Night Sky

Photographing stars is tricky, to say the least. You need long exposures to capture their faint light, but they are permanently in motion, so you also need a tripod mount that rotates in sync with the Earth’s spin. Nick Risingerset out with his retired father, on a journey in which they covered 45,000 miles by air and 15,000 by land, from the desert of Nevada to the Northern Cape of South Africa, with the goal of photographing the entire night sky. The project, called the Photopic Sky Survey is a 5,000 megapixel photograph stitched together from 37,440 exposures.

The process of stitching alone took many months of work. Each piece of this puzzle is just 12 degrees wide. An interactive 360º is available to see on Risingerset’s website. 

Six air-cooled Finger Lakes ML-8300 monochrome cameras were used, each fitted with their own lenses and filters. The image is spectacular, not only because of the technical complexity involved, including very specialized software, but also because a lot of the starlight that we see in this photograph comes from stars that probably don’t exist anymore. This is in a way a photograph of the past. 


Virtual Post Traumatic Reality

Stephen Hawking has said that he does not believe that time travel to the past is possible. If it were, we would now have people from the future around us, and there aren’t, as far as we know. Although it did seem we did for a while, with Steve Jobs. I’ve often imagined, however, that we eventually find a way to travel to the past, and instead of looking at photographs of our grandparents on an iPad, we would be able to see them in our dreams. It would be safe travel too, because since we are dreaming, there is no way to accidentally interact or interfere in any way with that world, something that would be disastrous, because that would modify the future.


Hawkings does believe that time travel into the future is possible. Today we know that time goes by at different speeds, like the different parts of a river. As inconceivable as this may sound, matter drags on time and slows it down, so the closer to the Earth, the slower. Also, the heavier the object, the more it drags on time. Sagittarius A, the black hole in the center of the Milky Way, has such gravitational pull that nothing, not even light, can escape it. A black hole like this has a dramatic effect on time, slowing it down like nothing else could.

That time runs faster in space than on Earth has been demonstrated beyond any doubt. Satellites circling the Earth have very precise clocks on board, and these clocks gain about a billionth of a second every day. The system is designed in such a way that it corrects the drift, so it doesn’t upset the whole system. If they didn’t do this, it would cause every GPS device on Earth to go out by about six miles a day. In fact, this is the first practical engineering application of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

Many movies have used the theme of time travel or travel to different dimensions. Time is, in fact, just one of the many dimensions we have invented to explain and understand the world that surrounds us. In Terry Gilliam‘s provocative film 12 Monkeys, Bruce Willis plays a criminal who is transported back in time from a post-apocalyptic future in an attempt to prevent the outbreak of a virus that kills most of the world’s population. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character, Dom Cobb, is a thief specialized in the art of extraction of valuable secrets from deep inside the subconscious, when the mind is most vulnerable. In Source Code, Colter Stevens, a US Army helicopter pilot, is sent to the past and he is put in another person’s consciousness to try to stop a terrorist attack.


Fiction, as we know very well, is usually inspired in reality. But fiction can in turn inspire us too. The US Army has this year awarded almost half a million dollars to a company, to help in the development of an experiment to help its soldiers cope with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) after returning from conflict. US soldiers go to war not only to “fight for freedom”. They also become experiments. Up to 52% of combat veterans with PTSD report having nightmares often. This is because when we are sound asleep we cannot control our memory and the dream world can become a frightening experience, completely out of our control.


The experiment brief explains the objective: Research and development to augment the current Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (CBT) approaches for warrior trainees (WT) and other patients suffering with nightmares related to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)/traumatic brain injury (TBI) with technological advances in biofeedback and Virtual Reality (VR).

Using a computer program, soldiers would build imaginary worlds and avatars which would be based on the virtual world Second Life. These would become dream sequences designed to counteract the traumatic memories, neurologically distract the soldier and stimulate relaxation. The soldier would have to learn how to activate these scenarios using 3D goggles, which he would put on after waking up from a nightmare. The dream could involve the soldier being surrounded by people he trusts and loves, and they would help him get through this hard moment. Because it is so difficult to call up images that calm you down when you are in distress, the soldiers would help design these images and they would just have to play them back.

-To read this article in PDF: Virtual Post Traumatic Reality

Eau de Whale Shit

If you have ever heard that someone feels lower than whale shit at the bottom of the ocean, you have probably imagined something very visually unattractive and very deep down. Our intuition tells us that whale shit must be heavy and therefore should logically sink until it finds its final resting place at the bottom of the sea. Whale shit, however, does not sink. It actually floats.

The Sperm Whale is an animal of colossal proportions, it can measure up to about 20 meters long (70ft). We do not know that much about this gigantic mammal. We know that it can live for more than 70 years, and that it inhabits most of the world’s oceans. We also know that it feeds mostly on squid and that to find its food it has to dive to depths between 300 and 800 meters and sometimes even 2 kilometers.

There is a part of squids that the sperm whale can’t digest, the sharp, parrot-like beaks. These cause irritation to the lining of the stomach and intestines of the whale, and to protect itself, the whale produces ambergris. Every once in a while this substance is expelled by the whale. It was originally thought this was done through the mouth, but it seems that it actually comes out the other side. There is still some uncertainty about this. This secretion then floats on the oceans for years and it can ocassionally end up in beaches.

What is so interesting about ambergris is that it is incredibly valuable. Because of its peculiar qualities it has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, eaten or burnt like incense, to enhance the flavours of food and wine, for herbal and homeopathic remedies, as an aphrodisiac -rubbing it on your skin- and, of all things, in perfumes.

Even though it can have a very offensive smell when fresh, ambergris has a subtle and pleasant smell after years in the sea. The base manure odour fades as it cures and its fragrance has been described as sensual, sweet, earthy, and mossy. This haunting, musky smell makes it especially effective as a fixative in perfumes because it melds the notes, anchoring the most volatile ones, making them last, and it also brings out the best qualities of the other fragrances. It apparently retains its scent for centuries and becomes sweeter with time.

Because it is so incredibly expensive (a lump can cost up to $20.000) and so scarce, usually available only from dedicated beachcombers in the black market, ambergris is rarely used anymore. Most of the ambergris used in perfumes today is synthetic. However, perfumes like Hermes Eau de Merveilles supposedly still use real ambergris.

So the next time you stumble upon a strange-looking lump of greyish material while walking on the beach, take a closer look, and you may want to smell it too. Because you have probably found some whale shit and you are already rich.

(to read article in PDF: Eau de Whale Shit)

Entrepreneurship or Higher Education but not both

Peter Thiel is an American businessman, co-founder of PayPal and an early investor of Facebook. As a venture capital investor he has seen his share of successes. He has helped a whole new generation of tech companies, including SpaceX, LinkedIn, Causes, RoboteX or Spotify. He has investments in biomedical companies and he funds longevity research. He also promotes a host of philanthropic, academic, and cultural institutions and companies, like the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Human Rights Foundation, and the Seasteading Institute, which proposes experimenting with floating communities in the open seas to test new forms of government. He also funds artificial intelligence, and works against violence through the Oslo Freedom Forum, among other initiatives.

In the year 2010, Peter Thiel created the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, with the aim to nurture the tech visionaries of the future. The original fellowship program gives 20 people under the age of 20 $100,000 to drop out of school and become world-changing visionaries. The only condition is that you commit full-time to your ideas and skip college. Last year more than 400 young people applied.

For Peter Thiel, going to college gets in the way of entrepreneurship. After all, some of the world’s most important inventions and technologies were created by independent minds working on their own. He also believes that there is a higher education bubble waiting to explode. The average college graduate ends up with at least $24,000 in student loan debt in the US, and one in ten has a hard time finding a job. A dysfunctional system. Of course this program does not solve the greater problem of the educational system, but at least it explores new possibilities, radically rethinking everything and allowing the participants to have a five-year head start, and without debts.

The first members of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, announced in May this year, will pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow. During their two-year tenure, apart from the $100,000, each will receive mentorship from the Foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs and innovators. The project areas for this class of fellows include biotech, career development, economics and finance, education, energy, information technology, mobility, robotics, and space.

Education systems throughout the world have rapidly become obsolete and necessarily have to evolve. Although solutions like this cannot be applied massively, it is through this kind of initiatives that countries can foster and harness creativity, entrepreneurship and competitiveness for bold young people with ideas.

(To read original article, published in Aug 2011, in PDF: Entrepreneurship or Higher Education But Not Both)

Trailer of a new CNBC two episode special on the 20 under 20 Thiel Fellowship

Eating Bugs

Entomophagy is the consumption by humans of insects as food. Although you may not know anyone who actually eats insects, and may think it is a marginal practice, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is very serious about the matter. The raising of livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep occupies two-thirds of the world’s farmland and generates 20% of all the greenhouse gases driving global warming. This is a very serious problem.

Max Burgers, the Swedish burger chain recently took the counterintuitive and risky step of trying to influence its customers to eat less meat. The chain even displays climate footprint data in each store. A 2007 Japanese study estimated that the CO2 emitted to produce 1kg of beef is equivalent to the CO2 emitted by a medium-sized car travelling 250km. There is actually a meat crisis, because world population will grow from six billion today to 9 billion by 2050, and we are consuming more meat, not less. 20 years ago the average was at 20kg, now we eat an average of 50kg per year. According to the US Department of Agriculture Americans are eating more than 88kg per year per person today.

The UN, among other institutions, wants to reduce the amount of meat that we eat and is looking for alternatives. The FAO conference in 2008 in Thailand had the name “Forest Insects as Food: Humans Bite Back” and their 2013 world congress will push for greater development of insects as a food source and an alternative to meat.

There are many reasons that should make us seriously consider changing our food habits. In terms of combating global warming, recent research shows that farming insects such as locusts, crickets and mealworms emits 10 times less methane than cows, pigs, sheep and chickens. They also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide, also a warming gas, and much less ammonia. Being cold-blooded, insects don’t need to convert food energy into heat, meaning they need less food to grow. They don’t need light and their growth cycle is only six weeks long. You can breed them any time of the year. All they need to eat is organic waste.

Another reason insects are sustainable and convenient is the relationship between feed input and edible output. For every ten kilograms of feed, you get back one kilogram of beef, three of pork, five of chicken, and nine if we are talking about locusts. The optimisation of costs and benefits is incredible. All this makes farming insects a much more sustainable alternative and some insects have as much protein as meat and fish. FAO says that there are 1,462 species of recorded edible insects.
Despite the fact that insects are often considered carriers of infectious diseases, the sources of the worst viruses of the past few years have been cows (mad cow disease), pigs (swine flu) and poultry (avian flu). Insects are, genetically speaking, very far from human beings, so do not have the capacity to mix their viruses with ours.

The truth is that bugs are already a part of our diet, we already eat traces of them in prepackaged, processed food. There are insect fragments in canned tomatoes, in dried fruit boxes and in peanut butter. Anyone who buys organic produce ingests them in even greater quantities. Insects have been consumed for centuries by Native American tribes, in Mexico, in Colombia and the Amazon basin, in Africa, Japan and of course Australasia. They were popular in Victorian England, as well, when there was a craze for oddities.

The fact that today we are talking about eating insects is not because of a new fad. There is a global food crisis, and it really seems that eating insects isn’t just recommendable, it is inevitable.

For one specialist website, visit

(To read my original article, published in Ago 2011, in PDF: Bugs)

(To join my Facebook group for interesting stories and comment everyday: Babyshark’s Minority Report)

Is There Anybody Out There?

ALMA is the biggest array of telescopes in the world and the largest astronomical project ever attempted, a truly global partnership between scientists from Japan, Europe, Canada, the US and Chile. It is located deep in the Atacama desert of Chile, in an inhospitable region called Chajnantor Plateau. Because of its altitude, dry air (this is the driest place on Earth), nearly non-existent cloud cover (320 clear skies per year), and lack of both light pollution and radio interference, it is probably the best location in the world to conduct astronomical observations. It is largely transparent to the millimeter and submillimeter wavelength range that ALMA is designed to detect. Most of the photons in the Universe are in this wavelength, that lies between what is traditionally considered microwaves and infrared waves. Star formation occurs in dense molecular clouds observable only in the submillimeter range, and most of this radiation is absorbed by atmospheric water vapor. This is why such a dry location is so important.

The rarified atmosphere at this altitude is very demanding for humans, this is why the telescopes are assembled from parts arriving from different parts of the world at a camp at 3000m and then transported to their final position. The final configuration should consist of around 60 antennas. ALMA is by no means alone in the Atacama desert. The European Southern Observatory operates two major observatories in the Atacama: the La Silla Observatory and the Paranal Observatory, which includes the Very Large Telescope. Another impressive piece of equipment, the CCAT, Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope, currently under construction by an international consortium, will also be located in the area, near the summit of Cerro Chajnantor, about 600 m above and only 5 km from ALMA.

ALMA will give astronomers an unprecedented window on the cosmos, enabling groundbreaking studies into areas such as the physics of the cold Universe, the first stars and galaxies, and even directly imaging the formation of planets. This video shows the ALMA facilities. This second HD time-lapse video was shot around ALMA to celebrate its first observations. It’s 5 marvelous minutes of an strange pleasure…the realization that we live in a rock that spins at 1000km per hour, a tiny speck of dust inside a cloud that travels at 250km per second across the inmensity of the Universe.