Courtesy Original by W.S. HartshornToday 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.
Courtesy Public DomainSo 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?
Courtesy jpmatthJK! 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.
Courtesy OlplAhoy, Buzznauts! As small and oddly colored as she may be, the Puddleduck is a fast ship, and her tubby belly can hold buckets of that rich, greasy knowledge we prize so highly.
To be clear, when I say “buckets,” I don’t mean that literally. Puddleduck can hold lots and lots of buckets, but usually we have more practical containers. “Buckets” just means “lots” here. Also, when I refer to the Puddleduck as a “she,” I only do so for the sake of nautical tradition. Thankfully, most ships boast neither male nor female genitalia. Neither do ducks, for that matter, as far as I can tell. (I’ve had plenty of ducks fly over me, and darned if I can see anything distinguishing there.)
The Puddleduck has sailed into some heady waters recently—intellectually dangerous territory, certainly, but with the greater risk comes the chance of greater rewards. And so… more random sciencey questions. (I have a stack of these raw, unadulterated questions in my cabin at all times. It’s one of the many benefits of a lieutenancy aboard a science vessel.)
Question: Is there anything smaller than an electron?
Answer: Oh my, yes. Or… sort of. There are particles so small that thinking about them will cause every blood vessel in your brain to immediately burst. This is why particle physicists have to be so extensively trained—they’re like brain-ninjas. Where a real ninja can prevent his or her own body from exploding after being forced to swallow an explosive device, so too can a particle physicist protect their brain from the tremendous pressures of the hard sciences.
See, it seems like electrons are “point particles.” That means that they don’t really have any size at all—they don’t take up any space. (Although the electric charge of an electron could be used to define a radius.) Despite having no size, electrons do have mass, and there are particles that weigh even less than electrons. Neutrinos, for instance, have only a fraction of the mass of an electron. I can’t get into what a neutrino is because I can already feel the pressure in my head building, but if you want to learn more about the most fundamental particles of existence, check out Jeremiah Mans’ Scientist on the Spot feature.
Question: Is the universe still expanding?
Answer: This is another one of those brain-poppers, but, yes, the universe is still expanding. But it’s not expanding into anything—it’s not like a balloon filling up a room, it’s like the room itself getting bigger in every direction from every point in the room.
With sensitive enough equipment, scientists can actually see the “edge” of the universe. Again, it’s not like they can look to a point in space, beyond which is a big, blank are. In a way it’s more like they’re looking at the beginning of the universe. The universe, in the first moments of its existence, expanded from the tiniest of tiny points. Some of the energy from this initial expansion/explosion is still around, and it’s further and fainter than anything else you might try to observe, so looking at it (with special equipment) is kind of like looking at the edge of the universe, as well as a snapshot of the beginning of the universe. (For more, check out Shaul Hanany’s SOTS.)
Oh, that’s too much. Let’s try something a little softer.
Question: What’s the grossest thing you have ever seen?
Answer: In third grade Mikey Helke threw up during lunch, and I just about lost it. Looking back, I think that it was mostly chocolate milk, but it seemed pretty gross at the time.
Bot fly larva emerging from human skin is pretty gross too, according to the internet videos I’ve seen.
Oh, also, a couple years ago, I took a big, daring bite out of a piece of old cake. As I closed my mouth to chew, a puff of smoke blew out from between my lips. I opened and closed my mouth again, and it happened again. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the situation until I spat the cake out, and realized that the bottom of it was covered in thick mold, and I was expelling a cloud of spores each time I closed my mouth. I thought the whole thing was pretty interesting, but most of the people I’ve told about that reacted poorly.
Question: What is the circumference of Earth?
Answer: I like this one. It’s nautically applicable, and it’s so easy to answer while sitting at a computer (I have a computer on the Puddleduck, obviously). Depending on the direction you measure, the circumference is slightly difference. If you were to walk around the world starting at the North Pole, and going through the south pole, you’d have to go 40,008 km, or 24860 miles (and this is assuming you could walk on water without much trouble). If you walked around the world at the equator, however, you would have to travel 40,075 km, or 24,901 miles. The difference comes from the fact that Earth isn’t a true sphere—it’s just a little bit squashed on its axis.
And that’s all for now, Buzznauts. There’s a situation on the poop deck that requires my immediate attention.
Courtesy MoondyneOh, mateys. This is… sad news. The goodship Friendventure has gone to Davey Jones’ locker. Sunk.
We were sailing around the horn (which horn? The worst one) with a hold full of trivia, and we were hit by a squall the likes of which you’ve never even imagined. I did everything I could to save it, but the vessel was smashed to toothpicks against the rocks of the horn. The Buzznauts, every last man and woman, went down with the ship—I only survived because I was knocked unconscious by a falling spar as I was trying to punch out a shark (there were lots of sharks). Apparently I fell into the Friendventure’s only dinghy, which was then cut free of the ship by another, sharper falling spar. I must have either rowed to shore while unconscious (somnambulism is an issue in my family), or, more likely, I was towed to land by friendly dolphins. If only those dolphins had made an effort to rescue some of my shipmates! Damn them!
Still, the mandate of scientific knowledge that drove the Friendventure remains. The organization has purchased a ship, less grand than the Friendventure, but a trusty craft nonetheless: The H.M.S. Puddleduck!
All that remains now is to find a replacement crew. And as we’re a little short on funds after buying the ship, we’ll be resorting to press-ganging. What’s a press gang? Why, it’s like a free trip to Disney Land, only more fun! So all aboard! We’ve got no time to lose! Lieutenant JGordon has a stack of awesome science questions from the museum floor, and we need answers!
Question The First: Is there more girls or boys in boys in the world? –Lucia M.
Answer: As of 2006, at least, there were more boys than girls in the world: about 3,360,742,768 males to 3,310,483,706 females. That’s about 102 boys to every 100 girls. If the battle of the sexes ever comes to violence, it’s going to be a very close fight—too close to call, probably.
Question Twain: What was the year guinea pigs were discovered?
Answer: Interesting… Well, guinea pigs originate from the Andes mountains region of South America. We aren’t exactly sure when the first humans arrived in South America, although there’s an archaeological site in Chile (where much of the Andes are) that dates back to about 13,000 years ago. People might have been in South America before that, but we can be pretty certain that someone discovered that cuddly little rodent by about 11,000 BC. Guinea pigs were probably domesticated about 5000 years ago (the were domesticated for food, though, not for pets).
Europeans weren’t exposed to the delights that are guinea pigs until thousands and thousands of years later, around the 1500s, when Spanish traders came to South America.
Question thrip: Why can’t people fly in space when they don’t have an astronaut suit?
Answer: Ah! Well people can fly in space without a space suit—they’d just have to be dead to do it for very long. If you jumped out of a space shuttle (while it was in outer space) you wouldn’t pop or immediately freeze, ala Mission to Mars. You would freeze eventually, but you’d be long dead by then from suffocation. See, space is a vacuum. That means that there’s no air or anything, and anything that did have air in it would lose it quickly. Have you every sucked the air out of an empty pop bottle? If the bottle is glass (and won’t crumple like a plastic bottle) a vacuum will start to form inside of it, and it will kind of feel like the bottle is sucking back at you. That’s because the air pressure inside the bottle is so much less than the air pressure outside the bottle, and it’s trying to make things even. Being in space without a space suit would be like having empty bottles like that all around you: all the air would be sucked out of your body. Even the oxygen in your blood would be sucked out.
In addition to this, the fluids in your body would start to boil, even though you’d be cold—liquids can evaporate at low temperatures in a vacuum. So all that evaporating fluid in your body would cause you to inflate to a couple times your normal size. Here are a couple descriptions of similar situations.
Question 4: Where does broccoli come from?
Answer: Broccoli farms. Next.
Question flive: Why do we have hair? – Grace G.
Answer: Good question, Grace. I’m going to assume that “we” refers to humans. (I know, I shouldn’t go out on a limb like that, but fortune favors the bold—except for the whole Friendventure thing.)
Humans have 3 different types of hair. There’s lanugo hair, which is fine, downy, and grows on babies while they’re still in the womb. It’s what I like to call “the grossest hair,” because babies shed it before they’re born, and consume it with their amniotic fluid. People who are anorexic or seriously malnourished will sometimes grow a lanugo hair again to insulate their bodies (to make up for the loss of insulating fat).
Then there’s vellus hair, which is also fine, downy, and very short, but everybody has it. It’s similar to lanugo hair, but not nearly as thick.
Finally there’s terminal hair, the head and body hair we know and love. Longer, thicker, darker. Terminal hair.
The real question, however, might be why we humans have so little hair. Most mammals are covered in hair, or fur if you’re going to be sassy. It makes sense to be covered in hair—it’s warm, it can at an extra layer of protection, it can be used as camouflage, etc… but humans lost most of their hair about 3 million years ago. Some people think that this is because people evolved to hunt on the warm plains of the African savannah, and hair was too hot. There are other species that hunt in similar environments that do have plenty of hair, but humans evolved to cool themselves by sweating, and that wouldn’t work with lots of hair.
The hair we kept often serves some function: eyelashes and eyebrows help keep foreign objects out of your eyes, nose hairs help filter air you breath through your nose, and my beard makes me look like I can bite very hard (and, in fact, I can!). This article also points out how hair retains each person’s personal odor—their unique chemical signature. We don’t really notice them, but there have been studies done that seem to show that people respond to these smells, or pheremones, without even thinking about it.
Final question: Why is pee yellow?
Answer: I actually looked this up the other day! (Don’t ask me why—I’m kind of on a pee kick these days.) I’m not even going to use the internet to answer this one. The yellow color of pee mostly comes from a pigment called “urochrome.” Urochrome is a waste product made by the kidneys when they break down the hemoglobin in our blood (hemoglobin is what allows are blood to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body). Kidneys break down old hemoglobin, hemoglobin is turned into urochrome (among other things), urochrome goes to the bladder, and pee is yellow.
I’ve got some more questions still, but they’ll have to wait. It’s lunchtime on the Puddleduck, and as the ranking officer aboard, I must be served first. And so…
Courtesy leeechy (jkjond)Criminals need no longer waste time wiping down or washing the cartridge cases of the bullets they intend on using in a crime to get rid of their fingerprints ahead of time, you will still be caught! Researchers at the University of Leicester and the Northamptonshire police have teamed up to develop a technique to see fingerprints even if a metal surface has been wiped down. When people hold metal objects, the natural residues on their hands, like sweat, corrode metal surfaces. Their technique is particularly useful with cartridge casings, because the heat from shooting the weapon helps to imprint the fingerprints on the metal. Basically, you dust the metal of interest with a fine layer of conducting powder, and then apply an electrical charge to it. This causes the conducting powder to be attracted to the areas where the metal is corroded from fingerprints. Would be criminals would need to use abrasive cleaning techniques to remove the layer of corroded metallic surface to destroy their prints. Now don’t you go getting any ideas!
Courtesy Wikimedia CommonsAhoy, Buzznauts, the goodship Friendventure has set sail once again. We’ll be traveling through the treacherous waters of the horn (some horn or other—I’m not sure which), where many a young scientist have been sent to their frigid, watery dooms, like so many Leonardo DiCaprios. So set your wills straight, harden your hearts, and focus on the wealth of knowledge at journey’s end!
Let’s see here… what random questions from the science museum are hiding in Lieutenant JGordon’s Random Question Bag? Here we go…
Q) Why aren’t the insides of sweet potatoes white? —Angela
A) Good Q), Angela, but I’m afraid that I might not have a great A) for you. But we’ll see. First of all, sweet potatoes aren’t white like potatoes because they aren’t potatoes. Sweet potatoes are related to “normal” potatoes, but only distantly so—sweet potatoes and potatoes belong to the same order, but different families, genera, and species. That means that sweet potatoes and potatoes are about as closely related as humans are to howler monkeys. And while humans and howler monkeys are probably more or less the same color on the inside, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to plants.
So… sweet potatoes are, in fact, the edible root of a plant very similar to the morning glory flower. They get their color from the compounds in their flesh, compounds that regular potatoes might not have much of. Orange sweet potatoes, for instance, are high in the vitamin beta carotene, the darker they are, the more beta carotene they have. Red, purple, and blue shades of sweet potatoes get their color from anthocycanins, healthy flavonoid molecules that seem to be beneficial in combating cancer, aging, inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections. How about that?
Man, that was a great A)! I can’t believe I ever doubted myself.
Q) When did the dinersors die? And why?
A) I appreciate your spelling of “dinosaurs,” friend. Very rich and earthy. Well, sir, when the dinersors died is something we can answer with some certainty—the last of the dinersors died off about 65 million years ago. It was a very sad period for the planet, because dinersors were the most awesome. Let’s put that time (65 million years ago) into perspective: your mom was born about 35 years ago; the cotton gin was invented 215 years ago; the last wooly mammoth croaked about 3700 years ago (don’t argue! We’re talking pygmy mammoths on Wrangel Island); cheese was invented between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago; modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago; hairy cave people probably figured out how to control fire around 1 million years ago; the Rocky Mountains finished growing about 40 million years ago; and the last dinosaur thought “Wait a second… I haven’t had to wait in line for months!” about 65 million years ago. No dinosaur fossils appear from after that time.
The “why” is trickier, especially if you mean it in a philosophical way. It’s pretty well agreed upon that a six-mile-wide meteorite hit the Earth near where Mexico is today and made life very difficult (impossible) for the dinersors. This doesn’t mean that every dinosaur was literally crushed to death by the meteorite—something that big would certainly have killed a lot of animals immediately, but it would have also thrown so much dust and smoke into the air that temperatures around the planet would drop significantly. It’s like the whole planet was made a little bit shadier for a long time. Even a small change in temperature can have huge effects for some animals—if a lot of plants died from the change in temperature, plant-eating dinosaurs would also die, and then meat-eating dinosaurs would die. Something like that.
There are also some scientists who think that something else entirely, or a combination of things, could have caused the dinersors to all die. One of the main alternative theories is that a series of huge volcanic eruptions in an area of India called the Deccan Traps, finished off the dinosaurs. The eruptions occurred at around the same time as the meteorite impact, and lasted for about 30,000 years. The volcanoes would have had what is scientifically referred to as a “double-whammy” effect on the world of the dinersors: dust from the eruptions would have blocked sunlight, killing off plants, and the massive amounts of volcanic gas released could have contributed to rapid (geologically speaking) global warming on a dramatic scale. Just like with global cooling, an increase in temperature that occurs too quickly can cause extinction for slow-adapting organisms.
Q) Why do turtles have shells?
Q) Can any fish breathe air?
A) A nautically themed question! Yes! And, yes, some fish can breathe air.
All fish breath oxygen, but most do it by absorbing gas that is dissolved in water through their gills. The fish that breath air air, if you follow, do it in different ways. Some eels can absorb oxygen right through their skin. Some catfish can gulp air, and absorb it through their digestive tracts. Lungfish and bichirs actually have a pair of lungs, similar to mammals.
Some air-breathing fish will only do so if there is too little oxygen in the water for their gills to work, but some are “obligate air breathers”—they need to breath air occasionally, or they will suffocate. The electric eel is, of course, my favorite obligate air breather. 80% of the oxygen used by electric eels is obtained through breathing air.
And that’s all we have time for right now. Answering random questions is serious business, but then again so is sailing.
Courtesy FireFawkesThe journal Sexual Health has blown minds the world over with a new study’s assertion that, of all students, science students have the least sex. And male science students? They have the least sex of all, ranking neck and neck with amoeba.
Do you know who the study says has the most sex? Female art students. But I’ve never pretended to understand art kids, so we’ll leave that be and get back to our poor science nerds.
What gives? Is it the chicken or the egg? (The chicken being people who don’t often have sex, the egg being the study of science. Duh.) Does deciding to study science equate to putting on an invisible chastity belt? Is it (if we’re talking about chickens) a persistent rooster-block, if you will? Or are people for whom sex is not a huge priority, or even something to be avoided, attracted to the study of science?
The answer, according to the study, is “yes.”
The research was performed at the University of Sydney in Australia. The science department at the university has a high proportion of international students, who may have different cultural attitudes towards sex than those hedonistic, liberal arts, Australian-born students. Also, as we have discussed on Buzz, girls are often less attracted to studying math and science than boys, and boys, according to the psychotherapist quoted in the article, start having sex later than girls.
The demands of studying science, likewise, aren’t helping things. Students are kept out of environments where they would meet women, and spend most of their time “carrying on doing experiments, going to the library, and doing their assignments.”
A horde of very busy introverts—it’s the perfect storm. But don’t let this dissuade you from studying science, Buzzketeers—maybe this is just the sort of social environment you’re looking for. Or maybe you can start a brand new scientific revolution.
Courtesy Wikimedia CommonsAhoy, Buzzketeers, and welcome aboard the goodship Friendventure!
That’s right, mateys, no longer are you soldiers of knowledge in the Buzzketeer army. While you’re on the decks of Friendventure, you will be sailors in the Buzz armada. It’s not an easy life, and some of you will be ripped to shreds by the screaming cannonballs of ignorance, but the rewards will make it all worthwhile… we’ll sail over glittering schools of trivia, past vibrant thought reefs, to the shining shores of Knowledge! Yes!
What I’m getting at is that we’re going to be answering the random science questions from the floor of the Science Museum of Minnesota.
But, wait, you say, doesn’t Buzzketeer Joe usually deal with the random questions, and isn’t he the captain of Friendventure? Yes and no: Joe does usually answer the odds and ends questions, but he is, in fact, a Commodore, not a captain. However, the Commodore is distracted at the moment (ordering more sailcloth and hardtack, hiring a new shoe polisher, something like that), and Lieutenant JGordon is absconding with the ship on a risky mission through the waters of curiosity. I can just picture a furious Commodore Joe: “Lieutenant, if you try to pull one more of these insane schemes of yours… I just might have to promote you!”
Anyway, away we go.
Q: Why do feet smell? (There were some backwards letters on the actual question card, but my keyboard won’t accommodate for that, even when I turned it upside down.)
A: If you have recently stepped in something horrible, like the chest cavity of a dead animal, that could do it. But normal, every day foot stink is caused by… bacteria! Microscopic bacteria consume the sweat and dead skin on your feet, and then they sort of go to the bathroom on you. Which stinks. But keeping your feet clean and dry, and wearing clean and dry shoes and socks can keep those bacteria under control. For more information, check out this old post on foot-stink.
Q: How do volcanoes erupt? From Maeve Kruser
A: First off, Maeve Kruser is a great name. Maybe the best name. Congratulations. But volcanic eruptions? Well, an eruption happens when the rock that makes up the Earth’s “upper mantle” (a layer of the Earth, deep underground) melts from the friction of Earth’s tectonic plates moving around, and the liquid rock (magma) rises to the surface and comes out through a rift or hole in the ground. Big, explosive eruptions, where lava is thrown up into the air, are caused by pressure from hot gas dissolved in the lava—a little like what happens when you shake up a bottle of soda. Boom.
Q: What is air?
A: Air is a French ambient/electronica band on the Astralwerks label. Air is also the invisible stuff all around us that we breathe. This second kind of air is made up of a bunch of different gases. We need the oxygen in the air to live, but oxygen only makes up about 21% of the air in our atmosphere. Most of what we take into our lungs with each breath is nitrogen gas (air is about 78% nitrogen). Argon gas, carbon dioxide, and water vapor, along with itty-bitty amounts of other gases make up the rest of Earth’s air.
Q: Where is Jupiter—like, how far is it from this museum?
A: The planet Jupiter is, like, a long ways away. Because the planets are all rotating around the sun, and because they don’t rotate in synch with each other, the distance between them can vary greatly. For example, if you had two beads glued to the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel, they’d always be the same distance from each other. But if you had two beads glued to two different wheels spinning at different speeds around the same spot (the sun, in this case) the distance between the beads would always be changing. That’s what the planets are like. However, last night (December 1, 2008), Jupiter was about 540 million miles away from this museum.
Q: Why are aliens attacking us?
A: I didn’t know that we were under attack, but I’ll assume that they simply want your knowledge.
Q: How did butterflies get their name?
A: Etymology! Very nice! The word “Butterfly” probably comes from the Old English word buttorfleoge (which just means “butter-fly”). Some people think that butterflies were called that because of the belief that butterflies (or, even better, witches disguised as butterflies) would consume any butter or milk that was left uncovered. Others say that they were named for the pale yellow wings of some species (boring). There’s also theory that says that “butterfly” comes from the Dutch term boterschijte, which is more or less a description of the color of the insects’, ah, poop.
Q: How do head lice start?
A: Head lice are little blood-sucking insects that can colonize in your hair. You can get them by direct, head-to-head contact with someone who already has lice, or swapping headgear, scarves, etc. with an infested person. Lice can’t fly, and they don’t jump like fleas do, so there has to be some sort of direct contact. The lice attach their eggs, or “nits,” to the hair itself. The nits hatch into nymphs (baby lice), which grow to about the size of a sesame seed as adults.
Q: Why is carbon monoxide (CO) deadly, while carbon dioxide (CO2) not deadly? Why is that extra oxygen atom bad?
A: So, right, carbon monoxide is a single carbon atom bonded to a single oxygen atom, and carbon dioxide is a single carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms. So why is carbon monoxide so deadly? Well, scientists don’t understand the exact way CO induces toxic effects, but, basically, when we breathe in CO, it can easily bond to several different compounds in you body: it bonds to hemoglobin, the chemical in your blood that carries oxygen, and sort of suffocates all your cells; it bonds to myglobin, a chemical in your muscles that should also attach to oxygen, and interferes with muscle function (which is very bad when you think about, say, the muscles of the heart); and it binds to the “cytochrome oxidase” in your mitochondria, which I don’t really understand, but it’s bad. Details here.
Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, doesn’t bond so readily to all this stuff, and therefore isn’t quite so toxic. CO2, however, isn’t totally harmless. The air we breath is less than 1% carbon dioxide, but if CO2 concentrations rise to even a few percent by volume, it can start to have negative effects. When concentrations get up to about 8%, people can become sick and die. Fortunately, this isn’t something most people have to worry about, unless they live on a spaceship or a submarine. Huge quantities of CO2 can also suddenly be release from CO2-rich lakes in what are called limnic eruptions—in 1986 almost 2,000 people in Cameroon were killed by the limnic eruption of CO2 from Lake Nyos.
Oh, man. I think that’ll do it for today, sailors.
I readily acknowledge the fact that I haven’t lived my life quite up to Otzi standards—I don’t have any tattoos (that I know of), I’ve never killed anybody (that I know of), I don’t own a cape…the list goes on—but I hope that when hikers find my frozen corpse, thousands of years in the future, they’ll be as thrilled with it as they are with Otzi. Honestly, every millimeter of our leathery friend is getting the once over and the double take.
Scientists figured out what Otzi’s last meal was years ago (they practically dove into his stomach), but they’re still going over the most minute of minutia of the iceman’s guts. And, you know what? I’m into it.
Archaeobotanists and moss-experts are the last to have taken a swing at Otzi. They have found trace remains of six different kinds of moss in Otzi’s intestines, and were able to identify them under a microscope. None of those moss varieties, interestingly, are the kinds of moss that you’d eat (if there are any kinds of moss you’d eat). They do, nonetheless, add to the details of Otzi’s life.
One of the kinds of moss, the scientists guess, was used to wrap one of Otzi’s last meals (sort of a fuzzy saran wrap, I guess), another probably got into his water, and another was most likely used as a dressing for a wound (he probably chewed it up and swallowed a little). At least one of the mosses, however it got into him, isn’t known to grow in the region where Otzi was found, adding another location to Otzi’s travel diary. So cross that off your bucket list, little dude.
None of this information is insulating my attic, or buying me dinner, but I still think it’s pretty cool. The same sort of forensic techniques we might use to solve a murder today are being used to learn about the life of a guy who died 53 centuries ago. I like it.
Courtesy matt coatsImagine a crime scene that has hundreds of crime scene investigators. All of the students at Arlington High School in St. Paul, MN are working together to crack the case! As part of the school’s BioSMART program, intended to expose students sciences, engineering, business, etc., this school-wide lesson is drawing on a variety of different disciplines. Art students have become sketch artists, English language learners are questioning “persons of interest”, other students are working to determine the angles of blood spatter. I think this lesson is really a neat way to highlight how crime scene investigation draws on many different subjects and specialists. It is also a cool way to get students interested in subjects that maybe they would not have thought about before. What do you think?