Saturday, July 28, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #5

Next week I won't be posting a roundup because I'll already be posting plenty of cool science. Between my Science of the Olympics series and covering the Curiosity landing, no one should get bored. Unless you find awesome science boring. If so, I really don't know what you're doing here (and you also have my sympathies for missing out on the best stuff in the universe).

Anyway, we start off this roundup with a story I missed from last week, but was just too good not to include.

1. Young Gorillas Outsmart Poachers

This is probably the coolest story ever. In a national park in Rwanda, there are young mountain gorillas that just go around destroying snare traps poachers set. I am in no way making this up. Holy cow.

The gorillas have seen what the snares can do: they kill those that get trapped and are too small to fight their way out. Little gorillas. Oftentimes, infants. It's tragic. So these youngsters have taken it upon themselves to destroy the traps. They jump on the branch holding the snare in place and snap it. Then they pull the snare itself out, rendering the trap useless.

Wow. Rock on, gorillas.

No one has taught the gorillas to do this, except for the gorillas themselves. They may have learned it by watching humans destroy snares, since they live in a national park where rangers often go about doing just that. No matter how they learned, this is incredible. Especially since the gorillas doing it aren't adults. They're juveniles...basically elementary-age kiddos to us humans. That's some serious brain power there.

The only thing that ISN'T awesome about this story is that the gorillas had to learn to do this at all.

2. Greenland Just Keeps Having Problems...

Area of melting in mid-July. Photo from: NASA

So this past week, scientists' jaws dropped around the world as they realized 97% of Greenland's icy surface had melted this month.



Okay, so it's not that the ice completely melted away to nothing. But there was melting occurring over almost the entirety of Greenland. That's...ridiculous.

Apparently this kind of thing can happen once every couple of centuries, according to ice core samples. But this is something we're definitely going to need to watch. If this becomes a regular summer-time thing, we're in serious trouble. The less ice around Greenland, the less sunlight gets reflected from the bright white ice out to space...which means more light absorption. More heat. Even faster global warming, even if we manage to cut carbon emissions.

Fun times ahead, let me tell you.

3. Neatly Aligned Solar System...That Isn't Ours.

The telescope Kepler has discovered a star and planet system that likely formed from a flat disk of gas and dust, like our own solar system. This is the best example we've found yet of another system like our own, where the planets all line up in the same plane in their orbit around their star.

Kepler 30 appears to be such a system. Its three planets all pass over the same sunspot on its star's surface, indicating they're in the same plane as one another. Other planetary systems we've discovered beyond our own tend to have their planets in different planes from each other. It seemed to be our system was the odd one that had its planets all travel in the same plane.

This stability in orbit led to the long-term development of life on Earth. So it's kind of a big deal to find another system that has such perfect alignment. It shows us that our single-plane planets aren't the only ones out there that work like that, and there are other systems that would share our stability and could possibly develop life from that. Freaking AWESOME.

Every day we find more evidence that life has a chance to develop beyond Earth. I love it.

Too bad we wouldn't be able to reach any of these other planet systems. Just more reason why we need to take care of the one planet in our own solar system that comfortably supports life. This is probably our only realistic shot at a true home.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Science of the Olympics: The Flame

Over the next couple weeks, the 2012 Olympics will take the world stage. Last week, I wrote to explain how I would be covering this event on my blog.

I won't be talking about the stories you'll hear on television or read online or chat about at the office...I'm going to cover the story of the science. I'm going to explain what makes the Olympics physically possible.

My first entry will be the only one that doesn't deal directly with human biology (though one could argue that it touches upon it). In this post, I'm going to explain why the Olympic Flame shines, and why we care about that symbol so much. (As a hint for extra fun, feel free to read all these "Science of the Olympics" posts in David Attenborough's voice. Trust me, it's worth the effort.)


When it comes down to it, the Olympic Flame is just the visible part of a controlled fire. Fire, in turn, is just the result of a chemical reaction.

Fire is something that's integral to our lives, yet few people really understand how it works. I think most people are at least aware that to start a fire, you need a fuel source, a heat source, and oxygen. But why, when those three come into combination, does it result in strange dancing flames, intense heat, and different colors?

Well, first of all, you don't really need pure oxygen to get a fire started; chemical compounds that contain oxygen can work just as well. Fire is the result of a chemical reaction. Oxygen reacts with a combustible substance, like wood, when that substance reaches a particular temperature. Wood at say, 70 degrees Fahrenheit sitting out in the forest isn't just going to burst into flames, even though it's surrounded by oxygen-containing air.

However, if the wood is heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, that's an entirely different story. At that point, its cellular material begins to break down, which releases volatile gases. The gas molecules break apart and mix with the oxygen from the air, which forms new molecules and a whole bunch of released energy, given off as more heat. Some of the material leftover is the carbon bits (the stuff that ISN'T volatile gases), which also eventually reacts with the oxygen, just much slower than the gases. You likely know this as charcoal.

A key thing to keep in mind is that in such reactions, energy is given off in the form of heat. So the heat increases during these reactions, which helps continue to produce even more reactions by breaking down even more material. Also, remember that everything beyond the reacting materials (say, the other stuff in the forest) is still at a lower temperature, including the air. Because of this, the molecules and atoms involved in the reaction rise up and float, since they are more spread out and less dense than everything else around them.

Charcoal is the carbon leftover after the volatile gases escape.
So reacting carbon atoms and other molecules float up at extreme temperatures, releasing energy in the form of heat and also in the form of light. Heat and light are just two ways the energy moves out from the reaction. Both increase as the energy that had been trapped within the burning materials is released. That's what fire is. And the heat and light will continue until there is nothing left to burn...aka nothing left to react with the oxygen.

Not every kind of matter will burn when it is heated up. Water, for instance, won't react with oxygen this way. Heat up water, and the water molecules stay as they are...they won't break apart and mix with the oxygen in the air. They'll just kick around as water vapor. So you really do need particular types of matter to act as proper fuel.

Speaking of matter, it's important also to understand that fire isn't a type of matter. Fire is a reaction. The flame you see is the light from the reaction. Light isn't matter. The heat you feel is from the reaction. Heat isn't matter. The colors you see are just a result of the temperature. Higher temperatures result in a blue hue because of the speed of the atoms, while lower temperatures have more of a red hue. All this is just energy, not matter.

Now, I've been using wood as the example, but the 2012 Olympic torch does not use wood as its fuel source. Instead, it uses a mixture of gases similar to the volatile gases released by wood. Therefore, the torch won't leave a trail of ashes behind, but will still have the ability to release energy in the form of heat and light. Simple enough.

So now that we understand how the Olympic Flame works, it's time to think about why we have it at all. Why a flame?

This is where human biology comes in. Or rather, human psychology (which of course boils down to human biology in the end, anyway).

To understand our fascination with fire, we need to think back to what it symbolizes: warmth. Safety. Food.

Uniquely for our species, fire is not immediately something to be feared. We are wired to be captivated by it and want to experiment with it. (Think about often do you need to tell human kids to leave fire alone, versus how often you need to go outside and chase birds or bats or any other animal away from your bonfire?)

Evolutionarily speaking, those of us humans who were not afraid to get close and work with fire were the ones who survived.

As for the Olympic Flame itself...well, being captivated by big communal fires is burned into our genetics and hard-wired into our brains. We see a large controlled fire, and it's an unmistakable calling to come out from the dark and gather around it with our neighbors. In the case of the Olympics, however, our neighbors happen to be every other human on the planet.

I find that rather poetic.

The Olympic Flame unites us in a way few other symbols could, because it reaches down and touches something inside us two million years in the making. Something that, when you really study it, isn't a "thing" at all. It's not matter. Fire is just energy. And if being called together by a common fascination with raw energy isn't embodying the Olympic Spirit, I don't know what is.

So let the Games begin!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #4

This week's roundup is hot. Quite hot.


So thanks to the Spitzer telescope, another new planet has been found orbiting a star about 33 lightyears from us. It's one of the very few exoplanets that's actually smaller than Earth - which is awesome in and of itself because detecting planets that tiny is no easy feat - but that's not why it's in my roundup.

It's in my roundup, because this planet is ONE BIG BALL OF MAGMA.

Er...probably. Or at least, it's got a lot of melty rock all over it.

Also, since it's only 33 lightyears away, when we invent lightspeed travel, you could totally visit AND make it back to Earth before you die. If, ya know, seeing a world of MAGMA is one of your ultimate dreams or something.

The reason it's so hot is because it revolves ridiculously close to its sun. Much closer than Mercury does to our sun. In fact, it only takes 1.4 Earth days to travel its full year. Dang. Since it's so close, it's a whopping 1000 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface, which means (you guessed it) IT'S PROBABLY ONE BIG BALL OF MAGMA.THAT IS AWESOME.

2. Huge Iceberg Breaks off Greenland

Less awesome is the news that a giant chunk of the Petermann Glacier in Greenland broke off this week, dropping an iceberg of enormous size into the ocean.

Greenland's glacial covering has been changing rapidly as global warming continues. This is just the latest in a string of collapses, and the ice breaking up isn't going to stop anytime soon. I'm really at a loss as to how anyone can deny global warming, but I guess some people just don't want to admit they're hurting the planet. Probably because if they do, that implies it's their responsibility to change their ways and fix it up. 

3. It's really hot outside. 

Speaking of warming, it's been a ridiculously hot year, and it's taken its toll on most of the U.S.

Despite today actually being a comfortable 80 degrees around where I live (finally), most of the country is still suffering from drought that has no end in sight.

64% of the country is in a drought, and 42% is in a severe drought. We've broken the record (again) for the hottest 12 month period on record, and now we're on our way to breaking the record for the driest.

I don't know if much else needs to be said. Why is it so hot? Why do we keep breaking the records for each 12 month period we go through? While climate is a complicated business, it's obvious that we are seeing the effects of global warming in action. We are doing this to ourselves.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Story Behind the Science Behind the Sport Behind the...ehhhh...something about the Olympics

The Olympics are coming! They're just ten days away!

This is awesome. I love the Olympics. So many amazing stories emerge. You'll hear about them everywhere. You definitely won't need me to hype up the underdog athlete's rise to gold or the story of the injured team member bravely soldiering on.

So throughout the Olympics, I'll be covering the other stories. The stories that get ignored by everyone else.

I'm going to tell the story of what makes the Olympics possible: I'm going to explain the science behind the sports...the biology that allows humans to participate in these games. Because those stories affect each of us on a much deeper level than whose nation brings home the most medals.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Weekly Science Roundup #3

This was going to be the "cool stories about humans!" edition, but then Pluto snuck in.

1. Hey look! We've had an awesome skeleton here the whole time!

So a while back, they found this partial skeleton of an early hominin, Australopithecus sediba, in South Africa. It's dated to be nearly 2 million years old. It's already considered a great find because of how many associated bones it has, but now they've found even more of it. Or at least, more of some member of Australopithecus sediba, even if it isn't the boy "Karabo", pictured above.

And where have they found these extra remains? In rock. Rock that's just been kickin' around their lab for years. Justin Mukanku, a student technician working in the lab, found a tooth sticking out of one of the chunks of rock that had been brought back from the cave where "Karabo" was discovered. Later scans showed that the chunk of rock was actually filled to the brim with more fossils. 

The tooth seems to fit the skull of "Karabo", and the remains inside the rock are tentatively being assigned to him. However, no one will no for sure until they're excavated out. If they do belong to him, this may become the most complete early human ancestor skeleton EVER. Even if they don't, the bones look to be in great shape, and will add tremendously to our knowledge about this species. Like, seriously.

Yes, I'm geeking out just a little bit. I did get my Master's in paleoanthropology, after all.

2. Move over Clovis, Western Stemmed tools may be the earliest tool culture in the United States.

Clovis point, courtesy Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources.
Clovis culture is dated to around 11-13,000 years ago, and is often regarded as the earliest human tool culture in North America. However, new findings suggest that Western Stemmed tools found in Oregon's Paisley Caves, may date to 13,200 years ago.

Previously, there were suggestions that Western Stemmed was derived from Clovis culture. Now that radio-carbon dating places Western Stemmed at the same age or older than Clovis, it's becoming clear that Western Stemmed was a separate tradition, developed independently of Clovis. As Clovis moved west across what is now the U.S., and Western Stemmed moved east, they eventually merged somewhat and spawned new tool concepts.

Of course, all of this still doesn't explain the much, much earlier (60 thousand year-old) evidence of human culture in the Americas in Brazil. But that's been a mystery for years, and as far as I understand it, isn't anywhere close to being solved yet. When it is, you'll definitely see a post about it here.

3. Pluto has a fifth moon satellite!

Pluto and three of its five satellites.

In 2005, Hubble discovered two new "moons" around Pluto. In 2011 it discovered a fourth. And now, it's discovered a fifth satellite. (Since Pluto isn't a planet, the things that orbit it technically are not called moons.)

And this new one is tiny. I mean, nothing about Pluto or its satellites is very big, but really...this is almost absurdly small. The satellite isn't even big enough to be round, and varies in width from 6 miles to 15 miles across. That'd make it about the size, if not smaller than, the asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago. This "moon" is the size of a smallish asteroid.

What this tells us, is that out with Pluto and the other Kuiper Belt Objects, there's likely a whole field of asteroid-sized objects that we have yet to detect. We've found over 200 things out there past Neptune so far, but obviously there's way more to find. And this fifth satellite is our first real clue at what size we need to be looking for.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What the...I have to push buttons to turn the page?!

My sister visited over the weekend and gave me a Sony e-Reader. She got it years ago at some function, and only used it once. So she gave it to me, seeing as I'm the reader/author of the family.

I've held out on getting any sort of e-book reading device since they first started coming out with them. I'm just too addicted to the "real" thing...the feel of a real book in my hands. However, I will admit, this is likely because of the emotional significance books had for me growing up. After all, stories are stories, no matter where the words are written, or what they're written on. Plus, I'm all about advancing technology, and it's been ages since the "book" got a real upgrade.

So...with that in mind...

I guess I should give this e-reader thing a try.

(Cue inner-me kicking and screaming.)

Anyone else have experiences to share about trying out your first e-book?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Missed the weekly roundup, have a dinosaur!

I failed at getting my weekly science roundup posted because of a family visit, but have an awesome science story anyway.


A Fluffy-Tailed Dinosaur!

Totally what this dinosaur looked like. Totally.

So, you know how dinosaurs have feathers? Well, here's an ancient one with loads of them. ON ITS TAIL. 

Check out the amazing (actual) picture here: BEAUTIFUL.

It's been named Sciurumimus albersdoerferi. Yes, it's a mouthful, but personally, I always find it extremely satisfying once I get the pronunciation of a new species down. And this species is actually named after squirrels, which is just awesome. (Sciuridae is the scientific family name for squirrels.)

Anyhow, the coolest thing about this discovery is that this dinosaur isn't a member of the "bird-like dinosaur" group that paleontologists have long accepted to have feathers. This dinosaur is a much more distant cousin to that group. Which means (dun dun DUN): Feathers are more ancestral than previously thought.

Now, there are quotes going around suggesting this new discovery proves "all dinosaurs had feathers" or some such nonsense. No. That's not what this shows. This does show that a much larger group of dinosaurs had feathers way back in the day than we used to think. Most likely. Unless, you know, convergent evolution. But in any case, this new dino is a theropod, which is where the bird lineage originated. It would not surprise me at all to learn that feathers were a trait of all theropods. But all dinosaurs? I think that's pushing it. Come back and suggest that again to me when we dig up a feathered ankylosaur fossil.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

HIGGS BOSON (most likely) FOUND

They've made the announcement. It appears that the elusive Higgs boson particle has finally been found (OH MY GOD THIS IS AWESOME NEWS).

This is critical. This is a particle that physicists knew must exist, but no one could seem to actual observe it in any way.

Thanks to the Large Hadron Collider and a dedicated team of scientists working for years on this project, they can say with pretty much 100% certainty that they've found what they've been looking for. But what exactly is that? What is a boson, anyway?

To my understanding, bosons are particles that essentially account for all the forces we know, by interacting with each other and other particles, known as fermions. In the case of the Higgs boson, it can be thought of as the reason other particles have mass. That's a pretty important role to play in the universe, so it's obvious why the physicists on the hunt were so driven to find this particle.

Its existence was predicted nearly 50 years ago, and in that time many other particles of the "Standard Model" have been found and confirmed. The Higgs boson, however, held out. This was ridiculously frustrating, because the Standard Model depended on it (see image above).

So how do they know they found it? Well, by smashing protons together in the Large Hadron Collider, scientists observed what particles popped around after each collision, and did their best to measure them. And two teams, working independently to do such tests, have recently found a particle around 125 gigaelectronvolts in weight...which is just about exactly what the Higgs boson was predicted to weigh, and nothing else. Holy cow. SO COOL.

Major congratulations to all teams involved in this epic discovery. This is a monumental day for physics, and therefore a monumental day for everything in existence.

Perhaps my physics friend Andy would care to weigh in on this discovery in a future post, and his take on how this sneaky particle finally managed to be revealed...