Mariner 1 brought down by hyphen

Mariner 1, a NASA probe, crashed into the ocean not long after takeoff. The cause was a source of confusion for a long time, but seems to have been the result of a missing hypen.

One of the official reports, issued by the Mariner 1 Post-Flight Review Board, concluded that a dropped hyphen in coded computer instructions resulted in incorrect guidance signals being sent to the spacecraft. The review board specifically refers to a “hyphen,” although other sources also refer to an “overbar transcription error” and even to a misplaced decimal point.

Rejection hurts

Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that rejection hurts, and not just in a metaphorical sense. The study found that “social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain” (via nyt). Maybe artists, musicians and poets have been on to something all of these years.

Algorithmic pricing

Michael Eisen found a good example of algorithmic pricing on Amazon which resulted in two booksellers pricing a book on fly genetics at almost $24 million (via yewknee).

On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook was 1.270589 times the price of the copy offered by profnath. And now the bordeebook copy was 1.270589 times profnath again. So clearly at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other’s price. I continued to watch carefully and the full pattern emerged.

Once a day profnath set their price to be 0.9983 times bordeebook’s price. The prices would remain close for several hours, until bordeebook “noticed” profnath’s change and elevated their price to 1.270589 times profnath’s higher price. The pattern continued perfectly for the next week.

I’m waiting for the algorithmic pricing that messes up in the other direction and nets me a Gutenberg bible for pocket change.

God as an alien mathematician

There’s an interesting interview with Hugo de Garis in h+ magazine. From the beginning of the piece:

Hugo, you’ve recently published an article on titled “From Cosmism to Deism”, which essentially posits a transhumanist argument that some sort of “God” exists, i.e. some sort of intelligent creator of our universe – and furthermore that this “creator” is probably some sort of mathematician.

We’re just tiny bits of a big equation being used to determine the optimal baking time for a quiche in the unfathomably large oven at a cosmic dinner party.

Dark Ages not so dark

Apparently the Dark Ages weren’t as bleak as we’ve been led to believe.

We have this idea that it was a time of superstition and ignorance when people didn’t look at the world around them and certainly didn’t look at it with a scientific eye. In fact, the Church considered mathematics the highest form of worship. Before you were allowed to study theology, you had to study the seven liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

So the concept that the Church was against learning is wrong. For five or six hundred years after the Fall of Rome, it was the Church that preserved and expanded learning. And in Gerbert’s time they were actively seeking it out among Muslims and Jews. The Crusades were a hundred years later, and the Spanish Inquisition took place two hundred years later. All of the “dark” stuff happened after the Dark Ages.

A 2,550 year old beer recipe

Wired has an article about the resurrection of a 2,550 year-old beer recipe.

Six specially constructed ditches previously excavated at Eberdingen-Hochdorf a 2,550-year-old Celtic settlement, were used to make high-quality barley malt, a key beer ingredient, says archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart. Thousands of charred barley grains unearthed in the ditches about a decade ago came from a large malt-making enterprise.

Stika published his findings in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, where you can find the original paper.


From the The Last Days of the Polymath by Edward Carr:

The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields.

Perhaps we need a return to the Renaissance ideal.

NASA and bad science movies

There’s a list of movies making the rounds that claims to be the best and worst films as judged by experts from NASA. However, I wasn’t able to find an original source at the company. The list was first published in an article by John Harlow at the Sunday Times. The article is behind their paywall, so I had to pony up £1 for access. Apparently the list comes from a private meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Here’s a copy:

Worst sci-fi movies*

  1. 2012 (2009)
  2. The Core (2003)
  3. Armageddon (1998)
  4. Volcano (1997)
  5. Chain Reaction (1996)
  6. The 6th Day (2000)
  7. What the #$*! Do We Know? (2004)

Most realistic films*

  1. Gattaca (1997)
  2. Contact (1997)
  3. Metropolis (1927)
  4. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  5. Woman in the Moon (1929)
  6. The Thing from Another World (1951)
  7. Jurassic Park (1993)

*As named by Nasa and the Science & Entertainment Exchange

The lists strike me as kind of bizarre, they don’t seem exhaustive by any means — you could come up with a lot of changes to either one. Harlow doesn’t mention the parties involved at the private meeting, but he does attribute the list to the Science & Entertainment Exchange. From the SEE website:

The Science & Entertainment Exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences that provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.

Ahh, that makes sense. So, there was a meeting between NASA and SEE, in which they discussed movies with bad science. Makes me wonder if those movies were just the ones they happened to talk about rather than some sort of definitive list. It wouldn’t be the first time that Harlow was accused of making shit up. Regardless, NASA definitely doesn’t like 2012, they have a page dedicated to debunking it. Also, be sure to check out SEE’s blog for commentary on the science found in movies.

The lists have been posted on a lot of news websites, but there’s little evidence of any reporting — the articles tend to regurgitate the same information. For many of them, it just seems like a good excuse for a puff-piece with a bunch of Hollywood photos and movie clips.

While searching on the NASA site for an original source, I came across this deliciously old-school listing of space movies from the organization. That takes me back to an earlier web.

Update: I received an email from Marty Perreault, the Director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange, stating that they had nothing to do with the list:

I read your article “NASA and bad science movies” posted on January 3rd. You incorrectly attribute the list of films to the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Neither the Exchange nor the NAS was involved in creating such a list.

I reproduced the list from The Sunday Times, in which they attributed the list to SEE. I took a screenshot, here’s the relevant portion of the article.

The Australian is carrying an article by John Harlow, in which he credits Donald Yeomans for statements about the absurdity of 2012. Perhaps Yeomans was the source of the original list, or maybe the meeting was so private the only attendee was Harlow’s imagination.

Update 2: I sent an email to Donald Yeomans, the manager of the Near-Earth Object Program, who was quoted in John Harlow’s piece about 2012 for The Australian.

From Yeomans’ email response (original text):

There is no list and there was no meeting to put together such a list. NASA would never put together a list of “worst sci-fi films.” We are not movie critics.

He stated that he was interviewed by a British journalist, but was subject to misquotes and manufactured quotes. Yeomans also says that there was a meeting at JPL related to how Hollywood and NASA could help each other. The movie 2012 was discussed at the meeting, but he has not seen it. He also linked to a video that tries to dispel general internet paranoia about 2012. Yeomans was also quoted in the original article at The Sunday Times.

There you go — bad reporting to begin with and equally poor journalism from news outlets regurgitating the story without looking for original sources.