Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Big Blue

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Why is it that when you hold up a glass of water it appears colourless, but when you look out onto a beautiful Caribbean vista, the water dances in unbelievable shades of blue? Is there something special about the sea that gives the big blue its name?

There is nothing that makes the ocean more blue than drinking water. Its just that there is so much of it that we see its true colour.

So what is the source of that true blue? One idea is that the ocean reflects the blue of the sky. Another is that there are dissolved ions, like copper, that give the water a blue tinge.

The water, in fact, is not reflecting the sky. I bet if you shone a floodlight on a crystal blue lagoon at night, you would still see that aquamarine colour.

And yes, there are many dissolved ions and other particles that may absorb, reflect, and scatter light, but this just causes variation in colour from sea to sea. But this is not the source of the blue.

In its typical unique style, water gets its colour in a way that is unlike most other molecules.

Colour corresponds to the length of light waves. Molecules will tend to absorb some light waves and reflect others. The wavelengths that are not absorbed are the ones we see, and give a substance its colour. Usually light waves interact with the electrons of the atoms, and not the inner nucleus.

Water, however, gets its hue from the vibrations coming from the nucleus of the atoms. The excited vibrations absorb red waves and not blue ones. This is the only known molecule to get its colour in this way.

As if I needed another reason to revere this gorgeous view...

~Rheanna "just about to put my toes in the" Sand

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Party Like it's 1999

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As we near the ten year anniversary of Y2K, it seems fitting that we should once again turn our attention to the disaster that very nearly felled the modern world.

Disaster? You may ask. I don't remember any disaster. In fact, if you're anything like me, you might remember being disappointed that the lights didn't explode come midnight on that fateful New Year's. But in fact, if it weren't for the concerted efforts of thousands of individuals worldwide, Y2K might have been a true apocalypse; planes falling from the sky and all. At least, according to some.

The issue, as you may recall, was thanks to the computer programmers of the 60's and their desire to save computer memory by not including a "19" before the year when inputting a date in a computer program. Of course, they never expected their programs to last more than a few years. But programs that eventually grew out of this system went on to include Microsoft Excel, Javascript, UNIX and C programming... Some of the most influential programs out there (or so I've been told).

To make a long story short, an estimated 300 billion dollars was spent in preparation for Y2K. Money that went towards creating the backup systems that kept the world afloat, both after the clock struck twelve in the year 2000, and some argue, in the aftermath of 9/11 following the prolonged blackout in lower Manhattan.

And while some still believe there was never a threat to begin with, I prefer to see it differently. I like to look at it as a challenge that humankind met head-on and defeated soundly, with rational thinking and preemptive action.

...It is possible for us to do that, right?

- Brit Trogen

Monday, December 14, 2009

Now you see me, now you don't

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Everyone has bad days, the days you want to be invisible. It may be the walk-of-shame from the night before or an unfortunate breakout. But it happens to the best of us.
Now, invisibility cloaks aren't just for Harry Potter. Don't believe me? Check out these videos.

The new invisibility cloaks that have been developed use one of two strategies to make you disappear:

The first is a bit of a DIY strategy - imagine placing a camera on your back and projecting that image on your front - it will appear to a viewer as if they can see right through you. Apply that to a much bigger scale and an entire garment - and voila...or rather...the opposite of voila.

The other strategy uses the principle that if light bends around an object and is directed to come back together on the other side, it travels so quickly that the viewer can't see what the light bent around. These light bending materials are things called metamaterials that are smaller than the smallest wavelength of light. Finally, a practical application for nanotechnology.

Why develop invisibility cloaks?

Silly, silly question. Why NOT develop invisibility cloaks? Not only does it give D&D players a new sense of personal worth and value, it also will help soldiers, thieves and hermits operate in the world without fear of being caught.

--Torah Kachur

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Science v. Politics

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The UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen has reached its midpoint. While the political delegates play their usual high stakes poker game, scientists are playing some games of their own.

The so-called "climategate" scandal has re-ignited a long buried debate over whether climate change data was faked. Over a thousand emails from English climate scientists were hacked, and some reports took certain phrases out of context, implicating that scientists manipulated data. The Associated Press, however, examined every email and concluded no falsification took place.

Not to say the scientists were saints: there were some "generous interpretations" and they did seem blinded by their cause. But this does not, in any way, devalue the immense, internationally recognized body of work supporting a major role for human pollution in global climate disruption. Unfortunately, the journalistic error of "false balance" gives both sides an equal voice.

There is some good news in climate change research, though: UCLA researchers successfully engineered a bacteria that consumes carbon dioxide and produces isobutanol - a viable replacement for fossil fuels. This approach to creating biofuels negates the need for biomass deconstruction - like the wasting of corn to get at the fuel inside. Discoveries like these could have huge ramifications on social issues like food wars and third world poverty.

As Jacob Bronowski said, "no science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power." But perhaps the principles of science, and the discoveries that result, can undercut the ills that corrupted power brings.

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Welcome to the Multiverse

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One of the things I enjoyed most about Star Trek: The Original Series was the frequency and ease with which Kirk's crew could pass in and out of parallel universes. And even though the alternate planes always looked suspiciously similar to the original ones (with the exception of Mr. Spock's sexy new goatee), the idea was fascinating.

Could there be an infinite array of parallel worlds flanking our own? There are many hypotheses centering around this idea, including the multi-dimensional extension of string theory known as M-theory (a perplexing description of which can be found here).

But my favorite has always been the Many Worlds interpretation most closely described in Star Trek itself (or if you prefer thought experiments, Schrodinger's cat.) Simply put, for every situation in which multiple possible outcomes could occur, different universes exist in which every possible outcome has occurred. For example, if you were to roll a die and it came up 1, according to MWI it showed up as 2 through 6 in five parallel universes.

This is, of course, a bit oversimplified. But the implications are really cool. If you were to walk out into the street and get hit by a bus tomorrow morning, who's to say that alternate universe version of you didn't miss it by a hair?

That said, I'd still recommend you stick to the crosswalks.

- Brit Trogen

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sumo, Heal Thyself

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A sumo can take YOU down, no problem. But what takes down a sumo? A bigger sumo!

In the battle of the bulge, researchers have realized this logic. Fat is finally being used to fight fat.

Researchers in Bonn have discovered that so-called "brown fat" deposits are absent or inactive in obese individuals. Brown fat is not your typical fat - it is stocked full of mitochondria, the energy burning centers of the cell. As a result, brown fat cells release huge amounts of heat and chew up other fat reserves in the process.

Activating just 50 grams of brown fat in the body can increase metabolic rates by 20%, and melt fat at the rate of 5 kilograms a year. If these cells can be activated artificially, another therapeutic option would be available to treat severe metabolic disorders.

In related news, food chemists have created a batter for chicken and fish that reduces the amount of fat in the deep-fried meat by 50%. It is made from an appetizing "slurry" of proteins from spare chicken and fish parts that is sprayed on the meat prior to deep-frying.

And if you are a fan of deep frying, a group of Turkish researchers showed that microwaving your french fries before frying reduces the amount of the carcinogen acrylamide up to 60%, and does not affect the quality of the final product. In fact, pre-microwaving the fries reportedly improved their colour, which was described as "more acceptable" than fries cooked in oil alone.

Then again, maybe all you need is a sumo staring you down while you reach for that next bag of chips…

~Rheanna Sand

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Death to Cuties?

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One needs only to visit Australia to be reminded of the absurdity of evolution.

Where else will you find a creature that needs to sleep for eighteen hours every day because it evolved to eat leaves that are almost entirely indigestible, toxic, and virtually calorie free?

Yes, Phascolarctos cinereus, the gentle Koala (in fact a marsupial, not a bear), is living proof that for every ecological niche, no matter how bizarre, there’s an adorable creature waiting to fill it. But sadly, this particular niche –living in a salad bowl with an insanely slow metabolism – is about to go from silly and cute to dead serious.

A recent survey by the Australian Koala Foundation has shown that the koala population has dropped by almost 50% in the past six years, and if current trends continue could put koalas at risk of extinction within thirty years. And with population threats extending from global warming to deforestation to Chlamydia, it seems that a massive and wide reaching conservation program will be needed to save these furry tree huggers.

Now, I know I’m not the only one who’s starting to notice the trends here. First panda bears, now koalas – if all the cute animals die how will WSPA and the WWF suck us in to donating? But more seriously, what is this going to mean for the future of our planet? Here’s hoping the face of climate change just got a whole lot cuter.

- Brit Trogen