Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Screaming past Jupiter

Now that the New Horizons space probe has just swung by Jupiter for a gravity assist, how fast do you suppose it is going?

The answer: over 52,000 miles per hour, which, according to this AP article ("NASA space probe swings by Jupiter"), makes it the fastest spacecraft so far.

I can't wait for more cool pictures of the Jovian system. And also, finally, some good ones of Pluto.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fighting panda extinction

Good news for the panda lovers of the world. [cue fanfare]

Another one has been born.
BEIJING - China's first panda cub of the year has survived the crucial first
three days of her life, state media reported Monday. ... The still nameless
female was born to a 13-year-old giant panda named Ji Ni,
the oldest
panda to deliver a first cub
, the report said. [emphasis added]

What took her so long? Didn't she know they were endangered?

Friday, February 23, 2007

Learning primates


Chimpanzees living in the West African savannah have been observed fashioning what gives every indication of being pencil-like tools from short, thin sticks and then using them in a manner suggesting to researchers that the chimps are in the early stages of acquiring the skill of writing -- the first routine production of writing instruments ever observed in animals other than humans.

The multi-step pencil-making process, documented by researchers in Senegal who spent years gaining the chimpanzees' trust, adds credence to the idea that our human forebears fashioned similar writing tools centuries ago. ...

In one case, after using the pencil to make repeated marks on a leaf, the female chimp handed the leaf to a nearby male, who looked at it briefly, then scurried off as though on an errand of some kind.

In case it's not obvious, this piece by Roger Shuy at Language Log is a parody of this silly article ("For First Time, Chimps Seen Making Weapons for Hunting"). It opens thusly:

Chimpanzees living in the West African savannah have been observed fashioning deadly spears from sticks and using the tools to hunt small mammals -- the first routine production of deadly weapons ever observed in animals other than humans.

The multistep spearmaking practice, documented by researchers in Senegal who spent years gaining the chimpanzees' trust, adds credence to the idea that human forebears fashioned similar tools millions of years ago.

I like Shuy's version better!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Dictating word usage

Since when did the United Nations get put in charge of how the English language is used?

From Language Log:
According to, the United Nations Secretariat has issued two editorial directives insisting on usage of "the Persian Gulf" rather than "the Arabian Gulf" or simply "the Gulf." An addendum to one directive reads, "The full name 'Persian Gulf' should be used in every case instead of the shorter term 'Gulf,' including in repetitions of the term after its initial use in a text." So from the U.N. Secretariat's point of view, use of "(the) Gulf" is off-limits in any circumstances (even after using "Persian Gulf" on first reference). Rather than wading into this minefield, I'd suggest Language Log adopt its own editorial directive. From now on, we should only refer to "The Large Body of Water between the Arvandrud/Shatt al-Arab River Delta and the Straits of Hormuz."
That'll show 'em!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Imaging the solar system

Boy, I never tire of this site. I could browse for hours if there were no other demands on my time. And, with the current missions to Mars and Saturn, there's always something new to see.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"AIDS virus weakness detected"

This sounds promising.

U.S. National Institutes of Health researcher Peter Kwong said the study, published in the journal Nature, may reveal HIV's long-sought "site of vulnerability" that can be targeted with a vaccine aimed at preventing initial infection.

"Having that site and knowing that you can make antibodies against it means that a vaccine is possible," Kwong said in a telephone interview.

"It doesn't say we've gotten there. But it's taken it off the list from an impossible dream and converted it to something that is a (mere) technical barrier."

I'm all for the eradication of disease, especially the killer ones that have no cure. If we can find a vaccine for AIDS, then maybe we can find a cure for cancer. Then I will be one of the happiest persons alive.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"Cheetahs kill zoo-goer who entered cage"

Here's another reminder that wild animals are not pets, and we should not make the mistake of thinking they will treat us like anything but food.

BRUSSELS, Belgium - An animal lover was mauled to death by cheetahs after entering their cage at a zoo in northern Belgium, authorities and zoo officials said Monday.

Karen Aerts, 37, of Antwerp, was found dead in the cage, Olmense Zoo spokesman Jan Libot said. Police said they ruled out any foul play.

Authorities believe Aerts, a regular visitor to the zoo, hid in the park late Sunday until it closed and managed to find the keys to the cheetah cage.

"Karen loved animals. Unfortunately the cheetahs betrayed her trust," Libot said.

They always will. Just because we want them to be friendly doesn't mean they will.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Fighting panda extinction

In China, a lot of panda cubs were born in captivity last year (34, to be exact). That's cause for celebration, especially for those who fawn over the evolutionary dead-enders.

BEIJING - Eighteen Chinese baby pandas, blinking under the bright lights of live television, were presented with their names on Saturday with all the glitz and glamour of a movie premiere.

The 18 were paraded in little baby prams on state television after their names had been chosen by Internet surfers.

Panda cubs in baby strollers: anthropomorphization to the point of schizophrenia.

"French planet-seeking satellite gets to work" ...

... looking for planets, of course. In other star systems.
Dubbed COROT, the satellite carries a telescope capable of detecting small, rocky planets by measuring the light emitted by a star and detecting the drop in brightness caused when a planet passes in front of it.
Good. Let's hope it finds something worthy of exploration and possible settlement down the road..

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Looking carefully at language critics

People who claim to get all furious over improper word usages -- they're not really that angry, as Geoff Nunberg contends.
Those folks who talk about yelling at their radio when they hear someone use less instead of fewer, or who, like Dick Cavett, threaten to "pop" the senator who spoke of his "incredulous" experiences -- they're not really angry at all. It's all a[n] exercise in counterfeit camp. And by the by, it demonstrates just what an irrelevant business language criticism has become.

I'll admit, some errors bug me, but I try not to let it ruin my day. In the course of my work, I will edit someone else's copy to correct spelling, punctuation, and tense, and I will suggest changes that make the words flow better. But, I don't believe that I have ever used the words loathesome, horrible, or barbarous to describe unwise word choices.

And Nunberg thinks that this harsh language used to criticize errors is perhaps, by its very nature, too over-the-top to be taken seriously.
But the very extravagance of those denunciations makes it obvious that they weren't meant to be taken literally. A malaprop or solecism can be irksome, but it's never more than that. ... If the panelists really did believe that these matters deserved the same level of public concern as other social and political issues, you can bet they would vent their disapproval a lot more moderately.
I agree. I really don't think serious lovers of the English language get that worked up over a few usage errors. English is a feisty lover, and, if you take its failings too seriously, you tend to miss out on all the fun it can offer.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Best quote I've read all day

It comes from Barry Goldstein, project manager for NASA's next mission to Mars called Phoenix, which could launch in August of this year. He's describing the entry of the spacecraft into the Martian atmosphere when he says:
"We get seven minutes of terror," Goldstein explained. Trying to deliver a vehicle like this from a high speed and heated plunge of 12,600 miles per hour to zero and a[t] 100 million miles away "is no easy shot," he added.
Well, it is rocket science, after all.