All posts by Daniel

What Is Love? Heres The Science

Weve all felt it at some time in our lives. Poets write about it, singers sing about it and a whole industry has grown up around finding it, expressing it and maintaining it. But what is love? Where does it reside? What triggers it? And whats really going on in our minds and bodies when we fall head over heels?

Romantic love, though often difficult to define, includes the development of a strong emotional bond known as attachment sexual attraction and care giving. Those in love experience a range of intense feelings, such as intrusive thoughts, emotional dependency and increased energy though these feelings may be limited to the early phases of the relationship.

Either way, romantic love appears to be universal. But the extent to which romantic love is expressed or forms an important part of sexual relationships may vary. For example, less than 5% of Americans report that they would marry without romantic love compared to 50% of those in Pakistan.

Brain Activity

Numerous brain regions, particularly those associated with reward and motivation, are activated by the thought or presence of a romantic partner. These include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulated cortex. Activation of these areas may serve to inhibit defensive behaviour, reduce anxiety and increase trust in the romantic partner. In addition, areas such as the amygdala and frontal cortex are deactivated in response to romantic love; a process which may function to reduce the likelihood of negative emotions or judgement of the partner.

Hence brain activation in response to romantic partners appears to both reward social interaction and impede negative responses. The extent to which the brain is activated during early stages of a romantic relationship appears to influence both our own well-being and the extent to which the relationship is a success or failure.

For example, happiness, commitment to the partner and relationship satisfaction are each related to the intensity of brain activation.

Hormonal Influence

Oxytocin and vasopressin are the hormones most closely associated with romantic love. They are produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland; and while men and women are both influenced by oxytocin and vasopressin, women are more sensitive to oxytocin and men are more sensitive to vasopressin.

Concentrations of both oxytocin and vasopressin increase during the intense stages of romantic love. These hormones act on numerous systems within the brain and receptors are present in a number of brain areas associated with romantic love. In particular, oxytocin and vasporessin interact with the dopaminergic reward system and can stimulate dopamine release by the hypothalamus.

Its all in the hormones. Iselin/flickr, CC BY

The dopaminergic pathways activated during romantic love create a rewarding pleasurable feeling. The pathways are also associated with addictive behaviour, consistent with the obsessive behaviour and emotional dependency often observed in the initial stages of romantic love.

Researchers have often investigated the influence of oxytocin and vasopressin in non-human animals such as the prairie and montane voles. It is clearly documented that prairie voles (which form monogamous lifetime relationships known as pair-bonds) have much higher densities of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors than the promiscuous montane voles, particularly in the dopamine reward system.

Furthermore, prairie voles become promiscuous when the release of oxytocin and vasopressin is blocked. Together, these findings highlight the manner in which hormone activity may facilitate (or hinder) the formation of a close relationship.

Love and Loss

Romantic love may serve an important evolutionary function, for example by increasing the level of parental support available to subsequent children. We typically enter a series of romantic relationships, however, in our search for the one and the loss of romantic love is widespread, either through the break-up of a relationship or bereavement. While distressing, most people are able to cope and move on from this loss.

For a minority of people experiencing loss through bereavement, complicated grief develops, characterised by recurrent painful emotions and preoccupation with the deceased partner. All bereaved partners experience pain in response to loss-related stimuli (such as a card or photograph). It is argued that for those experiencing complicated grief, the stimuli also activates reward centres in the brain, producing a form of craving or addiction which reduces their ability to recover from the loss.

Maternal Love

Mother love. Marieke IJsendoorn-Kuijpers/flickr, CC BY

There are a number of parallels between the physiological responses to romantic and maternal love. For example, the brain regions activated by maternal love overlap with those activated by romantic love. Specifically, the reward areas of the brain which contain high concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin are activated, while the regions deactivated during romantic love including those related with judgement and negative emotions are deactivated during maternal love.

Furthermore, increased and decreased concentrations of oxytocin promote and reduce maternal behaviour respectively. Differences between responses to maternal and romantic love do occur however as maternal love activates a number of regions (such as the periaqueductal grey matter) that are not activated during romantic love, highlighting the unique nature of the maternal bond.

Few things feel as effortless as the early stages of true love or the love felt by a mother for her child, but the reality is rather more complex, a pantomime of hormones and complex physiological interactions that make it a little wonder of the world.

To learn more about the role of biological processes in romantic love and sexual activity see Biological Psychology.

Gayle Brewer, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire

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This Robotic Flying Bat Could Be The Future Of Drones

Bats are incredible feats of biological engineering. With their ability to navigate through the deepest darkness, their remarkable aerial agility, and their rather novel sleeping methods, its not a surprise that scientists have been looking to them for inspiration.

As reported in a rather visually striking piece of research in the journal Science Robotics, a team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UoI) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have built their own Bat Bot a biomimetic robotic platform that flies around and explores an environment just like the real deal.

Flying robots already exist, of course, but these are limited to basic up-and-down flapping motions or dangerous, spinning rotors. Recreating the flight patterns of bats, on the other hand, has proved near-impossible for some time. Their wings are incredibly complex aerodynamic devices, able to morph and bend using at least 40 different individual joints.


Bat Bot in action. Ramezani et al./Science Robotics

Stepping up to the challenge, this team carefully analyzed the placement and biological design of these joints, and concluded that the shoulder, elbow, and wrist bends, along with the laterally moving tail swish, were the key points of articulation that they needed to be replicated.

Using lightweight carbon-fiber artificial bones, 3D-printed ball-and-socket structures, and a durable silicone skin, they built their Bat Bot. Moved by a series of extremely small motors along its spine, this little robo-critter is able to swoop, dive, hover, and gracefully fly through a room with ease.

Thanks to a series of microsensors on its head, it is able to navigate through its surroundings semi-autonomously. It is not yet currently able to explore an area with any free will, so to speak, but in the near-future, the team hope advances in computational systems can be used to allow it to be more independent.

Co-author Seth Hutchinson, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UoI, told reporters at a press conference that unlike birds of the same size, bats [including our own] are more maneuverable, partly because they can reconfigure their body in ways birds cannot.

Just like the real bat, Bat Bot is able to move its wings in an asymmetrical manner, meaning it is likely the most precise flying robot in the world.


Flying around a warehouse. Ramezani et al./Science Robotics

Importantly, as it only weights 93 grams (0.2 pounds) and doesnt have any rapidly moving parts, this strange type of drone could interact with humans or delicate objects without damaging them in a way standard drones cannot. Even an accidental collision will be very unlikely to damage anything.

The researchers envisage a future where this type of robotic creature coexists with humans, monitoring them, assisting with search and rescue missions, or keeping an eye out for potential hazards. It could even flit around construction sites to monitor hard-to-reach parts of the architecture for damage.

They could also check outa space with a 3D cameraand radiation sensor to go places humans cannot go the Fukushima disaster area, for example, Hutchinson added.


The morphing ability of the silicone wings allows the Bat Bot to move with unprecedented precision. Ramezani et al./Science Robotics

Around Fukushima, theres so much debris, doors have collapsed so the ability to maneuver through environments like that, and to do it quickly, is something that our robot can achieve, [both] more effectively and for a longer time than traditional helicopter-style robots.

Perhaps one day, if linked up to other Bat Bots, they could move together as a swarm.

This is hardly the first time engineers have used the natural world as a source of inspiration for robotics, but its a wonderful example of how man-made wonders arent always the most ideal, perfect types of machinery. Natural selection is inarguably an efficient if ruthless mechanism for forging the best biological blueprints, so its only natural that wed try to steal them from time to time.


R. aegyptiacus, one of the bats carefully studied as part of the Bat Bot construction process. Ramezani et al./Science Robotics

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‘Elle’ Invites Facebook Fans to Collaborate on Photo Shoot


In a creative crowdsourcing endeavor, Elle magazine is using Facebook to conduct a “readers’ choice” fashion shoot with creative director Joe Zee.

Between now and Sept. 20, the Hearst-owned fashion title is asking readers to choose between themes (“The New Great Gatsby,” “Big Top” or “Femme Fatale”), models, clothing, accessories and one surprise category. Voting will be held in five consecutive rounds in a Milyoni-powered Facebook app. Clothes and accessories are being provided by Amazon-owned retailer Shopbop.

On the 21st, Elle will livestream the shoot on Facebook. The final images will appear in a spread in the magazine’s December issue, which hits newsstands Nov. 13. Augmented reality technology will be incorporated into the issue to enable readers to pull up additional content from the shoot, Elle said in a statement.

To maintain reader enthusiasm between the end of September and mid-November, Elle will host a range of social media contests related to the shoot. Fans will be encouraged to create Pinterest boards and stage their own photo shoots to post to Instagram. Contest winners may be eligible to appear in an upcoming issue of Elle.

This isn’t the first time a brand has handed over the styling reins to online audiences. In late 2010, London-based fashion label Ted Baker invited fashion bloggers to partake in an online styling session. Participants used a live video stream and Twitter to direct hair stylists, makeup artists, runners and models as they created a number of different looks from pieces of Ted Baker’s Autumn/Winter 2010 collection. Spectators could watch and tweet in their own suggestions, but couldn’t take part in the process as directly as they will be able to with Elle.

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New Galaxy Discovered With Backyard Telescope

An amateur astronomer has discovered a previously unknown galaxy using a home telescope and camera. The object has been confirmed with one of the world’s largest telescopes, and adds support to the most popular model of galaxy formation.

Astronomy is famous as a field where amateurs still do work that significantly adds to scientific knowledge. However, most contributions are in areas where the sky is changing fast, such as the discovery of new cometsbefore giant telescopes happen to look in the right location. A slowly evolving galaxy doesn’t fit that picture.

Nevertheless, when Michael Sidonio took a photograph of the well-known galaxy NGC 253 he picked up something nearby that had never been noticed before. Sidonio, who is security manager at the Australian Capital Territory’s Legislative Assembly in his day job, was using a 25-centimeter (12-inch) diameter telescope large for an amateur but hardly professional size which he keeps on a farm 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the outskirts of Canberra.

NGC 253 has been photographed many times, but Sidonio told IFLScience that he took a much wider angle image than is usually done, taking advantage of his telescope’s unusually short focal length for a mirror that size. The image was a finalistin the Royal Observatory Greenwichs 2013 astronomy photograph of the year award, bringing it to the attention of professional astronomers studying dwarf galaxies. The outcome of their collaboration will be published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (preprint on arXiv).

NGC 253, also known as the Silver Dollar galaxy was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783, and is popular with southern hemisphere astronomers. At 11.5 million light-years away it is one of the closer large galaxies to our own, and is undergoing intense star formation.

Fellow amateur, Alessandro Maggi also photographed the small galaxy next to NGC 253 using an 18-centimeter (7-inch) telescope. The paper’s authors write:In both cases, the pixel scale was coarse and it was not clear if the elongated feature was real or an artifact or reflection as often present in amateur images. Sidonio told IFLScience the paper’s other authors contacted him to request the original toimprove their confidence that the finding was real.

After confirming the galaxy’s presence with CHART32, an 80-centimeter (31-inch) telescope run by a group of amateurs, first author Dr. Aaron Romanowskyof San JosState University, secured time on the giant Chilean 8.2-meter (27-foot) Subaru Telescope for detailed study. The authors named the galaxy NGC 253-dw2 and say it has an old metal-poor stellar population and shows signs of being disrupted by its larger neighbor.

Sidonio’simage with NGC 253-dw2 circled, both in negative and real color. Credit: Michael Sidonio.

Thousands of galaxies are discovered each year, but a shortage of small galaxies in the local Universe has cast doubt on the hierarchical model,under which large galaxies form from smaller ones. From studying the way NGC 253-dw2 is being destroyed by its larger neighbor the authors conclude:Our observations support the hierarchical paradigm.

In words that should encourage every recipient of a Christmas telescope, as the paper notes:We also note the continued efficacy of small telescopes for making big discoveries.

Photo Gallery

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It’s A Really Good Time To Be A Planet-Hunter As Another New Mission Has Just Been Announced

Good news, everyone. We’re going to get a new planet-hunting mission in 2028, adding to our ever-growing fleet of telescopes that are looking for worlds beyond our Solar System.

The European Space Agency (ESA) mission is called ARIEL, which stands for Atmospheric Remote‐sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large‐survey. The goals of the mission, costing about €450 million ($550 million), are to work out “the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life,” according to ESA.

It’ll do this using a telescope that’s 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide, viewing planets in both visible and infrared. It’s going to be launch on an Ariane 6 rocket, and will be positioned 1.5 million kilometers (0.9 million miles) from Earth.

The idea is to use the telescope to see if certain stars play host to particular types of planet. It will look at the atmospheres of planets around other stars, to see if there is any sort of pattern to planet formation.

The mission will last four years, during which time it will observe 1,000 planets. It’s going to focus on warm and hot planets, like super-Earths and gas giants that are in tight orbits – known as hot Jupiters. And while it will look at some planets in habitable zones, it doesn’t look like it’ll be studying many Earth-like worlds.

“[ARIEL] will enable us to answer questions about how the chemistry of a planet links to the environment in which it forms, and how its birth and evolution are affected by its parent star,” Professor Giovanna Tinetti from University College London, the principal investigator on the mission, said in a statement.

Giant hot planets will be targeted by ARIEL. ESA/ATG medialab, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

It’ll be looking for things like water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane on these worlds, as well as their metal content, to see how they compare to their host star. On some planets, ARIEL will also be used to look at cloud systems, and even see if there are seasonal or daily changes on the planet itself.

It will join a growing fleet of space telescopes that are being used to find exoplanets, itself a relatively new field of astronomy. NASA’s Kepler mission is perhaps the most famous, finding thousands of planets since it launched in 2009 – although the mission will come to an end in months.

Next month we’re expecting to see NASA’s newest planet-hunter launch, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). ESA also has a couple of missions in the works, the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite (CHEOPS), due to launch in late 2018, and the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), launching in 2026, which will be looking for planets like Earth.

Yep, that’s a decent number of planet-hunting missions. Probably quite a good profession to be in right now. Just saying.

Read more: Co-Founder Billy Chasen Explains the Art of Pivoting


“Pivot” is sometimes viewed as a dirty word in the tech world, but for Billy Chasen, the willingness to switch from one project to the next has proven to be key to his success.

Chasen, the co-founder and CEO of, learned to shift gears and abandon projects when necessary. In 2008, he unveiled an app called Firefly that let users live chat with one another and see the cursors of those looking at the same webpage. The app got some buzz, but didn’t gain the kind of traction Chasen wanted, so he decided to take the web data he gathered with the tool and turn it into an analytics company called Chartbeat, which is still used by many organizations today.

Then, in 2010, Chasen launched Stickybits, an app that let users scan the barcodes of physical objects and attach digital messages to them. It was a novel idea at the time, and one that also received a seven-figure funding deal and a good amount of attention in the media, but according to Chasen, the technology just wasn’t there to support it. So, he and his co-founder Seth Goldstein made the decision to pivot to a new company,, a music discovery service where users can stream songs and hang out in virtual chat rooms.

He even pivoted back in college, originally planning to major in astronomy at the University of Michigan before choosing computer science instead.

Finding new ideas to work on has never been Chasen’s problem. He has a broad range of interests — just consider that he paints and does glass blowing on the side while running his music startup — and keeps a list of hundreds of ideas for things he wants to build. Still, he admits that “it’s incredibly stressful” to pivot from one project or company to another. The trick, he says, is being scientific about the decision.

“What I’ve always tried to do at every point along the way is be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons and see where I am,” Chasen said in an interview with Mashable. “I try not to make decisions based on the amount of work I’ve put into something or the amount of love I’ve put into something, and instead pull myself back and look at the usage and make the best decision going forward on how to evolve.”

We chatted with Chasen about his thoughts on pivoting, some of his earliest business ideas, whether we’ll ever see Stickybits 2.0 and what he’d like to work on after

Q&A With Billy Chasen, Co-Founder of

Did you always dream of starting your own company one day, or had you not planned on doing it?

It’s never been that I’ve been interested in startups as much as I’ve always been interested in building and creating things, and it just so happened that that’s one of the main aspects of startups. I’ve always just enjoyed building things, whether it be artistic things or websites. It’s always been this need or desire. I’ve been building things ever since I was a kid.

You first made a splash in the tech world in 2006 with, a site that let users see which websites others were browsing in real time. Were there any projects you tried to get off the ground before this?

After graduating college [in 2003], I was working with a group of friends trying to create a photo hosting service before there were any mature hosting services, but it didn’t really go anywhere. During college, there were all types of ideas for websites. It was just as social networks were starting. I had a few ideas with some friends about how we could potentially leverage the people you know to do some utility-based things. One of the things we were talking about at one point in college was trying to have a network of people connected to each other who could really post anything, like a work of art or writing, and have people critique it.

One of the more cutting edge projects you’ve been involved with is Stickybits, which gave users a way to overlay digital information on the physical world. Why did you decide to abandon Stickybits for Turntable, and will we ever see a Stickybits 2.0?

It just felt like [Stickybits] got to a place where usage wasn’t there, but people loved the idea, and that wasn’t enough. The decision was, do we bunker down, do we love it so much that we will hold until the technology is there to support the idea, or do we work on something else because we are talented and there are other ideas?

I don’t know if I’ll necessarily be in the position to start it up again, but it will be in some form or fashion started. If Apple decides to put Near Field Communication on all of their phones, and all of the sudden all these brands decide to become NFC-aware, and you are just able to get information from them, there will be startups built entirely in that space. Or maybe there is some successor to NFC that is even more interesting and better to differentiate objects. It’s my belief that it is going to come. I don’t know if I will be leading the charge on that — probably not, because I tried it a little earlier and I have another company to run.

You’ve clearly pivoted multiple times in your career. What is your thought process when weighing whether to pivot from one project to another?

It’s incredibly stressful. It’s easy to look in hindsight and see they were the right decisions at the time. If we did the pivot from Firefly to Chartbeat and Chartbeat failed in six months, it would be a different hindsight. You make the best decision you can. What I’ve always tried to do at every point along the way is be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons and see where I am. I try not to make decisions based on the amount of work I’ve put into something or the amount of love I’ve put into something and instead pull myself back and look at the usage and make the best decision going forward on how to evolve.

No startup that I’ve ever started or been a part of has ever been a perfectly direct path. It’s always pulled in certain directions, and the better you are at reading those directions, the more successful you will be.

So when you originally brainstormed the idea for, what was the problem you were hoping to solve?

The problem was that music used to be social. Music is social in an offline context: when you go to concerts, when you hang out with people. Music is a very social thing. We have drum circles. We hang out together. We trade music with each other. That’s been music history for a long time. And nothing online feels like a digital representation of what we do in the real world. I wanted to create this digital space where you can listen to music real-time with people.

Your company recently launched a new app called Piki, which essentially transforms the Turntable experience into more of a traditional radio app. What is the goal with this app compared to Turntable?

Piki is continuing to fill the void of how I discover new music. There is a big void right now. [Music] services — whether it’s Spotify playlists or Rdio — are not designed to pick up the tastemakers that I enjoy and let the music come to me. Piki is trying to angle towards that.

What project do you see yourself working on next?

Even though it’s such a dense space, I still feel there’s lots of issues with the way photo-sharing is done, and I think it could be done better. I have some thoughts on that and also, social interactions between people and what’s the best way to do that. I like the idea of, where they basically say, “You pay us a subscription, our commitment is to you and not our advertisers.” It’s another area that can be worked on quite a bit.

Clearly, you have plenty of ideas that you’d still like to work on. Any chance you’ll go the route of Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk and try running multiple companies at once?

I would love to be the type that could juggle multiple companies at the same time, but it’s hard for me to do because I dive so deeply into the product that I am on at the time. If I was more a laid-back CEO who made sure I had all the right people at the company and then basically delegate most of the daily operations, I could do something like that, but it hasn’t been the way that I’ve generally been operating. The only thing that takes me from a full-time project to another full-time project is something happens, for better or worse.

Images courtesy of Billy Chasen and

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Playing Catch With Grover Is the Future of Video Gaming


You would think after 42 seasons, the creative minds behind Sesame Street would run out of ways to educate and entertain kids.

Sesame Workshop has teamed up with Microsoft to create Kinect Sesame Street TV — one of the most innovative children’s video games we’ve seen in a while. With the help of the Microsoft Kinect sensor, it puts kids (and adults) into the game, letting them engage and interact with their favorite characters.

We were immediately impressed with the way the game offers simple instructions to help kids set up their position in front of the Kinect. Cooper, a new furry character on Sesame Street, created digitally just for this season, introduces himself and guides the user as they place themselves in front of a mirror. This is really helpful because kids have a natural tendency to creep closer to the TV as they play and talk to the characters.

And kids will play with them! There are eight interactive games that take kids through everything you would expect from a Sesame Street title. Elmo offers instructions on how to play with him and Paul Ball, another new character.

The characters introduce words; concepts like over and under, numbers, letters, and free play. But this play gets kids up and off the couch.

Our favorite game is playing catch with Grover. Typical Grover, he’s made a mess, dropped all his coconuts and needs help him picking them up. Kids make a throwing motion and toss them back, while he does silly things before catching them and putting them in his box. There’s no winning or losing here. If the child doesn’t respond, Cookie Monster simply comes along and picks up a coconut for Grover.

Elmo’s World is an augmented reality scene where kids are transported to Elmo’s play world, helping him water plants and touch the stars.

Kinect Sesame Street TV is available now on Xbox 360.

Check out the video to see it in action and let us know what you think about video games becoming this interactive. Does this make you more likely to let your kids play?

Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

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From Neptunes Blue Hue To Jupiters Red Spot: Are The Colours Of The Planets Real?

The ConversationThese days, were used to seeing pictures of planets sent back by spacecraft. Some pictures look colourful, others less so. But do they show what each planet really looks like?

The short answer to this is sometimes, because some planets are genuinely quite colourful. Others are surfaced by rock that is almost entirely grey, and if you come across a picture of these looking colourful you can be pretty sure that the image has been manipulated in some way. Usually its a way of exaggerating subtle differences that human eyes are not good at seeing without help.

Anyone who has used a smartphone to take photos has probably stumbled upon various options to exaggerate or tone down the colour. Similar techniques are routinely used for processing images sent back by spacecraft, almost always to exaggerate colour rather than to make it more subtle.

But a camera on a spacecraft rarely sees colours in the same way as the human eye. For example, the red, green and blue components are usually recorded separately, transmitted to Earth as three separate black-and-white images and combined in colour only for display purposes. How the colours come out is bound to be at least subtly different from the ways your eyes would perceive the same view.

Whats more, the colours on an image dont necessarily correspond to the original colours, even if there has been no attempt to exaggerate them. In principle, a spacecraft camera can record in any part of the light spectrum. When one of the channels lies beyond the visible range, such as in ultraviolet, we still have to use either red, green or blue to display it. That means the resulting picture is false colour, which might then be further exaggerated.

The Giant Planets

Jupiter famously has a Great Red Spot, a giant oval storm system. While the more subtle colours elsewhere in Jupiters clouds may be largely due to the cloud-tops being seen through different depths of transparent atmosphere, the clouds in the spot itself are stained red by an unknown contaminant. Candidates include phosphorous, a sulfur compound, and complex organic molecules.

Jupiters Great Red Spot in natural colour, by NASAs Galileo orbiter NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Jupiters propensity for strong colours is shared by its innermost large moon, Io. Here, frequent explosive volcanic eruptions shower the ground with sulfur and sulfur dioxide making the globe look like a yellow pizza, scattered with black olives that are in reality patches of lava that are too fresh to have picked up a yellow stain yet.

Left: Io in natural colour. Right: Europa, in exaggerated false colour to accentuate the difference between clean ice (blue) and dirty ice (red). NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

In contrast, the next moon out, Europa, has a surface made of frozen water. This is strongly reflective, making it bright but not very colourful. Most colour images of Europa that you are likely to come across are rendered in exaggerated and false colour.

Saturn has more muted colours than Jupiter, despite having a similar atmosphere. Its natural colour is only vaguely yellow any pictures you see of it looking strongly coloured are either false colour or exaggerated colour.

Saturn by NASAs Cassini orbiter. This is a false colour image recorded using three infrared wavelengths, and shows patterns of thermal emission rather than reflected sunlight. NASA/JPL/ASI/University of Arizona

Uranus and Neptune are also hidden by an immensely deep atmosphere. To our eyes, Uranus looks naturally green and Neptune blue, because the tops of their clouds of condensed methane are seen through a great depth of methane gas that filters out the red component of sunlight so that only green-blue light makes it down to the clouds and back out. Theres not much colour variation though; the highest clouds look white but everywhere else is blue or green.

The Rocky Planets

Mars is aptly referred to as the Red Planet. The iron in its rock and dust has largely been turned to iron oxide, or rust. Consequently, Mars looks red to the unaided eye if you see it in the sky, it looks red from orbit, and it looks red as seen by rovers on the ground. Here the debate is whether to render colours as they really look or as they would look if the quality of the light were the same as on Earth.

Three versions of the same view on the surface of Mars from NASAs Curiosity rover. Left: unprocessed. Middle: adjusted to how human eyes would see it. Right: how it would look under Earth-like lighting conditions (note how the colour of the sky has changed) NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Venus is swathed in dazzlingly white clouds and the surface has been visited only by handful of Soviet landers. The dense clouds allow only a dull reddish glow to reach the ground, so everywhere looks orange. But the rocks themselves are really a drab grey kind of lava.

The cloud tops of Venus in natural colour, but with the brightness reduced and the contrast stretched to reveal structure. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of WashingtonThe surface of Venus by the Venera 13 lander. The top view is natural colour, the lower view is how it would look with the same sunlight as on Earth. NASA

Mercury is an airless world made of drab, dark grey rock with just a hint of redness. It reflects only about 7% of the sunlight falling on it, which is only slightly more than coal would, but it is three times closer to the sun than the Earth is, where the intense sunlight would make it look pretty bright even without adjusting the image brightness. However, to tease out the colour variations that lurk in Mercurys landscape features, it is common practice to use false colour in a way that basically boosts the very subtle natural colour differences until they are glaringly obvious.

Exaggerated false colour rendering of Mercury, as imaged by NASAs MESSENGER orbiter (NASA/JHUAP{L/CIW)

Dont think of this as cheating. It is revealing truths about a world that youd be able to see if your eyes and brain had evolved there, in order to maximise the available information.

David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Astronomical Union Formally Approves Names Of 227 Stars

Astronomy can truly inspirepeople with incredible pictures of the majestic universe. But when it comes to naming things, more often than not we are stuck with things resembling phone numbers. There are too many stars out there, so numbers work much better than names.

Somestars, though, are more memorable. So the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has started the Working Group on Star Names (WGSN), with the precise scope of formalizing the common names of a few hundred stars.

Some of the stars formally named today are already known by their common names like Proxima Centauri (technically Alpha Centauri C), Polaris (Alpha Ursa Minor), and Vega (Alpha Lyrae), while for others the WGSN found historical nicknames from many different cultures.

Some may roll their eyes thinking this is an exercise in futility, but its important to make official even names that have long been established in pop-culture, as it helps maintain the astronomical heritage of the human race. Theres also another reason: the IAU has started naming exoplanets, so why not stars?

Since the IAU is already adopting names for exoplanets and their host stars, it has been seen as necessary to catalogue the names for stars in common use from the past, and to clarify which ones will be official from now on, said Eric Mamajek, chair and organiser of the WGSN, in a statement.

So the brightest star in Pisces will just be known as Fomalhaut rather than its other 30 names that have been used over the years. Even stars like Sirius or Betelgeuse were lacking an official international spelling until very recently. The catalog will also make sure that common names are not used for multiple astronomical objects.

The first 227 approved names can be seen in the official WGSN catalog. The group is also planning to define the rules, criteria, and process to name stars, exoplanets, and other objects. The naming is also not expected to be exclusive to professional astronomers. Just like exoplanet naming, members of the general public will be involved in giving a bit more flair to the alphanumeric designation of stars.

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