Meanwhile, back on Mars…

The Phoenix lander has, among other gadgets, 8 mini ovens that will be used, one at a time, over the course of its mission. The Mars Mission Homepage calls them bake and sniff because they gradually heat up samples of Martian soil and examine the gases that are produced.

A microscope is examining the soil too, by sprinkling soil onto a sticky silicone surface and taking photos of the soil particles smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

And while the first oven and the ‘scope are doing their thing, the digging arm has hit something hard and white in the surface near the lander.


The possibility of ice arises again. Of course, the Phoenix team here on Earth are being careful about making any rash statements – as they should – but the probe was sent to this particular region because satellite imagery indicated tundra-style ice very close to the surface.

There is a selection of videos & animations on this page demonstrating how the onboard microscope works, plus various views of the lander itself and the soil where digging is taking place. Very impressive stuff.

Risks of dying, revisited

The post I mentioned earlier about visualising data has sparked quite a discussion over at the original Wired blog.

A number of readers have attempted to reformat the same data to improve readability and the results have been posted today. Some of them are quite successful, too. However, the animation of the original effort was the best example of attention-grabbing.

This post and the subsequent replies are a great example, not only of the myriad ways that a single data collection can be displayed, but, more importantly, the value of sharing insights with an on-line community. The learning this has enabled  amongst readers is fantastic, and I recommend you have a scan through the different attempts at useful graphs.

Reading is changing

A link to a very interesting article was emailed to me today by a colleague.

The irony doesn’t escape me – in fact, I’m still smiling at this – but it’s a rather lengthy piece at The about how the proliferation of text-based communication technologies has changed the way we read.

The provocative title – “Is Google Making Us Stupid” – doesn’t do the article justice. It’s not only about the way we search for information, but also about how we interact with, digest and utilise it.

The author makes a number of interesting points, but you should read it itself. If you can concentrate long enough!

Gondwana dinosaurs

A species of carnosaur, Megaraptor, whose fossils had previously only been found in South America may now have been identified in Australia. A bone of contention (see what I did there?), the previously mysterious Australian fossil, a dinosaur forearm, has been identified by paleontologists from the University of Chicago, as belonging to Megaraptor namunhuaiquii.

The implications for the world map in the cretaceous period (145-65 million years ago) would be significant – this find demonstrates that these animals were able to migrate across large areas of the planet’s surface unimpeded from Australia to current-day Argentina.

However, the conclusion is being criticised by some scientists in Australia for placing too much emphasis on a single bone. Have a read of the links; what do you believe?

120,000 year old bacteria

Living bacteria were recently discovered 2 miles (3.2km) under the surface of a Greenland glacier.

From the press release:

“The microorganism’s ability to persist in this low-temperature, high-pressure, reduced-oxygen, and nutrient-poor habitat makes it particularly useful for studying how life, in general, can survive in a variety of extreme environments on Earth and possibly elsewhere in the solar system.”

More discussion at Slashdot.

Stealthy cars a concern on our roads?

Prices for oil and petroleum products are skyrocketing and suddenly everyone is talking about issues we should have begun to address years ago…¬† Anyhoo, options currently gaining attention and popularity are petrol-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius or hydrogen-powered vehicles.

And amongst the positives, scientists are discovering unpredicted difficulties. It seems that these cars are – due to their stealthy, quieter operation – more dangerous to pedestrians and other road users who are accustomed to the audible warning of approaching petrol-driven vehicles.

So dangerous in fact, that it has been suggested (video at target page) that vehicles of this kind should be fitted with noise generators to increase their aural presence in the environment.

If this becomes a ‘built-to-order’ option in future cars, I’m putting my hand up for the ‘helicopter rotors with accompanying Ride of the Valkyries’ package.

Risks of dying, visualised

The graph at this Wired blog post is a really interesting example of an engaging visualisation of data acquired over time.

The author’s description is fairly easy to follow, but it basically draws from data publicly available in the US, to show the numbers of men expected to die per 1000 from various causes (mostly acquired diseases) depending on 2 things: when they were born and whether they smoke.

This allows comparisons across a number of age groups and also within a group. The data cuts out just before my birth-year, but it was interesting to get a sense of the trend.

The presentation of data is an important skill to learn as a scientist; increasingly, we need to be able to quickly and concisely distil the main message out and present it to an audience in a way that grabs attention and avoids confusion.