Edwin Hubble – Discoverer of Galaxies

Edwin Hubble was born in a small town in Missouri in 1889. From a young age, he developed an interest in science and astronomy and desperately wished to make astronomy his career.

Hubble graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in science and was subsequently accepted as a Rhodes Scholar to study at Oxford University. Surprisingly, his studies at Oxford were in law rather than astronomy.

Upon graduating, he became a practicing lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. He also worked for a time as a school teacher but he wasn’t happy with his career path. He returned to school and earned his doctorate in astronomy a short time later.

When Hubble began his career, the standard theory held that the Milky Way galaxy was the entirety of the universe. Through nightly observation, and the use of astronomic photography, Hubble proved that objects in the constellation Andromeda were at least one million light years away. In other words, there was more to the universe than the Milky Way. The universe was filled with galaxies!

Hubble’s other great breakthrough involved the discovery of an approximate relationship between the redshifts of galaxies and the distances to them using a formulation known as Hubble’s law. Through these measurements, a strong case is made for the expansion of the universe as well as supporting the Big Bang theory.

Edwin Hubble passed away in 1953. The Hubble Space Telescope (shown below) is named in his honor. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers hope to be able to figure out the likely fate of our universe: will it expand forever, or will the expansion reverse and cause the universe to collapse back into another Big Bang? It would be interesting to get Hubble’s take on things given the knowledge we know today.

Image Credit: NASA



The Bizarreness Effect and Spotting E.T.

Recently I’ve been researching historical accounts of UFO sightings/alien abductions (this topic never ceases to fascinate me) and exploring possible scientific explanations for their occurrences when I stumbled across a theory known as the bizarreness effect. I thought I would share a little of what I’ve learned of this theory and would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

The Bizarreness Effect

Early studies on bizarre imagery have produced contradictory results; some researchers have suggested that the bizarre imagery effects memory recall while others, using similar conditions in their labs, have not obtained that effect.  It was not until the 1980’s that McDaniel & Einstein theorized a paradigm in which consistent results were demonstrated.  Researchers showed that bizarre images are best remembered when mixed with common ones.  This phenomenon is known as the bizarreness effect and it refers to the greater recall of stimuli that have bizarre or unusual connotations as compared to those that are common.

This enhancement of bizarre, relative to common, sentence recall is believed to arise from a distinctiveness of the bizarre material, an uncomplicated sentence structure, and free recall of the material.  The following is an example of a bizarre sentence, taken from McDaniel & Einstein in 1986: 

The DOG rode the BICYCLE down the STREET.

One can see that though the sentence is reasonably simple in structure it may require more cognitive effort in order to visualize.  In an unmixed list, where bizarre and common stimuli were presented separately, the noun combinations of bizarre stimuli are not distinct enough to elicit a higher response recall then an unmixed list of common material.  However, in a mixed list, in which both common and bizarre are presented simultaneously, the bizarreness effect is shown abidingly.

Though researchers have come to understand what variables induce the bizarreness effect, it not clear as to what mechanisms account for effect in the first place.  The current understanding of the bizarreness effect suggests that it is a combination of theories based on the difference in storage and retrieval of the images.  The storage theory proposes that common stimuli are stored better into memory than bizarre stimuli.  The retrieval theory suggests that when bizarre stimuli are compared to common stimuli it produces a “surprise” response.  This response provides an extra cue for the retrieval of the bizarre stimuli.

An understanding about the mechanics of the bizarreness effect has a multitude of applications.  For the purpose of this topic, an understanding of imagery mnemonics are applied to enhance the recall of eyewitnesses used in UFO sightings or possibly even alien abduction accounts.  For investigators, if they can understand what is it about bizarre images that make them so remarkable, they can manipulate certain variables to improve the overall memory of the eyewitness and reduce or eliminate wrongful accounts.


Peter Lipton, . (2007). Alien Abduction: Inference to the Best Explanation and the Management of Testimony Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 4 (3), 238-251 DOI: 10.1353/epi.0.0013

Clark, S., & Loftus, E. (1996). The Construction of Space Alien Abduction Memories Psychological Inquiry, 7 (2), 140-143 DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0702_5

Kelley-Romano, S. (2006). Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives Communication Quarterly, 54 (3), 383-406 DOI: 10.1080/01463370600878545

McDaniel MA, Einstein GO, DeLosh EL, May CP, & Brady P (1995). The bizarreness effect: it’s not surprising, it’s complex. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition, 21 (2), 422-435 PMID: 7738508

Macklin, C., & McDaniel, M. (2005). The bizarreness effect: Dissociation between item and source memory Memory, 13 (7), 682-689 DOI: 10.1080/09658210444000304

Worthen, J., & Wood, V. (2001). A Disruptive Effect of Bizarreness on Memory for Relational and Contextual Details of Self-Performed and Other-Performed Acts The American Journal of Psychology, 114 (4) DOI: 10.2307/1423609

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Lights in Marfa, TX: UFO’s or is there another explanation?

For years now, travelers near Big Bend National Park have been puzzled by mysterious lights that appear almost every night to travelers along US Highway 67/90. Travelers have described the lights in various ways, but the majority reports a single round ball of yellowish green light.

The light was first reported in 1883 by a cowboy tending his cattle on a lonely winter night. The cowboy, Robert Ellison, chased the ball that he described as a fireball until his cattle began to stampede. Over the years, many have tried to find an explanation for the lights known as the Marfa Lights. Seeing the lights has become so popular that the Texas Highway Department has created a roadside park for motorists to stop at in hopes of getting their very own sighting. Read More →

Maximilian Wolf: Photographer of the Heavens

Maximilian Wolf (6/21/1863-10/3/1932) was a German astronomer who pioneered the field of astrophotography. He is also notable for his study of so-called dark nebulae. They were originally thought to be some sort of holes in the sky, though Wolf’s research allowed astronomers to get a better grasp on such an abstract concept. Along with John Brashear, Wolf designed the Bruce double astrograph refractor telescope that was installed at the Landessternwarte Heidelberg-Königstuhl. While previous observations by astronomers had only ever been made by direct methods, Wolf was able to use cameras to plot numerous new objects in the heavens. He took time exposure images of the night sky, and later demonstrated that asteroids could be traced by the presence of short lines in his photographs. Stars were simple points of light.

The red dwarf star named Wolf 359 is in relative proximity to the solar system, and this has made it popular with authors of science fiction. In fact, many people have probably learned about Max Wolf’s work through fiction rather than through fact. On one hand, this has opened generations of minds to the incredible work that he preformed. Unfortunately, it has also caused many people to forget about his work as the Chairman of Astronomy at the University of Heidelberg.

Image Credit: Archiv fur Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin

Are UFOs Visiting Earth?

Despite popular belief, the term UFO means an Unidentified Flying Object, not necessarily a spaceship or flying saucer. This applies to any object spotted in the sky that is not readily recognized by the observer. This can apply to unusual weather phenomena and military aircraft not generally seen by the public. Yet whenever the term UFO is used, typically the talk turns to aliens and spacecraft. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to refer to UFO’s as those of alien origin. Read More →

Doctor Who: Worlds in Time – Official Launch

BBC Worldwide Digital Entertainment and Games today announced the official launch of Doctor Who: Worlds in Time (DoctorWhoWIT.com), the first-ever browser-based, free-to-play multiplayer online game based on the popular television series. Created in partnership with Three Rings, the award-winning developer of persistent online worlds Puzzle Pirates and Spiral Knights, the game transports fans and gamers alike on a journey throughout the boundless Doctor Who universe.

Doctor Who: Worlds in Time offers something for everyone, including an intriguing narrative for sci-fi followers and serious gamers and stimulating missions for game enthusiasts looking for a quick pick-up-and-play game. After preparing the TARDIS, players travel to various immersive worlds (including Ember, Mars and New New York) and work together to defend civilization against infamous villains (including the Weeping Angels, Cybermen, Daleks, Autons, Oods and Zygons) bent on creating chaos and destruction in the universe. Since the open preview launch in December 2011, the BBC and Three Rings have worked to make more Doctor Who environments available, as well as introduce additional virtual items and create deeply engaging communal features.

Worlds in Time offers players a multitude of elements and opportunities to socialize,” said Robert Nashak, Executive Vice President, BBC Worldwide Digital Entertainment and Games. “From introducing beloved characters and progressive storylines to presenting additional guild play, our goal is to become the largest Doctor Who community ever assembled, while also being an enjoyable experience for all players.”

While Doctor Who: Worlds in Time is free-to-play, ,players can enrich their gameplay and hasten their progress through the purchase of Chronons, which help them to customize their avatars, complete mini-games, build new contraptions and more.

“I have been a fan of Doctor Who since I was a child, so developing this game with BBC Worldwide is a dream come true,” said Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings Design, Inc. “Like the Doctor, we have our own mission, to provide Doctor Who fans an experience matched only by the wondrous TV series, and casual gamers a warm opportunity to discover the marvelous world for themselves. It’s exciting to see the Doctor Who universe come to life in such a unique way.”

Doctor Who, one of BBC Worldwide’s flagship brands, is the longest-running science fiction series in the world and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013. It’s the story of the Doctor, the mysterious traveller in time and space, who has saved the universe so many times. The Doctor is a Time Lord, one of a legendary race of powerful beings whose job it is to observe and record, but never interfere. 2011 was the biggest year ever for Doctor Who on BBC AMERICA with record ratings and mass critical acclaim. The series broadcasts in more than 70 million homes and On Demand across all major digital platforms.

Source: BBC Worldwide

Trouble Ahead for Science Writers?

On Friday, Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, sent out the following open letter to members about a supposedly precarious situation arising in the already troubled book industry (letter below).  I’m posting about this on here because this could potentially affect those of you that write about science. Let me know what you think below.

For the record, I personally feel that this letter is self-serving and inaccurate in several areas. I completely disagree that eBooks (in particular Amazon’s discounting) were the cause of significant declines in the book industry – this was going on before then if memory serves well. The notion that they were the cause of Border’s failure is absurd and not worthy of a response. In any case, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions but would be remiss if I didn’t share my own. Make no mistake. I love books as much as anyone. The world is changing however. It’s time for publishers to figure out how to survive in the new economy or they need to get out of the way. I think if anything, authors today have more options than ever before – I for one consider that a good thing.

Letter from Scott Turow: Grim News

March 9, 2012. Dear member,

Yesterday’s report that the Justice Department may be near filing an antitrust lawsuit against five large trade book publishers and Apple is grim news for everyone who cherishes a rich literary culture.

The Justice Department has been investigating whether those publishers colluded in adopting a new model, pioneered by Apple for its sale of iTunes and apps, for selling e-books. Under that model, Apple simply acts as the publisher’s sales agent, with no authority to discount prices.

We have no way of knowing whether publishers colluded in adopting the agency model for e-book pricing. We do know that collusion wasn’t necessary: given the chance, any rational publisher would have leapt at Apple’s offer and clung to it like a life raft. Amazon was using e-book discounting to destroy bookselling, making it uneconomic for physical bookstores to keep their doors open.

Just before Amazon introduced the Kindle, it convinced major publishers to break old practices and release books in digital form at the same time they released them as hardcovers. Then Amazon dropped its bombshell: as it announced the launch of the Kindle, publishers learned that Amazon would be selling countless frontlist e-books at a loss. This was a game-changer, and not in a good way. Amazon’s predatory pricing would shield it from e-book competitors that lacked Amazon’s deep pockets.

Critically, it also undermined the hardcover market that brick-and-mortar stores depend on. It was as if Netflix announced that it would stream new movies the same weekend they opened in theaters. Publishers, though reportedly furious, largely acquiesced. Amazon, after all, already controlled some 75% of the online physical book market.

Amazon quickly captured the e-book market as well, bringing customers into its proprietary device-and-format walled garden (Sony, the prior e-book device leader, uses the open ePub format). Two years after it introduced the Kindle, Amazon continued to take losses on a deep list of e-book titles, undercutting hardcover sales of the most popular frontlist titles at its brick and mortar competitors.  Those losses paid huge dividends.  By the end of 2009, Amazon held an estimated 90% of the rapidly growing e-book market. Traditional bookstores were shutting down or scaling back. Borders was on its knees. Barnes & Noble had gamely just begun selling its Nook, but it lacked the capital to absorb e-book losses for long.

Enter Steve Jobs. Two years ago January, one month after B&N shipped its first Nook, Jobs introduced Apple’s iPad, with its proven iTunes-and-apps agency model for digital content. Five of the largest publishers jumped on with Apple’s model, even though it meant those publishers would make less money on every e-book they sold.

Publishers had no real choice (except the largest, Random House, which could bide its time – it took the leap with the launch of the iPad 2): it was seize the agency model or watch Amazon’s discounting destroy their physical distribution chain. Bookstores were well along the path to becoming as rare as record stores.  That’s why we publicly backed Macmillan when Amazon tried to use its online print book dominance to enforce its preferred e-book sales terms, even though Apple’s agency model also meant lower royalties for authors.

Our concern about bookstores isn’t rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling.  Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online.  In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered.  Publishing shouldn’t have to choose between bricks and clicks.  A robust book marketplace demands both bookstore showrooms to properly display new titles and online distribution for the convenience of customers.  Apple thrives on this very model: a strong retail presence to display its high-touch products coupled with vigorous online distribution.  While bookstores close, Apple has been busy opening more than 300 stores.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes.  Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult. The high royalties of direct publishing, for most, are more than offset by drastically smaller markets. And publishers won’t risk capital where there’s no reasonable prospect for reward. They will necessarily focus their capital on what works in an online environment: familiar works by familiar authors.

Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble’s investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months.  Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.

Let’s hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.

This would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support.


Scott Turow

The World’s Oldest Working Planetarium

Eise Eisinga by Willem Bartel van der Kooi (1827).

The people of Denmark were in a panic in 1774. They felt that the world was about to end because of an conjunction of the moon and planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. The theory was put forward in a book, by Reverend Eelco Alta, that this conjunction would cause the earth to be pushed out of its orbit and life as the people knew it would end.

Self-educated Eise Eisinga did not accept the theory. Setting about to explain to his fellow countrymen why the theory was wrong, he constructed a planetarium in his home. He hoped to have his model built in six months to stop the panic that was quickly overcoming Denmark.

He would work as a wool carder for his father by day and return to his home at night to spend many sleepless nights building his model. In all, he used over nine tons of oak wood to construct the model. The model took seven years to construct!

During those seven years, Eisinga paid careful attention to all details. In the model the earth takes a year to rotate around the sun, while Saturn takes 29 years. Simply amazing is the detail that Eisinga was able to construct into his model using 10,000 nails to carefully control the planet’s movements.

The pendulum powered model is still working today and visitors are invited to tour the modest home where the planetarium can be found. Visitors will be amazed at the model, the many old astronomical tools on display and the photos of early life in Denmark.


Eise Eisinga Planetarium. (n.d.). Welcome. Retrieved February 24, 2012, from http://www.planetarium-friesland.nl/engels.html

Hans Lippershey – Telescope Maker

Hans Lippershey applied for the first patent for a refracting telescope in 1608. He was a Dutch spectacle maker. How Lippershey came up with the idea to invent the telescope we will never know for sure but I for one am grateful for his contribution to astronomy.

Some people claim that he was watching two children playing with the spectacles in his shop when the children discovered that stacking the spectacles together and looking through them enlarged the weather- vane that they were looking at. Others claim that Lippershey’s apprentice came up with the idea while working with the supplies in Lippershey’s shop. Still others claim that Lippershey simply applied for a patent on someone else’s idea. As with much of history, the truth will never be known. Read More →

New Book: Lights of Mankind Shows Beauty of Earth from Space

As far as we know, Earth is the only planet in the universe that lights up at night. Now comes the first full-planet study of Earth after dark. Lights of Mankind: The Earth at Night As Seen From Space shares the awe-inspiring views that have caught the imagination of millions, showcasing more than 250 incredible photographs taken by astronauts on the International Space Station.

Recently released by Lyons Press, this stunning illustrated book documents the entire globe, featuring over 100 world-class cities and 70-plus regional panoramic images that show in striking detail the interplay of geography, man, and science. Covering every major city — from Paris to Milan, New York City to San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro to Rome — this is a photographic reference of the Earth at night, as seen from space.

Five astronauts — Clay Anderson, Sandra Mangus, Don Pettit, Mario Runco Jr., and Doug Wheelock — eloquently share their own perspectives on Earth at night, infusing this beautiful and informative book with eyewitness testimony. As Wheelock describes, “Earth presents itself as this raging explosion of light in a black, empty sea.”

At night our cities glow in patterns of light that speak volumes about how we inhabit this planet. The human story, including political conflicts and cultural proclivities, is highlighted from this perspective:

  • Powerful images of the Korean Peninsula underscore in a glance the literal and metaphorical differences between democracy and a totalitarian state.
  • Lights delineate the seemingly harmonious line of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan perched on a narrow strip of land along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
  • Water as the lifeblood of civilization is clearly seen worldwide as the lights of major cities line sheltered harbors and navigable rivers.

Keeney’s picks for the “Seven Wonders of the Nighttime World” show truly awe-inducing panoramic images of population centers around the globe in all their glittering glory. His playful selection on “The Unintentional Artwork of Man” offers a counterpoint to the zodiac creatures of the ancient astronomers.

The book itself is a testament to new technology, very human sharing without face-to-face contact: inspired by an astronaut’s tweet, filled with digital images, refined via Twitter consultation, facilitated by interviews on FreeConferenceCall.com, and transmitted by YouSendIt.

L. Douglas Keeney is the author of eleven books on military or American history. He is a cofounder of The Military Channel, and has visited many of the cities in this book. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Source: Globe Pequot Press