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    The Most Unusual Natural Disasters

    Mother Earth has a host of ways to strike back at the plague of humanity, and it’s comforting to think that we know all of them. Unfortunately, once you get past the big-name blockbuster natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes, there are a host of B-listers waiting to surprise you. Here are ten natural disasters that don’t happen often, but when they do it’s serious business.

    My Favorite Science Facts Learned in 2014: Exploding Whales, Universe Origin Stories

    Exploding Whales

    Giant, rotting, bloated whale carcasses washed up on beaches were one of this year’s top science stories. It seemed like at one point or another pretty much everyone was watching videos of them exploding their guts all over the place. Instead of covering the explosions themselves, I had the opportunity to get on the phone with Ari Friedlaender, an expert in marine mammal stranding, about what exactly happens when a dead whale washes up on shore. Which leads me one of my all time favorite things I’ve ever learned: dead whales won’t explode unless you poke them. And, in fact, the majority of whales that wash up on shores around the US rarely have a chance to get too nasty because teams of scientists are standing by to show up on the scene and necropsy them ASAP. They are eager to get a look at all the mammal’s guts because the insides of whales are impossible to study in the ocean.

    Friedlaender, who has necropsied more than 500 whales in his life, uses a special tool called a flensing knife to get inside and learn as much as possible about how a whale works. He says that even once they’re vented, cutting them open can still lead to a volcano of guts. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing better than learning about how to deflate a dead whale this year would have been getting the chance to see it happen in person.

    Making Humans Green

    I had the enormous honor of writing the December 12 cover story for Newsweek Magazine this year. The story focused on how scientists are dreaming up a variety of geoengineering projects that may one day help the planet overcome doomsday climate change scenarios. But my favorite thing I learned while researching that story came from a chat I had with S. Matthew Liao, an ethicist at New York University. His idea of helping the planet is that instead of changing Earth’s systems we re-engineer *humans* to make ourselves more eco-friendly. Along with a few colleagues, Liao wrote a fascinating paper that focuses on real, legitimate science that could be used to change the human race so our impact on the planet will be less dramatic.

    Some of his suggestions: Make humans shorter, because the smaller we are the less we’ll consume (we don’t get much of an evolutionary advantage from being as tall as we are now). Make humans averse to the flavor of meat, because cattle farming is one of the largest burdens on the planet and a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses. Change human eyesight so that we’re able to see better at night, because night vision would mean we don’t need to use as much electricity. And the simplest of all: educate all of the world’s women, because it has been proven that women with higher levels of education have fewer children, which would reduce the world’s population.

    Liao argued that re-engineering humans would actually be more reasonable than geoengineering the planet because we’d be solving the source of the climate change problem -- we humans are cause of all the trouble. And, he said, when we’re facing the total destruction of Earth these ideas might not sound so kooky. It’s a way of looking at climate change I hadn’t thought of before: climate change isn’t an Earth problem, it’s a human problem. Maybe if we all looked at it that way we’d be more open to getting ourselves out of this mess. You can read his full paper here.

    A Stop by the Glenn Research Center

    On Dec. 5, before our MythBusters: Behind the Myths performance, I stopped by the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and they couldn’t have been nicer.

    I saw the wind tunnel in which Kari, Grant and Tori tested their Blue Ice story, and then the center's ballistics lab, where they investigated the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. That accident involved insulating foam coming off the oxygen tanks and damaging the shuttle wing. I hadn't realized that what did the damage to that wing was not that much different than a handful of packing peanuts -- but of course packing peanuts traveling at a differential speed of about 500 mph when it hit.

    The other lab I stopped at was the Space Lab, where they have high-vacuum chambers. For the first time I saw an ion thruster:

    I had known about ion thrusters, but I had not seen one in action before. You can look right through a porthole in the vacuum chamber and see them. They are eerily pretty. They don’t put out that much thrust compared to many rocket engines, but over time it adds up. And the big thing is that they do it without requiring anywhere near as much fuel mass as combusted chemical fueled engines do, by electronically accelerating relatively small quantities of ions to very high speeds to get the push they need.

    Why NASA's Orion Mission is So Important

    Ever since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, landed more than three years ago, NASA has lacked a vehicle to send its own astronauts back into space. Current timelines put astronauts back in American-made rockets no sooner than 2021. The Orion mission that launched this morning [more specifically, Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1)], is a huge milestone in NASA’s path back to the business of launching humans into space. It can’t be overstated: This mission is a BIG deal.


    What is Orion?

    Orion is NASA’s next generation of man-carrying spacecraft. It is chartered to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), lunar destinations, or even Mars. Orion is really only the top part of what was sitting on the launchpad earlier today. The uppermost section of Orion is the Launch Abort System, which completely enshrouds the 4-to-6 person Crew Module. Just below the conical Crew Module is the Service Module that provides thrust, power and provisions in space. The Orion-to-Stage Adapter mates Orion to the rocket it sits atop. In the case if EFT-1, that rocket was a Delta IV Heavy (currently the largest operational rocket in the world).


    The genesis of Orion dates back to 2005 and the now-defunct Constellation program. When Constellation was cancelled in 2009, the Orion aspect of the program was retained for use in whatever program would come next. That program emerged in 2011 as Space Launch System (SLS). SLS is what will launch those astronauts in 2021.

    First Launch of NASA's Orion Next-Generation Capsule

    This morning at 7:05am EST in Cape Canaveral, a Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted off carrying the first unpiloted test flight of the next-generation Orion capsule. Orion is designed to take humans back to the Moon, near Earth asteroids, and hopefully Mars. Right now, the two-orbit, 4.5 hour mission, which is designed to test the systems designed to slow the capsule from almost 20,000mph to 20mph, is almost complete. You can watch the live feed of the splashdown on NASA TV.

    Female Anna's Hummingbird at 240fps

    This video isn't perfect, but I thought it was too awesome not to share. When I was walking to lunch the other day in San Francisco, I encountered an absolutely fearless hummingbird. At one point, she hovered about 3 inches from my face. When I realized she was going to hang around for a moment, I grabbed my phone. I'm pretty certain she's a female Anna's but she could also be a female Costa's. I shot this with my iPhone 6 Plus, which definitely feels like a Louis CK chair-in-the-sky moment for me.

    "Wanderers" Imagines Human Exploration Through Our Solar System

    Set to a beautiful original score and a Carl Sagan audio recording, Wanderers is an awe-inspiring short film created by filmmaker Erik Wernquist. As he describes it, the four minute piece is "a vision of humanity's expansion into the Solar System, based on scientific ideas and concepts of what our future in space might look like, if it ever happens. The locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available. Without any apparent story, other than what you may fill in by yourself, the idea of the film is primarily to show a glimpse of the fantastic and beautiful nature that surrounds us on our neighboring worlds - and above all, how it might appear to us if we were there." It's a beautiful and haunting vision of the vastness of space, like a Chesley Bonestell painting brought to life. Stills and commentary from the short can be found here.

    False Starts: Astronauts Recall Stories of Shuttle Launch Aborts
    Every manned US spacecraft had its share of white-knuckle moments, but the space shuttle holds a monopoly on launch aborts. (NASA photo)

    Many astronaut autobiographies attempt to convey the exceptionally rare and coveted experience of riding a fire-belching rocket into space. It must surely be a situation where all adjectives and analogies fall short. While the trip to orbit seems to affect each person in different ways, the stories all share happy endings. You have to look much harder to find memoirs of launches that didn’t go so well.

    The primary reason for the dearth of launch abort stories is that so few missions in the history of the US manned space program provided astronauts with unsavory launch experiences. Historically-speaking, once the engines were fired up, an astronaut had a very high probability of making it safely to their planned orbit.

    Every manned US spacecraft had its share of white-knuckle moments, but the space shuttle holds a monopoly on launch aborts. It’s worth noting that the Challenger disaster is considered a launch failure rather than an abort because events unfolded too quickly for any corrective measures to be taken. There were a handful of other missions where, after the smoke cleared and the echoes faded, the shuttle was still firmly shackled to the launch pad. I spoke with five astronauts who endured these launch aborts to get a glimpse of what it was like.

    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

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    In Brief: The Man Who Can hear Wi-Fi

    I'm deeply fascinated in the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia: the effect of experiencing one sense when another is being activated (eg. seeing colors in words or hearing music in colors). Equally interesting are the people who artificially augment their senses to simulate that effect. Artist Neil Harbisson is a notable artificial synesthete who implanted an antenna into his skull so he could perceive wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. He's also the world's first recognized cyborg. New Scientist has a story written by another artificial synesthete, Frank Swain, who built a system for converting the characteristics of wireless networks into sound.

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    In Brief: Rosetta's Philae Has Landed

    At about 8AM Pacific time this morning, the Philae lander made contact with the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.The first pictures have come back from the lander, including a gorgeous shot of the comet taken during the descent and this image of the landing site, Rosetta's ten-year journey wound through the solar system so the probe could match orbits with the comet. It will stay with the comet for the next 12 months, following its orbit around the Sun. Be sure to keep an eye on Phil Plait's excellent blog for more updates on Rosetta and Philae. Today's XKCD is also lovely, in both live updated form and GIF form.

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    Pixar Explains the Math Behind Smooth Character Rendering

    Ready to give your brain a little workout? See if you can follow along in this Numberphile video as Tony DeRose of Pixar Research explains some of the mathematics behind the rendering and animation of characters in modern CG films. It went over my head at around the five-minute mark, but the gist is that the use of certain math principles and algorithms let rendering programs subdivide vertices in geometry for smooth curves and surfaces. Computer scientists know this as the Catmull-Clark algorithm.

    10 Biological Challenges Of Traveling To Mars

    Let’s face it: we’ve done just about everything we can do on the Moon. That hunk of gray rock doesn’t hold much romance anymore. The next big thing is going to be to get human boots on Mars. But it’s not as easy as you might think. Today, we’ll examine the obstacles that make it difficult for Earth lifeforms to endure the long trip to Mars and land on the planet’s surface.

    ISS Astronauts Put a GoPro in a Floating Water Bubble

    We haven't posted a video shot by Astronauts on the International Space Station in a while, but that doesn't mean they're not shooting awesome stuff up there! Here's a recent one that is especially cool: "During Expedition 40 in the summer of 2014, NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman - along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst - explored the phenomenon of water surface tension in microgravity on the International Space Station." And because tours of the ISS are always fun to watch, here's the most recent one shot by Astronaut Reid Wiseman, travelling from the very back of the station to the very front!

    In Brief: Why Do Most Pencil Erasers Suck?

    The Atlantic's technology blog recently tackled a question that I'm sure we've all thought about at some point--especially those of us who've taken Scantron tests in secondary school: why do pencil erasers suck? The little nubs we're familiar with started appearing on the end of graphite pencils in the US some 250 years ago, but the materials they've been made of have changed over the years. They used to be made of rubber, but were shifted to plastic polymers to lower cost. Those thermoplastics and synthetics just don't have the same abrasive quality of real rubber to scrape lead off paper. I was also surprised to learn that the eraser-tipped pencil is largely a US phenomenon. International readers--what did your school pencils look like?

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    Awesome Jobs: Meet Kevin Arrigo, Biological Oceanographer

    Kevin Arrigo studies some of the teeny tiniest organisms on the planet -- microscopic plants called Phytoplankton that scientists think might produce up to 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. To get at what makes these itty bitties tick he climbs aboard giant ice-breaking ships and heads out to the planet’s icy North and South where they are the most active. Arrigo chatted with us about what it’s like to work in the world’s polar regions and what it feels like to take a wrong step and get a boot full of freezing arctic water.

    Do you consider yourself a biologist?

    I’m a biological oceanographer. I study the biology of the ocean at a pretty large scale. I’m not a marine biologist. I look at really big ocean issues. One example is the organisms that are the base of the food chain, microscopic phytoplankton. They’re tiny plants that feed everything in the ocean and produce more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Most people think of trees, but it’s mostly the phytoplankton that are doing the work.

    They’re responsible for the coming and going of the ice ages, which is driven by changes in atmospheric CO2. When the winds pick up, the ocean gets fertilized by iron-rich dust blowing into it. This stimulates phytoplankton to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and then the planet starts to cool. After thousands of years, the temperatures drop so far that the planet goes into an ice age.

    The place I study phytoplankton is in the polar regions. They’re places we don’t understand very well. The North Pole and the area around Antarctica are very different. Most of the climate change is driven by phytoplankton in and around Antarctica. The ones growing in the tropics have very little impact on Earth’s climate.

    Around Antarctica, the ocean is a big watery place full of microscopic plants and they need nutrients just like your garden – mostly nitrogen or phosphorus. Luckily the Antarctic has lots of nitrogen and phosphorus, but not much iron. The ocean can become anemic too. Warm times like now, the ocean is really anemic - not much iron is being blown into it.