Stories tagged rock


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.


I don't give these out to just anyone: Otzi has one just like it.  (Photo by Sarodeo on
I don't give these out to just anyone: Otzi has one just like it. (Photo by Sarodeo on
Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou, two brothers working in a Chinese coal mine, were trapped underground with no supplies after the mine they were working in collapsed. The mine, located in Beijing’s Fangshan district, was illegal and had no oxygen, ventilation, or emergency exits. Officials called off the rescue effort after only a day, determining that there was no chance that the Meng brothers could have survived, and that further attempts to extract the bodies would only put the rescue workers at risk themselves. Family members placed food offerings at the collapsed entrance to the mine, and burned “ghost money” for the men to use in the afterlife.

Picture everyone’s surprise, then, when the Meng brothers clawed their way out of the mine five days later, weak and dehydrated, but alive. It seems that Xianchen and Xianyou didn’t give up when they heard the rescue workers stop digging, but instead started digging in the direction of the last sound. They had some small light for the first two days, thanks to their cellphones, but when the batteries died they resorted to listening and feeling around with their fingers. To survive, the brothers... (wait for it)... ate coal and drank their own urine! Oh, and they dug through 66 feet of coal and rock with their picks and hands.

With that, Xianchen and Xianyou have officially dug their way on to my very exclusive list of People Way Way Tougher Than Me. The Meng brothers are now in the good company of Otzi the Iceman, The Mad Monk Rasputin, and Jack Palance (which makes them, I suppose, the only living people officially “Way Way Tougher Than Me”).

Let’s examine the achievement:

The dig - As I said, 66 feet of rock and coal, dug at a 75 degree angle (steep). The shaft was so narrow that only one Meng could dig at a time. They averaged about one yard for every six hours of digging, having to constantly shore up the walls and ceiling of their tunnel to prevent debris from sliding back on them.

Survival - The main problem would be the lack of oxygen, especially in an unventilated illegal mine like theirs. The article I read doesn’t say much about this, but it seems that there was either air trapped in the mine already, or sufficient oxygen filtered down from the blocked opening. Either way, it did the trick. The coal that the miners ate would have had no nutritional value, but it probably gave them a “full” feeling. They get points for eating it, though, and bonus points for being quoted as saying “We ate coal and thought it tasted delicious.” The brothers also used two empty water bottles they found in the mine to save their urine. Almost no one likes drinking urine, but the Mengs did it anyway. Urine drinking can keep a person alive for several extra days if no other liquids are available. I had always assumed that the more times one drank their own urine, the worse it would be. It turns out that the opposite is true - the body absorbs a little bit of the toxins from consumed urine, and so the kidneys have a slightly smaller amount of toxins to filter out into the next batch of urine. Therefore, the urine becomes a little more potable and water-like each time it is consumed, but there’s less of it (as the body absorbs some of the water too). So the problem with drinking one’s own urine is that it can’t be done indefinitely, because eventually one will just run out. Also, one’s body is forced to reabsorb all the toxins it had tried to get rid of. Also, there’s the whole drinking pee issue.

Anyway, it all worked out for the Mengs, who have since declared that their 20 year mining careers are now over. Enjoy your place on the wall of fame, guys. We salute you.

Rock slab at Mount St. Helens: View biggerCourtesy Dan Dzurisin, Cascades Volcano Observatory, USGS
Rock slab at Mount St. Helens: View bigger
Courtesy Dan Dzurisin, Cascades Volcano Observatory, USGS

Check out this amazing photo of a growing rock slab at Mount St. Helens.

We will be doing more features on volcanoes this summer while we host artifacts from the ancient city of Pompeii here at the Science Museum of Minnesota.