News Briefs 28-03-2014

“Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation…”

Quote of the Day:

“…and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

News Briefs 27-03-2014

Still looking for the PAUSE button…

Thanks Kat & Susan.

Quote of the Day:

"There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling—even terrifying."

~David Sessions, blogger for The Daily Beast.

Has This New Discovery By Astronomers Confirmed there is a 'Planet X'?

Planet X?

Astronomers have extended the range of our Solar System with the discovery of a new 'dwarf planet' orbiting our Sun. The planet, currently technically labeled '2012 VP113', has an elliptical orbit that brings it to within 80AU of the Sun (an 'AU' is the unit of distance from the Sun to Earth) at perihelion (closest point in its orbit to the Sun) - some three times the distance from the Sun to Neptune - while it gets as far as 450AU away at the other end of its orbit. The object is not unique: astronomers have previously discovered another similar dwarf planet, named 'Sedna'. Indeed, the new discovery, by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, hints that there are a multitude of dwarf planets orbiting the Sun in a location known as the 'inner Oort cloud'.

An intriguing coincidence is that the current positions of both Sedna and 2012 VP113 - which are also near both their perihelions - are very similar, leading to some speculation of an unknown, massive body orbiting our Sun well beyond our current sensing abilities - a 'Planet X':

The latest work has already thrown up an intriguing possibility. The angle of the body's orbit and that of Sedna's are strikingly similar, an effect most likely caused by the gravitational tug of another, unseen body. One possibility is a "Super Earth" that traces so large an orbit around the sun that it has never been seen.

"If you took a Super Earth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have," said Sheppard.

Over at her Planetary Society blog, Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed breakdown of the discovery, the coincidences, and what it might mean for the Planet X theory. She notes that for a an object of that size to form ('accrete'), it needs to be in a circular orbit - so the elliptical orbit of these two dwarf planets suggests that they were 'scattered' by something at some point after they formed. But the 'Planet X' theory isn't the only possible explanation - the planets may have been thrown into their current orbits by a star that passed within "several hundred AU of the Sun and disturbed orbits of objects it passed near", or it may be due to the fact that Earth was born in a star cluster.

It's really quite striking how close Sedna and 2012 VP113 are to each other right now, both close to their perihelia, both at around 80 AU. Here's an illustration that I put together using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser that shows you just how close they are.

Their current proximity is mostly a coincidence, given the fact that they have different orbital periods; there's nothing about their orbits that says they should be in the same place at the same time, except for the fact that their orbits happen to take them to similar spots in the sky when they are close to the Sun. But we are more likely to discover such objects when they are near perihelion (hence brighter and moving faster), so given the proximity of their perihelia they would've been somewhat close to each other in the sky because that's where we could see them both.

The fact that they have perihelia at similar locations is an interesting observation, though. And it's one that Trujillo and Sheppard noticed, too... They went on to hypothesize that the clustering of argument of perihelia resulted from "a massive outer Solar System perturber" [and] showed that it works for a super-Earth at 250 AU, but "This configuration is not unique and there are many possibilities for such an unseen perturber."

...I have confess to a bias here: I really wanted this coincidence in argument of perihelion to be strong evidence of a planet X. I would love for there to be a planet X. So would Trujillo and Sheppard, evidently, because they spent quite a bit of space showing it could work. And so would Nature, because then the first clear indication of a planet X would be in an article published in their journal.

But Hal [planetary scientist Hal Levison] dashed my hopes, or at least my certainty. "It's a very weak result," he told me; and indeed the paper spends more column inches on what 2012 VP113 tells us about the inner Oort cloud as a population than it does about this potential "perturber."

"There may be other explanations for this, rather than the extreme position of, "it's a planet"; but I can believe there's something going on".

In other words: something threw these planets into their elliptical orbits, but we still don't know what. Watch this...errr...space.

Link: A second Sedna! What does it mean?

An Unearthly Scene: TUMBLEWEED FIRE TWISTER!

Take tumbleweeds, a twister, and a small grass fire. Mix. Et voila, a scene like something out of an X-Men movie...

TUMBLEWEED FIRE TWISTER!

The Language of the Birds: Hummingbird Vocalisations Eight Times Slower Than Normal Speed

Hummingbird hovering

Does our human-based perception of events in time blind us to certain aspects of 'reality'? Hummingbirds are notorious for the speed at which they flap their wings (up to 80 times a second), but as the video below shows, when their behaviour is slowed down (in this case, eight times slower than normal speed) other aspects become apparent - in this case, their high-pitched twittering suddenly sounds a whole lot more like a language of some kind.

A few clips at the beginning let us hear "normal" vocalizations of hummingbirds as they squabble at the feeder for last-minute feeding rights at dusk... The video was recorded in 848x480 resolution at 240fps using a GoPro Hero3+ Black edition , then slowed down to about 30fps for playback using GoPro's Studio software. The audio was slowed down roughly the same amount, and since no audio "stretch" effect was used, the pitch and playback are simply lower and slower. The reverb effect is naturally produced by the acoustically reflective hard surfaces around the feeder, and are much longer and more more noticeable than in real time.

We already know that slowing down video of an intelligent human makes them sound like a stoner - but in the case of hummingbirds, slowing things down tends to make them seem a whole lot more intelligent.

Coincidentally yesterday I was listening to the song of an Australian magpie and was struck by how much it sounds like intelligent communication. Are birds talking all around us and we're simply deaf to it all?

News Briefs 25-03-2014

Too many meatspace responsibilities, not enough time for Grail duties. But the TDG news briefs wait for no man...

Quote of the Day:

Cause you are a single grain
A mere molecule
Mistaken for a king
You're only a simple fool

Dallas Green/City and Colour, "Take Care"

News Briefs 24-03-2014

How's your eyesight?

Quote of the Day:

I have seen the truth, and the truth has made me odd

Flannery O'Connor

Waking Up to the Devil in Your Room

Fuseli - The Nightmare

During the summer of 2012, film-maker Carla MacKinnon would frequently wake to find herself unable to move, deeply afraid and convinced there was someone or something in the room with her. On occasions she would see or hear people around her bed, and one night even woke up to find a giant spider hovering over her.

MacKinnon was suffering from 'sleep paralysis', a term used to describe the experience of waking to find your body paralysed, a crushing pressure on your chest, a feeling of fear or dread, and sometimes also hallucinations (both auditory and visual) of people or even monstrous creatures beside, or on, your bed. It crops up in the history and folklore of many cultures - the modern word 'nightmare' actually has its origins in this experience, with the Old English 'mære' denoting "an evil spirit or goblin in Germanic folklore which rides on people's chests while they sleep".

Inspired by her experience, MacKinnon created Devil in the Room - an "experimental docu-horror" film supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and made as part of an MA in Animation at Royal College of Art:

For more on the folkloric aspects of sleep paralysis, take a look at David J. Hufford's seminal book The Terror That Comes in the Night, and for online information (including a list of resources) check out The Sleep Paralysis Project, which MacKinnon's film is a part of.

For a survey of the experience in lecture format, see also Professor Chris French's presentation "Something Wicked This Way Comes: Causes and Interpretations of Sleep Paralysis":

Do you, or have you, suffered from sleep paralysis? Rodney Ascher, director of the cult documentary Room 237 (about perceived meanings in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining), is currently making a film about the phenomenon and is looking to talk to people about it:

I've been obsessed with it ever since it used to happen with me (in my case, I saw sort of a living, 3D shadow looming over in me in judgement)... The film is going to be largely built on interviews with people who've had vivid, first-person experiences with it (and have given some serious thought to what's really happening to them) - if anyone wants to share their stories, the easiest way is to contact us via the film's Facebook page.

(via Mind Hacks and Boing Boing)