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

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. It's a lot like going caroling, but with weaponry. Thankfully, it's all done with blanks these days.

For more than 18 hours, and through three different counties — Gaston, Lincoln, and Cleveland — the shooters follow the route bringing ceremony and good tidings to neighbors. At each stop along the way, a crier recites the “Chant of the New Year’s Shooters,” and then participants fire their muskets, one by one, each loaded with black powder, no bullets allowed. The noise of the musket is thought to drown out evil spirits and bad luck; while the chant — part poem, part speech, and part song — asks for peace and prosperity in the New Year.

Joyce Green sent this story in to me. While she was raised in one of these communities—Shelby, North Carolina—she would like you to know that, "I never wake up on New Year’s day and think, 'I’d better get on down to the nursing home and fire off a couple of shots to bring in the New Year right.'"

Read more about the Cherryville New Year's Shooters

Read more about the dangers of celebratory gunfire that involves real bullets.

Image: Black Powder Shot, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from theknowlesgallery's photostream