The Sounds of Space: An Interplanetary Sonic Journey

There are those of us who, when presented with dueling starships in a movie or television show, always make the same objection: there’s no sound in outer space. In the short film above, this valid if aggravatingly pedantic charge is confirmed by Lori Glaze, Director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate’s Planetary Science Division. “Sound requires molecules,” she says. “You have to be able to move molecules with the sound waves, and without the molecules, the sound just doesn’t move.” Space has as few as ten atoms per cubic meter; our atmosphere, by contrast, has more ten trillion trillion — that’s “trillion trillion” with two Ts.

No wonder Earth can be such an infernal racket. But as every schoolchild knows, the rest of solar system as a whole is hardly empty. In twenty minutes, the The Sounds of Space takes us on a tour of the planets from Mercury out to Pluto and even Saturn’s moon of Titan, not just visualizing their sights but, if you like, auralizing their sounds.




These include real recordings, like those of Venusian winds captured by the Soviet lander Venera 14 in 1981. Most, however, are scientifically informed constructions of more speculative phenomenon: a “Mercuryquake,” for instance, or a “Methanofall” on Titan.

A collaboration between filmmaker John D. Boswell (also known as Melodysheep) and Twenty Thousand Hertz, a podcast about “the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds,” The Sounds of Space was recently featured at Aeon. That site recommends viewing the film “as an exploration of the physics of sound, and the science of how we’ve evolved to receive sound waves right here on Earth.” However you frame it, you’ll hear plenty of sounds the likes of which you’ve never heard before, as well as the voices of Earthlings highly knowledgable in these matters: Glaze’s, but also those of NASA Planetary Astronomer Keith Noll and Research Astrophysicist Scott Guzewich. And as a bonus, you’ll be prepared to critique the sonic realism of the next battle you see staged on the surface of Mars.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Carl Sagan Tells Johnny Carson What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chauvinism in It” (1978)

Is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy? Different fans make different arguments, some even opting for a third way, claiming that the ever-multiplying stories of its ever-expanding fictional universe belong to neither genre. Back in 1978, the year after the release of the original Star Wars film (which no one then called “A New Hope,” let alone “Episode Four”), the question was approached by no less a popular scientific personality than Carl Sagan. It happened on national television, as the astronomer, cosmologist, writer, and television host in his own right sat opposite Johnny Carson. “The eleven-year-old in me loved them,” Sagan says in the clip above of Star WarsClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and other then-recent space-themed blockbusters. “But they could’ve made a better effort to do things right.”

Everyone remembers how Star Wars sets its stage: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” But right there, Sagan has a problem. Despite its remoteness from us, this galaxy happens also to be populated by human beings, “the result of a unique evolutionary sequence, based upon so many individually unlikely, random events on the Earth.”




So Homo sapiens couldn’t have evolved on any other planet, Carson asks, let alone one in another galaxy? “It’s extremely unlikely that there would be creatures as similar to us as the dominant ones in Star Wars.” He goes on to make a more specific critique, one publicized again in recent years as ahead of its time: “They’re all white.” That is, in the skins of most of the movie’s characters, “not even the other colors represented on the Earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges.”

Carson responds, as anyone would, by bringing up Star Warscantina scene, with its rogue’s gallery of variously non-humanoid habitués. “But none of them seemed to be in charge of the galaxy,” Sagan points out. “Everybody in charge of the galaxy seemed to look like us. I thought there was a large amount of human chauvinism in it.” That no medal is bestowed upon Chewbacca, despite his heroics, Sagan declares an example of “anti-Wookiee discrimination” — with tongue in cheek, granted, but pointing up how much more interesting science fiction could be if it relied a little less on human conventions and drew a little more from scientific discoveries. Not that Star Wars is necessarily science fiction. “It was a shootout, wasn’t it?” Carson asks. “A Western in outer space.” Johnny never did hesitate to call ’em as he saw ’em.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Billion Years of Tectonic-Plate Movement in 40 Seconds: A Quick Glimpse of How Our World Took Shape

We all remember learning about tectonic plates in our school science classes. Or at least we do if we went to school in the 1960s or later, that being when the theory of plate tectonics — which holds, broadly speaking, that the Earth’s surface comprises slowly moving slabs of rock — gained wide acceptance. But most everyone alive today will have been taught about Pangea. An implication of Alfred Wegener’s theory of “continental drift,” first proposed in the 1910s, that the single gigantic landmass once dominated the planet.

Despite its renown, however, Pangea makes only a brief appearance in the animation of Earth’s history above. Geological scientists now categorize it as just one of several “supercontinents” that plate tectonics has gathered together and broken up over hundreds and hundreds of millennia. Others include Kenorland, in existence about 2.6 billion years ago, and Rodinia, 900 million years ago; Pangea, the most recent of the bunch, came apart around 175 million years ago. You can see the process in action in the video, which compresses a billion years of geological history into a mere 40 seconds.




At the speed of 25 million years per second, and with outlines drawn in, the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates becomes clearly understandable — more so, perhaps, than you found it back in school. “On a human timescale, things move in centimeters per year, but as we can see from the animation, the continents have been everywhere in time,” as Michael Tetley, co-author of the paper “Extending full-plate tectonic models into deep time,” put it to Euronews. Antarctica, which “we see as a cold, icy inhospitable place today, actually was once quite a nice holiday destination at the equator.”

Climate-change trends suggest that we could be vacationing in Antarctica again before long — a troubling development in other ways, of course, not least because it underscores the impermanence of Earth’s current arrangement, the one we know so well. “Our planet is unique in the way that it hosts life,” says Dietmar Müller, another of the paper’s authors. “But this is only possible because geological processes, like plate tectonics, provide a planetary life-support system.” Earth won’t always look like it does today, in other words, but it’s thanks to the fact that it doesn’t look like it did a billion years ago that we happen to be here, able to study it at all.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

 

The Acoustics of Stonehenge: Researchers Build a Model to Understand How Sound Reverberated within the Ancient Structure

It’s impossible to resist a Spinal Tap joke, but the creators of the complete scale model of England’s ancient Druidic structure pictured above had serious intentions — to understand what those inside the circle heard when the stones all stood in their upright “henge” position. A research team led by acoustical engineer Trevor Cox constructed the model at one-twelfth the actual size of Stonehenge, the “largest possible scale replica that could fit inside an acoustic chamber at the University of Salford in England, where Cox works,” reports Bruce Bower at Science News. The tallest of the stones is only two feet high.

This is not the first time acoustic research has been carried out on Stonehenge, but previous projects were “all based on what’s there now,” says Cox. “I wanted to know how it sounded in 2200 B.C., when all the stones were in place.” The experiment required a lot of extrapolation from what remains. The construction of “Stonehenge Lego” or “Minihenge,” as the researchers call it, assumes that “Stonehenge’s outer circle of standing sarsen stones — a type of silcrete rock found in southern England — had originally consisted of 30 stones.” Today, there are 17 sarsen stones in the outer circle among the 63 complete stones remaining.




“Based on an estimated total 157 stones placed at the site around 4,200 years ago, the researchers 3-D printed 27 stones of all sizes and shapes,” Bower explains. “Then, the team used silicone molds of those items and plaster mixed with other materials to re-create the remaining 130 stones. Simulated stones were constructed to minimize sound absorption, much like actual stones at Stonehenge.” Once Cox and his team had the model completed and placed in the acoustic chamber, they began experimenting with sound waves and microphones, measuring impulse responses and frequency curves.

What were the results of this sonic Stonehenge recreation? “We expected to lose a lot of sound vertically, because there’s no roof,” says Cox. Instead, researchers found “thousands upon thousands of reflections as the sound waves bounced around horizontally.” Participants in ritual chants or musical celebrations inside the circle would have heard the sound amplified and clarified, like singing in a tiled bathroom. For those standing outside the monument, or even within the outer circle of stones, the sound would have been muffled or dampened. Likewise, the arrangement would have dampened sound entering the inner circle from outside.

Indeed, the effect was so pronounced that “the placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes,” notes Artnet. This suggests that the site’s acoustic properties were not accidental, but designed as part of its essential function for an elite group of participants, “even though the site’s construction would have required a huge amount of manpower.” This is hardly different from other monumental ancient religious structures like pyramids and ziggurats, built for royalty and an elite priesthood. But it’s only one interpretation of the structure’s purpose.

While Cox and his team do not believe acoustics were the primary motivation for Stonehenge’s design — astrological alignment seems to have been far more important — it clearly played some role. Other scholars have their own hypotheses. Research still needs to account for environmental factors — or why “Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,” as musicologist Rupert Till points out. Some have speculated the stones may have been instruments, played like a giant xylophone, a theory tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art, but this, too, remains speculative.

As the great Stonehenge enthusiast Nigel Tufnel once sang, “No one knows who they were, or what they were doing.” But whatever it sounded like, Cox and his colleagues have shown that the best seats were inside the inner circle. Read the research team’s full article here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch an Accurate Reconstruction of the World’s Oldest Computer, the 2,200 Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, from Start to Finish

There’s nothing like an ancient mystery, especially one as seemingly insoluble as the origins of “the world’s first computer,” the Antikythera mechanism. Discovered off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the corroded collection of gears and dials seemed fake to scientists at first because of its ingeniousness. It has since been dated to 100 to 150 BC and has inspired decades of research and speculative reconstruction. Yet, no one knows who made it, and more importantly, no one knows how it was made.

“The distance between this device’s complexity and others made at the same time is infinite,” says Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at the University College of London. “Frankly, there is nothing like it that has ever been found. It’s out of this world.”




The expression should not make us think of ancient aliens — the Antikythera mechanism contains more than enough evidence of human limitation, showing a geocentric model of the cosmos with the only five planets its maker would have known.

The 2,000-plus year-old device continues to reveal its secrets, including hidden inscriptions found during CT scans of the object, as Smithsonian reported in 2015. The mechanism is “similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time.”

If the Antikythera mechanism is a “celestial clock,” who better to design and build its reconstruction than a clockmaker? That is exactly what we see in the videos above, created for the clockmaking YouTube channel Clickspring. Using the best scientific model of the mechanism to date — published this year by Dr. Tony Freeth and colleagues of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project — Clickspring shows how the device might have fit together and makes educated guesses about the right placement of its dozens of small parts.

You can see a preview of the Antikythera reconstruction project at the top, watch the full project above, and see individual episodes showcasing different phases of construction on YouTube. The model “conforms to all the physical evidence,” Freeth writes, “and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.” What no one can figure out, however, is just how the ancient Greek artisans who made it shaped precision metal parts without lathes and other modern tools of the machine-makers trade. Researchers, and clockmakers, may have pieced together the Antikythera puzzle, but the mystery of how it came into existence at all remains unsolved.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Wikipedia’s Surprising Power in Shaping Science: A New MIT Shows How Wikipedia Shapes Scientific Research

If you were in high school or college when Wikipedia emerged, you’ll remember how strenuously we were cautioned against using such an “unreliable source” for our assignments. If you went on to a career in science, however, you now know how important a role Wikipedia plays in even professional research. It may thus surprise you to learn that students still get more or less the same warning about what, two decades later, has become the largest encyclopedia and fifth most-visited web site in the world. “Many of us use Wikipedia as a source of information when we want a quick explanation of something,” say MIT’s citation guidelines. “However, Wikipedia or other wikis, collaborative information sites contributed to by a variety of people, are not considered reliable sources for academic citation.”

That quotation appears, somewhat ironically, in a recent MIT research paper called “Science is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial.” Its authors, Neil C. Thompson from MIT and Douglas Hanley from the University of Pittsburgh, use both “Big Data” and experimental approaches to support their claim that “incorporating ideas into a Wikipedia article leads to those ideas being used more in the scientific literature.”




Testing the existence of an underlying causal relationship, they “commissioned subject matter experts to create new Wikipedia articles on scientific topics not covered in Wikipedia.” Half of these articles were added to Wikipedia, and half retained as a control group. “Reviewing the relevant journal articles published later, they find that “the word-usage patterns from the treatment group show up more in the prose in the scientific literature than do those from the control group.”

In other words, Wikipedia does indeed appear to shape science — or as Wharton professor Ethan Mollick put it on Twitter, “The secret heart of academia is… Wikipedia.” Expanding on the idea, he added that “Wikipedia is used like a review article,” which surveys the current state of a particular scientific field. “Review articles are extremely influential on the direction of scientific research, and while Wikipedia articles are generally less influential, there are more of them, they are more up-to-date, and they are free.” That last point — and the implied contrast to traditional, scientific journals with their often shockingly high subscription fees — becomes a key point in Thompson and Hanley’s advocacy for public repositories of knowledge in general, with their power to galvanize research across the whole world. The power of open culture is considerable; the power of open science, perhaps even more so.

You can read Hanley and Thompson’s study on the power of Wikipedia free online: “Science is Shaped by Wikipedia: Evidence From a Randomized Control Trial.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Scientists Create an Interactive Map of the 13 Emotions Evoked by Music: Joy, Sadness, Desire, Annoyance, and More

Most of our playlists today are filled with music about emotions: usually love, of course, but also excitement, defiance, anger, devastation, and a host of others besides. We listen to these songs in order to appreciate the musicianship that went into them, but also to indulge in their emotions for ourselves. As for what exactly evokes these feelings within us, lyrics only do part of the job, and perhaps a small part at that. In search of a more rigorous conception of which sonic qualities trigger which emotions in listeners — and a measurement of how many kinds of emotions music can trigger — scientists at UC Berkeley have conducted a cross-cultural research project and used the data to make an interactive listening map.

The study’s creators, a group including psychology professor Dacher Keltner (founding director of the Greater Good Science Center) and neuroscience doctoral student Alan Cowen, “surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United States and China about their emotional responses to these and thousands of other songs from genres including rock, folk, jazz, classical, marching band, experimental and heavy metal.” So writes Berkley News’ Yasmin Anwar, who summarizes the broader findings as follows: “The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: Amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.”

Many listener responses can’t have been terribly surprising. “Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ made people feel energized. The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’ pumped them up. Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ evoked sensuality and Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwoʻole’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ elicited joy.

Meanwhile, heavy metal was widely viewed as defiant and, just as its composer intended, the shower scene score from the movie Psycho triggered fear.” The cultural influence of Hitchcock, one might object, has by now transcended all boundaries, but according to the study even Chinese classical music gets the same basic emotions across to Chinese and non-Chinese listeners alike.

Still, all respectable art, even or perhaps especially an abstract one such as music, leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation. You can check your own emotional responses against those of the Berkeley survey’s respondents with its interactive listening map. Just roll your cursor over any of point on its emotional territories, and you’ll hear a short clip of the song listeners placed there. On the peninsula of category H, “erotic, desirous,” you’ll hear Chris Isaak, Wham!, and a great many saxophonists; down in the netherlands of category G, “energizing, pump-up,” Rick Astley’s immortalized “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Alien Ant Farm’s novelty cover of “Smooth Criminal.” Anwar also notes that “The Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran’s inescapable hit, “sparks joy” — but if I have to hear it one more time at the gym, I can assure you my own emotional response won’t be quite so positive.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Behold the Astronomicum Caesareum, “Perhaps the Most Beautiful Scientific Book Ever Printed” (1540)

Art, science, and magic seem to have been rarely far apart during the Renaissance, as evidenced by the elaborate 1540 Astronomicum Caesareum — or “Emperor’s Astronomy” — seen here. “The most sumptuous of all Renaissance instructive manuals, ” the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, the book was created over a period of 8 years by Petrus Apianus, also known as Apian, an astronomy professor at the University of Ingolstadt. Modern-day astronomer Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus at Harvard University, calls it “the most spectacular contribution of the book-maker’s art to sixteenth-century science.”

Apian’s book was mainly designed for what is now considered pseudoscience. “The main contemporary use of the book would have been to cast horoscopes,” Robert Batteridge writes at the National Library of Scotland. Apian used as examples the birthdays of his patrons: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his brother Ferdinand I. But the Astronomicum Caesareum did more than calculate the future.




Despite the fact that the geocentric model on which Apian based his system “would begin to be overtaken just 3 years after the book’s publication,” he accurately described five comets, including what would come to be called Halley’s Comet.

Apian also “observed that a comet’s tail always points away from the sun,” Fine Books and Collections writes, “a discovery for which he is credited.” He used his book “to calculate eclipses,” notes Gingerich in an introduction, including a partial lunar eclipse in the year of Charles’ birth. And, “in a pioneering use of astronomical chronology, he takes up the circumstances of several historical eclipses.” These discussions are accompanied by “several movable devices” called volvelles, designed “for an assortment of chronological and astrological inquiries.”

Medieval volvelles were first introduced by artist and writer Ramón Llull in 1274. A “cousin of the astrolabe,” Getty writes, the devices consist of “layered circles of parchment… held together at the center by a tie.” They were considered “a form of ‘artificial memory,’” called by Lund University’s Lars Gislén “a kind of paper computer.” Apian was a specialist of the form, publishing several books containing volvelles from his own Ingolstadt printing press. The Astronomicum Caesareum became the pinnacle of such scientific art, using its hand-colored paper devices to simulate the movements of the astrolabe. “The great volume grew and changed in the course of the printing,” Gingerich writes, “eventually comprising fifty-five leaves, of which twenty-one contain moving parts.”

Apian was rewarded handsomely for his work. “Emperor Charles V granted the professor a new coat of arms,” and “the right to appoint poets laureate and to pronounce as legitimate children born out of wedlock.” He was also appointed court mathematician, and copies of his extraordinary book lived on in the collections of European aristocrats for centuries, “a triumph of the printer’s art,” writes Gingerich, and an astronomy, and astrology, “fit for an emperor.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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