Belize road crew tears down 2,300 year old Mayan pyramid

Well, this is a mess than cannot be undone. While we all worried today mostly about Google I/O and what would be announced at the annual conference for geeks, news was coming out of Central American country Belize that had a much sadder note to it. It seems a road crew decided an ancient Mayan relic was in its way — or at least would provide needed gravel for a project.

According National Geographic’s Elizabeth Snodgrass “a construction company in Belize has been scooping stone out of the major pyramid at the site of Nohmul (meaning Big Mound), one of only 15 ancient Maya sites important enough to be noted on the National Geographic World Atlas”. The ruins have been dated to 300 BC, perhaps even earlier by some estimates.

Now it seems that nearly the entire main pyramid, which once stood over 60 feet tall, has been destroyed by road building crews, according to John Morris, associate director of research at Belize’s Institute of Archaeology.

Having traveled in the area just north of this site, visiting the ruins of both Tulum and Chichzen Itza, I feel for this terrible loss. The site can obviously not be restored, but hopefully such tragic events can be prevented in the future.

Troubling Satellite Gap

Whenever a major storm like Sandy develops, one of the tools that are used by scientist to follow and predict the storm’s path are the polar satellites. These satellites fly pole to pole, crossing the equator in the afternoon. The data that these satellites provide allow scientists to more accurately predict the path of the storm up to 5 days ahead. This can make it easier to prepare for disaster and get the relief to where it is needed.

There is a growing problem though these satellites are past their life expectancy and their replacements the J. P. S. S will not be ready until 2017. This will leave at least a year gap in coverage. This will make it more difficult to predict the path of a major storm. If the information coming from these satellites had not been available during the 2010 blizzard studies show that forecasters would have under estimated the storms power by half. The gap between the two system according to independent studies is a result of mismanagement, lack of funds and delays at NOAA ( National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,)

Right now there is an army of utility trucks headed toward various locations on the East coast. Without these satellites and the information they provide it would have been more difficult for agencies to know where to send these trucks, possibly delaying the recovery by days. As the number of storms and their power seems to be increasing the data these satellites provide become more and more important.  We can not prevent natural disasters, but with the proper information we can limit their effect and get the relief where it is needed and that is where these satellites come in.

New Species of Acorn Worm Named After Yoda

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away….” is the familiar opening to the Star Wars movies. Somewhere in there, you will find a short, green, wise, Jedi master named Yoda. In a “galaxy” much closer to home, (far, far, under the ocean), scientists have found a new species of deep-sea acorn worms. One has been named after Yoda.

Yoda purpurata is one of three new species of acorn worms that were found by researchers during the ECOMAR research program. They used a remotely operated submersible to look for new animals that were living along the seafloor somewhere along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores.

The name Yoda purpurata translates to “purple Yoda”. This may sound strange, since we all know that Yoda is green, not purple. His light saber wasn’t purple either (that one belonged to Mace Windu). The new acorn worm, however, is a reddish-purple color. It has large lips that extend out from either side of its head, in a similar way to how Yoda’s ears extend out from his head. You can see some awesome pictures of Yoda purpurata (and several other acorn worms that have been found), here.

Find it, they did. Name it, they must. Inspired by a Jedi master, they were!

Image: From the Bottom of the Ocean by BigStock

Bill Nye Stands up Against Creationism

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the site or it’s sponsors.

I am going to step on some toes in this article.  If you feel the need to click away then I understand.  After all I want to accommodate everyone’s beliefs, because everyone has a right to be heard.  That being said, Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”, recently made some comments that have raised a fire storm.  Bill isn’t backing down from them, and I support him 100%.

A video began circulating recently showing Nye demonizing parents for teaching anti-science to their children, specifically anti-evolution.  The video was titled, quite simply, “Creationism is not appropriate for children”.  The video has more than 4 million views, with a mix of supporters and detractors, but the vast majority have been supportive – 66,000 likes vs 13,000 dislikes.

In all seriousness, the U.S. currently has one of the worst track records for science education and creationists are largely responsible for this dismal record.  Religion has crept into our politics and states like Texas have even attempted to pass laws against the teaching of what is, in reality, a solid scientific theory.  Bare in mind that everything in science is a theory because it is always evolving as new evidence is found.  Evolution is every bit as solid of a “theory” as the theory of gravity.

Of course, religious groups have been up-in-arms over Nye’s comments with Ken Ham, who runs the Creation Museum, leading the charge.  Nye, in response, has appeared on CNN to defend his stance.  His views are no different than those of the vast majority of scientists, but he has the means to make them heard by the masses.  Sadly, Nye probably can’t change much, but if he sways just a few people away from trying to tell their children that the world is only 6,000 years old, then it will be a victory.

Robot Plays “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and Always Wins

The game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” sounds simple. Two players quickly choose one of the three potential options, and both players reveal it at the same time. Scissors beats paper, paper beats rock, and rock beats scissors. Children play this game on the recess field when trying to make a decision about something.

The game just got a whole lot tougher to win! Researchers at the Ishikawa Oku Lab at the University of Tokyo have created a robot hand that has been taught how to play “Rock, Paper, Scissors”. The robot can beat a human opponent 100% of the time. You can play the game, over and over, as many times as you like, but the robot will always win.

Why does the robot always win? The simple answer is that it wins because it has been taught how to cheat. The robot recognizes a human hand with the use of a high speed camera. It takes the computer 1 millisecond to recognize the position of the hand of its human opponent. The robot quickly detects which of the three potential choices the human player has made and then selects the option that will allow it to win the game. This happens faster than the human eye can track it.

The purpose of this robot is not only to have a high-tech way to play a children’s game. Instead, it is an example of how robots and humans can work together in a cooperative effort that involves motion detection. The robot can follow the movement of a human hand without their being a time delay before the robot moves.

TEDxBelfast 2012

TEDxBelfastAt TEDxBelfast last night I was inspired by the stories of individuals who passionately believed in an idea and then made that idea a reality. From working with autistic children to building a new arts centre, these people all made a difference. Presented in Titanic Belfast in front of the replica of the famous staircase, it was an unforgettable evening.

Titanic Staircase

As with all TED conferences, the presentations will be posted on-line but that will take a week or two before they are ready. In  the meantime, these are the speakers, their stories and how they made a difference.

David Maxwell of Tyrone Timberframes presented his work with Habitat for Humanity in building highly energy-efficient homes that have no central heating. The significant cost of fossil fuel-based energy can be a big factor in poverty and these homes can save the inhabitants over £1000 per year.

Maureen Murphy, Director of Aurion Learning, grabbed attention with the headline that 70% of training was wasted and proposed an innovative way of providing effective training using the acronym ASSAULT. One of the best bits was that of story-based approach that hooked the learner and got them more emotionally involved.

Fransuer Makula grew up in the slums of Kenya but is now a teacher in a prestigious school in Northern Ireland. Describing the harsh reality of existence as a street child, where death is commonplace, he related how the children dared to dream big. In the midst of utter poverty, these children wanted to grow up as doctors, nurses and lawyers. Fransuer established “Jengana” to help orphans, street children and schools in West Kenya.

Colleen Hardwick, billed as an urban geographer and serial entrepreneur from Vancouver, laid out the loss of personal engagement in democracy. The statistics she presented on the fall of voter turnout over the past few decades were shocking. To counteract the anonymous global nature of the web, she’s developed PlaceSpeak, a community-based website that lets local people be authenticated as stakeholders in local issues without necessarily giving up that anonymity.

Next was an absolute gem…acoustic guitar duo Declan McKerr and Andy Toman, aka Gypsy’s Wish, serenaded TEDxBelfast, equipped with a brand-new George Lowden guitar. His guitars are world-famous with owners such as Eric Clapton and Mike Oldfield. Sublime.

Following a musical theme, Chris Blake, Principal Horn with the Ulster Orchestra, talked about the work he’d done with autistic children and the therapeutic value of music. The results were truly ground-breaking, increasing the evidence between autism and musicality.

Dr Nigel Hart took us all on a trip to the peaks and Mt Everest in particular in his talk on Mountains, Medicine and Mantras. Clearly a keen mountaineer, he combined his medical training with his passion to investigate the effects of hypoxia on humans at altitude. During his climb to the top of the world, he had to rescue another climber who had collapsed. Apt for many shared endeavours, his response to the famous climbing question was not, “Because it’s there” but rather, “It’s not the height or the distance, it’s the people you travel with.”

Anne McReynolds, CEO of the Belfast Metropolitan Arts Centre, had TEDxBelfast captivated by her struggle to get a world-class arts centre built in Belfast. Starting in 1996 and finally opening in 2012, it’s an amazing story of architects and artists (“good clients get good buildings”), buildings and space. If you want to build an arts centre, Anne should be the first person you talk to.

Colin Williams of Sixteen South tackled the “Can’t Do” attitude that has often afflicted Northern Ireland with a great story of “Can Do” success. It’s likely that you’ll never have heard of Sixteen South, a children’s TV production company but if you have kids under five you’ll have heard of Sesame Tree, Big City Park, Pajanimals, and Big & Small. Working with the BBC and The Jim Henson Company, Sixteen South produces these great TV programmes here in Northern Ireland. Fantastic.
Colin’s business plan was pretty clever too. “Do some good, make some money, have some fun.” Good advice for anyone.

Chris Horn completed the speaker line-up with his inspiration for Dublin’s Science Gallery, an exhibition space that takes a creative and artistic approach to the presentation of science and related issues. By taking the traditional remit of a science museum and combining it with the changing presentation of an art gallery, the Science Gallery is an innovation in itself that has proved tremendously successful. So much so that Google recently awarded the Science Gallery $1m to setup other Galleries around the world.

Overall, it was a great evening, with inspirational speakers in a fantastic setting. Thanks also to Davy Sims and Gary Burnett and Mark Finlay for organising #TEDxBelfast.

Evidence of Massive Cosmic Blast 1,200 Years Ago – Cause Unknown

Mysterious and Massive Radiation Event 1200 1200 Years Ago

Japanese physicists have identified a mysterious blast of high-energy radiation that struck Planet Earth more than 1,200 years ago – some 20 times larger than normal variations. The cosmic origins of this ancient and massive radiation event, however, are still unknown.

Cosmic-ray physicists from Japan’s Nagoya University, led by Fusa Miyake, discovered the radioactive event – said to have occurred between 774 and 773 AD – based on carbon dating performed on ancient trees.

Their investigation of tree rings from that era show a 20% increase in levels of the 14C isotope over the course of a year. Those isotopes, according Nature.com, are formed “when highly energetic radiation from outer space hits atoms in the upper atmosphere, producing neutrons. These collide with nitrogen-14, which then decays to 14C.”

What happened is clear, but why it happened seems anything but. The usual suspects for this radioactive spike are supernova explosions or solar flares. According to Miyake and his team, both are unlikely culprits considering no other recorded evidence exists of such massive events.

The search for the cause behind this massive cosmic event will likely send scientists to pore through historical data to find any correlative events that might clear things up. Either way – the trees don’t lie (they can’t). Something huge happened 1,200 years ago.

Photo: Solar Flare from Big Stock Photo

SpaceX Launch Saturday Was a No-Go Launch This Morning is a Go!

Just a few days ago, SpaceX attempted to launch their Dragon spacecraft into space. This would have been the very first commercial flight to the International Space Station.

My husband and I were watching this launch as the live video coverage was streamed through LiveStream. It was very surreal to hear the countdown reach zero and realize that the spacecraft had not launched. It is normal to expect that if you hear the countdown reach zero that it means that you will soon be watching liftoff. That isn’t what happened this time. The launch was aborted a half-second before the countdown completed.

What happened? SpaceX released the following statement:

“Today’s launch was aborted when the flight computer detected slightly high pressure in the engine 5 combustion chamber. We have discovered the root cause and repairs or underway. During rigouous inspections of the engine, SpaceX engineers discovered a faulty check valve on the Merlin engine. We are now in the process of replacing the failed valve. Those repairs should be complete tonight, we will continue to review data on Sunday”.

SpaceX is going to try this launch again. The next launch is scheduled for 3:44 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. This date and time has been selected because it is when the Earth’s rotation will bring Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad in the path of the International Space Station’s orbit. They will be streaming live video of the launch through LiveStream once again. Will you be watching?

There will be something extra special about this launch. The ashes of Jimmy Doohan, Star Trek’s “Scotty”, were originally scheduled to be launched into space in 2008. It didn’t happen then because the rocket that held the ashes failed to reach orbit. There is a company called Celestis that is responsible for making sure that the tribute to Jimmy Doohan does happen. His ashes will be sent up into space when SpaceX makes their next launch on Tuesday.

Image: Falcon 9 and Dragon Ready for Launch by SpaceX

Implant Uses Brain Waves to Move Robotic Arm

A team of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists at Brown University and Harvard Medical School have created a specialized brain-computer interface. It is called the BrainGate Neural Interface System. The project has been going on for more than a decade. It was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The scientists have created an implant that is designed to enable people who are paralyzed to move a robotic arm and hand by using their mind. It is quite remarkable! The implant consists of a sensor chip that is about the size of a baby aspirin. It is implanted directly onto the motor cortex of a person’s brain. This is the part of the brain that controls movement.

The sensor picks up signals that are generated by a person’s brain cells while the person is thinking about moving his or her own arm and hand. Those signals are sent through a wire to a device that connects with a computer. The computer has been taught to read the signal it receives and to translate that signal in order to tell a robotic arm what to do. Together, this allows a paralyzed person to move a robotic arm and hand on their own, just by using their brainwaves.

Here is a video created by the BrainGate Corporation that shows a woman who is paralyzed using the BrainGate Neural Interface System to move a robotic arm and hand. The video also explains more of the science behind the system.

Image: Brain by BigStock

The Next Annular Eclipse is May 20, 2012

On Sunday, May 20, 2012, there will be a solar eclipse. This one is special because it is an annular eclipse. It has been eighteen years since an eclipse of this type was visible from the continental United States.

We know that the moon circles the Earth. However, the moon doesn’t travel in an exact circular path. Instead, it is more like an elliptical orbit. This means that the moon will, at certain times, be a little bit closer or a little bit farther from the Earth than usual. The moon’s orbit can vary from 221,457 miles to 252,712 miles away from the Earth.

When an annular eclipse happens, it looks like the moon is passing in front of the Sun. The moon won’t appear to completely block out the sun, though. This is because on May 20, 2012, the moon will be closer to the Earth than usual, at around 225,000 miles from us. The result is that the moon will look as though it has a bright ring of fire surrounding it.

Not everyone is going to be able to view the upcoming annular eclipse. It will be visible to people who are in southern Oregon and northern California, and it will become visible to people who are in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.

Much of the rest of the United States will be able to see at least some of this special eclipse. Those of you who live on the east coast of the United States will not be able to see this eclipse because the Sun will already have set. The eclipse might be visible in parts of China and Japan as well, unless the weather causes too much cloud cover while the eclipse is happening.

Obviously, one should not stare into the Sun. You shouldn’t stare directly at an eclipse, either. I highly recommend that you do a little homework and learn about what you need to do in order to safely view an eclipse. It is a special eclipse, but, your eyesight is even more precious. Be smart, and be careful!

Image: Solar Eclipse by BigStock