Category Archives: Science

how to disappear two nobel medals (and bring them back)

When the Nazis invaded Copenhagen in 1940, physicist Niels Bohr was in possession of two Nobel Prize medals. But they were not his medals. The first belonged to Max von Laue, winner of the 1914 Prize for physics, the second to James Franck, the physics winner in 1925.

Not wanting to attract unwanted attention to themselves, each had sent his medal to Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen for safekeeping. But with Nazis marching through the streets of the city, the medals now posed a particularly serious threat to Bohr. NPR’s Robert Krulwich writes:

Inconveniently, [these medals were] now sitting in Bohr’s building, clearly inscribed “Von Laue”…and “Franck” — like two death warrants. Bohr’s institute had attracted and protected Jewish scientists for years. The Nazis knew that, and Niels Bohr knew (now that Denmark was suddenly part of the Reich) that he was a target. He had no idea what to do.

On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr’s lab. He wrote later, “I suggested that we should bury the medal(s),” but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.

So Hevesy’s thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and “I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals.”

It was a painstakingly slow process (gold is a notoriously stable element), but Hevesy managed to pull it off; when the Nazis ransacked Bohr’s institute, they found no trace of the medals.
Or rather, they never noticed them. The gold from the two medals had been dissolved into a bright orange, but otherwise unassuming, liquid. A liquid that the Nazis left untouched. A liquid that Hevesey later extracted the gold from and sent back to the Nobel Foundation to have recast into two brand-spanking-new medals.

The moral of the story? Science wins, bitches.

Check out the full story on how Hevesy saved the day, including a video on how to dissolve gold, over at NPR

steve austin

In 2000, Tal Golesworthy, a process engineer from Tewkesbury, was told that the aortic root in his heart had expanded to 4.8cm and was in danger of splitting. He had two choices; undergo surgery to insert a mechanical valve or risk a sudden and fatal heart attack. The only solution then available was the pairing of a mechanical valve and a highly risky blood thinner. To an engineer like Golesworthy, that just wasn’t good enough. So he constructed his own implant that does the job better than the existing solution–and became the first patient to try it.”

So the engineer engineered his own heart valve. Cool.

sittin’ on the dock of the bay

This stunning video of a Martian sunset was captured by the Mars Rover Opportunity. Although most movies code the Martian color scheme as red, the sunset shines blue. Find out why.

Mars is, famously, The Red Planet. The rust in the dust on its surface gives the surface a reddish-brown appearance. It vast dry, dusty expanses call to mind Earthlike deserts, in which a red-orange sun beats down on yellow sand. As a result, when we think of a Mars sunset, most think of it as blazing red.

The recent footage released by NASA shows us the exact opposite. The sun glows a cool blue as it sets in the Martian sky. It’s quite an upset of perception, and it’s all due to that famous red dust.

On Earth, the particles in the atmosphere scatter blue light. When a ray of light hits them, the blue wavelengths are diverted from their course and shot randomly outwards. As it moves out, it hits other air particles, and some of it scatters down to the surface of the Earth. Those standing on the surface look up into the sky, see the light that’s scattered down, and say the sky is blue. Meanwhile, direct light from the sun has had all the blue wavelengths filtered out; they’ve been scattered all over the sky. This leaves only the wavelengths at the reddish end of the spectrum – so when people look at the sun, they see it as yellow. Towards sunset, they’re looking at the sun through more filtering atmosphere, and so it grows more intensely red-yellow.

On Mars, exactly the opposite happens. The red dust in the atmosphere scatters red light, so when anyone looking around would see a reddish sky. Meanwhile, the red wavelengths are filtered out of the direct path of light from the sun, leaving light towards the bluish end of the color spectrum. Those looking at the sun will see it as blue. And very seasonal.

More details at Science Daily.

french manicures

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, a clock on the floor ought to run very slightly slower than an identical one on top of a step stool because the lower clock nestles deeper into Earth’s gravitational field. Now, physicists have demonstrated this effect using two super-accurate clocks and hoisting one several centimeters above the other. It’s the first time scientists have used clocks to show that time flies faster for your nose than for your navel. “The demonstration of the gravitational shift by elevating a clock about one foot is quite stunning,” says Daniel Kleppner, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was not involved in the work. He adds, however, that the demonstration “does not change anyone’s view on relativity.”

Einstein realized that time passes at different rates depending on the circumstances. For example, suppose you stand on a train platform with a Rolex on your wrist while a friend wearing an identical watch zooms by in a train. Your friend’s watch runs slower than yours simply because he is moving relative to you, Einstein predicted in his theory of special relativity. And according to his theory of general relativity, gravity comes about because massive things like Earth stretch the fabric of space and time. As a result, a clock at lower altitude and, hence, lower gravitational energy, should run slower than one at higher altitude—by about 3 microseconds per year per kilometer of elevation.

Keep reading.

hepa filters

so NASA answers how long you can live in space without any protection.

At NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (now renamed Johnson Space Center) we had a test subject accidentally exposed to a near vacuum (less than 1 psi) in an incident involving a leaking space suit in a vacuum chamber back in ’65. He remained conscious for about 14 seconds, which is about the time it takes for O2 deprived blood to go from the lungs to the brain. The suit probably did not reach a hard vacuum, and we began repressurizing the chamber within 15 seconds. The subject regained consciousness at around 15,000 feet equivalent altitude. The subject later reported that he could feel and hear the air leaking out, and his last conscious memory was of the water on his tongue beginning to boil.

keep reading. its full of awesome explanations.


For decades physicists have suspected that neutrinos hold some of the universe’s darkest secrets. Determining their behavior and where they came from could tell rich stories of the early universe and potentially illuminate the curious nature of dark matter. Untold trillions of these tiny subatomic particles—some born soon after the birth of the universe, others born in the hearts of stars—have traveled unimaginable distances to pass through your body every second. So what does this mean for you? Not much, really. The nearly massless particles pass through almost all matter unabated, without leaving a trace. It’s this elusive nature that also makes them so difficult to detect and therefore study. Very occasionally, however, a neutrino collides into an atom, producing from the wreckage another particle—known as a muon—that can be detected (using special light sensors). At the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a team of pioneering researchers has buried thousands of these sensors miles deep into the ice at the bottom of the Earth, all in an attempt to catch the rare neutrino that crashes into an atom of ice.

Hello Dave

26 of NASA’s legends, including Cernan, Armstrong, and Lovell have blasted Obama’s new space plan.

The United States entered into the challenge of space exploration under President Eisenhower’s first term, however, it was the Soviet Union who excelled in those early years.

Under the bold vision of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, and with the overwhelming approval of the American people, we rapidly closed the gap in the final third; of the 20th century, and became the world leader in space exploration.
America’s space accomplishments earned the respect and admiration of the world. Science probes were unlocking the secrets of the cosmos; space technology was providing instantaneous worldwide communication; orbital sentinels were helping man understand the vagaries of nature.

Above all else, the people around the world were inspired by the human exploration of space and the expanding of man’s frontier. It suggested that what had been thought to be impossible was now within reach. Students were inspired to prepare themselves to be a part of this new age.

World leadership in space was not achieved easily. In the first half-century of the space age, our country made a significant financial investment, thousands of Americans dedicated themselves to the effort, and some gave their lives to achieve the dream of a nation.

In the latter part of the first half century of the space age, Americans and their international partners focused primarily on exploiting the near frontiers of space with the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

As a result of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, it was concluded that our space policy required a new strategic vision. Extensive studies and analysis led to this new mandate: meet our existing commitments, return to our exploration roots, return to the moon, and prepare to venture further outward to the asteroids and to Mars.
The program was named Constellation In the ensuing years, this plan was endorsed by two Presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.

The Columbia Accident Board had given Nasa a number of recommendations fundamental to the Constellation architecture which were duly incorporated. The Ares rocket family was patterned after the Von Braun Modular concept so essential to the success of the Saturn 1B and the Saturn 5.

A number of components in the Ares 1 rocket would become the foundation of the very large heavy lift Ares V, thus reducing the total development costs substantially. After the Ares 1 becomes operational, the only major new components necessary for the Ares V would be the larger propellant tanks to support the heavy lift requirements.

The design and the production of the flight components and infrastructure to implement this vision was well underway. Detailed planning of all the major sectors of the program had begun. Enthusiasm within Nasa and throughout the country was very high.

When President Obama recently released his budget for Nasa, he proposed a slight increase in total funding, substantial research and technology development, an extension of the International Space Station operation until 2020, long range planning for a new but undefined heavy lift rocket and significant funding for the development of commercial access to low earth orbit

Although some of these proposals have merit, the accompanying decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.

America’s only path to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station will now be subject to an agreement with Russia to purchase space on their Soyuz – at a price of over 50 million dollars per seat with significant increases expected in the near future – until we have the capacity to provide transportation for ourselves.

The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the President’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty, but is likely to take substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope.

It appears that we will have wasted our current $10-plus billion investment in Constellation and, equally importantly, we will have lost the many years required to recreate the equivalent of what we will have discarded.

For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.

While the President’s plan envisages humans traveling away from Earth and perhaps toward Mars at some time in the future, the lack of developed rockets and spacecraft will assure that ability will not be available for many years.

Without the skill and experience that actual spacecraft operation provides, the USA is far too likely to be on a long downhill slide to mediocrity. America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space. If it does, we should institute a program which will give us the very best chance of achieving that goal.

Neil Armstrong
Commander, Apollo 11

James Lovell
Commander, Apollo 13

Eugene Cernan
Commander, Apollo 17

Chris Kraft
Johnson Space Center Past Director

Jack Lousma
Skylab 3, STS 3

Vance Brand
Apollo-Soyuz, STS-5, STS-41B, STS-35

Bob Crippen
STS-1, STS-7, STS-41C, STS-41G, Kennedy Space Center Past Director

Michael D. Griffin
Past NASA Administrator

Ed Gibson
Skylab 4

Jim Kennedy
Kennedy Space Center Past Director

Alan Bean
Apollo 12, Skylab 3

Alfred M. Worden
Apollo 15

Scott Carpenter
Mercury Astronaut

Glynn Lunney
Gemini-Apollo Flight Director

Jim McDivitt Gemini 4
Apollo 9 Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager

Gene Kranz
Gemini-Apollo Flight Director, NASA Mission Ops. Past Director

Joe Kerwin
Skylab 2

Fred Haise
Apollo 13, Shuttle Landing Tests

Gerald Carr
Skylab 4

Jake Garn
STS-51D, U.S. Senator

Charlie Duke
Apollo 16

Bruce McCandless
STS-41B, STS-31

Frank Borman
Gemini 7, Apollo 8

Paul Weitz
Skylab 2, STS-6

George Mueller
Past Associate Administrator For Manned Space Flight

Harrison Schmitt
Apollo 17, U.S. Senator

Dick Gordon
Gemini 11, Apollo 12

ziggy stardust and the spiders from mars

Instead of sending people to the Moon, the US space program is sending robots to the Asteroid Belt. When these robots discover metals in the Belt, how will it affect the economy of Earth?

Discovery’s Robert Lamb reports on a lecture given by Vatican astronomer Guy J. Consolmagno, which was in part about the ethics of asteroid mining. Lamb writes:

Can you put a price tag on an asteroid? Sure you can. We know of roughly 750 S-class asteroids with a diameter of at least 1 kilometer. Many of these pass as near to the Earth as our own moon ? close enough to reach via spacecraft. As a typical asteroid is 10 percent metal, Brother Consolmango estimates that such an asteroid would contain 1 billion metric tons of iron. That’s as much as we mine out of the globe every year, a supply worth trillions and trillions of dollars. Subtract the tens of billions it would cost to exploit such a rock, and you still have a serious profit on your hands.

But is this ethical? Brother Consolmango asked us to ponder whether such an asteroid harvest would drastically disrupt the economies of resource-exporting nations. What would happen to most of Africa? What would it do to the cost of iron ore? And what about refining and manufacturing? If we spend the money to harvest iron in space, why not outsource the other related processes as well? Imagine a future in which solar-powered robots toil in lunar or orbital factories.

“On the one hand, it’s great,” Brother Consolmango said. “You’ve now taken all of this dirty industry off the surface of the Earth. On the other hand, you’ve put a whole lot of people out of work. If you’ve got a robot doing the mining, why not another robot doing the manufacturing? And now you’ve just put all of China out of work. What are the ethical implications of this kind of major shift?”

The question is interesting. A number of authors, including Ken MacLeod and Paul McAuley, have suggested that Earth’s future economy may become rigidly environmentalist to preserve the planet’s habitability. Development planetside will grind to a halt, but old-fashioned dirty industry will thrive in space. So you could wind up with two human economies: A controlled, stable-state one on Earth, and a crazily free market one offworld.

one in a billion

The mystery relates to Saturn’s tiny ice moon Enceladus. Until relatively recently, very little had been known about Enceladus, however scientists expected it to be a cold and dead place given its physical characteristics.

We knew from the prior Voyager missions that Enceladus might have a complex geology, but most people thought that was in the past. Yet it turns out this 500km-across ball of ice is one of the most active moons or planets in the solar system.

‘The pent-up heat – enough to melt the interior, and possibly sustain a liquid water ocean under the ice – would be released as one catastrophic event around every billion years or so. Cassini just happened to fly into it,’ O’Neill said.
‘Eventually you reach a critical point, and the whole thing just blows,’ he said.

The ice sheets would flow like glaciers, the heat causing geysers to pop up all over the active surface, he added.

helga from norge

so apparently, the norwegians are in for a world of hurt, literally. at least according to the Pakistan Daily (which I had never heard of about until today). and which also conveniently leaves out any sources at ALL.

Russian scientists are reporting to Prime Minister Putin today that the high-energy beam fired into the upper heavens from the United States High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) radar facility in Ramfjordmoen, Norway this past month has resulted in a “catastrophic puncturing” of our Plant’s thermosphere thus allowing into the troposphere an “unimpeded thermal inversion” of the exosphere, which is the outermost layer of Earth’s atmosphere.

To the West’s firing of this ‘quantum’ high-energy beam we had previously reported on in our December 10, 2009 report titled “Attack On Gods ‘Heaven’ Lights Up Norwegian Sky”.

To how catastrophic for our Planet this massive thermal inversion has been Anthony Nunan, an assistant general manager for risk management at Mitsubishi Corporation in Tokyo, is reporting today that the entire Northern Hemisphere is in winter chaos, with the greatest danger from this unprecedented Global event being the destruction of billions of dollars worth of crops in a World already nearing the end of its ability to feed its self.

song sung blue

The songs blue whales use to communicate and attract mates have been dropping in pitch worldwide for decades, and researchers think it might actually be a sign that an endangered population is recovering.

No one is completely sure what whale songs are used for – theories include mating calls, other forms of communication, and possibly a form of sonar. A group of researchers recently examined whale songs from several decades and from all the world’s oceans. They found that the frequency, or pitch, of blue whale song has been steadily dropping for many years. Recently recorded whale songs are the lowest, while whale songs from the 1960s were higher in pitch.

The researchers don’t know what’s causing the change, but they have a theory based on a correlation with blue whale populations. When the songs were at their highest pitch, blue whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction. Since the International Whaling Commission banned blue whale hunting in the 60s, the worldwide blue whale population has been slowly but steadily increasing (though it’s still a tiny fraction of what it once was). That seems to coincide with the pitch change.

It could be that whales used a higher frequency song when there were fewer whales because those songs traveled farther, hundreds of miles or more. With a sparse population, you’d need a long-distance call to find more mates or family members. With populations rebounding somewhat, the whales are able to use lower frequency songs with more success, since there’s a greater chance another blue whale is nearby.

You may be wondering why higher frequency songs would travel farther, since generally low-frequency sounds are thought to be better for long-distance propagation. I asked the researchers about this, and scientist Mark McDonald explained that whales can sing louder at higher frequencies:

Across the frequencies of blue whale song, the underwater transmission losses are nearly the same regardless of frequency. It is absorption which is the primary cause of frequency dependent transmission losses, rather than dispersion in this case, and the absorption loss only begins to become significant when ranges reach thousands of kilometers. Theory tells us the whales can produce higher amplitude songs at higher frequencies, based on given lung volume.

I was also curious if this was an example of evolution in action, with subsequent generations of whales exhibiting a change in pitch due to natural selection, or if it was a behavioral change, with blue whales choosing to use a lower pitch song. He replied:

We presume it is a behavioral change, but we don’t really know why the whales are changing their song frequency. We don’t find our own best hypothesis entirely convincing.

Which is a pretty excellent example of science in progress. If only we could figure out what blue whales were singing about, so we could just ask them.