Archive for June, 2015

In Search of Life’s Smoking Gun – Issue 25: Water

June 26, 2015

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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The Tragedy of Iran’s Great Salt Lake – Facts So Romantic

June 25, 2015

This classic Facts So Romantic post originally ran in August, 2014.

The last time my cousin Houman traveled to Lake Urmia was 11 years ago. He and four of his friends piled into his car and drove for roughly 12 hours, snaking west from the capital of Tehran. Iran is shaped like a teapot; its massive saltwater lake is nestled high in the tip of its spout and flanked by the mountains that run along the Turkish border to the west.

They had heard a lot about it. The largest lake in the Middle East and one of the biggest saltwater lakes in the world, Lake Urmia at its peak was a popular draw for vacationers eager to float in its salty water—known for its healing properties—and sunbathe among the flocks of flamingos, pelicans, and yellow deer that made a home at the lake and its hundred-or-so islands.

This was the picture of Lake Urmia that Houman had gotten from my uncle’s descriptions of traveling to the lake 20 years before. But when he and his friends finally pulled up at Lake Urmia’s shores, all they saw was barren whiteness. Stripping down to bathe, their feet were pierced by the jagged edges…

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The Mystery of the Missing Planets – Facts So Romantic

June 24, 2015

There is an unsolved problem I want to tell you about: The case of the missing Trojans. You might be thinking of the mythical horse with soldiers hidden inside. Or maybe you’re thinking of a sports team. Or a type of computer virus, or, let’s be honest, of the condoms. (Note that I said, “Case of the missing Trojans,” not, “the Missing case of Trojans.”)

But there is another type of Trojan: an orbit. A swarm of thousands of asteroids share an orbit with Jupiter. They are not right next to the planet, like moons, but rather clustered in two clumps, one ahead of Jupiter on its orbit and one behind. The leading clump is called the “Greeks” and the trailing clump the “Trojans,” but they are usually just lumped together and simply called Jupiter’s Trojans. Many of them are named after mythological figures from the Trojan wars.

The inner Solar System. The planets are labeled and the blue lines show their orbits. The small dots are asteroids. The main asteroid belt is shown in white. The green dots—called “Greeks” and “Trojans”—what we call Jupiter’s “Trojans.”Wikipedia user Mdf

Jupiter is more than 300 times more massive than Earth.…

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Watch Water Levitate, Flow Up, & Swirl the Wrong Way in the Other Hemisphere – Facts So Romantic

June 21, 2015

The conventional wisdom is all wrong. Countless parents and teachers have gotten it twisted. The BBC and PBS aired bogus explanations. Even textbooks have botched the story.

The Earth’s rotation, and the Coriolis effect that results, do not cause water to circle the drain in opposite directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Well, actually, they do—sometimes. But not in your sink, not by happenstance, and only if you go to great lengths to let Coriolis take over.

You can see two of the very rare occasions when latitude does control how water drains in these twin videos from the YouTube channels Smarter Every Day and Veritasium, which recorded tag-team-style explanation of the phenomenon. Start the two videos as close as you can to the same time, and you get excellent demonstrations from both sides of the Equator.

These may be the best of online watery demonstrations, but there are some other good examples, too. In this video, the backyard experimenter named brusspup sets up a speaker projecting a sine wave around 24 hertz into a hose squirting out water. With the camera set to capture 24 frames per second, the water appears to barely move at all, a…

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The Best Way to Reduce Research Bias Is Hiding in Plain View – Facts So Romantic

June 20, 2015

In the late 1970s, groups of soda marketers descended on the nation’s malls. They gave shoppers two unmarked cups, one filled with Coke and one with Pepsi. Tasters were asked which they preferred. The Pepsi Challenge was a marketing gimmick, but it was based on a classic scientific tool, the blind experiment. If a person doesn’t know which experimental treatment is which, her preconceptions are less likely to affect how she interprets information. Blind experiments have been used to avoid unconscious bias for more than 200 years and are among the scientific method’s most important tools.

Yet a growing number of researchers say that scientists in many fields often fail to use blind observation, even when it would be easy to do so. Most recently, Melissa Kardish and fellow researchers at the University of Texas at Austin surveyed 492 studies in the field of ecology, evolution, and behavior. Their analysis, recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, drew from 13 journals, ranging from heavy-hitters like Science and Nature to lower-profile publications like American Naturalist. Of the experiments that could have been influenced by confirmation bias, only a little over 13 percent reported the use of…

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The Chemistry and Psychology of Turning Water Into Wine – Facts So Romantic

June 19, 2015

Penn and Teller famously skewered the bottled water craze on their myth-busting Showtime series, Bullshit, setting up a hidden-camera sting operation in a fancy New York restaurant. A fake “water sommelier” stopped at each table, offering diners a special selection of high-end bottled water at $7 a pop. The catch: All the bottles were identical, filled with water from a garden hose out back. Seduced by flowery brand names like “L’eau du Robinet” (French for “tap water”), the diners waxed eloquent on the distinctive flavor profiles of the bottles they sampled, unaware they were being played.

Now, perhaps, the tables have turned with the recent debut of a sleek, 40-page water menu (pdf) at Ray’s and Stark Bar, a small upscale restaurant in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It is the creation of German-born Martin Riese, a certified “water sommelier,” thanks to the German Mineral Water Trade Association. He is one of a mere 100 such professionals scattered around the world.

The very notion of a water sommelier elicits snickers and raised eyebrows in most quarters. Riese is accustomed to the eye-rolling and good-naturedly takes the skepticism in stride. Clearly he has latched onto a profitable…

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The Hidden Importance of Clouds – Issue 25: Water

June 18, 2015

John Muir was an idiot. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” he wrote in his 1901 book Our National Parks. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” Muir is my hero, his eloquent defense of the natural world an inspiration and the reason the wild places I love are still around. But as I hang here, thousands of feet above the ground on a sheer cliff face in Yosemite watching the onset of an angry and fast-approaching storm, it is difficult to think charitable thoughts about the man. I climbed this mountain in search of the salvation Muir promised. Instead, I find buzzing mosquitos, unprotected traverses across uneven ledges, and salt-crazed marmots intent on eating my socks.

Worse, there are clouds. Friendly and “fleeting mountains of the sky,” Muir called them. Now they are a malevolent force. Sky that was blue 30 seconds ago is thick and gray and rumbling. Condensing air rises and spreads into an ominous anvil above our heads. Lighting encroaches. Rain—or is it hail?—rattles against my helmet. My climbing partner and I set up a rappel line for a hasty retreat. As we slither down the rope, I am keenly…

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How Water, Paradoxically, Creates the Land We Walk On – Facts So Romantic

June 17, 2015

It’s no secret that water shapes the world around us. Rivers etch great canyons into the Earth’s surface, while glaciers reorganize the topography of entire mountain ranges. But water’s influence on the landscape runs much deeper than this: Water explains why we have land in the first place.

You might think of land as the bits of crust that just happen to jut up above sea level, but that’s mostly not the case. Earth’s continents rise above the seas in part because they are actually made of different stuff than the seafloor. Oceanic crust consists of dense, black basalt, which rides low in the mantle—like a wet log in a river—and eventually sinks back into Earth’s interior. But continental crust floats like a cork, thanks to one special rock: granite. If we didn’t have granite to lift the continents up, a vast ocean would cover our entire planet, with barely any land to speak of.

Gritty, gray granite and its rocky relatives dominate the continents. It forms the sheer walls of Yosemite Valley and the chiseled faces of Mount Rushmore (and also gleams from many a kitchen counter and shower stall). If you don’t see granite at the surface, you can bet…

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Why Tinder Charmers and Movie Heroes Move the Same Way – Facts So Romantic

June 16, 2015

Tinder—in case you’re not active in the young-person dating pool—is a dating application that shows you pictures of other Tinder users in your area. If you are not interested in meeting the person you see, you swipe their picture to the left. If you are interested, you swipe right. If two people right-swipe each other’s photos, the app suggests they get together. (If there is not mutual interest, nothing happens.) Tinder became a quick success in 2013, spawning several copycats, from apps that help your job search to others that help find the right pet, all using the simple swiping interface.

In the visual design of the app, Tinder’s founders capitalized on a bit of human psychology: It seems natural that a positive feeling should be indicated with a rightward swipe rather than a leftward one. In theater directing1, rightward motion is believed to be perceived by the audience as good, and leftward bad, and studies have backed it up. In the film “The Matrix,” most of the time Keanu Reeves’ character gets into a fight, he’s moving left to right on the screen, and his enemy is doing the opposite. Almost every video game ever made…

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The Nautilus Weekly Science News Quiz III – Facts So Romantic

June 15, 2015

Welcome to the weekly Nautilus science news quiz! This week, we test your turtle sex knowledge and ask you to weigh in on a dinosaur’s slim-down. Put your science news knowledge to the test!

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