Monthly Archives: September 2008

A ringer

An interesting enough science bit from AP:

Mathematicians at UCLA have discovered a 13 million-digit prime number [one divisible only by itself and 1], a long-sought milestone that makes them eligible for a $100,000 prize. The group found the 46th known Mersenne prime last month on a network of 75 computers running Windows XP.

Hang on a sec. “Mathematicians discover”… but it was the computers actually doing the thing. I could run the Boinc app on my PC and do calculations for SETI, but that wouldn’t mean I “discovered” anything. Now, if it had been a group busily working away with pens and paper, or maybe an abacus, that would count as mathmaticians discovering. But then one could argue that many scientific discoveries should be attributed to the equipment, rather than the individual.

Maybe I’m just bitter and twisted. And maybe that explains why I think this: If it was Windows Vista, they’d still be looking.

Sounding the economic death knells

From Reuters:

Ireland’s was the first eurozone economy to slip into recession this year, figures showed on Thursday, as the bursting of a property bubble ended 25 years of sustained growth in the once mighty ”Celtic Tiger”.

Official data from the country’s Central Statistics Office showed gross domestic product (GDP) fell for the second successive quarter in the three months to end-June, the technical definition of economic recession.

I thought we were already in a recession, but hey, what do I know?

The glory of computer errors

You know ’em, you love ’em (you know you do really) and now Technologizer has compiled the 13 greatest error messages of all time, beginning with this classic: Abort, Retry Fail.

It could indicate either a minor glitch (you forgot to put a floppy disk in the drive) or catastrophe (your hard drive had died). And by forcing you to choose between three options, none of which is likely to help, it throws the problem back in your face.

Space talk

NASA is making all the right noises, with its chief, Michael Griffin, again asserting that space exploration is key to human survival. Good luck getting the cash for that one.

His vested interest is apparent and, given the environmental damage that has been wrought to Earth, he may have a point. But then again it’s NASA’s 50th anniversary, so we should expect him to promote the overall endeavour.

“As we move out in our solar system, expanding human presence, we can’t prove what we will find will be useful.

“It was understood in Columbus’s time that if voyagers discovered new lands they would find valuable things. We can’t prove today that we can exploit what we find to the benefit of humankind.”

However, in the long run, Griffin believes “human populations must diversify if it wishes to survive.”

To be fair, he has a point. The greater the number of human populations, the greatert the chance that the species will, in some form, survive. The Moon is the obvious candidate, followed by Mars; you don’t have to be a science-fiction fan to figure that out. Though conditions will be far from luxurious, at least to begin with, even a few thousand people on each body will aid our ultimate chances of survival.

Complete terraforming is well beyond our grasp, although for a snapshot of something we could do regarding the Moon, read Moonseed by Stephen Baxter. Kim Stanley Robinson’s substantial Mars series is a hard science look at the transformation of the Red Planet.

Closer to terra firma, Griffin is also adamant that he does not see China as a competitor in space exploration. He may come to regret his words, which come the same week that China prepared for its as China launches its riskiest orbital mission yet, including its first space walk.

It would not be in Griffin’s best interests to praise the Chinese project, even if it could eventually see the Asian nation launch and complete its own space station in the near future. The space walk is pivotal for developing the expertise to snap the thing together.

Stonehenge's secret uncovered?

Picture: Frédéric Vincent

Two English professors are convinced they know the true reason behind the prehistoric monument: It was a healing centre to attract pilgrims from across Europe.

Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill

said the key to their theory was Stonehenge’s double circle of bluestones — a rare rock known to geologists as spotted dolomite — which lie at the centre of the monument.

The theory is based on the large amount of flakes of this rock, which has been found in tombs across the area. The tombs also contained bones showing signs of injury or disease.

It doesn’t ring true for me. That’s not to say the two aren’t right — after all, they’re the ones who’ve studied the thing and I’m just a history student — but to make the leap from rocks in tombs to European pilgrimage centre is vast, to say the least; if they have evidence that the dolomite, which was mined in Wales, is found in tombs across Europe, or if DNA analysis of the remains hinted that the bodies were of people from the continent, the news reports are silent. EDIT: I’ve found an article on the Daily Telegraph website stating that teeth were analysed and show half of the nearby bodies were of people “not native” to the local area (although it doesn’t state if they are continental in origin).


said the bluestones were prized for their healing properties — as evidenced by the small mountain of flakes the scientists uncovered during their dig.

Maybe they just thought the dolomite was pretty, or perhaps it had some trade value. Future archaeologists will see all sorts in our graves. It doesn’t mean our grave goods were believed to have some healing power.

Like all good researchers of prehistory, the pair agree that the site could have had other uses, perhaps as a religious centre.

I find myself wondering if my (I stress non-hostile) opposition to Wainwright and Darvill is the manifestation of a desire for Stonehenge to remain unexplained, or at least to have a more imagination-catching explanation. But this doesn’t seem to ring true, either. In all likelihood, far too much time has passed for a definitive reasoning to be established. It’s still fun to speculate, though.