Saturday, March 21, 2015

New Horizons, Pluto, and Yuggoth: Is the fastest spacecraft ever launched set to awaken The Abominable Ones?

A digital speculation from Daily Galaxy of what Pluto might look like 
The New Horizons spacecraft is set to make its closest approach to Pluto this summer! Pluto has been the center of discussion and debate in the last decade due to it's reassignment to the new classification as a dwarf planet in 2006. Beside my excitement for the New Horizons mission and all of the awesome imagery and data that are soon to come from Pluto, a little part of me revels in the fantasy of New Horizons waking up an ancient evil race of beings coming from that distant world, which they call Yuggoth, as imagined by the great horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

A visualization by John L. Cherevka (skullbeast on DeviantArt) of what a Mi-go may look like, based on The Whisperer in Darkness (1931)

Home of the Mi-go and target of New Horizons

H.P. Lovecraft's blend of mystical horror and sci-fi horror from the early 1900s is still regarded as some of the best writing of the 20th century in the horror genre. It's a tragedy that Lovecraft never knew the impact his writing would have; he died in poverty, having only ever published his stories in pulp magazines. Lovecraft's stories often involved mysticism and mythology. He created a universe of ancient evil beings, including the famed Cthulhu Mythos. Of Lovecraft's work the great horror writer Stephen King has said, "I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." (American Heritage, 1995)

Lovecraft introduced the term Yuggoth within the Cthulhu Mythos in his collection of sonnets, Fungi from Yuggoth, though the first elaboration about the planet of Yuggoth and the creatures known as Mi-go were first depicted in his short story The Whisperer in Darkness. Written in September of 1930, this story appears to have been partially inspired by the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in February of that same year. In that story, we learn that the Mi-go are a race of alien creatures from Yuggoth, a distant world at the end of our solar system. The Mi-go are large, pink, crustacean-like fungi who can transport themselves through space to travel between worlds. These beings appear to be evil to humans who encounter them, though we're never fully informed of their intentions within Lovecraft's work.

Of Yuggoth, Lovecraft wrote "Yuggoth... is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system... There are mighty cities on Yuggoth—great tiers of terraced towers built of black stone... The sun shines there no brighter than a star, but the beings need no light. They have other subtler senses, and put no windows in their great houses and temples... The black rivers of pitch that flow under those mysterious cyclopean bridges—things built by some elder race extinct and forgotten before the beings came to Yuggoth from the ultimate voids—ought to be enough to make any man a Dante or Poe if he can keep sane long enough to tell what he has seen..."

Allicorn on Bandcamp offers a full recording of Fungi from Yuggoth as read by Paul MacLean.

Lovecraft was likely thinking of Pluto when he wrote his stories of the Mi-go and their world Yuggoth. Although complete works of fiction, it's still fun to fantasize about the possibility for some unthinkable and horrible discoveries to occur when New Horizons passes by Pluto in July of this year (the fly-by is scheduled for 15 July 2015). Will we discover that Pluto is more similar to the 8 planets of our solar system than it appears, or will we confirm that Pluto has far more in common with the Kuiper Belt Objects of the outer solar system? Or, rather, will we discover that Pluto is really the home to a hideous race of alien creatures with potentially evil intentions?

The blog Lovecraftian Science posits this question with regard to what New Horizons may find when it reaches Yuggoth this year:

"Will it find oceans of semi-frozen methane slowly vaporizing into interstellar space while the stars continue to shine?  Or will it find… 'black streets where abominable blasphemies moved among hideous gardens of those greyish nodding fungi and vast black windowless towers?' – from Ramsey Campbell’s The Tower of Yuggoth."

Of course, there's not a great reason to think that we'll discover alien life on Pluto, especially intelligent alien life, but it's still fun to let our minds wonder about the possibilities for alien life out there. Much as Lovecraft imagined races of alien beings with a completely different moral structure than our own, I like to imagine sometimes that our contact with intelligent alien life lies just around the corner with our continued exploration of space. Maybe there are alien races out there right now who have heard the radio signals we've broadcasted into space. Perhaps there's an alien race that have been watching our solar system to see when we advance enough to control the light that leaves our star system. There are so many possibilities when it comes to what we may find in our exploration of life in the universe. It makes me giddy sometimes just to think about it.

With a closing thought, perhaps we shouldn't call Pluto by the name Yuggoth. Perhaps we could do some justice to the memory of H.P. Lovecraft by using that name in a different way. Lovecraft's stories were motivated by his interests in science as well as mysticism. Perhaps, one great way to reflect on Lovecraft's stories of Yuggoth and the Mi-go is to use these names for future discoveries of astronomical objects. Indeed, the Italian astronomer Albino Carbognani suggested on the blog Urania in 2012 that if we discover another dwarf planet beyond Pluto, that we should consider calling it Yuggoth in honor of Lovecraft. That would be a great way to honor Lovecraft and to have a little fun with a name for a newly discovered object in our solar system. 

I'll surely be writing a lot more in the coming months with regard to the New Horizons mission, and if strange alien fungi creatures decide to attack our spacecraft, you'll definitely be able to read about it here on A Cosmobiologist's Dream!

Perhaps the Mi-go are not just fungi, but are fun guys (The Fun Guy from Yuggoth by DrewArt on Deviant Art)

Note: I'm personally amongst those who don't think that Pluto should be equally classified with the terrestrial or jovian planets, though I also think the current IAU definition of "planet" is pretty unfulfilling. I think most of the people who argue that Pluto should still be considered a planet do so out of sentimentality more than anything else, although there are good arguments for just accepting Pluto as a planet and then counting all the other dwarf planets as planets as well (though we would probably end up with over 100 planets that way). What do you think about Pluto's status as a dwarf planet? Feel free to leave a comment about your stance on Pluto, planet or not.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Leviathan: a short from Ruairi Robinson on hunting for flying alien behemoths

Concept art for Leviathan by Jim Murray (based on creature by Jordu Schell)  

I came across a Kotaku post today that introduced me to a short film just released by Ruairi Robinson (known for his sci-fi short films, but also for directing The Last Days on Mars). The film, called "The Leviathan" is a teaser/pitch from Robinson for an idea about humans hunting large alien creatures which fly through the atmosphere of some alien world.

The film begins with the lines: "By the early 22nd century mankind had colonized many worlds. Faster than light travel was made possible by harvesting exotic matter from the eggs of the largest species mankind has ever seen. Those that take part in the hunt are mostly involuntary labor." Okay, that sounds intriguing enough. The film is just under 4 minutes in length. Give it a watch and see what you think:

Pretty cool, huh? Definitely looks like it could become a pretty sweet film, yet there are definitely some aspects of the film that I would have done differently. 

For instance, it doesn't make any sense to have a guy standing on the deck of that airship. It kind of reminded me of the scene from Deadspace 2 where Isaac Clark and Ellie have to use a mining drill to carve their way through the rock to the government sector of Titan Station. In that scene, Isaac has to stand on the deck of the drill to kill off necromorphs that are trying to board. It was a fun way to setup the game, but it doesn't really make all that much sense for a film. 

I have read some comments that the airships shouldn't have just one guy with a harpoon gun on the front. Even though the airships in the film beg the question of why not just try building bigger ships with better firepower, it's kind of fun to have one little harpoon gun on the end of a ship that may or may not be destroyed by the large creatures. I think that kind of makes it fun.

I had to wonder why they didn't give the Leviathan larger wings/fins. Since it appears to float well in that atmosphere we can make the logical conclusions that the atmosphere is probably very dense (could even be a gas giant world) and that the leviathan itself is probably not very dense (it's far easier to float when you're full of gas). Still, it seems like such a large creature would have larger fins (but maybe I'm thinking too Earth-centrically about it). For that matter, we're left wondering why they're going after the Leviathan when it's the creature's eggs that are the valuable resource. Perhaps the creatures store the eggs internally until they are ready to be born into the atmosphere or perhaps the creature guards the eggs and the humans choose to hunt the Leviathan first: there are a lot of ways to take such a story.

There are always plenty of things that some of us would do differently in making a film a writing a story, but Robinson's Leviathan looks like it could be a promising story of future resource exploration while harkening back to a time where we ventured on the seas to hunt some of the most beautiful creatures that had ever come to be on our planet (which obliterated many whale populations; driving many close to extinction). Whaling in space... for space whales. Interesting idea.

Jack Reickel's Space Whale
Space Whales

Space Whales are a trope that have been used and reused many times, and, although Robinson's Leviathan isn't exactly a space whale (it appears to live in an atmosphere), many people are making the connection between previous space whale stories and Robinson's teaser. For instance, in the episode Möbius Dick of the cartoon show Futurama, the crew of Planet Express take on a 4-dimensional space whale that looks very similar to Robinson's Leviathan (see the image below). There have been space whales like the Star Whale in Dr. Who, the Acanti in the Uncanny X-Men, and the Whaladons from the Star Wars universe. The idea of large, whale-like creatures has been around for decades in science fiction. Will we ever discover creatures like the Leviathan living on other worlds? I sure hope so.

The White Space Whale in Futurama

Update (24 March 2015):

I just came across an article in Popular Mechanics announcing that Simon Kinberg and Neil Blomkamp have decided to support The Leviathan and help bring this idea to feature-length. Here's a little more about this announcement from The Verge.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Cerego: an adaptive learning tool for improving your knowledge of a variety of subjects

Some of you might remember a recent post I wrote regarding my two years of brain training with Lumosity (and why I decided to stop using Lumosity). In that post I mentioned the importance of having a mental exercise regimen. I usually run through 30 to 60 minutes of mental exercise every morning. One of the tools I like to use (outside of Khan Academy, Duolingo, and others) is an adaptive learning program from the website

Cerego offers spaced rehearsals for recalling information that you've stored. You can read about how Cerego works on their websiteI've been using Cerego to learn the top most used 1000 words in Spanish; to memorize all of the capitals, flags, locations, and names of all of the countries of the world; to remember some of the most important paintings and books in history; and to review some of the most important terminology in physics. Also, I've created a couple of learning sets for Cerego of my own.

My geobiology set covers some of the important ideas related to how life is intertwined with the environment. From microbial metabolisms (like Anammox, denitrification, sulfur oxidation, and methanogenesis) to important biological molecules (like ferredoxins, hopanoids, and various enzymes), the set attempts to aid the learner in remembering some of the most important concepts in geobiology. You can find that set here: Geobiology on Cerego.

The set that I created for geology covers much of the terminology that a student would encounter in an introductory geology course in college, though it's definitely accessible to anyone who has interest in understanding geology. There is a lot of terminology in geology; by learning some of the key terms and ideas, the student of geology can better understand what they read and hear with regard to the Earth sciences. You can find my set here: Geology on Cerego.

You can learn a little more about the approach of the developers of Cerego in this video:

What kinds of websites and tools do you use for your own brain training? Do you like to learn with audio and video or do you prefer books and reading? Do you use applications like the adaptive learning platform from Cerego? We all learn in different ways and it's up to each of us to find the optimal strategy for ourselves. Although I like learning through lectures (like those offered by MOOCs such as the offerings on Coursera), I learn far better through reading and by making associations with what I read and see. An approach like that of Cerego works well for me. You should definitely check it out and see what you think. Here's that website again:

Exercising your brain (taken from Psychology Today)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Beard-seconds and barns: A couple unusual units of measurement

Units are absolutely necessary for our understanding of the universe. I can tell you I have 12, that you need to drive for three to get there, or that you have exactly 16 to cut the blue wire before the bomb explodes, but none of those things make sense without some idea of the relative units involved. 

If I have 12 gold bricks, that's a much different story than if I have 12 dirty socks. A drive of three city blocks will be a much shorter trip than a drive of three kilometers. If you only have 16 seconds left before the bomb explodes, you might feel a little more rushed than if you have 16 hours.

At least all of those units make sense since we use them pretty commonly, but what about the more unusual units? What would 12 beard-seconds or 16 barns mean to you? If you haven't heard of those units of measurement before, then get ready, 'cause this is going to be fun!

The Beard-Second
a minuscule measure of epic growth 

My walk to campus every morning is just over 3 km (it's just about 1.9 miles). But that doesn't sound all that impressive. 

(According to this graph, I'm almost a wizard!)
Here's a fun one for you: my walk to campus every morning is 152,887,500,000 beard-seconds! That's right. I walk almost one-hundred fifty-three billion beard-seconds just to get to work. How ya like me now?!

Okay, just what the hell is a beard second? 

The beard-second is an unusual (and comical) unit that expresses length relative to the average length that a typical man's beard can grow in one second. One beard-second is equal to either 5 or 10 nm (depending on the source). I prefer the 5 nm (0.000000005 m or 0.00000019685 inches) measure of the beard-second.

A beard-second can be considered in the same way that we think about lightyears. A lightyear is a unit of distance equal to the distance that light will travel in a vacuum in one year. So we consider the lightyear as a unit of distance that is defined relative to a length of time (distance light can travel in one year). The beard-second is also a unit of distance that is defined relative to a length of time (length of beard growth in one second). However, you should take caution when using the beard-second, as not everyone's beard grows at 5 or 10 nm per second, especially once a beard has surpassed 4 Rikers worth of beard fullness:

The Riker Scale, another beard-derived system of measurement (taken from Reddit)

See that, I just laid another unit of measurement (the Riker) on you.

My beard has now been growing for just over 556 days (that's more than 48 million seconds!). I've well-surpassed 4 on the Riker Scale. If the beard-second were truly a constant for beard growth, my beard would be over 24 cm (~9 inches) in length! Sadly, when measuring from the bottom of my chin to the bottom of my beard, I only get 16.5 cm (about 6.5 inches). So be cautious when applying the beard-second as a unit of measurement, since it's apparently a nonlinear unit!

The beard is not quite as long as it should be if the beard-second were a constant

The Barn:
Note: if you thought your aim was so bad that you couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, then you're really not going to like this unit of area

The barn is an unusual unit of area that was created in 1942 by scientists studying particle physics. They wanted a unit that gave the rough cross-sectional area of the nucleus of a uranium atom. Since a uranium nucleus is pretty big (relative to other nuclei) they came up with the unit "barn".

One barn is equal to 100 square femtometers (a femtometer is one quadrillionth of a meter), which makes one barn (denoted by "b") equal to 10-28 m2.
One barn is equal to 100 square femtometers, much smaller than your typical barn

The barn may be useful for particle physics and measurements of very small things (relative to us, of course), but it's not very useful for our common considerations of the world around us. For instance, Apple's iPhone 6 has a screen that is 9.4 square inches in area. 9.4 square inches is just over 6.06 x 1025 barns (that's 10 yottabarns)! That's a really big number!

As How to Geek explains, there are also two derivatives of the barn unit that have been suggested. They are the outhouse (1.0×10−6 barns) and the shed (1.0×10−24 barns). Those silly particle physicists.

Target practice using subatomic particles and aiming for a barn (Credit: Alan Chou)

Other unusual units of measurement:

There are of course some other weird, ridiculous, and/or humorous units of measurement. For instance, the history of the Smoot is quite an interesting story. Briefly, it comes from the height of Oliver R. Smoot. When he was pledging to a frat at MIT in 1958 it was decided that he and a group of other pledges would have to measure the Harvard Bridge using his height. The bridge was measured as 364.4 smoots plus an ear. That measurement has been continued to this day. When I was at MIT back in 2007 I had a chance to see the smoot gradations on the bridge. To get the full story, check out What's a Smoot? on NPR's Krulwich Wonders.

Wikipedia has a fantastic list of other unusual measurements. You can also check out 36 unusual measurements in this video from Mental Floss:

No units? Know units!

The Season 9 episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia titled "Mac and Dennis Buy a Timeshare" starts with Sweet Dee (played by Kaitlin Olsen) trying to sell some "wonder berries" to Charlie, Mac, and Dennis (played by Charlie Day, Rob McElhenny, and Glenn Howerton). Here's how the intro scene goes down:

Dee: Charlie, allow me to demonstrate.

Charlie: Oh, you got a thing here.

Dee: Come over here and hold on to these. (She hands him two handles with cables attached to a device that might remind you of one of Scientology's E-Meters). Now, this machine is gonna measure the level of toxins in your body caused by stress.

Charlie: All right. Where do I put my feet?

Dee: Wherever you want.

Charlie: I'm gonna put them on the stool.

Dee: Great. It doesn't matter. Okay, here we go. (The device starts beeping) One twenty... One fourty... One fifty... seven?! Oh, shit, Charlie, 157?

Charlie: Is that bad?

Dee: Yeah, it's not good.

Charlie: Guys, I got 157.

Dennis: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. 157 what?

Dee: Units.

Charlie: Units, dude.

Dennis: Units of what?

Dee: Units of stress! You're very, very high in your stress unit. But don't even worry, because Invigaron can help you. These berries are chock-full of antioxidants and phytonutrients.

Charlie: Oh, thank God. All right, I'm sold. I'm in.

Mac: Of course you're buying it, because you're as big of an idiot as she is. You're getting scammed, Dee.

Take home message: you can know about units or go with no units and be a sucker. 

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, S9E4 (FX)

Scientists and many governments around the world have agreed upon a system of measurement called the International System of Units (or SI). SI makes life easy for all of us by using a base 10 system with standardized units of measure. Unfortunately, America is still using the British Imperial System of Units, which uses various bases that are intermixed (which is why most Americans are very bad at converting between units in their own system of measure). Maybe one day America will catch up with everyone else, but until then at least we can all have fun making up unusual units of measurement like the beard-second and the barn for describing some features of the world around us relative to our own experience.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sulfur gases from our _____ have a most unpleasant odor. But why?

Fill in the blank here: 

"Beans, beans the magical fruit, 
the more you eat, the more you ____."

Do you remember that one? It was pretty common for my cousins and I when we were children. I recall at one point thinking of the "toot" like it was a tug boat's whistle in a harbor.

Let's try this one:

"Beans, beans, they're good for your heart,
The more you eat, the more you _____."

Okay, that one's pretty direct. Fart, toot, rip gas, bust ass, cut the cheese, break one lose, let one rip, send a bouquet, blast your chair, trouser cough: we have lots of ways to describe flatulence. One that I remember from my early adolescence was "
doorknob": if you farted and someone said the word "doorknob" before you could say "safety" then you had to run as fast as you could to find and then touch a doorknob while your friends would do their best to pummel you. I know, I know... the stupid things that young boys do.

What is it about flatulence that seems so darned funny in some situations and absolutely disgusting in others? For that matter, why do farts smell bad?

The answer to the latter question is pretty simple: sulfur

Well, that might be a bit misleading. It's been thought for some time that some nitrogen-containing organic compounds contributed some of the odor to farts (most of these would smell something like the naphthalene in mothballs), however most recent research on the odors of flatulence points to volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) as being the primary cause of "the big stink". Articles such as those of Suarez and colleagues (1998) and Tangerman (2009) point to hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol, and dimethyl sulfides as the primary agents of those smelly fart odors.

You may already know that sulfur is my favorite chemical element (and not just because my research involves sulfur). So let's talk about why sulfur makes our "booty belches" stink.

German peasants farting at Pope Paul III from
Martin Luther's "Depictions of the Papacy" (1545)

A fart, by any other name...

The majority of the gases that make up flatulence have no odor whatsoever. The portion of our flatulence that smells, the VSCs, make up less than 1% of the gases that come out. 

The other 99% or more of a fart is composed of gases like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, oxygen, and methane (many people think that methane has a "gassy" odor, but that's actually not true; pure methane has no odor). This image below, from a post on the Chronicle Books Blog, shows the primary composition of flatulence:

Image of primary fart compositions taken from Chronicle Books Blog

The gases in our "thunder from down under" come from three primary sources: atmospheric gases, undigested food material, and microbial metabolisms. The lattermost are the most important in making our noxious stenches. 

Life on Earth is utterly dominated by microorganisms. We might have developed civilization and science, but microbes still beat us in numbers by far. Indeed, the number of microbial organisms living on and inside of us outnumber the cells of our own bodies by anything from 10 to 1 up to 100 to 1. A lot of the processes that occur on our skin and in our guts are driven by the microbes who live with us. There can be over 1000 different microbial species living in our guts. These organisms help us digest our food: many of them ferment undigested carbohydrates to produce molecules that we can then use. Many of the dominant gases of our flatulence come from the processes of fermentation by our gut flora, especially hydrogen, a byproduct of fermentation. 

The action of sulfur-metabolizing microbes (such as sulfate reducers) is what causes the production of the malodorous sulfur-containing gases in our guts. In many cases, these microbes will pair the oxidation of hydrogen gas with the reduction of sulfur (from sulfate and from sulfur-containing amino acids), which is why we call them hydrogenotrophs. By consuming the hydrogen byproduct of fermentation, these sulfur reducing microbes form a symbiotic relationship with our other gut microorganisms. Thanks to that symbiosis and the processes involved, our gut microbes and our bodies benefit while our friends who have to smell the stench from our trouser trumpets are not so lucky. 

Here's a GIF showing the number of microbial species that can be found in or on various parts of our bodies:

So why do sulfur gases smell so bad?

I've been working on a project studying sulfur for so long that I've become accustomed to the smell of hydrogen sulfide. We usually say that hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs, but that's not quite fair: the smell of rotten eggs includes hydrogen sulfide but also has other sulfur gases that make for a more repulsive odor. In fact, the smell of rotten eggs is much closer to the smell of farts than the smell of pure hydrogen sulfide gas. Still, there's not really another good way to describe the smell of hydrogen sulfide to most people. That's probably due to the fact that when we smell sulfide gases, we tend to do our best to get away from the odor. But why?

Season 2, episode 12, of Neil deGrasse Tyson's podcast Star Talk Radio was called "Appetite for Destruction" and featured an interview with Peter Ward, a paleobiologist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington (Peter Ward's book "Life as We Do Not Know It" rekindled my personal interest in astrobiology during my early college years). Tyson and Ward spoke about Ward's then recently published idea, The Medea Hypothesis, which is his consideration of the general relationship between life and the planet. There's a point in the episode where Tyson and Ward discuss hydrogen sulfide as it relates to global climate change and mass extinctions. That's when Peter Ward says this (roughly transcribed):

"Flatulence is essentially hydrogen sulfide... a very very deadly, deadly gas. It smells bad because it is so deadly to us. We are detecting the tiniest, tiniest [amount]; very few molecules floating around [and] you know it. ...We've come from a very long history of exposure to this stuff in the past mass extinctions. We've evolved to run [from the smell of this gas]. We know just how dangerous this is; our lineage of mammals goes back 300 million years [and] we have repeatedly been gassed by this stuff. We are the survivors of a number of hydrogen sulfide gas attacks. 200 parts per million, 10 times what you can smell, will kill you; and that was the level that appears to have happened at least 12 times in the past 500 million years due to global warming.

So did we evolve to hate the smell of hydrogen sulfide to keep ourselves safe?

We can smell hydrogen sulfide at very low concentrations. According to OSHA, something in the range of 10 parts per trillion (ppt) to 1.5 parts per billion (ppb) is the beginning of human reception of hydrogen sulfide in the air we breathe (even better than the number that Ward threw out off the top of his head). Somewhere in the range from 2 to 20 ppm is when we start feeling the ill effects of breathing too much hydrogen sulfide, while the hundreds of ppm or more region of hydrogen sulfide exposure can be fatal. 

We know that hydrogen sulfide has had an important role in the evolution of life and the biosphere and may even have been involved in the earliest origins of life on Earth. Sulfur is one of the most important elements for life, but sulfide, it's reduced form, can be quite dangerous for those of us who breath oxygen. The end-Permian mass extinction event, believed to be the greatest mass extinction event in history, occurred about 252 million years ago and may have been highly influenced by the buildup of hydrogen sulfide in the oceans. It's even been suggested that the evolution of multicellular life on Earth, during the Avalon and Cambrian Radiations, was held back for over 1.3 billion years due to hydrogen sulfide concentrations in the middle to lower zones of the oceans. Yet that doesn't mean that we've necessarily evolved to avoid hydrogen sulfide.

Many organisms that would otherwise want to avoid hydrogen sulfide have evolved various mechanisms for dealing with too much of it. I haven't found any literature that can provide direct evidence to support Ward's claim (let me know if you can!), yet it makes a lot of sense as a speculation. Hydrogen sulfide is dangerous to us, so it makes sense that we would have evolved to avoid areas where it's abundant, or even to avoid the gases that are produced from our own bodies since they contain hydrogen sulfide and other reduced sulfur gases. Until I have some more evidence in hand (I'll be reading Ward's book on the Medea Hypothesis soon) I can't say for sure that we evolved to avoid hydrogen sulfide, but that sure sounds like a reasonable suggestion.

Even though the VSCs that make our farts stink only make up <1% of the total gas that comes from our hind ends, that's still a lot more than the range necessary for us to smell it (1%, or 1 part per hundred, is also 10,000 ppm). I don't know if evolution guided us to detest the smell of hydrogen sulfide due to its danger to us, but I can say for sure that the reason our "stink bombs" are so pungent is due to the presence of reduced sulfur gases.

I suppose that leaves one more interesting question about our farts: why are most of us okay (or at least not disgusted) with the smells from our own farts but we always find the flatulence of others to be revolting? 

Well, our detestation to the aroma of the farts of others might not just be due to the sulfur gases contained within but might also be about avoiding potential dangers related to many things that smell bad to us. Here's a video from AsapSCIENCE that considers just this:

You can consider this video a bit further by checking out the review from ThinkTank on Youtube.

Fart Science

If you found this post interesting, then you might want to check out this video by Vsauce on Youtube where he considers some more fart science:

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Thunderstruck acoustic by Luca Stricagnoli will blow your mind!

Italian guitarist Luca Stricagnoli

Just came across this amazing acoustic arrangement of AC/DC's Thunderstruck by Luca Stricagnoli. This might just be the best thing you're going to hear today!

Borup Fiord Pass: video from the 2011 expedition to this unique Arctic environment

Science on the ice at Borup Fiord Pass in summer, 2014 (Photo: John Spear)

Borup Fiord Pass is a truly unique and intriguing field site. The deposition of elemental sulfur and microbial processes at the surface of a glacier at Borup Fiord Pass may provide clues we need in our search for life on icy worlds like Jupiter's moon Europa, and strange circular structures in the valley near the glacier may be the remnants of past springs which could inform our future exploration of Mars. I got to travel to Borup Fiord Pass in the summer of 2014 and it was an incredible experience.

My current graduate research is focused on characterizing the materials that form at the surface of this Arctic glacier. Much of that material is rich with sulfur in various chemical forms. I'm now using various instruments to perform my characterizations of the sulfur-rich materials from the site. For instance, I get to use a particle accelerator to conduct x-ray spectroscopy to look at the sulfur!

In 2011, Bob Pappalardo, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Steve Grasby, of the Geological Survey of Canada, made the trek north to visit Borup Fiord Pass. They took some samples that we've now been using to better understand the geochemical and biological processes that have occurred at the glacier. They also recorded a lot of video. Some of that video was recently edited into B-roll by JPL. The video shows Bob and Steve collecting sulfur on the ice beside a sulfide-rich spring. Take a look and see what you think about the sulfur that forms on the ice at this strange Arctic site:

For more information about this strange glacial environment in the Arctic, check out an earlier post on this blog titled "Borup Fiord Pass: An introduction to how an Arctic glacier may aid in our search for life on Jupiter's moon Europa". You can also find articles about Borup Fiord Pass science that have been posted by sites like and Popular Science.

We'll soon be putting together videos that show our work during the more recent field expedition in 2014. Stay tuned to this blog for those videos and for more of the science and awesomeness of Borup Fiord Pass!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

#TDB20, Viking Poetry, and Marooned on Earth as Viewed from Space

Artwork from Storm Thorgerson from Pink Floyd's The Division Bell

Pink Floyd's album The Division Bell was released over two decades ago! 

One of my favorite memories from the mid-1990s was when I spent an entire day listening to this album over-and-over while sitting in an old rocking chair and reading poems from  The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-Speaking World. The skylight windows were open in the attic room where I was reading and a soft summer breeze brought warm drafts of air to where I was sitting. I can still close my eyes and feel the warmth as I rocked back-and-forth and lost myself in a world of poetry and music.

I honestly can't recall anymore how many hundreds of pages of classic poetry I read that day, but the sounds of Floyd and the poetry seemed to flow together into a collage of various thoughts and emotions that hit me in various ways as the hours passed. Ah, youth.

The Division Bell was reissued last year, the 20th year since its original release. For #TBD20, they've also cut a new video for the song Marooned. The song is a chilling instrumental piece that was cut from a few improvised takes onboard David Gilmour's houseboat/recording-studio, the Astoria. The original setting was said to be their feeling of being marooned on an island, but this new video shows something a bit different. 

Starting with views from orbit of our planet, our island in the cosmos, the video then takes us to the now-abandoned Pripyat, Ukraine. Pripyat was abandoned due to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. On our little island in the cosmos, on our only home, we've built empires and industries, art and science, and yet we've also built disaster and destruction. Your interpretation of the video may be different from mine, especially with regard to the individual performing calculations at the end, but I see it as a story of marooned humanity; this is, to me, a vision of what it would be like if we were to lose our ambitions for a future. Our species is now at a point where we can foresee leaving our little island to explore the greater cosmos, yet, if we don't take care of our island, we could end up feeling less like inhabitants of a beautiful world and more like prisoners marooned in a prison of our own making. 

What do you think?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Only for geniuses? No, finding the answer doesn't mean you're a genius, but these puzzles from Facebook can still be fun

I just came across another one of these puzzles on Facebook the other day. You may already know that I love a good puzzle. Ones like you see here are usually quick and fun. In the puzzle above we have this problem:

111 = 13
112 = 24
113 = 35
114 = 46
115 = 57
117 = ??

In this case, the solution could be 79. But you knew that, right?

These kinds of problems can often have multiple solutions. Some of them are easy and some of them require a bit of work.

The above problem has two little tricks. Firstly, you have to notice the pattern for each operation (the equality symbol in this case does not imply that the left and right are equal, but that there is some operation that can be done to one side to make it equal to the other). To get my answer, the last digit on the left of the equality symbol can be taken as the first digit on the right. The second digit on the right is then the sum of all of the digits on the left. However, the second little trick in this problem is to then skip 116 = 68 and go straight to 117 = 79. Ya, not a big shocker there at all.  Like I said, quick and fun.  

Here are some more of these types of puzzles
(can you figure out answers for all three?)

So, what'd you get for your answers? My answers are, in order:
90, 410, and 143547 (though there are other answers!)

I posted those three problems with an order of increasing difficulty, but they're all still quite manageable since they all follow the same idea as the problem that started this post: namely, assume that the equality sign implies an operation is necessary to form one of the numbers from the other. If you're curious to now how I got my answers to those three problems, then you can cruise down to the bottom of this post. 

Before I get to that, however, I want to point out that answering these questions correctly does not make you a genius, nor should you believe the statistics that claim that only some number of people can get the answer correct.

Only for Geniuses?

Something that really bothers me about these types of puzzles on Facebook is that so many of them say something like "Only for Geniuses" or "Only geniuses will get the answer". What's with that? It may seem a bit silly to think that anyone would feel like they are somehow a certified genius just for answering a very simple problem just because some text on the problem said so, but I wonder how many people really do. How many people out there are swindled by such claims? 

I guess the important question is what exactly is a genius? A quick search online will reveal that there is no well-constrained definition of genius. Dictionaries may give some definition for genius, such as "an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc." from You might also see definitions claiming that genius implies having a high Intelligence Quotient (IQ). But scoring high marks on a standardized test is probably not the best way to judge. 

It's seems fairly well agreed upon that all people who are recognized as geniuses can score fairly high on tests of logic and reason, but they don't necessarily have to have the highest scores. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists and thinkers of the past century, self-reported that his IQ was only ever measured as high as 125

The word genius should be used to imply respect for someone who has shown their mental prowess with mathematics, art, science, creativity, oratory, or teaching, but surely it's not something that can be determined from a simple puzzle on Facebook. That's absurd. Maybe the people who add the "only geniuses" text to those Facebook puzzles are just misled about what "genius" implies, but it's more likely that they're pandering to others in the hopes to increase the "likes" and "shares" of their images. I think the latter seems more likely. Indeed, it's become pretty common for people to use pandering techniques on social media to try to improve their internet presence.

So, what's the point? Why do I care so much? 

I think the "only for geniuses" crap bothers me because I love puzzles, but I don't like having my intellect attacked by pandering. Finding the answers to these puzzles on Facebook doesn't make you a genius, but the people who actually believe that are most likely not geniuses. Even a genius can be suckered into something stupid once in a while, but I think a measure of genius is having the ability to recognize when you're being cajoled.

There's a quote that goes "Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid".  This quote is often misattributed to Albert Einstein though it was likely written in this form first by someone named Matthew Kelly. Is everyone a genius in their own way? I'd like to think so, but the problem with being a genius is that it's only a quality in a person that can be recognized by others. If you want to be a genius, don't worry about what some pandering asshole wrote on a Facebook image, but rather find what you're good at and use that to make the world a better place.

We need a society of people who are literate in statistics

One other crappy thing about some of these Facebook puzzles is when they throw out some ridiculous faux statistic about how few people get these things correct. For instance, the claim that "Only 20% will give right answer on 1st attempt" on the first problem in this post is laughable. Where did they derive such information? Nowhere, of course. They made it up because it sounded impressive and because, once again, they're pandering to people who can be won over through emotional wheedling.

Todd Snider has a song called "Statisticians Blues" where he points out that "...64% of all the world's statistics are made up right there on the spot. 85.4% of people believe them whether they're even accurate statistics or not." Check out that tune here:

What do you think? Are 72% of all statistics really made up right there on the spot? Are you one of the 80.4% who will believe those made up statistics whether they're even accurate statistics or not?

You might have noticed that none of those values matched, and you might have also noticed many times in your life when someone tries to throw some numbers at an opinion to make it sound stronger without having the ability to say where those numbers came from. So what's up with that? 

Statistics is a field of study that focuses on how to qualify and quantify data in a rigorous manner. It's about learning from measurable data and making predictions from known evidence. Statistics is very much a scientific approach to considering data, yet it's constantly misused, especially in our era of data overload.

Misusing statistics is just another form of pandering on these Facebook puzzles, just like the "only for geniuses" claims. These fake stats are an attack on your intellect and your reason, but also on your emotions. Don't fall victim to the wheedling of the people who don't understand statistics! We should all take a little time in our lives to be sure we understand the "writing on the wall"; statistics literacy should be a common goal of all peoples' education in our modern world.

Okay, okay, enough ranting

Here's how I found my answers to those three problems earlier in the post:

How did I get the answers of 90410, and 143547?

Let's step through each one and see if you agree with me (again, there are usually many ways to solve these problems, and they often include breaking some of the "rules" of mathematics to do so):

Here's the easy one

This one is very simple. The problem is:

2 = 6 
3 = 12
4 = 20
5 = 30
6 = 42
9 = ??

Just as with the first problem in this post, the idea is to forget what you know of the equality symbol (it doesn't imply equality here, but rather what must be done to the numbers on one side to make them the numbers on the other side). You should hopefully see rather quickly that the operation is to take the number on the left and multiply it by the integer that is one greater than itself (so multiply 2 by 3 to get 6, 3 by 4 to get 12, and so on...). Once you see that you should find that the final answer (??) is 9 multiplied by 10, or 90

It's nice to get the right answer, but fun puzzles are definitely not only for geniuses.

Update (13 June 2015)

Someone left a comment on this post today. They found an answer for this problem of 36, and I love their approach. Here's the comment they left:

f(z) = z * | |z-6| -7|
2 = 6
3 = 12
4 = 20
5 = 30
6 = 42

9 = 36

As you can see, this approach works perfectly well for this problem. Although this one isn't as easy to "see" by looking at the problem, it's still completely valid.

How about this one?

This one takes a little more thought, but it's not terrible. The problem is:

5 + 3 = 28  
9 + 1 = 810
8 + 6 = 214
5 + 4 = 19  
7 + 3 = ???

Remember my answer was 410? Beyond having to think beyond the normal use of an equality symbol, this problem requires you to break your usual thinking of how numbers are arranged. You need to perform some operation to the numbers on the left to make the numbers on the right, but you don't have to follow the normal rules of mathematics and you don't have to consider a string of numbers to be one unique number. What if I told you to think of these numbers like each one is separate? How does this look?

<5> <3> = <2> <8>

Any better? What if I just said "you have to do something with a 5 and a 3 that can give you a 2 and an 8"?

Did you think that the difference of 5 and 3 is 2 and the sum of 5 and 3 is 8? If so, then you're on the right track. 

Applying that thinking to the rest of the problem shows you:

The difference of 9 and 1 is 8 and the sum of 9 and 1 is 10:
9 + 1 = 810

The difference of 8 and 6 is 2 and the sum is 14:
8 + 6 = 214

Following that convention to the unknown gives you, "the difference of 7 and 3 is 4 and the sum of 7 and 3 is 10", hence my answer of 410:
7 + 3 = 410

Don't worry if you didn't get it. That whole "99% People Failed to Solve this Question" malarky is just a bunch of bunk!

Now for the tricky one:

This one may look pretty intimidating, and, admittedly, it took me a couple minutes to figure out.  Here's the problem:

5 + 3 + 2 = 151022
+ 2 + 4 = 183652
+ 6 + 3 = 482466
+ 4 + 5 = 202541
+ 2 + 5 = ??????

My answer for this problem is 143547. Notice how it has 6 digits? Did you notice how all the other answers have six digits? That's a pretty important feature of this problem.

This is one where you have to look at the numbers available on the left and start trying to figure out the potential associations to single numbers, strings of numbers, and the whole numbers on the right. Doing this, one thing I noticed right away was that the first line has 5, 3, 2 on the left and it has 15 (the product of 5 and 3) as well as 10 (the product of 5 and 2). If you take a look at the rest of the lines, this relationship holds; product of first and third numbers followed by the product of the fist and third numbers. Let's make some notation to explain this.  Let's set a line up as:

A + B + C = xxyyzz

Then, from what I've said so far:

A*B = xx
A*C = yy

That just leaves "zz". You may want to think about that one for a moment. Try combinations of A, B, and C using general arithmetic. I'll post the final answer below, but here's a fun cartoon first:

Get more giggles at

Still hanging around? This is a pretty long post, but, if you love puzzles and games as much as I do, then I hope you've found it worth your while. So here's how I found the final answer:

In the first line we get the product of 5 and 3 (15) and the product of 5 and 2 (10) and, if we're looking close, we have 22 yet to figure out, which is pretty close to 25 (the sum of 15 and 10). In fact, 22 is 3 less than 25, which led me to my answer:

For A + B + C = xxyyzz

where A*B = xx

and A*C = yy,

we can find that zz = A*(B+C) - B

or, in other words, zz = xx + yy - B

Now using the numbers from the problem:

+ 2 + 5 = (7*2) / (7*5) / (7*(2+5) - 2) = 14 / 35 / 47

and, finally:

+ 2 + 5 = 143547

Finding this answer will not make you a genius and no one has any idea about how many people have successfully solved this problem (or have even run any tests on an adequate sample to statistically say roughly how likely you are to be capable of solving it compared to the general public). Still, if you're like me, then you've probably at least had some fun working on the answers. 

Feel free to comment on these problems, my approach to solving them, or suggest some more fun puzzles!