Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Trans-Neptunian objects: Stuck where the sun don't shine (very much).
“Trans-Neptunian objects: Stuck where the sun don’t shine (very much).”

In the beginning, there was the Earth.

Meaning, that’s the first solar system object humans knew about, mostly because we kept tripping and falling face-first onto it. Early humans weren’t particularly coordinated.

The sun was also pretty hard to miss, what with the light and heat and occasional scary eclipses. By the 2nd century B.C., eagle-eyed up-gazers had also spotted Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Not bad for people who didn’t have a LensCrafters at the local mall, probably.

It took a couple thousand years — and eyeglasses, binoculars and telescopes — to find the remaining (current) planets, Uranus (1781) and Neptune (1846). And then we had a problem. Based on calculations of the outer planets’ masses and shapes and favorite Hostess snack cakes, it appeared they were being influenced by some unseen astronomical force — other objects, further out, pulling the strings on Neptune’s orbit. (And pre-packaged dessert preference, apparently. Team Ho-Hos forever.)

So scientists went looking for these mystery bits of rock, called “trans-Neptunian objects”, because they spent (most of) their time chilling outside the orbit of Neptune, thirty times further from the sun as Earth. In 1930, they found the first trans-Neptunian object, and called it Pluto.

On the good side, Pluto was pretty much where astronomers thought it would be. On the bad, it wasn’t large enough to explain the discrepancy in Neptune’s behavior. Better measurements of Neptune determined its orbit actually made perfect sense, so they chalked it up to dumb luck, Pluto became the ninth planet, and nobody looked much for more trans-Neptunian objects for a while.

But Pluto seemed awfully lonely, way out there in a dusty corner of the solar system. So when a second trans-Neptunian object was spotted in 1992, the search was on again. Since then — because even our telescopes have LensCrafters now, probably — more than 1,500 trans-Neptunian objects have been found. So many, in fact, they get grouped into weird classifications like “twotinos” and “cubewanos” and “plutinos”.

(It sounds like the lineup for a Saturday night at the Mos Eisley cantina. But that’s really what they call them.)

All this family reunionizing was great for Pluto, presumably — until it wasn’t. In 2005, a trans-Neptunian object called Eris was found. It looked like Pluto. It had a moon, like Pluto. And it was bigger than Pluto — but no one was quite convinced it should be called a planet. So astronomers got together in 2006 and worked out criteria that said no, sorry, Eris is not technically a planet.

And oh, by the way, if you use the same criteria, neither is Pluto. Ouch. Finding Eris was like going on a date with someone who you don’t like very much, and instead of making you miss your previous relationship, you just realize you had bad taste in dating all along. Maybe you should try OKComet instead.

But there’s more. As astronomers discover even further-out hunks of rock — called extreme trans-Neptunian objects, because they drink Red Bull and get tattoos and stay out past curfew, I assume — an old problem reemerges: they don’t look quite right. In fact, a recent paper studying the orbits of some of these way-out objects says that apparently they are being influenced by something (or somethings), legitimately planet-sized and dark and mysterious even further out. So far, scientists haven’t seen them — or agree they exist — but some are now squinting their telescopes outward, just in case.

Here’s hoping they have a good LensCrafters nearby.

Image sources: NASA/JPL-Caltech (Sedna, the sexy TNO), and FreePik (‘Scopes heart LC), Princess Burlap (“I said, Team Ho-Hos!”), Electronic Cerebrectomy (Mos Eisley cantina band), FB-Troublemakers (sad Pluto)

· Write a comment
· Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

· Categories: Computers
What I’ve Learned:

Swarm robotics: You guys like swarms of things, right?
“Swarm robotics: You guys like swarms of things, right?”

Lots of great things come in swarms. Hornets. Locusts. One Direction fans.

Okay, so none of those things are particularly great. But robots are pretty great, and now robots come in swarms, too.

Swarm robotics hasn’t been around long, since it requires robots with three characteristics of animals that swarm together: small size, good mobility and cheap production.

And in the case of 1D fans, squealiness. But that’s not as important.

The concept behind swarm robotics is borrowed from biology, and is called “emergent behavior”. Basically, it’s the idea that a bunch of mostly-identical critters of limited intelligence can work together to do something useful that they couldn’t manage as individuals. In nature, that might be to migrate to a new nest or strip a cornfield down to its roots. Or to vote Harry Styles dreamiest Teen Beat dreamboat.

Happily, when it comes to swarm robotics, the mechanical critters — or the people programming them — are usually more sensible.

The ultimate goals of swarm robotics include things like digging mines or harvesting crops or building structures. Someday, particularly tiny robots might scurry into our bodies to clear out arteries or slice up a tumor or slap together a new liver.

Or they’ll take over the planet, build a machine city and plug all of surviving humanity into the Matrix. Which would be slightly less helpful.

For the moment, scientists are limited to current robot technology, which includes wheeled self-assembling Rubik-sized cubes and coin-sized microbots that skitter around on toothpick legs. Neither is very impressive in the singular — they’re like miniaturized Roombas that don’t bother to vacuum any more. But with a bunch of these robots (and the right programming), engineers can do some pretty interesting things.

With a few simple instructions, for instance, swarm robots have assembled to pass obstacles a single unit couldn’t navigate, and to collectively move objects much heavier than any component robot. There are even termite-inspired projects with robots that cooperatively figure out how to build simple structure designs. And recently, a team at Harvard University coaxed the largest-yet swarm of teenybots — over one thousand strong — to arrange themselves into specified shapes, using a set of extremely basic rules.

So long as one of those shapes wasn’t “Skynet”, we’re probably going to be okay. For a few more years, at least.

The real power of swarm robotics comes with numbers. As the motors and sensors and other fiddly bits get smaller and cheaper, scientists can put more of their robo-critters into action. For some jobs, it doesn’t matter if one, or even half, of them fails. Sheer numbers — and a few snippets of code — will see them through larger and larger tasks. It’s like having a nest full of insects ready to do your bidding, or a tiny team of not-especially-bright butlers waiting to serve your every whim.

So while our future could hold Matrix enslavement — or worse, an endless horde of angry Benders — for now, swarm robotics is a promising field that may help us solve some very tricky and important engineering problems.

Like getting rid of One Direction. Seriously, robotics people. How come none of you is working on that?

Image sources: RedOrbit (sea of Kilobots), Zimbio (squealy concert girls), Gunaxin (Matrix robot swarm face), Den of Geek (Bender horde)

· Write a comment
· Tags: , , , , , , ,