Stories tagged Forces of Nature


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.”


Science News story
More about the second law of thermodynamics


Ever wonder just why the Red River seems to flood so regularly? North Dakota State geology professor Don Schwert says:

"Fargo and Moorhead sit on one of the flattest surfaces on Earth. It's the lakebed of what was a gigantic lake at one time--glacial Lake Agassiz. Lake Agassiz was here from about 12,000 years ago to about 9,000 years ago, and after the lake drained, it left behind sediments that formed this flat surface. These sediments form the basis for wonderful soils, but they form as well this flat surface off of which water is reluctant to drain. And so the Red River is doing the best it can in trying to process water across this flat landscape. But what happens is that, during times of floods, as we're having now, water spills out of the channel and onto the bed of the old glacial lake, and the glacial lake sort of reappears."

"The Red River Valley is unusual compared to other river valleys around the world. Most river valleys are effectively carved by the rivers themselves (if you think about the Colorado River, or the Mississippi River). But the Red River Valley, the river itself couldn't have begun to flow until glacial Lake Agassiz drained about 9,000 years ago. Now the importance of that statement is that we normally measure the ages of rivers around the world in terms of hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years, maybe even tens of millions of years, and here we have a river that began to flow about 9,000 years ago, and began to flow across this flat surface. It hasn't had time and it hasn't had the energy to carve any kind of meaningful valley. The lakebed of Lake Agassiz becomes the effective floodplain in times of flooding, and the river spills out onto the old lakebed, and glacial Lake Agassiz kind of reappears."

"One of the problems with the Red River is that floods can't be confined, in an engineering sense, by means of dams. A dam crosses a river valley, and water builds up behind it, and it can store water. Well, here we have this expansive surface: the feature we call the Red River Valley is actually the lakebed of Lake Agassiz, and in some places it's 60 or 70 miles wide, and there's no way, really, of effectively managing water in terms of reservoir storage in the southern Red River Valley.... There's really no other river in the world like it."

"[The Red River flows north, which is not really unusual.] But it does have a consequence: typically, in the Red River Valley, a spring thaw begins in the southern portion of the valley. So waters are released in the southern portion of the valley and begin slowly to work their way northward at about the same pace, perhaps, as the the thaw is working its way northward along the valley. So as waters are being delivered northward, waters are also being released in portions of the valley. And everything's kind of clumping together and keeps on building up as the river and its waters and the flood are processed northward. So it becomes very problematic, particularly in the northern portion of the valley: massive, shallow, expansive floods. In 1997, in portions just north of the North Dakota border on into Manitoba, one could measure the flood, in terms of width, at 60 to 70 miles wide. An Ohio River flood might be 1,000 yards. Here it's 60 to 70 miles wide, so it's an incredibly expansive flood. It's sort of a rebuilding of the old lake, in that sense."

"Urban development, or urbanization, is a problem worldwide in terms of helping to exacerbate flooding of rivers. If we think about the path of a raindrop before human settlement, that raindrop would take a long time being delivered into the main drainage. But here in Fargo-Moorhead, or cities elsewhere around the world, we can process that raindrop in a matter of minutes or a couple hours in there, and it's immediately delivered into the channel. When we think about parking lots and shopping malls, housing and driveways and streets, highly efficient drainage ditches or drain tiles in agricultural fields--all of that is processing water, all of that is accelerating the delivery of water into the main stem drainages."

(You can listen for yourself at the link above.)

Glacial Lake Agassiz and the Red River Valley: Not all of this huge area was underwater at one time, but Lake Agassiz was bigger than all the Great Lakes put together and held more water than all the lakes in the world today.
Glacial Lake Agassiz and the Red River Valley: Not all of this huge area was underwater at one time, but Lake Agassiz was bigger than all the Great Lakes put together and held more water than all the lakes in the world today.Courtesy Figure 1-2 from A River Runs North, by Gene Krenz and Jay Leitch, Red River Water Resources Council (1993)

Lake Agassiz
Lake AgassizCourtesy North Dakota Geologic Survey

More interesting resources:

Minnesota Public Radio posted this cool time-lapse, shot over 20 minutes, of sandbag operations at the Fargodome on Wednesday, 3/25.

One more interesting/worrisome thing to consider: the area of Canada once covered by the glaciers and glacial Lake Agassiz is still slowly rebounding after being pressed down by the weight of the ice. According to the New York Times,

"For the north-flowing Red River, that means its downhill slope, already barely perceptible, is getting even less pronounced with each passing year, adding to its complexity, and its propensity to flood."


Result of massive hoax: Don't try this at home. Why bother?
Result of massive hoax: Don't try this at home. Why bother?Courtesy Mark Ryan
Every dang time the vernal equinox comes around (like today) people everywhere raid their refrigerators and stupidly try to balance raw eggs on smooth surfaces. Why? I don't know. I suppose because all the forces of the solar system are somehow magically aligned today and it's one of two days (the other being the autumnal equinox) it's actually maybe possible to do. I'm a sucker for this kind of crap, so I decided to try it myself. That was a mistake. After wasting most of the morning trying to get the damn egg to stay upright I have to report that my experiment was a dismal failure as can be plainly seen in the accompanying photo. Stupid egg.

Thanks to the Internet I was able to check out the validity of this so-called "Equinox Miracle" and to tell you the truth I wasn't really that surprised to learn that it's all a bunch of pseudo-scientific hooey. The equinox offers no "special conditions" for balancing eggs. If you're patient enough it can be done any day of the year (yeah, sure), and you don't have to have a PhD in physics - anyone can do it. Except me evidently. (yes, yes - I should have Googled before doing the experiment but that's neither here nor there at this point). Oh well, you can read about it yourself here and here.

But you know what? Why should I be acting like I have egg on my face? You should be thanking me; think of all the time I've saved you. Consider it my gift to you on this first day of Spring.


Montecore mourns the loss of T.I.G.E.R.S.'s innocence
Montecore mourns the loss of T.I.G.E.R.S.'s innocenceCourtesy Esparta
So… in the last month, six people in Sumatra have been killed by tigers.

What are you going to do with that, JGordon? Are you going to turn six awful, grisly deaths into some kind of joke?

Thank you, no. I’m not a jerk. Getting killed by a tiger would be a terrible way to die. And the deaths of six real people aren’t funny… or cool… or whatever you maniacs think.

That’s why we’ll be ignoring the tragedy of this news item, and re-imagining it as an awesome cartoon adventure series—something to fill the void left when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles forgot their roots, or when the Power Rangers all got arrested in that human trafficking sting operation.

And so, allow me to present the T.I.G.E.R.S., Tactical Intervention Gamma: Eco Recovery Strikeforce (You know what? Chill. We can work on the acronym later.)

The T.I.G.E.R.S. are an elite unit of, like, talking tigers. They have been tasked by the Rainforest League to protect the jungles of the world from deforestation. Kong, a wise old silverback gorilla, heads the League.

It’s like Captain Planet, without the creepy blue guy. (Who was he, anyway? The villain?) Isn’t that awesome?

The T.I.G.E.R.S. are:

T-Bone: The crazy one. Dynamite? Oh, this dynamite? (Y’all know what I’m talking about.)

Stripes: The funny one. Think Michelangelo. (Not the original Michelangelo, who gave the world David; the better one, who gave pop culture nunchucks.)

Sheba: The lady tiger. She’s probably good with knives, or something.

Montecore: the smart one. He’s also old. And he’s one of those white tigers, like the one that hugged and kissed Roy into the hospital

And, finally, Tigrus, the leader. He’s really big, and has a tiger-gun (it’s like a regular gun, but with stripes on it.)

I’m thinking that episode 3 of T.I.G.E.R.S. will probably cover this incident. (Episodes 1 and 2 I’m saving for introducing the main villain, that blue guy from Captain Planet.)

I think it will go a little something like this…

The T.I.G.E.R.S. are on a mission in Sumatra, creeping though thick undergrowth.

Tigrus: All right, men-

Sheba: And ladies.

Tigrus: -and ladies. We’re in enemy territory now. Keep your heads down. You all know the mission—we sneak into the logging camp, put sleeping pills into their water barrels, and get out.

Montecore: And the Rainforest League ships the sleeping beauties to Greenland.

Tigrus: Exactly.

T-Bone: I don’t see why we can’t just do it my way—a little T N T, and it’s C U later loggers.

Sheba: No! Nobody gets hurt, remember? And an explosion like that could damage the trees!

T-Bone: Hey, you have to break some eggs to make a good explosion, you know?

Tigrus: T-Bone…

T-Bone: Okay, boss! Take it easy.

Stripes: What’s that noise? It sounds like giant mosquitoes!

Montecore: Those are chainsaws, Stripes.

Stripes: I don’t know... It sounds like mosquitoes to me.

Montecore: No. Those are Husqvarna R-7 long-bar chainsaws.

Stripes: If you say so. But don’t come crawling to me for calamine when you’ve got the world’s biggest bug bite.

Sheba: Oh, Stripes.

Tigrus: Shhh! What’s that sound?

Stripes: I think it’s mosquitoes.

Tigrus: No, Stripes, not that… it sounds like footsteps!

A logger holding a lunchbox walks into the clearing. He is surprised to see the T.I.G.E.R.S. commandos.

Logger (translated from Malay): Hello!

T-Bone: This kitty toy is mine!

Tigrus: T-Bone, no, wait!

It’s too late: T-Bone has already leapt on the man. Screams. Cut to commercials.

Return to show. The T.I.G.E.R.S. are in the same area of the jungle. Montecore is covering his face with his paws, possibly crying. The rest of the team stands around T-Bone, who is covered in blood.

Sheba: T-Bone… what have you done?

T-Bone: I don’t know what happened! He was encroaching on my territory, and instinct just kicked in… I couldn’t stop myself…

T-Bone tries to wipe the blood from his face, but his bloody paws just smear it around.

Tigrus: This is bad. This is really bad.

T-Bone: I… I didn’t have enough space! We’re being forced to compete for resources!

Tigrus: Shut it!

A device strapped to Tigrus’ arm begins to beep

Tigrus: Oh, no! My Rainforest League communicator! It’s Kong!

T-Bone begins to shiver. Monticore is sobbing loudly now. Kong’s voice come’s from the communicator.

Kong: Agent Tigrus? What’s your status?

Tigrus: We… ah… we had to abort the mission, Kong.

Kong: What happened? Is everyone all right?

Sheba begins to answer, but Tigrus holds a paw over her mouth.

Tigrus: We’re all fine, thank Mother Nature. But that blue guy from Captain Planet showed up, and… one of the human loggers was killed.

Kong (angrily): The blue guy! Will his thirst for blood never be sated? This is bad news men… Kong waits for Sheba’s correction, but she can say nothing with Tigrus’ paw still over her mouth. Anyway, you all had better head for the extraction point. Oh, and Tigrus?

Tigrus: Yes sir?

Kong: Don’t worry. We’ll make that blue guy pay for this.

Tigrus: Yes sir. turns off communicator Ok, everybody. Pull yourselves together. We have to get out of here. T-Bone, try to clean yourself off. Stripes… What are you doing Stripes?

Stripes is going through the logger’s fallen lunchbox.

Stripes: I’m just seeing what he brought for dessert!

Everybody (except Montecore, who is still crying): Oh, Stripes…

Cue theme music

Not bad, huh? We have a very tricky situation here: Sumatran tigers, of which perhaps only 400 or so still live in the wild, are losing their habitat to deforestation. Sumatrans, however, are just trying to make a living, and sometimes resort to illegal logging practices. Extensive encroachment into the tigers’ habitat is proving dangerous for everything involved. But I think I handled the issue pretty tastefully, all things considered.

If anybody needs me, I’ll be wherever rich and famous cartoon creators hang out.


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...


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.