Stories tagged Interdependence of Life

Sep
10
2009

Pshhhheeeewww!: Science everywhere!
Pshhhheeeewww!: Science everywhere!Courtesy SiamEye
I don’t even know where to begin today! All I can think is “OMG!!!!” And each exclamation point I think is like a blood vessel bursting in my brain!

OMG pop pop pop

So why is this a day of excitement, instead of quiet family tragedy? Because the biggest explosions today aren’t happening in little tubes in my head, they’re happening in the world of science! (I don’t consider the physiology of my head to be science. More like magic. Or trial and error.) I just don’t know what to do with all this science.

See, unlike your average Friday Extravaganza, a Thursday Explosion has no focus; it’s just kind of all over the place. A mess! There are all these stories, but we really have to stretch to fit them into a single post… so the loose theme of this explosion will, fittingly, be “flying things.” Am I not helping? Just wait, you’ll see.

Normal mouse becomes flying mouse, doesn’t care!
Check it out: a baby mouse was put into a little chamber and subjected to an intense magnetic field. What happened? All the water in the mouse’s body was levitated. And because those squishy little mice are so full of water, the mouse itself levitated along with the water.

Unfortunately, the first mouse wasn’t quite ready for life as an aviator, and upon levitation, he began to, as scientists say, “flip his Schmidt.” Lil’ mousey started kicking, and spinning, and with minimal resistance in the chamber, he started spinning faster and faster. He was removed from the machine, and put wherever little mice go to relax. Subsequent floating mice were given a mild sedative before flying (pretty much the same thing my mom does), and they seemed cool with it. Now and again the floating mice would drift out of the region of the magnetic field, but upon falling back into it they’d float right back up. After remaining in a levitating state for several hours, the mice got used to it, and even ate and drank normally. Afterwards, the mice had no apparent ill-effects from the experiment (rats had previously been made to live in non-levitating magnetic fields for 10 weeks, and they seemed fine too.)

Aside from the excitement normally associated with floating mice, the experiment is promising in that it may be a useful way to study the effects of long term exposure to microgravity without bringing a subject to space.
pop pop pop

Great tits are dangerous if you’re a sleepy bat!

It’s true! Forget everything you thought you knew about great tits and get schooled once again, my friends, for great tits are killers!

I’m not talking about the senseless murder of bugs, either—everybody already knew that great tits are primarily insectivores. A population of great tits in Hungary have been observed hunting bats!

As fun as it is to keep writing “great tits” with no explanation, I suppose we should be clear that great tits are a type of song bird common in Europe and Asia. Little, bat-hunting songbirds.

Meat eating great tits had been reported in other parts of Europe, but it was thought that those individuals had only consumed already-dead animals. The tits of Hungary were actually observed flying into bat caves, where they would capture tiny, hibernating pipistrelle bats and drag them out of the cave to devour them alive. It even appeared that the birds had learned to listen for the bats’ disturbed squeaking (or, as I like to think of it, their horrified shrieking)—when the same noise (which is too high for humans to hear) was played back for captured tits, 80% of the birds became interested (read: bloodthirsty) at the sound.

If it really is just the Hungarian population that engages in this behavior, the situation also brings up the possibility of culture in the birds. That is, if this isn’t some sort of innate behavior, but something learned and taught, and passed through generations that way, it could be considered culture. Amazing! Great tits are cultured!

pop pop pop

Flying velociraptors!

Well, not so much flying as falling. But falling with purpose. (What was it Buzz Lightyear said? Oh yeah, “I’m so lonely all the time.”)

We all know about how awesome raptors are. I think it’s part of kindergarten curriculum now, just between how not to accidentally poison yourself, and why you shouldn’t swear and hit. Well, I remember reading a news item a couple years ago about how some paleontologists were thinking that raptors’ famous giant toe claws may not have been for disemboweling their prey. Instead, the scientists proposed, raptors would lodge the massive claw into the skin of their prey with a kick, and then use it to hang on to the unlucky animal while the raptor went bite-crazy. The researchers had made a simulation of a raptor claw, and found that it could easily puncture thick skin and flesh, it didn’t seem to be sharp enough to actually cut the skin. (Cutting is necessary for a good disemboweling.) One might argue over the strength and sharpness of raptor claws, considering that the fossilized bone claws we see in museums would have been covered with a tough, horny substance, which did not fossilize, but whatever—the new scenario was still pretty cool.

Now, the same group of paleontologists is proposing that raptor claws were also well suited to tree climbing. Raptors could have waited on overhanging limbs, and then pounced on their prey from above. Pretty neat! The researchers point out that the microraptor a tiny relative of the velociraptor, had feathered limbs to help it glide down from high places, so it’s not a stretch to think that its cousins were comfortable in trees too. “The leg and tail musculature,” one scientist says, “show that these animals are adapted for climbing rather than running.”

I’ll take his word for it, I guess, but I do have some questions on that point. There’s a dromaeosaur (it looks a lot like a velociraptor) skeleton here at the museum, and I seem to remember that its tale was supposed to be very stiff—it has these cartilage rods running the length of the tail to keep it rigid. I feel like a long, stiff tail would be a pain in the butt up in a tree. It’s not the sort of thing arboreal animals invest in these days. Also, I wonder what sort of vegetation was around in the areas raptors lived. Plenty of big trees with good, raptor-supporting limbs? (I’m not implying that there weren’t, I’m just curious.)

The researchers do acknowledge that tree climbing wouldn’t have been every raptor’s cup of tea, however. Species like the utahraptor, weighing many hundreds of pounds, and measuring about 20 feet in length would have been “hard put to find a tree they could climb.”

pop pop pop

Pretty neat stuff, huh? Explosions usually are. But you see now why I couldn’t wait for three posts to get it all out there.

Aug
17
2009

This is all assuming the zombies don't have guns: But they rarely do. See Day of the Dead (original version) and Land of the Dead for exceptions.
This is all assuming the zombies don't have guns: But they rarely do. See Day of the Dead (original version) and Land of the Dead for exceptions.Courtesy Suitov
Remember in 8th grade, when you were taking geometry or pre-calc or whatever, and some cleverboots in the back row asked the teacher when anyone was every likely to use math in real life? Your teacher probably said something like, “Do I have to shake the answer into you, numbskull? You’ll use it every day! What if you want to figure out the rate of wear on your tires based on circumference? What about when you want to figure out the height of your favorite tree, using only the length of its shadow?” And because everyone involved could see the hollowness of this answer, you went home feeling a little darker.

But, see, what your lousy teacher should have said is that when the zombie apocalypse comes, math is what’s going to drag us out of that corpse-filled scenario and into a brighter, infection-free future. Because, when it comes to zombies, math is the real weapon.

JK, of course. Claw hammers and chainsaws will still be the real weapons. No getting past that—even the trickiest math problems will hardly destroy the brain, much less sever a spinal cord. But mathematical models will provide a strategy for survivors.

Mathematical models for vampire scenarios are old hat. They’re old, boring hat, in fact, on account of how people can’t agree about the methodology, and because vampires aren’t that great in the first place. But a practical zombie model is making the rounds in the popular press, because this is the sort of thing we need to know.

Taking into account infection rates, and the relative numbers of “suseptable,” “zombie,” and “removed” individuals, the model confirms what we have long suspected: that a zombie outbreak would suck. The model is, of course, much more complicated than this, and it has lots of fun little symbols and graphs, but that’s the long and short of it.

However, the model does leave room for hope. Putting victims into quarantine could eradicate the infection, but only under ideal circumstances (i.e., not in the real world), and a while a zombie cure could ensure the continuing existence of humanity, survivors would need to coexist with zombies. The remaining solution, and the only practical one, it turns out, is the old fashioned one: head smashing. As the paper puts it, “only sufficiently frequent attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication.”

We’ve got to hit the zombies where they live. Or where they undead-live. Or whatever. The point is that when the time comes (any day now), we have to take the fight to the zombies, and we have to do it fast. So prepare your bite-guards and blunt instruments, and put them next to your fire extinguisher and emergency blanket. Be a survivor.

Here’s the original paper in pdf format.

A quick note: To all of you who are thinking, “Puh-leaze, JGordon. Zombies are played out like Super Bowl XLIII,” I respond with a puh-leaze of my own. I say y’all are the ones played out, played out like Mario 3, and I think y’all should check yourselves and just go watch Transformers 2, or whatever it is you people are into.

Aug
13
2009

Tens of thousands of childhood nightmares: wrapped up in one little package.
Tens of thousands of childhood nightmares: wrapped up in one little package.Courtesy bug_girl_mi
Remember stumbling through the world as a stupid little kid? You touched bugs. You dug holes. You explored mud. And then… then you heard about killer bees. Killer bees and flesh-eating diseases. Killer bees, flesh-eating diseases, and tiny eggs that could come off a picnic table, get into your body, and hatch into something that would eat your brain.

It wasn’t the end of your childhood, it just gave you something to think about all the time. No, you’re childhood didn’t end until you were able to convince yourself that these things—killer bees, flesh-eating bacteria, brain eggs—were harmless… if they even exist at all.

Well guess what: they do. They exist, and they are dangerous! Your childhood is long gone, and now so is your adulthood. Welcome to the next stage in your life: The childhood nightmare spotlight!

Today’s feature: raccoon poop brain parasites! They’re real, and they’re all up in your brains!

So, what’s nice about raccoon poop brain parasites as a childhood nightmare—as opposed to childhood nightmares like killer bees, or one of those little fish that will swim up your urethra—is that even we fancy city-folk are vulnerable to it.

See, there is, in this world, a thing called Baylisascaris procyonis. B. procyonis is a species of roundworm. It is a parasitic species of roundworm, in fact, known to infest the guts of raccoons. Should procyonis eggs find their way into a human (and more on ust how they might do that in a minute), there’s no need to worry about them turning into worms and going crazy in the intestines—the parasite really only wants to do that to raccoons. Instead, the eggs hatch into larvae, and enter the blood stream, traveling about the body to wherever suits them. I think that whoever wrote the wikipedia article on them puts what happens next rather well:

A great deal of damage occurs wherever the larva tries to make a home. In response to the attack, the body attempts to destroy it by walling it off or killing it. The larva moves rapidly to escape, seeking out the liver, eyes, spinal cord or brain. Occasionally they can be found in the heart, lungs, and other organs.

This can lead to a whole range of symptoms from skin irritation to blindness to brain damage (and what doctors call “craziness”) to death.

So how do they get in you? You have to eat poorly cooked raccoon, or uncooked raccoon feces.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Phew! It’s been years since I’ve had undercooked raccoon, and I almost never put raccoon feces in my mouth anymore. Not since college! I don’t even know where to get raccoon feces these days!”

Shows what you know. Raccoons are everywhere, even in your precious, safe cities. And when they pick a spot to relieve themselves, they really go for it. Raccoons, as it happens, us communal “latrines.” That means that multiple raccoons will pick a spot in, say, your back yard, to all go to the bathroom on. Each gram of raccoon feces can contain up to 20,000 worm eggs, so when you’ve got a latrine full of raccoon mess, you’ve got plenty of potential brain parasites. Especially if you’re in the habit of putting everything in your mouth, or of cleaning your yard with a leaf-blower. (The leaf blower would fill the air—and possibly your mouth—with tiny particles of raccoon feces and brain parasite eggs.)

Not many people get the disease (only 14 in the last 30 years, says this article, or possibly 25 in the last 6 years, like this article says) but getting it is bad enough that you might want to give it a little thought. Or lots of though, late at night. Don’t believe me? Read this article again.

The best way to avoid it is to keep that raccoon feces out of your mouth. And to follow the simple tips on cleaning up raccoon latrines offered in this article (which you already looked at). My favorite anti-raccoon latrine tip? “Flame” the latrine with a propane torch! It’s like Aliens!

At any rate, you’re probably safe. Possibly safe. Safe-ish.

You really could have raccoon poop brain parasites, you know. There were probably some on your deck, and you didn’t even think about it when you were eating that watermelon.

You probably have a headache right now.

Aug
10
2009

Typical T. rex?: Image modified slightly by JGordon.
Typical T. rex?: Image modified slightly by JGordon.Courtesy ArthurWeasley
Oh, paleontologists… with your grabby little claws… always grabbing for the juiciest headlines… late to the table of the hard sciences, where your neighbors long ago grew fat and respected.

JK, of course. You’re a spunky young science, paleontology, and I love you for it. And who doesn’t want headlines? Why do you think I keep lighting fireworks off on my roof? If you’ve got something as loved, feared, and debated as the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex as your specialty, why not be a little provocative?

And so it went with a couple of paleontologists based out of Beijing and Munich. They’re all, “Ahem. Ahem. Is this thing on? Hello? We think, ah, that the Tyrannosaurus rex probably ate a lot of baby dinosaurs, and not so many fearsome adult dinosaurs. And, um, we…”

And then the press is all, “Say what?! Are you trying to say that the T. rex was just a big, dumb baby-eater? You are?”

Scientists: “Sort of, but not exactly.”

Press: “Print it!”

And so we have a new contender in the “Fearsome Hunter vs. Giant Scavenger” ring: Fearsome Baby-Hunter!

The idea, say the scientists, is that it’d be a lot easier to go around eating weak little babies than to go around fighting big triceratops and stuff, so that’s probably what T. rex did. (T. rex and other large, two-legged meat eaters.)

That part makes sense. Even if you’re as big and strong as the T. rex certainly was, eating something that can’t hurt you or run away from you pays off a lot more than eating something that can hurt seriously damage you, and takes a lot of energy to get. If you were a dinosaur, babies would probably be your favorite food. They’d be like the equivalent of individual serving yogurts. (Fun, delicious, and easy to eat.) That doesn’t mean that there were no epic dino-battles… they would have just been rare, I guess.

The paleontologists go on to say that T. rex-like dinosaurs specialized in baby eating so much, that it could explain the lack of immature dinosaurs in the fossil record. Juveniles would have been eaten whole, or at least in large chunks, their predators digesting the bones and everything. This would also explain, the claim, the low occurrence of bite marks on fossilized adult dinosaur bones—they just weren’t getting bitten much, if they made it to adulthood.

That’s where some of the theory falls apart for me. Why would an organism expend so much energy growing and maintaining a body the size of T. rex’s if its main prey was small and weak? Also, did dinosaurs just leave their young lying around for any old predator to eat? Unless a predator were small and sneaky (and whatever else T. rex was, it wasn’t small and sneaky), and could grab baby dinos on the sly, one would think that it would run into some protective parent dinosaurs pretty often. And then they’d have to fight, which defeats the purpose of going after little dinosaurs in the first place.

The lack of scarred adult bones seems to be incidental too. If a dinosaur died from whatever scarred its bones, I’d assume that it would be totally eaten (either by its killer, or later, by scavengers) before it fossilized. And maybe the type of wound that would leave scars on a bone would likely kill the attacked animal. And if the creature didn’t die, if it healed totally, it still might get eaten later on. And most animals don’t fossilize anyway.

And do we need a reason why there aren’t more baby dinosaur skeletons? They survive to adulthood, no baby skeletons. They get eaten, no skeleton. (Babies were bound to have been eaten, even without large dinosaurs specializing in eating them.) Even if they died of other causes, I wonder if their parents would eat the body themselves, or at least push it out of a nest, or leave it behind (where it would get eaten).

I wonder, too, if the ratio of baby dinosaurs to adults is similar in periods and areas without large theropods. (Theropods are the group of two-legged meat eaters T. rex belonged to.) If it’s the same, then the reason for so few specimens would have to be low fossilization rates, or a sampling problem, or just that everything was eating baby dinosaurs, not just theropods (which is a much less interesting claim to make).

Anyone care enough to offer an opinion?

Jul
26
2009

What have I done: I've killed him, KILLED HIM!! **insert sobbing noises here**
What have I done: I've killed him, KILLED HIM!! **insert sobbing noises here**Courtesy Women's Day
A few weeks ago I received the cutest little basil plant as a gift. I made sure to quench his thirst everyday as he sat on my windowsill enjoying the sun. But, silly me, I left town for a weekend and forgot to get someone to water him. Arriving home, I saw that his leaves were shriveled and he was inches from death. What was I to do to bring my lil’ guy back to life?

Well, according to a new experiment by the Royal Horticultural Society, women’s voices make plants grow faster. Over the course of one month, scientists at RHS found that tomato plants group up to two inches taller if women chatted them up verses men.

After a round of open auditions, ten voices were chosen to play to ten tomato plants. Every plant heard their respective voice through a set of headphones that was connected to the plant pot. There were also two control plants that grew in silence. The results showed that on average, women’s plants grew an inch higher than their male counterparts. Some men’s plants grew less than the plants that were left alone.

“We just don’t know why,” Colin Grosbie from RHS said of the results. “It could be that they have a greater range of pitch and tone that affects the sound waves that hit the plant. Sound waves are an environmental effect just like rain or light."

Interestingly, the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin (you remember this guy, right?) had the most effective “discussions” with her plants. Sarah Darwin read passages from the On the Origin of Species, to which her plant grew two inches taller than the best performing male and half an inch higher than the nearest female competitor.

She responds, "I'm not sure if it's my dulcet tones or the text that I read from On the Origin of Species that made the plant sit up and listen, but either way I think it is great fun and I'm proud of my new title."

So maybe reading my physical chemistry book won’t necessarily bring my basil plant back from the dead, but I’m sure it couldn’t hurt.

Jul
12
2009

The soybean industry, worth $27 billion last year, is exploring ways to combat aphids. Aphids can destroy up to 40% of a farmer's crop.
Using Binodoxys communis against soybean aphids: Researchers look for mummies, the darker brown objects on the soybean leaf shown above, to gage  the effectiveness of the beneficial insect in controlling soybean aphids. The light green spots on the soybean leaf are soybean aphids.
Using Binodoxys communis against soybean aphids: Researchers look for mummies, the darker brown objects on the soybean leaf shown above, to gage the effectiveness of the beneficial insect in controlling soybean aphids. The light green spots on the soybean leaf are soybean aphids.Courtesy David Hansen, Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station

With insecticide costing $10 to $15 per acre, it can add $8,000 or more to his costs. But the difference between spraying and not spraying can be 10 bushels or more per acre at harvest, said Iverson, president of the South Dakota Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

Biological warfare against soybean aphids

Another possibility researchers are looking at is Binodoxys communis, a tiny, parasitic insect that inserts an egg into the aphid. The egg hatches into a larva that kills the aphid, feeds on it and emerges as an adult from what becomes a mummified aphid shell.

Minnesota winters may be too cold

Initial counts of Binodoxys communis that survived through the winter were low. Plan B is to look at a couple other species of parasitoid wasps.

Learn more

Jul
08
2009

The patch-nosed salamander: Think of how many dimes you could fit in your mouth! And this would be easier, because salamanders are so soft!
The patch-nosed salamander: Think of how many dimes you could fit in your mouth! And this would be easier, because salamanders are so soft!Courtesy University of Georgia
Oh, happy July 8, Buzzketeers! A brand new salamander has been discovered in a Georgia creek! (In several Georgia creeks, actually.) And it represents not only a new species, but also an entirely new genus! This is the first time in fifty years that a new genus of four-legged animal has been found in the United States.

But that’s not the best part; the best part is that this new salamander is small enough to easily fit in your mouth! At just two itty-bitty inches, the salamander is in fact small enough to easily fit into a baby’s mouth. An average adult could probably fit dozens of these things in his or her mouth! (This is assuming that said mouth isn’t wired shut for some reason. The salamanders may be able to fit up a straw whole, but I’m guessing that it would make more sense to blend them up first, in which case one could still get in plenty of salamanders by volume, but determining the number of individuals might be hard.)

The researchers are excited to study the new genus, and hope that, being among the smallest salamanders in the world, the new specimen might tell them something about the evolution of miniaturization in salamanders. And when they’re finished with that, they can just toss the little suckers in their mouths, and maybe eat them.

Jul
06
2009

Salamander
SalamanderCourtesy USDA
Lets say you are walking in the woods and you see a 12 point deer ahead of you. You sneek up quietly but not quietly enough. The deer hears you looks right at you and begins to charge. Before you know it its right antler has sheered off your arm! What do you do? Well if you were a salamander you would simple re-grow it.

For centuries scientist have wondered how salamanders regenerate limbs. In recent history they believed the tissue around the injury regressed into pluripotent stem cells (the kind we have all heard about that can morph into many different types of cells) and they reform into each cell type needed to create the limb.

This research was conducted to help understand how the salamander was able to do this amazing feat so that we could apply it to humans. Unfortunately, stem cells are not the easiest thing to work with but, that is old news now.

New research has shown that the salamander's cells do not regress but have memory that allows them to grow into what they once were. The memory is so good that the cartilage from the lower limb re-grows in the lower limb again.

The way scientist were able to do this was by engineering a florescent protein in a group of salamanders and transplanted only a select cells (skin, bone, muscle, etc) into embryos. After the embryos had grown, a limb was amputated. When it re-grew scientists observed that the glowing cells were not spread out amongst all the different cell types, as it would be if the cells had regressed into blank slates, but the florescent protein was only found in the original transplanted cell type.

Good new for us humans. This new finding may, although most likely not in our life time, make it easier to regenerate human organs.

Jun
23
2009

Not the real HMS Puddleduck: Just a mirage.
Not the real HMS Puddleduck: Just a mirage.Courtesy Myriam Thyes
A… hoy.

This heat. Am I right? Am I right? Here on the HMS Puddleduck, triviaship, we haven’t been spared from the heat you feel on land. If anything, it’s worse out here at sea.

The heat has made Captain JGordon listless. In my weakened state, I don’t feel fit to hold a pen or operate the keyboard of a computer. Therefore, I am dictating this entry from the Puddleduck’s crow’s-nest. My crew, having been born and raised in such sweaty, squalid conditions as I now find myself in are more accustomed to this heat, and I have ordered them to paint my words in meter-wide letters on the deck of the ship. This way, the answers to today’s random questions can be easily read from my perch, and transferred to the Internet at a later time. The crew will scrub the deck clean again tomorrow afternoon.

On with it, then. These questions were obtained from the galleries of the science museum, but the answers were divined by yours truly from the movements of the stars.

Question: How come you can see reflections in mirages if they aren’t really there?

Answer: How timely. The questioner is wise to bring up mirages—please, Buzzketeers, be certain of the veracity of all bodies of water might find in front of you on hot days like today before you go chasing after them.

Mirages, it should be noted, are “really there.” They aren’t figments of your imagination, they’re real natural phenomena. And it’s not exactly a reflection that you see—it’s a refraction. In reflections, light bounces off of something to go in a new direction. In a refraction, light bends passing through something. This happens because light travels at slightly different speeds when traveling through different materials. Light that passes from air to water, for example, has to slow down when it moves into the water. If the light enters the water at a non-perpendicular angle, the direction of the light usually changes.

When you see a mirage, you’re seeing a refraction light of the sky (which looks watery), or of an object on the other side of the mirage (like when you see “reflections” of other cars in mirages on the road). The light is refracting because it’s passing through a couple different “mediums.” Instead of air and water, in this case, the light is passing though cooler air and warmer air. When the ground or pavement is very hot, the air immediately above it is going to be hotter too. Because hot air is less dense than cool air, light travels at a different speed through it. So… light moves from cooler air a little ways above the ground to hotter air immediately above the ground, and it gets refracted—it sort of bends away from the ground without ever actually touching it. And that light zooms up to your eyeballs, and it looks kind of like a reflection. Ta-da.

Question: Why does my butt hurt?

Answer: You know, this question comes in kind of a lot. Seriously. Almost as often as “I like cheese,” and “I like pie,” which aren’t really questions. Go figure. Usually I pass it over, but I think you deserve a real answer this time.

Anyway, a common cause of butt-hurt is hemorrhoids. I’m afraid I can’t link to that, because the picture is icky. But I’m guessing you have hemorrhoids. What’s happening to you is the veins in your anus are becoming swollen and inflamed. (And very sore, I’m sure!) This is probably happening because the stress and strain on those blood vessels has recently increased. Have you been suffering from diarrhea or constipation recently? Because that can to it. Don’t worry, though—usually hemorrhoids go away in a few days, and your butt should stop hurting at that point.

Question: What in the brain triggers kids/people to not be considerate & waste paper that is actually set out for writing questions instead of “Hello” “Hi” “Stupid” and more?

Answer: Interesting question. Thank you for using the paper more productively, though. I’m sorry to let you down.

Question: Could the storm on the sun destroy Earth?

Answer: Huh. Probably not?

For clarity, Junior Buzzketeers, the sun doesn’t have storms like Earth. But from time to time, things up there do get a little dicey now and again. There are occasional events called “solar flares” in the sun’s atmosphere, where a huge amount of energy from deeper in the sun very suddenly explodes into space, and similar events called “coronal mass ejections,” where a bunch of energy and matter are shot out of the sun. I suppose these things are sort of like storms, in that they’re sort of violent events in the outer layers of the sun, but they’re not like Earth storms, seeing as how nearby space rarely has to worry about being pelted by rain and lighting during one of our thunderstoms.

As for danger… hmm. If you spend a lot of time out in space, or on another planet with a less robust atmosphere and magnetosphere than Earth (like Mars, or the moon), one of these solar events might cause you a lot of trouble. See they release a tremendous amount of energy. What reaches other planets isn’t the sort of energy that blows you up or fries you like an egg, though. It’s the sort of energy that passes through your body and gives you radiation poisoning, or cancer. If an astronaut didn’t have sufficient shielding during a big solar flare, the dose of radiation could be fatal. It’s something to consider if you’re planning a trip to the moon or mars (which we are).

Earth’s magnetic field, however, does a pretty good job of protecting all of us from these solar blasts. They can interfere with radio transmissions, but generally they don’t cause much trouble. But really big events, like interplanetary coronal mass ejections, can be followed by a shock wave of solar wind (again, not like wind here—solar wind is mostly protons and electrons flying through space) which can temporarily disrupt the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, and affect the ionosphere (the topmost level of our atmosphere). Still, the biological affects on the residents of Earth aren’t much to speak of. The danger lies more in the affect these storms can have on our infrastructure. When crazy electrical fields are created around power lines, they can do crazy things to the whole electrical system; components can break, protective devices trip, and power gets disrupted. Events this severe are very rare though.

I seem to recall reading an article recently that discussed the cyclical nature of powerful solar events, and the author was of the opinion that we are coming up on a particularly active period for the sun, and if we don’t prepare our electrical and communications systems, we are going to be in serious trouble. He also mentioned that it was going to coincide with the 2012 apocalypse, however, at which point I sort of tuned out.

But, in answer to your question, no, storms on the sun won’t destroy the Earth. But there’s a chance that they could make modern life here a lot more difficult.

Question: What’s the most valuable rock?

Answer: Weeellll… this sort of depends on who you ask and what you want if for. Generally, though, you can’t go wrong with higher quality Led Zeppelin.

Now I must return to my air-conditioned cabin. It seems cruel to have the men cranking on that generator if I’m not even going to be in there.