Traveling back in time with Wikipedia

Wikipedia It’s over 500 years since Johannes Gutenberg invented his famous printing press – something which had actually been around centuries earlier in China and Korea. Nowadays the internet is fast replacing old-fashioned books as the way to find things out.

But now Wikipedia is doing some time travel, going back a few centuries to produce a book version of the revolutionary user-edited encyclopedia. It will only be available in German for now, but if it takes off, it may well spread around the world.

But before you book-lovers get too excited, is it actually ever going to be a hit? My prediction is a definite no. Aside from the price (around $30, compared to free access for the online version), I don’t think the publishers have realized that a paper copy of Wikipedia wouldn’t actually be much use. The whole idea of Wikipedia is that it is constantly updated, and that’s what sets it apart from the traditional encyclopedias like Britannica.

Wikipedia2Rather than going back to the past, I think it’s better to look forward to the future. It’s been interesting watching Wikipedia’s gigantic surge in popularity in recent years – for many people it is the only encyclopedia they ever use. In fact, it’s the 7th most visited site on the whole internet. It’ll be very interesting watching how Wikipedia evolves over the next few years.

Perhaps in 100 years time, our descendants will be wondering how we could ever use such archaic technology compared to what they will have. Ah, if only Wikipedia could invent a time machine that could go forward a few centuries, rather than back.

Taking traffic mapping to a whole new level: Microsoft releases Clearflow

Loads of people use their GPS systems to plan car journeys. But imagine being able to get a computer to vary its suggested route as traffic conditions change – even if that means driving off on some of the thousands of side-streets scattered through every city.

Wouldn’t that mean you’d have to know what the traffic conditions are like on every single side street in every city you want traffic information for? Well that’s what Microsoft has done, and they have now released their revolutionary new traffic-jam avoidance system, ‘Clearflow’ onto their web mapping platform for everyone to use.

image Wait a minute… what’s so great about this new technology – we’ve been able to get traffic information from Google Maps or traffic.com for years now, so what’s the difference? Basically, Google Maps and similar websites only monitor the traffic on major roads – after all, it would be impossible to keep track of the traffic on every single side-street 24 hours a day.

What Microsoft did was to analyze what happens to traffic on side streets as levels of traffic on main roads varies. This involved using GPS systems to record a massive 125,000 miles of car journeys, and then computing all this data to work out which side-streets are faster.

The result is that Clearflow really can calculate the fastest route for you, even if it involves a long and convoluted journey through dozens of smaller roads.

So next time you’re driving in the Big Apple in rush hour, you might just want to check out the new system at maps.live.com.

IMPORTANT: Users in the UK cannot use the URL given above – for some unknown reason it redirects to much-inferior Multimap.com. Use this URL instead: http://maps.live.com/?mkt=en-us

The frog without lungs – but why?

All frogs have lungs, right, because otherwise they couldn’t breathe. Well that’s what we used to think – until now. Scientists have discovered a frog that doesn’t need lungs – instead it breathes through its skin, like fish do.

But wait a minute… since frogs are amphibians and spend a lot of their lives in water, why would they have lungs anyway? In fact, all frogs can breathe through their skin, but most frogs also have lungs so that they can cope with being out of water for long periods of time. That’s what makes this new frog species so unique – it has got rid of its lungs and gone to gills-only, as if it was evolving back into a fish again.

Why would it want to do that? This particular frog lives in fast-flowing, cold waters (on the Indonesian island of Borneo). Fast cool water contains more oxygen than still warm water, so it can get more oxygen directly from the water than most frogs can.

Also, it has a lower metabolic rate than other frogs, meaning it doesn’t need as much oxygen anyway.

Borneo

However, scientists are still puzzled as to why the frog would want to get rid of its lungs entirely. After all, frogs’ noisy mating sounds require lungs, so surely any species that lost its lungs would not be a successful breeder – at least that’s what we used to think until this species was discovered.

Maybe the new species survived fine staying in water all the time, and having lungs was a waste of energy – we really don’t know. One theory is that the loss of lungs enabled the frog to become flatter, and get a bigger surface area. Bigger surface area means more space for air to enter through the skin.

Scientists hope to carry out much more research into this new species, although environmental factors like mining and climate change could make it extinct before we have a chance to discover all its secrets. And what a tragedy it would be to lose this intriguing creature before we even got to know it properly.

Replica Solar System discovered 5,000 light years away

BBC News

Back in ancient times most people thought that our planet was at the center of the Universe. Then we thought it was the Sun, and not too long after we realized that we’re actually just a tiny part of one of billions of galaxies in a Universe filled with trillions of other stars. Just over a decade ago one of the last things that we thought might be unique about our Solar System was disproved – the first ever planet outside our Solar System (an ‘exoplanet’ for short) was discovered around another Sun.

Wikipedia Now our uniqueness has been eroded away a little bit more – a British team of astronomers has discovered what looks a bit like a replica of our own Solar System, orbiting around a star 5000 light-years away.

OK, it’s not an exact replica, but the resemblance is quite striking. Two giant gassy planets (like Jupiter and Saturn in our own Solar System) have the same mass ratio to their sun as Jupiter and Saturn have to our own Sun. And the size of their orbit is proportionally the same as the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. (The star in the newly discovered system is only about half the size of our Sun, hence the reason why all the figures are given as ratios). The orbital period of the giants is about the same too.

So what about a copy of Earth and the other inner, rocky planets? Well, the scientists didn’t actually discover a new Earth, but they say that the existence of an Earth-like planet is quite likely because there is plenty of empty space in between the gas giants and the star.

Wikipedia Unfortunately there’s not much chance of us discovering any more planets in this system – at least not yet, anyway. Current techniques simply aren’t powerful enough to see such small objects so far away.

But wait a minute… if the system’s so far away, how could we detect that the giant gas planets were there? They’re pretty tiny too, surely, compared to the size of their sun?

They used a clever trick called ‘gravitational lensing’, which involves the effect first predicted by Einstein that if you put a heavy object (like a star) in front of another object (like another star further away), the star in front will bend the light from the star behind because gravity bends light. This enables us to see faraway objects much bigger than we would usually be able to see them. (Click here to read more about gravitational lensing, and how it enabled the Hubble Space Telescope to see a galaxy 13 billion light years away.)

Since we don’t know for definite that there’s a replica Earth in this system, should we really be getting so excited? I think the answer should definitely be yes – in the decade since we first discovered extrasolar planets, 300 planets outside our Solar System have been discovered. The more variation among these planets, the more chance of eventually finding ET. And that would be seriously cool.

Click here for NASA’s excellent exoplanet website: PlanetQuest.

Fish can count – but only up to 4

Wikipedia One, two, three, four… hmm, what comes next? I’d hope you know, but a 1-year-old child might struggle. Monkeys generally can’t get past 4 either, and neither can fish – as scientists have now discovered.

How can we really know that fish can’t count past 4? The method the scientists used was actually quite ingenious. They gave a lone female mosquitofish the option of joining two different shoals of fish, and found that it always preferred being in the larger shoal (more fish means increased safety from predators).

So, for example, it would always join a shoal with four fish in rather than one with three or two. Telegraph (telegraph.co.uk)And if there was a shoal with three fish in and a shoal with two, it  would always go to the shoal with three of its fishy friends. But as soon as the shoals began getting bigger than four, the mosquitofish couldn’t figure out which shoal was best, and it just picked randomly.

By repeating this test several times, the scientists established with quite a large degree of certainty that mosquitofish can count, but only up to 4. (By the way, mosquitofish get their name from their habit of eating larval and developing mosquitos.)

The mosquitofish is native to the Gulf of Mexico

They also discovered that when the fish was given the option of two shoals with a 2:1 ratio of fish in them, the mosquitofish would always join the larger one. So fish can do multiplication too? I doubt it – surely it’s just common sense once the differences between shoals become so great. But you never know what might happen now we’re in the age of genetic engineering…

Isn’t it great to know that while we have some scientists working on curing AIDS and saving our environment, others prefer to find out how good fish are at counting. What was the point of this experiment? I’m not entirely sure, but then again there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun. And now you can pretend you’re a genius next time your kids watch Finding Nemo.

Shuttle Endeavour touches down safely in darkness

 NASA / National Geographic

It blasted off in darkness two weeks ago and has now touched down again at Cape Canaveral in the middle of the night. But Space Shuttle Endeavour’s mission was certainly nothing to be dark and depressed about – it successfully installed a huge robotic arm form Canada to the ISS, as well as delivering the first part of the huge Japanese space lab Kibo. (Click here for more on what Endeavour has been doing these past two weeks)

The great news is that we only have another couple of months or so until the next Shuttle launch – Discovery is scheduled to launch in late May. Its fuel tank was taken to the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday.

Is it really worth all these missions to build the ISS? The ISS is now 70% complete, and it certainly is not useless. Loads of important scientific research is being carried out as you’re reading this, and it has also been a vital exercise in seeing whether different countries can collaborate to create something so technologically advanced.

Here’s the video of the touchdown:

Hawaii’s volcano Kilauea starts exploding and erupting new lava

National Geographic It’s been erupting for 25 years now, but that doesn’t stop Hawaii’s volcano Kilauea throwing up new surprises. One of its major craters has now started exploding and oozing lava – the explosions are the first in 84 years, and the lava the first in a quarter of a century from this particular crater.

The explosion in the Halemaumau crater spread debris over an amazing 75 acres – I expect local residents got quite a shock. But what caused the explosion? Basically, it was because gas under increasing pressure below the surface finally had to get out somehow, and it did that by exploding through the rock. The lava came out for a similar reason – the pressure under the surface was just getting too great.

Since Kilauea’s been erupting non-stop for 25 years, should we really be making such a fuss over these latest events? Normally I’d say no, but it is interesting that these events follow other reported increasing activity by Kilauea (I wrote about it a few weeks ago). CNN / APIs Hawaii’s most famous volcano about to turn nasty?

As with all geological events (volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.) the simple and true answer is that we just don’t know. But I’ll definitely be keeping more of an eye on Kilauea now – it could definitely get interesting any day now.

Click here for more information on Kilauea, one of the world’s most fascinating volcanoes.