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Send us your questions on weird and alternate science!

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Power from Radio - I read that radio waves can be received and turned back into useable energy. Can it be done ? - John

The idea of wireless power goes back as far as the beginning of the 20the century. The electrical genius, Nikola Tesla, experimented with transmitting power using radio frequency resonant transformers (which we now call Tesla coils). At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago he was able to demonstrate he could light bulbs from across the width of a stage. Later in 1900, at his laboratory in Colorado Springs he used a gigantic Tesla coil(producing an enormous 20 megavolts of power) to light three incandescent lamps at a distance of about one hundred feet or so.

Tesla, in fact, thought it would be possible to transmit power around the world and dreamed of sending electricity wirelessly into home and factories. In 1901 he started building a prototype wireless power station at Shoreham, New York. The Wardenclyffe Tower, however, was never completed when his financial backers pulled out of the project. The tower was scrapped to pay off Tesla's debts. Most modern electrical scientists and engineers do not think his plan of transmitting power through air for great distances would have worked.

That doesn't mean that wireless power does not have a place in modern electronics. For short distances magnetic fields can be used to charge cell phones with no actual wires involved. The phone simply sits on top of a pad. Another application where this is used is to recharge artificial cardiac pacemakers implanted in the chest of a patient. This avoids the patient having to have wires piercing his skin.

For longer transmission of power without wires, radio waves (usually in the form of microwaves, or lasers can be used). However, these techniques require that the transmission be directed at a particular receiver. One possible use of this type of transmission would be to put satellites in space with vast solar arrays. The satellite would then beam the power back to an earth receiving station using a laser or microwave beam. It would be possible to get it to go in the other direction too. For example, by powering a plane or drone from the ground by pointing a laser beam or microwave at it.

Recently some engineers at Duke University have designed a device that 'harvests' background microwave radiation and converts it into electricity. The gadget consists of fiberglass and has copper conductors wired together on a circuit board. According to their tests it can gather energy and converts it to electricity with 37 percent efficiently, which is comparable to solar cells. The engineers think it could be used to recharge cell phones or used to gather microwave energy beamed to a remote location. Skeptics point out that while the 7.3 volts the unit outputs is enough voltage to recharge a cell phone, the amperage needed is far short of what a charger plugged into a wall socket can do. However, there may be a future for such power harvesting system to drive very lower power/ low amperage devices such as wireless sensors.


Genetic 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

In the 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?

The famous, 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.

In Jung's 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.

If Jung's 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.

While 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?

Even if 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.

Recently 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 interesting 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.


Galaxy 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?- Victor

Well, 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.

As your 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.

As you 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 together.

Strangely 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.

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.

One part 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.

As stars 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.


The 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.

One of 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.

The scientists 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.

The shape 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.

The 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.

Recent 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.


Flying 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 much 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.

Here is 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.

This method 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.

However, 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, especially trucks.

In the 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 Stones" sign.


Best Pirates of the 18th Century - Who were the most successful/famous pirates of the 18th century? - Matthew

If you 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.

Morgan 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.

In may 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.

If we 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.

It is 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.

Blackbeard 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.

Since 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 pirate.

While 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.

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."

He was 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:

In 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.

He turned 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.


El 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.

Ironically 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.

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.

So there 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.

El Dorado, 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.

In 1541 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.

Finally 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.

A half 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.

Of all 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.


A Killer History - Who were the Assassins? - Octavio

The Assassins 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 killer: assassin.

The order 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.

As his 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.

It is 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.

Most scholars 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."

The Assassins 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 with poison.

Sometimes 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.

The end 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 wiped out.

Another portion of the order, however, survived in Syria into the 14th century. Toward the end they may have worked as assassins for hire.

There 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 fell.


Radiation 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? - Bernie

You 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 power plant.

Nuclear 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.

As 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 the air.

The 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.

What 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 near Fukushima.

How 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.

As 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.


Many 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

Readers unfamiliar with quantum physics may want to visit our page to get some background before reading this answer.

The idea 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.

Quantum 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.

Scientists 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?

On another level, do we even care if they are in superposition or not? After all they are just tiny, little things.

Well, 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.

The idea 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.

This idea 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.

However, 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.

The peoople 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 MWI.

Another 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.

The controversy 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 it out.

One rather 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).

The controversy 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.

So are 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.

All Photons Look Alike? - If photons are all identical how do they carry any properties of what they are reflecting off of? - Gary

Well, 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.

Photons 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.

Photons 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.

Now to 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 spectrum.

When photons 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).

Another 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).

Perhaps 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.


Electric UFO - How does an ionocraft work? I've only ever seen unmanned models of them--is it possible to build a manned one? - Specboy

In the 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 ionocaft.

In the 1960's the Soviet engineers speculated about building this ionocraft.

Needless 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 moving parts.

How does 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 the vehicle.

The ionocraft 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 balloon.

Most ionocrafts 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.

The problem 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.

Still, 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.

There 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.

Also Professor 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.

And perhaps 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.


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.


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Copyright Lee Krystek 2000. All Rights Reserved.


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