SCIENCE CORNER: Ten Awesome Things Everyone Should Know

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Science Corner highlights science and technology issues that either influence public policy or are simply unbelievably cool.

All the way back in the early 1800s, before the discovery of anesthesia, English poet John Keats was already disillusioned with the modern age. He famously accused science of clipping angels’ wings and unweaving the rainbow. Science, it seemed, was busy demystifying the world and taking us farther and farther away from the sense of awe humans feel in the presence of a profound mystery.

I’m afraid I’ll have to differ with the late Keats.

Go on Twitter (for example, to follow me) or turn on the television and you’ll hear the word ‘awesome’ thrown around quite blithely; as in, “That slice of pizza was awesome.” I’m not here to play language enforcer, but I would like to point out that the word once had a different meaning. Once upon a time awesome meant something more along the lines of “causing feelings of fear and wonder.” So, how about it? Can science deliver the awesome? Or is it just here to unweave the rainbow?

Here are a couple of things science has unravelled for us – read them and let the awe waft over you:

(1) The Naked Mole Rat Might Actually Be Immune to Cancer

No, seriously. Well…fine, almost. Scientists don’t like to say things as definitive as “The naked mole rat is immune to cancer”, so they instead say that this hideous creature is “highly resistant to cancer”.

571px-Naked_Mole_Rat_Eating

How resistant? No one has ever documented a case of cancer in a naked mole rat. So while it’s hard to prove a negative, things are looking good for the hairless rodent also known, affectionately, as the “sand puppy”.

(2) Most of You is Actually Bacteria

If I took you and separated you into your individual cells, I would be arrested. But I would also learn that you are composed of about ten trillion human cells – and about a hundred trillion bacterial cells. That’s right, you’re mostly a petri dish for single-celled organisms. Don’t despair, the relationship is symbiotic: the bacteria in your stomach, for example, don’t know how to go to the supermarket, but your body doesn’t know how to actually brake down a lot of what you eat either. So everybody helps everybody out. (Except for MRSA, which hangs out on your skin until it has a chance to crawl inside and kill you.)

Human_neutrophil_ingesting_MRSA

You might take some solace from the fact that you’re still mostly human by weight since bacterial cells are smaller and lighter than human cells.

(3) The Universe is Incomprehensibly Vast

I know you already know this, but I also know that you can’t wrap your mind around it. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone can. So here’s something to help. Go and get a U.S. quarter. I have one, but we’ll need two.

244px-2006_Quarter_Proof

Now, let’s imagine that my quarter represents the Sun to scale. In order to make this model work, I’m going to need you to get up and walk ten feet away from your screen. A grain of sand at that distance would represent the Earth. Isn’t that crazy? Yes, yes it is. Now walk another 500 miles away and hold up your quarter: that represents the nearest star, Proxima Centauri – also to scale. In fact, if you placed a single quarter in every state capital in the contiguous United States you would have a more crowded collection of coins than space is filled with stars.

(4) Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way to Navigate

It took me until I was 25 to even see the Milky Way in the sky, and an animal that gets its name from its fecophilia has been using the stars to get from point A to point B for millennia.

640px-Milky_Way_Arch

Just to fill in the details, the dung beetle eats (surprise!) dung. So the male beetle goes out at night and rolls up a big ball of turd, which it then uses to entice the female. But first, he has to roll the ball where he wants to get it, and in order to avoid rolling his gift around in circles, the dung beetle has developed the unlikely ability to use the Milky Way’s orientation in the sky as a giant compass. How did scientists figure this out? It (hilariously) involved scientists giving dung beetles little cardboard blindfolds.

(5) The Mass of A Neutron Star

Whenever you look at a star you should imagine a gigantic tug-o-war. On one side, the energy released by the nuclear reactions inside the star create an outward pressure; on the other side, the mass of the star is trying to collapse the whole thing. When the fuel runs out, something has to give and a lot of really cool things can happen: solar particles are rapidly ejected in a supernova event while the remaining core finally surrenders to the gravitational force. One possible outcome is a neutron star; these stars are about the size of a city and are comprised of particles with a neutral electrical charge (hence the name). They also have bafflingly fast rotation – they can turn on their axis more than 700 times a second – as well as incredibly high density.

How dense are they? Well, a teaspoon’s worth would weigh as much as 900 Great Pyramids.

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Of course, if you somehow isolated a teaspoon’s worth of neutron star material the most immediate outcome is that – without the rest of the star to provide the gravitational pressure that binds the thing together – it would explode violently.

(6) Gama Ray Bursts

We are now entering the fear phase of our ‘wonder and fear’ catalogue. Remember the particles that get expelled during a supernova? Under the right circumstances they produce what is referred to as a Gamma Ray Burst. Let me quote from the wonderful Bad Astronomy blog:

GRBs are a special type of supernova. When a very massive star explodes, the inner core collapses, forming a black hole, while the outer layers explode outwards. Due to a complex and fierce collusion of forces in the core, two beams of raw fury can erupt out of the star, mind-numbing in their power. Composed mostly of high-energy gamma rays, they can carry more energy in them than the Sun will put out in its entire lifetime. They are so energetic we can see them clear across the Universe.

What happens if one hits Earth? It’s unclear – it could be really bad. How bad? It could deplete the ozone layer by up to 30% globally, with pockets losing as much as 50% of their ozone layer protection (as opposed to the 5% limited depletion last century). It would also produce a ton of smog in the atmosphere (possibly leading to catastrophic cooling), cause acid rain, and potentially lead to a mass extinction event.

640px-Gamma_ray_burst

The thing to keep in mind, however, is that all the energy put out during these events is concentrated into two relatively small beams. That’s why the energy levels are so high, but it also means that a GRB has to be pointed right at you to cause any trouble. Luckily, scientists have found a system that might be about to send one our way. (It really would be like hitting the lottery – only the opposite.)

(7) Yellowstone Supervolcano

A supervolcano is a volcano 1,000 times bigger than your normal, run-of-the-mill volcano. There’s an active one under Yellowstone National Park.

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In 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted and ejected a bit more than a cubic mile of volcanic material. The last time the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted was 640,000 years ago, and it ejected 240 cubic miles of volcanic material. That’s a big difference. How big? If it happened again, the eruption could put down a layer of ash up to 10cm thick for a distance of up to 500 miles. The effect on agriculture in the Midwest would be catastrophic, not to mention what would happen to you if you happened to be observing Old Faithful at that moment.

(8) That One Very Creepy Fungus

Ok, this is the last item designed to possibly give you nightmares. Cordyceps is a genus of fungi that feasts on flesh. Behold:

cordyceps

When this organism attacks a host, it slowly devours it from inside – it’s even able to alter the behavior of the host in order to further its Halloweenesque escapades. Then, because nature isn’t very sentimental, it uses the body of the host as a planter.

Fortunately for us, It really only attacks insects and arachnids. In fact, one species was the source of a medicine used in cases of organ transplants. The medicine, ciclosporin, is effective at suppressing the immune response that can lead to organ rejection after a transplant – which really isn’t all that surprising given that this fungus makes a living by being able to take up residence in a living host.

(9) Superfluid Helium Can Flow Up Walls

In the presence of gravity, liquids are supposed to flow downhill. That’s why I spilled my coffee this morning – not because I was clumsy, but because of physics! Superfluid helium didn’t get the memo. First, let’s get over the shock of liquid helium – isn’t helium supposed to be a gas? At room temperature it is, but that’s because its boiling temperature is 452 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. If you cool it below that, it exists as a liquid. (In fact, at high enough pressures helium exists as a freaking solid! Wrap your mind around that.)

679px-Liquid_helium_Rollin_film

Once you have a bucket of liquid helium, you can turn it into a superfluid by cooling it a little bit more. (Explaining it past this point really is beyond my abilities, but you can dip into it here and here.) What’s important right now is that a superfluid exhibits zero entropy and zero viscosity. That means it can flow forever carried by its own inertia, and when it encounters a slope it just keeps on going and going. As best as I can tell, it’s magic.

(10) The Rogue Planet Scenario

Here’s what we know: every now and then you get a planet wandering through space without a star. How often? Well, one study estimated that there might be more rogue planets in the Milky Way than there are stars. Some of these planets will have moons. Some of these moons will experience tidal heating – a process which would allow for high surface temperatures on a planet without a solar heat source.

Here’s what might be possible: somewhere out there might be a moon orbiting a planet, which is in turn hurtling through space. And on that moon, there might be life. And what’s more, it’s entirely possible that such a moon would be considerably closer to us than the nearest star. Is it likely? The truth is we don’t know nearly enough to say. But you live in a world in which it is possible.

How awesome is that?

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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