Lesson #392: Cosmic String

Every now and again I learn about something that makes me say something along the lines of, “holy f**k, that’s cool!” out loud. Today, I learned about cosmic string.

A cosmic string is a one-dimensional — they have length, but a height and width smaller than a proton — fault line in the universe that’s made up entirely of energy. Which means it has no mass. Which means that a string even a mile long would be much, much heavier than the earth. Astrophysicists theorize that cosmic strings, of which they believe there are billions, are flaws created during the Big Bang’s cooling period (which was literally nanoseconds after the Big Bang). So basically, cosmic strings are the cracks that form in asphalt after too many freeze-thaw cycles,* but way more awesome.

Serio, you guys, do you have any idea how effing cool that is?!? My head nearly exploded from the excitement of learning that.**

As of yet, there has been no direct evidence of cosmic strings, though researchers at the University of Buffalo found indirect evidence while studying quasars a few years back.

Okay, here’s the super ultra cool part — in case the rest of that was too real science for you: because of the structure of cosmic strings, anything that found itself within one would travel backwards through time because the gravitational pull is such that anything within a cosmic string would benefit from (fall victim to?) time dilation.

Cosmic string is science fiction come to life. On a very, very, very, very small scale. If it exists at all.***

If you’re interested (and you should be), you can read more here, here, here, and here.

*A thing that will make no sense to those of you who didn’t grow up in cold climates.

**True story: when you’re interested in something you’re hearing/reading, your pupils dilate. When I’m really interested in something, my head actually tingles.

***Which it probably does.

Lesson #379: Quantum Foam

Most of the universe is empty space. Even you, no matter how big or small, are mostly empty space. But the universe get a bit self-conscious about all its unused space and creates what physicists call quantum foam. The empty space is, at the Planck scale, actually made up of particles that appear and disappear in a span of time that’s long enough to be measurable — though this is quantum physics, so it’s nanoseconds — but short enough to have absolutely no bearing on the existence of the universe.

It’s called quantum foam because all of this exists in a similar structure to the way carbonation works in a pint of beer. A bubble exists for a time and then disappears and another one forms and vanishes somewhere else. It doesn’t affect the beer in any way,* but it can be observed. The particles in empty space exist and then don’t just as the carbonation bubbles exist and then don’t.  Except they do it on a very, very, very small scale. In a Planck scale of space and time (10^-35 metres and 10^-44 seconds).

And you — well, physicists — can actually see how quantum foam works in experiments using metal plates separated by a distance. Because the amount of foam between them is less than the amount surrounding them, the plates will eventually close the gap and come together.

For more, read here, here, and here.

*Well, technically speaking, it does in exactly the same way that quantum foam affects the universe, but we’re not going into higher concepts of beer and physics here today.

Lesson #371: Blue-eyed People Are All Related

It turns out that if you look far enough back in time, you find that every single person with blue eyes who has ever lived in the history of ever is related to every single other person with blue eyes, however distantly, because of a single common ancestor from as far back as 10,000 years ago. Science is kind of awesome. So Tom Hiddleston and Michael Ealy (who are freaking beautiful*) are related to Franck Ribery and Alice Cooper (who are not) if you look far enough into it. Logistically, this means that half of Hollywood actors are related one to another.

Anyway, you can read all about it here.

*My deep love of Tom Hiddleston is well-documented. He’s pretty much the awesomest at life.

Lesson #350: The Science of Introversion

I am an introvert. It’s something that I struggled with a lot in college; I spent four years pretending to be an extrovert with quite a lot of success. To this day, I’m not sure how I pulled off that long con without driving myself absolutely mental. And though I’d argue that I’m an extroverted introvert, in that I love meeting new people and will talk to anyone — something I inherited from my father and grandfather — I’m still an introvert. Which brings us to how we got here.

Yesterday, some friends and I went and watched our local MLS team. And it was brilliant! I had a great time and made friends with the ultras* and made even more friends at the bar afterwards. But it was all aboard the struggle bus this morning for the Spurs match. Two straight days of intense socialization without any time (I got in at 2 and was at the pub at 10:30) to decompress is bad news björnar. I know I’m in trouble when watching my football club with my friends is a struggle. And an offhand comment by one of my friends about thriving on all of that socialization made me wonder about the science of it. After all, there has to be a reason for why, having done exactly the same thing as I did from 2pm yesterday until 2pm today (assuming he slept and showered between the time I dropped him off last night and the time he got to the pub), he was reveling and I desperately wanted quiet.

The answer is actually pretty simple. The reason my friend was basking in the crush and noise and I just wanted to punch another member of the club who I normally like in the mouth so he’d stop cheering so loudly for our team comes down to the way our brains take in, filter, and process what’s going on around us. Science says that introverts’ brains process external stimuli more quickly than extroverts’, which leads us to become overwhelmed well before our extroverted friends.

io9 has a pretty good breakdown of other scientific studies that you can read here.

This is my favourite ever explanation of how to deal with my fellow introverts.

*who didn’t set anything on fire. I have absolutely no idea how to deal with ultras when they’re not setting things on fire.

Lesson #346: Tree Lobsters

We got here by way of an infographic I was reading that talked about islands around the world where specific animals live en masse. Among the animals listed was the tree lobster. I legitimately said, out loud, “what the hell is a tree lobster?” Because seriously? Tree lobster?

It turns out that tree lobsters are not the awesome thing I had created in my imagination; they’re a species of stick insect that live on Lord Howe Island in Australia.

The tree lobster had once been used as fishing bait, but were thought to have been eaten into extinction by the early 1920s by black rats introduced to the island when the S. S. Makambo ran aground in 1918. But it turns out they didn’t actually go extinct; they just went into hiding for a couple generations before being rediscovered in 2001.*

An adult can grow to 15cm (roughly 6″) in length — which is terrifyingly large for a stick insect, thank you — and looks like it’s got a lobster’s exoskeleton.

For more, you can read this, this, or this.

*This is called the Lazarus Effect.

Lesson #345: Why Your Nose Runs in the Cold

We’ve had an unusually cold winter this year. Now, as someone who grew up with cold winters, you’d think I’d be okay with this.  But I’ve had ten fairly “warm” winters in four different cities. You kind of get used to that. To be honest, the cold isn’t horrible (except in how it shows itself in my heating bill); it’s just that I know what my city’s winters are usually like.* By mid-March two years ago, my friends and I were patio-ing our beer.** I want that kind of a winter.

Instead we’ve had a barely double digits winter (except at the weekend when it was 60F/14C). And as soon as I step outside, my nose starts running. I obviously know that this is the normal reaction and probably a sign that my body’s doing something it’s supposed to, but I don’t know why.

Short answer: your nose runs because cold air is very dry.

Long answer: your nose runs because cold air is very dry and the purpose of your nose is to make the air you breathe warm and wet for your lungs.*** In order to provide the moisture your lungs need to be happy in the cold, your nose has to produce extra fluid. The result of this is that your nose starts to run. To add to the problem, what you see when you see your breath is moisture and when you exhale through your mouth, that water recondenses and some of it (obviously, one feels) ends up on your nose.

For more information, see here.

*In fairness, this whinging would probably annoy a friend who lives in a particularly northern city in my homeland. Then again, he’s currently spending a week in El Salvador, so I don’t have that much sympathy for him.

**And, as previously noted, everyone knows that outdoor beers always taste better than indoor beers. That’s a fact.

***Tangentially, this also explains why when it’s very, very cold out (for those of you who have never had the pleasure of stepping outside when it’s -40) it physically hurts to breathe. 

Lesson #326: Gliese 436b is Covered in Burning Ice

It’s not a huge secret that I think space is the coolest (no pun intended). In another life, with an infinitely better high school physics experience and far superior math skills, I would have been an astrophysicist. In a parallel dimension, where I’m a math whiz who had a great physics teacher, I probably am. Because space is effing awesome! One of my favourite things in the world is being alone in a vast open space where I can see more stars than I can even register. I’ve only experienced that twice in my life (once while doing off trail camping in the desert in Big Bend National Park in Texas* and once while camping in the Jordanian desert), but it’s such an exhilarating experience to look up and realize how vast space is and how small my existence is.

There is an exoplanet the size of Neptune that is covered in ice so hot it would make you bear a striking to resemblance to the Nazis at the end Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which is awesome! Discovered in 2004, Gliese 436 b is about 33 light years from earth and takes a surprisingly shot 2 days and 15.5 hours to complete its orbit around the red dwarf star Gliese 436. It also doesn’t have the atmospheric chemical composition (7000x too little methane, too much carbon dioxide) that science says it should, leading astronomers to conclude that Gliese 436b hosts hot water ice, which…what?

It turns out the exoplanet’s high gravity compresses water vapour into what we’d consider ice, but for the part where the temperature of this ice is roughly 400 degrees Celsius, which is, you know, not very cold. So it’s not really ice as we know it; it’s considered “exotic ice”, which is a fancy term for water in a solid state that is really freaking hot.

I have to admit that when I first read the words “burning ice” when I was reading up this morning, I imagined ice that was on fire, which would have been brilliant (and also made zero sense). But the reality isn’t so bad either…

More information herehere, here, and here

*Autobiographical note: Camping in Big Bend was the only time I’ve been off-trail camping. Because we were quite literally out in the middle of nowhere, before the rangers would issue our permit, we were required to give impressions of our hiking boots and descriptions of our gear. We were also each required to let someone know when what day we were heading home and that if they didn’t hear from us by day X to call the park rangers to send a search team out. This led to the strangest message I’ve ever left anyone. My dad got a message that went something along the lines of, “if you don’t hear from me by X day, I’ve probably been eaten by a mountain lion. If that’s the case, call the park rangers to send out a search party.” Needless to say, neither of us were eaten by a mountain lion.