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Yes, this is a bit of windy Mars. Really.

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 10, 2014

A piece of Mars: Yep, this is really Mars. It’s a tiny bit (600×450 m) of the southwestern side of a large dune in the southern midlatitudes. The dark lines are furrows that are thought to be carved by blocks of CO2 ice that slide down in the spring. The tiny stripes are ~4m wavelength windblown ripples that are just starting to get covered in seasonal frost. Both the furrows and ripples are likely to be active today. (ESP_034234_1255, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Gene Hack, Man

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - February 10, 2014

ENCORE Computers and DNA have a few things in common. Both use digital codes and are prone to viruses. And, it seems, both can be hacked. From restoring the flavor of tomatoes to hacking into the president’s DNA, discover the promise and peril of gene tinkering.

Plus, computer hacking. Just how easy is it to break into your neighbor’s email account? What about the CIA’s?

Also, one man’s concern that radio telescopes might pick up an alien computer virus.

  • George Weinstock – Microbiologist, geneticist, associate director at the Washington University Genome Institute, St. Louis
  • Jim Giovannoni – Plant molecular biologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cornell University campus
  • Andrew Hessel – Faculty member, Singularity University, research scientist at Autodesk, and co-author of “Hacking the President’s DNA” in the November 2012 issue of The Atlantic
  • Dan Kaminsky – Chief scientist of security firm DHK
  • Dick Carrigan – Scientist emeritus at Fermilab, Batavia, Illinois

Descripción en español

First released December 10, 2012


Big Picture Science Latest Shows - February 03, 2014

Imagine not knowing where you are – and no one else knowing either. Today, that’s pretty unlikely. Digital devices pinpoint our location within a few feet, so it’s hard to get lost anymore. But we can still get stranded.

A reporter onboard an Antarctic ship that was stuck for weeks in sea ice describes his experience, and contrasts that with a stranding a hundred years prior in which explorers ate their dogs to survive.

Plus, the Plan B that keeps astronauts from floating away forever … how animals and plants hitch rides on open sea to populate new lands … and the rise of the mapping technology that has made hiding a thing of the past.


Descripción en español

Ancient and slightly less ancient

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 27, 2014

A piece of Mars: Here are two craters, each of which is ~240 m across. On the right is an old, very eroded crater. It has old, eroded ripples on its floor. The crater on the left is younger, with a mostly intact rim and even ejecta surrounding it. The ripples inside this crater are also younger: more crisp, and less broken-up. (HiRISE ESP_034482_1570, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The Pest of Us

Picture a cockroach skittering across your kitchen. Eeww! Now imagine it served as an entrée at your local restaurant. There’s good reason these diminutive arthropods give us the willies – but they may also be the key to protein-rich meals of the future. Get ready for cricket casserole, as our relationship to bugs is about to change.

Also, share in one man’s panic attack when he is swarmed by grasshoppers. And the evolutionary reason insects revolt us, but also why the cicada’s buzz and the beetle’s click may have inspired humans to make music.

Plus, the history of urban pests: why roaches love to hide out between your floorboards. And Molly adopts a boxful of mealworms.


Descripción en español

Little dunes that Curiosity saw last October

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 24, 2014

A piece of Mars: On Oct. 15, 2013, Curiosity drove past a crater that has small dunes or ripples on its floor. In a new HiRISE image, you can see Curiosity’s tracks from that day (its 424th sol on Mars). While there, the camera took a nice panorama, so I thought I’d show what this crater and ripple field look like both from the rover and from orbit. Note the dark dunes and Mt. Sharp in the background of Curiosity’s image. (HiRISE ESP_034572_1755 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona, GigaPan)

Forget to Remember

You must not remember this. Indeed, it may be key to having a healthy brain. Our gray matter evolved to forget things; otherwise we’d have the images of every face we saw on the subway rattling around our head all day long. Yet we’re building computers with the capacity to remember everything. Everything! And we might one day hook these devices to our brains.

Find out what’s it’s like – and whether it’s desirable – to live in a world of total recall. Plus, the quest for cognitive computers, and how to shake that catchy – but annoying – jingle that plays in your head over and over and over and …

  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh – Materials physicist, deputy director of science and technology, Oakridge National Lab
  • Michael Anderson – Neuroscientist, Memory Control Lab, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
  • Ira Hyman – Psychologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington
  • James McGaugh – Neurobiologist, University of California, Irvine
  • Larry Smarr – Professor of computer science, University of California, San Diego; director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2)

Descripción en español

Lines, lines

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 16, 2014

A piece of Mars: On martian dunes it’s all about lines, lines, lines. The prominent wavy ones on the left are thought to be erosional scars left by sliding blocks of dry ice. The little fingerprint-like lines are ripples, like those found on any Earth dune. All those lines tell us that the dunes are formed as the wind, ice, and sand interact over time. (826×620 m, ESP_021838_1300, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Mars’ fleets of rock “boats”

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 13, 2014

A piece of Mars: Where the wind blows strong and there’s a lot of sand, the surface gets scoured. Some bits of the ground, called yardangs, are more resistant and stick around: they take on shapes elongated in the direction of the wind (in this case, a wind from the lower right). Groups of them are often called “fleets”, as they sometimes look like inverted boat hulls. (993×745 m, ESP_034129_1820, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Skeptic Check: Zombies Aren't Real

ENCORE Zombies are making a killing in popular culture. But where did the idea behind these mythical, cerebrum-supping nasties come from? Discover why they may be a hard-wired inheritance from our Pleistocene past.

Also, how a whimsical mathematical model of a Zombie apocalypse can help us withstand earthquakes and disease outbreaks, and how the rabies virus contributed to zombie mythology.

Plus, new ideas for how doctors should respond when humans are in a limbo state between life and death: no pulse, but their brains continue to hum.

Meet the songwriter who has zombies on the brain …. and we chase spaced-out animated corpses in the annual Run-For-Your-Lives foot race.


Descripción en español

First released November 12, 2012

Bearded hills

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - January 08, 2014

A Piece of Mars: Bright hills appear to be bearded (or perhaps mustached?). What’s going on? Dark sand has blown over some yellow-crested hills and settled on the downwind side, where the hill blocks enough wind that it can no longer move sand, and it all collects there in rippled drifts. (scene is 386×290 m, ESP_034084_1655, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Can We Talk?

ENCORE You can get your point across in many ways: email, texts, or even face-to-face conversation (does anyone do that anymore?). But ants use chemical messages when organizing their ant buddies for an attack on your kitchen. Meanwhile, your human brain sends messages to other brains without you uttering a word.

Hear these communication stories … how language evolved in the first place… why our brains love a good tale …and how Facebook is keeping native languages from going extinct.


Descripción en español

First released June 11, 2012

Animal Instinct

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - December 30, 2013

ENCORE Mooooove over, make way for the cows, the chickens … and other animals! Humans can learn a lot from our hairy, feathered, four-legged friends. We may wear suits and play Sudoku, but Homo sapiens are primates just the same. We’ve met the animal, and it is us.

Discover the surprising similarity between our diseases and those that afflict other animals, including pigs that develop eating disorders. Plus, what the octopus can teach us about national security … how monkeying around evolved into human speech … and the origins of moral behavior in humans.


Descripción en español

First released July 9, 2012

The Next Step in Exoplanetary Science: Imaging New Worlds

Cosmic Diary Marchis - December 27, 2013

In 2003, I was lucky enough to be part of a small group of astronomers that met at the University of California at Berkeley to brainstorm on an innovative idea: the design of an instrument to image and characterize planets around other stars, called exoplanets, using a telescope in the 8 – 10 meter class. A decade later, such an instrument became reality with the arrival of the Gemini Planet Imager (called also GPI, or “Gee-pie”) instrument at the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Five known planetary systems imaged with current adaptive optics systems. Fomalhaut shown on the top-right is the only system detected with the Hubble Space Telescope. HR8799 discovery was announced in a Science article in 2008 by a team led by C. Marois including members of the GPI team (credit: C. Marois).

Bruce Macintosh, principal investigator of the project, often notes that it was initially difficult to convince the international partners of the Gemini Observatory (operated by the United States, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina) to invest in an instrument for this specialized project. At the time, fewer than 120 exoplanets were known, and the overwhelming majority of them had been indirectly detected through the wobbling of their home star.

Some of the members of the GPI team in front of the Cassegrain focus of the Gemini South Telescope equipped with the GPI instrument. (credit: M. Perrin)

Our project moved beyond the proven technique of measuring Doppler wobbles to a completely unproven approach – seeing the planet itselfToday, even though the count of exoplanets has risen to a thousand, only a handful have been directly imaged. But those first images, made in 2008, have revolutionized the field and provided a small glimpse through the window that GPI will open up.

Producing an image of an exoplanet close to its host star is one of the most challenging tasks in modern astronomy. The collaborative efforts of astronomers and engineers are necessary in order to simultaneously solve two problems: 1) How to be sensitive to a very high range of contrast, to detect photons coming from a faint planet located near a bright star, and 2) how to achieve angular resolution sufficient to separate the star and the planet as seen from Earth. The straightforward solution proposed for GPI is to use an adaptive optics system capable of almost perfectly correcting, in real time, the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere. The contrast is enhanced by using an active coronagraph perfectly centered on the star to block its light and reduce its glare.

To add another layer of complexity to the GPI instrument, we are not only interested in discovering exoplanets, but also in characterizing them. Our detector is not a simple camera, but rather an integral field spectrograph that can spread out the light coming from an exoplanet to measure its temperature and detect the signatures of molecules. The instrument will also be equipped with a polarimeter, a device designed to detect any disks of dust surrounding these stars. What we will find remains unknown, but we’re on the verge of opening a new window into the field of exoplanetary science.

What GPI will see: Simulation of the final image produced by GPI. A bright star is observed, but the light is greatly diminished due to the adaptive optics system and coronagraph. A faint point of light (circled) simulates the existence of a planet near the star.

When GPI opens its eye at the end of 2013, we should be able to capture photons coming from distant, young Jupiter-like exoplanets around nearby bright stars. How many of them will be discovered is still unknown, but the NASA Kepler spacecraft survey has told us that exoplanets are numerous in our galaxy. In addition, several exoplanets have been seen using current and less effective adaptive optics systems, so we are confident of the success of this instrument.

The SETI Institute is hosting part of the science team for the three-year search campaign that will begin in 2014 with the goal of observing 600 young and bright stars in the southern sky. The development of similar projects on other telescopes testifies to the dynamic nature of this new field. An instrument called SPHERE is about to be shipped to the Very Large Telescope, also located in Chile, and the SCExAO system is currently being tested at the Subaru Japanese telescope in Hawaii.

We are already thinking about the next step beyond GPI, such as designing a similar instrument for the next generation of Giant Segmented Mirror Telescopes (such as the Thirty Meter Telescope). Another group has been pushing for an even more radical idea – the Colossus Telescope – a 75 m telescope dedicated to the search for waste heat from extraterrestrial civilizations and biosignatures on planets around nearby stars.

In two decades, thanks to sophisticated instruments like GPI, stargazers will no longer see stars as simple twinkling specks of light, but also as worlds surrounded by planets. Perhaps we will have collected enough data on these planetary systems to find out if one of them could potentially host life, and eventually be the home of a technological civilization.

Clear Skies

Franck Marchis

Published in the Explorer magazine of the SETI Institute in December 2013

Wintery dune

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - December 27, 2013

A piece of Mars: A single dune sits on the surface of Mars, not too far from the north pole. It’s early spring, but this far north the dune is still covered in white CO2 frost (as well as a thin yellow layer of airfall dust). But the sun has done some work already: the dark spots are areas where enough frost is gone from the warm sun’s rays, revealing the lovely black sand beneath. Before long the frost will be gone and the dark dune will be fully released from its wintery blanket. (ESP_033729_2565, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)


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