Stories tagged Scientific Inquiry

Mar
04
2009

Good, good: Kiss some of the other babies... and then threaten them. It'll be a landslide.
Good, good: Kiss some of the other babies... and then threaten them. It'll be a landslide.Courtesy Ti.mo
Here at Science Buzz we try to provide solid scientific information that Internet enthusiasts young and old might use to enhance their lives and their understanding of the world. Ding.

I’m sorry to admit, however, that we rarely offer advice directly to politicians. Sure, bloggers here might make their political leanings obvious from time to time, but we generally don’t give politicians pointers on how to enhance their careers.

Well there’s finally a Buzzer (me) with the courage (plenty) to stand up for the little guy (politicians) and hand out some advice (very valuable).

And here it is: If you want to manipulate people, make them afraid.

What? You sort of already knew that? Well no one sort of likes a smarty-pants, so zip it.

Besides, what you knew before was anecdotal. This is scientific. (Political science, but still, it was published, and that’s pretty good. Right?)

What’s more, it’s not quite so simple as the above statement. The real trick is to get your fear-mongering manipulation in when you’re dealing with a subject that people don’t understand very well. If the plebeians have solid mental footing, they’re much more likely to see through your crumby policies and deceptive statements. But if they’re uncertain about something, start up your scare engine and manipulate away.

Let’s do some practice runs:

“Your cats are unwholesome, and will eat your children. Kill them, and donate all money saved on cat food to my campaign.”

No, I know that isn’t true. If anything, the cats are in danger of being eaten by me. Plus I don’t own children. So I’m keeping that money, junior.

“Cloning research is unwholesome. It will de-value human life. I am against cloning, so vote for me.”

Say… I saw The Matrix. That was scary. I don’t know how cloning works, but it is scary. I am against cloning too. And I’m for you, junior.

“My opponent’s economic policies are going to ruin you. Check it.”

Hey… I’ll probably only live about 2 and a half billion seconds in my life. Economics involves trillions of dollars… that’s incomprehensible to me. I’m yours, junior.

See how easy and fun that was?

Science and scientific stuff is a good place to start, of course, because a lot of people don’t know a lot of stuff about science.

(On the offhand chance that you’re a non-politician reading this, I suppose you could get yerself educated about some science, etc, and have a better idea of when someone is trying to make you afraid and control you. But that’s not very nice to the politicians, is it?)

Mar
01
2009

World's first temple?

Gobekli temple
Gobekli templeCourtesy Phraotes
Around 8000 BC, what is believed to be the world's first temple, was intentionally buried under thousands of tons of earth. Only about 1.5% of the site's total area has been excavated, so theories about what it was should be considered preliminary. Carbon-dating shows that the complex is at least 12,000 years old, maybe even 13,000 years old. This is pre-pottery, pre-writing, pre-almost-everything. It is 7000 years older than the pyramids. Çatalhöyük, thought to be one of the ealiest villages, is 2,000 years later.

Religious organization enabled larger projects

Klaus Schmidt believes that Gobekli Tepe was a place of worship, a sanctuary that attracted peoples from great distances to offer sacrifices. An elite class of religious leaders probably supervised the erection of the huge stone monoliths thought to represent ancestors.
Gobekli monolith
Gobekli monolithCourtesy Zunkir

Archaeologists estimate that up to 500 persons were required to extract the 10-20 ton pillars (in fact, some weigh up to 50 tons) from local quarries and move them 100 to 500m to the site.

Birthplace for farming

Imagine an area with lush green meadows, ringed by woods and wild orchards, herds of game, rivers of fish, and flocks of wildfowl. Such a plentiful source of food could support hundreds of people. If natural fields of wild grain were being eaten by wild game, the people might learn to cooperate to drive them away from this easy food source. The next step would be to help nature "plant" its seeds over a larger area.

Garden of Eden?

Many scholars view the Garden of Eden story as folk-memory, or allegory. As indicated in the Book of Genesis, Eden, like Gobekli was west of Assyria. Gobekli may have been a place where hunter-gatherers could pluck fruit from the trees, scoop fish from the rivers and spend the rest of their days in worshiping. When their increased numbers outgrew what nature offered they tried to grow their own.

As we began farming, we changed the landscape and the climate. When the trees were chopped down, the soil leached away; all that ploughing and reaping left the land eroded and bare. What was once an agreeable oasis became a land of stress, toil and diminishing returns.

Learn more about Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe: Wikipedia
The World's First Temple: Archaeology.org
Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?: DailyMail

Feb
27
2009

This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.
This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.Courtesy aussiegall
To quote the wise and indomitable Tyra Banks: “Hey y’all!”

It’s Friday (I think) and relationships still exist (that’s what I hear) so it’s time again for everybody’s favorite Friday Science Buzz feature: The Friday Relationship Extravaganza!

This week’s relationship feature promises to be especially… extravagasmic, because today we’re pairing it up with some good old fashioned random questions.

See, on Thursday night, all the Buzz blog features went out for drinks after work. Random Questions promised itself that it would just have two drinks, but you know how that sort of thing goes… Pretty soon the ginger ale was flowing, and next thing you know Random Questions is waking up in Extravaganza’s bed.

OMG, right?

But don’t even worry about it. Nothing happened. Extravaganza slept on the couch. Still, these are work friends, not friend friends, and they had to talk about something when they got to the office. And so…

Friday Relationship Extravaganza: Random Questions Edition

So paddle around with me in the HMS Puddleduck, won’t you?

Question: Why do praying mantis females eat their mates?

Answer: Hmm… This is a hard one. If relationships weren’t tricky enough, relationships that involve cannibalism are particularly troublesome. I mean, look at Jeffrey Dahmer.

It’s also difficult to answer because it seems like scientists are sure exactly why mantises behave this way. Originally it was thought that female mantises bit off their mates’ heads because removing the head caused the male to start, er, mating like crazy (and why not, I guess.) Plus, the lady mantis gets a snack.

Then, some scientists pointed out that this behavior could be influenced by the fact that the mantises were being watched—whether in the field or in a laboratory, the bright lights and steamy glasses of sweaty-palmed scientists might be a little distracting and stressful for mantis lovers, and could cause them to behave a little irrationally.

Other scientists then observed that if a female were fed before mating, she would be less likely to snap at her mate (as it were). With the threat of having his head bitten off lessened, a male mantis will sometimes even engage in elaborate courtship behavior (and why not, I guess.)

Recently, researchers have determined that male mantises, in fact, don’t like getting eaten, and will approach a female with tremendous caution and attempt to couple from a greater distance to avoid it.

So, what are we left with? Removing a mating male’s head can increase that male’s chance of successfully reproducing (because of the mating like crazy thing). But not getting killed on a lucky date can also increase a male’s chance of reproducing (because he can maybe go on to have more dates with other females). And being watched my scientists while having sex can be stressful. And being hungry while having sex can lead lady mantises to do things they might later regret.

Is that close enough to a real answer?

Question: (This question card is actually two questions. “Why can’t boys have babies?” was written first, and then scratched out. A more logical rephrasing of the question follows: “How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?” Because I’m the acting commander of the HMS Puddleduck, choosing which question to answer is my prerogative. So I will answer both. This is an extravaganza, after all.)

Why can’t boys have babies?

Answer: Well… I can see why you decided to re-write this question. Because, of course, boys can have babies. If I were to see a baby sitting on the street, and if I were to take that baby, guess what? I’d technically have a baby. (And don’t get all sassy about how I shouldn’t go around just taking babies willy-nilly. Would you rather I left that baby sitting in the street?)

Also, according to the research presented in Junior, men can make their own babies, no problem. But until that technology is released to fertility clinics, boys can’t have babies because… well, just because. That’s how things worked out.

We have evolved to use internal fertilization—that is, we don’t just release eggs and sperm into the ocean in the hopes that they’ll mix around on their own. And thank God, because where would the Relationship Extravaganza be if we all acted like fish and amphibians? No place good.

And so, I don’t know… one of the two sexes got stuck with carrying fertilized eggs/babies around, and it’s usually the female (Seahorses are an interesting counterexample, however). And, at this point, human males couldn’t really do it, because we haven’t got the equipment. I mean, the underwhelming birth canal is really the least of the issues here (and that’s saying something.)

Sorry if I’m being vague on this answer, but I think it might be a good question for our current Scientist on the Spot, PZ Myers. I think this question comes down to evolution, and why it makes sense for just one sex to carry developing offspring. PZ is the expert on evolution, so click on these pink words and see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?

Answer: I guess it depends on how you like your boyfriends. If you like your men young, I’d say you could have a boyfriend ready in about nine months. If you want some kind of loving, responsible and mature boyfriend, you might have to wait… what, about 35 years? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Then again, “accelerated aging” seems to be a staple of all cloning-related sci-fi, so maybe we should look into that…

When a mad scientist makes my perfect double to replace me after I get kidnapped, accelerated aging techniques will be essential to ensuring that the clone and I are indistinguishable. After all, a regular (non-mad) scientist might be able to clone me now, but the clone would be a baby, and it wouldn’t be a very convincing replacement. (I pee my pants so rarely these days, it’s hardly worth brining up.)

However, it seems like accelerated aging might be an unintended consequence of some cloning techniques already, and doesn’t even require special tanks and serums. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists found that she suffered from arthritis and lung disease at a relatively young age, leading them to believe that she was prematurely aging. One thought is that Dolly’s telomeres were too short. Telomeres are pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, and their deterioration is responsible for aging. Telomeres prevent chromosomes from accidentally combining with each other. If the chromosomes were to combine with each other, it could result in the cell becoming cancerous, so when a telomere runs out or wears down, the cell is usually destroyed. The shortening of telomeres puts a limit on the number of times a cell can divide, and when cells don’t divide anymore, you start to age. They aren’t sure exactly what caused Dolly’s telomeres to be short (if that was indeed the cause of her rapid aging).

But that’s sort of the downhill part of aging—if you were to clone or genetically engineer your perfect boyfriend, and somehow shorten his telomeres (if it didn’t happen automatically from the cloning) you’d probably end up with some sort of odd Benjamin Button situation, and that might not be what you want.

To even things out, you might have to affect the pituitary gland in some way. The pituitary controls hormones that cause growth, and disorders with the pituitary gland can sometimes cause kids to grow very large very quickly. Many of the world’s tallest people have had pituitary disorders.

I’m thinking that you’d still need eight or nine years to balance out the pituitary and telomere stuff in your grown boyfriend. And he might not thank you for it.

And there we are! Another heartwarming Relationship Extravaganza, spiced with random questions. But the Puddleduck must be off—I still have a stack of questions here that require answers from the far off reaches of knowledge. And several of them have swearwords in them that I have to rephrase, which isn’t easy, if you want to keep the spirit of the original question. (And I do.)

Feb
25
2009

Last night, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized government spending authorized by the stimulus bill, calling particular attention to "something called volcano monitoring." Hey, $140 million is a lot of money, and what does it get us? Turns out volcano monitoring is actually kind of a big deal.

Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.
Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.Courtesy Phil Walgren, Alaska Volcano Observatory (USGS) and Alaska Airlines

It teaches us a lot about earth processes, of course, but some folks aren't swayed by talk of scientific advancement.

An argument for everyone is that monitoring enables authorities to plan and implement evacuations when necessary.

"The USGS has issued several warnings over the past 10 years, though predicting the timing and size of eruptions remains a difficult task.

Volcano monitoring likely saved many lives — and significant money — in the case of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (where the United States had military bases at the time), according to the USGS.

The cataclysmic eruption lasted more than 10 hours and sent a cloud of ash as high as 22 miles into the air that grew to more than 300 miles across.

The USGS spent less than $1.5 million monitoring the volcano and was able to warn of the impending eruption, which allowed authorities to evacuate residents, as well as aircraft and other equipment from U.S. bases there.

The USGS estimates that the efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented property losses of at least $250 million (considered a conservative figure)."

Still not convinced? Here's another benefit: volcano monitoring keeps our air routes safer, too. See, a pilot can't easily tell the difference between an ash cloud and a regular cloud. But ash clouds can damage flight control systems and kill jet engines. Don't think that's really a big problem? Some 10,000 passengers and millions of dollars' worth of cargo are ferried by US aircraft over the North Pacific every day, and there are 100 potentially dangerous volcanoes under those air routes.

Suddenly "volcano monitoring" doesn't seem like a goofy piece of esoteric research...

Feb
22
2009

Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistaken
Fingerprint errors: Fingerprint "science" is sometimes mistakenCourtesy blvesboy

Forensic science not always scientific

"The CSI Effect," is a reference to the popular television show CSI -- Crime Scene Investigation and its spin-offs.

In reality, our forensic science system, upon which criminal and civil litigation depends, has been found to be far from meeting scientific standards.

A National Research Council report, "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," stated:

"The forensic science system in the United States has serious problems that can only be addressed by a national commitment to overhaul the current structure that supports the forensic science community,"

The report urges Congress to authorize and fund a new federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science, or NIFS, to oversee how forensic science is practiced in the United States.

232 wrongfully convicted prisoners found to be innocent

The report was welcomed by lawyers for the Innocence Project, which has employed DNA evidence to help free 232 wrongly convicted defendants.

For example, it mentions the case of attorney Brandon Mayfield who in 2004 was erroneously linked by digital fingerprint images to train bombing in Madrid that year. Mayfield was arrested and subsequently released when the FBI acknowledged that it had made a mistake.

Scientific standards needed

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "many forensic disciplines lack the standards necessary to ensure their scientific reliability in court (and) that forensic laboratories and their experts do not have uniform, mandatory accreditation policies."

Sources:
Forensic Science System In U.S. Needs Overhaul, Information Week
Crime labs are seriously deficient, report says MSNBC

Feb
12
2009

These guys have been eating bacteria all day: That's all it takes!
These guys have been eating bacteria all day: That's all it takes!Courtesy Dave Austria
Hey y’all! Get a earful of this: Russian scientists claim to have found bacteria living in the superfrost that may be able to significantly extend our lifespans!

Whoa!

Oh, also, “superfrost” isn’t the word the original article used. In fact, “superfrost” isn’t a real word in the first place. The perpetually frozen sandy soil the bacteria were found in is actually called “permafrost.” I just invented the word “superfrost” because it was kind of cool in this post’s title. I also used the fake word to honor the original article, which contains an amount of information somewhere between zero and almost zero.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up over a quasi-science article coming from a the Daily Mail, considering that the other stories on the page feature shots of the octuplet mother’s explosive looking belly, and Chris Brown leering over Rhianna’s shoulder… but it seems so cool! Seriously, this is sci-fi stuff!

What I can tell is this: Russian scientists were digging in an area of Siberia known for its abundance of wooly mammoth remains. Among the biological materials they recovered was a species of bacteria that appears to live in the permafrost. Finding it was an accident.

After doing a partial DNA analysis, the scientists determined that they were working with a unique type of bacteria. I don’t know if this means it’s a new species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, or kingdom… whatever. Probably not important, right, Daily Mail?

What’s interesting about the bacterium is that it appears to be very, very old. Three to five million years old, according to the article.

Say what, Daily Mail? Say what?!

I mean… What? Check out the wikipedia page on long-living organisms. With the exception of this weird jelly fish that could potentially live forever (we won’t get into it), 3-5 million years puts everything else on the list to shame. By far.

I’m guessing that the age was estimated based on the age of the associated mammoth remains in the area (they’re about 4.8 million years old), but how they know that the bacteria were alive at the same time as the mammoths isn’t explained.

Some scientists have made claims that certain bacteria might be able to remain in stasis for millions of years before being revived. But those claims are disputed, and, anyway, we’re talking about bacteria trapped in amber or salt deposits, not permafrost (which, despite the “perma,” has probably been considerably more dynamic over the last 5 million years than most amber).

If the bacteria were in stasis, which wasn’t suggested in the helpful article, that wouldn’t explain what the Russian scientists did with the bacteria next: they put it in some mice.

We aren’t talking gene therapy here, either. All the article says is that the mice were “vaccinated with the bacterium extract.”

That makes sense, right? I mean, I know turtles and parrots live a really long time, so if I’m always eating turtle soup and parrot cake, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to live a long time, right? And if I supplement that diet by shooting up some alligator (into my veins with a needle, say), I’ll be alive forever!

I don’t know. Somebody help me out here. Why would vaccinating yourself with a bacterium imbue you with properties of that bacterium? Wouldn’t it just help your immune system figure out how to kill that organism? I was vaccinated with weakened mumps virus, but, as far as I know, I don’t have the ability to make anyone’s face inflate on cue, nor did the process transform me into a protein shell full of bits of DNA.

Nonetheless, after their inoculation with the bacteria, the mice demonstrated “growth of physical, mental, and sexual activity” into their old age. Female mice were even able to give birth at an age equivalent to a human 70-year-old.

That’s freaking amazing, isn’t it? So, hmm… here at the Daily Mail, we seem to have an exclusive story on this awesome biological breakthrough. What should we title this story? What… should… we… call… it? I know! “'Pre-historic Viagra' found in Siberian mammoth DNA could boost your sex life and let you live longer”

Duh. I mean, it says in the article that the bacteria and the mammoths, though they were found in the same area, are not believed to be linked to each other, but nothing else makes sense, so why should the headline? Mammoth DNA! Pre-historic Viagra! Print it!

How frustrating. This seems awesome, but until I can get some better, and possibly less fake, information, I have to file it under “Thhhbbtttbbbtbb.” Fudge.

Feb
07
2009

Stradivarious secret is in the sauce
Stradivarious secret is in the sauceCourtesy caribb

Stradivarius violins soaked in "secret sauce"

Having obtained minute wood samples from restorers working on Stradivarius and Guarneri instruments, scientists now have verified that the wood was treated with borax, fluorides, chromium and iron salts. Borax is a wood preservative and an insecticide. It makes sense that wood craftsmen would want to protect their creations from being chewed up by worms.

Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, first theorized in 1976 that chemicals used on the instruments – not merely the wood and the construction – are responsible for the distinctive sound of these violins." Texas A&M University

Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus of biochemistry, along with Renald Guillemette, director of the electron microprobe laboratory, and Clifford Spiegelman, professor of statistics, all Texas A&M faculty members published their research in the current issue of the scientific journal Public Library of Science (PloSONE).

Learn more about Nagyvary's research

Source: "Secrets Of Stradivarius’ Unique Sound Revealed"
Nagyvary's website: Nagyvary Violins

Feb
04
2009

Since the new WATER exhibit is now on display here at the Science Museum, I thought some NASA videos I came across recently on YouTube would be of interest. These are a sampling of microgravity experiments by Science Officer and Expedition Six Flight Engineer Don Pettit on the International Space Station (ISS) as it orbited the Earth in 2003. Be sure to watch the tension break down at the end of the last one. WATER opened last week on January 30th (my birthday by the way) and runs through April 26, 2009.

ROTATING SPHERE OF WATER IN MICROGRAVITY

SYMPHONY OF SPHERES

ANTACID INTRODUCED TO WATER

EXTRACTION OF AIR FROM ALKA-SELTZER

SURFACE TENSION ILLUSTRATION #5

More of these NASA science videos can be found at YouTube. WATER is a joint project of the Science Museum of Minnesota and the American Museum of Natural History.

Jan
19
2009

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan PoeCourtesy Original by W.S. Hartshorn
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe. Best known for his poems, The Raven, and Annabel Lee, and certainly for his many Gothic tales of terror and the macabre, Poe was born January 19, 1809 in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and is probably the last guy you’d expect to see mentioned on Science Buzz. Well, that’s exactly what I thought, until about two weeks ago, when I came across an interesting book entitled, The Conchologist’s First Book written by none other than E. A. Poe!

How could this be? How could the author of such wonderfully crafted prose as The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado be the same guy who responsible for a textbook about sea mollusks?

Probably because he was broke most of the time. Poe lived a somewhat short, miserable life. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died of tuberculosis, all the siblings were split up and the young Edgar was taken in by the family of John Allan in Richmond. The Allans never officially adopted Edgar, but christened him with their surname as his middle name. The family moved for a while to the United Kingdom, where Edgar attended school in Scotland and England before returning to America. He enlisted in the army for the steady paycheck and some stability, but after his enlistment was terminated, he became determined to support himself solely from his writing. Not a great decision, considering the financial Panic of 1837, and dismal state of international copyright law at the time (American publishers found it much cheaper to rip-off European writers than pay American ones).

Despite the difficult times and his own demons, Poe was a prolific writer. He published books of poetry, short fiction, essays, and literary criticism for several literary magazines and periodicals, but the poor guy was always strapped for cash and struggling to stay afloat. A good example is his masterful narrative poem The Raven, published in 1845. Although it was hugely popular and made him a household name, Edgar made a grand total of only $9 from the poem. That alone was probably enough to push anyone into depression, madness, alcoholism, or attempted suicide – all conditions Poe himself experienced.

Facimile of frontpiece from Conchologist's First Book
Facimile of frontpiece from Conchologist's First BookCourtesy Public Domain
So it’s hardly a surprise, when a few years earlier Poe had been offered $50 to write the preface to Thomas Wyatt’s new schoolbook on conchology, he jumped at the chance. Wyatt was looking to expand into the schoolbook market with a shorter and cheaper rewrite of his earlier book titled Manual of Conchology. But there was concern Wyatt’s name on the new book could lead to copyright trouble with his previous publisher, Harper & Brothers, so both Wyatt and his new publisher were looking for a writer of Poe’s (at the time) lesser status under which to publish the book - meaning someone whom the old publisher “would be idle to sue for damages.”

Poe saw it a little differently.

“I wrote it in conjunction with Professor Thomas Wyatt, and Professor McMultrie... my name being put to the work, as best known and most likely to aid its circulation,” he said.

Unfortunately, Wyatt had lifted much of the material in his first book from British naturalist Thomas Brown’sThe Conchologist’s Textbook published in 1837. In the end, Poe was hounded by charges of copyright infringement and plagiarism, but oddly the book was a big success and the only volume printed under Poe’s name to go into a second edition during his lifetime.

Poe certainly wasn’t a scientist, but his writings did influenced science fiction writers such as Jules Verne in France, and later the American H. P. Lovecraft. And Poe is considered the patron saint of detective fiction. His stories such as Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter led Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to say this:

"Each is a root from which a whole literature has developed.... Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?"

Poe’s own life ended tragically and mysteriously in 1849. After missing for three days, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, delirious, and wearing someone else’s clothes. He died shortly after in the hospital on October 7th.

One plagiarized book on mollusks doesn't a scientist make, but it wasn’t Poe's only dabbling with the subject. He wrote a sonnet entitled To Science (1829), and a prose poem titled Eureka (1848) that among other things contains the following interesting passage:

"The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically -- in all directions -- to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space -- a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms."

Sounds strikingly like the Big Bang Theory doesn’t it?

LINKS
Poe biography
The Cask of Amontillado
The Telltale Heart
The Purloined Letter
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Annabel Lee

Jan
16
2009

Cold: Cold and snowy.
Cold: Cold and snowy.Courtesy jpmatth
JK! It’s science, of course.

Usually science loves us, and we love science, but when the temperature drops (or, here in Minnesota, when the temperature drops and drops and drops) science starts to hate us just a little bit.

How do I know this? Because, like so many other lost and lonely souls, when I went out to start my car this morning… it did nothing. And I think I heard it mutter an awful, awful word at me from one of the dash vents.

So what gives, science? Yes, I understand that I would die if I were left out all night in -30 degree weather, but my car is a robot, and robots can’t even comprehend the weaknesses of humans, much less experience them. Why did my car die?

The car died, of course, because the battery died, and the engine couldn’t be started.

Why do batteries die in the cold?

It boils down to my old acquaintance, Chemistry. (I’m Science now. Pretend I’m Science.) Batteries can work in the first place thanks to a chemical reaction taking place between the positive and negative terminals. In a car battery, the terminals (to which you clamp jumper cables) are made of lead and lead dioxide (which is a lead atom with two oxygen atoms). Between the terminals is sulfuric acid (which is a sulfur atom with four oxygen atoms and two hydrogen atoms). The lead terminal wants to react with the sulfuric acid, and so it does—it kicks the hydrogen atoms off the sulfuric acid, and combines with what’s left to create lead sulfate (which is a lead atom a sulfur atom, and those four oxygen atoms). When the hydrogen is kicked out of the sulfuric acid, an electron is also released. On the lead dioxide side, hydrogen is getting kicked off the acid, and oxygen is getting kicked off the lead dioxide. Lead sulfate is formed again, and, with the help of the free electron from the lead terminal side, that spare oxygen and hydrogen combines to form water (which we all know is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom).

All of this is only going to happen, however, if there’s a wire connecting the lead dioxide and lead plates outside the battery, so electrons can flow from the negative (lead dioxide) terminal to the positive (lead) terminal. If there’s something in the middle of that wire, like the starter for an engine, those electrons can do some work.

Unfortunately, this chemical reaction also depends on temperature. The colder it is, the less willing all these molecules will be to mess around with each other, and fewer electrons will be tossed around. If it’s really cold, there may not be enough of a reaction to start your car. Also, because the reaction produces water, there’s a chance that the water could freeze if it gets cold enough, cracking the battery case altogether. Then you’re really up Brown Creek.

If you’re battery is just low, and the cold has made it weaker, you might try jump-starting it (remember, positive terminal to positive terminal, negative terminal on the live car to a metal spot on the dead car). With the help of a fresh battery, your weak battery could build up enough charge to start your engine, which would warm the battery and start to recharge it. If your battery is frozen, however, don’t try to jump it—it could explode. Now, an explosion would be kind of awesome, but flying battery acid is scary, and it doesn’t matter if it’s science’s fault or not if your face gets burned off.

So that’s why our cars didn’t start this morning. Feel better? No? Me neither.