Tuesday, October 31, 2017


     M&M's are America's second favorite chocolate. With milk chocolate, peanut, almond, and other delicious flavors, M&M's are a true assortment of delicious. Did you know though that M&M's have had a pretty colorful history? And much of it is due to science.
     M&M's were introduced in 1941 by Mars and became a hit with Army soldiers. After World War II, they were here to stay. The original colors of M&M's were brown, yellow, green, red, and purple. In 1949, purple M&M's vanished and were replaced by tan. Red M&M's disappeared in 1976 and were replaced by orange. The popular red didn't return until 1986. And in 1995, tan M&M's bowed goodbye as they were replaced by blue.
      The 1970's saw a surge of new public concerns over personal, common, and global health. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in December 1970, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission formed in 1972. The Marine Mammal Protection Act ('72), Endangered Species Act ('73), Safe Water Drinking Act ('74), Clean Water Act ('77), and the Wilderness Act ('78) were all passed. Aerosols and lead-based paint were banned in 1978. Anti-smoking campaigns were full steam ahead. Red is a popular color and is commonly seen in food, so what was the big deal over red M&M's? Turns out it was all due to chemistry. In 1976, the FDA pulled red dye no.2 over carcinogen concerns, and Mars pulled red M&M's in response. 
     The dye was linked to cancer in a 1971 Russian study, and then after the FDA did their own study, decided to ban the dye in 1976. Turns out though, the red dye that was so controversial, actually wasn't used in M&M's, but to make consumers feel better and to quell any confusion, Mars pulled the red candies anyway. Orange replaced red, and then ten years later after the red dye panic had died down, Mars brought red back, but decided to keep orange along.
     There's a saying that "today's kids will never understand..." and it's true. As a 90's baby, I shake my head at all of the great things in my youth that today's youth will never get to experience, such as Windows XP, flip phones, green and blue ketchup, Game Boy's and Nintendo 64's, Disney movies on VHS tapes from Blockbuster, Lite Brites, and actually good cartoons on TV - and not watching them on 46'' flat screens either. Well that's how 70's and 80's kids feel about tan M&M's.
     Tan M&M's were dropped by Mars in 1995 after a contest was held to bring in a new color, which blue won by a large margin. Yet unlike orange and red, tan M&M's didn't get to stick around when blue arrived. It seemed redundant to have brown, tan, and orange all in the same bag. Plus blue is such a better color anyway. Well why keep tan all those decades, then just dump it? Well that's the world of marketing. Sometimes brands need a refresher, so contests are held to bring a new face. Here's an M&M commercial from 1995 where the end began.
     Organic chemistry is a real thing in the world of food. As Mars and other companies move to replace "artificial" colors with "natural" colors, more suitable ingredients have to be found. As it turns out, blue is not an easy color to find in the wild. A blueberry is actually more red than blue, for instance. Even General Mills ran into the same problem, as they have not yet been able to find suitable blues and greens for Trix, and now have been forced to bring them back
     Mars has looked into using spirulina algae to create natural blue, but they have hit roadblocks, from poor taste, poor coloring, and not enough spirulina. Other ingredients being considered to help make natural blue are red cabbage, berries, flowers, bacteria, fungi, sea sponges, and aged red wine. While blue dye has been a debacle and debate, some scientists think it should be given even more attention. In 2009, University of Rochester researchers claimed that blue dye in M&M's could possibly help cure spinal injuries, after running trials in rats. The only side effect was well, it temporarily turned the rats blue.
     Not only does changing colors take a visual adjustment, as with Trix, but getting consumers on board with new taste can be a challenge - even if there wasn't actually a change in taste. It has been shown that colors in food can make us think we taste things that aren't really there. One 1980 study showed that adding red coloring could make food taste 10 percent sweeter. In the same study, a drink was given red dye and some subjects claimed to taste cherry. They were given the same drink with green coloring, and there were claims of a lemon-lime taste. Our brains have evolved to appreciate colors, so even the slightest change to our blue M&M's could create displeasure among consumers.
     Making colorful candies takes more than just painting some rainbows on them. A lot of chemistry goes into M&M's and other candies, and there is a psychological science as well. "Sensory-specific satiety" is the scientific phenomenon that the more variety in flavors or colors in food, the more you're going to eat and the more appealing it looks. This is possibly a reason Mars decided to give tan the boot in favor a more eye-popping and visually pleasing blue, pink, or purple.
     While there may be a shortage of blue dye, and a complete shortage of tan M&M's, you won't ever have to worry about M&M's running out. The New Jersey factory makes 2 billion M&M's every 8 hours, or 69,000 every second, enough to fill every seat in the New England Patriot's football stadium. No wonder Tom Brady won't retire.

*NBC News, Live Science, Mental Floss, M&M commercials Youtube, Bustle, Washington Post, CNN, NJ.com, New England Patriots, Movieclips Youtube, New York Times

Friday, October 27, 2017

Lucky Strikes

     Recently it was revealed by the World Meteorological Association that the longest recorded lightning bolt to strike the world was half a mile short of 200 miles (322 km) long, occurring in Oklahoma. The June 20, 2007 bolt was so long, it spanned nearly three-fourths of Oklahoma - the 20th largest state by area. The organization also announced that the longest living strike ever recorded occurred in France on August 30, 2012, at 7.74 seconds long.
     Lightning is one of the most fascinating phenomenon in the Solar System, but what is it? It's an electrostatic discharge. The same stuff that zaps you when the carpet and your socks get too comfortable.
   First off, you need warm and cold air, which help form clouds. Water droplets, ice crystals, and graupel (soft hail) collide in the cloud, creating positively charged particles at the top of the cloud and negatively charge particles at the bottom. An electric current called a stepped leader finds a path through the particles and the process of a lightning strike begins. The average lightning flash is 0.2 seconds and is made up of several shorter strokes, which last less than a millisecond.
     70% of all lightning occurs in the tropics, and cloud-to-ground lighting, the most dramatic, is only about 25% of the lightning that occurs on Earth. 
     Lightning strikes the United States an average of 25 million times a year and the Democratic Republic of the Congo experiences the most strikes on Earth. Even the Empire State Building averages 23 strikes a year. An average of 49 people are killed in the United States every year by lightning. While the odds of getting struck by lightning in your lifetime is only 1 in 13,500 according to NOAA, you still shouldn't press your luck. Most people that are struck survive, but typically suffer permanent, life-long damage. Lightning may be cool to look at, but that's about all you want to do with it.
     Since lightning moves at the speed of light, which is too fast for our eyes and brain to process, the strikes that we see are actually the reflections of the initial stroke. We typically perceive lightning as blue-white, but in reality lightning can be blue, red, yellow, purple, green, etc. The color of lightning depends on what is in the air, such as water vapor, hail, dust, pollution, etc. Latitude, humidity, winds, elevation, and seasons can also effect lightning. Lightning strikes are also around 5 times hotter than the surface of the Sun at around 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
     You actually have a better chance of getting struck by lightning twice than winning the Powerball, and whoever told you that lightning can't strike twice lied to you. Not only can lightning strike twice - it usually does. Have you ever heard of Roy Sullivan? Probably not, but he holds the record for "the most amount of times to be struck by lighting" with seven. Yes, seven times over 35 years. Even his wife was struck once in his presence. Roy worked at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, so working around so many trees, which are lightning magnets (my neighbor's tree actually exploded from a strike), it makes sense. Still, the odds of getting struck seven times as he claimed? 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
     As stated earlier, lighting not exclusive to Earth. Lightning has been observed on Mars, Jupiter,  Venus, and Saturn. Lightning does not exist on Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, because of it's lack of a significant atmosphere. Scientists think they've even recorded lightning on exoplanet HAT-P-11b. In 2009, a lightning storm was observed on Saturn that had been going on for 9 months. And while it's very rare for lightning to strike the north and south poles of Earth, lightning has been clearly observed on Jupiter's. Lightning in the gas giants are believed to be hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than Earth's.
     Ever heard of sprites? No not the soda, but the lightning? Sprites are electrical discharges that happen high above thunderstorms. Sprites typically appear reddish-orange, not lemon-lime, and occur in clusters 30-60 miles (50-90 km) above Earth. Elves and blue jets can't be left out either. All three are different forms of upper-atmospheric lighting. Blue jets are shaped like a cone and project from the top of cumulonimbus clouds 25-30 miles (40-50 km) above the Earth. Blue jets weren't recorded until 1989 and they are considered rare as less than 100 were seen between then and 2007. Elves are typically dim and flat, and last for a millisecond. They occur in the ionosphere, 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth. So are auroras technically lightning? Actually no, auroras are caused by solar wind in the magnetosphere, but I agree they look just as cool. 
     Heat lightning is actual lighting, the only difference is it is too far away for you to hear. You've most likely seen heat lightning before, even if you don't recall. And while we typically associate lightning with thunderstorms, it can actually form from volcanic eruptions and snow as well.
     So remember, you may enjoy looking at lightning, but you don't want to go farther that. There are many myths out there about lightning, so study up and stay safe thanks to the NWS, How Stuff Works, and NBC News.

*Live Science, WNCN, Mental Floss, Space, Science News For Students, National Geographic, OSU Volcano World, Encyclopedia of atmospheric science, Wikipedia, Museum Victoria, NWS, NBC News, Hyperphysics, How Stuff Works, University of St. Andrews, Astrology Today, Mental Floss, Colour Lovers, CBS North Carolina, NASA, picture from Weather Underground Pinterest

Monday, May 15, 2017

Volcanoes 101

     Nothing on Earth has more awesome might than a volcano. Eruptive, hot, and violent, volcanoes have the ability and the power to shape, mold, create, and destroy our landscape, whether directly or indirectly. Volcanoes are typically mountains, hills, or bowls, but always include ruptures in Earth's crust that allows magma from the mantle to get through.
     Ever wonder why there are no volcanoes hanging around New York or London? It's all because of plate tectonics. Volcanoes are located on major diverging and converging fault lines, or at hot spots. Neither are anywhere near New York or London, or the entire eastern United States for that matter. They can be found in western Europe, but not near the UK.
     One way to think of volcanoes, although not a pretty way, is as a zit. The Earth's crust is like your skin, and a volcano is a zit. The same way you squeeze your zit to pop it, pressure from the heat squeezes magma under the crust until it becomes too much, and the volcano erupts. I know that wasn't a pretty analogy, but it works.
      We tend to think of volcanoes as cone-shaped mountains that spew lava, but there are actually a few different types. Cinder cone volcanoes are the most common type and are the smallest. Stratovolcanoes look like cones, but are much larger, rising up to 8,000 feet. Stratovolcanoes typically have the most violent eruptions. Shield volcanoes are gently sloping and are typically several miles in diameter. Calderas are bowl-shaped depressions. They do not look like your average volcano and typically form from previous catastrophic eruptions.
     Over 70 percent of the Earth is covered in ocean, yet we tend to forget what's under it. Volcanoes are not restricted to land; there are undersea volcanoes as well. Those undersea volcanoes are how Hawaii and many other sea islands were and are formed. Just last year a new island was formed in the South Pacific thanks to the eruption on an undersea volcano called Hunga Tonga.
     Volcanic eruptions have shaped our planet over time. Mount Vesuvius is a famous volcano in Italy that has erupted at least 30 times. Vesuvius buried the famous ancient city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Krakatoa erupted in 1883 in Indonesia with the power of 13,000 atomic bombs. Krakatoa's explosion is considered the loudest sound in history and was heard over 3,000 miles away on the African coast. Krakatoa's explosion was so powerful, it was suicide. The original volcano ended up sliding into the ocean. Mauna Loa, the worlds largest volcano, is a synonym for Hawaii. Mauna Loa is located in the middle of Hawaii's Big Island and is 13,700 feet high and last erupted in 1984. The city of Hilo, Hawaii is partly built on 19th century lava flows from Mauna Loa. Eyjafjallajokull is a volcano in Iceland that erupted in 2010 and cost the airline industry over $1 billion in interruptions. Mount Pelee in the Caribbean erupted in 1902 and miraculously killed 29,933 of the island's 29,937 residents.
     Mount Saint Helens is arguably the most famous volcano in the United States. Mount St Helens' last eruption was in 1980, so many Generation Xers and Baby Boomers likely remember it well. Geologists were aware that Mount Saint Helens would likely soon erupt, but they were not aware that it would be caused by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, which created a landslide on the volcano, allowing built up pressure to escape and the volcano to erupt. The Mount Saint Helens eruption was so spectacular that the northern face of the mountain was blown off. Mount Saint Helens' elevation dropped from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet. Mount Saint Helens also produced the worlds largest landslide.
     Other famous volcanoes include Mount Fuji, Mount Rainier, Mauna Kea, Mount Tambora, Cotopaxi, and Yellowstone.
     Yellowstone does not look like your average volcano. It is actually a caldera shaped supervolcano. Legend has it that a Yellowstone eruption could wipe out all life on Earth. It turns out that that is false, but that doesn't mean that an eruption wouldn't come with consequences. A Yellowstone eruption would be catastrophic for the world's health, agriculture, economy, and climate: Earth's average temperature could drop for a decade. Luckily, this is something we likely will not see in our lifetimes.
      And volcanoes are not restricted to Earth either. The largest volcano in the Solar System can actually be found on Mars: Olympus Mons. Olympus Mars is an estimated 72,000 feet high, or 13.6 miles, and is around the same size as Arizona.
      Volcanoes are interesting things. They can create lightning, trigger tsunamis, mudslides, and even earthquakes, and they have the ability to change our climate. Some volcanoes erupt every millions of years, while others have been continuously erupting. Every day there are an estimated 20 volcanoes erupting at once, with the majority happening under the ocean.
     If you're ever in Iceland and have $400 to spare, you can even join a tour and go inside a volcano. Now that's what you call hands on.

*TIME, Active Wild, Live Science, BBC News, Do Something, Universe Today, Wikipedia, Space, Extreme Iceland

Friday, December 16, 2016

Tears of the Sun

 The 20th century was arguably our most important. There were many new discoveries, innovations, and events such as World War II, that forever altered the course of history. When people think of the 20th century's mightiest inventions, people tend to think of color TV, the internet, commercial aviation, the Space Shuttle, traffic lights, or even the microwave. One invention that tends to get overlooked: the nuclear bomb. As sinister as they are, the amount of energy they could produce is baffling, and that's an understatement.
     Everyone is aware of the two bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945, but many people don't realize that actually over 2,000 bombs were dropped or detonated in history. Just like cars, jet engines, and new Iphones, bombs had to be tested and tested and tested. While no nation used the bomb for war after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, tests still went on for another 50+ years. The US and the Soviet Union came very close to nuclear war a few times. So while the Japan bombings led to no more being dropped on populations at the time, countries, mainly the USA and USSR, the two superpowers, still had them in stock, ready to let loose if need be. That's why it was called the Cold War after all.
     The science of the bomb is what is truly remarkable. The nuclear bomb was invented before we had computers, or frisbees. Nuclear bombs worked through nuclear fission or fusion. With fission (atomic bomb), the nucleus of an atom split into two. Radioactive isotopes of uranium or plutonium (they just sound radioactive, don't they?) were used. Fusion (nuclear bomb) was the other method, where two atoms were brought together. Hydrogen or helium isotopes were used. A carefully timed chain reaction set off the fission or fusion process, which became incredibly hot - million of degrees actually, the same as the inside of the Sun - which in turn, well, blew up the bomb. Nuclear fusion is the same process that occurs in the Sun, or any star.
     The detonation of a nuclear bomb would create a fireball and a shock wave, which would travel hundreds of miles per hour. And then there was the problem with nuclear fallout, which would be carried with the wind. Bombs had different "yields" and interior different designs. Some worked via implosion, while others worked like a gun ('Merica!, right?).
     So why a mushroom cloud? Well there's actually science behind it, called the Rayleigh-Taylor instability, which is when is when two layers of different densities and/or matter react. This process creates the mushroom shape. When a nuclear bomb detonates, the hot air from the fireball and the cold air from the atmosphere meet. The heat from the explosion is so hot, it expands the surrounding air and it rises rapidly, which creates a vacuum. The cold air sinks, but with the vacuum, pushes the hot air inwards and the "stalk" is created. Eventually the surrounding atmosphere pushes the heat from the top sideways and back down. It cools as it sinks, but is sucked back into the hot center and rises and heats up again. This forms the "cap" shape. The rings that form are just condensation from the low pressure and the humid air. Mushroom clouds can form from volcanoes as well. As a side note: mushroom are gross, how do people eat them?
     Some of the most famous detonations in history were Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the only bombs used in war, the Trinity test in 1945, which was the first ever, Operation Crossroads in 1946, which was the first underwater explosion, Ivy Mike in 1952, which was the first fusion bomb test, Castle Bravo in 1954, which was the largest test ever by the US at 15 megatons, and the Tsar Bomba test in 1961, which was by far, the largest ever nuclear test in the world. The oceans, remote islands, deserts (including the states of Nevada and New Mexico), and mountain ranges were all used as test sites.
     The most powerful bomb ever dropped was the 27-foot long Tsar Bomba. It was detonated in October 1961 by the Soviet Union in remote Siberia. Tsar Bomba was so powerful, it had to be scaled down by 50%, and was still the equivalent of all the explosives used in World War II...multiplied by ten! It was 57 megatons, measured as a moderate earthquake on the Richter scale, and cracked windows 560 miles (900 kilometers) away. The flash from the explosion could be seen from 600 miles away, the distance from New York City to Detroit. That's a 10 hour car ride, man.
     Tsar Bomba was so powerful that the crew that dropped it was nearly killed, even though the plane was 28 miles away when Bomba detonated. Matter of fact, Tsar Bomba needed a parachute, otherwise the crew surely would have perished.
     No one knew exactly what Tsar Bomba was going to do, but when it finally did it, it did it in a way that hasn't been rivaled. The shock wave was so strong, it traveled across the Earth not one, but three times. Total destruction would have occurred within a 15 mile radius and 3rd degree burns would have occurred 64 miles away. This is a picture of the mushroom cloud. That picture was taken 100 miles away and the cloud is 35 miles high. This illustration best shows just how big the Tsar Bomba was. If you want something a little more sinister, then here.
     One misconception about nuclear bombs is that they detonate after crashing with the ground, but most, if not all land-based bombs, were detonated in the sky. Tsar Bomba was detonated 2 miles above the ground and the Hiroshima bomb was 2,000 feet in the sky. In order for a nuclear bomb to detonate, specific steps had to occur inside the bomb to create a chain reaction. Bombs also had safety mechanisms and most were detonated remotely or by barometric sensors, not by crashing into the ground. Some bombs did detonate if they crashed, while others did not. 
     In 1961, a B52 bomber disintegrated shortly after take off in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The crew had two bombs and had to jettison both of them. One of the bombs floated gently into the swamp thanks to a parachute. The other bomb didn't. It landed in the swamp and was never fully found. An easement was placed around the swamp and the military said "leave it be." 
     To this day, the bomb is just lounging in the swamp in eastern North Carolina, likely encasted in mud and icky swamp stuff. Can it still detonate? Well, it can as it's still live, but it won't. The bomb has six safety mechanisms, and only five were activated during the fall. Had that six mechanism been activated, well, the Outer Banks definitely wouldn't be a hot vacation spot (and I likely wouldn't have been born as Goldsboro is where my dad was born, ironically). That's how close we played with fire, literally, as that wasn't the only accident. There are other "broken arrows", or accidental lost bombs in Greenland, Savannah, Georgia, the Atlantic, Pacific, and so on. The US DOD recognizes 32.
     So why? Why did we obsess over nuclear weapons, especially bombs, so much? Well the threat of war was the biggest reason, but we also wanted to test our scientific capabilities and show off our power to other countries. While the USA and USSR were bitter competitors during the space race and race for communism vs democracy, the nuclear race was no different. The USA could make very precise missiles, but the USSR could not. So they made devices like the Tsar Bomba to flex their muscles. The Tsar was four times bigger than anything America has ever detonated, and the USSR carried out 8 of the 12 most powerful tests. Luckily, we never destroyed ourselves, and treaties and legislation were signed on nuclear weapons. There's even a flag. While the destructive power of nuclear bombs are no laughing matter, they are true testimates to what man is capable of, and they helped show a contrasting side to how science can be used.
     So, I know you're dying to know - what would happen if you dropped a nuclear bomb into a volcano? Well, nothing, actually. I know, I know, what a rip off.
     Bonus fact: nuclear weapons release X-rays, and one cameraman once used his hands to shield his eyes after a detonation, and he could actually see his bones through his eyelids. I know, I know, what a rip off.

*Sources: Campaign for Nuclear Disarment, Restoration Systems, Quora, Atomic Heritage Foundation, SciShow, Gizmodo, Popular Mechanics, IFL Science, Restricted Data

Monday, October 3, 2016

This is Not a Circle

     That shape to the left? That is not a circle. I promise this is not a trick or a test, it really isn't a circle. So what is it then? A circleloid? No, it's actually a "megagon." No, that is not the name of a transformer, it is a polygon. A megagon is a polygon with one million sides. That is so many sides that it appears as a circle, but if you were to zoom far enough, you would eventually be able to see the edges. It would have to be a pretty intense zoom though because if you draw a megagon the size of Earth, it would still be pretty indistinguishable it from a circle. Megagons are so large, it would take you over 11 and 1/2 days to draw one if you spent a second on each edge. Nobody has got time for that.
     Circles themselves are pretty strange. They are a lot more complex than they look. And they're not traditional. Even though we pal them along with squares, quadrilaterals, triangles, pentagons, octagons,etc., circles are technically not polygons. Unlike every polygon in the geometric world, circles do not have a straight side. You could zoom into a circle close enough that the line would eventually look flat, but that's just your perspective. If you move far enough to the left or to the right, eventually you will notice curvature, even if it's microscopic. With squares and other polygons, you could zoom in on a flat side, and it would stay straight until you got to the edge. Then you'd just meet another straight line.
     A square has 4 sides, a triangle 3. A pentagon has 5 sides and a decagon has 10. And of course a megagon has 1,000,000. How many sides does a circle have? Well that depends, but most mathematicians agree that it's either zero or infinity. Yep, a circle has zero sides. In order for a shape to have sides, it has to have vertices, which are the points (or corners) where the edges meet. A circle does not have that luxury. Yet a circle can also have infinite sides. See, infinity is not a number, so infinity and zero cannot conflict (in this case). Think of it this way: you know how sometimes you get bored waiting in the elevator and you roll along the wall? Image rolling along the edge of a triangle. Eventually you're going to encounter and roll over a pretty shape edge. Ow. Now picture a decagon with ten sides. As you roll, it'll feel like you're going over ten quirky speed bumps. A hectogon has 100 sides and looks like a circle to the naked, unaided eye, but if you were to roll along a hectogon, it would be a very bumpy experience. And if you think that is bumpy, roll along the megagon. In fairness, there'd be so many bumps that you probably wouldn't notice, but nevertheless they're there. A circle's edge is infinite because there are no bumps. It would be a very smooth journey for you along Circle Ave the entire way around.
     You can also think about it this way: a line segment is a line with two endpoints. A square is made of four segments. A triangle is made of three. An octagon with eight. With a circle, you can start the line anywhere and end it anywhere. With polygons, the segments will always be on the vertices were the edges meet. Since a circle has no vertices, you can make the starting and endpoints anywhere. You can change it and change it and change it, which makes it - infinite.
     It's amazing something as simple looking as circle could be so complex, but it is. Kind of like cats.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dirty Money

    If you found a hamburger (still in the wrapper) on the floor of a public restroom, would you pick it up and eat it? I'm guessing your response would be a resounding no. Maybe even with a "hell" in front of it. What if you found a shoe? Nope. What about a cute gerbil? Nuh uh. What about a $100 bill? $100 just sitting there in all that public restroom glory: would you pick it up? Of course you would.
     We love holding money. It's valuable to us. Water, the Sun, air, food, gravity, and even honey bees may technically be more valuable to us, but money lets us buy things. According to the Federal Reserve, there are currently over 38 billion banknotes in circulation, including over 11 billion $1 bills. Considering there is only 323 million people in the United States, that leaves us outnumbered by green Washingtons, Lincolns, and Benjamins (which it's all about, right?). That means there is a lot of money for us to touch, hold, trade, count, and crumple. And since the purpose of money is to exchange it, it is always exchanging hands. The average $1 bill lasts 21 months, and the average currency in the world changes hands 55 times a year, which equals a little over once a week, according to Vsauce.
     In 2014, New York University studied $1 bills and found 3,000 different types of bacteria. Most of the bacteria is harmless, but 3,000 still sounds a bit excessive. While not all of the bacteria could be identified since some of them haven't been cataloged yet - researchers did find bacteria that lends a hand in everything from acne to ulcers to staph to pneumonia. Some estimates place the amount of cash containing dangerous bacteria at 7 percent. 
      In 2002, 94 percent of tested bills in a study contained traces of fecal matter. And it is believed that paper money is more germy than a toilet seat. According to a study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the flu virus can survive on bills from the length of 1 hour to 2 days. E-coli, anthrax, body fluids, and even horse, dog, and white rhino DNA have been found on banknotes as well. I'm not a zoologist, but I'm pretty sure America is not the best place to find a white rhino. Wright Patterson Medical Center analyzed 68 bills from a grocery store and only four were relatively clean. 
     Other studies have concluded that 92 percent of banknotes contain traces of illegal drugs, most notably, cocaine. Does that mean that every cocaine dusted bill has been used for that purpose? No. A few contaminated bills put in normal circulation can affect others; essentially a "rotten apple spoils the bunch" situation. Banknotes contain small microfibers, and microscopic bits of cocaine can get wedged into these microfibers. It's pretty much impossible to remove such small traces from the dollar, but it is still enough to be detected by drug dogs. And not just banknotes: coins can carry the same germs.
     So now you know just how dirty money is. So what should we do? Should we ban all paper currency and go completely electronic? That has been proposed, but there's plenty of reasons why it won't happen. Paper money is still super convenient, it adds cultural identity, and you don't have to worry about it being hacked.
      So what else could we do? Wash or disinfect our money? I mean, I guess you could wipe down your money with a wet-nap, but one: that's time consuming, two: it would look ridiculous, and three: that money is only temporary. Eventually you're going to give it up and get a fresh set of dollars in return.
      A more likely solution that has been proposed is to switch from paper money to plastic. I don't mean plastic like credit cards, but rather what is called "polymer banknotes." Australia switched in 1996, and Canada, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Romania, Vietnam, and Brunei have followed suit. The UK is next. Most studies have shown polymer-based money is more hygienic, but other studies claim that while the plastic money contains less bacteria, it can survive longer. There is a new fluid being tested that can supposedly clean banknotes by superheating them while not damaging security features such as holograms.
     Yet the simplest solution is to just keep your hands clean. After you make it rain two dollars for a medium fry, sanitize or wash your hands. Don't put money in your mouth, otherwise you might as well lick the floor of a public city bus. Don't put money on your face either as bacteria can get into your pores, mouth, and eyes. Plus money is the last thing you need to use as a makeshift face wipe. Oh, and please stop licking your fingers while you count your money. Who even started that trend? What are their medical bills? This all sounds obvious, but unfortunately it's not to many people. 
     Don't freak out over germs and go all Venmo now. You've been using cash your entire life and yet you're fine. Everything is dirty: doorknobs, steering wheels, keyboards, remotes, countertops, air vents, and our cell phones, yet we still touch them (and then our faces) repeatedly. It's really not the biggest deal what's on the money in your pocket; if you just keep it off of your face and keep your hands properly clean, you'll be okay.
*Wall Street Journal, Time, Vsauce, Debgroup, ACS Publications, Medical Daily, ABC News, Mass Appeal.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What Color Are Black Holes?

     Black holes - the only object that can stop light. The same light that travels 186,000 miles per second. Black holes are so unique, the laws of physics don’t apply inside of them, and once you fall in, you can't climb back out. As the saying goes, “what happens in the black hole, stays in the black hole.” When it comes to black holes we tend to think of large, black circles that road trip through the universe and suck up everything, but there is much more to it than that. There are many misconceptions about black holes, from their size, formation, behavior, and color. Are they really black? I am going to pick those misconceptions apart, and deliver the truth about the mighty black hole.
The primary force of black holes is gravity. We all know what gravity is. If an object has mass, it experiences gravity. Supermassive black holes have the strongest gravitational pull in the universe. So much matter is packed and squeezed into a black hole, it’s unfathomable. While we can’t fathom the density, we can analogize it. According to NASA, a star ten times more massive than our already massive Sun squeezed into a sphere the diameter of New York City would create a gravitational field so strong, it would qualify as a black hole. That is a lot of matter in a ridiculously small space. The Sun is already 864,000 miles across. Now imagine that times 10, packed into an area of just 468 square miles. When it comes to black holes, density rules.
Black holes began forming after the birth of the universe. These black holes are thought to reside in the center of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. Yes, we may orbit one massive black hole. Today, black holes are formed from supernovas. Large stars collapse under their own gravity when they die, causing a supernova. The material from the supernova becomes tightly trapped, creating a strong gravitation pull, and there you have it, a black hole is born. 
According to Dr. Chris Fragile, an old professor of mine, black holes range from as small as five times the mass of our Sun to over billions of times the mass of our Sun. Black holes range from the size of a mid-sized city to as big as our solar system. That is a quite a big range. Thanks to science fiction, it is believed that if you put a black hole near an object, that object is a goner. Black holes have even been referred to as “cosmic vacuum cleaners." This isn't true. It all goes back to mass. A black holes gravitational pull is equal to its mass. If the Sun were replaced by a black hole and its mass was equal to the mass of the Sun, Earth would orbit as normal. If the Moon were replaced by a black hole of equal mass, tides would see the same effect as they do now. This is why our galaxy hasn’t been sucked into the black hole at the center. Since that black hole has kept the same mass since the beginning, the orbits of the stars have not and will not change, keeping the residents of the Milky Way safely positioned.
While black holes can and do swallow everything, you would have to be really close to the event horizon to feel the gravitational effect. The event horizon is the “black” part of the black hole. It is still not certain what exactly happens inside of the event horizon, but one thing that is certain is that nothing can escape it. The flat, swirling disk that is typically seen in pictures is not the actual “black hole” itself, but the accretion disk. This disk is debris, gas, light, and other space particles that are swirled inwards towards the event horizon, but have not fallen in. Because of the intense speed, the particles become incredibly hot and the accretion disk glows and emits radiation. Think of the event horizon as Saturn, and the accretion disk as Saturn’s rings. The pull of the black hole is the same concept as a tornado. If you’re standing a mile away from a tornado, it’s not really a big deal, but if you’re standing next to a tornado, well good luck. The edge of the tornado is the event horizon and the debris flying around is the accretion disk. So black holes are not “cosmic vacuum cleaners.” While they can pick apart objects of the universe, it all depends on the mass of the black hole and how close you foolishly are to it. 
While the popular term “black hole” has been in use since 1967, it is not the most accurate. Black holes are technically not black. That’s right, we’ve all seen pictures of black holes and there’s always a black center, but they technically are not black. You see, it all goes back to light. The radiation that stars and galaxies give off comprises the electromagnetic spectrum. The visible light wavelengths are the only wavelengths that human eyes can see. Since black holes suck in light, there is no visible light, making them invisible.
So if they are invisible, how do we know they are there? Well, scientists have special equipment and telescopes that allow them to see all the wavelengths around the black hole. The accretion disk and the cosmic object that is being consumed emit large amounts of radiation and light. Scientists can study the matter and motion of the objects and determine if a black hole is likely present. Scientists believe that a supermassive black hole is at the center of our galaxy because it has been discovered that inner galaxy stars orbit a lot faster than outer galaxy stars, meaning there is something at the center with a huge gravitational pull, likely a black hole. And as long as we've been studying black holes, scientists may have just witnessed a star collapsing into one for the first time in real time.
There are plenty of theories on what would happen if you fall into a black hole, but nothing is universally accepted. One theory is that black holes could be used to time travel. The 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar played on this. The classic theory of “spaghettification” states that your body would experience tidal forces and be stretched thin like spaghetti and snap apart, and this process would keep repeating until there is nothing left. And of course, you die. Newer theories suggest you would instantly catch on fire, and die. Other theories suggest a mix of both. According to Amanda Gefter of BBC, reality would split in two. You would fall unharmed in one reality and be incinerated instantly in the other, and you would fall forever because of the singularity. So while there is not a current agreement on the fate of black hole victims, it is pretty safe to assume it's not an experience you’ll be able to tell your friends about afterwards. There's even now a theory that black holes don't have an "inside", so you can't fall in (but you would still die).
So can a black hole travel to our orbit and suck up Earth? The answer is no. Black holes cannot randomly appear, and there are none near our solar system.
You will likely never be able to take a tour bus to the nearest black hole and snap dazzling pictures for your Instagram account, but at least you now understand the truths. You'll never have to be afraid of waking up one morning and seeing a black hole in the sky ready to ruin your day.

*Chris Fragile, Amanda Gefter, NASA, BBC, Mother Nature Network, NPR, Physics of the Universe