Science Sunday

And Baby Makes Five

Hadrons are heavy nuclear particles composed of either 2 quarks called a meson, or three quarks called a baryon.  Recent work at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has led to the discovery of five new variants of the Omega-C baryon, which are composed of two strange and one charm quarks.

You can read about this important discovery here and here.  To learn how the LHC works, click on the video above.


Strokes and Spiders

A report out of Australia confirms that a harmless ingredient called Hi1a in the otherwise deadly venom of the funnel spider may reduce neuron deaths in strokes induced in rats by upwards of 80% if given within two hours and 65% if given within eight hours.

Human trials are expected to start within two years.


Moderate Drinking

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) reports that after studying nearly two million originally heart healthy UK residents, there is significant evidence to indicate that moderate drinking of alcohol reduces the onset of certain cardiovascular conditions, notably angina, heart failure and ischaemic stroke.

You can read about the study here and here

Moderate drinking is defined as consuming about 14 units of alcohol per week.

Don’t know how many units of alcohol are in your beverage of choice?  Click here.


International Cloud Atlas

The World Meteorological Organization – for the first time in 30 years – has updated its International Cloud Atlas to much fanfare, adding 12 new classifications of clouds.

You can visit the Cloud Atlas, or make submissions of your own from your phone camera.

Much to my surprise, the PBS program NOVA has put together interactive labs for various important scientific subjects, including a Cloud Lab, which you can explore here.

Help Stephen Hawking Get His Groove Back


Science Sunday

VX Explained

Following the assassination of Kim Jung-Nam, half brother to North Korea’s current dictator Kim Jung-Un, last month at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore what VX nerve gas, Mr. Kim’s supposed killing agent, actually is.

Our friends at the University of Nottingham, and regular contributors to the Periodic Table of Videos, offer this information, and with our hearty thanks.

Gene Silencing

Using a technique called RNA interference, researchers at Imperial College have developed a new and apparently very potent LDL cholesterol reducing drug called Inclisiran, which “switches off” a gene responsible for overproduction of the low density lipoprotein cholesterol long associated with cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes, the BBC and others report.

Used in conjunction with (or separately from) currently available statin drugs, Inclisiran, injected once or twice a year, reduces LDL by up to 50%.

The drug is not yet to market, as more and larger scale testing is required to determine safe and effective dosage levels.

Stupid Aliens

Not the kind that Donald Trump has gone after, but the kind from outer space that countless movies tells us are coming for us.

In an extended and beautifully presented video, Isaac Arthur discusses whether space aliens would even want to visit us, let alone kill us off, destroy our planet, or share their advanced technologies with us, and whether Hollywood has unfairly portrayed these potential extraterrestrial visitors as grossly stupid.

Riddle Me This

Just for fun, some brain teasers to whittle your weekend away.


Science Sunday

The Coming Singularity

In physics and mathematics, the term singularity refers to an undefined physical state, typically one approaching infinity.  For example, the density of a black hole is thought to be infinity, a singularity, meaning that a black hole is considered (by many but not all) to be a finite but large mass occupying essentially zero volume.

In the more general world of every increasing technology, the term singularity means something very different, namely the idea that there will come a time when computers (and other scientific advancements) will surpass even the best of the human race in problem solving, emotional intelligence, and other characteristics that make us the dominant species on this planet.

It is hypothesized that when this supposedly inevitable technological singularity occurs, that there will be a reckoning wherein humans and machines blend, where for example robots take over most of our jobs, where we die but continue to live on in cyberspace, where through nanotechnology and genetic engineering we become true cyborgs (man and machine connected).

I don’t fully buy that this technological singularity will happen, but after thoroughly exploring CRISPR last week, I am at least a bit concerned that humanity’s destiny is at least in part in the hands of a small number of people who too loosely control technologies that could easily threaten the necessary diversity and sustainability of our collective life of this planet.

The video above features Ray Kurzweil, a leading proponent of the coming singularity, its promises and its downsides.  He thinks the singularity is coming in 2029.  In the video below, Neil deGrasse Tyson charmingly challenges Kurzweil to explain his prediction and its implications.


In case you are now worried that robots will conquer us all, consider this robot, reported about on HuffingtonPost, that distinctly avoids human interaction.

Wait But Why?

In my many convoluted meanderings of the internet, I had the privilege of discovering the “Wait But Why” website.  It is a website that is populated by stick figure cartoon depictions that correspond to whatever subject the website owners are thoughtfully exploring.

Apparently the website is a worldwide phenomenon of not inconsiderable size, as indicated by a worldwide “meet and greet” the owners organized.

Much to my surprise, the website very thoroughly explores the Fermi Paradox, which I discussed a few weeks ago.  Go have a look at their analysis.

Warning:  avoid the zebra puzzle.

Komodo Dragon Blood

Komodo Dragons are the largest lizards in the world, and apparently also an ideal source of blood peptides needed to fight antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Scientists from George Mason University are looking at the dragons’ blood for new compounds needed to keep medicine a step or two ahead of the most intractable bacteria infecting humans today.

To see the komodo dragons in their dinosaur like hunt for food, click on the video above.

Great Moments in Science History

There are many great moments in science history that a good science teacher would know about, like Galileo’s discovery of his Law of Falling Bodies, or Faraday’s discovery of Electromagnetic Induction.

But it’s another thing to be alive when something truly phenomenal is discovered.

I can think of three great moments that have galvanized the physics community in the last quarter century, and they are a) the discovery that the expansion of space is accelerating, b) the detection of the Higg’s Boson, and c) the detection of a gravity wave.

This last moment, the direct detection of a gravity wave, was just announced, and has the whole world in a proverbial tizzy of excitement.

Two days ago, a news conference was held at the Louisiana site of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) to announce that a single gravity wave event was detected in September 2015, thereby verifying beyond doubt that Einstein was right (again) in predicting – nearly a century ago – the existence of gravity waves.

LIGO, a joint venture of Caltech and MIT, is actually two gravitational wave observatories –  one in Livingston, LA, and the other in Hanford, WA – separated by almost 1900 miles.

Two observatories are needed, because gravity waves are exceedingly weak, and so the detection mechanism must be ultrasensitive.  As a result, local seismic disturbances, even including a truck driving near one of the facilities, can cause a false trigger.  The only way to know if a signal detected at one LIGO location is a gravity wave coming from a distance part of space is if the other LIGO location detects it simultaneously.  Since gravity waves travel at the speed of light, the 1900 mile separation between the two LIGO observatories is trivial, and is easily corrected for.

Because gravity waves are quadrupole in nature, each observatory consists of two laser beams that perfectly destructively interfere with each other at right angles.  If one beam is stretched in the horizontal direction by a gravity wave, its right angle counterpart beam will be compressed by the gravity wave in the horizontal direction, thereby leading to an extremely short blip of partially constructive interference.

LIGO scientists then take this blip and transduce it into an stretched out audio signal that we humans can here.

The variation in two laser beams’ distances leading to the blip is extremely small, on the order of one millionth of a femtometer.  Because of the separation of the two observatories on Earth, the LIGO scientists can use geometry to approximately determine the angular location and distance of the gravitation wave source.

The signal detected was estimated to be about 1.3 billion light years away, and is thought to have been caused by the spiraling merger of two relatively small black holes.

To listen to the audio signal of the gravity wave detected by LIGO, click here.  To learn about gravity waves, their signal strengths and their quadrupole nature, click on the image above.


I See Dead People

5-senses-1rewmynOk, no I don’t.  But the Bruce Willis movie “The Sixth Sense” reinforces the universal childhood lesson that there are five, count ’em, senses.

But is that really true?

Recently, I was teaching that Aristotle said that “knowledge is the product of experience”, which I interpret to mean (notwithstanding St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God), that at least from a scientific viewpoint, we learn about “out there” exclusively through our senses, or extensions of our senses (like radios, to get the baseball score, or gamma ray space observatories, to detect gamma ray bursts).

So I was surprised to find out that many scientists think that we have at least 9 senses, and possibly as many as 21.  One notable additional sense I found interesting is a kinesthetic sense of place, balance and acceleration called equilibrioception.  This sense is centered on the vestibular labyrinthine system of our inner ear.

Another possible additional human sense normally attributed to birds, sharks and (I guess) Dr. Magneto is magnetoreception, the ability to perceive magnetic fields.

Click on the pic above to learn about our other senses.

Relative Speeds

relativity-logoRelativity, special relativity in particular, is all about relative speeds (not your relatives), but relative speed can be confusing to the uninitiated.

Waking up in a public train moving on a track parallel to another train moving slightly faster than your train might make you think that your train is moving backwards, especially at night, when there are no obvious ground based clues, like buildings that are presumably not moving.

But the idea of something (like your train) “not moving” is subject to definition.  Everything is moving relative to at least something else (some other coordinate system).

For example, if you get a ticket for speeding, say going 70 mph in a 55 mph zone, you could claim to the police officer that you were not speeding, but instead that the Earth was moving under your car at 70 mph in the opposite direction.  Good luck with that.

Of greater interest to the physics student is an earthling’s speed relative to say the center the Earth.  If you live on the equator, that would be a bit more that 1000 mph.

If you ask how fast you’re moving relative to the Sun (forget about your personal speed relative to the dirt beneath you), that speed is an amazing 30 km/sec, or 67,500 mph, two and a half times the escape speed of the Earth (not that you could use that speed to escape Earth, since you are the Earth are both moving at that speed, relative to the Sun).

If you ask how fast the solar system (with Earth and us along for the ride) is moving relative to the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, that speed is on average 230 km, sec, or 514,000 mph, about 1/130th of the speed of light in the vacuum, not a relativistic speed (not that we earthlings would notice if it were, since we are not observing ourselves from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy).

So, contemplate these speeds while you are religiously observing the speed limit on your local expressway.

Don’t Drink the Water

waterRecent events in Flint Michigan reaffirm the tenuous but critical relationship we have with water.  Recent events in my life have made me wonder increasingly what the nature of water truly is.

For example, why does water tend to roll down your upper arm in the shower, and then drip off your elbow?  And why do ice cubes in the lower of stacked trays seem to develop strange irregular undulations on their tops, like the freezing water had some how sloshed around while freezing?

Even a modest inquiry into the nature of water reveals how mysterious it really is.  To this day, there is still debate about what force or forces are responsible for water sticking together!

Nevertheless, here are some interesting items that I learned today in my quest to make water a bit less mysterious to me:

  • Since buoyant forces arise out of gravity, when water boils in a zero gravity environment, it does so by creating not a zillion little water vapor bubbles that rise, a la Archimedes, but one giant water vapor bubble in the middle of the boiling water.
  • The hexagonal structure of ice crystals accounts for water increasing in volume from 4 degrees Celsius down to zero degrees Celsius.
  • The deeper we walk into a swimming pool, while still maintaining contact with the pool’s floor, the harder it is to walk (this one’s pretty simple).
  • Ducks float (at least in part) because they trap air under their wings.
  • The low relative humidity of dry air inside the house during winter is responsible for increased susceptibility to colds, because dry respiratory tracks are better breeding grounds for the viruses that cause colds.
  • You can get sunburned on a cloudy day, because clouds block infrared radiation well, but ultraviolet radiation poorly.
  • There is a linear relationship between salinity and salt water density (this one’s pretty simple too).
  • The specific gravity of the Great Salt Lake varies with the salinity of portions of the lake, but at its highest salinity, the specific gravity of the lake is about 1.17.
  • Moist air retains more heat, and your body senses that, so moist air feels warmer than dry air of the same temperature.
  • The most abundant (neutron-less) isotope of hydrogen is called protium.

As to why the ice cubes in the lower trays in my freezer have such irregularly shaped surfaces, the phenomenon might be caused by ice spikes that get tamped down by the tray or trays above.

You can learn more about water here and here.