The color you see is a perceptual trick of your brain: it is not, no matter what your preschool teacher told you, an inherent physical property of that red apple or green leaf. The truth is that colorful objects just happen to be reflecting wavelengths of light that our brains interpret as specific colors. Do we all see those reflected wavelengths the same way? Because the experience of color vision is impossible to share, we simply don’t know. It’s quite possible that they’re not. In fact, a certain subset of people may well see a hundred times as many colors of the rest of us, but, because of the essentially privateness of color vision, have never realized that they are different.
In a tour through recent research on the perception of color, Natalie Wolchover at Life’s Little Mysteries also turns up another weird insight to add to the long list of strange things about color vision: It could be the blueness of light around twilight that makes us calm, and the yellowness of light around dawn that wakes us up, rather than brightness and darkness:
A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The entry for
774 AD refers to a “red crucifix” appearing in the sky.
Earlier this month, researchers found that Japanese trees had preserved a centuries-old spike in the atmosphere’s proportion of carbon-14, apparently caused by a burst of cosmic rays that hit earth between 774 and 775 AD. But that left a perplexing mystery: the most likely source of that excess carbon-14 would be cosmic rays emitted by a supernova. But any supernova powerful enough to generate carbon-14 should have been visible to people alive then, and there was no known record of what should’ve been a pretty notable event.
Enter Jonathon Allen, a polymath undergraduate who majors in biochemistry and also has a deep interest in history. Allen dug around in a contemporary manuscript and found a reference to a “red crucifix” appearing in the sky in 774 AD. This celestial signal may have marked a supernova that birthed the cosmic rays and created the trees’ carbon-14 peak.
An illustration of the Naval Research Laboratory’s plan
to knock space junk out of orbit
Here on earth, green enthusiasts tend to judge people for littering, but for 50 years, we’ve had little opposition to cluttering up space. Today, there are hundreds of millions of objects in low-earth orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to trashed lens caps and frozen urine. More than just an aesthetic problem, space junk can crash into satellites and endanger ships passing through on their way to deeper space. Several plans have been proposed to clean up the mess, some requiring advanced materials like aerogels, but the latest suggestion is a bit more cost effective: It just requires a bit of dust.
Paleontologists have long debated whether the dinosaurs were cold-blooded, soaking up heat from their surroundings like today’s reptiles, or warm-blooded, able to generate their own heat the way modern birds and mammals do. Some scientists pointed to dark bands called lines of arrested growth in dinosaur bones as evidence that the animals were cold-blooded. These lines, much like tree rings, show times when growth slowed down due to limited resources—perhaps, researchers suggested, during off seasons when the heat-absorbing animal wasn’t able to get enough energy from its environment.
A new study in Nature, however, examined the bones of 40 species of present-day ruminants—many-stomached, very much warm-blooded mammals—from around the globe, and found these animals’ bones show these same lines of arrested growth. Even mammals, it seems, slow down enough in tough times to leave these telltale marks in their bones. (Archaeologists have found similar bands, called Harris lines, in human bones from periods of malnutrition.) While this doesn’t prove dinos were warm-blooded, it knocks down an oft-cited piece of evidence that they weren’t. It’s possible that the dinosaurs evolved high body temperature, and passed the adaptation onto their descendants, today’s birds.
As you preparing to merge onto a crowded highway, drivers should direct all their attention at the road. But all too often, we’re also minding a drink, music, conversation, and maybe Ford’s handy-dandy, voice-controlled Sync communications and entertainment system. With all of that going on, you probably won’t sense your heart rate and breathing speeding up, or the bead of sweat trickling down your brow. But your car just might.
This might look like a lot of old coins, but they come from
a trove 35 times smaller than the most recent find.
Uncovering ancient buried treasure doesn’t require the skills to interpret a secret map or navigate a booby-trapped cave. All it took to turn up the largest hoard of Iron Age coins ever found in Europe were two metal detectors…and a lot of patience. After 30 years of searching, Reg Mead and Richard Miles discovered a cache of 30,000 to 50,000 gold and silver Celtic coins worth up to $15 million.
About three decades ago, Mead and Miles heard that a farmer had discovered some silver coins in a field on Jersey, a self-governing island in the English Channel. Although most people would dismiss the rumor, the two men were so intrigued that they started investigating with their metal detectors, a practice they continued through February of this year, when their long quest turned up 60 silver coins and one gold one. Still not satisfied, the men kept looking.
Louisiana’s new voucher program will kick in during the upcoming school year, giving students in failing public schools the funds to attend certain highly rated public schools and private institutions. Some of these private schools will be spreading ignorance to their students by using curriculum that openly clashes with modern science.
One textbook used by many private schools makes the creationist claim that no transitional fossils showing evolutionary changes have ever been found, which is simply not true. “This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis,” the book reads. “For the change, to have taken place many transitional forms would have been developed. However, no transitional fossils have been or will ever be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsman fashioned them all” [poor reasoning and use of commas theirs; emphasis ours].
This excerpt comes from a high-school science book used in the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, an educational tool in many Louisiana schools, like the Eternity Christian Academy in Calcasieu Parish, which is offering spots for 135 voucher students. British musician Jonny Scaramanga, who attended an ACE school while growing up as a Christian fundamentalist, has published this and other alarming textbook passages on his blog, Leaving Fundamentalism, including the creationist claim that the second law of thermodynamics disproves evolution.
Most of us would consider ourselves honest people—but that doesn’t stop us from fudging the rules in favor of our team, giving an inflated report of our own performance, or buying knock-off accessories rather than the legit version. At Wired, Joanna Pearlstein talks to behavioral economist Dan Ariely about what leads us to lie, cheat, and steal—and rationalize our behavior to ourselves as not being so bad.
Wired: You write that people find it easier to rationalize stealing when they’re taking things rather than actual cash. You did an experiment where you left Coca-Colas in a dorm refrigerator along with a pile of dollar bills. People took the Cokes but left the cash. What’s going on there?
A drone launches from the USS Lassen.
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear “drones”? Military spy planes—or sophisticated toys cultivated by a growing group of DIY enthusiasts? The ingredients that go into an unmanned aerial vehicle, such as autopilot technology, GPS, and cameras, have grown small enough to fit on a toy plane and cheap enough for amateurs to buy, in part because these electronics are also integral components of smartphones.
On the Wired Danger Room blog, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of the magazine, predicts the rise of the personal drone industry.
Why? The reason is the same as with every other digital technology: a Moore’s-law-style pace where performance regularly doubles while size and price plummet. In fact, the Moore’s law of drone technology is currently accelerating, thanks to the smartphone industry, which relies on the same components—sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors—all of them growing smaller and faster each year. Just as the 1970s saw the birth and rise of the personal computer, this decade will see the ascendance of the personal drone. We’re entering the Drone Age.
As I watch the graduates parading proudly around my Brooklyn neighborhood, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we handle high-school education in this country. When I attended high school in suburban Maryland, engineering wasn’t considered a subject. We had English, all the sciences, math, music, social studies, even home ec, but engineering was absent. And no, this isn’t one of those “my how times have changed since I was young” stories. Things haven’t changed, at least by much; and that’s not good, given the challenges that lie ahead.
My thoughts are inspired in part by the DiscoverE Summit, sponsored by ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the National Engineers Week Foundation, and DISCOVER magazine. Back in February I had the pleasure of joining three outstanding K-12 educators from across the country—Javaris Powell, Shella Condino, and Derek Sale—as they were celebrated for their commitment to STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) and for the extraordinary impact they’ve had on their students.
Javaris, Derek, and Shella all teach in underserved communities. But lack of money and supplies isn’t their most troubling problem. Javaris told me that the most difficult part of his job is breaking through his students’ own stereotypes: