Stories tagged Forces of Nature

Jun
08
2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun
06
2008

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

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

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

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

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

Apr
30
2008

Don't do drugs!: This guy may have just seen Lucy in the sky with diamonds!
Don't do drugs!: This guy may have just seen Lucy in the sky with diamonds!Courtesy Mark Ryan
Dr. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) died yesterday at his home in Basel, Switzerland. He was 102.

Hofmann was working for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals (now Novartis) when he first synthesized LSD-25 in 1938. However, he set it aside and didn’t stumble upon its hallucinogenic powers until 5 years later, when, while synthesizing a new batch for study, he accidentally ingested some of it from his fingertips.

Once that genie was let out of the bottle, Hofmann went whole-hog investigating the drug’s possibilities, doing many experiments on himself and his colleagues.

He later became director of Sandoz’s natural products department studying other natural mind-altering substances, such as those found in Mexican mushrooms (psilocybin) and in the seeds of the morning glory species Rivea corymbosa (lysergic acid amide).

Hofmann referred to LSD as “medicine for the soul” and spent much of his life trying to convince others of its medicinal and therapeutic value, although he admitted it could be dangerous in the wrong hands. The drug was made illegal after a rise in popularity by counterculture youth during the 1960s.

"I produced the substance as a medicine,” he once said. “It's not my fault if people abused it.”

LINKS

Associated Press story
Albert Hofmann link on Wikipedia
More on LSD

Apr
09
2008

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

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

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

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

Here's the Science Buzz feature on hurricanes.

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

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

Buzz thread on the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season

Buzz thread on the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season

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

Interesting weather websites

Share your natural disaster stories.

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

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

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

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

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

Nov
30
2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov
19
2007

Garrett Lisi, a 39-year-old surfer, hiking guide and construction worker (with a PhD in theoretical physics), believes he may have solved the biggest problem in all of science – how are all the particles of matter and forces of nature related to one another? Scientists since Einstein have been trying to figure it out, with little success. (The current theory involves outrageously tiny “strings” vibrating in 11-dimensional space. The mathematics, they say, is beautiful, but it cannot be tested or verified.) Lisi’s breakthrough came when he noticed that the formulas that describe something called the E8 pattern -- a complex, geometrical design with 248 points – also describe many of the fundamental forces and particles. His theory is that nature follows the same formulas as E8, and that the figure can be used to predict particles that have not yet been discovered. If he's right, he will have finally shown that everything in the universe is related, and basically just different manifestations of the same essence.

Rad, dude.

Aug
10
2007

A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them!  (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them! (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
Techno-magician Louis Michaud believes that he can summon a tornado, “tame” it, and use the entity to generate electricity. And he intends not to simply summon a miniature steam vortex, such as can be seen in the Science Museum of Magisota’s Experiment Gallery, but a full-sized wind monster, as featured in the documentary “Twister.”

As bizarre as the idea might seem, councils of air and wind magicians at learning institutions across the country say the theory is sound. It would simply require a sorcerer of the most audacious kind. Perhaps the wizard Michaud is just that person.

The idea is based on the simple and well-known principle that tornado beasts feed and grow off of warm air. Michaud proposes summoning the tornado into a “vortex engine” using a source of hot air such as the waste heat from a nearby nuclear generator (or even, depending on geography, heat from warm tropical water). The hot air would be directed up from the vortex engine’s base in a spinning motion, and would gather momentum as it rose, eventually becoming a tornado several kilometers high. The air sucked into the tornado would spin turbines and generate electricity. The normally chaotic and destructive tornado beast would be content to stay above the vortex engine, feeding off the hot air provided. The wizard Michaud also claims that the stationary, summoned tornados could have the added benefit of combating, in some small way, the powers of That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named (Global Warming, as it likes to be called). The vortex engines would propel hot air high into the atmosphere, where it could more easily radiate energy back into space – an interesting idea, although it seems like there would have to be countless such tornado summoning stations to have any measurable effect. Who’s to say?

However, there is a price to pay for all this, as is always the case with magic. While universities have been experimenting with the summoning spell on a small scale – luring tornados not larger that a meter or two into this realm – the facilities for commercial-scale summoning would cost somewhere on the order of $60 million. This price would be offset somewhat if the generator were built in conjunction with a nuclear power station, as the station would no longer need a $20 million cooling tower. Michaud has formed the corporation AVEtec to seek investor funding. High wizards from Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT have joined AVEtec’s advisory board.

Those of you less experienced in the magical arts might be well served by this article, or this one, both of which offer a more scientific perspective.

Aug
02
2007

Vibration problem?: A combination of vibrations coming from various area sources could be factors in the fall of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1. (Flickr.com photo by Diversey)
Vibration problem?: A combination of vibrations coming from various area sources could be factors in the fall of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1. (Flickr.com photo by Diversey)
tangled roadwayI’m not a structural engineer and don’t even play one on TV, but I’m curious to see what kind of dots get connected on this scientific phenomenon and the I-35W bridge collapse.

A former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who just happened to be in the Twin Cities the day of the bridge collapse, raised some interesting questions. Jim Burnett was interviewed by the Star Tribune today and said that bridge collapses usually have two main causes: vibration and fatigue cracking.

Earlier inspections of the bridge have noted that it showed signs of fatigue cracking, but not to the degree that officials felt the bridge needed immediate attention. But I haven’t heard a lot of comment in press accounts, yet, about vibration. Burnett pointed out that two primary causes of vibration were going on or near the bridge at the time of the collapse: construction work on the bridge’s road deck and also vibrations from a train passing underneath it.

“Vibration is one of things that cause cracking to propagate," he said to the newspaper. "They will be looking at that."

He was on the scene of the collapse at 5 a.m. today (Aug. 2) before sharing his preliminary thoughts on the collapse. But his analysis got me thinking to the role vibrations have played in other bridge failures.

Remember the Hyatt Regency hotel walkway failures in Kansas City in 1981? About 2,000 people were there for a dance contest. The hotel featured several walkways suspended at the second, third and fourth levels over the hotel’s atrium. When people started dancing on the walkways, the vibration of the feet moving together caused them to collapse, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200 others.UPDATE: See the comments below for clarification on the Kansas Hyatt disaster.

Digging around a little more, I found these postings by engineers at the Ask a Scientist website.

Here’s some observations from engineer Vance Calder: An army troop marching at full cadence is ordered to stop marching and walk across a bridge at each soldier’s own individual gait. The "in time" stepping produces vibration, the multitude of soldiers adding to the vibration. When trying to think of waves, think of waves in water. Opposing waves can cancel each other. But like the troops moving in the same direction, the waves can add to each other and gain extra strength.

More points from engineer James Prxewoznik include: Vibration, in general, is bad for materials. It can lead to fatigue of parts and eventual failure. There are two types of vibration: free vibration and forced vibration. Free vibration occurs through actions of forces inherent with its design. Forced vibrations come from external forces outside the design of an object. If those two forces coincide, the vibration oscillations can magnify causing an object to come apart.

There might have been a lot of vibration at play on the 35W bridge: jack-hammering and other construction work, the train passing underneath, and don’t forget, it was an extremely windy day in Minneapolis on Aug. 1. A lot more needs to be checked out, of course. But investigators will likely be looking at how many different forms of vibration combined on the bridge at the time of its collapse.

Jun
11
2007

Wind farms produce clean energy, but some people consider them eyesores: Photo by fieldsbh at Flickr.com
Wind farms produce clean energy, but some people consider them eyesores: Photo by fieldsbh at Flickr.com

A new book, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound, tells the story of efforts to build wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod to provide clean, renewable energy for the state of Massachusetts. However, some of the wealthy people who live in the area – including some renowned environmentalists – object to the project located so close to their own homes.

This article from the Cape Cod Times describes some of the legal maneuvering that has thus far blocked the project. One objection is that wind turbines kill migrating birds. The reporter did some research and came up with the following statistics:

Human-caused bird deaths

• Domestic cats: Hundreds of millions a year
• Striking high-tension lines: 130 million - 1 billion a year
• Striking buildings: 97 million to 976 million a year
• Cars: 80 million a year
• Toxic chemicals: 72 million
• Striking communications towers: 4 to 50 million a year
• Wind turbines: 20,000 to 37,000

Source: National Research Council

Clearly, turbines are not a major threat to birds, while the clean energy they provide would be a major boost to the environment. So why are some environmentalists opposed? The authors of the book say it’s because the turbines, several miles off the coast, would still be visible from their beach-front property. (It is also interesting to note that some of the anti-turbine legislation has been proposed by congressmen from states that just happen to produce a lot of coal.)

For an overview of the issue, read this article from The Boston Phoenix.