Sunday SciKu | The Geminids

Photo by ESA

This Sunday’s SciKu doesn’t need much explaining but serves as a reminder that tonight is the peak of probably the best annual meteor shower of the year: the Geminids. Unlike most meteor showers, the Geminids are created by the debris field of an asteroid rather than a comet.

Orbiting the sun once every 1.4 years, the 3.6-mile-wide 3200 Phaethan asteroid dips halfway between the Sun and Mercury before it’s flung back out toward Mars, heating the surface to 1,500° F and gradually breaking it apart via thermal expansion. The trail of dust, which the Earth is flying through tonight, is full of all sorts of rocky elements as a result, creating over 100 shooting stars per hour in a range of colors. Last night I saw 9 or 10 on my midnight walk with the dog, but that was just a preview.

The moon is almost completely dark tonight, so go out and take a look toward Gemini (just behind Orion’s back shoulder in the sky). But be sure to bundle up if it’s as cold as it is here!


the stars fall
through my winter


Triolet for Tabby’s Star

Artist’s rendering of Tabby’s Star by NASA

This week’s prompt for the Rattlecast was to write a poem about a scientific discovery, and I ended up writing about Tabby’s Star. First discovered in 2015 by amateur scientists looking for exoplanets in data from the Keppler telescope, the star KIC 8462852’s dimming was like nothing ever found before—it’s irregular and huge and without a corresponding drop at infrared wavelengths. Something huge and strangely shaped orbits this star, periodically blocking out up to 22% of it’s light.

Tabby’s Star is only slightly larger than our sun, and it would take a planet many times larger than Jupiter to block that much light—oh, and the planet would have to be shaped like a triangle.

It was fun to imagine it might be aliens. Maybe it’s a massive armada of starships refueling 1,500 light years away. Maybe it’s a Dyson swarm of huge satellites powering an advanced civilization. Maybe we’re not alone.

For years there really wasn’t a plausible explanation; the behavior was too odd. But last year a new paper came out that probably explains it: A detached moon the size of Mars could be orbiting the planet, slowly breaking apart and creating a ring of dust around the star like the mother of all comets. And sadly, the modeling works out—such an event is possible and really would look like this from our perspective.

Space retains its eerie silence. The Fermi Paradox lives on.


Triolet for Tabby’s Star

Why is it such a rare and fragile thing
to find a ring around a star so like our own?
The galaxies stretch out like jewels upon a string—
why is it such a rare and fragile thing?
More spheres than grains of sand—but they don’t sing.
There’s too much room for us to fill alone.
Why is it such a rare and fragile thing
to find a ring around a star so like our own?

Sunday SciKu | Polarity All the Way Down

Photo by Jong Marshes via Unsplash

Life as we know it couldn’t exist without the strange properties of water, which are due to its exceptional polarity. A water molecule is a big negative oxygen atom on one end with two positive hydrogen atoms on the other, making it an extreme dipole. It’s not the most extreme (that would be all-cis hexafluorocyclohexane), but nothing comes close in abundance. That arrow-like shape allows it to cut like a knife through anything else that’s even slightly polarized, making it the universal solvent of biochemistry. Water isn’t just that life happened to emerge from the sea—it couldn’t have appeared in anything but a sea of water forcing all of the necessary chemicals together. It’s not just the universal solvent, but also the universal catalyst. As life on land, we’re really just bags of water that brought the sea with us.

The polarity of water also provides its bizarre physical properties—the melting and boiling points of water are abnormally high, allowing it to be liquid on Earth. Solids are less dense than liquids, so ice floats. It’s surface tension is much higher than other liquids. There are around 70 physical properties like this that make water a physical anomaly. Even more interestingly, the molecular polarity alone isn’t enough to explain it all.

That’s where this week’s sciku story comes in. One of the hypotheses has been that water actually has two liquid states—a traditional one, and another that’s more like a liquid crystal. Even though the traditional liquid state dominates at room temperature, there’s always a slight amount of flux between the two states, giving water’s bizarre behavior an extra boost.

If that’s hard to imagine, think about the surface of a lake, where a few molecules are always evaporating into gas as others are condensing back into liquid, creating an equilibrium that’s constant while always changing. That’s happening inside every glass of water, according to this hypothesis, only the flux is between liquid and liquid rather than liquid and gas.

The problem is that it could only be modeled by computer and had never been proven in the real world. The process is too rare and rapid to observe at room temperature, and ice forms too quickly at cold temperatures. Until this week, when a team at Stockholm University managed to use X-ray lasers to examine supercooled water at high pressure to prove this to be true. Every glass of water and droplet in your body is in constant flux between these liquid and liquid crystal states.

Thinking about this as I dozed off to sleep last night, it occurred to me that the necessity of polarity isn’t just a metaphor for our broader society, it’s metonymous, and on every level. Human cognition isn’t functional without something akin to a dipole moment—we need the competing approach and avoidance circuits; it’s why we have two brain hemispheres. We carve up the world into patterns and name them—that’s what an idea is, from the Greek, a pattern. And to see a pattern, idein, is literally to see. We pull those ideas apart and put them back together, and that process is the scaffolding of everything we’ve ever done as a technological species.

In the same way, without a constant frothy sea of division, societies wouldn’t be able to spark or sustain themselves. Polarity is the knife blade that allows us to cleave and recombine into something better, swimming forward against the current of entropy, embodied now in two political halves always at war with each other. It’s not just turtles all the way down, it’s polarity all the way down. This is another example of the fractal substrate of the universe (which is what my old book American Fractal was actually about). We’re all bags of polarity moving through that fractal fabric, blinking into and out of existence, nodes of flux in our own states of flux, catalyzing a larger chemistry, never realizing, as Vonnegut put it, that we were making champagne.


election year—
the extreme polarity
of water


Sunday SciKu | Test Tube Randomness

In this paper from Nature, researchers at ETH Zurich used DNA synthesis to create test tubes full of randomness—7 million GB of random data per run, to be exact—which could turn out to be very useful for encryption. Synthesizers basically drip the four nucleotides one at a time to make whatever chain you want. This team turned on all four droppers at once and let the chips fall where they may. It’s funny that it’s 2020 and no one had thought of that before.


canned chaos—
as if there weren’t


Sunday SciKu | Friendly Finches

Photo by David Clode

Past studies have shown that humans can recognize the voice of a friend after hearing just two words with 90% accuracy, and that babies recognize their mother’s voice at birth. I’ve never found an answer to the question of how many voices we have stored this way, and I wonder if it might be up to Dunbar’s Number—the number of social contacts we’re able to store and keep track of without external support systems. That number, around 150, is thought to govern the tribe sizes in hunter-gatherers, among other things, and thus has a large influence human cognition and history.

I always think of this when I notice a celebrity voiceover. If I recognize John Krasinski in an Esurance commercial, does that mean he’s in my tribe psychologically, even though I don’t actually know him? What a strange world we live in.

Anyway, this week’s SciKu was inspired by research out of U.C.-Berkeley showing that zebra finches are also able to recognize the voices of their friends in this way, right up to their own “tribe” size of 50. The thought of finches twittering to their friends made my day.


all these years
your voice on the phone
still birdsong