Category: Astronomy

Painting of an eclipse, originally published in the New York Times

How to paint an eclipse. (Pro tip: Work quickly!) How the military changed food science, with the MRE. Audio recordings from the 1930s and 40s of former slaves, reflecting on their lives during and post-slavery. A short anthropological history of human sleep arrangements. A short history of communist bookstores. Border collies can “fast-map” (infer the name of a new, unfamiliar object) with the acumen of a three-year-old human. A graveyard of software. Datacrunch of the lexical complexity and affective metrics of YA fiction. The problems of, in the digital age, having the last name “Null.


After encountering this wonderful factoid, my twitter followers began offering some other fun translations for “computer”: In Chinese it’s “electric brain”, in Spanish it translates as “sorter”, and another way to render the Icelandic version? “Prophetess of numbers.” Oh, and consider “ikiaqqivik”, the Inuit word for “Internet”, which translates as “traveling through layers.” In other linkstuff: A supernova so huge it takes out a nearby giant star. Using smilies at work “may decrease perceptions of competence”. “Icebox” is a Chrome extension that fights impulse-purchasing by replacing the “buy” button on e-commerce sites, and imposing a purchase delay. A paper computer from 1958.


Beijing toilet-paper dispenser scanning someone's face

A Beijing bathroom-paper-towel machine that scans your face before dispensing, to make sure you’re not trying to take paper towels too often. Some listener sent @jessebrown a spreadsheet detailing, with timecode, every time he said “um” during a radio interview. How “The Apprentice” made Donald Trump’s presidency possible. The advent of computational psychiatry. Is writing style predictive of scientific fraud?. Some giant deep-sea worms may be 1,000 years old. Homeless planets.



A screenshot of an art project showing what windows 93 would look like if it had been released

What Windows 93 would have looked like, had it been released. (Interactive! Double click on the programs!) I got that link from this piece in the New York Times about the vogue for retro-90s digital design aesthetics. The third-leading cause of death in the US is now “medical error” (via @boingboing). After 10 years of analyzing the Enron email corpus, linguists have found some pretty cool stuff: Tons of baseball metaphors, and the mundane language of “deception theory”. The “Al Capone theory of sexual harassment.” A terrific appreciation of Maryam Mirzakhani’s mathematical genius. NASA’s “advanced concepts” program is currently funding experiment designs for the airships of Mars, soft robots to disassemble asteroids, and a probe that would explore Pluto by bouncing around.


Screenshot of ebook made from Jack Kerouac's novel rendered as turn-by-turn driving instructions

The route that Jack Kerouac drove in On the Road, rendered as Google-Maps turn-by-turn driving instructions, and published as an ebook. “Strange Signals from the Nearby Red Dwarf Star Ross 128”. (A note from the astronomers: “In case you are wondering, the recurrent aliens hypothesis is at the bottom of many other better explanations.”) A chilling gif that shows Mosul before and after its devastation by war. How to make Martian concrete. Oh, and ravens? They plan.


page of poetry that J.M. Coetzee algorithmically generated using the Atlas 2 computer in 1962

Nobel-prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee was a programmer on the 1962 Atlas 2 computer; at night, he used it to algorithmically generate poetry. The total eclipse of 1878 created a stampede of US scientists out west to behold it. To tamp down on bots — in politics, social media, and product reviews — Tim Wu proposes a “Blade Runner” law. Goethe’s 1797 poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a tale for our software-enabled time; here’s a 2013 English translation. A fun retrospective on the “Netflix Prize” of a decade ago. (Back then, I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine on the contest, where I learned about “the Napoleon Dynamite problem”.) Two AIs, tasked with talking to each other, invented their own language.


People taking smartphone pictures of van gogh's "Starry Night"

A study finds that snapping pictures of art in a gallery slightly improves your recall of it. (Previous work has found precisely the opposite.) An overturned truck spilled 7,500 pounds of “slime eels” onto a highway. Facebook’s “Mom problem”: If she’s the first one ‘like’ a post, the algorithms assume it’s family-related. A study of 147 cases where praying mantises slaughtered birds. (Yi, the photos are creepy.) “Our young moon’s supersonic winds made waves in its magma ocean.” The joy of typing. A cool new Javascript library for writing bots: If you read only one paper about the asymmetric metaphoric mapping of polysemous words, make it this one. A Kickstarter campaign for Sonnet, long-range-radio hotspots that connect mobile phones off the grid (and mesh!) You’ve heard of the “last mile” problem; here’s the “middle mile” problem. How to keep the romantic flame alive? View your partner’s face amidst a stream of pictures of puppies and bunnies.


A photograph of the moon using a game boy camera

Photographing the moon using a Game Boy Camera. The “third thumb”, a kooky experimental prosthetic. “A daughter discovers her a cache of her dead grandfather’s Read It Later bookmarks and wonders about his regrets”: @hondanhon composes brilliant tweet-length story-plots that explore grief and digital memory in the future. A grim chart showing how the US spends more on health care for worse results. Why you shouldn’t interrupt programmers. Find a quiet half-hour to read/behold 17776, an astonishing online story about space, time, and the future of football. (Make sure to see it on a screen bigger than a phone. And thanks to @debcha for pointing it out!)


A man assembles his CV by using phrases autocompleted in Google search
@TechnicallyRon wrote a resume by using whatever Google-search autocomplete suggested. An HBR study finds that male and female founders are asked very different questions — his are aimed at “promotion” (what cool things will you be able to do?) and hers are focused on “prevention” (how will you keep from screwing up?) “Obituary Notices of Astronomers”, a comprehensive list of how 18th-century ones died. (M. Delaunay perished in “the upsetting of a pleasure-boat near Cherbourg”.) Volvo’s self-driving car is defeated by kangaroos. “How Maps Changed The World,” my latest column for Smithsonian.


Astronomers crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho

sappho poem tonight-ive-watched

This is one of my favorite poems by the ancient Greek poet Sappho. She was a master of packing a lot into a very tiny lyric — which is good since, tragically, only 200 scraps of her verse survive. This one is magnificent. In a mere eight lines, she paints the melancholy of middle age onto the canvas of the night sky.

There’s something else about this poem, though: Its astronomical specificity!

Sappho talks about the Pleiades, a cluster of extremely bright stars near Taurus. What’s more, Sappho mentions two interesting facts:

  • she watches the Pleaides go down, sinking beneath the horizon. And …
  • … this occurs before midnight.

Recently, two scientists got interested in the poem, because they realized these two facts could be used to determine precisely what time of year Sappho wrote the poem.

After all, constellations change their position in the sky as the year progresses. That means in different months they’ll sink beneath the horizon at different times of day. Since we know that Sappho saw the Pleiades go down before midnight, first you have deduce where Sappho was located — geographically — when she wrote the poem (because this will determine what part of the sky she was looking at). Then you check the star charts from that vantage point, and figure out what time of the year the Pleiades would have been visible right until midnight.

That’s what the scientists did, in their fascinating paper “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited”.

You can read the paper here — it’s really fun — but the tl;dr is this: They started by working with the year 570 BCE, around the time that Sappho died. (This year is, they admit, fairly arbitrary; but a deviation of a few years wouldn’t change the position of the Pleaides noticeably.) They assumed that she wrote the poem in Mytilene, which was the capital city of the island of Lesbos, and where most scholars suspect Sappho lived at that point in her life.

Then they used a bunch of software, including Starry Night, to visualize the night sky from precisely Sappho’s vantage point. They discovered that Sappho could have seen the Pleiades before midnight from the late winter until the early spring. 

To quote the paper for more precision:

Assuming that Sappho observed from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, we determined that in 570 BC the Pleiades set before midnight from 25 January on, and were lost to the evening twilight completely by 6 April.

As one of the scientists noted, this is one of the rare pieces of literature with which one can engage in this sort of analysis, because typically writers aren’t quite so exact in their descriptions of astronomical events:

“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” Cuntz added. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

True, though there have been some other surprisingly nuanced bits of astronomy tucked into literature. As Jennifer Oulette notes in a terrific post in Gizmodo, Donald Olsen — a “forensic astronomer” — has used astronomic calculations to analyze several works of art; he concluded, for example, “that Mary Shelley was probably telling the truth about a moonlit ‘waking dream’ that inspired her to pen Frankenstein.” And the Pleiades have cropped up in other famous poems, including “On the Beach at Night” by Walt Whitman …

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

… and Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

And John Milton crammed so much astronomy into Paradise Lost that there’s an entire book devoted to analyzing it (written in 1913, and thus freely downloadable for your reading pleasure!)

By the way, if you google this Sappho poem, you probably won’t find the precise translation in my picture above, because it’s not online. It’s from a book of Sappho translated by Mary Barnard, who is hands-down my absolute fave. Her renditions rock like a Rush concert; accept no substitutes, and in particular try to get your hands on the University of California printing, which is aesthetically lovely and out of print. To give you a sense of how superior are her translations, read the one I snapped a pic of above, then compare it to these three that are quoted in the scientific paper:

Translation of Sappho's "Midnight Poem"

Those are okay, but they lack the deft, bleak drama of Barnard’s version.

Particularly her second stanza! Night is “half-gone”, but youth goes; the former is a factual statement about this particular night, then the latter pulls the camera back about sixteen miles and boom, you behold the existential arc of a life. Then she leaves you with that little hang at the end of “I am” … and nails it to the wall with the final line.

Completely metal.