Archive for August 5, 2012

Usain Bolt and His Predecessors

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

I was glued to my computer mid-day today, watching the men’s 100 meter Olympic semi-finals and then, two hours later, the final. The semi-final performances suggested this would be a four-man race, and so it was: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, the US’s Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay.

Despite difficulties over the last two years, Bolt confirmed his greatness today by pulling ahead at about the 50-meter mark, steadily opening up a gap on the field, and winning in the second fastest 100 meter in history. Only his extraordinary world-record time at the 2009 World Championships was faster (though we’ll never know how fast he might have run the year before at the Beijing Olympics, where he set an earlier world record while slowing down at the finish).

However, today’s race, great though it was, is not the point of this post. If you want to know more about it, you can read the coverage. For instance, see Richard Williams’ piece at The Guardian, accompanied by the photo below, which shows Bolt crossing the finish line with Blake, Gatlin, and Gay behind.

[Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images]

Instead, I want to draw your attention to a fabulous graphic at the NYT website. I can’t embed it, so you’ll need to go here. In fact, do so right now. Click on the link — here it is again — and watch the 2 3/4 minute video. It puts Bolt’s performance in the context of the medalists’ times for all Olympic 100-meter races since 1896.

I’ll admit, I’m not convinced that the information conveyed by the video is all that interesting. Times have gotten steadily better over the last 116 years.* If there’s a deeper message, it eluded me. But the graphics are brilliantly done, and that’s why I’m recommending that you have a look.

*Then again, if one wants to find out about improvements in Olympic times, the 100 meter is the race to study. The competitors can’t mess around. They have to run their best, and generally they do. No room for tactics, such as those that occur in the 1500, 5000, or 10,000, with concomitant slow times. The 100 meter consistently produces record or near-record times, as it did today.

Categories: Design, Track

Curiosity: Two Hours to Touchdown

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Curiosity — NASA’s new Mars Science Laboratory — is due to land in Mars’ Gale Crater in two hours. The new scientific knowledge the rover will provide is sufficient cause for excitement, but the design of the landing process is pretty cool in its own right. (And, of course, if there’s not a successful landing, there will be no science at all.) Be sure to watch the video above, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to see what I’m talking about.

Also, from the website:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted.

Emotions are strong in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., as the hours and miles race toward touchdown of the car-size Curiosity at about 10:31 p.m. PDT tonight (about 1:31 a.m. Aug. 6, EDT).

“Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft,” said Mission Manager Brian Portock of JPL. “It’s natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared.”

Descent from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface will employ bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and heavier landed payload than were possible for any previous Mars mission. These innovations, if successful, will place a well-equipped mobile laboratory into a locale especially well-suited for this mission of discovery. The same innovations advance NASA toward capabilities needed for human missions to Mars.


At the critical moment of Curiosity’s touchdown, controllers and the rest of the world will be relying on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to provide immediate confirmation of a successful landing. Odyssey will turn to point in the right direction beforehand to listen to Curiosity during the landing. If for any reason that turn maneuver does not work, a successful landing cannot be confirmed until more than two hours later.

The landing will end a 36-week flight from Earth and begin at two-year prime mission on Mars. Researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to investigate whether Martian environmental conditions have ever been favorable for microbial life.

Good luck, Curiosity.

Categories: Science, Technology

Heat Wave

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

That’s what we have here in Seattle. Or what passes for one in these parts. High 80s yesterday. Over 90 today. And as I type, at 7:40 PM, it’s still 89 degrees, with not the least trace of a breeze.

I wouldn’t think of complaining, what with the weather so much of the country has experienced this summer. There’s nowhere I’d rather be when it comes to summer climate, at least once we get past the first week of July. We can generally count on lots of days in the 70s, dry and clear, except on the occasional mornings when there’s a marine layer that needs to burn off. Come evening, it’s perfect out, so I never want to be anywhere other than our backyard — for dinner, reading, browsing the web, writing these posts.

But today has been a little too hot for us Seattleites. And tonight, given how warm our house is, we’ll be moving down to the summer bedroom (the basement), where we should have spent last night.

The only saving grace is that these days help us remember that we’re in the middle of summer. Sometimes in Seattle, one loses track of what season it is.

But not when it’s hot hot hot!

Categories: Weather