Science Roundup: Satellites and Submarines Collide + a World Powered by Hamsters

Submarines collide:

In a freak accident, two submarines carrying nuclear missiles, one French and the other British, collided while submerged on operational patrols in the Atlantic early this month, the British and French defense ministries said Monday.

Both vessels returned damaged but otherwise safe to their home ports, with the 250 crew members aboard uninjured and with "no compromise to nuclear safety," the defense ministries said in terse statements that appeared to have been agreed upon by the nations. The reference appeared to cover the nuclear reactors that power the submarines and the 16 ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads that the British and French vessels each routinely carry on patrols.

Fortunately enough, such a collision is unlikely to ignite the missiles, but I have warned you kids over and over about joy-riding in the nuclear submarines.

Satellites also collide:

For decades, space experts have warned of orbits around the planet growing so crowded that two satellites might one day slam into one another, producing swarms of treacherous debris.

It happened Tuesday. And the whirling fragments could pose a threat to the International Space Station, orbiting 215 miles up with three astronauts on board, though officials said the risk was now small.

"This is a first, unfortunately," Nicholas L. Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said of the collision.

It happened some 490 miles above northern Siberia, at around noon Eastern time. Two communications satellites -- one Russian, one American -- cracked up in silent destruction. In the aftermath, military radars on the ground tracked large amounts of debris going into higher and lower orbits.

Do you think they had to exchange insurance information?

The saddest observation ever:

Americans will shell out for their pets, but will they quit smoking for them? That was the question Michigan researchers posed to over 3000 local dog, cat, and bird owners who either smoked or lived with a smoker. Of the 700 current smokers, nearly 30% said they would be motivated to quit for their pet, the team reports in February online in Tobacco Control. Though the researchers didn't ask how many of these smokers would quit for a family member, nationwide data reveals that in 2008 only 2% of smokers attempted to quit for their children's health and 3.2% because of family pressure.

Little Timmy can take a long walk off a short peer, but if Little Fifi's lungs are in danger I'd quit smoking in a heartbeat.

But not heroin...that is Jake's special time...

Large Hadron Collider scientists abandon particle physics, begin to study scheduling:

After another short technical stop at the end of 2009, the collider will run until autumn next year, producing enough data on the smallest building blocks of matter to announce results in 2010, it said.

"The schedule we have now is without a doubt the best for the LHC and for the physicists waiting for data," CERN Director General Rolf Heuer said in the statement.

"It is cautious, ensuring that all the necessary work is done on the LHC before we start up, yet it allows physics research to begin this year," he said.

The new timetable represents a setback of six weeks on the previous schedule, which had foreseen that the LHC's giant tunnels would be cooled down to their operating temperature of just above absolute zero by early July.

The quench of the LHC that happened in September is no laughing matter considering that if they hadn't the whole thing might have exploded. On the other hand, some people might want a rescheduling delay as long as possible as they are worried the LHC might create a black hole and destroy the Earth.

Lame. To quote, the Big Bang Theory: "What a bunch of cry babies. No guts, no glory, I say."

Oh, and BTW, in spite of what Dan Brown says, we could never get enough antimatter to blow up the Vatican -- no matter how much fun it would be.

Slate has an article about practical ways to get your two-year old to do what you want:

1. "It's for safety." For some reason, my daughter wisely accepts safety as an absolute directive, so I invoke it whenever possible. For example, I characterized the "no slamming doors" rule as a safety rule, not a noise/behavior rule. "When people slam doors, eventually, people get their fingers smashed. So for safety, no slamming doors."

Read the whole thing.

Their methods seem so complicated. I really have only two methods.

1) Do what I want, and I will give you back your puppy's head.
2) Do what I want, and I promise I won't leave you in the supermarket forcing you to live off canned peas until the age of the 13 when you have to join the circus to make money taking tickets for the Bearded Lady ceasing only at age 18 when you finally can leave for college which I will not pay for (again).

But I have always been a disciplinarian that way.

A fascinating, if slightly disturbing, discussion is ongoing over at Slashdot about how to keep rats from eating your internet cables.

Interesting comments include:

Use high voltage cables and let evolution do the rest.

Which just begs the question over whether we would inadvertently select for high voltage-resistant rats.

Actually we have to deal with this problem quite a bit in lab. We do electrical recordings of the neuronal activity in awake behaving rats. Our trick: coat the edges of the wires with tabasco, and the rats will never touch them again.

Strangely enough, men with common surnames in Britain are more likely to be related:

Hereditary surnames were introduced to Britain by the Normans at the time of the conquest. The practice of using hereditary surnames filtered down from Norman noble families to all classes of society so that by the fourteenth century people in many classes had surnames and by the sixteenth century it was rare not to have one.

Dr King and Professor Jobling found that men with rare surnames -- such as Grewcock, Wadsworth, Ketley and Ravenscroft -- tended to share Y chromosomes that were very similar, suggesting a common ancestor within the past 700 years. However, men with common surnames, such as Smith, were no more likely to have such a common ancestor than men chosen at random from the general population.

"Surnames such as Smith come from a person's trade and would have been adopted many times by unrelated people," explains Dr King. "Less common names, such as Swindlehurst, were more geographically-specific and possibly adopted by only one or two men, so we would expect people with these surnames to be more closely related."

I doubt that a similar study in the States would produce the same results. We have been screwing around like a bag full of hamsters since we got here.

Speaking of hamsters, a group at Georgia Tech is harnessing bio-energy including from hamsters (Hat-tip: Slashdot):

The researchers' nanogenerator harnesses the piezoelectric effect--the way some crystalline materials produce an electrical potential when placed under mechanical stress. The team, led by Zhong Lin Wang, a professor of materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech, has been making generators using piezoelectric nanowires since 2005. The latest nanogenerator consists of a series of zinc-oxide nanowires mounted on top of a flexible plastic surface. The wires are connected to one another and to an external electrical circuit by metal electrodes. When the plastic bends, the wires bend too, and this motion creates an electrical potential in the wires that drives current through the external circuit.

In a paper published online this week in the journal Nano Letters, Wang's group describes using the nanogenerator to harvest different kinds of biomechanical energy. The researchers attached the nanogenerator to a person's index finger and recorded the power output when it tapped on a surface. They also harvested energy from a hamster wearing a small jacket affixed to the device as the rodent ran on an exercise wheel and scratched itself.

We used to joke that my friend's little Nissan was run by a hamster, but I never dreamed that someone would actually try and do that.

I am amused by the notion of harvesting scratching energy. Wire up the city of Chicago one Super Bowl, and we can power the world!

The oldest human hair ever found in hyena poop:

The oldest known human hairs could be the strands discovered in fossil hyena poop found in a South African cave, a new study hints.

Researchers discovered the rock-hard hyena dung near the Sterkfontein caves, where many early human ancestor fossils have been found.

Each white, round fossil turd, or coprolite, is roughly 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) across. They were found embedded in sediments 195,000 to 257,000 years old.

Until now, the oldest known human hair was from a 9,000-year-old Chilean mummy.

While I am pleased that we now have greater access into early human life, is anyone else concerned that this also proves hyenas were eating people?


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Re: running things with hamsters -- have you ever seen the dwarf hamsters???? The things are never off their wheel -- in the wild, this thing that's about 3 inches long apparently covers about 17 miles a day. So I adapted a motor from a bike light which would ordinarily be powered off the turning of a bike wheel, and attached it to the axle of the hamster wheel, to power a decorative display of LEDs. I think I ought to have just hooked it up to batteries and run proper light bulbs off it, though.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink

Oh, and hyenas eating people....

I'm sorry, I didn't realise there was doubt about that. Given that leopards and lions ate people, why on earth wouldn't hyenas? We're made of meat, and they're the other top predator.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 18 Feb 2009 #permalink