The Higgs Boson in Four and a Half Minutes

Looking forward to getting back to the science blogging I love after the election, I decided to tackle a concept many have heard about but few understand. The Higgs Boson was officially discovered in 2013, but it’s theoretical existence has existed as a quirk in the math of quantum physics for nearly 80 years before it’s discovery.

Is it really a “God Particle?” What makes it so god-like? In this quick 4:30 thought experiment, I give you a simple way of understanding what is significant about the Higgs Field, the universal energy field from which the Boson gets it’s name. Please enjoy:

PHOTO Space Porn

NASA releases its first photos of Earth from Saturn

We’ve seen images of Saturn from Cassini that also captured the Earth, but this is the first time that NASA has made the deliberate effort to take such a photo. Not to mention that this is the first time we’ve been given advanced notice of the pic here on Earth.

In fact, JPL even invited us all to “Say cheese!” for the image. This image also captures the moon as well as the Earth.

As often as we get images from space these days, it might be easy for some to get jaded by the whole affair. But even in the span of my short lifetime, we have gone from Saturn being a remote and unreachable object of scientific inquiry to a neighbor. That is not an inconsequential change.

See more images here
Technology VIDEO

SimCity, my a$$: Cornell boffins create simulated evolution

I’m sure you’re quite proud of the SimCity world you’ve created. Awesome stadium, bro. But the technologists and evolutionary scientists at Cornell University have just reduced your accomplishment to correctly assembling a Dominoes pizza. Bravo:

The team incorporated concepts from developmental biology and how nature builds complex animals—from jellyfish to jaguars. The result is an array of bizarre, simulated robots that evolve a diverse series of gaits and gallops.

The video shows evolution in action: A creature evolves into a galloping, soft robot over 1,000 generations. While 1,000 generations is relatively short by natural evolution standards, it is enough to demonstrate the power of evolution to create counterintuitive designs, according to the researchers.


Superheros can’t escape who they are: Kick Ass 2

Everyone believes that who they are is not entirely reflected in what other people see. Whether that feeling compels us to do more or whether it makes us feel like we’re trapped in Marcel Marceau’s invisible shrinking box is a moment-by-moment affair.

But for superheros, that normal, smaller life is the one they usually want. They are not allowed by fate to have it, however hard they try. Superman renounced his powers to marry Lois Lane, but in the end, his exclusive power to deal with forces of evil drag him back into the role he was destined to play.

It looks as though the same basic arc will follow the second installment in the Kick Ass series. Color me surprised that there even is a second in this series, since the first was frankly a bit of a downer. Now it looks like Kick Ass will be joining some sort of highly-nerdy Justice League:



Been too long since the last post-apocalypse flick: The Colony

Think Mad Max: Beyond the Freezer Case. The newest sci-fi action flick starring Lawrence Fishburn and Bill Hendrickson Chet Wallace Bill Paxton features a view of the world after Global Warming leads to a global freeze. As colonies of humans attempt to eke out a life in island-like underground bunkers, a distress call from one colony to another leads to.. you know.. something shit-your-pants scary:


Looks like your classic case of hero imperative versus survival instinct, with Bill Paxton playing the role of survival advocate. And of course, like every episode of Star Trek ever filmed, they put the two most important guys in the same field mission like there’s nothing wrong with that.

But hey! Zombies or some shit. Sounds fun!

Video via Movie Trailers YouTube channel.

VIDEO Weather Science

Why fog is unique in the Rochester area

Ever walk to your car on a cool but humid late summer morning and realize that you can’t even see the end of your driveway? Dense, heavy fog smothers everything around you making it even difficult to make out your feet. You might stand in amazement for a couple of seconds, pondering how you will make it to work. Well, as many Rochesterians know fog isn’t just reserved for the summer; in fact different varieties of dense heavy fog can make travel difficult at any time throughout the year.

Before we delve into the numerous types of fog, understanding the basics of this phenomenon is a necessity. Fog is essentially a collection of liquid water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the air just above Earth’s surface. When the air temperature cools to equal the dew point temperature, the air becomes saturated condensing into droplets and creating fog. This is the same process as cloud formation, thus it is fair to say that fog is essentially clouds at the surface. However, there are some differences between clouds and fog, mainly in the ways they are formed. In the upper atmosphere, the air is cooled as it rises, forming a cloud. At the surface the air is cooled in a multitude of ways, creating the many types of fog.

Anyone who lives on or near any of Upstate New York’s lakes knows that throughout the winter, steam sometimes appears to come off the lake. During the early morning, very cool air will tend to move over a warmer, moist body of water. When the cool air mixes with the warm moist air directly over the water, the moist air cools until it becomes saturated and fog forms. The following is a video of steam fog over Lake Ontario during the winter of 2005. Fog like this is common over Lake Ontario and many of the Finger Lakes throughout the winter.


As late summer approaches and fall is imminent, another type of fog called radiation fog is pretty common in Western NY. Radiation fog forms at night under clear skies with calm winds when heat absorbed by the earth’s surface during the day is released into the atmosphere. As the earth’s surface continues to cool, the air will then become saturated and dense fog will form if enough moisture is present. You might see this fog in the early morning before the sun heats the surface.

Sometimes water droplets that compose fog are supercooled, or in a liquid form at temperatures below freeing.  This fog is termed “freezing fog”.  These water droplets remain in the liquid state until they come into contact with a surface upon which they freeze. As a result, any object the freezing fog comes into contact with will become coated with ice.

Rochesterians should always be on the lookout for different types of fog as upstate NY is a unique region where this phenomenon is prevalent.

PHOTO Science

Did this Martian crater once have a lake?

Fresh analysis of spectrometric data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows that a crater named for NASA astronomer Dean McLaughlin may have at one time been the basin for a ground-water fed lake. Scientists base this on the deposits of what are known as “carbonate rocks,” detected by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) array housed on the Orbiter.

Carbonate rocks are sedimentary rocks that form when carbon precipitates out of water. Over centuries, small amounts of minerals form larger and larger coatings, eventually becoming the rocks that the MRO scientists were looking to find. But, because there don’t seem to be any obvious tributaries – rivers or streams – present as there are elsewhere on Mars, the assumption is that this lake was formed by water seeping up from beneath the crater to fill the basin:

The new information comes from researchers analyzing spectrometer data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which looked down on the floor of McLaughlin Crater. The Martian crater is 57 miles (92 kilometers) in diameter and 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) deep. McLaughlin’s depth apparently once allowed underground water, which otherwise would have stayed hidden, to flow into the crater’s interior.

McLaughlin Crater is approximately 100 miles from the landing site of the short-lived Pathfinder expedition, which launched in 1996. It is about 160 or so lines of longitude away from the Curiosity rover, so it stands to reason that this is not a feature of Mars that Curiosity will be exploring. You can see in the image the concentric circular shapes that scientists believe are the layers of sedimentary rock.

Space Porn VIDEO

Exploring the Sun’s mysteries with “solar grazing comets.”

NASA’s SDO YouTube channel has released some amazing new video, showing comets as they pass close by the sun. When they do, the deformation of the comet’s tail shows where magnetic field lines are pulling at the material in the tail. As the video explains, this process is not unlike meteorologists releasing barium tracers into the upper atmosphere of our Earth to study the wind currents there.

The video goes on to note that we are “in a period of high solar-grazing comet activity,” and NASA will continue to be using these comets to study the mysteries of how the sun works, as well as answering some questions about the solar wind as they track the path of comet tail dust back out into the Solar System. The next SGC expected to make its way around the Sun will be in November of the upcoming year. So… mark your calendars, space fans!


History Rochester VIDEO

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, a present for Rochester and Mayor Richards

Ever notice that whoever wrote the “12 Days of Christmas” song had a severe bird fetish? At least six of these 12 days of true love gift giving are bird related, and possibly more. History has debated that the fifth day’s gift of “five golden rings” actually referred to ring-necked pheasants, not fancy finger jewelry. So! There we have it. The first seven days of the 12 Days of Christmas are birds, equaling a grand total of 28 birds from your true love.

Um, thanks?

Culturally, we may not typically celebrate 12 days of Christmas anymore, but Rochester is certainly on board with Day 4, albeit perhaps unintentionally. Day 4 is another commonly misinterpreted verse to the 12 Days song, with many singing “four calling birds” when in fact, it is actually “four colly birds.” Okay, well that’s all fine and good, but what the heck is a colly bird? According to our good friends at Wikipedia, colly bird is the old-fashioned term for a black bird. Merry Christmas, Rochester, indeed!

The crows are back in town, and they’re back with a vengeance.  Earlier in the year, the city put forth extensive creative and technological efforts to disperse crows from downtown areas, however, the colder weather has brought them back, much to the city’s chagrin. Earlier this week, wildlife biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture began their most recent attempts to chase the overwhelming amount of crows out of Washington Square Park, which, on Sunday’s count, clocked in with over 25,000 crows.

The USDA has been working through the night using non-harmful techniques such as spotlights and pyrotechnics to rid the crows, however, these colly birds aren’t leaving without a fight. Several crows have flown away or moved to other trees while others have barely budged. Back in February, we reported that crows have an uncanny sense of memory – perhaps they’re calling our bluff?

According to USDA wildlife biologist Mark Carrara, these things take time and will decrease gradually, comparing the techniques to pet training, which may not be such a far-fetched comparison. For whatever reason, these crows do seem to believe they’ve found a home in Rochester. Perhaps Rochester should be more selective when choosing its “true love” next year, or at least one that blesses us with better gifts. In the meantime, happy eleven months of the fourth day of Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Science Space Porn VIDEO

NASA’s GRAIL maps the history of our bombarded moon

As our telescopes peer farther and farther into the cosmos and our Voyager spacecraft edge closer and closer to the edge of our Solar System, still we find there is a lot to be discovered about celestial bodies much closer to home. NASA’s Gravity Recovery And Internal Laboratory (GRAIL) mission explores the closest of them all, our moon.

Using two dishwasher-sized satellites to measure minute changes in the moon’s gravity, NASA hopes to learn more about the internal structure of our moon and suss out finer details about the moon’s creation. The two satellites measure the precise distance between them as they pass over the moon. As the GRAIL probes  detect minute changes in that distance, they record those differences as changes in the gravitational pull of the moon:

The gravity field map reveals an abundance of features never before seen in detail, such as tectonic structures, volcanic landforms, basin rings, crater central peaks and numerous simple, bowl-shaped craters. Data also show the moon’s gravity field is unlike that of any terrestrial planet in our solar system…

“What this map tells us is that more than any other celestial body we know of, the moon wears its gravity field on its sleeve,” said GRAIL Principal Investigator Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “When we see a notable change in the gravity field, we can sync up this change with surface topography features such as craters, rilles or mountains.”

The data has been compiled into two fascinating videos of the topography of the moon. The first displays the thickness of the moon’s crust. This one conforms pretty closely to what you might have expected of the moon, just from staring at it. The craters and gullies we know are there show where our moon has been bombarded in the past:


The second video, showing the variance in gravitational pull, reveals a much more complex world than we’ve generally assumed to be up there. The channels and pock marks reveal much more tectonic and bombardment activity than is generally understood to be taking place on the moon:


It would be interesting to see this same type of data gathering applied to other rocky worlds beyond our own moon. For example, we know gravitational pull keeps Mercury pretty hot in its center, but how much pull is really being exerted and where? Other moons such as Callisto or Ganymede of Jupiter might be candidates for further study in this way, if it is even possible to get that type of equipment that far.

Sci-Friday VIDEO

Forbidden love, magic and chicks with really long tongues. The newest Jet Li

We all have our flaws. Some love too quickly. Some love too deeply. Some love the wrong species. It happens.

And in China, there is an old story about a scholar and a mystical white snake who fall in love. This story has apparently evolved over the years into many different interpretations, including horror stories (the scholar is unaware that his love is the White Snake) and classical Romeo and Juliet meets Snakes on a Plane love story.

I’m not at all sure which interpretation, if either of those, is represented by Jet Li’s newest venture. Which ever one is most appropriately adorned with explosions and kick-ass kung-fu ass whoopin, I presume. Either way, the trailer promises lots of action, lots of Cirque du Soleil style colorfulness and a lot of feminine tongues of extraordinary length. All things considered, this seems like a potential win for the horny and the high. Speaking of which, don’t forget to tell the Democrat and Chronic(le) you’d be OK with voting to legalize weed:



Star Trek Into Darkness. Are you as excited as I am?

The new trailer is out for Star Trek: Into Darkness and I have to say I’m pretty stoked for this. As much as I love the whole pantheon of Star Trek movies and TV shows, I am beginning to think that, as a story-writing vehicle, the reboot of history is a good idea. Too easy to let old stories calcify and get boring.

Who knows? Maybe this means I’ll also find the (potential, rumored, hated) similar historical reboot of the Star Wars universe equally engaging. Here’s to hoping!