5 Intriguing Things: Wednesday, 11/27

Planet hunting, decipherment, comet collisions, Ben Franklin's data, and $14 million well spent.
And the earthlings gathered around their spacecraft and called it good.

1. Kepler the Planet Hunter may yet live!

"The approach is already in the process of being tested. If it works, Kepler will lose some sensitivity—some planets will have orbital periods that ensure they're either never spotted by Kepler or will only be caught once over several years. But close-in planets and those with roughly year-long orbits should be spotted just fine. With four distinct areas of the sky observed, Kepler's "K2" mission (as it's being called) will also give us a broader perspective on the distribution of planets in our galaxy."


2. After the code

"But then what? The sequel to the decipherment is little more than a final, self-evident coda to most of these stories. “Enigma” is broken, so the Allies win the war; hieroglyphs are decoded, so the culture of pharaonic Egypt is revealed to us. What this conceals, however, are all the further disputes and rivalries that regularly follow the successful cracking of the language or of the code. Just how correct was it? And, if it was, what does it tell us about the culture concerned, or the history of the period? Whose theories are now confirmed or disproved? These controversies can be just as exciting and bitter as those leading up to the decipherment, and probably more significant. But we rarely get to hear about them before the heroic tale ends."


3. A comet will fly through the sun's atmosphere soon.

"CMEs are magnetized clouds of plasma hurled into space by the explosions of sunspots. The gas inside a CME is not very dense, so its impact would not shatter a comet's core. The fragile tail is another matter. Comet tails are as gossamer as the CMEs themselves, so the interactions can be intense and unpredictable."


4. The metadata of our founding fathers (and Voltaire).

"The American slant is also evident when it comes to Franklin’s most frequent correspondents. At the top of the list is Isaac Norris, Quaker politician and speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Number two is Mary Stevenson, the daughter of Franklin’s landlady in London. Franklin’s third most frequent correspondent is his business partner David Hall, who minded the day-to-day operations of Franklin and Hall, the printing business they owned together. Deborah Franklin, his common-law wife, comes in fourth. Fearful of sea travel, Franklin didn’t accompany her husband on his trip to England. And in fifth position is William Strahan, director of the Stationers’ Company in London, which published works by Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and Samuel Johnson. Franklin and Hall served as the agent for Strahan’s books in the American colonies."


5. Say what you will about the future of book publishing, but what 373-year-old religious website sells for 14 million dollars?

"The little volume of psalms, one of only 11 known to exist out of roughly 1,700 printed by 17th-century Puritans in Massachusetts, went for $14,165,000 at auction on Tuesday.

The buyer of the Bay Psalm Book, as it is known, was David M. Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, an investment firm in Washington. Mr. Rubenstein has bought a number of historical documents in recent years, including a copy of Magna Carta for $21 million in 2007 (or $23.7 million today, adjusted for inflation)."


Department of Corrections: Due to the vagaries of cutting-and-pasting, you may have clicked on a link yesterday expecting to see something about a broadcast television hack, but instead getting a coal plant imploding. That was not a clever inside joke, but a mistake. Here's the correct hacking link


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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