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Send us your questions on weird and alternate science!

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Elmo 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:

"Yes, 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."

She goes on to say:

"According 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."

I did 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.

Ms Austin continues:

"The 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 Temple."

"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."

Hopefully this sheds some more light on the original question. Thank you, Ms. Austin, and good luck with your coming publication.


Elmo on Fire - Is St. Elmo's Fire a symbol related to "The Masonic Order"? - Janie L.

St. Elmo's 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.

The effect 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 their tips.

St. Elmo's 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.

What does 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 sight.

This, 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.

If have any other readers who know of any other connection between St. Elmo's Fire and the Masons, drop us a line.


Drifting 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

So, basically 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?"

Well, the simple answer is, it never does, or it does immediately, depending on how you approach the problem. Let me explain.

Newton's 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.)

Now another 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?

The answer, 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 a curve.

But as 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 than that.

Once you 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.

So you 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.


Interstellar 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

That's 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.

Within 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.

The Andromeda Galaxy: Headed our way... (NASA)

Okay, 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 galaxies).

It is 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 expansion.

So colonizing 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).

And, of 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.

Power From a Thunderbolt - Could a power company use lightning rods to collect electricity?- John

The idea 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 era.

Doc Brown 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.

This hadn't 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.

One idea 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.

Even with 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.

Most of 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.

A commercial 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 equipment.

Of course 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 could happen."

So maybe 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."

A Million 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? - Maureen

Well, 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.

The solar 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.

On earth 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 direction.

How much 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 against you.

Now if 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 a building.

However, 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.

So while 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.

In fact, 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).

This might 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.

Just because 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.


The 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? - Nanshir

I looked 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.

In this 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).

While 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).

Since 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 either.

The closed 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.

Some recent 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).

The WMAP 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 into ours).

So the 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).


Life 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

The first 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.

So it 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.

The question 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.

Now, 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).

Silicon 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.

If we 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.

Now this 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.

This raises 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.

One final 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!

Nuke 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? - Mike

The idea 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.

For this 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.

The problem 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.

NASA found 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.

Since, 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.

In space 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.

The best 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 Earth.


Ancient 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? - Anonymous.

People 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.

In 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.

Various 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?

Habeck 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).

However, 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 batteries.

As you 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 bulb).

Yes, you 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.

Also after 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.

The truth 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 world.

So what 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.

What's 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 construction.

So, as many people argue that the ancient Egypt used the electric light, the proof is just not there.



Carbon Cycle - How do plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen? - John

The change 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.

A plant 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 in carbohydrates.

Animals 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, etc.

They call 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.

So how 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 oxygen.

To capture light energy most plants use little solar panels we call leaves. This is where most of the energy is captured and chemical reactions take place.

Chlorophyll 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.

One of 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

The reverse 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.

I should 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.

Cheating Einstein - If you had a pair of scissors sufficiently large enough, can the tips of the scissors exceed the speed of light? - Nanshir

Ever since 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.

However, 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 nozzle.

Another 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.

The problem 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.

The scissors 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 anyway).

This is 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.

Now maybe 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.


Big 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

Wow! This 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.

As you 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.

The perfect 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.

A big 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.

Rail was 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 the ground.

So back 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.

Perhaps 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.

There 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.

A bigger 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.

Apparently 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.

So can 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 on it.


Things 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

Skyfalls (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.

Now some 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.

The general 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:

In September 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 feet long.

You might 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.

Perhaps 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.

Because 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.

The truth 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 ones.

As to 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 still out.


Why Can't We Drink Seawater? - Why is it not ok to drink sea water, but ok to put sea salt on our food? - John

Salt is one of the things your body really needs to function. Without it you wouldn't be unable to maintain the proper fluid balance in your blood cells. It's also essential to transmit information through your nerves and muscles. Finally, it is also used in the absorption of certain nutrients from your small intestines.

As much as we need a little salt (like the small amounts that you sprinkle on your hamburger), too much of it is a really big problem. It can lead to seizures, unconsciousness, and brain damage. And as your kidneys get over worked by trying to remove the excess salt from your system they can overload and shutdown leading to sure death.

The problem is that the amount of salt in your blood stream must be kept very close to 0.9%. The amount in seawater, however, is around 3.5%. If you try and drink seawater the amount of salt in your blood rises closer to that of the seawater and your body desperately tries to get rid of it. Water flows out of your cells to dilute the salt in your blood, making the cells dehydrate. Your kidneys work to remove the salt from your system, but your kidneys can only concentrate salt into your urine at a level less than the 3.5% in the seawater. Therefore it takes more water to get the salt out of your system, than you originally got from drinking the brine. Instead of quenching your thirst the seawater accelerates your dehydration.

Now drinking seawater in small amounts (say accidently gulping some while swimming in the ocean) isn't really dangerous as long as you had enough fresh water to avoid dehydration. If you are stranded at sea in a lifeboat, however, and you can't get any fresh water, drinking seawater to get rid of your thirst will kill you after a while.

There are some reports that sailors short on fresh water have been successful in stretching their supplies by mixing it with saltwater. Adventurer Thor Heyerdahl reported drinking seawater in a 40/60% ratio without a problem during his famous Kon-Tiki expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands in 1947. However, unless you are extremely desperate, such a course of action seems ill-advised.

Ironically our blood seems to contain the same proportions of minerals and salts as there is in seawater, just at a lower level. This has led some scientists to speculate that blood developed in our distant, distant ancestors from a more diluted form of seawater that existed in prehistoric times. In fact, seawater, diluted so that the salt level is the same as that found in blood, has been successfully used as a replacement for blood plasma.


Teleportation - Since scientists are able to teleport light particles, could we use this teleportation method to travel in space rather than a propulsion based rockets? - Christal

When we talk about teleportation what most people think about is Star Trek. In this 1960's SciFi classic (as well as in the new movie reboots) Captain Kirk was able to hop onto a little pad and Scotty would beam him down from the Enterprise to the planet below in a couple of seconds. This allowed the Captain to avoid the trouble of climbing into a small "shuttlecraft" and to take an hour or so ride down to reach the surface. (More importantly it saved the show's producers money and kept the pace of the story fast).

This scenario is probably the one most people think about when they hear that scientists are teleporting photons (bits of energy) around: A photon gets plopped onto a pad on one side of the lab, a switch is thrown and the same photon suddenly appears on the other side of the lab.

That isn't quite what is happening, however. What the scientists are teleporting are the physical properties of the photon, not the photon itself. They exploit quantum mechanics (specifically something called "entanglement") to "read" the photon and transmit the properties to another photon on the other side of the lab and give it the same state as the original. Since you can't tell the replica apart from the original (whose state was destroyed in the process) for all practical purposes the photon has been "teleported."

Being able to do this is a very powerful technique that can be used in quantum computing and we will probably eventually get ultrafast computers out of it. However, it isn't clear that the same process could be used for transporting solid objects. Scientists have been able to teleport a single atom, but a human consists of about a trillion, trillion atoms, which makes the problem of teleporting them about a trillion, trillion times more difficult. Some scientists think we might be able to pull off teleporting something as complicated as a virus by the end of the century, but even that may just be wishful thinking.

And if we were actually able to teleport a human, it would raise some interesting ethical questions. If a teleport machine works not by moving the actual atoms that make up a person, but just recreating the person's structure with new atoms, have we transported the person or just made a duplicate? (The duplicate would think it was the original because it would have all the same thoughts and memories.) Also, if the original person is destroyed in the process, have we just murdered him, despite creating a duplicate in another location?

The idea that you could switch out all the atoms in a person and still have the same person isn't just a hypothetical situation either. Studies at the Oak Ridge Atomic Research Center found that 98% of the atoms in our body are replaced with new ones each year. So in essence we are all undergoing a slow teleportation and getting new bodies (though the structure still remains the same, so we still age - sorry). This raises an interesting question however. Are we actually the same people we were a year ago, or just duplicates with all the same memories?

There are also some theological concerns with teleportation too. Some people believe that humans have a "spirit." If a person we teleported, would that "spirit" automatically jump to the duplicate person?

Finally, suppose that the original person wasn't destroyed and you wound up with two of them? Who is the original if both of them are exactly the same? Which one gets to go home to their spouse and kids?

For some interesting SciFi fiction on this dilemma check out Think Like a Dinosaur a novelette written by James Patrick Kelly and later turned into an episode on the seventh season of The Outer Limits (2000). It available to watch on Hulu for free.


Can Extraterrestrial Astronomers See Us? - If an alien being with a telescope from an exoplanet looks at our solar system, would they detect our planets using the methods we use or would they see a "fuzzy" nebula looking orb due to the Oort cloud? -Rowell

Let's first do a quick review about how scientists can detect planets around distant stars. Just pointing a powerful telescope at a star system and trying to pick out the planets going around it generally doesn't work. The star itself is too bright and outshines any planets it has (perhaps by a factor of a million to one). Also at the interstellar distances we are talking unless the planets are very large and hot they are generally too small for even the most power telescopes to find.

The most productive way of discovering new stars is by indirect methods. One of these is to measure the light coming from the parent star and watch for tiny shifts in the wave lengths. As planets move around a star their gravity can cause it to "wobble" a bit and this causes the wavelength of its light to shift because of the Doppler Effect. By observing a star long enough and recording the size, timing and length of the shifts scientists can estimate the number planets and how far they are from the star, although it is difficult to tell exactly how big those planets are.

The second most productive method to find exoplanets is to watch the slight dimming of the star as the planets pass between it and telescopes on Earth. With this method scientists can detect the number of planets, how far away they are from their star and even estimate their size. Occasionally they can even use a spectroscope to detect what their atmosphere might be like. The only problem with this method is that it only works on star systems which are oriented in such a way that at least one of the planets transits its star as seen from Earth.

There are other methods to detect exoplanets, but let's talk about how an Oort cloud would affect these two approaches.

Well, let's first talk about what the Oort cloud is. In the 1950's Jan Hendrik Oort speculated that out beyond the orbit of Neptune there was a large number of comets that might extend as far out from the sun as 3 light years. Subsequent observations proved this true and the cloud was named for him. However it isn't a cloud in the normal sense we would think of when we look at clouds in the sky. The density is very low. The only parts of it we can detect are the few comets that occasionally leave the cloud and make a passage into the inner solar system. The rest of the cloud is too thin and dim for us to detect with our current instruments.

Because it is so thin it doesn't interfere with our ability to look at the stars beyond or use the above methods to find planets around those stars. By the same token astronomers on distance stars would not have any problem with using these same methods to detect planets in our solar system. The Oort cloud is too thin to block their observations. It is also very likely that the solar systems we have found so far have their own versions of an Oort cloud and these don't seem to hinder our observations.


Germ or Virus? - Is there a difference between a germ and a virus? - John

If we use the dictionary the pertinent definition for the word "germ" is "microorganism" (Especially a microorganism that causes illness). A microorganism is a microscopic, living organism often composed of one or just a few cells. Bacteria like Vibrio cholera, which causes Cholera would fall into this category. Also a fungus like Trichophyton rubrum, which causes athletes foot would also quality, as would a protozoa like the Entamoeba histolytica amoeba which causes a type of dysentery.

Cleary a virus is not exactly the same thing as germ which includes all these other types of organisms. However, you could argue that a virus, like a bacteria, or a protozoa is a type of germ.

So should a virus be considered a germ? There are certainly microscopic and many varieties of them can make us sick. But does a virus qualify as a microscopic living organism? Well, the problem is that not all scientists can agree that viruses are actually alive. Generally for something to be living in scientific terms it needs to have seven different properties. One of the most important of these properties is the ability to reproduce. All the microorganisms we named above, bacteria, fungus, protozoa (and a few we didn't list) can reproduce themselves. A virus can certainly reproduce too, but only by invading the body of a living host cell and stealing the use of its reproduction machinery.

For this reason the scientific community has gone back and forth on this issue whether viruses are alive for many years. Some scientists make the case for viruses being living things, others argue that they are not.

In the 19th century when viruses where first identified by scientists they figured that they must be the most diminutive members of the family of life. They clearly seemed to act like bacteria, but they were just much, much smaller.

It wasn't until 1935 that a researcher named Wendell M. Stanley was able to crystallize the tobacco mosaic virus and take a close look at it. Stanley realized that though the virus contained complex biochemicals it couldn't carry out the normal metabolic functions that most living organisms did. Since metabolism (which is the chemical reactions necessary to sustain life) is one of the seven qualities of a living organism, Stanley made the case the viruses were simply inert chemicals.

Not all scientists are comfortable with this however, and argue that viruses really span the region between the living and the non-living. Alone they are just packages of inert chemicals. When they enter a cell, however, suddenly they take on many of the characteristics of a living organism. A few researchers like to compare virus to vampires: like the legendary nosferatu viruses are dead, unless they use living cells and drain them of their energy.

So is a virus a germ? The truth is you can make the case that it is or it not depending on your whether you think viruses are alive.


Hole Through the Earth - If it were possible to shoot an unstoppable, elevator-sized cannonball vertically into the ground (let's say at the North Pole), it would speed all way out from South Pole. Good. So what if a man decides to make a quick trip to South Pole(from the North Pole) by way of jumping into the hole created, would he defy gravity by surfacing from South Pole's ice (probably continuing into space)? - Cheta Anuonye

Well let's start by saying that this scenario, having a tunnel go from the North Pole to the South Pole is a great thought experiment, but wouldn't really work in reality. Since the core of Earth is molten and semi- molten rock the tunnel that you made below a certain depth would quickly close up as the rock flowed back into position.

But let's say that this isn't a problem and you can actually build a shaft for a distance of 7926 miles from pole to pole, then you jump down into it. What would happen?

Well, of course you would start by falling. But let's back up and figure out why that occurs. The answer is that gravity pulls you downwards. But where does the gravity come from?

Gravity is a force in nature that pulls all matter together. It is the weakest of the basic forces in nature, but also the most tenacious. (If you doubt this, just think about what happens when you use a small magnet to pick up a paperclip. The magnet is tiny when compared to the Earth, yet the magnetic force it has overpowers the entire gravity force of the earth to pull the paperclip away from it. However, the magnetic force does not have the range of gravity and the magnet can only pick up the paperclip if they are very close together).

While you are reading this gravity is pulling your body toward the computer (or cell phone, or tablet depending on what you are using) while your body pulls the computer toward it. However with small objects like this the force of gravity is so low that you can't feel it. It takes a really big object (like planet earth) to create a significant gravity force. The amount of the force is directly the result the mass of the object, so since the moon is only 1/6 the mass of Earth, the gravity of the moon is only 1/6 what it is here on Earth (If you weigh 120 pounds here on Earth you would weight only 20 pounds on the moon).

So the mass of the Earth creates gravity. Let's say that you jump into your tunnel at the North Pole. You are pulled down toward the center of the Earth. As you got closer and closer to the center, however, more and more of the Earth's mass would be above you and less and less below you. The mass above you would start to pull you up, while the mass below continues to pull you down. When you found yourself at the exact center of the planet, with all the mass of it around you equally in all directions, the gravity would cancel out and you would be weightless.

However, by the time you reached the center of the Earth you would have so much speed you would go shooting right though the zero gravity section. As you continued on more and more of the Earth's mass would be behind you, slowing your speed down. Eventually you would stop before you reached the surface and reverse direction.

In fact you would be doomed to spend the rest of your life oscillating back and forth in the tunnel, losing a little speed to air friction as you made each trip until you eventually got stuck at the center of the planet in the zero gravity area.


Surviving a Jump - Can a person survive a dive into water from five stories up?

Well, from personal experience on my summer vacation, I can tell you that you can dive into a river from 2 and ½ stories up (25 feet) and suffer no ill effects. In fact, Olympic style diving is typically done from a 33 foot platform (3 stories) with no problems. Finally, cliff divers in Acapulco, Mexico jump from 136 feet (13.5 stories), head first (using their hands to break the water), into the sea on a daily basis. So a five story (50 foot) dive into water is certainly survivable.

But how about heights of 15 stories and above? The higher you get the more critical the position you enter the water becomes. A study by Dr. Richard Snyder of people who jumped or fell off the Golden Gate Bridge found you had the best chance of living through it if you hit the water vertically, feet first. The roadway of the Golden Gate Bridge is around 250 feet above the water, about 25 stories. It has become a magnet for people who want to do themselves in by jumping off the bridge. Some die from the impact, others drown in the bay, but a few people do live to tell the tale. These people went in feet first in a vertical position.

One who didn't make it was a stunt diver called Kid Courage. He went off the bridge in 1980, but landed on his back and suffered fatal internal injuries. He was dead when the pulled him from the water.

Some experts put the outside limit on survival of a fall into water at around 260 feet. By then a human body has usually reached a speed of greater than 80 miles per hour and hitting even a liquid at that speed is a huge shock.

Even so there are rare reports of people who have fallen into water from great heights and survived. In June 1963 Marine pilot Cliff Judkins was forced to bail out of his F-8 Crusader at 15,000 feet and his parachute failed to open. It is likely he hit the ocean at nearly the human terminal velocity of 120mph, but survived despite huge odds against it.


Hot and Cold - Is cold the absence of heat? Or is heat the absence cold? - John

When you first look at this question it sounds a little bit like a riddle: Which came first the chicken or the egg? We need to first understand what heat and cold is before we can get to the bottom of this riddle however.

From a physics point of view heat is simply the exchange of thermal energy from one object to another. Now you might ask "What is thermal energy?" Thermal energy at the smallest scale is the movement (mostly vibration) of the particles that make up matter: Atoms and molecules and the things they are composed of - protons, electrons and neutrons. The more movement these particles have, the higher the temperature of the object they are in will be. At a certain point if the particles are bumping around fast enough the object will actually change form.

Let's look at water. When the particles aren't moving much water can take a solid form: ice. As the thermal energy increases the water molecules eventually bounce around so much that they reach a point where they break away from the solid form and flow freely by becoming liquid water. If the temperature of the water continues to rise the molecules will eventually be jumping around so much that they can't even stay in liquid from and become a gas: steam.

Heat is the transfer of that thermal energy from object to object. For example, when you hold an ice cube in your hand you are heating it because the thermal energy in your hand is higher than the thermal energy in the cube and the energy flows from one to the other. Thermal energy always seeks an equilibrium when it can find it. Just like water will flow from a full container to an empty container if there is a connection between the two until the levels in both are equal. The result is the ice cube starts to melt as its thermal energy rises and your hand starts to feel cold as the thermal energy in it drops.

So let's go back to the original question: " Is cold the absence of heat? Or is heat the absence cold?" Well, since heat is the transfer of thermal energy and cold can be defined as an area of low thermal energy I think you can make an argument for the first case. Cold is an area of low thermal energy which hasn't gotten a transfer of energy (heat - which is absent in this scenario) from another location with a higher amount of thermal energy.


Wormhole Wonders - I've always been curious about the possibility of wormholes in space. If a wormhole existed, how would it affect space travel? - Anonymous.

Let's start by defining what a wormhole is for those people not familiar with the term. Way back in 1957 theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler coined the term to describe a theoretical shortcut between two distant parts of the universe. If you think of the universe as a flat sheet of paper it might be possible to fold the paper over on itself so the rear surfaces touch. A hole poked through the sheet at that point would create a way to travel between two distant areas quickly.

While the universe is not flat and two dimensional, like the sheet of paper, this example does give us a way to visualize how it would work. The existence of a type of wormhole that could do this called an Einstein-Rosen bridge was first suggested by Albert Einstein and his colleague Nathan Rosen in 1935. Wheeler later showed that this particular type of wormhole would not be stable long enough before it collapsed for anything, even a photon, to get through it, however.

In 1988 physicist Kip Thorne, however, proposed that you could build a wormhole that would be stable using exotic matter that would have an anti-gravitational effect that would force the wormhole to remain open (Such a wormhole that stays open so things can go through it is known as a traversable wormhole).

Traversable wormholes have become a favorite of science-fiction writers who need to find a mechanism to move spaceships from one location to another across the vast distances of interstellar space in less than a human lifetime. In fact, it was Carl Sagan, the astronomer who wrote the bestseller Contact (later made into a movie) who need such a plot device and pushed Thorne into devising his scheme using exotic matter. A naturally occurring wormhole was also made a part of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine which made it possible for the characters to travel to a distance part of the galaxy in the blink of an eye.

In theory a wormhole could be used not just to link to parts of the same universe however, but also two completely different universes.

Perhaps the strangest thing possible to do with a wormhole is to turn it into a time machine. According to Einstein's theory of relativity anything that is accelerated is subject to time dilation. In other words time slows down for it. While the effect of this is too tiny for us to notice when we take a transcontinental flight, if you were able to fly a spaceship to another star and back again at near the speed of light, you would find that something like a year had passed for you on board the spaceship, but ten years had passed for those who stayed home on planet Earth.

If you could create a wormhole and leave one end on Earth and take the other with you on that spaceship the end left at home would age more than the one that you took with you. This difference would mean that anything that entered that mouth of the wormhole on the older end would emerge at the young end in the past (though it would be impossible to go back further in time than when the wormhole had been created).

If we could build wormholes could we use them for interstellar travel like in the movies? Yes. We could even use them to travel into the past. Here's the bad news, however. Nobody has ever observed a naturally occurring wormhole and building them seems well beyond our engineering capability for the foreseeable future. Indeed it might not be possible at all. It isn't even known if the type of exotic matter required for Thorne's wormhole even exists.

Don't despair, however. When Einstein first came up with the concept of a black hole it was thought to be just a theoretical concept not actually occurring in nature. Now we have pretty good evidence that black holes actually exist and may explain many of the things we observe in the universe.

Even if we haven't seen any wormholes, it hasn't stopped scientists from imagining what a wormhole would look-like if we could build one. They suggest it might look like a mirrored sphere, except instead of reflecting our world it would actually be showing the location at the other side of the hole. Here's a link to some videos that researchers at Tübingen University created to show what a wormhole would look like that connected their campus to a beach in France. Try it out!


The Majestic 12- I have often read about the Roswell Incident. Supposedly a strange UFO crashed on a ranch outside Roswell in 1947… I've also heard that none of this seemed to come to light until the 60's or 70's due to some strange documents that turned up, and everyone had bought the government's explanation up till that point. - Michael

The documents that you are referring to are supposed to be related to secret group of scientists, military leaders, and government officials that were authorized to investigate UFOs. Supposedly this group, the "Majestic 12" (or MJ-12 for short), was established by order of then President Harry S. Truman on September 24, 1947.

The papers surfaced in 1984 after having been sent to TV producer and UFO enthusiast Jaime Shandera in a brown paper envelope encoded on a roll of 35mm film. One of the items on the film was an eight page, official- looking document that gave a briefing to President-elect Dwight Eisenhower about the recovery of the remains of two crashed spaceships, with alien bodies, by government agents during the 1940s.

The documents also supposedly included a memo from President Harry Truman that gave MJ-12 the power to investigate the Roswell situation. The members of this secret group were allegedly Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoeter, Dr. Vannevar Bush, Secretary James Forrestal, Gen. Nathan F. Twining, Gen. Hoyt S. Vanderberg, Dr. Detlev Bronk, Dr. Jerome Hunsaker, Mr. Sidney W. Souers, Mr. Gordon Gray, Dr. Donald Menzel, Gen. Robert M. Montegue, and Dr. Lloyd V. Berkner. All of these men had died by the time the documents came out in '84, so none of them were around to comment on the authenticity of the material.

Shandera was suspicious that the documents might not be real and sat on them. If they were real it would be a tremendous news scoop and would prove just what the UFO conspiracy people had been saying for years: That the U.S. government had been hiding the truth about extra-terrestrials on earth. If the papers turned out to be fakes, however, he would be a laughing stock. Without good proof one way or the other, Shandera decided not to go public. Several years later a copy of the film was given to British UFO researcher Timothy Good who was working on a book called Above Top Secret (1987). Good was a little less cautious and decided go public with it. This lead to an article about the documents in the newspaper The Observer in May of 1987. After that Shandera decided also to admit that he had copies of the papers, too.

In 1988 UFO skeptic Philip Klass urged the FBI to look in to the matter. They decided to investigate under the premise that if the documents were indeed real, U.S. law had been broken in their release. The FBI, however, quickly came to the conclusion that the material was "completely bogus."

The documents split the UFO research community into two groups. Those arguing against the authenticity of the documents pointed out various problems with them: wrong formats, wrong type face, shaky providence , etc. (For example several documents from the 40's seemed to have been typed on a IBM 72, which dates from 1961).

Those who believe that the MJ-12 documents were real also found some justification for their thinking: For example, a memo entitled "NSC/MJ-12 Special Studies Project" from July 14, 1954 that apparently refers to the "Majestic 12" group was found in the National Archives. While this document might have been faked it, it would have been hard to insert it into the official governmental records.

Most people involved in researching UFO seemed to have come to the conclusion that the documents are indeed false. However, a minority still argue that they are real. Among those people who think they are false, however, there are those that think that they were part of a deliberate "disinformation" campaign by the government designed to discredit the idea of UFO's and extra-terrestrials. They support this claim by observing that the hoaxer apparently had access to a number of obscure, but clearly real government documents. If M-12 was disinformation from the government, just what, they ask, was the Uncle Sam trying to hide?


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