Human Watching from Orbit


A string of planes pulls away from the North American East Coast as if being sipped through a straw; they head for Europe. They’re overnight flights to London, Paris, Frankfurt — cities which, at that hour, 11 p.m. (EST), you can’t see on our map. Everybody’s asleep over there. But wait a beat, and with morning Europe turns incandescent; every patch of Britain, France, Italy suddenly buzzes with airplanes.

American astronaut Don Pettit figured out a way to snap still images of nighttime cities, even as the International Space Station was moving at about 17,500 miles per hour. He (and other astronauts) then took high-resolution pictures that show that, from a distance of 250 miles or so, you can still see single highways at night.



Looking down from space, Tokyo glows blue-green. That’s because street lights in Japan are gas discharge lamps that use vaporized mercury to produce light. Blue-green is mercury’s color. So cities up and down Japan twinkle blue-green.

Sao Paolo, Brazil, for example, glows blue-green too, but mainly in one part of town. That’s the older section, built when mercury vapor lights were in vogue. These days, city planners are moving to sodium vapor, which glows slightly orange, so from outer space the colors tell you which part of town is new, and which old.


And check out the image above of Korea and Japan and water in between. The blazing white spots in the middle? Fishing fleets using xenon lights to attract squid.

Via NPR.

Artificial Superhard Ceramics Out of Mother-of-Pearl


Whether traditional or derived from high technology, ceramics all have the same flaw: they are fragile.

[A] team of researchers led by the Laboratoire de Synthèse et Fonctionnalisation des Céramiques (CNRS/Saint-Gobain) has recently presented a new ceramic material inspired by mother-of-pearl from the small single-shelled marine mollusk abalone.

This material, almost ten times stronger than a conventional ceramic, is the result of an innovative manufacturing process that includes a freezing step.


Mother-of-pearl, which covers the shells of abalone and some bivalves, is 95% composed of calcium carbonate (aragonite), an intrinsically fragile material that is nonetheless very tough. Mother-of-pearl can be seen as a stack of small bricks, welded together with mortar composed of proteins.

Its toughness is due to its complex, hierarchical structure where cracks must follow a tortuous path to propagate.

Top image via Go Girls Go.
Bottom image via Sylvain Deville, Florian Bouville.

Continent Bird Migration Realtime Forecasts


BirdCast aims to bring current advances and innovations in computing power and data analysis to birdwatching on the continental scale, by creating computer models that will “reconstruct and predict the behavior of ~400 species of migrating birds across North America;” creating a standardized and open-source methodology for managing bird-related data (observations, weather data, radar readings, satellite imagery, human population, and more); and translating all this information into web-based visuals.



BirdCast via Popular Science.

Mae West As You Probably Don’t Remember Her


Mary Jane “Mae” West (August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980) was an American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned seven decades.

Known for her bawdy double entendres, West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York before moving to Hollywood to become a comedienne, actress and writer in the motion picture industry.



Images via Retronaut. From “Belle of the Nineties“, her fourth feature film set in the Gay Nineties (1892-93) with Mae West’s character as a burlesque performer.
Quoted text via Wikipedia.

The Family Tree of the Dog


The chart features 181 dog breeds from tiny ‘toy’ animals like the pug and the fluffy pomeranian to working dogs like the Alaskan malamutes and family favorites such as golden retrievers and terriers.

For example, the chart shows that a chihuahua – the smallest breed of dog that heralds from Mexico – can be easily linked to rottweilers, which are popularly known to make good – and sometimes ferocious – guard dogs.

Their genetic code is relatively simple compared to other species and is therefore easily adaptable as drastic changes – such as the type of hair or ears – is controlled by a single genetic variation.

Pop Chart Lab via Mail Online. Pop Chart Labs also sells prints for those interested.

Skellig Michael and Some Really, Really Dedicated Monks

The dozen monks who sequestered themselves on this rocky island in the seventh century were a hardy lot. Skellig Michael — “skellig,” derived from the Irish word sceillic, means “steep rock” — lies eight miles from the coast of County Kerry. It is beset by wind and rain, which make the ascent to its 714-foot-high peak extra treacherous.

Despite these conditions, a group of determined Irish Christians established a monastic outpost on the island that remains largely intact 1,400 years later.

Using stones, the monks built hundreds of stairs leading up to Skellig Michael’s summit, where they erected six beehive-shaped stone huts and a small chapel.

Surviving on a diet of fish, seabirds, and vegetables grown in the monastery garden, monks occupied Skellig Michael continuously until the late 12th century, when a worsening climate and more frequent storms sent them back to the mainland. The settlement survived multiple Viking raids during the ninth century.

Via Atlas Obscura on Slate for the full article and more photos.