Good news! The most overused word of 2013 is clearly in decline. Epic became synonymous with dudebro culture thanks to web phenomena like Epic Meal Time and epic fail, leading marketers to pounce on the word in hopes of reaching the demographic. That explains why CNN has it twice on their front page this morning, like a dad trying to connect with his son.
This video was made by the University of Utah Brain Institute to teach medical students about what a brain looks and feels like before it gets preserved in formalin and takes on the texture of a hard rubber ball.
The big takeaway message: Your brain is seriously squishy. So squishy, in fact, that a finger can dent it. As professor Suzanne Stensaas explains, this is one of the reasons why cerebrospinal fluid is so important. Your brain has to float in that fluid. If it didn't, it would come to rest against the side of your hard skull and quickly end up deformed.
The crazy part about NASA's Asteroid Initiative isn't so much the part where we land human beings on an asteroid. That's cool and all, sure. But the bit that precedes it is actually a little bit more mindblowing. To make that landing work, we'll first have to send out robotic spacecraft to essentially capture an asteroid and tow it into a stable orbit around the Moon. Yeah. Seriously. Welcome to living in the future, dudes.
I've been describing this Slate piece as the most awesome thing I really should not have read at 38 weeks pregnant. For decades, doctors thought that a pregnant woman whose heart stopped had pretty much no chance of survival. After trying to resuscitate her, attention would shift to rescuing the baby. But recent research suggests a better solution: Spend less time trying to get the mother's heart pumping again. Not only does it give the infants a better shot at survival, it also, insanely enough, saves more mothers. Turns out, once somebody removes the other human from your body, your failed heart will often just start pumping again on its own.
"The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) is a celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory" — in other words, it's a festival dedicated to the ability to bullshit in a plausibly scientific way. And it sounds fantastic. If you're in Boston October 6th, you should totally go. But you'll need a ticket. They're $5 for MIT students, $10 for non-students.
Scientists using radio waves to estimate the thickness of the ice sheet that covers Greenland found a canyon — more than 2600 feet deep and almost 500 miles long — buried under the ice. Longer than the Grand Canyon, the Greenland canyon hasn't ever been seen by humans. It was probably last completely uncovered 4 million years ago.
Last night, my husband and I went to the Minnesota State Fair and stumbled upon a demonstration of a linotype machine, a semi-automated, mechanical printing system that was used by newspapers and magazines (and basically everything else) from the end of the 19th century through the 1970s. It's a completely mesmerizing piece of equipment. An operator types out a line of text and the machine responds by collecting molds that match each letter and fitting them together. Then, it fills the mold with molten metal and dumps out the freshly minted block, ready for the printer ... before automatically re-racking all the letter molds so they're ready for the next line of text.
Besides magnetism, there's another thing that the Insane Clown Posse was on-track in categorizing as a mind-blowing mystery — Why do Shaggy 2 Dope's kids look just like him? As with the magnets, this is another situation where the obvious answer (it's genetics!) masks a much more complicated issue that science hasn't totally figured out yet. At Pacific Standard, Michael White explains why genetics is still messing with our heads, almost 150 years after Mendel:
The problem: most of the genetic differences discovered have only a very small effect. And when you add up all those effects, the result can’t possibly explain the full influence of our genes on those traits. For example, researchers have identified hundreds of DNA differences between people that influence the very strongly heritable trait of human height, but the total effect of those differences added together explains only about 10 percent of the genetic influence on height. In other words, we still can’t explain why tall parents have tall children.
Scientists have named this discrepancy the “missing heritability,” and they’ve spent the last half-decade trying to find it.
Now, to temper this awesome news with a bit of harsh reality: Nova Delphini is not a supernova and it's not going to be as bright an object as you're probably imagining. Discover's Corey Powell has instructions for how to spot it (it probably won't be super obvious, especially if you're in a city) and galleries of photos, just in case you can't see it yourself.
Four foot, four inches in circumference. "She believes her voluminous hair may have grown even bigger, but she cannot reveal its size until Guinness take an official measurement." [Video Link, Daily Mail]
Behold, the common housefly — Musca domestica. You know it as a connoisseur of both sugar water and disgusting crap (literally), but this animal is also, deep inside, a sensitive arteest. Human artist John Knuth figured out how to help M. domestica express its passionate, aesthetic side in a series of paintings that exploit basic housefly behavior.
Houseflies "taste" with their feet. Their appendages are covered with chemically sensitive hairs, called chemoreceptors, which means that houseflies spend a lot of time walking around on top of their food. In addition, they can only eat liquids. If they encounter something delicious-but-solid they must first liquify it by slathering it in digestive juices. Finally, because they have to not-exactly-vomit on solid food so often, houseflies also need a lot of liquid in their diet to remain sufficiently hydrated. And that, as this pregnant lady can tell you, means the flies are also using the bathroom fairly frequently.
Knuth puts these rather disgusting traits to work in the name of art by supplying his flies with ample quantities of colored sugar water and lining their cages with canvas. The flies track the colors all over the canvas, in the form of brightly hued footprints, digestive juices, and excrement. The results are much more attractive than you might guess.
Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler, published in 2010 and written by Duane Nickel, promises to be a tour guide to chemistry and physics points of interest all across the United States. (Thanks Tim Heffernan!)
Known affectionately as Bertha, this tunnel boring machine has the widest diameter of any boring machine ever built; 57.5 feet. It's being used to dig a highway tunnel under downtown Seattle and it just arrived there today after being shipped from Japan.
Like the people cheering at about :25 into this video, I'm a sucker for dramatic explosions. This one comes from Texas, where the transportation department blew up an old bridge in the city of Marble Falls on March 17th. Also, apparently, it's warm enough in Texas that multiple gentlemen could watch a bridge explode from the comfort of their jet skis.
Later today, you can interact with some of the best science writers around — Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, Virginia Hughes, and Brian Switek — in an epic science edition of "Ask Me Anything". They'll be taking your questions on everything from parasites to dinosaurs, beginning at 2:00 Eastern.
Who is Harry Stamps? Excellent question. He was the dean of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, but, as his excellently written and tear-inducing obituary explains, he was also "a ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler" who held the secrets of the world's greatest BLT sandwich and went to his deathbed despising Daylight Savings Time (aka The Devil's Time). A man after my own heart.
Here's a video of a successful test of a rocket engine designed by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin commercial space program. Eventually, this technology is supposed to provide the thrust necessary to send a manned capsule into space. For now, I just like seeing all that fire up close. (Thanks, Tim!)
Tonight, I got to meet Martyn Poliakoff — the fabulously frizzy-haired University of Nottingham chemist who you might recognize from a series of awesome videos about the periodic table that Xeni first blogged about back in 2008.
Sunita Williams was in charge of the International Space Station for six months. On her last day in space, she made this 25-minute video — a much more in-depth tour of the ISS than I've personally ever seen before. This is the first time I've actually been able to get a sense of the whole interior layout of the ISS, rather than just seeing one place and then another with no understanding of how they connect. What's more, you really get a sense of the unearthly weirdness of moving through this space where walls are never just walls and "up" and "down" are essentially meaningless.
The video includes a detailed (but safe for work) demonstration of how to use the ISS bathroom; a behind-the-scenes peek of the pantry (with separate pantries for Russian and Japanese food); a visit to the Soyuz craft waiting to take Williams home; and the vertigo-inducing horror pod where all the really great pictures of Earth get taken.
Money quote: "I haven't sat down for 6 months now."
Also, for some reason, it bothers me that she refers to the "left" and "right" side of the Space Station, instead of port and starboard.
In comic books, radiation exposure always leads to awesome superpowers. In reality, not so much. Except in the case of Cladosporium cladosporioides, a fungus exposed to high doses of radiation during the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Not only did C. cladosporioides survive it gained a superpower — the ability to "eat" radiation.
Here's a weird, great geological feature I spotted yesterday while out hiking in rural Oklahoma. We were out in a flat, flat plan that was dotted with a few tall, angular sandstone mounds and narrow sandstone canyons carved out by erosion. This rock was sticking out of the side of one of the mounds. It was the only place we saw anything like these vertical, tube-like structures, which stretched from the ground up to probably about my shoulder.
Possibly, according to some scientists who are trying to understand the early days of Sol and friends.
One way that researchers study events like the creation of the solar system is to model what might have happened using computer software. The basic idea works like this: We know a decent amount about the physical laws (like gravity) that govern the creation of planets and the formation of a solar system. So scientists can take those laws, and program them into a virtual universe that also includes other real-world data ... like what we know about the make-up of the Sun and the planets orbiting it. Then, they recreate history. Then they do it again. Over and over and over, thousands of times, the scientists witness the creation of our solar system.
It doesn't happen the same way each time. Just like you can get a very different loaf of bread out of multiple attempts and baking the same general recipe. But those recreations start to give us an idea of which scenarios were more likely to have happened, and why. If our solar system tends to form in one way and resist forming in another, we have a stronger basis for assuming that the former way was more likely to be what really happened.
That's what you're seeing in this study, which Charles Q. Choi writes about for Scientific American.
Computer models showing how our solar system formed suggested the planets once gravitationally slung one another across space, only settling into their current orbits over the course of billions of years. During more than 6,000 simulations of this planetary scattering phase, planetary scientist David Nesvorny at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., found that a solar system that began with four giant planets [as ours currently has] only had a 2.5 percent chance of leading to the orbits presently seen now. These systems would be too violent in their youth to end up resembling ours, most likely resulting in systems that have less than four giants over time, Nesvorny found.
Instead, a model about 10 times more likely at matching our current solar system began with five giants, including a now lost world comparable in mass to Uranus and Neptune. This extra planet may have been an "ice giant" rich in icy matter just like Uranus and Neptune, Nesvorny explained.
Here's the best way I can sum up this story: Yes, some NASA scientists are working on a design for a warp drive. No, that doesn't mean warp drives are real.
Warp drives — as a purely theoretical thing and/or science-fiction plot device — involve manipulating space-time to allow a spaceship to go faster than the speed of light. It's basically loophole that would allow you to get around those pesky laws of physics. Swiss bank account:taxes::Warp drives:speed of light. You get the picture.
Harold White of NASA’s Johnson Space Center is currently leading an effort to design a warp drive space ship. But, as Amy Teitel explains in a story for Vice's Motherboard, the fact that this is happening does not necessarily mean a real working warp drive is possible. It's more about the fact that NASA is partly in the business of letting really smart people try things that are kind of crazy and unlikely, if they can back up the idea with a reasonably plausible hypothesis. Speculative research is a thing that happens.
The problem is that breaking the light barrier isn’t at all like breaking the sound barrier. The sound barrier–properly, the aerodynamic effects of pressure waves interacting with a body as it approaches the speed of sound–was broken with a cleverly engineered aircraft and an at-the-time state of the art rocket engine.
Bell’s X-1 was, importantly, a physical aircraft made of matter, not made of sound. But the atoms and molecules that make up all matter are connected by electromagnetic fields, and that’s the same stuff that light is made of. So when it comes to breaking the light barrier, it’s like breaking through light with light (sort of… ask Brian Greene). As NASA poses the question, “How can an object travel faster than that which links its atoms?” It’s a very different matter.
Another issue special relativity brings up is the light speed barrier. Moving takes energy, and the faster you move the more energy you use. So, theoretically, to move at the cosmic speed limit of light you need an infinite amount of energy. That’s a distinct barrier if there ever was one.
Here's a big difference between nature and a natural history museum: In the wild, when you find a skeleton of anything, it's seldom arranged in a neat, orderly, anatomically correct manner. Even if an animal dies in captivity, nature won't just conveniently produce a skeleton suitable for mounting.
So how do museums get the perfect skeletal specimens that you see behind glass?
The answer: Lots and lots and lots of tedious work. Plus the assistance of a few thousand flesh-eating bugs.
This video from the University of Michigan traces the creation of a bat skeleton, from a fleshy dead bat in a jar, to a neat, little set of bones in a display case. It's painstaking (and moderately disgusting) work. Sort of like building model cars, if the Ford Mustang had realistic organ tissue.