Sep 202012
Eclipse on Mars: NASA image of Phobos grazing the sun's disk

Eclipse on Mars: NASA image of Phobos grazing the sun’s disk

The NASA rover Curiosity is just getting its work underway, but photographing a lunar eclipse on Mars has to stand out as a remarkable achievement. Think about the technical challenges here – besides safely landing this one ton hunk of metal and technology on the martian surface:

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, dispatched to determine if the planet most like Earth in the solar system could have supported microbial life, has taken on a second job – moonlighting as an astronomer.

Last week, Curiosity outfitted its high-resolution camera with protective filters and took pictures of the sun as Phobos, one of Mars’ two small moons, sailed by.

It was a tricky shoot. Phobos and its sister moon Deimos are closer to Mars than our moon is to Earth, so they shoot across the sky relatively quickly. Phobos takes less than eight hours to circle Mars. Deimos takes about 30 hours to make the trip.

Last Thursday, the moons started to cross paths.

“Phobos grazed the edge of the sun, as seen from Curiosity. We had basically a partial eclipse,” astronomer Mark Lemmon, with Texas A&M University, told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday.

The rover took more than 600 images with its left and right cameras, about 100 of which captured some part of the eclipse. Not all the pictures have been radioed back to Earth. (Reuters News)

Not only did the timing and camera position have to be precise, Curiosity had help from the rover Opportunity on the other side of Mars, also shooting images of the eclipse. The next eclipse is in eleven months when Curiosity should be in an even better position to observe an eclipse from another planet.

A remarkable achievement. Now back to work on Gale Crater.

Sep 022012

With Neil Armstrong’s passing, the Apollo 11 Customs form has resurfaced. You have to love this – especially following on the heels of the news that Neil Armstrong and his two crew members received an $8.00 a day per diem on the Apollo 11 flight to the moon (and yes, accommodations were deducted). So on their return they – like any other person entering the United States – had to complete a customs declaration. And in this case, the only thing they had acquired while away on their expedition was moon rocks and moon dust samples.

What makes this so remarkable is the sheer ordinariness of doing a Customs Declaration – and perhaps is was in sync with the NASA mentality of the time – surely with Neil Armstrong’s view of the trip – it was all in a day’s work and this was very much a team effort. Regardless of the technology used and the human achievement, everything was subordinate to the mission itself.

Unlike today, where doing anything, or even nothing at all, seems to warrant celebrity status. And so they continued to do the everyday things that needed to be done.

Like sign off on a Customs Form. (via Business Insider).

Apollo 11 Customs Form for Moon Rocks

Apollo 11 Customs Form for Moon Rocks

Aug 092012

I’m fascinated by NASA’s successful landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars the other evening. Photographs are starting to come in (they just raised the main cameras yesterday) and once they get through the post-landing checklist, we’ll have a steady stream of remarkable images of the red planet. I eager to see them – having spent part of my youth in the rural West, you row up knowing the night sky and learn to identify the visible planets long before you get to a science class. Mars was a reliable friend, the easy planet to find in a field where many were vying for attention, and the one that figured so large in science fiction. Good grief, as kids we always speculated about the possibility of Martians; but lifeforms on Saturn just didn’t make sense.

But I’m also fascinated by the Web and technology and the way it gives expression to a creative impulse in us. Human beings are inherently creative so give them a canvas and they will use. With the Web, the canvas is not so often blank but filled with content that gets reused, repurposed in another context. So with the first photos from Curiosity, another Internet meme is born as the photos become the “canvas” upon which to make a statment. The term “meme” (widely mispronounced, by the way) refers to a concept from Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In the second edition in  1989, he explained:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. 

These days the Web is full of memes, especially visual ones, and the photos from Curiosity will be fair-game. So far, most of them are fairly simple, but a few are worth a laugh; you can see a small collection over at But the striking one is below – a nice statement about disrupting a truly pristine (if harsh) environment. Just wait until the mining equipment arrives in another decade or so.

Mars Photo Meme

Mars Photo Meme (via Facebook,


May 032012

An undated handout file photo shows "Otzi", Italy's prehistoric iceman. This is incredible if it turns out to be true – according to Reuters, Italian scientists claim to have isolated red blood cells from a Copper Age human being that was found frozen a glacier. Nicknamed Otzi for the area where the well-preserved body was found, researchers have already analyzed his bones, teeth and bowels. Though he died some 5,300 years ago, we’re beginning to know a great deal about him:

Earlier this year, the scientists made the first complete genome-sequencing on Otzi, determining that the man had a predisposition for cardiovascular diseases and brown eyes that betrayed possible near-Eastern origins.

Otzi had lactose intolerance that was common among Neolithic agrarian societies and was also the first-known carrier of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread by ticks. 

So, predisposed for cardiovascular problems, lactose intolerant and a carrier of lyme disease. Some things never seem to change. Climbing a mountain, he was felled by a bow and arrow, the best technology of his day.  But he was shot in the back either fleeing an assailant or perhaps he never knew what hit him.

Apr 142012

The octopus may well be the most alien creature we encounter on earth – with intelligent minds and personalities that are near impossible to understand. Take their brains, for instance: they have 130 million neurons (we have one billion), but 75% of their neurons are located in their arms. It would be like us having three-quarters of our minds located in our arms and legs. Call it a distributed mind or consciousness if you will. We have no idea how they think.

Or how they see.

Yes, they have eyes remarkably like human eyes (though one eye will be dominate), though they seem to be color-blind. Yet, put them in colorful surroundings and they immediately change their skin color to adapt.

Here’s one theory from an article in Orion Magazine, “Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of the Octopus,” which is well worth reading in full:

“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom—until it swims away.

For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.

But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods—octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid—may be able to see with their skin. 

And it goes on. Despite their intelligence, they live solitary lives – another octopus is only a threat or possible mate. And mating, of all things, quickly leads to dementia and death. So, solitary lives, distributed minds, skin that may “see”, sex, dementia, and death. This has all the makings of a sci-fi novel set in the future.


Mar 082012

A beautiful image of turbulence on the surface of Mars, a satellite view of a dust devil or whirlwind from But surprisingly, there are many other images of this martian meteorological phenomenon if you do a quick image search on Google for mars dust devil.

Of course, when we were kids growing up in rural Oklahoma, we used to seek these things out (the earthly ones, that is), and run and try to stand in their paths. Most of the time they were miniature ones that had no effect; and the bigger ones never seemed to come that close  in the vast expanse of desert behind my house. But every now and then we were “lucky” enough to get pummeled by sand, dirt, and small pebbles (one of my friends actually got a broken tooth in one) only to go home and get yelled at by our parents for looking like we had been in a whirlwind.

Well, we had.

Dust devil on Mars

Ariel View of a Dust devil on Mars