Tag Archives: Science

The time of year for walking on a lake – on the Moon

It’s that time of year. The time when scientists line up around the block to answer age-old questions like: ‘would I be able to run across the surface of a pond or lake, if that pond or lake was on the Moon?’.

We are, of course, talking of the Ig Nobel Prize awards. Each year, the Ig Nobel celebrates what can, to put it mildly, be described as improbable research. I’ve previously said that the people who get grants for the various projects presented at the Ig Nobel awards should be kept in the world of science. If any of them ever switched to selling used cars, everyone would be driving 1997 Nissans and Fords before we could say E = MC squared.

Take the winner in the field of medicine, where the winners assessed the effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients. Sounds good (sorry, poor pun), doesn’t it? Well, the patients in question were mice.

Or what about the price for chemistry? The winners had spent years (and research funds) discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized. So complicated it makes scientists cry? Perhaps.

My personal favourite also has one of the longest and most specific titles that should really have been in a Douglas Novel: “Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam” — techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck.

Oh, and the answer to the question above was yes – you can run on the surface of a pond on the Moon…or, some people would be able to do so…it depends on your weight.

See more great science fun, you should go here.

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Fracking: opportunity or danger? Or cute cartoon?

Hydrofrackturing rock formations to extract gas – or fracking, as it’s commonly known – has generated more than a fair share of debate in recent years.

Supporters call it the key to solving our energy needs while moving towards more green energy, while opponents call it the worst idea since the Romans put lead in their aqueducts.

And water is often at the heart of the debate between the two sides, with opponents saying that fracking causes pollution of drinking water and also causes earthquakes. Supporters, on the other hand, say that this isn’t the case and point to the fact that gas extracted through fracking has lowered the use of coal in some countries, meaning that it’s helping reduce the amounts of CO2 humans pump into the atmosphere.

Right or wrong, this is a complex issue. Good thing we have cartoons.

OK, that’s a dig (bad pun, sorry), but this illustration of the pros and cons actually does a pretty good job of explaining the whole thing:

New work proves uncertainty principle – or at least seems to…

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Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is one of the most famous mathematical expressions, which could mean that it’s interesting that the man himself expressed it ‘only informally and intuitively’.

The principle is expressed mathematically above.

Looks simple, but like Einstein’s little E equals and so on, it isn’t when you think about the consequences – which has made many a physics student want to run into a wall, just to make the head buzzing stop.

Basically, it means that the more sure you are about where in space a certain particle is, the less sure you can be about how fast it’s going and where it’s headed and the other way around.

Another way of describing that is to say that if you ‘saw’ a car and measured its speed to exactly 65,3 mph and its direction to be due North you wouldn’t know if it was in Reading or Cuba. If you spotted the same car in the exact middle of the only roundabout in Manningtree (smallest town in England) you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was going 2 or 734,5 mph, or if it was also heading for Reading (yay, rhyme!) or was taking the scenic route to the centre of the Earth.

Confusing? It is to me. And it was only made worse by the fact that scientist used to say that they were unsure about the uncertainty principle….

Luckily those days seem to be over now.

“Our work shows that you can’t measure something with an accuracy any better than the fundamental quantum uncertainty,” Paul Busch, a theoretical physicist at the University of York, UK, recently told the magazine Nature.

I’m pretty sure that makes me feel better…

Obama’s plan on the environment – not great, but has infographic

President Obama has revealed his plan to reduce American CO2 emissions and generally improve the state of the environment.

Left and right have already had a swing at it, and if you’re into the environment as a sorta nice place to hang out, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed at its limited scope and level of ambition.

But hey, it comes with an infographic:

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Scientists pick apart US committee chair’s arguments on climate change

Michael Oppenheimer and Kevin Trenberth have spent more than 70 years between them studying Earth’s climate. And they were both left shaking their heads, when Republican Lamar Smith from Texas recently published an op-ed defending not raising prices on carbon emissions.

“Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science,” Mr. Smith wrote.

A claim that didn’t sit well with Oppenheimer and Trenberth. Especially as Mr. Smith is the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

In a link-o-rama of a rebutal, they asserted that climate change is real, and not surrounded by the uncertainty Mr. Smith alluded to.

“[…] most of the world’s major scientific organizations indicate that by the end of this century, people will be experiencing higher temperatures than any known during human civilization — temperatures that our societies, crops and ecosystems are not adapted to,” they said.

Who to agree with…hmm, I think I’ll go with the 70 years of experience on this one….

Of course, the rebuttal might be more than futile. As one reader commented:

“How quaint, using facts, science and logic to rebut a GOP congressional numbskull. It’s a complete waste of time and effort, of course. You might as well talk to the wall.”

GROVER goes to Greeland to look at ice

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Photo: NASA

NASA have sent GROVER on an autonomous mission to Greenland to look at ice sheet that covers more or less all of the massive island.

GROVER is short for ‘Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research’. In simple terms it’s a solar-powered robot car equipped with powerful radar-equipment. The idea is that GROVER will drive around and measure how thick the ice sheet is in various spots. Over time, the data collected will give scientists a clearer picture of the ebbs and flows in the ice sheet, and through that a better understanding on how global warming is affecting the interior of Greenland.

GROVER is currently ambling around Greenland on a trial run.

I haven’t read too much about this project, but I have to admit that the idea of using a solar-powered robot in a region where the sun more or less disappears for six months at a time strikes me as odd….

Mice, lizards and fish spend month in space – some come back floating

After spending a month in outer space, a Russian space capsule carrying what could be described as a ‘discerning little Noah’s Ark of lab animals’.

Mice, lizards, crayfish and other animals all took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 19th as part of an experiment ‘designed to show the effects of weightlessness and other factors of space flight on cell structure.’

For the lizards, that didn’t turn out to be a biggie, as all 15 of them survived. However, fewer than half of the 53 mice who took off a month ago came back alive.

So, the pet of choice for a trek to Mars is a chameleon and, if the mice weren’t wilfully letting the mammal side down by dying off, the study seems to be bad news for a the human population on such a trip.

World’s energy production fails to limit CO2 emissions – in spite of growth in green energy

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Photo by: JanetR3

While the number of wind farms, solar energy powerplants and hybrid cars are growing constantly, the World’s energy production is as ‘dirty’ today as it was 20 years ago.

The depressing statement comes from the International Energy Agency in a new report called Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013, that has looked at how the World is doing, if we are going to live up to the goal of limiting temperatures rising by no more than two degrees.

“Stark messages emerge: progress has not been fast enough; large market failures are preventing clean energy solutions from being taken up; considerable energy-efficiency potential remains untapped; policies need to better address the energy system as a whole; and energy-related research, development and demonstration need to accelerate,” the report states.

The report uses an indicator called Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index that measures how many tons of carbon dioxide, or CO2, are emitted per unit of energy supplied. In 1990 that number was 2.39 tonnes CO2, whereas the same number in 2010 was 2.37 tonnes.

Part of the reason for this might be found in the ongoing US shale gas bonanza that has meant lower gas prices in the US. That, in turn, has meant that the price of coal has fallen, leading several European countries to use more coal instead of gas in their powerplants.

Special specimen set to reveal colour of certain dinosaurs

The Canadian Light Source (CLS) – the country’s national synchotron research facility – is about to (sorry) shed light of a question that has had scientists stumped for many years.

Scientists at the fascility are in the early stages of testing a unique piece of 70 million year old dinosaur skin, that might reveal what colour the dinosaur originally was.

Most dinosaurs are usually portrayed as grey or green, but no-one can really say for certain what colour they were.

“If we are able to observe the melanosomes and their shape, it will be the first time pigments have been identified in the skin of a dinosaur,” Mauricio Barbi from CLS said.

“We have no real idea what the skin looks like. Is it green, blue, orange…There has been research that proved the colour of some dinosaur feathers, but never skin.”

The skin sample is from a hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period (100-65 million years ago), and is one of the very few preserved dinosaur skin samples ever found.

“As we excavated the fossil, I thought that we were looking at a skin impression. Then I noticed a piece came off and I realized this is not ordinary – this is real skin. Everyone involved with the excavation was incredibly excited and we started discussing research projects right away,” Mauricio Barbi said.

Explaining science with things that make you go awwww

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Photo by: tintedglass

I’m guessing that teaching science to younger children (or older children, or adults for that matter) can be a bit of an uphill struggle at times.

Part of the reason for that might by that science often involves abstract concepts. Take the atom, for example. How do you explain how an atom looks? Some would use stationary models, but they can’t encompass the fact that things in an atom move around.

Good thing we have golden retrievers.

‘Golden retriever?’ you ask.

Yep, golden retrievers:

Now if we were talking about chemical bond, you wouldn’t need golden retrievers. Most dogs can explain that concept. Like these two:

Dogs can also be used to explain more basic concepts. Like uneven surfaces: