Earth’s Newest Companion

Earth's Trojan asteroid companion, 2010 TK7
The purple lines show the path of Earth's most recently discovered companion, asteroid 2010 TK7. Credit: University of Western Ontario

It just doesn’t get any bigger than this: today a discovery by Canadian researchers is gracing the cover of Nature magazine. It is not an understatement to say that this is the science equivalent of getting your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone, and I do sincerely hope Martin Connors, Paul Wiegert and their French colleague Chistian Veillet are enjoying their moment in the international spotlight.

So, what’s precipitated this moment of mass adulation and fame? An asteroid. Its name is a bit of a mouthful, 2010 TK7, which according to my limited understanding of the vagaries of the provisional naming system, means it was first discovered in early October of 2010, and that it was the 185th new object to be discovered in that two-week period. But what’s made it so famous is that it seems to be the first example of a Trojan companion for the Earth.
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Is the Internet Damaging Our Memories?

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan in 1967. Credit: Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada,

Were he still alive, today would have been the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan. While most Canadians have heard of him, and might even be able to rattle off his famous, cryptic aphorism, “the medium is the message,” a complete understanding of his theories is beyond most, including some who think they know. Still, his general point – that the electronic media have fundamentally altered our consciousness – seems intuitive enough. On my smart phone, I have instant access to access to all human knowledge via the Internet. It’s an amazing ability, but like many people, I sometimes worry that having this super power has made me less likely to retain information myself. Is my own memory in danger of being made obsolete by Google?

I was thinking about this while reading through a study published in Science last week by Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University.Continue reading

Misunderstood Mosasaur: New Genus Discovered

Mosasaur skeleton at Maastricht Natural History Museum, The Netherlands. Credit: Wilson44691 via Wikimedia Commons

As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of stories about extinct animals, and the University of Alberta can usually be relied on to crank them out at regular intervals. Last week, a paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology proposed a major re-organization of the mosasaurs, sometimes called the “T-rex of the sea.”

Mosasaurs essentially looked like giant, sea-going crocodiles, with flippers for limbs and a big fluked whale-like tail. They were not dinosaurs; rather they were the biggest members ever of the order Squamata, which today includes all snakes and lizards. And I mean big; mosasaurs routinely reached sizes of 15 metres or longer. Continue reading

Happy First Birthday Neptune!

The planet Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2
Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 (Wikimedia Commons)

Just after midnight on September 23rd, 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle stood at the telescope in the Berlin Observatory, calling out coordinates one by one to his assistant, Heinrich Louis d’Arrest. Despite the lateness of the hour, and the apparent tediousness of the task, there was an uncharacteristic tension in Galle’s voice, a certain expectancy. D’arrest, in the dim candlelight, dutifully checked off each entry on a map of the heavens. “Right ascension: 21 hours, 53 minutes, 16 seconds,” called out Galle. “Declination: negative 13 degrees, 24 minutes, 15 seconds. Magnitude 7.8.” There was a pregnant pause. “Sir,” came the reply, “that star is not on the chart.” The tiny speck of light would turn out to be the last undiscovered planet in the solar system.

Today (July 12, 2011) Neptune will finally celebrate its first anniversary, as it returns to the exact point in its orbit where Galle and D’arrest spotted it all those years ago. Continue reading

Gentle Giant – The Petermann Ice Island

Petermann Ice Island 2010
Calving of the Petermann Ice Island in August 2010. Credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, NASA Earth Observatory

Where were you when the Petermann Ice Island calved?

Ok, so maybe the date of August 5, 2010 doesn’t exactly stick in anyone’s memory, but it totally should. That’s the day when an enormous chunk of the Petermann Glacier, on the north-west coast of Greenland, crashed into the sea, creating the biggest piece of floating ice the Arctic had seen in 60 years. Today, the battered remains of this frozen giant are still floating south, and are now within a few hundred kilometres of Newfoundland.

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