How Your Birthday Affects Your Life

photo  (c) simon battensby

What does it take to make it big into professional sports? Good DNA? Talent? Great coaches? Money? All good bets, but there’s one particular thing, which is completely out of your control, that affects your chances like no other. Your birth date.

Alex Bellos – a math professor with a taste for football who’s written a brilliant book about numbers in everyday life – has conducted an analysis of birthdays among footballers participating in the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. He found out that February, the shortest month, has the highest number of birthdays, 79 out of 736. Moreover, birth dates are strongly skewed towards the first half of the year: the first five months are all above average, while five of the last six are below. There is only one day with no World Cup birthdays in January and February, but there are eight in November and December.

Why? Because the eligibility cut-off date for sports schools is usually January 1st. At an early age, this creates significant difference in physicality: a kid who’s born on January 1st could be playing alongside one who was born up to 12 months later. So it pays to be relatively older – or bigger than your peers, that is – if you want to make the varsity team.

This is called the Relative age effect. I first encountered it while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, where he analyzed the work of a Canadian psychologyst who found out that most elite Canuck hockey players where born in the first half of the year.

That doesn’t mean that you should plan your pregnancies to end in early January at all costs. If you’d rather see your offspring pursue an academic career instead of a football, it would be best to look at autumn. Data shows that the likelihood of getting into Cambridge or Oxford – England’s most prestigious universities – are 30 percent higher for applicants born in October than in July. Why? Because the cut-off date for school year groups is September 1st. Autumn-born students have 25 percent more chances to be accepted than summer-born students. Those crucial few months of added development evidently affect one’s mental abilities as well, so when looking to get into a good school, September is actually January.

It turns out that your birth date, along with other things that you can’t choose like your birth place, your given name, and your ethnicity, can greatly affect the outcome of your life. But birthdays are somewhat paradoxical: how many people do you think must be in the same room to make it more likely than not that two of them share the same birthday? Try to come up with a number.

The answer is just 23. If there are 23 people in the room, it’s statistically more likely than not that two will share a birthday. Why does this sound surprising? Because of the way we relate to math problems such as this. Instinctively, you are prone to wonder how probable it is that someone in the room has the same birthday as you. You are reasoning on a 1 in 365 chance, but that is not the question asked. With 23 people, there are 253 possible pairs, but only 22 include you. Out of these 253 pairs, the probability that none of them includes an identical birthday – because there are only 365 birth dates – is 49 percent, or less than half. Think about this the next time you’re at a party.

Great Design is Timeless, Great Designers Unfortunately aren’t

Design legend Massimo Vignelli is dying, and he wants you to send him a postcard.
Here’s why you should.

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Even if you’ve never heard of Vignelli, you have surely seen his work. Chances are you may be seeing it every day. Pictured above is his redesign of New York’s subway map, released in 1972. It doesn’t look that old, does it? This approach was diagrammatic, which means that it sacrificed geographical accuracy – note how Central Park is reduced to a square – in favor of a neat, geometric design: one dot for each station, one color for each line, 45 and 90-degree angles only.

While it may look very contemporary now, this design was outrageously ahead of its time in 1972. Vignelli was aware of that, so he created two geographical maps and a verbal map – which explained how to go from place to place in words – to go along with his revolutionary A to B, modernist design. Unfortunately, the MTA thought this was too complicated and only introduced the map above, to the confusion of travelers: New Yorkers were outraged by what they saw as the misrepresentation of their city, while tourists struggled to relate Mr. Vignelli’s design to what they found above ground, writes The New York Times.

In 1979, Vignelli’s design was eventually replaced with this:


A safer, uglier alternative that does nothing to diminish the value of Vignelli’s work, which has influenced the design of transit maps ever since, and has a rightful place in MoMa’s collection. Also, the rest of his work for the New York subway system – a collaboration with another design legend, Bob Noorda – is still very much there for everyone to see:


The signage system debuted in 1968, and it’s just one of the children of Vignelli’s love affair with the Helvetica typeface, and Swiss design in general. A year earlier, he had redesigned American Airlines’ corporate identity and created an iconic logo that could have gone unchanged forever:


But it was changed last year. The new one is hardly as timeless. Several of the world’s most prominent corporate logos are in Helvetica, including BMW, Lufthansa, Toyota, Target and, ironically, Microsoft, which has never included the font in Windows, supplying the extremely similar – and cheaper to license – Arial instead.

Italian-born Vignelli has long been a resident of New York city, and his work can also be seen in the logos, signs and packaging for the city’s landmark department stores Bloomingdales, Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue. And last year, the MTA introduced The Weekender, an interactive version of the subway map based on his 1972 version.
His contributions to design are unforgettable, as is his philosophy: «I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all, timeless».

Last week, his son Luca announced that Massimo Vignelli is terminally ill and will be spending his last days at home. He also requested that anyone who has been influenced or touched by his work send him a note, or a letter, to his home address in New York City.
I hope this might inspire you to do so. Here is the address:

Massimo Vignelli
130 East 67 Street
New York, New York 10021

Update: Mr. Vignelli died on May 27th, 2014. Read his New York Times obituary.

The Internet is Killing the Headline

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If I titled this post 11 facts you didn’t know about headlines, or I was writing the headline to this post… you’ll never believe what happened next, it might have gotten more clicks. A lot more.

Headlines in these styles are notoriously popular, courtesy of Buzzfeed and Upworthy. The first kind even has a name, listicle, which to me conjures up the image of an underdeveloped testicle. Buzzfeed didn’t invent this, but made a business model out of it. Everyone is doing it now – we even get meta-variations like this Wired piece called 5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK. But, at least, a listicle headline contains information about the article itself. It just offers it in a slightly sleazy way.

Upworthy, on the other hand, uses a strategy known as curiosity gap: it tells you as little as possible about content and promises to surprise you, demanding a click. Examples include: 9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact (Pageviews: 6.3 million), Watch The First 54 Seconds. That’s All I Ask. You’ll Be Hooked After That, I Swear (Pageviews: 4.6 million), and His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick. (Pageviews: 4.9 million).
If you never visited Upworthy, you’d never guess that it’s actually a social issues website with a strong liberal leaning – that I almost completely share – because clickbait usually goes hand in hand with the trivial. They use this trick to attract people to content that would otherwise get little traffic: Upworthy’s tagline is Things that matter. Pass’em on.

The rise of these viral tactics highlights a radical change in the role of the headline. In a newspaper, it has a function. It must inform and attract. A perfect headline is elegant and inevitable, and can not only make or break an article, but alter its perception in the reader. But on the web, there’s a war for your attention. Words are weapons, and the headline is a battlefield. The journalistic headline has become much closer in functionality to the advertising headline – “the ticket on the meat”, as David Ogilvy defined it – which you use “to flag down readers for the kind of product you’re advertising”.

This is the most famous headline in print-advertising history:


That’s an underdog story, in fifteen words. Notice the peculiar use of the hyphen.
You don’t care it isn’t plausible, it just draws you in. It was written 60 years ago to sell correspondence music courses and it’s still being plagiarized by copywriters today.

Headlines used to be longer. In 1932, before the dangers of radioactivity became obvious, you could buy Radithor, a “medicine” of water and radium which was advertised to give you “perpetual sunshine”. One famous athlete, Eben Byers, was such a fan of the concoction that he drank 1,400 bottles of it, until his face literally came apart, as this headline from The Wall Street Journal perfectly narrates:

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Wordplay, or syntactic ambiguity, is a great tool for crafting headlines. This is by far my favorite from last year:

Screenshot 2014-04-09 21.50.58Assonance and consonance – the repetition of vowel sounds or consonants – can also be of great help. This New York Post example is proof that great headlines can be found anywhere:


What about rhyming? it’s old school, but effective. You may be familiar with the Mile High Club, but you may not know that its founding father is also the inventor of the autopilot, an essential device if you’re at the controls and looking for distraction. His name is Lawrence Sperry, and in 1916 he showed his invention – and presumably more – to one Cynthia Polk, while flying low over water. Something went wrong, and the two plunged into the water. They were rescued, both naked, by duck hunters. One unidentified New York tabloid brilliantly summarized the episode:


My favorite sports headline ever comes from a November 1968 issue of The Harvard Crimson. It reports on a football game played between the best of the Ivy League, Harvard and Yale. Yale was on a 16-game winning streak and was nationally ranked. They were leading 29-13 with less than a minute remaining. Then, the unthinkable happened. A fumble, a two-point conversion, an onside kick, another fumble, and another two-point conversion. Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds. With no overtime, the game ended in a tie, but Harvard got there in such an amazing way that it felt like a win, and a crushing loss for Yale. Hence, the perfect headline (above the masthead):

otsAcShThis recent example is from The New York Times:

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Sure, it needs a subhead to explain itself, but it carries a lot of weight: it sets the tone for the whole article, making it clear that the topic at hand is addressed – as it should be – with a lighthearted touch.

A great headline is a gift to the reader. You can savor its perfection, you can dwell in its stylistic sobriety – 6 to 8 words being the accepted ideal length for any headline. But clickbait headlines are never short, nor beautiful. They are a trap, and they don’t give you anything but an urge to click. It’s a transaction, not a gift.

Tim Radford, former Guardian science editor, writes in his brilliant Manifesto for the simple scribe: «When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader».

The Boy Who Thought He Caused 9/11

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On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a British boy who had been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – a form of anxiety which is only relieved by performing certain repetitive actions – was walking home, while engaging in one of his compulsive rituals. This one made him step on specific white markings on the street, but that day he accidentally missed one. Shortly after, when news of the atrocities from the US reached him, he became convinced that he was the cause of the attacks, because he did not step on that particular white mark. The boy thought he was to blame for 9/11.

Consumed with guilt, he behaved erratically for days – he also had Tourette’s –  and had to be persuaded by his therapists that the time difference between the UK and the US meant he had missed his ritual after the attacks happened, so he wasn’t responsible.

People who suffer from OCD often believe that missing their rituals might cause terrible harm, to themselves or others. But it was the first time an OCD patient thought he had caused a terrorist attack. The fear can take many forms and can even be externalized on various objects, like in the curious case of a patient who freaked out whenever he saw a particular type of car in the street, an El Camino.

A malfunctioning brain can create very powerful delusions: Capgras Syndrome is a rare condition – only about one hundred accounts exist – in which a person believes that their spouse, friend, parent or other family member has been replaced by an identical looking impostor. A similar condition, the Fregoli delusion, named after an Italian quick-change artist, has patients think that different people are in fact a single person who keeps changing appearance to torment them.

They both originate from a problem with face recognition, often due to illness or brain damage. The brain can no longer recognize familiar faces, and while attempting to make sense of them, it produces what psychologists call a confabulation, an unintentional lie that rings true to no one but the person who creates it.

This sort of mental short-circuit can unfortunately apply to one’s own body as well. BIID, or Body Integrity Identity Disorder, is a neurological failing that brings patients to think that a limb in their body no longer belongs to them: they want it gone, and strongly desire to become amputees. They start to behave like amputees, and will often gruesomely attempt to get rid of the alien body part.

The cause of this condition is unknown, but it is often associated with apothemnophilia, a form of sexual arousal based on one’s image as an amputee. The list of peculiar sexual preferences connected to mental illness is a long one, but I’ve always been particularly struck by Object Sexuality, by which people become affectionate to things rather than persons.

One American woman, Erika Eiffel, is an advocate for this very persuasion: she has been in love with the Berlin Wall for over twenty years. We’re not talking about architectural interest or a passion for aesthetics, but feelings of true love: she even slept with a miniature portion of the wall, cuddling it and treating it as her boyfriend. In 2004, she fell in love with the Eiffel Tower, which she famously “married” in a ceremony in 2007, hence her name (she was born Erika LaBrie). She received significant media attention and she is the subject of a book and a musical theatre production.

What I find fascinating about mental disorders is that they almost always abide by our need for a narrative. All brains, including healthy ones, prefer to receive information in the form of a story: it’s called narrative bias. We often use narrative to make sense of what happens to us, finding connections between events even if there are none. A damaged brain will not stop doing so, and will happily take the narrative to grotesque extremes. That is why, at times, the only way to “cure” a patient is to operate inside their own narrative. Philosopher Alain de Botton, in this almost certainly apocryphal tale, beautifully captures this:

“Medical history tells us of the case of a man living under the peculiar delusion that he was a fried egg. Quite how or when this idea had entered his head, no one knew, but he now refused to sit down anywhere for fear that he would “break himself” and “spill the yolk.” His doctors tried sedatives and other drugs to appease his fears, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, one of them made the effort to enter the mind of the deluded patient and suggested he should carry a piece of toast with him at all times, which he could place on any chair he wished to sit on, and hence protect himself from spillage. From then on, the deluded man was never seen without a piece of toast handy and was able to continue a more or less normal existence.”

(From Essays In Love, by Alain de Botton)

How the Weirdness of Water May Help Us Discover Alien Life

Screenshot 2014-04-04 16.47.41Step aside, Europa: Enceladus is now the coolest of moons. And our best bet at finding alien life.

We had always suspected that Enceladus had liquid water, but now there’s proof: a team of Italian and American researchers has just published a paper on Science, after looking at how the moon’s gravity affected the flight of NASA’s Cassini probe, currently exploring the Saturn system.

Under the icy surface of this moon of Saturn lies a liquid ocean the size of Lake Superior, or larger than Switzerland. Because of its distance from the Sun, the surface temperature of Enceladus is about -200 °C, and it’s covered by a thick crust of ice. So how can there be liquid water? Because tiny Enceladus is caught in a gravitational tug-of-war between Saturn and another moon, Dione. It gets pulled by one and the other alternatively, and this cracks the icy surface, creating friction and heat. More heat is released by radioactive decay in the core of the moon, and this warms it up enough to allow water to remain liquid between the core and the ice.

The most interesting thing about this discovery is that it stems from a curious property of water itself. Gravity at the South pole of Enceladus was found to be weaker, which was expected because of a depression. But the depression is so large that gravity should have been even weaker. So, something under the ice must be compensating. Something with a bit of extra mass. Liquid water. But how can liquid water be heavier than ice?

Unlike most substances, water becomes less dense when it freezes. You would expect it to do the opposite. But if it did, there would be no life on Earth. Ice floats on water precisely because it is less dense; if it were the other way around, instead of just getting an ice layer on top, the oceans would freeze from the bottom up, killing all aquatic life. The very property of water that is essential to life here on Earth may lead us to find it on a distant moon.

Liquid water is about 8 percent denser than ice, which is why soda cans explode if left in the freezer. Water has many such unusual properties, some of which are instrumental to life. And life as we know it depends on several elements, but essential to all living things on Earth are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur and phosphorus. We already know from Cassini that Enceladus has salts and organic molecules, but water is also a universal solvent, so its underground sea may contain key minerals dissolved from the rocky core, creating a suitable medium for life.

Enceladus is one of Saturn’s 62 known moons, and at about one tenth the size of the largest, Titan, it is rather small: about 500 kilometers in diameter. It holds the distinction of being the brightest object in the Solar System: due to the icy surface, the amount of light it reflects, or albedo in astronomy parlance, is close to 100 percent. Now it also holds the distinction of being our best chance at finding extraterrestrial microbial life. Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, is also thought to have underground oceans, but we have no proof of organic molecules, and its geysers – eruptions of liquid water from underneath the surface into space – are a rarity compared to those frequently seen on Enceladus.


The news come at an exciting time for astronomy and astrophysics. Our best theory for the early moments of the Big Bang seems to have received an initial confirmation last month, and a second Sedna, a dwarf planet that orbits the Sun with a very long and elliptical orbit, has been observed a couple of weeks ago. Our understanding of the Universe as a whole, and even more intriguingly of our own Solar System, is evolving rapidly.

So what should we do now? NASA already has a project for a mission to Europa, but it would just be a reconnaissance mission, with no attempt to penetrate the ice crust or even land on the moon. It would gather radar data and give us a good indication of Europa’s physical properties, in preparation for a future, more substantial mission. Therefore, it may be better to visit Enceladus, again not landing on it, but capturing the water plumes that spray from it at much more consistent pace than Europa’s. We would get the moon’s water without the need to go through the ice.

It would be tricky, because the spacecraft would have to be sterile, not to contaminate the samples, and the samples themselves would have to be quarantined, because for all we know they could be hazardous or infectious here. But they may contain signs of life or its precursor chemistry. And that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson would put it, would really change the cosmic perspective.

Why You’ll Hate the New Facebook Design


Why does everyone complain when Facebook gets a new design?

As soon as the changes appear, people start moaning. It’s happening right now, as the redesigned News Feed is being rolled out to all users, after almost a year of fine tuning.
But why does everyone get so grumpy?

Humans are change averse when it comes to graphical user interfaces, among many other things. Knowing your way around a website or software is a matter of habit. When it changes, you lose your points of reference and have to learn your way around again.
That leaves you dumbfounded until you new habits are formed over the old ones, which can be a bit of an annoyance. In other words, changes in Facebook make you feel stupid for a little while, and you hate that.

Change is difficult. Moving to a new city, starting a new job or learning how to use an operating system are all processes that require you to think about every little thing you’re doing. It’s hard work, but it’s something we generally accept, if maybe ungraciously, as a part of life. When change completely eludes our control, though, we feel lost. How would you react if you got home tonight to a completely rearranged furniture layout in your house? Change can be good and exciting, depending on your personality, but it’s a form of loss, and we are all loss averse by nature. If I gave you a $50 bill and asked if you want to gamble it on a coin toss for double or nothing, you’d probably do what most people do and choose to keep your $50. We tend to value what we already have about twice as much as potential gains, so the gamble is not worth the risk.

Computers haven’t been around that long in absolute terms, so we haven’t yet developed a specific set of psychological tools to apply to changes in that area, and we follow the general rule. Some folks feel that they have a right to retain the interface design they like best (the one they have gotten used to) and claim it’s intolerable that they are not given this option. They even make petitions that go nowhere and are soon forgotten. But Facebook isn’t a product you own or a software you’ve bought. It’s a free service that wants to make money off you and the user interface design is an integral part of its marketing effort, not a matter of anyone’s taste. Companies that pay Facebook to display their ads want to know how they will look like and demand consistency. As Mark Zuckerberg famously said, «you are the product».

People have a right to complain all they want. It’s a way to cope with the anxiety brought on by change. But it’s an empty effort when it comes to Facebook. As soon as you readjust to the new layout, a new habit forms and all is well. So, when you feel like you want to kick up a fuss, just wait a week. By then, it’s likely you’ll no longer care.

Does Peter Higgs Really Deserve a Nobel Prize?


The Nobel Prize for Physics was just assigned to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for the discovery of the famous Higgs boson.

What’s wrong with that? Mister Higgs has the boson named after himself, and there’s another guy sharing the honor for good measure, right?

In fact, this decision exposes some major flaws in the policy for Nobel assignment and robs other people, not just a few but thousands, of well deserved recognition.

The story of the Higgs boson starts in 1964. That year, three papers that theorized the existence of the elusive particle, the last to be observed in what we call the Standard Model of physics, were published almost simultaneously. Francois Eglert and Robert Brout released their work in August, Peter Higgs in October, and a team of three other researchers (Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen and Tom Kibble) followed suit in November. This is normal in science: discoveries tend to happen at a tipping point, and rarely they are the work of a lone genius (save relativity).

So, a total of six people are currently credited with coming up with the theory behind the boson, even though Higgs got the honor of the name (interestingly, bosons themselves are named after a person, Indian physicist Satyendra Bose, like the other class of fundamental particles, fermions, after Enrico Fermi). This happened after another physicist, Ben Lee, first addressed the particle as “Higgs-like” at Fermilab in 1972. Then a couple of Nobel winners mentioned a “Higgs-Kibble mechanism” in their acceptance speech, and the name stuck. Higgs himself has never been too happy about it and refers to his particle as a scalar boson. But names are important, and Higgs became the herald of this discovery even though, in reality, he wasn’t even the first one to publish something about it. Englert and Brout came first. Englert got a Nobel today, so why didn’t Brout? Because he’s dead.

The Nobel Prize has two main rules: it cannot be assigned posthumously, and to a maximum of three people. The key word being people. Outside of the Nobel Prize for Peace, currently a Nobel can’t be given to a group or institution. That’s a problem, because science is no longer the work of pioneering individuals. Gone are the times when Marie Curie would sentence herself to death by handling radioactive materials in her basement. There’s no more Wilhelm Rontgen repeatedly exposing his wife to deadly X-rays in the name of discovery. Research is now a collaborative effort conducted in ISO-approved labs with safety first in mind. Science papers can use more pages to list all the contributors than for the subject matter itself. It is weirdly anachronistic to not acknowledge this huge shift in how science is being made, and it leads to unfair decisions.

Back in 1964, there was no way to instrumentally confirm the existence of the famed boson. To do that, you need a huge particle accelerator, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Geneva. It took 48 years to design and build the technology that finally allowed us to find the particle, as CERN announced on July 4, 2012. For over a year, research was conducted by two separate groups called Atlas and CMS, after the names of the two particle detectors that analyze the results of experiments being run in the accelerator. An editorial on Scientific American that calls for the rules of Nobel assignment to change estimates that no less than 6,000 people contributed to these experiments. But since the prize can only be given to individuals, their effort is not recognized here.

The Nobel committee was faced with a difficult decision. They had six theoretical physicists all credited for the same discovery. One had passed away, but there were still two in excess. And then they had a couple of large teams lead by two additional individuals. A grand total of seven people plus thousands. They chose the path they thought was most logical: give the award to Higgs, the namesake, and to the living author of the paper that was published first. Higgs does deserve it, to answer the question in my provocative title, but the Nobel people chose to ignore the group of three that compounded the theoretical research, and most importantly to ignore the two groups that actually found the particle. Even though the assignment press release mentions them briefly (“…which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider”), that simply isn’t enough.

Science has evolved. Its most prestigious award should do the same.

The Age of the Selfish Meme

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The times, they are a-changin’.

The image above (via Reddit) comes from an Australian store that has started charging $5 to customers who peruse the goods but don’t buy anything, assuming they are just looking around to buy elsewhere later (possibly online), a strategy known as showrooming.

That’s a difficult problem to face if you’re a brick and mortar store: Best Buy has famously solved it by price-matching any online deal on its merchandise. This store chose a very different approach, one that is sure to alienate many potential customers. We are going through a big transition phase in how we deal with technology. Online shopping is already a taken-for-granted habit for many, but other changes are more subtle and take the stage less ceremoniously. Think of voicemail, which almost no one uses anymore. If you leave someone a voicemail and believe they will listen to it, you’re talking a dead language. But nobody tells you: you just have to know. That’s maybe why Nick Bilton of the New York Times caused a stir when he blogged about current trends in digital etiquette, saying that people who reply to an email or a text just to say “thank you” are rude.

It’s a generational clash all right, with grownups blaming the kids for being unpolite, but it’s way more than that. It’s not the first time we go through these hurdles, only the tools are different. One of «the first crises of techno-etiquette», as the Times calls it, happened just after the telephone was invented: nobody knew what to say when they picked up a call. Ahoy! and What is wanted? were popular options before we eventually settled on Hello. That was a single problem related to a single piece of technology. Think of how many of these processes we are going through today. The difference is that there’s no concerted effort, because most of these problems have not been around long enough to create a definite distinction between right and wrong. So everyone gives it a shot and hopes for the best.

In evolutionary terms, when someone smarter that you is around, you’re in trouble. Even if you’re standing on a freshly killed gazelle, there’s always a sneaky scavenger lurking somewhere. People being born today are delivered to a full-digital world, and this creates a fracture as large as we’ve ever seen. Some folks, the older generations, will fade away before this becomes more than a nuisance for them, but others who are still relatively young are at risk of suffering.

Technology is mature enough for some companies to have become dinosaurs. Think of the difference between Microsoft and Google. They were founded just 23 years apart, but if feels like a century. Yahoo, another flailing tech company, just made headlines around the world for having bought Summly, a news reading app that sums up news stories through an algorythm, for $30 million. The app was made by a 17-year old who is being hired by Yahoo. There’s no media outlet in the world that hasn’t picked up the story, because a kid who makes millions with an app has just slightly less appeal than a litter of puppies: it’s irresistible. But Summly had been around for a year, very few people used it, and Yahoo has already killed it. Yet this has become the global talk of the day and it’s given the company a fresh coat of paint, not a bad deal for $30 million, or 0,75 percent of Yahoo’s cash reserves. There’s no right or wrong in this: you can either see it as a brilliantly cynical PR move or a genuine sign that there’s hope for humanity. Either way, I’m not sure this trick can be successfully pulled off for much longer.

The following image is floating around Facebook: 536319_321387391297312_836869227_n It’s a static image that appears to be moving because it tricks your brain a little bit. The image is shared with the encouragement to “type 1 in the comments to see the magic”. Of course all the “magic” is already there, and absolutely nothing happens if you type “1” in the comments. You should know that. And yet this has racked up over 200,000 comments, with most people sheepishly complying and inflating the comment counter (an empty endeavor at that, but that’s how the Internet works). Imagine if someone told you in the street to shout out «one» very loud to “see the magic”. You’d think they’re nuts. You would certainly not comply. But in technology, the weakest of nudges will make you do things without thinking.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, saw it coming: just like genes use biological beings to propagate themselves, we are now slaves to memes as well. Most people don’t take these things seriously: they are not afraid to act like digital idiots. They still see this realm as something separate from reality, where the effort required to do stuff is minimal (one click) and so is the social cost of errors and mishaps. There’s an obvious detachment: people still use nicknames even where they’re not supposed to. There are companies that block off Facebook and other sites so that their employees do not slack off at work. In a few years (wether Facebook will still be around or not) that will be considered as outrageous as asking people to relinquish their phones before they sit at their desks.

For some, technology is not yet life, it’s something that still sits on top of it, separated. But it’s not. We are constantly going through sweeping social change, but it’s less apparent when you’re standing in the middle of it. And as with every social change, some people are on the forefront of it, some are puzzled by it, and some can’t even see it fly over their heads. It’s a very interesting time, but because transitions have uncertain boundaries it will be probably forgotten by history. Just like those times when we still hadn’t figured out what to say when we answered the phone.

The Up-Goer Five and Quantum Mechanics

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What you see above is something called The Up-Goer Five Text Editor.

It’s an online text editor that uses only the 1,000 most common words in the English language as its word database, giving you a warning every time you type anything that isn’t included in that list. The idea comes from an episode of the popular xkcd web comic in which the author tried to explain the Saturn V NASA rocket using only such words.
Thus it became the Up-Goer Five.

Theo Sanderson, a parasitologist, thought it would be neat to make a text editor based on that idea, so people could try their hand at explaining complex topics with simple words. This has led to some fine examples of wordsmanship, such as one by a linguistics graduate who explained Saturn and its moons. Here’s a quote from it, talking about the Cassini probe:

People wanted to learn about the big ringed world and the smaller worlds that go around it, so they sent a computer into space with computer eyes and a computer nose and other parts to see and smell these worlds and tell us about them.

There are many other brilliant examples that you can find on the text editor page itself or on Twitter, searching for the hashtag #upgoerfive. I gave it a shot, trying to explain the significance of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment in the realm of quantum mechanics and its various interpretations. Here it is:

When a group of men decided to come up with an idea of how very small things work, they could not all agree on the same one. So, after some time, one of them made a story about a cat to show how the idea that most others believed in could make you imagine things that were not possible.

He thought of this cat sitting in a box, close to some very small stuff that you can’t see with your eyes which has half the chance of going through a change in the next hour. If that happened, some other very bad stuff that is locked away would be set free in the box, killing the cat.

The idea he was against says that the cat would be dead and living at the same time until you opened the box to take a look inside. This showed that you could carry the state of the very small stuff that had gone through a change and force it onto the cat, a much bigger thing that you can see and touch. Only when you looked in would the cat stop being in both states and finally settle into living or dying, and exactly because you had opened the box to see.

But a cat can’t be living and dead at the same time, can it? So this story became really well known and it has been used in many other stories, even though the person who made it wanted to show that the idea most others believed in was probably not perfect. Yet not many people who hear it know that and think that he only wanted to talk about strange cats.

It’s fun. You should try it yourself.

When Space Pioneers Play It Safe

Signs of Unintelligent Life

NASA has recently announced that a new rover will be sent to Mars by 2020.
Another one?

They already have three there. Spirit and Opportunity landed first, in 2004. While Opportunity is still scuttling around, Spirit has been stuck in a sand pit for over two years now and its mission had ended. The latest to join the part is also the top of its class: Curiosity arrived last August and it’s doing great, making news headlines out of both actual merit and bad journalism. It even has its own Twitter feed.

After it started analyzing rocks and dust on Mars, the head boffin of the Curiosity team casually declared in an interview that the mission was to be «one for the history books». The fact that NASA had a press conference scheduled just days later made the rumors spread like wildfire: surely some sort of life form had been found on the red planet. The story was immediately picked up by the mainstream media. But it was just a misunderstanding: first, NASA holds regular press conferences, so this was absolutely normal. Second, the findings were “historical” simply because it had been confirmed that Curiosity was functioning properly. It was collecting samples and analyzing them on site, like the shiny chemistry lab on wheels it’s designed to be (it’ll take a long while to compile the results). That’s pretty big news by any standard, but it also highlights a matter of perception: if you had a presentation tomorrow in front of the CEO and your most important clients, that would be quite “historical” to you, not so much to the rest of the world. At NASA they have, similarly, a different way of perceiving their accomplishments than the general public, and sometimes this generates confusion.
But it definitely made Curiosity famous.

So why is NASA spending $1.5 billion to send yet another rover? Probably because when times aren’t great you just stick with what works best: the space program has very little funding and there’s no room for daring endeavors. There’s a plan to bring back rock samples from Mars, like we did with the Moon, and some of the money NASA is getting has been locked for that goal, so maybe they don’t even have a choice. Also, yet another rover could help further pave the way for a manned mission there.
But I can’t help the feeling that even NASA is doing sequels now.

I’m not a huge fan of Mars. It’s a dead rock with two puny captured asteroids for moons, and it’s way past its cosmic prime. Much more interesting is Jupiter, my favorite planet: not only it rules the Solar System in size, it has literally shaped its current arrengement. When Jupiter and Saturn engaged in a gravitational tug-of-war, billions of year ago, they created a turmoil powerful enough to eject Neptune and Uranus from their orbits, switch their positions, and send them in a faraway exile from the Sun, all the while leaving poor Uranus irrevocably lopsided. Plus, we wouldn’t be here without Jupiter. Because of its huge gravitational field, it acts as a cosmic shield for stray comets and asteroids which could otherwise pose a threat to us. One famous impact happened in 1994, when comet Shoemaker-Levy ploughed into Jupiter, shattered to pieces by its massive gravity before disappearing into the gas giant to great spectacle, scarring it for months. But this happens all the time: a large asteroid flew into Jupiter just days ago, but such events are so unpredictable (there’s lots of rocks flying around) that this one was only captured by an amateur’s webcam. Let’s just be thankful that our big pal Jupiter is out there for us.

Jupiter’s array of 67 confirmed moons hosts some of the most interesting bodies of the Solar System, chiefly among them Europa, a cold planetoid about the size of our own Moon which is believed to have oceans of liquid water under a thick crust of ice. And because Europa is constantly caught between the bickering gravitational forces of its host planet and its bigger moons, it’s probably subject to enough friction to have a hot core. Which means its oceans could have developed underwater hydrothermal vents similar to those found at depth on Earth, where they are populated with interesting life forms called extremophiles because of the extreme conditions they are able to withstand. This process, called tidal heating, is the same that makes the surface of Io, another one of Jupiter’s moons, look like a big ball of rotting cheese:


Io is covered with over 400 volcanoes, making it by far the most geologically active body in the Solar System, even though it’s so far away from the Sun that its average surface temperature is -170 °C. But extreme cold and even the absence of water may still not rule out the possibility of life: take Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, so big that it is larger than planet Mercury. NASA landed a probe called Huygens there, in 2005, which confirmed the presence of rivers and possibly lakes of liquid methane. Methane is an organic compound (because it contains carbon: that’s what organic means), so Titan could be a little bit like Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, when it was starting to become hospitable to life. When the Sun explodes into a red giant, in about five billion years, we’ll be long gone but Titan will get warmer and might be one of the best spots in the Solar System to develop a post-main sequence life habitat around our star.
In Titan’s neighborhood there’s also Enceladus:

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This chilly moon seems to have all the ingredients necessary to life: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, as the Cassini probe confirmed by sniffing one of its vaporous plumes during a flyby. Enceladus is also the most reflective body in the Solar System: it has an albedo of 0.99, which means it reflects 99 percent of all the sunlight it receives.

Admittedly, NASA does have a long-range spacecraft currently en route to somewhere we’ve never been to. It’s called New Horizons and it will reach Pluto in 2015. Ironically, the mission was launched in 2006, before Pluto was stripped of its planet status (and yes, it was the right decision). It’s still interesting because we know so little about this faraway world. It’s so distant we can’t even get a decent picture, not even with the Hubble Space Telescope, because it’s too small an object. Here’s one of the best we have:

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As you can see it’s actually a binary system. Pluto has five moons, but the biggest, Charon, is about a third the size of Pluto itself, the largest moon compared to its primary that we know of, anywhere. This neatly illustrates a little know fact about orbits: when you think of a moon, you think of a smaller object circling around a larger, “fixed” one. Well, for starters, an orbit is not a circular path but a continuous free-fall: gravity is not a magical force that attracts things, but a curvature of space induced by mass (it is also still a force: relativity is complicated stuff). So when something travels through an orbit, it actually goes in a straight path through curved space, in a constant free-fall through a gravitational field that never results in an actual collision because of velocity. It’s the same effect that astronauts experience in space, something incorrectly called zero-gravity: if you’re orbiting on the Space Shuttle you feel weightless not because Earth’s gravity isn’t there (it’s actually still 90 percent as strong as it is on the surface), but because you’re free-falling towards it. But since the spacecraft itself is also free-falling, there’s nothing to stop your fall, hence the weightlessness. You are technically in free-fall towards the center of the Earth right now, but the floor is stopping you. Get in an elevator on a high floor and cut the cables, and you can experience weightlessness right here on Earth (or book a ride on one of these planes).

But back to Pluto and Charon. When a moon orbits a planet, the two bodies are actually both orbiting their center of gravity, a point where the masses of the two objects balance called the barycenter. Because in most planet/moon systems the planet is vastly larger, this is usually hard to spot: our Moon, for example, doesn’t orbit around the very center of the Earth, but around a point 1,062 miles below the surface of our planet, where the two masses balance. This is so close to the dead center that Earth appears to stay put, but it actually shakes a bit. Stars also do that as a result of planets orbiting around them, and this gravitational wobble is one of the ways you can infer the presence of planets around a star, something otherwise difficult to see because of the blinding light.
But with Pluto and Charon, since the moon is so large compared to its host, the center of gravity actually lies outside Pluto. So they both circle around, orbiting their barycenter:

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The two are tidally locked, which means they are always showing each other the same face (as our Moon does, hence “the dark side of the Moon”), but they’re also in a synchronous orbit, so Charon remains forever fixed in the same position in the sky for an observer on Pluto, provided they’re standing on the right side of the planet (there’s never a Charon in the sky on the other side).

So there’s a lot of cool stuff in the Solar System besides Mars. Truth be told, many such missions are very costly and delicate to arrange, and NASA is suffering its worst budget constraints ever. For example, the technical challenges associated with penetrating Europa’s ice sheets are enormous, and NASA’s famous probe Galileo, which explored the Jupiter system until 2003, was carefully commanded to crash into the giant planet at the end of its mission to avoid any chance of contaminating the moons, especially Europa itself (the spacecraft was not sterilized). Still, it doesn’t detract from the fact that yet another Mars rover is a bit boring and unimaginative.

Isn’t space exploration all about boldly going where no man (or rover) has gone before? For now, NASA seems happier in safely sending stuff where they already have.