It’s Literally Nothing

Reflection Nebula NGC 1999
Source: Hubblesite.org

I’ve seen this image several times, and thanks to a lot of Terry Pratchett books and a bit of pareidolia, I always thought that this looked kind of like a silhouette of the Great A’Tuin emerging from the mists of  another universe. Still too far away and obscured by clouds to make out the elephants and the disc, you can nevertheless make out the head and the beginning of his shell. And of course the sun that orbits his mighty body is the cause of the back-lighting.

Now, quite apart from the fantastic image that I created in my own head, I always just figured that the silhouette was actually created by some kind of dense dust cloud getting in the way of the light behind it. The shape was surely an accident of history and all the dust and gas thrown off by some star or galaxy formed what looks to me like a giant turtle, and what must look to others like an amorphous blob, or as Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself, says “it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter”.

Then Phil Plait pointed out that things are not as they seem.

Herschel finds a hole in space
Source: European Space Agency

This is an image of a slightly larger area of the sky viewed in the infrared. You shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at this image exactly where the original image was because it shouldn’t look even remotely the same. The dark clouds of dust and gas that usually cause what look like empty spaces in…um…space block the visible spectrum of light, but they are usually still hot, and so glow in the infrared. A’tuin should be glowing just like everything else in this image. And yet I can see clearly that he is part of the green blob at the top of the image. Why is that?

It turns out that it’s not glowing because there’s nothing there to glow. A’tuin still appears in the image because he was literally never there to begin with. The silhouette was never a silhouette at all, but a whole different kind of black hole. It’s a big area of nothingness in the middle of that bright cloud of somethingness.

This is why I love science. How quickly and completely does our universe change with just a little bit of information! Things that we could clearly see and thought we understood turn out to not only be different than we thought, but may in fact turn out to have never actually existed in the first place!

Life Without Auto-correct

A lot of people are dissing the teabaggers for their awful spelling, and to be fair it can be pretty damned amusing. Like this one (click to see the Flickr page from whence this cometh):

Here’s the problem. My spelling sucks, too. I misspell shit all the time, but nowadays the computer fixes the vast majority of those mistakes for me. Unfortunately most poster boards don’t have built in auto-correct. I think these people have just become so used to auto-correction that they forget to spell check their own work anymore. I’m not sure that my signs would be much better if I had to actually make them by hand.

(thanks Boing Boing)

Don’t Believe Everything You See

I follow a site called Mighty Optical Illusions which is a daily dose of…wait for it…optical illusions! The guy that runs it interprets the word “illusion” pretty loosely. They range from the kind of lame “spot the errors” illustrations from when you were a kid to the wierdest “is it moving, or am I falling over” type illusions and everything in between (impossible objects, B&W pics that look like they’re in color, photos of cats, 3D sidewalk paintings, sculptures that don’t make sense…until you look at their shadows, etc…).

The latest post was somewhat poignant I thought. It’s an image that demonstrates quite clearly…well…here, take a look at it:

 Media Manipulation Illusion Example

Want to demonstrate how cruel and violent the military is? Show the picture on the left. Want to demonstrate how humane and caring the military is? Show the image on the right.

Don’t forget, every image is potentially an illusion. Just because it’s clear and obvious what’s happening in a picture doesn’t mean that that’s what’s actually happening.

Logarithmic Universe

I can’t help but love logarithmic scales. Most graphs and images that we see are drawn using a linear scale. By that I mean that the axes (axises? axis’?) count using the basic numbers so that it goes 1, 2, 3, etc… Logarithmic images, on the other hand, have axes that count using the exponents, usually with a common base number like 10. In this way it counts 101, 102, 103 or more commonly (amongst us non-mathematical types) 10, 100, 1000. In this way, things that are of greatly differing size or values can be compared.

One great example of this is the XKCD comic Height. It uses a logarithmic scale with a base of 2 so that every tic represents twice the height of the previous one. I fell in love with that image when I first saw it. But of course, “real” scientists have done him one better. Below is a (slightly and ineptly edited…by me) image of the logarithmic universe which apparently was posted waaaay back in 2005. It shows pretty much the entire universe. I’ve limited this image here to just the area near the earth. Click on it to see the complete image (warning it’s a big image…remember it’s the entire universe).

Logarithmic Universe

Amazing Satellite Photos of Earth

I’ve found some new favorite wallpaper for my computers. These are absolutely amazing satellite images of Earth! From the site:

The images in this compilation are from the Landsat 7 satellite and were created to introduce the general public to the Landsat Program.

Various combinations of the eight Landsat 7 spectral bands were selected to create the vivid RGB composites that we have featured.

Go here or click on the image to see for yourself. I highly HIGHLY recommend it.

Greenland Coast – Along Greenland’s western coast, a small field of glaciers surrounds Baffin Bay.