Monthly Archives: March 2013

Curiosity finds conditions habitable to life

In the first rock samples taken after recovery from a recent memory glitch, Mars rover Curiosity has reportedly discovered conditions that may have supported ancient life on Mars. Scientists say the sample contains sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon — some of the key chemical ingredients for life. The mission of Curiosity, in a large part, is to determine whether Mars could have once supported a habitable environment. According to the lead scientist at NASA’s Mars Exploration Program: “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”

Water light graffiti

The “Water Light Graffiti” is an interactive art project by Antonin Fourneau. On a surface made of thousands of LEDs that react to the contact of water, viewers are invited to make graffiti with water guns, spray bottles, or just their fingers. The result is a brilliant ever-changing light display that mimics street art. From Digitalarti:

Water Light Graffiti is a wall for ephemeral messages in the urban space without deterioration. A wall to communicate and share magically in the city.

The father of all men is twice as old as previously thought

Genetic testing had shown that all men gained their Y chromosome from a common male ancestor. This genetic “Adam” lived between 60,000 and 140,000 years ago, or so we thought. Recently, geneticists were surprised to learn that the “father of all men” is at least twice as old, and how they found this is an interesting story.

Albert Perry, a recently deceased African-American who lived in South Carolina, had his DNA submitted by a family member to Family Tree DNA for genealogical analysis. When Family Tree technicians tried to place Perry on the Y-chromosome family tree, they discovered that his Y chromosome was unlike any other so far analyzed. Further testing revealed that Perry’s male lineage was 338,000 years old.

The first anatomically modern human fossils date back only 195,000 years. Researchers speculate that modern humans must have interbred with ancient humans sometime before then.

Curiosity switches to ‘Safe Mode’ reports that engineers have switched Mars rover Curiosity operations onto its backup computer, following a memory issue that was noticed when Curiosity had not sent recorded data back to Earth or switch into a daily sleep mode as it was expected to. It’s suspected that cosmic radiation may have damaged hardware on the “A-side”. The “B-side” will take over while engineers determine the best way to restore the A-side as the new backup. It amazes me the engineering that went into this project that allows for such plan B actions at a distance of 35 million miles.

Insignificant to whom

In a conversation asking for compelling arguments against nihilism (the idea that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value), I found these points from reddit user “illogician”:

The claim that “life has no intrinsic meaning or value” looks to me not so much directly mistaken, but confused, and possibly a category mistake. Meaning and value are not things that are “out there” like oxygen and sugar are “out there”. Meaning and value are things that cognitive systems make. A brain that does not assign meaning to inputs and outputs and value certain things but not others is not a properly functioning brain – such a brain is not in the business of cognition.

When you say “a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant,” I want to know: insignificant to whom? I’m willing to bet that your existence is significant to a number of people. To ask whether it’s significant to “the universe” again looks to me like a category mistake. The universe (presumably) isn’t a person and doesn’t have interests.


Much depends on one’s view of meaning. You’re treating meaning as a one-place relation (X has meaning) and I don’t know how to make sense of that.

If we treat meaning instead as a two-place relativistic relation (X has meaning for C, where X is a data point or pattern of any kind and C is a cognitive agent) then things get clearer. We’re no longer talking about some ineffable ‘meaning’ in a vacuum, but embodied meaning as a natural product of cognition.

On this view “does life have meaning?” is a poorly formed philosophical question, arguably a category mistake because it refers to a cognitive state but implies that it might somehow exist apart from any cognitive agent. This is roughly the psychological equivalent of a Newtonian physicist asking “how fast is the asteroid traveling?” without stipulating a frame of reference in which to ground an answer.

I didn’t read the entire conversation, but the above stood out as compelling.


I’ve been watching BBC’s Sherlock on Netflix, and after realizing that there are only six episodes made so far I started spacing them out so that I can enjoy them longer. I grew up reading Doyle’s books and every time I catch a reference from one of the original stories I get excited. I’m not sure I’ve seen classic literature updated for modern times in such a brilliant way before (Holmes first appeared in a book in 1887).

Sherlock: Do people actually read your blog?
Watson: Where do you think our clients come from.
Sherlock: I have a web site.
Watson: In which you enumerate two hundred and forty different types of tobacco. Which is why nobody’s reading your web site.

First images of a planet being born

Planet being bornThe European Southern Laboratory acquired this infrared image from their “Very Large Telescope”  (VLT) recently, saying that it may be an image of a baby planet being formed
The photo shows a portion of the disk of gas and dust around the star HD100546, located 335 light-years away in the constellation Musca.

If confirmed to be a planet forming, this image would be the first of a baby exoplanet (planets outside our solar system). Indications are that it would be a large planet as well, possibly a gas giant larger than Jupiter.

Entanglement, a love story

Poets, painters, writers, musicians – all have tried to express love. Not just love, but enduring love. The kind that haunts you forever. How odd is it, then, that the most beautiful expression of romance comes not from artists, but instead from scientists.

Soulmate love, aptly put:


From the artist, Justin Mullins:


The connections between ordinary objects are fleeting and superficial. Two atoms may collide and separate, never to meet again. Others can stick together by virtue of the chemical bonds they form, until the day that bond is broken.

But there is another type of connection that is far more powerful and romantic. Certain objects can become linked by a mysterious process called entanglement. Particles that become entangled are deeply connected regardless of the distance between them. If they become separated by the width of the Universe, the bond between them remains intact. These particles are so deeply linked that it’s as if they somehow share the same existence.

Physicists do not yet fully understand the nature of entanglement but there is growing evidence that it is a fundamental property of the universe. Unfettered by the restrictions of space, entanglement may be the ghostly bedrock upon which reality is built.