22 December 2010

Giant Sinkhole is not Technically a Sinkhole

In case you missed it earlier this year (end of May), here is some info and pictures from the sinkhole that appeared in the middle of a Guatemala intersection. The views of the thing are really amazing.
May 29, 2010 Guatemala City Sinkhole (Business Insider)
The hole was 100 ft in diameter, and 300 ft deep. You can see from the pictures that looking into it is like staring into the abyss. Somewhere down there is a clothing factory which used to be on the corner of the intersection. So how did this thing happen?

On May 29th of this year, the remains of tropical storm Agatha caused record rainfalls of over 14 inches in Guatemala City, backing up sewer systems. The hole was probably caused by a sewer line that backed up and started to leak, and ash from recent volcanic eruptions may have helped clog the pipse. But a leaky sewer won't make a hole like this just anywhere. Guatemala City is built in a steep valley, with bedrock forming a deep-V.  The bottom of the V is filled in with hundreds of feet of pumice-fill, which is loose gravel like rock from volcanic eruptions. Most of the city is built on the pumice-fill, which is easily eroded and can wash out down to the bedrock, up to 600 feet below. In fact, this is not the first time this has happened.

While amazing, neither of these holes are technically sinkholes. Sinkholes are formed from natural water erosion of bedrock (limestone or sandstone usually). The Guatemala "Holes" are not formed by natural water erosion, nor are they formed in bedrock. Unfortunately, geologists couldn't come up with a better term than "piping feature", so sinkhole is probably going to stick.

05 December 2010

Links: Alien bacteria found (not really)

The bacteria was found at this lake.  (Beautiful pic) (NASA)
So I am a few days late on this.  On Thursday, NASA announced that they discovered a new type of bacteria that makes us reexamine the conditions necessary for life to exist.  The discovery was a bacteria that can use arsenic instead of phosphorus in it's DNA.  Here is a link to the NASA release

So what.  Well, the DNA, which contains the blueprint for an organism to grow, of all previously known life on Earth is made up of only six elements, Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sulfur, and Phosphorus.  When astronomers search for lift on other planets, moons, or around other stars, they look for conditions that match what we think life needs to survive.  The bacteria NASA discovered reportedly can substitute Arsenic for Phosphorus in it's DNA.  Arsenic is highly toxic to most life on Earth.  Previously, organisms have been discovered which can survive high levels of Arsenic, but this is the first claim of one using it to build it's cells.  If true, it means it is possible for life to exist with a different set of conditions than we had thought.  Very important for those searching the galaxy for life, because not only can the be open to locations with high levels of arsenic, but they have some evidence that even more combinations of elements could lead to life.  This is really exciting for scientists and science-fiction readers/writers, who for years have hypothesized that there might be life out there built on different block than we are.  We now have some evidence that is it possible.  Maybe.

While the news is very exciting, a few places on the internet have gone a little overboard.  First, the claims of the bacteria actually using the Arsenic in their DNA is not quite confirmed yet, it is just the most likely hypothesis as of now.  It absorbs Arsenic and grows in it's presence, but many more tests are needed to confirm that it actually uses it in DNA, and how it does it.   Nature has a good review

Second, there is no evidence that this bacteria is alien in origin.  At least not any more evidence than all life on Earth came from outer space.  See panspermia for more information.

Likewise, third, this is not evidence that life evolved more than once on Earth independently.  This bacteria is probably a mutated form of other previously existing bacteria species, but this has not been proven either way.  The lake where it was found was connected other water sources just 10's of millions of years ago, it has not been isolated since like began to develop billions of years ago.

Finally, I do think there is one other implication here that seems to be missing from some discussions.  If we have been studying life on Earth and evolution for hundreds of years, and just now found something that may cause us to modify our definition of what is necessary for life, what does it say about our efforts to find life in other places.  With it so much more difficult to make observations on Mars, around Jupiter, Venus, or any other planet, who knows what exists that we have just not come across yet.  Just because we didn't find life in our first observations on Mars, we can't be sure we have ruled out life being somewhere on that planet.

Here are a couple of the stories explaining the news.

Yahoo News
Mercury News
Popular Science

24 November 2010

Why you get tired after Thanksgiving dinner. Hint: it’s not Tryptophan.

Really the only thing that doesn't make you sleepy
You know the story. Have thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the afternoon, eat right up until you start to feel sick (and maybe a little more), and then find a couch or chair and fall half-asleep. If it happens, it's likely that someone will blame it on the Turkey. The old myth is that Turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan, which causes drowsiness. None of that is actually false. Turkey does contain tryptophan. And tryptophan is related to sleep – it is the only amino acid that can be converted to serotonin, which regulates our sleep patterns. But take a look at this list. Pork, chicken, and peanuts all have as much or more tryptophan as turkey. And beef and eggs are comparable too. But you don't hear people complaining that they are falling asleep because of the chicken sandwich they had for lunch. So what does make you sleepy at 6pm on Thanksgiving? The answer is: carbs. Think about the rest of the stuff on your plate: mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, breads, sweet potatoes, pie… maybe some vegetables (but who really eats those?). Most of what you eat at thanksgiving is carbohydrates. And the research shows that high carbohydrate meals cause sleepiness by releasing insulin, which releases much more serotonin than you get from the tryptophan in turkey. So now, thanks to my help, when someone at your thanksgiving dinner tomorrow claims they are falling asleep due to the turkey, you can be the annoying nerdy guy who tells them they are wrong. Or just have another piece of pie.

01 November 2010

How 3-D TV Works

You have probably looked at 3-D images before with those goofy red and blue glasses. You may have even watched something in 3-D before. Maybe in a movie theater, maybe a TV broadcast from past years. I have done all of these things, but I still thought of 3-D movies or TV shows as a clunky gimmick. So it's a surprise to me as I keep seeing news stories about 3-D TV's. I wanted to know why, all of a sudden, everything needs to be watched in 3-D. As I figured, it comes down to technology.

How This Stuff Works

3DTV's - Not really like this. (MarkWallace)
Most 3-D technologies work by giving the viewer a different image for each eye. Differences in the images give an illusion of depth and make objects appear to be popping out from the screen. 3-D content is easy to produce, just by recording the same thing with two camera lenses in slightly different positions. It is easy enough to be used for many sporting events now. The trick is getting separate images from the screen to each eye of the viewer.

The old red and blue glasses did this by tinting the two images, so the eye with the blue lens could not see the blue parts of the image, and vise-verse. But this messes with the colors and everything ends up seeming blurry, so it didn't catch on. Polarization is another method, used today in movie theaters. Read more here about light polarization. Put simply, two different projectors show images with different types of light, and filters on your glasses block one type of light for each eye. This method requires special coatings on the screen and technology to project two images at the same time, but general consensus is that polarization is the current technology with the best viewing experience.

A Collection of Technologies

The method used in the new home 3-D TV sets is neither of these, and unlike the previous methods, does not

08 October 2010

Issues: Coal Reserves

I am interested in looking at the future of energy. From an engineering perspective, providing electricity and the power for transportation is one of the great accomplishments in history. But it's clear that 100 years from now, it won't be done the way it is today. So I am curious about how it will be done, particularly for transportation. First I wanted to see where we are with the current methods, like fossil fuels. Coal provides about half of the electricity for the US and for the world, so let's see how much coal we have left. Sorry if this is a little long, but there was plenty of interesting information. Also, I am just trying to answer the question of how long would coal last if we kept using it, I am not trying to get into any discussions about political or environmental impact. At least not yet.

There is more energy available in coal reserves than in oil or natural gas. Coal reserves are also more widely distributed between countries of the world than other fossil fuels. Getting a handle on how much coal is left for the world to use is not simple. The most widely agreed upon number is around 900 billion tons, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the World Energy Council, and BP's annual report on energy assets. This number is the amount of "Proven" reserves, which is not the total amount of coal in the ground, but the amount that makes economic sense to dig up under current conditions.

Where is the Coal?  (Gunnmap)
In reality there are vast amounts of coal (and oil and natural gas) that we will never use. The EIA estimates that in the United States alone, there are between 2 and 4 trillion tons of coal in the ground, but only about 500 Billion tons are technologically feasible to mine, and only half of that is economically feasible. These reserves change over time – up from new discoveries of reserves, better technology to put more reserves in play, and the addition of more economically feasible reserves as coal prices increase. The 900 billion tons has been steady for a while, but it is more likely an overestimate than an underestimate, because reserve numbers are not updated very well. China, for example, is still using reserve numbers from 1992, despite having mined about 20% of that amount since then. In all of our time so far, humans have burned about one quarter of the coal that would make up our reserves today. Europe is down to less than half of what it started with. But given a need for coal and no cost-effective alternative (a poor assumption), it is reasonable that we could mine twice the amount we current consider reserves.

None of that answered the question of how long the questionable amount of coal reserves will last. If we assume those 900 Billion tons are all we can mine, then it will last about 120 years at current production. But worldwide coal production and usage has been climbing rapidly, at a little over 5% per year for about the last ten. If that continues, then the world will run out in 40 years.

That scenario is unlikely, even without a push towards renewable electricity. The growth will start to plateau at some point. But some growth will happen, and 120 years is very optimistic, even figuring we double the potential reserves with new finds. Any estimates that claim 250 years of coal reserves are either overly-optimistic, or are considering only the United States.

The United States not only has the largest coal reserves in the world (Russia is second), but is mining relatively slowly (though is still the #2 producer). At current rates, the US has a little over 200 years before current reserves are exhausted. Compare that to China, which has the third largest reserves, but is mining almost three times more than the US, meaning that they have only 41 years at current rates. The EU has 51 years. As other countries begin to run out, production in the US might pick up for exports, so it makes sense to analyze this globally.

All of this might be a needless way looking at coal production, because economic factors might be too important for the world to ever end up completely running out of coal. There is the idea of production peaks (see peak oil) for finite resources, where, well before a resource runs out, it climbs to a maximum production, then falls over time until the resource is depleted. Now, the reasons for this are both physical and economic, and honestly beyond me. A peak in coal production may happen well before 2050, followed by anything from a global crisis - if the need for coal stays but supply drops - to no problems - if the world smoothly switches to other forms of energy as production declines. A common estimate for this coal peak is 2025, but predictions vary wildly, and peaks are difficult to predict (I.E. the oil peak may have already happened, but we won't know for sure until we see a few more years of data).

So, regardless of any peak, somewhere between 60 and 80 years of coal is likely available if a major shift is not made in coal usage. But a major shift is what I am concerned about. Oil and natural gas reserves will run out well before coal, so an option to keep in mind, along with other alternatives, is to use coal to replace other fossil fuels, with coal-to-methanol or coal gasification. I might write about them later, but it appears that the numbers don't support these methods. Replacing oil with coal will reduce the reserves of coal faster and still put the year of depletion around the same time for either scenario. It may be worthwhile to discuss these processes from a standpoint of energy independence, so the US could cut down on oil imports, and again, I am ignoring (for now) everything about CO2 emissions. I'll get to some of those topics in another post.

13 September 2010

A Photograph of Philosophical Importance

Take a look at this photograph.

At first it might appear slightly interesting, a black and white photo, clearly from many decades ago. But this photograph is special because of its timing. This was taken way back in 1838, by Louis Daguerre as he was experimenting with the process to record images. It is of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris, and is one of the first photographs ever taken. Now the streets of Paris were not as empty as they appear here. Early photographs had to be exposed for several minutes (over ten for this one) to collect enough light, so anything that is not completely still for that time becomes a blur, and anything moving faster than a snail is invisible. Notice how blurry the trees are compared to buildings or streetlamps. This street was probably busy, but the moving people and carriages blended into the background. Except in the lower left. Let me zoom in. 


A shoeshine and his customer were still enough to be captured in this photograph. That makes this the earliest photograph of a person. Let me repeat that: Above is the very first photograph of a human being. Just something to think about.


11 September 2010

Anti-Aging Science

Most things with the words Anti-Aging attached would take quite a leap to be considered science.  But there is some real research in the area.  Here is something that looks like a mini-breakthrough.  A study has found a compound that was given to people as a dietary supplement, and may slow down the process of aging (but not stop or reverse it).  It works by activating enzymes in our body that rebuild parts of DNA (telomeres) which shorten over time and may play a part in making us old and wrinkly.  Telomeres also have something to do with AIDS, so this could be used as a treatment for AIDS patients also.  Read a more in-depth summary of the research here.

06 September 2010

A Lake in Antarctica

In a radar image, Lake Vostok appears as a smooth patch. (NASA)

One of the largest lakes in the world is located in Antarctica. If you are familiar with Antarctica, this should sound strange, because the entire continent is covered with ice. It should be too cold for lakes to exist there, and that is true…on the surface. But some unique conditions exist that allow lakes of liquid water to form under kilometers of ice. They are called subglacial lakes, and about 150 have been found in Antarctica. Geothermal heat rises from the bedrock below the glacier, and the glacier itself traps the heat at the base, keeping it insulated from the surface, where the temperature can be -60C (-75F). The heat melts the bottom of the glacier, and depressions in the bedrock trap the liquid water as the glacier slides overtop, sealing it off. At high pressure water freezes at lower temperatures, so the millions of tons of ice pressing on the lake makes its temperature hover around -3C (27F), despite the lake being fresh water.

The largest of the subglacial lakes is called lake Vostok, after the Russian research station that sits on the ice 4000 meters (13,000 ft) above the lake. The lake is approximately the same size and shape as lake Ontario (250km by 50km). With an average depth of over 300m (1000 ft), Vostok is the 7th largest lake on Earth by volume.

Most interesting about lake Vostok is its potential as an ecosystem. The lake has been sealed off from the surface for at least one million years. It is possible that bacteria or other microorganisms have adapted to the unique environment of the lake, and a unique set of species may live in it. Space scientists are especially interested, because lake Vostok is incredibly similar to liquid oceans that are probably below the icy surfaces of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus. Sealed from the surface and with no sunlight, if life continues to exist in lake Vostok after millions of years, it would be the best evidence yet that those moons may be hosting primitive life right now. The lake can also be used to test robots that we might send to investigate the ocean below Europa. We might know more about life in the lake very shortly. The Russian research team has been drilling down to the lake for about 15 years, stopping and starting many times, partially for concerns about contaminating the sterile lake. In March of this year, they announced that they are only 100 meters from the surface of the lake, and expect to break through some time this winter.

Update: Micro-pumps for micro-needle patches!

Patch Pump for Vaccine Delivery (Purdue University)
Remember a few weeks ago, I linked to an article about micro-needle patches? They were an ingenious new way to deliver vaccines easily (and painlessly). However, this new article mentions a problem not stated in the previous one; Large molecules of many drugs do not readily dissolve out of the needles and into the skin. For that, they needed a pump of some sort to drive the medicine into the skin. Scientists at Purdue University have done just that! The mechanism seems complicated (and slightly worrisome if something were to break in the pump), but it's still in the testing phase, so lets just get excited about it!

New pump created for microneedle drug-delivery patch.

01 September 2010

Link: New Dinosaur may be Closest Relative to Modern Birds!

As a kid, when most other kids wanted to become pop stars or actresses or astronauts, I wanted to be a paleontologist. A part of me regrets not following that path in life, but I can still get excited when a new dinosaur is discovered!

Left leg and foot of Balaur bondoc.
Credit: Mick Ellison; Zoltan Csiki;
Matyas Vremir; Stephan Brusatte;
Mark Norell; AMNH
Last month, paleontologists in Transylvania described a new dinosaur from fossils dug up in September of last year. They called the dinosaur Balaur bondoc, which basically means "stocky dragon" and is part of the dromaeosaurid theropod group, which also includes velociraptor and deinonychus. They are also the group of dinosaurs that spawned the line of modern birds. This new dinosaur has some morphological differences from other theropods, including two large foot claws, opposed to other raptors' single large claw. Balaur's hand bones are heavily fused, with only two working digits, which is believed to be an evolutionary precursor to modern birds' wings. These, among other features, make paleontologists believe that Balaur is the closest known relative to modern birds.

Very Cool.

A "stocky dragon" from Transylvania.

Beefy dino sported fearsome claws.

Balaur bondoc: A raptor unlike any you have ever seen.

31 August 2010

Issues: Follow-up, HFCS and Mercury

Well, here I am back at my favorite topic. Over at my first post on the health effects of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) a commenter brought up the topic of mercury in HFCS. I did a little research and thought the results were interesting enough to warrant a follow-up post. I am presenting an opposing conclusion from the comment left, I am really grateful for the response, and hope I will get more.

On mercury in HFCS, there were two studies done in Jan of 2009, one peer reviewed, by Dufault et. al. in Environmental Health. The other was by Wallinga et al. at the Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy. Wallinga was actually an author on both papers.

The Dufault paper measured the mercury levels in HFCS samples from three manufacturers, and found levels as high as 570 part-per-billion (ppb), with a third of the samples above 100 ppb. A study by Health Canada shows that many common foods have 1-5 ppb levels of mercury, and fish typically are the largest contributor to mercury in our diet with 25-100 ppb levels common. The acceptable level of mercury in drinking water is 2 ppb. At average American consumption of HFCS of 50 g/day, HFCS contaminated to 500 ppm mercury could supply as much mercury as dental fillings or certain mercury containing vaccines, both of which are not recommended for pregnant women or small children, but at the same time are not areas of concern for health toxicity.

27 August 2010

Links: Plants Send for Help and Changing El Ninos

Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar (A. Williams)
To start off today, we have a cool story that outlines one example of an evolutionary arms race. We usually see examples of predator/prey races, but it occurs in herbivore/plant interactions as well! Tobacco plants calling predatory insects to their aid when being eaten by caterpillars? If that isn't an extremely cool instance to evolutionary warfare, I don't know what is!

Plants send SOS signal to insects.

One of the worrisome unknowns about climate change is the effect on the Earth's oceans. We've been able to predict what we think might happen, rising sea levels, changes in currents and temperatures, etc., but until it happens, it's hard to tell what will actually occur. Well, it's happening, so the data is starting to come in. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) have teamed up to study the effect of climate change on El Ninos. The findings show effects, of course, but what these effects mean for those that are influenced by the phenomenon aren't known yet.

El Ninos are growing stronger, NASA/NOAA study finds.

25 August 2010

Lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin

Growing up in Wisconsin near the Minnesota border, there was a little rivalry between the states. More than once I heard the claim that Wisconsin actually has more lakes than Minnesota probably from people who had lived in the badger state for their entire life. So I wanted to check this out.

Lake Minnetonka, which means "Big Water" (Boricuaeddie)
Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. Look at their license plates. But the state does not actually have 10,000 lakes. It has more. The official number is 11,842 lakes. So how about Wisconsin? Well, the Wisconsin department of natural resources claims that there are 15,074 lakes in Wisconsin. So Ha! But hold on. It turns out that the two states have different definitions of a lake. Minnesota's count includes only those that are all over ten acres and named. Wisconsin counts them even without a name and has no size limit. Wisconsin only has about 6,000 named lakes, even including those under ten acres. If Minnesota counted all lakes down to four acres without names, it is likely there would be over 20,000. 

22 August 2010

The Mother of All Extinctions

Despite the paranoia of many people today, there is really no reason to create contingency plans for velociraptor attacks. In fact, all of the velociraptors (or any other giant man-eating dinosaurs), are dead. Around 65 million years ago, there was a mass extinction you may have heard of. It was called the KT extinction because it formed the boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. This extinction event has been studied heavily, but was only one of five major extinctions known as the "big five". The most devastating extinction actually occurred about 150 million years before that and formed the boundary between the Permian and Triassic Periods. It is known as the PT extinction and marked the beginning of the age of the dinosaurs.

The PT extinction was so massive it is commonly called the "Great Dying" or the "Mother of all Extinctions" and occurred around 250 million years ago. It's estimated that around 95% of marine species and 70% of land species went extinct and was the only known mass extinction of insects. The composition of creatures in the sea previous to the extinction was mostly shelled creatures that were attached to the sea bottom. However, events of the extinction hit these animals hard. After the extinction, the sea was more heavily composed of free-swimming creatures. Dominant land creatures in the Permian were Sauropsids ("Lizard Faces") and Therapsids ("Beast Faces"). Sauropsids were the group that gave rise to reptiles, dinosaurs, and, eventually, birds and Therapsids were "mammal-like reptiles" that were the ancestors of mammals. Other land creatures of the Permian included some of the largest insects that ever lived, including Meganeuropsis, a dragonfly that had a wingspan of 27 inches (2.25 feet)! The PT extinction prevented the Earth from being overrun by giant dragonflies and nearly all of those massive bugs went extinct. Additionally the PT extinction was what finally wiped out the last of the trilobites.

Sketch of Lystrosaurus: D. Bogdanov
After the PT extinction came the Triassic era, the first of the well-known sequence of Triassic-Jurassic-Cretaceous that enveloped the time of the dinosaurs. However, it took a long time before the Triassic gave rise to dinosaurs such as Eoraptor and Plateosaurus. The Triassic period was overrun by "disaster species", or "weedy" species that thrived in disturbed environments. For example, bivalves, clams and oysters, were rare and out-competed in Permian, but took over the sea floor after the extinction. Lystrosaurus was a therapsid (mammal-like reptile) that flourished until dinosaurs began evolving later in the Triassic period. It's believed that Lystrosaurus alone made up 90% of land vertebrates in the early Triassic. This is the only time in history where a single specie dominated the land to this extent.

20 August 2010

Links: More Space, More Zombies, More Science

Braaaains!  (Arthur Chapman)

While I'm on the topic of zombies, here is some information on another type, ant-zombies. Some of you might know about parasite fungi that infect ants and manipulate their brain, causing the ant to die in a way that benefits the fungi. New fossil evidence shows that this behavior has been going on for tens of millions of years.

Science Daily: Fossil Reveals 48-Million-Year History of Zombie Ants

Next up is something that is probably cooler to me that the average nerd. I watched some Star Trek when I was a kid. If you did too, you remember the ship had these things called "Replicators" - devices which a person could ask for any type of food, and the food would appear out of thin air. As someone who has always liked technology and always like eating, I thought that having one of those would be the coolest thing, no cooking, no needing the right ingredients, just ask for something to eat and it appears. Kids always dream of having some magical toy. Some want a pet dinosaur, some want a big robot, some want a jetpack, I wanted a replicator. OK, and a jetpack. Anyway, it appears I am not alone, as a few scientists and inventors are applying 3-D printing to food. This article is about one design in the concept stages (the pictures are computer generated, this thing has not been built yet).

PhysOrg: Introducing Cornucopia, The Food Printer

Finally, because I am a sucker for pretty pictures from space, here is a best-of-this-summer gallery from the Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn that Wired collected. Enjoy.

Wired: The Summer's Sexiest Images From Saturn

18 August 2010

The Tale of ZombieSat

Braaaains!!! (Galaxy-15, Orbital Sciences)

The Galaxy-15 satellite seemed innocent enough. A simple communication satellite in geostationary orbit, it's only job was to sit in one place, receive signals (mostly for cable TV), amplify them, and beam them back to different places on the ground. It did that job with no trouble for about 5 years. 

Then, on April 5, 2010, Galaxy-15 malfunctioned, possibly due to a solar storm. Ground controllers found themselves unable to give the satellite commands. This was not unprecedented, plenty of satellites have been knocked out of commission by solar activity or other problems, to become pieces of space debris. Space debris needs to be monitored, but the risk of collisions with other satellites is small. Generally, a derelict satellite is not a big deal other than for the company that has to pay for a replacement. This event, however, was unique because Galaxy-15 was still functioning fine in most ways. It was receiving and broadcasting like normal, but would not respond to any commands. And this is important.

Satellites in geostationary orbits (always above the same point on earth) need frequent adjustments to stay in the same place, or they wander around, crossing paths with other satellites. And that's what Galaxy-15 started to do. It was at this point that the satellite gained its nickname: Zombiesat! It was wandering casually towards a gravity abnormality where dead satellites end up, cheerily doing what satellites do, relaying signals, but refusing to listen to any directions about how and where to do its job. The danger was (and still is) that its travels might take it past another satellite, where Zombiesat would steal the other's signal, and beam it off to who-knows-where before the correct satellite can receive it. 

So what were Orbital Sciences, controllers of what was now Zombiesat to do? Well, they first tried to reason with it, politely asking it to listen to their commands…200,000 times. When that didn't work, they did what anyone would logically do with any kind of zombie. They tried to kill it. On May 3, they sent it a strong signal which was supposed to cause the satellite's power system to malfunction and shut down. Zombiesat was unfazed. After that, ground controllers were out of options with Zombiesat as it drifted right into the neighborhood of another satellite, ready to mindlessly gobble up its signals.

What do you do if you are helpless and a zombie is headed your way? You get the hell out of there. So that's what the other satellite did. It moved out of the way as best it could while still relaying its signal. The procedure went well. Since then Zombiesat has drifted past three others without issue, and should pass a few more by the end of this month. At that point the satellite should lose power because its solar panels won't be pointed at the sun anymore. Then engineers may try one more time to get control. Basically they are now waiting for it to fall asleep and hoping to revive it with its memory intact. If that does not work, it will remain just a piece of space garbage, posing its satellite brethren little more danger after its three month drift of terror.

17 August 2010


1,340,764,245. Without some type of unit, this number is nonsense. The unit is people, expected population. Of two countries. Each. Based on current trends, on August 18, 2025, the population of India will catch up to the population of China, at 1.34 billion people. China's population growth is slowing, partly due to the one-child policy, and will eventually start to decline. India's population has been growing steadily. The numbers above are my own, from curve fits (see right) to world bank data. They don't quite agree with the numbers from real demographers, who, I'm sure, use better methods than me. Most people who study this predict India to pass China in population. Obviously nobody can predict the exact date or population when that will happen, but sometime in the next three decades we should have a new most populous country in the world.

15 August 2010

Issue: The use of dispersants in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Writing, as we have been, about science and the environment, we knew we'd be doing some posting about the deepwater-horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We didn't want to try tackling the whole damn thing, so I'm grabbing a smaller part of the problem about which you might not have had so much information thrown at you. (For an overall summary of the spill and clean-up efforts, go here)

How dispersants work. (NYtimes)
When the spill began, focus immediately went to stopping the gushing oil. When we realized that the spill was not going to stop quickly, focus shifted towards the clean-up. With this came the usage of dispersants. 1.8 million gallons of the stuff, which is more than has ever been used in one location. The primary dispersants used were "Corexit" brand dispersants, though the exact reasons why this brand was used isn't really known. BP claims that these dispersants were the only one available in the quantities needed, but there is much deliberation about that, and the company's connection to Nalco, the producer of Corexit.

Dispersants work on oil exactly the same way in which detergent cuts grease off of dirty dishes, with the use of surfactants. These are molecules with two ends, one is a water-seeking end that finds and attaches to water molecules and the other is an oil-seeking end that grabs onto an oil molecule. This negates the water-repelling properties inherent in oil, resulting in small droplets of oil mixing into the water column, rather than a large sheet of oil spread out on top of the water.

13 August 2010

Links: Disappearing Amphibians, Rabid Vampire Bats, and Plans for Cleaner Energy

Amphibians have been declining world-wide over the last several decades due to a mixed cocktail of pollution, habitat loss, climate change, and the uncontrolled spread of a devastating infectious fungus. One such amphibian is the elusive Golden Toad, which has not been seen since 1989. Now, scientists have begun a world-wide search for 100 of these frogs that have disappeared, hoping to find residual populations that can be protected.

Global hunt for "extinct" species of frogs.

Peru is battling a vampiric horror! Mainly vampire bats, bats that bite and drink the blood of sleeping mammals, that are infected with a strain of rabies. Four children have died after being infected by these animals, and over 500 people in total have been vaccinated after being bitten.

Peru battles rabid vampire bats after 500 people bitten.

And this week is big news for alternative energy... or at least plans for the next 20-or-so years. Research in nuclear power puts plants around the world by 2030 and a recycling idea that would negate the need for dealing with radioactive wastes! On the other spectrum, research into biodiesels that are made from plant-grown micro-algae claims to be able to produce sustainable and cleaner energy in 10 to 15 years, eventually eliminating the need for fossil fuels! Whether we can afford it is another aspect all together.

Scientists outline a 20-year master plan for the global renaissance of nuclear energy

Industrial production of biodiesel feasible within 15 years, researchers predict.

11 August 2010

Atomism – Getting Physics Right Accidentally

More right than he knew.

Start the Wayback Machine

It's time to drop some straight physics on you all. No, wait. Time to drop some history. Oh, hold on. Get ready for some history of physics! All the way back to 5th century BC Greece. This story starts with the metaphysical philosopher Leucippus.

Without going too deep into Greek philosophy, which is at the same time interesting and incomprehensible, Leucippus was trying to resolve an argument. One side argued that the universe was static and eternal where motion and changes were just an illusion, while the other spoke of a universe where the concept of change was the only thing that truly existed. Leucippus tried to make peace by hypothesizing that everything is made of some indivisible building block, but that these fundamental pieces could experience motion and constructed and that exists. Leucippus and his student Democritus named these particles atomos, or atoms; literally Greek for "uncuttable." For 2,400 years Leucippus' and Democritus' theory of Atomism was more correct than they probably ever imagined.

It would take thousands of years to figure out what exactly these "Atoms" were, but now we know there are, in fact, tiny particles that make up the entire physical world around us, not counting light and radio waves. Atoms of different types (elements) create the different materials and objects we see. 

10 August 2010

Gold - Heavier Than You Might Expect

Heavy. (Img: Bullionvault)
A gallon milk jug filled with gold would have a mass of 73 kilograms, or 161 pounds, instead of 3.8 kg (8.35 lbs) for a gallon of milk.  A cubic foot of gold is 547 kg or 1205 lbs, and would be worth about 21 million dollars today.  All of the gold mined in human history, 165,000 tons, would form a 20 meter (66 foot) cube, about the size of a five story office building. 

08 August 2010

Iceberg! Straight Ahead! (well, really far North, actually).

Peterman glacier,
the source of the island

On Thursday, August 5th, a massive glacier island cleaved itself off of Greenland, that not-so-green island way up North. It was about 100 square miles in size and is the largest glacier in the Arctic to have come loose since the '60s! It's not really known yet if the glacier will catch on land and freeze back in this Winter, or if currents will push the island through the obstacles in into the main ocean. If it did, it would likely interfere with shipping!

Greenland glacier calves island four times the size of Manhattan

Huge ice sheet breaks from Greenland glacier

07 August 2010

Links: Crazy Bus, Regeneration, and the Beauty of Alaska

Engineers in China have come up with a pretty elegant solution to the problem of overcrowded streets and buses stuck in traffic. They put the bus on stilts and it just drives over the other traffic while only taking up a tiny strip of road on either side.

China Hush: Straddling Bus

Possibly the holy grail of medical technology is human regeneration. It's the idea that we might coax the human body into growing back a lost limb or heart tissues that has led to all kinds of research. Healing cuts in your skin and broken bones are minor forms of regeneration that happen naturally, but, unlike simpler animals like amphibians, we can't regenerate larger parts of our body, probably because evolution forced us to trade long life and cancer resistance for wildly growing cells that can rebuild parts from nothing. This week plenty of news came out related to regeneration research. Here are a few stories. We are still a long way from regenerating a lost limb, but scientists are working on it.

NY Times: Two New Paths to the Dream – Regeneration

BBC News: Surgeons Rebuild Windpipe with Stem Cells

Nature: Skin Cells Converted to Heart Cells (more technical)

Jim Harris Photography
Last today, an incredible photo-essay of a backpacking trip through Alaskan mountains and glaciers. If you are one for beautiful nature pictures, you probably won't be able to stop scrolling down the page. The picture on the right is just one of many.

33 Days Across Wrangell-St. Elias NP, Alaska: The Southern Spiral

Also, this.

06 August 2010

Mauna Kea, Rising From the Sea Floor

Hawaiian islands from the sea floor. 
Mount Everest is regularly called the tallest mountain on Earth, and by one measure that is true. Everest stands 8,850 m (29,035 feet) above sea level, and no other mountain reaches higher. But Everest sits on the Tibetan plateau, 5000 m above sea level, and rises only about 3800 m (13,000 feet) above the surrounding terrain. Big, but if the bulk of the mountain was set next to Denali or Kilimanjaro it would be dwarfed. 

But another mountain you may already know is the point of this post. Mauna Kea, on the big island of Hawaii, is 4,205 m (13,796 feet) above sea level at the peak, but it's base actually lies 6,000 m (19,680 ft) below on the sea floor, for a total peak-to-base height of 10,203 m (33,476 ft), the most on Earth, land or sea. Also, check out the observatories on Mauna Kea.  I will leave you with this:

Yes, this is Hawaii. (NASA)

04 August 2010

Links: Composting Plastics, Venomous Octopuses, and Serenading Sharks.

Here's another link post, so you don't have to read my silly writings!

Our first link is about biodegradable plastics, the development of which has been going on for several years and there have been some results. These "plastics" are actually made from plant material, such as corn starch or tree-produced sugars, and degrade in a compost environment in 6 months time. I wonder when we'll be seeing these plastics in our grocer.

Compostable Plastics have a Sweet Ending @ ScienceDaily.com

World Centric: Bioplastics, a producer of these decomposable plastics. 
Great White Shark

Second is a quite silly continuation of our Ode to Discovery's Shark Week, a man serenading Great White Sharks. He was actually in the water with the sharks and guitar, but I'm guessing they dubbed over the music :).

Seriously, the video's pretty funny.

And our final link also takes place in the ocean, but deals with something with a little less of a backbone. It wasn't until recently that scientists discovered that all octopi, not just the Blue-ringed Octopus, are actually venomous. A study into Antarctic octopi discovered four new species of octopus and two completely new toxins that these octopus carry.

Scientists Tap Into Antarctic Octopus Venom

02 August 2010

Iiiiiiit's SHARK WEEK!

I lieu of Discovery Channel's Shark Week (which I look forward to every year), I give you the ridiculous looking "Goblin Shark" (Scientific name: Mitsukurina owstoni). It was named such because of the front of the shark, which looks much like a goblin's nose. That snout, called a rostrum, isn't just for show! It contains electro-sensitive organs that help it sense when other living things are nearby. It was first discovered in 1897 by a Japanese fisherman and, although many specimens have been recovered since then, there is still relatively little known about the shark. What is known is that it's a deep-water shark that rarely enters shallow water and is widely distributed. It's generally seen when caught accidentally by deep-sea fisherman or trollers, but this minimal harvest doesn't appear to be harmful to their population. Seriously, though, check out this video showing how the goblin shark attacks prey (or this man's arm).

01 August 2010

Issues: High Fructose Corn Syrup: Part 2

What's in Your Diet

Yesterday, I wrote about the current research on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), how there is an ongoing but unclear debate on whether HFCS is any worse for your health than sugar, and that scientists point to sweeteners and lack of exercise for Americans' trouble with obesity. One thing that comes up is whether HFCS and other sweeteners are becoming more common in our food. So, today I decided to perform an extremely unscientific experiment involving my own diet. After my latest grocery shopping trip, I went through the ingredient list of each item I purchased. I tracked which contained HFCS, sugar, both or neither. Results are below, with notes (S,H,D indicate order of ingredients of Sugar, HFCS, and Dextrose):

High Fructose Corn SyrupSugarNeitherBoth
Hot Dog BunsBreadPotato ChipsCookies (D,H,S)
Hot Dogs (less than 2% H, more than 2% D)Hot PocketsMilkLemonade (H,S)
PicklesPasta SauceCheeseYogurt (S,H)
Stuffing MixFlavored Rice MixGround BeefIce Cream**
Tortillas (last ingredient)Chicken
Chocolate BarFruits… Assorted
Brownie MixVegtables…Assorted
Chicken Helper*
*Within the half dozen varieties of Chicken/Hamburger Helper (they were on sale) some listed sugar as high as the third ingredient, while others had none.
**Second to the lemonade, ice cream might be the best way to fill up on sweeteners. After cream and milk, the ingredients are, in order: sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sugar.

There are a few things to point out here, but several ways to interpret the results. Remember this experiment is not designed to draw any scientific conclusions.

31 July 2010

Issue: High Fructose Corn Syrup: Part 1

Today is the first part of a topic that grew in length as I was writing until I decided to split it into two parts. This is my first try investigating some issue facing people in the world, something that you may have an opinion about. Feel free to share your thoughts and observations in the comments. Come back tomorrow for part 2 which includes an experiment you can do on your own.

A Growing Problem

US Obesity and Overweight Rates
The United States is overweight. Not the land geographically, though it is quite massive, but the people who live there. The level of obesity has been climbing for the last three decades, though it has shown signs of slowing down. Two in three Americans are overweight, and the obvious place to look for answers is in our diet. One ingredient has stood out as a poster child for the growing problem. High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS. I wanted to check out the claims and research, and see if I could clear up what we know about HFCS.

There are two discussions involved here. One is whether HFCS is less healthy than other sweeteners, such as sugar. The other is whether the obesity problem in the United States is tied to increased use of sweeteners in general.

The Unhealthier Sugar?

To tackle the first, it helps to compare HFCS to sugar chemically. HFCS, a thick liquid made from corn, is a mixture of fructose and glucose molecules, usually in a 55%-45% ratio with more fructose. Sugar is sucrose, found in your grocery store as crystals of table sugar. Chemically, sucrose is a fructose molecule joined to a glucose molecule. These are broken apart in the stomach and small intestine and absorbed. So sugar breaks down to nearly the same half-half mix of fructose and glucose that you get from HFCS.

30 July 2010

Liquid... Metal... Moving Art?

Swiss Science Center
There is a substance out there called a ferrofluid. It is quite possibly one of the coolest things ever. Ferrofluids are metals that exist in a liquid form, but when a magnetic field is applied, they solidify into neat shapes and patterns. They're generally composed of tiny particles of compounds that contain some amount of iron, such as hematite or magnetite. The particles are tiny enough to be suspended in a liquid. They were developed by N.A.S.A. in the 1960's and are now being used in a variety of applications, including engineering, electronics, medicine, the military, and art.

Also, you can make your own.

29 July 2010

Revelations about Revolutions

Copernicus (Img: Welcome)

Nicolaus Copernicus published his work claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun in 1543, immediately before his death. He was not the first to make that claim, but his work and that of followers led to global acceptance of the theory and is considered the origin of modern astronomy. Copernicus delayed publication for fear of skepticism, mainly within the scientific community. But unlike Galileo later, he was not persecuted by the church. In fact, some in the Catholic Church urged him to publish and spread his ideas.

28 July 2010

Links: Smart Tortoises, Distant Planets, AIDS Research

Once a week, eventually every Saturday, we will find a few news stories so you can learn about the newest in science from the source without having to deal with our writing. Well… much of it.

First up, is one of the blogs from scienceblogs.com, which inspired some of what we are doing. It is a long read, but if you wonder how tortoises learn, it's worth a look.

The Thoughtful Animal at Scienceblogs.com

Next is something extra interesting for me. I have been keeping an eye on the Kepler Mission since it launched a year and a half ago. It is a telescope used to look for planets around other stars. Way back in high school I wrote my senior thesis on finding extraterrestrial life. I think I will use a post to write about that topic pretty soon. The Kepler Mission is the biggest leap in that area in 30 years, so I have been waiting for the results. The first batch of data was collected in January, and was scheduled to be made public next January, but apparently someone couldn't wait and "leaked" some of the results during a talk in the UK. They are very interesting and look like the first step in proving what astronomers have suspected for years. Planets like Earth may be very common in the galaxy.

Discovery News: Kepler Scientist: "Galaxy is rich in Earth-like planets"

Finally, quite a bit of news on AIDS research in the past couple days. The first link looks like an early step to a breakthrough, but is still some time off. The second link is something more immediate, but the article is largely focused on the controversial aspects. Take a look.

Singularity Hub: Antibody Neutralizes 91% of HIV Strains  
New York Times: Advance in AIDS Raises Questions as Well as Joy

27 July 2010

Deer Cross Here

Why did the chicken cross the road?

One of the largest problems with wildlife habitat is the problem of fragmentation. This is where a block of forest or plains or marsh is split into smaller pieces. This fragmentation can be caused by farmland, housing, or forestry, but most often occurs due to roads and is even a large problem in natural reserves. Roads represent an extremely dangerous crossing for most wildlife, as well as drivers, primarily due to collisions with vehicles. They also cause problems by splitting up wildlife populations (small groups of animals are more vulnerable to being wiped out than large groups), degrading habitat close to roads due to maintenance and pollution, and preventing access to resources on the other side.

Because there wasn't a bridge!

(Joel Sartore)
This problem has been tackled a few different ways. Underpasses that allow wildlife to cross beneath roads have been created for creatures who don't mind dusty, dark, enclosed spaces, such as turtles and raccoons. Large enough underpasses have even been used by deer and moose! However, large carnivores such as wolves, cougars, and bears generally don't like them. So if you can't go under, let's go over! Many wildlife-conscious areas, such as Banff National Park in Alberta, have begun installing wildlife crossing bridges or "green bridges" as they are often called. First installed in France in the 1950's, these are usually wide bridges planted with grasses and small shrubs with fences along the edges.


Green bridges have been shown to help lessen the effects of fragmentation and to decrease the number of vehicle collisions with large mammals by an average of 86% close to where the bridge is in place (sec. 4.4). They are currently being used in many areas with a high rate of success. In Florida, several underpasses have distinctly lowered the casualties of florida panthers on highways where they have been installed. Not just for roads, overpasses over a deep irrigation canal in Arizona have decreased the number of deer and other animals from getting stuck and drowning in the canal. Researchers have picked out tons of road kill "hot spots" that could benefit from crossings, but it's still a matter of time and money until they're considered everywhere.

26 July 2010

Moscow, the New Skyscraper Capital of Europe

Moscow's newly built skyscraper garden (Img:Bradmoscu)
Completed in 2010, the taller of the two City of Capitals skyscrapers, located in Moscow, is the new tallest building in Europe. Moscow is also home of the second and third tallest buildings in Europe, all completed in the last decade. Maybe the Russians feel that ground level is not cold enough in the Moscow winter and would rather be 1000 feet in the air. At 306 meters tall, about the height of US Bank tower, the tallest building in Los Angeles (the Sears Tower Willis Tower is 442 meters; damn it, I just can't get used to that.), City of Capitals is located in Moscow's International Business Center district. The same district contains four of the five tallest buildings under construction in Europe, all of which will be taller than City of Capitals, though at least two are on hold due to the economic downturn, and an additional, even taller, project has been canceled outright. The other of the five tallest buildings under construction in Europe is in London.

25 July 2010

Pluto, Not Quite a Planet

Poor, poor Pluto. The heavenly object that once stood tall with the eight planets that orbit our sun is now just another anomalous piece of rock, demoted, soon to be left off those colorful solar system diagrams that filled the walls of our grade school classrooms. Pluto may not be a planet, but it is still interesting.

Sort of Like a Planet, but not Really

Pluto was discovered in 1930, and named after the Roman god of the underworld for its expected cold, dark nature so far from the sun. The name also referenced the initials of Percival Lowell, who spent the final 20 years of his life searching, unsuccessfully, for a planet outside Neptune. Pluto orbits at 40 times the Earth's distance from the Sun, orbiting every 248 Earth years. There the sunlight is less than one thousandth as strong as on Earth. Pluto is so cold its surface is covered in frozen nitrogen. For about 20 year of every orbit, it crosses Neptune's path and is closer to the Sun than the eighth planet, though they cannot collide. This last happened between 1979 and 1999.

Sizes to scale (NASA)
Pluto is about two-thirds the size of the moon, with a radius of 1153 km. A large object, but small compared to planets. There are seven moons in our solar system larger than Pluto, as are all of the planets. Pluto was demoted to the status of "Dwarf Planet" in 2006, ending its 76 year run as the little planet that could.