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Who's Controlling Whom?

A single ant isn’t very brainy. But a group of ants can do remarkable things. Biological swarm behavior is one model for the next generation of tiny robots. Of course, biology can get hijacked: a fungus can seize control of an ant’s brain, for example. So will humans always remain the boss of super-smart, swarming machines?

We discuss the biology of zombie ants and how to build robots that self-assemble and work together. Also, how to guarantee the moral behavior of future ‘bots.

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•   David Hughes – Biologist, entomologist, Penn State University

•   Mike Rubenstein – Roboticist, Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, Harvard University

•   Wendell Wallach – Bioethicist, chair, Technology and Ethics Study Group, Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

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•   Athena Aktipis – Cooperation theorist, Arizona State University and director of Human and Social Evolution, Center for Evolution and Cancer, University of California, San Francisco

Almost a dune

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - October 06, 2014

A Piece of Mars: This field of 2 m wide sand ripples has a dark splotch in the middle (the scene is 300×225 m or 984×738 ft). The splotch is the peak of a low hill that straddles the classification gap between proper dunes and simple drifts of sand. Maybe it was a dune that has been modified down to this bump, or maybe it’s a drift that could grow into a dune, if enough sand blew in and accumulated on it. (HiRISE ESP_038117_1385, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona).

What's the Difference?

We make split second decisions about others – someone is male or female, black or white, us or them. But sometimes the degrees of separation are incredibly few. A mere handful of genes determine skin color, for example.

Find out why race is almost non-existent from a biological perspective, and how the snippet of DNA that is the Y chromosome came to separate male from female.

Plus, why we’re wired to categorize. And, a groundbreaking court case proposes to erase the dividing line between species: lawyers argue to grant personhood status to our chimpanzee cousins.

  • David Page – Biologist and geneticist, at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Stephen Stearns – Evolutionary biologist, Yale University
  • John Dovidio – Social psychologist at Yale University
  • Steven M. Wise – Lawyer, Nonhuman Rights Project

Descripción en español

Lumpy bumpy dunes

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 30, 2014

A piece of Mars: These funny shaped dunes were formed by winds blowing from two directions – one from the top of the frame and one from the upper right. Both winds make steep slopes (slip faces) on the downwind (lee) sides of the dunes. With enough sand supply, the “point” between the slip faces will continue to extend toward the lower left as the two winds take turns driving the sand back and forth. (HiRISE ESP_037203_2555, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Land on the Run

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 29, 2014

Hang on to your globe. One day it’ll be a collector’s item. The arrangement of continents you see today is not what it once was, nor what it will be tomorrow. Thank plate tectonics.

Now evidence suggests that the crowding together of all major land masses into one supercontinent – Pangaea, as it’s called – is a phenomenon that’s happened over and over during Earth’s history. And it will happen again. Meet our future supercontinent home, Amasia, and learn what it will look like.

Meanwhile, as California waits for the Big One, geologists discover that major earthquakes come in clusters. Also, our planet is not the only solar system body with tectonic activity. Icy Europa is a mover and shaker too.

And why is land in the western part of the U.S. literally rising up? Mystery solved!


Descripción en español

Changing winds

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 22, 2014

A piece of Mars: There are two sets of ripples here: tan ones and gray ones, each oriented to a different wind (scene is 300×225 m, or 984×738 ft). The gray ones sit on top of the tan ones, so the gray ones are younger. Now come the fun questions: why the different colors? Are they made out of different material (and if so, why), or are the older tan ones different because the gray sediment has weathered to tan over time? (HiRISE PSP_002387_1985, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

As You Were

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 22, 2014

ENCORE We all want to turn back time. But until we build a time machine, we’ll have to rely on a few creative approaches to capturing things as they were – and preserving them for posterity. One is upping memory storage capacity itself. Discover just how much of the past we can cram into our future archives, and whether going digital has made it all vulnerable to erasure.

Plus – scratch it and tear it – then watch this eerily-smart material revert to its undamaged self. And, what was life like pre-digital technology? We can’t remember, but one writer knows; he’s living life circa 1993 (hint: no cell phone).

Also, using stem cells to save the white rhino and other endangered species. And, the arrow of time itself – could it possibly run backwards in another universe?


Descripción en español

First released October 29, 2012.

Missing bedrock

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 15, 2014

A piece of Mars: Wind flow on Mars can be quite dramatic. Here, a single wind-sculpted hill stands 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide and 600 m (1970 ft) high (color shows elevation). That sounds big, but vastly larger is the volume of material that has been removed to form it. A sandy ridge forming a “bow shock” indicates present-day winds still blow in the same direction. (HiRISE ESP_017173_1715, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Skeptic Check: Is It True?

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 15, 2014

We often hear fantastic scientific claims that would change everything if true. Such as the report that algae is growing on the outside of the International Space Station or that engineers have built a rocket that requires no propellant to accelerate. We examine news stories that seem too sensational to be valid, yet just might be – including whether a killer asteroid has Earth’s name on it.

Plus, a journalist investigates why people hold on to their beliefs even when the evidence is stacked hard against them – from skepticism about climate change to Holocaust denial. And, why professional skeptics are just as enamored with their beliefs as anyone else.


Descripción en español

House Hearings Fail to Tap NASA’s Full Potential

Cosmic Diary Marchis - September 11, 2014

Yesterday the  U.S. House of Representatives  Subcommittee on Space held a hearing entitled “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science“. I was curious about this act and expected the hearing to focus on interesting new ways to motivate private companies to design, launch, and operate space missions, and further the study of our Solar System.

Five witnesses at the House Hearing on “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science”

The five witnesses chosen to testify included a NASA civil servant, three well-known planetary scientists and one professor specialized in space law.

Soon after the hearing began, viewers, included me, realized that it was focused not on the ASTEROIDS Act, or planetary science or space exploration, but on NASA’s budget for planetary science. The hearing should have been called  ”NASA’s Planetary Spacecraft Budget for 2015″—but everyone knew that topic would attract little if any interest.

The witnesses knew the true nature of the hearing, and the first four limited their discussion to NASA space missions. Unfortunately, none mentioned the remarkable contribution of ground-based and space telescopes to planetary science, with the exception of Jim Bell, who briefly muttered the word “exoplanets.” No one mentioned the magnificent images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope (e.g. plumes on Europa), or those from large telescopes  (Io’s volcanism, asteroid impact on Jupiter). Nor did anyone mention the bright future just ahead, when millions of small solar system bodies are discovered by the LSST, the JWST begins to study exoplanets, and extremely large telescopes provide data resolution as detailed as global Galileo spacecraft observations.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Image Credit: NASA

A lot of planetary scientists don’t like the ARM concept but  I regret that it was discussed at length. If the mission concept is as bad as presented, we can be sure it will be abandoned by the next administration just as the current one abandoned a new race to the Moon. It’s disappointing that there were few mentions of the impact of planetary science on technological advances, or the immense contribution made by our field in inspiring young people to study STEM. A more enlightened subcommittee would also have heard testimony on how to use space exploration to understand climate change, and mitigate its effect. And it would have studied, rather than superficially discussed, our ability to secure new resources in the not-too-distant future by mining asteroids.

Finally, most of the testimony adamantly promoted a “business as usual” attitude, which we can summarize as “NASA needs more money to develop more Discovery and New Frontiers missions.” It would have been great to discuss new ideas that are not part of this 60-year-old schema. In the past, NASA has shown a commitment to innovation, but sadly this hearing was a lost opportunity for decision makers to hear new thoughts from planetary scientists.

NASA leveraged its $800M COTS program budget with partner funds. This resulted in two new U.S. medium-class launch vehicles built by SpaceX and Orbital and two automated cargo spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus)  and demonstrated the efficiency of such partnerships.

There is no way to indefinitely increase NASA’s budget to match the rapidly soaring price of missions. But we can dedicate part of its budget to help develop a private space-exploration industry committed to bringing new ideas to life and reducing the cost of exploration. True, the ASTEROIDS act  will set a “legal framework” to determine the rights of private interests to extract and control space mining—an important step. But we need to take a second step: COTS-like funding to support New Space industries (Planetary Resources, DSI, B612, Google X Prize, etc.). This would allow NASA to define a need, and invest in and consult with the people pursuing it. This would also allow privately operated space partners to receive funding from NASA to find visionary, innovative, low-cost ways to explore space.

This new initiative would also free NASA to focus on the most challenging parts of the planetary science program, such as  a mission to Europa. For innovative, higher-risk ideas, a partnership with New Space companies could allow the agency to remain on the forefront of space exploration while promoting an emerging industry. In this context,  perhaps commercial space exploration companies could come up with innovative ways to do a mission similar to an Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Clear skies,

Franck M.


Martian waves

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 08, 2014

A piece of Mars: The swirly candy stripes in these big dark dunes are layers inside that have been made visible by wind erosion (the scene is 1.5×0.9 km, or 0.93×0.56 mi). It’s rare to see the inside structure of dunes like this, but these are being eroded by wind blowing from the upper right. For similar examples on Earth, check out The Wave. (HiRISE ESP_037200_1765, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

A Sudden Change in Planets

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 08, 2014

A planet is a planet is a planet. Unless it’s Pluto – then it’s a dwarf planet. But even then it’s a planet, according to experts. So what was behind the unpopular re-classification of Pluto by astronomers, and were they justified?

As the New Horizons spacecraft closes in on this small body, one planetary scientist says that this dwarf planet could be more typical of planets than Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. And that our solar system has not 8 or even 9 planets, but 900.

Also, meet a type of planet that’s surprisingly commonplace, although we don’t have one in our solar system: super Earths. Could they harbor life?

And the DAWN mission continues its visit to the two most massive residents of the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. Discover what these proto-planets may reveal to us about the early solar system.

  • Alan Stern – Planetary scientist, Southwest Research Institute, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission
  • Marc Rayman – DAWN Mission chief engineer and mission director
  • David Stevenson – Professor of planetary science at CalTech
  • Rebekah Dawson – Astronomer, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley
  • David Eicher – Editor-in-chief, Astronomy Magazine

Descripción en español

Holes around rocks

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 03, 2014

A piece of Mars: This scene (509×382 m, or 1670×1253 ft), aside from showing some lovely rippled dunes, has many car-sized boulders in it. Some are surrounded by ditches in the sand, like little moats. Why? The sand is blown away from the ground as wind impacts the rocks. My colleague Mark Bishop has studied these in more detail (read more here) (HiRISE ESP_037201_2450, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Welcome to Our Labor-atory

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 01, 2014

ENCORE Hi ho, hi ho … it’s out with work we go! As you relax this holiday weekend, step into our labor-atory and imagine a world with no work allowed. Soft robots help us with tasks at home and at the office, while driverless cars allow us to catch ZZZZs in the front seat.

Plus, the Internet of Everything interconnects all your devices, from your toaster to your roaster to … you. So there’s no need to ever get off the couch. But is a machine-ruled world a true utopia?

And, the invention that got us into our 24/7 rat race: Edison’s electric light.


Descripción en español

First released August 26, 2013.


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