Interesting Things in Science
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Buckyballs - Normally, carbon, which forms the backbone of all organic molecules, is found as a powder, a sheet (also known as graphite, or pencil leads) or diamonds. In 1986, a group of chemists found a molecule that consisted 60 carbon atoms. It turned out that these 60 carbon atoms formed a sphere of interlocking pentagons and hexagons, making a shape very similar to soccer balls or geodesic domes. In fact their similarity to geodesic domes was so profound that the C60 molecule was named after the inventor of the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller. Buckminster fullerene is just one form of these new carbon molecules, which have collectively been called fullerenes. The carbon spheres can also form cylindrical tubes by just adding rings at their diameter; these tubes are usually referred to as nanotubes because of their small size. Nanotubes have an estimated strength of 100 to 200 times that of steel, weigh ¼ as much, and are reported to be superconductors. A single thread of this material, too small to been seen by the naked eye, could support over a ton. Fullerene is the first material that a feasible 'Elevator to space' could be made of, all other materials would not even support their own weight. When this material becomes inexpensive enough to mass produce, such things as a virtually indestructible safety in automobiles may be feasible, saving countless lives every year.

Fractal Patterns - Fractal patterns are simple mathematical formulas that form geometric patterns that replicate indefinitely, creating a stunningly ordered pattern that looks to be on the edge of chaotic randomness. These formulas are responsible for some of the most intricate and beautiful structures known to man. The pattern that governs the arteries and veins in your body can be described perfectly with fractal formulas. These patterns also match the patterns of the branching of the brachial tubes inside your lungs, the neurons inside your brain and many kinds of trees. This formula is used to describe every repetitive branching pattern found in organic structures, but it extends even beyond that. Amazingly, many things form these patterns, from the deposited patterns of sand at river deltas to the erosion of shorelines. Why is it that the genetic pattern described in the branching of arteries, nerves, tree branches, and air passageways in lungs happens to match exactly the patterns formed at river deltas, coastlines, and various other natural structures?

Neutron Stars - Neutron stars are perhaps one of the most stunning objects in the universe. The neutron star is comprised almost entirely of neutrons, it is, in effect, a gigantic atomic nuclei. Normally the nucleus of an atom is so tiny (even compared to a whole atom) that a single human hair can be over 1,000,000 billion atomic nuclei thick. Yet these Neutron stars are the size of our moon, and are almost entirely comprised of Neutrons. A typical atom will be comprised of Neutrons, Protons, and electrons. Neutrons have no electrical charge, while protons have a positive charge and electrons have a negative charge. Electrons whirl around the nucleus of an atom, which contains the protons and neutrons, and form orbitals, clouds, and shells. They move so quickly that they give the illusion of a solid object. Yet in reality almost the entire atom is empty space, in fact, if a hydrogen atom (the simplest of all consisting only of one proton and one electron) were enlarged to the size of a typical football stadium, the nucleus would be a mere grain of sand on the 50 yard line and the electron shell would be the outer stadium. This tiny nucleus however contains almost all of the mass of the atom. Imagine this nucleus being increased in size, starting at the 50 yard line and growing outward, a growing sphere of sand that ends up being the size of our solar system. At normal scale, these neutrons stars are about the size of our moon, these massive structures however contain 100 times as much mass as our sun. A single teaspoon of it may weigh in at a 100 million tones. A far cry from one of the densest common materials we know, lead, which weighs in at a paltry quarter pound for a teaspoon. These neutron stars spin incredibly fast, over 100,000 times per second, and have immense magnetic fields. They release so much energy just by spinning and having a magnetic field that they pour out massive bursts of radio waves into the cosmos each time they spin around, like gigantic cosmic lighthouses. In fact, when they were first discovered, some thought they were navigational beacons for vast inter-stellar space lanes.

Star Stuff - As the universe cooled after the Big Bang, light atoms eventually started to coalesce out of this energy. Small fluctuations in the distribution of this energy led to small differences in the distribution of the atoms that it coalesced into, which led, over millions of years, to large pockets of gas forming. Gravity eventually pulled these gases together into giant spheres. When these spheres became large enough and dense enough their pressures were able to overcome the repulsion of the protons in the center and a fusion reaction started, and the star ignited. When Hydrogen is fused, it forms Helium, and releases the energy that warms our planet. Stars can then start to fuse helium and form Carbon and Oxygen. Once any significant quantities are made of either of these elements by burning up the hydrogen, a stars internal pressures may suddenly exceed their gravitational pull, and they explode in a massive release of energy. During these explosions those lighter elements, like hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen, had enough energy to form even heavier elements, like Iron, Nickel, Silicon, and Aluminum. These elements were thrust into the vastness of space due to these explosions; they later coalesced and formed into asteroids, planetoids, and even planets after eons. This is where these heavy elements came from. The human body is made of mostly water, which is hydrogen and oxygen; the rest is made up primarily of Carbon, Phosphor, and Magnesium. These elements, all the heavy elements that our planet, the rocks and pebbles, our moon, cars, all our technology and what we are made of, were formed in the massive nuclear furnaces of long dead stars. We are all, as the Astronomer Carl Sagan was fond of saying, Star Stuff.

Galactic Core Black Holes - In the 1950's astronomers were detecting tremendous sources of Radio energy toward the center of a neighboring galaxy. No known mechanism could be responsible for putting out such tremendous amounts of energy, energy that out shadowed our sun by billions of times. As the technology became more sophisticated and the theoretical physics caught up with the observations it was found that Swarzschild singularities may indeed have enough energy to produce this effect. Black holes, as they latter became known, at the center of galaxies often contain billions of times the mass of our sun in a size just about as large as our solar system. They contain so much energy in the form of gravitation that the miniscule amount that gets converted to radio waves by heating nearby gases is enough to light up the galaxy.

Galactic Jets - The gigantic black holes that power the cores of some galaxies also have other interesting effects. These enormous black holes usually have immense magnetic fields, and they are also spinning at tremendous speeds. As the black holes pull gases from their galaxy of residence toward them, some of the gases become ionized, that is, the electrons are ripped from them. The now charged gas atoms get caught up in the immense spinning magnetic field of the black hole, as the path of charged particles curves in magnetic fields. They end up shooting up the axis that the black hole is spinning about following a helical pattern as they travel away from the galaxy. The gas jets end up forming long perfectly straight spears shooting out at right angles to the galaxy. The gas jets are large enough as they slowly spread out to encompass millions of our solar systems, yet the gas is shot with such tremendous energy that these gas jets can extend many hundreds of millions of light years away from the center of the galaxy, even when the entire galaxy itself is only a few hundred thousand light years across. They would be a tremendous sight to see, to be sure.

Quasars - When radio telescopes were first turned on the sky in the late 50's, star like point sources of radio waves were discovered. Astronomers using ordinary visible-light telescopes turned toward these radio points and looked to see what was there. In some cases no visible source other than a stellar-looking object was found, yet these objects poured out as much energy as an entire galaxy. These objects were called "quasars" short for "quasi-stellar radio sources". As atoms are heated they emit light at particular frequencies, and this light when viewed against the entire electromagnetic spectrum forms a bar code like pattern. As the source of these emissions moves away from an observer, the whole bar code pattern is shifted to a lower frequency (often referred to as red shift, because red light has a lower frequency than visible). Measuring this shift in the light emitted from these quasars revealed that these objects were being whisked away at nearly 1/3rd of the speed of light. It was found that these sources were not stars in our galaxy, but instead are as far as any of the distant galaxies ever seen. So what are these massive star like sources of radio emissions that pour out as much energy as a galaxy? Today the definite answer is still out, but these are thought to be embryonic galaxies powered by enormous black holes. These galaxies formed early on in the universe when not many stars had coalesced out of the large discs of gas surrounding the center of galaxies. They are thought to be made of large discs of dust and gas, which unlike more mature galaxies had not coalesced into stars of their own yet. These galaxies central black holes pour energy into the disc, giving it enough energy to emit its own light. These disc shaped galaxies look as luminous as suns and billions of times the size, but when so far away they appear as star like point sources of light.

Quantum Mechanics - One of the most fascinating and counter-intuitive fields in science is Quantum Mechanics. Different fields of science have what is often referred to as 'domains of validity'. Classical physics as formulated by Newton and countless other scientists since his time accurately describe the common world around us, that of the everyday objects. There were some places where classical physics failed to accurately describe things, like the radiation given off by heated objects, the accurately measured orbit of mercury, and the photoelectric effect. Albert Einstein later formulated his Special and General theories of relativity, which expanded the domain of validity from the world of the everyday to include the world of the very large and very massive. Relativity accurately described the orbit of mercury, but other mysteries remained. The wave-particle duality of light was the first hint at the strange world of quantum mechanics that lay ahead and the domain of validity of Relativity and classical physics still failed to accurately predict the measured world of the very small. Einstein was originally one of the most ardent opponents of quantum mechanics, trying at pain to disprove it as merely inaccurate measurements. The source of his oft mentioned quote "I can not believe God plays dice with the universe" came from his disdain for Quantum Mechanics (Einstein actually did not believe in either a personal god or a deistic original creator). Indeed, one of his famous papers attempted to point out the ridiculous implications of quantum mechanics that he claimed predicted an outrageous effect. The Einstein Rosen Podelonsky paper, or the EPR Paradox as it has since become referred to, predicted that two particles could become 'Quantum entangled' and changing the state of one would instantly change the state of the other, 'spooky action at a distant' as Einstein called it. As absurd as it sounded, this effect was later experimentally confirmed, but Einstein had long since abandoned his disdain for quantum mechanics in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Since then, much of the world has been enriched by the effects of Quantum Mechanics. Wonderful applications of technology such as the Laser, the superconductor and semiconductors would not be possible if classical physics were the only description of reality, and think how much these innovations have changed our lives. Superconductors will likely make many more astounding changes in the future. Other effects in quantum mechanics are even more stunning. Particles can spontaneously disappear and re-appear somewhere else (they do all the time in fact) This 'Quantum fluctuation' as it is called is responsible for the proton-proton fusion at the center of the sun. Lasers travel curved paths, electrons randomly disappear and re-appear to form 'clouds' instead of classical physics orbitals. Half of a mirror can be scratched away with no effect on the reflective ability of the mirror. Glass 50 meters thick can be 100% transparent, while glass 40 meters thick can block up to 16% of the light trying to transverse it. Bose Einstein condensates are macroscopic collections of atoms that behave as large individual atoms. These condensates in a fluid state exhibit no viscosity, that is, no resistance to flow, and if a tube is inserted in the molecular adhesive properties of the condensate will force it to climb up the tube and shoot off the top. Many more wonderful applications and discoveries are sure to follow from the quantum mechanics description of reality.

Shape-shifting Slime Mold - There is a type of mold which is a large colony of single celled organisms, much like algae. But this mold has a very interesting property, when parts of it detect a shortage of food, in a manner reminiscent of the T1000 in Terminator 2, it pulls together and forms one large multicelled organism, resembling a small slug. Different parts of the slime mold differentiate into different parts of the slug, depending merely on where they happened to be located after the transformation. This slug, like a small multicellular organism, then proceeds to crawl along the ground for some distance, after which it undergoes another change. The slug stands on its end and forms a stalk. The base of the slug hardens and forms a small trunk, and the stalk extends into the sky. Cells at the tip of the stalk are then released into the wind to spread and hopefully find new, more fertile, ground. Is this a colony of single celled organisms? Is it one single multicellular organism? Is it a plant? The organism is neither a plant nor an animal, a single celled organism nor a multi-cellular organism; it is what it needs to be depending on the environment. Fascinating creatures like this demonstrate the connecting species between single celled colony organisms and multi-cellular organisms.

Relativity - Einstein's Special and General Relativity have some weird and fascinating implications. As one is traveling, the faster they go the slower they travel through time. If one brother out of twins take a relativistic rocket trip at 80% of the speed of light, he will return having aged only half as much as the brother who stayed behind. This effect has been measured numerous times in atomic clocks on jets. That brother also shrinks in the direction that he is accelerating while on his trip, they don't feel it however, as space time itself contracts in that direction, including any instruments which could be used to measure it. An observer outside the accelerated reference frame could snap a quick picture however and see the figure as thin as a strand of spaghetti. Not only does time slow for the traveler and they shrink in the direction of travel, they also become more massive, which means they require even more energy to accelerate further. This relationship actually prevents one from classically accelerating to the speed of light, as it would require infinite energy. General Relativity dictates that the presence of mass in space actually curves the fabric of space-time and any objects that exist within it. Massive objects, such as stars, can bend space-time enough that they can significantly alter the path of light traveling in their neighborhood. If one watches a massive object such as a star pass in front of another star far behind it, one cane see the rear star suddenly jumps hundreds of light years away as its incoming light's trajectory is bent by the star in front. This 'Gravitational lensing' was one of the earliest effects predicted by Einstein that was later experimentally observed. Such an effect is often used to magnify the light from distant stars now to get better views of them. If a massive object in space-time is spinning, it twirls the bent space time around it much like water swirling down a drain, this effect is called 'Frame dragging' and all GPS satellites have to compensate for this effect or else their readings would be hundreds of meters off. The startling implications of Special and General Relativity have been experimentally confirmed in numerous experiments and Relativity has been shown to be an accurate description of reality.

(c) 2002