How Scientists Use Images of the Sky to Time Travel to Stars

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the American Museum of Natural History's series Shelf Life, which gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the museum's collections. This month's episode, "How to Time Travel to a Star," is a little different than previous episodes, because the collections of astrophysicists look a lot different than traditional natural history collections. 

"One of the differences between natural history collections and astro collections is that because ours live on hard drives, instead of in cabinets, they take up a whole lot less room," says Ashley Pagnotta, a Davis Scholar at AMNH. These collections are composed of outputs from formulas created by theoretical and computation astrophysicists and, for observational astrophysicists, images of the sky. These days, the images are mostly digital, but more than a century ago, astronomers would snap photos of the sky using glass plates coated with a photo emulsion.

The astronomers would take photos of the sky in a regular, orderly fashion, giving us a good record of what the sky looked like in the past—and, in a way, allowing us to travel back in time to see what the skies looked like then. "We simply have one record of the universe streaming by us,"says Mike Shara, a curator of Astrophysics at the museum who studies exploding stars, "and because astronomers a century or more ago were snapping pictures, we have a continuous record over an enormously long period of time."

Harvard has the largest glass plate collection of astronomical photos, which dates back to 1860, and is working to digitize them. At AMNH, Pagnotta and Shara worked with high school students in the museum's Science Research Mentorship Program (SRMP) to bring catalogs of distances to stars in the Magellanic Clouds around our galaxy—which were created by Henrietta S. Leavitt in the early 1900s and updated by Cecila Payne-Gaposchkin in the 1950s—into the present day. The distances were only accurate for the eras in which they were created, so the students created a computer program that would account for 3D space and the wobbling of the Earth's axis. The data will be published and made available to the scientific community. "Once this catalog is complete—and it's almost finished—we will have a digital, fully accessible catalog that anyone in the world can use," Pagnotta says. "And then from there, you can start to do science—see how these stars change over time. We think that they probably do change over a hundred years, but we don't really know what they do. Nobody's ever looked before."

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The Most Popular Netflix Show in Every Country
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most popular Netflix show in each country map
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most popular Netflix show in each country map key
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If you're bored with everything in your Netflix queue, why not look to the top shows around the world for a recommendation?

HighSpeedInternet.com recently used Google Trends data to create a map of the most popular show streaming on Netflix in every country in 2018. The best-loved show in the world is the dystopian thriller 3%, claiming the number one spot in eight nations. The show is the first Netflix original made in Portuguese, so it's no surprise that Portugal and Brazil are among the eight countries that helped put it at the top of the list.

Coming in second place is South Korea's My Love from the Star, which seven countries deemed their favorite show. The romantic drama revolves around an alien who lands on Earth and falls in love with a mortal. The English-language show with the most clout is 13 Reasons Why, coming in at number three around the world—which might be proof that getting addicted to soapy teen dramas is a universal experience.

Pot comedy Disjointed is Canada's favorite show, which probably isn't all that surprising given the nation's recent ruling to legalize marijuana. Perhaps coming as even less of a shock is the phenomenon of Stranger Things taking the top spot in the U.S. Favorites like Black Mirror, Sherlock, and The Walking Dead also secured the love of at least one country.

Out of the hundreds of shows on the streaming platform, only 47 are a favorite in at least one country in 2018. So no hard feelings, Gypsy.

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Roadside Bear Statue in Wales is So Lifelike That Safety Officials Want It Removed
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Wooden bear statue.

There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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