Sunday, December 30, 2007

2008? bring it on!

The end of 2007 is upon us. But rather than look backward, as so many often do (yup, yup, yeah, yessir, yup, oui, yup), I'm looking ahead! Here are the top 10 things I'm looking forward to in 2008:

10. The Smart fortwo. I'm not personally in the market for a car, but I've loved the look of these guys ever since I saw them in Europe, oh, it seems like decades ago. Now that they're finally coming Stateside, I expect them to sell like hotcakes—and make the road a much funkier place in the process!

9. The Phoenix spacecraft lands on Mars. It's not a rover like Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity, but the Phoenix has a gaggle of high-end analyzing probes that will scour the landing site for signs of water and...wait for it...possible Martians!

8. A new season for the Mets. If ever a team needed a fresh start, it's these fellas.

7. The Hawaiian quarter debuts! It will be the last of the state quarters released into general circulation since Bill Clinton approved the quarter program back in 1997. By the end of 2008, five state quarters will have been released in each of the past 10 years, in order of when the states became part of the Union. Interestingly, our non-state jurisdictions weren't too psyched about being left out of this coinage party, and they have successfully petitioned for their own quarters; an additional six quarters—representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa—will be released in 2009.

6. New albums from Goldfrapp, Ladytron, M83, Peter Gabriel, and The Postal Service, among others!

5. The Columbus and Kibo modules get installed on the International Space Station. These two science labs have been a long time coming and will be among the final major pieces of the ISS puzzle.

4. The Large Hadron Collider opens for business! This humungoid particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, will be the biggest, highest-energy accelerator on the planet. One of the main goals of the behemoth is for it to produce Higgs bosons, subatomic particles that, if proven to exist, may help explain some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter. Another main goal is to simulate conditions right after the Big Bang!

3. Ikea finally comes to Brooklyn! No more schlepping to Elizabeth, New Jersey for Swedish furniture and meatballs - woo hoo!

2. A bittersweet selection for No. 2: the final game played at Shea Stadium. The Mets are moving into a much-needed new ballpark, Citi Field, in 2009, which means that after the end of the 2008 baseball season, Shea will be pulverized and turned into a parking lot. I will very much miss Shea, but I'm looking forward to the tributes and, yes, moving on to the phat new stadium (which, among other things, may house a Shake Shack)!

...And the No. 1 thing I'm looking forward to in 2008: regime change! The 2008 presidential election will no doubt be a mud-fest no matter who the finalists are, but as long as there will be lame duck season for 43 and all his cronies, it's all good. Happy new year, everyone!

Friday, December 21, 2007

all i want for xmas is...

I have some friends who are waiting for the price of a hypoallergenic cat to come down before they treat themselves (they're currently about $6,000), but I'm putting something even cooler on my (evergreen) xmas list: a glow-in-the-dark cat. Scientists in South Korea announced last week that they had cloned several housecats—which in itself is nothing new—but that in these cats, they fiddled with a gene that makes a certain protein fluoresce. So, when they are exposed to ultraviolet light, the Turkish Angoras glow a faint but unmistakable red! Supposedly, the glowing is an unintended side effect, and the real goal is to be able to reproduce certain proteins during cloning that might lead to treatments for genetic diseases. Which is all well and good, but...who doesn't want a glow-in-the-dark cat?! I suppose the cats themselves might not appreciate being more detectable at night—especially, say, by rodent enemies. But I certainly will be less likely to step on my feline's tail on my way to the john at four in the morning if I can see it glowing red. I'm guessing these kitties will be even longer in coming than the hypoallergenic kind, so for now I'm just gonna put it on my list, and wait til Santa agrees that I've been nice enough.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

one very bad holiday gift idea

I listen to a news radio station every morning as I'm getting ready for work, and I can always tell when the holidays are approaching. No, it's not from their coverage of the cutting and lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree. Nor is it from the frigid temperatures that the weatherman starts announcing in late November. I know it from the gradual appearance of probably the most annoying ad I've ever heard. The advertisement is for a company called the International Star Registry (ISR). Their pitch begins, "For the perfect gift, name a star after someone!" Rocky Mosele, CEO of the company, goes on to tell you that for as little as $54, you can name a star after a friend or other loved one. Your money supposedly buys you the official naming rights to a star, which is registered "in book form in the U.S. Copyright Office." You also get a (pretty hideous) paper certificate; a star chart with "your star" circled in bright red; and a booklet on who-knows-what. Umm...this just might be the biggest scam in all of holiday giving!

The truth of the matter is that only one organization has the authority to name stars officially, and that is the International Astronomincal Union. The U.S. Copyright Office has absolutely no authority in this area. What's more, even if you decide to pony up some cash for these bogus naming rights, there's no way to prove that the ISR hasn't reused a small number of stars over and over again. In short, the International Star Registy is a black hole for your wallet. Of course, they aren't the only company claiming to let you name your own star; there are probably dozens of others. However, ISR just may be the worst offender, at least in the U.S.; they apparently make enough money spend up to $1 million every year on sketchy advertising! At this point in the conversation, I'd probably whip out the word "suckers," but as this is a friendly blog, I'll instead offer some advice: This holiday season, dear astronomy buff, please spend your money on a new telescope, a Hubble Telescope poster or print, or some astronomical Christmas tree ornaments!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

girlz rule

For the first time ever, there aren't any Y chromosomes present among the winners of the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology! In the team competition, Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff of Plainview, Long Island won for the molecule they created that blocks the reproduction of drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria. And in the individual competition, Isha Himani Jain from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, took top honors for her work on bone growth in zebra fish. Each prize comes with a $100,000 scholarship, but it will also seriously pad the future resumes of these three young budding scientists! Congrats to all.

I guess the only thing surprising to me about this is that it didn't happen sooner. I mean, all three of these girls did their projects in the biological sciences, and the biological sciences have definitely not been lacking in female representation over the past decade or so. In fact, I kind of can't believe that 2007 is the first time this has happened! Now the next step for me would be to see more girls interested enough in the physical and mathematical sciences to kick butt there as well. Studies have shown that for a number of reasons, girls at an early age tend to shy away from the mathematical and physical sciences, which of course leads to a dearth of them at the college and post-college levels, which in turn makes it that much harder for any women who do want to break into these areas to feel like they're not just welcomed but treated equally.

For now, I'll just be happy to bask in the reflected glow of these three young ladies. By the way, eat your heart out, Larry Summers!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

bcs is a load of bs

I must say I'm sick and tired of hearing about all the nonsense regarding the insanity of the BCS system. For the uninitiated, that's the impossible-to-understand system that ranks college football teams throughout the season and decides which two get to vie for the national collegiate football championship title. I don't think there's anyone on the planet who likes it, so it's time to get rid of the darned thing. I'm not the first person to suggest there should be a playoff system similar to ones for most of the other NCAA sports—and I won't be the last. I don't want to hear any crap about scheduling works well enough for Division I-AA football teams! So just do what you have to do and make it so.

Speaking of Division I-AA: It's high time that the Ivy League were allowed into the NCAA I-AA football playoffs. For the past I-don't-know-how-long, Ivy League presidents have decided against letting the winner of the regular season compete in the national championships. The Ivy coaches are understandably livid about it. I would normally call this kind of thing "whining," since football programs, even at Ivy League schools, generally get waaaay more funding and perks than all other sports. Still, I don't blame the gridiron managers for being annoyed. Pretty much every other Ivy League sport has the opportunity to compete in an end-of-season championship (assuming they've compiled the requisite stellar record)...It's only fair to let the boys play on!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

our celestial twin?

Interesting news from the folks at the European Space Agency who are running the Venus Express spacecraft mission: It appears that Venus and Earth are looking more and more like they may be twins separated at birth!

Venus Express has been orbiting our sister planet since April 2006, but the first solid chunk of data from the mission is just starting to be released now (it takes a while to compile and analyze). Venus was an early target for interplanetary exploration due to its relative proximity to Earth back in the 1960s and 70s. The Soviet Union with its Venera spacecraft and the U.S. with its Mariner probes made dozens of attempts at orbit insertions and landings—quite a few of which were ultimately successful. From those missions we found out that Venus has a similar internal structure to Earth. It also has similar geological activity—such as volcanoes and plate tectonics. The most obvious difference between the two is that Venus has a thick, goopy atmosphere of noxious fumes, mostly carbon dioxide, that you can't see through with the naked eye (the image above is a radar image taken by NASA's Magellen spacecraft). Nevertheless, the early missions allowed us to see the surface for the first time.

Today, Venus Express is clueing us in to the fact that Venus may have looked a lot more like Earth in its distant past. The newest findings from present day include signs of lightning and temperature swings that are a lot more Earthlike than they thought Venus had the capacity for. Mission scientists believe Venus probably had large amounts of liquid water on its surface at one point, until it suddenly started evaporating into the atmosphere. Once there, it was broken down by the sun's rays into carbon dioxide (which hung around) and hydrogen (which escaped into space). This caused an out-of-control greenhouse effect that probably caused Venus to turn into a hellish planet with temperatures of around 800° F that probably no life form could survive on. While the Earth is much farther away from the sun than Venus is, the natural question, of course, is whether or not our steady dumping of carbon dioxide into our own atmosphere could someday turn Earth into a Venuslike place. Here's hoping we'll never know...