Stories tagged Flow of Matter and Energy


I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!
I'm Radioactive Man!: The boots hide my ankle bracelet!Courtesy whalt
Hey Buzzketeers! Welcome to the new week! Is it everything you imagined it would be?

So, if I said “Radioactive Man,” would y’all get the Simpsons reference? Bart’s favorite comic book hero is Radioactive Man, a guy who survived an atomic blast, and a lightning bolt shaped piece of metal stuck in his head.

Hey, guess what! There’s a real life Radioactive Man running around now!

Oh… but the radioactivity is potentially dangerous. And he’s some kind of sex offender, who has run away from the authorities.

So that’s a bummer, but the situation provides some opportunity for science education (which is, like, my favorite thing).

How does a sex offender get to be radioactive? Good question.

Not all sex offenders are radioactive. For the most part, you still don’t want to come in close contact with them, but not because of radioactivity.

This particular sex offender, Thomas Marius Leopold, is radioactive because he has an overactive thyroid gland.

The thyroid gland hides out in your neck, and it produces hormones that help regulate your metabolism. Too much thyroid hormone, and your metabolism goes nuts—you get weak and hungry, you can lose weight, and your heart rate becomes jittery. That sort of thing. Some thyroid conditions also cause your eyes to become protuberant, and your thyroid gland to swell, forming a goiter.

One of the treatments for hyperthyroidism involves the use of radioiodine. Radioiodine is an isotope of the element iodine. Iodine is number 53 on the periodic table, so it has 53 protons in each atom. Naturally occurring iodine has 74 neutrons in each atom, but iodine can have different numbers of neutrons (different isotopes). The radioiodine isotope has 78 neutrons, but the atom isn’t stable with that many neutrons, so they decay until there are just 74 left. These decaying neutrons give off beta emissions (electrons and positrons), and gamma rays (highly energetic electromagnetic radiation).

Normally we want to avoid this sort of radioactive stuff, but materials like radioiodine can be very useful when they’re targeted at certain cells or organs (sort of like how we blast tumors with radiation to treat cancer). It just so happens that the thyroid naturally traps iodine in our bodies (it needs iodine to make hormones), so when a patient is given radioactive iodine, the thyroid sucks it right up. When the emissions from decaying neutrons blast into thyroid tissue, the thyroid kind of gets worn out, and slows down—that’s why radioiodine can be good for a thyroid that was overactive in the first place.

Radioiodine is radioactive enough, however, that hospitals often recommend keeping extra space between someone who is on the treatment, like this sex offender on the lam, and folks who might be particularly susceptible to radiation, like small children, or arresting police officers.

The radioactivity isn’t super bad, at least, and it doesn’t last forever—radioiodine has a half-life of about 8 days. That means that after 8 days, half of the radioactive material is gone (turned into something more stable). And after 8 more days, half of what was left is gone (so there’s just ¼ of the original amount left). Eventually the amount of radioiodine left in the body is so negligible that you’re safe hugging pregnant women and handcuffing fugitives.

Wasn’t that interesting? We know about radioiodine now! So if you’re in Great Britain (where this story came from), and there’s a creepy-looking dude who seems to be ruining your film just by being around you, call the police!


I didn't have access to the original schematics: so I drew some of my own. That's me up there.
I didn't have access to the original schematics: so I drew some of my own. That's me up there.Courtesy JGordon
I don't know about this... if God had meant for man to fly, He would have created us with high-power hoses attached to our butts. So unless this guy was born this way, I think he might be committing a crime against nature.

This seems kind of fakey, but also kind of totally awesome. And here's a year and a half old post from that seems to be the patent for this very same water jet-powered recreational vehicle.

The future is shaping up to be pretty cool, my friends. Pretty cool.


Recycling plastic: A patent on sorting, grinding, and reusing plastic for manufacturing or energy
Recycling plastic: A patent on sorting, grinding, and reusing plastic for manufacturing or energyCourtesy Meaduva

Don't throw it away. Recycle.

Each day millions of tons of plastic and organic products are "thrown away". Where is "away"? Probably a land fill. A better idea would be to somehow recycle these materials into a useful product, or use it as a source of energy.

Plastic and cellulose waste recycling idea "owned"

A new patent application claims that a blend of waste plastic and cellulose from plant material can make a good building material or the plastic/cellulose mix could be burned for fuel. (click to view patent application, 38pg PDF)

It would be beneficial to develop a process that can efficiently and cost effectively convert multiple types of waste byproducts into useful materials usable for: (i) heat and/or energy generation; and/or (ii) structural, sound attenuation, and/or insulation materials.

Do you think "Recycling" should be patented?

Would someone explain what this patent does? To me it claims to own the concept of turning garbage into stuff or burning it. If someone works out detailed methods of doing what is described in the blockquote above, would they have to pay money to the person who patented the concept?

" Invention: Recycled trash construction materials" New Scientist
Abstract: "Blending Plastic and Cellulose Waste Products for Alternative Uses"


A night vision fox?: The perfect weapon.
A night vision fox?: The perfect weapon.Courtesy Josh Russell
Weariness toward the younger generations is usually more Gene’s territory than my own, but I couldn’t pass this up.

Not that Gene himself is necessarily weary of younger people… I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Gene, it’s just that I came across this story of a local gentleman taking “stay off my lawn” to glorious new heights.

It seems that a 50-year-old man from Willmar, Minnesota, was fed up with the repeated toilet-papering of his house by young nogoodniks, and decided to take matters into his own hands on the nearby high school’s most recent homecoming night. (And before y’all get all up-in-arms—you know who else took matters into his own hands? John Rambo. And, like, George Washington. We don’t hold it against them, do we?)

Anyway, this modern day Michael Douglas, who we’ll call “Scott Edward Wagar,” wasn’t content to hide behind the bushes with the garden hose. Instead, he got all high-tech—using night-vision goggles, Scott Edward Wagar ambushed a group of teens approaching his house, and sprayed them with a supersoaker squirt gun filled with… fox urine!

Oh, man… not since The Boy Who Could Fly

After the urine dousing, things got pretty confusing. There was something about a struggle and a hurt finger… the events aren’t totally clear to me. The next day, however, Scott found a dropped cell phone on his property and held it for ransom, and there was some yelling and screaming involved. I’ll try not to think about that part too much—Wagar was probably drunk on the heady brew of victory at the time.

So what does this have to do with science? Not a whole lot, really, but we could go over Wagars arsenal in a sciencey sort of way.

So… night vision goggles. Human’s natural night vision relies on the maximum dilation of the pupil (to allow as much light into the eye as possible), and a molecule in the eye called rhodopsin. Rhodopsin in our retinas is extremely sensitive to light—according to Wikipedia, at least, it’s responsible for more effective light capture in the rod cells of the eye, or for more efficient light-to-electrical energy conversion. Either way, it takes about half an hour in the dark for rhdopsin to build up to maximum levels. The instant that rhodopsin is exposed to white light, however, it bleaches and loses all night vision enhancing properties.

What are we poor, night-blind humans supposed to do? Night vision goggles! We’re all familiar with night vision technology, thanks to our rad action movies, but it turns out that there are multiple kinds of night vision goggles. “Active infrared” night vision works by emitting infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes but can be picked up by the goggles and converted to visible light. The thing is, active infrared can be seen by other night vision goggles like someone waving a flashlight around, so if any of those kids had infrared vision, the gig would have been up for Scott Wagar. That’s why there’s also…

Themal vision goggles, which we also know about thanks to our rad video games, work by making tiny temperature differences visible—the heat emitted by a living body (or any object that isn’t totally frozen) is, again, represented in visible light by the goggles. And because the goggles use the radiation emitted from other objects, instead of shining radiation (i.e. the infrared light used by active infrared goggles) on other objects.

Finally, there are “image intensifier” goggles. These work by detecting tiny amounts of ambient light (it’s rare that you’d be in a situation that is absolutely dark) and intensifying it. When photons (light) enter the goggles, they hit a detector plate, and each photon causes an electron to be released from the plate. These electrons are accelerated by a magnetic field in the goggles, and hit another plate, causing a whole bunch of electrons to be emitted, which then hit a phosphor screen to make an image (this is the same way older TVs make images—through electrons hitting a phosphor screen. The image that is displayed by the goggles to the wearer is in monochrome (one color), because the detector plates in the goggles don’t distinguish between the wavelengths of the photons hitting them—that is, all colors of light entering the goggles are just detected as light, not colored light. We know about this kind of night vision though rad movies also—you know when some guy with a gun and night vision goggles walks into a room, and then some other guy with a gun and probably no night vision goggles flips on the lights, and the first guy gets all blind because there are so many more photons hitting the detector plate in his goggles, and more electrons are being released, and the phosphor screen gets really bright in his eyes, and then he probably gets shot or knocked on the head with something by the second guy. It makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

I’m guess Wagar had some sort of image intensifying goggles.

As for fox urine… Well, I hear that it’s super stinky. I was going to get more into what makes it super stinky, but this whole post has taken me way longer to write than I had originally intended. If you’re really into animal pee, though, and foxes in particular, there are plenty of resources out there for you to examine. Like this. Or this. Or this, I guess.

Scott Edward Wagar, you have amazed us all. And, kids, when someone gives you the old “And stay off my lawn,” maybe you should take it seriously. (Or you could start carrying bright strobe lights, rain jackets, and water balloons full of something worse than fox pee when you plan on TPing someone’s house.)


This bunny isn't that cute: But it may be paralyzed, so it sort of fits with the story.
This bunny isn't that cute: But it may be paralyzed, so it sort of fits with the story.Courtesy Franco Folini
Cross reference with “cute,” “animal health,” and “cyborg.”

Yes, here at Science Buzz we tirelessly pursue any and all stories on wheeled animals for you, the Buzzketeer.

So check this out: a wheelie bunny! Oh, man!

What does this have to do with science? Um, I don’t know. Does it matter? Did you see that little bunny?

Ah, fine. It’s about animals, obviously, and animals are sort of sciencey. Health, too, I guess—Bun bun there was left paralyzed by some mystery disease. The pathology of rabbit paralysis probably isn’t a huge priority in medical research, so they don’t know exactly what happened to this bunny, but a number of conditions that affect the nervous system can result in paralysis. If you’re really into the many ways rabbits can become disabled, check out this page, but the short version is that roller-bun probably became paralyzed after a protozoal infection (protozoa, remember, are little, single-celled organisms), in particular an infection caused by the protozoan parasite Encephalitozoon cuniculi. For a little bit more on encephalitozoonosis click here.

And I guess this is sort of about prosthetics too, but old-school, basic prosthetics. No Luke Skywalker limbs for paralyzed bunnies.

The main thing, again, is that picture of the bunny.


Woman contemplates a future of urine drinking: As she sips her apple juice.
Woman contemplates a future of urine drinking: As she sips her apple juice.Courtesy vcalzone
Hey, hey, don’t get too excited, Buzzketeers. We’ve been drinking our own pee for a long time. Way back in the past, we drank it for ceremonial purposes. And back in the present we drank it all the time! We drank it to stay alive, we drank it to be on TV (we loved TV back then, didn’t we?), and sometimes we drank it just because we were into that sort of thing.

But here in the future, we’ve really perfected drinking pee. And not just in the Kevin Costner/Waterworld way—that method requires gravity and science fiction, and we’ve figured out how to do it without gravity, with science.

The obvious application here is astronauts. As intriguing as zero gravity and space travel might sound initially, the fact remains that astronauts are trapped in a relatively tiny capsule for great lengths of time with little to occupy their time beyond telling dirty jokes and drinking their own urine. Unfortunately, there are only so many dirty jokes (although mixing and matching punch lines can extend things), and, as wikipedia’s entry on urophagia reminds us, you can only drink your own wiz so many times before problems arise. (Although, as I understand it, the problem with repeatedly drinking pee isn’t that you end up drinking super-pee, but that you get dehydrated, and your body has to reabsorb the toxins from the urine.)

With this new development in urophage tech, however, it looks like astronauts will be able to while away mission hours drinking pee to their hearts’ content.

Now, it should at least be mentioned that the aim of technology here is to turn the pee into something called “water,” and to then drink it. But the principle remains the same. Existing urine-recycling systems rely on gravity, but, again, that’s not an option for astronauts. The new system, soon to be installed on the International Space Station, will take urine, along with water from hand washing, tooth brushing, showering, and space suit sweat, and extract free gas and solid materials from the fluid, before removing remaining contaminants with “a high-temperature chemical reaction.” The result, according to one astronaut, can be “purer than what you drink here on Earth.”

That, ma’am, sounds like a challenge.

Potential efforts to defeat the system through dietary or medical methods aside, the water reclamation process makes a lot of sense. Previously, urine was vented into space, and more water needed to be delivered to the space station. This process should cut about 15,000 pounds from the amount of water and consumables that need to be brought to the station each year, and with the cost of shipping each pint of fresh water into space hovering around $10,000, the savings are nothing to sneeze at. (Considering that “a pint’s a pound the world around,” the system should save something like $150,000,000 a year, if the cost is actually as simple as those figures.)

And no doubt it’ll keep the astronauts happy.


It's a new day in America: Where should our energy come from now?
It's a new day in America: Where should our energy come from now?Courtesy timsamoff
On January 21, 2009, there’s going to be a brand new administration in the White house. Defining the energy policy of the United States is going to be a big issue, and one that’s likely to get tackled early on.

The members of the Obama Administration are going to have their own ideas about how our country should get its energy, but what do you think?

Is green energy your one and only? Are you a coal man? A nuclear gal? Or do you fall asleep murmuring “drill, baby, drill”?

Some options are going to be more expensive than others, each will affect the environment differently, and some are going to take more time before they’re ready. So what’s it going to be?

Voice your opinion in Science Buzz’s new poll: Energy and the Obama Administration.

You might not have been able to vote on November 4, but you can vote now, and you can let everyone know why you think what you think.


I have a tiny black belt: And a condo in Cabo. I'll totally take you there sometime, babe.
I have a tiny black belt: And a condo in Cabo. I'll totally take you there sometime, babe.Courtesy Junglecat
Australian ecologists have recently been observed soiling themselves and drooling over lying crabs.

Honestly, people. Lying about crabs, now that might be something worth getting excited over… But this? Whatever.

What the ecologists have observed, to be precise, are fiddler crabs that are “dishonest” about their own physical prowess, acting as though they are stronger fighters than they actually are.

Fiddler crabs have two pinching claws, but, in males, one of the claws grows to be much, much larger than the other one. This larger, stronger claw is used to attract mates, and to fight off male competitors. If a crab’s fighting claw is ripped off, a new one will grow back. The researchers noticed, however, that some male crabs were growing new claws that were as large as their old claws, but were also significantly weaker, and lacking serrated “teeth.” The new claws were “cheaper” for the crabs to grow (that is, they required less energy and food from the crab), and other crabs were unable to tell them apart from “real” claws.

It’s like the crabs had figured out that they could stick up a bank with a fake gun—the weapon is cheaper, and ultimately harmless, but it looks like its dangerous.

The scientists are excited because it’s rare that they’re able to study animal “dishonesty” so fully—here they can measure a crab’s claw size and strength, and the crab’s ability to keep itself from being pulled out of its burrow, and they can observe how successful individual crabs are in acquiring a mate.

To this, I say, “Whatev.” I’m an expert at acting tougher than I really am, and Australian ecologists act like I don’t even exist. Despite my weak limbs, my tactic of scuttling around sideways and circling my opponents while waving my hands in the air always, I say always, works. They don’t know what hit them (and it certainly wasn’t me). And then it’s just me and the ladies.

(Although the ladies are usually always kind of freaked out by the scuttling thing too. But the first part of the strategy remains sound.)


They stop bullets: But only—ONLY—after the bullets have had a go at Croatian supercheek.
They stop bullets: But only—ONLY—after the bullets have had a go at Croatian supercheek.Courtesy chriskeefe
The news item goes thusly: a Croatian couple gets on the wrong side of a gunfight (the middle side) and is fired upon. A bullet ricochets off the woman’s cheek, and hits her husband in the mouth, striking his false teeth. The man spits out the bullet, terrifying his attacker, who makes like a banana and splits. The couple, uninjured, makes major news outlets. Headline: “Man catches bullet in teeth.”

Indeed, the guy sort of did catch a bullet in the teeth. And I won’t argue that that isn’t kind of awesome, but the local police believe that things worked out so swimmingly for the false-toothed man because the bullet lost so much of its speed after hitting his wife in the cheek. Remember, the woman was uninjured…

What are Croatian women made of? There’s the real story: Bullet bounces harmlessly off woman’s face.

So… Science blog, science blog… Well, we have firearms physics and ballistics in general, as well as material sciences. The composition of the teeth, of course, is relevant, but also what could that cheek be made of that it could repel a bullet so well? I initially assumed that she might be a Kevlar woman, but I believe Kevlar is intended to absorb the force of a projectile to bring it to a stop, and I’m not sure if Kevlar ricochets are common. The cheek may be composed of a similarly impenetrable, yet more bouncy, material.

While we’re here, let us consider this compilation of high-speed footage of various objects being shot. Note that none of the objects are cheeks or teeth, as the results are apparently much less dramatic.


Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.
Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.Courtesy sarae
Oh, Fergie, you’ve ruined my life. And music.

Anyway, New Zealand seems to be a little grosser these days. Several huge, greasy “lumps” have been found on the shores of the North Island in the last week, leaving locals confused, disgusted, and hopeful that a fortune in whale puke is right around the corner. (This may be the default feeling for kiwis, but I don’t follow the news there enough to say for sure.)

The 1000-pound lumps are whitish, lard-like, and a little smelly. The dogs of the beachcombers who first discovered the objects were reportedly reluctant to touch or eat the material, which is a strange thing for a dog that has found something on the beach.

Locals were quick to assume that the lumps could be precious ambergris, highly valuable whale vomit used in cosmetics, and were seen hacking chunks off of the mystery blobs. Their retirements, they reckoned, would be full of featherbeds and yams. (Again, I’m sorry, I just don’t know what New Zealanders are into.)

Ambergris’ name comes from the French for “grey amber” (as opposed to “brown amber,” fossilized tree sap), and is in fact, for those of you behind on your cetology, sperm whale puke. Sperm whales, like the rest of us, love to puke. And it’s important that your average sperm whale gets a good puke in now and again to eject any sand or stones they might have taken in over the course of… you know, I don’t really understand sperm whales any more than New Zealanders. But somehow they get grit in them, and they regularly and easily hurl it out. It seems, however, that some materials, like the beaks of cuttlefish and squid, are particularly irritating to whale guts, and something different happens—a special puke. It’s not known if the ambrein (the fragrant main ingredient in ambergris) comes from the beaks themselves, or if the chemical comes from the whale’s digestive process acting on the offending materials, but eventually a big ball of pasty goo is formed inside the whale, ready to be puked out. The ambergris initially smells pretty foul, but after floating around for a while, and being hardened and broken down by sunlight, it becomes a very complex and valuable material. Depending on the quality, it can fetch up to $15,000 per kg from perfume makers, to be used as a high-quality fixative.

Giant squids come in, I like to think, as an appropriate source for this bizarre, valuable material. Sperm whales are, after all, the prime predators of the giant squid, and giant squid have awfully big, gut-irritating beaks. It’s a link I like to make.

Anyhow, a lot of New Zealanders were set on making their fortune with this so-called whale puke. Ambergris, however, is said to burn with a blue flame when lit, and give off a pleasant aroma. When the mystery material was subjected to this test “it just melted and really stank.” Ooh. Ouch.

After this revelation, guesses on the material compositions were downgraded from ambergris to lard or cheese—“possibly brie.” The lumps are, it should be noted, about the size and shape of 44-gallon drums, which should have been a tip-off. But whatever.