The infographics of xkcd

Log scale Most infographics on the web consist of generic graphics backed up with (lots of) poorly researched text.

When done well these informational graphics use charts, diagrams and illustrations to make complex ideas easier to comprehend. At their best the results can be quite illuminating.

Randall Munroe has produced more than a few great infographics for xkcd. His infographics can be broken down into three rough categories:

  1. Pure gag charts,
  2. Jokey graphics with a serious point, and…
  3. Well-researched highly informative graphics with some jokes sprinkled throughout.

For this post I’ve compiled the more informative types. There’s a list of some (but not all) of xkcd’s novelty graphs and charts at the end of this post.

For science! →

Why the Moon landings couldn’t have been faked

S.G. Collins explains how the technology didn’t exist in 1969 to actually fake the Moon landings in the way most conspiracy theorists seem to believe. Even if you were Stanley Kubrick.

I particularly love his delivery: he’s both monotonous and compelling, sarcastic and likeable.

Important note: I’ve seen people complaining about the ‘unnecessary gay joke’ he makes at the end – a play on the ‘homo’ in ‘homo sapien’. Of course, this is actually a reference to the latin meanings of the words: Homo is the genus of hominids that includes modern man and sapien loosely translates as ‘wise man’.

(via Gizmodo)

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor (and how to use it for SEO)

Up Goer Five is one of Randall Munroe’s more famous recent xkcd infographics in which he attempts to describe the workings of a Saturn V rocket using only most commonly used 1,000 words in the English language. Here’s just a part of it:

Up Goer Five, cropped

Inspired by this, The Up-Goer Five Text Editor is a fun tool (created by Theo Sanderson) that restricts the user to just the same 1,000 words. Anything not in that tiny dictionary will be given familiar squiggly red underlines.

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor

The Up-Goer Five Text Editor

Scientists have been trying to explain the work they do using only this reduced language. Here’s the work of a paleontologist summarised:

I study tracks, trails, places where animals make homes, and shit, both new and old, and figure out how animals do these things.
Tony Martin, paleontologist

Some of these passages come across as quite patronising (“We burn dead black stuff so that we can build things, power our houses and make our cars go.”), but some of the better ones are quite poetic. io9 has a beautiful description of Saturn:

There is a world that goes around the sun, ten times farther away from the sun than the world we live on. This world is really big – about ten times as wide as our world – and most of it is thick air pulled tight together. It has big beautiful rings around it, made of many pieces of ice.
A loving upgoerfive intro to Saturn and some of its moons, by Rachel Klippenstein

It’s worth reading the full thing.

What does this have to do with SEO? →

Touchdown on Mars

On August 6, 2012 the Curiosity rover will attempt a completely automated landing in Gale Crater on Mars. Curiosity is about five times larger than Spirit or Opportunity, so it can’t just deploy a huge beach-ball and bounce to safety — instead it needs to pull off a much more precise (and dramatic!) landing.

Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror

Team members at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory share the challenges of the Curiosity Mars rover’s final minutes to landing on the surface of Mars.

That video is all the more impressive when you have a mental image of exactly how large the Mars Science Laboratory is:

The Mars Science Laboratory

Actual size

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Long exposure photographs from the International Space Station

Talk about stunning!

ISS Star Trails, a set on Flickr from NASA_JSC_Photo

Expedition 31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit relayed some information about photographic techniques used to achieve the images: “My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, then ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”

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Water bear: the cockroach of microbes

Tardigrades (commonly known as water bears or moss piglets) may reach a length of 1.5 millimetres. The name water bear comes from the way they walk, reminiscent of a bear’s gait. They can be found across the world, from the highest peaks to the deepest oceans, and scientists now think they may even be able to survive interplanetary space travel:

Water bear in moss Researchers in 2007 launched anhydrobiotic adults into orbit above Earth to see if they would survive. Those animals endured naked exposure to space for 10 days, and a few even made it through an excessive dose of ultraviolet radiation while back on Earth.

Other laboratory experiments show that adult tardigrades can survive cold near absolute zero (-459 degrees Fahrenheit), heat exceeding 300 degrees Fahrenheit, pressures dozens of times greater than at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and intense blasts of radiation.

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The Russians used a pencil

Fisher AG-7 Space Pen

Fisher AG-7 Space Pen

“In the 1960′s NASA spent many years and millions of taxpayer dollars developing a special ‘space pen’ that uses nitrogen-pressurized ink cartridges to work in zero gravity, in a vacuum and at extreme temperatures ranging from -50 F to +400 F.

“The Russians used a pencil.”

This story keeps cropping up as an example of bureaucratic waste, or specifically as an example of what a colossal waste of money the space programme has been. It has been circulating the internet as fact since the mid ’90s, and even fictional White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry made the claim in a 2002 episode of the West Wing.

This Million Dollar Space Pen story is a pure fabrication however. The space pen was developed not by NASA, but by businessman Paul C. Fisher. It was only adopted by NASA after years of testing and the costs of developing the pen were never passed on to the US government. Furthermore, detritus from wooden pencils presented a potential hazard in microgravity, and Soviet Union would later adopt the Fisher space pen also. Continue reading

#ScienceSunday

Let’s kick of a #ScienceSunday hashtag. I’ve been doing this on and off for a couple of months now, and it seems like a very positive way of promoting rationalism.

Here’s the premise:

Find an interesting science story from the previous week and post a link to it, using the #ScienceSunday hashtag. Ideally the story should have a human interest angle, or inspire a sense of wonder. The idea is to highlight the very real miracles that happen (or are discovered) every day in this world thanks to the hard work of scientists everywhere. Continue reading

Solar updraft tower

Arizona should be getting some of these sci-fi eco monsters in 2015.

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Solar updraft towers combine three technologies to produce power: the greenhouse effect, the chimney effect and wind turbine. Sunshine heats the canopy at the base of the tall chimney causing air to flow upwards towards the turbines at the base which then convert that flow into electricity. The solar tower requires low maintenance, no feed stock (uranium, coal etc.) and emits no pollution.

(via Arizona getting colossal solar updraft tower in 2015 – digitaltrends.com)

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Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Scientific term Public meaning Better choice
enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

Table from Communicating the science of climate change – physicstoday.org
(via Scientists are from Mars, the public is from Earth – blogs.discovermagazine.com)

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There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum

The title of this post is a quote from Arthur C Clarke, whose predictions may have often missed the mark, but his opinions on politics, religion and where we should be headed are always spot on:

‘Today, of course, it seems ludicrous that we could have imagined giant space-stations, orbiting Hilton hotels, and expeditions to Jupiter as early as 2001 …’

He says now, ‘I was there when Spiro Agnew said to Walter Cronkite, immediately after the Apollo 11 launch, that we must go on to Mars. In the event Agnew was lucky not to go to jail! Everybody was very euphoric at the launch. But it fell apart very quickly thanks to Vietnam, Watergate.

via An Interview with Arthur C. Clarke, by Stephen Baxter – clarkeaward.com
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