Stories tagged Flow of Matter and Energy


Oh my! Researchers in Virginia have found high levels of mercury in local songbirds. The birds live near a contaminated river, but do not eat any fish or other water creatures that might be contaminated. So, how did they get mercury inside of them?

Turns out the birds ate lots of spiders. And spiders are scavengers who’ll eat pretty much anything. Mercury from the environment accumulates in them, and gets passed along to the birds.

The next question is – how do the land-dwelling spiders get water-borne mercury inside of them?


Wouldn't this be wild?: But the actual crustacean is about as big as a period.
Wouldn't this be wild?: But the actual crustacean is about as big as a period.Courtesy mattechi
Seriously, get yourself on some impermeable surfaces, pronto. Despite the fact that the scientists involved declared it “mind-blowing,” I read this story without taking the proper precautions, and now my mind has been blown all over my cubicle walls. What was I supposed to do, though? People are always telling me that my mind is about to be blown, regardless of the plain fact that my mind hasn’t been blown since I saw the Matrix (Like that scene with the little bald kid: “I have no spoon” no, wait, “You are the spoon.” Sweet.)

But my mind. Was. Blown.

What did it feel like? It was kind of like eating dynamite. Or Rice Krispies and Pepsi.

Okay, so what we’re dealing with here is a weird little crustacean. Crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, lobster, barnacles), much like mollusks, are not to be trusted, and this one is particularly sneaky. Called “y-larvae,” these little guys were discovered swimming around about 100 years ago. They look kind of like a cross between a flea and a little brine shrimp, and they’re found in coral reefs all over the world, from the poles to the tropics. What’s strange about them is that scientists could never figure out y-larvae become as adults—you’ve got these very common, ordinary looking crustaceans, and nobody knows what happens to them when they’re done being larvae.

Recently an international team of scientists decided to get to the bottom of the y-larvae mystery. Gathering up a large sample of the creatures, the team brought them back to a lab to mature. They exposed the shrimpy little larvae to a crustacean growth hormone, and sat back to appreciate the results.

What they saw, as you now know, exploded their huge scientist minds all over the laboratory.

The y-larvae metamorphosized into their juvenile form, which happened to be wriggling, limbless, eyeless creatures, with no digestive tracks or nervous systems. Far less complex than their exoskeletoned larval forms, the little gooballs are thought to be parasites.


Did it happen to anyone? Don’t say I didn’t warn you, because I did. A couple times.

"The juvenile literally crawled out of the old larval carapace," recalls Danish molecular biologist, Dr. Cleverboots. "It was only after several repeated experiments we actually believed what we saw. That feeling was a mind-blowing experience."

How do you like that? Legs, shell, and eyes, transformed into a “simple, pulsing, slug-like mass of cells.” And a parasite to boot.

The scientists point out, however, that as gross as the adult y-larvae (now referred to as “ypsigons”) are, they very likely play an important role in ocean ecosystems. Being so prevalent, ypsigons probably have a part in observed, “normal” functions of coral reefs.


Plenty of kids, but not actually the Duggars: The Duggar children have fewer liberty spikes and less black lipstick
Plenty of kids, but not actually the Duggars: The Duggar children have fewer liberty spikes and less black lipstickCourtesy gruntzooki
JGordon! What a horrible thing to think! Shame on you. You read a story about a 41-year-old woman in Little Rock becoming pregnant with a her 18th child, and all you can think about is this.

No! No! They are a family, not a brood. Shame.

Anyway, in honor of mother’s day, why don’t y’all sit down and think about what it would be like to have 17 brothers and sisters. Because if Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar were your parents, you would. The Duggar children range in age from 20 years to 9 months, and all have names starting with the letter J: Joshua, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph, Josiah, Joy-Anna, Jeremiah, Jedidiah, Jason, James, Justin, Jackson, Johannah, and Jana. The name of the fetus has yet to be announced.

The family, naturally, is going to be the subject of a reality show, currently being filmed by Discovery Health. I can’t decide if this will help or hurt my own Duggar-themed one act play.

What’s that? You really want to see a sample of my play? No, I couldn’t… Really no. Oh, fine. I’m so embarrassed. It’s not finished.

Act one (of one), scene six

A phone rings. Jim Bob wades through a crowd of toddlers to answer it.
Jim Bob: Yo?
Michelle (at hospital): Jim Bob, honey, you’re a dad again!
Jim Bob: …Great!
Michelle: So?
Jim Bob: So what? I said ‘great’ didn’t I?
Michelle: No, I mean, what should his name be? You said you’d thought of one already.
Jim Bob: Oh, yeah. I have, I have. His name is, uh, John.
Michelle: We already have a John.
Jim Bob: I know that. I was just testing you. You passed.
Michelle: So?
Jim Bob: Right… Juh… Juh… Jing…er?
Michelle: Jinger? Did you say Jinger?
Jim Bob: Yes.
Michelle: ‘Jinger’ is not a name.
Jim bob: Sure it is.

Act one (of one), scene seventeen

Michelle, lying in personal hospital bed: Oh, Jim Bob, we’ve been blessed again! A beautiful baby girl.
Jim Bob: She sure is. Sweet little…
Michelle: Jana.
Jim Bob: Sweet little Jana.
Michelle: You know, J.B., I’ve been pregnant for eleven years of my life, but it’s all worth it when I look at our wonderful, loving family.
Jim Bob: Yeah…
Michelle: …
Jim Bob: So… What did you feel like doing tonight?

The End…?


It's brown and the consistency of motor oil...: But what does it smell like?
It's brown and the consistency of motor oil...: But what does it smell like?Courtesy Jill Greenseth
Here at Science Buzz, we strive to keep all y’all Buzzketeers surfing on crest of the new wave, sliding down the cutting edge of the razor that is the future, and, um, up to date on new things. With this in mind, I thought it was important to inform you of the latest, greatest craze in dealing with your useless dead body: alkaline hydrolysis. For everyone already in the know, please just put your heads down on your desks, and wait quietly while the rest of us catch up. Thank you.

Alkaline hydrolysis is, if possible, even cooler than it sounds, and as simple as ABC, but I’ll walk you through it from the beginning. So… You’re born (embarrassing!), you go to prom (best night ever), you live your life (boooring), and then you die. And then what? You’ve got this dead body on your hands, and it’s too big for the garbage disposal in the sink, and Goodwill won’t accept them any more, so what are you supposed to do? Bury it? Yeah, if you’re some kind of chump. Oh, hey, why not bury your body? People have only been doing that for, like, thousands of years. Please. You wouldn’t wear sunglasses from a thousand years ago—everybody would know how lame you are—so why bury your lousy body like they would then? What else…a Viking funeral, maybe? Well, I hate to break it to you, but there some things are just too cool, and most people can’t pull them off. For your average dead Joe, trying to go out with a Viking funeral would be like…like wearing an Armani suit to your fish gutting job—not the right fit.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, technology has come through and offered a fancy new way to go: dissolving your body in lye. One minute you’re a sad, dead old man lying on a slab, and a few hours later you’re a “brown, syrupy residue” ready to be dumped out on the street. This is alkaline hydrolysis.

Basically what happens is this: you’re put into a large tank filled with a lye solution, heated up to 300 degrees, and submitted to about 60 pounds of pressure per square inch (about the same as the pressure in a bicycle tire). It’s like being in a pressure cooker, kind of, but a little more intense. What’s left when you’re done cooking are a few little crunchy solids, and a “coffee-colored liquid with the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell,” which can be safely poured down the drain (or toilet, depending on your preference). Or maybe you could have it misted over the guests at your funeral service. Anything’s possible!Another body prepared in lye: but this one is for eating!
Another body prepared in lye: but this one is for eating!Courtesy hilderbrant

Alkaline hydrolysis is currently only legal—in medical facilities—in Minnesota (yes!) and New Hampshire, but some folks are pushing to have it become a legal process at funeral homes around the country. It’s environmentally cleaner, they argue, than cremation, and doesn’t require the physical space of burial. It would hardly be the grossest thing dumped down our drains, too, as blood and spillover embalming fluid are routinely flushed away at funeral homes. Opponents point out that it’s kind of yucky. Also, some believe that the process is an “undignified” way to treat a human body. To this I say, “True, sir, true, but you know what else is undignified? Belly shirts. And we’ve gotten used to those. Some people even like them.”

So, yeah, get used to it folks. The future is now, and it’s brown, syrupy, and smells like a litter box.


What is the best way to store solar energy?

Solar Two: Heat from the sun is stored in a tower containing molten salt.
Solar Two: Heat from the sun is stored in a tower containing molten salt.Courtesy United States Department of Energy
What is a good way to store solar energy for when the sun doesn't shine? Batteries are expensive and wear out. Instead of storing electricity, solar thermal systems store heat. A coffee thermos and a laptop computer’s battery store about the same amount of energy. The thermos costs about $5 and the laptop battery $150.

Molten salt at 1000+ degrees

By reflecting sunlight at a tall "power tower", tens of thousands of gallons of molten salt can be heated to very high temperatures (1000 degrees F). The heated salt is used to boil water into steam, spin a turbine and make electric power. By regulating the release of heat, generators can continue to run on rainy days and during the night.

"This technology has been successfully demonstrated and is ready for commercialization. From 1994 to 1999, the Solar Two project demonstrated the ability of solar molten salt technology to provide long-term, cost effective thermal energy storage for electricity generation."

SolarReserve will build solar thermal electric plants

SolarReserve, a company backed in part by United Technologies, is using funding from a U.S. Department of Energy grant to develop utility-scale solar thermal electric generating plants between 100-600 megawatts of electricity. One megawatt is enough power to supply approximately 1,000 US households. Read more at SolarReserves FAQ webpage.

New York Times
SolarReserve website (includes a video)


So cute. So shnuggly. So lethal.: Jax, the mighty hunter, eyes some tasty birdies from his window perch.
So cute. So shnuggly. So lethal.: Jax, the mighty hunter, eyes some tasty birdies from his window perch.Courtesy Gene

As spring approaches (no, really, it is coming! You've got to believe!), house cats everywhere are sniffing at the fresh air coming in under the door, and are just itching to get outside. However, a politician in Boulder, Colorado is trying to pass a law that would require pet owners to keep their cats inside. It may sound funny – or like an unnecessary government intrusion into citizens’ lives—but outdoor cats are a big problem for wildlife. According to the American Bird Conservancy There are some 77 million house cats in America, and a similar number of feral cats. Each year, they kill hundreds of millions of birds, and perhaps a billion small mammals. Many of the prey species are threatened or endangered.

If you own a cat, keep it inside! Or invest in an enclosure so it can enjoy the outdoors without menacing the local wildlife.


A mastodon: Hey! Hey! Quit looking at its nipple teeth!
A mastodon: Hey! Hey! Quit looking at its nipple teeth!Courtesy wikimedia commons
Whether you’re the last kid on the block without your own mastodon skeleton, or if the old mastodon skeleton you already have is starting to look a little threadbare, I have some exciting news for you: a California woman plans to auction off a mastodon skeleton on eBay. Bids will start at $115,000.

Mastodons are, for the willfully ignorant among you, hairy, extinct elephant relatives that went extinct about 10,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age.

I like to think of them as the poor man’s wooly mammoths.

While outwardly similar to mammoths in some respects, mastodons were a distinct species, and only distantly related to their larger cousins. Mastodons had straighter tusks, larger, flatter skulls, and while mammoths were grazers (eating low-growing plants like grasses) mastodons were browsers (eating higher growing plants, like leaves, shoots, and fruit). The difference in diet is obvious when comparing the teeth of mammoths and mastodons—mammoths have low, rippling molar surfaces, where mastodons’ molars are high crowned. In fact, “mastodon” means “nipple tooth,” which is, of course, the most striking difference from the cooler-named wooly mammoth.

Wait, what was this post about again? Oh, yeah, eBay.

The mastodon to be auctioned was found on the woman’s northeastern California ranch, an entirely intact skeleton except for a pair of missing tusks. After excavation, the skeleton made a tour of the Oakland Museum of Natural History, a wine bar, and finally a garage. And now the woman’s son wants to use the garage to work on his hotrod, so the skeleton has got to go.

Some paleontologists are doubtful that the skeleton will fetch the asking price, and would prefer to see it donated to a museum. Figures—those greedy paleontologists.


Electric Lady: Look! She just had an idea!
Electric Lady: Look! She just had an idea!Courtesy YanivG
I initially began this post with a super-hero themed pun. Key phrases: great power, great Price.

Why, JGordon, did you change it?

I'll tell you why: because I respect you. You’re readers, computer literates, science-enthusiasts: you deserve better than punning.

So let’s get down to brass tax: Mavis Price, 60-year-old denizen of Shropshire, like Electro, can shoot electricity out of her body. Sure, it happens randomly, and it kills more electric kettles than it does super-heroes (way, way more electric kettles, actually), but it's still pretty cool.

According to Mavis and her family, a touch from the grandmother will often fatally short out electric appliances, from irons to computers, and that just standing next to her can result in an unpleasant shock (not unusual from grandmothers, in my experience.)

"I went on an IT course, but it was a nightmare because every time I touched the computer it would either freeze or shut down,” claimed Mavis in a British accent. "The technician had to constantly come over to my machine to see what was wrong and he was completely baffled."

Mighty Mavis even has an origin story of sorts: she first recollects her power manifesting more than 50 years ago, as she was plugging in a television set. The TV exploded, and little Mavis was sent “flying across the room.” It could be that she is simply unable to recollect anything at all before being caught in a TV explosion, but we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

Unlike scientists. That’s right, scientists, the uber-killjoys, insist that there must be a rational explanation for the Mavis phenomenon. They even suggest that it’s not actually a super power, but a—get this—coincidence! What? Just because it can’t be tested or replicated? Is that what science is supposed to be? Oh. Well, whatever.

Some experts propose that Mavis, or the Shropshire Zapster (as she will no doubt come to be known) is inadvertently perpetuating her condition by building up large amounts of static electricity by walking with a shuffling gate, or by wearing too much nylon like fabric. The friction between nylon clad legs, or old lady feet and carpet, causes a each element to take on a positive or a negative charge, resulting in the kind of zap we’re all familiar with.

But I ask you this: even if this is the answer, what should she do? 1)She’s an old lady—you’d take shuffling away from her? 2) Nylon? Please. What is she supposed to wear? What do you think Electro wears?

Other, less sciencey types, suggest that Mavis’ condition may be similar to the SLI anomaly. SLI, or Street Light Interference, is a similarly less-sciencey phenomenon, which causes street lights to go off as afflicted people (known as SLIders—seriously) walk beneath them. Skeptics point out that this is very probably the result of paranoia combined with a lot of old street lights (dying sodium lights require more voltage, and will shut off sporadically, in such a way that is not to be taken personally). SLIders counter that street light interference occurs with all types of street lights, not just sodium lights. Unfortunately, the SLIders also have no control over their power, and so can’t do it on cue, for, say, a scientific test. Nurts.

But, you know, some people, like Mavis and the SLIders, insist on the reality of their conditions. Anyone here some kind of SLIder, or electro-kid? Check out the Association for the Scientific Study of Paranormal Phenomena website. They might be able to help you out. Somehow.


Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century

Want to know what to do with your life. A diverse committee of experts from around the world, at the request of the U.S. National Science Foundation, identified 14 challenges that, if met, would improve how we live.

Here is their list in no particular order. You can learn more about each challenge by clicking on it.

You can vote for which is most important

The committee decided not to rank the challenges. NAE is offering the public an opportunity to vote on which one they think is most important and to provide comments at the Engineering Challenges website


Rubs you the right way: This microscope image shows the fibers that are part of the microfiber nanogenerator. The top one is coated with gold. When rubbed together, the wires create a low amount of electricity. (Image courtesy Zhong Lin Wang and Xudong Wang).
Rubs you the right way: This microscope image shows the fibers that are part of the microfiber nanogenerator. The top one is coated with gold. When rubbed together, the wires create a low amount of electricity. (Image courtesy Zhong Lin Wang and Xudong Wang).Courtesy Georgia Tech
This sounds like some bad leftover from the disco era -- remember that cheesy movie "Electric Horseman? But scientists at Georgia Tech have developed an electricity-generating fabric that we might someday soon be wearing.

The new cloth would create enough electricity through normal living activities to power up an iPod or similar electrical device. To be more specific, one meter of the fabric would create 80 milliwatts of electricity.

How can this happen?

The fabric has ultra-thin wires woven into it. Wires going one direction are coated with zinc oxide while wires aligned in the other direction are treated with gold. When rubbed together through everyday movement of the wearer, they create electricity that can be fed into a current. In scientific terms, this technology is known as the piezoelectric effect.

Powerline: This schematic shows how pairs of fibers would generate electrical current.
Powerline: This schematic shows how pairs of fibers would generate electrical current.Courtesy Georgia Tech
The wires are only 50 nanometers in thickness, or about 1,800 times thinner than a strand of your hair. Because of this microscopic size, designers figure that the wires won’t create any substantial extra weight to clothes made of the fabric. Also, designers believe they’ll be able to use other cheaper metals to get the same electricity-generating effect.

Along with being used in clothes to generate small amounts of electricity, researchers can see other applications for the technology. The fibers could also be woven into curtains, tents or other structures to capture energy from wind motion, sound vibration or other mechanical energy.

There is one huge drawback. So far developers haven’t figured out how to make the fabric waterproof. That’s a major consideration when you realize that owners of the clothes at some point will want to wash it or wear it while it’s raining.

Want all the juicy details of this latest technology? Here’s a link to Georgia Tech’s full report on piezoelectric fabrics.