July 27 – We’re Off To See The Lizard

Today’s factismal: Reptiles are found on every continent except Antarctica (and they used to live there!).

If you want to call a group of animals successful, then you have your choice of how to define the term. You can base it on the distribution of the critters: those that live in more places are more successful. Or you can base it on the longevity of the critters’ family tree (what biology wonks call a clade): those that have been around longer are more successful. Or you can base it on all of the other critters that have evolved out of that clade: having more branches on their tree of life makes them more successful.

An alligator in Texas (My camera)

An alligator in Texas
(My camera)

But no matter how you define success, the reptiles have it. They’re found on every continent except Antarctica (they moved away from there when it got too cold), they’ve been around for 312 million years, and their descendants include obvious suspects like crocodiles and turtles, and some not-so-obvious ones like the dinosaurs, the birds, and the mammals.

An iguana in Florida (My camera)

An iguana in Florida
(My camera)

But success has its price. In the case of the reptiles, it means getting pushed out by younger and more vigorous critters, like humans. In Los Angeles and other parts of California, the native lizards have almost entirely disappeared, thanks to changes in the environment caused by building and water use. It has gotten so bad that now researchers are out looking for lizards, and they’d like your help. If you happen to live in Los Angeles (or are just stuck in a tourist trap ☺), then why not give them a hand by reporting any lizards that you see to the RASCals Project at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum:

July 25 – Last Leg To Stand On

Today’s factismal: The Solar Impulse II is on its last leg of an around-the-world flight.

All too often we forget that the future is happening now but it started long ago. For one example of that, I point you to the Solar Impulse II. This amazing aircraft is designed to take off, fly, and land using nothing but the solar power it harvests with the solar cells on its wings. Though it will never be able to carry anything other than two pilots and a very minimal cargo, the airplane will demonstrate that we have only begun to tap into what can be accomplished.

And what can be accomplished? Lots! Right now, the solar powered airplane is on the last leg of its around-the-world flight that started on March 9, 2015. It has already set several records, including longest flight by a solar-powered airplane (4,819 nmi from Japan to Hawai’i) and the longest non-stop solo flight without refueling (Japan to Hawai’i again). More importantly, it has shown that we can do a lot more with solar power and other alternative energy sources. When it touches down in Abu Dhabi next month, this plane will become the first solar powered plane to circumnavigate the globe.

The Solar Impulse in flight (Image courtesy Solar Impulse)

The HB-SIA in flight
(Image courtesy Solar Impulse)

But where and when did this airplane start? (Other than last March in Abu Dhabi.) Perhaps we should point our fingers at Elmer Johnson, who was awarded US patent 3,089,670 for a solar-powered aircraft on May 14, 1963. But Elmer points his finger at others (including one gentleman who wanted to build a solar-powered flying saucer). And, if we follow the line of patents far enough back, we’ll find ourselves looking at a certain patent clerk by the name of Albert Einstein who first deduced how solar power cells work back in 1915.

If you’d like to spend some time looking forward, then why not check out the Solar Impulse?

July 22 – Too Darn Cold

Today’s factismal: The lowest recorded naturally occurring temperature on Earth was 128.6 °F below zero; it happened at Vostok Station in Antarctica in 1983.

Right now, most of North America is in the grip of a record-setting heat wave. Forget frying eggs on the sidewalk; right now, the chickens are laying the eggs already fried. (Then again, they do that all the time in Colorado.) And odds are you’re thinking about a trip to someplace cool. In that case, may I suggest lovely Lake Vostok?

A cross section of the ice above Lake Vostok and a map showing where the Pole of Cold is (Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF)

A cross section of the ice above Lake Vostok and a map showing where the Pole of Cold is
(Image courtesy Nicolle Rager-Fuller / NSF)

Located in Antarctica’s “Pole of Cold” (yep, there’s a pole for everything), Lake Vostok is home to a research station located on the thick ice on top of the lake. How thick is the ice? Let’s put it this way: the research station sits on the ice more than two miles above sea level but the lake’s surface is 1/3 of a mile below sea level. All of that ice is there for a reason. Because Vostok Station is located in the middle of Antarctica, cold temperatures are just a fact of life. And those cold temperatures allow ice to build and build and build over hundreds of thousands of years; the ice over Lake Vostok represents more than 400,000 years of snowfall and gives climatologists an incredibly detailed look into the past. Of course, that assumes that they can survive the present.  In 1983, Vostok Station in Antarctica recorded an air temperature of 128.6 °F below zero.

The monthly average high and low temperatures for Vostok Station, Antarctica (Brr!)

The monthly average high and low temperatures for Vostok Station, Antarctica (Brr!)

Exciting as all of that ice is (think of the snow cones!), it is actually the least interesting thing about Lake Vostok. The most interesting thins is that all of that ice has sealed off the lake for some 15 million years, which means that it is possible that it is host to fish and other critters that have evolved separately from those everywhere else or (and here’s the exciting part) it may have completely new critters that will tell us if we might find life elsewhere in the Solar System.

The two sides of Europa, one of Jupiter's ice-covered moons (Image courtesy NASA)

The two sides of Europa, one of Jupiter’s ice-covered moons that may have life like that at the bottom of Lake Vostok
(Image courtesy NASA)

About three years ago, scientists did manage to drill into the lake and a second drill hole was completed last year. There have been some indications that they did discover lots and lots of critters but the question of how new they are is still undecided. (Read: lots of biologists are arguing about it.) What is known for sure is that it is amazing that anything could actually live in a lake that is in perpetual darkness, under a pressure equal to 350 atmospheres, and is so full of oxygen and nitrogen that the water would bubble if it were brought to the surface. And the other thing that is known for sure is that once the critters from Lake Vostok are identified, they’ll make their way into the Encyclopedia of Life. It is a free on-line resource that lists every known animal, plant, protist, or politician (wait; I’ve just been informed that politicians are not considered to be life forms). If you’d like to check it out, look here:

July 20 – Good Moon Rising

Today’s factismal: The first words spoken from the Moon were “Contact light”.

If there’s one thing that Texans are proud of, it is that the first word spoken from the Moon was “Houston”. Except that it wasn’t. Houston (where Johnson Space Center is located and where the Apollo missions were controlled) is actually the 34th word spoken after the Apollo Lander had touched down on the surface of the Moon.

Astronauts Neil A.Armstrong (Commander for Apollo 11), Michael Collins (Command Module Pilot), Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin (Lunar Module Pilot). (Image courtesy NASA)

Astronauts Neil A.Armstrong (Commander for Apollo 11), Michael Collins (Command Module Pilot), Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin (Lunar Module Pilot).
(Image courtesy NASA)

Here’s the official transcript from NASA (the numbers refer to the time since Apollo 11 was launched in hours:minutes:seconds):
102:45:40 Aldrin (onboard): Contact Light.
102:45:43 Armstrong (onboard): Shutdown
102:45:44 Aldrin (onboard): Okay. Engine Stop.
102:45:45 Aldrin (onboard): ACA out of Detent.
102:45:46 Armstrong(onboard): Out of Detent. Auto.
102:45:47 Aldrin(onboard): Mode Control, both Auto. Descent Engine Command Override, Off. Engine Arm, Off. 413 is in.
102:45:57 Duke (in Houston): We copy you down, Eagle.
102:45:58 Armstrong (onboard): Engine arm is off. (Pause) (Now on voice-activated comm) Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
102:46:06 Duke (in Houston): (Momentarily tongue-tied) Roger, Twan…(correcting himself) Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.
102:46:16 Aldrin (onboard): Thank you.

You can see the sensor rods in this image of teh Apollo Lunarr Lander in orbit around the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

You can see the sensor rods in this image of teh Apollo Lunarr Lander in orbit around the Moon
(Image courtesy NASA)

So why does everyone remember “Houston, the Eagle has landed” and not “Contact light”? Well, other than the fact that the famous saying is a lot more poetic, there’s the problem of the first thing being something that only people who parallel park would understand.

Planting the US flag on the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

Planting the US flag on the Moon
(Image courtesy NASA)

When you park a big vehicle (like the Lunar Excursion Module) in a strange place (like the Moon), you probably have someone get out and tell you when you are getting close to the thing (another car, a tree, a large planet) behind you. But that wasn’t something that could be done for the Apollo mission; we couldn’t just have one astronaut jump out and coach the other as he backed the LEM into place. So NASA came up with something to take the place of the busybody friend; they put a long stick on the bottom of three LEM legs and wired it up so that a light would come on when it touched the ground. That’s why Aldrin said “contact light” – it meant that they had contacted the Moon.


Today is the 47th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the Moon. So go out and celebrate our achievement. Take part in a lunar experiment. Join a party (like the National Space Society of North Texas’ annual Moon Day fiesta at the Frontiers of Flight museum in Dallas). Or just go out and look at the Moon and say “I’m going to go back there someday!

July 18 – Cloud Control

Today’s factismal: Clouds both help keep the Earth warm and help cool it.

One of the fascinating things about science is how one thing can give two different effects depending on where it is. Ozone is a deadly gas at ground level but it protects us from ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphereA bull shark offshore Louisiana is no big deal but a bull shark offshore Chicago is pretty startling.  And low, puffy clouds cool the Earth while high, wispy ones warm it.  Even better, those differences can lead to honest controversies (unlike false ones, like the lie about the amount of CO2 put out by volcanoes) that then help advance the science.

A comparison of the CO2 emissions from various sources.

A comparison of the CO2 emissions from various sources.

And that is what has been going on in climatology right now. One group of climatologists, led by Roy Spencer, think that as the world warms there will be more clouds formed at low latitudes and at low altitudes. That will have the effect of cooling the planet because the low, puffy clouds will reflect incoming solar energy back into space before it has a chance to heat things up. Another group thinks that as the world warms, clouds will migrate higher in the atmosphere where they will thin and allow more energy to reach the Earth while still blocking energy that tries to escape.

Clouds both warm and cool the planet, depending on where they are

Clouds both warm and cool the planet, depending on where they are

Right now, it appears that the “clouds will warm us” group is more correct.  So it looks as if we will have more high, wispy clouds and, as an added bonus, expanding dry zones in the places where we grow most of our food. However, the results from the study are preliminary and could change with more data.

The colder air around the cloud has created a mass of ice crystals that refract the sunlight into a rainbow (My camera)

This cloud both warms and cools the planet
(My camera)

And that’s where you come in. You see, climatologists use satellites to measure clouds. But satellites don’t always see things the way that a person on the ground would.  And NASA would like your help and your school’s help to fix that. By becoming a NASA S’COOL Rover, you will look up when a satellite goes overhead and tell NASA what you see. Is it cloudy? Clear? Somewhere between? To learn more, drift on over to:

July 15 – LGM1

Today’s factismal: The Nobel prize for pulsars didn’t go to their discoverer; instead, it went to her adviser.

Jocelyn Burnell (née Bell) was born 73 years ago. She showed an early interest in astronomy and math, and ended up going to the University of Cambridge to get her PhD. It was there that she made a discovery that would change our view of the universe and give her adviser a Nobel prize.

The most famous non-winner of a Nobel Prize (Image courtesy NASA)

The most famous non-winner of a Nobel Prize
(Image courtesy NASA)

Her work at Cambridge focused on the new field of radio astronomy. You see, astronomers study stars using light. But stars give out different types of light at wavelengths that we can’t see (like radio waves, gamma rays, and microwaves) and that means that we have to have special instruments to capture the light and turn it into data that we can see. And one of the most interesting of those types of light just happens to be radio waves. So, in 1967, the English decided to build a radio dish to watch the stars with (and to compete with those pesky Americans and their Arecibo dish). And Bell (as she was known then) was lucky enough to have an adviser who was working on the project.

The Arecibo radio dish (My camera)

The Arecibo radio dish
(My camera)

Bell helped design and build the new antenna, and spent many a sleepless night poring over the signals it picked up from the stars. And her persistence paid off. In 1967, she discovered a regular signal. As a matter of fact, the signal was so regular that at first her adviser insisted that it was man-made and called it “LGM1” (Little Green Men 1) to make fun of it. But Bell kept working, eliminating alternate explanations for the signal until even her adviser was convinced – it was a new type of star that they called a pulsar.

A pulsar shines in the center of galaxy Messier 82 (Image courtesy NASA)

A pulsar shines in the center of galaxy Messier 82
(Image courtesy NASA)

The discovery of a new type of star astounded the astronomical community. It was so amazing that they awarded her adviser the Nobel prize in 1974 – just seven years after the discovery was made! (Normally, it takes decades after a discovery to win the prize.) So why wasn’t she given the prize?

In part, it was because she was “just a student” and many didn’t understand quite how important her role had been. (Though Fred Hoyle is said to have protested the decision so vigorously that it kept him from getting a Nobel prize a few years later.) And in part, it was because she was a woman. Though the first person to win two Nobel prizes had been a woman (Marie Curie) and though women had made great strides in science, there was still a lot of lingering sexism.

But Bell ignored the controversy and kept looking at the stars. Thanks to her hard work, she has since been awarded an honorary degree at 21 different universities, awards from the American Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, and been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to Astronomy and a Fellow of the Royal Society. And today she’s probably out somewhere, looking over reams of data and looking at the stars.

If you’d like to help astrophysicists like her, and maybe share in the glory when they discover something new, then why not join Einstein@Home? It is a program that allows you to donate unused computer time to physics research programs around the world.

July 13 – Healthy As An Ox

Today’s factismal: National Men’s Health Week starts today. Go find a man and help him get healthy!

Odds are, you know a man. And if you know a man, odds are that you know a man who is reluctant to talk about his health. And that’s a darn shame because men aren’t nearly as healthy as we should be. Want proof of that? Just take a look at the list of things that kill men:

Cause of Death In Men Percent Of Deaths Number of Deaths
1) Heart disease 24.6 321,284
2) Cancer 23.5 306,918
3) Unintentional injuries 6.3 82,280
4) Chronic lower respiratory diseases 5.4 70,526
5) Stroke 4.1 53,547
6) Diabetes 3.1 40,487
7) Suicide 2.5 32,651
8) Influenza and pneumonia 2.1 27,427
9) Alzheimer’s disease 2.0 26,121
10) Chronic liver disease 1.8 23,509

Just look at those numbers and try not to freak. Cancer and heart disease in men account for nearly half of all our deaths. And men are much worse at taking care of ourselves than women (ask any woman whose had to nurse “man flu”). Men are 1.6 times more likely to die of a heart attack than women, and 1.4 times more likely to die of cancer. And we’re twice as likely to die in an accident (doctor’s call this the “hold my beer” effect). Let’s face it, guys – when it comes to taking care of ourselves, we suck.

Death rates are improving overall but men still lag (Image courtesy CDC)

Death rates are improving overall but men still lag
(Image courtesy CDC)

So what can we do about it? Three simple things. (We can all count to three, right?) If we do these three things, our death rates will come down and our families will be happier (and our sex lives will improve). What are they?

  1. Go to the damn doctor! You have no excuse not to go to the doctor once a year for a check-up. Yes, I mean you. You’d never forget to change your car’s oil when it was time, so why won’t you do this simple preventative maintenance on your own engine? I go every year on my birthday and the doctor is very happy with me as a consequence. And those tests that you don’t want done? Good news – most doctors only do them now if you have a family history of prostate cancer (and sometimes not even then).
  2. Get some damn exercise! No, jumping to conclusions doesn’t count. Instead, walk around the block every night. Make it a special time with your spouse or your kids – or even an excuse to sneak in a few moments of “me” time. Just fifteen minutes of walking every day can give you four extra years with that family you love. If walking isn’t your thing, start riding your bike or swimming or working in the garden. Do whatever exercise it is that you love so that the ones you love can love you back for a longer time.
  3. Eat some damn vegetables and fruit! And no, french fries and ketchup don’t count. Eat a salad once a week. Try adding a piece of fruit (an apple or banana or a handful of cherries) to your meal. Even better, eat them first! When you eat the vegetables and fruit first, you have less room for the greasy, unhealthy stuff that follows. As a result, you’ll eat less and lose weight, making you sexier and better looking. (Unfortunately, this has no effect on baldness. Darn.)

If you do those three things, your chances of dying from cancer or heart disease plummet like a choking player in the finals. As a result, you’ll have more time to spend with your family and friends – and you’ll get to be obnoxiously smug about how much better your health is. If you’d like to learn about even more things that you can do to help your health, then head over to the website for National Men’s Health Week: