Monday, July 26, 2010

The geek's alive! Alive!

Two recent geeky things I came across:

1. NASA's Kepler mission uses a space-based telescope to search for exoplanets (ones outside our Solar System) by detecting the changes in the light reaching Earth from a star when an orbiting planet passes in front of that star, that is, between us and it. What's special about Kepler is that it's designed to look for "Earth-sized" planets: ones with a radius of half to double that of the Earth. And guess what:
Scientists celebrated Sunday after finding more than 700 suspected new planets - including up to 140 similar in size to Earth - in just six weeks of using a powerful new space observatory. ...

Astronomers said the discovery meant the chances of eventually finding truly Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life rose sharply. ...

“The figures suggest our galaxy, the Milky Way [which has more than 100 billion stars] will contain 100 million habitable planets, and soon we will be identifying the first of them,” said Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a scientist on the Kepler Mission.
NASA has formally announced only five of the discoveries because it wants to be certain they are planets before it does so. But the initial results are very exciting.

2. Even as Stonehenge is slowly revealing its long-held secrets, it turns out to have some new surprises.
Archaeologists have discovered a second henge at Stonehenge, described as the most exciting find there in 50 years.

The circular ditch surrounding a smaller circle of deep pits about a metre (3ft) wide has been unearthed at the world-famous site in Wiltshire.

Archaeologists conducting a multi-million pound study believe timber posts were in the pits.

Project leader Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University of Birmingham, said the discovery was "exceptional".
He said the team "would guess" the newly-discovered site, which lies about 900 meters (2950 feet) west-northwest from the famous stone circle, dates back to about the time when Stonehenge was emerging at its most complex, about 2500 BCE, or 4500 years ago.

Mike Pitts, the editor of British Archaeology magazine, says that it surely is an important discovery but is more cautious about the interpretation of the site as a henge. The pits "might just be very big pits: there is a henge in Dorchester, Dorset, known as Maumbury Rings, that fits that description," he said.

He also suggests it could be "something quite different," noting it was previously known as a plowed-out burial mound and that it might still be that, just with "an unusual ditch or pit arrangement" where the large pits were quarries for a center mound.

Surely Mr. Pitts knows a hell of a lot more about such things than I do or ever will, but it does seem odd to me that quarries for a central mound would be evenly spaced around it and each the same size. That suggests more purposeful behavior in the arrangement than just getting material for a barrow.

In any event,
Professor Gaffney said he was "certain" they would make further discoveries as 90% of the landscape around the giant stones was "terra incognita" - an unexplored region.
What's old is new - at least to us as we rediscover it.

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