June 11, 2013
Science is generally considered a rather serious business, full of big questions, dense calculations and incomprehensible jargon.
Then there is the Annals of Improbable Research, a venerable journal that has published data on the effects of peanut butter on the rotation of the Earth and how access to television can be an effective method of birth control. The publication’s stated goal is to publish “research that makes people laugh and then think.” Its articles—which are mostly satire, but with some occasional real research into offbeat issues—probably accomplish the former goal more often than the latter, but they do often contain a grain of scientific truth at their core. And, of course, the organization’s Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists™ is an indispensable institution on the international scientific landscape.
For your reading pleasure, we bring you an (admittedly unscientific) list of the 5 most improbable research projects from the Annals:
How did Fiorella Gambale, a scientist at the (nonexistent) Institute for Feline Research in Milano, Italy, answer this age-old question? Simple: she dropped the cat Esther 100 times each from a variety of heights and charted the results. Improbably, the cat landed on its feet all 100 times when dropped from 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 feet, but failed to do so even once when dropped from 1 foot.
Although these results were never vetted by other scientists—so there’s no way of knowing whether Gambale actually performed the tests—the finding that cats really do land on their feet when dropped from more than 12 inches from the ground actually does jibe with established scientific beliefs. The explanation is that they need a few seconds of free fall to trigger their righting reflex, which allows them to bend their back and twist their torso to orient their feet towards the ground.
“The field of culinary evolution faces one great dilemma,” wrote Joseph Staton, of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. “Why do most cooked, exotic meats taste like cooked Gallus gallus, the domestic chicken?” Staton tasted a wide variety of meats (including kangaroo, rabbit, goose, pigeon, and iguana) in exploring the question, and ultimately determined that the quality of “chicken taste” is a conserved trait, something that came about once in the evolutionary history of invertebrates and was passed on to many species.
Sadly, Staton’s attempt to sample dinosaurs was thwarted: He apparently made several calls to Chicago’s Field museum to “borrow merely a single bone” from their T. rex but his request was “entangled in red tape.”
A team of geologists from Texas State and Arizona State Universities addressed this very serious question with the cutting-edge tools of their field: digital elevation analysis software, complex mathematical equations, and a standard-size flapjack from the local IHOP. They found that Kansas is, in fact, considerably flatter than an average pancake, which is actually more rugged than the Grand Canyon when viewed up close. They write that Kansas, on the other hand, “might be described, mathematically, as ‘damn flat.’”
Comparing these two fruits is not quite so difficult, it turns out, when you have access to a Nicolet 740 FTIR spectrometer, which can precisely measure the frequencies of light emitted from any substance. Scott Sandford, a NASA researcher, put this device to use on dried samples of a Granny Smith apply and Sunkist orange that had been pulverized and compressed into pellets. He found that the spectrums of light emissions from the fruits were remarkably similar, a rather stunning revelation given how frequently people employ the what he calls the “apples and oranges defense”: that we should avoid comparing two different things because of how different the fruits are.
“It would appear that the comparing apples and oranges defense should no longer be considered valid,” Sandford wrote. “It can be anticipated to have a dramatic effect on the strategies used in arguments and discussions in the future.”
Alice Shirrell Kaswell, a staff member at the Annals of Improbable Research, definitively answered this question once and for all in 2003: The chicken, it turns out, came approximately 11 hours before the egg. Kaswell came to this finding by separately mailing a dozen eggs and one (1) live chicken via the U.S. Postal Service from Cambridge, Massachusetts to New York City. Both items, sent out on a Monday, arrived on Wednesday, but the chicken was delivered at 10:31 a.m., while the eggs didn’t arrive until 9:37 p.m. Problem = solved.
April 18, 2013
If you weren’t on the East Coast during Hurricane Sandy, you likely experienced the disaster through electronic means: TV, radio, the internet or phone calls. As people across the country tracked the storm by listening to information broadcast through electromagnetic waves, a different kind of wave, produced by the storm itself, was traveling beneath their feet.
Keith Koper and Oner Sufri, a pair of geologists at the University of Utah, recently determined that the crashing of massive waves against Long Island, New York and New Jersey—as well as waves hitting each other offshore—generated measurable seismic waves across much of the U.S., as far away as Seattle. As Sufri will explain in presenting the team’s preliminary findings today during the Seismological Society of America‘s annual meeting, they analyzed data from a nationwide network of seismometers to track microseisms, faint tremors that spread through the earth as a result of the storm waves’ force.
The team constructed a video (below) of the readings coming from 428 seismometers over the course of a few days before and after the storm hit. Initially, as it traveled up roughly parallel to the East Coast , readings remained relatively stable. Then, “as the storm turned west-northwest,” Sufri said in a press statement, “the seismometers lit up.” Skip to about 40 seconds into the video to see the most dramatic seismic shift as the storm hooks toward shore:
The microseisms shown in the video differ from the waves generated by earthquakes. The latter arrive suddenly, in distinct waves, while the microseisms that resulted from Sandy arrived continuously over time, more like a subtle background vibration. That makes converting these waves to the moment magnitude scale used to measure earthquakes somewhat complicated, but Koper says that if the energy from these microseisms was compressed into a single wave, it would register as a 2 or 3 on the scale, comparable to a minor earthquake that can be felt by a few people but causes no damage to buildings.
The seismic activity peaked when Sandy changed direction, the researchers say, triggering a sudden increase in the number of waves running into each other offshore. These created massive standing waves, which sent significant amounts of pressure into the seafloor bottom, shaking the ground.
It’s not uncommon for events other than earthquakes to generate seismic waves—Hurricane Katrina produced shaking that was felt in California, landslides are known to have distinct seismic signatures and the meteor that crashed in Russia in February produced waves as well. One of the reasons the readings from Sandy scientifically interesting, though, is the potential that this type of analysis could someday be used to track a storm in real-time, as a supplement to satellite data.
That possibility is enabled by the fact that a seismometer detects seismic motion in three directions: vertical (up-and-down shaking) as well as North-South and East-West movement. So, for example, if most of the shaking detected by a seismometer in one location is oriented North-South, it indicates that the source of the seismic energy (in this case, a storm) is located either North or South of the device, rather than East or West.
A nationwide network of seismometers—such as Earthscope, the system that was used for this research and is currently still being expanded—could eventually provide the capacity to pinpoint the center of a storm. “If you have enough seismometers, you can get enough data to get arrows to point at the source,” Koper said.
Satellites, of course, can already locate a hurricane’s eye and limbs. But locating the energetic center of the storm and combining it with satellite observations of the storm’s extent could eventually enable scientists to measure the energy being released by a hurricane in real-time, as the storm evolves. Currently, the Saffir-Simpson scale is used to quantify hurricanes, but there are several criticisms of it—it’s solely based on wind speed, so it overlooks the overall size of a storm and the amount of precipitation in produces. Including the raw seismic energy released by a storm could be a way of improving future hurricane classification schemes.
The prospect of seismometers (instruments typically used to detect earthquakes) being employed to supplement satellites in tracking storms is also interesting because of a recent trend in the exact opposite direction. Last month, a satellite data was used for the first time to detect an earthquake by picking up extremely low pitched sound waves that traveled from the epicenter through outer space. The fields of meteorology and geology, it seems, are quickly coming together, reflecting the real-world interaction between the Earth and the atmosphere that surrounds it.
March 29, 2013
If you were to hit the seafloor and continue to travel down, you’d run into an ecosystem unlike any other on earth. Beneath several hundred meters of seafloor sediment is the Earth’s crust: thick layers of lava rock running with cracks that cover around 70% of the planet’s surface. Seawater flows through the cracks, and this system of rock-bound rivulets is enormous: it’s the largest aquifer on earth, containing 4% of global ocean volume, says Mark Lever, an ecologist who studies anaerobic (no-oxygen) carbon cycling at Aarhus University in Denmark.
The sub-seafloor crust may also be the largest ecosystem on earth, according to a new study by Lever, published this month in Science. For seven years, he incubated 3.5 million-year old basalt rock collected from 565 meters below the ocean floor–the depth of nearly two stacked Eiffel towers–and found living microbes. These microbes live far away from the thriving bacterial communities at mid-ocean ridges, and survive by slowly churning sulfur and other minerals into energy.
But just how big is this chemically-fueled ecosystem that survives entirely without oxygen? If the results from his sample, collected from below the seafloor off the coast of Washington state, are similar to those found across the planet, then diverse microbial communities could survive throughout the ocean’s crust, covering two-thirds of the earth’s surface and potentially going miles deep.
The sub-seafloor crust has plenty of space and energy-rich minerals–a welcoming potential habitat for a large microbial community–“but we have no idea what the ecosystem looks like,” says Julie Huber, a microbial oceanographer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Mark’s evidence would point to it being a very different world.”
Microbes that get their energy from minerals, rather than from sunlight, are far from rare. The most well known of these so-called chemoautotrophic or chemosynthetic bacteria are those found at hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. Some of these bacteria live symbiotically with giant tubeworms, mussels and clams, providing chemically-produced energy to these larger organisms as they “breathe” the sulfur-rich water erupting from the vent–not unlike how plants convert sunlight into energy at the surface. Chemosynthetic microbes are also found in the rotting and oxygen-poor muck of salt marshes, mangroves and seagrass beds—“any place you’ve got stinky black mud, you can have chemoautotrophy,” says Chuck Fisher, a deep-sea biologist at Pennsylvania State University in College Park.
But what makes Lever’s sub-seafloor microbes different is that they don’t use any oxygen at all. The symbiotic bacteria at hydrothermal vents are often described as “life without sunlight,” but they still rely on sunlight indirectly by using sun-produced oxygen in the chemical reaction to generate energy. Chemosynthetic microbes in salt marshes feed on decomposing plants and animals, which got their energy from sunlight. Even deep-sea sediment is accumulated from an assortment of dead animals, plants, microbes and fecal pellets that relies on light energy.
The oceanic crust microbes, on the other hand, rely entirely on
non-oxygen-containing molecules derived from rock and completely removed from photosynthesis, such as sulfate, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. “In that sense it’s a parallel universe, in that it runs on a different type of energy,” says Lever. These molecules provide a lot less energy than oxygen, creating a sort of microbial slow food movement. So instead of dividing and growing quickly like many oxygen-based bacteria, Fisher suspects that microbes in the Earth’s crust may divide once every hundred or thousand years.
But just because they’re slow doesn’t mean they’re uncommon. “There are lots of data that there is a large, very productive biosphere under the surface,” says Fisher.
In addition, microbial population sizes in different areas of the crust may vary greatly, Huber notes. Through her studies on the fluid found between the cracks in the crust, she says that in some areas the fluid contains about the same number of microbes as standard deep-sea water collected at ocean depths of 4,000 meters (2.5 miles): around 10,000 microbial cells per milliliter. In other regions, such as at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean where Lever found his microbes, there are fewer cells, around 8,000 microbes per milliliter. And in other regions, such as in non-oxygenated fluid deep in hydrothermal vents, there can be around 10 times more.
It’s not just the number of microbes that vary depending on location–it’s possible that different microbial species are found in different types of crust. “Different types of rock and different types of chemistry should result in different types of microbes,” says Andreas Teske, a deep-sea microbial ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author on Lever’s paper. The Juan de Fuca Ridge is a relatively hot area bursting with new rock, which tends to be made of more reactive minerals and thus able to provide more energy. Other parts of the crust are older, composed of different minerals, and cooler. And, in some regions, oxygenated water reaches down to the cracks.
It’s this infiltrating seawater that keeps this sub-seafloor ecosystem from existing on a completely separate plane from our oxygenated one. “The crust plays a significant role in influencing the chemical composition of the ocean and the atmosphere, ultimately influencing [nutrient] cycles on earth,” says Lever. Some of the compounds created by oceanic crust microbes from rock are water soluble, and will eventually enter the ocean. Sulfur, for example, is present in magma—but after the microbes use it for energy, it’s converted to sulfate. Then it dissolves and becomes an important nutrient in the ocean food chain.
Lever’s find of a microbial community in the crust could catalyze the scientific community to answer these questions. For example, what kinds of microbes are found where, do they interact through interconnected cracks in the rock, and what role do they play in mineral and nutrient cycling? In some ways, it’s very basic exploratory work. “A lot of what we do on the seafloor is similar to what we’re doing on Mars right now,” says Huber. “Controlling [NASA’s Mars Rover] Curiosity is very similar to operating an ROV under the ocean.”
January 3, 2013
Last year, noted meteorite collector Jay Piatek traveled to Morocco and bought a single stone, less than a pound in weight, that had been discovered in the country some time earlier. When he passed it on to researchers at the University of New Mexico to perform a mineral analysis, they found something unexpected.
The meteor seemed to have originated on Mars, but the rock’s composition didn’t exactly match any of the well-studied meteorites from there found previously. When the researchers compared it to data from soil and rock samples obtained by Curiosity and other recent Martian rovers, though, they realized that rather than originating in the planet’s mantle, as the others had, it appeared to have come from the Martian crust.
Most intriguingly, when they analyzed the basaltic breccia rock even more closely, they discovered it contained a large quantity of water molecules locked in its crystalline structure. While previous studies of Martian meteorites have suggested the presence of water on the red planet, this sample’s analysis, published today in Science, revealed that it contained 10 times more water than any Martian meteorite examined before.
The discovery of the water molecules in the rock at concentrations of 6000 parts per million could indicate the presence of liquid water sometime during Mars’ history. “The high water content could mean there was an interaction of the rocks with surface water either from volcanic magma, or from fluids from impacting comets during that time,” study co-author Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institute said in a statement.
Apart from the presence of water, the researchers say that information they’ve gleaned over the course of a year-long analysis of the meteor—the first ever linked to the Martian crust—could significantly impact our understanding of the planet’s geology as a whole. The meteorite is primarily composed of chunks of basalt cemented together, indicating that it formed from rapidly cooling lava, likely on the planet’s crust. While we’ve found meteorites from the Moon that match this composition, we haven’t seen anything like it from Mars previously.
Already, the researchers determined that the specimen is roughly 2.1 billion years-old, formed during Mars’ Amazonian epoch, a time period from which we had no previous rock samples. “It is the richest Martian meteorite geochemically,” Steele said. “Further analyses are bound to unleash more surprises.”
October 4, 2012
One of the strangest facets of modern exploration is that we now have more experience with the surface of Mars than the layer of earth not too far beneath our feet. Nearly everything we know about the mantle—the 1,800-mile-thick semi-molten layer of the planet below the crust—comes indirectly: from computer simulations, mantle-derived rocks that made their way to the surface and observation of earthquake waves that move through the mantle.
The international group of scientists that makes up the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), though, hopes that will soon change. As part of a new project, they are planning to drill some 3.7 miles down into the earth beneath the Pacific Ocean to reach the mantle—and bring up samples of mantle rock for the first time in human history. Damon Teagle, a geochemist at the University of Southampton in England and one of the project’s leaders, told CNN that it will be “the most challenging endeavor in the history of earth science.”
The first effort to drill through the crust to the mantle, Project Mohole, reached 600 feet below the sea floor off Mexico before being abandoned in 1966. Subsequent attempts have gone increasingly deeper, and on September 6, the IODP’s drilling vessel, the Chikyu, set a world record by drilling almost 7,000 feet below the seafloor off Japan and bringing up rock samples.
The ambitious new project aims to go nearly three times as deep. IODP scientists have selected three different sites in the Pacific where the crust is thinnest–it was formed relatively quickly at spreading mid-ocean ridges, where new crust crystallizes as the plates move apart. Although drilling from a floating ship out at sea presents many difficulties, going through the oceanic plates that make up the seafloor is a much easier way of getting to the mantle than trying to drill through the continental plates—the ocean crust ranges from four to six miles thick, whereas the continents go 20 to 30 miles down.
Still, penetrating the oceanic crust will be an unprecedented challenge. The project will cost at least $1 billion, some of which still needs to be raised, and drilling will likely take years. The equipment will be lowered down through more than a mile of water, and the stress that the tungsten carbide drill bits encounter as they grind through hard igneous seafloor rock requires that each bit needs to be replaced after just 50 to 60 hours of use.
The extreme narrowness of the hole itself (just 11 inches wide) also increases the difficulty of the operation. “It will be the equivalent of dangling a steel string the width of a human hair in the deep end of a swimming pool and inserting it into a thimble 1/10 mm wide on the bottom, and then drilling a few meters into the foundations,” Teagle said.
As the drill descends, the team will repeatedly retrieve rock cores roughly three inches across and 30 feet long for scientists to study. If the mission is successful in reaching all the way to the mantle, the scientific payoff will be significant, as samples of mantle rock will help geologists better understand the layer that makes up more than 84 percent of the planet’s volume. “[The mantle] is the engine that drives how our planet works and why we have earthquakes and volcanoes and continents,” Teagle said. “We have the textbook cartoons, but detailed knowledge is lacking.”
For Teagle and others, the mission also represents the kind of ambitious, grand project that can inspire generations of young people to get involved in science—like NASA’s Apollo missions and the more recent Curiosity rover. Teagle says that successfully reaching the mantle would be revolutionary and that it will leave a new “legacy of fundamental scientific knowledge.”