Stories tagged Forces of Nature

Feb
25
2009

Last night, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized government spending authorized by the stimulus bill, calling particular attention to "something called volcano monitoring." Hey, $140 million is a lot of money, and what does it get us? Turns out volcano monitoring is actually kind of a big deal.

Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.
Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.Courtesy Phil Walgren, Alaska Volcano Observatory (USGS) and Alaska Airlines

It teaches us a lot about earth processes, of course, but some folks aren't swayed by talk of scientific advancement.

An argument for everyone is that monitoring enables authorities to plan and implement evacuations when necessary.

"The USGS has issued several warnings over the past 10 years, though predicting the timing and size of eruptions remains a difficult task.

Volcano monitoring likely saved many lives — and significant money — in the case of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (where the United States had military bases at the time), according to the USGS.

The cataclysmic eruption lasted more than 10 hours and sent a cloud of ash as high as 22 miles into the air that grew to more than 300 miles across.

The USGS spent less than $1.5 million monitoring the volcano and was able to warn of the impending eruption, which allowed authorities to evacuate residents, as well as aircraft and other equipment from U.S. bases there.

The USGS estimates that the efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented property losses of at least $250 million (considered a conservative figure)."

Still not convinced? Here's another benefit: volcano monitoring keeps our air routes safer, too. See, a pilot can't easily tell the difference between an ash cloud and a regular cloud. But ash clouds can damage flight control systems and kill jet engines. Don't think that's really a big problem? Some 10,000 passengers and millions of dollars' worth of cargo are ferried by US aircraft over the North Pacific every day, and there are 100 potentially dangerous volcanoes under those air routes.

Suddenly "volcano monitoring" doesn't seem like a goofy piece of esoteric research...

Jan
29
2009

For most of us, the first thing we think of when we hear the word "vacuum" is the common household appliance. However, that is not the only kind of "vacuum" that exists. To help expand "vacuums" beyond the common household definition, we, the Mentor Buzz team, have created a series of multimedia presentations on the word or theme of vacuums. As defined by the ever-venerable Wikipedia, a vacuum "is a volume of space that is essentially empty of matter, such that its gaseous pressure is much less than atmospheric pressure." A simpler definition of "vacuum" that we created is that a vacuum is a space that basically doesn't have air or has very little air in relation to how big the space or container is. Based on this definition, we split up into three groups and created three different projects that will hopefully explain some aspect of the science of vacuums: a video, a series of step-by-step experiments, and a game. Here is what we have created.
Video:

Experiments:

Game:
http://scratch.mit.edu/projects/mentorbuzz1/389395

Jan
16
2009

Cold: Cold and snowy.
Cold: Cold and snowy.Courtesy jpmatth
JK! It’s science, of course.

Usually science loves us, and we love science, but when the temperature drops (or, here in Minnesota, when the temperature drops and drops and drops) science starts to hate us just a little bit.

How do I know this? Because, like so many other lost and lonely souls, when I went out to start my car this morning… it did nothing. And I think I heard it mutter an awful, awful word at me from one of the dash vents.

So what gives, science? Yes, I understand that I would die if I were left out all night in -30 degree weather, but my car is a robot, and robots can’t even comprehend the weaknesses of humans, much less experience them. Why did my car die?

The car died, of course, because the battery died, and the engine couldn’t be started.

Why do batteries die in the cold?

It boils down to my old acquaintance, Chemistry. (I’m Science now. Pretend I’m Science.) Batteries can work in the first place thanks to a chemical reaction taking place between the positive and negative terminals. In a car battery, the terminals (to which you clamp jumper cables) are made of lead and lead dioxide (which is a lead atom with two oxygen atoms). Between the terminals is sulfuric acid (which is a sulfur atom with four oxygen atoms and two hydrogen atoms). The lead terminal wants to react with the sulfuric acid, and so it does—it kicks the hydrogen atoms off the sulfuric acid, and combines with what’s left to create lead sulfate (which is a lead atom a sulfur atom, and those four oxygen atoms). When the hydrogen is kicked out of the sulfuric acid, an electron is also released. On the lead dioxide side, hydrogen is getting kicked off the acid, and oxygen is getting kicked off the lead dioxide. Lead sulfate is formed again, and, with the help of the free electron from the lead terminal side, that spare oxygen and hydrogen combines to form water (which we all know is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom).

All of this is only going to happen, however, if there’s a wire connecting the lead dioxide and lead plates outside the battery, so electrons can flow from the negative (lead dioxide) terminal to the positive (lead) terminal. If there’s something in the middle of that wire, like the starter for an engine, those electrons can do some work.

Unfortunately, this chemical reaction also depends on temperature. The colder it is, the less willing all these molecules will be to mess around with each other, and fewer electrons will be tossed around. If it’s really cold, there may not be enough of a reaction to start your car. Also, because the reaction produces water, there’s a chance that the water could freeze if it gets cold enough, cracking the battery case altogether. Then you’re really up Brown Creek.

If you’re battery is just low, and the cold has made it weaker, you might try jump-starting it (remember, positive terminal to positive terminal, negative terminal on the live car to a metal spot on the dead car). With the help of a fresh battery, your weak battery could build up enough charge to start your engine, which would warm the battery and start to recharge it. If your battery is frozen, however, don’t try to jump it—it could explode. Now, an explosion would be kind of awesome, but flying battery acid is scary, and it doesn’t matter if it’s science’s fault or not if your face gets burned off.

So that’s why our cars didn’t start this morning. Feel better? No? Me neither.

Dec
04
2008

The formula looks right...: But it's not happening.
The formula looks right...: But it's not happening.Courtesy FireFawkes
The journal Sexual Health has blown minds the world over with a new study’s assertion that, of all students, science students have the least sex. And male science students? They have the least sex of all, ranking neck and neck with amoeba.

Do you know who the study says has the most sex? Female art students. But I’ve never pretended to understand art kids, so we’ll leave that be and get back to our poor science nerds.

What gives? Is it the chicken or the egg? (The chicken being people who don’t often have sex, the egg being the study of science. Duh.) Does deciding to study science equate to putting on an invisible chastity belt? Is it (if we’re talking about chickens) a persistent rooster-block, if you will? Or are people for whom sex is not a huge priority, or even something to be avoided, attracted to the study of science?

The answer, according to the study, is “yes.”

The research was performed at the University of Sydney in Australia. The science department at the university has a high proportion of international students, who may have different cultural attitudes towards sex than those hedonistic, liberal arts, Australian-born students. Also, as we have discussed on Buzz, girls are often less attracted to studying math and science than boys, and boys, according to the psychotherapist quoted in the article, start having sex later than girls.

The demands of studying science, likewise, aren’t helping things. Students are kept out of environments where they would meet women, and spend most of their time “carrying on doing experiments, going to the library, and doing their assignments.”

A horde of very busy introverts—it’s the perfect storm. But don’t let this dissuade you from studying science, Buzzketeers—maybe this is just the sort of social environment you’re looking for. Or maybe you can start a brand new scientific revolution.

Nov
20
2008

You can't hear her: But I think I can see the gold foil blistering off of her face guard.
You can't hear her: But I think I can see the gold foil blistering off of her face guard.Courtesy NASA
***Apparently MDR already wrote this post a few days ago. Either he and I are just on the same wavelength here, or I totally copied him without realizing it. Er... oops.***

In space, no one can hear you say G%#@&^$ M@&%&!#^@&!

Remember the modifications planned for the International Space Station that would allow resident astronauts to drink their own pee (among other things)? Well, early this week, visiting astronauts from the space shuttle Endeavor were actually doing that work (among other work) on the ISS. Things went pretty smoothly, over all, except that one of the astronauts dropped her tools. Outside of the station. In space.

Whoops.

Normally this isn’t a big deal, of course. It is estimated that working people across the country spend as much as 30% of their time dropping tools of one variety or another. (It’s only 9:40, and I’ve already dropped a video camera, a laptop computer, and my toothbrush—all in the toilet! How did that happen?) In space, however, things are a little different. It’s not exactly like a Loony Toons situation, where the space tools would fall to Earth in a deadly rain of super-sonic, flaming wrenches—the ISS is in orbit, and so the dropped tools stayed in orbit. That means that the astronaut’s two grease guns, putty knife, and briefcase-sized tool bag have all become space junk.
What happens when space junk hits something?: This happens. This is the "energy flash" from a 17,000 mph projectile hitting  solid surface. This test was performed by NASA to simulate what happens when a piece of space junk hits a spacecraft in orbit.
What happens when space junk hits something?: This happens. This is the "energy flash" from a 17,000 mph projectile hitting solid surface. This test was performed by NASA to simulate what happens when a piece of space junk hits a spacecraft in orbit.Courtesy NASA

“Space junk” is a term for the growing cloud of man-made debris orbiting our planet—everything from flecks of shuttle paint, to spent rocket stages, to grease guns, putty knives, and tool bags. Items like these may sound pretty innocuous, but a grease gun traveling at a few thousand miles an hour is really dangerous. Space debris is so dangerous, in fact, that the ISS is now armored to help protect it from orbiting junk, and that the a planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis in October, 2008, had a 1 in 185 chance of “catastrophic impact” with debris.

Whoops.

NASA technicians are scrambling to develop new methods of scrubbing the swearwords out of the astronaut’s space suit, but they remain cautiously optimistic that the equipment will eventually be reusable.

Nov
03
2008

So if the universe was created by the big bang... then that would mean that from entropy came order. Does that mean that a messy room or desk could create a whole new universe?

If that is the case, what type of universe would be created from your room or desk? What new life forms or environments would there be?

Based on my desk and the mess of papers I feel that my new universe would be very difficult to locate things in... like those caves that have tunnels that you can get lost in.

Oct
22
2008

Why, it's Lil' Scotchie!: His original motto was "Don't use me in a vacuum, or I'll give you cancer!" I never understood it until now.
Why, it's Lil' Scotchie!: His original motto was "Don't use me in a vacuum, or I'll give you cancer!" I never understood it until now.Courtesy Roadsidepictures
It’s a monumental day, Buzzketeers, a monumental day. Not only will y’all shortly have your cerebral cortexes blown like Kleenex, but I will also soon have the great honor of presenting the “Hey, Scientist, That’s Funny!” Award.

Physics, it seems, is everywhere. It’s like glitter, really—you use it once, for a craft project, or something, and then it’s in your clothes and on your skin for the rest of your life. And, as with glitter, sometimes I think I could really do without physics.

How did physics corner the market on awe? Seriously, what can physics do that I can’t? Light up a room? Please—I’ve got that. You practically have to scrub the charm out of the carpet after I smile. What else you got, physics? Gravity? Um, I can pop, lock, and drop, so it’s going to take more than a falling apple to impress me.

So I say to physics, “Physics, give me something good! Give me something I can bring to show and tell!”

And physics does. Physics delivers, and I remember how it got to be the top dog.

Scotch tape emits x-rays when it’s unrolled. When you grab a little piece of tape to stick your Ben Affleck magazine clippings back next to your J-Lo clippings (where they belong), you are toying with the same radioactive energy that can see through your clothes and give you cancer of the everything.

But you don’t have to worry about that, because unrolling Scotch tape only produces x-rays when it’s done in a vacuum chamber.

Scientists found that tape, as it’s being unspooled, actually releases kind of a lot of x-rays, enough that one of the researchers was able to create an x-ray image of one of his fingers.

When tape is coming unstuck from thee spool, electrons jumped about two thousandths of an inch from the non-sticky outside of the spool to the sticky underside of the tape. When the electrons hit the tape, they are forced to slow down very quickly, and they release energy in the form of x-rays. But, again, it only works in an airless chamber.

Juan Escobar, a graduate student who worked on the research, believes that the process could be refined to create cheap x-ray machines for use in areas where electricity is expensive or hard to get.

When asked whether or not x-rays from everyday tape peeling posed any sort of hazard he said, “If you're going to peel tape in a vacuum, you should be extra careful. I will continue to use Scotch tape during my daily life, and I think it's safe to do it in your office. No guarantees.”

And for that Juan Escobar has earned the Hey, Scientist, That’s Funny! Award. Because, hey, scientist, that’s funny. And you’ve got this bizarre discovery about Scotch tape emitting X-rays! What a day!

Oct
15
2008

When thick magma and large amounts of gas build up under the surface, eruptions can be explosive, expelling lava, rocks and ash into the air. Less gas and more viscous magma usually mean a less dramatic eruption, often causing streams of lava to ooze from the vent.

Oct
09
2008

Pipe down: What's causing all this noise we're hearing down here under the water?
Pipe down: What's causing all this noise we're hearing down here under the water?Courtesy Whit Welles
“Hey, quiet down up there. We can’t hear a thing down here.”

No, it’s not the lament of some landlord who’s rented out the upper level apartment to a rock-and-roll loving tenant. It’s a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court right now pitting whales off the coast of California against the U.S. Navy.

Justices heard oral arguments yesterday on the case. Environmentalists are challenging the Navy’s claim to perform training exercises along the California coast which use extensive and strong sonar transmissions. The sound waves of those sonar blasts can harm whales and other marine mammals, petitioners contend, with sounds that can be up to 2,000 times louder than a jet engine. Some scientists feel that sounds that loud can cause whales to lose hearing loss, bleed on the brain and possibly lead to mass strandings on beaches.

Decision spot: The U.S. Supreme Court is the site of a pending decision pitting U.S. Navy sonar training exercises against the health of marine mammals like whales.
Decision spot: The U.S. Supreme Court is the site of a pending decision pitting U.S. Navy sonar training exercises against the health of marine mammals like whales.Courtesy Thor Carlson
The Navy says that strong sonar level is critical to be able to detect submarines that can elude weaker modes of sonar.

Based on justices’ questions and reactions, however, it appears that court is leaning toward siding with the Navy and national security concerns.

Here’s a full report on yesterday’s court session. Justices were pretty upfront in stating their lack of expertise in mammal biology and national defense matters.

So if you had to decide on this conflict, where would you come down on this question? Does the health and a comfort of whales trump national security? Is loud sonar just an unfortunate byproduct of keeping our national interests safe? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.

Sep
25
2008

Rubber ducky you're the one...
Rubber ducky you're the one...Courtesy Mark Ryan
Boy, times must be getting tough if NASA’s latest endeavor is any indication. Researchers from the space agency recently dropped a whole slew of rubber ducks into openings in Greenland's Jakobshaven Glacier in hopes of understanding how and where melt waters from the ice sheet ends up in Baffin Bay. They’re also trying to understand why glaciers increase their speed during the summer months. The Jakobshaven Glacier, which is suspected of calving the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912, is Greenland’s fastest moving glacier. The current thinking is that melt water forming on top of the ice flow during the summer months travels down narrow tubes called moulins to the glaciers base where it acts as a lubricant thus speeding up the ice sheet's movement. This isn’t exactly rocket science, is it? Anyway, each little ducky carries a label with the words "science experiment" and "reward" printed on it in three languages, along with an email address. The researchers hope that those who come across the toy quackers will contact them with information about when and where they found them. So far no one has gotten back to NASA but agency officials are confidant when they do it will add to our understanding of glaciers and their role in rising sea levels. So why has NASA has resorted to using such a low-tech approach? One source claims it's because a previous test using a metallic probe failed to return any data. Another source claims the probe is being used in conjunction with the rubber bath toys. Whatever the case it looks duck hunting season has opened.

SOURCES and LINKS

CNN story
NetworkWorld story
Discovery Channel story
Animation about Jakobshaven Glacier