Welcome to this week’s edition of our Friday Quality Linkage column. Please enjoy this week’s collection of interesting and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee, find a comfortable place, and relax.
A team of astronomers at the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy did a cool thing:
Using completely new ways of deducing the ages of so-called red giant stars from observational data, astronomers have created the first large-scale map that shows stellar ages in the Milky Way. Determining the ages of nearly 100 000 red giant stars, at distances of up to 50 000 light-years from the galactic center, the astronomers, led by Melissa Ness and Marie Martig of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, were able to test key ideas about the growth of the Milky Way. Notably, the map confirms that our home galaxy has grown inside out: in the present epoch, most old stars can be found in the middle, more recently formed ones in the outskirts.
I like the way Monica Young of Sky and Telescope put it (emphasis mine):
The youngest red giant stars assemble along the galactic plane, a skeleton of sorts that’s encased by older stars. Farther from the galaxy’s center, this “backbone” of younger stars flares outward, away from the plane. These patterns are the hallmark of a disk that started small and grew slowly outward, as though whoever was pouring the pancake batter first ladled into the center and then added more and more batter on the outer edges.
Mmm, galactic pancakes.
Speaking of stars (wow that was a painful connection to make), this week Alan Rickman, one of the world’s great actors, passed away of cancer at age 69. The Guardian wrote a wonderful obituary about him:
Tall, commanding, extremely funny when required, he was never above sending himself up either on stage or in the movies. He had talent to burn, a glorious voice that sometimes blurred in slack-jawed articulation, if only because everything he did seemed to come so easily to him.
They also featured the acting world paying tribute to Rickman’s incredible career:
[Helen] Mirren remembered Rickman as “a great friend” and “a towering person, physically, mentally and as an artist” whose voice “could suggest honey or a hidden stiletto blade, and the profile of a Roman Emperor”.
Tim Carmody memorialized Rickman in his own way:
Everything Alan Rickman did, everything he was, every part he played and every idea we had of him, was a thing achieved. What a life.
And of course I have to include this joke by David Chen:
Hans Gruber was Alan Rickman’s first film appearance. His FIRST one. That’d be like if the Sistine Chapel was Michaelangelo’s first painting
R.I.P. Alan Rickman.
Given that Snape was one of Rickman’s most iconic roles, it seems only fitting to include this video — even though it doesn’t really talk about Snape or Rickman — by Evan Puschak of The Nerdwriter on how the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban took the film series up a few notches from the first two movies.
John Carey of fiftyfootshadows spontaneously wrote this short story the other day and I dig the imagery it evokes. Quoting any of it here would be useless, just go read it.
Brian Switek, National Geographic:
It’s easy for the mythology of these predators to overshadow their real biology because it’s difficult to spend an extended amount of time following and observing animals that live beneath the waves and can cross entire oceans. We mostly see these burly sharks when they’re near the surface, and, while ingenious, strategies like Crittercam have literally been limited in scope and what can be recorded. That’s why shark researcher Gregory Skomal and colleagues turned to a different technology to see what the great fish are up to.
StudioDaily interviewed Roger Guyett, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic and who led more than 1,000 artists in studios around the world to create 2,100 visual effects shots (out of a total 2,500) for Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
In old-fashioned filmmaking, you didn’t go to Tunisia and then change it. You’d go there and that was in the movie. Sometimes, on other films, we might go to a location and then the director would want another version — taller buildings, a different sidewalk. They want their desert a different color. They don’t embrace what they have. This is the VFX era. Every blockbuster has big visual effects. People shoot and figure it out later. Maybe that’s why so many people shoot on green screen. We didn’t want to do that. We had a director who clearly wanted to go to the desert, and he was happy with the desert he went to.
Edit: Aaaand it’s gone.
Davey Alba of Wired gets a glimpse into the weird economy of returned Christmas gifts:
For most retailers, the weeks leading up to Christmas are a frenzied crescendo of activity. But for Michael Ringelsten, the excitement starts after the holidays.
Ringelsten runs Shorewood Liquidators, which collects all those post-holiday returns—from unwanted gadgets and exercise equipment to office furniture and popcorn machines—and finds them a new home. Wait, what? A new home? Yep. Rejected gifts and returned goods don’t go back on the shelves from which they came. They follow an entirely different logistical path, a weird mirror image of the supply chain that brings the goods we actually want to our doors.
Maggie Koerth-Baker of Nature on why boredom has become an interesting topic of study for neuroscientists (line break added by yours truly):
[Heather] Lench and [Shane] Bench are testing whether the drive to become un-bored is so strong that people might be willing to choose unpleasant experiences as an alternative. This idea builds on research that has shown a correlation between sensation-seeking behaviour, even risky behaviour, and high boredom-proneness scores. It is also similar to findings published in Science in 2014 and Appetite in 2015.
In the first study, researchers asked people to sit in a room with nothing to do for as long as 15 minutes at a time. Some of the participants, particularly men, were willing to give themselves small electric shocks rather than be left alone with their thoughts. The second paper described two experiments: one in which the participants had access to unlimited sweets, and another in which they had access to unlimited electric shocks. Participants ate more when they were bored — but they also gave themselves more shocks. Even when it is not very pleasant, apparently, novelty is better than monotony.
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