Fantastic tour of the International Space Station

Space Station Commander Sunny Williams takes you on an in-depth tour of humankind's home away from home in space.

The origin story of a fungal super hero

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. Read the rest

Journey into a volcano

Back in July, I told you about an crane system used to lower tourists into the now-empty lava tubes of an extinct volcano. Now, you can travel down into Iceland's Thrihnukagigur volcano yourself — via this fascinating video posted at the NOVA website. While you're probably not getting a view of Thrihnukagigur's magma chamber, you can see the massive tubes that brought that magma to the surface and stare, gawk-eyed, at the tiny scientists scrambling around inside them. Read the rest

Are these the remains of ancient worm holes?

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.

When I posted this image on Twitter yesterday, several people suggested that the tubes might be skolithos — tube-shaped fossils that were probably made by some kind of ancient worm creature and turn up sometimes in sandstones. While the pictures on Wikipedia don't look very similar to what I saw, there are apparently lots of different forms these things (and similar tube fossils) can take. Read the rest

Is our solar system missing a planet?

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.

Read the rest

What's up with NASA's warp drive spaceship?

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.

Read the rest

How To: Preserve a bat for museum display

Perfect, little bat skeletons don't grow on trees, you know.

We have the technology to look for life on Mars

The Curiosity rover can do a lot of things, but nobody is expecting her to find direct evidence of life on Mars. In fact, the hunt for life on the Red Planet has been a pretty stunted one. The last time we really looked was during the Viking missions, which tried to find chemical "footprints" that would exist if there had once been life on Mars, but that could end up on that planet for other reasons, as well. What we got back was a less-than-enthralling "Outlook Hazy. Try Again Later."

Ever since, we've contented ourselves with searching for indirect evidence — assessing the planet for signs that it might once have had the conditions necessary for life to happen. That's important, and it will make direct evidence of life more believable if we ever do find it, but it's not quite the same thing.

But now, DNA sequencing tools have become portable enough (and drilling technology has become powerful enough) that some scientists and Craig Ventner think we could send a probe to Mars which could find buried traces of actual DNA protected in the dirt and sequence that DNA on site.

It's also possible that life hitched a ride between Earth and Mars in their early days. Asteroid impacts have sent about a billion tonnes of rock careering between the two planets, potentially carrying DNA or its building blocks. That could mean that any genetic material on Mars is similar enough to DNA that we have a chance of finding it using standard tests.

Read the rest

Enjoy classic illustrations of the micro world, for free

This illustration of a flea comes from Robert Hooke's Micrographia — an amazing collection of illustrations drawn from microscope images, first published in 1665. Think of it like a proto-viral blog post that somehow fuzed Nature and Buzzfeed. Something with a headline like "15 UNBELIEVABLE IMAGES OF EVERYDAY THINGS!"

Micrographia — the whole thing — is now available in ebook form. For free. In several different formats. To give you a sense of why this is worth checking out, here's Carl Zimmer on the book's social/scientific impact back in the 17th century:

In January 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he stayed up till two in the morning reading a best-selling page-turner, a work that he called "the most ingenious book I read in my life." It was not a rousing history of English battles or a proto-bodice ripper. It was filled with images: of fleas, of bark, of the edges of razors.

The book was called Micrographia. It provided the reading public with its first look at the world beyond the naked eye. Its author, Robert Hooke, belonged to a brilliant circle of natural philosophers who--among many other things--were the first in England to make serious use of microscopes as scientific instruments. They were great believers in looking at the natural world for themselves rather than relying on what ancient Greek scholars had claimed. Looking under a microscope at the thousands of facets on an insect's compound eye, they saw things at the nanoscale that Aristotle could not have dreamed of.

Read the rest

Why don't giraffes have necks as long as a brachiosaurus?

We think of giraffes as long-necked creatures, but compared to ancient sauropod dinosaurs (a family that includes the brachiosaurus and apatosaurus) even the longest-necked giraffe may as well be nicknamed "Stumpy". In a paper published online at arXiv site, two paleontologists analyzed the biology of sauropods in an attempt to figure out which features allowed the dinosaurs to grow necks six times longer than giraffes.

Turns out, there are some distinct differences — especially in the anatomical architecture of the vertebra closest to both animals' skulls — that really stand out. As this helpful slide shows, a sauropod with the vertebra of a giraffe would be in very bad shape, indeed.

This paper, by the authors' own account, began life "as a late-night discussion over a couple of beers", which means it's basically the paleontology equivalent of "Who would win in a fight: Darth Vader or Superman?" Which is awesome. Better yet, the paper is quite easy to read and the information is organized in a way that will probably make more sense to you than the typical scientific research paper. So dig in! It's worth it! Here's one short excerpt taken from a part discussing some of those differences in the cervical vertebra (the aforementioned vertebra closest to the skull):

Many groups of animals seem to be constrained as to the number of cervical vertebrae they can evolve. With the exceptions of sloths and sirenians, mammals are all limited to exactly seven cervicals; azdarchids are variously reported as having seven to nine cervical vertebrae, but never more; non-avian theropods do not seem to have exceeded the 13 or perhaps 14 cervicals of Neimongosaurus, with eleven or fewer being more typical.

Read the rest

Glaucus atlanticus: For once, the Internet is not lying to you

This is actually a real life animal.

I know. I didn't believe it either. When it turned up in my Facebook feed, via my Aunt Beth, I assumed that this had to be a hoax photo. Had to be. I mean, just look at it. This animal looks like it should appear in pretty photos forwarded to you by your aunt that later turn out to be the result of a photoshopping contest on Something Awful, right?

But then it was on Wikipedia, too. And I thought, "Okay, it's still the Internet. Somebody is clearly just getting really elaborate in their trolling."

And I suppose that's true. If by "somebody", what I mean to say is "natural selection".

This is the Glaucus atlanticus. It is a type of nudibranch—shell-less mollusks known for their extravagant shapes and colors. It is venomous. And I am now almost completely convinced that it's not a joke. Read the rest

Hiking an abandoned hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls

Geology Ph.D. student and volcano blogger Jessica Ball recently took a detour away from volcanoes and into the world of awesome abandoned industrial sites.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE awesome abandoned industrial sites?

Ball went hiking around the former site of the Schoellkopf Power Station—a hydroelectric plant that once turned the force of Niagara Falls into electricity.

The ruins of this power plant were the second station built on the site, and were completed in 1895. Both buildings were constructed by Jacob Schoellkopf, who had purchased a hydraulic canal, the land around it and the power rights in 1877. The plant eventually became part of the Niagara Falls Power Company in the early twentieth century. But by 1956, water that had been seeping through the rock in the gorge wall behind the plant had weakened it. On June 7th, workers noticed cracks in the rear wall of the plant, and at 5 that evening a catastrophic collapse destroyed more than 2/3 of the station. One man died, several had to be rescued from the Niagara River, and debris from the collapse made it as far as the Canadian side of the Gorge.

Before the collapse, the plant was generating 360,000 kilowatts of power for the city of Niagara Falls; afterward plants on the Canadian side picked up the slack, and the destroyed plant was later surpassed by redevelopment of the hydropower infrastructure in the area, including the construction of the Robert Moses Generating Station farther downstream.

Check out her photo-filled tour of the site at the Magma Cum Laude blog Read the rest

Watch the Sun "burp"

Check out this great NASA video showing a coronal mass ejection—a burst of plasma thrown off the surface of the Sun—from several different perspectives. It happened on August 31 and it's really gorgeous. It's also rather huge, as far as these things go. Luckily, it wasn't pointed directly at Earth. Coronal mass ejections can affect our planet's magnetic field. There's a risk of large ones screwing with everything from our electric grid to radio waves.

Read more about coronal mass ejections on Wikipedia Read the rest

Building an indoor hurricane at the University of Miami

This is how Hurricane Isaac looked on Tuesday, as it made landfall on America's Gulf Coast. If you've never been to the Gulf of Mexico, here is a key fact you should know: The water there is warm. While Pacific coastal waters might be in the 50s during August, and the central Atlantic coast is pulling temperatures in the 60s and 70s, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is well into the 80s.

And that makes a difference. We know that water temperature affects hurricane strength. But we don't understand the particulars of how or why at a detail level. To learn more about this (and other factors that make each hurricane an individual), researchers at the University of Miami are building a simulation machine. When it's complete, it will be a key tool in improving forecasts.

Peter Sollogub, Associate Principal at Cambridge Seven, says the hurricane simulator is comprised of three major components: The first is a 1400-horsepower fan originally suited for things like ventilating mine shafts. To create its 150mph winds, it will draw energy from the campus's emergency generator system, which is typically used during power outages caused by storms.

The second part is a wave generator which pushes salt water using 12 different paddles. Those paddles, timed to move at different paces and rates, can create waves at various sizes, angles and frequency, creating anything from a calm, organized swell to sloppy chaotic seas.

The third aspect of the tank is the tank itself, which is six meters in width by 20 meters in length by two meters high.

Read the rest

Seed artists support marriage equality

I've written here before about seed art at the Minnesota State Fair. Every year, Minnesotans glue thousands of tiny seeds to heavy backing material to create some surprisingly elaborate examples of portraiture and political commentary. Oddly, given that this is folk art at a state fair in the Midwest, most of that political commentary is solidly liberal.

I wasn't able to make it to the Minnesota State Fair this year, but Minnesota Public Radio's Nikki Tundel was there. At least four different entries in this year's seed art competition feature marriage equality themes—responses to the coming election when Minnesotans will decide whether or not to enshrine discriminatory marriage laws into our state constitution. It's safe to say: Minnesota's seed artists want you to vote "No".

You can see all the marriage equality seed art at the MPR News Tumblr blog

Via the Stuff About Minneapolis blog, and Andrew Balfour

Read the rest

Testing out a Star Wars-style hover bike in the Mojave desert

I really, really hope that this is real and not another cruel hoax by Robert Zemeckis*.

Popular Science says it's legit, and that you wouldn't need any special training to drive the thing:

Brought to you by aerospace firm Aerofex, the bike runs on a pair of powerful fans. It picks up on instinctive movements people make while riding a bicycle or motorbike, then moves in the same way (except, you know, flying), meaning anyone can have a go at it. For safety reasons, they've tested it at 30 mph and 15 feet high, although earlier versions of it went as fast as a helicopter.

Read more at Popular Science

(*shakes fist in the air* ZEMECKIS!) Read the rest

The desert that creates the rainforest

This is probably the most amazing thing I learned all weekend. The Amazon rainforest—with all its plant and animal life, and all its astounding biodiversity—could not exist as we know it without the patch of African desert pictured above.

The rainforest is amazing, but the soil it produces isn't very nutrient rich. All the minerals and nutrients that fertilize the rainforest have to come from someplace else. Specifically: Africa. Scientists have known for a while that this natural fertilizer is crossing the Atlantic in the form of dust storms, but science writer Colin Schultz ran across a 2006 paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters that not only produces evidence for a much larger trans-oceanic transfer of dust than was previously assumed ... it also pinpoints the exact (and astoundingly small) location where all the fertilizer in the Amazon is coming from.

The research paper, itself, is pleasantly readable, as far as these things go, so I'm going to quote directly from it. One quick note before I launch into this quote. The authors are measuring the mass of the dust in teragrams (or Tg). As you're trying to wrap your head around this, it might be helpful to know that 1 Tg = 1 million tons.

A total of 140 (± 40) Tg is deposited in the Atlantic ocean and 50 (± 15) Tg reach and fertilize the Amazon basin. This is four times an older estimate, explaining a paradox regarding the source of nutrients to the Amazon forest. Swap et al suggested that while the source for minerals and nutrients in the Amazon is the dust from Africa, it was estimated that only 13 Tg of dust per year actually arrive in the Amazon.

Read the rest

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