The Tiny Stuff of Nightmares

When I was 5 or 6 years old, my parents took me for vacation to Hawaii. It was the first time I remember going someplace other than Disney World and the whole trip is full of wonderful memories, except for one fateful encounter that happened on Oahu. While playing on the beach, I strayed from my parents for just a few moments and happened to come across an amazing discovery. There, being washed in from the ocean was a beautiful iridescent balloon that looked like it was made from glass. I ventured closer to claim the fascinating treasure for my mom & dad and when I reached down to pick it up, my nightmare began.

Of course the balloon was nothing of the kind, but was in fact a Portuguese Man o’ War which had washed up on the beach. When I touched it I was immediately stung and ran screaming for my parents. I don’t remember much after that, but my parents tell the tale of how they rushed me to the local hospital where they spent the rest of the day in the emergency ward with their frightened son, in great pain as I dealt with being stung by one of the scariest creatures in nature.

That is unless you’ve encountered the tiny Irukandji jellyfish (pictured here) as did a man from north-east Queensland, Australia last week. The man thought he had taken the proper precautions by donning a full-length “stinger suit” which covers everything except the hands and face to protect against jellyfish stings. As fate would have it, he dove head first into the water and was immediately stung in the face. Since there is no antivenom, victims must endure excruciating pain, muscle spasms, vomiting and in some cases, death. Blood pressure can rise as high as 280 over 180. The little creatures are so deadly in fact that in 2002, two tourists were killed in two separate incidents of the coast of northeast Australia. All this from an animal no bigger than your thumb.

At last report the man was in serious condition at Mackay Base Hospital, 600 miles north of Queensland. I can only imagine what he’s going through right now and I wish him and his family well. Sitting at our computers, playing with our cell phones and watching TV, it’s sometimes easy to forget the awesome power of nature. We watch the Discovery Channel in HD and sometimes they even show us the amazing life cycles of these creatures, but few of us ever actually encounter them. Speaking from experience, I can honestly say I’d like to keep it that way.

New Blue for You

The New York Times reported this past week that chemists at Oregon State University have created an all-new, extremely durable and intense blue pigment. Like so many other famed scientific discoveries, this one came as a complete surprise to Mas Subramanian, a professor of material sciences, who was attempting to make new compounds for use in electronics.

Subramanian and his fellow professors discovered that by mixing manganese oxide with other elements and heating them to very high temperatures (2000 degrees F), crystals were formed that reflected only blue light. The potential uses for this new pigment are vast, especially since so many of the modern blues in use can fade or, in some cases, are toxic. The only stumbling block seems to be the use of an expensive chemical, indium, which the researchers are now attempting to substitute for a less expensive component.

I love stories like this because it reminds us that science isn’t always about creating super conductors or finding a cure for cancer. Although such discoveries are important in their own right, finding a new blue reminds us that chemistry is the basis for everything in the natural world, including the colors we see each and every day. An awesome, elegant and artful combination.

What’s Wrong with the Radish?

Something’s wrong with the humble radish. When I was a kid I remember these funny little root vegetables burning my face off from just a single bite, but lately I’ve found they have no more kick than a cramped kangaroo. Part of me suspects that the heat of the modern day radish has somehow been bred out of it for a wider appeal to mainstream American consumers. A quick check of Wikipedia reveals that there are no less than 10 common varieties of radishes. The Cherry Belle is the version most often purchased in North American grocery stores. From the taste and smell of them they must be some of the blandest radishes on the block.

I first became addicted to radishes when I was very young. My aunt grew them in her garden and would often give them to me and my cousins to chomp on along with freshly dug carrots. Aunt Lorraine’s radishes were strong enough to put hair on your chest and I loved them to death. I also remember the veggie from the Passover celebrations in my church. Part of the ritual involved eating “bitter herbs” and although radishes were probably not historically accurate, I distinctly remember eating slices of radish on pita bread while listening to Fiddler on the Roof. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why our Catholic parish ever celebrated a Jewish event, but I’m glad we did because that’s where I learned to love radishes.

These days radishes might as well be turnips or potatoes because they have about as much flavor. I’ve searched high and low for radishes with heat and not found any in years. The topic came up at lunch today with the guys from work and David suggested checking out the locally grown radishes of the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market. I’ll be heading there this weekend to do some research and hopefully return home with my hot-headed pearls. If all else fails, you can be sure I’ll be sending away for my own super-hot radish seeds next spring. By hook or by crook, the heat will be on!

Unburdened by Evidence

Human beings love conspiracy theories. We are all born and raised with certain biases that taint our world view, so when events unfold in ways we don’t agree with, we tend to make up reasons to bargain away the result. True believers of two such conspiracy groups have gained media attention in recent weeks – Obama “Birthers” and those who insist the Apollo moon landings were faked.

Those who subscribe to these conspiracy theories have several legs up on reality that make them both frustrating and infuriating to try and deal with. Their foremost advantage is that, in scientific method, it is difficult to prove a negative result. This is doubly so when the people in question refuse to acknowledge the rule of law, insist on approaching the argument from preconceived viewpoints or simply make facts up to suit their needs. All three which are routinely done by birthers and moon hoax believers.

In the case of Obama Birthers, as they are called, despite piles of physical and legal evidence that Barack Obama was born on August 4th, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii (one of the 50 United States) these fringe elements insist that Obama is not a citizen. When one fact is presented, such as the authenticity of his birth certificate (certified by the Republican governor of Hawaii herself) the birthers shift gears and instead claim Obama is trying to block the document’s release. Or they claim that since Obama’s father wasn’t a citizen at the time of his birth, than means neither is Barack. Forget the fact that simply being born in the U.S. grants one “naturalized status”, or that 2 separate Hawaiian newspapers announced Obama’s birth on the same day in 1961. None of this evidence meets their warped criteria of truth.

Then you have disturbing people like Bart Sibrel, a total nutjob who insists that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings in order to beat the Russians in the eyes of the American public. As we approach the 40th anniversary of this landmark event in human history, mainstream media feels the need to shine the spotlight on people like Sibrel. It is true that millions of Americans living today have no memory of the actual event, but that makes it no less factual than Lindbergh flying solo over the Atlantic or the Wright brothers flying at Kitty Hawk.

Many people find the idea of Sibrel’s beliefs disgusting and disrespectful to the dedicated men and women of NASA. Not to mention the over 400,000 people who worked for the better part of a decade to land men on the moon and return them safely to the Earth. Professing the moon landing hoax also denigrates the memory of those lost in the attempt like Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee who died on the launch pad of Apollo 1 early in the program.

For birthers and moon hoax pushers, reality doesn’t come into play. No amount of evidence would ever be enough to assuage them from their pre-held beliefs. This is the root of their fallacy – that they purport to be interested only in the truth, yet when directly presented with overwhelming piles of it, retreat to the excuse of conspiracy. Some say we shouldn’t confront such fringe elements, that they don’t deserve the legitimacy our attention pays them. This may indeed be true, but simply ignoring the screaming man in the corner doesn’t make him go away. He’ll still be there screaming and he’ll get louder the longer you ignore him. No, the answer is to confront these kooks head on and if reason won’t work, as Astronaut Buzz Aldrin will tell you, try a good right hook.

Wilkins Ice Shelf Close to Collapse

News today that scientists in Antarctica are reporting that the Wilkins Ice Shelf is “imminently” close to breaking away from the Antarctic Peninsula. The shelf, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, has been destabilizing for the past 20 years and is now on the verge of collapse.

Since the mass is already floating, the breakup won’t raise global sea levels, but it is none-the-less distressing. Wilkins, like all ice in Antarctica, is formed over thousands of years by accumulated and compacted snow. Surveys of the ice shelf over the past century reveal that it had been stable until the 1990′s. In February 2008, the shelf dropped 164 square miles (425 square kilometers) of ice. In May it lost a 62-square-mile chunk.

Meanwhile a new joint report by Muyin Wang of the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean and James E. Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory says that Arctic sea ice is melting faster than expected. Overland and Wang combined sea-ice observations with six complex computer models to predict a decline from about 2.8 million square miles normally to 620,000 square miles within 30 years.

Despite all of the apparent evidence, recent polls indicate that fewer and fewer Americans are concerned with global warming. While its difficult to focus attention on environmental matters in the midst of a planet-wide recession, climate change is indeed happening and will continue unless action is taken. The science is speaking to us, we’re apparently just not listening.

UPDATE: It’s happened. The BBC is reporting that according to satellite imagery taken on Sunday, April 5th, the Wilkins Ice Shelf finally snapped. You can watch their report regarding the break up at The Huffington Post.

The Vatican Goes Green

In a wonderful example of leading by example, the Catholic Church this past week took its first steps into the foray of “green power” with the activation of a new solar energy system. The massive grid of 2,400 photovoltaic panels sits atop the Vatican’s “Nervi Hall,” where the Pope holds general audience and concerts are performed. The system will save 80 tons of oil per year, or 225 tons of CO2.

The efforts to advance renewable energy sources for the Catholic church have been lead by none other than Pope Benedict XVI himself, who has long stated his church’s commitment to the environment. It’s a remarkable example of an ancient institution taking a progressive stance to attack a problem head on, and I applaud the effort whole-heartedly. In addition, since the summer of 2007, the Vatican has also been involved with an eco-restoration company to restore an ancient forest in Hungary, and more projects are in the works.

By far, the most hopeful part of the Vatican’s efforts have been its willingness to spread the word about climate change. The Vatican has hosted a scientific conference to discuss the ramifications of global warming, blamed on human use of fossil fuels. If a conservative organization such as the Catholic Church can spearhead protection and education of the environment, then perhaps the right can take its first steps to realizing that climate change isn’t a liberal or a progressive issue. It effects us all and we need to start dealing with it. Thankfully, the Vatican, led by Pope Benedict XVI, realized this a long time ago. Now it’s time for other conservatives to catch up.

Sunshine Day

In what may turn out to be one of the best examples of timing in the last quarter century, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have made a major breakthrough in the field of solar energy. The scientists there have invented a coating that not only boosts the amount of light rays able to be absorbed by photovoltaic cells, but that also allows light to be absorbed from almost any angle.

An untreated solar cell only absorbs 67.4 percent of sunlight that strikes it. In terms of efficiency, this wasted energy is one of the major reasons why solar power has not had widespread adoption. Once a silicon panel is treated with the new coating, researchers say the amount of light absorbed is boosted to an incredible 96.21%. Not only that, but the energy captured was consistent across the entire spectrum of sunlight, from UV to visible light and infrared. Because of the wide angle of absorption, the discovery could instantly make panels that automatically track the sun obsolete. Non-automated panels mean less expense, more energy is harvested and solar power becomes more viable.

The best bit is that this discovery comes just as a new administration is about to take office. One of Obama’s initiates as President will be to boost production of renewable energy sources including solar power. Rensselaer’s coating most likely would have fallen on deaf ears during Bush’s tenure at the White House, but now this new discovery could be a key component on road to U.S. energy independence. I love it when a plan comes together!

It’s a Science Experiment!

Inspired by a recent episode of Mythbusters, I’ve decided to undertake a small science experiment. I want see how many more miles I can get out of a full tank of gas simply by changing my driving habits. It’s a documented fact that the more aggressively you drive, the more gas you waste. As Kari, Grant and Tori showed on Mythbusters, driving stressed out or angry used up to as much as 1/3 more gasoline as when speed limits, traffic signs, etc. are obeyed. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an overly aggressive driver, but I do exceed posted speed limits from time to time, and if you ask my wife, she’ll gladly tell you that I take corners rather hard. So when I filled my tank on August 8th, I made a mental note that I was going to “go to my happy place” while driving around town. I would then compare my average milage during my experiment with what I’ve been getting over the last 10 fill-ups. Fortunately, I’ve been keeping track of my average miles per gallon since May for just such an occasion.

Using the data I’ve collected over the last ten weeks I’ve determined that I get an average of 258 miles to a single tank of gas which is about 21 miles per gallon. I rarely do highway driving so my around-town trips fall squarely at the low end of Honda’s 21-23 MPG rating for the Civic. It will be interesting to see how much, if any, I can increase my average miles per gallon simply by becoming a more responsible driver. Even if I don’t manage to get much more bang for my mileage buck, I can say without a doubt that I’ve actually enjoyed driving more these past few days than I usually do. Since I know I can’t speed, I plan my departure accordingly and give myself plenty of time to be places. This results in a more relaxed pace and a more enjoyable experience behind the wheel.

One unexpected side-effect of my experiment is that I can see how I must have been driving. When not on my bumper or passing me at dizzying speeds, other motorists have been generally cranky as I obey traffic signs and speed limits. It’s funny because I drive along and think “there but for the grace of God, go I”. As of today, my fuel gauge is reading half empty and my odometer says I’ve gone 153 miles. Pretty good, but as a friend pointed out to me, my car’s fuel tank is not symmetrical so the lower half of the tank probably holds less than the upper. This means we’ll have to wait for the experiment’s conclusion to see just how I did. I’ll be sure to do an update when I have the final results.

When this trial is over, I’ll probably go back to my lead-footed ways, but if I can get 10-20 more miles out of a tank of gas simply by obeying posted speed limits, I may take up permanent residence in my driving “happy place”. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Well the results of my experiment are in. After running all the way past “E”, with no extra highway driving, I managed to get a full 278 miles out of my fill-up. That means that simply by obeying speed limits and curbing my aggressive driving, I managed to get a full 20 more miles from my car than normal. I increased my average miles per gallon from 21 to 23 which just about equaled an extra gallon of gas. Hooray for science!

New Pieces of the Climate Puzzle

News out of Moscow this morning that Russian scientists are evacuating a research station near the North Pole early due to the increasing effects of climate change. Usually the floating ice station is abandoned in late August, but this year the 21 researchers and two dogs will leave now, in mid July.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the earth, satellite photos of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica reveal that the huge tract of ice is “hanging by a thread”. Neal Young who is a glaciologist with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart, says the breakup of the Wilkins Ice Shelf is inevitable and could lead to the de-stabilization of the entire peninsula.

Just two more examples of what is happening around the globe due to climate change. And while the ice caps melt, species die and we continue to pump out millions of tons of pollutants, George Bush has decided that his administration can’t be bothered to do anything about it. Not only that, but we have discovered that Vice President Dick Cheney edited a recent EPA report on greenhouse gasses, and just today Bush lifts the executive ban on off-shore oil drilling. Instead of funding new research into alternative and clean energy sources, this administration continues its long conflict of interest with big oil and the fossil fuel industry to help pollute our environment while contributing to global warming.

Worst. President. Ever.

Ridley Scott Breeds New “Strain”

I’m pleased to report one of my favorite science fiction films of all time is the latest flick to get the Hollywood make-over treatment. Airing over two nights, beginning tonight at 9pm est on the A&E network, The Andromeda Strain, tells the tale of a particularly nasty alien microbe that threatens to wipe out all life on earth. Director Ridley Scott’s new version of the classic 1971 picture promises to be full of action, suspense and smart science and features a solid cast including Benjamin Bratt, Viola Davis & Andre Braugher.

Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, the original version of Andromeda gave audiences of the 70′s a realistic look at what just might happen if an alien microorganism fell to earth. The movie’s deliberate pacing, cold electronic soundtrack by Gil Mellé and use of multiple simultaneous shots (spoofed in Austin Powers and made famous today by FOX’s 24) builds suspense and impending dread even when viewed today. If the original Andromeda Strain had a weak point, it was surely the rushed ending which bottled things up neatly, without deliberate action from Wild Fire’s team of sequestered scientists. Somehow I doubt Scott will let his version go out with a whimper, and if he plays his cards right, this new version just might be a classic for the ages. High hopes to be sure, but coming from the director of Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner and Alien, I would expect nothing less. Should be a fun couple of nights, check it out.

UPDATE: After having watched both parts of the new version, I can see my hopes were sorely misplaced. Ridley Scott should stick to directing real films instead of producing made for TV movies cause this version couldn’t hold a candle to the original. The plot gets wrapped up in the meaningless exploits of an addict reporter whose actions ultimately don’t amount to squat. The effects were second rate and all of the great scientific detective work at Wild Fire felt rushed. Save yourself four hours of your life and don’t bother to tune in to the repeats OR purchase the DVD. Go buy the original 1971 version instead. At least Andromeda is actually creepy in that version.