Wot is this “Weekend” of Which You Speak?

Interesting hollows in an impact basin on Mercury, which may have been caused by sublimation of material -- turning solids directly into gas.

Here’s your weekend link roundup. I have some interesting posts planned for the coming week, but in the meantime, please buy some stuff (now featuring coffee mugs and bumper stickers).

  • The Nobel Prizes will be announced soon, which means…the IgNobel prizes were last week! Here’s the official list, and coverage from one of my favorite bloggers, Scicurious (keep going back in the thread for more posts). I am very pleased with this year’s Mathematics Prize, and applaud the IgNobel Committee’s choice. The Literature Prize research treats something all professors and scientists have learned, I think.
    As an aside, I should note that while I met two Nobel laureates briefly, it was in an environment where they would probably not recall meeting me. However, I know an IgNobel laureate personally, and his parents are friends of my parents. This is my brush with fame, I suppose. (Well, that and when a prominent string theorist was publicly rude to me when I was a young graduate student. I’ll cherish that moment forever.)
  • The internationally-accepted standard unit of mass is the kilogram, but mass is one of those properties that is tricky to measure to an arbitrary degree of precision. The “standard kilogram” is a bar of metal alloy, but over time the bar has changed mass due to radioactive decay and other forms of degradation over time — which is a tiny change, but not good enough compared to other standards such as time. Now some scientists are proposing using the quantum Hall effect, a well-understood phenomenon involving electrons. In this way the kilogram can be measured accurately without regard to a particular object, and the experiments can be reproduced over and over again without worrying about the effects of handling.
  • Research is often funded by the public (through tax money given out as grants to scientists), but the results frequently are published by for-profit companies in closed-access journals. In addition, scientists do unpaid work for these companies by reviewing work before publication. Although peer review is a necessary part of science, it’s an uncomfortable situation when that work is being done without compensation on behalf of a for-profit company, writes Michael Taylor.
  • The possibility of some species of bacteria to substitute arsenic for phosphorous in genetic material was met with a lot of excitement last year. I admit to sharing in that excitement, and though I didn’t write about it, I discussed some of the implications to the classes I was teaching at the time. However, scientists with far better biochemistry background than I have quickly found problems both with the experiments and with how the research team handled publicity and criticism. After a recent nuanced (but subtly misleading) profile in Popular Science, David Dobbs (Wired) and Carl Zimmer (Discover) revisited the “arsenic life” case from two slightly different angles, pointing out the breakdown in how science should be done.

Today’s Image of the Day is from the Mercury MESSENGER probe: a mosaic of pictures of an interesting impact basin. A collection of hollows suggests sublimation: solid material turning directly to gas, leaving the fascinating patterns seen in the photo.

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