Stories tagged Physical Science

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.

Jun
17
2009

John Snow: Eats only vegetables, drinks only boiled water... dies of a stroke at age 41. Nuts.
John Snow: Eats only vegetables, drinks only boiled water... dies of a stroke at age 41. Nuts.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Here we are again, languishing in the long hours of June 17, enjoying a leisurely Snow day. A John Snow day.

Wait, you say, fractionally raising your heads from your overstuffed couches and baths full of tepid water. Didn’t John Snow actually die in June? And, like, didn’t he die on June 16, not on the 17th?

Well, yes, June 16, 1858, was in fact the day John Snow died. But I only just made up Snow day, and I wasn’t paying attention yesterday. Plus, do y’all even know who John Snow was?

Oh, John Snow was the most marvelous man! He drugged queen Victoria! He deprived thirsty communities of pump handles! He saved London from tiny invisible monsters! Oh, what a man!

John Snow was the sort of guy that posthumously gets the Cleverboots Award for Correct Thinking. Sort of like how I will surely be recognized with a Cleverboots Award years after I die, for how strikingly accurate my public ranting on the subjects of invisible lasers, lizard people, and “stay away from me, wizards!” will prove to be.

Snow was one of the first people to study the used of ether and chloroform as anesthetics. Which is to say, people had used those compounds as anesthesia before, but Snow calculated doses that would leave you somewhere between horrible pain and drugged to death. That was important. Everybody’s favorite queen of England (Victoria, duh) had Snow personally administer her anesthesia during the births of her eighth and ninth children. Once people saw Victoria doing it, everybody wanted in on anesthesia.

Snow’s greatest achievement, perhaps, came in an episode I like to call “Johnny Snow vs. Cholera.”

See, in the middle of 19th century in London, people were sort of split into three groups. There was the “Cholera is caused by poisonous gases” group. Most everybody thought that theory was the best, and it was called the “miasma theory.” There was also the “Cholera is caused by something tiny or invisible in water” group. This was pretty much what we call “germ theory,” and most everybody was all, “Germs? That’s stupid. Check your head!” And, finally, there was the “Hey, we’re actually dying of cholera over here” group, and most everybody thought they were gross.

But not John Snow! Instead of arguing and making up theories based on what seemed reasonable, he actually went out and looked at stuff. Gasp!

Without knowing for certain exactly how cholera was being transmitted (germs or miasma, or whatever), Snow began to record who in London was getting the disease, and he plotted cases on city street maps. He saw clusters of the disease in certain areas of the map, and so he looked for common elements. In the case of one outbreak, Snow realized that the majority of infected people were getting their water from one of two water companies, both of which were pulling water from a dirty (read: full of sewage) section of the Thames river. In another outbreak, Snow found that most of the victims of the disease were getting their water from a particular public pump. When John Snow had the handle of the pump removed, so that nobody could get water from anymore, the outbreak ended.

Snow’s discoveries from studying the cholera outbreaks added to the evidence for germ theory, and, perhaps more importantly, constituted a huge stride forward in the science of epidemiology. Snow wasn’t just figuring out how to cure diseases, he was tracking down where they start, and learning about how they move through populations. These are the same basic principles behind the actions health organizations still take today when dealing with outbreaks in the much larger population pools (or pool) of the 21st century.

It’s pretty interesting stuff. Check out this Snow-stravaganza: UCLA’s comprehensive page on John Snow and the cholera outbreaks.

Now enjoy what’s left of your Snow day.

May
15
2009

The best questions we bury for later: We also bury the worst questions.
The best questions we bury for later: We also bury the worst questions.Courtesy Ed Fitzgerald
Ahoy, Buzzketeers! Captain JGordon here, waltzing on the poop deck of the HMS Puddleduck, pride of the Science Museum’s little navy, and harvester of the juiciest, richest random questions.

Usually.

See, when I answer random questions, it generally goes something like this: I grab the stack of question cards and shuffle through them, “Good, good, garbage, good, garbage, garbage, garbage, good, delightful, garbage.” It’s not that I think any of your questions are garbage, of course, it’s just that many of the cards consist of vulgar personal attacks against celebrities, some are illegible, and a few are just too greasy for me to touch. And sometimes there are simply too many of them for me to address, so I select the choicest questions, to construct an enjoyable and inclusive didactic experience.

But it’s springtime, and the Puddleduck is currently taking a leisurely cruise up the coast of Knowledgarnia. (Knowledgarnia is the union of the formerly independent states of The Republic of Knowledge and Narnia. Think about Czechoslovakia, only in reverse.) The water here in the warm seas off Knowledgarnia is so shallow and clear that you can see the facts swimming lazily just beneath the surface. It is… glorious. And it suits a much more lackadaisical attitude toward question selection.

Last night, in the grips of a wild upswing of Springmania (the union of the two formerly independent psychiatric disorders spring fever and bipolar disorder) I was firing my captain’s revolver randomly into the ocean. When I woke up on the deck the next morning and crawled over to the rail, I saw that a good handful of truly random questions had been shot and killed by my… enthusiasm. Perhaps an angel guided those bullets, or perhaps it was pure chance. Either way, here they are, just as I found them:

Q: Would you eat the moon if it were made of ribs?

A: Yes, but I would eat only some of it. This is partly because I would want to leave some of the moon for people to look at, but also because the moon is too big for me to eat by myself. The mass of the moon is 7.3477 x 10^22 kg. That’s… let’s see… 73,477,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg, or 161,649,400,000,000,000,000,000 pounds. Now, if a rack of ribs weighs about 2 pounds, that means that the moon should be made of about 80,824,700,000,000,000,000,000 racks of ribs. Now, if I were to live another 60 years, and eat 2 racks of ribs a day, every day, I’d be able to eat only 43,830 racks of ribs. This would not make any appreciable dent in the mass of ribs that is the moon. Plus, I think most of them would go bad before I even got there.

Q: Why are flamingos pink?

A: Ooh! Okay! Flamingos are actually born (hatched?) gray. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this ridiculous little creature. It’s the flamingos’ food that eventually turns them pink. Flamingos eat by getting beaks full of water, and then straining out all the liquid until just little shrimp and algae are left. The shrimp and algae (which are eaten) have lots of the vitamin beta carotene in them. Beta carotene is a colorful vitamin (eating too much of it can turn your skin a little bit orange), and it makes the flamingos’ feathers pink. Viola! (In zoos, though, where flamingos might not get all the beta carotene they would in the wild, the birds are sometimes fed the pigment additive canthaxanthin, which has the same effect.)

Q: The “swine flu” was named H1N1. Why did they decide to call it H1N1?

A: Another good one! We’re all about the swine flu here at the museum (It’s interesting! Really! Look here!) so I was ready for this one. See, the “swine flu” is a form of the disease influenza, which is caused by viruses. There are a bunch of different viruses that cause influenza. They’re all related, but each variety, or strain, of virus has some subtle differences in the molecules that they’re made of. Scientists use two molecules in particular to identify different strains: hemaggluten (that’s where the “H” comes from), the molecule that allows the virus to stick to our cells and infect us, and neuraminidase (that’s the “N”), the molecule that allows viruses to exit a cell to spread the infection throughout more of the body. The numbers after H and N correspond to different variation of the two molecules. So this year’s swine flu is H1N1. The bird flu, or avian flu, in Asia that people have been concerned about for the last few years is H5N1. Does that make sense?

Q: How long can you tread water before drowning?

A: Hmm. Well, if you’re asking me, the answer is about 30 seconds. I have a narrow, dense body, and I’m not very strong, so I sink like a glass rod. I suppose it sort of depends on the person, and on the water. See, salt water is more dense than fresh water, so objects in it are more buoyant—they float better. So treading water in the ocean is easier than treading water in a lake. Also, if the water is cold, your body is going to use up more energy to keep you warm, and you’ll have less energy for treading water. A powerful swimmer can tread water for hours on end, and even after your energy is gone, you could always float on your back, keeping your face above water. I suppose, at that point, it’s just a matter of staying awake and fending off the sharks.

Q: Why is it 3 levels? I spend 11 dollars for this bull ****.

A: Sir! Well I never! Perhaps you should have saved those eleven dollars to spend on soap for your filthy mouth! Seriously, though, those three levels are jam-packed. You explored the mysteries of the human body. You floated a ball on a jet of air, and watched a tornado form from steam. I mean, did you not see the dinosaurs? Realtalk, bro: what more could you ask for?

Q: Do you know anything about Area 51, or its space objects?

A: Well… is the government watching? No? OK. Let’s do this.

“Area 51” is a nickname for a military base in Nevada. It’s part of the huge piece of land that is the Air Force’s “Nevada Test and Training Range.” Civilians generally aren’t allowed on it, and the airspace around it is restricted. There are a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding Area 51 involving time travel technology, New World Order junk, energy weapons development, etc, etc, etc. The most popular theory, of course, involves “space objects,” as you put it. Or, more specifically, space aliens. Some folks are convinced that Area 51 is used to study the remains of an alien spacecraft that crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947. Unfortunately, the argument that this is Area 51’s real purpose, or if there ever actually was alien material at Roswell, is pretty much based on conjecture, some creative interpretation of government documents, and a few personal accounts of people that claimed to have worked there. It’s not a lot to go on, and an Internet search for “Area 51” will tell you as more than I can here. I just wouldn’t write any school papers on it.

But “space objects” or no, Area 51 is a pretty interesting, sneaky sort of place. And there’s probably plenty of science (of a sort) happening there, because area is used for development and testing of new weapons and aircraft. Several stealth fighter and bomber planes got their start there, and those are pretty neat, even if aliens didn’t invent them.

Q: What do you foresee in the future for humanity in regards to our evolution, and what role might technology play in that?

A: Huh. Well, how a species evolves depends on the natural pressures that are placed on it. And evolution takes place on a huge timescale—it can be millions of years before enough changes accumulate in a species for another species to emerge from it.

But what natural pressures will humans face over the next million years? Modern humans haven’t even been around that long so far (we’re a pretty young species, at about 200,000-years-old), so saying where we’re going to end up in millions of years is awfully tricky. As the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it in this MSNBC article on the future of human evolution, “it’s a question that any prudent evolutionist will avoid.”

But that’s a boring answer. It’s not an answer at all, I suppose. If you want to predict how we’ll evolve, I’d learn about the principles of evolution (time, natural selection, adaptation, etc), then imagine what the world of the future will be like, and then try to think how we’d need to be different to fit into that world. Will the climate be dramatically different? If we haven’t got technology to protect us from the elements, maybe our skin will change to better protect us from solar radiation, or we’ll be harrier to deal with the cold. Maybe, on average, human body types will be taller and more slender to get rid of the heat, or shorter and thicker, to reduce mass to surface area and conserve heat. Maybe we’ll have to adapt internally to deal with more or less oxygen in the air, or our digestive systems will change to eat different kinds of foods (try eating everything a goat eats—you couldn’t, because you don’t have a four-chambered stomach). Or maybe the Earth will change faster than we can, and we’ll die out altogether. It’s a creepy thought, but mass extinction events have happened over and over again in Earth’s history, eliminating thousands of species before they even got the chance to evolve.

But your mention of technology is a good point. It seems likely at this point that people might influence their own evolution through technological means. This concept is sometimes referred to as “participant evolution.” The rate at which we’re figuring out how to integrate technological components into our bodies seems to be moving a lot faster than any natural adaptations we might be undergoing. Prosthetics are getting awfully sophisticated, as are the ways we’re able to interface them (and other technology) with our brains. I mean, we’ve got monkey brains controlling robot legs and people posting to twitter using just their brains (and some fancy equipment). It seems pretty reasonable to assume that this stuff is only going to get more advanced and more common.

But participant evolution wouldn’t be restricted to just computer chips and electric motors. There’s also biotechnology; we’ve mapped the human genome, and we’re constantly advancing our genetic engineering abilities. So augmenting human evolution with technology might not necessarily lead to dudes with robot eyes and laser fingers so much as populations that have genes that protect them from cancer, allow them to live far beyond our current lifespan, and fart clouds of lavender. (I’m hoping for the lavender thing most of all.)

It’s all sort of sci-fi stuff, but when you’re dealing with what’s going to happen thousands or millions of years in the future… why not?

Q: What shampoo do you use? Why?

A: I, um, don’t really use a lot of shampoo. Why? I ran out a couple months ago, and decided it wasn’t a huge priority.

Q: How much wood can woodchucks chuck?

A: Very little, possibly none. I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by “chuck.” If “chuck” means to, like, stand next to, then I guess a woodchuck could potentially chuck lots and lots of wood. But if “chuck” means to eat, or chew, or throw, or whatever, then I’d have to stick with “very little” as my answer.

See, the name “woodchuck” probably comes from the Algonquian (a Native American language) word for this big North American rodent, “wuchak.” It sounds a little like “woodchuck,” doesn’t it? But it’s got nothing to do with wood or chucking.

One of the animal’s other names, groundhog, is maybe a little more fitting. If you were to have asked, “how much ground can a groundhog hog if a groundhog could hog ground?” I’d have said, “A groundhog actually can hog ground, and when digging a burrow (they live underground, not in trees), groundhogs have are estimated to move about 700 pounds of dirt. So 700 pounds is your answer!”

But that’s not what you asked.

Gosh. All things considered, I think that random question session went pretty well. I’ll have to do it this way more often. Until then… avast. Or whatever. It’s lunchtime.

Apr
27
2009

Remember on TV's Star Trek how Captain Kirk's impossible requests were always put off by his chief engineer, Montgomery Scott? Scotty favorite excuse for avoiding work was to claim it just wasn't physically possible. This from the guy whose engineering skills could propel a starship across the universe at Warp Factor 10 using a couple lousy dilithium crystals. Or maybe he just had better things to do. Whatever the case, it looks now like Scotty's favorite work shirk excuse may no longer be valid. At least not in the world of nanoclusters.

While exploring strange new worlds using computer modeling and nanoclusters made up of several hundred atoms, researchers in Japan have observed tiny clumps of atoms that seem to break the second law of thermodynamics. Don’t think crime is rampant in the nano-world. Most of the atoms observed were law-abiding. When the nanoclusters collided at just under 12 miles per hour, most of them either clumped together like sticky mud, or bounced off each other and went on their way at a slower speed.

But a small percentage of nanoclusters (less than 5%) bounced away at an increased speed, acting as if they picked up an extra boost of energy.

It’d be like dropping a golf ball on the sidewalk and instead of it gradually losing energy (as absorbed heat) and eventually coming to a dead stop, as expected, it just went higher and higher with each successive bounce until it finally bounced into orbit. That just doesn’t make sense. Or as Scotty’s cohort Mr. Spock would say: “Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.”

According to the researchers, Hisao Hayakawa, of Kyoto University, and Hiroto Kuninaka, of Chuo University in Tokyo, the so-called super rebound resulted from random internal changes of motion in the nanocluster’s atoms, some of which can give the collision an extra boost, like jumping on a trampoline.

Sounds like we got ourselves the makings for some sort of perpetual motion machine here. Well, not quite. Apparently, this scofflaw behavior can only take place in very tiny systems. When the researchers increased the cluster’s atoms from hundreds to thousands, the behavior disappeared completely.

Besides that, the system as a whole still followed the letter of the law. The second law deals statistically with millions of atoms, so even though some nanoclusters picked up extra energy, the clusters overall dispersed energy and headed towards increased entropy just as the law prescribes, and in the end all is well with the universe.

So far the phenomenon has only been seen in computer simulations. But Hayakawa expects it won’t be long before it’s observed in real world experiments. The research findings appeared in the March issue of Physical Review E.

“Fascinating, Captain.”

LINKS

Science News story
More about the second law of thermodynamics

Mar
31
2009

The new I-35W bridge: now bigger, stronger, and greener.
The new I-35W bridge: now bigger, stronger, and greener.Courtesy anjouwu
Ever stand on a sidewalk and wonder about the concrete beneath your feet? Where did it come from, and how did this hard grey material get to be pretty much everywhere? Though you may not think about it at all, concrete is used more than any other building material in the world. In fact, concrete is so ubiquitous that the production of concrete contributes 5% of the world's human-caused carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.

Add it all up and it starts to look like concrete is more than just the stuff of sidewalks and building blocks. Concrete is a V.I.P. (which is how I like to refer to Very Important Polluters).

While concrete is a huge contributor of CO2, it also has loads of potential to be an innovative and important "green" material that helps us to build stronger and more environmentally friendly roads, bridges and buildings. This really great article from the New York Times science section explains the basics of concrete chemistry, and how new concrete mixes are being developed that are not just stronger and better for buildings, but that also can scrub carbon from the air.

Here in the Twin Cities we have our own example of cutting-edge concrete in the I-35W bridge, which was built to replace the bridge that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people. You might not realize it as you pass over this bridge, but it's made of many different mixes of concrete, each developed to do a particular job.

Some of the concrete in the I-35W bridge was mixed and cured (that's what they call the hardening process) to be strong and stable, others to resist the road salts and other effects of weather and climate in Minnesota. The wavy concrete sculptures on the bridge even scrub pollutants from the air, In fact, they stay white because of a chemical process that uses the sun to help break down staining pollutants. Who knew concrete could be so fascinating?!

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Concrete

Science Buzz Posts on the I-35W Bridge Collapse

Feb
13
2009

No one could ever bust this grill: Try as you might.
No one could ever bust this grill: Try as you might.Courtesy Bradley G.
Here’s a little bit more diamond news for y’all. Scientists have discovered not one, but two substances harder than diamonds.

The first material is called “wurtzite boron nitride,” and the other, even harder substance (58% harder than diamonds) is called “lonsdaleite.” Lonsdaleite, as it happens, is made of… diamond.

Or, if you want to be a nerd about it, lonsdaleite is made of carbon, like diamonds are, but it has a slightly different molecular structure. It’s often called “hexagonal diamond.”

Nobody had realized that these materials could be harder than diamonds before, because no one had considered subjecting them to “normal compressive pressures under indenters.” When you do expose wurtzite boron nitride or lonsdaleite to normal compressive pressures under indenters, they go through a phase transformation—that is, something changes in the bonds between their atoms, making them stronger. The atomic bonds in regular diamonds can’t undergo this change.

What’s that? You don’t know what “normal compressive pressures under indenters” is? Seriously? Whatever. Everybody who’s anybody knows what that is. But… um, I don’t know exactly what it means either. I’m pretty sure that it means that the materials undergo this bond-strengthening transformation only when it’s squeezed really hard.

So there you go. Throw out your diamonds, and get yourself some… better diamonds.

Feb
09
2009

What is this a picture of?: Simply put, it's the future.
What is this a picture of?: Simply put, it's the future.Courtesy Trilobite2
Check it out, Buzzketeers: Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh have created a boat that is propelled by the surface tension of water! Holy cats!

See, when something floats on the surface of a body of water, the surface tension of the water pulls equally on all sides of the floating object. If the surface tension is somehow disrupted on just one side of the object, however, the surface of the water on the other side will suddenly be pulling harder, and the floating object will move in that direction. The Pittsburgh scientists found that, by applying a small electrical charge, they could disrupt the surface tension of water on one side of a small boat enough that the boat would be pulled in the other direction. Pretty slick, huh?

The scientists got the idea from watching the way beetle larvae move across water. The larvae don’t use electrical pulses; they change surface tension behind them by bending their backs in a particular way.

When I say “a small boat,” however, I mean that the boat Pittsburgh developed is 2 centimeters long. And it moves at 4 millimeters per second.

If you were small enough to fit into a neat 2cm boat, and could only move about one inch every 6 seconds, I figure you’d be bug food. (If I were a bug, and found a tiny person in a tiny boat, I’d eat them. For sure.) And think how awful that would be. So that application is pretty much off the table. The scientists point out, though, that similar boats would be great as tiny, unmanned (obviously) vessels for monitoring water quality, and might even run on solar power. That seems like a good idea.

Hey—here’s a video of the boat in action. That looks bigger and faster than what was described. Maybe it’s bug-proof after all.

Jan
15
2009

Energy for the taking: Wind turbines bask in the sun near Palm Springs, California.
Energy for the taking: Wind turbines bask in the sun near Palm Springs, California.Courtesy Mark Ryan
A new dual solar and wind-powered charger for personal electronic devices was on display at last weekend’s annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The K2 by Kinesis Industries is a handheld unit that allows you to harvest energy from both the sun and the wind and store it in an internal battery that can then be used to power all your energy-hungry USB-powered electronic gadgets.

You know what? I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. There’s been a few times I’ve lost battery power in my camera or cell phone and wished I had something like this. I’ll probably buy one even if I never use it. The idea is just so cool.

Portable chargers like this have been around for a while. Solio of California produces an array of solar-powered handheld chargers. PowerFilm in Ames, Iowa manufactures foldable thin film solar modules for a number of charging and direct powering applications. They rolled out a new USB and AA charger at this year’s show.

But evidently none match K2’s capacity or versatility. One hour gathering sunlight or wind with the K2 is enough to power 30 minutes of cell phone use or over 300 minutes of mp3 music. A full charge is enough to fully power your cell phone five times over. You can also plug the K2 into an AC outlet and store up power for later use that way.

But what happens if you forget to do that and it’s a cloudy day and the weather is dead calm? What’s a poor techno-weenie to do? Well, not to worry, the K2 also has a nifty side clip so you can attach it to your bicycle and generate your own wind. As of yet there’s no release date for the K2 but when it does come out, it’s expected to retail for about a hundred bucks.

Now, just so we’re clear, I have not personally tried any of the products mentioned in this story, so I can’t endorse or pooh-pooh any of them. You should do your own research before making any purchase of this technology. I just like the idea of being able to charge my gadgets anywhere I go. That way next time I’m stranded out in the middle of Wyoming and my iPod’s battery starts to fizzle during Britney’s latest hit, I’ll be golden.

LINKS
Network World K2 review
Voltaic Systems. (Not at the show but makes cool laptop bags)
Captain Planet review of K2 (with a video)

Jan
06
2009

Year of Science Logo
Year of Science LogoCourtesy COPUS
The Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) kicked off Year of Science 2009 (YoS2009) -- a national, yearlong, grassroots celebration--this week in Boston at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. COPUS, which represents more than 500 organizations, is celebrating how science works, who scientists are, and why science matters.

YoS2009 participants—museums, federal agencies, K–12 schools, universities, scientific societies, and nonprofit and for-profit organizations from all 50 states and 13 countries—will host events in celebration of YoS2009. Regionally connected YoS2009 participants are bringing science to their local communities in innovative ways. To learn about YoS2009 events near you click here.

A special web site will help the general public learn more about this yearlong, national event. Highlights from the dynamic YoS2009 Web site include the integration of components from the newly launched Understanding Science web site, Flat Stanley explorations of science, the opportunity to name a new species of jellyfish or adopt a species for the Encyclopedia of Life, and a contest to build the most scientific pizza.

All of these events and activities foster innovative new partnerships that will bring science and the public closer together locally, regionally, and nationally—all in a growing celebration of science!

Nov
07
2008

Get rid of that lime!: It's making my diamonds all sticky and sour!
Get rid of that lime!: It's making my diamonds all sticky and sour!Courtesy chrisngayle2001
That’s right, y’all, I’m promoting the intentional misinterpretation of science!

Tequila will make you rich (and therefore famous) because you can make diamonds out of it! Also, I hear that it makes you drunk.

But the diamonds, those sparkly diamonds, that’s why we’re here. Assuming you’re over 21 (or that you have a super cool and criminally irresponsible older cousin), and assuming that you have the equipment for pulsed liquid injection chemical vapor deposition, you could be rolling in diamonds. Sure, the diamonds would be only a few ten millionths of a meter in size, but… diamonds!

And now… let us back up. We aren’t talking about some glittery Cuervo version of Goldschlager. No, we are—happily—dealing with science here!

See, some Mexican researchers were developing methods of producing diamond films out of organic compounds, e.g. acetone, methanol, and ethanol. They found that ethanol (the kind of alcohol we put into our bodies to make us happier, stronger, and smarter, and then sadder, weaker, and dumber) makes some pretty decent diamond films, especially when it’s mixed with water. About 40% ethanol and 60% water seemed to work best.

A clever scientist then made an interesting connection in a liquor store before work: tequila is also about 40% ethanol and 60% water. This was sort of a remarkable development, as the sort of person who finds themselves in a liquor store before work isn’t necessarily the same sort of person expected to make clever scientific connections. Liquor store employees may be the exception here.

At any rate, the scientist grabbed himself a cheap little bottle of white tequila and brought it to the lab. Said scientist and his fellow scientists then heated the liquor to 536 degrees (230 C) to transform it to a gas. The gas was then injected into a reaction chamber and further heated to 1470 degrees (800 C) to break down its molecular structure. The hot booze gas happened to have just the right mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon for diamond growth, and there was sort of a rain of tiny diamonds in the chamber. The diamonds, only a few hundred nanometers each (and, remember, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter), settled onto the trays at the bottom of the chamber to form a thin film.

So we aren’t exactly talking about the sort of diamonds with which you could coat your grill (but, seriously, my front has got so much ice right now, I don’t think even nanoscale diamonds would fit, so whatev). Still, diamond films are nothing to be sneezed at—coating something with even a tiny layer of diamonds makes it extremely hard and heat-resistant.

The scientists behind the project are hopeful that this technology could be applied to cutting tools, optical electronics, radiation detectors, and semiconductors within only a few years. For now, however, they are busy testing out different types of tequilas. Which is exactly what I would do.