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Airing TONIGHT: The Pluto Files

Tonight (March 2, 2010) on NOVA: The Pluto Files, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, about the controversy over the "demotion" of Pluto from planetary status in 2006. NOVA airs at 8pm in most markets, on PBS -- check your local listings here.

Way back in 2000, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, was faced with a dilemma. In displaying the solar system, he and his team had to figure out what to do with Pluto. The ninth planet, Pluto was much smaller and much farther away from the sun than the other planets in the display. It also had an unusual orbit and a few other odd properties. So the team didn't include Pluto in their main solar system exhibit, instead relegating it to a section downstairs amongst other Kuiper Belt objects. And then everybody went nuts.

NOVA's program The Pluto Files explores the controversy from all sides -- deGrasse Tyson interviews scientists who have opposing views, interviews the Tombaugh family (descendants of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto), and even interviewed the scientist who discovered the "tenth planet" (Eris) -- something I'd never even heard of. The question here is twofold: first, what is a planet? And second, why is the demotion of Pluto such a hugely emotional issue for people? Both are discussed in some depth in the program, and a good conclusion is reached -- but I won't spoil it here.

The good news: there's plenty of material for both "sides" of the debate here. Honestly, deGrasse Tyson himself seems to have been cast as the villain here -- something he's willing to ham up on occasion -- but from a scientific perspective, his attitude is not at all black and white. So whatever you think about Pluto, this is worth watching. Also, it's totally family-friendly -- grab the kids and sit down for some fun science programming tonight!

Bonus: read some real hate mail from a third grader here. Seriously. Also, a trailer for The Pluto Files. Finally, here's a brief interview with deGrasse Tyson about the situation:

Another interesting bit: NASA's New Horizons craft, which arrives at Pluto in 2015 -- with the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh onboard.

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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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iStock
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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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