The Universe is incredibly regular. The variation of the cosmos' temperature across the entire sky is tiny: a few millionths of a degree, no matter which direction you look. Yet the same light from the very early cosmos that reveals the Universe's evenness also tells astronomers a great deal about the conditions that gave rise to irregularities like stars, galaxies, and (incidentally) us.
That light is the cosmic microwave background, and it provides some of the best knowledge we have about the structure, content, and history of the Universe. But it also contains a few mysteries: on very large scales, the cosmos seems to have a certain lopsidedness. That slight asymmetry is reflected in temperature fluctuations much larger than any galaxy, aligned on the sky in a pattern facetiously dubbed "the axis of evil.”
The lopsidedness is real, but cosmologists are divided over whether it reveals anything meaningful about the fundamental laws of physics. The fluctuations are sufficiently small that they could arise from random chance. We have just one observable Universe, but nobody sensible believes we can see all of it. With a sufficiently large cosmos beyond the reach of our telescopes, the rest of the Universe may balance the oddity that we can see, making it a minor, local variation.
Researchers at MIT are analyzing animated GIFs in an attempt to catalog what they believe to be a unique, Internet-based emotional vocabulary.
An animated GIF—these days often presented in the form of a "reaction GIF"—can make us laugh, but it can also help convey various other complex emotions, including anger, contempt, guilt, or even empathy in an environment that is frequently dominated by text. The advantage of communicating with GIFs, claim the authors of this research, is they can quickly and easily add context in a subtle way that text or emoticons cannot.
The project, called GIFGIF, was created by Travis Rich and Kevin Hu, research students at MIT's Media Lab working across a mix of fields including data science, who hope to capture this specific kind of vocabulary using quantitative methods (i.e., you). Their ultimate goal is to create a tool that lets people explore the world of GIFs by the emotions they evoke, rather than by manually entered tags. The best part? The quantitative nature of the research means you no longer have to feel guilty for looking at funny GIFs all day.
Two years ago, a giant sinkhole swallowed trees whole in a Louisiana bayou. This year, Nasa says it could have predicted it.
It might sound like too little too late, but with five-to-ten times more sinkholes occurring in this country because of the wet weather this year, any potential tool for mapping precarious landmasses will be most welcome.
The sinkhole Nasa is basing its study on, near Bayou Corne, was a monster measuring 10.1 hectares. It was 229m (751ft) deep by the time it ceased swallowing everything in sight. In a paper published in the journal Geology, Cathleen Jones and Ron Blom, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, have shown how radar data captured by Nasa's Uninhabited Airborne Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR) between 2011 and 2012 could have been used to predict the natural catastrophe.
Spiritual groups that hope to attract your interest may exhort you to “Be a part of something bigger than yourself!” But James Lovelock would tell you that you can already check that off your to-do list.
In the early 1970s, Lovelock—with the help of Lynn Margulis—developed the Gaia Hypothesis, which views the Earth and its ecosystems as resembling a sort of superorganism. Lovelock was working for NASA at the time, developing instruments that would aid the Viking landers in looking for signs of life on Mars, so he was thinking about how life interacts with its environment on a planetary scale. And Margulis was famed for her ideas about symbiosis.
This intellectual background led to the idea that organisms are not just passive inhabitants riding a big rock that determined whether they lived or died. Organisms were active participants in the molding of their environment, tweaking and improving conditions as part of a massive, self-regulating system.