Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Much has already been written about the life of Stephen Hawking, and more is bound is bound to follow. Here’s what Roger Penrose, a fellow physicist who knew Hawking well, wrote in The Guardian:

Despite his terrible physical circumstance, he almost always remained positive about life. He enjoyed his work, the company of other scientists, the arts, the fruits of his fame, his travels. He took great pleasure in children, sometimes entertaining them by swivelling around in his motorised wheelchair. Social issues concerned him. He promoted scientific understanding. He could be generous and was very often witty. On occasion he could display something of the arrogance that is not uncommon among physicists working at the cutting edge, and he had an autocratic streak. Yet he could also show a true humility that is the mark of greatness.

Hawking undoubtedly advanced our knowledge of the universe, and for that he will be remembered with the likes of Newton and Einstein. But his outlook on life, his sense of humour and his joy of living must be part of what we take with us into the future – after all, he’s the man who thought a motorised toy version of himself would be “cool”…

Read all about that toy as it appeared in a “The Big Bang Theory” episode on the TV Guide website – just click the image to go there.
(Part of a photo by Monty Brinton/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc)



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For those of you who still don’t know it: “weather” is what happens today (and changes sometimes multiple times on a single day), “climate” is what happens over a very long time and is best left to scientists to determine.

Anyway: what is really interesting is that February was a very sunny month here, while December 2017 and January 2018 were pretty dark months.

E-production numbers for our installation during the month of February 2018

Complaining about dark and grey days may be fashionable and helpful to get frustration out of your mind, but in the end the real conclusion is that the Belgian winter was pretty average when it comes to the sun. Just have a look at the numbers at the bottom of the Solar Energy Production statistics: you’ll see that the Winter of 2017-2018 as a whole was neither extremely dark nor exceptionally sunny.

Of course, that’s just Belgium. The weather in the Arctic region as a whole is a completely different story: temperatures are up to 15 degrees Celsius higher than average, rising above zero and thus contributing to the melting of the sea and land ice in the region. As CNN writes:

But one thing is clear: What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It is Earth’s air conditioner, helping to regulate temperature and weather patterns in the middle latitudes. When that balance is compromised, only one thing is certain — strange weather.

Be prepared!

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The EPSRC writes: “An image of a single positively-charged strontium atom, held near motionless by electric fields, has won the overall prize in a national science photography competition, organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).”

‘Single Atom in an Ion Trap’ - a photo by David Nadlinger

‘Single Atom in an Ion Trap’, by David Nadlinger (University of Oxford)
The photo shows the atom held by the fields emanating
from the metal electrodes surrounding it.
The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres.

Just head over there, it’s a great image – even if you have to enlarge it quite a bit to see the strontium atom. Well done, David Nadlinger!

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Yesterday morning, if started snowing here in Belgium. And then in the afternoon, temperatures started rising and the snow started to melt. It was nice to see how the traffic conditions reported by Google Maps accurately reflected the road conditions during the day (or at least during the start of the afternoon, which is when I took these screen shots).

The situation at 12:45 in Belgium

The same area at 15:29

You don’t even have to look up the precipitation radar logs to see that the (wet) snow zone clearly moved in a north-eastern direction:

(Image taken from http://www.buienradar.be)

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Ten days ago, I spotted a new visitor in our garden: a couple of long-tailed tits stopped by and sampled the peanuts. Wikipedia says that they are not exactly scarce, so I hope to see them more often.

A long-tailed tit feeding in our garden

A long-tailed tit feeding in our garden
(click for a larger version of the picture)

PS. In Dutch the long-tailed tit is called a “staartmees“.

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Science never sleeps, new discoveries are made every day, new technologies help refine or review existing knowledge – based on evidence.

Having fallen under the spell of Australia in 2015 I cannot help but pay attention to (scientific) news about this continent and its people. No wonder then that this title caught my eye: “Buried tools and pigments tell a new history of humans in Australia for 65,000 years“.

The result is that we have a convincing age for the settlement of Madjedbebe, and Australia, of 65,000 years ago.

The arrow next to the green plus sig points to the approximate location of Madjedbebe, halfway between Jabiru and Ubirr

In the words of the abstract in Nature:

Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago, with a distinctive stone tool assemblage including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads. This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

I wanted to know where Madjedbebe was located, having been in Jabiru when we visited Kakadu. It took a bit of searching, since Google Maps has no reference to the place. However, the Megalithic Portal website knows the rough coordinates, and that allows me to imagine that Madjedbebe is a bit over half way on a straight line from Jabiru to the Ubirr site. The arrow next to the green plus sign on the map above should be near the real spot (I have taken the liberty of copying part of a Google Maps satellite photo to create the 32km by 32km map view) .

But much more important than knowing where to find the place is what this knowledge will do to our understanding of how humans colonised the whole world. Not yet a year ago, mitochondrial DNA research pointed to a period about 50.000 years ago for the settlement of Australia (see the references on my page about Aboriginal Art). It remains to be seen how the results of these (and other) studies can be used to compose a coherent view Australian prehistory.

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Ars Technica introduced me to the inventor of the equals sign. I was surprised to read that it was a 16th century Welsh scholar who came up with this symbol, since so much of our algebraic foundations was passed on through and from Arab scholars in the Middle Ages. Anyway, here’s a quote from the man we’re talking about:

And to avoide the tediouse repetition of these woordes: is equalle to: I will sette as I doe often in worke use, a paire of paralleles, or Gemowe lines of one lengthe, thus: = , bicause noe .2. thynges, can be moare equalle..

More about the life of Robert Recorde can be read in the Wikipedia, of course. He must have been quite a character: he taught mathematics in Oxford in his youth, went on to study medicine, then became a “controller of Mint” in several places. He also wrote the first English book on Algebra, called “The Grounde of Artes“, and later followed up with a book that introduced the equals sign (his invention) as well as the symbols for plus and minus that were already in use in Germany.

Click on the image to go to the original text of Robert Recorde

Click on the image to go to the original text of Robert Recorde

One of the commentators on the Ars article says the text of this 1557 work is transcribed in the Gutenberg Project; unfortunately, that’s wrong. A copy of “The Whetstone of Witte” can be found in the Internet Archive.

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