Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Pluto might not behave like a planet, but it's still pretty cool

"If you slid Pluto to where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate that ice, and it would grow a tail. Now that's no kind of behavior for a planet.
-Neil deGrasse Tyson

It may be true that Pluto is nothing like the Terrestrial or Jovian planets, but it's still an intriguing little world. The New Horizons mission has taught us so much more about Pluto than we ever knew before and has made Pluto an object of extreme interest once again. Even if it's not a planet, Pluto is still pretty awesome!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Yellow Sulfur Pyramids of Canada

Alberta, Canada, has some of the world's largest pyramids. But these weren't megastructures built by ancient peoples for the honor of their leaders, to connect the afterlives of pharaohs with the gods, or to provide a special place of worship for their people. These pyramids are made entirely of yellow elemental sulfur!

Sulfur is currently being harvested in large quantities due to its recovery from tar sand oil and gas in operations in the northwestern U.S. and western Canada. Once the sulfur is removed, the oil and gas companies can try to sell it, but sulfur is down in the markets right now and that means a lot of sulfur is just being stored, in a process called "blocking", where large blocks of elemental sulfur are produced and then stored.

Blocks of sulfur, 25 feet tall (credit: Gord McKenna)

One place where blocking has gone rampant is near the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. As of 2012, oil and gas extraction of sulfur in this region accounted for roughly 1.5 million tons per year of sulfur. At that time, 600,000 tons were being blocked each year. That led one company, called Syncrude, to start building The Great Sulfur Pyramids of Alberta!

These giant pyramids of sulfur blocks can be easily seen in satellite images. Andrew David Thaler, writing in Southern Fried Science, calculated from images and data that the largest of the sulfur pyramids was at 2,840,000 cubic meters in volume back in 2012 (it's continued to grow since then). In comparison, the Great Pyramid of Giza is only 2,580,000 cubic meters in volume. With the current rate of growth of the Great Sulfur Pyramids of Alberta, they're on track to become the largest human-made structures ever (by volume). Here's a comparison of bases of the Great Pyramid and the largest of the sulfur pyramids:

Comparisons, from Southern Fried Science

Those are some huge pyramids! I think I'll have to throw a visit to these pyramids on my travel list. Just to see those large, yellow structures of sulfur would be intriguing, even if their presence is due to the fact that we're now pushing the limits on extraction of hydrocarbons from the Earth.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Get Out of Boulder"

"Get out of Boulder!" Those are words that were said to me today at Alfalfa's Market by someone, based solely on her ridiculous assumption that I support Trump's presidential candidacy due to the fact that I was whistling a Beatle's tune while standing in line to order coffee. The woman and I had had a heated exchange of words after she heard me whistling. She said, "The only people I know who whistle are Trump supporters." I thought she was joking. I said, "Oh ya?" But then she got angry and said, "Well, are you?" I could see that she had a hate and an anger in her, and she thought she was somehow something special. I told her it was none of her business who I support in American politics. She then said to the clerk at Alfalfa's and another customer ,"This guy here is a Trump supporter!" 

I think in her mind she wanted them to riot against me and break out their pitch forks and torches. I told her to fuck off (and I said it loudly, which, it turns out, scared the cashier). She said, "You know, you're a fucking asshole" into my face (and, conveniently, so the cashier couldn't hear it), so I told her that she was ugly on both the inside and the outside. 

Later, this woman got the store's manager involved in the hopes that they would kick me out. That's when she told me I should 'get out of Boulder'. Think about that. Think about the hate and the anger and the fear and the ignorance in this woman's life for her to say something like that because she thought I was a supporter of Trump. Now, it truly is none of that woman's business, but I don't support Trump's candidacy. However, even if I did support Trump, the very idea that this woman thinks that anyone who disagrees with her should be kicked out of town is absolutely disgusting. That's no different than white bigots telling black people to 'get out of our town' based on the color of their skin. It's no different than Christians telling Muslims to 'get out of our town' based solely on what they believe. Telling someone to 'get out of our town' because of their political ideology (even if it's only your own unsupported assumption about their political ideology) is part of the problem with this nation. It's exactly that kind of ignorance and hate that has allowed us to get to the point where we may actually have a presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We can do better as a nation. We can be more accepting of our differences while using reason, argumentation, and compromise to find a way forward. 

Sure, this is just one situation that happened to me (and the plural of anecdote most certainly is not evidence), but we've all seen this happening around the nation: die hard conservatives hating on liberals, using terms like "libtard"; people opposed to firearms automatically assuming that anyone who owns guns or is opposed to certain forms of firearm regulation are somehow "gun nuts"; Democrats and Republicans swapping insults of character as opposed to thoughtful considerations of positions; and the continued division of this nation through our politics and media. 

I most certainly won't "get out of Boulder" to assuage this woman's fears, nor should anyone in this nation be told to 'get out of our town" if they are contributing members of society. This stupidity and arrogance, driven from the very depths of our ignorance and fear, needs to be replaced by intellectualism and humility. I'm still pretty angry and frazzled over my altercation with that woman, but I won't let that drive me down to her level. If anything, it's just another indication to me that the time to work towards a better nation, steeped in education and enlightenment, is now.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

How to start a fire using a lemon

Here's an awesome video from North Survival on how to start a fire using a lemon, some copper plugs and zinc nails, some wires, steel wool, and a little kindling:

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Another order of operations adventure

Here's a gem I've seen floating about in Facebookland lately. A lot of people are answering with either 58 or 10. What do you think?

Find this puzzle and more awesome stuff at Curiosity
What do you think? Did you get 58? Did you maybe get 10? 

If your answer is 10, you likely made a mistake in using the order of operations. Let's talk about what that mistake was.

The Order of Operations

As you may know from my previous posts (like Where the Math is Lacking), I love a good math problem. Problems like the one above are a great way to see whether people remember the Order of Operations for solving mathematical equations. 

In case you have forgotten the order of operations, then you might recall the mnemonic acronym "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally", which stands for PEMDAS.

PEMDAS is an acronym for the order of operations and it stands for Parentheses-Exponents-Multiplication/Division-Addition/Subtraction:

This order of operations allows us to make sure that we're all following the same rules for solving or simplifying problems, or, at least, that's what it's supposed to do. Unfortunately, a lot of people have forgotten how to use the order of operations. Let's talk about that problem above again and how the order of operations applies to it.

We have the following problem:

62 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = ?

Let's step through each part of PEMDAS and see how the order of operations applies to this problem.

We have to start with the Parentheses part of the order. This is actually the step where most people get the wrong answer to this problem. The Parentheses step means that we have to solve terms or sets of terms within parentheses and brackets before solving the rest of the problem. 

For instance, if I had 2+(3+4), then I would solve the stuff inside of the parentheses first to get 2+(7). At that point, the parentheses are no longer necessary, since 2+(7)=2+7=9.

In our problem above, what's inside of the parentheses (the number 3) doesn't need to be operated on since it's already simplified. So, following the parentheses step, we still have the problem:

62 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = ?

Now moving on to the Exponents part of PEMDAS, we see that we have to solve the six squared term. That's pretty simple:

62 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = 36 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = ?

Then, the Multiplication and Division step tells us to solve all multiplications and divisions in the problem, but there's also a caveat there as well. Since many western languages read from left-to-right, we've also developed our modern mathematics to read left-to-right. This means that we have to sequentially solve multiplications and divisions reading from left to right in a problem. So for out current version of the problem,

36 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = ?

We have to solve the division of 36 by 2 first and then we can apply the multiplication by 3. Yielding:

36 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = 18(3) + 4 = ?

and then

18(3) + 4 = 54 + 4 = ?

And now we can take this thing home by solving the final step, Addition and Subtraction.

54 + 4 = 58

Bump bump baaaaaaah! The answer to this problem is 58

So how did some people get 10? 

Like I said, most people who had trouble with this problem made their mistake in the first step. When solving for the parentheses part of PEMDAS, you only have to sequentially solve the parts that are within parentheses and/or brackets. However, if you apply the multiplication outside of the parentheses first, then you'd be solving the problem like this:

62 ÷ 2(3) + 4 = 
62 ÷ 6 + 4 = 
36 ÷ 6 + 4 = 
6 + 4 = 10

However, this is actually the wrong way to solve this problem. If you apply a multiplication outside of the parentheses first, you're basically then solving the operations out of order (MPEMDAS, in this case). The parentheses step in PEMDAS doesn't apply to operations outside of parentheses or brackets.

Here's another example I can throw at you, say we have this problem:

6 × (5 + 3) + 4 = ?

We could take away the multiplication symbol since the parentheses will already tell us to multiply, yielding:

6(5 + 3) + 4 = ?

Now it should be clear that we solve the parentheses first and then multiply, giving us:

6(5 + 3) + 4 = 6(8) + 4 = 48 + 4 = 52

The same way that we removed the multiplication symbol in that problem could be applied to the original problem above. When you look at the problem and see it like this:

62 ÷ 2 × (3) + 4 = ?

Then it becomes far more apparent that the answer won't be 10. We can then see the right answer will be 58:

62 ÷ 2 × (3) + 4 = 58

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Milky Way Over Ural, Russia

This beautiful image shows a picture of the luminous efflorescence of the Milky Way galaxy overhead of the photographer (Sergey Makurin) while he stands with his flashlight amidst the Seven Strong Men rock formation (also known as the Manpupuner rock formations). Located in Ural, Russia, these seven gigantic stone pillars range from 32 to 40 meters in height, and provide for an impressive spectacle, made all the more fantastical by capturing the beauty of the heavens above along with them.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Take a Journey into Middle Earth: Another Guided Meditation from The Honest Guys

The Last Shore, by Tim Kirk

I've been trying many different kinds of meditations over the past year. I've really enjoyed using Headspace for guided mindfulness meditations, but I've also discovered that one of my favorite types of meditation is a visualization meditation, something I've been thinking of as a "journey meditation". 

We find ourselves lost in fantasy sometimes when we daydream, but using a meditation to focus your imagination and go on a journey into a different world can be restoring and can be very enjoyable. The Honest Guys, on Youtube, have some fantastic guided meditations, including some that take the practitioner on a journey. Recently, they've released several that take you into a realm from Tolkien's Middle Earth and have you imagine the characters and the land. We tried a new one the other night that I thought was worth sharing. 

Here's "Have of the Sea Elves" by The Honest Guys. The world they helped me to build in my mind during this meditation was beautiful and definitely a place I will visit again:

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. II), played Medieval Style by Stary Olsa

Stary Olsa had come to the public eye recently by producing a Medieval-style cover of Metallica's One. There are now a bunch of videos of some of their awesome songs. The Medieval folk and rock cover band brings traditional instruments and sounds to some newer tunes. I just came across their cover of Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. II), and it is freaking awesome. Enjoy:

Monday, March 7, 2016

AbGradCon 2016, in Boulder, Colorado

The Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) is an event for graduate students working in the realm of astrobiology to come together and share our work in research, in education, and in communication of science.

This year's event will be at the University of Colorado Boulder, from July 24th through 27th. We currently have the application open on our website ( Applications are due by April 1st.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Our Moon and the Galilean Moons

The Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) today is too darned good not to share. It's an image (credit: Phillip A Cruden) of our Moon along with more distant points of light from the Galilean Moons and Jupiter. Here's the image along with the text from APOD:

"Some of the Solar System's largest moons rose together on February 23. On that night, a twilight pairing of a waning gibbous Moon and Jupiter was captured in this sharp telescopic field of view. The composite of short and long exposures reveals the familiar face of our fair planet's own large natural satellite, along with a line up of the ruling gas giant's four Galilean moons. Left to right, the tiny pinpricks of light are Callisto, Io, Ganymede, [Jupiter], and Europa. Closer and brighter, our own natural satellite appears to loom large. But Callisto, Io, and Ganymede are actually larger than Earth's Moon, while water world Europa is only slightly smaller. In fact, of the Solar System's six largest planetary satellites, only Saturn's moon Titan is missing from the scene."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

9 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Silence of the Lambs, from CineFix

The Silence of the Lambs, a 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, was turned into one of the best movies in history. To this day, it remains one of my favorites. Honestly, when I came across this video from CineFix that has "9 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Silence of the Lambs", I actually learned some things I never knew before. Definitely worth a watch:

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Philosopher in Meditation

Philosopher in Meditation, by Rembrandt

Table Topics Ideas: Storytelling

We have a fairly empty roster for our Toastmasters meeting tonight, so I've decided to do a meeting devoted to table topics using storytelling games.

If you haven't heard of Table Topics, it's an impromptu speaking competition that we use in Toastmasters meetings to improve our speaking skills. We deliver short (1-2 minute) speeches after being given a prompt just before speaking. It's a great way to work on your "elevator pitch" and it helps you learn how to develop your speaking style.

For the storytelling games, here's what I've thought of doing:


We'll have the group throw out some possible heroes and villains. Maybe a school girl could be a hero and a giant carnivorous plant could be the villain, though just about anything could be personified. For instance, we could have a book be a hero and an oil rig be the villain. Along with heroes and villains, we'll create some possible tools through which our hero must overcome the villain. Perhaps the tool is a lightning bolt or maybe it's laughter. The person leading the game (the Table Topics Master) will jumble up the heroes, villains, and tools. When a speaker steps to the stage, they will be given a hero, a villain, and a tool and then they have to create the story to go along with it.

Update (2 March 2016): This one worked out great! I made a table for the heroes, villains, and tools and then had the audience throw out one of each per person. I then selected combinations of hero, villain, and tool at random. We had the Dalai Lama fighting Kanye West's music with an axe, we had a 6 year-old girl fight Donald Trump with a pen, and we also had Spider Man fight the god Loki using a grenade. It was awesome!

This one will be a little difficult, but could prove to be rather fun. The first speaker will come up to speak. The Table Topics Master will slowly tell a story about what they did over some period time today, making it as bland as possible (e.g. I woke up... I brushed my teeth... I walked my dog... etc.). While they add each little bit of information about their day, the speaker will take their words and embellish them. So maybe the Table Topics Master says "First, I woke up and got out of bed." Maybe the speaker could then embellish and say something like, "It was the crack of dawn, the sun's rays came ripping through my room and struck me from my slumber. I was thrown from my bed by a will I am sure was not my own..." 

Like I said, that might be difficult for some people, but I think it would be pretty fun. After each speaker goes, it's then their turn to just say a small list of things they've done during the day while the new speaker embellishes.

The Rappin' Ritter

An old friend of mine recently passed away. His name was Ryan Ritter. He was very good at rapping. When we were younger, it was common fair for him to start rapping at parties. One thing he loved to do was to start a rap and then have people throw out words or ideas to add in to his rap as he was going. In honor of his passing, I've decided to add a game where the speaker will start a story and then during the story a random list of words will be thrown out that they have to add in to the story while they are speaking. This is a pretty common game for lots of improv groups to get their juices flowing and will surely be good for Toastmasters as well.

Update (2 March 2016): This one worked really well, but it ended up taking up a good bit of our meeting. We decided to allow the stories to be a bit longer (most were 3-5 minutes) to get all of the words in. We set it up so that each speaker would have one audience member feeding them 5 nouns at random and then another audience member giving them 5 verbs at random. For instance, I ended up telling a story about a little girl who was skipping through a forest and petting a father badger and his baby badgers before a Super Star Destroyer almost destroyed the forest and she had to use a tank to launch giant sai at the ship to blow off its door so that the pressure forced it to crash in the region beyond the forest, but it started a fire that she and the forest creatures had to put out by shuffling side by side carrying buckets of water to the blaze. It was pretty hilarious!


The personification of non-human objects can make for some fun storytelling. This one should be pretty straight forward: the speaker is given an object and they must personify that object and tell us a story about it. Objects could include candles, basketballs, rings, notebooks, a planet, tables, caterpillars, fossils at the museum, a pair of rain boots, silverware in a drawer, car tires, bells, musical instruments, flags, electrical outlets, rockets, stars, volcanoes, etc.


Using voices for characters can be a very fun way to make stories more interesting. In this game, we'll have each speaker tell a story using their own voice for narration as well as a character voice that they have to create based on a prompt from the Table Topics Master. The prompts for the voices could include:

-A military drill sergeant who has lost their voice but is still trying to yell

-An intoxicated person 

-An opera singer who feels the need to sing everything they say

-An alien in a human body who is trying to pass as human but fails to do so

-The oldest living person on Earth

-A child of age 6

-A stereotypical "surfer dude" from the 1980s

-Someone who is hiccoughing 

-Someone whose mouth is full of food while they try to talk