Yes, we have different blood types, but why?

Friday, 25 July, 2014

People have different blood types. That much we all know. What’s not so certain is exactly why there are varied types of blood in the first place:

Being type A is not a legacy of my proto-farmer ancestors, in other words. It’s a legacy of my monkey-like ancestors. Surely, if my blood type has endured for millions of years, it must be providing me with some obvious biological benefit. Otherwise, why do my blood cells bother building such complicated molecular structures?

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Pluto, what we know now is not what we’ll know in twelve months

Tuesday, 22 July, 2014

NASA’s New Horizons space probe is now only one year out from its scheduled encounter with former planet Pluto, in the outer reaches of the solar system.

While astronomers have gleaned much information about the distant dwarf planet from Earth based telescopes, it is likely a fair bit of what we know, or think we know, will be turned on its head as New Horizons draws closer. In fact, far from coming up with answers, the abundance of new data brought forth will likely only pose even more questions.

New Horizon’s Pluto visit will transform the science of this small body in a matter of weeks, and it will likely take a long time before all of the data it provides will be unpacked. The only thing that would truly surprise the science team at this point would be if they find no surprises on Pluto, said Stern. It’s a safe bet to assume the probe probably won’t be definitively answering scientific questions so much as raising interesting new problems and providing researchers with many decades of mysteries.

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Hot bananas, the universe is an incredible place

Tuesday, 22 July, 2014

If the Sun were made of bananas it would be just as hot as it is presently. Seems incredible, but it’s apparently the case. Then again though, there is little that is matter of fact about the universe, when you think about it.

If the Sun were made of bananas, it would be just as hot. The Sun is hot because its enormous weight – about a billion billion billion tons – creates vast gravity, putting its core under colossal pressure. Just as a bicycle pump gets warm when you pump it, the pressure increases the temperature. Enormous pressure leads to enormous temperature. If, instead of hydrogen, you got a billion billion billion tons of bananas and hung it in space, it would create just as much pressure, and therefore just as high a temperature. So it would make very little difference to the heat whether you made the Sun out of hydrogen, or bananas, or patio furniture.

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Venus would be a fine place to live… if our heads were in its clouds

Monday, 14 July, 2014

As a people we be must seen as excessively keen to establish colonies on other planets in the solar system if a case is being made to do so on the anything-but-habitable Venus. Of course a base wouldn’t be on the surface, but rather some forty or so kilometres above, in a floating city no less, where conditions are said to be “Mediterranean”.

The second planet from the Sun might seem like a nasty place to build a home, with a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an atmosphere so dense it would feel like being submerged beneath 3000 feet of water. But the air on Venus thins out as you rise above the surface and cools considerably; about 30 miles up you hit the sweet spot for human habitation: Mediterranean temperatures and sea-level barometric pressure. If ever there were a place to build a floating city, this would be it.

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Would metal stars shine as brightly as other stars?

Friday, 11 July, 2014

If stars can become diamonds at the end of their lives, it makes sense that some stars can then be metal, or at least formed out of what are referred to as “heavy elements”, being anything heavier than lithium. Metals in their gaseous states I guess?

But here’s the thing. Because the heavy elements become concentrated separately from helium, hydrogen and lithium, some stars will form in these regions made entirely of heavy elements. Astrophysicists call the concentration of heavy elements in a star its metallicity. So the extraordinary consequence of preferential concentration is that some stars must be made entirely of metal. (In the parlance of astrophysicists, this means made of elements heavier than lithium.)

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The mystery of the oceans missing plastic

Wednesday, 9 July, 2014

Much of the plastic we use seems to end up in the world’s oceans. That’s not something we should be proud of. Now, it seems, a great quantity of this material has been found to be missing from the seas.

That’s not exactly the good news it sounds like it ought to be though. Unfortunately there hasn’t been a concerted effort to collect all this discarded plastic, though some people are doing what they can, rather it is suspected fish, and other marine animals, may be eating it instead.

Instead of the millions of tons scientists had expected, the researchers calculated the global load of ocean plastic to be about only 40,000 tons at the most, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We can’t account for 99% of the plastic that we have in the ocean,” says Duarte, the team’s leader. He suspects that a lot of the missing plastic has been eaten by marine animals. When plastic is floating out on the open ocean, waves and radiation from the sun can fragment it into smaller and smaller particles, until it gets so small it begins to look like fish food – especially to small lanternfish, a widespread small marine fish known to ingest plastic.

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The kid next door and his nuclear reactor in the garden shed

Friday, 4 July, 2014

Imagine coming home one day to find scientists hard at work dismantling a nuclear reactor the teenager next door had decided to build in his parent’s garden shed. Apparently no one in the neighbourhood had any idea such a device was in their midst until then…

But June 26, 1995, was not a typical day. Ask Dottie Pease. As she turned down Pinto Drive, Pease saw eleven men swarming across her carefully manicured lawn. Their attention seemed to be focused on the back yard of the house next door, specifically on a large wooden potting shed that abutted the chain-link fence dividing her property from her neighbor’s. Three of the men had donned ventilated moon suits and were proceeding to dismantle the potting shed with electric saws, stuffing the pieces of wood into large steel drums emblazoned with radioactive warning signs. Pease had never noticed anything out of the ordinary at the house next door.

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Vincent Brady’s Planetary Panoramas

Wednesday, 2 July, 2014

Mind-boggling and awe-inspiring, are probably the best ways to describe Vincent Brady’s Planetary Panoramas photo time lapse series of the night sky.

Via MetaFilter.

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If day follows night, then surely the Sun rises every day?

Wednesday, 2 July, 2014

We may see ourselves as being reasoned and scientifically minded, but at times we still see the world around us with a certain… quaintness:

It is not hard to find such fossilised ideas all around us. We still say that the sun rises and sets, or that we cast a glance over a page, though we know that the Earth rotates and rays come into our eyes, not out of them. On every clear night when I set up my telescope to look at the stars, I’m confronted with this stratification of human history. I can view those twinkling lights as balls of hydrogen and helium powered by nuclear fusion, all lying at greatly different distances, or I can see them as fixed patterns on a sphere: constellations such as Libra, my birth sign. It might not be scientific, but is it any more silly than looking at a picture of mountains in Scotland and thinking of it as my homeland?

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Booming loud, I’d say, the sound of a supernova that is

Tuesday, 1 July, 2014

Sound cannot travel through the mostly empty void that is space, so it’s unlikely we’d ever have the chance to hear a supernova exploding, even if were possible, somehow, to be safely within earshot of one. We’ll have to settle for the visual spectacle of such an event instead, provided we’re at a suitable distance of course.

So, if you wanted to hear a supernova you’d need a different kind of ear. In fact, something that’s not really an ear at all. There are some exceptions out there. With dense clouds of gas and dust at the heart of a galaxy cluster, you could have a proper medium. NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has detected sound waves moving through these dust clouds. But you would need ears millions of billions of times more sensitive to hear them.

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