Tag Archives: astronomy


If you haven’t heard already, today is a “supermoon.” Today, the moon is closer to the Earth than it has been since 1948. Visually, that means it will be bigger and brighter than usual. Intellectually, it’s gratifying to watch the cosmic ballet go on. Our solar system is like a Swiss clock, all the parts proceeding and, for the most part, fitting together perfectly. Winter (northern hemisphere) supermoons are slightly bigger because the Earth is closer to the sun; the sun’s gravitational power pulls the moon slightly, such that the supermoon is bigger. Astrobob explains it better here.

For more pontifications on the moon, check out What If the Moon Didn’t Exist, which I reviewed here. Below are some of my favorite photos of the moon, and a moonrise video over Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

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Chaco Canyon moon, stars, and clouds

Chaco Canyon: New Mexico’s ancient convention center

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is in remote northwest New Mexico. The drive will take you on twenty miles of dirt roads and beyond cell range. But in this most remote reach of New Mexico lies the crossroads of an ancient culture. In Chaco Culture National Historic Park lies 3,614 recorded archaeological sites, including many massive great houses. The largest, Pueblo Bonito,  has roughly 800 rooms; visitors may walk through the doors and rooms of Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco Culture also built astronomical features into many of their works; some windows align perfectly with the sun on solstice, and some decorations align with phases of the moon.

When Chaco was discovered in modernity, it was thought to be a vast city. Having walked through it, it feels that way. It feels like it could hold thousands. But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise—there is little garbage, and few burials. Massive Pueblo Bonito may have housed only 70 people on a permanent basis. The guides at the park suggest that Chaco might have been a meeting ground, used for trade and weddings and astronomical ceremonies for a small portion of the year. Remnants of cacao from 1200 miles south have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The bones of macaws, native to eastern Mexico, have been found at Pueblo del Arroyo. They apparently didn’t flourish; only the bones of adults were found. So the astonishing quantity of ruins at Chaco Culture Park may be the remnants of an ancient convention center.

Chaco offers an amazing range of ruins, from the many-roomed grand houses to petroglyphs to astronomical markers to ancient stairs and roads. Like Mesa Verde National Park, not so far to the north, the whole site was abandoned in the 1300s, well before European influence. Like Mesa Verde, archaeologists don’t know exactly why the people left. There is evidence of an ancient drought. Some argue for catastrophic deforestation after all the building at Chaco (because all that construction took a terrific amount of timber, some of which still remains in the structures), though there is not consensus.

I grew up in St. Louis, a town once called Mound City for the mounds left by the ancient Mississippian culture. The massive city at Cahokia was also abandoned around the year 1300. A city of 15,000 abandoned, around the population of London at the time, and we don’t know why. It’s easy to live in the United States and think of it as the new world. But these amazing works of ancient people live on quietly. The inconvenient mounds of St. Louis were largely destroyed; those who did so may not have even realized their origin. But the remnants of the Pueblo culture at Chaco remain, mostly protected by their isolation over the years. Though the journey today is easier than it ever has been, Chaco is still hours from the interstate and quiet. As I took in the ruins, I was filled with the same wonder and questions that Cahokia Mounds always presented. Places like Chaco and Cahokia are reminders of humanity—no matter the size of the structures we build, one day people will view the barren remnants and wonder about us. We will walk the same valleys and cliffs, touch the same stones, but we won’t know each others names or voices or values. Ruins like Chaco remind of us of our place in the universe, and how beautiful and belittling that can be.


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The stars through my tent at Chaco Culture Park. Chaco is one of the night sky parks, where the darkness of the sky is specifically preserved through lighting choices and such. In light of the ancient Pueblo interests in astronomy, it seems appropriate.


Sunrise at the camp site.

Book now with the Exoplanet Travel Bureau

(You may have a wait while the technology for your flight is developed.)

A lot of my first reading as a child was astronomy books and magazines. When I was little, my brother told me there was a black hole under his bed (to keep me from snooping—nerd children fight dirty), and after that, I had to know more about the enigmatic and alarming properties of the universe.

One of the things I remember was the hunt for the first exoplanet, that is, the first confirmed planet outside of the solar system. Scientists were quite sure they should exist (why wouldn’t they?), but the equipment and techniques thus far hadn’t shown them. I remember reading about some of the first exoplanets in the hazy early 90s. They were massive, close to their stars, and had outrageous properties that inspired wild imaginings.

Now confirmed exoplanets number in the thousands. And poking around the internet on an unrelated chore the other night, I found this gem: the Exoplanet Travel Bureau. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the extremely prestigious and awesome JPL) made travel posters for four exoplanets in the style of retro travel posters. Each of them features characteristics of their planet. I promptly printed out three and hung them in my guest room. I’m still ecstatic about them; these are the kinds of visions and dreams I had so long ago as a kid, and that I love to chase in my own art. These are awesome, and I love them, and you can download them at full size. Tell all your friends, and print your own! Here they are!

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Click on the image for more image sizes. Images by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Book review: What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? (Neil F. Comins 1993)

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is a book that asks just that– what would Earth be like if the ancient collision that led to our present-day moon never happened and the Earth had no moon? Comins, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Maine, also asks what if the moon was closer, what if the Earth was smaller, what if the Earth was tilted like Uranus, among other questions.

This book is a must-have for science fiction writers interested in writing about other planets. Comins follows through on his initial questions in a way that science fiction enthusiasts will appreciate. If the moon didn’t exist, the moon’s tidal pull wouldn’t exist. Due to the lack of that tidal pull, Earth’s day would be 8 hours long, not 24. Which would cause much stronger winds and storms. And the tides would be lower. Which would impede the transition of  life from water to land. And that life would have to adapt to the windy, stormy short days. Would that life develop hearing, with all that wind? Would plants opt for low-surface-area needles instead of broad leaves? Assuming humans developed, how would early man tell time without a lunar cycle? Would this influence man’s scientific development? Comins asks and suggests answers to all of these questions. It’s exciting food for thought, and it made me want to go dream up worlds of my own.

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is over twenty years old now. I expect some of the science in it may be outdated (none that I actually noticed, but given the advances in planetary science since 1993, it seems likely). However, the logic the book employs is sound, and I still found it very stimulating. And in researching this post, I discovered two more recent books my Comins: What If the Earth Had Two Moons? written in 2011 and The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist’s Guide written in 2007. They seem similar in tenor and I expect to like them too.

Fun Science: Vacuum and Pressure

Pressure is caused by collisions between particles. Scientists use the term “vacuum” when there are few particles, and thus few collisions. Air in our atmosphere is dense with particles; atmospheric pressure is very high compared to lab vacuum or the vacuum of space. Scientists use vacuum in many ways. Vacuums were used in lightbulbs and vacuum tubes (such as the old CRT or cathode ray tubes of old TVs and computers). Vacuums are used for depositing materials in clean environments, such as on silicon wafers for microcircuitry. Vacuums are used for separating liquids that have different evaporation points. In scientific labs, we can produce pressures billions of times lower than atmospheric pressure, but the pressure in space is still lower.

Atmospheric pressure: Every cubic centimeter (also called a milliliter) of air contains 2.5 x 1019  air molecules. That’s 25,000,000 trillion molecules, where the US debt is roughly $12 trillion, and a terabyte (TB) hard-drive holds a trillion bytes of information. That is a lot of particles causing a lot of collisions. The average particle travels only 66 nanometers before colliding with another particle. That’s only about 200 times the size of a nitrogen molecule.

On top of Mount Everest: Pressure is roughly 1/3 of the pressure at sea level, and there are 8 x 1018 molecules of air per cubic centimeter. The average particle travels 280 nm before colliding with another particle.

Incandescent light bulb: The pressure inside a lightbulb is 1 to 10 Pascals (pressure at sea level is 100,000 Pascals). There are still about 1014 molecules/cm3, or 100 trillion molecules. The average particle travels a mm to a cm before a collision. This pressure is too low for plants or animals to survive.

Ultra high lab vacuum: The most sophisticated lab vacuum equipment can produce pressures of 10-7 to 10-9 Pascals, yielding about 10,000,000 to 100,000 molecules/cm3, respectively. Particles travel an average distance of 100 to 10,000 km before colliding with another particle. Such extreme vacuums require highly specialized equipment, including specialized pumps and chambers. Only certain materials can be used; paint, many plastics and certain metals can release gases at very low pressures, making them unsuitable.

Space vacuum: The vacuum of space depends on what part of space you mean. The pressure on the moon is 10-9 Pa, or roughly our highest lab vacuum, with 400,000 particles/cm3. The pressure in interplanetary space (within the solar system) is lower yet, with only about 11 particles/cm3. It is estimated that there is only about 1 particle per meter cubed in the space between galaxies. Still, some microorganisms have survived exposures of days to space vacuum by forming a protective glass around themselves.

Going the other way, there are pressures much higher than the pressure of our atmosphere.

At the bottom of the Mariana trench: Pressure is about 1.1 x 108 Pa, or about 1100 atmospheres. A variety of life has been observed in the Mariana trench.

At the center of the sun: Pressure is about 2.5 x 1016 Pa, or 2.5 x 1011 atmospheres, or about 100,000 times the pressure at the core of the earth. This pressure is sufficient to fuel the fusion process of the sun, where hydrogen is combined to form helium.

At the center of a neutron star: Pressure is about 1034 Pa, or 1018 times the pressure at the center of the sun. Here, pressure is so high that normal atoms with electrons around a core of protons and neutrons cannot exists. Nuclei cannot exist in the core of a neutron star.

Read about other science topics on my fun science page.

Fun Science: Gravitational waves

Gravitational waves were first predicted in 1916 by Einstein’s general theory of relativity; today we are trying to directly observe them. A gravitational wave is a tiny oscillation in the fabric of space-time that travels at the speed of light; all other findings from general relativity predict its existence. Many objects will create minuscule gravitational waves, and even the largest objects create ones we just barely hope to see (such as binary stars and black holes). From the LIGO wikipedia page “gravitational waves that originate tens of millions of light years from Earth are expected to distort the 4 kilometer mirror spacing by about 10−18 m, less than one-thousandth the charge diameter of a proton.”

What would we gain from this? Astronomers believe that gravitational waves could eventually become another mode of imaging by which to analyze the universe, like gamma ray, x-ray, and infrared imaging.

Example of gravitational wave distortions (from wikipedia)

The LIGO (Laser interferometer gravitational-wave observatory) ran from 2002 to 2010; it was unsuccessful in its hunt for gravitational waves. It is being recalibrated to restart in 2014. The two observatories in Louisiana and Richland, Washington record the same events and compare the time at which they arrive. Below is a schematic of this set-up. LISA, the laser interferometer space array, has been discussed for years as an orbiting detector with greater length scales (and therefore greater accuracy) than LIGO; a proof-of-concept is due for launch in 2014.

Laser interferometer set-up (wikipedia)

If you want to learn more, Einstein Online, which is run by the Max Planck Institute, is a great resource (the Max Planck Institute is involved in great cutting edge research, perhaps comparable to NASA). The above link is for info on gravitational waves, but there is also great info on other concepts related to relativity if you are interested.

Interesting facts: 50-75

Today I post interesting facts 51-75. These last weeks have been incredibly intense, and it’s been tough meeting my 100 fact challenge celebrating reaching 100 posts. I will follow with the last 25 later this week or next Monday. The blog has had to take a backseat to work and to my book writing efforts; I will hit 70,000 words tomorrow and I am closing in on the finish. And without further ado, more facts!


51. Earth’s magnetic poles switch every few hundred thousand years, as a result of natural movements in iron in the crust. I wondered how this might affect migratory species using magnetic senses, but there isn’t enough evidence from the last switch 41,000 years ago to tell.

52. The creator of Kellogg’s cornflakes was at war with sexuality. The cornflakes were a part of this, as an unstimulating food. He was a strong advocate against masturbation– advocating circumcision and application of acid to the genitals.

53. Left-handed people are at a higher risk for numerous ailments, including schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression. I am what they call mixed-handed– I do some tasks with my right hand (writing), and some with the other (sports).

54. Eta Carinae is sometimes one of the brightest stars in the sky, and sometimes not. It is a system including a luminous blue variable, which grows a coat of obscuring gas, and then periodically blasts it off. In 1843, it was the second brightest object in the sky. It currently cannot be seen with the naked eye.

55. George Washington did not have wooden teeth. His dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth (including horse and donkey teeth).

56. Goldfish actually have memories of about three months. As anyone who ever owned a goldfish should know.

57. Alfred Tennyson was troubled and interested by the science of his time. Themes about evolution and references to the contemporary phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (a since debunked scientific concept which claims an organism develops in vitro according to its phylum order) can be found in his poetry, specially In Memoriam.

58. Water-induced wrinkles are not caused by the skin absorbing water and swelling. They are caused by the autonomic nervous system, which triggers localized vasoconstriction in response to wet skin, yielding a wrinkled appearance. This may have evolved because it gives ancestral primates a better grip in slippery, wet environments.

59. Eating nuts, popcorn, or seeds does not increase the risk of diverticulitis.These foods may actually have a protective effect.

60. The Coriolis effect does not determine the direction that water rotates in a bathtub drain or a flushing toilet. The Coriolis effect induced by the Earth’s daily rotation is too small to affect the direction of water in a typical bathtub drain. The effect becomes significant and noticeable only at large scales, such as in weather systems or oceanic currents. Other forces dominate the dynamics of water in drains.

61. Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball.

62. Nikola Tesla was a badass scientist. Thomas Edison isn’t as great as you thought. Tesla pioneered AC current distribution and the lightbulb. Edison stole ideas from Tesla and attempted to undermine him to increase his own profits.

63. Paul Erdös wrote over 1500 math papers. If you’ve heard of six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this was originally known as the Erdös number, the number of degrees of separation from publishing a paper with Erdös. He was very eccentric. For years, he lived out of his suitcase, traveling across the world and collaborating on papers. He didn’t know how to open juice containers and used amphetamines to give him energy. His epitaph was “I’ve finally stopped getting dumber.”

64. Catherine the Great was the longest-ruling female monarch in Russian history. She was actually prussian, and married Peter the Great’s grandson. She probably conspired in his assassination, and took the throne. Her son changed Peter the Great’s succession laws to exclude women from rule.

65. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a nobel prize, and the only person to win in multiple sciences. She discovered polonium and radium and x-rays. She used x-rays to help diagnose injuries in WW1. She eventually died due to radiation-related illness.

66. Ramanujan was an indian-born mathematical genius. With little formal instruction, he devised many theorems that are still being incorporated into mathematical theory. He died at 32.

67. Michael Faraday was a pioneering scientist in electromagnetism, although he also received little formal education. He discovered benzene, and discovered the relationship between light and magnetism. He knew little math beyond trigonometry. The unit of capacitance, Farad, is named after him, as well as numerous constants and devices.

68. the symbol pi, π, originally referred to the perimeter of a circle. only in 1706 was it used to mean the ratio of perimeter to diameter.

69. James Tiptree Jr., a prominent science fiction writer, was actually a woman. She wrote under the pseudonym for two decades until she killed her husband and then herself.

70. In the early years of the Soviet Union, a type of genetics besides Mendelian genetics became accepted as correct, known as Lysenkoism. In Lysenkoism, the way you raised a crop determined its outcome, not the type of seed. Widespread starvation occurred in the Soviet five-year plans, partially due to Lysenkoism.

71. There are over 20,000 species of orchids, or four times the number of mammalian species. Many of them are epiphytes, meaning they grow above the ground in tree-borne habitats.

72. East germans could only buy Trabant cars. Used Trabants were more expensive than new ones, because the waiting line was shorter.

73. A girl in Sweden survived her body temperature dropping to 55 F (13 C) in 2010.

74. Hypothermia is highly correlated to age. Older people suffer hypothermia at a much higher rate.

75. The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is the tallest base to tip lighthouse in the United States. Due to shore encroachment, it was moved in 1999. Its light can be seen 20 miles out to sea.

100 posts, 100 fun facts

This list making business is slow stuff, and too interesting, so I decided to split it into two 50-fact posts. Happy memorial day, and happy 100 posts to me! Here are your first 50 factoids!

1. People from different cultures differ in what colors they perceive. As a simple example, english speakers deem pink as a different color than red. Russian speakers don’t, but they have a fundamentally different word for dark and light blue. In chinese, red and pink are red and pastel red, and likewise with blue.

2. Corrosion occurs preferentially where you can’t see it, such as under the head of a bolt or a foot or two under sea water. This is due to small concentration differences which cause a charge differential, which leads to corrosion. This is one reason trying to detect corrosion is very hard.

3. The biggest silicon wafers made are 45 cm or 17.7″, though they aren’t yet in production. The silicon is 99.9999999% pure, and monocrystaline.

4. Glass doesn’t have a set crystal structure; this is why it can cut so badly, because shards can be arbitrarily sharp. Auto glass is laminated with plastic to help hold it in place.

5. Many of the scenes in engineering in “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness” are filmed at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Los Angeles. Look for the green labels reading “VF##”– these are vertical fermenters. In another part of the movie, Chekhov slides past some really shiny tanks on a red floor– these are horizontal fermenters. I used to work at an AB brewery, so I got really excited when I first noticed this.

6. A neutron star is so-called because all the electrons and protons are forced by immense gravitational pressure to combine. The whole star is nearly as dense as a nucleus, or 5.9×10^14 times denser than water. This is equivalent to the weight of a 747 in the space of a grain of sand.

7. Have you ever tried dividing by zero on a calculator? A black hole is remarkably similar to dividing by zero in space.

8. Near a black hole, forces called “tidal forces” (which are felt everywhere, but are crazy strong near a black hole) can be very strong over short distances, ripping anything apart. This is called “spaghettification” (no joke).

9.  After the death of Ivan the Terrible in Russia, three men claimed to be his lost son, Dimitri. They are collectively referred to as the false Dimitris. The first successfully became Czar for ten months, after which his was killed and cremated. His ashes were loaded into a cannon and shot towards Poland, as he was believed to be a Polish spy.

10. The word “defenestration” means “the act of being thrown from a window”. The need for such a word was precipitated by two such events in Prague.

11. The 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics were held in St. Louis. In the marathon, the man who finished first hitched a ride in a car, one favorite made himself sick eating apples, and another favorite was run off course by an angry dog.

12. Toasted ravioli, or breaded deep-fried ravioli, are a culinary delight in St. Louis. Also popular is provel, a cheese used almost exclusively in St. Louis (giving a hilarious Wikipedia by someone who seems unimpressed).

13. The Cahokia mounds are a set of artificial hills in Southern Illinois. They may look unimpressive, but they are about a thousand years old, built by a native culture which later abandoned them. An old nickname of nearby St. Louis is “mound city”, because similar mounds used to be found in the city.

14. Peter the Great of Russia was 6′ 7″. In his early adulthood, he traveled to Europe to learn about shipbuilding, a passion of his. He tried to pass off as a member of the company, but his great height continuously gave him away. The little shack where he lived in Holland still stands near Amsterdam.

15. Over 100,000 serfs died building St. Petersburg, Russia. Peter the Great commissioned the city because the only Russian port at the time, Archangel, was occluded by ice 6 months of the year.

16. 5 people died building the Empire State Building.

17.  The first electric light bulb and dynamo west of the Mississippi was on the campus of the University of Missouri at Academic Hall. The building caught fire and burned to the ground, leaving only the front columns of the building. They remain standing today.

18. Thomas Jefferson has two tombstones: one at his home of Monticello, and one at the University of Missouri. The University of the Missouri is the first land-grant university in the Louisiana Purchase, and many aspects of the university were modeled after Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

19. Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks has had over 600 recorded shipwrecks. The most recent occurred during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

20. In November 1956, the USSR invaded Hungary. The Hungarian water polo team fled the country after watching the invasion from nearby mountains. On December 4, the Russian and Hungarian teams met in the gold medal qualifying game of the 1956 Olympics. The game is called the “Blood in the Water” game, due to its violence. The story is told in a documentary called “Freedom’s Fury.”

21. The shortest player in the history of baseball was Eddie Gaedel, who batted for the St. Louis Browns on August 19, 1951. He stood 3’7″ tall, and wore the number”1/8″. Because he had such a small strike zone, he was walked. His contract was voided by baseball the next day.

22. Mercury is a toxic metal that used to be used in thermometers due to its consistent thermal expansion. The mad hatter concept owes to mercury poisoning in old hat makers. A researcher at Duke died in 1997 after a few drops of methyl mercury fell on her glove; organic mercury is incredibly toxic.

23. Humans now have 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs, but at some point in history, they had 48 chromosomes, the same as chimpanzees. Scientists theorize that the number changed when the human population dwindled at one point in history.

24. Splenda is chemically identical to sugar, but it is the mirror image “left-handed” sugar. The left-handed sugar tastes the same as sugar, but it can’t be digested, because the human body only handles right-handed molecules. However, brain scans of people eating sugar or splenda show that the brain registers more reward sensation with sugar. The body can be clever! (I tried to find this study; unfortunately, searching about splenda turns up a lot of nonsense to wade through.)

25. Cuttlefish can change the color of their skin for communication or for camouflage. They can make complex, varying patterns, or they can match a stationary one. Check out this video of a cuttlefish matching a chessboard.

26. Women generally have a better sense of smell than men. in particular, they are better at smelling something they’ve smelled before, where men show less improvement.

27. The Marianas Trench, the deepest ocean trench, is 6.8 miles deep at its deepest point. We still know very little about our deep oceans.

28. Giant squids have been written about since ancient times, but we took our first picture of one in 2004.

29. Only two elements are liquid at standard room temperature: mercury and bromine.

30. The world’s deepest hand dug well in is Greensburg, Kansas. Greensburg was decimated by an EF5 tornado in 2007. It has since started rebuilding, and aims to be the first LEEDS certified green city in the US.

31. Hurricane Camille came over land in Louisiana in 1969 as a category 5 hurricane. Of the 259 deaths caused, 123 were in the mountains of Virginia, in Nelson County (over 1% of the population). The storm dropped 27 inches of rain in a few hours. 133 bridges were washed out, and birds drowned in the trees.

32. Many of Thomas Jefferson’s inventions still reside at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. There is a clock that tells the day of the week, a dumb-waiter, and a device for writing on two pieces of paper at once.

33. Blue eyes are caused by the presence of less pigment in the eye, resulting in a different light scattering pattern. Blue-eyed baseball players sometimes have much lower daytime hitting averages, because blue eyes filter out less glare.

34. Albinism is principally defined by eye defects caused by the lack of pigment during the formation of the eye. Without pigment in the iris, the eye doesn’t properly focus light, leading to numerous vision problems. It is possible to be albino while still having normally pigmented skin.

35. Catgut is prepared from animal intestine, and was used historically to make strings for instruments. Its name is probably a shortening from cattle gut, for those of us who like kitties.

36. Paper didn’t make its way to Europe until after the year 1000. It was made from old fabric and clothes. Old paper doesn’t yellow and age the same way as 1900’s paperbacks because it tended to be acid-free. Books can last centuries if the paper and ink are acid free.

37. Organisms around deep sea vents metabolize hydrogen sulfide from the vents to survive. 300 new species have been discovered around such vents; because exploration there is so hard, there are likely many more.

38. Hydrogen Fluoride is considered a weak acid, because hydrogen and fluoride bond strongly as resist dissociation. However, HF will go after just about anything including glass. HF is very dangerous to work with, because it does not hurt immediately. It seeps through the skin and begins to dissolve the bone.

39. Phosgene was used in chemical warfare in World War 1. The Japanese also used it extensively in World War 2. It smells like freshly cut grass.

40. The kite buggy was invented in China in the 1300s. It is a cart drawn by wind power. It seems hard.

41. Capillary action in trees helps fluid rise in trees. This is how tree several hundred feet tall supply water to the leaves.

42. The Negro Leagues baseball museum is in Kansas City, Missouri. Many of the negro leagues teams were fairly successful, and drew enthusiastic crowds. The exclusion of blacks from baseball was shameful, but they made something great in spite of it. You can learn about Satchel Paige or Buck O’Neal, as well as the various negro leagues teams.

43. The Eads bridge in St. Louis was the longest of its kind when it was built, over a mile wide. The supports are some of the deepest ever sunk, and 15 workers died due to decompression sickness.

44. The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis is the biggest brewery in the world. It outputs 25 million barrels per year. You can visit for free and get some complimentary beer.

45. The international rose test garden in is Portland, Oregon. It is free to visit and they have over 550 varieties.

47. The male paradise whydah grows out a foot-long feather during mating time to impress the female paradise whydah. The paradise whydah is a parasitic species that uses the nest of the melba finch.The male whydah imitates the melba finches song. In captivity, the whydah cannot reproduce without the melba finch also present.

48. The carrion flower is an enormous bloom that stinks of rotting flesh. It can be up to nine feet tall.

49. Blue is a rare color for organic molecules. This may be because the color is associated with alkaline conditions, which are relatively rare in organisms.

50. Monarch butterflies can sense the earth’s magnetic field. They use it to complete their 2000 mile migration.

Come back Thursday for 50 more interesting factoids! Happy 100 posts!

Fun Science: Astronomical

I first became interested in science when my brother told me there was a black hole under his bed (this was a ploy to prevent me from snooping there– this is how nerd children fight). Once I could read, I wanted to know if this could be possible; one should be skeptical of information provided by siblings. Frustratingly, none of the books I read discussed if an event horizon could be put under a bed. Pretty shoddy science. There was much discussion of micro-blackholes, with some description of their size. But what the heck was a nanometer? Bigger or smaller than a bed?

Even now, the scales of the universe boggle my mind. A human is so small. The diameter of the Earth (a small planet), is roughly 7 million times the height of a typical person. If you lined up every person in the state of Virginia head to toe, you would roughly approximate the Earth’s diameter. The diameter of the Sun is 100 times bigger (two orders of magnitude) than the Earth. If you lined up every person in the United States head to toe, you’d only get to half of the Sun’s diameter. The red giant Betelgeuse (the reddish star that is Orion’s left shoulder) is 700 times bigger than the sun.

The solar system is bigger yet–Neptune is 30 times as far from the Sun as Earth, at about 3200 times the radius of the Sun. It takes light 4 hours to reach Neptune. The Oort cloud, the farthest reach of our solar system and the hypothesized source of most comets, is a light year from the Sun.

From Wikipedia

Our solar system sits on one branch of the Milky Way, which is a galaxy 100,000 light years across (7×1011 times the diameter of the Sun–a meter is roughly 1012 times as big as a hydrogen atom). Our galaxy is 2.5 million light years from the nearest galaxy, Andromeda. Our galaxy is one of more than 50 galaxies in the Local Group. This piece of the universe is about 10 million light years in size. Wikipedia suggests there may be 100 billion galaxies in the universe. We have observed as far as 47 billion light years away, but the universe might be bigger (more intimidating statistics here).

And all of these things are slowly interacting. With all that, how could we not write science fiction?