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Showing posts from January, 2021

NASA Raised an Army of Jellyfish in Space

By Allison Kubo Hutchison Jellyfish simulate human ears in microgravity but can’t adjust to Earth gravity after a life in space. In the early 90’s, a one point there were 60,000 jellyfish orbiting the Earth. Although it sounds like the beginning of a sci-fi novel, this is actually the beginning of a microgravity study , lead by Dororthy Spangberger from the Easter Virginia Medical School. Jellyfish although unlike humans in most ways have an important similarity: jellyfish have the ability to sense up and down, to sense the direction of gravity. Jellyfish form calcium sulfate crystals in small pockets situated around the cap or bell of the jelly. When their direction relative to gravity changes these sulfate crystals fall and stimulate hair like nerves within the pocket similar to how a ball in a bowl will roll when you tilt the bowl. This mechanism is analogous to how our inner ear senses gravity. Within your inner ear, you have multiple otolithic organs, organs dedicated to sens

Physics, Flocks, and Fire Ants

By: Hannah Pell Many of us have been spending a lot of time on our own lately. It can be difficult to feel like we’re accomplishing all that much individually — especially when social media is always there to remind you of how productive your friends and colleagues have been during quarantine. I long for the days of in-person gatherings; that feeling of being a face in the crowd, one of many. I’ve found a bit of optimism for my solitary blues in learning about the science of collective behavior. Collective behavior arises as a property of groups but is not necessarily shared by the individual participants themselves. In other words, strange things can happen when groups of things — from particles to bacteria to fish and to people — come together. Let’s take a deeper look at a few particularly wild examples. Fire ants: a liquid and a solid  Though small, ants are mighty; individual ants can withstand more than 5,000 times their own weight by some estimates. And, if the fastest

What the Geology of Animal Crossing Reveals

By Allison Kubo Hutchison As a scientist principally trained in geology, when I travel I always find myself curious about the geology of the region. I have been doing a lot of traveling and plane flights Animal Crossing: New Horizons. For those unaware, Animal Crossing: New Horizons seems like a world largely free of the concerns we suffer from today. One spends time digging up fossils, hunting bugs, fishing, and eating fruits. The setting, which this article deals with, is your very own small island around which are many small uninhabited islands. Mystery Islands as they are called in the game appear to be endless and the Dodo pilot Wilbur tells you that after leaving the island the “flight plans are burned”. The geology mystery islands and your own island paradise reveal a disturbing reality about the world of Animal Crossing. We first must ask where these many islands come from?  A first guess would be basaltic ocean islands. In the Pacific Ocean alone there

Are Small Modular Reactors the Future of Nuclear Power?

By: Hannah Pell Nuclear power is an important aspect of our diverse energy infrastructure. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration , nuclear power plants produced 19.6% of the total electricity generated in the U.S. in 2019. Over the last several years, however, there has been a decline in the number of operating nuclear power plants. Many plants have reached or are nearing the end of their license periods (which last about 38 years on average) and are being decommissioned or shut down permanently. 22 reactor s are currently undergoing the decommissioning process across the country (96 total operating plants at the end of 2019). The decommissioning of nuclear power plants has been reported as a nationwide trend with little sign of reversing. If conventional nuclear power plants continue to be shuttered, then how will we replace this energy source? There are several ways — natural gas plants are a common example — but one stands out as a potentially viable path f

Fighting Ice With...Ice?

If you live in a part of the world with cold winters, you probably know the awful feeling that comes with an unexpectedly early frost or snow—one that covers your car in a layer of ice before you’ve pulled out your gloves and ice scraper for the season. The one that makes your fingers freeze in anticipation as you blast the defrost and pull out a credit card so that you can begin chipping away at the windshield. Even if you don’t live in a place like that, you’ve probably experienced an airplane de-icing delay , a frozen air conditioner, or some other ice-induced inconvenience. The unwanted accumulation of ice and frost isn't just an annoyance, it’s a safety issue and an economic issue—costing billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and repair work. But in a proof-of-concept experiment recently reported in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces , a team of researchers from Virginia Tech and Oak Ridge National Laboratory introduced a new strategy for prevent

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Newton's Apple

As someone whose job it is to help people understand and appreciate physics, I absolutely hate  the way most people talk about Isaac Newton and how he developed his theory of gravity. It's not the apple bit that I have a problem with; that's an important part of the story, and even historically accurate! The thing that kills me is the way the idea is framed, and the gulf that it creates between his observation  and his insight . What do I mean by that? Let's unpack the story, as I remember first being told it.