The Geminids are one of the big deal meteor showers that happen every year. In fact, they're regarded as one of the most reliable and impressive. They're also a little strange.
Most meteor showers happen when Earth and a comet cross paths, slingling rocks, dust, and debris from the comet's tail into our atmosphere. The sudden influx of shooting starts that results is a highly noticeable event and humans have been recording them for millennia.
The Geminids are different. They sort of just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, back in 1862. And it wasn't until the 1980s that scientists were finally able to identify the thing that was producing them. At which point, ish got weirder.
That's because the object, known as 3200 Phaethon, is really confusing. It doesn't seem to be a comet. At least, not a normal, healthy, functioning comet. It doesn't even have a tail. In fact, at this point most scientists think it's probably an asteroid, which then leads to still-yet-unexplained question of where all the meteors come from. Asteroids, after all, do not typically accumulate tails of small rocks. So far, the best guess has to do with 3200 Phaethon's orbit, which over the course of about a year and a half takes it closer to the Sun than Mercury and then back out further from the Sun than Mars. Those wild temperature swings might lead to the asteroid cracking and throwing off dust and debris, which then becomes meteors. But, as a NASA info page pointed out in 2010, that explanation doesn't totally cut it. Read the rest
The Curiosity rover comes complete with a mini chemistry lab. It's designed to analyze the composition of Martian soils and Martian air. And, right now, that particular piece of equipment is at the center of a giddy storm of activity. Curiosity has turned up something important — big enough for Curiosity's principal investigator to tell NPR, "This data is gonna be one for the history books."
What is it? NASA's not telling just yet. Right now, researchers are in the process of verifying said exciting data, in order to make sure they aren't deceiving themselves into thinking they've spotted something that isn't really there. That's pretty good policy, given the recent flap around over-hyped studies about Earth-like planets and arsenic-based life.
On the other hand, if you're trying to avoid overhyping something, might I suggest that "We have groundbreaking, world-changing data that we can't tell you about yet," is maybe not the best way to do it.
Pictured: A 360-degree view of Mars, taken by Curiosity on October 5th, from the location where it first started collecting samples of rocks and dirt. NASA/JPLRead the rest
Over the past few years, multiple people have died in Thailand from what appears to be exposure to some kind of poison. Most of these people have been tourists. And most of them have been young women. The deaths have happened in clusters. Five or so on the island vacation hotspot of Kho Phi Phi. Another group of six at Chiang Mai's Downtown Inn.
Lots of possible explanations have been suggested — ranging from serial killers, to hallucinogenic beach drinks, to overuse of banned insecticides in hotel rooms. But, so far, none of the specific poisons proposed as the culprit totally makes sense in relation to the deaths. And, to make things worse, it seems like Thai authorities are doing their best to make it difficult to actually investigate what has happened in individual cases, and figure out whether the cases are linked or not. At this point, it's hard to even know whether all the people who have died exhibited the same symptoms.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has done a lot of reporting on poisons and true crime has been following this story and just published another piece on the still-unfolding mess.
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Your daughter died.
Your daughter died thousands of miles from home. In a hotel where no one came to help. In a hospital where she struggled to keep breathing and just couldn’t. In a room where her heart – and somehow you still don’t really believe this – just stuttered to a stop. In a country, where authorities have failed for months, years even, to tell you how or why your daughter died.
See those weird, black, spidery things dotting the dunes in this colorized photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010? Yeah. Nobody knows what the hell those things are.
What we do know about them just underlines how incredibly unfamiliar Mars really is to us. First spotted by humans in 1998, these splotches pop up every Martian spring, and disappear in winter. Usually, they appear in the same places as the previous year, and they tend to congregate on the sunny sides of sand dunes — all but shunning flat ground. There's nothing on Earth that looks like this that we can compare them to. It's a for real-real mystery, writes Robert Krulwich at NPR. But there are theories:
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Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it's transformed my idea of what it's like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I've thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain.
"If you were there," says Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, "you'd be standing on a slab of carbon dioxide ice.
Marine biologists think they can identify this strange, blobby creature that floated up out of the ocean depths and was captured on an oil drill video. That, alone, is not terribly surprising. Marine biologists know a lot of weird ocean creatures.
But would you believe they identified it by its gonads?
When I was little, I read a Reader's Digest book of great disasters, which included a segment on the Black Death. One of the things the book tried to do was explain, on a child's level, why it wasn't easy to figure out that rats and fleas were the source of the plague. You couldn't just look for patterns, because there seemed to be no pattern. Half a household might drop dead while the other half only got a little sick, or remained entirely healthy. Plague doctors who handled the sick every day lived another 20 years. The real spread of disease wasn't like the movies, where one person coughing means everyone in close proximity is doomed.
One reason for the emergence of strange non-patterns like this is something called "super spreaders"—basically, some people spread disease more effectively than others. The infamous Typhoid Mary is the poster child for super spreaders, but the effect has been well-documented in a range of infectious diseases and it goes beyond the simple story of one woman who infected thousands. In fact, what makes the super spreader phenomenon so fascinating is that it isn't an anomaly at all. Super spreaders are the primary way some diseases spread. The Contagions blog—which is all about the history of infectious disease—has a great post up about this.
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Eventually new models arose like the “20/80″ rule that says that 20% of cases are responsible for 80% of the transmission and formed a core ‘high risk’ group. This model works well for some diseases but not all.
I recently had what I am pretty sure was foodborne illness. It arrived in the middle of a friend's birthday party, a sudden onslaught of misery that lasted for the next 8 hours, reminding me, horribly, of a similar scene in The Mask of the Red Death. It was followed by two days of pretty much constant sleep. I don't recommend it.
But if a growing body of research is right, that 48-hours of grossness might not be the end of your body's interaction with a foodborne bug. In fact, some people seem to have otherwise unexplained symptoms persisting for years after they thought they'd recovered from food poisoning. This is best documented in people whose food poisoning experience was much worse than mine—folks who ended up in the hospital or the doctor's office and were, thus, accurately diagnosed, so we know they had a foodborne illness and not, say, a stomach flu. But it's an interesting hypothesis.
Maryn McKenna, my favorite Scary Disease Girl, has a story about this at Scientific American, plus some extra information at her Wired blog, where she explains why this phenomenon is so difficult to study.
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I start the story with the tale of a Florida teen named Dana Dziadul, who 11 years ago was hospitalized with Salmonella and now at 14 has what is called “reactive” arthritis. Her mother Colette struggled for years to figure out why this was happening to her daughter, but didn’t put the pieces together until she was asked to complete a survey of foodborne illness survivors, and spotted a list of possible after-effects — sequelae, technically — that the surveyors were curious about.
This is an awkward sort of "How To" post because nobody really knows the answer. Here's the rather bleak reality: Rabies is not, typically, something you live through. If you think you've been exposed, you can get a life-saving vaccine. But, if you miss that window, and symptoms start to appear, your chances of survival are pretty much nil.
There are exceptions. We've talked before here about the Milwaukee Protocol, a medical intervention that some doctors think has allowed a handful of people to escape death. But the Milwaukee Protocol is not a simple thing. It involves hospitalization, as doctors put the affected person into a coma. Basically, they reboot the system. And it might not be as effective as we think it is. Five people have gotten the Milwaukee Protocol and survived. Thirty-two others received the treatment and still died. There's a lot of effort that goes into the Milwaukee Protocol, and it might be wasted effort.
Then there's this: In 2009, a teenage runaway walked into a Texas hospital, exhibiting symptoms of rabies—a diagnosis that was later confirmed. She didn't get vaccinated before symptoms started. She never got the Milwaukee Protocol. Instead, she recovered on her own and left the hospital hale and healthy three weeks later.
That's not supposed to happen in humans.
The Austin American-Statesman has a fascinating story about this case. At the heart is a big mystery. The young woman cut off contact with hospital researchers shortly after she was discharged from the hospital. Read the rest
This is the town of Kivalina, Alaska. Last fall, when the ocean water that almost surrounds the town started turning a gooey orange, people (understandably) got a bit freaked out.
After ruling out the scarier options—i.e.,chemical pollution and toxic algae—scientists eventually pinned the orange tide on the presence of a plant fungus. And they turned up some good news: The fungus wasn't dangerous to people or ocean life.
Now, months later, researchers have identified what, exactly, the fungus is and where it was coming from. There's a fascinating detective story here, because, as Jennifer Frazer points out on Scientific American's Artful Amoeba blog, it's rather surprising that there was a fungal epidemic big enough to turn a whole port orange and nobody noticed it on the plants.
[But] Perhaps someone did.
Last October, David Wartinbee, a professor of aquatic biology at Kenai Peninsula College in Alaska’s south-central Kenai Peninsula, emailed me to say he’d seen something strange, and wondered if it might be the same thing that hit Kivalina. Though his neck of the woods is over 600 miles southeast from Kivalina as the snow goose flies, it’s not inconceivable they could be one in the same in a place so far north.
In early September, Wartinbee traveled 70 miles west to a place called the Twin Lakes by float plane (reputedly the SUV of Alaska). He saw an orange film on the water, and the spruce needles on nearby trees were clearly poxed with something.
“If it exists, it has to be there. And if it’s not there, it will be known to be science fiction by December." — Vivek Sharma, a physics professor at UC San Diego, talking about the as-yet elusive Higgs boson particle. The search for the Higgs boson has recently been narrowed down. Basically, we've gone from looking for a needle in a haystack, to looking for a needle inside a small, hay-stuffed pillow. Read the rest