Speculating about the Future of Google+

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 28, 2013 12:43 pm

Despite a strong initial start, in the universe of social media it’s widely believed that Google+ will never replace Facebook.

Nothing to see here folks, move along...

That said, I’d like to get all Thomas Friedman-y and speculate wildly from a very limited personal anecdote.  Namely, my 6th grader just begged to be allowed to join Google+.  Begged!  Stomping and huffing was involved when the request was denied.  And why?  “All my friends are on Google+!!!!”

I know for a fact that my kid’s friends have parents who would certainly refuse to let them open an account on Facebook.  My theory is that Google+ is such a “failure” as a social media hub that it’s possible for parents to not even know that it’s a social media hub.  Or, if they do, the existence of “circles” as a way of limiting exposure gives parents a better sense of control, making Google+ seem like a more appropriate first step.  And from the kids’ point of view, Facebook is for grown-ups.  Would you want to be on the same social media channel as your mom???  Ew.  Plus, because it’s unpopular with, you know, old people, you don’t have to worry about parents checking your status ten times a day.

In short, I’m starting to wonder.

Edit: And, look what just showed up in the news: “Google+ outranks Twitter as Number 2 Social Network after Facebook


Fires on the Mountain: Facing the Inevitable

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 14, 2013 1:58 pm

This weekend, Australian astronomy faced a horrible setback, as a large wildfire swept through the area housing the Siding Spring Observatory.

Luckily, no lives were lost, and while some support buildings were destroyed (including the fire shed, ironically enough), the damage to the telescopes initially appears to be far less than it could have been, thanks to the efforts of the fire crews.   (FYI, Amanda Bauer was doing superb work live-blogging news and images as they became available.  Click here and here, for  the day of the fire, and the day after as the state of the observatory became clear.).

However, as bad as this was, it wasn’t the first time, nor was it the worst.  Almost exactly 10 years earlier, Australia’s Mt. Stromlo Observatory (shown below) was devastated by wildfires, as discussed in this excellent article, where Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt discusses how at least one of the telescopes threatened at Siding Springs was built as a replacement for one that was lost at Mt. Stromlo.

If you think about it, it’s clear that the peril to astronomical observatories will continue indefinitely.  We typically put optical observatories on mountain peaks, in isolated spots.  While there are a few that are sited high enough to be above the tree line (such as Mauna Kea), the majority of smaller facilities are on lower mountains, and are typically surrounded by vegetation.  The combination of droughts and fire is inevitable, and sooner or later, another observatory is going to burn.


Ten Toys That You Won’t Mind Buying

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 19, 2012 1:16 pm

If you’ve ever had to shop for kids toys, you know it can be a demoralizing experience. Rows and rows of schlock, organized in alternating rows of “pink” or “camo”, anchored to their boxes by 43 twist ties, reeking of child labor and waste.  (Can you guess how much I like shopping?)

To help you out during this trying time (for the first-world definition of “trying time”), here are a few toy ideas.  All of them have seen heavy use in our house (or have been coveted at friends’ houses) and are great for open-ended play.  In addition, they’ve been just as popular with boys and girls, and have worked for a wide age bracket.

1. Wedgits

This is one of the most deceptive toys we own.  I can’t even remember how we got it (present? random mall purchase?), but it starts off looking like a cube of stacking blocks.  Looks boring, right?  Well, it turns out it’s a deeply nested group of squares with compatible angles that let you build some crazy, crazy stuff.  We have gotten sooooo much mileage out of this, given that it works about as well for 2 year olds as it does with drunk adults.  Only possible issue is the little white pieces, which are small enough to be choking hazards.  But, they also sell a “junior” edition where the white pieces are larger, at the expense of some versatility.  For maximum fun, I’d splurge and get the 2 cube set.

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Does This Trampoline Violate the Laws of Physics?

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 17, 2012 5:46 am

Late last week, I ran across a spectacular video of a man being completely awesome:

The video shows Christophe Hamel jumping/falling/hurtling off of walls, landing on a trampoline, and then bouncing up to land back on top of the wall — sometimes in a handstand in case there was a risk you wouldn’t be impressed enough otherwise [seen at 1:50+].

My first thought on seeing this video was “It’s gotta be really hard for his mom to watch this.”

My second thought was, “Is it really possible for a trampoline to conserve energy that well?”

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A Moon With a View

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 13, 2012 3:34 pm

This weekend the Seattle Times published a lovely interview with Bill Anders, one of the Apollo astronauts.  The article is full of interesting little tidbits, but I was most taken with his description of taking photos while his capsule orbited the moon:

While he had been meticulously trained to photograph the moon, making pretty pictures of the Earth from space had not occurred to anyone at NASA. So Anders, with no light meter and really no idea where to start, improvised.

“I had to bracket (the exposure),” he says. “I’m just going click-click-click-click-click, just changing that f-stop up and back. I machine-gunned that mother.”

The resulting picture was one of the most famous from the Apollo program — the classic NASA “Earthshine” photo.  Which, the article reveals, has actually been “printed backwards for more than 40 years because of a NASA mistake”.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Uncategorized

Eyes on Andromeda

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 11, 2012 4:30 am

The practice of astronomy is different than it used to be.

Back in the day, the image was of the lone astronomer, sitting at their telescope, communing with the universe.  Over time, we got more use to the idea that maybe groups of astronomers might come together to work on a common project.  But still, there were fairly tight connections between astronomers and their data.

Over the last decade and a half, something fundamental has changed.  Data has gotten big. So big, that it’s impossible for any one person to make sense of it.  More importantly, data of these sizes make it impossible to “notice” anything.  The line of research that probably got me tenured was based on “noticing” something interesting in several dozen galaxies.  But how do you “notice” something in hundreds of terabytes of data?

The standard answer these days is (naturally) computers.  Computer science is great at problems like this, and many astronomers are working on the interface of CS these days.  But that said, there are some problems that software is simply lousy at.  So what do you do when your scientific interests run smack into a problem that you can’t code your way out of?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society, Space


By Sean Carroll | December 6, 2012 7:00 am

This isn’t an easy post to write, but it’s time for me to leave Cosmic Variance and Discover and go back to blogging on my own. It’s a move I’ve been contemplating for a long time, essentially unrelated to the recent website update here. After having blogged for many years, I’ve decided that I’m happiest when I feel the least amount of responsibility, and the greatest freedom to be personal and idiosyncratic. Even though I’ve always had perfect freedom here, there was inevitably the (correct) feeling that our efforts represented a group, not just my personal quirks. If a month goes by and I don’t feel like blogging, I don’t want to feel that I’m letting anyone down other than myself.

So, I have a new blog at my personal site, which I’ll update as the spirit moves me. I’ve imported copies of all my previous blogging to there, so it doesn’t look completely empty right from the start. Add me to your RSS feeds if you like.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cosmic Variance, Personal

Dave Brubeck

By Sean Carroll | December 5, 2012 11:40 am

Dave Brubeck, an innovative and influential jazz pianist over many years, has died at the age of 91. Based in California, he was a leader of so-called West Coast Jazz, bringing a spirit of experimentation to a part of the jazz world that had been resolutely mainstream.

Brubeck loved to experiment with unusual time signatures, a tendency that culminated in his masterpiece album, Time Out. The tune played above, Blue Rondo à la Turk, is predominantly in 9/8 time, with the beats broken mostly into a 2+2+2+3 pattern. But things aren’t quite so simple, as Wikipedia explains.

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Watching the Wind

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 4, 2012 1:46 pm

Ever since discovering Richard Long‘s work back in the 80’s, I’ve been incredibly drawn to land art of various forms.  Most work of this type tends to be fairly static, but I recently ran across some pieces that I found mesmerizing, in their capturing and visualizing wind.  (Strictly, these don’t meet the definition of “land art”, but heck, if you’re going to visualize wind, you probably need some help from technology).

Here is northern California artist Ned Kahn’s piece, covering the side of a science center in Switzerland with thousands of pieces of aluminum, whose orientations adjust in response to the wind.  If I could find a way to have this video on infinite loop, I would… Read More


Colbert Redux

By Sean Carroll | November 30, 2012 2:15 pm

We are still in shakedown mode here at Discover Blogs, although hopefully things are mostly working well. One change is that from now on people will have to register to leave comments. Maybe that’s for the best? Let’s see how it goes, at any rate.

Last night I had the privilege of once again appearing on the Colbert Report to talk with our nation’s leading pundit about the frontiers of modern science. I can’t seem to embed the video (shakedown, remember?), but here’s the clip. I’m not sure you’d want to use it to help explain how the Higgs mechanism works, but I think we had fun. The joke about “massive” at the end makes sense only if you know that Colbert has a running gag, referenced earlier in the show, in which he has been trying to get people to say “massive” as a synonym for “cool.”

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