This blog has moved to the new location of arbesman.net. Please update your RSS feeds.
 
 
This blog has moved to the new location of arbesman.net. Please update your RSS feeds.
 
 
You might have noticed it's been quiet on the Mesofacts blog recently. There's a good reason: I recently got a book deal! I've been busy beginning to work on a book for Current, the new popular science imprint of Penguin Group.

Due to that, I have decided to consolidate my blogging at my main blog at arbesman.net. Please redirect your RSS feeds to the new location, as I will no longer be blogging here. Thank you.
 
 
As so many languages are going extinct, the rare news of a new language being discovered is quite exciting! It's called Koro:

"Their language is quite distinct on every level—the sound, the words, the sentence structure," said Gregory Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who directs the project's research. Details of the language will be documented in an upcoming issue of the journal Indian Linguistics.

Prized for its rarity as an unstudied linguistic artifact, the Koro language also offers researchers a catalogue of unique cultural experience, encoded in its mental grammar of words and sentence structure that helps shape thought itself.

(Thanks, Harvey)
 
 
The Census of Marine Life released a treasure trove of data on new sea species, with over a thousand new species confirmed (and lots more sure to follow). Included within the species are such species (requiring mesofact updates) as the following:

"... an ancient shrimp thought to have become extinct 50 million years ago"

"Science fiction had long imagined "anaerobic" creatures that could live without oxygen. A team sampling the deep Mediterranean found three such species. These creatures, each the size of a pin head, live their entire lives hidden in sediment on the seafloor without oxygen"
 
 
Making everyone's task of keeping up with mesofacts a bit more difficult, we receive news that a third of presumed extinct mammals may still be around and kicking. Diana Fisher and Simon Blomberg examined 187 mammalian species categorized originally as extinct since 1500, and found that 67 of these are still alive. Here's the original article (alas, behind a paywall).
 
 
Following up on the previous post, a team of scientists discovered a planet in the Gliese 581 system that appears to be potentially habitable! This planet Gliese 581 g is part of a large multi-planet star system less than 21 light-years away. Courtesy of the press release:

The planet is tidally locked to the star, meaning that one side is always facing the star and basking in perpetual daylight, while the side facing away from the star is in perpetual darkness. One effect of this is to stabilize the planet’s surface climates, according to Vogt. The most habitable zone on the planet’s surface would be the line between shadow and light (known as the “terminator”), with surface temperatures decreasing toward the dark side and increasing toward the light side.

“Any emerging life forms would have a wide range of stable climates to choose from and to evolve around, depending on their longitude,” Vogt said.

The researchers estimate that the average surface temperature of the planet is between -24 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-31 to -12 degrees Celsius). Actual temperatures would range from blazing hot on the side facing the star to freezing cold on the dark side.

If Gliese 581g has a rocky composition similar to the Earth’s, its diameter would be about 1.2 to 1.4 times that of the Earth. The surface gravity would be about the same or slightly higher than Earth’s, so that a person could easily walk upright on the planet, Vogt said.


This fact - whether or not we know of a potentially habitable planet outside our solar system - is a mesofact if ever there was one. Of course, this one is a bit more along the lines of whether Pluto is a planet than a mesofact like the number of billions of people on Earth. But make sure to update And as a sidenote, our prediction for discovering such a planet by May 2011 appears to be accurate, and even a bit conservative. The next step is to examine the planet’s atmosphere for the presence of oxygen.

 
 
With news of new extrasolar planets being released nearly weekly, there is a general feeling that we are in the midst of a singular moment in cosmic discovery. And the news a few weeks ago of a planet that is about the same size as Earth has provided the sense that the discovery of a planet truly similar to Earth - one that could actually sustain life - is on the horizon.

But can we actually predict when the first Earth-like planet will be discovered? In a forthcoming paper in PLoS ONE, Greg Laughlin and I attempted to do this. This paper, A Scientometric Prediction of the Discovery of the First Potentially Habitable Planet with a Mass Similar to Earth, uses the properties of previously discovered exoplanets, including the year of their discovery, to estimate when the likeliest time of this potentially habitable planet will be discovered.

Spoiler: early to mid-2011.

Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, but here's an overview of what we did. Using the properties of previously discovered exoplanets, we developed a simple metric of habitability for each planet that uses its mass and temperature to rate it on a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 is Earth-like, and 0 is so very not Earth-like. Plotting these values over time and taking the upper envelope yields a nice march towards habitability.

Using a simple bootstrap sampling analysis, we calculated when a logistic curve fit to such an upper envelope would get to a habitability of approximately 1. And the likeliest time is early to mid-2011, or more precisely, early May 2011. Of course, there are precision considerations, but we are heartened by recognizing that our method shows a 75% chance of such an announcement by the end of 2013 (which is when many astronomers predict such a discovery), and that February 2011 is when we are due for a large release of data and announcement by NASA's Kepler mission. Our method, using only previous discoveries, accords well with such informed estimates.

Now, we wait and see how close our prediction actually is to reality.

(originally posted at arbesman.net)
 
 
There is an area of applied mathematics that should be of interest to anyone interested in mesofacts: record progressions and extreme value theory. Record progressions are simply the series of successive records over time, for whatever is being measured. And extreme value value theory explores the probability distributions that describe the upper (and lower) end of a distribution, and are relevant for records over time.

Not much related to examining records over time has been done recently, but in the 1970's and 1980's, this was a fertile area in probability. For example, there is research on how the times between new world records changes as the population size increases (a followup paper here) as well as research into the viability of predicting future performance.

Anyone have any other favorite papers on world records they would like to share? Please feel free to mention them in the comments.
 
 
The maximum number of moves required to solve a Rubik's Cube, also known as God's Number, has been recently shown to be 20. A table of progress in this field towards this number is shown on this website, which I have graphed below.
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