Links for November 2016

  • Somehow I had never heard of Georges Lemaître, Jesuit priest:

    [Lemaître] proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe, widely misattributed to Edwin Hubble. He was the first to derive what is now known as Hubble’s law and made the first estimation of what is now called the Hubble constant, which he published in 1927, two years before Hubble’s article. Lemaître also proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which he called his “hypothesis of the primeval atom” or the “Cosmic Egg”.

    (H/t Sean Carroll.)

  • Pangolins are weird.

    (H/t Will Riedel.)
  • An interview about the Merriam-Webster twitter account.
  • Jon Baez’s excellent coverage of Jarzynksi.
  • The presidential scandal out of South Korea is more bizarre than previously reported. (H/t Will Eden.)
  • An anonymous Physics.SE user, on the meaning of Haag’s theorem and attempts to make quantum field theory mathematically rigorous:

    This is a little bit like the development of calculus, which underlies Newtonian mechanics. It took a long time, and was clearly a very valuable exercise for both mathematics and physics. But, long before the subject was rigorously defined it was clear that Newtonian mechanics was correct, but the correct language for it does not exist yet. So, I think Haag’s theorem demonstrates that we are at the same stage of development of QFT.

  • Stimulating the vestibular system (inner ear balance) leads to neat fat-loss effects.
  • Steve Hsu links to and discusses the work of Ted Chiang (1, 2, 3), whose short work “Story of your life” has recently been made into the movie “Arrival”. (The PDF can be found with some light Googling.)
  • Inside the world of Australian opal miners who live underground“.
  • Movie accent expert showing off:
  • The journal Quantum has launched. Some background:

    Quantum is not the first venture attempting to break from the traditional science publishing model. Like Discrete Analysis and the Open Journal of Astrophysics, Quantum is an arXiv overlay journal, which publishes or links to the final arXiv version of papers that have passed peer review by the journal’s editors. But with more than 4500 quantum papers posted to the arXiv last year, the field is much larger than the one covered by Discrete Analysisand Quantum has a much larger editing staff than its astro-focused cousin. The new journal, which will begin accepting submissions later this month, could be a fascinating test case as to the future of science publishing in the preprint server era.

    They explains their acceptance policy and reasons for it here. Impressively sensible. This is the future. Unfortunately, retroactive awards cannot be reflected in the journal citation (like the “R” for PRA Rapid Communications) because it would interfere with citation tracking services. This makes me much less supportive of placing such tags in the citation at the time of “publication”, since the retroactive awards seem the most valuable to me. (H/t Lídia del Rio)

  • In Ontario, criminal defendants have the right to a trial in either English or French. In some counties, civil defendants have the right to a bilingual jury.
  • Yudkowsky: There is no one at the helm making sure nothing super bad happens.
  • A serious challenge to the evidence for deworming effectiveness.
  • Xiangsheng:

    Crosstalk, also known by its Chinese name xiangsheng … is a traditional Chinese comedic performing arts, and one of China’s most popular cultural elements. It is typically in the form of a duo dialogue between two performers, but much less often can also be a monologue by a solo performer (similar to most western stand-up comedy), or even less frequently, a group act by multiple performers. The crosstalk language, rich in puns and allusions, is delivered in a rapid, bantering style, typically in the Beijing dialect (or in Standard Chinese with a strong northern accent). The acts would sometimes include singing, Chinese rapping and musical instruments.

    Canadian crosstalk comedian Dashan (Mark Rowswell) says the closest equivalent in English would be Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” sketch.

    And here’s “Dashan” performing in Manderin

  • Gender gap in SAT math continues to narrow.
  • Ode to pallets.
  • On vertebrae:

    Birds, reptiles and amphibians have varying number of vertebrae in their necks, swans have 22-25, but mammals, regardless of size of animal or the animal’s neck, only have seven. Aberrant neck vertebrae are usually correlated with an increase in risk of stillbirth, childhood cancer and neuronal problems in mammals. These pleiotropic events are often associated with physical problems, such as thoracic outlet syndrome, due to misplaced or crushed nerves, muscles and blood vessels.

    The only mammals which have evolved different numbers of neck vertebrae without any apparent problems are sloths and manatees. Two-toed sloths (Choloepus) have 5-7 neck vertebrae while three-toed sloths (Bradypus) have 8 or 9.

  • The James Webb Space Telescope is done.
  • Why did aircraft stop using variable-sweep wings, like those on an F-14?” Mostly a combination of the additional size/weight not being worth it, and the ability to mimic many of the same advantages through computer stabilized fly-by-wire aircraft (which can be more maneuverable than any human-stabalized design).
  • Wikipedia speculates that the search for the island of stability on the periodic table was funded by the US and Soviet Union largely because of the possibility that stable element up there could be found, which would necessarily have very small critical masses, allowing for terrifying compact nuclear bombs. (See also this graph of isotope stability, but not including the island.)
  • Paul Ginsparg has a new FAQ about the arXiv. Not a whole lot new, but hits most of the interesting bits.
  • Updated version of that plot Steve Hsu shows of the falling cost of sequencing. Still falling…

    (H/t Emil Kirkegaard.)
  • A few more quotes from Weinberg about quantum mechanics. Not much new except this meta argument:

    “It’s a bad sign in particular that those physicists who are happy about quantum mechanics, and see nothing wrong with it, don’t agree with each other about what it means,” Weinberg says.

  • Study finds that young physicists are more productive and therefore have more big hits that older ones. The NYTimes tells old people (like me) what they want to hear.From the article: “the physicists were more likely to produce hits earlier rather than later.” They then go on to say that this has nothing to do with age, but is explained by “Young scientists tried more experiments, increasingly the likelihood they would stumble on something good….keeping productivity equal, the scientists were as likely to score a hit at age 50 as at age 25.” So as you get older, you get less productive even though you are supplemented by ever greater amounts of youth assistants in the form of graduate students and postdocs.a   (H/t Sabine Hossenfelder.)
  • Good discussion by Evan Gaensbauer and Carl Shulman on cause prioritization in the age of Open Phil.
  • Trademark fights over terms like “microdegrees” in the online education world. H/t Tyler Cowen. Also from him: Are Legacy Airline Mergers Pro- or Anti-Competitive? Evidence from Recent U.S. Airline Mergers:

    Recent mergers have reduced the number of legacy airlines in the United States from six to three. We examine the effect of these legacy airline mergers on fares and output to determine whether the mergers have had an overall pro-competitive or anti-competitive effect. We focus on routes most likely to have been adversely affected by a reduction in competition. Our difference-in-differences regression analysis shows that those routes experienced no significant adverse effect on fares and significant increases in passenger traffic as well as capacity. These results indicate that the recent legacy mergers were pro-competitive.

    I definitely would have predicted the opposite, so I’m updating even further in the direction of my intuition being good for nothing.

  • The half-millenium-old theological disagreement that led to the Protestant reformation was resolved 17 years ago? News to me:

    The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) is a document created, and agreed to, by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, as a result of extensive ecumenical dialogue. It states that the churches now share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” To the parties involved, this essentially resolves the five hundred year old conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.

    (NYTimes coverage.)

  • Hans Zimmerman and the music from Interstellar.
    No Time For Caution“, from the docking scene, is probably my favorite movie score ever.
  • How to Gird Up Your Loins: An Illustrated Guide“.
  • For tens of millions of years, Australia and New Guinea were linked with a land bridge forming the continent of Sahul, until separated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age less than 10k years ago. Animal inhabitants included Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial ever to have lived. It was hunted to extinction about 46k years ago.
  • The Twin Film phenomenon is widely acknowledged but doesn’t have an uncontested explanation. (See also.) For instance did you know that in addition to RoboCop there was Vindicator, released a year before?

    Both are about an innocent man who is left mutilated and near-dead by villains, is reconstructed into a cyborg by a special-weapons company, and seeks revenge on the people responsible for his fate.

  • This seriously lowered my credence that journals will start publishing more raw data. (H/t Hauke Hillebrand.)
  • The ASM-135 ASAT was an anti-satellite missle launched from an F-15 fighter plane.
  • Uber/Otto beer delivery stunt. Not really more impressive than Google:

    Uber’s Otto team worked with Colorado regulators to get permission for the delivery and to arrange for police supervision of the shipment, said Ron. Otto spent two weeks scoping out the driving route from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, carefully mapping the road to make sure the technology could handle it. The team wanted the trip to take place in the early morning when traffic would be relatively light and on a day when the weather was clear. Those conditions were met last Thursday, when the delivery took place.

  • Zotero 5.0 is a big overhaul, and the beta is available for testing.
  • Niels Bohr as postmodernist babble.
  • NY Times article on the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Telescope and its special curved sensor.
  • Time-lapse construction of giant mining truck:
  • More nuclear space sadness. The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter would have been amazing, propelled by a nuclear-powered ion drive, allowing for orbiting several different moons rather than just flybys. It has possible replacements.
  • Dan Luu’s favorite HN comments.
  • The Chatham Islands sit southeast of New Zealand and have a very unusual timezone. They are economically linked to New Zealand and so keep their calendar synched, but New Zealand is already at the “edge” of the International dateline, being +12 hours with respect to UTC. The Chatham Islands operate at +12:45, thereby being a small wedge on the distribution of timezones that “wraps around” the Earth by more than 24 hours, the other edge being typified by Baker Island at -12 (uninhabited, sadly). Kiritimati is even more extreme, at +14. More.
  • The European starling population in the US of 200M birds was seeded by the deliberate release of just 100 individuals.
  • What’s a software container?
  • River basins of the US. H/t Paul Blackburn. Also by way of Paul: This summary of the scientific findings of the New Horizons mission (now that all the data has been transmitted back). It’s mostly just geology but…interplanetary geology.
  • A Real Politic comparison of dictatorships and democracy:

    (H/t Robin Hanson.) Slightly more. Based on the book “The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics” by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.
  • Number of extant biological families as a function of time. Also.
  • Discussion of some of the remaining problems with a crewed Mars return mission. Mentions but doesn’t say much about SpaceX’s still-underdeveloped technique of supersonic retropropulsion, but see also his SpaceX-specific post. And behold, the real Elon Musk AMA on SpaceX.
  • At a Falcon Hospital they replace individual flight feathers.

    See also the molting strategies in various species to deal with the sensitive dependence on individual feather function.
  • For individuals sleeping N hours at night and taking a nap in the day of length M hours, mental performance depends strongly on N+M but is basically independent of N-M.
    (H/t whatthefat on reddit.)
  • Best microscopy of 2016.
  • SIM cards are complete computers unto themselves:
  • How does the International Space Station maintain its temperature? It heats through electrical and cools (faster) by increasing its blackbody emission by deploying metal panels. More here and here. Because of depressing political reasons, the ISS is kept at such a low altitude that atmospheric drag must constantly be fought. Related: How would the ISS differ if it was being designed today? Here’s the deployment of the solar panels.

    You can watch a live stream of Earth from the ISS. And here’s what lightning looks like.

  • SpaceX satellite internet constellation plan.


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  1. From the article: “the physicists were more likely to produce hits earlier rather than later.” They then go on to say that this has nothing to do with age, but is explained by “Young scientists tried more experiments, increasingly the likelihood they would stumble on something good….keeping productivity equal, the scientists were as likely to score a hit at age 50 as at age 25.” So as you get older, you get less productive even though you are supplemented by ever greater amounts of youth assistants in the form of graduate students and postdocs.
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