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Memory - I'm a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series,
which says that inside our DNA we carry genetic memories; the
memories of our ancestors. Is this based in a true thing? Is genetic
memory real? - Jonathan
game the Assassin's Creed a machine called the Animus is supposed
to be able to tap into hidden memories in a person's DNA and let
them play out their ancestors past as waking "dreams." But do
we really carry anything like these genetic memories in our DNA?
early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, suggested that
such a thing did exist. He called it racial memory. Jung thought
that feelings, patterns of thought, and fragments of experience
could be transmitted from generation to generation in humans creating
a "collective unconscious" we all share.
thinking these "memories" deeply influence people's minds and
behavior. An often cited example is fear of snakes. Most people
have a fear of snakes, even though they haven't personally had
a bad experience with them. One way to explain this fear is that
earlier generations of humans have had bad incidents with snakes
and this memory is passed down to their children.
racial memory is true, how might it work? It seems the most likely
suggestion is that somehow these memories are incorporated into
our genome over long period of time so that these memories are
carried in our DNA.
Jung's idea of "collective unconscious" has been a popular idea
with writers and those with a new age bend, most scientists are
skeptical that such a mechanism exists in DNA. Do we fear snakes
because of an instinct encoded in our genes, or because we were
taught to fear them by instruction or example?
it did work Jung's racial memories do exist they seem much too
vague (like a general fear of snakes) to create the "waking dreams"
seen in the Assassin's Creed game.
scientist have done intriguing work with something known as epigenetics.
It was believed until recently that genes controlled only what
was passed down from parent to child and the behavior of the parent
would not affect those genes. New studies, however, suggest that
what a parent does can change how that gene is expressed in the
following generations. In one experiment scientists used a strain
of mice known for having a gene that gave them fat bodies and
yellowish color. However, by giving a mother mouse a healthier
diet they could cause the gene not to be expressed in the next
generation giving them sleeker bodies and a normal brown color.
as it is that some of these "genetic memories" can indeed be passed
down from parent to child, they still fall far short of the type
of memories found the game and the Animus machine in the story,
I'm afraid, will ever be a myth.
Arms - I have often wondered about the shape of a galaxy.
Especially the arms. Are they being flung outwards like in a Catherine
Wheel, or are they being sucked inwards like in a vortex? Since
they say there is a black hole in the centre of every galaxy,
could it be possible that the shape is due to the vortex effect?
Given that the black hole attracts everything towards the centre?-
let's start with an explanation of what a galaxy is for readers
unfamiliar with the concept. A galaxy is a collection of stars
that rotate together and are held together by gravity. A galaxy
may contain trillions of stars (along with their planets) . While
galaxies come in many shapes about 70% in our region seem to form
into what appears to be a flattened disc with whirlpool type arms.
Our sun is a member of the Milky Way galaxy (which is a spiral)
and it located about 1/3 of the way out from the center on one
of the arms.
question suggests there are several forces acting on a galaxy
to give it its shape. Since it is spinning the centrifugal force
pushes the stars away from the center (in the same way when you
ride a Merry-Go-Round you feel pulled to the outside). However,
the gravity of the galaxy works in the opposite direction to pull
all the stars back together as a group. It's the balance of these
two forces that gives the galaxy it size and stability.
point out many galaxies have a massive black hole in the center.
While the gravity provided by the black hole may be large (the
one at the center of the Milky Way is at least the mass of 40,000
suns) it is actually the total mass of the galaxy that keeps it
enough if you add up all the mass of the black holes in a galaxy,
all the stars, planets and free gas (which is pretty much everything
we can detect with our instruments), it still isn't enough mass
to keep a galaxy together at the rate that it spins. It should
actually fly apart. Scientists were extremely puzzled by this
when they first made the calculations back in the 1970's. Several
theories to explain this have been put forward but the most accepted
is Dark Matter.
is thought to make up more than 50% of the mass of a galaxy. Scientists
don't know what it is, but they do know that they can't see it
with their telescopes and it only seems to interact with other
forms of matter through gravity. One suggestion is that Dark Matter
is composed of an unknown massive sub-atomic particles. Experiments
are underway to see if these mysterious particles can be found.
of your question that I haven't tackled is "why do the spiral
galaxies have arms?" Researchers have been working on this puzzle
for years and only recently have computers been powerful enough
to do the massive calculations necessary to simulate the life
of a galaxy. One study suggests that the arms form in response
to clumps in the early galaxy (usually in the form of molecular
clouds of hydrogen). The gravity of these "perturbers" can cause
matter in the galaxy to form into density waves and these waves
appear as arms. Scientists debated for many years whether these
arms came and went on a regular basis, but the simulation seems
to indicate that once arms form they become self perpetuating
even if the original "perturbers" go away.
rotate around the core of the galaxy they will actually move in
and out of the arms. It's a bit like a traffic jam caused by someone
gapping at an accident. As the cars slow down they cause other
cars behind them to slow down too. This creates an area of high
car density around the accident, but the cars involved are always
different as they move into and out of the jam. It's the same
case with the stars. They slow down as they pass throught the
arms making the region denser with stars.
End of the Universe - Our small Earth and other planets
are in space. It's a big area; can you tell me the total size
of space? Will it have a beginning and an end? - J.R.
the fundamental questions scientists have struggled with over
the years is the size, shape and destiny of the universe. The
prevailing theory is that the universe came into being about 13.7
billion years ago in what has been whimsically called "The Big
Bang." It has been expanding (some people use the term "inflating")
ever since. Gravity - the force that pulls all forms of matter
toward each other - is working against the expansion. For a long
time scientists debated over whether there was enough matter in
the universe given its size (what we call the density) to bring
the expansion to a halt and eventually reverse it. If there isn't,
gravity will just slow down the expansion but never stop it. If
the universe came back together it would end in a "Big Crunch."
If it continued with a slow expansion it would just sort of slowly
die out as all energy was expended and evenly distributed through
out all of space.
were blown away when recent observations showed that the universe
is unlikely to either be pulled back together or just slowed down.
The universe's expansion actually appears to be accelerating,
for some unknown reason. Scientists have speculated that is due
to an unknown force we can't detect which they have dubbed "dark
energy." If this is the case, if the universe is accelerated enough
it may end when it is actually ripped apart at the atomic level
in some distance future.
of the universe is related to its density because higher density
means more gravity. If the density is beyond a certain critical
value, space, as seen in four dimensions, will be rolled up into
the shape of a ball. If the density is just at the critical
value, it will be as if the surface of the ball had been flattened
out into a sheet. If the density falls below that critical point,
it will be as if the sheet had been bent down on two sides and
up on the other two forming a "saddle" shape.
of the universe, in turn, has an impact on theories about how
large it is. For example, the observable universe (that is the
part we can see) is about 92-94 billion light-years across. If
the universe were a closed sphere, however, it could actually
be quite a bit smaller than this because light traveling in a
"straight line" would eventually follow the curve of the sphere
and come back to its starting point. This means that if you used
a telescope to look at a distance galaxy, you might be actually
be looking at your own galaxy from the other side. It might seem
that it would be easy to look at a distant part of space and see
if the galaxies there matched up with any galaxies in opposite
direction, but an experiment like this is extremely difficult
to do. In reality the great distances involved mean that we are
seeing the galaxies at different times in their history, so they
may not look the same or be in the same position.
data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) NASA
launched in 2001 suggests that the shape of the universe - at
least the observable universe - is nearly "flat" with a minimum
size of around 78 billion light years. However it is more likely
that it is quite larger and may indeed be infinite. For comparison
the diameter of the orbit of Neptune, our outer most planet, is
a little more than one thousandth of a light year wide.
Stones - Recently, on a trip to Cape Breton Island we saw
a few signs along the road saying "Warning -- Flying Stones."
What are these "flying stones?" It sounds like a Fortean phenomenon,
but I have a feeling there is another explanation. - Alan.
as the phrase "flying stones" brings to my mind a vision of boulders
levitating in the sky like alien flying saucers, I suspected that
there was a more pedestrian explanation for this warning sign,
so I did some research by checking the website for the department
of roads in the Cape Breton area.
what I think the signs are about: There is an inexpensive way
of coating a road called "Chip Seal." Basically you lay down a
surface of sticky tar-like material, then on top of that a layer
of stone chips, then finally another layer on top that to seal
the chips down.
produces a road surface that is much smoother than a gravel road,
but rougher than a normal asphalt surface. For this reason it's
unpopular in urban high-traffic areas or on high-speed roads.
However, because of its low cost, it is often found in rural areas
with light traffic and low road speeds. Chip Seal is sometimes
also used as a cheap way to patch normal asphalt road until more
permanent repairs can be made.
there are some additional disadvantages to Chip Seal beyond the
rough road surface. For the first 24/48 hours after the surface
has been laid down there is a very high chance that stone chips
will be picked up, caught in tire treads and thrown by vehicles,
Cape Breton Island area they call this phenomenon "flying stones."
I suspect the signs you saw were warning of a section of road
that was just recently been redone with chip seal. Cars hit by
flying stone chips thrown up by other vehicles can, of course,
wind up with expensive cracked windshields or unsightly chipped
paint, so the department of road there warns driver with the "Flying
Pirates of the 18th Century - Who were the most successful/famous
pirates of the 18th century? - Matthew
had included the 17th century in your question the answer would
have been easy: Sir Henry Morgan. Morgan was born in Wales in
1635. In his teens he joined a pirate crew from Tortuga and swore
an oath as a member of the "Brethren of the Coast." After a successful
trip, Morgan and some friends decided to outfit their own ship.
Morgan was elected captain and his first raid was a great success.
Many more followed. Morgan became a vice admiral in the buccaneer
fleet and quickly became very famous and rich.
was smart enough to ally himself with the English as a privateer
(A pirate that only attacks ships of nations that his sponsor
is at war with and splits the booty with the crown) which meant
that when he was ready to give up his pirate career he could retire
and live safely in English controlled territory.
book, the fact that he survived to leisurely retirement makes
Morgan perhaps the most successfully pirate of all time. Few of
his colleagues had that pleasure.
are dealing with the 18th century pirates, however, we need to
perhaps assign the titles of "most famous" and "most successful"
to two different rogues.
an easy argument to make that the most famous pirate of the era
was Edward Teach, more commonly known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard,
early in his career, recognized that to be a successful pirate,
you had to be a terrifying pirate. One that was so feared that
ships would surrender at the very sound of your name. If you could
manage this, you could avoid many battles.
was a big man, with a naturally scowling face, long, thick black
hair and beard, and wild, deep-set eyes. To further heighten his
terrifying presence, Blackbeard would go into battle with lighted
tapers in his hair. These belched black smoke, making Blackbeard
appear to his enemies as some kind of demon.
Blackbeard has shown up in numerous books, TV shows and movies
(ranging from 1952's very serious Blackbeard the Pirate,
to Disney's 1968 comic effort Blackbeard's Ghost) it's
really hard to argue the he shouldn't get the title of most famous
Blackbeard, even today, is probably the best known pirate name
from that era, he wasn't the most successful one of that century.
That accolade belong to Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts.
and his crew attacked ships off the Americas and West Africa between
1719 and 1722. While was only in the business for less than four
years, he captured more ships than any other pirate during the
famed "Golden Age of Piracy."
born Bartholomew Roberts in Wales in 1682 and grew up to be an
honest seaman, but in 1719, his ship was captured by pirate Howell
Davis and Roberts was forced to join the crew. While he was first
reluctant, he soon came to see the advantages of piracy and went
at it with a vengeance. He came to the conclusion:
an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour.
In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power;
and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the
hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two
at choking? No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.
out to be such a good pirate that when Davis was killed a few
months after Robert's joined the crew, his fellow pirates elected
him the new captain. In his short career he captured 470 ships.
Unfortunately, for him, he was killed in a clash with the Royal
navy off the coast of Africa in 1722 when his crew was too drunk
to put up a good fight.
Dorado and Lost Gold - I would like to know if there WERE
any "Lost Cities of Gold", like the fabled El Dorado, ever discovered
or if they were just tales the natives told to the better-equipped
Spaniards to get rid of them. - David R.
the term "El Dorado" originally referred to not to a city, but
to a man. Translated it means "the gilded one" and is the result
of an ancient ritual done by a people that lived in the Andes
mountains in what is now part of Colombia. The new king of this
people as part of his coronation rites would dust himself in gold
and head out into the middle of the local lake where he would
throw gold and valuable jewels into the water to appease the god
who lived there. This ritual ended before the Spanish arrived,
but they were still fascinated by the story and somehow came to
believe that if there was so much gold involved, it must mean
there was a rich, golden city somewhere in the area. Somehow this
city came to be called as El Dorado.
spawned a lot of expeditions that cost a lot of lives. In 1617
Sir Walter Raleigh, the Englishman, though he knew where it was
and mounted an expedition. Raleigh stayed at the base camp while
he sent his son, Watt, into the jungle to look it. Unfortunately
Watt's party found the Spanish instead of the city and in the
resulting clash the younger Raleigh was killed. The father himself,
heartbroken, returned to England where the King had him beheaded
for making trouble with the Spanish.
is no truth to the El Dorado story. The Spanish did find the lake
involved in the original tale, Lake Guatavita, and managed to
drain part of it in 1545 and found gold pieces along the edge.
Some people still think there maybe gold in its depths, but the
government banned treasure hunters from hunting in lake in 1965.
however, was just one of the stories of enormous hoards of gold
hidden in the new world. In North America the Spanish found themselves
searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola. According to legend
these towns were filled with gold and gems. The search had come
to naught till 1539 when a Franciscan priest, Friar Marcos de
Niza, reported to the authorities that he had seen one of the
golden cities while wandering in what we now call New Mexico.
He reported he had seen from a distance, but was afraid to approach
as the Zuni Indian inhabitants might kill him.
Francisco Vazquez de Coronado led and expedition into the area
to find this city. Unfortunately he only located an unimpressive
adobe pueblo that didn't seem to match the description given by
the priest. The expedition was a financial disaster leaving its
backers in heavy debt. Experts are divided on what exactly the
priest saw, and whether he saw anything at all, but was just spinning
a tall tale.
there is the legend of the lost gold of the Incas. In this case
it's not a city, but a cache fabulous treasures hidden deep in
the mountains of central Ecuador that the native Americans manage
to keep hidden from Spanish conquistadors. The story started in
the 16th century with the Inca king Atahualpa. Atahualpa was captured
by Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro, who held him for ransom.
The agreed upon payment was a room full of gold. Pizarro, for
some reason, however, had Atahualpa put to death before the final
and largest payment was made. The story had it that the King's
people instead buried the treasure in a secret mountain cave.
century after the king's death a Spaniard named Valverde supposedly
became very wealthy after finding the hoard. In 1886 Barth Blake,
a treasure hunter, also claimed he found the cave. "There are
thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft,
the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine,"
he wrote. According to the story Blake took as much as he could
carry and headed back to civilization to raise money for a full
expedition. Unfortunately he disappeared on a ship head to New
York, perhaps thrown overboard, by those that stole the gold he
had on him.
these gold tales, probably the last one, the story of Atahualpa's
ransom, has the most chance of being real. We know that the cashe
actually existed, because Spanish records show that a large shipment
was on its way from Ecuador when the king was executed. What happened
to the gold, however, is an open question. Most scholars think
that it was probably looted centuries ago, but there is no way
of knowing for sure and some believe that a cave full of gold
is still somewhere out there waiting to be found.
History - Who were the Assassins? - Octavio
were an order of Nizari Ismailis (which itself is a branch of
Islam) that became famous in the period of the 12th century for
committing murders to forward their military or political goals.
It is from their name that we get the English word for a professional
was founded around 1080 A.D. by Hassan-i Sabbah who became its
first Grandmaster. We don't know exactly why Sabbah started the
order, but legend has it he wished to exact vengeance on his enemies.
This probably included other Muslims as well as Christians who
came to the region as part of the First Crusade.
headquarters Sabbah used the fortress at Alamut in what is now
northwestern Iran. The order he created had a hierarchical structure
with himself at the top. At the lowest level were the "Fida'i"
(which means self-sacrificing agent). The Fida'i went through
an extensive training program that included combat, convert operations,
disguise, religion and the use of horses. A Fida'i also had to
be cold, calculating, patient and willing to sacrifice his own
life for the success of the mission. These traits made them perhaps
the most feared assassins in the world at that time.
unclear exactly how Sabbah commanded such fervent loyalty among
his foot soldiers. One story is that Sabbah, after drugging new
recruits with hashish, would take them into a "secret garden of
paradise" which contained attractive young maidens and beautiful
plants. They were told that if they wanted to return to this wonderful
place in the afterlife they would need to serve the order's cause.
consider this story, which came from Marco Polo's writings, a
myth, as the Alamut fortress shows no sign of ever having contained
a "secret garden."
had a strict code of ethics and never targeted common people,
but only important political or military figures. They believed
a single assassination could be used to achieve their goals instead
of open warfare which would lead to widespread bloodshed. Their
weapon of choice for such attacks was a dagger, sometimes tipped
murder was unnecessary, however. It is said that Sultan Sanjar,
who was at odds with the Nizari, woke up one morning to find an
assassin's dagger driven into the ground beside his bed. Alarmed
he secretly arranged a truce with the group which lasted for decades.
of the Assassins Order in Iran came in 1275. The Mongols invaded
the region and it is thought that the order sent its agents to
kill their leader, Möngke Khan. They failed and the Mongol army
besieged Alamut. Eventually the fortress was taken and the order
portion of the order, however, survived in Syria into the 14th
century. Toward the end they may have worked as assassins for
are a lot of stories about the Assassins and they often appear
as characters in both role-playing and video games like Assassins
Creed. Much of the material in these, however, has been based
on unconfirmed stories about the order, which may have been originally
propaganda authored by the group's enemies so it is unreliable.
Most of the truth about the Assassins, unfortunately, has been
lost to history as many of their records were destroyed when Alamut
to Destroy World's Oceans? - I heard someone say that there
is a large radiation leak from a reactor in Japan that is contaminating
the northern Pacific area and also the west coast of North America.
It is a leak into the atmosphere that eventually effect the entire
earth. Are there any facts to support this or is it complete fiction?
are probably talking about the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster
that occurred as a result of an earthquake on March 11, 2011.
The earthquake shutdown the reactors and may have caused damage
to some of the containment buildings. The real problems, however,
started 50 minutes later when as a result of the earthquake a
massive tsunami hit the Japanese coastline killing thousands.
The waves also topped the seawall at Fukushima and swamped the
reactors like those at Fukushima produce heat for many hours or
even days after they have been shut down. So it is necessary to
use auxiliary power to keep water circulating though the reactors
to keep them cool even after they have been turned off. A reactor
that gets too hot can have its fuel rods melt with serious consequences.
The Fukushima plant had emergency diesel generators to supply
power to keep the reactors cool, but these failed when they were
flooded by the tsunami. There were batteries to back up the generators,
but those only lasted 12 hours.
some of the reactors overheated hydrogen gas formed inside the
containment structure and this lead to several small explosions
throughout the buildings and some leakage of radioactive gas into
biggest problem at Fukushima, however, has turned out to be radioactive
water. As water has been pumped into the damaged reactors to keep
them cool, it also has been leaking out, probably through cracks
caused by the earthquake. Water has also leaked from some pools
where spent radioactive fuel was being stored. This water has
mixed in with the natural ground water below the plant and has
been slowly it is working its way out into the sea. Steps have
been taken to try and keep the water from getting into the ocean,
such as freezing the water in the ground, but so far it hasn't
stopped the flow. By some estimates 100 tons (about the size of
an Olympic swimming pool) of contaminated water gets into the
ocean each day.
does this mean to the environment? Local fish can no longer be
caught and sold as food. They carry too much cesium-134 and strontium-90.
(Iodine-131 is also a concern, but it has very short half-life
and disappears rapidly) The cesium is also less of a problem as
it moves quickly out of living tissue and may not contaminate
seafood for very long. However, the strontium gets into bones
and concentrates making it a very long term problem. All of this
radiation, however, bodes poorly for Japanese fishing anywhere
about contamination on the U.S. West Coast? Fortunately the Pacific
Ocean is huge and the more diluted the contaminated water gets,
the less of a problem it becomes. Scientists think they have detected
increased radiation levels in fish they've collected off the California
coast, however, it is extremely hard to separate these from the
normal background radiation in the fish. In any case the amounts
are so small that they do not seem to be a threat to humans that
might consume them. Nor do scientists fear that humans swimming
in west coast waters might be harmed.
for any leak into the air, any problems with air contamination
would be limited to the local area around the Fukushima plant,
and isn't a world-wide problem. It may be possible to detect minute
increases in radioactive in the air at a considerable distance
from Fukushima, but this tiny increase would not be dangerous
to humans. The Chernobyl incident released much, much more radiation
into the air than Fukushima did, but was still only a health concern
to those in the region surrounding the original accident.
Worlds - On your quantum physics exhibit, you briefly touched
on the multiple realities theory. I was wondering if you could
go into a bit more detail.- Quinn
unfamiliar with quantum physics may want to visit our page
to get some background before reading this answer.
that we may live in a multiverse (multiple-universes) has gotten
increasing attention in the last few years. There are several
different reasons scientists think that we may live in a multiverse.
One multi-verse theory arises out of the idea that the universe
is infinite, and therefore everything eventually repeats itself.
Another theory is that since laws of physics that make life in
our universe possible are improbable, there must be infinite other
universes with different laws where life could not arise. However,
today we will talk only about multiple universes that arise out
of quantum theory, as that was the subject of the original article.
mechanics is the physics we use to deal with the smallest things
in the universe such as electrons, protons and other sub-atomic
particles. One characteristic of these particles is that we know
that they can exist in "superposition." That is they can be in
two or more possible locations or states at the same time.
have been puzzled by this. We never see this kind of thing in
the world of macro objects. (The paper weight on your desk is
always in only one location at a time) We also know that whenever
one of these particles in superposition is observed (or measured)
they seem to suddenly decide to jump into one definite state/location
or another. But how do the particles know they are being observed?
level, do we even care if they are in superposition or not? After
all they are just tiny, little things.
the problem is that we are made up of just tiny things like atoms
and molecules. So it seems that is possible that we might be able
to exist in two different states/locations at the same time too.
Yet, again, we never see this in our full-sized world.
that observation somehow causes the particles to jump into a definite
states/locations has bothered a lot of scientists. Why should
this happen with an observer? Why is he special? And if the observer
is also made of things that can be in superposition too, what
does that mean? American physicist Hugh Everett III suggested
that rather than these particles collapsing into definite states,
maybe instead the universe actually splits. One new universe for
each possible state or location that the particle could be in.
This gets rid of the whole concern about the particle jumping
into a state and the need for it to be observed (or measured)
to do that.
of multiple universes, which has gotten the moniker the "Many
Worlds Interpretation" (MWI), clears up a lot of problems with
quantum mechanics, so many of physicists think it might be right.
as one person pointed out, the accuracy of a theory is not determined
by polling scientists. However, many people are highly skeptical
about MWI. Since there are countless particle collapses going
on every second of everyday this easily means that there an infinite
universes. Many of them only slightly different than the one we
live in. What's more, it implies that if anything could happen,
then it does indeed happen in at least one universe. A lot of
people think that this is just too crazy to be true.
that find MWI crazy argue that Occam's Razor (a rule of thumb
that suggests the least complicated explanation is the right one
explaintation) indicates that MWI must be wrong. Proponents of
MWI, however, argue that describing the rules for one particular
universe is a lot more complicated than describing the rules for
all possible universes and that Occam's Razor actually favors
crazy possibility that comes out of this kind of MWI is that idea
of Quantum immortality. The idea that at every point where
a person might die, the universe will split into a least two:
one with the person alive, the other one with the person dead.
Since (barring an afterlife, which if it exists would probably
be outside a universe anyway) a person can only consciously experience
life, he will only ever find himself in a universe where he survived.
This means he will be immortal from this own perspective (though
he would be dead in many other versions of the universe). Because
there would be at least one universe where that person lived an
immensely long life, and that person would, from their own point
of view, would experience only that. However, let's note, this
effect, if true, would not protect one from growing old and increasingly
infirm, so it is not necessarily a good, healthy immortal life.
surrounding MWI will probably never be resolved until somebody
can figure out how to do a scientific experiment that will prove
if other quantum universes exist or not. In fact, some people
argue that since MWI cannot be tested, it is wild speculation,
not science. A few people have suggested an experiment that might
prove MWI, but we do not currently have the technology to carry
bizarre way of proving MWI is through a process that has been
nicknamed "Quantum Suicide." In this odd approach a brave (or
perhaps foolish) physicist creates a gun that has a 50% chance
of firing based on some quantum event. When he pulls the trigger
it either goes off, or he hears an audible "click." He then uses
it to attempt to kill himself multiple times. If the MWI is correct
he will (from his own perspective) never succeed and will always
only hear the "click." As in quantum immortality his conscious
will not continue in any of the worlds where he dies, only in
the worlds where he lives, so he will be able to prove, to at
least himself, that the MWI is correct. (It should be noted, however,
that he leaves a string of dead copies of himself in other universes,
each with a bereaved relatives and friends).
around the MWI has not kept it from showing up in popular culture.
Typical of these is the classic Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror"
in which Captain Kirk finds himself accidentally transferred to
a different universe where the typically good Federation of Planets
is replaced by a brutal empire.
we living in the MWI of quantum physics? Hopefully some bright
physicist will come up with an experiment that we can accurately
do that will tell us for sure.
Photons Look Alike? - If photons are all identical how
do they carry any properties of what they are reflecting off of?
let's start by defining what a photo is for readers that don't
know. A photon is a single packet of electromagnetic (or light)
energy. The actual term photon was coined by Gilbert Lewis in
1926, but the idea of light in the form of discrete particles
had been around much longer.
are constantly in motion and in a vacuum travel at the colossal
speed of 186,000 miles a second (The speed of light). Another
interesting characteristic of a photon is that they are both a
particle and a wave at the same time.
are created when radiation is emitted from an object. For example,
heating a piece of metal till it glows is causing the atoms in
the metal to radiate photons (This is how an incandescent lamp
works). Photons can also be absorbed by an object.
your question: How can all photons be identical to one another?
Well, they are in the sense that they are all made of the same
stuff, but that doesn't mean that a photon doesn't also have properties
that allow us to tell them apart. One property that they have
is the amount of energy they carry. This is expressed in the frequency
of their wave. To us the wave frequency of a photon appears as
its color. Low frequencies are seen as the red end of the color
spectrum and high frequencies are seen as the blue end of the
hit a green painted surface the photons that aren't at the green
frequency are absorbed while those with the green frequency are
reflected (which is why we see the surface as green).
property a photon can have how it is polarized. Photons that are
polarized vertically will not pass through a sheet of glass or
plastic that has a horizontal polarization. (This is used in 3-D
movies where the images going to your right eye are polarized
one way and images meant for your left eye are polarized the other.
You wear glasses with each lens polarized a different way to filter
out the unwanted image).
a word picture will help. Imagine two identical cars driving down
a road at the same speed. One is has just come out of the desert,
however, and is really hot. The other just came out of a freezer,
so it really cold. Identical cars traveling same speed, but they
have different kinetic energy levels. This might give them different
behaviors too. Imagine them hitting a wall made of ice very slowly,
the hot one might melts its way through while the cold one might
just bounce off.
UFO - How does an ionocraft work? I've only ever seen unmanned
models of them--is it possible to build a manned one? - Specboy
August 1964 issue of Popular Mechanics there was an article entitled
"Major De Seversky's Ion-Propelled Aircraft." It tells the story
of a wonderful new method of flight being developed at Electron-Atom
Inc., a research firm in Long Island City, New York, under the
direction of aviation designer Alexander P. de Seversky. The author,
Hans Fantel, describes watching a model aircraft with no props,
no jets and no wings lift straight up and fly silently around
the company's test facility. The engineers predicted that as soon
as some of the bugs got worked out they could build a full sized
aircraft that would climb straight up like a helicopter, but capable
of extremely high altitudes (300,000 feet) and super-high speeds.
As a bonus since it didn't generate heat it would be invulnerable
to heat-seeking guided missiles. They called this test model an
the 1960's the Soviet engineers speculated about building
to say those predictions from half a century ago have not panned
out. Still, the ionocraft is a fascinating device and many engineers
are still intrigued by it. It is simple, quiet and had has no
it work? Typically there are two major parts to an ionocraft:
At the top is a "Corona Wire." This wire is charged with positive
high voltage electricity. This will strip the electrons from the
surrounding air "ionizing" it and giving it a positive electrical
charge. The second part of craft is a collector which is negatively
charged and placed just below the corona wire. The positively
charged air is attracted to the collector and moves downward through
the gap between the two parts. As the charged air makes this move
it bumps into neutrally charged air pushing it downward also.
This creates a downdraft and this downdraft provides lift for
they were experimenting in the 60's had a metal grid for the collector
and rising above it spikes which created the corona. The ions
moved from around the spikes to the grid creating the downdraft.
The engineers pictured the full-size version as a cockpit would
hang below the grid, a bit like the way a basket hangs below a
you see today, however, are just science fair demonstrations.
They are usually built in a triangular shape with three corona
wires just above three collectors made of foil. By increasing
the voltage to any of the three corona/collector pairs the lift
of that section is increased. This allows for it to be steered
by just adjusting the voltage to each of the sides.
that the engineers ran into with the ionocraft back the 60's was
that the technology did not scale up well. They could never build
a vehicle that had enough lift to carry the equipment needed to
produce the electricity to drive it. Any version of an ionocraft
you see today has wires running to it that carry the electricity
from a power plant located on the ground.
engineers have not given up on using electrohydrodynamic lift
to create engines. NASA's developed their NSTAR electrostatic
ion thruster in the 1990's, which has been used to power a number
of deep space probes and satellites, using similar principles
as with the ionocraft.
has been somewhat of a revival in interest in electrohydrodynamic
lift in the last few years and recently researchers at MIT did
a study on the ionocraft and discovered it is actually a much
more efficient way to produce thrust than a jet engine.
Subrata Roy of the University of Florida is working with NASA
to design a prototype airship called the Wingless Electromagnetic
Air Vehicle (WEAV) using a design similar to an ionocraft. Roy's
design calls for a vehicle that ionizes the air around it, then
pushes it away by using electromagnets. He has the same power
problems, however, as other engineers encountered with their ionocrafts,
but hopes to find a solution using either a battery, ultracapacitor,
solar panel or some combination of those items. The shape of Roy's
vehicle would be disc-like: In other words, a flying saucer.
this is why so many people have been fascinated by the idea of
the ionocraft for so long. These strange flyers sound so much
like the descriptions people have reported over the years about
UFO sightings: They make almost no sound (just a humming or crackling)
are disc shaped and can move in any direction. Perhaps if Roy
is successful we may actually see a flying saucer in our skies
someday, though instead of being from Mars it would be from Florida.
on Fire II - Last month Janie L. asked Is St. Elmo's Fire
a symbol related to "The Masonic Order? Though I searched
my resources I could not find a strong connection and invited
readers to help us out. Reader Ruth Austin came to my rescue.
According to Ms Austin:
a connection does exist between St. Elmo's fire and Masonic symbolism.
The rare phenomenon is represented as light from Heaven, coming
down to earth and being manifested as holy fire on the altar found
in the Masonic temple."
on to say:
to the 'Codex Veritas,' this flaming light has a dual meaning,
as most of the symbols in the Masonic beliefs have. It is associated
with the Urim and Thumim, the two sacred objects that were used
for divination purposes by the Hebrew high priest. When not in
use, they were safely kept in the breastplate of the priest."
a little research on these objects and found that nobody at this
point knows precisely what they were, but some scholars think
they may have been small, flat objects made of wood or bone kept
in a pouch on the high priest's vestments. When a divine judgment
was needed the priest would reach into the pouch and pull one
out randomly (this presumes that they were both identical to the
touch so he couldn't know which one he was holding). The Urim
essentially meant guilty and Thummim meant innocent. This might
have also been interpreted as "Yes" or "No" depending on the question
at hand. It seems likely that these devices might have been used
to choose Saul as King in the Bible at 1 Samuel 10:22.
original Urim and Thumim would shine with heavenly light when
the high priest needed a decision to be made, such as the guilt
or innocence of an accused person. The original Umim and Thumim
vanished when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the
'Codex Veritas' is an ancient text of Templar lore that I'm preparing
for publication. It was originally a Latin manuscript acquired
by Sir John Lindsay in 1246 AD, as he was returning from the Holy
Land. He was a Knight Templar and a Mason."
this sheds some more light on the original question. Thank you,
Ms. Austin, and good luck with your coming publication.
on Fire - Is St. Elmo's Fire a symbol related to "The Masonic
Order"? - Janie L.
fire itself is an electrical effect that occurs during bad weather.
It is often appears as bright blue or violet glow on high objects
like a ship's mast or church steeple d during storms.
can be caused by high voltage differentials are present between
clouds and the ground during thunderstorms. As the voltages approach
1000 volts per centimeter along an object, the air molecules ionize
(gain an electrical charge) and turn into a plasma which glows.
Where St. Elmo's fire appears on the surface of an object depends
a lot on its geometry. Sharp points lower the required voltage
making likely that objects, like lightning rods, will glow at
Fire has been known to appear on flag poles, spires, chimneys,
aircraft wings and even the horns of cattle. One theory holds
that the airship Hindenburg was the victim of St. Elmo's Fire
coupled with a gas leak.
that have to do with the Masons? Not all that much that I can
find. Although a fair number of Masons lodges use the name of
St. Elmo, St. Elmo's fire does not appear as a symbol in any of
the Masonic sources I have access to. However, since the Masons
are a secret society, the reference may be buried out of public
however, does led us to a vague, possible connection. There is
a secret club known as the St. Elmo's Society. It does not appear
to be related to the masons, but is a Yale club very similar to
the more famous Skull and Bones. It was founded in 1889
as an independent club for seniors within the nationally chartered
fraternity, Delta Phi, Omicron Chapter. St. Elmo's split with
the national fraternity in 1925. The Society still operates to
day and some of its former members include John Ashcroft, the
former United States Attorney General, and actress Allison Williams
of the HBO series Girls.
any other readers who know of any other connection between St.
Elmo's Fire and the Masons, drop us a line.
Away Over the Earth - When I was little, I thought of a
situation whereby one can, with the help of a machine, float in
the air, letting the Earth run past below him, as the Earth revolves
with great speed. But if that was so, then merely jumping up in
the street could cause a building (or a mast, billboard, tree,
etc.) to hit him, as it's fixed on the speeding Earth. Then I
came to realize that the Earth moves with everything on it and
in its -spheres. - I'm sure you get the picture now- Now, my question
is: since the higher a man goes above sea level, the lesser the
gravity and the pull, can one vertically float miles above (say,
in Poland,) and then vertically descend, dropping in Germany?
About how many miles would he go before the Earth starts moving
away from the spot whereon he rose? - Cheta
you are asking, "How far do you have to go up in the air before
the rotation of the Earth starts moving it under you and carrying
you away from where you started?"
the simple answer is, it never does, or it does immediately, depending
on how you approach the problem. Let me explain.
first law of motion is "Every object in motion tends to remain
in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to
it." So when you are standing on the Earth you being carried in
a easternly direction at about 1000 miles per hour (if you're
standing near the equator). You don't notice this because everything
around you - the ground, the buildings and the air - are moving
with you. (In much the same way as when you are on an airliner
moving at 400 mph everything around you seems still because it's
all moving at the same speed in the same direction.)
thing that Newton tells us is that when we are moving we will
continue in a straight line unless another force is applied. So
you might ask how come we follow the curve of the earth as we
move, instead of flying into space?
of course, is gravity. It pulls us down and keeps us stuck to
the earth forcing us to follow a curving path. But suppose you
had a personal anti-gravity device you could switch on that would
negate this force? (And let's also suppose that there was no atmosphere
with wind to blow you about). Well, the moment you switched it
on you would find yourself floating away because you would be
headed off on a straight line while the surface of the earth followed
Newton's first law tells us our movements does not change unless
an outside force is applied. So even as you rose above the earth
you would still be traveling at the same speed (let says a 1000
miles per hour) that you were standing on the surface. In fact,
you would continue moving on that straight line for the rest of
eternity unless you were acted on by some other force. So the
answer seems to be that you would never "slow down" so that Earth
would drift beneath you. However, things are just a bit more complicated
switched on your ant-gravity device it would appear that you were
drifting away into the sky, but what would actually be happening
is that the ground, following the curve of the earth, would be
falling away from you. You would be the one traveling on a straight
line. As you started to move away immediately the angle that you
would consider to be "straight down" would start changing. This
effect would grow slowly so you would need to be a great height
before you would start to notice it. It would appear that you
were slowly drifting backwards (westward) although you actual
speed would not have changed.
see you can make a case that in never does, or does immediately
depending on how you think about it. In reality if you were to
try this with a balloon the direction and speed of the wind would
be a far greater factor in how you moved that any effect from
the rotation of earth.
Travel in an Expanding Universe - We often say that one
day it may be possible to visit or even occupy (colonize) another
star system. Can this be possible when the universe keeps on expanding,
meaning that at any given time, the nearest star is getting even
further away? Won't there be this continually expanding distance
to consider, which means we should be traveling faster than the
rate of expansion to reach the nearest star? - Nanshir
a good question and to answer it we have to talk about the structure
of the universe on various levels. Let's start with the galactic
level. Galaxies are collections of stars that are held together
by their respective gravities. Our galaxy, known as the Milky
Way, has somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars in it. It
is a typical spiral galaxy in the form of a disc about 110,000
light years wide and 10,000 light years thick at the center where
it tends to bulge outward.
the confines of a galaxy the force of gravity dominates over the
universal expansion. This means that within the Milky Way the
stars do not move apart and the galaxy stays basically the same
size. The stars within our galaxy (like our nearest neighbor Proxima
Centauri) do not tend to move away from each other. In fact,
they sort of just wander around pushed and pulled by the forces
of gravity. For example while Proxima Centauri is our closest
neighbor at 4.3 light years today, another star designated Ross
248 (which is currently at a distance of 10.3 light-years) is
coming toward us and will pass by us in about 31,000 years at
a distance of only 3 light years.
Andromeda Galaxy: Headed our way... (NASA)
so let's look at the next level up from our galaxy: the local
group of galaxies. Does the space between them always get larger
because of the expansion of the universe? Well, not really. Gravity
also works between galaxies and they often wander around in their
groups. For example, in our local group we are on a collision
course with our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy. Don't sweat it
though. It won't happen for another 4 billion years (And even
when it does the stars of the galaxies don't actually hit each
other. The collision mainly changes the shape of the affected
only after we get beyond the local group of galaxies, and even
beyond the local cluster of groups, that we finally see the distance
between these collections of galaxies growing because of the universal
other stars in our galaxy will not be a problem at least as far
as the expansion of the universe is concerned. We would still
have the vast distances between stars to be worried about, however.
One way of solving this problem might be to use a "sleeper" ship
(where all the passengers would be put in to suspended animation
for the flight that might last decades of even centuries).Another
solution would be a "generational" ship (where one generation
would start the voyage, live out their lives on their spaceship,
and the journey would be completed by their children, or grandchildren).
course, if we could find a way to build engines that would "warp"
space - like on Star Trek - and defy the speed-of-light, then
we might be able to colonize planets by zipping between them on
a starship like the Enterprise.
From a Thunderbolt - Could a power company use lightning
rods to collect electricity?- John
that you might be able to harvest electrical energy from lightning
is one that scientists have found intriguing for many years. Anybody
who has seen the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future knows
that Doc Brown was able to use a bolt from a thunderstorm to power
his DeLorean/time machine and send Marty McFly back to his own
had one advantage in using lightning that most scientists don't,
however. Because of his time machine he knew exactly when and
where the lightning was going to strike. That's one of the major
problems with trying to harness this source of power. We don't
know exactly where lightning is going to hit, or how powerful
the bolt will be.
stopped scientist from trying to make it work. After all a lighting
strike can carry a lot of power. As much as five billion Joules
of energy which would be enough, by some estimates, to power a
single household for a month.
is to build a series of tall towers in an area that has frequent
thunderstorms in the hopes that they will get struck on a regular
basis. A sort of a "lightning farm." The best place for something
like this would be Florida or the Pacific Coast as those locations
get the most lightning strikes per square mile.
towers in those locations, however, strikes probably would not
be regular enough to make the system economical. However, it might
be possible to get lightning to strike on cue using a laser. Scientists
have been successful in using a high-powered laser with a short
pulse to create what's known as a laser-Induced plasma channel.
The idea is that the laser heats the air so much that ionizes
the gases to form plasma. The plasma conducts electricity much
more easily than the surrounding air so an electrical charge will
travel down the laser's path.
the development of this had been by the military. Imagine being
able to direct an artificial lightning bolt via laser to an enemy
target. It might be able to disable enemy weapons or detonate
munitions at a distance. Using smaller electrical charges (like
those in a Taser) you might be able to build a stun gun like those
seen on Star Trek.
application of the technology, however, might be to use the laser
to create a path from the lightning farm up into thunderclouds
to initiate a lightning strike directly onto your power collection
this brings a new concern. Can you really build a tough enough
system to withstand the surge of five billion Joules of energy?
An Illinois inventor named Steve LeRoy came up with an idea of
how to make it work and demonstrated it using an artificial lightning
bolt that lit up a 60-watt light bulb for 20 minutes. In 2007,
an alternative energy company called Alternate Energy Holdings,
Inc. (AEHI) tested his design. The idea was that a lightning tower
would capture the bolt and some of the energy would be sent to
a capacitor with the rest just being shunted off into the ground.
After working with the idea for a while the company's CEO, Donald
Gillispie, concluded that they "couldn't make it work," although
"given enough time and money, you could probably scale this thing
up... it's not black magic; it's truly math and science, and it
getting power from lightning still might be possible. Some experts,
however, question whether such a system will ever be practical.
Martin A. Uman, co-director of the Lightning Research Laboratory
at the University of Florida noted that while a single lightning
strike is fast and bright, only a small portion of the energy
it actually has reaches the ground. "The energy is in the thunderstorm,"
he explained. "A typical little thunderstorm is like an atomic
bomb's worth of energy. But trying to get the energy from the
bottom of the lightning is hopeless."
Mile-Per-Hour Wind - How do the Voyager spacecraft survive
the (according to NASA) "250,000 to one million per hour" solar
winds while traversing the heliopause? Shouldn't they be obliterated?
the first thing we should do is define what the solar wind is.
It isn't quite like the wind we experience here on the surface
of the Earth.
wind consists of charged particles of the sun that have some gotten
so much kinetic energy (from heat of the sun's corona) that they
can escape from the sun's strong gravity. These particles are
mostly subatomic elements (pieces of atoms) like electrons or
protons. Depending on the activity around the sun the particles,
as you noted, can pick up considerable speed.
our wind consists of air, which is molecules of gas (about 80%
percent of air is nitrogen and most of the rest is oxygen). The
air we have here on the surface is very dense because it is under
pressure. The pressure comes from the thickness of the atmosphere
above us which extends upward for around a hundred miles. This
causes the air to press against you if you are standing at sea
level at around 14.7 pounds per square inch. You don't really
notice this, however, because it comes at you equally from every
the wind pushes against you (its force) isn't just a function
of the speed of the wind, it is also involves the density of the
air. The lower the density of the air, the less the wind pushes
you were standing on Earth and you were hit by a million mile
per hour wind, there wouldn't be much left of you. That kind of
pressure applied to your body would tear it apart. Even a shock
wave of pressure (let's say from an explosion) traveling at a
few hundreds of miles an hour can be very damaging and knock down
there is a big difference between the density of the air at sea
level and the density of the solar wind in space. In fact it's
round a trillion to one difference. To get an idea of what this
means imagine a box one inch square filled with air at the pressure
it is at sea level. To get that air down to the density of the
solar wind you would have to extend that box so it was still was
one inch in height and depth, but almost 16 million miles long,
while still containing the same amount of air.
the solar wind can go whipping by at a million miles per hour,
the density is so, so low that it effectively creates no pressure
on something like the Voyager spacecraft. Yes, the probe carries
sensitive instruments that can detect the wind, but if you were
out there with the spacecraft you would be unable to feel any
pressure against your hand if you were able to hold it out in
the solar wind.
the further the solar wind gets from the sun, the slower it goes.
This means that the Voyagers at the edge of the solar system experience
much less solar wind than say the Apollo spacecraft that carried
the astronauts to the moon. The heliopause, which one of the Voyager
spacecraft just crossed, is actually the boundary where the solar
wind is so far from the sun that slows to a complete stop, blocked
by the interstellar medium (which is really the result of solar
winds from surrounding stars).
lead you to ask the question, "What happened to Voyager when it
hit the interstellar medium?" Well, the answer is "not much,"
because it, like the solar wind, has an extremely low density.
the solar wind is has little density, however, doesn't mean that
it can't have a big effect on the solar system. Most of the effect
it has, however, is due to the electrical charge of the particles.
A good solar flare can send a shock wave of highly charged particles
close to the earth that can damage the electronics inside satellites
and upset radio transmissions.
Shape of the Universe - Sir Stephen Hawking once said that
if one stands long enough at one spot, he can see the back of
his head, due to the curvature of space/time. Of course, this
will take billions of years. By the same token, now that Voyager
has left our solar system, will it ever come back to Earth having
circumnavigated the universe, assuming all things remain equal?
for this quote from Hawking and I haven't found it. However, this
type of example has been used by many cosmologists when they are
trying to describe the shape of the universe, so it's perfectly
believable that Hawking might have used it too.
scenario, called a closed universe, the universe curves back on
itself like a big sphere. It is said that if you stand somewhere
long enough (and with a powerful enough telescope) you could peer
deep into space and see you backside (provide you waited long
enough). By the same token the voyager spacecraft would eventual
comeback to Earth again in some very, very distant future by circumnavigating
the universe. (Imagine and ant walking across a basketball. The
ant is voyager and the universe is the basketball).
this example is great tool for college professors to explain the
shape of a closed universe to astronomy 101 students, it would
never actually work. The most obvious problem is that even if
we are in a closed universe, it is expanding and has been ever
since the big bang. The furthest parts of the universe are actually
moving away from us faster than the speed of light. So if you
were standing there looking for the back of your head through
a telescope you would never see yourself because the light that
bounced off of you carrying your image can never catch up the
with the expanding universe (Imaging an ant trying to walk around
a huge, rapidly expanding balloon. He can't do it because the
balloon expands much faster than he can walk).
voyager is going way slower than the speed of light, it hasn't
got a chance of actually returning to us through by this method
universe, however, is just one of the possible shapes the universe
can have. Much of the current evidence actually favors a flat
universe, like the top of a table.
data from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP,
however, suggests the universe might actually be saddle-shaped.
(This might seem like a really odd shape for a universe, but it
permits the points along the outer edges to be as distant from
each other as possible).
was designed to investigate the Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR)
left over from the big bang. The CBR can be detected at every
direction in space and it was thought to be very uniform. However,
WMAP measurements have shown the CBR to be just slightly colder
in one direction than another. This might suggest that the universe
is indeed saddle-shaped (Another theory is, however, that the
difference might have been caused by another universe bumping
question of the shape of the universe isn't really settled yet.
One thing we can be sure, however, is that we won't see voyager
coming back to us anytime in the near future (unless it is carried
by a humongous alien probe like in the 1979 film Star Trek
the Motion Picture).
by Any Other Name... - In science fiction there
are sentient, intelligent alien species: Many are air-breathers,
but many more are methane-breathing or silicon-based creatures.
Scientifically speaking, can there actually be methane-breathing
and/or silicon creatures? - David
part of your question - "can there be methane-breathing creatures?"
- is easy to answer: Yes. And we don't even need to leave the
Earth to find them. They are called "methanophiles." One example
of them is Methylococcus capsulatus, a bacteria that is
often found in soils, landfills, sediments and peat bogs. This
little critter was in the news a few years ago because it was
the first methane breathing creature to get its genome sequenced.
Scientists interested in biotechnology are quite intrigued with
Methylococcus capsulatus as a possible mechanism to make
useful products or services.
isn't inconceivable at all that somewhere out in space you might
find creatures - maybe even intelligent ones - that breath methane.
In fact, scientists analyzing data from the Cassini spacecraft
that has been watching the Saturn moon Titan have suggested there
may be methane involved life on its surface. Hydrogen and acetylene
have been disappearing from the moon's atmosphere for no good
reason. It may be that there is a microbe on the planet breathing
in these compounds and breathing out methane.
of silicon based life, however, is a little more complicated.
Currently all the life we know on Earth (including Methylococcus
capsulatus) depends on organic molecules based on carbon.
Carbon in many ways is a unique element. Its bonding versatility
allows it to form itself into many molecules with differing structures
- rings, long chains and multi-ring chains. It can also double-bond
itself with some atoms. This allows it to make complex molecules
which, in turn, make life possible.
as you mentioned, science fiction stories often picture life that
might be based on another element, usually silicon. (Probably
the most famous of these is the original Star Trek episode "Devil
in the Dark" in which a silicon based life form, called a Horta,
finds itself at odds with Captain Kirk).
in many ways seems like a viable substitute for carbon. It's just
below carbon on the periodic table. It can also form many interesting
and complex molecules too. However, when we actually look for
these we see few of these molecules formed in nature.
point our telescope towards the skies and use the observations
of the spectra of light to see what elements are prevalent, we
find a lot of carbon and not much silicon. Even more important,
we can find a lot of complex organic (carbon-based) molecules
that form naturally, but very few similar complex molecules based
on silicon. This is because the processes that forms heavier elements
in the heart of stars favors carbon over silicon. Also many of
the structures that carbon so easily forms would be unstable if
you had the silicon equivalent. While the largest silicon molecule
observed in nature has only had six silicon atoms, there are molecules
found in nature that can have thousands of carbon atoms.
does not mean that some kind of silicon life might not be possible,
just unlikely. If you could find the right environment, perhaps
deep inside a planet with high pressures and temperatures, the
possibility of silicon life forming might be much larger.
and interesting idea. Could we make synthetic silicon life under
the right conditions in a laboratory? So far this is science fiction,
but who knows.
thought: Our computers use chips that are silicon based. While
computers don't have biological cells, one could argue that if
we ever make intelligent computers that can reproduce themselves,
perhaps we have indeed created a form of silicon-based life!
vs. Asteroid - I read somewhere that the reason a nuclear
bomb causes so much damage is that it superheats the surrounding
air which expands very rapidly to create the blast. I also read
that a way to stop large asteroids hitting the earth would be
to use a nuclear missile to either blow it up or use the blast
to move its orbit. How would this work in the vacuum of space?
of using nuclear weapons to blow up an incoming asteroid to save
the Earth has long been a theme of science fiction movies, short
stories and books. However, when the scientists at NASA that were
charged with coming up with a scheme to deal with an incoming
space rock were initially very concerned about the ramifications
of such a strategy. The problem is that many asteroids are not
so much a single large rock as a loose collection of boulders
clinging together based on their slight gravitational attraction
to each other. Scientists were concerned that if an asteroid large
enough to end all life on our planet (say 6.2 miles or 10 kilometers
across or bigger) was hit with a nuclear tipped missile it might
simply fracture into several different pieces, all bound for Earth.
The effect of these separate smaller impacts on Earth might be
even worse than a single large impact.
reason they thought the idea of using something other than nuclear
weapons to nudge the asteroid off course might be the way to go.
For example, using a robot spaceship to push the asteroid onto
a new course. Or having a spaceship fly alongside the asteroid
and use a laser to vaporize bits of the asteroid. The parts that
were vaporized would be turned into gas which would expand and
push the asteroid in the opposite direction. Even painting the
asteroid with a reflective color on one side, so the sunlight
reflected off it (imparting a slight nudge to it) instead of being
absorbed might be enough to change its direction over time.
with all of the above solutions, however, is that they take time.
You would have to know that the asteroid was going to hit Earth
several years in advance for these low power pushes to change
the asteroid's course. If you suddenly learned only a few weeks
in advance that a collision was going to take place, you'd need
to take a more direct approach.
that the most effective way to handle a last minute encounter
with an incoming space rock was employing one or more nuclear
weapons. They considered using surface explosions, delayed surface
explosions, subsurface explosions and standoff explosions. The
best solution was standoff explosions where a nuclear device is
actually not detonated on the asteroid, but at some distance.
The method was deemed the least likely to split the asteroid into
smaller, and perhaps more dangerous, pieces.
as you point out, that shock wave from a nuclear blast can't effectively
cross that vacuum of space, how would such a method work? Well,
the destructive force of a nuke doesn't just come from the shock
wave. It also destroys with heat. If you look at some of the old
atomic test bomb movies where they filmed a house in the path
of a nuclear blast you will see the first thing that arrives at
the building when the device goes off is an intense wave of electromagnetic
radiation, including light (especially infrared light which is
heat). The outside wall of the building starts smoking and catches
on fire. Then a few seconds later the blast wave hits and actually
knocks the building down.
you wouldn't get the blast wave because there isn't any air to
transmit it. However you do get the infrared light and other electromagnetic
radiation. This will vaporize the top layer of the asteroid in
the direction facing the blast. The expanding gas from the vaporization
will push the asteroid off course. Since the vaporization is widely
distributed across the face of the asteroid the push is unlikely
to cause a split.
part of this scheme is if it turns out that one standoff blast
isn't enough, you can immediately try another and another until
you pushed the asteroid far enough in one direction to miss the
Egyptian Lights - I have seen and heard many crackpot
ideas about Egypt and the most absurd to me is the assertion that
they had and used electric lighting. Yes, I know about the Bagdad
Batteries but I already know they don't have enough power to light
a modern LED, much less a normal incandescent lamp. My question
is this... Is there anything found among ancient ruins confirms
that they had access to electricity OTHER than the batteries?
often look at ancients pictures or reliefs and see something that
looks very modern. People have seen rockets, spacesuits and airplanes
in art work thousands of years old. The problem is, of course,
that just because an object looks familiar to our modern eyes,
doesn't mean that that our interpretation is what the ancients'
had in mind when the created the artwork.
the case of electric lights in Egypt two Austrian proponents of
the idea, Reinhard Habeck and Peter Krasa, wrote a whole book
about their theories called, Lights of the Pharaohs based
on some odd looking reliefs. (Unfortunately it appears that it
is no longer in print and can't be found on Amazon). The most
significant of these are found at temple of Hathor at Dendera,
which is about ten miles north of the ruins at Luxor. The relief
shows what appears to be a huge bulb (over six feet long when
compared with the associated human figures) mounted sideways.
Something that vaguely resembles a squiggly filament runs through
the bulb. At the base of the supposed bulb is what might be interpreted
as a cord that connects that "light" to a box, which is apparently
the source of the power.
experimenters have built what they consider to be replicas of
what the relief shows and have actually gotten them to work as
electric lights. But is there any evidence beyond this artwork,
which could be interpreted in several different ways, that what
was being depicted was actually a giant light bulb?
and Krasa argue that one of the reasons that no soot from candles
or oil lamps are found in Egyptian tombs, even though it must
have taken many hours of work in the dark rooms to create the
decorations there, is that the Egyptians used electric lights
to illuminate these areas (a competing theory is that they used
sunlight reflected into the tomb by a system of mirrors).
if you have electric lights, as point out, you need a power source.
Nobody digging in Egypt has ever found anything resembling an
electric generator. No artwork shows the details of such a generator
and no writing supports information about using or building any
kind of generator, either. So we are left with the concept of
mention many of those supporting that idea of ancient lights in
Egypt point to existence of the so-called "Baghdad
Batteries." There is much conflicting opinion on whether these
objects found in Iraq actually are batteries or simply jars. People
have built reconstructions of them and actually gotten them to
produce low voltages. Most of the people that conjecture that
the "Baghdad Batteries" were actually used to create electricity,
however, think that they were used in the process of galvanizing
metals an activity which only requires a very low voltage. One
of these batteries by themselves doesn't nearly produce enough
electricity to power a six foot long lamp (in fact they don't
really produce enough electricity to power a standard flashlight
could make bigger batteries, or hook a bunch together to get more
power, but that causes other problems. Frank Dörnenburg, who did
some experimentation with such a battery, estimated you might
need around 40 of these batteries (with a weight of nearly 200
pounds) to produce enough wattage to run a flashlight bulb.
about 8 hours these primitive batteries will run out of power
and have to be replaced. This also causes additional problems.
In this simple battery design like this iron is a required component.
Iron, however, was extremely rare in Egypt. It would need to be
imported. There is no indication in any of the ancient Egyptian
records of large amounts of iron being transported into the country
to make hundreds of batteries. Nor has anybody found the remains
of the hundreds of thousands of old batteries that would have
accumulated from a single tomb project.
is that Egyptians really didn't need the headache of making all
these batteries to produce a little light. They had a simple lamp
(a wick floating in olive oil) that was easy to build. Why don't
we see soot in the tombs? Well, first of all olive oil burned
in the lamps produces very little soot. Secondly, the tombs are
not actually soot free. In many tombs soot on the ceiling can
be seen. If not from the Egyptians' lamps, then from the candles
and torches of the many people who visited the tombs during the
centuries before the electric light became common in the modern
do the reliefs at Dendera actually show? Most archeologists think
they are a lotus flower, spawning a snake inside, which represents
certain aspects of Egyptian mythology. Their argument is supported
by a close look the object inside the bulb that Habeck and Krasa
claim is a filament. It has eyes and a mouth. Something a snake
has, but a filament doesn't.
more while no Egyptian writings have been found that support the
idea of giant light bulbs, batteries or generators, we do have
records from the Valley of the Kings that show how many wicks
and how much oil were issued to workers for their lamps during
many people argue that the ancient Egypt used the electric light,
the proof is just not there.
Cycle - How do plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen?
plants do of carbon dioxide into the oxygen in the air is part
of the "carbon cycle." Carbon dioxide, which makes up a little
more than 3% of air, is composed of two parts carbon and one part
oxygen. That means a single molecule of it has one carbon atom
attached to two oxygen atoms.
takes the carbon dioxide molecule and splits it apart using energy
from the sun. It keeps the carbon atom, which it wants, and kicks
some of the oxygen out into the atmosphere. The carbon gets combined
with hydrogen (the plant gets its hydrogen from splitting up a
molecule of water - a hydrogen atom and two oxygen atoms) The
carbon, the hydrogen and some of the oxygen together make sugar
(twelve hydrogen atoms, six oxygen atoms and six carbon atoms
to be exact). Sugar is, of course food and a major ingredient
and humans, of course, do the opposite of plants. They breathe
in oxygen, eat carbohydrates, and then combine them to make carbon
dioxide. This action of combining these releases the energy (which
the plants originally took from the sun) . We use this energy
to walk, play checkers, ride bikes, write essays on our computers,
it the carbon cycle because plants do one half of the operation
by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and releasing the oxygen,
which is really their waste product. Animals complete the cycle
by taking oxygen back out of the air, eating the plants, getting
energy by combining these and breathing out carbon dioxide (which
is our waste product). The carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere
so that other plants can using it again in a circle of activity.
The whole thing keeps going as long as the plants have sunlight
to split the carbon dioxide apart again.
exactly does a plant do that? The process is called photosynthesis.
Light, of course, is a form of electromagnetic energy. Plants
use a material called chlorophyll which takes the light energy
and creates a series of chemical reactions that spit the carbon
dioxide and water apart and recombine them to make sugar and free
light energy most plants use little solar panels we call leaves.
This is where most of the energy is captured and chemical reactions
is also what makes a plant green. It tends to absorb red and blue
light waves, but reflects the green. Since what we see are the
colors not absorbed, but reflexed, plants appear mostly green
to our eyes. The truth is that scientists aren't really sure why
plants aren't black. It seems like this would be the most efficient
color for a plant as it could absorb all the wavelengths and get
the most energy out of the smallest area. However, as you can
observe by walking through a meadow, most plants are green, not
black, and were not really sure why.
the coolest things about the carbon cycle is that plants are really
making themselves out of thin air. Yes they do get water and some
trace materials from their roots, but the carbon, which makes
up so much of their structure, just comes from the carbon dioxide
in the air
is true when we exercise and lose weight. Our carbs disappears
into the thin air. The food you eat (carbon) is combined with
oxygen and breathed out as carbon dioxide.
probably also mention that photosynthesis isn't limited to just
plants. Algae, and cyanobacteria can do it too. What's more it
isn't the only game in town. Chemotrophs are organisms that obtain
energy by oxidative chemical reactions and don't need sunlight.
An example of these are the bacteria that live in the deep ocean
near hydrothermal vents. It is too dark down there for them to
use photosynthesis, so they get energy by oxidizing iron is dissolved
in the sea water near the hot vents.
Einstein - If you had a pair of scissors sufficiently large
enough, can the tips of the scissors exceed the speed of light?
Einstein published his theories on relativity and stated that
nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, people have
delighted in trying to find a way around this rule. For example,
if you took a flashlight and pointed the beam into space (then
waited for the tip of the beam to get, let's say a light year
away) then suddenly swung the beam across the sky to the opposite
direction you might try to argue that the tip of the beam must
have traveled faster than the speed of light.
the "tip of the beam" is more of an intellectual concept than
an actual thing. The photons that make up the beam keep streaming
out in the straight line you had them pointed in even after you
moved the flashlight and only photos emerging from your flashlight
after you changed its direction would go toward a different point
in the sky. You can picture what is happening with a stream of
water from a garden hose. Point it in one direction, then swing
it in suddenly across your yard. The tip of the stream of water
doesn't move immediately, but lags behind the motion the hose's
example of trying to get around the speed of light is to build
a giant rod between two planets one light year apart. You might
try to get around the limit on information traveling no faster
than the speed of light by pushing the rod on one end as a signal
and expecting the person receiving the signal on the other end
to see the rod on his end to move immediately. If it did, he would
get your signal faster than the speed of light.
here is that though we expect the rod to be perfectly rigid, it
really isn't, especially when dealing with an object that would
be a light year in length. Pushing on rod on one end would compress
it slightly and this compression would move along the rod at no
faster than the speed of light, so your signal would not be received
on the other end for at least a year.
example has similar problems. Like the rod the blades of your
scissors are not going to be perfectly rigid. As you close them
the tips will bend and lag behind the portions of the blades closer
to the scissors fulcrum. If you do manage to get the tips of the
scissors to approach the speed of light you will find that their
mass will grow and grow and you will require more and more energy
to try and close the blades. In fact as the tips get near the
speed of light their mass will near infinity and the energy you
need to close the blades will also approach infinity. Since you
don't have limitless energy, you will never be able to close the
blades fast enough to get the tips to the speed of light (In addition
are also some problems with transmitting the energy to the tips
since we already established the blades aren't perfectly rigid
usually the problem with trying to get anything going at the speed
of light. As you accelerate the object it becomes more and more
massive and eventually there isn't enough energy in the universe
to accelerate it all the way to the speed of light. The only things
that can travel at the speed of light are photons, which have
no rest mass.
you might be able to get around this rule by building a spaceship
the can "warp" space and compress it in front of your ship and
stretch it behind your ship (this is where we get the Star
Trek term "Warp Drive" from). In this scheme your ship wouldn't
actually be exceeding the speed of light, but would simply be
carried ago by a bubble of space. It's a very interesting way
to cheat Einstein, but nobody knows if you could ever make such
a propulsion method actually work.
Steam? - In the movie "Wild Wild West" starring Will Smith
there was a giant Steam powered spider machine: I already know
it was just a special effect but I would still like to know this...
Aside from steam-powered ships and locomotives, what is the largest
steam-powered vehicle ever made? - David R
is a tough question. The best I might be able to do is to suggest
a couple of big steam machines that move and see if any of our
readers can think of anything bigger.
question implied steamships and locomotives were some of the most
powerful and heavy objects ever moved by steam. Other devices
were relatively light. One of the reasons for this is that steam
engines, especially those built in the 19th century, didn't generate
a lot of horsepower for the weight of the engine compared to later
internal combustion engines. This was fine if what you needed
was a stationary source of power. You could just build your steam
engine as large as you needed, since it wasn't going anywhere.
example of a large stationary steam engine was the Corliss Steam
Engine built for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in
1876. It generated 1,400HP and powered virtually all of the exhibits.
Though there would be more powerful engines ( The Ellenroad Ring
Mill Engine built in 1917 could produce almost 3000HP) the Centennial
engine was well-known and became an icon of the era of steam.
It wasn't small, however, and stood 45 feet tall with a 30 foot
diameter flywheel. Hardly portable.
heavy engine needs to be mounted on something big to be movable
which is why powerful steam engines worked so well with ships.
One of the biggest of these was the SS United States, an ocean
liner launched in 1952 that could develop 240,000HP. It still
holds the record for the fastest commercial crossing of the Atlantic.
also a natural place to use steam because the steel tracks and
well-built roadbeds would support a lot of weight for a big locomotive.
The largest of these was probably the 1941 Union Pacific Railroad's
4000-class nicknamed "Big Boy" which could generate at least 6,000HP.
However, all that weight came with a price. This monster weighted
over a million pounds when you included the tender, so it needed
the firm footing provided by a track bed to avoid sinking into
to your question: What the biggest steam machine that moves that
isn't a loco or a ship? Certainly steam-traction engines might
be a possibility. These were steam powered tractors that were
popular before gas and diesel tractors became available. Even
heavier were steam-rollers which were basically steam traction
engines built with big fat wheels used to flatten roadbeds.
for a really big and heavy steam machine we need to go back to
your inspiration: The Wild, Wild West film from 1999. I'm not
thinking about the huge mechanical spider shown in the climax,
but the steam powered tank from earlier in the movie.
were indeed a few attempts to build steam powered tanks in the
early 20th century. In 1916 or 1917 a company named Holt built
a "Three Wheeled Steam Tank" that was tested at the Aberdeen Proving
Ground in Maryland. The monster weighed about 17 tons, so it was
probably heavier than most traction engines, but only developed
about 150HP, so it was pretty under powered. According to reports
it easily became stuck in the mud during testing.
tank-like device was a contraption built by the Army Corps of
Engineers in conjunction with Stanley Steamer in 1918. This guy
weighed in at 50 tons (around twice as heavy as the other tanks
of the era) and had two engines totaling 1,000HP to drive it forward
at a maximum speed of 6 mph. This machine was armed with a flamethrower
on a turret (which makes me think of the tank from the James Bond
film "Dr. No") and four .30 caliber machine guns. Apparently a
prototype, christened "America," was shipped to France at the
end of World War I, but arrived too late to see any action.
steam was chosen as the source of power because internal combustion
engines of the time couldn't generate enough force to really get
something this heavy moving (The 26 ton British tanks of the time
used a 105HP engine that could only move them forward at about
3 ½ mph). Steam perhaps isn't the best source of energy for this
type of project, however. Working next to a hot boiler in a windowless
tank must be awful and there is always the chance of a steam explosion
it the machine is pierced by even a small round.
anybody think of a bigger steam-powered machine that would qualify
as a vehicle? If so, drop us a line and we'll feature a column
Falling from the Sky: I've read a lot about sky falls...
where things like fish fall from the sky. In Honduras, over 10,000
fish fall from the sky at the beginning of rain season. It is
only in one village and my friend from Honduras won't believe
me. I tell her that she didn't live in that village and that it
DOES happen in another village. Am I right?- Cocobean
(Nothing to do with the most recent 007 thriller, I'm afraid)
are some of the most puzzling of anomalous phenomena. The list
of things that fall from the sky that don't really belong there
are endless: fish, frogs, snakes, alligators, salamanders, turtles,
lizards, worms, grain, straw, leaves, seeds, slime, stones, hazelnuts
along with other items too numerous for me to list here. Even
things might belong in the sky often come down in very odd ways:
blue ice, and blood red rain are a couple of examples.
of these events, especially since the invention of the airplane,
can be explained easily. Blue ice may well be the result of a
leak from an airliner's potty tank. However records of many of
these events go back way before the invention of the airplane
(for example a large fish fall in India in 1830) and even today
some of the falls are of such size and duration as to make it
unlikely the source was an aircraft.
wisdom is that a storm or waterspout pick up these objects and
deposit them in another location. The problem with this theory
is that most falls from the sky are highly selective in their
type. For example, if a storm scooped up the contents o f a pond
and dropped it a few miles away you might expect that you would
get a mixture of fish, frogs and water plants. You also might
expect that the fall would last a short time, or be scattered
randomly over a large area. That is not always the case however.
Let's look at a few examples:
of 1922 thousand of young toads (no fish - no old toads) fell
- for two days - on the town of Chalon-sur-Saone in France.
In 1947 near the town of Marksville, Louisiana, fish fell for
an hour onto a strip of land just 75 feet wide and one-thousand
also expect that if a storm were the cause, then the objects that
fell might be from the local area. In the case of the Marksville
fish, however, a biologist determined they were of a species that
didn't live in the local waters. And a scientist observing a fall
on the South Pacific island of Guam in 1936 noted that some of
the fish that fell there appeared to be tench (Tinca tinca)
which are thought to live only in the fresh waters of Europe.
one of the strangest things to fall from the sky is money. In
May of 1982 near the Churchyard of St. Elisabeth in Redding, England,
a local candy store owner informed the Rev. Graham Marshall that
children had been coming in a buying candy in large amounts. He
was concerned that perhaps they'd raided the church poor box.
No money was missing from there, so the Reverend spoke to the
children involved. Apparently they heard the money fall and tinkle
on the sidewalk in the churchyard. Marshall decided to conduct
his own investigation and came to the conclusion that the coins
must be falling from a great height as some were embed edgewise
in the ground, an effect he couldn't reproduce by just tossing
coins in the air or even throwing them down with some force. In
this case there were no storms in the area or tall buildings nearby.
storms don't seem to explain many of the falls, people have come
up with some wild theories about might cause this phenomenon.
In the 1950's UFO enthusiast Morris K. Jessup suggested such things
like fish falls were the result of flying saucers dumping their
hydroponic tanks. Others have suggested that these events are
a product of teleportation - the instantaneous transportation
of objects from one place to another. Others have suggested channels
that somehow open to another parallel universe are responsible.
is as much as the storm theory seems inadequate to explain many
sky fall events, most of the alternative theories are wanting
also. The simple truth is that nobody had come up with a mechanism
that explains all cases of objects falling from the sky. More
likely it isn't a single mechanism anyway, but several different
your friend's skepticism about such falls, they clearly do occur
and thousands of incidents have been reported throughout the years.
As for exactly why they occur, well on that subject the jury is
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