Scientists Convert Trappist-1 Planetary System Into Celestial Synth Music


Never before has the term “music of the spheres” been used so literally. Scientists have converted data from the Trappist-1 planetary system into almost-danceable synth music that may, in turn, help scientists understand how the strange system works.

The TRAPPIST Sounds project is at the center of a pretty sweet Venn diagram. On one side is astrophysicist Daniel Tamayo of the University of Toronto. On the other is musician Andrew Santaguida. And between them is musician/astrophysicist Matt Russo, who just so happens to be Santaguida’s bandmate and Tomayo’s office neighbor.

The announcement of Trappist-1’s discovery in February 2017 set off waves of excitement, and not just among scientists. The system’s seven planets are arrayed around a cool central star, and at least some exist in that most unlikely of spaces: a habitable zone. (The system's discoverers originally published that all seven could potentially harbor liquid water [PDF].) Playing into mounting public daydreams of exiting this planet for a better world, NASA even produced WPA-style Trappist-1 travel posters.

We won’t actually be packing for the stars any time soon, of course, but Trappist-1 does still represent an immense discovery, one we’ll be exploring from Earth for a long time.

Tamayo’s research involves investigating the paths of Trappist-1’s planets as they trace invisible rings around their star. Astronomers like Tamayo have converted each planet’s approximate location and movements into data. Russo and Santaguida converted that data into music and imagery.

Experimental though its orbits may sound to us, the Trappist-1 system is apparently a better composer than most of its peers. Russo tried music-ifying another seven-planeted-star, Kepler-90, with ear-splitting results. “It’s just horrendous,” he told The New York Times. “It’s very uncomfortable to listen to.”

Trappist’s clanging, banging notation could be as good as it gets. “I think Trappist is the most musical system we’ll ever discover,” Russo said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

[h/t New York Times]

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?


It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

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This article originally appeared in 2012.