Stories tagged Forces of Nature


Northern Lights over Minneapolis: Aurora borealis dance over Lake Harriet, November 6, 2004
Northern Lights over Minneapolis: Aurora borealis dance over Lake Harriet, November 6, 2004Courtesy Mark Ryan
Many years ago, three friends and I were heading home from a road trip to western Canada. It was about 2:30 in the morning, and I was driving while everyone else was sleeping. I was probably half-asleep myself. But as we chugged along Highway 2 near the outskirts of Bemidji, Minnesota, something in the upper corner of the windshield caught my eye. When I looked up, the sight was so spectacular I immediately pulled over and woke everyone up to see it. My friends were none too happy as I coaxed them out of the van into the cold northern Minnesota night.

Above us, the night sky was alive with the most incredible display of the Northern Lights I have ever witnessed. Bright, vibrant fingers of yellow, blue, red, and green light spread out from a point overhead, like a brilliant hand reaching down from the black sky. I’ve never seen colors like that since. The display was something I’ll never forget and it’s hard to convey how beautiful it actually was, but let me just say my friends soon discarded any thoughts of pummeling me with their fists.

Now, scientists have figured out the mystery behind the phenomenon. According to a new study published in the journal Science, the catalyst of the aurora borealis (and their southern counterpart aurora australis) takes place way out in space about 80,000 miles from Earth during an event called magnetic reconnection.

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, the project’s principal investigator. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond."

The data was gathered by five strategically positioned satellites (a NASA mission known as THEMIS) and compared with that from ground-based detectors.

The process actually begins on the Sun. Turbulent activity on its surface sends out massive energy bursts via the solar wind that interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields and cause all sorts of havoc with our power grids and communication networks. They also create wonderful auroras. But these massive solar outbursts are only occasional, occurring maybe 10 times a year. More frequently – about every three or four hours - the geomagnetic fields are bombarded by substorms; smaller energy bursts that also create auroras. But don’t let the diminutive name deceive you. The energy generated by each substorm is huge, anywhere between one million to two million amps over one or two hours. The THEMIS project determined that, during substorms, the Earth’s magnetic field lines are stretched out like rubber bands building up tremendous amounts of energy before suddenly snapping and flinging charged particles back toward the Earth’s poles. The results are the dancing auroras seen in the northern and southern regions.

Magnetic reconnection is common throughout the known Universe and has been suspected by many as the trigger of auroras. For three decades, though, a competing theory argued the auroras were triggered much closer to Earth, by the disruption (or short-circuit) of charged ions interacting with the magnetic field.

But the new data seems to show otherwise. During a substorm studied in February, the satellites’ data showed the magnetic reconnection occurred first, followed soon after by an aurora display. Only after the display was the short-circuit observed.

Looks like the 30-year debate may be over.


NY Times Story
Anchorage Daily News story
More on THEMIS


Up up down down left right left right B A start!: or was it IDDQD? Yes! Infinite lives and ammo.
Up up down down left right left right B A start!: or was it IDDQD? Yes! Infinite lives and ammo.Courtesy bramblejungle
A single gene has been isolated in male fruit flies that seems to somehow make them skilled at videogames, Dungeons and Dragons (all versions), and Star Trek trivia.

Scientists are not yet able to fully explain this phenomenon, but they believe that the gene may govern a pheromone receptor, and causes it to block or misinterpret chemical signals normal fruit flies receive as stimuli towards good hygiene, snappy dressing, and social interaction.

So skilled are these fruit flies at games and trivia, they are able to actually beat games that don’t exist, and answer questions about Next Generation episodes that never made it to filming. Likewise, these flies have often been observed “rolling” for everyday actions and commenting derisively on the stats of peers.

Read all about it here, friends.


You deserve it Avis: Be careful though—it may be a trophy, but it really fires. Golden bullets.
You deserve it Avis: Be careful though—it may be a trophy, but it really fires. Golden bullets.Courtesy davidaugspurger
Rata a tat tat tat get yourself psyched a tat rat rat rat rat

The award goes to Avis Blakeslee of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania!!

Yay! Yay! Yea!

Now, before we get into Avis’s specific accomplishments, let’s have a little background on the Sara Connor award itself.

A female-only award, meant to recognize the truly hardcore ladies out there, the Sara Connor award is, in fact, a precursor to the Otzi the Iceman Medal of Badassery. The OtIMoB, was created more than a decade after the SCA, under social pressure to acknowledge that men can also, on occasion, be pretty tough. But the Sara Connor is truly the original, and as deserving as the Otzi winners are, the Badassery medal is in a different—and frankly lower—league.

Originally the Sara Connor and Lt. Ellen Ripley Medal of Valor, the award was split after the selection committee could not agree on a recipient. Those members who would eventually form the Lt. Ripley Organization wanted to give the award to Margaret Thatcher, for eating the eyes out of a living goat, while the charter members of the Sara Connor board felt that an Argentinean woman who gave birth while clinging to the wing of an airborne Learjet was more deserving. The board members of the award parted ways amiably, although the Sara Connor Award has since received greater attention and respect, on account of widely held opinion that the Lt. Ripley Organization is simply unable to “keep it real.”

The Sara Connor Award is given regularly, but not necessarily every year. For example, in 1995, the SCA was given to Svetlana Kovach of the Ukraine after she removed her own cystic kidney using only a bottle of grain alcohol and a claw hammer (while trapped in a mineshaft, although this was only discovered after the ceremony—Ms. Kovach was tremendously modest), but in 1996 no suitable recipients were nominated. The award was given once again in 1997, posthumously, to Nozomi Chinen of Okinawa, who clawed her way out of a shark’s belly, and drowned fighting a second shark barehanded.

Avis Blakeslee, this year’s deserving recipient, is being recognized for an epic battle with a rabid fox in the garden of her farmhouse.

Although Ms. Blakeslee’s accomplishment is perhaps not as immediately impressive as those of past recipients (it pales in comparison even to 1999’s formidable runner up, a 15-year old Jordanian who slapped a mortar out of the air), extenuating circumstances must be considered. Again, the fox was rabid—and if you read last week’s post on the bat-pantsed Scotswoman (who is unlikely to receive a nomination), you’ll know that rabies is serious business. Paralysis, insanity, hydrophobia, etc; rabies is no cakewalk. The disease is no doubt what lead the fox to leave its habitat to attack an unsuspecting gardener. Ms. Blakeslee had never even seen a fox in person before, and believed the creature to be a small dog (before it went crazy on her). Another important factor here is Avis’s age: 77. Avis is a grandmother, and not used to fighting wild animals, and yet she wrasseled that pooch into submission, even after sustaining seven leg wounds, an arm wound, and severe blood loss. She then pinned the rabid fox to the ground, holding its jaws shut with one hand, until help arrived to dispatch the creature with a firearm. I have no doubt that, had Mavis a free arm, she would have simply driven a finger into the fox’s brain. As it was, however, she did her two-armed best and subdued the fox ultimate fighting style, until the cavalry came to do its own thing.

A job well done, Avis, a job well done. You’ve taught us all a little bit about what it means to be hardcore, and for that…we salute you.


Are we next?: No. Definitely not.
Are we next?: No. Definitely not.Courtesy NASA
Y’all know what “fratricide” is? It’s when a brother kills a brother. Or when a sister kills her brother. Or when a sister and a brother kill their brother. Any combination, really, involving a brother getting iced.

Well, it has happened on Jupiter. A little brother has been torn apart by his giant siblings. And by giant, I mean many times the size of earth.

The Great Red Spot is a huge hurricane-like storm on the surface of Jupiter. The storm has been spinning for several hundred years, and has a diameter about three times that of Earth. Also, it’s red.

The spot happens to have a couple of little brothers, too, named Red Spot Jr. (or Oval Ba, if you can’t get your head around having a little brother that’s your “Jr.”) and the Little Red Spot. Or, I should say, it had a couple of little brothers. Now it has a little brother, and some spare brother chunks. You see, Great Red Spot, and Red Spot Jr. tore Little Red Spot to shreds last week.

Officials are still baffled as to the motive, but what we know is this: LRS was strolling innocently through its neighborhood of Jupiter when it was ambushed from either side by GRS and RSJ. No weapons are thought to have been involved, ironically making the crime that much more brutal—the larger storms ripped their little brother apart with their own stormy hands, and when GRS and RSJ ran off, all that was left of LRS were sad little shreds.

The proximity of the incident has complicated investigation, to say the least, but I have my own theories. Red Spot Junior, as it happens, only recently earned its title—it was not until only two years ago that it actually turned red. I think that RSJ may have been long overdue to prove itself as a true red spot. Both intimidated and protected by its larger brother, RSJ was content to allow GRS to be the planet’s muscle. Over the months, however, I guess that RSJ’s desire to prove itself intensified, or that GRS tired of doing its little brother’s dirty work. Either way, the two larger spots turned their sites towards their small brother, always the “simplest” of the three. I think it’s very likely that GRS provided cover and just watched while RSJ did the butcher’s work, but the blood doesn’t stand out on its recently acquired coloring.

The red color of the spots, although no doubt symbolic of their bloodthirsty hearts, is not entirely understood. It’s thought that the color may come from material sucked from deep in the planet as the storms get stronger. Phosphorus-containing molecules, for instance would turn red when exposed to sunlight on the planet’s surface.

Astronomers the world over are reeling from the violent act.


Lighting a backfire
Lighting a backfireCourtesy LouAngeli2008

As fires continue to rage in the forests of California, I thought I would introduce you to some of the people trying to control them. Smokejumpers are the logical people to start with as they are usually the first on the ground.

Smokejumpers are the elite forces of the US forestry department. Many fires begin in locations inaccessible to the standard means of transportation (trucks, helicopters, or by foot). These firefighters arrive by plane and parachute into remote areas. Often their landing site is the top of a tree or a boulder field. Their kevlar suits provide some protection but their skill set includes tree climbing, practiced falling and general hardiness.

In the beginning, jumpers were required to be unmarried without dependents. They had to be a bit reckless to be able to agree to jump out of a plane into a fire area! Despite the inherent danger of jumping, there have been relatively few fatalities in their long history. Jumping began in the late 1930s as flight technology and airplanes became more sophisticated. During the war, many of the jumpers were conscientious objectors to WWII. In 1981 the first women were allowed into the program. Today there are 9 active bases in the West but they serve fires from Alaska to the North East.

The physical requirements... 7 pull ups, 25 push-ups, 45 sit-ups, and a 1.5 mile run completed in under 11 minutes---all done in one session with a 5 minute break between each activity. So, I am pretty much disqualified right off the bat with the pull ups and even if I were to manage, the running would definitely eliminate me. I view running as a self destructive behavior (who would put themselves through that? sorry El). You must also be mentally and emotionally stable--that is a requirement! A smokejumper’s pack often weighs upwards of 100 pounds...and you have no ride out, you must hike or hitchhike in (after landing) and out of the fire. To see a complete list of physical requirements (including height and weight) check out the West Yellowstone smokejumper website.

What they do : After landing and recovering their gear (which is dropped from the plane in (hopefully) a relatively similar location to where they land) the crew sets out towards the fire. They carry no water save for their thermoses. They control the fire by either creating a fireline/firebreak, a swath of land around the edge of the fire cleared of any brush or fuel that could feed the fire, or they light a backfire . Backfires act much like a fireline/firebreak in that they burn towards the oncoming fire. By doing so, they remove the fuel the fire needs to continue burning. Only if the jumpers are unable to contain the fire are reinforcements called to the scene. Jumpers direct helicopters to drop water on hot spots and systematically work their way through the burn site feeling the ground to make sure that there will be no flare-ups. They can leave when the fire is controlled or fresh firefighters take-over, often times many hours after they first jumped from the plane.

Be sure to check out the links below. Jumpers work from June-Oct so those of you looking for adventure with an extremely selective and tight-knit group, smokejumping could be for you.


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.


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?


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.


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!