December 2 – Pile On!

Today’s factismal: The world’s first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place in Chicago on December 2, 1942.

Did you ever wonder why a nuclear reactor is sometimes called a “pile”? The answer to that question was built in Chicago some 74 years ago. During World War II, we knew a lot of things. We knew (thanks to Becquerel) that atoms could split into smaller parts in what would come to be known as an atomic reaction. And we knew (thanks to Einstein) that those reactions could release a lot of energy. And we knew (thanks to our spies) that the Germans were working on ways of turning that energy into an explosive. And we knew (thanks to the way the war was going in 1942 {not well}) that if they developed it, they’d use it. So we decided to develop it first. And so was born the Manhattan Project, the most famous secret project ever.

The world's first artificial nuclear reactor. The uranium went into the holes in the graphite bricks. (Image courtesy DoE).

The world’s first artificial nuclear reactor. The uranium went into the holes in the graphite bricks.
(Image courtesy DoE).

The first stage of the Manhattan Project was discovering if we could control the reaction; if we couldn’t then there wasn’t any way to build a weapon. So Enrico Fermi (who discovered how to make small atoms out of big ones by bombarding them with neutrons) and Leó Szilárd (who discovered how to make other atoms do the bombardment in a chain reaction) constructed the world’s first artificial nuclear reactor in a Chicago University racquetball court. (There was a natural nuclear reactor in Africa some two billion years ago, but they didn’t know about it then.) To make it, they placed 771,000 pounds of graphite bricks into a rough cube that was 20 feet high and 25 feet wide; as they built, they filled the bricks with 92,990 pounds of uranium pellets and control rods of indium, cadmium, and silver. The graphite absorbed some of the energy of the neutrons released by the uranium as it decayed; that made it more likely that the neutrons would be absorbed by other uranium atoms causing them to decay. And the control rods would absorb the neutrons completely, stopping the reaction. By sliding the control rods in and out of what Fermi describer as “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers”, they would be able to control the reaction (in theory, at least).

And on December 2, they tested that theory. In front of a group of other physicists who were also working on the Project, they slid the rods out and started the world’s first artificial self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Twenty-eight minutes later, they slid the rods back in and stopped the reaction. The test was a success and that meant that the Manhattan Project could go on and we could use it to win the war.

Today, we are still splitting atoms, this time for peace. And we are still trying to learn what happens next. If you’d like to help the physicists at Stanford discover what happens when you make tiny ones out of little ones, then why not contribute the idle time on your computer with LHC@home?

November 30 – Map Quest

Today’s factismal: The first map of the Moon was made 407 years ago today.

Back in the 1600’s, there were only two things that everyone was sure of: death and the fact that things in the heavens were perfect. The first was kind of obvious thanks to smallpox, war, famine, and straight party ticket voting, and the second had to be true because Aristotle said it and the Roman Catholic Church believed it. At the time, it was thought that anything on Earth was corrupt thanks to Adam’s sin while anything in the skies was part of Heaven and therefore incorruptible. So you can imagine the furor when Galileo took the telescope he invented and turned it to the Moon – and then told everyone what he saw.

Galileo's telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe - literally!

Galileo’s telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe – literally!

And what he saw was revolutionary. Instead of being a perfect, smooth sphere, the Moon was covered with pockmarks and scars – what we know now to be impact craters and lava flows. While today all of the attention is given to Galileo’s proofs that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, it was his demonstration that the heavens were imperfect that struck the most direct blow at the Roman Catholic Church’s philosophy. As a result, even though anyone could verify the truth of Galileo’s work by simply looking, many preferred not to do so lest they also fall into heresy.

Galileo's map of the Moon (Image courtesy Galileo)

Galileo’s map of the Moon
(Image courtesy Galileo)

If you aren’t afraid of heresy then go out to look a the Moon tonight and take a long gander at the big black splotch that’s looking back at you. That’s Oceanus Procelarum, or the Ocean of Storms. It was named in 1655 (46 years after Galileo published his map) by Giovanni Riccioli, a Catholic priest who liked Galileo’s results but not his methods. To “punish” Galileo and his friends for disproving Church doctrine, he used the names of those who supported the heliocentric universe for the craters nearest Oceanus Procellarum which turns out to be one of the largest outflows of lava anywhere in the Solar System. That big white blotch on the eastern side of the stormy ocean? That’s Copernicus Crater, named for the chief heliocentricist and all-around troublemaker; those long white streaks are bits of lunar rock and dust that were thrown out when the asteroid slammed into the Moon and formed the crater.

A modern view of the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

A modern view of the Moon
(Image courtesy NASA)

And while you may not believe it, we are still naming things on the Moon today! Even after four centuries of discoveries, there are still new features to see on the Moon and new things to identify. By mapping every crater and every lava flow and every mountain, we can get a better idea of how the Moon has changed over time and learn more about how the Solar System formed. And the best part is that you can help! Just head over to Cosmo Quest and start clicking on the Moon pictures to tell them what you see. For more information, land at:

November 28 – Red Headed Menace

Today’s factismal: There have been 55 probes to Mars since the first one launched 52 years ago today.

Back in 1964, the US and the USSR had one thing in common – neither one of them could get a spacecraft to Mars. The two countries were engaged in a space race, trying to show that they could do more and go further than the other but all of their probes to Mars failed. The USSR had launched five different probes to Mars, only one of which had made it out of Earth orbit. The US had launched just one probe but the cover on it had failed to separate, meaning that the probe couldn’t make it to Mars. And then came Mariner IV.

A close-up of a crater on Mars (Image courtesy NASA's HiRISE)

A close-up of a crater on Mars
(Image courtesy NASA’s HiRISE)

Based on the successful Ranger probes that had explored the Moon, the Mariner was designed to take photos of Mars’ surface and send them back to Earth; it also would measure cosmic rays in space, look for changes in solar wind and plasma, and discover how much dust was in the Solar System. All of these things would be important if we were ever to travel to Mars. At 2:27:23 PM UTC on November 28, 1964, atop an Atlas missile with an Agena booster, the Mariner probe headed for the skies and then for Mars. It would fly past the Red Planet 228 days later and send back the first close-up images ever taken of the planet.

The first close-up picture of Mars (Image courtesy NASA)

The first close-up picture of Mars
(Image courtesy NASA)

Today there are eight different probes in orbit around or exploring the surface of Mars. They are telling us about its climate, its atmosphere, its composition, how it has changed over time, and (most importantly) if it has life living below its surface. And the best part of the exploration of Mars is that you can be a part of it. Just fly over to Planet Four: Terrains and tell them what you see in each image (craters, sand dunes, little green men). The scientists will use your classifications to help them understand how Mars has changed over the years. To learn more, land on:

November 18 – Zoo Is It?

Today’s factismal: The first modern zoo was created in 1826.

Odds are that on some sunny weekend you’ve found yourself wandering the paths at your local zoo, staring at the monkeys and trying to out-roar the lions. (And if you haven’t, you should have!) But have you ever wondered where zoos came from? It turns out, as is so often the case, that we have the Romans to thank.

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die (My camera)

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die
(My camera)

People have always kept animals, for food, for pets, and for show. Egyptians had cats and hippopotamuses. Ancient Chinese had “houses of deer”. Andalusians had horses. But until the Roman Empire, most people only had a few animals and only from the area nearby. But under Rome all of that changed. Thanks to Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ocean and its constantly conquering armies, a steady supply of animals from all over came to Italy where they were showed to the public as proof of Rome’s might. Their menageries included lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), bulls, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, crocodiles, and serpents and a host of other animals, all of which would be displayed for a short time before being sent to die in bloody combat as part of the Roman Games.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Why were the animals killed? Because the Romans had no idea of how to keep them alive. And that problem would continue through the ages. During the Dark Ages, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own, filled with exotic animals that would die exotic deaths (and sometimes be used in exotic cooking). And during the Renaissance, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own that would add “dissected (sometimes alive)” to what was done during the Dark Ages. An example of those menageries is Tiergarten Schönbrunn which was created in 1540, expanded in 1752, and opened to the public in 1779; many consider it to be the first “public zoo”.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

That wouldn’t change until 1826 when a group of English scientists decided that they’d like to study animals for as long as they could without the trouble of going to another country. And so the London Zoological Society was born; two years later, they opened their zoo for research – but not to the public! They studied how animals lived, what they ate, where they hid, how they hunted, and a host of other things that we are still studying today. It would take another two decades before they would start allowing the public in to view the animals (and defray some of the research costs).

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

Today there are zoos in every country across the globe, most of which subscribe to a set of rules designed to keep the animals healthy and happy for as long as possible. And research happens at most of those zoos, with an increased emphasis on preserving endangered species. Interestingly, a lot of the best zoo research nowadays doesn’t happen at the zoo; it happens in the field where scientists use trap cameras to capture images of the animals in their native habitat acting the way they do when nobody is watching. (Anyone who has ever sung in the shower can understand that last bit.) And, just as the first modern zoo was built to keep the scientists from having to travel, the research can be done by you without having to go to the zoo (but you really should; it’s all happening there). If you go to the Toledo Zoo Wild Shots site, you can classify the pictures by getting rid of those without animals and by saying what animal you think is present. To learn more, head over to:

November 16 – Home Phone E.T.

Today’s factismal: The first interstellar message was sent on November 16, 1974. It will arrive in 25,000 years.

Quick! What’s big enough to hold 10,000 gallons of guacamole, deep enough to put a submarine in, precise enough to see supernovae 44 million light years away, and sent the first message to the stars? It is the Arecibo National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (the Arecibo Observatory, or just Arecibo, for short).

Words (My camera)

The Arecibo “dish”, big enough for a submarine to hide in (My camera)

Back in the late 1950s, scientists were just learning about the ionosphere and wanted to develop a tool that would allow them to probe its secrets. And other scientists were learning about radio emissions from planets and stars, and wanted a tool to learn about those. And when the first group of wonks met the second group of wonks, a new telescope was born.

The idea was simple: because the same energy (radio waves) that is used to probe the ionosphere is also used to learn more about distant planets and stars, instead of building two small instruments, why not build one huge one? They would get better resolution (thanks to the size of the reflecting dish), more power (thanks to the size of the transmitter/receiver), and more funding (thanks to the size of the project). And so they started looking for a place to build what would be the world’s biggest single aperture telescope, a title it would hold until 2016 when the Chinese opened their Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope.

The remains of the very first supernova ever recorded (Image courtesy NASA)

The remains of the very first supernova ever recorded
(Image courtesy NASA)

They had quite a few requirements on the location. It had to be in the US (thanks to the Cold War). It had to be near the equator (so it could see the planets). It had to be in an area with eroded limestone features called karst (so that it would be easy to build). And the spot that best fit was a little place called Arecibo on the island of Puerto Rico. So that’s where they built it and, on November 1, 1963, they started getting signals.

An image of the Crab Nebula at radio frequencies (Image courtesy NASA)

An image of the Crab Nebula at radio frequencies (Image courtesy NASA)

And what amazing things they saw! At the end of six months, they had discovered that Mercury wasn’t tidally-locked to the Sun like the Moon is to Earth; instead, it had a funny 3:2 rotation so that the day on Mercury appears to take two years! Soon they proved the existence of neutron stars, and mapped asteroids, and found complex molecules in outer space. But they weren’t limited to discovering things; they could also help things discover us. On November 16, 1974, Carl Sagan and friends took over Arecibo and used it to send a message to globular cluster M13, letting ET know where to phone.

Globular cluster M13, target of our first message (Image courtesy NASA)

Globular cluster M13, target of our first message
(Image courtesy NASA)

Unfortunately, Sagan was a better showman than he was an astronomer. In sending the message, he forgot about “proper motion” and sent the message to where the cluster appears to be in the sky. Because M13 is some 25,000 light years away, where it appears to be tonight is actually not where it is now – or where it will be when the message arrives! Imagine that you are walking along and tossing out pebbles every so often. The pebbles take a second to so to hit the ground so that you are in a different place when they land than you were when they were thrown. The same thing is happening here; the light from M13 left 25,000 years ago when the globular cluster was in a different place and it will have moved yet more in the 25,000 years it will take for the message to arrive.  As a result, our message will miss M13 almost entirely and instead head out into deep space.


Arecibo continues its mission of discovery today. One of its most important missions today is the search for black holes – and they need your help! Just go to Radio Galaxy Zoo and help match radio telescope pictures to infrared telescope images. Fun, easy, and really, really cool!

November 14 – Supermoon!

Today’s factismal: Not all full moons happen when the Moon is closest to the Earth.

There’s a good reason that they call it “rocket science” (OK, actually they call it “astrophysics”); figuring out what is happening in the sky is hard. That’s because things are moving all around and interacting with each other in all sorts of weird ways. Let’s take something simple for example – the Earth-Moon-Sun system. You’d think that with just three bodies orbiting each other there would be an exact mathematical description of how things will move. And you’d be wrong! Though we can solve certain special cases, in general we cannot tell how the motion of the three bodies will change more than a short time into the future (a million years or so).

The Sun, Earth, and Moon, drawn to scale (almost - the Moon is three times as large as it should be)

The Sun, Earth, and Moon, drawn to scale (almost – the Moon is three times as large as it should be)

But we can tell some things for sure. For example, we know that a full moon happens when the Moon and Sun are on the opposite sides of the Earth. And we know that the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle; instead it is an ellipse that slowly moves around the Earth. Since an ellipse has a part that comes closer to the Earth and a part that is farther away, sometimes the full moon happens farther away from the Earth and sometimes it happens closer. Things being what they are, most of the time the full moon happens farther away. But when it happens close to the Earth (what astronomy wonks call perigee {“close to Earth” in Greek}), we get a Supermoon.

The Earth-Moon system, draw to scale. Notice how the Moon's orbit is slightly elliptic.

The Earth-Moon system, draw to scale. Notice how the Moon’s orbit is slightly elliptic.

How super is a Supermoon? Not very. Because the Moon’s orbit is an almost perfect ellipse, the Supermoon is only about 14% larger than a normal full moon. Unless you are very, very observant you’ll never notice the difference. You can see the exact difference in the images below. This first image shows a full Moon over China, taken by Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams on the ISS. The second image shows what a Supermoon would look like.

A full Moon over China (Image courtesy Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams, NASA)

A full Moon over China
(Image courtesy Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams, NASA)

What a Supermoon would look like

What a Supermoon would look like (Modified image)

Now even though the Supermoon isn’t spectacular, that doesn’t mean that the Moon isn’t special. It is our nearest neighbor and can tell us a lot about how the Earth and the rest of the Solar System formed. If you’d like to get in on the fun of discovering more about the Moon, then head on over to Moon Mappers where folks just like you are telling scientists what they see on the super-duper Moon!

November 10 – Beetle Bailing

Today’s factismal: Beetles represent about 40% of all insects and 25% of all animals.

If there’s one thing that drives entomologists (“people who study cut up things” – insect scientists) buggy, it is when someone calls a bug a beetle or a beetle a bug. That’s because the word “bug” (or “true bug” in entomologist-speak) and the word “beetle” each have specific meanings that help scientists understand what is being discussed.

Lady bugs are beetles (Image courtesy US FWS)

Lady bugs are beetles
(Image courtesy US FWS)

Let’s start with the bugs. Not every insect is a bug; indeed, there are only about 80,000 known species of bugs out of some million or so species of insect. So one out of every twelve insects that you meet will be a true bug. But what a lot of true bugs you can see! There are aphids and bedbugs and water bugs and cicadas. The one thing that all true bugs have in common is a mouth that is made for sucking. Aphids and cicadas suck the juice out of plants (that’s why they are pests), water bugs suck the juice out of other bugs, and bed bugs suck the juice out of you!

A wheel bug is real bug (Image courtesy US FWS)

A wheel bug is real bug
(Image courtesy US FWS)

Where true bugs are (relatively) rare, beetles are incredibly common. There are about 400,000 known species of beetle, with more being discovered every day (more on that later). Perhaps the best-known beetle is frequently called a bug: the ladybird beetle (aka, the lady bug). But the beetles includes other fascinating critters, such as the scarab, the weevil, the stag beetle, and the firefly. They live in environments ranging from Alaskan tundra to Amazonian rainforest, from dry desert to under the water of a lake, and from deepest forest to the middle of a city. And they are similarly varies in what they eat, with foods ranging from detritus (leaves and dung) to other insects to small animals, snail, or worms. About the only thing that all beetles have in common is that the front pair of wings has hardened into a shell that covers and protects the rear wings when the beetle is at rest.

But the most fascinating thing about all insects, be they true bug, beetle, or something else, is that we are still discovering new species! Some people think that there may be as many as one million more species of insect left to discover. But the entomologists can’t do it all themselves; they need your help. When you spot an unusual insect, post a picture of it on the Bug Guide website along with when and where you saw it. The folks there will help you classify the critter and let you know if you’ve seen something truly new: