(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘NASA

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…'”*…

It’s that time again: the IgNobel Prizes for 2021 have been awarded!

An experiment that hung rhinoceroses upside down to see what effect it had on the animals has been awarded one of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

Other recipients included teams that studied the bacteria in chewing gum stuck to pavements, and how to control cockroaches on submarines.

The ceremony couldn’t take place at its usual home of Harvard University in the US because of Covid restrictions. All the fun occurred online instead.

The science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, says its Ig Nobel awards should first make you laugh but then make you think.

And the rhino study, which this year wins the award for transportation research, does exactly this. What could seem more daft than hanging 12 rhinos upside down for 10 minutes?

But wildlife veterinarian Robin Radcliffe, from Cornell University, and colleagues did exactly this in Namibia because they wanted to know if the health of the animals might be compromised when slung by their legs beneath a helicopter. It’s an activity that increasingly has been used in African conservation work to shift rhinos between areas of fragmented habitat.

However, no-one had done the basic investigation to check that the tranquillised animals’ heart and lung function coped with upside-down flying, said Robin. He told BBC News: “Namibia was the first country to take a step back and say, ‘hey, let’s study this and figure out, you know, is this a safe thing to do for rhinos?”

As has become customary with the Ig Nobels, the prizes on the night were handed out by real Nobel laureates, including Frances Arnold (chemistry, 2018), Carl Weiman (physics, 2001), and Eric Maskin (economics, 2007).

The winners got a trophy they had to assemble themselves from a PDF print-out and a cash prize in the form of a counterfeit 10 trillion dollar Zimbabwean banknote…

For more on the very real importance of the rhino research, and a complete list of other winners, e.g.,

Biology Prize: Susanne Schötz, for analysing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat-human communication.

… see “Upside-down rhino research wins Ig Nobel Prize.

* Isaac Asimov


As we take our knowledge where we find it, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that president John F. Kennedy gave what has become known as the “space speech.” Officially titled “the Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort,” it characterized space as a new frontier, in an attempt to win support for the Apollo program, the national effort to land a man on the Moon.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

The full text of his speech (and video clips) are here.

Kennedy speaking at Rice


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 12, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Maps codify the miracle of existence”*…

… and almost always, something more…

“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps”, says the seafaring raconteur Charles Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.'” Of course, these “blank spaces” were anything but. The no-man’s-lands that colonial explorers like Marlow found most inviting (the Congo River basin, Tasmania, the Andaman Islands) were, in fact, richly populated, and faced devastating consequences in the name of imperial expansion.

In the same troublesome vein as Marlow, Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas painted cartographic knowledge as a candle coruscating against the void of ignorance, represented in his unique vision by a broiling mass of black cloud. Each map represents the bounds of geographical learning at a particular point in history, from a specific civilizational perspective, beginning with Eden, circa “B.C. 2348”. In the next map titled “B.C. 1491. The Exodus of the Israelites”, Armenia, Assyria, Arabia, Aram, and Egypt form an island of light, pushing back the black clouds of unknowing. As history progresses — through various Roman dynasties, the reign of Charlemagne, and the Crusades — the foul weather retreats further. In the map titled “A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America”, the transatlantic exploits of the so-called Age of Discovery force Quin to employ a shift in scale — the luminescence of his globe now extends to include Africa and most of Asia, but North America hides behind cumulus clouds, with its “unnamed” eastern shores peeking out from beneath a storm of oblivion. In the Atlas‘ last map, we find a world without darkness, not a trace of cloud. Instead, unexplored territories stretch out in the pale brown of vellum parchment, demarcating “barbarous and uncivilized countries”, as if the hinterlands of Africa and Canada are awaiting colonial inscription. 

Looking back from a contemporary vantage, the Historical Atlas remains memorable for what is not shown. Quin’s cartography inadvertently visualizes the ideology of empire: a geographic chauvinism that had little respect for the knowledge of those beyond imperial borders. And aside from depicting the reach of Kublai Khan, his focus remains narrowly European and Judeo-Christian. While Quin strives for accuracy, he admits to programmatic omission. “The colours we have used being generally meant to point out and distinguish one state or empire from another. . . were obviously inapplicable to deserts peopled by tribes having no settled form of government, or political existence, or known territorial limits”. Instead of representing these groups, Quin, like his clouds, has erased them from view.

Clouds of Unknowing: Edward Quin’s (1830) Historical Atlas. From the David Rumsey Map Collection (via the Internet Archive), where you can view it all. Via the invaluable Public Domain Review (@PublicDomainRev).

* Nicholas Crane, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet


As we find our place, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that an epic mapping expedition began: NASA launched the Mariner 9 space probe, the first space craft to orbit Mars (or any other planet). Mariner 9 was designed to continue the atmospheric studies begun by Mariner 6 and 7, and to map over 70% of the Martian surface from the lowest altitude (930 mi) and at the highest resolutions (from 1,100 to 110 yards per pixel) of any Mars mission up to that point. After a spate of dust storms on the planet for several months following its arrival, the orbiter managed to send back clear pictures of the surface. Mariner 9 successfully returned 7,329 images over the course of its mission, which concluded in October 1972.


“The golden ratio is the key”*…

… in any case, to good design. So, how did it come into currency? Western tradition tends to credit the Greeks and Euclid (via Fibonacci), while acknowledging that they may have been inspired by the Egyptians. But recent research has surfaced a a more tantalizing prospect:

Design remains a largely white profession, with Black people still vastly underrepresented – making up just 3% of the design industry, according to a 2019 survey

Part of the lack of representation might have had to do with the fact that prevailing tenets of design seemed to hew closely to Western traditions, with purported origins in Ancient Greece and the schools out of Germany, Russia and the Netherlands deemed paragons of the field. A “Black aesthetic” has seemed to be altogether absent.

But what if a uniquely African aesthetic has been deeply embedded in Western design all along? 

Through my research collaboration with design scholar Ron Eglash, author of “African Fractals,” I discovered that the design style that undergirds much of the graphic design profession today – the Swiss design tradition that uses the golden ratio – may have roots in African culture

The golden ratio refers to the mathematical expression of “1: phi,” where phi is an irrational number, roughly 1.618. 

Visually, this ratio can be represented as the “golden rectangle,” with the ratio of side “a” to side “b” the same as the ratio of the sides “a”-plus-“b” to “a.” 

The golden rectangle. If you divide ‘a’ by ‘b’ and ‘a’-plus-‘b’ by ‘a,’ you get phi, which is roughly 1.618

Create a square on one side of the golden rectangle, and the remaining space will form another golden rectangle. Repeat that process in each new golden rectangle, subdividing in the same direction, and you’ll get a golden spiral [the image at the top of this post], arguably the more popular and recognizable representation of the golden ratio.

This ratio is called “golden” or “divine” because it’s visually pleasing, and some scholars argue that the human eye can more readily interpret images that incorporate it.

For these reasons, you’ll see the golden ratio, rectangle and spiral incorporated into the design of public spaces and emulated in the artwork in museum halls and hanging on gallery walls. It’s also reflected in naturearchitecture, and design – and it forms a key component of modern Swiss design.

The Swiss design style emerged in the 20th century from an amalgamation of Russian, Dutch and German aesthetics. It’s been called one of the most important movements in the history of graphic design and provided the foundation for the rise of modernist graphic design in North America.

The Helvetica font, which originated in Switzerland, and Swiss graphic compositions – from ads to book covers, web pages and posters – are often organized according to the golden rectangle. Swiss architect Le Corbusier famously centered his design philosophy on the golden ratio, which he described as “[resounding] in man by an organic inevitability.”

An ad for Swiss Air by graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann incorporates the golden ratio. Grafic Notes

Graphic design scholars – represented particularly by Greek architecture scholar Marcus Vitruvius Pollo – have tended to credit early Greek culture for incorporating the golden rectangle into design. They’ll point to the Parthenon as a notable example of a building that implemented the ratio in its construction.

But empirical measurements don’t support the Parthenon’s purported golden proportions, since its actual ratio is 4:9 – two whole numbers. As I’ve pointed out, the Greeks, notably the mathematician Euclid, were aware of the golden ratio, but it was mentioned only in the context of the relationship between two lines or figures. No Greek sources use the phrase “golden rectangle” or suggest its use in design.

In fact, ancient Greek writings on architecture almost always stress the importance of whole number ratios, not the golden ratio. To the Greeks, whole number ratios represented Platonic concepts of perfection, so it’s far more likely that the Parthenon would have been built in accordance with these ideals.

If not from the ancient Greeks, where, then, did the golden rectangle originate? 

In Africa, design practices tend to focus on bottom-up growth and organic, fractal forms. They are created in a sort of feedback loop, what computer scientists call “recursion.” You start with a basic shape and then divide it into smaller versions of itself, so that the subdivisions are embedded in the original shape. What emerges is called a “self-similar” pattern, because the whole can be found in the parts… 

Robert Bringhurst, author of the canonical work “The Elements of Typographic Style,” subtly hints at the golden ratio’s African origins:

“If we look for a numerical approximation to this ratio, 1: phi, we will find it in something called the Fibonacci series, named for the thirteenth-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. Though he died two centuries before Gutenberg, Fibonacci is important in the history of European typography as well as mathematics. He was born in Pisa but studied in North Africa.”

These scaling patterns can be seen in ancient Egyptian design, and archaeological evidence shows that African cultural influences traveled down the Nile river. For instance, Egyptologist Alexander Badaway found the Fibonacci Series’ use in the layout of the Temple of Karnak. It is arranged in the same way African villages grow: starting with a sacred altar or “seed shape” before accumulating larger spaces that spiral outward.

Given that Fibonacci specifically traveled to North Africa to learn about mathematics, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Fibonacci brought the sequence from North Africa. Its first appearance in Europe is not in ancient Greece, but in “Liber Abaci,” Fibonacci’s book of math published in Italy in 1202. 

Why does all of this matter?

Well, in many ways, it doesn’t. We care about “who was first” only because we live in a system obsessed with proclaiming some people winners – the intellectual property owners that history should remember. That same system declares some people losers, removed from history and, subsequently, their lands, undeserving of any due reparations. 

Yet as many strive to live in a just, equitable and peaceful world, it is important to restore a more multicultural sense of intellectual history, particularly within graphic design’s canon. And once Black graphic design students see the influences of their predecessors, perhaps they will be inspired and motivated anew to recover that history – and continue to build upon its legacy.

The longer-than-we’ve-acknowledged history of the Golden Ratio in design; Audrey Bennett (@audreygbennett) unpacks “The African roots of Swiss design.”

For more on Fibonacci‘s acquisitive habits, see this earlier post.

* Sir Edward Victor Appleton, Nobel Laureate in physics (1947)


As we ruminate on relationships, we might send careful-calculated birthday greetings to Mary Jackson; she was born on this date in 1921. A mathematician and aerospace engineer, she worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia (part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA], which in 1958 was succeeded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) for most of her career. She began as a “computer” at the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951; in 1958, she became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Jackson’s story features in the 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. She is one of the three protagonists in Hidden Figures, the film adaptation released the same year. In 2019, she was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal; in 2020 the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters.


“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it”*…




There is a growing sense of unease around algorithmic modes of governance (‘algocracies’) and their impact on freedom. Contrary to the emancipatory utopianism of digital enthusiasts, many now fear that the rise of algocracies will undermine our freedom. Nevertheless, there has been some struggle to explain exactly how this will happen. This chapter tries to address the shortcomings in the existing discussion by arguing for a broader conception/understanding of freedom as well as a broader conception/understanding of algocracy. Broadening the focus in this way enables us to see how algorithmic governance can be both emancipatory and enslaving, and provides a framework for future development and activism around the creation of this technology…

From a pre-print of John Danaher‘s (@JohnDanaher) chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Technology, edited by Shannon Vallor: “Freedom in an Age of Algocracy “… a little dense, but very useful.

[image above: source]

* William Faulkner


As we meet the new boss, same as the old boss, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that telephone and television signals were first relayed in space via the communications satellite Echo 1– basically a big metallic balloon that simply bounced radio signals off its surface.  Simple, but effective.

Forty thousand pounds (18,144 kg) of air was required to inflate the sphere on the ground; so it was inflated in space.  While in orbit it only required several pounds of gas to keep it inflated.

Fun fact: the Echo 1 was built for NASA by Gilmore Schjeldahl, a Minnesota inventor probably better remembered as the creator of the plastic-lined airsickness bag.

200px-Echo-1 source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 24, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I don’t feel like speculating about them. All I know is what appeared on the film which was developed after the flight.”*…



… The [British] Ministry of Defence ran a UFO desk from 1952 until 2009; it was as underfunded as its American cousins, but it collected as many sightings (12,000) and was a bit more tolerant. Many of the MoD reports were accompanied by illustrations – diagrams, photos, sketches, even paintings – that were duly filed away. When the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, the UFO desk was inundated with requests. The MoD knew better than to put up a fight. They’d seen nothing definite in over fifty years, so from one point of view the files were too trivial to hide.

David Clarke, a lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, was made a consultant at the National Archives, where he spent ten years overseeing the UFO files’ release. There may be no extraordinary revelations in them, in the sense a UFOlogist would like, but there are fruits of a different sort. Clarke recently curated a peculiar and beautiful book called UFO Drawings from the National Archives, a showcase of the best ‘imaginative artwork’ sent to the MoD, ranging from scribbled crayon disks to diagrams in tidy pencil.

The book takes an old question (what did these people see?), sidesteps the nutjob theories and gives us a form of social history…

Hop aboard at “The UFOs we want.”

* NASA pilot Joseph Walker (referring to objects seen while he was tracking and photographing X-15 tests)


As we scan the skies, we might recall that it was on this date in 1950 that the first rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida– the “Bumper 2,” a V-2 missile base topped with a WAC Corporal rocket.

cape canav source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: