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HiRISE image caption for Curiosity

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 17, 2014

A piece of Mars: Last week I wrote an image caption for Curiosity, showing both the HiRISE perspective and Curiosity’s image of the ripple crossing Dingo Gap. Read more on the HiRISE image page.

Skeptic Check: Paleo Diet

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - February 17, 2014

What’s for dinner? Meat, acorns, tubers, and fruit. Followers of the Paleo diet say we should eat what our ancestors ate 10,000 years ago, when our genes were perfectly in synch with the environment.

We investigate the reasoning behind going paleo with the movement’s pioneer, as well as with an evolutionary biologist. Is it true that our genes haven’t changed much since our hunter-gatherer days?

Plus, a surprising dental discovery is nothing for cavemen to smile about.

And another fad diet that has a historical root: the monastic tradition of 5:2 – five days of eating and two days of fasting.

It’s our monthly look at critical thinking, Skeptic Check … but don’t take our word for it.


Descripción en español

Director of the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute publishes a Carl Sagan Biographical Memoir

Cosmic Diary Marchis - February 12, 2014

David Morrison, director of the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute, has written a biographical memoir of Carl Sagan (1934-1996), founder of the modern disciplines of planetary science and exobiology.

Carl Sagan (third from left) with three of his former students: David Morrison, Joseph Veverka, and James Pollack. Photo by David Morrison

Morrison’s piece has been published in Biographical Memoirs, an online collection of the National Academy of Sciences that includes more than 1,500 biographies of deceased  academy members.

In the biographical memoir, Morrison shares his thoughts on the life of Carl Sagan, “one of the world’s best-known scientists and a true celebrity” whose work still resonates today in the field of planetary science. Morrison, who was one of the first students of Sagan’s in the 1970s at Harvard University, reflects not only on the life of his mentor and friend, but also on his controversial “out of the box” thinking.

Carl Sagan was a founding member of the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and Icarus, the foremost professional journal in planetary science. Later in the 1980s he founded the Planetary Society, a public-membership organization that supports planetary exploration, and became a supporter of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, work which became the basis of his best-selling novel, Contact (1985). In 1996, Sagan died from complications of a rare blood disease, shortly after joining the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute.

This biographical memoir will interest any fan of planetary science, astrobiology, the SETI Institute and science in general.

Carl Sagan (left) and Frank Drake (right), one of the founders of the SETI Institute and former director of the Carl Sagan Center. Photo by David Morrison.

Let’s end with a quote by Carl Sagan which summarizes his life’s work and achievements “Even today, there are moments when what I do seems to me like an improbable, if unusually pleasant, dream: to be involved in the exploration of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; to try to duplicate the steps that led to the origin of life on an Earth very different from the one we know; to land instruments on Mars to search there for life; and perhaps to be engaged in a serious effort to communicate with other intelligent beings, if such there be, out there in the dark of the night sky.”

Clear skies,

Franck Marchis

Additional links

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


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