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Astronomer Vera Rubin, sometime in the 1970s.
Photo credit: Carnegie Institute of Washington.

Vera Rubin, the astronomer whose work led to the theory of dark matter, died yesterday, December 25, 2016.

Dark matter — that 27% of the mass and energy in the observable universe that we can’t observe directly — is something we know about thanks to astronomer Vera Rubin’s work on the rotation of galaxies. She observed that stars on the outside of galaxies were moving at the same speeds as stars closer in. This shouldn’t have been the case: they should be moving much more slowly, just as the outer planets of a solar system take longer to orbit their star than the planets closer in. Either classical Newtonian physics doesn’t apply at the galactic scale or that galaxies must contain a lot more mass than we can account for through direct observation. We refer to that invisible mass as dark matter, a scientific phrase that gets used even in non-scientific circles as a colloquialism.

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Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory, 1965.
Photo credit: Carnegie Institute of Washington.

From NPR’s report on her passing:

In addition to her groundbreaking work on dark matter, Vera Rubin was a pioneering advocate of women in the sciences.

She was passionate about astronomy from the age of 10. Rubin once explained to an interviewer that it’s not like she was planning on breaking into an all-male world.

“I didn’t know a single astronomer, male or female,” she said in the interview, republished in her book Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters. “I didn’t think that all astronomers were male, because I didn’t know.”

But as her career advanced, the scarcity of women in her field was readily apparent. According to a profile of Rubin from Cosmic Horizons, she was the only astronomy major to graduate from the women’s college Vassar in 1948.

She was rebuffed by Princeton’s astronomy program because it didn’t accept women, a policy in place until 1975. Instead, she studied at Cornell and Georgetown — where, she notes, she started her Ph.D. program at the age of 23, with one young child and another on the way.

She was the first woman allowed to observe at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, the Carnegie Institution says.

Rubin, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and awarded the National Medal of Science, continually pushed for women to be admitted to scientific institutions and organizations.

“I live and work with three basic assumptions,” Rubin once wrote:

“1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.

“2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.

“3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women.”

Rubin also advocated for scientific literacy in the world at large. “We need senators who have studied physics and representatives who understand ecology,” she said in a commencement address in 1996.

Want to know a little more about dark matter and Vera Rubin’s contribution to our understanding of the universe? You’ll want to watch the 13th and final episode of the Neil deGrasse Tyson version of Cosmos. If you want to jump right to dark matter and Vera Rubin, start at around the 13:20 mark:

We lost a great mind yesterday with the death of Vera Rubin. From her, we learned that there’s more to the universe than we thought, that we need more women in science, and most importantly, that you can find amazing things when you do the math.

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“You know what, Ghost of Christmas Future? This sucks.

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Siberian Times photo. Click to see the source.

75 people have been reported dead in the Siberian city of Irktusk after drinking Boyaryshnik, a bath lotion which the Moscow Times says “is often used as a vodka substitute for its high alcohol content”. Boyaryshnik is made from hawthorn berries and apparently contains methanol — a.k.a. wood alcohol, the kind that’ll make you go blind — as opposed to ethanol, the actually drinkable alcohol (within limits, of course). According to the Siberian Times, the ages of the people who were poisoned ranged from 25 to 62, with the male-female ratio about even.

According to the news agency Interfax (you’ll want to run this through a translator if you don’t read Russian), the Boyaryshnik labels say that it’s made with ethanol, which is probably why some people thought “hey, I don’t have to choose between getting drunk and being thrifty anymore!”

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Siberian Times photo. Click to see the source.

In addition to selling highly alcoholic bath lotion, black market dealers have also been selling fake vodka. A doctor named Alexei, a survivor of the counterfeit booze, tells this story:

‘I met with my old friends, and we decided to drink a bit. My mates bought vodka, I do not remember the label. The taste seemed to me strange, bitter. I drank only one shot and then went home.

We had a supper, then I played with my child and went to sleep. In the morning I was blind. I could not even see what is in my cell-phone. I wanted to get up, but my legs did not obey. I’m a doctor by education, so I quickly understood that I had been poisoned.

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TASS photo. Click to see the source.

TASS, the Russian News Agency, has this unintentionally funny report that shines a light on Russian drinking culture:

It was initially reported Friday that the first methanol poisoning was registered in Bratsk, the region’s second largest city, but the news proved to be a common alcohol intoxication.

“The methanol poisoning was not confirmed in the hospitalized man. Doctors found out that it was an ordinary drinking binge. The man was scared by the events in Irkutsk and sought emergency medical aid,” Irina Vagunova said.

The man is undergoing treatment at a local hospital. His condition is stable.

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Click the photo to see it at full size.

Interfax reports that officials have seized 2,000 bottles of Boyaryshnik in inspections of places that sell alcohol (like the little store pictured in the background in the photo above) in Irktusk. They’ve also banned the sales of any non-food items that contain alcohol.

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No Russian crisis story is complete without “Pootie-Poot”, and this one delivers. Interfax reports that he “instructed the government to prepare and submit proposals involving changes in the current rates of excise duties on alcohol and alcohol-containing products in order to reduce the demand for alcohol surrogates.”

He also stayed true to his standard playbook by suggesting that “foreign” people were involved with the inclusion of methanol into products that are supposed to contain only ethanol.

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Which Christmas shirt should I go with?

by Joey deVilla on December 23, 2016

Cheesy biker Santa, or…

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…cheesy Florida Santa?

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A terrible last-minute Christmas gift

by Joey deVilla on December 23, 2016

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The packaging says “Durable for Sport and Travel Activities”, but I’m reading it as “The underage drinker’s best friend”.

I’m also reading “Personalize with Your Logo” as “Go ahead, write your name on it with a Sharpie, but it won’t stop your fraternity brothers from stealing your booze”.

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“Please be aware that the closest goat sacrifice may be behind your row.”

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After one of their ATR-42 turboprop planes crashed in Havelian, Pakistan on December 7th and another had to abort its takeoff after an engine malfunction, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) grounded its ATR fleet for investigations and testing. 11 days later, they were back in the air, having been re-approved for flight. On Sunday, December 18th, some PIA employees — in an act that was probably a mix of gratitude and not wanting to take any chances — sacrificed a black goat prior to the first ATR-42 flight after their grounding.

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Click the photo to see a more complete (and yes, gruesome — you’ve been warned) photo.

As you would expect, the sacrifice, which was conducted on the open tarmac, right beside the plane, drew attention and mockery worldwide.

NPR reports:

It wasn’t PIA’s idea to bring a goat into the mix. Airline spokesperson Danyal Gillani issued what was no doubt the first airline statement about goat sacrifice in the history of aviation: “It was done by some local employees as a gesture of gratitude over the clearance of the first ATR [for flying].” Animal sacrifice is a part of Islamic tradition and can be found in other religions as well (see Leviticus 23:19).

And the goat’s color was significant. Some Pakistanis believe that a black goat is particularly effective as a way to counteract black magic and the evil eye.

Pakistan’s Express Tribune reports:

Aviation sources say animal sacrifice ahead of a flight is not something new. They say the staff of two private airlines had also slaughtered goats before resuming flights following two deadly air crashes in 2010 and 2012.

“But this one was done in a reckless manner. When you slaughter an animal in the middle of a major airport next to an aircraft, it is bound to attract attention,” said an office-bearer of the Pakistan International Airlines Pilots Association (PALPA).

“When the staff starts seeking divine intervention, it means something is seriously wrong that needs to be fixed,” he added.

Then there was the expected social media jokes:

In spite of the fact that the plane did make it to its destination and back safely, this bit of news probably won’t help the airline’s reputation. In air traveller circles, Pakistan International Airlines’ short name, PIA, has been backronymmed into the joke names “Please Inform Allah” and “Perhaps I’ll Arrive”.

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Recipe of the day: “Biriyani for 800 people”

by Joey deVilla on December 20, 2016

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We’re going to need a bigger pan.

(If you’re looking to serve not quite so many people, try these recipes.)

Thanks to Diane Duane, who found it via @jennabruwer.

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