Why do NASA engineers like peanuts?

As Curiosity was landing safely on Mars, many of you noted that the Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers orchestrating the whole thing were eating an awful lot of peanuts. In fact, each workstation boasted a little commemorative jar of peanuts. Seriously, what is up with all those peanuts?

Discovery News has an answer. And it's surprisingly interesting.

Turns out, this is a JPL-specific tradition, dating back to 1964, when the lab's funding was on the line after the Ranger program—unmanned missions to photograph the Moon—weren't living up to expectations. In fact, six Ranger missions in a row had failed.

This was the heritage leading up to Ranger 7. There was talk that JPL should be shut down, that a university-affiliated center couldn’t handle a rigorous spaceflight program. There were suggestions that the program had been sabotaged -- a worker found a small polyethylene bag with 14 screws and a lock washer in one of the sealed electronic modules in Ranger 7’s television subsystem.

Just before Ranger 7 launched to the moon on July 28, mission manager Harris Schurmeier handed out peanuts to ease tensions. He figured chewing or playing with them on the table would give his team something else to focus on.

The full story is pretty neat. You can read the rest at Discovery News

Via Ed Yong

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An annual shooting spree in North Carolina

In certain parts of the United States (including Birmingham, Alabama) shooting guns into the air is one way that some locals celebrate major holidays, like the 4th of July.

For those of us who didn't grow up with celebratory gunfire, this cultural practice can be difficult to understand—especially given the fact that it is dangerous. Bullets that go up come back down, and they can injure and kill people. It's unclear exactly how risky the practice is. If you're hit by a falling bullet, your chances of death are significantly higher compared to a normal gunshot wound. And a study of celebratory gunfire injuries in Los Angeles turned up 118 victims, including 38 deaths, between 1985 and 1992. But I wasn't able to find a good analysis that put deaths into perspective with shots fired. (So, for instance, for every x shots fired into the air, x number of people are injured. Without that, it's hard to tell whether celebratory gunfire is really, really dangerous or only kind of dangerous sometimes. But either way, when you do it, especially in urban areas, you're taking a risk of killing someone.)

Usually, though, when we talk about celebratory gunfire, we're talking about unorganized huzzahs fired off with impromptu vigor in backyards and at family gatherings. In Cherryville, North Carolina, however, the whole thing is a lot more official ... and safer. Starting at midnight on New Year's Eve, the Cherryville New Year's Shooters go door to door throughout a three-county area singing traditional New Year's shooting songs, and calling residents out to shoot with them. Read the rest