Archive | Nature RSS feed for this section

What was the last element discovered on the periodic table?

18 Nov

Image

My friends and I love anything and everything to do with trivia.

Naturally, we have a team, which competes at a weekly trivia night, and I’m not at all embarrassed to say competition within our group for the right answer can almost be as fierce as that with our actual rivals.

Plus, there’s our love of the Sunday quiz, which can be a battleground all on its own.

Now normally I am pretty good at this, with specialities including the collected episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ancient Sumerian coinage and pottery.

But the last one I tackled stumped me on one particular question – the chemical name for silver. And I had no better luck remembering it than I did at high school.

The answer, of course was Au, but the footnote of the quiz explained the periodic table was, well, periodically updated.

So I decided to find out what the last element added was. And the ever-reliable National Geographic had the answer. Here’s an excerpt..

The new element doesn’t have an official name yet, so scientists are calling it ununpentium, based on the Latin and Greek words for its atomic number, 115.

In case you forgot your high school chemistry, here’s a quick refresher: An element’s atomic number is the number of protons it contains in its nucleus.

The heaviest element in nature is uranium, which has 92 protons. But heavier elements – which have more protons in their nucleus – can be created through nuclear fusion.

The man-made 115 was first created by Russian scientists in Dubna about 10 years ago. This year, chemists at Lund University in Sweden announced they had replicated the Russian study at the GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research in Germany.

Now, element 115 will join its neighbors 114 and 116 – flerovium and livermorium respectively – on the periodic table just as soon as a committee from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemisty decides on an official name (which, by the way, seems like a pretty political process).

Anyway, the full article has some pretty cool stuff on how scientists make an element and whether you can try it at home. The answer, to give you a hint, is no.

And yes we did look for any sign/mention of adamantium, but sadly came up empty handed.Wolverine would not be impressed.

Why isn’t Pluto a planet any more?

17 Nov

Image

When I was growing up, we learnt a catchy phrase to help us remember the order of planets in the solar system. And it went a little something like this: “My very easy method just speeds up naming planets”. Or to give them their full names, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

Of course these days, you’d have to lose the word ‘planet’, since Pluto no longer qualifies as one. And why I knew this fact, I didn’t know why. So of course I turned to the arbiter of all things space – NASA.

And here’s what they had to say on the topic..

Why is Pluto not classified as a planet anymore?

In 2003, an astronomer saw a new object beyond Pluto. The astronomer thought he had found a new planet. The object he saw was larger than Pluto. He named the object Eris (EER-is).

Finding Eris caused other astronomers to talk about what makes a planet a “planet.” There is a group of astronomers that names objects in space. This group decided that Pluto was not really a planet because of its size and location in space. So Pluto and objects like it are now called dwarf planets.

Pluto is also called a plutoid. A plutoid is a dwarf planet that is farther out in space than the planet Neptune. The three known plutoids are Pluto, Eris and Makemake (MAH-kee-MAH-kee). Astronomers use telescopes to discover new objects like plutoids.

Scientists are learning more about the universe and Earth’s place in it. What they learn may cause them to think about how objects like planets are grouped. Scientists group objects that are like each other to better understand them. Learning more about faraway objects in the solar system is helping astronomers learn more about what it means to be a planet.

So there you have it. Size does matter. Wonder if Earth will ever come in for a category change?

Could a Sharknado really happen?

14 Nov

Image

I don’t drop the word ‘glorious’ into conversation all that often.

In fact, I’m pretty sparing with its usage, saving it purely for such moments of awesomeness as the shirtless scene in Thor and Thor 2.

But every so often a piece of entertainment comes along that is so exquisite, so unique and so innovative that no other word will suffice. And so it is with Sharknado.

Now first, I should offer a disclaimer, which is that I am naturally pre-disposed to like this film.

I am obsessed with/terrified of sharks, am noted for my love of B-grade animal monster movies and am slightly famous for loving things other people consider crap. Plus, it has the ultimate in B-grade acting pedigree by way of Iain Ziering and Tara Reid. What’s not to love?

Anyway, while the nuances of the plot are non-existent would take far too long to explain, the official synopsis goes something like this: “When a freak hurricane swamps Los Angeles, nature’s deadliest killer rules sea, land, and air as thousands of sharks terrorise the waterlogged populace.”

And when they say terrorise they mean terrorise, with sharks appearing everywhere from helicopters, highways and manholes to living rooms as they bite people clean in half. At least until Iain – playing Fin Shepard – starts fighting back with a chainsaw.

In short, it is gory, blood-spattered, mind-blowing, ridiculous and glorious. With a subtle plot that points out a punchline from about 1km away and then smacks it right in the face. Like when the man says “My mum always told me Hollywood would kill me” literally a split second before he is crushed by the Hollywood sign. See what they did there?

Like I said, solid gold.

Anyway, I had to know who was responsible for writing this work of art. And as it turns out, his name is the equally glorious Thunder Levin, who did a great interview with iO9.

You can read the full Q&A transcript here – including the inspiration for the movie and whether alcohol was involved – but first, the burning questions that came to my mind as the DVD ran its course…

Is there any scientific basis, however tenuous, for Sharknado?

Yes. There are numerous confirmed reports of fish falling from the sky, sometimes even on a clear sunny day. We just took it to the “logical” extreme.

How are the sharks cognisant enough to keep biting people while they’re flying through the air?

If you were a shark and you found yourself flying through the air, wouldn’t you keep biting? I think you’d be pretty pissed about being plucked out of your nice familiar ocean where you’re king of the predators, and you’d probably take it out on whoever got in your way. Honestly, I don’t understand why people are so perplexed by this concept. The logic is undeniable.

Well sure, if you say so. Now check out the best scene from the movie…

What is a Supermoon?

5 May

Apparently it’s going to be open season for werewolves tonight. Not because I’ve cracked open the Twilight DVD again, but because there’s something called a Supermoon on the way.

Now, I assumed this was one of those titles that had been drummed up just to add sizzle to the spectacle, but it seems to be a pretty common term in the scientific community as well.

But what exactly is it? I turned to NASA from the answer. Here’s what Dr James Garvin had to say….

Question: What is the definition of a supermoon and why is it called that?

Answer: ‘Supermoon’ is a situation when the moon is slightly closer to Earth in its orbit than on average, and this effect is most noticeable when it occurs at the same time as a full moon. So, the moon may seem bigger although the difference in its distance from Earth is only a few percent at such times.

In other words size does matter.

For the record when the moon is closest to Earth – at its perigee – it seems 14 per cent larger and 30 per cent brighter than when it’s furthest away, at its apogee.

Read more at the Christian Science Monitor which also reveals, among other things, that full moons come in different sizes because of its elliptical orbit.

Did Isaac Newton really discover gravity when an apple fell on his head?

4 Apr

Every so often – usually when I’m recounting the alleged thievery of biscuits belonging to an understanding high school Physics teacher – my brain reluctantly turns its attention towards science.

So today I decided to put the focus to good use and look at the truth behind a popular scientific legend – that Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head. And, like all the best myths from history, it seems to have at least a little grounding in reality.

I found one intriguing backgrounder on the topic at the Culture Lab blog at New Scientist, which profiled a historical manuscript that went on to become a biography of the scientist by William Stukeley, who was apparently told the following anecdote firsthand by Newton. He remembers the telling as such..

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees…he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”

You can read the full manuscript here at the Newton Project, which is a non-profit group dedicated to making his unpublished and published works freely available online. If you have time, I do recommend it, as it offers some pretty interesting insights into the development of his theory on gravity and more.

Certainly he did more good with his apples than a certain snake ever did in the garden of Eden…

James Cameron dived into the Challenger Deep. What is it?

1 Apr

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had this fantasy about the ocean.

It involves draining all the water away – naturally while freezing time so the animals don’t die – and then wandering around to see what’s really down there.

I suspect the result would be equally terrifying and fascinating. I mean we already know about Jaws, Godzilla, Orca and the creature from Cloverfield, but I bet there’s a beast or two that would make them look like fluffy kittens.

Yet I imagine there would also be pretty some pretty cool stuff. And in the same way people say our jungles are full of scientific and medical breakthroughs we’ve yet to discover, I bet the same goes for the deepest part of our planet.

Someone who shares my fascination is uber-director James Cameron, who this week became the first solo person to reach the 11km Challenger Deep, an undersea valley in the Mariana Trench that is Earth’s deepest realm.

It was only the second manned dive into the Deep, the first being in 1960 when Lt Don Walsh and late Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard made their journey in the bathyscaphe Trieste. Cameron completed his journey, which took just over two hours, in a one-man vessel that collected videos, photos and samples.

You can read more about his trip – and watch a video – at National Geographic, which is a partner in the DEEPSEA CHALLENGE project. But I was inspired to learn more about his destination. So I set myself a challenge to learn a few facts about the trench. Here they are…

* The trench was created by ocean-to-ocean subduction, which basically means the Pacific Plate was forced underneath the Mariana plate.
* Measuring 11,033m deep, it lies in the Pacific Ocean.
* The trench stretches 2542km long and 69km wide.
* The pressure at its deepest part is more than 8 tonnes per square inch.
* Mt Everest – the highest point on Earth – would fit into the trench and still have almost 2200m of water above it.
* The deepest point, called Challenger Deep, is named after the British Royal Navy ship HMS Challenger II, whose crew made the first recordings of its depth in an expedition from 1872-1876.
* Four descents have been made to the bottom. As well as the two that were manned, the Kaiko reached the bottom in 1996 and Nereus in 2009.

 

How many stations does Australia have in Antarctica?

19 Mar

I have a bit of a thing for Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to go and always will want to go, even with the lack of reception my mobile phone would be sure to have.

I’m not sure what first sparked this interest. Perhaps it’s the fact that heat makes me so very unreasonable grumpy while cold weather gives me an excuse (like I need one) to drink copious amount of hot chocolate. Then there’s the fact you can see penguins and don’t have to worry about being eaten by a polar bear. It’s also the setting for one of my favourite books – Ice Station by Matthew Reilly.

Anyway, my hunger to go was made all the worse earlier this year when my parents embarked on my – and to be fair their – trip of a lifetime down south, spending weeks on end exploring the southernmost reaches of our planet.

I asked them to bring back a penguin but instead got Gucci’s new Envy perfume, which I imagine tastes far less palatable roasted over an open flame. But on a serious note they did manage to fulfil one of my bucket list items – to visit one of the permanent stations. And the stories they bought back only made me want to learn more. Here’s what I discovered.

The Australian Antarctic Division maintains four permanent research stations, which are occupied year-round by scientists and support staff. They are:

* Mawson (Antarctic continent)
* Casey (Antarctic continent)
* Davis (Antarctic continent)
* Macquarie Island (subantarctic)

You can read more about them here, with information ranging from webcams and science overviews to cultural heritage and information on station facilities. But I found the write-ups so fascinating I had to share one. Here goes…

CASEY

“About 150-160 expeditioners, including Wilkins Aerodrome ground crew, visit Casey  during the summer. About 16-20 remain on station over winter.

Living at Casey is very comfortable and has often been compared to ski lodges, with the odd exceptions. The local ‘supermarket’ is substituted by a walk in cupboard called “Woolies”, where all expeditioners can browse the shelves for soap, linen etc. in a cashless society.

When blizzard days inhibit fieldwork, the main living area (the Red Shed) has indoor climbing, a home theatre, gym, photographic dark room, library and many communal sitting areas for expeditioners to pass the time.

Casey living is very communal and all expeditioners contribute to the day-to-day running of the station. Rosters are set up for Saturday duties that may include vacuuming the living area, shovelling snow, cleaning the cold porches etc. Expeditioners are rostered on to help the chef out in the kitchen (“Slushy duty”) to help feed the station.

Expeditioners have private bedrooms and share a bathroom between three people. Before the summer melt, water is scarce and therefore all expeditioners are limited to two-minute showers every second day.

Casey living is also very social after work and on days off. Every Saturday night expeditioners dress up for dinner and occasionally a theme night will be organised – with very adventurous costumes! The Casey bar “Splinters” is often occupied after work and on weekends with expeditioners playing pool and darts and drinking the home brewed beer.

Casey also boasts a special hydroponics building, which we use to grow lettuce, green vegetables, tomatoes and fresh herbs. These are welcome additions to our winter diet.”

Wow, sounds amazing, doesn’t it? And I would love nothing more than to spend six months living and working there. But sadly sarcasm, a comprehensive knowledge of power ballads and a liking for D-grade monster movies don’t seem to appear anywhere on the list of preferred candidate attributes. As Homer J Simpson would say: “D’oh”.