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.