Great moments in pedantry: Winter is coming. But why?

A work of fiction doesn't have to be scientifically accurate. It just has to make sense. All it has to do is maintain an internal logic and consistency strong enough that you, the reader, aren't inadvertently thrown out of the world. If you're frequently frustrated by detail accuracy in fiction, that's likely your problem, not fiction's. Chill out. Breath deep. Smell the flowers. Experience some imagination and wonder.

I fully endorse all the sentiments outlined above. And yet. And yet. There are some fictional details that drive me crazy. Like the seasonal shifts in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where winter and summer last for years—sometimes decades—and nobody knows exactly when the seasons will change. It's not that I feel a burning need to prove to Martin that this can't work. Instead, it makes me ravenously curious. I keep wondering whether, given what we know about astronomy, there's any way that this could actually work somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away.

A couple of weeks ago, io9's George Dvorsky put together a little round-up of five possible scientific explanations that would make Westeros' magical reality make more sense. I chatted about Dvorsky's list with Attila Kovacs, an actual astronomer who has a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology. They've got differing perspectives on how unpredictable and ridiculously long seasons might work. Thanks to both these sources, I feel like I better understand our universe, and can read Martin more comfortably. Read the rest

More evidence that financial speculators drive crazy food-price swings

A new study on the link between financial speculation in commodity markets and food-price spikes shows that the model can be used to predict future food-price spikes, strengthening the case that financial speculators (fleeing the collapse of the housing market) art the root cause of the violent food-price swings that have been blamed for global starvation, riots and political instability.

The new paper -- M. Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam, K.Z. Bertrand, Yaneer Bar-Yam, UPDATE February 2012 — The Food Crises: Predictive validation of a quantitative model of food prices including speculators and ethanol conversion -- was produced under the auspices of the New England Complex Systems Institute.

In the new study, predictions made by the researchers’ original model are compared to actual food prices between March 2011 and January 2012. Placed on a graph, the lines match closely, and do so despite spanning a major change in price trends at the last bubble’s peak.

“If you have a straight line, extend it and say, ‘Aren’t we predictive,’ it doesn’t give that much confidence,” said Bar-Yam. “If it changes direction, that’s a much more severe test of what’s happening.”

Both the European Union and United States are now considering whether and how to limit commodity speculation. In the U.S., such limits are required by the Dodd-Frank Act, but have been fiercely resisted by the financial industry.

It’s expected that the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission will enact speculation limits by the end of 2012, though they might still be blocked in court. But even if the rules pass, they’re arguably weak, focusing on “position limits,” or caps on the maximum number of contracts a single speculator can hold.

Read the rest

What is snot? And why do some people eat it?

 

The Stranger's "Ask Science" column offers a detailed explanation of just what, exactly, boogers are. It is simultaneously gross and mesmerizing:

Mucus, chemically, is quite fascinating. Sugar chains are attached to a protein backbone in mucus cells, with the contraption released out into the open. These glycoprotein molecules rapidly and aggressively suck up water until they are plump, slick, and slimy. To an invader, this is a nightmare to navigate: tangled chains of protein and sugar, with every nook and cranny crammed with water molecules. (Boogers are when these chains become ever more tangled, finally resulting in a rubbery ball of partially dried-out snot. Neat!) The body adds antimicrobial enzymes to this mix, which digest the invading organisms as they slowly attempt to chew through this barrier and reach the thin underlying lining of cells.

Which reminds me: Over the years, I've stumbled across some interesting discussions about whether picking your nose and/or eating boogers is a psychological or biological phenomenon. That is, when people do this, does it reflect some kind of psychological or socio-cultural issue; or is there a biological reason why booger-eating could be beneficial? 

The truth is, there's not been a great deal of research done on this subject, at least from the biology angle. We know about booger-eating as a function of human behavioral development. There's been some research into it from the perspective of evolutionary psychology (i.e., why do people think this is gross?). But analysis of whether or not there is a biological reason people engage in booger eating has been lacking. Read the rest

Did Neanderthals speak with a high-pitched voice?

Neanderthals had different bodies than we do. In general, they were stockier and shorter, for instance. And there were other physical differences, as well. It's hard to say what these differences meant in practice but it's fun to speculate. You could build up a pretty good about how those short, study bodies might have helped Neanderthals be better adapted to cold. Or, you could look at the shape of a male Neanderthal's voice box, and think about how that shape might affect the sounds that came out.

So that's what this video is about. I have no idea how widely accepted "high pitched voice theory" is. I couldn't find a lot of references to it outside of the BBC special this clip comes from. Here's what the BBC says:

Professor Bob Franciscus, from Iowa University, is part of a multi-national group attempting to do just that. By making scans of modern humans, he saw how the soft tissue of the vocal tracts depends on the position of the hyoid bone and the anchoring sites on the skull. Computer predictions were then be made to determine the shape of the modern human vocal tract from bone data alone. The same equations were then used with data from a Neanderthal skull to predict the shape of a Neanderthal vocal tract.

The Neanderthal vocal tract seems to have been shorter and wider than a modern male human's, closer to that found today in modern human females. It's possible, then, that Neanderthal males had higher pitched voices than we might have expected.

Read the rest

A thermite reaction on 9/11?

Still think that something other than a mere plane crash brought down the World Trade Center towers? According to a Norwegian materials expert, you may be right. Just ... you know ... not in the way most Truthers probably expect.

Christian Simensen thinks the Twin Towers were ultimately felled by a thermite reaction.

"If my theory is correct, tonnes of aluminium ran down through the towers, where the smelt came into contact with a few hundred litres of water," Christian Simensen, a scientist at SINTEF, an independent technology research institute based in Norway, said in a statement released Wednesday.

"From other disasters and experiments carried out by the aluminium industry, we know that reactions of this sort lead to violent explosions."

Given the quantities of the molten metal involved, the blasts would have been powerful enough to blow out an entire section of each building, he said. This, in turn, would lead to the top section of each tower to fall down on the sections below.

The sheer weight of the top floors would be enough to crush the lower part of the building like a house of card, he said.

I honestly don't know how plausible an idea this is. It sounds reasonable to a layperson, but I'm curious what those of you with more engineering expertise think.

The AFP has a write-up about the theory. There's also a more-detailed explanation on the website of SINTEF, the Norwegian research lab where Simensen works. Finally, this appeared in the trade journal Aluminum International Today, and they've got an email address where you can request a copy of the story. Read the rest

Earth's two moons

There's a big difference between the side of the Moon we can see, and the side we can't. Although it seems pretty pockmarked to the layperson, "our" side of the Moon is actually the smooth half. On the dark side, there's huge mountain ranges and much bigger craters.

There are lots of theories that seek to explain this disparity. The newest: Earth once had two moons. And the smaller of the pair eventually crashed into its larger sibling on the side that faces away from Earth. From the BBC:

Dr Martin Jutzi from the University of Bern, Switzerland, is one of the authors of the paper. He explained: "When we look at the current theory there is no real reason why there was only one moon.

After spending millions of years "stuck", the smaller moon embarked on a collision course with its big sister, slowly crashing into it at a velocity of less than three kilometres per second - slower than the speed of sound in rocks.

... In a commentary, Dr Maria Zuber from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US, suggests that while the new study "demonstrates plausibility rather than proof", the authors "raise the legitimate possibility that after the giant impact our Earth perhaps fleetingly possessed more than one moon".

In other words, this isn't so much a proven thing, as the scientific equivalent of a plot bunny. The researchers hope to inspire studies that would either prove them wrong, or lend credence to their ideas. Read the rest