Friday, 28 November 2014

Sketchy Fact #69: Flintstone's Breakfast

Brontosaurus never actually existed. It was the product of mistakes made during the initial rush to discover as many dinosaurs as possible and putting skeletons together incorrectly.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Absolute Zero: The never-ending quest to get atoms to sit still

Last month at a laboratory in Italy a group of scientists cooled a cubic meter of copper to a temperature of 6 milliKelvins (-273.144 C, -459.66 F). According to the researchers involved, for 15 days that 400 kg (880 lbs) of copper was the coolest object in the universe. Of course, they had to say something that sounded impressive because they had invested millions of dollars in grant money to create arguably the most useless thing on the planet. The feat was significant because it was the first time an object so large had been brought close to the temperature of absolute zero (0 Kelvin, -273.15 C).

Temperature itself is a surprisingly tough concept to pin down. Thanks to an influential nation with a reputation for being stubborn when it comes to measurement, we are forced to work with three different temperature scales: Celcius, Kelvin, and Fahrenheit. Two of these scales are useful and one is arbitrary to the point of being infuriating.

Celcius is a useful scale that is grounded in practicality and common sense, but it is not without its arbitrary aspects. It’s inventor, a Swede named Anders Celcius, based the scale on water and set 0 as the point at which water freezes and 100 as the point at which is boils. That means at any point on the scale 1 degree equals 1% of the change needed to bring water from freezing to boiling. The Fahrenheit scale, invented by German Daniel Gilbert Fahrenheit, by contrast and for complicated reasons, sets the freezing point of water at 32 degrees, the boiling point at 212 degrees, and historically also tried to incorporate human average body temperature for no apparent reason. The result is a mess of a scale that is really only used in the US, but for some reason we all acknowledge it and record F temperatures in parentheses next to their Celcius values.

The Kelvin temperature scale is the scale of science. While everyday scales based on the behaviour of water make good sense for most of us, scientists like to have more inarguable reasons for setting values. The Kelvin scale is based on the core principle of temperature: the movement of molecules. At its root, that is all temperature is. The faster the molecules in a substance are moving, the hotter it feels and the higher we say its temperature is. For that reason, 0 on the Kelvin scale is the point at which molecules stop moving completely, the infamous “absolute zero.” Beyond that, 1 degree K is equal to 1 degree C. Nice and simple and sciencey.

So what is with all the hubbub about scientists trying to cool things to absolute zero? Well, as it turns out, reaching absolute is a tough thing to do... actually it’s impossible. The problem is that for each degree you move down on any temperature scale, the work you need to do to move down another degree increases. Logically and mathematically it plays out that by the time you get to 1 degree K, the amount of work you need to do to go down one more degree and reach zero is infinite. That is why the Italian scientists were so excited to reach 6 milliKelvins. Unfortunately for them this isn’t the coldest temperature ever achieved in a lab. In 2003 scientists as MIT used heat shields and a process called laser cooling to chill a cloud of sodium atoms to 450 picoKelvins, that is 450 trillionths of a degree.

That is all very cool (puns!), but what is the point of cooling something down to such a degree (okay, stop)? Well it turns out that very very very cold things behave differently than we would expect them to. Atoms that are cooled to within a billionth of a degree of absolute zero can exchange electrons and from chemical bonds at distances 100 times greater than they can at room temperature. Also, at such low temperatures, atoms don’t exchange energy the way they do when things are warmer. Instead of zipping around and bouncing off one another, waves of energy called quantum mechanical waves overlap with each other, allowing groups of atoms to behave identically in a spooky choreographed dance as a kind of super-atom. Substances where this happens are called Bose-Einstein condensates. The first Bose-Einstein condensate was created in 1995 in Colorado when researchers cooled a rubidium cloud to 170 nanoKelvins.

So I guess there actually was a point to the Italian experiment. If there is one thing research into temperatures as taught us it is to expect the unexpected. So even though the cubic meter of copper didn’t form a united zombie-esque super-atom, maybe it was worth doing. At the very least, we can claim to have created the coldest piece of copper in the universe. Take that, aliens.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sketchy Fact #68: Comet Conspiracy

According to scientists, comets smell like rotten eggs, horse urine, alcohol, bitter almonds, and vinegar. One suspects that the scientists have discovered something awesome that they don't want the rest of us to know about...

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Comet Cruising: Why the Rosetta Mission is the Most Impressive Thing Ever

Well humanity, it’s time to break out the bubbly. Every once in a while the ingenuity of the world’s smartest people accomplishes something truly remarkable. Whether it is sending the first satellite into space, mapping the human genome, slicing bread, or putting a man on the moon; sometimes we earn the right to pat ourselves on the back. On November 12, 2014 the European Space Agency (ESA) gave us our most recent reason to feel smug as a species by dropping a lander onto the surface of a comet. A first in human history.

The mission is called Rosetta, the lander is named Philae in reference to the famous Rosetta Stone which allowed people to decode ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Philae is the name of the island where carvings were found and compared to the Rosetta Stone to help break the code. The lander settled down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after first reaching its orbit in August 2014. The goal of the mission is to collect and analyze samples from the comet's surface to learn more about the early days of the solar system and the origins of the Earth itself.

If you’re wondering why it took so long for us to reach the surface of a comet, you are seriously underestimating the difficulty involved. Rosetta isn’t a new thing. It was launched in 2004 and has spent the past decade as a $1.75 billion pinball in the inner solar system, circling the sun 4 times and using the gravity of entire planets as paddles to finally make it to comet 67P. The cool thing about space is that you can use the gravity of large objects to slingshot you further and further away from your starting point. Rosetta has done this 3 times with the earth itself and once with Mars. If you’re interested in a video mapping the whole 12 year journey of the spacecraft check out the ESA’s very cool video here.

After it's long ride, Rosetta finally met up with comet 67P in May 2014 and after 3 months of getting closer and closer, settled into orbit in August. Since then it has been mapping the surface of the 2.5 mile (4 km) wide comet looking for a good spot to drop Philae. When the day finally came on November 12 everyone involved crossed their fingers that their landing systems would go off without a hitch so they could claim the historic achievement.

Unfortunately in the world of space exploration things practically never go off without a hitch. The plan was for Philae to fire 2 harpoons into the comet’s surface to help hold it in place as it landed. The problem is that when the thing you are controlling is 300 million miles away from the place you are controlling it, sometimes things don’t work properly. The harpoons, which relied on nitroglycerin (which apparently doesn't work that well in a vacuum), didn’t fire and Philae was left hurtling towards the surface without it’s safety net.

In the end, the lander bounced twice before coming to rest. Bouncing is not a word you want to hear with regards to your $1.75 billion spacecraft at the best of times, but when you’re landing on a comet it is enough to get you panicking. The first “bounce” lifted the lander 0.6 miles (1 km) of the comet’s surface and lasted 2 hours. The thing about comets is that compared to planets they are tiny and have next to no gravity. The speed needed to escape the surface of 67P and fly into space is about 1 mile per hour (1.6 km/h) compared to 25,000 mph (40,230 km/h) to escape the Earth. Philae’s first bounce was at about 85% the speed it needed to be hurled into deep space. The second  bounce lasted only 7 minutes and wasn’t nearly as chancey. In the end, a group of European scientists did get to celebrate... presumably after changing their underwear.

And with that begins the real sciencey stuff. The lander will spend the next few days collecting and analyzing major samples until it’s batteries run out. After that will hopefully be able to use its solar panels and auxiliary batteries to keep working until March 2015. The Rosetta orbiter will keep sending us data until hopefully the end of next year. Regardless of what we learn from here on out we know one thing for sure: when human’s set our best minds to achieving things, there is very little we can’t do with a little luck… and a couple crappy harpoons.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

New Orleans is Sinking... No, Seriously

A couple weeks ago we took an internet-fueled trip to China to learn about the Gobi Desert, which is threatening to consume Beijing. The Chinese government and its people are hard at work trying to erase the environmental degeneration that has led to their battle with the so-called “yellow dragon” but they aren’t the only people who are at risk of losing their homes to a pissed-off planet. You may not realize it, but the people of the state of Louisiana are up against their own dragon, only it is bluer, wetter, and a whole lot bigger.

Since 1932 the slow but steady lapping of water from Gulf of Mexico against Louisiana’s shores has caused around 1,900 square miles (almost 5,000 km2) of land to fall beneath the waves. If the current trend of erosion continues, geologists expect that the total loss of land could grow by another 1,750 square miles (4,500 km2) in the next 50 years. That number is kind of ridiculous. The projected land that could be lost by mid-century is bigger in size than the state of Delaware combined with the greater Washington, DC/Baltimore area, just gone.

Ironically enough, what is causing Louisiana to drown is pretty much the same thing that is drying out China. As the population of the state has grown and industrial interests have mowed over environmental concerns, trees have been cleared and wetlands have been paved over or cleared out to make room for people. When that happens, the root systems of plants wither away and with them goes the stabilizing effect they have on soils. When the ground is only loosely held together, it doesn’t take much in the way of waves to break it apart completely.

Unfortunately for Louisiana, their waves have also gotten stronger. If we completely set aside the idea that climate change could be making storms stronger by warming ocean temperatures, and if we decide to forget recent whoppers like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, we are still left with a state that has lost its buffer against the waves. When Europeans first showed up in Louisiana and set to work perfecting the way people cook seafood, they caught their shrimp and craw-daddies in a huge network of swamps and wetlands. What they probably didn’t realize as they cleared those wetlands was that they were basically taking the shocks off their car. See, when a really big storm nears land it kicks up a lot of water and generates what is called a storm surge. A storm surge is a massive wave that hits shore ahead of a hurricane. What swamps and wetlands do is absorb most of the blow and contain some of the energy, protecting the spaces further inland.

All-told, Louisiana is in a little over its head with all this. Fortunately for southern environmentalists, there was a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago… Okay, actually it was a terrible ecological disaster that the region is still recovering from, but it came with a silver lining. Court rulings in the wake of the Deep Horizon spill have forced BP to fork over as much as $18 billion in penalties for negligence. 80 percent of those dollars are designated for coastal restoration. With the total cost of restoration plans falling somewhere between $50 and $100 billion there will still be a chunk of change unaccounted for, but picking BP’s pockets is a great start.

If the 19th and 20th centuries were characterized by people plowing over nature in a mad dash to acquire as much personal comfort as possible, the 21st century is shaping up to be one where we make amends. Between trees getting planted in China, wetlands being restored in Louisiana, and a score of other massive environmental efforts underway all over the world, humans are repairing damaged environments on a scale never before conceived of. It’s going to take more than flowers and a box of organic, fair-trade chocolates to get mother nature to forgive us for our wrongs, but at least we are beginning to apologize.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Sketchy Fact #66: Family Ties

Genghis Khan slept with so many women in the places he conquered that 1 in every 200 men alive today is directly descended from him.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Dinosaur Mystery: The Case of the Freakish Forearms

Paleontology is an art as much as it is a science. When the animals you study mostly died out around 65 million years ago it can often be tricky to understand the most basic things about them. For that reason, paleontologists can be prone to some of the most imaginative theories in all of science. That is to say, sometimes they just make stuff up. Not that you can blame them. Dinosaurs especially are just one of those things that people are really excited to learn about. In the world of science, when you’ve got everyone’s attention, it is tempting to come up with a good story to tell, even if it isn’t always supported by the facts.

A few famous and notable mistakes made since the study of dinosaurs began include the Iguanadon’s spiked thumb being placed on its nose as a horn; the discovery and unfortunate naming of the BasiloSAURUS, which is actually an ancestor of whales and not even close to a dinosaur; and the idea that Brachiosauruses spent most of their time underwater with their heads poking out of the surface to breath. 

To be fair to modern paleontologists, most of the really big goofs happened in the early years of bone hunting and things are a little more reserved and a little more open to debate these days… Most of the time, anyway. One exception is the dinosaur known, inconveniently, as Deinocheirus mirificus (we will stick with DM for short). The problem with old DM is that when it was discovered in the 1960’s all that scientists could find were its two front limbs, but oh what front limbs they were. Muscular and measuring 2.4 meters (8 feet) long, ending in three mean looking claws they were unlike anything ever before seen on a dinosaur. Since the arms were all they had to go on, DM’s name literally means “unusual, horrible hands.”
Since it was unearthed, paleontologists have been theorizing what DM could have possibly looked like. Some of the more fun ideas include A) a T-rex-like predator with freakishly long arms to grab fleeing prey and B) something like a reptilian sloth that used its strong arms to hang from tree branches. The ideas were so imaginative and so varied that it was clear to even the casual observer that the people involved really had no idea what they were talking about, which is why DM has spent the last half century in the dusty storage closet paleontology reserves for its cold cases.
And in that closet DM stayed until August of this year when researchers published a paper reporting that, at long last, they had discovered a complete DM skeleton. Finally, crazy notions could be set aside and DM could be marveled at and respected for the impressive, chiseled work of nature it was. Unfortunately for DM, when asked to describe the discovery, lead researcher Yuong-Name Lee said “It turned out to be one of the weirdest dinosaurs. It’s weird beyond our imagination.” Other researchers have commented that “… it’s just so freaking weird – we never would have expected this animal to look so bizarre.” Maybe it’s time to change the name to Rodney Dangersourus.

It turns out that DM was huge. Something like 11 meters (36 feet) long and weighed as much as 6 tonnes. It had a hump on its back, a beak, and hooved feet. Scientists now believe DM lived in wetlands and the contents of its stomach suggest it ate mostly plants and fish. And the arms? It is now thought that they were used to dig through the prehistoric muck in search of good plant-matter to munch on. So much for snagging fleeing prey at high speeds.

So what is the lesson in all of this? Something we thought might have been the baddest predator of it’s time turned out to be a muddy swamp-monster. Yeah, that might be one way to look at it. The other, much cooler lesson is that dinosaurs still have the ability to surprise the best minds in the business. When you can shock a profession as imaginative and outlandish as paleontology (did I mention they used to think stegosaurus had a second brain in its butt?) you are certainly from a ilk worthy of our attention. In the end, it goes back to a great quote from geneticist J.B.S. Haldane: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Or, if you prefer, another quote from the fictional scientist Dr. Ian Malcolm: Just when you think that nature can’t get any more screwy, “life finds a way.”