It sounds like the kind of research project that a future a Congressman might hold up as an example of wasteful government spending: gluing a praying mantis to a stick and putting mini-3D goggles on it. But this project is very real and pretty neat, and it should actually tell us something about neurobiology. (Plus, it's all being funded by a private foundation.)
Praying mantises aren't just unusually large insects; they're extremely efficient predators that have even been known to catch and eat birds. This requires both a lightning-quick strike and the visual acuity to direct the strike towards the prey. Researchers at Newcastle University, led by Jennifer Read, want to test out the limits of the mantis' vision. To do that, they'll try to determine how the animals reconstruct a 3D scene.
Right now, as the video below demonstrates, that involves placing a mantis (glued to a stick so it doesn't move around) in front of a television monitor and filming its strikes. But the lab is now attaching the world's smallest 3D goggles to a mantis and attempting to manipulate the 3D scene by sending each of its eyes slightly different images. It may turn out that the insect's brain operates much like a vertebrate's, using the physical separation of the eyes and the difference in perspective it involves to figure out locations in 3D. If so, it would indicate that the amount of neural horsepower needed to do so is much more limited than we might have thought.
White dwarf supernovas—also known as type Ia—are both bright enough and consistent enough in their characteristics to be used to measure distances to far-off galaxies. That's why the discovery of an anomalous supernova 400 times brighter than expected gave astronomers indigestion. While researchers have identified other super-bright supernovae that are likely the result of exploding stars, these observations didn't fit easily into any previously described phenomenon.
However, one possibility remained: perhaps the light from this supernova had been magnified by gravitational lensing somewhere between the explosion and Earth. If that's the case, the anomalous explosion could be an ordinary white dwarf supernova that happened to appear much brighter, instead of a fundamentally new type of event. Robert M. Quimby and colleagues found a galaxy that could be doing the lensing by monitoring the supernova as it faded. While lots of gravitational lenses have been identified, this is the first clear example of magnification of a supernova.
The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System 1 (Pan-STARRS1, designed in part to locate transient events) detected the anomalous supernova on August 31, 2010. Based on follow-up observations, astronomers determined that it was more than nine billion light-years away. However, for that to be true, the outburst had to be more than 400 times brighter than a typical exploding star, or 30 times brighter in peak light output than expected from a white dwarf supernova.
If I told you that something was "very likely," what would you consider the odds of it happening?
The answer isn't just academic. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change use terms like "unlikely" and "virtually certain" to describe very specific degrees of certainty or probabilities of future events—information that informs government policy. And the challenges of conveying that information extend well beyond the climate. Pretty much any risk evaluation, from health to nuclear safety, involves some degree of conveying probability.
The IPCC's approach is to go for readability, using the phrases noted above instead of numerical values; it typically provides the translation between words and numbers in a table near the top of their reports. For example, crack open an IPCC report and you'll see that "very likely" means greater than 90 percent.
On Tuesday, with Earth Day as a backdrop, the B612 Foundation started its presentation about asteroid detection with enough material to fill out an apocalyptic sci-fi film. An introductory video mapped out 26 nuclear-bomb-level impacts recorded on Earth in the last 13 years, a few of which were measured as larger than the one that leveled Hiroshima. After that, a supplementary video showed thousands of dots whirling around the Solar System like fireflies, each dot representing an asteroid that has been tracked by NASA. "There are at least 100 times as many [asteroids] out there," B612 reps said.
Next to the projector's screen sat a cardboard kiosk with a grotesque image: an asteroid about to crash into a giant football stadium. Earth Day? More like Kiss-Earth-Goodbye Day!
“The current strategy to deal with asteroid impacts is blind luck,” former NASA astronaut Dr. Ed Lu said, hinting at a lack of effort from NASA and other space agencies. “But we can change that.”
Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone,” the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water—and perhaps life.
What did not make the news, however, is that this discovery also slightly increases how much credence we give to the possibility of our own near-term extinction. This is because of a concept known as the Great Filter.
The Great Filter is an argument that attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox: why have we not found aliens (or why have they not found us), despite the existence of hundreds of billions of exosolar systems in our galactic neighborhood in which life might evolve? As the namesake physicist Enrico Fermi noted, it seems rather extraordinary that not a single extraterrestrial signal or engineering project has been detected (UFO conspiracy theorists notwithstanding).