Stories tagged Forces of Nature

Jul
01
2008

But what a way to go!: Look! I can see my house! Right on the center left, being sucked into an ultra dense, inescapable mass!
But what a way to go!: Look! I can see my house! Right on the center left, being sucked into an ultra dense, inescapable mass!Courtesy NASA
So, what? You wanted to live forever?

Oh, you did? Er…even at the expense of scientific enterprise? Whatever. Deal with it, crybaby, because me and my little Strangelet are going to wring this planet dry.

Do you remember the Large Hadron Collider? No? We posted about it this spring on Science Buzz. It’s a recently completed supercollider in France and Switzerland—the largest supercollider in the world, with a 17-mile circumference. Protons will be blasted through the device so fast that they’ll make the entire circuit 11,000 times per second (which is about the speed of light, I believe). When two streams of protons meet, some of them will collide, and smash apart. At that point two huge detectors will attempt to gather data on just what comes out of the destroyed protons. The hope is that when the machine is switched on in August, we’ll make some fantastic discoveries about the most basic (and yet mysterious) elements of matter.

Oh, and the world might be instantly destroyed. I didn’t mention that last time? Huh. I suppose it just slipped my mind because, you know, who wants to live forever, right?

Some people (read: crybabies) are very concerned that the colliding particles could form a micro-black hole, which could either evaporate instantly, or gobble up the earth. Whoops! There’s some thought that the collider might also produce a spicy little devil we call the “strangelet.”

Stranglets are, it should be said, hypothetical—they’ve never actually been observed. A strangelet is basically a tiny piece of “strange matter,” stuff made up of the same components of regular vanilla matter, but in a unique configuration (equal amounts of up, down, and strange quarks, for those of you in to…quarks, I guess). The fear is that, where a strangelet to come into contact with regular matter on Earth, it could convert that matter into another strangelet, which would convert other matter into strangelets, until the whole of Earth would be turned into a big ball of hot strange matter. Which would just be the pits.

A particular group of people was so worried about the repercussions of turning on the LHC that they actually filed an injunction against its operators. The lawsuit was dismissed, on account of the defenders of humanity just “needing to chill out.”

The plaintiffs claimed that the odds of the LHC creating a global catastrophe are about one in fifty-million—about the same as winning the lottery, but that happens from time to time. Not to me, though.

The scientists behind the LHC, however, argue that the odds are much lower than that even, if not zero. Collisions like those planned for the LHC occur naturally every second, as cosmic rays smack into the earth, and so far everything is all right. Furthermore, should something like a micro-black hole be formed, mega-eggheads like Stephen Hawking predict that it would instantly turn to nothing.

And that’s kind of the thing—some of the world’s biggest smarty-pants are working on this project, and they aren’t concerned. That has to mean something, right? Then again, according to The Incredible Hulk, many scientists aren’t all that concerned about their own certain, imminent death, so long as they get to do some crazy experiments. And I trust comic books implicitly, so who knows.

Jun
25
2008

Scene from Watsonville fire in California
Scene from Watsonville fire in CaliforniaCourtesy alexthompson
That is the question. Controlled burning is a technique where by intentional fires are set to clear forests of debris. Fires sparked by lighting have always been a part of the life cycle of forests. Though it seems counterintuitive, fire can actually be a very healthy thing. It clears the forest floor strengthening older trees by giving them more access to soil nutrients while also acting as a kind of natural recycling. Regular burning (burning that mimics what formerly naturally occurred in forests) can actually reduce the severity of fires such as the one burning in northern California.

Sounds great! But, what if you live near a forest scheduled to burn? Though it is called a “controlled burn” I would certainly be skittish about the combination of control and burn. Fires can be extremely dangerous, but scientists utilize many tools for tracking weather and wind patterns prior to burning. They have extensive topographical information that allows them to track the path of the fire. There are also many resources available for homeowners.

Do the risks of controlled burning outweigh the risk of uncontrollable wildfires? Ultimately nature has the power to override any hesitations I may have about whether I want a fire in my backyard. So I have to ask, what is my role in fire and forest ecology?

Jun
19
2008

Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is building the world’s largest wind farm in Texas, hoping to produce enough energy to light 1.3 million homes.

If you ever wanted to live like a billionaire, now's your chance – technological advance are making home wind power much more common and affordable.

How do you power your home when the wind isn’t blowing? Through compressed air energy storage. The process is complicated and inefficient, but power companies are working on ways to improve it.

Jun
11
2008

Why, I’m feeling improved cognition and creativity already!: Now we have scientific proof -- looking at scantily-clad young women makes men smarter.  And hungrier, somehow.
Why, I’m feeling improved cognition and creativity already!: Now we have scientific proof -- looking at scantily-clad young women makes men smarter. And hungrier, somehow.Courtesy Roro Fernandez

So, what’s the opposite of “the dismal science”?

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that men, after receiving a sexual stimulus – touching lingerie or even just seeing a woman in a bikini – seek immediate gratification.

Why can’t I ever get chosen for research like this?

(The lingerie, the report is quick to point out, was “not being worn during the test.” Still – dude – awesome methodology!)

Now, what’s all this about “immediate gratification”? I mean, we’ve all seen There’s Something About Mary, right? Well, get your minds out of the gutter, people. What they mean is, aroused men are more likely to try to satisfy any appetite – food, alcohol, money, whatever is at hand. So to speak.

To which men everywhere are saying “You paid how much to figure that out?”

It all has to do with the appetite centers in the brain. Seems it’s all one big giant Id. Once it’s aroused by some stimulus, the man seeks to satisfy it any way he can.

To which women everywhere are saying, “No duh.”

Apparently, the smell of fresh baked bread has the same effect, which would explain why you see so many pie shops right next door to strip clubs.

A group of test subjects tragically misinterprets the research findings: All in the name of science, I'm sure.
A group of test subjects tragically misinterprets the research findings: All in the name of science, I'm sure.Courtesy avlxyz

But, most interesting of all, we find, buried in the article, never explained, never elaborated upon, this little gem:

It wasn't that the men were simply distracted by their sexual arousal, which caused them to choose more impulsively. On the contrary, they exhibited improved cognition and creativity after exposure to sexy stimuli.

While this does not comport with the stupid pick-up lines one hears in bars every night of the week, nevertheless, there it is. I mean, this is science, right? Looking at pretty girls actually makes men smarter! Therefore, we should view beer commercials and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, not as crass attempts to move product by appealing to hard-wired neurological instincts, but rather as a public service, a selfless effort to increase intellectual activity and creative achievement by stimulating men’s brains.

But no. That’s not what the liberal media wants you to hear. Men bad. Men can’t control urges. Men barely better than animals. So what we get are prurient headlines, lascivious photos, and sly innuendo like “seek immediate gratification,” wink wink. Why, it’s enough to…

Gutter. Out. Now!

Jun
08
2008

The face of the enemy: Know it well.  They wait, biding their time, building up the strength of their numbers, and of their horrible, secret weapon of doom!
The face of the enemy: Know it well. They wait, biding their time, building up the strength of their numbers, and of their horrible, secret weapon of doom!Courtesy foxypar4

That’s sheep farts to you and me, and apparently it’s a major problem. There are over one billion sheep in the world. They spend their day, standing in the meadow, gamboling playfully, watching Sam, the big shaggy cartoon sheep dog, foil the ingenious but inevitably futile efforts of Ralph, the wolf who looks suspiciously like a coyote.

And eating. Grass is what sheep eat. Unfortunately, they can’t digest it. Instead, they have little tiny microbes in their stomachs (four stomachs per sheep) that break down the plant fiber for them.

Unfortunately, microbes are rude little creatures, emitting methane gas with every mouthful and nary an “excuse me” to be heard. The methane builds up inside the ovine until it escapes in the form of sheep farts. (And, seriously, if you ever have a chance to write an essay that can justifiably include the phrase “sheep farts,” then you should seize the opportunity and use the term just as often as you possibly can.)

Anyway, the methane (a.k.a. sheep farts) gets into the atmosphere where, some would have it, it will trap heat and warm the globe and eventually destroy civilization as we know it. This may or may not be a bad thing, but I personally would hate to see my home destroyed just because of sheep farts.

Fortunately some researchers in New Zealand have come to our rescue. These plucky kiwis are tackling the sheep fart menace head-on, trying to develop a vaccination that will improve the microbes’ table manners. An anxious world holds its breath – partly in anticipation of the coming breakthrough in sheep fart technology, but mostly in response to the sheep farts themselves.

Jun
06
2008

A B-2 Spirit: Not exploding, which--I think--is what it's supposed to do.
A B-2 Spirit: Not exploding, which--I think--is what it's supposed to do.Courtesy U.S. Air Force
Yeah, I'm not that interested in seeing it either.

But if you're super bored, check out this video of a 1.4 billion dollar B-2 stealth bomber crashing and burning. The pilots, you'll notice, got out on time (in awesome ejection seats, by the way).

It crashed in February, but the video and explanation just came out:
"Water distorted preflight readings in three of the plane's 24 sensors, making the aircraft's control computer force the B-2 to pitch up on takeoff, resulting in a stall and subsequent crash."

I'm pretty sure that means a robot crashed the plane.

I wonder if there was ever a movie made about this? Just kidding--I know there was a movie made about this.

Apr
09
2008

Noted hurricane forecaster Dr. William Gray has offered up his 2008 Atlantic hurricane season predictions. (The season begins on June 1 and runs through November 30.)

Hurricane Katrina, 8/29/05: This image was taken by NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).
Hurricane Katrina, 8/29/05: This image was taken by NOAA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).Courtesy NOAA

Gray's team, working out of Colorado State University, is predicting an above-normal season, with 15 named storms, 8 hurricanes, and 4 major hurricanes (category 3 storms or higher). Why? A La Nina pattern creates cool water conditions in the Pacific and warm sea surface temperatures in the eastern Atlantic. Warm sea surface temperatures are critical to the formation of hurricanes.

What's "above average"? An average hurricane season produces about 10 tropical storms and 6 hurricanes. In 2007, 14 tropical storms formed, and 6 of those strengthened into hurricanes. But 2005, of course, was a record-shattering year, with 28 storms, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Here's the Science Buzz feature on hurricanes.

Buzz thread on Hurricane Katrina, started on 8/29/2005.

Buzz thread on Hurricane Rita, started on 9/22/2005.

Buzz thread on the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season

Buzz thread on the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season

Do you know about the 1938 hurricane that crashed into New England?

Interesting weather websites

Share your natural disaster stories.

And, lastly, here are the hurricane names for 2008:

  • Arthur
  • Bertha
  • Cristobal
  • Dolly
  • Edouard
  • Fay
  • Gustav
  • Hanna
  • Ike
  • Josephine
  • Kyle
  • Laura
  • Marco
  • Nana
  • Omar
  • Paloma
  • Rene
  • Sally
  • Teddy
  • Vicky
  • and Wilfred
Apr
03
2008

Here comes the Sun: Scientists announce new breakthroughs in solar energy technology. Photo by S4N7Y from Flickr.com
Here comes the Sun: Scientists announce new breakthroughs in solar energy technology. Photo by S4N7Y from Flickr.com

A company in Massachusetts has developed a process for producing solar power cells using inkjet printers. This could drastically reduce the cost of producing the cells, and increase the number of ways they are used.

Meanwhile in Atlanta, Lonnie Johnson – the man who invented the Super Soaker squirt gun – is working on a solar-powered electrical generator that would be twice as efficient as current models.

Nov
30
2007

Eco-travel on the rocks: A cruise around Antarctica offers some spectacular sights, but are tourists at risk sailing through ice-infested waters? Last week's sinking of a cruise ship in the area has given rise to those questions.
Eco-travel on the rocks: A cruise around Antarctica offers some spectacular sights, but are tourists at risk sailing through ice-infested waters? Last week's sinking of a cruise ship in the area has given rise to those questions.Courtesy Rita Willaert
Is last week’s sinking of a cruise ship off the coast of Antarctica the tip of the iceberg for eco-travel trouble for that region? And who’s in charge of the icy continent?

Officially, international bodies are working to make the entire continent an environmental reserve, but seven different countries have made claims, sometimes to the same sections of land, to portions of Antarctica.

In the meantime, tourism to the area is skyrocketing. Fifteen years ago, about 6,700 tourists visited the region. Last year, there were more than 29,500 visitors. Seven cruise ship companies have combined forces to create the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators to help “self police” their operations in the area. But there are other tour groups working independently of that organization as well.

The Explorer, the 246-foot craft that sank last week, was owned by one of the travel companies that are part of the self-regulating group. It’s on the smaller side of many of the tourist boats that cruise around Antarctica and had a double-hull design that is supposed to be safer for sailing in ice-bergy waters. As a sign of how busy cruising is in the area, three other tour ships were able to get to the scene quickly and rescue all 154 passengers and crew on the Explorer as it was sinking.

Some shipping experts say that’s not enough -- that craft going to those waters need to be reinforced to be stronger to take on the ice chunks they’ll encounter there.

So what do you think? Should the Antarctic region be regulated for tourism? If so, who should be in charge: tour companies, governments or some other entity? Or should travelers be put on notice that they’re traveling at their own risk going to such a remote, dangerous location? Share your ideas here with Science Buzz readers.