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Science On The Fly, The New Year

Sheyna E. Gifford |
January 6, 2015 | 8:59 a.m. PST


It’s a new year, a new day and a new Science on the Fly. In this week’s edition, we talk about flying space lizards, disappearing planes and those lying, lying Infographics. 

1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane - it’s a gecko-inspired way to clean up space junk. 

Top Stories of the Week: Could Lizard Hands Help Us Clean Up Space Junk?

Space junk is a problem that just won’t go away. From space, our planet looks a bit like a cat with its hackles up - only instead of pointy fur, the sharp bits are half a million pieces of shrapnel left over from 60 years of space programs. This legion of litter, much of which is less than a cm in size, orbits around the Earth. Traveling at 18,000 mph, each one of these 500,000+ pieces can turn our precious space stations, artificial satellites, and astronauts into...have you seen Gravity? That’s already happened to several satellites. 

So, what to do? In 2007, the Chinese tried a missile-powered clean-up technique. It turns out that blowing something up in space is a very efficient way to convert one large piece of space junk into 3000-300,000 small pieces of space junk. Nice shot and doh. 

As an alternative to making the junk problem worse, NASA is going to try sucking it up. That’s a tall order. First, there’s a lot of space out there. Second, seizing orbital debris - the technical term for space junk - is literally like catching a bullet. Much of the debris is bullet-size and moving about that fast. 

Here to save the day - and possibly the space station - are GECKO GRIPPERS. Geckos defy gravity using footpads covered in tiny hairs. When NASA test-flew their gecko-inspired hair-covered grippers they managed to snag a couple of big things, including a 250-pound floating researcher. Not bad, for a system based on the same force causing surface tension in your glass of water (Van der Waals forces). 

Like gecko feet, the Parness gripping system turns its stickiness on and off by changing the direction of the hairs. Go geckos. Go Nasa. Go get the space junk before it gets us. 

Thanks to Liz Howell writing the piece. For a video on Space Junk/Orbital debris, visit here.


2) Speaking of planes, how on Earth did we lose another one?

Slate: Why do planes keep disappearing?


I would wager that a second airplane vanishing in less than 10 months made more than one person rethink their trip to south Asia. Before we start blaming Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian air traffic control, pixies or voodoo, let’s look at the facts on the ground (or, er, in the air).

Like a chain of preschoolers being walked from the playground to the big yellow bus, airplanes are very intensely watched over for very brief periods. Specifically, from the time they take off to the edge of controlled airspace. After plane leaves controlled airspace, they fly like skipped stones between control zones: sections of airspace around airports tracked by air traffic control. Every airport in every country has control zones. Every commercial plane that flies - and many personal aircraft - is registered to the zones of the airports they fly by. Between these zones, however, airplanes are quite literally off the radar. UNLESS...

...Unless they have satellite communication systems. Like a computer on a network, these systems emits a ping saying, “I’m OK. I’m here.” The AirAsia 8501 flight that vanished on 12/28, and is now presumed to have been downed by a storm, had no such system.

Should all planes have satellite systems? There’s a strong argument in favor. Yes, it would be an expense. But multi-country, deep-sea searches can’t be cheap. As a consumer, would you pay a bit more to get on a plane that never goes off the grid? I certainly would.


3) Don’t look now - that Infographic is lying to you.


Programmer and all-around geek from Michigan State Randy Olson whipped up a piece this week entitled, “Infographics Lie. Here's How To Spot The B.S.” Olson maintains that, “we live in an age of Big Computers, Big Data and Big Lies.” Olson backs up his big claim with little steps to check for obvious signs of data fibbery. 

#1 - Don’t believe it when you see it

We tend to believe things that have been rendered into graphical format far more than we believe text on a page. Why? That’s still a bit of a mental mystery. The graphic could be COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS - and many are - yet, somehow, visual clues cue us to don’t stop believing. 

So, when you find yourself drawn to a shiny, shiny infographic, remember: just because it’s pretty, doesn’t mean it’s real or worth a dang (feel free to apply this principle to food, cars, and dating, too). Look for yourself: there are lies, damn lies and infographics. 

#2 - Spot the (out)lier

Olson points out, quite rightly, that visual data is highly prone to doctoring. By making one bar lighter than the others, or one state on the map darker, our eyes are automatically drawn to that spot. It’s a way to game the brain.  Without ACTUALLY lying, without having to justify its importance in any meaningful way, infographics can force us to consider something we might have otherwise overlooked. 

#3 - Always remember to check your references

Any infographic worth its pixels will list the data source near the bottom. LOOK AT IT. 

In fact, consider looking at the data’s point of origin before looking at anything else about the infographic. 

Is the data’s origin is a public agency like the CDC, the U.S. Census, or the WHO? The data depicted in the infographic stand a better chance of being real (at least until it’s colored in;). Is the source something you’ve never heard of - or, worse, something you have heard of in the bad way? If the data comes from a political think-tank (i.e. the Heritage foundation) or the Agasha Temple of Wisdom (no offense meant to the Ascended Masters) you might want to not give that infographic a first glance, or a second thought.

To recap, the secret to success in infographics is: remember that they get you in subtle ways, have skepticism, and skip ahead to the bottom before believing what you see.

See you next week, Science Flyers. 

Reach Contributor Sheyna Gifford here. Follow her on Twitter here. Follow The Science Desk here



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