she is far more clear about the necessity of vaccines. But after everything else she’s said, I am very skeptical about this new tact.

Clinton’s responses were also interesting, in that unlike the other candidates, she outlines a lot of specifics on many of the topics. Usually these sorts of answers are mushy, but she (well, her staff) actually lays out quite a few details about taking action on climate change, energy, and more. I agree with quite a bit of what she wrote, including her plans for climate change (though I still wish she were even more aggressive about it), securing the internet, helping those with mental health issues, and more.

I was disappointed, however, in her passage about space exploration. There’s not much really there in her statement aside from praising NASA. I’d love to hear more about her ideas about Earth science, future exploration of the solar system, ensuring funding for NASA, and more. President Obama has done things I’ve liked and things I haven’t with regard to NASA, and I’d very much like to know whether she plans on continuing in his footsteps.

And that brings us to Trump. Of all the candidates, his statements at Science Debate are the most transparently from his staff; the grammatical contrast with his public speeches and tweets is, well, dramatic.

But the thing is—and this is no surprise at all—there’s almost no content to his answers. Like his other public statements, they are all generalities and no substance at all. Reading them too, his anti-science leanings come out. I mean, c’mon, he thinks global warming is a hoax (he can’t even bring himself to answer the Science Debate question without putting scare quotes around the words), so of course his answer there is just verbal dancing. The GOP has made it clear it wants to sell off federal land in national parks, so his statement, “Laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources,” is fairly transparent.

His answer to the question about space exploration is even less weighty than Clinton’s, just saying space exploration is great. There are no details there at all.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Trump lies about everything, saying only what satisfies his immediate political expediencies. He has abandoned the dog whistle of racial and sexist politics, and is instead now using a megaphone. White supremacists and misogynists have heard him loudly and clearly. His ability to garner votes in black America is essentially dead (he’s polling the worst of any GOP candidate in decades), and women are avoiding him in droves.

Even so, he might have traction to status quo white male America. I hope this is not the case, but I fear it may be.

But not when it comes to science. A discussion of science could give Clinton an edge. Polls show that concerns among Americans over global warming are at an eight-year high, with 64 percent expressing a great deal or fair amount of worry on the topic. Trump flatly denies global warming exists. That gives Clinton an advantage right there. Even better, Republicans are expressing more concern about warming as well, and that strikes right to the heart of the very people Trump is disenfranchising.

Clinton has a chance here to widen her gap ahead of Trump. Science has become a wedge issue in GOP politics.

Our technological advances, our engineering, our education, our infrastructure, our health care system, our energy generation, even our ability to produce food and water rely entirely on our ability to understand the science behind these issues. If we ignore the science—and I don’t think this is an exaggeration at all—we are endangering our ability as a nation and a people to exist.

So while in the past I haven’t thought that a science debate would really help much, I’ve changed my position on it. I endorse this idea, whether it’s in the form of an actual debate or just these public policy statements issued by the candidates.

Remember, Trump’s view of science is dim. Clinton has nothing to lose and much to gain by bringing up science between now and November, while Trump has everything to lose. And that’s a situation I’d very, very dearly like to promote.

So kudos to Sheril Kirshenbaum and Shawn Otto, the minds behind Science Debate 2016. Please go to the Science Debate website and read what’s there. It has a huge amount of information, including what you can do to urge the candidates to talk science. Be a part of this movement, and be a part of making sure that science takes its rightful place in the political discourse.

Sept. 13 2016 12:11 PM

Xkcd Takes on Global Warming

My friend Randall Munroe is a wonder. He is more than just ridiculously smart; he knows how to access all that wonderful knowledge stored in his brain, combine various pieces of it, and then present it in innovative ways that somehow make complex issues easy to understand, and even fun.

In a recent issue of his web comic Xkcd he tackles global warming, and literally turns it sideways.

Instead of plotting temperature vertically and time on the horizontal axis as is usually done, he makes time vertical, starting 22,000 years ago. That makes the temperature move from cooler on the left to the present record heat we’re seeing today on the right. The beauty of this is that it gives him room to comment, to draw. I strongly urge you to read the whole thing. It’ll take a few minutes, but it’s oh so worth it. (Note: Make sure you read the alt text by hovering your mouse over the comic.)

Sept. 13 2016 9:00 AM

This Illusion Knows When You Are Looking at It

Regular readers know I have a love of optical illusions, and I have a really freaky one for you once again.

The image above is from master illusion maker Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Take a look at it. It’s a pattern of intersecting vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines, making a grid of sorts. In a regular pattern where the lines intersect Kitaoka has placed a black circle surrounded by a thin white ring.

Go ahead, focus on one of those circles. Notice anything?

Yeah. When you look at one circle, all (or most of) the others disappear! What the what?

I’ll note that all the images in this article are JPGs, so they’re not animated or anything like that. They are true illusions. Kitaoka calls this one the Ninio Extinction Illusion, after Jacques Ninio, who published a paper about it. It’s a variation of what’s called the Hermann grid illusion, which you may have seen before:

grid illusion
See the gray squares in the intersections? Not when you look right at one!

Famousdog/Wikimedia Commons

It’s just dark square tiles with white alleys in between. If you fix your gaze on one alley intersection, it looks white, but all the others look gray!

A variation on this is called the scintillating grid. At the places where the gray alleys intersect, small white circles are inserted, just touching the corners of the black tiles:

grid scintillation illusion
See the black dots appear and disappear as you look around? This one seriously makes my head hurt.

Tó campos1/Wikimedia Commons

As you move your gaze around, small black circles seem to appear and disappear in the white circles everywhere except right where you’re looking, as if they know where you’re gazing. It makes the grid look like it’s flashing, or scintillating. It’s bizarre.

Kitaoka’s illusion takes this to the next step, separating the circles so they’re dispersed a bit more. When you look at one, it’s very difficult to see any others, as if they disappear when you don’t look at them (Schrödinger’s dots?).

So what causes this? It was first thought that it had to do with the way the grid fell on the retina in your eye, where cells called photoreceptors react to the light. However, other researchers have found that can’t be true, because changing the grid a bit destroys the illusion, even though the cells should react the same way. This has led them to believe the illusion happens in the brain itself, in the primary visual cortex located in the back of the brain. However, it’s still not clear what sort of misfiring is going on that tricks your brain into thinking the dots are appearing and disappearing.

So even though this illusion is simple in setup, why it actually works is something of a mystery. How about that?

And of course, I love it when that happens. Our brains are so easy to fool: We see colors that aren’t there, patterns that aren’t there, motion that isn’t there, faces that aren’t there, hear sounds that aren’t there. It’s a testament to the slapdash nature of evolution. Our brains weren’t designed; they accumulated over millions of years, adjusting here and there as circumstances and natural selection warranted. What we have now sitting in our skulls isn’t so much a finely tuned computer as a seriously jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg machine.

Always remember that when someone claims they saw a UFO or a ghost, and swear they know what they saw. Because the odds are really, really good they don’t.

Tip o’ the parafoveal vision to my friend Tracy King.

Sept. 12 2016 9:00 AM

Watch Evolution Occur Before Your Eyes

This is truly stunning: Scientists have released a video showing evolution in action.

They built a table more than a meter long and put down a culture agent that allows bacteria (specifically, E. coli) to grow. But they set it up in a very interesting way. At each end of the table they allowed the bacteria to grow freely. But just inside these free zones they slathered a broad swath of an antibacterial substance, at a dose just more than enough to kill the critters. Then, next to those, they put down stripes at a dose 10 times that needed to kill them. Next to those were stripes 100 times the lethal dose, and then finally, in the center, a hyper-deadly patch 1,000 times stronger than needed to kill the original strain.

The video of what happens is staggering. Watch:

Yegads. Now, to be clear, we know this sort of evolution can happen, because it’s been seen both in the lab and in the world; antibacterial resistant diseases are popping up all over the place and are a real threat. We’ve also seen bacteria evolve in real time; a similar experiment (minus the video) was done with E. coli that shows them evolving to eat citrate, something they couldn’t do before.

The difference here is just how visual the video is. The bacteria seem to be stopped by the lethal barrier, but they still reproduce near the border. When they do, random mutations in the genetic code occur, and at some point one or more of the baby bacteria just happened to get a resistance to the drug. It was able to pass that mutation on, and when it does, the new bacteria spread outward like an alluvial fan from a flood.

Mind you, bacteria all over the place on the table were probably evolving some sort of resistance, but only the ones near the edge were able to spread out into the Forbidden Zone. As you can see, it happened multiple times as well in each strip.

The researchers noted they could also see phenotypical (structural) changes in the bacteria as well. That’s not surprising, but it’s still rather amazing to know. Note that the doubling rate (the time it takes for the population to double) for E. coli is about 20 minutes, which is one reason it makes this particular bacterium useful for this experiment. The entire video covers about two weeks of real time.

This video will be a powerful tool for teachers to show their students how evolution works. I’ll note though that it may not actually help convince creationists. A poll of Americans shows that an overwhelming majority of them (90 percent) believe bacteria can evolve a resistance to drugs, but only about 60 percent believe that humans evolved through natural selection. Some people pick and choose their science—not a terribly scientific attitude—and the ones who don’t believe in evolution probably won’t be swayed by a video like this.

It’s hard to know what will sway them, though I’ve found being polite and answering their questions simply (and showing where those questions are ill-posed, no doubt because they get their science from people who don’t understand it) can help. It won’t work with everyone, but I strongly suspect it works a lot better than mocking them.

Even so, I reserve the right to point out just how ridiculously wrong legislators can be when it comes to this topic, too.

Still, this video is amazing, and I hope as many people see it as possible. I think it can help show the reality of evolution (imagine this process running not just two weeks, but for, say 2 billion years) and how complex life could have evolved from simpler samples. Because that is reality, and I think it’s our duty, and our privilege, to understand how we came to be.

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