Adam and Norm check out this beautiful model of the moon, which just arrived at the cave! We take a close look at its detailed topography, and Adam brings its craters into sharp relief with his new high-powered flashlight!
Adam and Norm check out this beautiful model of the moon, which just arrived at the cave! We take a close look at its detailed topography, and Adam brings its craters into sharp relief with his new high-powered flashlight!
Last summer, Tested joined Astronaut Chris Hadfield and a team of photographers, filmmakers, and writers on a two-week expedition into the Canadian high Arctic. Tested Producer Joey Fameli brings you along our journey and recounts the incredible sights, encounters, and emotions felt on this trip to one of the most remote places on Earth. Written, shot, and edited by Joey Fameli
I drove to Mojave and back from San Francisco for MythBusters recently and took an extra few hours to meander on the beautiful and meditative backroads of California's central valley. Every now and then straight roads that were many miles long would jog one way or another. It didn't even occur to me to ask why, but Dutch photographer (and 2015 artist-in-residence at Wichita's Ulrich Museum of Art) Gerco de Ruijter did, and the answer is freaking cool.
See what I mean in this Travel and Leisure article about de Ruijter: Mysterious Detour While Driving? It Could Be Due to the Curvature of the Earth
If you've learned anything about maps, you'll know the difficulties making flat 2D representations of our planet's compound curved, 3D surface. It's why Greenland looks so freakishly huge on most world maps (the limits of the Mercator projection). Turns out that the problems aren't limited to looking at the Earth from afar. A long, straight road has to eventually correct for the curvature of the Earth, as do property lines.
I love stuff like this: the macro made tangible by something as mundane as a road we drive on.
Artist and friend-of-Tested Kevin Dart passed along word that he has a new show opening this week at LA's Gallery 1988 pop art gallery. Even if you aren't familiar with Kevin's art, you have probably seen his design work in the videogame sequences of Spike Jonze's Her, the Gear VR experience Colosse, and in concept art for Disney's Big Hero Six. Tested fans may best know his art from those awesome NASA-inspired screenprints I've shown displayed in my own home and those Japanese creature t-shirts I've worn in videos. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan.
Kevin's new art show is called Science & Nature, and is a collaboration between him and six artists: Chris Turnham, Jasmin Lai, Josh Parpan, Justin Parpan, Sylvia Liu, and Tiffany Ford. He describes the theme as "a visual celebration of mankind's scientific endeavors and the natural world from which they are derived." Over email, Kevin elaborated a little further:
"My primary goal with this show was to draw a visual link between the fields of science and the beauty of nature which inspires all of those scientific achievements. The two things are so inextricably tied together - all science is based on observations made in nature. It's like a never-ending quest to understand everything around us, and so many people have made unbelievable sacrifices to further that goal. I was thinking about this idea for over a year and how awe-inspiring the universe is and wanted create something that would communicate that sense of wonder I feel when I see how hard people are working to help us understand the world we're living in.
I came up with the idea to compose a bunch of images with the exact same template using a centered circle, so that there is an immediate visual link between everything whether it's an astronaut's sun visor or the neck of a heron. For the other artists in the show, I asked them to think about the same things and create an image of their own interpretation showing how science and nature go hand in hand, and they've all chosen really different and cool areas to focus on!"
Those ideas are best illustrated with samples of the artwork, which Kevin shared and are embedded below. Science & Nature opens this Friday night, and will run for about two weeks at Gallery 1988 East. If you're in the LA area this Friday, you'll want to stop by and see the pieces in person, and maybe pick up a few screenprints!
There are a bazillion solar-powered portable batteries on the market. But they have this little problem: they need the sun in order to work. Inventors and engineers, seeing the need for portable power generation that doesn't require daylight, have been hard at work coming up with some creative ideas for alternative energy sources. Let's call them the Earth element batteries (or just call them awesome). Now you can get a portable battery powered by wind, water, fire, and even mud. Here's the science behind how these mini-generators work.
The FlameStower is a portable device that uses temperature variations to generate electricity. It's based on a simple principle called the thermoelectric effect. To put it in the most simplified way possible: all you need is to put two materials that are effective at moving electricity next to each other and add an electricity-capturing device on one end. Then you heat one side and cool the other. Electrons move from the hot side to the cool side (because they like to be where energy is lower and heat has a higher level of energy, a concept you probably know as diffusion). As they travel into the cool side they release heat energy and voila! You have a battery. Yay physics! This method of power generation is regularly used to power devices in space, where it's easy to generate heat naturally with a decaying radioactive material while subjecting it to the extreme cold temperatures of the vacuum outside.
The FlameStower generator works over any flame or heat source (a cook stove, a campfire, or even the stove in your kitchen). You simply put one end of it over the heat, pour some water into the cold side to keep the temperature there low, and plug in any USB device. They even have a version that can charge your gadgets using a candle. Depending on how powerful your flame is, the FlameStower can produce about 3w of power, which its makers calculate out to about two to four minutes of talk time on your phone for every one minute of charging. You can get one for $70 on their website and their candle charger, which will cost $99, is expected to be available soon.
From Science Friday: "Tour the unique artifacts, including a yeti scalp and 4-tusked elephant, collected by Explorers Club members during research expeditions over the last century. Executive Director Will Roseman reveals the remarkable science and stories of the collection at the Club Headquarters in New York City."
A team of explorers in Madagascar found an underwater graveyard containing a massive number of recently extinct lemurs. In my opinion, cave divers rank among the craziest people in the world, but the footage from these dives is awesome. (via Kate Greene)
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.
The last time NASA scientists sent a robot into the crater of a volcano was 1994.
It’s name was Dante II, an autonomous, eight-legged crawler packed with video cameras, lasers and other sensors. It was designed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to rappel and hobble down the inside of the active Alaskan volcano Mount Spurr – a proof-of-concept for encounters with the types of hostile environments that NASA robots might deal with in space.
But a tumble towards the end of Dante’s mission and subsequent helicopter rescue offered a stark reminder that “the possibility of catastrophic failure is very real in severe terrain,” the robot’s designers wrote. Even with today’s technology – we have self-driving cars now! – there hasn’t been another Dante since.
“To get a robot to go over the varied and often difficult terrain is very challenging. Robotics has come a long way since Dante, but […] it’s just not quite at the level where they can handle volcanic terrain yet,” explained Carolyn Parcheta, a volcanologist and NASA postdoctoral fellow sponsored by Tennessee’s Oak Ridge Associated Universities. It’s part of the reason that the U.S. Geological Survey still believes that "experienced volcanologists are a better and more cost-effective alternative for monitoring dangerous volcanoes” than robots – at least, for now.
In a volcanic environment, there are myriad materials of different sizes and shapes. You’ll find small round rocks where each step is like walking on the shifting sands of a beach. On the more extreme end of the spectrum is lava that’s sharp and jagged, making it near impossible to find space both flat and wide enough for a human foot. You’re always walking at an angle. In the middle, you have what Parcheta describes as “the slow, oozing, ropy looking stuff” that’s still difficult to walk on, but less so than the jagged stuff.
“Volcanic terrain is much more complicated than just a set of stairs or an inclined slope, because it’s often all those different things combined,” Parcheta explains. “There’s no regular pattern to the landscape. It feels random. And to the robot it will be random. It needs to learn how to assess that before it can take its steps, and humans do this on the fly, naturally.” This is, as you might expect, difficult – and one of the big problems that Dante’s designers had. So, for years, humans have instead sufficed.
But there’s also another reason that volcano crawling robots haven’t exactly been subject to pressing demand. According to Dr. Peter Cervelli, associate director for science and technology at the USGS Volcano Science Center, his agency has had “limited need for ground based robotics” – in large part because the majority of volcanoes in the United States don’t presently pose a threat to human volcanologists.
Sometimes it's good to get a sense of our scale as part of the world. In 2008, Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski were filming glacier calving at the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland when they captured a piece of ice roughly the size of lower Manhattan breaking off from the glacier. This video is breathtaking, play it full-screen and crank up your sound. (via Jake Rodkin)
In May, the remotely operated underwater vehicle Nereus descended 10,000m to the bottom of the Kermadec Trench, one of the ocean’s deepest, and never came back. It’s believed that Nereus—a hybrid remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that could also operate autonomously—likely imploded. The pressure at such depths can be as great as 16,000 pounds per square inch.
What’s weird is that Nereus was *designed* to withstand such pressure. That’s what made it unique. Unlike most other ROVs, which get their buoyancy from a material called syntactic foam, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), which designed and built Nereus, opted for a radical new design involving hundreds of ceramic spheres instead.
While we still don’t really know how or why Nereus failed–it completed numerous previous dives, some to deeper depths, without issue–there’s no denying that its novel design allowed Nereus to dive deeper, be built lighter, and stay underwater longer than probably any other ROV in existence. So, implosion aside, why aren’t we yet building more ROVs like Nereus—even the ones that aren’t destined for places as deep or pressures as intense as those of the Kermadec Trench?
Putting anything underwater requires a delicate balance between buoyancy and weight, explains Andy Bowen, director of the WHOI’s National Deep Submergence Facility, and maintaining that balance becomes more difficult the deeper you go down.
“You want the vehicle to be slightly positively buoyant, or at least neutrally buoyant. So all the stuff that weighs something has to be offset by something that doesn’t weigh as much–or, in fact provides, a buoyancy offset,” Bowen says. “You can broadly divide these things into parts that float or parts that don’t.”
Obviously, batteries, cameras, lights and motors are the things that don’t, and it’s the job of people like Bowen to make them float. Traditionally, manufacturers have used a material known as syntactic foam, which is composite material filled hollow microscopic glass bubbles. These bubbles lower the material’s density, making it buoyant. It’s flexible, well-understood, and has been in use for decades. When you look at a photo of a typical ROV, it's the brightly colored material mounted to the top of the robot's frame. "You can make syntactic foam to go just about anywhere you want it to go,” says Bowen, “but with a price.”
I absolutely loved this New Yorker piece by Burkhard Bilger about Bill Stone's expedition to the Chevé cave system near Oaxaca Mexico. Chevé is one of the deepest cave systems in the world, and explorers are constantly pushing the boundaries to find the ends of the system. At this level, spelunking requires high proficiency in dozens of skills, including climbing and scuba diving. It's long, but definitely worth a Saturday morning read.
"In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt legendarily spared the life of a black bear - and prompted a plush toy craze for so-called "teddy bears." Writer Jon Mooallem digs into this story and asks us to consider how the tales we tell about wild animals have real consequences for a species' chance of survival - and the natural world at large." Mooallem is the author of Wild Ones, a great book about the eccentric cultural history of Americans and our relationship with wild animals and the natural world. Mooallem also performed this lovely reading from his book in an episode of 99 Percent Invisible.
"The Pontiac Silverdome is a vacant sports stadium, formerly the home of the Detroit Lions football team, and the Detroit Pistons basketball team. Other major events included Wrestlemania III, which set a world record for attendance at an indoor event. The Lions left the stadium in 2002, after which some concerts and sports events were held. The Silverdome has been vacant since 2012, and the contents are being auctioned off." (h/t Laughingsquid)
Kurzgesagt is a wonderful YouTube channel that explains basic and controversial scientific concepts in concise animated videos. It was created by a team of designers from Munich, and the show's narration gives it a more than just a little bit of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy vibe. Their videos this month explain facts about the moons in the solar system, and this video explaining the Stock Exchange is one of my favorites.
The Earth’s magnetic field is acting pretty wonky right now. That may be an indicator of big changes to come. Or it could just be business as usual. The truth is that the most consistent thing about our magnetic field is that it’s inconsistent over short periods of time (like the human lifespan). But when scientists look at it across millennia, they recognize that its behavior is actually fairly easy to predict if they can just get an accurate measurement. So what, exactly, is going on with the modern magnetic field? I asked Scott Bogue, a geologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and one of the leading experts on Earth’s geomagnetism. Turns out, was a bit of a controversial question.
First, some background. If you know about the science, it makes sense that our field isn’t the most stable force on the planet. After all, it’s created by conditions in the most volatile place on Earth. The planet’s core is a spinning, stirring, moving glob of really excellent electricity-conducting liquid metal (iron-nickel alloy, to be exact). All the extreme heat energy down there, and the energy created by gravity, gets converted into the movement of the fluid. And energy from that fluid momentum gets converted into electromagnetic energy, which emanates from the core as our magnetic field.
The field surrounds the Earth and extends out into space (far enough that it encompasses all our orbiting satellites, but not so far that it reaches the moon). Its most important role is that it blocks particles that shoot down to earth from the sun (solar wind) and faraway stars (cosmic rays) by pushing them away from the Earth’s center and directing them towards the poles. That’s why the Northern and Southern Lights, created when incoming particles from the sun interact with Earth’s atmosphere, aren’t visible to most of the planet’s population. If we didn’t have the magnetic field, we’d see lights all over the Earth.
We won’t have Earth's magnetic field forever.
We won’t have the field forever. As the core cools and eventually stops spinning, the field will go away. Mars, for example, has a solid, cold core and no field (all of our outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune -- still have fields). Scientists aren’t sure what, exactly, will happen to Earth when our field finally goes away. They think all that solar wind and cosmic rays bombarding us might create a bunch of small holes in our ozone layer at low latitudes. At the very least, we’d probably get a lot more skin cancer.
So here’s where the controversy comes in.
Understanding the changing dietary habits of polar bears is the key to seeing how climate change and shrinking polar ice is affecting their lifestyles. And the best way to know what’s happening with their diet? Look at their poop, of course! Linda Gormezano, an ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has trained her dog Quinoa to help her find the best samples left by bears as they cross the frozen Canadian tundra. Gormezano chatted with us about why poop is such a useful scientific specimen and what it’s like to spend months living in a camp in the heart of polar bear country.
What’s ecology and how does it apply to polar bear research?
Ecology is the interaction between animals and the environment. What we’re studying is how polar bears behave on land with respect to available food -- what they eat and where they eat it. What I’m particularly interested in is how they hunt other animals and how the calories they gain from consuming them are going to affect their annual energy budget as their access to ice becomes more limited.
We collect scat and hair samples non-invasively. After consuming food on the ice or on land some bears leave scat. Also some bears rest right along the coast, bedding down in sand and grass where they leave hairs behind, while others head further inland and leave hair in dens.
What, exactly, is an energy budget?
Nobody really knows how often polar bears in western Hudson Bay capture seals, but they get a certain amount of energy from consuming seals they hunt out on the ice and that energy allows them to survive on land for 4-5 months each year. If the ice melting earlier each year causes polar bears to have less time to hunt seal pups in spring, they may be taking in fewer calories over the course of the year.
What we want to know is, now that they’re eating more of certain types of foods on land, what kind of energetic benefits might polar bears be experiencing? Up until now many have thought what they were eating on land wasn’t really helping them at all. To evaluate this, we are examining the energetic costs and benefits of capturing and consuming those foods as well as how often the behavior occurs. Only then can we determine whether these foods could help alleviate nutritional deficits that polar bears may come ashore with.
SpaceX's third contracted cargo run was supposed to launch on Monday--a Dragon capsule ferrying 2.5 tons of supplies to the International Space Station. But a helium leak in the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has delayed that launch until the end of this week. Among the tools, equipment, and food supplies being sent to the ISS are a new batch of experiments to join the over 100 already being conducted at any time on board the station. One notable new experiment is Veggie, NASA's prototype of an expandable plant chamber to grow lettuce seedlings in space. These plants will be grown on "pillows" in the device, which expands to 12x15-inches, the largest plant growth chamber yet sent to space. Astronauts will test the culinary and health potential of the space lettuce, and NASA also expects the experiment to have psychological benefits. Space gardening could be a legitimate pastime for astronauts.
If you want to understand how fire works, then you have to burn stuff. That’s where Ruddy Mell comes in. He’s a research combustion engineer and physicist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab. Mell’s job is to work with teams of fire experts to create controlled burns, collect all the data they can, and then build physics-based models that can predict what could happen when seriously dangerous fires burn out of control. Mell talked with us about why our current wildfire models are so insufficient and how they go about trying to control the world’s most unpredictable element out in the field.
Why do we need to study wildfires?
At least three reasons. Two of them are kind of combined. They have to do with fires in the wildland and urban interface, where wildland vegetation is adjacent to where people live and fire causes damage to homes and roads and power lines and cell towers -- anything that people have built that causes enough damage that the consequences need to be addressed.
The other problem is smoke. That’s a significant problem. Even if it doesn’t burn buildings the smoke is a problem if people are downwind. The health effect has been shown to cause increased hospital visits for respiratory problems. In some parts of the country, the southeast in particular where there are a lot of old people that are retired, it can be a big problem.
Also in the southeast US the vegetation tends to grow back very quickly, so they have to deal with this smoke issue because the vegetation is there to burn. One of the ways they deal with fires there is to do fuel treatments, where fuel is vegetation. They’ll burn it periodically just to keep it down so it will be easier to contain if there’s a wildfire. They’re limited in doing prescribed fires because of all the people around. They want to do this to keep it safe, but it’s hard to do.
So the wildland fire problem is a fire problem, a vegetation problem, and smoke problem. To address the problem you have to think about all that. When modelling comes in, you need models for fire and better models for smoke.
The purpose of these research burns is to provide data sets for model testing and validation and development. The best example of a model that’s used by people everyday are weather models. Imagine the world if we couldn’t look up the forecast. You can’t use experiments alone to help with weather predictions. Suppose you go out and measure temperature and wind at some site, there’s no guarantee it will be like that a year from now. You need models to help predict out into the future.