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“Breathing” fractal illusion (via Boing Boing)

22 November 2011

Check out this optical illusion, a garishly-colored fractal that seems to “breathe” as your eyes dart across the image. But the motion is all in your head! As the image’s file name claims, it is NOT an animation. I love stuff like this, which reminds us of the ever-present gulf between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it to be.

And while we’re at it, there are some other classics here.

Space Ipsum – A space themed Lorem Ipsum generator

21 November 2011

Space Ipsum is the kind of mashup geekery that really appeals to me—space exploration, web design jokes, and language play all wrapped up in one.

Lorem Ipsum is the generic filler text that web designers use to create page mockups and test different layouts. Anyone who’s started a WordPress blog has probably run across it many times while browsing theme options. Variations of Lorem Ipsum have been around since the 1500s, when a typesetter adapted a passage from Cicero to use as dummy text. Sometimes the word order is scrambled; sometimes new words, real or made up, are added; but whether or not the original latin is preserved, to most people most instances of Lorem Ipsum look mostly like gibberish. (Most of this info comes from, where you can also find a traditional Ipsum generator.)

Space Ipsum takes a slightly different approach, drawing on various sources of stirring and historic prose about space exploration. It mashes up a variety of sources, randomized at the paragraph level, to fill your sample pages with inspiring reach-for-the-heavens rhetoric. I’ve recognized snippets from JFK speeches, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and the transcript of Neil Armstrong’s first minutes on the moon—what else can you identify?

Pro-Am research collaboration shows gap between scientists and public

17 November 2011

This American Life has a great first act this week about a professional cancer researcher teaming up with an orchestra teacher to try to fight cancer using sound waves. Reporter Gabriel Rhodes is also working on a film about the unlikely collaboration, titled The Cure. Here’s a sample scene:

Reading the Cells from Gabriel Rhodes on Vimeo.

It’s the story of an outside-the-box idea; the story of a friendship being built and broken down again; and the story of the scientific method in action. But through it all, the overarching story is about the vast gulf that exists between how professional scientists understand what science is and how it works, and how the rest of us think of it.

As the pair repeats their experiments over and over, rejecting promising results on a technical mistake here, an improper control there, the difference between the professional and the amateur becomes more and more clear. For the trained scientist, failure and iteration is a normal, expected, even necessary part of the process. But for the amateur, it’s disappointing—and then exhausting—to keep seeing good results, only to be told again and again that it doesn’t constitute “proof.”

Rhodes does an excellent job of exploring the nuances in this tale. He captures the strained relationship of two men who genuinely like each other, are excited to work together, and yet whose attitudes and expectations about the project (and therefore, to a significant extent, their relationship) are fundamentally disjointed. He gives each of them a voice, doesn’t take sides, and between both perspectives leaves the impression that there’s no “winner” or “loser” in this story.

Just as important, Rhodes captures the sense of scientific inquiry as something tangibly, painfully slow, and demanding, and difficult. It’s a side of science that the public rarely gets to see, and one that conflicts with familiar images of sudden insights and instant lab results. But the truth is that real science doesn’t work the way it looks on TV, where same-day DNA tests are routine, or in Hollywood, where a tinkerer in his garage can invent a time machine. Real scientists spend years, even decades, on a single line of research before they can convince their peers that it has any merit—and even then, the most outside-the-box ideas are still the ones least likely to pan out in the long run.

You can find more about Rhodes’ film at This week’s episode of This American Life is called So Crazy It Just Might Work, and as usual, the whole thing is worth a listen.

Radio interview with Richard Dawkins for How On Earth

18 October 2011

Last week I recorded an interview with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for the radio program How On Earth. We spoke about his new book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, which was featured this morning as a promotional gift during KGNU’s fall pledge drive along with a couple segments of the interview.

An extended version of that interview is now available at the How On Earth website.

The Magic of Reality is a pretty cool book. It’s aimed at a younger audience than Dawkins’ previous work, and it’s illustrated quite beautifully, in full color, by artist Dave McKean. The book is a primer on basic science and critical thinking, an ode to the beauty of the natural world, and a really fun read. From my blog post at the How On Earth website:

While examining a dozen seemingly simple questions (What is a rainbow? Why are there so many different kinds of animals?) Dawkins explores both human cultural history—how various cultures have used religious stories and mythmaking to explain the world—and the scientific method—how observation and experimentation can show us what’s really happening. His message throughout is that reality has its own poetic magic that rivals or exceeds even the best-spun tales.

Neptune turns one year old today!

12 July 2011

Image courtesy of NASA

The planet Neptune turns one year old today. Rather, the human discovery of Neptune is one year old. One Neptune year, that is.

Since its discovery in 1846, Neptune has completed exactly one revolution around the Sun. That’s one orbit in 165 Earth years—a sobering reminder that the universe moves at a pace far removed from the frantic hum and bustle of human lives.

(Phil Plait, of course, has a detailed analysis of the astronomical gymnastics involved in establishing the precise moment Neptune returned to the spot at which it was discovered.)

My short film “Skeptics” reblogged on Bad Astronomy!

4 June 2011



I was stoked to see Phil Plait posted my short film “Skeptics,” which features him and members of CU’s Secular Students and Skeptics Society, on Bad Astronomy yesterday. Thanks, Phil!

(The elusive skeptic in the wild | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine)

“The Believing Brain” – My interview with Michael Shermer on How On Earth

1 June 2011

Yesterday I interviewed renowned skeptic and science writer Michael Shermer for How On Earth, the KGNU science and technology show. Shermer was in town promoting his new book, The Believing Brain: from Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, which I read over the weekend.

"The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer

"The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer

Listen to the full episode of How On Earth
(Interview begins at ~16:00)

Despite having the longest subtitle ever, the book’s thesis is pretty simple. According to Shermer, “the brain is a belief engine” that cranks out split-second, snap-judgment, best-guess theories about the world with each passing second. But rather than consciously evaluating these beliefs to see if they hold up under the weight of future evidence, our default position is to assume that we are always right the first time. Shermer brings in evidence from neuroscience, psychology and sociology to show that on each of those levels, belief comes first—only afterward do we look for reasons to believe, and then we’re strongly biased in favor of supporting, rather than contradictory, evidence.

It’s a powerful thesis, both because of the substantial weight of evidence in favor of Shermer’s interpretation, and because it explains so much about human behavior on an individual and societal level. But what really impresses me about this picture of the brain is how frighteningly (and literally) counter-intuitive it is.

Read more…

My interview with Maggie Koerth-Baker on CU Science Update

25 May 2011

Maggie Koerth-Baker on CU Science UpdateBack in April, science writer and Boing Boing editor Maggie Koerth-Baker was on the University of Colorado campus for the 63rd Conference on World Affairs, where she participated in a bunch of awesome panels—everything from disease pandemics to the formative influence of superheroes on geeky young minds. She also granted me an interview for CU Science Update, a video podcast from the School of Journalism. The full episode has finally been released and is hosted by my friend and colleague Beth Bartel.

I asked Maggie about her role as Boing Boing’s science editor, how science journalism is different from reporting on other subjects, and the opportunities the internet affords for journalists to work in exciting, non-traditional ways. The CWA took place right after the Japan earthquake, so we used coverage of the tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis as an example both of how science can be misrepresented by traditional media, and of how Maggie and the Boing Boing team are able to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Watch the video at the CU Science Update website (Episode 21 – Science Blogging) or by subscribing to the CUSU podcast feed in iTunes.

A Word for Science Fiction: The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films (via Science Not Fiction)

14 May 2011

Kyle Munkittrick has an excellent essay about the philosophical underpinnings of Pixar films and what Pixar’s approach to storytelling means for the future of humanity (well, U.S. culture at least) at Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog. The upshot is that Pixar is preparing a generation of young people to grow up with a vastly expanded definition of “personhood” and a set of positive story arcs as templates for the acceptance of new categories of “persons.” Assuming that advances like artificial intelligence, communication with dolphins, genetically modified humans, or contact with intelligent extraterrestrials are only a few decades away, we should be well-prepared.

Read The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine.

PRoD #3: Engineered virus makes cancer reveal itself

12 May 2011

Press Release of the Day is a short, pithy, accurate summary of the day’s weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release.

Tumors detected in a mouse kidney using a modified herpes virus. Image courtesy of Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have created a genetically modified herpes virus that seems to trick tumors into announcing their own presence—loudly. If confirmed in human trials, the technique could become a cheap, portable way to detect cancers at a very early stage.

The herpes variant was engineered to bypass healthy cells and only infect tumors. It then causes cancer cells to produce a protein that is easily detectable in the blood. So far the virus has been proven to work on human tissue samples that included healthy cells as well as several types of cancer.

The virus was also tested in living mice—some healthy, others with the same types of cancer as the human tissue samples. Healthy mice showed no significant signs that the virus was replicating, nor elevated levels of the marker protein. But of the mice with tumors, more than 90% showed both virus replication and increased protein production.

In some mice, the technique revealed tumors that were still microscopic. Researchers compared that to finding a tumor less than half an inch wide in a human adult.

Aside from the fact that this method has yet to be proven on living humans, there is one other caveat: researchers expect that a human patient would develop an immune response to the virus after the first exposure, so in its current form the technique could be used only once.

The research was published 11 May in the journal PLoS ONE.

(244 words)

Read the original paper: Cancer Screening by Systematic Administration of a Gene Delivery Vector Encoding Tumor-Selective Secretable Biomarker Expression (via PLos ONE)

Read the press release: Scientists use genetically altered virus to get tumors to tattle on themselves (via Cincinnati Children’s Hospital)