Might we suggest some light, enlightening reading?

Linden-2014-FermiGC-detail-smDark matter?

• Or, maybe, zebra stripes around planet Earth?

• Perhaps contemplating the multiverse?

• Or puzzling over the “strangest magma on Earth”? How about extraterrestrial volcanoes?

• Would you believe the Permian-Triassic extinction was caused by microbes?

• Was that whole skydiver and meteorite thing true?


Animal armory

• The legend of rocket cats.

• How does the internet get from here to there?

• Two words to brighten your day: beekeeping donkey.

• It turns out your teeth can teach scientists about how to make glass stronger by cracking it.

• Study well, and one day you, too, can unlock the secrets of the Universe.

• Space is really, really big, right? Contemplate our solar system with interactive models from BBC Future and Josh Worth.

• The name of your next band? Try earthquake lights.

• It’s not all in the wrist; the “flat loop” rope trick is also in the thumb and forefinger.

Rock Hyrax a Trivial Bonanza

P. capensis (rock hyrax)It sounds lonely: “Modern hyraxes are members of the Procaviidae family, the only living family within the Hyracoidea.” Venerable, primitive mammals, rock hyraxes are full of trivial surprises, as Mary Bates explains for Wired Science’s Zoologic:

The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) is full of surprises. While it looks like a slightly more robust version of a guinea pig, it’s no rodent. These squat, furry animals are found across Africa and the middle East, where they like to hang out in rock formations and the seemingly inhospitable nooks on sheer cliff faces. Rock hyraxes are gregarious, living in colonies of up to 80 individuals. They grow up to two feet in length and about 10 pounds in weight.

Weird stomachs, tusks to mark their relation to elephants, toenails, scent gland, suctiony feet, and even cameos in the Bible; the note on reproductive glands, though, is actually a bit … (ahem!) scary.

Even so, at two feet long and ten pounds in adulthood, rock hyraxes have managed to develop a reasonably complex language including twenty-one sounds woven into diverse patterns, as well as regional dialectical differences.

Nor is it actually so lonely; Procaviidae may be the last living family of order Hyracoidea, but the rock hyrax has fellows and neigbors, such as the yellow-spotted rock hyrax and two kinds of tree hyrax.

As an additional note, there is apocrypha … not quite a story, not quite a theory … suggesting that the rock hyrax is the root of Hispania, and therefore the animal after which Spanish-speaking culture is named. Stranger things, of course, have happened … at least, I think.

Say Hello to Niijima

They call it ... NiijimaErik Klemetti last month noted one of those terrestrial phenomena we hear about but so rarely get to see:

We have an eruption like Surtsey occurring in the middle of the Pacific Ocean south of Japan. A new eruption at Nishino-shima has breached the surface and started to produce a small island (see above) of black volcanic tephra. The new island (being called Niijima) still looks small, with some reports putting the island at a cozy 200 meters (650 feet) across and 20 meters (65 feet) high — likely not something that would survive for long in the rough Pacific if it only grows to this size. The plume hasn’t been noticeable (at least to me) in any satellite imagery, but that could change some now that the island is above sea level. So far, there isn’t really any hazard for people who live near the remote island, but the Japanese Meteorological Agency has warned ships not to approach the crater . . . . The new vent is just off the shores of another small island and some of the stills included in the news report show those classic “rooster tail” eruptions that go with these Surtseyan eruptions (named after the aforementioned Iceland event).

Evolving Exactitude

“We have yet to be able to monitor a volcano closely before it produced such a cataclysmic event, so we aren’t sure exactly what the full range of events before such an event might be.”

Erik Klemetti

Myth: Science is supposed to know everything exactly.

Reality: Science is science. The word exists in diverse contexts, and that’s where the trouble begins. That is, to the one, science can be described most basically as a tool, or perhaps a set of principles. The word is also used to refer to a body of knowledge collected and applied through those principles, or by that tool.

False color ASTER image of Laguna del Maule (vegetation is in red) on April 9, 2003, showing some of the rhyolite lava flows and domes around the lake. Image: NASA Earth Observatory.But science is also limited according to its practitioners. There is bad science out there, but with the best of science, the most precise outcomes do not emerge ex nihilo. Well, obviously, as nothing emerges ex nihilo, except perhaps things that, by their very nature, cannot be tested by science or otherwise verified to exist.

But we can track the tale of science through history, and perhaps we should avoid the example of hysteria, a superstitious diagnosis of almost astounding convenience, which would eventually lead to the recognition of psychology by Sigmund Freud. No … no, you don’t really want to know how that works.

The point being that as time goes by, the tool fashions more, and also more refined, produce. If science, as such, were the magic-wand some advocates of superstition and “alternative” science would suggest, we would already have figured out everything there is to know.

All of which is a really long way of suggesting Erik Klemetti’s enlightening and entertaining article on developments at Laguna del Maule, an active volcano in Chile. If you want to know exactly what is happening with this volcano right now, science cannot produce an exact answer. To the other, if you would like a glimpse of the changing “personality” of “a complex of Holocene rhyolite-rhodacite domes and ash deposits that center around a lake that straddles the Chilean-Argentine border”, well, this is certainly the article for you.

And the really fun thing is that you learn a bit about geology in general, and vulcanology specifically, along the way.

If you don’t know who Sigmund Freud was, ask someone; their answer will almost inevitably make you wonder why we might suggest one imagine being strapped in a chair while being hosed with a giant water cannon. Actually, don’t try to imagine it. Just take our word for it this time, please?

Hip To Be Square

Thomson ReutersIt’s not your average top-ten list, that much is certain. Jeffrey Marlow’s list, distilled from Thomson Reuters includes some familiar notions like, “Impact of Climate Change on Food Crops”, and, “Ocean Acidification and Marine Ecosystems”, but also some wake-up suggestions and reminders such as, “Enhanced Visible Light Photocatalytic Hydrogen Production”:Light, Rocks, Water

Hydrogen fuel cells have been “the next big thing” in energy for years, with proponents trumpeting their potential to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But producing the hydrogen has been a stumbling block. New materials – complex catalysts often involving metals such as cobalt, nickel, iron, or molybdenum – have helped scientists learn more about the molecular mechanisms of water-splitting hydrogen production. With continued progress, futuristic fantasy of sunlight-powered cars may be resuscitated.


see King and Pendlebury.

Deborah Blum’s Poison Pen

Congratulations to Deborah Blum of Wired Science:

Deborah BlumAs readers of this blog know, I have an endless fascination—perhaps an overflowing fascination—with the chemicals, often poisonous, that are part of our everyday lives.

So I am happy to tell you that in addition to writing Elemental here at Wired, I will also be writing a monthly column on environmental chemistry at The New York Times.

The new column is called “Poison Pen” (which suits me perfectly!) and the first topic is metals in lipstick. You might be surprised to know that the latest research found nine different metals in lipstick, from lead to cadmium, aluminum to titanium.

And, yes, Poison Pen is up and running with that first story on lipstick is, indeed, up today:

A soft pink, a glowing red, even a cyanotic purple — millions of women and girls apply lipstick every day. And not just once: some style-conscious users touch up their color more than 20 times a day, according to a recent study. But are they also exposing themselves to toxic metals?

Most lipsticks contain at least a trace of lead, researchers have shown. But a new study finds a wide range of brands contain as many as eight other metals, from cadmium to aluminum. Now experts are raising questions about what happens if these metals are swallowed or otherwise absorbed on a daily basis.

“It matters because this is a chronic long-term issue, not a short-term exposure,” said Katharine Hammond, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California at Berkeley and the lead author of the new analysis. “We’re not saying that anyone needs to panic. We’re saying let’s not be complacent, that these are metals known to affect health.”

Go get ’em, Deborah!

But Does It Work On Ducks?

“So, a fake force is a force that is not an interaction between two objects. Rather it is like duck tape (I refuse to call it duct tape because it isn’t good for ducts) on your accelerating frame.”

Rhett Allain

Coriolis diagramWhat? I mean, it’s an obvious question, right?

Er … never mind*. But the consideration of physics in a game show context, from 2011, is still worth a read. Today’s discussion of gravity in a space movie is just as rewarding.

* I know … I know, I know. I just needed a title. Or, okay, to be honest, it was the first one that occurred to me.


“Okay, here’s what we’ve got: The Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the Saucer People, under the supervision of the Reverse Vampires, are forcing our parents to go to bed early in a fiendish plot to eliminate the meal of dinner.”

Milhouse van Houten

Fabian Oefner, Black Hole (detail)Cassini buzzes Titan again today.

• Paint … drill … physics … camera … art.

• This time it’s in Turkey; or, they found Hell … again.

• Er … oh, wait … Ur? (Wait, wasn’t that the Geo Quiz last week?)

Rhett Allain would like to confuse you; but then he sets everything straght again, so it’s safe to click the link.

• Today’s vocabulary lesson: ectopic eyes.

A Brief Physics Lesson: Bicycle Edition

Math? Physics? Those who enjoy brief exercises in applied speculation will certainly learn a thing or two from Rhett Allain, who took some time to consider bicycles and hills. At first blush, it seems an easy enough question: What’s the steepest gradient you could possibly ride on a road bike?

Of course, there is a difference between the simplicity of straightforward mathematics and the complexity of accounting for all the factors required.via Rhett Allain

I think there are three reasons why a slope would be too steep. For all of these cases, I am going to assume that it is a prolonged slope. This means that you can’t just build up a large speed and zoom up the slope. If this was the case, you could go straight up a wall (which you can for a short time).

Those three reasons are the limitations of human power, center of mass, and friction. If one wishes to point out, “What if you used these tires instead of those?” or, “What if you had a different gear set?” it’s all well and fine to do so, but therein lies the point about the complexity of accounting for all the factors required.

via Rhett AllainReally, the friction problem might be worse than this. The bike only uses the back wheel for moving forward, so it is the friction on the back wheel that matters. If the biker is leaning forward, the weight distribution might not be even on the two wheels. I will leave this estimation (combining the previous two limits) as an exercise for the reader.

And, of course, one is welcome to pursue such endeavors. (In truth, that might be part of the point.)