Stories tagged Flow of Matter and Energy

Jun
12
2009

Rains of cats, dogs and pitchforks, however: Are so rare that we choose not to mention them.
Rains of cats, dogs and pitchforks, however: Are so rare that we choose not to mention them.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Originally I was going to write a post today called, “Hey, kids, you’ve been lied to!” The first story was going to be this science news item. Remember how people always tell you that your fingerprints are there (on your fingers) to help you hold on to all of the slippery smooth items we humans have adapted to use? Even if you don’t remember, someone for sure told you this. Something like, “Good thing you have fingerprints, child, because you need them to hold on to that pencil of yours!” Presumably, without fingerprints we’d be walking around dropping water glasses, remote controls, fancy pens, and greased pets, until all of these things were stuck, permanently, on the ground.

It turns out that this isn’t true! You’ve been lied to, kids! It seems that some clever scientists were surprised to find lots of time on their hands. As we all well know, time is our smoothest dimension, and, if you think about it, it’s sort of amazing that we’re able to hold onto it at all. So, think these scientists, is it the itty bitty ridges on our slender fingers that have allowed us to keep so much time on our hands? And experimentation commenced.

These cleverboots devised a scientific finger grip contraption that could measure the resistance of a finger being rubbed across a smooth, glassy surface. Short story shorter, the scientists found that the area of fingerprint in contact with the glassy stuff didn’t increase grip as much as it should have. Instead, the fingertips behaved more or less like rubber, with resistance increasing proportionately with the area of flesh touching the smooth material. This means that, if anything, instead of acting as grip-enhancers, fingerprints reduce your ability to grip smooth objects, because all of those tiny ridges actually decrease the amount of finger surface area in contact with an object by as much as a third. Maybe fingerprints evolved to help us grip rough surfaces, like tree bark, or to help our skin stretch without damaging, or to allow moisture to drain more effectively from out fingertips. But they don’t help us grip all these smooth little things we like to grip so much. Lies!

And that was my first thought. Then, I came across this article on a rain of tadpoles in Japan. This is the sort of thing we don’t think much about, because it doesn’t ever really rain tadpoles, fish, or frogs, does it? Wrong! It does! If someone in your life has ever told you that it doesn’t rain animals, or implied this simply by not talking about it, you have been lied to! It rains animals all the time!

Well, maybe not all the time, because I’m pretty sure I’ve been out in the rain a few times this year, and I haven’t yet been hit in the head by an animal. (From above, anyway. I’ve been hit in the side of the head by animals several times already.) But, as weird as it sounds, lots of animals do fall from the sky from time to time. And one of those times was just now, in Nanao, Japan. Tadpoles. Everywhere. From the sky!

What if one fell in your open mouth?

Wikipedia has a list, of course, of rains of animals. Fish, frogs and toads feature prominently in the bizarre precipitation, although the occasional rain of blood (or something bloodlike), flesh, or turtles pops up now and again. And check it out: there was a rain of frogs and toads in the summer of 1901 in our own back yard, Minneapolis! Here’s a quote from the relevant news item:

“When the storm was at its highest... there appeared as if descending directly from the sky a huge green mass. Then followed a peculiar patter, unlike that of rain or hail. When the storm abated the people found, three inches deep and covering an area of more than four blocks, a collection of a most striking variety of frogs... so thick in some places [that] travel was impossible.”

Sweet, huh? Also, apparently s rain of fresh fish occurs so regularly each summer near the city of Yoro, Honduras, that they hold a festival for it every year.

What gives? Why is there an extravaganza of falling (sometimes living) meat every year, all over the place, which people lie about by not mentioning everyday because it’s awesome?

Here’s the satisfying answer: Wizards do it. Wizards and demons. Wizards, demons, wizard demons, and demon wizards gift us with rains of animals, for our amusement and theirs.

Here’s the less-satisfying answer: Because scientists don’t believe in wizards, demons, etc, the explanation here has to be related to an observed weather phenomena. The favorite is waterspouts. Waterspouts are caused by tornadoes over water, or by tornado-junior things over water. Either way, what’s happening during a waterspout is that a big thunderstorm has a rotating column of air with a strong updraft that moves over a body of water. Water gets sucked up into the air, and it’s awesome to see. What happens when a waterspout goes over a school of fish or a frog pond, scientists ask? You might get a bunch of damp and surprised animals up in the air, ready to rain down wherever the storm takes them. That the animals occasionally arrive frozen makes sense too—it can be cold up there. Rains of blood and chunks can probably be explained away by a little too much ice and action up in the clouds, or by flocks of birds caught in a violent storm. Clouds of bats have even been seen (on weather radar) being consumed by storm systems and disappearing. The hundreds or thousands of bats involved would presumably return to the earth at some point. In some form or other. Probably all guts and little pieces of bat wings, I mean.

But who would have thought, you know? I’ve never had guts or animals rain on me, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I’ve never had red hot pyroclastic rock rain down on me either, but it happens to some people. And my parents never once sat me down and told me about the rains of fish and frogs. No doubt you have likewise missed the experience. We have been lied to, Buzzketeers!

UPDATE 6/18:
Apparently there have been multiple rains of animals in this area recently. Two small towns got tadpoles, and a third got tiny fish. There are photographs on this site. Japanese coverage of the bizarre weather mentions the waterspout theory, but meteorologists in the area point out that no waterspouts have been observed, and local weather has not been favorable to their formation anyhow. They're mystified. Witness reports of the "rain" say that, during at least one of the events, there was a strange sound outside, but no rain or wind. Neat-o.

May
22
2009

Wardenclyffe tower and building c. 1903
Wardenclyffe tower and building c. 1903Courtesy Public domain
In 1901, inventor and electrical visionary Nikola Tesla began building a laboratory near New York’s Long Island Sound complete with a gigantic 18-story radio tower that he hoped would not only broadcast wireless communications to the world but also supply free electricity for everyone. His grand schemes, however, never really got off the ground. Before the year was out Guglielmo Marconi (using seventeen of Tesla’s patents) would claim to send the first radio signal across the Atlantic, and soon after, Tesla’s investors - including steel magnate J. P. Morgan - began to lose faith in the project and withheld further funding. Eventually mounting debts, lawsuits and loss of patent income began to take their toll on Tesla and his visionary plans.

Known as Wardenclyffe, the site was designed by noted architect Stanford White. It operated for a few years in the early 1900s, even serving as the inventor’s main laboratory for a time. But by mid-decade Tesla himself abandoned the site, and for years it sat unoccupied falling to ruin. Inner machinery and equipment were salvaged and sold to satisfy monetary obligations, and the massive tower was dismantled for scrap during World War I leaving only its foundation. But the main building still stands today and, despite its dilapidated state, has the distinction of being the only remaining worksite of the brilliant Gilded Age inventor.

Now a group of Tesla devotees are pushing for the site to be preserved and designated as a historical site and memorial to a man they say is worthy of a monument.

Nikola Tesla
Nikola TeslaCourtesy Wikipedia
Tesla contributions were certainly monumental. The Serbian-born inventor held over 700 patents and introduced to the world such things as fluorescent lighting, the first remote controlled robot, x-ray photographs, and wireless communications. One invention, the Tesla coil, is still used in today’s radios and television sets and other electrical devices. One of his greatest contributions, the development of alternating electrical current (AC) technology, went against his former employer Thomas Edison's big push for direct current (DC). The threatened Edison went so far as to hire a man to electrocute dogs, old horses, and even a rogue elephant(!) to show the public the dangers of AC current. But AC’s superior technology proved more efficient and cheaper, and near the end of his life, Edison admitted Tesla had been right.

Tesla in his element: Typical promotional photo of the inventor
Tesla in his element: Typical promotional photo of the inventorCourtesy Public domain
Tesla was a bit of a showman when it came to promoting his inventions and theories, often portraying himself in composite photographs sitting peacefully in a display of electric current. During the height of his career he was a wealthy and dapper household name who hobnobbed with the scientific, artistic, and political elite of his day, and had several laboratories in the New York area. In the late 1890s he set up a lab in Colorado Springs to supposedly “transmit a radio signal from Pikes Peak to Paris”. With funding from Colonel John Jacob Astor (who later went down with the Titanic), Tesla built an 80-foot tower on the prairie for that very purpose. Whether or not he achieved his objective remains a mystery, but he and his assistant did manage to put on quite a lightshow for Colorado Springs residents. Reportedly, the tower discharged a high-voltage flurry of 145-foot sparks in every direction that subsequently blew out the power for the entire town. After nine months of experiments, he abandoned the lab and returned to New York to continue his experiments at Wardenclyffe. The Colorado Springs facility was eventually torn down and sold for scrap and no sign of it remains today,

A consortium of science enthusiasts, preservationists, and plain old fans of Tesla’s genius want the Wardenclyffe facilities preserved as a national monument and museum. The group includes Tesla biographer Marc Siefer who helped pen a letter to President Obama asking for the necessary funds to purchase the 10,000-square foot brownstone structure and surrounding acres from the Belgium-based Agfa Corp, which is eager to sell the property to soften the effects of the present economy.

But Siefer and his colleagues think Tesla’s many accomplishments warrant its preservations. For one thing the group contends it was Tesla - not Marconi - who was the true inventor of wireless radio. The issue of who owned the patents for radio broadcast has gone back and forth since the early 20th Century. In 1904 the US Patent Office ruled in favor of Marconi for the patents even though it had ruled in Tesla’s favor in the prior year. Marconi’s many powerful investors may have been the reason for this. After Marconi won the Nobel Prize in 1909 the furious Tesla sued him for infringement and lost again. But in 1943, the US Supreme court proclaimed Tesla was the inventor (probably because the Marconi Company was suing the US government for infringement of the same patents). Unfortunately, for Tesla, this final designation came two months after his death.

Even today, Tesla still seems to elude proper recognition, but Marc Seifer and his colleagues hope to change that by acquiring and preserving Wardenclyffe, a site they say has great historic significance as the last remaining trace of the eccentric inventor’s once grand vision.

“It’s hugely important to protect this site,” Seifer said. “He’s an icon. He stands for what humans are supposed to do — honor nature while using high technology to harness its powers.”

Watch a YouTube video detailing Tesla's life and accomplishments.

LINKS
Tesla Memorial Society of New York website
NY Times Wardenclyffe story
PBS Tesla site
War of the Currents
1899 Tesla interview
Belgrade Tesla museum

May
21
2009

Pure, delicious water: Drink up!
Pure, delicious water: Drink up!Courtesy viking_79
Raise a glass of cool, clear water for our girls and boys in space.

After the removal of a “sticky check valve” in the Urine Processing Assembly on Monday, astronauts on the International Space Station have finally been given a “go” to drink “recycled” water. Wondering, no doubt, what exactly made that valve so sticky, our brave orbiting scientists can now sit back and hesitantly sip tepid, musty water from pouches not entirely unlike catheter bags.

That’s how I like to imagine it, anyway. I suspect, however, that most things on the space station are pretty fancy, and that any water recycling system they’d have up there would do a pretty good job of removing the subtle flavors of urine, sweat, and exhaled moisture (all of which are processed by the system). Hopefully it chills the end product a little bit too. There’s nothing like drinking something the temperature of spit for making you feel like you’re drinking spit.

The technology has been a long time coming. The system was only installed late last year, but it has been the dream of mankind for generations that we might somehow find a way to reuse what we so wastefully flush away (“yellow gold,” we call it). Especially in space. If we ever want to take extended trips in space (and we do—even going to Mars would take months and months), water and waste recycling systems are going to be essential. These brave, thirsty astronauts are finally taking a bold step toward that wonderful future.

May
05
2009

So this is how it gets snotty: I thought it would be more subtle.
So this is how it gets snotty: I thought it would be more subtle.Courtesy The Rapscallion
Buzzketeers—quick, for your own safety, de-cash yourself now! Come on!

There’s a flu pandemic brewing, and y’all are just sitting there, lining your pockets with little green rags that carry as much disease as monetary value. So, please, for health’s sake, empty your wallets of cash, stuff those plague bills into manila envelopes, and send them to JGordon, The Science Museum of Minnesota, The Western Hemisphere (I don’t remember the exact address here, but I’m sure the postal service can figure out the details). I’m willing to sacrifice my health—for you—and disinfect your cash money. None of that money will be returned (please, I’m not made of postage), but I’m sure that the knowledge that you have done your part to slow the pandemic is compensation enough.

(This message goes doubly for the younger, or “lil,” Buzzketeers out there. I understand that you have less money, but your immature immune systems are particularly vulnerable to viral infection. Trust me on this one, and send those piggybanks my way.)

Do you not believe me? I think I’ve proven my scientific reliability time and time again… but here, a real link to a real story: cash is a pretty good way to transmit the influenza virus.

See, according to researchers at the Central Laboratory of Virology in Switzerland, a lonely lil’ flu virus on a fresh and clean piece of paper money can only live for about an hour. Unfortunately, viruses are rarely lonely, and our cash money is not very clean. So the researchers observed how long a virus could live on cash when it was mixed with a little nasal mucus (we’ll call it “snot”).

Under a cozy little film of mucus, the flu viruses were much hardier. Some strains of influenza lived as long as 17 days on the bill. And while the scientists didn’t test the exact strain of swine flu that we’re dealing with now, they did see how long other varieties of the H1N1 virus would last. H1N1 influenza remained viable (it could still infect someone) on the cash for up to 10 days.

It turns out that about 94 percent of dollar bills may carry pathogens (germs, viruses, etc). So let me shoulder this burden of worry, and let’s see that cash.

On to part 2 of this post…

Researchers at Northwestern University and Indiana University are also using money to study the spread of disease, but in a totally different way. It’s a little more complicated, and a little cooler.

Even if cash is totally clean, and doesn’t act as a vector for passing the flu, a cash transaction represents a face-to-face exchange between multiple people, the sort of encounter that could result in the flu virus being passed on.

And, hey, look: a project designed to follow the journey of individual dollar bills across the country.

The Northwestern and Indiana scientists took data from this bill-tracing project (called Where’s George?, and combined it with information on air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the country to make a mathematical model of how people move and interact in the US. They then added information about the H1N1 swine flu into the system—the locations of confirmed cases, rates of infection, the time it takes to become contagious… that sort of thing. With all the variables taken into consideration, the model becomes incredibly complex—so complex that it takes a supercomputer about ten hours to make all the calculations, and come up with a forecast of where future infections will be, and how many of them we might expect.

But the model seems to work. Both universities, working independently, came up with strikingly similar models, and when predictions from the models were compared to real-life figures they matched up pretty well.

So far the models’ estimates have been slightly lower than actual infections, but they predict that there will be about 2,000 cases of the swine flu in the United States by the end of May, with most of those occurring in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston. The researchers didn’t run any predictions beyond about a month, however. The flu, they say, as well as public response to it, are so unpredictable that using the models to look too far ahead doesn’t work. (The flu could mutate into something more virulent, or the government could do something drastic to control its spread, or, you know, we could get invaded by space aliens.)

(Liza, by the way, talked about these models a little last week.)

How about that? Money follows us around, viruses follow us around, viruses follow money around, and we trade all of it.

Here’s the link to Northwestern’s flu model

Here’s the link to Indiana’s model.

Apr
18
2009

Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.
Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.Courtesy Stefan Thlesen
BTW, Buzzketeers, if I ever catch you using the term “the john” when talking about a toilet, I will erase you from the story of my life. Sure, I just used it, but think I have the right to take possession of that word to divest it of its hurtfulness. Sort of like how ugly people are allowed to call stuff “fugly.”

Anyway, let’s consider the future of energy. We all know that we have to start conserving fossil fuels, so that we can use them with abandon in a dune buggy-filled Mad Max style future. (I like to think of this as “saving it for the party.”) In the mean time, we have to get clever. This week I noticed a couple of stories about people thinking outside the box with regards to energy. In one case, they’re thinking above the box, in the other they’re thinking below the box. (Or maybe they’re thinking in the box. It depends on what you use your boxes for.)

Check it out: a company called Solaren Corp has convinced the largest energy utility in California to purchase 200 megawatts of solar power from them by around 2016. The way they propose getting that power is the interesting thing—they plan on getting it from space.

Wait… that was poorly phrased. All solar power comes from space. What Solaren intends to do is launch a massive array of mirrors (as large as several miles across) into orbit to collect and reflect sunlight onto photoelectric cells. The cells will convert the sunlight into electric power, which will then be converted into radio waves and blasted down to a receiver on Earth. The radio energy will then be turned back into electricity. Solaren claims that the system could eventually generate 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of power at a price comparable to that of other alternative energy sources, enough to power 250,000 homes in California. And unlike land-based solar panels, the flow of energy wouldn’t depend on weather, and the orbit would be high enough that the system could provide energy 24 ours a day. They intend to launch it up to about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet, meaning that it would be just inside of a high Earth orbit, and therefore geosynchronous. (I think.) Pretty neat, huh?

However, getting a couple miles of mirrors up to 22,000 miles above Earth is a little tricky. A little tricky, and super expensive. Building the receiving systems isn’t going to be cheap either. Some folks think that the project is altogether… unlikely. But the California power utility isn’t actually making an investment (i.e., taking a risk) they just promised to buy the power when it’s there (or if). But that commitment is probably comforting for investors.

Solaren says that the radio waves being sent back to Earth will be one sixth the intensity of sunlight. But what kind of radio waves are we talking about here? Visible light is composed of radio waves. So are radio, um, radio waves. Nope, we’re talking about microwaves. Microwaves have the advantage of being pretty high-energy. They have the disadvantage of being a little scary to me. And to other people. But it seems like it’s not all that dangerous; the center of the microwave beam would have an intensity of about 23 milliwatts per square centimeter. The limit for workplace exposure to microwaves in the US is 10 mw/cm2, so obviously 23 mw/cm2 is beyond what the government considers safe, but the area of maximum intensity is relatively small. Near the outside of the receiving array, the intensity would be closer to 1 mw/cm2. Birds flying through the center of the beam could have some trouble, and small aircraft and hot air balloons would do well to avoid it, but the metal shell of conventional planes should protect passengers entirely (the same way that your metal microwave protects you from the forces cooking your food). I suppose a super-villain could always hack into the satellite controls, and re-aim the system at a neighborhood. But that’s assuming that it ever gets built.

So from pie in the sky (a huge mirror pie), let’s turn our attention to fudge underground. It doesn’t have quite the sunshiny appeal of space mirrors, but it’s a little more feasible at the moment.

Remember how, in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Master Blaster was harvesting methane fuel from pig feces? Well, that works in the real world too, and not just with pig feces.

Consider the following: if you were to safe all of your… solid waste for one year, you could produce an amount of fuel equivalent to about 2.1 gallons of diesel fuel. I know—it doesn’t seem as much a it should, right? But if a city of 250,000 people was converting its waste into fuel, they’d have enough to drive 80 buses 62,000 miles each. If that figure sounds oddly specific, it’s only because that’s what Oslo, Norway intends to do. The city is all set to fuel its public transportation with brown gold. (Or with the biomethane produced by it.)

The cost of producing an amount of biomethane equivalent to a liter of diesel fuel comes to about 98 cents, while a liter of diesel costs about $1.30 at the pumps in Norway. And, unlike some other biofuels we won’t mention, it only gets into your food supply after you’ve eaten it.

Because the fuel comes from recently grown organic materials, it’s supposed to be carbon neutral, which is good. The article doesn’t say how energy intensive the process of making it is, though. Also, methane itself is a pretty bad greenhouse gas, but I suppose if it’s all burned efficiently that shouldn’t be a problem. (Burned methane makes CO2 and water.)

Energy may be plentiful in the future. We’ll just have to watch where we step.

Mar
27
2009

The peak of civilization: The haze you see is good ideas, just floating around.
The peak of civilization: The haze you see is good ideas, just floating around.Courtesy Jose P Isern Comas
Ahoy, Buzzketeers. I’m a-travelling, far across the ocean. I’m not sure which ocean (I fell asleep on the plane), but things are very different here, and I’ll keep you updated with any science I come across as I have the time.

Anyway, the last place I remember being in was Los Angeles. (And even that was pretty hazy.) I saw lots of strange things, including several awesome cyborgs. (Although… if I were to become a cyborg, I think I’d have to go with laser eyes or robot arms. Do bags of silicone give you mega-strength, or something?) I heard some strange things too, including the following exchange between a father and his two tiny children:

“We can go to McDonalds?”
“If your mother said it was OK… yeah!”
“Hooray!”
“But remember… you have to finish your protein before you eat your fries.”

The dad had clearly done some exceptional fathering, according to the look on his face… but what? Were they speaking in some sort of code? Is there a tonal component to west coast language that Midwesterners can’t recognize?

I typed the whole thing into Google, and it came back with a bunch of words like “low-carb,” and “atkins.”

So what’s happening here? When L.A. dad said “protein,” he was probably referring to meat specifically—meat is mostly fat and protein. The fries waiting in the little girls’ future, on the other hand, are high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are things like sugar and starch (and starch, kids, if you look at it on the molecular level, is pretty much just a long chain of sugar molecules.) Carbohydrates can be quickly turned into energy in the body, but if you aren’t being very active, they can be stored in your body as fat.

Way back in the way back, before French fries and cake were invented, people were mostly hunter-gatherers, and what they hunted and gathered probably would have been high in protein and fat, and low in the sort of carbohydrates our bodies can digest. So some folks think, with good reason, that our bodies are adapted to function best on that sort of diet.

Also, when we eat sugars, our pancreases have to produce the hormones insulin and glucagon to regulate the amount of sugar in our blood, because having too much blood sugar is toxic, and having too little blood sugar essentially starves our cells. In this time of cake and French fries, though, we eat lots of sugar, and our bodies produce lots of insulin, and our poor little pancreases can’t keep up, and they freak out and get sick and can’t produce those hormones in the right amounts any more—we call that diabetes. So regulating sugars before they enter the body is a good idea.

A good idea! Thanks, dad!

But, wait… what else? It turns out that little kids (or, as I call them, lil’ kids) are often pretty active in the first place, and can probably deal with carbohydrates pretty well. They might get hyper, but those carbs may not ever be turned into fat. Also, when there isn’t enough sugar in one’s diet, the body produces chemicals called ketones, which cause fat to be turned back into carbohydrates. That’s cool if you want to loose weight, but if you’re a lil’ kid, and not a fat lil’ kid, ketosis just makes your body think it’s starving and your lil’ brain is robbed of sugars, making you feel… kind of dull. (So say some scientists, anyway.)

Also, let’s consider dad’s specific protein: we don’t know exactly what the kid were going to order, but let’s go with the McDonald’s standby, the Big Mac hamburger. See, while dad was advocating good, old fashioned (Paleolithic), hunter-gatherer values, the high fat and protein items hunted and gathered back then rarely, if ever, included Big Macs. A Big Mac has almost half of the fat an adult should eat in a day (29 grams, so about 45% of the daily value), and a kid is going to have even lower nutritional requirements than an adult. And a lot of that fat is what is called “trans fat.” There are different kinds of fat, and trans fat (trans fatty acids, partially hydrogenated whatevers, etc) are probably one of the fats that you don’t want to have too much of. I won’t get into it, but trans fats really aren’t that great for you.

Also, a Big Mac has 45 grams of carbohydrates. You’d get the same amount of carbohydrates from eating a Snickers bar and a “fun size” Snickers bar together.

So it looks like those lil’ kids aren’t going to be deprived of carbs after all. Thanks for thinking it all out, dad!

Holy smokes! Are we learning or what? Anyway, LAX was awesome.

Mar
06
2009

Somebody has been wearing green pants...: I think it's looking at me.
Somebody has been wearing green pants...: I think it's looking at me.Courtesy freebeet
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, everyone, but it’s time y’all know the ending to the movie, as it were.

You know what I’m talking about: the secrets of belly button lint have been revealed. The code is cracked. The mystery is solved.

So put away your magnifying glasses and mirrors. Close your holy books, and silence your prayers for enlightenment. Power down the electron microscopes, and box up the spectrum analyzer. Pick out the clothes you want to be buried in.

Because someone has beaten you to the punch.

There’s an Austrian behind this bleak news (as usual), a chemist named Georg Steinhauser. In an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses, Steinhauser describes the formation mechanisms and chemical composition of navel fluff, based on samples from his friends and colleagues, as well as over 500 pieces of lint collected from his own gut pit (that’s what cool kids are calling belly buttons these days).

The microscopic structure of human hair—overlapping scales that point towards the end of the hair—serves to abrade clothing fabric (it rubs tiny fibers off the cloth), as well as to direct thee lint towards the navel, as hair on the stomach “often seems to grow in concentric circles around the navel.”

Chemical analysis, however, revealed that while cotton fibers make up most of the content of navel fluff, flecks of skin, dust, dried sweat, and fat are also present in noticeable quantities.

Shaving one’s belly should significantly reduce the accumulation of fluff, but only, the doctor points out, until the hair grows back. Yes, that makes sense.

Also, belly button piercings can aid the prevention of fluff. Rings tend to sweep away fibers before they can lodge in the navel.

Wearing older clothing can likewise reduce lint. New cloth sheds more fibers—up to one thousandth of a shirt’s weight can be lost to belly button lint each year. If my calculations are correct, that means that your navel could consume an entire shirt in one thousand years.

It’s valuable research, of course, and it adds a “why” to the “who” and “um… what?” to our understanding of the navel ecosystem. (The bulk of what we already knew came from an Australian study of over 5,000 people, which determined that the typical carrier of navel lint is a “slightly overweight middle-aged male with a hairy abdomen,” and that the reason the lint is generally blue or grey is because… we usually wear blue or grey pants.)

Are your minds blown?

Well, you can continue on with your lives now, as pointless as they may seem at the moment.

Mar
02
2009

I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!
I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!Courtesy whalt
Hey Buzzketeers! Welcome to the new week! Is it everything you imagined it would be?

So, if I said “Radioactive Man,” would y’all get the Simpsons reference? Bart’s favorite comic book hero is Radioactive Man, a guy who survived an atomic blast, and a lightning bolt shaped piece of metal stuck in his head.

Hey, guess what! There’s a real life Radioactive Man running around now!

Oh… but the radioactivity is potentially dangerous. And he’s some kind of sex offender, who has run away from the authorities.

So that’s a bummer, but the situation provides some opportunity for science education (which is, like, my favorite thing).

How does a sex offender get to be radioactive? Good question.

Not all sex offenders are radioactive. For the most part, you still don’t want to come in close contact with them, but not because of radioactivity.

This particular sex offender, Thomas Marius Leopold, is radioactive because he has an overactive thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland hides out in your neck, and it produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism. Too much thyroid hormone, and your metabolism goes nuts—you get weak and hungry, you can lose weight, and your heart rate becomes jittery. That sort of thing. Some thyroid conditions also cause your eyes to become protuberant, and your thyroid gland to swell, forming a goiter.

One of the treatments for hyperthyroidism involves the use of radioiodine. Radioiodine is an isotope of the element iodine. Iodine is number 53 on the periodic table, so it has 53 protons in each atom. Naturally occurring iodine has 74 neutrons in each atom, but iodine can have different numbers of neutrons (different isotopes). The radioiodine isotope has 78 neutrons, but the atom isn’t stable with that many neutrons, so they decay until there are just 74 left. These decaying neutrons give off beta emissions (electrons and positrons), and gamma rays (highly energetic electromagnetic radiation).

Normally we want to avoid this sort of radioactive stuff, but materials like radioiodine can be very useful when they’re targeted at certain cells or organs (sort of like how we blast tumors with radiation to treat cancer). It just so happens that the thyroid naturally traps iodine in our bodies (it needs iodine to make hormones), so when a patient is given radioactive iodine, the thyroid sucks it right up. When the emissions from decaying neutrons blast into thyroid tissue, the thyroid kind of gets worn out, and slows down—that’s why radioiodine can be good for a thyroid that was overactive in the first place.

Radioiodine is radioactive enough, however, that hospitals often recommend keeping extra space between someone who is on the treatment, like this sex offender on the lam, and folks who might be particularly susceptible to radiation, like small children, or arresting police officers.

The radioactivity isn’t super bad, at least, and it doesn’t last forever—radioiodine has a half-life of about 8 days. That means that after 8 days, half of the radioactive material is gone (turned into something more stable). And after 8 more days, half of what was left is gone (so there’s just ¼ of the original amount left). Eventually the amount of radioiodine left in the body is so negligible that you’re safe hugging pregnant women and handcuffing fugitives.

Wasn’t that interesting? We know about radioiodine now! So if you’re in Great Britain (where this story came from), and there’s a creepy-looking dude who seems to be ruining your film just by being around you, call the police!

Jan
29
2009

I didn't have access to the original schematics: so I drew some of my own. That's me up there.
I didn't have access to the original schematics: so I drew some of my own. That's me up there.Courtesy JGordon
I don't know about this... if God had meant for man to fly, He would have created us with high-power hoses attached to our butts. So unless this guy was born this way, I think he might be committing a crime against nature.

This seems kind of fakey, but also kind of totally awesome. And here's a year and a half old post from Wired.com that seems to be the patent for this very same water jet-powered recreational vehicle.

The future is shaping up to be pretty cool, my friends. Pretty cool.