Latest StoriesEarth
    The Challenge of Building Straight Roads on a Spherical Earth

    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

    © 2015, Gerco de Ruijter; Courtesy of the Ulrich Museum, Wichita, Kansas

    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.

    Kevin Dart's Science & Nature Art Show at Gallery 1988

    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!

    10 Surprising Things Spotted With Satellites

    It wasn’t long after the Soviets put Sputnik in orbit that people started to think about what we could see on the Earth from up in the sky. Surveillance satellites are constantly spinning around our planet, taking snaps that we use for military and civilian purposes. But sometimes, they manage to get pictures of things we didn’t even know were there. Today, we’ll share ten images that came back from space and gave us a real surprise.

    Earth, Fire, Wind, Water: Alternative Battery Technologies

    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.

    Fire Power

    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.

    10 Incredible Stories Of Natural Disaster Survival

    Mother Nature nurtures humanity, but that doesn’t mean she’s averse to giving us a smack now and again. Hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches and other natural disasters often show us just how helpless we really are in the grand scheme of things. But the human body is remarkably resilient, and sometimes we manage to brush off everything the Earth throws at us and still survive. Here are ten amazing stories of people who lived through insane natural disasters.di

    10 Essential Items In Your Home Disaster Relief Kit

    A natural disaster can strike without warning, leaving your family in danger. No matter where you live or what kind of catastrophes strike your area, it’s vital to have a disaster relief kit in the home to handle basic survival needs until help arrives. Today, we’ll show you ten essential items that every household should have in case of Mother Nature letting loose some bad juju.

    10 Weird Things That Happen When It Gets Too Cold

    What a winter, huh? The East Coast has been deluged with snow for what seems like months, and people are just beginning to dig themselves out. Low temperatures can have effects beyond making it impossible to get to work, though. Today, we’ll examine ten phenomena that only manifest when the mercury falls to extreme levels.

    Behind-the-Scenes at the Explorers Club Headquarters

    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."

    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.

    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.

    Research Robots Versus the Volcano

    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.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    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.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    “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.

    10 of Earth's Natural Resources That Have Almost Dried Up

    For all the bounty of the Earth, it’s not going to last us forever. We’re stripping our planet bare of natural resources at a staggering rate to support an ever-increasing population. Today we’ll spotlight ten natural resources that we’re nearly out of, and explain how that may affect our everyday lives.

    Worth Watching: The Largest Glacier Calving Ever Filmed

    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)

    Designing Underwater Robots for Deeper Dives

    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.

    Photo credit: WHOI

    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.”

    Syntactic foam block machined for ROV use.

    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.”

    A Glimpse Inside the World's Deepest Caves

    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.

    The Teddy Bear and Our Shifting Relationship with the Natural World

    "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, Vacant Since 2012

    "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)

    The Moons of Mars Explained

    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.