General

  1. Where did the elements come from?

    February 3, 2016

     

    Nucleosynthesis_Cmglee_1080

    As you can see at this periodic table, hydrogen in your body, present in every molecule of water, came from the Big Bang.

    There are no other appreciable sources of hydrogen in the universe. The carbon in your body was made by nuclear fusion in the interior of stars, as was the oxygen. Much of the iron in your body was made during supernovas of stars that occurred long ago and far away.

    The gold in your jewelry was likely made from neutron stars during collisions that may have been visible as short-duration gamma-ray bursts. Elements like phosphorus and copper are present in our bodies in only small amounts but are essential to the functioning of all known life. The featured periodic table is color coded to indicate humanity’s best guess as to the nuclear origin of all known elements. The sites of nuclear creation of some elements, such as copper, are not really well known and are continuing topics of observational and computational research.

    Image Credit: Cmglee (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

    source APOD

    Story from WordlessTech

  2. Some drones were sacrificed in the making of this video

    February 3, 2016

    Video Source: “Drones Sacrificed for Spectacular Volcano Video” uploaded by National Geographic to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFIWWM0Iv-U

    Referred from Why?  Because science.

  3. There’s a horsefly named Beyonce

    February 3, 2016

    This bug looks like you!

    Governed by international commissions and codes of nomenclature spanning plants, animals and bacteria, biologists have still managed to honour everyone from popes to punks when they describe a previously unknown species. (There’s no actual law against naming something after yourself, it’s just very bad form).

    The horsefly Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae

    Sometimes the link between organism and celebrity namesake is clear, like the rare horsefly with a shimmering golden backside that inspired CSIRO scientist Bryan Lessard to name it Scaptia (Plinthina) beyonceae.

    The insect was discovered in North Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands in 1981 and lay unnamed until it was classified by Lessard 30 years later.

    If he’d gotten to work on the fly a few years earlier it might have been known as kyliehotpantsiae.

    Physical similarities between creature and namesake are equally obvious in the beetle with the massive ‘biceps’ (middle femora), Agra schwarzeneggeri.

    And the ‘snippy’ looking front claws on a long extinct arthropod were enough for Edward Scissorhands fan David Legg to name the species Kootenichela deppi.

    Crikey! It’s a tree snail!

    Likeness is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Dr John Stansic named the rare snail he discovered in North Queensland Crikey steveirwinii , saying its khaki colour reminded him of Steve Irwin.

    Frank Stinger?

    There was no such likeness between Frank Zappa and the jellyfish Italian scientist Ferdinando Boero named after him — it was all a ploy so Boero could meet his idol. And it paid off — a chuffed Zappa apparently met with him. It’s not clear whether he also caught up with the scientists, who likewise honoured him when they named a species of bacteria, an extinct gerbil, a mudskipper or a spider after Zappa.

    Everyone’s a beetle … except the fab four

    Beetles have been named after a very eclectic group of famous people, from Che Guevara to Kate Winslet and Pope John Paul II to Hitler.

    Interestingly, no beetles have been named after the actual Beatles, but the group has two species of worm named after it.

    And like many rock, pop and punk stars, the members of the Beatles each have a trilobite named after them.

    Looking like the inspiration for the Alien films, trilobites rocked the world for 270 million years before being wiped out in a mass extinction 250 million years ago.

    The Sex Pistols, the Stones, the Ramones, Miles Davis and Simon and Garfunkel all have these long extinct arthropods named after them. And, oddly, so does Marilyn Monroe.

    When Australian palaeontologist John Shergold and British collaborator Richard Fortey found a trilobite fossil in the Northern Territory, they saw an hourglass shape in a part of its head.

    And lo, Norasaphus monroeae was born. Lonely work, fossil hunting.

     

    This post is excerpted from ABC Science and was written by Bernie Hobbs – click here for the rest of this post.

  4. Chemists see molecule bond breaking and forming

    February 3, 2016

    Chemical bonds – the bane of all high school students. Many see chemistry as an abstract way of describing the world, but for some chemists, it’s a very practical thing. Using a special type of microscopy, researchers triggered and visualized a chemical reaction at the atomic level.

    chemical bonding

    The team studied a version of the Bergman cyclization – an organic reaction and more specifically a rearrangement reaction taking place when an enediyne is heated in presence of a suitable hydrogen donor. Leo Gross of IBM Research Zurich and coworkers there and at the University of Santiago de Compostela used scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), a technique for nudging things at an atomic level taking advantage of a phenomenon called quantum tunneling. They then used atomic force microscopy (AFM) to image atomic-level details of that molecule as it formed. They managed to see its stages of formation as well as the final product.

    The study “is a real breakthrough,” says Wolfram Sander of Ruhr University Bochum, a chemist who studies reaction intermediates. The ability to visualize and push the system in both reaction directions “is a great achievement,” he says.

    The fact that they managed to both create and reverse is important. The technique could be applied to “initiate radical reactions by manipulating molecules at an atomic level” with potential applications in molecular electronics and subsequently electronic or medical devices.

    Peter Chen of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, also a reactive intermediates expert, notes that the technique also praised the results.

    [It] “allows the chemist to initiate the reaction of a single molecule and then see the bonding changes in that very same molecule—not quite directly, but as close to directly as one can possibly imagine. This corresponds to the state of the art of what can be achieved” he said, referring to probe microscopy.

    Journal Reference [open access]: Reversible Bergman cyclization by atomic manipulation.

    Post by Mihai Andrei on ZME Science

  5. Human Evolution in 90 seconds

    November 19, 2015

    This is a promotional video for the book, Shaping Humanity by John Gurche.  Try it full screen.

    What did earlier humans really look like?What was life like for them, millions of years ago? How do we know?

    In this book, internationally renowned paleoartist John Gurche describes the extraordinary process by which he creates forensically accurate and hauntingly realistic representations of our ancient human ancestors.   Inspired by a lifelong fascination with all things prehistoric, and gifted with a unique artistic vision, Gurche has studied fossil remains, comparative ape and human anatomy, and forensic reconstruction for over three decades. His artworks appear in world-class museums and publications ranging from National Geographic to the journal Science, and he is widely known for his contributions to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and a number of acclaimed television specials.

    For the Smithsonian Institution’s groundbreaking David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, opened in 2010, Gurche created fifteen sculptures representing six million years of human history. In Shaping Humanity he relates how he worked with a team of scientists to depict human evolution in sculpture for the new hall. He reveals the debates and brainstorming that surround these often controversial depictions, and along the way he enriches our awareness of the various paths of human evolution and humanity’s stunning uniqueness in the history of life on Earth.

    From Yale Books

  6. What is Natural?

    July 30, 2015

    All natural . . . organic . . . non-GMO – how do you decide what is good for you to eat? This interesting video from asapSCIENCE provides some perspective.

  7. Lessons from the Dementor Wasp

    July 9, 2015

    DEMENTOR WASP

    Save the Zombie-Makers!

    Parasites may seem too gross or too wicked to be worth saving from extinction. Or they may just seem so skilled in their sinister arts that we don’t have to worry about them, since they’ll always find a new victim.

    In fact, parasites warrant our concern, right along with their hosts. That’s not to say that we’d better off if smallpox or rinderpest were still running wild. But letting parasites hurtle into oblivion due to our ecological recklessness is a bad idea.

    Here’s a case in point: The World Wildlife Fund has just drawn attention to a parasitic wasp, Ampulex dementor, that makes cockroaches its zombified victims. The wasp was found in 2007 in Thailand, and in 2014 a German museum held a contest to give it a species name. Museum goers voted to name it after the soul-sucking dementors in the Harry Potter series.

    WWF highlighted A. dementor in a new report on the 139 new species from the Greater Mekong Region that were described in 2014 alone. This region, which includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, is stunningly rich with species. It’s also incredibly productive, yielding a quarter of the world’s catch of freshwater fish. But it’s also under intense pressure, ranking in the top five threatened biodiversity hotspots on Earth. Dams, roads, logging, and hunting are all taking their toll on the species there. Climate change will only add to the threats the Mekong’s species face.

    A species like A. dementor is caught in a special bind. We didn’t even know it existed until recently, so it’s hard to know precisely how well the species is faring. No one has a detailed map of its range before human pressure ramped up in the past century, and no one has a corresponding map of its current range.

    On top of that, the published scientific literature–pretty much just a single paper published last year–doesn’t even tell us about the particular cockroaches the wasp parasitizes. Does it zombify several species of cockroaches? Does it zombify just one? These questions matter a lot to the survival of A. dementor. If it parasitizes a single rare species, it could become extinct if its host disappears. (While a few species of cockroaches have become global champions by adapting to our homes, the vast majority can only survive in wild forests.)

    While we know little about this parasite, the ecological threats to the Greater Mekong Region should make us concerned about it. And losing a species of parasite can be a bad thing. Parasites, for example, are important players in food webs. If they disappear from an ecosystem, their hosts–and the species that are affected by those hosts–may undergo wild swings. If you don’t like cockroaches, the last thing you want is for the parasites that devour them from the inside out to vanish.

    Parasites are also worth saving for what they have to teach us. And that’s especially true for wasps like A. dementor. It belongs to a lineage known as Ampulicidae or the cockroach wasps, which contains 200 named species–and probably many more waiting to be discovered. The best known of these species is Ampulex compressa, sometimes called the emerald cockroach wasp. Phenomena readers may be quite familiar with the emerald cockroach wasp, because fellow blogger Ed Yong and I just won’t shut up about it. (I also added an epilogue to my book Parasite Rex pretty much just to write about it.)

    The reason we know so much about the emerald cockroach wasp is that a team of researchers led by Frederic Libersat at Ben-Gurion University in Israel have figured out how to rear the wasps in their lab, and for years now they’ve been observing its remarkable skills.

    The female emerald cockroach wasp searches for roaches, probably scanning the ground while sniffing the air. The wasp swoops down on the roach and stings it in its abdomen, temporarily paralyzing it. It then delivers a second shot to the head–literally snaking its stinger into the recesses of the cockroach brain. Now the cockroach loses all motivation to do much of anything. You can even shock its leg and it won’t budge on its own. But the wasp can grab onto an antenna and lead it into a burrow.

    There, the wasp lays an egg on the roach’s underside and then leaves, sealing the burrow behind it. The egg hatches and the larva sucks on the roach in tick-like fashion for a while, before squirming inside the host’s body to finish off its growth. To keep its host from dying of infections, it smears an antibiotic cocktail on the roach’s inner body wall. The wasp larva forms a cocoon inside the roach, which then finally dies. Later, the fully-grown wasp pokes its head out of the roach, wriggles entirely free, and leaves the burrow.

    These wasps may have many lessons for us. Most of their antibiotics are new to science, for example, and so they may be worth investigating further for medicine. The wasps have also evolved a remarkable skill at manipulating the cockroach brain. Figuring out how they do it might tell us more about how the nervous systems of insects work. And it might provide some inspirations for ways to manipulate our own brains–not to turn ourselves into zombies, but to treat psychological disorders.

    But almost all the insights we’ve got about cockroach wasps come from a single species. Far from being degenerates, as they were traditionally viewed, parasites can evolve rapidly, hitting on new strategies for conquering their hosts. So it’s entirely possible that A. dementor uses a soul-sucking arsenal that’s significantly different than its cousin species A. compressa. The only way we can enjoy discovering that arsenal is to make sure this species doesn’t vanish first.

    This article was written by Carl Zimmer and appeared on his blog, The Loom

  8. How to put out an oil fire – do not use water!

    June 30, 2015

     

  9. The Bionic Man

    June 12, 2015

    This story is from the New York Times tells about a man who lost his arms as a teenager.  He is now testing robotic arms developed by engineers at Johns Hopkins University that can be controlled by his thoughts.

    It is one of the amazing examples of progress being made at the crossroads of engineering and medicine.

    By Zachary Canepari, Drea Cooper and Emma Cott

  10. A Journey to Space starts in this Vacuum Chamber

    May 20, 2015

     

    Vacuum Chamber

    Image Credit: NASA

    When scientists have to test hardware designed to operate in the vast reaches of space, they start in this vacuum chamber.

    NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland has many of them, but Vacuum Chamber 5 (VF-5) is special.  Supporting the testing of electric propulsion and power systems, VF-5 has the highest pumping speed of any electric propulsion test facility in the world, which is important in maintaining a continuous space-like environment.

    The cryogenic panels at the top and back of the chamber house a helium-cooled panel that reaches near absolute zero temperatures (about -440 degrees Fahrenheit). The extreme cold of this panel freezes any air left in the chamber and quickly freezes the thruster exhaust, allowing the chamber to maintain a high vacuum environment. The outer chevrons are cooled with liquid nitrogen to shield the cryogenic panels from the room temperature surfaces of the tank.

    Most electric propulsion devices, such as Hall Thrusters, use xenon as a propellant, which is very expensive. By capturing the used xenon as ice during testing, researchers are able to recover the propellant to reuse, saving NASA and test customers considerable costs.

    The oil diffusion pumps along the bottom of the tank capped by circular covers use a low vapor pressure silicon oil to concentrate small amounts of gas to the point where it can be mechanically pumped from the chamber.

    VF-5 will continue to provide a testing environment for Glenn’s advanced Solar Electric Propulsion technology needed for future astronaut expeditions into deep space, including to Mars.

    Editor:  Kelly Heidman

    Story from WordlessTech

     

  11. Bigger Earthquake Coming on Nepal’s Terrifying Faults

    May 18, 2015

    by Becky Oskin, Senior Writer   |   April 27, 2015

     

    Nepal faces larger and more deadly earthquakes, even after the magnitude-7.8 temblor that killed more than 4,000 people on Saturday (April 25).

    Earthquake experts say Saturday’s Nepal earthquake did not release all of the pent-up seismic pressure in the region near Kathmandu. According to GPS monitoring and geologic studies, some 33 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) of motion may need to be released, said Eric Kirby, a geologist at Oregon State University. The earth jumped by about 10 feet (3 m) during the devastating April 25 quake, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

    “The earthquakes in this region can be much, much larger,” said Walter Szeliga, a geophysicist at Central Washington University.

    Seismologists have extensively studied the possibility of damaging earthquakes in the central Himalayas. Through analyzing written histories, looking for clues from damaged buildings and digging along faults, researchers know of several damaging earthquakes in the past, but not their precise size. [See Photos of This Millennium’s Destructive Earthquakes]

    Nepal was overdue for a major earthquake, said Marin Clark, a geophysicist at the University of Michigan. “It has been a long time since the last big rupture, so this is not unexpected,” Clark said.

    One of the region’s most devastating recent quakes occurred in 1934, when a magnitude-8.2 earthquake killed over 8,500 people in Kathmandu. Before then, the last time such an immense quake struck Kathmandu was on July 7, 1255. That quake killed about 30 percent of the population. The region west of Kathmandu has been seismically quiet since June 6, 1505, when a great earthquake toppled buildings from Tibet to India.

    Crash zone

    Nepal is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions because it lies at the head-on collision between two tectonic plates. India is slamming into Asia, and neither wants to give. Both India and Asia are continental crust, of the same average density. So instead of one plate sinking beneath the other, such as is happening at the ocean-continent plate collision offshore South America, the Earth’s crust crumples. Slices of India peel off and slowly squeeze under Asia, while Asia is mashed upward, forming the Himalayas.

    India and Asia collide at about eight-tenths of an inch (2 centimeters) per year. Most of that energy is loaded onto earthquake faults as elastic strain because the faults are stuck together. Loading a fault is like squeezing a spring; an earthquake releases the built-up energy similar to an uncoiling spring.

    Scientists think earthquakes that are magnitude 7.8 in size can’t release all of the strain between India and Asia. Instead, history suggests most of the stored energy gets uncorked as earthquakes that are magnitude 8 or greater, according to geologic studies. It would take scores of magnitude-7 quakes to accommodate all of the plate motion, but only a handful of midsize, magnitude-8 quakes, or one magnitude 9. (The energy released by a quake increases by a factor of 30 with each additional point in magnitude.) [Video: What Does Earthquake ‘Magnitude’ Mean?]

    “It seems likely that the amount of slip in this earthquake probably didn’t make up for the complete deficit,” Kirby said.

    The April 25 earthquake struck on one of the many thrust faults that mark the boundary between the two plates. Thrust faults are the most terrifying of all faults because they lie at an angle. This shallow angle means a massive part of the Earth’s crust can lurch during an earthquake. Steeper faults quickly grow too warm and soft to break; as rocks get deeper, they flow like putty, Szeliga said. During the Nepal temblor, a piece of crust roughly 75 miles (120 kilometers) long and 37 miles (60 km) wide jogged 10 feet (3 m) to the south. The fault angled only 10 degrees from the surface, and the quake was only 9 miles (14 km) deep.

    “This one was relatively shallow, which intensifies the surface shaking,” Clark said.

    From seismic readings, many scientists suspect the fault did not break all the way to the surface, like the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles. That’s another indication that the earthquake did not unleash all of the stored strain in the region, Kirby said. The seismic instruments can detect where the strongest motion occurred on the fault.

    However, even without a surface trace, GPS instruments and InSAR (radar from satellites) will provide precise tracking of how the ground shifted during the earthquake, Szeliga said. The data will help ground-truth scientist’s models of Himalayan tectonics.

    “Now’s the chance to see who made predictions that were even remotely testable, and if they stand up,” Szeliga said.

  12. Amazing Scientific Renderings of Flowers

    April 4, 2015

    This story is re-blogged from wordlessTech

    makoto-murayama_tokyo-electron-2

    Using his background in computer graphics and illustration, media artist Makoto Murayama creates technical, scientific blueprints of flowers that look like they belong in a manual for semiconductors. In fact, his work has just been selected as part of the solaé art gallery project, an initiative to bring art into the offices of Tokyo Electron, one of Japan’s largest semiconductor companies.

    It’s no surprise that these incredibly detailed renderings are made from an incredibly scientific process. The 29-year old Murayama begins by collecting and studying different flowers. The artist then begins sketching them over and over, literally dissecting every petal under a microscope to identify its structure. Murayama then turns to his computer, where he carefully models and renders out the prints. I would love to have one of these on my wall!

    makoto-murayama_tokyo-electron-1

    “My inspirations come from Yoshihiro Inomoto (a master of automobile illustration) and Tomitaro Makino (a pioneer in Japanese botanical illustration),” says Murayama in an interview.

    makoto-murayama_tokyo-electron-4

    art by Makoto Murayama – courtesy of Frantic Gallery

  13. How chameleons change color – new research reveals the (unexpected) process

    March 25, 2015

    This post is re-blogged from ABC Science.

    Be sure you click on the link to the original story in Nature Communications which has more details about how chameleons are equipped with photonic nanocrystals in specific patterns that enable them to alter their appearance.

    chameleon

    The panther chameleon can change the background colour of its skin from green to yellow or orange (Photo: Michel C Milinkovitch)

    Humans have long been fascinated by chameleons changing colour to dazzle mates, scare rivals and confuse predators, now scientists have uncovered the mechanism behind the feat.

    Rather than use pigments to switch colour, nanocrystals in the lizards’ skin are tuned to alter the reflection of light, they report in the journal Nature Communications .

    “We were surprised,” says Michel Milinkovitch, a biologist at the University of Geneva.

    “It was thought they were changing colour through… pigments. The real mechanism is totally different and involves a physical process,” he adds.

    Colour-switching in chameleons is the preserve of males.

    They use it to make themselves more flamboyant to attract mates and frighten off challengers, or duller to evade predators.

    The mature panther chameleon used in the study, for example, can change the background colour of its skin from green to yellow or orange, while blue patches turn whitish and then back again.

    In most other colour-changing animals, the pigment melanin alters a colour’s brightness by dispersing or concentrating within cells called melanophores, thus changing colour intensity but not hue.

    This process had long been thought to explain chameleons’ colour change as well, says the team.

    But skin analysis revealed that the change is regulated by transparent nano-objects called photonic crystals found in a layer of cells dubbed iridophores, which lie just below the chameleon’s pigment cells.

    Iridophores are also found in other reptiles and amphibians like frogs, giving them the green and blue colours rarely found in other vertebrates.

    In chameleons, however, nanocrystal lattices within the iridophores can be ‘tuned’ to change the way light is reflected, say the researchers.

    Blue for calm

    “When the chameleon is calm, the latter (crystals) are organised into a dense network and reflect the blue wavelengths” of incoming light, they say.

    “In contrast, when excited, it loosens its lattice of nanocrystals, which allows the reflection of other colours such as yellows or reds.”

    The team used biopsies of chameleon skin, pre- and post-excitement, combined with optical microscopy and high-resolution videography to study the phenomenon.

    They also discovered that chameleons have a second, deeper layer of iridophore cells.

    These contain “larger and less ordered” crystals that reflect infrared wavelengths from strong sunlight — in essence, a clever heat shield.

    “The organisation of iridophores in two superimposed layers constitute an evolutionary novelty,” say the researchers.

    “It allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.”

    Other reptiles have only one type of iridophore cell which cannot be used to change colour, say the researchers.

    Next, scientists would like to figure out the mechanisms that allow chameleons to tune the crystal lattice.

    Discoveries in the animal world have spawned a field called ‘biomimicry’.

    Engineers often seek to replicate wonders of evolution such as spider’s silk and gecko feet for products with commercial or military use.

  14. “Popcorn behaves like a plant and an animal as it moves” – how does that work?

    March 9, 2015

     

    popcorn4

    Popcorn behaves like a plant and an animal as it moves.

     This story is reblogged from LiveScience

    To most people, it may be just a fun food to munch while watching a movie.

    But to a couple of French investigators, popcorn is a biomechanical enigma waiting to be explained.

    Engineers Emmanuel Virot and Alexandre Ponomarenko carried out experiments to find out what the ideal temperature to pop corn, what happens when popcorn pops, and what makes the popping sound.

    “To the best of our knowledge, little attention has been paid so far to the origin of the characteristic ‘pop’ sound,” they write.

    Their findings are published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface .

    Cameras recording at 2,900 frames per second helped show what happened when a kernel of corn exploded.

    When the temperature reached 100 degrees Celsius, some of the moisture inside the corn started to turn into steam, the researchers found.

    As the temperature rose to around 180 degrees C, pressure built to around 10 bar, or 10 times the atmosphere at sea level.

    Unable to withstand the stress, the outer shell broke open, causing a dramatic drop in pressure that forced the kernel’s starchy innards to expand and protrude.

    “We found that the critical temperature is about 180 C, regardless of the size or shape of the grain,” says Virot, an aeronautical engineer at the Ecole Polytechnique.

    Starch ‘leg’

    The first thing to emerge from the fractured shell is a limb-shaped structure — a “leg” — that comes into contact with the surface of the pan and starts to compress under the heat.

    Tensed and then released, the “leg” causes the corn to leap up — a height ranging from a few millimetres to centimetres — and emit a “pop” from the sudden release of water vapour.

    A few milliseconds later, the granules spewing from inside expand to form a spongy flake.

    Evolution from fracture to flake takes less than 90 milliseconds — 0.09 of a second.

    The popcorn’s leap results from an intriguing combination of thermodynamics and fracture mechanics, rather than just the blast of pent-up gases.

    “A piece of popcorn has a singular way of jumping, midway between explosive plants such as impatiens, and muscle-based animals such as human beings,” say the researchers.

    Pop!

    To understand the origin of the ‘pop’ sound, researchers added a microphone to the video experiments.

    Possible explanations for the sound could include the cracking of the fracture, the sound of the kernel as it hits the ground, or the release of water vapour.

    The researchers found that the sound didn’t happen immediately after the kernel fractured. Instead it occurred about six milliseconds after the second fracture and lasted about 50 milliseconds.

    After discounting the first two hypotheses they concluded that this ‘pop’ sound is triggered by vapour release in much the same way as sound is released following volcanic eruptions or the ‘pop’ of a champagne bottle cork.

     

  15. What’s your sign? Not so fast . . .

    March 4, 2015

    This post is re-blogged from Thea Beckman’s, Why, Because Science.

     

    1-Science-and-astrology-1

    What’s your star sign? Sagittarius? LIAR!!

    If your horoscope a little out of scope, it’s because you’re reading the wrong one.

    This is not really your fault. How are you to know that things have changed in the heavens since the zodiac was assigned to each calendar month just over 2,500 years ago? This is the problem with astrology in the 21st Century. It is the single most ridiculous cluster of notions that have ever been conceived, second only to the idea that womankind was created from the rib of a man. How insulting! If anything, man was created from the rib of a woman. Why else would men have nipples?

    On the upside, on issues of astrology and horoscopes, I’ve finally found something I can agree with Christians about.

    If you’re keen on these subjects, I am really sorry to burst your bubble. I’m all for esoteric beliefs if it distracts people from judging thy neighbour and killing in the name of You-Know-Who. But the entire rational framework of astrology is completely and inexcusably flawed. This isn’t only from a logical standpoint, but for one very particular reason, which we shall discuss shortly.

    First, let’s find out what on Earth our ancient counterparts were thinking…

    2 science and astrology

    A cluster of ridiculous notions is forgivable of an ancient civilization that has no understanding of the physical world around them and of all its beautiful and intricate macroscopic and microscopic complexity. Back in the day, a sickness was not the result of a virus running rampant in your body: it was a punishment for wrong-doing or an expression of some deity’s dissatisfaction with your most recent sacrifice. Even though said sacrifice was your sister…

    Lightning wasn’t an electrical discharge between a negatively charged sky and a positively charged Earth; it was Zeus throwing his toys out the cot. The stars were not balls of intense and unending nuclear reactions held together by gravity, they were the souls of dead people (or fireflies, if you’re a Lion King fan).

    Every civilization has sought to explain the physical observable universe using what little bits and pieces of knowledge they had. A few thousand years ago, in the absence of powerful telescopes, super computers, mathematical equations and the cumulative work of tens of thousands of scientists, that knowledge stemmed from tradition, superstition and beliefs that had been passed down from generation to generation.

    Scientific these explanations were not.

    Meet the Babylonians

    3 science and-The-Ancient-Babylonians

    Humans are inherently creative and seek symbolism in just about everything around us, so naturally the patterns perceived in the arrangement of stars against the night sky became other people, animals and objects. These constellations were then bestowed with significance over and above their random scattering across the sky.

    And who can blame our ancestors? Back in the day there was no TV, so our ancient counterparts looked to the sky for their daily and seasonal weather forecasts; the stars were their GPS. If a decent crop yield depended on you sowing seeds at precisely the right time of year, you too would regard the sky as something sacred and symbolic. Your life could depend on it.

    Around 7th century BC, Babylonian astronomers (dudes who puzzled over the sky and made attempts to measure and record the migrations of the stars and planets) divided the constellations that coursed across the Milky Way into the zodiacal signs, which, in Latin, literally means “circle of animals.” Think “zoo.”

    4 science Astrology-and-the-zodiac

    Although some of the constellations that make up the zodiac have origins elsewhere and in other times, the Babylonians were the ones who landed the Oscar for incredible breakthrough work in scientific observation, measurement and recording. They were the ones who divided the sky into the co-ordinate system that has largely survived to this day (with subtle modifications and a greater accuracy, of course.)

    Each calendar month was assigned a ‘star sign,’ beginning with the constellation that was positioned behind the sun at the time of the spring equinox. This was around March and April in the northern hemisphere. Remember, back in these days, the seasons very much governed the life and times of these people. Spring was an auspicious time of year because your farm animals would start bonking like mad, which was a good thing if you wanted your farm animals to make baby farm animals.

    5 science-Funny-goat-picture

    At the time this was all cooked up (just over 2,500 years ago), the constellation that took position behind the sun at the spring equinox was Aries, the ram. Baaa. Every year at the same time, the same star sign would resume its rightful position in the sky.

    But the Earth’s movement relative to the stars changes year after year. Every time we make our way around the sun, our aspect is very slightly different thanks to Earth’s wobbly axis of rotation. Just under three millennia later, the constellation positioned behind the sun at the time of the spring equinox is no longer Aries. It’s Taurus.

    What does this mean?

    The Zodiacal Identity Crisis

    6 science and astrology

    “Screw this, I’m not a Leo anymore… I see myself as a Virgo anyway.”

    What’s your star sign? Libra? Nope! Actually, you’re a Scorpio. When you were born, the constellation positioned behind the sun was Scorpio, not Libra. So all that crap about being sensitive, artistic, fickle and in love with the idea of love blah, blah, is just that: crap. Whatever star sign you thought you were, you are actually one ahead:

    Aries’ are Gemini’s

    Gemini’s are Cancer’s

    Cancer’s are Leo’s

    Leo’s are Virgo’s

    And so on and so forth.

    Everything you’ve ever read about yourself in a horoscope – what kind of person you are, your personality traits, your likes, loves, potential health problems and more – is all fundamentally flawed because you are reading the wrong star sign. Plain and simple. What’s the point in reading the horoscope for, example, Sagittarius when you’re actually a Capricorn? And why don’t astrologers or whoever writes this garbage picked up on this very simple, yet grave error?

     

    My birthday is on the 19th October. Every horoscope I have ever read in any magazine, newspaper or book has told me that my star sign is Libra. But every single one of them has been inaccurate. The constellation behind the sun on the date of my birth is Scorpio, which makes far more sense because I can be quite a bitch.

    Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message Astrology Milky way stars

    7 science and

    The idea that the stars and planets play a part in forecasting our future is a very romantic one. It makes us feel very important. But those giant impartial elemental worlds composed of ice, rock, fire and air have about as much to do with your love life as scientology has to do with science.

    Sure, those horoscopes you read in People while sitting on the porcelain throne can make sense sometimes. But horoscopes are self-fulfilled prophesies. If Madame Zola tells you that your love life is about to get hot and heavy, you’re immediately primed to see significance where there is none. You regard the world with fresh eager eyes; watching and waiting for your Prince Charming or Pussy Galore (guys) to come and sweep you off of your feet.

    The bottom line is: stars are far too busy exploding and being catastrophically nuclear to worry about your office dynamics and how that bitch down the aisle keeps stealing your stapler. The planets couldn’t be less interested in how flaccid your sex life has been recently and the moon couldn’t give two hoots about what colour you should dye your hair next.

    Perhaps it’s our innate fear of being ordinary that compels us to seek evidence of our extraordinary nature outside of ourselves – in the relative orientation of the stars and planets – when in fact we already ARE extraordinary.

    We’re made of star dust, aren’t we?

    On image usage: In spite of our efforts, the original sources of the unmarked images used in this blog post have not been found. If anyone believes we have not given correct reference, please notify us and we shall correct immediately.

     

  16. Limpets and Spiders – Biomimicry

    February 18, 2015

     

    Common_limpets1Photo credit:  GMA News

    Step aside, Spider-Man: The world’s strongest stuff isn’t your silk; it’s sea snail teeth.

    The teeth of the common limpet species (Patella vulgata) are tougher than Kevlar and stronger than spider silk, researchers report in the Feb. 18 issue of The Royal Society journal Interface.

    limpet_vent_2photo credit:ferrebeekeeper

    “Spider silk has been winning this competition for a long time. I was surprised and excited that limpet teeth beat the winner,” said lead study author Asa Barber, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Portsmouth in England.

    Limpets are tough little snails that live everywhere in the ocean, from the deepest, darkest canyons to the roughest, toughest surf. Their jaunty, cone-shaped shell protects a sturdy foot that clings to rocks with a phenomenal grip. Limpets dine on algae, unrolling a long tongue studded with hundreds of sharp teeth that scrape their dinner off boulders and cliffs.

    Limpet-teeth-1Photo credit:  LiveScience

    Though limpets leave behind only scratched rock, no one had ever tested the strength of their teeth, Barber said. “Nature always develops the perfect structure for a particular mechanical job, so I thought, ‘They’ve got to be really strong,'” he told Live Science.

    It turns out that Southampton’s local limpets grow mineralized teeth that are 10 percent tougher than spider silk, Barber said.

    The limpet uses composite fibers that are thousands of times thinner than the man-made nanofibers in airplanes, bulletproof vests or bicycle frames. The biological composites are a mix of the iron oxide mineral goethite and chitin, which acts like a natural plastic, Barber said.

    Spider silk has been difficult to replicate in the laboratory, but Barber has high hopes for reproducing the strength of limpet teeth using 3-D printing.

    Read the whole story here on LiveScience.

     

  17. Who was the woman who saved the US space race?

    February 4, 2015

    This video is from the American Chemical Society series, “Reactions”

  18. Natural Fireworks – the Aurora Borealis

    October 31, 2014

    At 41° N latitude, we seldom see the Northern Lights in my home town.  The few times I have witnessed them, I thought the red and green lights moving across the night sky were a remarkable sight.  Thanks to this article at Live Science about the aurora borealis, I now know the reason for the colors and more.

    aurora-fairbanks

    The aurora borealis – otherwise known as the northern lights – is a vivid demonstration of the Earth’s magnetic field interacting with charged particles from the sun. It’s also beautiful, and worth braving a cold night out when visiting the high northern (or southern) latitudes.

    Auroras are centered on the Earth’s magnetic poles, visible in a roughly circular region around them. Since the magnetic and geographic poles aren’t the same, sometimes the auroras are visible farther south than one might expect, while in other places it’s farther north. [Aurora Photos: Northern Lights Dazzle in Night-Sky Images]

    In the Northern Hemisphere, the auroral zone runs along the northern coast of Siberia, Scandinavia, Iceland, the southern tip of Greenland and northern Canada and Alaska. Auroras are visible south of the zone, but they are less likely to occur the farther away you go. The Southern Hemisphere auroral zone is mostly over Antarctica, or the Southern Ocean. To see the southern lights (or aurora australis), you have to go to Tasmania, and there are occasional sightings in southern Argentina or the Falklands – but those are rare. Here are some dazzling facts about these light shows.

    1. Different ions make different colors

    Aurora displays are created when protons and electrons stream out from the solar surface and slam into the Earth’s magnetic field. Since the particles are charged they move in spirals along the magnetic field lines, the protons in one direction and the electrons in the other. Those particles in turn hit the atmosphere. Since they follow the magnetic field lines, most of them enter the atmospheric gases in a ring around the magnetic poles, where the magnetic field lines come together.

    The air is made up largely of nitrogen and oxygen atoms, with oxygen becoming a bigger component at the altitudes auroras happen – starting about 60 miles up and going all the way up to 600 miles. When the charged particles hit them, they gain energy. Eventually they relax, giving up the energy and releasing photons of specific wavelengths. Oxygen atoms emit green and sometimes red light, while nitrogen is more orange or red.

    2. They are visible from space

    Satellites can take pictures of the aurora from Earth’s orbit — and the images they get are pretty striking. In fact, auroras are bright enough that they show up strongly on the nightside of the Earth even if one were looking at them from another planet.

    The International Space Station’s orbit is inclined enough that it even plows through the heavenly lights. Most of the time nobody notices, as the density of charged particles is so low. Rodney Viereck, director of the Space Weather Prediction Test Bed at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),said the only time it matters is during particularly intense solar storms, when radiation levels are high. At that point all the astronauts have to do is move to a more protected area of the station. (Ironically, intense solar storms can actually reduce the amount of radiation around the space station, because of the interactions of charged particles with the Earth’s magnetic field). Meanwhile, ISS astronauts can snap gorgeous auroral panoramas.

    3. Other planets have them

    Voyagers 1 and 2 were the first probes to bring back pictures of auroras on Jupiter and Saturn, and later Uranus and Neptune. Since then, the Hubble Space Telescope has taken pictures of them as well. Auroras on either Jupiter or Saturn are much larger and more powerful than on Earth, because those planets’ magnetic fields are orders of magnitude more intense.

    On Uranus, auroras get weirder, because the planet’s magnetic field is oriented roughly vertically, but the planet rotates on its side. That means instead of the bright rings you see on other worlds, Uranus’ auroras look more like single bright spots, at least when spied by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2011. But it’s not clear that’s always the case, because no spacecraft has seen the planet up-close since 1986.

    4. The lights can move south

    Occasionally the auroras are visible farther from the poles than usual. In times of high solar activity, the southern limit for seeing auroras can go as far south as Oklahoma and Atlanta — as it did in October 2011. A record was probably set at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia in 1862, during the Civil War, when the northern lights appeared. Many soldiers noted it in their diaries. Viereck said it is actually harder now than a century ago to tell when auroras are very bright, because so many Americans live in cities, and the lights wash out the aurora. “You could have a major auroral storm in New York City and if you looked up you wouldn’t notice,” he said.

    5. Divine signs?

    Speaking of that Civil War aurora, a few observers took the swirling light show as a bad omen (notably Elizabeth Lyle Saxon, who wrote about the phenomenon in her 1905 book, “A Southern Woman’s War Time Reminiscences”), though most people just saw it as an unusual and impressive display. In areas where the lights are rare, they were often taken as bad omens, as the ancient Greeks did. The Inuit, who see auroras more often, thought the lights were spirits playing in the sky, and some groups would tell children not to play outside at night lest the aurora disappear and take them along. Lapplanders thought the lights were the spirits of the dead. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Maori and Aboriginal people of Australia associated the southern lights with fires in the spirit world.

    Oddly, the Old Norse and Icelandic literature doesn’t seem to mention auroras much. The Vikings thought the displays might be fires that surrounded the edge of the world, an emanation of flame from the northern ice, or reflections from the sun as it went around the other side of the Earth. All three ideas were considered rational, non-supernatural explanations in the Medieval Period.

    aurora-iceland

    6. Cold fire

    The northern lights look like fire, but they wouldn’t feel like one. Even though the temperature of the upper atmosphere can reach thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, the heat is based on the average speed of the molecules. After all, that’s what temperature is. But feeling heat is another matter – the density of the air is so low at 60 miles (96 kilometers) up that a thermometer would register temperatures far below zero where aurora displays occur.

    7. Cameras see it better

    Auroras are relatively dim, and the redder light is often at the limit of what human retinas can pick up. Cameras, though, are often more sensitive, and with a long-exposure setting and a clear dark sky you can pick up some spectacular shots.

    8. You can’t predict a show

    One of the most difficult problems in solar physics is knowing the shape of a magnetic field in a coronal mass ejection (CME), which is basically a huge blob of charged particles ejected from the sun. Such CMEs have their own magnetic fields. The problem is, it is nigh impossible to tell in what direction the CME field is pointing until it hits. A hit creates either a spectacular magnetic storm and dazzling aurora with it, or a fizzle. Currently there’s no way to know ahead of time.

    NOAA has an online map that can tell you what auroral activity looks like on any given day, showing the extent of the “auroral oval” and where one is more likely to catch the lights.

    This post is a reblog from Live Science, written by Jesse Emspak, Live Science Contributor.  Credit for all photos: Live Science.

  19. Lessons from a butterfly wing

    October 23, 2014

    Biomimetics involves adapting designs found in nature to solve problems in science and engineering. Quoting from National Geographic: “What has fins like a whale, skin like a lizard, and eyes like a moth? The future of engineering.”

    The following article from ABC Science, written by Clare Pain, is about the discovery of a special adaptation found in  a butterfly’s wing that may help thwart counterfeiting of bank notes, and possibly other applications.

    I recommend downloading the report in Proceedings because it includes fascinating electron micrographs of the specialized scales on this butterfly’s wings.

    light-diffracting-butterfly

    “A material designed to mimic a quirky iridescent patch on a butterfly’s wing may help prevent counterfeiting, say US engineers.

    The ‘photonic’ material, so called because it affects light falling on it, was developed out of curiosity, the authors, report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

    The researchers were intrigued by a 2010 paper reporting an unusual ordering of rainbow colours on a patch of the forewings of the otherwise dowdy male butterfly Pierella luna.

    The colours are produced by striations on the butterfly’s wing scales, which act as a diffraction grating, splitting white light into its constituent colours.

    The result is an iridescent patch, whose colour varies depending on the angle at which it is viewed, a bit like the colours seen when tilting a CD.

    The patch of colour is strange, however, because instead of seeing redder light at greater angles (as would normally occur with a diffraction grating) the greater the angle, the bluer the light appears. So the diffraction pattern is the reverse of normal.

    “There are a number of organisms that employ some kind of diffraction in nature to create colourful appearances, but none of them use the same approach as this butterfly,” says Professor Mathias Kolle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Clever trick

    He says the reverse diffraction pattern occurs because the scales in the iridescent patch are curled up at 90 degrees to the wing. This means the diffraction grating is actually perpendicular to the wing. The curling can only be seen under an electron microscope.

    “It’s really just a clever trick. Compared to a normal diffraction grating, it’s very surprising that the colour isn’t what you’d expect. It’s a trick of geometry,” says the study’s lead author Grant England of Harvard University.

    The team set out to make an artificial diffraction grating, set at 90 degrees to a surface, to see if they could produce their own ‘reverse diffraction grating.’

    Using an etching procedure, they made tiny skyscraper-like plates of epoxy resin standing in rows, the plates were intended to be equivalent to the butterfly’s wing scales.

    The etching procedure naturally produced striations on the edges of the ‘skyscrapers’. This (normally unwanted) artefact was perfect for providing the tiny striations that would act as a reverse diffraction grating.

    “The etching effect was perfect — it created these ripples or ‘scallops’ on the surface – which then caused the diffraction. Where everybody else tries to minimise these ‘scallops’ we were actually happy with them being there,” says Kolle.

    ‘Unique display’

    Their material produced reverse diffraction giving iridescent colours that were very similar to the butterfly’s patch.

    “Our variation in colours is a bit more complex and maybe more vivid than the butterfly’s,” says Kolle.

    “When we started this project we were just excited that nature could come up with this cool trick,” says Kolle. “But now we think we have built something that has a unique display capacity.”

    He says that putting a patch of their material onto the surface of an important document or banknote could make it very difficult to counterfeit.

    The idea would be to use the material to replace the holograms currently used on banknotes. The material would produce a distinctive complex patch of iridescence on the note.

    Unless a counterfeiter had access to the master mould used to make the material, it would be very difficult to counterfeit, explains Kolle.

    He also thinks that the material might have potential in increasing the efficiency of solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), but these ideas have yet to be tested, he cautions.

  20. Looking inside your smart phone

    October 13, 2014

    Every wonder what is inside your smartphone? This video from the American Chemical Society offers an explanation: