Showing posts from December, 2006

Human History Ends At Midnight

Not really. But if Earth's history was placed on a calendar with each day representing about 10 million years, human history so far would begin at 11:59PM and end at midnight tonight. From January to March not much happens, because our clump of space dirt was hot and dry. But as it cools and collects water from comet impacts it doesn't take long for life to get a metaphorical toe hold.

The first single cell microbes appear in early April, with small multicellular clumps forming later in the month. Such bacterial mats are still found on Earth (and probably will be found on other planets too, as we may soon find out). Here's an image taken by Johnathan Stott of a bacterial mat found in boiling water at the Old Faithful Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

In May—on our year-long Earth history calendar—vertebrates emerge as fish. Slowly life on land evolves into plants and begin to cover the globe in July.

In mid-September fish crawl up on land and early reptiles preview th…

You Can See Satellites In Space

Really. Everyone knows you can see the Moon from Earth--Luna is a satellite, after all. And with a small telescope you can see the moons of Jupiter and the rings around Saturn.

But most people don't realize you can see man-made satellites too. The International Space Station is especially bright, and very easy to see when it goes over. Visit for a satellite schedule. There's something to see every night, even if the space station doesn't happen to be visible.

With careful preparation and a small telescope, Thierry Legault managed to capture a picture of two man-made satellites--Shuttle Atlantis and the ISS as they passed in front of the Sun on September 17th, 2006 near Normandie, France.

You can see different structures on the ISS, and even the vertical tail on the Shuttle, which undocked from the space station less than an hour earlier.


Oceans' Salt Would Bury the Continents

Really. If the salt in the sea could be removed and spread evenly over the Earth's land surface it would form a layer more than 500 feet thick, about the height of a 40-story office building.

If that doesn't impress you, try this example; if the oceans dried up, the salt left behind would supply a wall 180 miles wide and 1 mile high around the equator.

Most of this salt is sodium chloride, the same stuff you put on your food.

How does it get into the oceans? Mostly, it washed into the seas through gradual erosion over billions of years. The dissolving action of rains and streams transported the mineral to the sea. Smaller amounts of salt came from rocks and sediments below the ocean's floor as well as from solid and gaseous materials escaping the Earth's crust through volcanic vents.

Then, saltiness is reinforced by the Sun's heat. It evaporates pure water from the surface of the sea and leaves the salts behind.

So we've certainly got enough cheap salt to last…

Painting Can Protect Your Health

Really. A new "antimicrobial paint" developed at MIT can kill influenza viruses that land on surfaces coated with it, potentially offering a new weapon in the battle against a disease that kills nearly 40,000 Americans per year.

The new substance could help fight the spread of the flu if applied to doorknobs or other surfaces where germs tend to accumulate, says Jianzhu Chen, MIT professor of biology. "Because of the limited efficacies with existing flu vaccines and antivirals, there's room for other, complementary approaches," said Chen.

In a typical year, 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized from influenza virus infection, and 36,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If an avian flu pandemic broke out, as many experts fear, the death toll could be in the millions.

Influenza is spread when viruses released by an infected person accumulate on surfaces, where other people pick them up. Stopping the viruses before they …

Mac Computers Are For the Elderly

Wrong, wrong, WRONG! A recent survey announced that more than half of the people who are using Mac computers are "elderly people, often 55 years or older." Excuse freakin' me, but since when is 55 or older elderly?

"Elderly" is defined by false teeth and Hush Puppies and walkers and Depends, isn't it? Please, please don't tell me that the mother of all iPods, the Mac, is soon to join the ranks.

But it's all relative, if you think about it. You would have been elderly at 19 if your relatives were Neanderthals. Their life span was only about 20 years.

You can thank the Romans and their (chicken lovers will appreciate the expression) Cloaca Maxima, one of the earliest sewage systems. That innovation alone produced a major jump in life expectancy thanks to the reduction in the spread of disease. A local cesspool cleaner may proclaim on their trucks, "Your poop is our bread and butter," but the contents of chamber pots dumped out the window didn&…

Your Holidays Are Numbered

Really. Every year retailers and industry focus on the year-end buying spree and try to project your holiday numbers. Here are some for 2006:

$791.10 -- How much the average shopper was expected to spend this year on holiday merchandise, a $52.99 increase over last year

$99.22 -- Average amount shoppers were expected to spend on themselves, taking advantage of sales and discounts

$30.77 -- Amount people were expected to spend on Christmas cards (not including postage), with the average household sending some 26 Christmas cards

31 million -- Number of real Christmas trees Americans were expected to buy this year

20 billion -- Number of letters, packages and cards delivered by the U.S. Postal Service between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year

9.8 million -- the number of packages that moved through the FedEx system on their busiest day of the year, December 18th. That's 63% more than FedEx handles on a normal day and up 10% from the same day a year ago.

Finally, China was the leading co…

First Christmas Day Was In 354

Really, the first time Christmas Day appeared on a calendar was in the Calendar of Filocalus which was part of a 4th century illuminated manuscript Chronographus Anni CCCLIV.

The pagan Roman emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25 as "Natalis Solis Invicti," the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. The festival, shortly after the winter solstice, was celebrated with chariot races and by placing decorations on branches and small evergreen trees.

These pagan festivals remained popular for centuries after Jesus death because early Christians were unwilling to relinquish them. When the church found it impossible to abolish pagan customs, despite repeated bans, it "Christianized" a number of them.

By the 5th century Christmas Day had become an important date in the Christian year, with December 25th fixed as the "natural" date to exorcise the earlier pagan festival of the winter solstice.


Santa Comes From Turkey

Really, St. Nick was born around 245CE near Patara, Turkey, an important Byzantine port. When his father died, leaving him a great fortune, Nicholas, bishop of Myra (a name derived from the resin myrrh) began giving away money to the needy, especially children.

In one circumstance, a nobleman with three daughters had fallen on hard times. Things were different then, and because their father wouldn't be able to pay their dowries, they faced a life of prostitution. Hearing of their plight, St. Nicholas threw a bag of gold adequate for one daughter's marriage through a window of their shabby castle. The next night he did the same for the second daughter. The third night he found the window closed (no wonder they were having financial problems!). Ever resourceful, St Nick dropped a third bag down the chimney. Towns folk heard of the daughters good fortune, and began hanging stockings by the fireplace.

The Dutch are credited with transforming the saint into the character we know toda…

Bugger All

Sometimes there are discoveries on the Web that don't necessarily make you say, "Wow! Really?" but nevertheless make you stop and think.

If you don't have a Flash player, get one free here. Then take a look at this. The animation is a bit tacky, but Eric Idle (a Monty Python alumnus) provides a unique perspective, guaranteed to cure the holiday blues.

Galaxy Song

Composers: Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Author: Eric Idle
From the Movie 'The Meaning of Life'

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to …

Obesity Might Be Contagious

Really. A "fat virus," similar to Flu virus might account for some 30% of the world's obesity problem, according to new research.

Richard Atkinson, MD, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Wisconsin has shown that when the virus, called Ad36, is given to chickens, mice, monkeys, and rats, their body fat increases by 50%-100% even though they ate the same amount as animals not given the virus. "The virus seems to change body composition, so there is an increased percentage of fat," says Atkinson."Atkinson tested the blood of more than 500 obese and normal-weight eople. He found that 30% of obese people had antibodies to the virus, compared with just 10% of normal-weight people. "If you have antibodies to the virus, you have been exposed. People testing antibody-positive were quite significantly heavier," Atkinson said.If his results are true, then the virus could be part of this worldwide epidemic of obesity, says Atkinson. …

A Full Moon Causes Rain

Really. The moon affects how much it rains.

Several independent studies by meteorologists show that the moon's phases affect the weather. Scientists studied eighty years' of data correlating rainfall amount and the moon's position. They found that when the moon's tidal pull is greatest, either a full or new moon, precipitation increases an average of twenty percent.

The exact mechanism isn't understood but it's thought that the moon's tidal pull on wind currents in the upper atmosphere is involved.


Telescope can see 25¢ 60 miles away

Really, Japan has developed a new optics system for the country’s Subaru telescope located on the extinct Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. With the system the telescope could identify a quarter some 60 miles away, and will enable astronomers to study objects that have so far been unobservable, such as the detailed structure of faint distant galaxies billions of miles away.

Designed to minimize the blurring effect of the atmosphere on images captured by the ground-based telescope, the device will help the Subaru scope capture images with a resolution 3.5 times clearer than that of the orbiting Hubble space telescope.

To achieve this exceptional resolution, the observatory has developed a laser system that creates an artificial star, called a guide star, which is used to measure the twinkle created by the atmosphere. The new adaptive optics system uses 188 adjustable mirror elements to smooth out light and produce a sharp image.


You Might Drink Some Comet Today

Really. Icy rocks from space might have provided the Earth with large portion of its water.

The Earth is believed to have formed hot and dry, meaning that much of its current water content must have been delivered after the planet cooled.

Possible candidates for supplying this water are comets. Because of their large ice content, comets from the outer solar system were leading candidates for many years, but then analysis threw doubt on the idea. The water in these comets was shown to differ chemically from ocean water; it has a higher incidence of deuterium--water with an extra hydrogen atom.

But then, recently, a closer band of comets has been discovered which have the "right stuff." In 1999 a member of this band shattered upon its approach to the Sun allowing astronomers to analyze its composition. Unlike its brethren which circle much farther out in the solar system, this closer family of comets has the same kind of water that makes up the oceans, breathing new life int…

Wright Brothers Fake Flight

Really. While the Wright brothers first powered flight occurred on this date in 1903, it was largely ignored. Back home, some interest developed, but then the bros. staged a press flight near Dayton on May 23, 1904 designed to put a damper on things. Ostensibly because of wind and mechanical issues they never managed a flight until a few days later when only a few reporters were present.

Donald Howard, a former aeronautics librarian for the Library of Congress, in Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers explains how the Wrights, methodical as always, carefully defended their work.

But while Orville and Wilbur Wright threw a veil of secrecy over their own efforts Glenn Curtiss teamed with engineers in America and abroad, freely exchanging information in an attempt to resolve the most difficult challenges in constructing a reliable and stable airplane. Five years after the Wright brothers' first flight, Curtiss piloted his groundbreaking June Bug on its first public fli…

99% of all organisms that ever existed are extinct

Really, 99% of all organisms that have existed are now extinct and about 2400 species disappear daily. Most species exist 2 to 5 million years, and--sobering thought--there's no real reason to believe our species is any different.

One reason this is true is there is a continuous, low-level rate of extinction. Recent news articles about the extinction of the Chinese white dolphin highlight one such case.

Some people may argue that this extinction was caused by humans, but competition between species has always been a factor. While it's unlikely that we'll be wiped by an evolving species of kangaroo, it's not beyond question that a "successful" bacteria or virus could wipe us out. Indeed, a species of gorilla is also in the news, threatened with extinction by the Ebola virus.

Another reason for extinction, especially the large loss of species in a brief geological period of time, is mass extinction caused by rapid climate change resulting from volcanic activity an…

Private Space Investment Twice Governments

Really! Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reports in their December 11 issue that private spending on space-related activities now exceeds that of governments. In fact, only about $70 billion of the $180 billion in worldwide space revenues comes from government.

Among others investing in private space exploration, British airline executive Richard Branson hopes Virgin Galactic will begin taking paying customers above 100 km. in 2009. To reach the edge of space on sub-orbital flights they'll be using SpaceShipTwo designed and built by legend-in-his-own-time Burt Rutan.

However, Branson's SpaceShipTwo and his Virgin Galactic spaceline aren't the only players. For example, Las Vegas real-estate entrepreneur and hotel developer Robert Bigelow is moving ahead with plans to orbit space hotels for tourists and facilities for other private space explorers by 2010.


Meteorites And New Yorkers Are Blood Brothers

All elements heavier than helium were made in the stars, including carbon which is the foundation of life on this planet.

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director at the Hayden Planetarium, the iron in the hemoglobin from the blood of people living in the the tristate area around New York City would weigh the same as the iron in the 15.5 ton Willamette meteorite on display at the planetarium...and all of it came from the same place, the stars.

"We are," as Carl Sagan said, "children of the stars, and there we will return."

Other Galaxies Are Closer Than You Think

Really, if our galaxy were the size of a dime, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) would be about the size of a quarter and just 20 inches away. Pull out a dime and quarter and lay them on a table on either side of two hands spread apart to see a rough approximation of the sizes.

Here's a negative image of M31 recorded, believe it or not, in 1894. The telescope was a 24-inch reflector located in Ireland. The astronomers used glass plates treated with a photographic silver halide emulsion as the 'film' to record the image.

Almost all those little black dots are stars in our galaxy. There are no stars in space between galaxies. The somewhat larger fuzzy spots are other galaxies even farther away.

Here's another image of M31 recorded with modern electronic equipment sensitive to x-ray light onboard the Spitzer space telescope. It's in orbit, like the Hubble, but it's designed to see light with shorter wavelengths.

There are more stars in M31 than there are grains of sand on …

Falling to the Earth's Center Would Take Over a Day

Really. If you can picture a skydiver "free-falling" past the Earth's surface it would take well over 24 hours to reach the center of the planet.

Imagining this thrilling scenario helps illustrate just how far the middle of the Earth is from the surface. It's almost 4,000 miles--farther than the distance between New York and Paris.

Picture jumping out of your plane at 10,000 feet. In a few seconds you'd reach your maximum speed of 124 mph and you'd pass (magically) through the the Earth's surface less than a minute later. But lets hope you packed a lunch because you have a long-haul ahead. Your free-fall will take 32 hours--one and a third days--to carry you to the Earth's center.


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Moon Dirt Could Provide Unlimited Energy

Really. Scientists say there's a substance on the moon that could power the world for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 25 tons could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year.

The substance is Helium-3. Researchers see it as the perfect fuel source: extremely potent, nonpolluting, with virtually no radioactive by-product. Proponents claim it's the fuel of the 21st century. The trouble is, hardly any is found on Earth--only a few hundred pounds. But there's plenty on the moon; it comes from the sun. When the solar wind, the rapid stream of particles emitted by the sun, strikes the moon Helium-3 is deposited in the powdery soil. Over billions of years a couple million tons have built up.

The substance would solve major problems associated with current efforts to use fusion as a power source. Fusion reactors would provide unlimited supplies of energy but have been out of reach so far. One reason is that when deute…

First Color Photo Was Taken Just After WWI

Not Really! The first color photo was taken during the same year the Civil War began -- 1861!

It was taken by the physicist James Clerk Maxwellwho was the first to show the primary colors are red, green, and blue. Entitled "Tartan Ribbon" the photograph was produced to demonstrate that finding.

The first color landscape photo, below, is more impressive. No, it wasn't painted. It's a true color picture taken over 130 years ago by Louis Ducos du Hauron.

All color photography at the time required at least three exposures of the scene using various filters, and then a lot of darkroom work. So color photos were largely impractical and rare until the development of Kodachrome film in 1935. Eliminating the need for multiple exposures, this film finally made color photography a "snap."


A Full Moon Is Smaller Near The Horizon

Really, that big full moon you saw rising or setting a few days ago was, in fact, smaller than it was a few hours earlier when it was high in the sky.

The setting and rising moon seems huge by comparison to the way the same moon looked a few hours earlier when it was overhead. In reality, the true angular diameter of the Moon is about 1.5% smaller when it sets or rises as compared to when it is high in the sky, simply because it is farther away from you by almost one Earth radius.

"Look how big the moon is!" is the result of an illusion created because of the ways our eyes focus and the way our brain interprets visual information, something called oculomotor micropsia.

To see what this means, the next time you look at the horizon moon cross your eyes. Doing this will cause oculomotor micropsia and double vision, but notice that the moon's angular size looks smaller than it did.


You Can Take A Walk In Space

Really...if you're willing to use a scale model here on Earth you could walk to the (former) planet Pluto, and visit all the other planets along the way.

One way to help visualize the huge distances in space is to imagine a model solar system in which everything is reduced in size by a factor of about a billion. A human on this scale would be the size of an atom, an inch would be about 100,000 miles, and one pace about 36,000,000 miles.

The model Earth would be about the size of--what else--a small blue marble. The Sun would be about the size of your head or a bowling ball, which is a good image because it's dense. The bowling ball that is. The chart above (click to enlarge so you can print it out) shows the distance to each planet in paces. The planets are to scale. If you wanted to go on a star trek, the nearest one (not counting the Sun) would be the same distance as a walk all the way around the Earth.

This space walk works best if you do it on a sidewalk or beach where you c…

Panda Porn Boosts Libido

Yes, really. Since 2002 China has been trying to arouse its captive pandas' inner-bear by exposing them to videos of wild panda, um...behavior.

With less than 2000 pandas living in the wild, the species is endangered. Captive breeding is key to their survival, but as of 2006 only 15 males had successfully bred in captivity.

Panda females are only receptive for 'a roll in the bamboo' 2 days a year. When the ladies are ready to roll, the pressure is on. Problem is, captive males show little interest.

Keepers theorize that their pandas' low libido stems from not being exposed to sexual activity as they would in the wild. So Chinese breeders debuted panda-porn to turn bashful bears into titillated teddys.

While the results haven't created a panda-monium of bear births, the program does seem to be working. As it turns out, the sounds of breeding, not the visuals, are the real source of stimulation. Picture an ad in Playbear magazine: "For a good time (and the survival…

Dust Can Stop A Hurricane

Really. Experts believe that Saharan dust storms stop hurricane development.

Meteorologists predicted that warmer oceans temperatures would spawn a "banner crop" of hurricanes this year. But it didn't happen. Only 5 developed compared to 15 last year.

A new study suggests that one reason for fewer hurricanes was more frequent outbursts of hot, dry, dust-laden air blowing off the West African desert. One of these sandstorms, blowing into the part of the Atlantic where hurricanes are born, is shown in the satellite image below.

Scientists have long suspected that these massive storms, with millions of tons of dust covering an area the size of the lower 48 states, can hamper hurricane formation in the Atlantic in several ways.

For one thing, the dust absorbs some of the solar energy the storm needs to strengthen. But more important, the Saharan air is 50 percent drier than ocean air. When the two air masses mix they create a strong wind shear which effectively lops the to…

Most Dangerous Animal Weighs Less Than a Feather

Really. The most dangerous animal in the world is the mosquito. Its bite transmits malaria killing over one million people each year. In comparison, snakebites kill about 125,000 annually.

Malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito. When the female mosquito bites its host (the males are harmless) to get a meal of blood, it infects its host with the plasmodiumprotozoa. This single-cell organism attacks red blood cells causing fever, weakness, shaking, chills and, too often, death.

The disease is the leading cause of disease and death in some parts of the world. Its typically found in tropical and subtropical countries where higher temperatures allow these mosquitoes to thrive. More than half of the worlds population is at risk and the proportion increases each year because of inadequate health systems, growing drug and insecticide resistance and other reasons. In Africa, it kills one child every thirty seconds.

Scientists all over the world are working on developing a vaccine. …

A Record: Surfer Rode One Wave Over An Hour

Really! Steve King surfed 7.6 miles in 1 hour and 17 minutes on one wave!

In a wonderful book entitled The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow, the author mentions that on certain dates the changing tide rolls up the river Severn in England as a single wave called a "bore"...a phenomenon he was more than a little concerned about, given that he was sailing a tiny 11 foot dingy. He writes, in passing, that folks have been known to surf the bore wave for miles.

Sure 'nuff, the wave can provide quite a ride. When tidal waters are forced up the Severn Estuary, which becomes narrower as it progresses, the wave can reach 6 feet in height and travel as fast at 20 miles per hour.

The next big daytime tidal bore wave on the Severn will occur on March 20 and 21 2007 around 8:30am.

You Have Relatives Living In Africa

Really, you do. While our cultures may divide us, our DNA demonstrates the fact that we are all descended from a small group of humans who lived in Africa.

Analysis of human genetic material shows that the most common recent ancestor of all men is a man who lived 50-60,000 years ago. The most common recent ancestor of all women is a woman who lived about 150,000 years ago.

Modern humans originated in eastern Africa, and migrated from Africa to Asia, then on to Australia. Meanwhile a band moved into Europe and rapidly displaced Neanderthals. America was probably the last continent to be occupied by Homo sapiens sapiens.

The common genetic ancestor of Neanderthal and modern humans lived about 706,000 years ago. The ancestors of all humans and Neanderthals split into two separate species some 330,000 years later. Recent DNA research indicates that while Neanderthals were in fact a different species from our own, we still share 99.5% of their genome. We share 98% of our genome with chimpan…

Car Depreciation Costs You More Than Gas

Really. Your car will cost you about $4000 a year for depreciation over 5 years. Even at $3 a gallon, you'll only spend about $1800 a year for gas.

Look at used car prices and you'll find that a typical car loses about 65 percent of its value over five years. That means a $30,000 car will bring you $10,500 if you sell it after five years. So in round numbers you've lost $20,000 to depreciation over 5 years, or $4000 a year.

If your car will go 20 miles on a gallon of gas and you drive a typical 12,000 miles a year you'll burn 600 gallons a year. At $3.00 a gallon thats $1800 a year for gas.

So why do people sit in long lines to save 15¢ a gallon, or $3 on a tank full of gas? They should be worried about buying a car that doesn't depreciate much.

Dinosaurs Disappeared Today

Really. If Earth's history was placed on a calendar with each day representing about 10 million years, dinosaurs became extinct on December 1st.

From January to March, there is little sign of life, then the first single cell microbes appear in early April, with small multicellular clumps forming later in the month. In May vertebrates (fish) emerge, and by July land plants have begun to cover the globe.

In mid-September fish crawl up on land and early reptiles preview the dawn of the dinosaur era, which continues through late November, dominating the world. Birds and small shrew-like mammals first appear in early November, but are overshadowed by reptilian species until today, the first of December, when the dinosaurs disappear abruptly, practically overnight.

By late December, the recognizable ancestors of modern mammals make their debut, but not until noon on New Year's Eve do our first ancestors appear. Between 9:30 and 10:00 pm, Homo sapiens migrate out of Africa to populate …