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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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Can You Find the Money in Santa’s Sack in This Hidden Image Puzzle?
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A hidden-object image features rows of Santas carrying sacks.
Vouchercloud

Vouchercloud, a website and app for online deals, brings us this holiday-themed test of your vision just in time for Christmas. Hidden among all the identical Santa Clauses carrying sacks of presents, one financially-savvy Santa is carrying a big sack of money. Can you figure out where he is? (Warning: Spoilers below.)

Spot him yet? If you’re stumped, check out the solution below. If this one was a breeze for you, try out a few more hidden-object puzzles here, here, and here. Or if you’re looking for something with a little more real-life relevancy, try to figure out where the snake is in this photo. Happy hunting!

A hidden-object image features rows of Santas carrying sacks with the solution circled in red.
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© 2017 USPS
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Pop Culture
Speedy Delivery: Mister Rogers Will Get His Own Stamp in 2018
© 2017 USPS
© 2017 USPS

USPS 2018 Mister Rogers stamp
© 2017 USPS

After weeks of mailing out this year’s holiday cards, postage might be the last thing you want to think about. But the U.S. Postal Service has just given us a sneak peek at the many iconic people, places, and things that will be commemorated with their own stamps in 2018, and one in particular has us excited to send out a few birthday cards: Mister Rogers.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers’s groundbreaking PBS series that the USPS says “inspired and educated young viewers with warmth, sensitivity, and honesty,” the mail service shared a mockup of what the final stamp may look like. On it, Rogers—decked out in one of his trademark colorful cardigans (all of which were hand-knitted by his mom, by the way)—smiles for the camera alongside King Friday XIII, ruler of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Though no official release date for Fred’s forever stamp has been given, Mister Rogers is just one of many legendary figures whose visages will grace a piece of postage in 2018. Singer/activist Lena Horne will be the 41st figure to appear as part of the USPS’s Black Heritage series, while former Beatle John Lennon will be the face of the newest Music Icons collection. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, will also be honored.

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