Wednesday Wow (Dec 9, 2020)

It’s been a few minutes since the last Wednesday Wow post, and I’ve got two recent videos that definitely made me go “Wow!”

I have a third that is cute and interesting as well as a fourth that’s kind of math-y but lighthearted and certainly relevant (and which will introduce you to Benford’s Law if you haven’t heard of it).

The first video involves a tragic disaster that occurred on the first of this month down in Puerto Rico when the Arecibo radio astronomy telescope collapsed.

The Arecibo Observatory – the 1000 foot radio reflector dish in particular — is one of the most iconic images from astronomy (it is not the only mission at Arecibo; not the only thing they did).

It’s in the movie, Contact (1997),which starred Jodie Foster. (Who was channeling real-life astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter, a former director of the SETI institute. I thought she looked way more like physicist Dr. Lisa Randall.)

It also plays an important role in the James Bond movie, GoldenEye. Pierce Brosnan (Bond) and Sean Bean (evil agent 006) battle to the death. (It’s just one of many times Bean dies in movies, poor guy.)

Tragically, due to budget cuts, the infrastructure supporting the telescope (which is huge and needs an equally huge infrastructure) has begun to decay.

In the later months of this year it suffered cable breaks that threatened the integrity the the structure and made it unsafe to be around (let alone operate).

Then, on December 1st, a third cable break over-stressed the system far beyond its design limits, and it collapsed.

Now it’s just junk.

Astonishingly, a drone was closely inspecting the main problem area when the cable broke, and the footage of the collapse was captured from only feet away. It’s an amazing thing to be able to see. One online comment mentioned engineering students will be viewing this video for many years to come.

Scott Manley has a great YouTube channel for those interested in space exploration, and he did a video that details what happened and which contains the drone footage (both at normal and slow speed):

If you’re interested in more, he also has an earlier video that gets into the state of the telescope after the first cable breaks but before the collapse.

I very much recommend his channel to those interested in space.

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Speaking of keeping an eye on space so it doesn’t fall down on our heads, the Veritasium YouTube channel has a really good video about asteroids:

The size comparisons, especially hanging the rocks over Central Park, is inspired! And kinda jaw-dropping.

The overall message is clear — we need to pay attention to this. An asteroid strike is one of those things that could end us, either completely or way back into the stone age.

It’s incredibly unlikely, but the idea of a Chicxulub-sized event… well, it took out the dinosaurs, and they’d been around for millions of years.

(On the other hand, it would take care of the COVID-19 problem.)

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Just to fill out the post a bit, here’s a cute video from the Two Minute Papers channel (a worthwhile channel for keeping an eye on interesting developments in AI and computer science in general):

It’s, once again, a clear illustration we need to exercise caution when it comes to AI. Given a set of goals and methods of trying to accomplish those goals, AI literally has no common sense guiding it away from solutions that may fit the goal as stated but not the intended purpose.

Robert Miles has an interesting YouTube channel that gets into these issues in detail. Worth checking out you are interested in AI research. (Although, if you are, you probably are already familiar with Miles.)

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Finally, not really a Wow! post (although math often does make me go Wow!), but in the context of the recent election, I thought you might find it somewhat interesting (Matt Parker almost always is):

At the least it introduces the idea of Benford’s Law, which is one of those little oddities in life.

I highly recommend his channel Stand-up Maths to anyone. It’s funny and very educational. (I reviewed one of his books, Humble Pi (2019), back in May. It’s a great read I recommend even more highly.)

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Bonus video! This appeared on YouTube (the USGS channel) while I was writing this. It’s brief and rather startling on a couple of levels (and in keeping with the disaster theme of the first videos):

For one thing, how humanity shapes the Earth visibly from space.

(It was once said the only thing one could see from space with the naked eye was the Great Wall of China, but that’s clearly not true. Ocean-going ship wakes are visible, for one. It’s even possible the Arecibo telescope was visible if one looked in the right place.)

For another, that’s a lot of water!

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Stay wowed, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

4 responses to “Wednesday Wow (Dec 9, 2020)

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