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2011 Roundup

It’s that time of year again: for a few weeks, writers everywhere can get away summarizing what they’ve already said rather than writing anything new. As a reader, I appreciate it, because I don’t obsessively follow every magazine, every blog, so it’s likely I’ll have missed something in the roundups. Like last year, here is a collection of some of the more interesting stuff that passed through these virtual pages in 2011.

Four undeciphered scripts.

The sound of Saturn dwarfed everything in terms of traffic this year. Some have claimed that post was misleading or outright wrong. It is not wrong: everything in it is accurate. It may be misleading. Here is another stab at explaining what’s going on: there’s auroras around Saturn’s poles! And the Cassini space probe has picked up these radio waves that are sent out into space as the auroras dance around there. This is an interpretation of those radio waves as sound (but unlike radio waves on Earth, no one intended for these waves to encode sound). This interpretation (the sound has been shifted into the hearing range and time-compressed to be listenable) happens to sound like special effects from an old science fiction movie.

I think this is wonderfully evocative, even if it isn’t the sort of thing scientists usually concern themselves with. And the fact that so many people get excited about space can’t be wrong, can it?

The domesticated silver fox, a fox bred to behave like a dog. You can keep one as a pet.

Infrasound may help explain hauntings. The experience of ghosts occurs in most cultures, so it’s definitely a valid topic for scientific query. But most “paranormal researchers” put the emphasis on the paranormal. Real scientists who do peer-reviewed research rarely concern themselves with ghosts, usually issuing blanket dismissals. The thing is that if you do investigate apparent violations of physical laws, you might find some really neat applications of physical laws. Infrasound is one such thing. It turns out that sound in frequencies below what humans can consciously pick up (less than 20 Hz) can instill a sense of dread in humans and even cause visual hallucinations. In particular, one haunted laboratory was exorcized by turning off a fan emitting sound around 19 Hz. Although not widely studied, it seems plausible that infrasound could be the cause of many a haunting.

Tickling the dragon, an experiment in which a screwdriver slipping is the difference between safety and supercritical, deadly nuclear reaction. On May 21, 1946, it all went wrong. A cautionary tale.

Mathematical personalities: Kurt Gödel and Évariste Galois.

Multistable perception.

Of Penis Panics, Cannibalistic Spirits and Dancing Manias. What do penis thieves, cannibalistic spirits and medieval Europeans dancing themselves to death have in common?

Aperiodic tilings, found in medieval Islamic wall mosaics, described in the language of math in the 1970s, and instantiated on the atomic level in quasicrystals, the discovery of which earned Dan Shechtman a Nobel in chemistry this year.

As a bonus, a great story I never linked: inside the mind of an octopus.