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

Monday, September 12, 2016

Deepwater Surprises

     70 percent of the Earth is covered by oceans: the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, Arctic, and depending on who you ask - Southern. These oceans dominate the Earth in area not just above the surface, but also in the volume below. Since most people spend 100 percent of their lives above ground, we sometimes tend to forget everything that is below the wavy surface. 44 percent of the world's population lives within 93 miles (150 kilometers) of the coast, so we're always peering at the sea, but we tend to forget what's all under it. Less than five percent of Earth's oceans have been explored after all.
     The Texas-sized Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth. It's so large, it can be seen from the Moon. The Great Barrier Reef is so diverse, it contains 134 species of sharks alone. Although the most famous reef, the Great Barrier Reef is not the only one. While reefs account for less than 0.1 percent of the ocean surface, they're home to 25 percent of ocean species. Most reefs are located less than 164 feet (50 meters) below the surface.
     Everyone knows the world's tallest mountain: Mount Everest. Standing at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters), Mount Everest goes as high as commercial jets do. Mount Everest is so tall that the oxygen at the top is 33 percent what it is at sea level. Yet did you know that Mount Everest really isn't the tallest mountain in the world? That honor truly belongs to Muana Kea in Hawaii. Looking at Muana Kea, it stands at a mighty 13,803 feet tall. So how is this "dormant" volcano taller than Mount Everest? Well it's because most of Muana Kea is hidden under the Pacific Ocean. Mount Everest is based on land, but Muana Kea is based on the sea floor. When taking this into account, the total height of Muana Kea is around 33,500 feet (10,210 meters), which would make it nearly a mile higher than Mount Everest. 
     Muana Kea is so high, 7 Burj Khalifas (world's tallest building) or 16 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other still wouldn't reach the ocean surface. Muana Kea in total is the height of a little over 12 Burj Khalifas, or 27 Empire State Buildings. That shows just how deep the ocean gets - but it gets deeper. 
     The deepest place on Earth is the Mariana Trench. The Mariana Trench is a 1,580 mile (2,550 kilometers) long trench stretching across the Pacific Ocean floor. The very deepest point is Challenger Deep, a depression in the trench that has a depth between 35,814 and 36,072 feet. That's 6.7 to 6.8 miles deep. If you were able to drive from the ocean surface to Challenger Deep going city highway speeds, it would take you around seven and a half minutes to go from surface to floor. You would run out of noticeable sunlight before you were even 700 feet down.
   Mountain ranges dot our landscape. The Rockies, Himalayas, Cascades, Alps, Andes, Ural, Carpathian, the list goes on. These mountains are clearly visible to us, unlike underwater mountains. It's hard to think of jagged mountains being underwater. We tend to the think of the ocean floor sloping until it reaches a smooth bottom, like a bathtub of sorts, but it turns out that the ocean floor can be as smooth as a pile of bricks. The longest known mountain chain in the universe is located under the ocean. While the Grand Canyon is well, grand, there's an even grander canyon underwater called Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon - holding more volume and depth. Our land museums house millions of amazing artifacts of history, but more are hidden in the museum called the "oceans." Just think of all the artifacts that have gotten lost at sea or to the sea over centuries, including the Titanic. Which museum do you see it hanging in, hmm?
     Underwater volcanoes and hotspots are plentiful as well. Yellowstone, Krakatoa, Mount Saint Helens, Pompeii, and Vesuvius tend to get all the fame, but what about the underwater volcanoes that gave birth to Hawaii, Indonesia, the Alaskan island chain, the Polynesian islands, and others? This is a process that has been going on since plate tectonics began, and still goes on today. The Hunga Tonga volcano in the South Pacific Ocean formed a new island last year. The island is long enough that you could fit the Empire State Building across it and still have some room left. Another underwater volcano has given Japan some new real estate. Formally called "Snoopy Island" because it resembled the famous Peanuts character, the island, with the volcano now above the surface, is still expanding. 
     Just like the atmosphere, the ocean has layers, or zones. The Epipelagic Zone is where the vast majority of sunlight and known sea creatures live. The Mesopelagic Zone is commonly referred to as the "twilight zone" because this is where sunlight is at it's faintest and bizarre looking fish begin to appear. The Bathypelagic Zone contains no sunlight or plant life. The only light you'd see is the light given off by bioluminescent fish. The Abyssopelagic Zone contains near freezing temperatures, intense pressure, invertebrates, and 3/4 of the ocean floor. The last but not least zone is the Hadalpelagic Zone (which means "hellish") where ocean trenches and canyons reside, but not much else. The pressure in this zone can equal the weight of 48 Boeing 747's.
     Underwater mountains, volcanoes, reefs, sunken ships, and even fish that glow in the dark. There's enough water in the ocean to fill 342,670,000,000,000,000,000 (342 quintillion) gallon milk jugs, so it shouldn't be surprising that there's so much under the surface. 
     Oh yeah, and there's Atlantis.

*Alan Arnett, Business Insider, NOAA, BBC, National Geographic, Sea and Sky, Adducation, Coastal Challenges, Australia, World Wild Life, Genetic Literacy Project, Arcadis, Mother Earth News, Untamed Science, SquareSpace. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Purrfect Landings

 Cats are small, strange creatures. We've been domesticating them for thousands of years, yet we still don't fully understand them. I don't think they fully understand themselves. And while I'd much rather be a human than a cat, there is one trait that they possess that we can't help but be jealous of: landing on their feet.
     It's called the cat righting reflex. It is an innate ability of cats to be able to orient themselves upright while in mid fall. Cats begin to showcase this ability at 3 to 4 weeks, and by 6 to 7 weeks it's purrfected. So why can cats do this? It's all in the backbone. Cats have an unusually flexible backbone, and no functioning collarbone, which allows them to easily roll. 
     It may sound like a paradox, but higher falls may actually be better for cats. Typically at least a foot (0.3 meters) is needed for cats to perform this ability safely, but higher stories give cats more time to to adjust for their impending impact than lower ones. Nevertheless, cats are not Superman. Cats still can break bones, land on their, die, etc, but walking away without any injury is what they're best at.
     I'm telling you, cats are strange creatures; we think we know them, but do we really? We think they need milk - they just gotta have it, but in reality, they don't. Cats like milk (obviously), but they don't need it to stay nourished, and too much milk can mean some nasty carpet stains. I had no idea this was lore, but apparently it has been said that cats cannot get rabies. According to the Cat Fanciers Association, this is false. Most warm-blooded mammals can carry rabies, and cats fall under the "most" category.
      While those are a couple cats myths, here is a truth: they have stellar night vision. Just like cones in your eye process color, rods process light, and cats have six to eight times more rods than humans, according to Live Science. Cats only need 1/6 of the light that humans need to see in the dark. While their night vision is pretty good, their vision in general can be abit messy thanks their color blindness, nearsightedness, and lack of color saturation. On the plus side, the field of view for cats is 200 degrees, versus 180 for us measly humans.
     I can't tell you what to do with your cat. I've never owned one myself, but here's another (inconvenient?) truth: declawing hurts. I'm curling my own toes just thinking about it. Claws in cats are not like our finger and toenails in humans. Claws and nails do not get equal rights. When you declaw a cat, you are amputating the first joint of each of the toes. To same it's humane, to others it's not. All I know is I cant stop curling my toes.
     Night vision, being able to land on their feet, not having to bathe everyday, cats seem to have it made. Sure they can still get rabies, and they're not blessed with seeing all the rich colors that we can, also they have to sit through all those awful cat memes, but to be fair, us humans aren't necessarily saved from those things either.
     I wonder if lions can land on all fours?

*Sources: KimBallstock, The Cat Fanciers Association, Healthy Pets, Business Insider, Live Science.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Oreos Ononymous

Raise your hand if you love Oreos. Good, the entire planet raised their hand. Oreos are delicious sandwich cookies that are made by Nabisco and have been around for over 100 years. If you weren't aware, Oreos are the best selling cookies on the planet. Even the Oreo Twitter account has over 820,00 followers. The mighty Doritos can't even match that. Sorry, Doritos - that's what happens when you can't be bitten and dunked. I bring this up about Oreos because recent  studies have suggested that Oreos may be just as addicting as cocaine. Yes, coco. The "I'm in love wit da Coco" coco.
     Researchers at Connecticut College used rats for their study. They had the rats go through mazes and choose Oreos or rice cakes. Of course the rice cakes lost. The rats were also given cocaine and morphine, and they spent just as much time on the cocaine side as they did the Oreo. The brain activity of the rats was measured and they found that neurons in the rats' brains were activated more by Oreos than by the cocaine. Joseph Schroeder, an associate professor at Connecticut College said "this correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to the hypothesis that high-fat/high-sugar foods are addictive." 
     Now this does not mean that Oreos need to be classified by the DEA, but it does show there are possible correlations. One thing to keep in mind is how close sugar and cocaine actually are. The chemical formula of sugar is C17H21NO4. The formula for table sugar is C12H22O11. Both are white and powdery, with sugar sweet and cocaine bitter. How sugar has been placed in our food has come under fire, and for good reason. One doctor has gone as far to say that sugar is "the new crack cocaine." Another interesting finding of the study: the rats also preferred the creamy center of Oreos to the chocolate wafers as well. All of this shows how Oreos affect the the brain, and deal with our cravings. There is no real narcotic effect from Oreos.
     So again, the DEA needs to stay away; Oreos are perfectly fine. While you want to eat them in moderation because they are junk food after all, you don't have to worry about failing that drug test.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Make America Eclipse Again

 One year from now, Monday August 21, 2017, Americans will finally get  to experience one of Earth's most unique phenomenons that hasn't occurred since 1979: a total solar eclipse. The last total solar eclipse that crossed the continental United States occurred on February 26, 1979, but that eclipse covered mostly rural land and the weather was rainy. The last eclipse that actually crossed a sizable amount of eyeballs was in 1970. And the last eclipse to travel most of the United States? 1918. 
     The 2017 eclipse will cross the states of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. States outside of this path will still get to catch a peek of the eclipse, but they unfortunately won't get the full show. The states and regions outside of the path will only get a partial eclipse. For instance, only 97 percent of the Sun will be covered in Atlanta, 81 percent in Washington, DC, 78 percent in Miami, 76 percent in Dallas, 72 percent in New York City, and a paltry 62 percent in Los Angeles. Better book your plane tickets to Missouri now!
      Before modern astronomy, eclipses were thought to be the signs of dread. The British saw eclipses as bad signs for the monarchy. In Vietnam it was thought that the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog. The Vikings blamed wolves. China blamed dragons. Latin America saw a jaguar. Eskimos feared sickness. Ethiopians scarified animals. The Greeks saw eclipses as a sign of impending calamity. Inuits saw eclipses as the Sun god and Moon god fighting. In India there was belief that the atmosphere was poisonous. Some cultures saw evil spirits and banged pots and pans or shot off fireworks to scare them away.
     Christopher Columbus (who did not discover America) even tricked the native Jamaicans, telling them the Sun wouldn't come back if they didn't give in to him. The Sun returned (note this was a lunar eclipse, not solar), and the natives were swayed. Even today, superstition surrounding eclipses still exists. Some Christian evangelists use eclipses as signs of approaching doomsday. Others believe that solar eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women. Rest assure, all of this is baseless. Eclipses are just apart of a cosmic 18-year cycle, called a saros. Nothing more, nothing less. Eclipses weren't alone as many cultures felt the same about comets as well.
     So other than the awful Twilight movie, what is an eclipse? Well a lunar eclipse is when the Earth aligns perfectly between the Sun and the moon, which makes the Earth's shadow cast on the moon. The Moon appears red thanks to "rayleigh scattering." Since the Earth is positioned between the Earth and the Sun, a lunar eclipse can only occur during a full moon. Unlike solar eclipses, lunar eclipses are able to be viewed anywhere on the night side of Earth, and last for hours.
     A solar eclipse is when the Moon aligns perfectly between the Sun and the Earth. Because of this, solar eclipses can only occur during a new moon. With a solar eclipse, the Moon casts a shadow on the Earth, called the umbra and the penumbra. There are three types of solar eclipses: total, partial, and annular. A total solar eclipse is when the Moon completely blocks out the Sun. Annular is when the Moon is to far to completely block out the Sun. An antumbra shadow is cast on the Earth. Partial is when the Sun and Moon don't perfectly align. There is a rare fourth kind called hybrid, which is when an annular eclipse turns into a total.
     So why aren't eclipses common? Well because the Moon's orbit isn't a perfect circle, and the Moon is not on the ecliptic plane (the imaginary path that the Sun travels on in the sky). If it was, we'd be blessed with solar eclipses every month. Unlike a lunar eclipse, looking directly at a solar eclipse is extremely dangerous and could essentially fry your eyes. Solar eclipses are also extremely short: the longest ever recorded lasting a little over 7 minutes. The maximum totality of the 2017 eclipse will only last 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
     So why will next year's eclipse only be totally visible from Oregon to South Carolina? Why can't Florida, Texas, California, New York, and Ohio get in on the fun? Well, it's because of the Moon. The Moon is small, which means the umbra, or shadow, will travel along a narrower path. Florida and company will still get to view the eclipse, but only partially.
     Wherever you plan on viewing the eclipse, do not forget to bring protective eye wear with you. While the eclipse is completely safe to look at during totality, when it is not in totality, it can be extremely harmful. Expect stocks of eclipse glasses at Walmart and Target pretty soon. I'm sure they're on Amazon now if you just can't wait.
     The 2017 eclipse is expected to become the most viewed eclipse ever. Even though Salem, OR, Columbia, SC, Greenville, SC, Nashville, TN, and Charleston, SC are the only major US cities/metros that lie directly in the path of totality, the major cities of Atlanta, Charlotte, Louisville, Portland, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Topeka, Birmingham, Savannah, Denver, Boise, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Omaha will be within reasonable driving distance. While Kansas City and Saint Louis don't lie in the path, parts of their metro areas do. Media coverage will be plentiful, and most of North America, from Canada to the Caribbean, will get to view the eclipse in some form.
     So the countdown begins now. We have one year left. Take off work, book plane tickets, set your alarm, move your surgery date, skip class, whatever you have to do to make sure you don't miss this event. Here's an amazing time lapse of the 2015 solar eclipse as seen from an airplane. Here's a video of a lucky group of people who got to experience this year's total solar eclipse (which spent most of it's time over the uninhabited Pacific Ocean) from an airplane. In these videos the shadow of the moon is clearly visible. Warning: the voice of the "narrator" of the video is a just a tad distracting. Just a tad.

*Astronomy, Wikipedia, Smithsonian, Space, Derekscope, Emaze, NASA, USA Today, Arstechnica, International Business TImes, Greymeter, Citybus Express, Time and Date, Sky and Telescope

Saturday, August 20, 2016

So Many Tears

     Our eyes are strong, yet delicate. They allow us to see, but they must be well cared for. Our bodies know this, so we're equipped with a nifty tool called tears. Tears protect our eyes from dust, kept our eyes lubricated, and help showcase our emotions, but what purpose do tears serve when we yawn, sneeze, choke, vomit, or laugh? You can choke on a sour patch kid, spit it up, then spend what feels like ten minutes wiping tears from your eyes like windshield wipers against rain. Why though? Your eyes weren't in danger when that sour patch wouldn't budge. Nor are they in danger whenever you yawn or laugh. Typically your eyes are closed for most of that journey. So why do we tend to tear up when we yawn, sneeze, choke, laugh, and yes vomit? What exactly is the point?
      Well first off, the scientific name for tearing is "lacrimation." This term comes from the lacrimal gland, which produces tears. Tears contain water, potassium, urea (yes, that urea), sodium, glucose, lysozymes, and few other bodily fluids. Produced in the lacrimal gland, tears travel across your eyes on thin layers of film to the tear ducts. Precorneal film coats your eyes and contains three layers: the lipid, aqueous, and mucous. The lipid layer contains oils and creates a hydrophobic barrier that keeps tears from spilling all over your cheeks (or tries to. Sometimes you just gotta let it spill). The aqueous layer contains water, electrolytes, and proteins, and promotes the spread of tear film. The mucous layer contains mucins, a protein, and is responsible for coating the cornea and providing an even distribution of tear film.
     Tears seem so general, but there's actually three different types: basal, psychic, and reflex. Who knew tears could be categorized? Basil tears are the tears that kept your cornea wet and clean. Reflex tears are formed when your eye is irritated. That irritation can be caused by pepper spray, onions, wind, bright light, the list goes on. Psychic tears are produced when you are heavily emotional, stressed, or are in physical pain. Stub your toe? That's psychic tears. Have to finish that 50 page paper by midnight and it's currently 9:04 PM and you're on page six? Psychic tears strike. The chemical makeup of tears also varies based on the type. 
     So we know the three types of tears that exist, but that doesn't answer the original question. Why exactly do we tear when we cry, laugh, or yawn? What's the purpose? Well it may be your reflexes. Whenever you choke, your mouth secretes fluid to help whatever's in your throat to slide free. Because of reflexes, tears are produced and travel towards your throat, but the pressure from your constant coughing pushes those tears back up into your tear duct, thus they come out of your eyes. Insane. When you yawn, you squeeze your eyes shut. The lacrimal gland is above your eye and tear ducts are on your eyelids. When you close your eyes tightly, you cut the tears off from being able to travel to the tear ducts. The punctum on your eyelid that collects tears cannot, so those tears build up on your eye. This applies (and sorry to have to keep using this word) to vomiting as well. You squeeze your eyes super hard and you tend to cough a bit afterwards.
     According to Robert Provine, a University of Maryland at Baltimore psychologist, laughing and crying are both similar. "Both laughing and crying occur during states of high emotional arousal, and don't clearly turn on and off." Other possible reasons are that your tear ducts for instance get exposed to pressure and vibrations when you vigorously laugh. There also may be evidence that the same part of the brain is responsible for both crying and laughing. Research also shows that tears can be summoned by a variety of emotional responses, not just sadness. "Angry tears."
     And my nose? Why does my like to run after a cry? Well because your nose is connected. Excess tears from your tear ducts, or your nasolacrimal duct drain into the inferior nasal meatus where you tears mix with mucus. The wateriness of tears causes your nose to run. Do you ever taste your tears? That is also why. Amazing.
     While tears are important, there is a point to producing too many. Crocodile tear syndrome, also known as Bogorad's syndrome, is a when you can't help but produce tears when you eat or smell food. Dry eye syndrome is a common disorder that stems from an abnormality in the tear film, causing the eye to not being able to produce enough tears. A variety of other issues can cause this as well, form LASIK surgery to vitamin A deficiency to age to pregnancy. This is also common in dogs. And if you want to sound scholarly, you can call dry eyes by their scientific name: keratoconjunctivitis sicca.
     Who knew tears were so complicated. They're just as complicated as our emotions that summon them. They be an annoyance whenever you just want to have a laugh or yawn, but at least you know they don't do it to be annoying - it's reflexes. It's emotion. It's just that they wan't to see the world. (Get it?).
     Fun fact about onions: according to, the reason they are so bad at this is because when you cut them they release propanethial sulfoxide. This gas mixes with your tears and creates a mild does of sulfuric acid. And that stings. It's a defense mechanism. Who knew onions were so defensive?

*Sources: LasikMD, Naked Scientists, Wikipedia, Today I Found Out, and Prevention.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Who Owns the Internet?

     We hear of countries censoring the internet, we hear of people getting arrested for things they put on the internet, and we hear of sites being shut down because of what they have on the internet, but who has the ultimate authority? What even is the internet to begin with, and where is it? Ask someone "how old is the internet?" and they'll likely tell you about 20 years; mid-1990's. They're right, but they're wrong. 
     Around that time emerged the World Wide Web, which is not the internet. The internet came about in the 1960's through a United States military project called APRA-net (Advanced Research Protect Agency). APRA allowed the government to break up messages into packets and send them on designated routes for delivery to a computer system. ARPA-net sent the first cross-network message on October 29, 1969 (the same year we landed on the Moon and inaugurated Richard Nixon). UCLA sent the word "login" to Stanford. While only the "L" and the "O" arrived before the system crashed, it was still seen as a success.
     The World Wide Web, or WWW for short, is not the internet, but it rather uses the internet. The web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. Yep, that's right: one men invented the web. The WWW is basically a vast binary library. Content is written in HTML, Java, CSS, and other code, and that code is read and displayed by web browsers such as Chrome, Explorer, and Opera. Web browsers make the encoded content readable, otherwise every web page you visit would look like this. A URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, is the domain name of the website and is how web content is identified. Domains can be purchased and owned. For instance: while you can create your own website, you can't name it "", that's already taken. The links to websites are addressed through HTTP and HTTPS, also known as Hypertext Transfer Protocol.
     Website information is stored on servers. Your Facebook profile? All the movies (or really shows) in your Netflix queue? Your Yahoo emails? They're all sitting in a server somewhere. Whenever you try to access a website via the URL, your computer, which is a client, sends a request through your ISP, or internet service provider (aka the Xfinity you hate so much), to the addressed server for the content. That content from the server is broken down and sent back to your computer in "packets." When you retrieve the content, the packets are reassembled back into the content you requested.
     With billions of users across the world, how do servers know which computer to send the content to? Your IP address. Every single thing that is connected to the internet has a unique IP address. This is how the government is able to find you when you use the internet to do something you probably shouldn't have. Your IP address can provide your true geographic location. This is also how web browsers know where you are when you log on. Creepy isn't it? Routers help direct packet traffic, getting the packets from point A to point B. Routers operate to make sure the content you want comes to you and not someone else. "Who is Mark, and why is his eHarmony profile on MY computer screen!?" Routers keep that from happening. A modem on the other hand is a modulator-demodulater. The modem connects to your telephone (if you still live in 2001), cable, fiber, or satellite line and converts those signals to code that your computer can understand.
     The internet can be accessed through dial-up (yes, still), cable, satellite, optical fiber, and through cellular. Each method carries it's own pros and cons, and each varies in speed. The access type also depends on who's accessing it. If you live the simple life, you're probably fine with dial-up. The average American today prefers broadband (cable, satellite, etc) and cellular. The heavy duties access is typically reserved for companies and the like. Do you really need Infiniband EDR 12x at 300 gigabits per second? No, no you don't. So that's how internet arrives to your home or office, but what about your computer? Well you have two options: wired or wireless. 
     So to answer the original question: who owns the internet? The answer is no one. While ISP's can charge you to access the web and governments can arrest you for your content, no one psychically owns it. We all share the internet and we all share the space. This blog has a unique URL, it's mine. It's my little slice of the internet. That said, Google does technically owns this webpage and since it's sitting on their server.
     The internet and WWW have really come a long way in revolutionizing our lives. We could live without the internet, but then we'd actually have to go to the movies, shop in the store, and check the weather in a newspaper...yikes. Well, no. You can still enjoy those things, and there will be things that the internet just can't replace, but to know what we are capable thanks to the internet, is mind-blowing. Also knowing that no President, dictator, council, or overload can claim it as there's is a precious feeling. Still, we have to be responsible. Terrorism, cyberbullying, invasion of privacy, hacking and stealing personal data, pirating, and other illegal and immoral activities are able to be committed over the web. Stay alert online, watch what you post, and make sure your information is stored in a secure place. Just because the web is not physical doesn't mean it's not dangerous.
     There's already so much we can do with the internet - what's left? Maybe one day we'll be able to actually go inside and travel the information superhighway. Maybe not physically, but maybe in the future we won't need computers. Until then, surfs up. (Get it?)

*photo from Readingielts. Surfeasy, Softmart, Techsmith.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Midnight Sun

     Sunset in my opinion is the most peaceful time of the day. Sunsets are amazing, and we're lucking to have them. Sunset represents a transition from day to night, and the resulting gradual disappearance of the Sun drowns the sky in awing colors that we don't get to see during the day or at night. What exactly makes the sunset so pretty? Why doesn't the sky go from blue to dark blue? It's all based on how light interacts with our atmosphere. As the Sun heads towards the horizon, the Sun's light hits more molecules and scatters farther over the atmosphere, pushing out the shorter blue wavelengths and allowing us to see the longer wavelength reds, oranges, and yellows. You are closer to the Sun at midday, and blue reaches down to Earth better because blue wavelengths have a shorter distance to travel, but when the Sun is at the horizon, the sunlight has to travel a farther distance - as much as 30 times. The blue light can't handle the distance but the longer wavelength red light can; red travels farther and reaches our eyes. This phenomenon is called Rayleigh scattering. The technical definition of a sunset is when the trailing edge of the Sun dips below the horizon. Once the Sun dips completely below the observable horizon, sunset ends and twilight begins. Twilight is that time period where the Sun can't be seen, yet there is still light in the sky. There are three recognized stages of twilight: civil, nautical, and astronomical.
     Civil twilight occurs when the Sun is less than 6 degrees below the horizon. Many outdoor activities can typically still be carried on during civil twilight without the need for lights, including reading. Also during civil twilight, only the brightest objects in the sky can be seen. Once the Sun dips past 6 degrees below the horizon, nautical twilight begins. Nautical twilight occurs when the Sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon. The term "nautical" is used because sailors would use the stars to help navigate. The brighter stars can be seen during this phase, and the horizon is still barely visible. While you can typically still see objects outside during nautical twilight, lights are required for outdoor activities. When the Sun lands between 12 to 18 degrees below the horizon, astronomical twilight is in play. If you live in a place that's abused by light pollution, you may not be able to tell the difference between astronomical twilight and night. Once the Sun dips past 18 degrees below the horizon, its light is no longer visible and true nighttime begins.
     What time you experience sunset and when you get to enjoy twilight depends on where you live on Earth. The closer you are to the equator, typically the shorter the twilight. On June 21st, the summer solstice, twilight in Washington, DC (38.9 degrees N) lasts 3 hours and 59 minutes. Manaus, Brazil (3.1 degrees S) meanwhile only gets to experience 2 hours and 29 minutes of twilight. Reykjavic, Iceland, one of the highest latitude cities in the world at 64.1 degrees N, doesn't even experience nautical and astronomical twilight on June 21st; just 2 hours and 51 minutes of civil twilight. This is a consequence of being so close to the Arctic Circle, which is explained below.
     Places closer to the western end of their time zone will experience later sunsets as well. Boston, Massachusetts, one of the farthest east cities in the Eastern Time Zone will experience sunset tomorrow, August 19th, at 7:38 PM. Louisville, Kentucky on the other hand, one of the farthest west cities in the EST will experience sunset at 8:31 PM. While this may not be that much of an issue in the United States, in China it is problematic. Mainland China and the continental US are basically the same size. Even though they're size twins, the continental US has 4 times zones, but China only has one, because they feel like it. Sunset in Shanghai, on China's east coast, will occur at 6:33 PM, but in the city of Kashgar, China, the Sun won't set until 9:46 PM...while in the same time zone. Kashgar should really be 2 hours behind Shanghai, if not 3, but I guess if Kashgar still gets to experience sunsets, then it's alright. Kind of.
     If you happen to live near the poles of the Earth (which you probably don't), then you're in luck! You get to experience the phenomenon known as "midnight Sun." At the poles, the Sun only sets (and rises) one time a year. Six months of the year, the Sun is continuously in the sky, while for the other six months, the Sun is below the horizon, creating 24 hours of day and 24 hours of night. How? Well just do the math. 90 - 23.5 (the tilt of the Earth) = 66.5. This is the Arctic Circle.While there are periods of total nighttime darkness, most of the time the night is really just an extended twilight. All three twilights can be seen depending on location.
      Ever go outside at twilight and notice a pinkish band above the horizon? Say hello to the Belt of Venus. The Belt can be seen around sunset and sunrise, and hangs 10 to 20 degrees above the horizon. The belt of Venus is caused by red light from the sunset (or sunrise) being backscattered by dust particles.
     To me, sunset and twilight are the most peaceful times of day and the most exciting. Don't let them slip by, because as you see, they don't last all that long. And be sure to put seeing a midnight Sun and polar night on your bucket list. Svalbard, Norway and Bodo, Noway are waiting for you.

*Sources: Time and Date, Wikipedia, Web Exhibits, The Atlantic, Gizmodo, Space Weather Gallery, How It Works, photo from Wikipedia Vberger

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Secret Life of Corn

     Corn is a pretty subtle thing. We know it's around, but don't ever really think about it (unless you live in Nebraska, of course). Corn is technically a grain, so we technically try to squeeze it into our diets every now and then. Whether you're getting your recommended amount of corn or not - you're never far away from it. Corn is used by people everyday and we don't even realize it. Now there is chemistry involved, so don't think about an ear of corn in every day products too literally, but nevertheless, it's still corn. Here's a list of things were you can find corn.
      Corn chips. Duh. We love chips. Maybe a bit too much. I mean, who doesn't love chips? When we think of chips, we think of potatoes, but if you weren't aware: Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, and Tostitos are corn based. The corn is processed, typically ground up and turned into a paste or dough, where it is then molded, cooked, and flavored into what you see in the bag (once you get past all the air hogging most of the bag).
       Gas. Many cars today used E85, which is essentially gas that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. While sugar cane can be used to make ethanol, American ethanol is dominated by corn (we have to let Nebraska shine).
       Tires. Yes, you could be driving around on corn. Engineers have been able to turn that ear of corn into polymers, which can substitute for the rubber used for binding. The crazy thing about this? Corn-based tires are more fuel efficient, stronger, and cheaper. What's even more crazy about this? This is nothing new.
      Hand soap. We all use it - at least I hope we do. Yet, did you know that soap that you pump into your hand can contain up to 25 percent corn product?
    Windex. Look on the back lable. On it you'll find 2-hexoxyethanol, acetic acid, fragrances, and ethanolamine. All of these foreign sounding chemicals are derived from corn.
     Toothpaste. Obviously toothpaste doesn't taste like corn; who would buy that? We all know about fluoride, but what about sorbitol? Sorbitol provides sweetness and is typically derived artificially from corn syrup.
     Plastic. To the average person, plastic is more precious than gold and diamonds. There are dozens of types of plastics, which include "bioplastic" - plastics made from renewable sources. This includes cornstarch. Polyactic acid is a plastic that is made from corn.
     Vegetables. Face it, we're picky. Even if it hasn't passed the expiration date, we're not going to eat it if it doesn't look good. Why else would we put red dye in our salmon? Same goes for vegetables. Many vegetables are treated with zein, a protein of corn, to help the vegetables keep their fresh appearance.
     Cosmetics, makeup, and perfume. Everyone freaks out about all the things that makeup may or may not contain, but did you know one of those is corn? If you see "zea mays" on the back of your Sephora box or Pantene bottle, now you know.
   Matches. A product that makes full use of cornstarch. Corn products are used during manufacturing of the matches and also helps keep the matchsticks rigid.
     Milk. Since many dairy cows are now fed corn, which is not what they naturally eat, their bodies must adapt. The vitamin A and D in milk use corn oil as a carrier.
     Glue and adhesives. Thank that lovely cornstarch. From glue to the sticky stuff on envelopes, corn plays a role. PS, stop licking your envelopes.
     Diapers. Corn-based polymers can be found in modern diapers to help keep your baby's stinkies at bay.
     Crayons. Dextrin, derived from cornstarch, is used in the manufacturing process. Other corn products are used to help keep your kid's crayons from crumbling, which in turn keeps them from crying, which in turn keeps you sane. See, corn has psychological effects too.
     Drywall. Cornstarch is used in the making of drywall, helping to prevent that loser called mold.
     Aspirin. Cellulose acetate phthalate. That's the coating on pills that make them easier to swallow and help them survive the horror of your stomach acid.
     Spark plugs. The heat resistant porcelain in your spark plugs use corn-based product to help protect the spark plugs from excessive heat.
     Anything with high fructose corn syrup (aka half of the supermarket). Yogurt, cereal, salad dressing, fruit juice, cocktails, soda, mac and cheese, bread, and until now: McNuggets. While high fructose corn syrup seems nearly impossible to avoid today, it's possible.
       Gum. There's a blog dedicated to corn-free chewing gum, so...
     Splenda. You can run from the corn syrup, but you can't run from the corn. Splenda contains maltodextrin, which while typically derived of wheat in Europe, in the US it is derived of corn.
      Corndogs. That is all.

*io9, Wikipedia, USA Today, Celestial Healing, Live Corn Free

Eye Lied

     "Don't read in the dark", "don't squint", "eat a lot of carrots", "don't sit close to the TV." We have a lot of rules when it comes to our eyes. It turns out that a lot of these "rules" are really...myths. Eye myths have been passed on over generations, and we still believe them today. They make sense when you think about it, but does reading in the dark actually damage your vision?
     The answer is no. I'm sure your parents had good intentions when they would tell you this. It's not like they wanted you to stop reading, but in actuality, it didn't pose a real threat to your eyes. Squinting actually enhances your vision. The more light your eyes are exposed to, the wider your pupil grows. If there is low light, your pupil become smaller, but making them smaller actually improves your focus. We squint for a reason. By the way, while squinting is helpful and natural, if you catch yourself doing it too often, it may be a sign you need glasses. Either that or squinting is just a hobby of yours.
     We've all been told to sit back from the TV - not because your big head is blocking the screen, but because your eyes are too close. Well it turns out that there is no real evidence that sitting up close to the TV damages your eyes, at least not long term. It's mostly kids that have to be told this, and there's a reason why they tend to do it more than adults: children are better at focusing at close up objects without getting eyestrain than adults. The idea that sitting in front of the TV was bad stemmed from when televisions first became household items and it was discovered that they emitted a lot of radiation. TV's were innovated to emit less radiation, but the "you'll hurt your eyes" myth stuck with each generation. While sitting close to the TV won't cause nearsightedness, it could be a sign of nearsightedness. Sit in front of the TV if you truly wish. You may get a headache, but you won't go blind.
     You've probably heard that carrots are essential for vision. Carrots contain a great amount of vitamin A, which is essential to eye nourishment. Yet it turns out that going all Bugs Bunny on a bag of carrots may not necessarily make your eyes that much better, and they definitely won't give you superb night vision. The carrot myth has a possible unexpected origin: the British Royal Army. According the UK Ministry of Food, British World War II pilots were successful at shooting down enemy planes at night because their diets were rich in carrots. The UK Ministry of Food, which no longer exists, used this as propaganda to boost the local carrot economy. The rumor is that the British Royal Army went along with this carrot myth to cover up secret radar technology that they were using, which could've been the real reason for their ace nighttime shooting. Since carrots contain vitamin A, they'll of course do more help than harm for your eyes, but vitamin A can be found in butter, milk, broccoli, eggs, squash, sweet potatoes, spinach, iceberg lettuce, mangoes, peas, apricots, and plenty of other foods. If your diet is typical, you don't have to rely on carrots for your vitamin A. As a side, egg yolk, broccoli, and spinach also contain lutein, which may help prevent the degeneration of macula in the eye.
     Ever see your friend with glasses then feel like you need a pair, so you try theirs on, only to get immediately dizzy and blurred? Turns out you can actually leave those on for a while. Wearing glasses that you're not prescribed for won't damage your vision. It can make you sick, but that's just because of the eyestrain. Your eyes won't suffer permanent damage. You should still probably find a pair that works for you, just in case.
     We have been told not to stare at solar eclipses because of the damage they can do to our eyes. This is actually....still true. Mostly true. But very mostly true; there's a small catch. If you plan on viewing the August 21, 2017 (woo!) or April 8, 2024 North American eclipses, or any future solar eclipse, you need to have protective eyewear. The only time if it is safe to sneak a peak at the eclipse is during totality - when the Sun is completely covered. But you have to be quick. The totality of the 2017 eclipse will last no more than 2 minutes and 40 seconds. 
     So even though hugging your face to the TV, reading in the dark, and peaking at an eclipse may not be as bad for you as you think, you still don't want to be reckless with your eyes. Staring at small text on your phone can put a strain on your eyes and make you sick, even if only temporary. Sleeping with contacts in could lead to an infection, and having a poor diet will also effect your eyes just like it will the rest of your body. Also, overusing eye drops will just lead to more irritation, and when you rub your eyes, don't rub too hard: intense rubbing could lead to broken blood vessels under your eye lids.
     So now the myths are busted. Your are eyes are still delicate, but they can handle more than we think. And if you were absolutely dying to know, yes the raw steak on a black's a myth.

*New York Times, American Academy of Ophthalmology, Scientific American, ABC News, Look After Your Eyes, Good Housekeeping, Dr. Axe, Bembo, VSP, NASA, Astronomy., photo from Penn State

Monday, August 15, 2016

Fast and Furious: Automated Drift

     You could see a self-driving car next to you on the highway before you know it. Now I know what you're thinking: "self-driving cars? That's not safe! You can't trust a computer to safely guide a car going 60 mph on the highway. The computer won't know what to do. This won't happen." Well, while that's a valid rebuttal, here is a rebuttal to that rebuttal: "yeah, but humans."
     I'm not advocating for driverless cars, I appreciate being able to take control of my Volkswagen and I don't feel like forfeiting my driving privileges anytime soon, but at the same time, the positives should be looked at. Where a computer may or may not know right from wrong, neither do us humans, apparently. That is why we do such things as rush through yellow (and red) lights, fail to yield, U-turn in the worst places, weave in and out of traffic, street race, speed on wet roads, try to outrun trains, block the passing lane, and LEAVE ON HIGH BEAMS. Seriously, please turn off your brights when you're not the only car around. If you're going to ride behind someone with your brights on, then they might as well be driving with their eyes closed. Anyway, while a computer can still make these mistakes, would it make them as often as we do?
     Eating and driving (I saw someone eating soup on Interstate 85 one time), texting and driving, drinking and driving, dressing and driving, doing makeup and driving, email and driving, sex and driving (more common than you think), reading books and driving...matter of fact, here's 51 things people have been caught doing while driving that you, well, shouldn't do while driving. It can be said with 100 percent certainty that a computer could not and would not do any of this. So while there is a potential of accidents from miscalculations, you won't have to worry about your automated Camry coloring with crayons or clipping toenails en route to your destination.
     Another thing to think about: our transportation is already pretty automated. While planes have pilots and trains have engineers, there is heavy automation involved. Why? Well because the honest truth is computers provide a lesser risk of error and are better at the math. Airline pilots sometimes have to fly tired, but a planes computer system is always awake. Today's planes and many trains typically operate themselves, with pilots and engineers taking over for specific tasks. So why not cars? Well for one, cars are around each other much more than planes and trains, and keeping them all on the same page is not easy. Cars, unlike planes and trains, are meant to be personal.
     Google's driverless cars have driven over 1,725,911 miles as of June. Driverless car tests are currently legal in only 8 states and DC. Since Google began testing, there has only been one news-worthy incident which involved a Google car and a bus. No one was injured and the bus was only traveling 15 mph, with the Google car going less than 2 mph. Tesla has also been testing driverless cars, and while they've made strides, they unfortunately haven't been as lucky as Google. Joshua Brown, the driver of a Tesla Model S, was killed in May 2016 when an 18-wheeler turned left at an intersection and his car failed to apply the brakes.
     While driverless cars are close to becoming a reality, there are still bugs, hurdles, limitations, and legislation that must be fixed, cleared, and passed, and that'll all take some time. 42 states still don't allow driverless testing, and zero allow compete automated driving. New road laws will have to be proposed and passed, and many questions have to be answered. Should there be a passenger limit? Should the cars be allowed on interstates, limited-access highways, and toll roads? Should regulation be left up to the states or federal? If a driverless car causes an accident, who is at fault? How does this affect car insurance? Should there be weather restrictions? How will these cars' computer systems be protected from hackers? Can 18-wheelers, limousines, and taxis be driverless too? How will this affect automotive industry jobs? Can Uber cars be driverless? All of these questions and more will have to be addressed before driverless cars can fully share the road. 
     Driverless car adoption will likely be slow. This would be a major technological change; much more major than switching from flip phones to smartphones or dial up to broadband. And honestly, most people are not ready to give up the freedom of driving, and never will be. When driverless cars do appear on the market, the option to be able to switch back and forth (like an airplane with auto-pilot) will have to be there. Having the car automated doesn't mean it won't include a steering wheel and a manual mode. Take Will Smith's I Robot for example. The movie was set in 2035 and featured Will sitting back in his automated Audi while it drove along (at like 120 mph), yet whenever circuits hit the fan, Will summoned the steering wheel with the click of a button (which was technically illegal in the movie, going that fast).
     The days of complete human control may be numbered, but the days of a computer completely taking over your trip shouldn't be coming anytime soon. Driverless cars won't end car accidents, but they could be a start to smarter driving. Either way, the auto industry is going to have to going to have to keep up. Ridesharing and carsharing are starting to make consumers think twice about ownership.

*sources: Wikipedia, New York Times, Fortune, The Verge, Citylab, The Redhead Riter