picture this II

A while back I blogged/ran a thought experiment/slightly panicked about the size of the known universe, and I have to say, even after that great video, I still haven't gained a complete mental picture of the size of the universe (I'm working on it, though... I'm at about 85%).

Another tool I can now use, and I'm happy to share with you, is a size comparison of different celestial objects, from moons to planets to stars. It was a bit startling to me to realize that, even though our sun is ridiculously huge compared to our planet, it is absolutely minuscule compared to some of the other things out there.

Prepare to have your mind blown again, hopefully with slightly less panic this time. It's yet another piece of evidence to suggest that astronomers must examine the fascinating cosmos all night, only to come home slightly depressed about the triviality of electric bills and changing the oil on their 15 year-old Corollas.

(Little-known fact: all celestial bodies actually have small labels just below them. This is how astronomers are able to keep track of so many.)



the majestic plastic bag

Just saw an amazing video that I want to share with everyone... this is the kind of documentary I want to make:


holy cuss awesomeness!

I just found out that squid, those amazing funky-shaped demons that can make themselves invisible have another superpower that makes them infinitely cooler... they can fly!

The other day at a job interview, the old question "if you could be any kind of animal, what would it be?" came up. After thinking for a moment, I said "a duck," because, naturally, they can swim, they can walk and they can fly, and I think that combination is pretty sweet. I may have to call that interviewer back now, because I want to change my answer to "squid."

From SciAm:

With her husband and fellow biologist Michael Robinson, Maciá identified the airborne cephalopod as a Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea)—a lithe, torpedo-shaped critter with long, undulating fins. They think the squid was startled by the noise of the boat's outboard engine and estimated that the 20-centimeter-long mollusk reached a height of two meters above the water and flew a total distance of 10 meters—50 times its body length. What's more, the squid extended its fins and flared its tentacles in a radial pattern while airborne, as though guiding its flight.
"It was doing this weird thing with its arms where it had them spread out almost in a circle," recalls Maciá, who teaches at Barry University in Florida. "It had its fins kind of flared out as much as it could—it really looked liked it was flying. It hadn't accidentally flopped out of the water; it was maintaining its posture in a certain way. It was doing something active."

"From our observations it seemed like squid engage in behaviors to prolong their flight," Maciá says. "One of our co-authors saw them actually flapping their fins. Some people have seen them jetting water while in flight. We felt that 'flight' is more appropriate because it implies something active."

The aerodynamic benefit an airborne squid derives from flapping fins and spiraled tentacles is not clear, but some researchers hypothesize that these behaviors provide extra lift and help stabilize the squid when out of its primary element. In the water some squid spread their tentacles into a weblike pattern that facilitates swimming backward—a trick they could try to mimic in the air to gain an extra set of wings, some scientists have proposed. And rapidly changing the position of the tentacles could even function as a kind of brake.

Awesome. This creates a close contest between the squid and the octopus as the coolest animals ever. They both can swim, and octopuses can walk, but flying is key: but for that giant flying octopus that attacked Japan two years ago, it'd be a dealbreaker.



time microscopes

There's a sort of ironic poetry in the popularity of fail pictures and videos--that is, images and clips of people injuring themselves and/or breaking things in dramatic and painful fashion. In our increasingly connected world, where the latest information and innovations are available at the click of a button, we are still viscerally entertained by watching someone crash a bicycle into something hard and unforgiving.

I usually avoid these types of videos because I've injured myself numerous times in a variety of similar ways, and I'm prone to vicarious sympathy pains. If I watch too many handrail-between-the-legs videos, I might not be able to have kids later on.

However, I do appreciate watching a ladybug tumble from takeoff position or a frog miss a dragonfly with dramatic bravado. Perhaps, on a deeper level, it's because the mechanics of flight or predation fascinate me in their beauty and complexity, and seeing it go wrong is a pleasant surprise. More likely, it's because I like to make airplane-crashing sounds as I watch that ladybug ungracefully sputter to the ground.

Thankfully, Andrew Mountcastle and his high-speed camera indulge us with slow-motion nature-fail.

As a grad student at the University of Washington studying the flight mechanisms of invertebrates, Andrew spends a lot of time filming the takeoff and flight of insects around campus. Using a slow-motion camera filming at 500 frames per second, he has captured valuable video that gives us insight into the mechanics of flight, specifically how wing flexibility affects a bug's flight. This also gives him the opportunity to catch some of the ephemeral yet epic-fail-worthy moments in nature that we rarely see.

Equally interesting, however, is something Andrew mentioned in an interview for a recent profile on the UW website that hadn't occurred to me before: "I view (high-speed cameras) as time microscopes. In the same way that microscopes allow you to magnify space, these allow you to magnify time -- to see details of time that we'd never see with the naked eye. It's a great tool."

A time microscope is indeed a great tool. I don't know how many times I've watched a ladybug take off, fly somewhere and land, but I remember it quite clearly as first a bug, then a blur, then a bug again. Watching his high-speed video of the same bug's successful ascent, the blur becomes a series of steps of orderly pre-flight preparation and carefully-orchestrated movements that allow the round little beetle to gracefully lift off and soar (I especially like the Superman-extension of the front legs).


A common misconception is that physicists have determined that, due to the laws of aerodynamics, it is impossible for a bumblebee to fly. This is clearly not the case, as we see them flitting about all the time. Rather than throwing up our hands and saying it must be some higher power carrying them about, however, we can examine the flight of the bee with a time microscope like Andrew's and see what most people can't: when a bumblebee flies, it moves its wings in a figure-eight motion that creates a vortex in the air, lifting them and carrying them about (A more scientific answer here)

If you'd like to check out more fascinating videos from Andrew's time microscope, head on over to http://students.washington.edu/mtcastle/movies.php, where you can see ladybugs, dragonflies, bees--and most importantly, inept frogs--flying slowly through the air. For those of you less bug-minded, I'd also encourage you to check out Time Warp and Things But Very Slowly, which turn the time microscope on everything from a slap in the face to a finger in a table saw (now I know you want to see that).


via UW News


you can do it, put yo' [butt] into it


I work, play, eat, sometimes sleep, and occasionally poo outdoors, and wherever I go, whether it's on a busy city street or in the most remote of Sierra wilderness, I am guaranteed to see at least a handful of cigarette butts.

I see them sitting on sidewalks, in gutters, on hiking trails, all over parking lots, in the nooks of trees, in National Forest, at dog parks and, once, in a discarded beer can inside a sneaker on an otherwise pristine and remote river beach (thanks for consolidating, buddy). Just yesterday, on a whim, I picked up about 20 from a small pile of debris next to a storm drain at my office. Had I more time, I would have dug out the other 40 or so.

They are the most common piece of litter in the United States and the world, and have annually topped the Ocean Conservancy's list of most frequently collected trash in the International Coastal Cleanup. Last year, ICC volunteers picked up 2,189,252 butts, making up 21% of all of the litter found on the world's shores. One study estimated that around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts per year are discarded somewhere other than a trash can and enter the environment.

Apparently, the common belief among smokers is that their butts are somehow biodegradable, or perhaps that the impact of their waste is minimal. In truth, cigarette butts are to the health of the environment as the rest of the cigarette is to the health of a smoker. The butts hold the cellulose acetate filters of the cigarettes, which supposedly protect the smoker from the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals the cigarettes release when they burn; chemicals like Arsenic, Formaldehyde, Tar, Cadmium, Hydrogen Cyanide, and more than 4000 others. These filters collect this cornucopia of crap from what smoke passes through the butt, and store it up until it's washed out by the next rainstorm, processed in a baby bird's stomach, or absorbed through the gills of a fish. According to a study by (the unfortunately named) Slaughter et al, the chemicals found in one cigarette butt can kill half the fish in a 1-liter tank of water in less than a day.

Clearly, we need to do more work to reduce not only the number of cigarettes people smoke, but also the vast number that they flick into the forest. But rather than sending them all to a landfill to leach and not-degrade, can't we find another use for them?

Apparently, we can, and in an ironically topical way.

A team of crazy chemists at the School of Energy and Power Engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University took it upon themselves to soak a bunch of cigarette butts in hydrochloric acid (the same stuff found in your stomach), and apply the resulting solution to some industrial-grade steel, the kind used in underwater pipes. When treated, the steel developed a greater resistance to corrosion--up to 95% greater--than that of steel left untreated.

This means that underwater pipes, such as those broken ones spewing oil from a hole in the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico, can be treated with a solution derived from cigarette butts and stomach acid to increase their strength and decrease the likelihood of catastrophic failure.

In this weird twist of science and engineering, the same butts that pollute our oceans, poison our waters, and kill our fish and wildlife can be used to prevent similarly deadly oil spills like the one going on right now.

So don't smoke, but if you absolutely feel compelled to do so, hold on to that butt when you're done. See if you can make it all the way to a trash can, and perhaps some day we'll have special filter recycling stations to collect the materials to fortify our also-recycled steel.




gettin' hyphae with mycelium

What do you think is the largest living thing in the world?

A blue whale? They are indeed the largest animal that has ever lived...can grow up to 108 feet long and 172 metric tons...

A giant sequoia? General Sherman, at 274 ft high and 108 ft in circumference, contains 52,584 cubic feet of wood...

So that's it, right? Plants and animals?

Oh wait, there's bacteria and archaea and fungi, too. Of course bacteria and archaea are microscopically small, but there's no way that there's a mushroom bigger than a giant sequoia, right?

As epic as that would be, the answer is no. However, what you see when mushroom hunting is just the ephemeral fruiting body, the distributor of spores, and far less than the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The bulk of a fungus is actually underground, in a dense network of cells called a mycelium. There are a few really cool things about mycelium: 1)it's made up of cells called hyphae, which are all pretty much identical, 2)strands of these hyphae are only one cell thick, 3)hyphal growth is directed by organelles called "spitzenkörper" (which is just a really cool word) and 4)the cobweb-like structure of mycelium can be so dense that a single cubic inch of soil can contain up to eight miles of hyphae!

Since the majority of a fungus is a spongy mesh of single-celled tubes underground, it can absorb nutrients and water directly from its surroundings, it's pretty well protected, and it doesn't need to hold itself up. These factors should allow it to grow pretty much indefinitely... and it does, in some cases.

Up in the Malheur National Forest of eastern Oregon, there's a giant network of genetically identical mycelium that spans... 8.9 square kilometers. Almost three and a half square miles. Not only that, but it's estimated to be 2400 years old. Dude.

But let's take that density thing and run with it. Eight miles of hyphae in a cubic inch of soil means that there's a lot of criss-crossing fibers, hundreds or maybe thousands of layers thick, forming a redundant, resilient network, like kevlar... or fiberglass insulation...

Hey, what if we could do something with that? What if we grew a bunch of super-dense mycelium into forms that we could use, and then dried it, so that we'd have a really tough custom-shaped material for, say, structural strength, or insulation, or packaging? We could build things out of it, or keep our houses warm, or ship fragile things in it... and since it's made of mushrooms, we could just throw it away or compost it, and it would be completely biodegradable!

Well, lucky for us, such a thing does exist. A bunch of non-scientists engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute came up with this idea, and have turned it into a couple products, called Greensulate™ and EcoCradle™.

To make this kind of fungal Styrofoam, they take byproducts of agricultural crops, such as cotton burrs or buckwheat hulls, load them up with fungal spores and fungus food, and let 'em grow. After a few weeks, the hyphae have surrounded and consumed the agricultural byproducts, forming that dense mycelium. As it grows, the mycelium fills out whatever mold it's started in, whether that's in the form of a brick, a large flat panel, or a custom shape that perfectly fits whatever product you need to carefully package.

Once it has grown to the proper size and shape, they cook it to render it "biologically inert," which is a fancy engineer way of saying "dead." Depending on the proportion of ag byproducts and fungal spores they use, they can change the properties of the "fungoam" (I just made that up) to make it harder or softer. Grown in the right proportions, they can actually make this stuff stronger than concrete, but a whole lot lighter. Plus, it's mold- and moisture-resistant, is a better thermal and vibration insulator than Styrofoam, and it's fireproof!

This stuff is super eco-friendly, too. Not only is it made from living things that require no light and only room-temperature heat (requiring one tenth of the energy of synthetic foam), but
"The raw material inputs of EcoCradle™ are selected based on regionally available agricultural by-products. So a factory in Texas or China might use cotton seed hulls, and a factory in Virginia or Spain might use rice husks and soybean hulls. By manufacturing regionally, and using local feedstocks, we aim to minimize the trucking of raw and finished materials." (http://www.ecovativedesign.com)
Since it's made of fungus instead of synthetic materials, after you're done with it, you can just throw it in your compost and return it to the environment whence it came, returning its nutrients to the soil to fuel the next generation of fungus.

According to Ecovative Design, EcoCradle™ is going to be protecting a soon to be shipped unnamed product, and their website shows packaging for some cylindrical device, but presumably, with a large enough mold, they could make anything, like entire buildings! Or Paul Bunyan statues! Or life-size models of General Sherman!


Check out:

via Time


the details

I read an article the other day about how people are forming online support groups to cope with the depression that sets in after they watch Avatar and subsequently think they'll never see something so beautiful anywhere other than Pandora.

To you sullen homebodies, I say this: get yourself a microscope, a black light, and some scuba gear, and come with me.

A marine biologist and a designer have started a little company called Morphologic Studios in Miami, Florida, with the mission of bringing to light the beautiful living art that exists right here on Earth, specifically in the form of microscopic coral reef-dwellers. They've just started a blog of videos of these vibrant little creatures, including a number of different invertebrates, from crabs and shrimp to corallimorph polyps and Christmas Tree Worms. For those of you who have seen Avatar multiple times (I'm up to twice so far, including in IMAX 3D), you'll be happy to know that the latter is the inspiration for those giant flowers that disappear when you touch them.

I'm always excited to find kindred spirits who agree that the most beautiful art comes not from a brush, a pencil, or a hammer, but from the oldest tool in the world: evolution.

'The Christmas Tree Worm' from MORPHOLOGIC on Vimeo.


via boing boing thanks to liam


picture this

Y'know how Spider-man had that "spider sense," where he could tell when something probably large and no doubt painful was about to smack him from behind? Do you ever get that feeling?

Maybe it's just me. And radioactive spiders, of course.

Anyway, let's try a little experiment:

Take a look around... maybe you're sitting at a desk, maybe you're in bed, maybe you're on a boat or a bus or a plane or on horseback (you'd better not be driving, though... there are laws against reading science blogs while driving cars or operating horses). Memorize your surroundings, looking at the people and the things around you, how big they are, and how far they are away from you. Without sounding too much like a hippie, I want you to close your eyes and try to "feel" the distance between you and your computer screen, between you and the closest light, between you and the nearest exit in the event of an emergency. Maybe you can picture in your head what it would look like from outside your body, to see the distance between you and that thing. Go ahead, try it out, close your eyes. Feel it.

Okay, now, open them.

Um, open them.

[This is a problem. Perhaps I should start video blogging...]

Well, I'm going to assume you're all here, with eyes open again. That was lovely, wasn't it? I could picture in my head the things in my room, almost sensing their presence and proximity to me.

Let's go up in scale a bit, and picture yourself inside your house, or your apartment, your boat, your office building, or your horse paddock. Picture how big (or small) you are relative to those things, how you might look to the bird up on the telephone pole. Now picture how big you'd look if someone could see your entire town, or city, or if they were flying overhead at a few thousand feet. You'd be pretty tiny, right?

Now picture yourself, your big muscles and your fine tall stature that your grandmother is so proud of, relative to the size of the entire known universe.

Can you do it? I can't. I think my head would explode.

Maybe this video will help. It was created by the American Museum of Natural History to demonstrate just how big the universe as we know it really is. Using sophisticated computer technology (probably Mathematica on a Mac), they've created a scale map of everything in the cosmos we know about, starting from the Himalayas (tallest mountains on Earth, in case ya didn't hear) and zooming out to the remnant energy of the Big Bang.

What I find particularly interesting is that they've shown just how far out our first radio waves have broadcast. They should be hearing Al Jolson over at the center of the galaxy in the next 70,000 years or so.

Stuff like this makes me want to cry a little bit, for a number of reasons:
1. The universe is so impossibly large, with so many stars and so many planets, that I can't believe that the evolution of life as we define it is unique to our planet,
2. Even if there are other "civilizations" out there, we'll never meet them, as they wouldn't even pick up our earliest radio waves for another couple billion years, and
3. By that time, the Sun will have swallowed up the Earth.
4. Furthermore, on the scale of the known universe, where it takes light so incredibly long to travel between two points, and our own galaxy is but a mere speck in the sky from anywhere else, it really doesn't matter if your socks match today.
5. And your life comprises such a short time on such an inconsequential ball of dirt (during which light will travel practically nowhere), that your existence will have essentially no impact on the history of the universe, so it really doesn't matter if that really cute and popular girl with the blond hair and braces snubbed your request to go to the middle school dance with you. Get back to work on that FTL drive in your mom's basement.

In sum, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvpcOqSK7YU