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We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Science For This Service Announcement:

Hello Readers.  I was unable to update Handsome Science yesterday, and will probably have to skip a science-y update today, due to some changes in my personal life.  I had been unemployed for three months when I started this little blog, and had plenty of time each day to research and type up a new post.  It worked well for my working style, which is very loose and not fond of specific deadlines (don’t tell my new boss!).

However, starting yesterday I’ve been working at a customer service call center here in town to pay the bills, and the new schedule has thrown my life into a bit of disarray.  I’m in training right now, from 3 pm to midnight, which means my time to update HS is limited to “mornings” (about 10 am to 2 pm) or “evenings” (about midnight to 2 am), instead of all day at my leisure.  This means I now have to plan my posts ahead if I want to update on time, and I’m not very good at that, but I’m trying.

Soon I will update with a “How We Know” I started work on yesterday on the periodic table of elements, and it should be a good read, when it’s ready.  Thank you for your patience, and keep checking in!  I’m planning on returning to a daily weekday schedule by next week, or I may decide to skip a couple weekdays in favor of adding weekend posts as well, so stay tuned!

-RSR, your Handsome Scientist

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 The ant bit me sharply on the edge of my finger.  The sensation grew slowly, a bit like being poked by a red-hot sewing needle.  I ignored it, steadying my camera for another shot.
 The nest I was aiming at was just a crack in the sidewalk, but hundreds of the tiniest ant were milling around the opening.  Many had wings, so I knew at once that these would soon take off on a mating flight.
 My pictures revealed the detail of this to me later; I had seconds to take them before more ants climbed onto my hand, which was resting on the ground for stability, and bit me on my thumb, my knuckle…  I got up quickly and shook them off.  The small ants were only out in such numbers to protect their winged new queens and male drones until they were ready to fly, mate, and start new colonies or die trying.
 My pictures revealed two drones in decent detail, or maybe I captured the same one twice (hard to tell, as you can imagine), but the only new queen I shot was out of focus.  The details were lost, but I could see that she had a darker color than the males, and a smaller abdomen.  Both had such large flight muscles as to give them the appearance of hunchbacks, but the males were reddish, with larger compound eyes (the better to see you with?) and abdomens swollen with sperm.
 I only took three pictures before brushing the tiny biting ants off my hand and running to catch up to my wife, who hadn’t been patiently waiting for me.  We were out on a walk, it was our first anniversary, and I brought my camera along to take pictures of us.  She thought her hair was too messy though, and while I assured her she looked beautiful as always, I didn’t want to pressure her, so I had a camera in hand and was looking for something to shoot with it.  When I noticed an ant colony mating flight, how could I resist?
 We passed by more colonies of the tiny ants, and even these colonies were swarming with winged males and females, ready to fly and mate, and I explained to my wife, who seemed to be listening, that the colonies of ants from the same species all get their cues to start the mating flight from the environment:  the cloud cover, humidity, previous rainfall, etc.  Somehow all the ant colonies independently judge the time to be “just right” and their maters fly out on the same day, ensuring genetic diversity as females meet males from different colonies, and not just their own.
 The colonies of the larger ants, meanwhile, had not received their cues yet, or maybe they already had, and were not out en masse, but were sticking to their daily routine of foraging, digging, garbage removal, and, somewhere deep in the nest, I presume, feeding the queen and all the little larvae with predigested grass seeds and dead bugs.
 Here, we get a variation of the most common ant of literature, the ant of Aesop and Solomon, the harvester ant.  The collector ant, the ant that stores its food through the winter (although actually a good chunk of the colony dies during the winter, the queen however survives for up to twenty years), the ant of Antz and A Bug’s Life.
 These ants scurried under our feet in such numbers that I’m sure I must have stepped on dozens, even while trying to avoid them.  My wife walked steadily on, while I danced some abominable two-step trying to trample as few ants as possible.
 I have felt the tug of desire for life as an ant.  A life of simple work, of being part of something bigger, the security of numbers, the instant camaraderie of fellow nestmates, and the unshakable knowledge that anything else that moves is an enemy, to be eaten if possible, or driven away if not.  Of course, these ants die at the ripe old age of two, if they’re lucky to live that long.  And the queens who live twenty years or more are stuck underground their whole lives, bellies bloated with eggs, dependent on her children to feed her from the day the first one was born.
 So, the ants.  I admire them.  They’re resourceful.  They’re generous to their sisters and mothers, and vicious toward anything else.  They use the world around them to get ahead, and are quite successful doing so.  And they are sure to be around to the bitter end.

The ant bit me sharply on the edge of my finger.  The sensation grew slowly, a bit like being poked by a red-hot sewing needle.  I ignored it, steadying my camera for another shot.

The nest I was aiming at was just a crack in the sidewalk, but hundreds of the tiniest ant were milling around the opening.  Many had wings, so I knew at once that these would soon take off on a mating flight.

My pictures revealed the detail of this to me later; I had seconds to take them before more ants climbed onto my hand, which was resting on the ground for stability, and bit me on my thumb, my knuckle…  I got up quickly and shook them off.  The small ants were only out in such numbers to protect their winged new queens and male drones until they were ready to fly, mate, and start new colonies or die trying.

My pictures revealed two drones in decent detail, or maybe I captured the same one twice (hard to tell, as you can imagine), but the only new queen I shot was out of focus.  The details were lost, but I could see that she had a darker color than the males, and a smaller abdomen.  Both had such large flight muscles as to give them the appearance of hunchbacks, but the males were reddish, with larger compound eyes (the better to see you with?) and abdomens swollen with sperm.

I only took three pictures before brushing the tiny biting ants off my hand and running to catch up to my wife, who hadn’t been patiently waiting for me.  We were out on a walk, it was our first anniversary, and I brought my camera along to take pictures of us.  She thought her hair was too messy though, and while I assured her she looked beautiful as always, I didn’t want to pressure her, so I had a camera in hand and was looking for something to shoot with it.  When I noticed an ant colony mating flight, how could I resist?

We passed by more colonies of the tiny ants, and even these colonies were swarming with winged males and females, ready to fly and mate, and I explained to my wife, who seemed to be listening, that the colonies of ants from the same species all get their cues to start the mating flight from the environment:  the cloud cover, humidity, previous rainfall, etc.  Somehow all the ant colonies independently judge the time to be “just right” and their maters fly out on the same day, ensuring genetic diversity as females meet males from different colonies, and not just their own.

The colonies of the larger ants, meanwhile, had not received their cues yet, or maybe they already had, and were not out en masse, but were sticking to their daily routine of foraging, digging, garbage removal, and, somewhere deep in the nest, I presume, feeding the queen and all the little larvae with predigested grass seeds and dead bugs.

Here, we get a variation of the most common ant of literature, the ant of Aesop and Solomon, the harvester ant.  The collector ant, the ant that stores its food through the winter (although actually a good chunk of the colony dies during the winter, the queen however survives for up to twenty years), the ant of Antz and A Bug’s Life.

These ants scurried under our feet in such numbers that I’m sure I must have stepped on dozens, even while trying to avoid them.  My wife walked steadily on, while I danced some abominable two-step trying to trample as few ants as possible.

I have felt the tug of desire for life as an ant.  A life of simple work, of being part of something bigger, the security of numbers, the instant camaraderie of fellow nestmates, and the unshakable knowledge that anything else that moves is an enemy, to be eaten if possible, or driven away if not.  Of course, these ants die at the ripe old age of two, if they’re lucky to live that long.  And the queens who live twenty years or more are stuck underground their whole lives, bellies bloated with eggs, dependent on her children to feed her from the day the first one was born.

So, the ants.  I admire them.  They’re resourceful.  They’re generous to their sisters and mothers, and vicious toward anything else.  They use the world around them to get ahead, and are quite successful doing so.  And they are sure to be around to the bitter end.

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Why It’s Cool: Asteroid Vesta rocked by mighty impacts

Asteroid Vesta rocked by mighty impacts

A little bit of history, first:

Ceres was the first asteroid ever discovered.  It was found in 1801 by Giuseppe Piazzi, and was actually predicted by an earlier astronomer and mathematician, Johann Daniel Titius in 1766.  This prediction was reinforced by Johann Elert Bode in 1772, and the mathematical formula used has become known as Bode’s Law.  (This was discredited when Neptune was discovered and didn’t fit the model.)

Uranus was discovered in 1781, and it happened to fit Bode’s Law, so the idea gained credibility, and the search for the “missing planet” in between Mars and Jupiter was on.  When Guiseppe discovered Ceres, he first took it as the missing planet, but conservatively announced it to be a comet.  However, its observed motions differed from all known comets up to that time, and soon even more objects like it were discovered, all in similar orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

Read More

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Two videos in a row, I know, but this was just posted today by Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover Magazine.  He’s a great speaker and writer, and he’s discussing a rather important issue here, the not-insignificant threat of asteroid impacts, and what we can do about them.

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Another favorite video, debunking several common myths that refute evolution.  It clarifies evolution, showing that it is based on a few observable facts, such as genetic variation in offspring, and relative fitness of individuals.

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How We Know: The Expansion of the Universe

The universe is a big place.  The scale of it is nearly impossible to conceive except through series of pictures, or a video showing a zoom-out from a park in Chicago, to the furthest reaches of what we can see, while increasing the zoom speed as we go.  Even with the rapid acceleration*, the journey takes some time, and by the time you get to the end, it’s easy to forget the vastness of space in between landmarks.

The best visuals are probably these two:

Powers of Ten video

The Scale of the Universe flash tool

Now, the universe is so big that it can take several billion years (the record is about 13 billion) for light from one end of it to reach us, because light has a fixed speed**.  So far this is all just background information.  The real question boils down to how we measure the distance and speed of these objects that are billions of light years away from us.  There are a few steps to get there.

Read More

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To generate ideas for the new column “How We Know,” I thought I’d try a little creative Google searching.  (You can see my custom background of a fuzzy little weevil in the background.)  I was pleasantly surprised by this search in particular.  Google was trying to guess how I might finish my search phrase based on what other people had searched for in the past, so the guesses here are all things that many people out there were wondering.
I also wanted to point out here my choice in calling my column “How We Know,” not “How Scientists Know.”  I decided I didn’t need to separate scientists from the rest of us any further than the gap that already exists.  We can all be scientists, after all, by simply asking a question, and using observation to find out the answer.  Also, the knowledge of scientists is not exclusive to anyone.  That knowledge is released, published, and shared.  The knowledge becomes ours.
With that in mind, keep an eye out for an update very soon where I will attempt to answer the goatee-scratchingly good question, “How do we know that the universe is expanding?”

To generate ideas for the new column “How We Know,” I thought I’d try a little creative Google searching.  (You can see my custom background of a fuzzy little weevil in the background.)  I was pleasantly surprised by this search in particular.  Google was trying to guess how I might finish my search phrase based on what other people had searched for in the past, so the guesses here are all things that many people out there were wondering.

I also wanted to point out here my choice in calling my column “How We Know,” not “How Scientists Know.”  I decided I didn’t need to separate scientists from the rest of us any further than the gap that already exists.  We can all be scientists, after all, by simply asking a question, and using observation to find out the answer.  Also, the knowledge of scientists is not exclusive to anyone.  That knowledge is released, published, and shared.  The knowledge becomes ours.

With that in mind, keep an eye out for an update very soon where I will attempt to answer the goatee-scratchingly good question, “How do we know that the universe is expanding?”

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Dear Reader,
The picture here of a damselfly eating another little bug is just something nice to look at while I talk about a new focus I want to give Handsome Science.  I feel like I’ve been neglecting two of my main purposes here:  helping people understand the significance of science in the news, and explaining exactly how scientists come to their understanding of life, the universe, and everything.
With that in mind, I’d like to begin updating here at least once a week with one story with each purpose in mind.  To cover the news stories, I’m thinking of the column title “Why It’s Cool” (although I’m sure there will be bad news from time to time, so it may occasionally be “Why It’s Not Cool”).  For explaining broad, general concepts, “How We Know.”
For example, one headline last week was “Venus surprises with ozone layer.”  With “Why It’s Cool,” I’d go into the backstory a bit, describing Earth’s and Mars’ ozone layers, where they come from, and what they do, talk about why we didn’t see Venus’ until this week, explain what it means for now, and speculate on what it means for the future.  (Hint:  ozone is made from oxygen, and oxygen is often pumped out by living things, like on Earth, but can be found inorganically as well, like on Venus and probably Mars.  But if we can detect oxygen on distant planets…)
"How We Know" would cover broad concepts like what goes on under the Earth’s crust, what stars like our sun are made of and how they work, photosynthesis, the Big Bang, evolution, tectonic plates and continental drift, and nuclear energy.  These are the concepts that you learn about in high school science classes, but rarely, if ever, are given the backstory of how these things were discovered.  How do we know what happens inside the Earth or Sun if nobody’s ever been there?  That’s the kind of question I’ll be trying to answer.
I’m hoping to do one “Why It’s Cool” and one “How We Know” every week, with pictures, videos, and ramblings filled in between as usual.  I’m also tempted to post more eclectic things on the weekends, but this blog is still in “open beta,” so let’s do one thing at a time.
All the best,
Rob

Dear Reader,

The picture here of a damselfly eating another little bug is just something nice to look at while I talk about a new focus I want to give Handsome Science.  I feel like I’ve been neglecting two of my main purposes here:  helping people understand the significance of science in the news, and explaining exactly how scientists come to their understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

With that in mind, I’d like to begin updating here at least once a week with one story with each purpose in mind.  To cover the news stories, I’m thinking of the column title “Why It’s Cool” (although I’m sure there will be bad news from time to time, so it may occasionally be “Why It’s Not Cool”).  For explaining broad, general concepts, “How We Know.”

For example, one headline last week was “Venus surprises with ozone layer.”  With “Why It’s Cool,” I’d go into the backstory a bit, describing Earth’s and Mars’ ozone layers, where they come from, and what they do, talk about why we didn’t see Venus’ until this week, explain what it means for now, and speculate on what it means for the future.  (Hint:  ozone is made from oxygen, and oxygen is often pumped out by living things, like on Earth, but can be found inorganically as well, like on Venus and probably Mars.  But if we can detect oxygen on distant planets…)

"How We Know" would cover broad concepts like what goes on under the Earth’s crust, what stars like our sun are made of and how they work, photosynthesis, the Big Bang, evolution, tectonic plates and continental drift, and nuclear energy.  These are the concepts that you learn about in high school science classes, but rarely, if ever, are given the backstory of how these things were discovered.  How do we know what happens inside the Earth or Sun if nobody’s ever been there?  That’s the kind of question I’ll be trying to answer.

I’m hoping to do one “Why It’s Cool” and one “How We Know” every week, with pictures, videos, and ramblings filled in between as usual.  I’m also tempted to post more eclectic things on the weekends, but this blog is still in “open beta,” so let’s do one thing at a time.

All the best,

Rob

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I’m a big fan of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  If you like it, don’t be afraid to bookmark it.  They’re all this good, or better.