Archive for September, 2014

The Sound So Loud That It Circled the Earth Four Times – Facts So Romantic

September 29, 2014

A lithograph of the massive 1883 eruption of KrakatoaThe eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena, 1888; Parker & Coward; via Wikipedia

On 27 August 1883, the Earth let out a noise louder than any it has made since.

It was 10:02 AM local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Maldives (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”1) In all, it was heard by people in over 50 different geographical locations, together spanning an area covering a thirteenth of the globe.

Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you’re in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you’re probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talking about…
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Excitement Over Gravity Waves Comes Crashing Down – Facts So Romantic

September 26, 2014

The Dark Sector Lab includes the BICEP2 telescope, seen on the left.BICEP Keck

Science giveth, and science taketh away. What appeared earlier this year to be a long-sought glimpse of ancient ripples in spacetime now seems to have been schmutz in astronomers’ eyes.

In March, sky-gazers using a telescope at the South Pole called BICEP2 held a press conference announcing that they’d seen curlicues in the remnant glow from the Big Bang. The swirls, they said, were the imprints of gravitational waves produced nearly 14 billion years ago. These swirls would bolster the idea that the infant cosmos expanded faster than the speed of light during a brief growth spurt called inflation.

Researchers acknowledged that other telescopes would have to verify the signal for it to be trusted, but the news was greeted with jubilation, popped corks and talk of Nobel prizes. That giddiness (along with some caution that the work needed confirmation) was apparent in a roundup of quotes gathered by Nautilus the day after the result was announced at a Harvard press conference on March 17th. If confirmed, scientists said the find would “go down as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science”…
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Ingenious: Paul J. Steinhardt – Issue 17: Big Bangs

September 25, 2014

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Earth’s Stash of Gold Comes From Colliders Fit for Gods – Facts So Romantic

September 24, 2014

Ron Dale via Shutterstock

One of science’s greatest feats is having described where we came from—not as individual people, or as a species, or even as a planet, but as stuff, the very material we’re made of. The Big Bang forged all of the basic particles of our lives—electrons and the quarks that make up protons and neutrons. The entire cosmos at that early time was creating matter out of the primordial chaos. But the powerful furnace cooled off as the Universe expanded, that initial round of cooking having produced no substantial numbers of atoms heavier than lithium, the third-lightest element. If the Universe had stopped creating there, it would have been pretty damn boring.

In a story so appealing and familiar that it’s practically bedtime comfort reading (for astronomers, anyway), dying stars supplied the rest of the matter in the cosmos. Supernovas and other powerful processes in the outer layers of dying stars welded small nuclei together, building heavier and heavier atomic nuclei. That observation inspired Carl Sagan’s famous line: We—and all the other objects of our daily lives—are star stuff. 

But that romantic story isn’t quite complete. Certain heavy nuclei aren’t…
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The Unusual Language That Linguists Thought Couldn’t Exist – Facts So Romantic

September 22, 2014

In most languages, sounds can be re-arranged into any number of combinations. Not so in Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.Brian Goodman via Shutterstock

Languages, like human bodies, come in a variety of shapes—but only to a point. Just as people don’t sprout multiple heads, languages tend to veer away from certain forms that might spring from an imaginative mind. For example, one core property of human languages is known as duality of patterning: meaningful linguistic units (such as words) break down into smaller meaningless units (sounds), so that the words sap, pass, and asp involve different combinations of the same sounds, even though their meanings are completely unrelated.

It’s not hard to imagine that things could have been otherwise. In principle, we could have a language in which sounds relate holistically to their meanings—a high-pitched yowl might mean “finger,” a guttural purr might mean “dark,” a yodel might mean “broccoli,” and so on. But there are stark advantages to duality of patterning. Try inventing a lexicon of tens of thousands of distinct noises, all of which are easily distinguished, and you will probably find yourself wishing you could simply re-use a few snippets of sound in varying arrangements.

As noted by…
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MRIs of Careful People Can Predict When Bubbles Will Pop – Facts So Romantic

September 19, 2014

r.classen via Shutterstock

In the 1630s, Holland was gripped by the world’s only known case of “tulip mania.” The intensely colored flowers were already a luxury item before then, but their prices leaped when tulips with flame patterned petals hit the market, and they continued rocketing to previously incomprehensible levels. The price for a single bulb soon far surpassed what a skilled worker could make in an entire year, and others commanded enough money to buy homes or land.

It didn’t last, of course. The inevitable and dramatic crash in prices left people puzzling over the tulip bubble for centuries to come. An early account blamed it on a group delusion, fueled by emotional highs spreading through the population like an infection. Subsequent observers found reasons in the Dutch market structure of the time, or government policies that encouraged wanton trading, or even fallout from the bubonic plague. In this more staid view, people were logically trading based on information the market presented to them. Emotions, or other vexations of human psychology, had no role in it.

Hundreds of years and many bubbles later, people are still trying to work out how the dramatic overvaluations, then stunning collapses,…
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In Search of Life’s Smoking Gun – Issue 17: Big Bangs

September 18, 2014

It was nearly midnight aboard the research vessel Atlantis. The ship was about a thousand miles west of Costa Rica, where she’d sailed from, hovering over a hydrothermal vent field in the eastern Pacific. Rutgers microbiologist Costantino Vetriani, seated a few feet away from me in the dark control room, radiated energy despite the hour. He peered intently through his glasses at dozens of monitors, occasionally running a hand over his shaved head. On the live video feed from the remotely operated submersible on the bottom, we watched thick black smoke with a scorching temperature of over 350 degrees Celsius billow from a rocky tower a mile beneath us. It was a stunning sight, an underwater pillar releasing a storm of pent-up energy from the dark bowels of the Earth. Vetriani, a trim Italian clad in a T-shirt reading “RNA: The Other Nucleic Acid,” observed the raw power, his dark eyes shining. “A black smoker is a window into hell,” he said with a grin.

In fact, the black smoker may be a window into the eruption of life on Earth. Vetriani is part of a team of scientists who have come to the vents to study the microbes that…
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New Football Helmets Take a Page From Nuclear-Plant Safety – Facts So Romantic

September 18, 2014

These photos show the difference between a healthy brain (left) and one with CTE (right). The tau proteins in all the samples were stained and appear brown.BU CTE Center

In 2012, Tim Shaw was still living the rarefied, enviable life of an NFL player. He’d played in college, in Penn State’s storied program, then got drafted, and did his most productive work with the Tennessee Titans, becoming their special-teams captain in 2011 and 2012. But around the end of the year, his body started acting strangely: His muscles twitched, his balance was off. The next year, at age 29, he got cut, having played the last football of his life.

Last month Shaw announced the source of his problems to the world in a poignant version of the viral Ice Bucket Challenge: He had been diagnosed with ALS. In his video, he was asking people to support research on the disease that ended his NFL career and will likely end his life within the next several years.

Over the past few years, football’s brain-injury problem has gotten as big as a set of 350-pound linemen. The most visible issue is CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain…
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Watching the Birth of a New Breed: the Werewolf Cat – Facts So Romantic

September 15, 2014

A Lykoi kitten next to its normal-coated brother, who carries just one version of the Lykoi gene. It’s no accident that Lykois are bred with black cats. “If they have black as their base coats, they really have that werewolf look. Other base coats don’t look quite as striking,” he says. “An orange Lykoi cat just kind of looks like a cat that’s missing hair on its face.”Brittney Gobble 

Looking at a Lykoi cat for the first time, one can be forgiven for thinking it might be sick. Lykois bear a mutant gene variation that interferes with their hair growth, robbing the animals of much of their undercoat and leaving them with hair follicles that are either unable to produce hair at all, or that can produce it but not maintain it. While they do have hair, it is sparse, and often missing entirely around the face and paws, lending Lykois a lean, slightly mangy look, with eyes that, unhidden by fur, give the illusion of being much larger than normal.

“These are the result of a natural mutation that appeared in the wild cat population,” says Johnny Gobble, a veterinarian and breeder of Lykois. “They’ve been…
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The Original Natural Born Killers – Issue 17: Big Bangs

September 11, 2014

In May of 1924, the city of Chicago was shocked by a brutal murder. Two precocious University of Chicago graduate students, Richard Leopold, 18, and Nathan Loeb, 19, lured, abducted, and murdered Loeb’s 14-year-old cousin Bobby Franks by clubbing and asphyxiation. The duo fancied themselves as master criminals beyond the law—they planned to play a ransom game with the victim’s family, savor the newspaper reportage, and get away with murder. But the body was discovered before the ransom could be collected, and because Leopold lost his rare fashionable glasses at the crime scene, the police traced the two young men in no time.

The Leopold and Loeb case, thoroughly analyzed by the criminology professor and historian Simon Baatz in his recent book For the Thrill of It, was unique in the annals of 1920s violence. The widespread eugenic thinking of the time was that crimes were committed by individuals of low hereditary intelligence. Reformers, on the other hand, saw gangsters as the products of environmental factors like working class poverty and urban tenements. In either case, criminals killed over money, territory, and credibility, their actions a rational business of meeting the demand for illegal goods and services. There was…
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