kottke.org posts about science

Some Stunning Shots From the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2023 Competition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2023

a colorful shot of The Running Chicken Nebula

what looks like a question mark on the surface of the sun

purple sprites in the upper reaches of the atmosphere

a photo of the whole sun

the Andromeda galaxy next to a giant blue plasma arc

The Royal Observatory Greenwich in London has announced the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2023 competition and as you can see from the selection above, there were some amazing shots. From top to bottom:

  1. Runwei Xu and Binyu Wang for their photo of The Running Chicken Nebula.
  2. Eduardo Schaberger Poupeau for capturing a question mark on the Sun. I will never tire of looking at the detail of the Sun's surface.
  3. Angel An. "This is not, as it might first appear, an enormous extraterrestrial, but the lower tendrils of a sprite (red lightning)! This rarely seen electrical discharge occurs much higher in the atmosphere than normal lightning (and indeed, despite the name, is created by a different mechanism), giving the image an intriguingly misleading sense of scale."
  4. Mehmet Ergün. More Sun!
  5. Marcel Drechsler, Xavier Strottner and Yann Sainty for their shot of the Andromeda galaxy.

The last shot was the overall winner. While not as dramatic as some of the others, it documented the discovery of a previously unknown feature of a nearby cosmic neighbor:

The Andromeda galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, and one of the most photographed deep-sky objects. Yet this particular photo, captured by an international trio of amateur astronomers, revealed a feature that had never been seen before: a huge plasma arc, stretching out across space right next to the Andromeda galaxy.

"Scientists are now investigating the newly discovered giant in a transnational collaboration," explain the photographers. "It could be the largest such structure nearest to us in the Universe."

You can see the rest of the winning images on the Royal Observatory site as well as coverage from the BBC, the Guardian, Colossal, and Universe Today.

The Brassicas Will Continue Until Morale Improves

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 15, 2023

a simple cartoon of two people standing next to a redwood tree. One says to the other, 'Did you know the mighty redwood is actually the same species as broccoli and kale?' The caption reads 'Every year or two, botanists add another plant to brassica oleracea and see if anyone calls them on it.'

For a recent XKCD, Randall Munroe celebrates the the magical brassica oleracea plant.

Brassica oleracea is a species of plant that, like the apple, has a number of different cultivars. But these cultivars differ widely from each other: cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collard greens, and cauliflower.

Welcome, redwood, to the family, er, species.

The Science of the Perfect Second

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2023

I really enjoyed this piece by Tom Vanderbilt on how time is kept, coordinated, calculated, and forecast. It's full of interested tidbits throughout, like:

Care to gawk at one of the world's last surviving original radium standards, a glass ampoule filled with 20.28 milligrams of radium chloride prepared by Marie Curie in 1913? NIST has it in the basement, encased in a steel bathtub, buried under lead bricks.


For GPS to work, it needs ultra-exact timing: accuracy within fifteen meters requires precision on the order of fifty nanoseconds. The 5G networks powering our mobile phones demand ever more precise levels of cell-tower synchronization or calls get dropped.


And as Mumford could have predicted, nowhere has time become so fetishized as in the financial sector, with the emergence over the past decade of algorithmic high-frequency trading. Donald MacKenzie, the author of Trading at the Speed of Light, estimated in 2019 that a trading program could receive market data and trigger an order in eighty-four nanoseconds, or eighty-four billionths of a second.


All this makes F1 staggeringly accurate: it will gain or shed only one second every 100,000,000 years. Since the days when time was defined astronomically, the accuracy of the second is estimated to have increased by a magnitude of eight.


"A clock accurate to a second over the age of the cosmos," Patrick Gill, a physicist at the U.K.'s National Physical Laboratory, is quoted as saying in New Scientist, "would allow tests of whether physical laws and constants have varied over the universe's history."


"If you were to lift this clock up a centimeter of elevation," Hume told me, "you would be able to discern a difference in the ticking rate." The reason is Einstein's theory of relativity: Time differs depending on where you are experiencing it.

And I could go on and on. If any or all of those tidbits is interesting to you, you should go ahead and read the whole thing.

Stunning JWST Image of a Grand-Design Spiral Galaxy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2023

image of spiral galaxy M51

Love this recent JWST shot of the M51 spiral galaxy.

The graceful winding arms of the grand-design spiral galaxy M51 stretch across this image from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. Unlike the menagerie of weird and wonderful spiral galaxies with ragged or disrupted spiral arms, grand-design spiral galaxies boast prominent, well-developed spiral arms like the ones showcased in this image. This galactic portrait was captured by Webb's Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI).

In this image the reprocessed stellar light by dust grains and molecules in the medium of the galaxy illuminate a dramatic filamentary medium. Empty cavities and bright filaments alternate and give the impression of ripples propagating from the spiral arms. The yellow compact regions indicate the newly formed star clusters in the galaxy.

(via bad astronomy)

A Microscopic Ode to the Tiny Worlds Found in Rainwater Puddles

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2023

From the Journey to the Microcosmos YouTube channel, this is an exploration of the tiny worlds contained in rainwater puddles and their connection to the discovery of microbial organisms in the 1670s by Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. What a trip that must have been, to be the first person to peer microscopically into some water and observe tiny organisms swimming around. (via @JenLucPiquant)

Oppenheimer: More Science and More Heist Please

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2023

Craig Mod has my favorite take to date on Oppenheimer: that it should have been more like Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

My ideal version of this film would have begun in the 1900s or '10s, with flashes of Relativity and then the steps of Quantum Mechanics with Planck, Bohr, and Heisenberg. Quantum tunneling with Gamow and Gurney. The nuclear shell model with Maria Goeppert Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen. Chadwick's discovery of the neutron. Anderson's positron unveiling. Hold the camera longer on Lawrence and his cyclotron. What's going on there? (I mean, ya got Josh Hartnett's pretty head, plaster it up!) Shoot in high-grade mega-IMAX-bokeh the oddly simple experimental setups, the beakers, the blips, the radiation tick-tick-ticks, the iterations, the step-by-step expansion of understanding the fabric of everything around us. Give us an hour of this, this arguably greatest moment of human insight. You can still call the film Oppenheimer. Let the man loom, weave him between it all as he makes his way through Europe, sets up at Berkeley, is selected to lead Los Alamos. Ramp up the Nazi threat. Show the diaspora of brilliance more clearly. Believe the audience is willing to sit through more than just "Is it a wave ... or is it particle?" Oh! There is so much excitement, so much incredible science to be mined, and Nolan mined so little.

Mod and I both share a love for that masterpiece of a book and I would watch the hell out of an 10-part HBO series (in the vein of Chernobyl) based on it, American Prometheus, and John Hersey's Hiroshima.

Madeline Miller: "Long Covid Has Derailed My Life"

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2023

Madeline Miller (Circe, Song of Achilles) got sick in February 2020 with what turned out to be Covid, which then turned into Long Covid. It has profoundly affected her life (gift link).

I reached out to doctors. One told me I was "deconditioned" and needed to exercise more. But my usual jog left me doubled over, and when I tried to lift weights, I ended up in the ER with chest pains and tachycardia. My tests were normal, which alarmed me further. How could they be normal? Every morning, I woke breathless, leaden, utterly depleted.

Worst of all, I couldn't concentrate enough to compose sentences. Writing had been my haven since I was 6. Now, it was my family's livelihood. I kept looking through my pre-covid novel drafts, desperately trying to prod my sticky, limp brain forward. But I was too tired to answer email, let alone grapple with my book.

When people asked how I was, I gave an airy answer. Inside, I was in a cold sweat. My whole future was dropping away. Looking at old photos, I was overwhelmed with grief and bitterness. I didn't recognize myself. On my best days, I was 30 percent of that person.

I turned to the internet and discovered others with similar experiences. In fact, my symptoms were textbook — a textbook being written in real time by "first wavers" like me, comparing notes and giving our condition a name: long covid.

Even if Miller were physically able to get back to some semblance of "normal life", the current policies and attitudes w/r/t Covid make it next to impossible.

Despite the crystal-clear science on the damage covid-19 does to our bodies, medical settings have dropped mask requirements, so patients now gamble their health to receive care. Those of us who are high-risk or immunocompromised, or who just don't want to roll the dice on death and misery, have not only been left behind — we're being actively mocked and pathologized.

I've personally been ridiculed, heckled and coughed on for wearing my N95. Acquaintances who were understanding in the beginning are now irritated, even offended. One demanded: How long are you going to do this? As if trying to avoid covid was an attack on her, rather than an attempt to keep myself from sliding further into an abyss that threatens to swallow my family.

I cannot remember where I read this (it was likely more than a year ago), but it would be more accurate/helpful if we thought of the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a chronic vascular disease (aka Long Covid) that often comes with short-term symptoms and acute, life-threatening effects instead of the other way around.

Chaos, Reconsidered: A Spectacular Flyover of Martian Volcanic Terrain

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2023

This short, relaxing, mesmerizing video of an Martian impact crater called Aram Chaos was taken by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The images were run through an enhanced color red-green-blue filter, which tends to highlight the structure and geology rather than the true color. For example, the blue in the video often represents basalt, an igneous rock of volcanic origin.

Applying High Voltage to Kids Toys

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2023

When you apply power with higher-than-normal voltage to electric kids toys, they tend to move faster. When you apply 30V instead of the usual 2.5V or 5V, they move really fast:

This reminds me of when I was in grade school. Does anyone remember Stompers? They were battery-operated cars and trucks that were bigger than HotWheels and, while not remote-controlled, were able to move around under their own power. But they weren't that speedy...maybe they could do 1-2 mph.

Anyway, some kid at school figured out that you could remove the AA battery, connect wires to the battery terminals, and then connect those wires to as many C- and D-cell batteries as you could gang together in a series. So instead of the usual 1.5V, you could pump 4.5V, 6V, 7.5V, or even 9V into those tiny cars. And boy, did they go. We could barely keep up as we raced them against each other down the halls, running behind them holding our battery packs. But the thrills were short-lived — I think the school banned them and all that current burned the tiny Stomper motors out after awhile. Fun while it lasted though! (via waxy)

Iridescent Hot Water Colors

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2023

After my post about Soap Bubble Worlds yesterday, several people sent me this video of the rainbow colors that can be seen on the surface of and in the steam above a swirling cup of hot water. I was expecting a straight-forward visual display accompanied by some relaxing music (and that version does exist) but it also includes a fascinating explanation of where all these colors and swirls come from.

Scientific investigations into beautiful phenomena always makes me think of physicist Richard Feynman's thoughts on beauty:

I have a friend who is an artist, and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "Look how beautiful it is" and I'll agree. And he says, "you see, as an artist I can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think that he's kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people, and to me too, I believe - although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions, which also have a beauty. I mean, it's not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there's also beauty at smaller dimensions. The inner structure, also the processes, the fact that the colors and the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting. It means that insects can see the color.

It adds a question: Is this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that... why is it aesthetic... all kinds of interesting questions which the science, knowledge, only adds to the excitement, and mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

(thx, everyone)


posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2023

If you covered the surface of the Atlantic Ocean with twelve-point printed text, with the lines wrapping at the coasts, the expansion of the ocean basin due to tectonics would increase your word count by about 100 words per second.

This, from XKCD, hits my science and design interests right in the sweet spot.

If you covered the surface of the Atlantic Ocean with twelve-point printed text, with the lines wrapping at the coasts, the expansion of the ocean basin due to tectonics would increase your word count by about 100 words per second.

This reminds me of Ben Terrett's calculation of how many helveticas from here to the Moon and my subsequent calculations about the point size of the Earth and the Moon (50.2 billion and 13.7 billion, respectively).

The Reason Why Cancer Is So Hard to Beat

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2023

Using the metaphor of a cancerous tumor as an unruly village, Kurzgesagt explains how cancer develops in the human body, how the body fights against it, and how, sometimes, the cancer develops into something unmanageable.

In a sense this tiny tumor is like a rogue town. Imagine a group of rebels in Brooklyn decided that they were no longer part of New York but started a new settlement called Tumor Town, which happens to occupy the same space. The new city wants to grow, so it orders tons of steel beams, cement and drywall. New buildings follow no logic, are badly planned, ugly and dangerously crooked. They are built right in the middle of streets, on top of playgrounds and on existing infrastructure. The old neighborhood is torn down or overbuilt to make room for new stuff. Many of the former residents are trapped in the middle of it and begin to starve. This goes on for a while until the smell of death finally attracts attention. Building inspectors and police show up.

A Massive 5.7 Terapixel Mosaic of the Surface of Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2023

part of a crater on the surface of Mars

Using imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Bruce Murray Laboratory for Planetary Visualization at Caltech has created a 5.7 terapixel mosaic image that covers 99.5% of the surface of Mars. The whole image is available to navigate with a 3D viewer in your browser.

The Black Hole That Kills Galaxies

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2023

Astronomers believe that there's a black hole at the center of almost every large galaxy in the universe. Some of those black holes are particularly energetic, chewing up the galaxies in which they reside and releasing massive amounts of energy out into the cosmos. Those black holes and the energy emitted from matter and gas falling towards their centers are what astronomers call quasars.

But if we look closely, we see who is actually in charge. Small as a grain of sand compared to the filaments, the centers of some of these galaxies shine with the power of a trillion stars, blasting out huge jets of matter, completely reshaping the cosmos around them. Quasars, the single most powerful objects in existence, so powerful that they can kill a galaxy.

The Sun, as Seen by the World's Largest Solar Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2023

closeup shot of a sunspot taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

closeup shot of a sunspot taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

closeup shot of a sunspot taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

closeup shot of the surface of the Sun taken with the Inouye Solar Telescope

The Inouye Solar Telescope is the largest and most powerful solar telescope in the world. The telescope is still in a "learning and transitioning period" and not up to full operational speed, but scientists at the National Solar Observatory recently released a batch of images that hint at what it's capable of. Several of the photos feature sunspots, cooler regions of the Sun with strong magnetic fields.

The sunspots pictured are dark and cool regions on the Sun's "surface", known as the photosphere, where strong magnetic fields persist. Sunspots vary in size, but many are often the size of Earth, if not larger. Complex sunspots or groups of sunspots can be the source of explosive events like flares and coronal mass ejections that generate solar storms. These energetic and eruptive phenomena influence the outermost atmospheric layer of the Sun, the heliosphere, with the potential to impact Earth and our critical infrastructure.

In the quiet regions of the Sun, the images show convection cells in the photosphere displaying a bright pattern of hot, upward-flowing plasma (granules) surrounded by darker lanes of cooler, down-flowing solar plasma. In the atmospheric layer above the photosphere, called the chromosphere, we see dark, elongated fibrils originating from locations of small-scale magnetic field accumulations.

(via petapixel)

The Fastest Maze-Solving Competition On Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2023

Oh this is so nerdy and great: Veritasium introduces us to Micromouse, a maze-solving competition in which robotic mice compete to see which one is the fastest through a maze. The competitions have been held since the late 70s and today's mice are marvels of engineering and software, the result of decades of small improvements alongside bigger jumps in performance.

I love stuff like this because the narrow scope (single vehicle, standard maze), easily understood constraints, and timed runs, combined with Veritasium's excellent presentation, makes it really easy to understand how innovation works. The cars got faster, smaller, and learned to corner better, but those improvements created new challenges which needed other solutions to overcome to bring the times down even more. So cool.

Building a Scale Model of Time

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2023

The length of a human life is around 80 years. You might get 100 if you're lucky. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old. The vast difference between a human lifespan and the age of the universe can be difficult to grasp — even the words we use in attempting to describe it (like "vast") are comically insufficient.

To help us visualize what a difference of eight orders of magnitude might look like, Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh have created a scale model of time in the Mojave Desert, from the Big Bang to the present day. This is really worth watching and likely to make you think some big think thoughts about your place in the universe and in your life.

This is a followup of the scale model of the solar system they built and a video they made about people seeing the Moon through a telescope for the first time.

See also a behind-the-scenes: How We Built a Scale Model of Time. (via colossal)

Ze Frank on Slime Molds

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2023

As part of his True Facts series about the natural world, Ze Frank explains all about slime molds, which are super interesting! Slime molds can efficiently solve mazes, plan efficient train routes, adapt to changing conditions, and learn from each other.

See also many beautiful photos of slime molds.

Is Ozempic an Anti-Addiction Drug?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2023

Writing for The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang details how some people taking Ozempic for weight loss are reporting that the drug has also curbed their addictive impulses (to drink, to shop, to smoke).

Earlier this year, she began taking semaglutide, also known as Wegovy, after being prescribed the drug for weight loss. (Colloquially, it is often referred to as Ozempic, though that is technically just the brand name for semaglutide that is marketed for diabetes treatment.) Her food thoughts quieted down. She lost weight. But most surprisingly, she walked out of Target one day and realized her cart contained only the four things she came to buy. "I've never done that before," she said. The desire to shop had slipped away. The desire to drink, extinguished once, did not rush in as a replacement either. For the first time — perhaps the first time in her whole life — all of her cravings and impulses were gone. It was like a switch had flipped in her brain.

Not everyone experiences these effects, but there's enough anecdotal evidence at this point that scientists are interested and investigating.

Curve-Fitting Methods and the Messages They Send

posted by Jason Kottke   May 15, 2023

Curve-Fitting Methods and the Messages They Send

From XKCD, Curve-Fitting Methods and the Messages They Send. Ahhhh, this takes me back to my research days in college, tinkering with best fits and R-squared values...

The Future Pandemic Playbook: What the US Got Right

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2023

From The Atlantic, 23 Pandemic Decisions That Actually Went Right, the result of interviews with more than a dozen pandemic experts.

17. Basic research spending matters. The COVID vaccines wouldn't have been ready for the public nearly as quickly without a number of existing advances in immunology, Anthony Fauci, the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told us. Scientists had known for years that mRNA had immense potential as a delivery platform for vaccines, but before SARS-CoV-2 appeared, they hadn't had quite the means or urgency to move the shots to market. And research into vaccines against other viruses, such as RSV and MERS, had already offered hints about the sorts of genetic modifications that might be needed to stabilize the coronavirus's spike protein into a form that would marshal a strong, lasting immune response.

How Big Are the Biggest Black Holes?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 12, 2023

This short animation from NASA shows the sizes of some of the supermassive black holes that feature at the center of galaxies. Some are relatively small:

First up is 1601+3113, a dwarf galaxy hosting a black hole packed with the mass of 100,000 Suns. The matter is so compressed that even the black hole's shadow is smaller than our Sun.

While others are much larger than the solar system...and this isn't even the biggest one:

At the animation's larger scale lies M87's black hole, now with a updated mass of 5.4 billion Suns. Its shadow is so big that even a beam of light — traveling at 670 million mph (1 billion kph) — would take about two and a half days to cross it.

Your Body Is Never Not Killing Cancer

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2023

From Kurzgesagt, this video is a good overview of the arms race going on in all human bodies between cancer cells and the defenses developed by our immune systems over the years.

Somewhere in your body, your immune system just quietly killed one of your own cells, stopping it from becoming cancer, and saving your life. It does that all the time. The vast majority of cancer cells you develop will be killed without you ever noticing. Which is an incredibly hard job because of what cancer cells are: parts of yourself that start to behave as individuals even if it hurts you.

What is cancer and how does your body kill it all the time?

Should We Reflect Sunlight to Cool the Planet?

posted by Jason Kottke   May 04, 2023

In this video in their ongoing series on the climate crisis and how to fix it, Vox looks at the pros and cons of solar geoengineering (aka using artificial means to reflect sunlight in order to cool the Earth).

The climate change crisis has become so dire that we're being forced not only to think of ways to curb emissions and mitigate greenhouse gases, but of ways to adapt to our current situation to buy ourselves more time.

One of those technologies is called solar geoengineering. It happens in nature when huge volcanic eruptions cover the stratosphere with ash: That ash forms a layer that reflects sunlight and cools the planet underneath. Solar geoengineering takes advantage of that principle, using different scientific methods to make the planet more reflective overall. The problem is, deploying it would require messing with our very complicated climate on a massive scale, and many scientists don't think the risks are worth it.

Can Water Solve a Maze?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2023

I saw this video on the front page a YouTube a couple of weeks ago and ignored it. Like, of course water can solve a maze, next! But then it got the Kid Should See This seal of approval so I gave it a shot. It turns out: water can solve a maze...but specifics are super interesting in several respects. Steve Mould, who you may remember from the assassin's teapot video not too long ago, built four mazes of different sizes and shapes, each of them useful for demonstrating a different wrinkle in how the water moves through a maze. Recommended viewing for all ages.

What Happens When You Get Sick?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2023

From Kurzgesagt, an accessible explanation of what happens to the human body when you get sick.

Your brain activates sickness behavior and reorganizes your body's priorities to defense. The first thing you notice is that your energy level drops and you get sleepy. You feel apathetic, often anxious or down and you lose your appetite. Your sensitivity to pain is heightened and you seek out rest. All of this serves to save your energy and reroute it into your immune response.

They also reveal the best way to boost your immune system to protect yourself against disease. I don't want to spoil it but it's vaccines. Vaccines are one of the best things humans have ever invented.

Tapping the Vast Renewable Energy of the Yellowstone Supervolcano

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2023

geological map of the Yellowstone Caldera

The first few sentences of the abstract for this paper from the scientific journal Renewable Energy contain a twist in the middle that's worthy of M. Night Shyamalan:

The USA is confronted with three epic-size problems: (1) the need for production of energy on a scale that meets the current and future needs of the nation, (2) the need to confront the climate crisis head-on by only producing renewable, green energy, that is 100% emission-free, and (3) the need to forever forestall the eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. This paper offers both a provable practical, novel solution, and a thought experiment, to simultaneously solve all of the above stated problems.

If you don't know about the supervolcano lurking under Yellowstone National Park, now's your chance to learn more. Here's Bill Bryson from his book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Yellowstone, it turns out, is a supervolcano. It sits on top of an enormous hot spot, a reservoir of molten rock that rises from at least 125 miles down in the Earth. The heat from the hot spot is what powers all of Yellowstone's vents, geysers, hot springs, and popping mud pots. Beneath the surface is a magma chamber that is about forty-five miles across — roughly the same dimensions as the park — and about eight miles thick at its thickest point. Imagine a pile of TNT about the size of Rhode Island and reaching eight miles into the sky, to about the height of the highest cirrus clouds, and you have some idea of what visitors to Yellowstone are shuffling around on top of. The pressure that such a pool of magma exerts on the crust above has lifted Yellowstone and about three hundred miles of surrounding territory about 1,700 feet higher than they would otherwise be. If it blew, the cataclysm is pretty well beyond imagining. According to Professor Bill McGuire of University College London, "you wouldn't be able to get within a thousand kilometers of it" while it was erupting. The consequences that followed would be even worse.

Back to the paper. The authors are proposing to generate massive amounts of energy from the supervolcano — "well over 11 Quadrillion Watt hours of electrical energy" per year:

Through a new copper-based engineering approach on an unprecedented scale, this paper proposes a safe means to draw up the mighty energy reserve of the Yellowstone Supervolcano from within the Earth, to superheat steam for spinning turbines at sufficient speed and on a sufficient scale, in order to power the entire USA. The proposed, single, multi-redundant facility utilizes the star topology in a grid array pattern to accomplish this. Over time, bleed-off of sufficient energy could potentially forestall this Supervolcano from ever erupting again.

I mean, this actually sounds like a great idea if it could be done safely, without ruining the park and, you know, accidentally blowing shit up. As of 2016, Iceland generated 65% of its energy from geothermal sources — the US could certainly stand to lean more on geothermal.

The Assassin's Teapot

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2023

The assassin's teapot is certainly an eye-catching name for pottery, but there's also an interesting bit of physics going on here. The teapot in question has two separate chambers for holding liquid, and the flow out of the pot from each chamber can be controlled by covering or uncovering small holes located on the handle. So, as the legend goes, a would-be assassin could pour themselves a perfectly fine drink from one chamber and then pour a poisoned drink to their prey from the other chamber, just by discreetly covering and uncovering the proper holes with their fingers. As the video explains, the mechanism here has to do with surface tension and air pressure.

You can get your own assassin's teapot right here.

What's the Deal with Ozempic, the "Breakthrough" Diabetes and Weight-Loss Drug?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2023

In the last several months, semaglutide, a drug originally developed to help manage type 2 diabetes, has been in the news for its "breakthrough" weight loss abilities. This video from Vox is a good overview of what the drug does and the interest & controversy around it.

Both Ozempic and Wegovy, Ozempic's counterpart approved specifically for weight loss by the FDA, are brand names of a drug called semaglutide. Semaglutide is one of several drugs that mimics a crucial digestive hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1. It amplifies a process our bodies perform naturally.

GLP-1 is released in our intestines when we eat, and there are receptors for the hormone in cells all over the body. In the pancreas, GLP-1 promotes the production of insulin and suppresses the production of glucagon. This helps insulin-resistant bodies, like those with type 2 diabetes or obesity, manage blood sugar levels. In the stomach, GLP-1 slows gastric emptying, extending the feeling of being full. In the brain, GLP-1 suppresses appetite, which also promotes satiety and curbs hunger, so we eat less.

Jia Tolentino wrote a long piece about semaglutide for the New Yorker this week: Will Ozempic Change How We Think About Being Fat and Being Thin?

But, as I kept reminding Ozempic-curious friends, these medications were designed for chronic conditions, obesity and diabetes. For people who are dealing with those conditions, Ozempic appears to create a path toward a healthy relationship to food. For those who aren't, it might function more like an injectable eating disorder. As the side effects make clear, it's not a casual thing to drastically alter your body's metabolic process, and there is no large-scale data about the safety of these drugs when taken by people who are mainly interested in treating another chronic condition, the desire to be thin.

Julia Belluz wrote a piece for Vox on Obesity in the age of Ozempic and Eric Topol wrote about The New Obesity Breakthrough Drugs.

Update: In the shuffle of the last few months, I'd missed reading Paul Ford's piece about "the post-hunger age", A New Drug Switched Off My Appetite. What's Left?

I can see my anxiety mirrored in the wave of reactions starting to appear — op-eds, TV segments, people explaining why it's good, actually, that the vast majority of those using this drug lose a quarter of their body weight. On social media, fat activists are pointing out that our lives were worthy even without this drug. The wave of opinion will not crest for years.

And that's fair because this is new — not just the drug, but the idea of the drug. There's no API or software to download, but this is nonetheless a technology that will reorder society. I have been the living embodiment of the deadly sin of gluttony, judged as greedy and weak since I was 10 years old-and now the sin is washed away. Baptism by injection. But I have no more virtue than I did a few months ago. I just prefer broccoli to gloopy chicken. Is this who I am?

Even outside the context of drugs, I find the tension between accepting who you are versus trying to change some behavior you find unappealing is challenging to navigate — it's something that comes up in therapy a lot. (thx, anil)

A Prelude to a Supernova

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 16, 2023

The luminous, hot star Wolf-Rayet 124 (WR 124) is prominent at the center of the James Webb Space Telescope's composite image combining near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light from Webb's Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument

Folks, I told you that this was going to become a JWST fan blog and if you didn't hear me the first time, consider yourself notified. NASA's newest space telescope is still stretching its legs, but even back in its early days last summer, it captured this breathtaking near-infrared and mid-infrared image of a star preparing to go supernova.

The 10 light-years-wide nebula is made of material cast off from the aging star in random ejections, and from dust produced in the ensuing turbulence. This brilliant stage of mass loss precedes the star's eventual supernova, when nuclear fusion in its core stops and the pressure of gravity causes it to collapse in on itself and then explode.

Images like these are useful for studying dust, which sounds a little boring but actually is fascinating (italics mine):

The origin of cosmic dust that can survive a supernova blast and contribute to the universe's overall "dust budget" is of great interest to astronomers for multiple reasons. Dust is integral to the workings of the universe: It shelters forming stars, gathers together to help form planets, and serves as a platform for molecules to form and clump together — including the building blocks of life on Earth. Despite the many essential roles that dust plays, there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers' current dust-formation theories can explain. The universe is operating with a dust budget surplus.

Currently imagining a sci-fi office dramedy about the dust budget surplus — someone over at HBO Max or Apple+ get on this.