Category: Innovation

More on the dog’s nose!

A new sense recently discovered in the dog’s nose.

I subscribe to AAAS and their last email newsletter contained this fascinating information.

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An infrared photo of a golden retriever in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner reveals the cold temperature of a dog’s nose versus its glowing, warm body.
Anna Bálint

New sense discovered in dog noses: the ability to detect heat

Dogs’ noses just got a bit more amazing. Not only are they up to 100 million times more sensitive than ours, they can sense weak thermal radiation—the body heat of mammalian prey, a new study reveals. The find helps explain how canines with impaired sight, hearing, or smell can still hunt successfully.

“It’s a fascinating discovery,” says Marc Bekoff, an ethologist, expert on canine sniffing, and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who was not involved in the study. “[It] provides yet another window into the sensory worlds of dogs’ highly evolved cold noses.”

The ability to sense weak, radiating heat is known in only a handful of animals: black fire beetles, certain snakes, and one species of mammal, the common vampire bat, all of which use it to hunt prey.

Most mammals have naked, smooth skin on the tips of their noses around the nostrils, an area called the rhinarium. But dogs’ rhinaria are moist, colder than the ambient temperature, and richly endowed with nerves—all of which suggests an ability to detect not just smell, but heat.

To test the idea, researchers at Lund University and Eötvös Loránd University trained three pet dogs to choose between a warm (31°C) and an ambient-temperature object, each placed 1.6 meters away. The dogs weren’t able to see or smell the difference between these objects. (Scientists could only detect the difference by touching the surfaces.) After training, the dogs were tested on their skill in double-blind experiments; all three successfully detected the objects emitting weak thermal radiation, the scientists reveal today in Scientific Reports.

Next, the researchers scanned the brains of 13 pet dogs of various breeds in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner while presenting the pooches with objects emitting neutral or weak thermal radiation. The left somatosensory cortex in dogs’ brains, which delivers inputs from the nose, was more responsive to the warm thermal stimulus than to the neutral one. The scientists identified a cluster of 14 voxels (3D pixels) in this region of the dogs’ left hemispheres, but didn’t find any such clusters in the right, and none in any part of the dogs’ brains in response to the neutral stimulus.

Together, the two experiments show that dogs, like vampire bats, can sense weak hot spots and that a specific region of their brains is activated by this infrared radiation, the scientists say. They suspect dogs inherited the ability from their ancestor, the gray wolf, who may use it to sniff out warm bodies during a hunt.

“The study is consistent with other research that describes the combined dog nose and brain as a sophisticated platform for processing a broad range of signals,” says Gary Settles, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who has studied dogs’ sniffing abilities. He doubts, however, “that the dog rhinarium can distinguish patterns of hot and cold objects at a distance,” suggesting dogs’ thermal detection skills may not be useful for long distance hunting. “[T]hat needs further study.”

If nothing else, the work suggests the extraordinary skills of the sled dog Buck, who tracked prey “not by sight or sound or smell, but by some other and subtler sense” in Jack London’s Call of the Wild, aren’t completely fictional after all.

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Dogs are in the news again. For their incredible noses; this time we are learning how they track heat.

Brilliant animals!

Living your dash!

I stole the title of this post from Colin!

In fact, I am ‘stealing’ the whole of Colin’s post, albeit with his permission, because recently he posted on his blog Wibble a poem written by Linda Ellis that is perfect. Indeed, it is more than perfect, it is a unique view of our lifetimes: yours; mine, everyone’s.

Here is Colin’s post.

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Living your dash

And what about mathematics?

Yet another revelation!

Fairly soon after publishing my post about music and the dog world I came across another article on dogs, and other animals, having a sense of numbers.

Now this post which was originally published by The Conversation is intricate in it’s deliberations but it is still clear. Try the article yourself.

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Animals that can do math understand more language than we think

May 28, 2020

By Erik Nelson, Phd Student, Philosophy, Dalhousie University

It is often thought that humans are different from other animals in some fundamental way that makes us unique, or even more advanced than other species. These claims of human superiority are sometimes used to justify the ways we treat other animals, in the home, the lab or the factory farm.

So, what is it that makes us so different from other animals? Many philosophers, both past and present, have pointed to our linguistic abilities. These philosophers argue that language not only allows us to communicate with each other, but also makes our mental lives more sophisticated than those that lack language. Some philosophers have gone so far as to argue that creatures that lack a language are not capable of being rational, making inferences, grasping concepts or even having beliefs or thoughts.

An illustration of a sulky chimpanzee from Charles Darwin’s 1872 book, ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.’ (Wellcome Collection)

Even if we are willing to accept these claims, what should we think of animals who are capable of speech? Many types of birds, most famously parrots, are able to make noises that at least sound linguistic, and gorillas and chimpanzees have been taught to communicate using sign language. Do these vocalizations or communications indicate that, like humans, these animals are also capable of sophisticated mental processes?

The philosophy of animal language

Philosophers have generally answered this question by denying that talking parrots and signing gorillas are demonstrating anything more than clever mimicry. Robert Brandom, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh, has argued that if a parrot says “red” when shown red objects and “blue” when presented with blue ones, it has not actually demonstrated that it understands the meaning of those words. According to Brandom — and many other philosophers — understanding the meaning of a word requires understanding both the meaning of many other words and the connections that exist between those words.

Imagine that you bring your toddler niece to a petting zoo for the first time, and ask her if she is able to point to the rabbits. If she successfully does, this might seem like a good indication that she understands what a rabbit is. However, you now ask her to point to the animals. If she points to some rocks on the ground instead of pointing to the rabbits or the goats, does she actually understand what the word “rabbit” means? Understanding “rabbit” involves understanding “animal,” as well as the connection between these two things.

So if a parrot is able to tell us the colour of different objects, that does not necessarily show that the parrot understands the meanings of those words. To do that, a parrot would need to demonstrate that it also understands that red and blue fall underneath the category of colour, or that if something is red all over, it cannot, at the same time, be blue all over.

What sort of behaviour would demonstrate that a parrot or a chimpanzee did understand the words it was using? As a philosopher who focuses on the study of animal cognition, I examine both empirical and theoretical work to answer these types of questions.

In recent research, I argue that testing an animal’s arithmetical capabilities can provide insight into just how much they are capable of understanding. In order to see why, we need to take a brief detour through the philosophy of mathematics.

Counting animals

In the late 1800s, the German mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege tried to demonstrate that arithmetic is an objective science. Many philosophers and mathematicians at the time thought that arithmetic was merely an artifact of human psychology. Frege worried that such an understanding would make arithmetic entirely subjective, placing it on no firmer ground than the latest fashion trends.

In The Foundations of Arithmetic, Frege begins by logically analyzing what sorts of things numbers are. He thinks that the key to this investigation is figuring out what it takes to answer the question “how many?”

If I hand you a deck of cards and ask, “How many?” without specifying what I want counted, it would be difficult to even figure out what sort of answer I am looking for. Am I asking you how many decks of cards, how many cards all together, how many suits or any of the other number of ways of dividing up the deck? If I ask, “How many suits?” and you respond “four,” you are demonstrating not just that you can count, but that you understand what suits are.

Frege thought that the application of number labels depends on being able to grasp the connection between what is being counted and how many of them there are. Replying “four” to the question “How many?” might seem like a disconnected act, like parrots merely calling red objects “red.” However, it is more like your niece pointing to the rabbits while also understanding that rabbits are animals. So, if animals are able to reliably respond correctly to the question “How many?” this demonstrates that they understand the connection between the numerical amount and the objects they are being asked about.

Animal mathematical literacy

One example of non-human animals demonstrating a wide range of arithmetical capabilities is the work that Irene Pepperberg did with African grey parrots, most famously her subjects Alex and Griffin.

In order to test Alex’s arithmetic capabilities, Pepperberg would show him a set of objects on a tray, and would ask, “How many?” for each of the objects. For example, she would show him a tray with differently shaped objects on it and ask, “How many four-corner?” (Alex’s word for squares.) Alex was able to reliably provide the answer for amounts up to six.

Alex was also able to provide the name for the object if asked to look for a number of those objects. For example, if a tray had different quantities of coloured objects on it including five red objects, and Alex was asked, “What colour is five?” Alex was able to correctly respond by saying “red.”

Pepperberg’s investigations into the ability to learn and understand basic arithmetic provide examples that show that Alex was able to do more than simply mimic human sounds. Providing the right word when asked, “How many?” required him to understand the connections between the numerical amount and the objects being asked about.

Animal mathematical skills

While Pepperberg’s results are impressive, they are far from unique. Numerical abilities have been identified in many different species, most prominently chimpanzees. Some of these capabilities demonstrate that the animals understand the underlying connections between different words and labels. They are therefore doing something more than just mimicking the sounds and actions of the humans around them.

Animals that can do basic arithmetic show us that some really are capable of understanding the terms they use and the connections between them. However, it is still an open question whether their understanding of these connections is a result of learning linguistic expressions, or if their linguistic expressions simply help demonstrate underlying capabilities.

Either way, claims that humans are uniquely able to understand the meanings of words are a bit worse for wear.

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There’s little that I can add to the excellent summary in that penultimate paragraph;

Animals that can do basic arithmetic show us that some really are capable of understanding the terms they use and the connections between them. However, it is still an open question whether their understanding of these connections is a result of learning linguistic expressions, or if their linguistic expressions simply help demonstrate underlying capabilities.

but one thing is becoming clearer and clearer: dogs and other animals are a whole lot smarter than many (most?) of us think. Primarily on the back of research into the nature of our creatures and especially those creatures that are very close to us.

Music makes the (dog) world go round!

A Daily Dodo item that is just lovely!

Now this is a story about a specific event, taking Sadie to the vet. But there’s a more fundamental theme to this post and that is the role of music in our lives and in the lives of our dogs.

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Dog Is Terrified Of Vet — Until He Decides To Sing To Her

From the Daily Dodo, May 22nd, 2020

Photo Credit: Kaeley Simek

Sadie was rescued from a local shelter when she was around a year old, and when she joined her family, she was quick to let them know that she was always down to have fun.

“Her personality is SO sassy and playful,” Kaeley Simek, Sadie’s mom, told The Dodo. “Ever since we gave her her first toy, she loves to play as often as she can. She is very high-energy and pretty much up for anything.”

While Sadie is usually the life of the party, the one thing that doesn’t make her smile is having to go to the vet.

“Sadie was not scared of vets when first rescuing her, but once she realized that she always goes there to get shots or if she has pain, she quickly learned it is not a fun place to be,” Simek said.

Photo Credit: Kaeley Simek

Sadie didn’t have great vet experiences when she was first rescued, and after that, she was absolutely terrified every time she realized that’s where she was headed. Her mom desperately wanted to find a vet who would understand Sadie’s anxiety and try to work with her to overcome it — and that’s when they met Dr. Noah.

“We started going to Dr. Noah of Dr. Noah’s Ark in Shorewood, [Wisconsin], in September of 2019,” Simek said. “After the bad experiences, I researched heavily a vet who would take time to understand and accept scared/reactive dogs. He was very highly rated and I also saw many reviews that [said] he doesn’t wear the ‘white coat’ at appointments, which can be a huge trigger for dogs.”

At their first visit, Simek explained Sadie’s anxieties to Dr. Noah, and it wasn’t hard to see how scared she was. That’s when Simek learned that Dr. Noah’s secret trick was singing to his patients.

In order to try and calm them down and make them feel more comfortable, Dr. Noah serenades the dogs who are scared or nervous — and most of the time, it totally works.

Photo Credit: Kaeley Simek

“The first time we went to him, he sang to her and she ended up on the floor kissing him and he was able to give the two shots she needed,” Simek said. “He has sang to her ever since.”

Dr. Noah understands that going to the vet can be overwhelming for some pets, so he does his best to create a positive experience for them the best way he knows how — through music.

“He heavily believes that music can completely change the mood,” Simek said.

For Sadie, it’s definitely been working. Even though she’s still scared when she first gets there, she definitely trusts Dr. Noah more than any other vet she’s been to, and with his help and his music she’s slowly learning that the vet isn’t actually so scary after all.

“She still has a lot of fear about the vet but he takes the time to sit down with her and we go for happy vet visits weekly so she can have positive associations,” Simek said. “He has the biggest heart out of any vet I’ve ever seen.”

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It’s very clear, from this story and many others including our personal experience of dogs, that dogs’ emotional responses are advanced and in many ways their emotions are familiar to us humans.

I’m going to include two videos.

The first is from 2012 and is a very short extract from the BBC Horizon video: Can dogs sense emotion?

And the second is a longer video but still only 18 minutes.

That second video shows the remarkable qualities of the dog and the similarities between the dog’s brain and the human brain!

They are such gorgeous, beautiful creatures.

Our modern connected world!

A delightful conversation with Amit Roy.

Way back in 1978 I started a company called Dataview. It was based in Colchester, Essex and I sold Commodore Computers; the ‘PET”, standing for Personal Electronic Transactor.

A photograph of a very early PET.

Now I was a word-processing salesman for IBM previously and didn’t know a thing about computers. I operated out of a small shop at first in Church Street and people came into the shop and played around with my demonstration models. Unbelievably I sold some!

Later I got involved with a software program known as Wordcraft. The first comprehensive word processing program for the PET. Indeed, I had the exclusive world distribution rights to Wordcraft. One thing lead to another and soon I was operating from much larger premises down at Portreeves House at East Bay, still in Colchester.

I appointed a Head of Marketing, Amit Roy, and the company grew and grew. I focused on appointing distributors across the world, and that included Dan Gomez in southern California, and he became a close friend being my best man when Jeannie and I were married in 2010.

Anyway, back to the story of Dataview. Eventually I sold out and escaped the country (and taxes) by moving to a yacht in the Greek side of Cyprus before April 15th. I went to Larnaca Marina. That was in 1986.

On Sunday, through a link from a mutual friend, I called Amit, the first time we had spoken since 1986. We had the most delightful of telephone conversations.

Amit was born in Burma, he is now 79, and lost his wife some 13 years ago. The counsellor who saw Amit after the death of his very dear wife said that he had to be strong and to take up something he could become passionate about. Amit joined the Colchester Photographic Society and took up studying again, in photography, and became a very good photographer.

With Amit’s permission I share some of his photographs with you.

The Red Arrows Flying After Dark

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Firstsite At Dusk

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Mischievous Boys of Bengal – India

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Orchid Isabelia Pulchella

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Felixstowe Docks at Dusk

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Horse Study

These are just a few but they are superb; absolutely marvellous.

That is the most welcome of connections – thanks to Roger Davis for suggesting it!

Hubble into music.

Back to the space telescope!

I cannot stop engaging in Hubble stories and republishing them in this place.

The latest is an account, published here, of how scientists turned an image of a galaxy into music! Or rather added music to the video.

Here it is!

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Cool! A Hubble photo translated to music

Posted by in | May 10, 2020

There’s no sound in space. But – working with NASA – musicians and scientists turned a Hubble Space Telescope image of a galaxy cluster into music.

We stumbled on this video via a May 3, 2020, re-post at ScienceAlert. Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of System Sounds in Toronto – which calls itself “a sci-art outreach project” – created the video. It’s part of NASA’s Astrophysics Visualizations series. NASA explained the video this way:

Space becomes sonified in this visualization of a cluster of galaxies imaged by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Time flows left to right, and the frequency of sound changes from bottom to top, ranging from 30 to 1,000 hertz. Objects near the bottom of the image produce lower notes, while those near the top produce higher ones. Most of the visible specks are galaxies housing countless stars. A few individual stars shine brightly in the foreground. Stars and compact galaxies create short, clear tones, while sprawling spiral galaxies emit longer notes that change pitch. The higher density of galaxies near the center of the image – the heart of this galaxy cluster, known as RXC J0142.9+4438 – results in a swell of mid-range tones halfway through the video. Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3 acquired this image on August 13, 2018.

Cool!

Here’s the original Hubble image of galaxy cluster RXC J0142.9+4438, later “sonified” by Russo and Santaguida. NASA wrote: “Galaxies abound in this spectacular Hubble image; spiral arms swirl in all colors and orientations, and fuzzy ellipticals can be seen speckled across the frame as softly glowing smudges on the sky. Each visible speck of a galaxy is home to countless stars. A few stars closer to home shine brightly in the foreground, while a massive galaxy cluster nestles at the very center of the image; an immense collection of maybe thousands of galaxies, all held together by the relentless force of gravity.” Read more about this image, which is via ESA/ Hubble & NASA, RELICS.

Here’s the original Hubble image of galaxy cluster RXC J0142.9+4438, later “sonified” by Russo and Santaguida. NASA wrote: “Galaxies abound in this spectacular Hubble image; spiral arms swirl in all colors and orientations, and fuzzy ellipticals can be seen speckled across the frame as softly glowing smudges on the sky. Each visible speck of a galaxy is home to countless stars. A few stars closer to home shine brightly in the foreground, while a massive galaxy cluster nestles at the very center of the image; an immense collection of maybe thousands of galaxies, all held together by the relentless force of gravity.” Read more about this image, which is via ESA/ Hubble & NASA, RELICS.

Bottom line: Musicians and scientists turned a Hubble Space Telescope image – of galaxy cluster RXC J0142.9+4438 – into music.

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That is so lovely.

It’s only just over half a minute long but is still precious!

And I learnt a new word: sonification!

Out of the mouths of young people!

A young man aged eight asks a very deep question.

Now the answer, that I am about to republish, is written to Tristan, aged 8. But frankly I have no doubt that the answer will be keenly read by persons of all ages. Certainly, this 75-year-old found the answer of great interest.

But to the question:

How can a Big Bang have been the start of the universe, since intense explosions destroy everything? – Tristan S., age 8, Newark, Delaware

And the answer:

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How could an explosive Big Bang be the birth of our universe?

April 30, 2020
By Michael Lam, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Rochester Institute of Technology

Pretend you’re a perfectly flat chess piece in a game of chess on a perfectly flat and humongous chessboard. One day you look around and ask: How did I get here? How did the chessboard get here? How did it all start? You pull out your telescope and begin to explore your universe, the chessboard….

What do you find? Your universe, the chessboard, is getting bigger. And over more time, even bigger! The board is expanding in all directions that you can see. There’s nothing that seems to be causing this expansion as far as you can tell – it just seems to be the nature of the chessboard.

But wait a minute. If it’s getting bigger, and has been getting bigger and bigger, then that means in the past, it must have been smaller and smaller and smaller. At some time, long, long ago, at the very beginning, it must have been so small that it was infinitely small.

Let’s work forward from what happened then. At the beginning of your universe, the chessboard was infinitely tiny and then expanded, growing bigger and bigger until the day that you decided to make some observations about the nature of your chess universe. All the stuff in the universe – the little particles that make up you and everything else – started very close together and then spread farther apart as time went on.

Our universe works exactly the same way. When astronomers like me make observations of distant galaxies, we see that they are all moving apart. It seems our universe started very small and has been expanding ever since. In fact, scientists now know that not only is the universe expanding, but the speed at which it’s expanding is increasing. This mysterious effect is caused by something physicists call dark energy, though we know very little else about it.

A visualization of tiny energy fluctuations in the early universe. ESA, Planck Collaboration, CC BY

Astronomers also observe something called the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. It’s a very low level of energy that exists all throughout space. We know from those measurements that our universe is 13.8 billion years old – way, way older than people, and about three times older than the Earth.

If astronomers look back all the way to the event that started our universe, we call that the Big Bang.

Many people hear the name “Big Bang” and think about a giant explosion of stuff, like a bomb going off. But the Big Bang wasn’t an explosion that destroyed things. It was the beginning of our universe, the start of both space and time. Rather than an explosion, it was a very rapid expansion, the event that started the universe growing bigger and bigger.

This expansion is different than an explosion, which can be caused by things like chemical reactions or large impacts. Explosions result in energy going from one place to another, and usually a lot of it. Instead, during the Big Bang, energy moved along with space as it expanded, moving around wildly but becoming more spread out over time since space was growing over time.

Back in the chessboard universe, the “Big Bang” would be like the beginning of everything. It’s the start of the board getting bigger.

It’s important to realize that “before” the Big Bang, there was no space and there was no time. Coming back to the chessboard analogy, you can count the amount of time on the game clock after the start but there is no game time before the start – the clock wasn’t running. And, before the game had started, the chessboard universe hadn’t existed and there was no chessboard space either. You have to be careful when you say “before” in this context because time didn’t even exist until the Big Bang.

You also have wrap your mind around the idea that the universe isn’t expanding “into” anything, since as far as we know the Big Bang was the start of both space and time. Confusing, I know!

Astronomers aren’t sure what caused the Big Bang. We just look at observations and see that’s how the universe did start. We know it was extremely small and got bigger, and we know that kicked off 13.8 billion years ago.

What started our own game of chess? That’s one of the deepest questions anyone can ask.

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Before the Big Bang then there was “no space and there was no time.” Michael Lam says that is confusing. I think that’s a gigantic understatement.

There there’s Dark Energy!

I wonder if we humans will ever come to the point where it is all understood!

More on the magnificent Hubble!

More on the magnificent Hubble!

The BBC have published an excellent article.

There was such a good response to the article on the Hubble that I published on April 27th that it was an easy decision to republish the article that was presented on the BBC website on the 24th, and this time the photographs can be downloaded.

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Hubble telescope delivers stunning 30th birthday picture

By Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, 24 April 2020

It’s 30 years ago to the day that the Hubble telescope was launched – and to celebrate its birthday, the veteran observatory has produced another astonishing image of the cosmos.

This one is of a star-forming region close to our Milky Way Galaxy, about 163,000 light-years from Earth.

The larger object is the nebula NGC 2014; its companion is called NGC 2020.

But astronomers have nicknamed the scene the “Cosmic Reef” because it resembles an undersea world.

[There is an audio by Antonella Nota that is a little under 10 minutes long. I cannot embed it into this post for some unclear reason. Go here if you want to listen to it! It’s well worth listening to.]

Antonella Nota: “It’s called the people’s telescope because it brought the Universe to the people”

Famously blighted by blurred vision at the outset of its mission in 1990, Hubble was eventually repaired and upgraded.

The remarkable pictures it has taken of planets, stars, and galaxies have transformed our view of the cosmos.

Indeed, there are those who think Hubble is the most important scientific tool ever built.

It’s still far from retirement.

The US space agency (Nasa), which runs the observatory in partnership with the European Space Agency (Esa), says operations will be funded for as long as they remain productive.

Last year, its data resulted in almost 1,000 scientific papers being published – so it continues to stand at the forefront of discovery.

For its 25th birthday, Hubble imaged a giant cluster of stars called Westerlund 2

Engineers obviously keep a watching brief on the health of Hubble’s various systems. Pleasingly, all four instruments onboard – the two imagers and two spectrographs – work at full tilt.

In the past, the telescope’s Achilles heel has been the six gyroscopes that help turn and point the facility, maintaining a rock-steady gaze at targets on the sky.

These devices have periodically failed down the years, and during their final servicing mission in 2009 space shuttle astronauts were tasked with replacing all six.

Three have subsequently shut down again, but Nasa project scientist Dr Jennifer Wiseman says this is not yet an issue for serious concern.

“Nominally, we need three gyroscopes, but we can operate on just one due to the ingenuity of the engineers,” she asserted.

There’s a quiet confidence that Hubble can keep working well into the 2020s. Its supposed “successor” – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – is due for launch next year, but the presence in orbit of this more modern observatory will in truth merely just extend capability; it won’t make Hubble redundant.

That’s because the new facility has been designed to see the cosmos at longer wavelengths of light than Hubble. The duo will be complementary and will on occasion actually pursue targets together to get a fuller perspective.

This is an exciting prospect for astronomers everywhere – but especially for those in Europe where Hubble has been such a rewarding endeavour, says Esa project scientist Dr Antonella Nota.

“From the memorandum of understanding there was a guarantee that European astronomers would get 15% of observing time for the duration of the mission. If I look back at how much time European astronomers got – on average it’s 22%. And it is a peer-reviewed process so we never needed to put a finger on the scales. European astronomers are creative; they’re smart; they’re doing leading-edge science,” she told BBC News.

What has Hubble contributed to science?

It’s a bit of a cliche, but Hubble has truly been a “discovery machine”.

Before the telescope launched in 1990, astronomers didn’t know whether the Universe was 10 billion years old or 20 billion years old.

Hubble’s survey of pulsating stars narrowed the uncertainty, and we now know the age extremely well, at 13.8 billion.

The observatory played a central role in revealing the accelerating expansion of the cosmos – a Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough – and it provided the definitive evidence for the existence of super-massive black holes at the centre of galaxies.

The Deep Field images require Hubble to stare at the same patch of sky for days on end

It’s amazing to think that when Hubble launched, scientists had yet to detect the first exoplanet, the name given to a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. Today, Hubble is pioneering the study of these far-off worlds, examining their atmospheres to try to gauge their nature.

And although the sparkling eight-metre-class ground-based telescopes can now match – and even exceed – Hubble’s skill in certain fields of study, the space telescope remains peerless in going super-deep.

Its so-called Deep Field observations in which it stared at a small patch of sky for days on end to identify the existence of very distant, extremely faint galaxies is one of the towering achievements in astronomy.

These studies have shown us what the Universe was like just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Only JWST, with its finely-tuned infrared detectors, will go deeper still.

A Hubble classic: The Veil Nebula is the expanding debris of an exploded star

Kathryn Sullivan was one of the astronauts onboard Space Shuttle Discovery when it released Hubble into its 612km-high orbit on 25 April, 1990 – a day she recounts in a recent book, Handprints On Hubble.

“Hubble’s scientific impact has just been immense. But what I had not really appreciated until I started writing my book was the extent to which Hubble – because of its gorgeous images and their mind-bending implications – has really permeated popular culture,” she told BBC News.

“I see Hubble on the side of U-Haul (rental) trailers, on tattoos, on lunchboxes, on shirts, in advertisements, almost ubiquitously.

“And I think part of that is down to Hubble coming into service just as the internet was becoming the thing we now know it to be.

“That’s put the pictures right in front of people.”

JWST will study the Universe at longer wavelengths of light

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This is the most amazing invention and regular missions to service the telescope including regular updates to the technology have kept it current.

It has produced the most distant and beautiful photographs. It has also refined our knowledge of when the universe came into existence – 13.8 billion years ago.

Staggering!

Returning to a theme – May!

The years click by!

We are coming up to the month of May!

Then in a very short time it will be May 8th. Not only my half-birthday but considerably of more note the anniversary of the end of World War II.

I am certain that I am the only one who puts meaning into these dates. I can do no better than to re-post something that I published on May 1st, 2017.

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For all my life this has felt like a very special month.

And, dear friends, at the risk of repeating myself to many of you, this is why the month of May is special for me.

Simply that I was born in London during the closing months of the Second World War. Inevitably, I was unaware of the number of German bombs that were falling on London during those last few months. But there were thousands.

On May 8th. 1945, the day that WWII ended and six months to the day from when I was born, my mother looked down at me and said aloud to me: “You are going to live”. Despite the fact that I don’t recall my mother saying that, it was verified many times later when I was growing up.

Now here we are approaching May 8th. 2017 (now May, 2020) and in a very real sense it seems that we are in another war.

A war of consequence.

A war that we have been engaged in for many, many years.

A war where we are inadvertently fighting on a global battlefield.

A war where 99.99% of us don’t consciously identify the weapons we are using. Weapons that are incredibly effective. So much so that we are in sight of winning the last battle; winning the war.

Yet a war where winning is no win at all. Indeed, where winning this war, this global war, spells the end. The end of life for 99.99% of us humans (and much else besides).

Now what on earth has got me so fired up?

Two things have:

The first is that I am living in my 73rd year of life. (Now 75th.) I have no idea of when my life comes to an end. But that death is a guarantee. Indeed, if one takes note of the average life expectancy of a male today in the USA (75.6 years) , it may not be that far away.

The second thing is that before my death I truly want to know that humankind has laid down its weapons of war against our planet and that there really is an unstoppable mission, a united wave of passion, to live in peace on this planet. Perhaps better put to live in peace with this planet.

Or in the words of an organization that I now want to introduce:

A mission which will require the hard work and dedication of each and every one of us as we do everything in our power as individuals, but also as we galvanize businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, city planners, communities, people and politicians—all those who share our purpose.

OK! Thank you if you are still reading this! (Someone give Fred in that soft arm-chair over there a nudge; I can hear his snores from here!)

In the last Smithsonian electronic newsletter that I was reading yesterday morning there was a reference to an organization that I hadn’t previously come across. Here is the link to that item on The Smithsonian website. I am republishing it in full in this place. As you read it you will understand why I am republishing it.

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Using a New Roadmap to Democratize Climate Change

A new tool aims to bypass governments and put the power of climate action in the people’s hands

By Anne Glusker Smithsonian.com April 28, 2017

Olafur Grimsson, who was president of Iceland from 1996 to 2016 and saw his country through the worst economic crisis in its history, making headlines all over the world as banks collapsed and the country fell into a depression, is the very picture of an urbane statesman. Collected and poised, with a striking full head of white hair, as comfortable in English as in his native Icelandic, he seems an unlikely revolutionary, not the sort of person you’d look at and immediately find yourself thinking: “Power to the People.”

But Grimsson is one of the primary architects of a quietly radical new idea whose aim is to facilitate action on climate change without any of the usual suspects—governments, countries, international bodies, negotiating parties.

He and several other veterans of the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change were in Washington, D.C., last year, just before COP22, the climate meeting held in Marrakesh in 2016. They were pondering next steps when the conversation took a new and interesting turn, Grimsson says, addressing the question: “Was it possible to have the success of Paris without governments necessarily being in the leading role?”

The group included movers and shakers such as Peter Seligmann, the chairman of Conservation International; Laurene Powell Jobs, president of the philanthropic organization the Emerson Collective; and Andy Karsner, an assistant energy secretary during the administration of George W. Bush. Galvanized by their own query, they decided to try to answer it—to set about creating a new tool to aid in achieving the goals of the Paris accord.

At the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit, a gathering this past weekend of conservation-minded citizens, scientists and activists, Grimsson explained: “You get governments that are opposed or even hostile to climate action. We decided to bring together in Marrakesh a gathering of thinkers and scientists and innovators and policymakers from different countries in order to discuss a new model of securing the success of the future of the climate movement.”

At the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit, the former president of Iceland Olafur Grimsson encouraged new solutions to climate change, awarding cash prizes to the winners of the “Make for the Planet” challenge. (The Roadmap)

Grimsson’s group felt that due to changes in information technology and social transformations, the large organizations and structures that used to be necessary to effect change were now not needed. And thus was born Roadmap, a new crowdsourcing tool for anyone and everyone interested in climate action. Still in its very early stages, Roadmap’s founders envision it as a platform for those working on climate issues—from scientist and policymaker to farmer and fisherman—to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and ideas, methods and techniques.

“A new political model is possible—where everyone can be a doer, where you no longer need big government or big enterprises to bring about success,” Grimsson says.

This new model for social change that skips the usual cumbersome channels and processes has been seen everywhere from public health, where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has redefined the sector, to the hospitality industry, which is working to combat the human trafficking that plagues its businesses, to perhaps most famously the Arab Spring, where the role of social media in bringing about political change is still being debated today.

And this new model is complemented by technological changes. “The innovation in energy technology is such that we no longer have to wait for the big energy breakthrough,” Grimsson says. “We already have the available technologies. Every individual, home, village, community, town and region can execute change. The good news from the climate point of view is that, in addition to the information technology revolution, there has now also taken place an energy revolution. A house can be a power station: If the people who live in that house have extra energy, they can sell their energy through the smart grid. The notion that every house can be a power station is as revolutionary as saying that every mobile phone can be a media company.”

Grimsson admits that it may seem odd for someone in his position to be advocating that ordinary citizens take action apart from the conventional corridors of governmental power.

“For me to say that these traditional political organizations and positions are somewhat outdated is perhaps a strange statement: I was a professor of political science, I’ve been a member of parliament, I’ve been a minister of finance, I was president for 20 years,” he says.

It was during Iceland’s financial meltdown that he first experienced this new kind of social change: “I saw this very strongly through the financial crisis in my own country, which led to a big social economic uprising. All those activities were engineered by unknown people, people who were not part of a big organization, who used Facebook and the information media to bring thousands of people together in one day.”

Right now, Roadmap consists of a website and a lofty manifesto that speaks of raising the value of “moral currency” and creating a “best practices warehouse.” Visitors to the site can fill out a form if they want to become part of its community of “doers.” The practical part of the manifesto speaks of identifying the best methodologies and models; implementing a “real-time system of measurement” and a way to “gauge and understand what is working, what is not, and exactly what is being achieved.” As the platform develops, it will be interesting to see exactly what form these gauges, measurement systems, and warehouses take.

After the Paris Agreement, Grimsson says of himself and his Roadmap co-founders, “We were all optimistic, but we are all also realists.” It is his belief that if you “give people the tools, they can execute the transformation and the change—without governmental leadership.” Perhaps Roadmap will be one of those tools.

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Here’s a video that spells it out in ways that I find impossible to ignore.

Because in hundreds of years time I want others to look at the following picture of Troutbeck Valley in England and know how precious is this one and only planet we live on.

Or in the words of Sue Dreamwalker that I read yesterday evening:

We are witnessing more storms, more unseasonal weather patterns, and I just hope that we wake up soon to the damage we are doing to our beloved Mother that has held us in her eternal arms for so long..

Photo credit: Getty Images

Enjoy the month of May wherever you are in the world!

Closing by repeating a key pronouncement in that RoadMap video above:

Why We?

Who Else!

Thirty Years of the Hubble Space Telescope

My how the years go by!
Back in 2010 I wrote about the Hubble, wishing it Happy Birthday!

Now here we are in 2020 and, again, I want to feature this most amazing space telescope ever.

The thirtieth anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope was on the 24th April, 2020, just three days ago.

The challenge is that the photographs that go with the article are not permitted to be shared with you. So I have grabbed some others that, apparently, are alright.

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How the Hubble Space Telescope opened our eyes to the first galaxies of the universe

April 24, 2020
By Professor Rodger Thompson, Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona

The Hubble Space Telescope launched on the 24th of April, 30 years ago. It’s an impressive milestone especially as its expected lifespan was just 10 years.

One of the primary reasons for the Hubble telescope’s longevity is that it can be serviced and improved with new observational instruments through Space Shuttle visits.

When Hubble, or HST, first launched, its instruments could observe ultraviolet light with wavelengths shorter than the eye can see, as well as optical light with wavelengths visible to humans. A maintenance mission in 1997 added an instrument to observe near infrared light, which are longer wavelengths than people can see. Hubble’s new infrared eyes provided two new major capabilities: the ability to see farther into space than before and see deeper into the dusty regions of star formation.

I am an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona who has used near infrared observations to better understand how the universe works, from star formation to cosmology. Some 35 years ago, I was given the chance to build a near infrared camera and spectrometer for Hubble. It was the chance of a lifetime. The camera my team designed and developed has changed the way humans see and understand the universe. The instrument was built at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, under our direction.

Seeing further and earlier

Edwin Hubble, HST’s namesake, discovered in the early 1900s that the universe is expanding and that the light from distant galaxies was shifted to longer, redder wavelengths, a phenomenon called the redshift. The greater the distance, the larger the shift. This is because the further away an object is, the longer it takes for the light to reach us here on Earth and the more the universe has expanded in that time.

The Hubble ultraviolet and optical instruments had taken images of the most distant galaxies ever seen, known as the Northern Hubble Deep Field, or NHDF, which were released in 1996. These images, however, had reached their distance limit due to the redshift, which had shifted all of the light of the most distant galaxies out of the visible and into the infrared.

One of the new instruments added to Hubble in the second maintenance mission has the awkward name, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, NICMOS, pronounced “Nick Moss.” The near infrared cameras on NICMOS observed regions of the NHDF and discovered even more distant galaxies with all of their light in the near infrared.

Astronomers have the privilege of watching things happen in the past which they call the “lookback time.” Our best measurement of the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years. The distance that light travels in one year is called a light year. The most distant galaxies observed by NICMOS were at a distance of almost 13 billion light years. This meant that the light that NICMOS detected had been traveling for 13 billion years and showed what the galaxies looked like 13 billion years ago, a time when the universe was only about 5% of its current age. These were some of the first galaxies ever created and were forming new stars at rates that were more than a thousand times the rate at which most galaxies form stars in the current universe.

Hidden by dust

Although astronomers have studied star formation for decades, many questions remain. Part of the problem is that most stars are formed in clouds of molecules and dust. The dust absorbs the ultraviolet and most of the optical light emitted by forming stars, making it difficult for Hubble’s ultraviolet and optical instruments to study the process.

The longer, or redder, the wavelength of the light, the less is absorbed. That is why sunsets, where the light must pass through long lengths of dusty air, appear red.

The near infrared, however, has an even easier time passing through dust than the red optical light. NICMOS can look into star formation regions with the superior image quality of Hubble to determine the details of where the star formation occurs. A good example is the iconic Hubble image of the Eagle Nebula, also known as the pillars of creation.

The optical image shows majestic pillars which appear to show star formation over a large volume of space. The NICMOS image, however, shows a different picture. In the NICMOS image, most of the pillars are transparent with no star formation. Stars are only being formed at the tip of the pillars. The optical pillars are just empty dust reflecting the light of a group of nearby stars.

The dawning of the age of infrared

When NICMOS was added into the HST in 1997 NASA had no plans for a future infrared space mission. That rapidly changed as the results from NICMOS became apparent. Based on the data from NICMOS, scientists learned that fully formed galaxies existed in the universe much earlier than expected. The NICMOS images also confirmed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down as previously thought. The NHDF infrared images were followed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images in 2005, which further showed the power of near infrared imaging of distant young galaxies. So NASA decided to invest in the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, a telescope much larger than HST and completely dedicated to infrared observations.

On Hubble, a near infrared imager was added to the third version of the Wide Field camera which was installed in May of 2009. This camera used an improved version of the NICMOS detector arrays that had more sensitivity and a wider field of view. The James Webb Space Telescope has much larger versions of the NICMOS detector arrays that have more wavelength coverage than the previous versions.

The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to be launched in March 2021, followed by the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, form the bulk of future space missions for NASA. These programs were all spawned by the near infrared observations by HST. They were enabled by the original investment for a near infrared camera and spectrometer to give Hubble its infrared eyes. With the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers expect to see the very first galaxies that formed in the universe.

The Eagle Nebula in visible light. NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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The spiral galaxy NGC 2008 sits centre stage, its ghostly spiral arms spreading out towards us, in this image captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.  This galaxy is located about 425 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pictor (The Painter’s Easel). Discovered in 1834 by astronomer John Herschel, NGC 2008 is categorised as a type Sc galaxy in the Hubble sequence, a system used to describe and classify the various morphologies of galaxies. The “S” indicates that NGC 2008 is a spiral, while the “c” means it has a relatively small central bulge and more open spiral arms. Spiral galaxies with larger central bulges tend to have more tightly wrapped arms, and are classified as Sa galaxies, while those in between are classified as type Sb. Spiral galaxies are ubiquitous across the cosmos, comprising over 70% of all observed galaxies — including our own, the Milky Way. However, their ubiquity does not detract from their beauty. These grand, spiralling collections of billions of stars are among the most wondrous sights that have been captured by telescopes such as Hubble, and are firmly embedded in astronomical iconography.

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The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has revisited one of its most iconic and popular images: the Eagle Nebula’s Pillars of Creation. This image shows the pillars as seen in infrared light, allowing it to pierce through obscuring dust and gas and unveil a more unfamiliar — but just as amazing — view of the pillars. In this ethereal view the entire frame is peppered with bright stars and baby stars are revealed being formed within the pillars themselves. The ghostly outlines of the pillars seem much more delicate, and are silhouetted against an eerie blue haze. Hubble also captured the pillars in visible light.

Rodger I. Thompson was the Principal Investigator for the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, NICMOS. He was responsible for the execution of a contract to Arizona Board of Regents from NASA to deliver NICMOS as a Hubble Space Telescope Instrument and carry out a scientific investigation with it. Prof. Thompson received summer salary from this contract at his University pay rate during the execution of the contract which ended in 2004. Prof. Thompson is not currently receiving any external funding.

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Now for two YouTube videos.

The first is a celebration of the 30th anniversary.

And the second is slightly longer but conveys images taken from the telescope. I have no doubt that you will love them as we did!

Both these videos are beyond words! That we are alive today and can share these videos on this blog is stupendous!

See you tomorrow!