Human History Ends At Midnight

Not really. But if Earth's history was placed on a calendar with each day representing about 10 million years, human history so far would begin at 11:59PM and end at midnight tonight. From January to March not much happens, because our clump of space dirt was hot and dry. But as it cools and collects water from comet impacts it doesn't take long for life to get a metaphorical toe hold.

The first single cell microbes appear in early April, with small multicellular clumps forming later in the month. Such bacterial mats are still found on Earth (and probably will be found on other planets too, as we may soon find out). Here's an image taken by Johnathan Stott of a bacterial mat found in boiling water at the Old Faithful Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

In May—on our year-long Earth history calendar—vertebrates emerge as fish. Slowly life on land evolves into plants and begin to cover the globe in July.

In mid-September fish crawl up on land and early reptiles preview the dawn of the dinosaur era, which continues through late November.

Birds and small shrew-like mammals first appear in early November, but are overshadowed by reptilian species until early December, when the dinosaurs disappear abruptly, in a few hours on this scale.

By late December, the recognizable ancestors of modern mammals make their debut.

Today, New Years Eve, things start to get busy, but it's not until noon that our first distant ancestors appear. Then tonight, between 9:30 and 10:00 pm, Homo Sapiens migrate out of Africa to populate Eurasia and the Americas.

At 11:59 pm, one minute before midnight, human history and civilization as we know it begins, and virtually all recorded history occurs in the last 10 seconds. As you watch the Time Square ball go down use the following timeline:

Dec 31 11:59:00PM - Cave paintings in Europe
Dec 31 11:59:20PM - Invention of agriculture
Dec 31 11:59:35PM - First towns
Dec 31 11:59:50PM - First dynasties in Egypt
Dec 31 11:59:51PM - Invention of alphabet
Dec 31 11:59:52PM - Bronze metallurgy, invention of compass
Dec 31 11:59:53PM - Iron metallurgy, founding of Carthage by Phoenicians
Dec 31 11:59:54PM - Ch'n Dynsasty China, birth of Buddha
Dec 31 11:59:55PM - Euclidean geometry, Roman Empire, birth of Christ
Dec 31 11:59:56PM - Zero and decimals invented, birth of Mohammed
Dec 31 11:59:57PM - Mayan civilization, Byzantine empire, Crusades
Dec 31 11:59:58PM - Renaissance in Europe, voyages of discovery, science
Dec 31 11:59:59PM - Technology, planetary exploration

As for the future, well:

Taking a positive view:
Jan 01 00:00:01AM - Life found on planets, genetic engineering, robots
Jan 01 00:00:02AM - Extraterrestrial intelligence, interstellar exploration
Jan 01 00:00:03AM - Artificial intelligence, cyborgs, space colonization

Taking a negative view:
Jan 01 00:00:01AM - Religious wars
Jan 01 00:00:02AM - Cave paintings
Jan 01 00:00:03AM - First towns

You Can See Satellites In Space

Really. Everyone knows you can see the Moon from Earth--Luna is a satellite, after all. And with a small telescope you can see the moons of Jupiter and the rings around Saturn.

But most people don't realize you can see man-made satellites too. The International Space Station is especially bright, and very easy to see when it goes over. Visit for a satellite schedule. There's something to see every night, even if the space station doesn't happen to be visible.

With careful preparation and a small telescope, Thierry Legault managed to capture a picture of two man-made satellites--Shuttle Atlantis and the ISS as they passed in front of the Sun on September 17th, 2006 near Normandie, France.

You can see different structures on the ISS, and even the vertical tail on the Shuttle, which undocked from the space station less than an hour earlier.


Oceans' Salt Would Bury the Continents

Really. If the salt in the sea could be removed and spread evenly over the Earth's land surface it would form a layer more than 500 feet thick, about the height of a 40-story office building.

If that doesn't impress you, try this example; if the oceans dried up, the salt left behind would supply a wall 180 miles wide and 1 mile high around the equator.

Most of this salt is sodium chloride, the same stuff you put on your food.

How does it get into the oceans? Mostly, it washed into the seas through gradual erosion over billions of years. The dissolving action of rains and streams transported the mineral to the sea. Smaller amounts of salt came from rocks and sediments below the ocean's floor as well as from solid and gaseous materials escaping the Earth's crust through volcanic vents.

Then, saltiness is reinforced by the Sun's heat. It evaporates pure water from the surface of the sea and leaves the salts behind.

So we've certainly got enough cheap salt to last us. Pass the pepper please.


Painting Can Protect Your Health

Really. A new "antimicrobial paint" developed at MIT can kill influenza viruses that land on surfaces coated with it, potentially offering a new weapon in the battle against a disease that kills nearly 40,000 Americans per year.

The new substance could help fight the spread of the flu if applied to doorknobs or other surfaces where germs tend to accumulate, says Jianzhu Chen, MIT professor of biology. "Because of the limited efficacies with existing flu vaccines and antivirals, there's room for other, complementary approaches," said Chen.

In a typical year, 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized from influenza virus infection, and 36,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If an avian flu pandemic broke out, as many experts fear, the death toll could be in the millions.

Influenza is spread when viruses released by an infected person accumulate on surfaces, where other people pick them up. Stopping the viruses before they infect people could prevent some flu cases, says Chen.

The new substance can do just that, by killing influenza viruses before they infect new hosts. The "antimicrobial paint," which can be sprayed or brushed onto surfaces, consists of spiky polymers that poke holes in the membranes that surround influenza viruses.

One of the benefits of the new polymer coating is that it is highly unlikely that bacteria will develop resistance to it, Klibanov said. Bacteria can become resistant to traditional antibiotics by adjusting the biochemical pathways targeted by antibiotics, but it would be difficult for bacteria to evolve a way to stop the polymer spikes from tearing holes in their membranes.

"It's hard to develop resistance to someone sticking a knife in your body," Klibanov said.


Mac Computers Are For the Elderly

Wrong, wrong, WRONG! A recent survey announced that more than half of the people who are using Mac computers are "elderly people, often 55 years or older." Excuse freakin' me, but since when is 55 or older elderly?

"Elderly" is defined by false teeth and Hush Puppies and walkers and Depends, isn't it? Please, please don't tell me that the mother of all iPods, the Mac, is soon to join the ranks.

But it's all relative, if you think about it. You would have been elderly at 19 if your relatives were Neanderthals. Their life span was only about 20 years.

You can thank the Romans and their (chicken lovers will appreciate the expression) Cloaca Maxima, one of the earliest sewage systems. That innovation alone produced a major jump in life expectancy thanks to the reduction in the spread of disease. A local cesspool cleaner may proclaim on their trucks, "Your poop is our bread and butter," but the contents of chamber pots dumped out the window didn't help medieval life spans.

Lucky for us, life expectancy increased dramatically in the 20th century. In the United States in 1901 it was 49 years, but by the end of the century it was 77 years, an increase of 57%. A decrease in infant and childhood mortality has had a huge positive impact on average age at death; but HIV, alcohol use, and obesity have had a negative impact.

Some researchers believe that half of the North American and Japanese babies born since 2000 will live to an age of 90, and 10% to 100 years of age. Personally, a recent 60th birthday seems like a good half way point. Call me middle-aged, perhaps, but not elderly.


Your Holidays Are Numbered

Really. Every year retailers and industry focus on the year-end buying spree and try to project your holiday numbers. Here are some for 2006:

$791.10 -- How much the average shopper was expected to spend this year on holiday merchandise, a $52.99 increase over last year

$99.22 -- Average amount shoppers were expected to spend on themselves, taking advantage of sales and discounts

$30.77 -- Amount people were expected to spend on Christmas cards (not including postage), with the average household sending some 26 Christmas cards

31 million -- Number of real Christmas trees Americans were expected to buy this year

20 billion -- Number of letters, packages and cards delivered by the U.S. Postal Service between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year

9.8 million -- the number of packages that moved through the FedEx system on their busiest day of the year, December 18th. That's 63% more than FedEx handles on a normal day and up 10% from the same day a year ago.

Finally, China was the leading country of origin for a number of popular holiday gifts including: electric trains ($65 million), puzzles ($49 million), roller skates ($82 million), sports footwear ($215 million), golf equipment ($47 million) and basketballs ($30 million). China barely edged out Canada as the leading supplier of ice skates ($6.7 million versus $6.6 million), with Thailand, of all places, ranking third ($4.9 million).


First Christmas Day Was In 354

Really, the first time Christmas Day appeared on a calendar was in the Calendar of Filocalus which was part of a 4th century illuminated manuscript Chronographus Anni CCCLIV.

The pagan Roman emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25 as "Natalis Solis Invicti," the festival of the birth of the invincible sun. The festival, shortly after the winter solstice, was celebrated with chariot races and by placing decorations on branches and small evergreen trees.

These pagan festivals remained popular for centuries after Jesus death because early Christians were unwilling to relinquish them. When the church found it impossible to abolish pagan customs, despite repeated bans, it "Christianized" a number of them.

By the 5th century Christmas Day had become an important date in the Christian year, with December 25th fixed as the "natural" date to exorcise the earlier pagan festival of the winter solstice.


Santa Comes From Turkey

Really, St. Nick was born around 245CE near Patara, Turkey, an important Byzantine port. When his father died, leaving him a great fortune, Nicholas, bishop of Myra (a name derived from the resin myrrh) began giving away money to the needy, especially children.

In one circumstance, a nobleman with three daughters had fallen on hard times. Things were different then, and because their father wouldn't be able to pay their dowries, they faced a life of prostitution. Hearing of their plight, St. Nicholas threw a bag of gold adequate for one daughter's marriage through a window of their shabby castle. The next night he did the same for the second daughter. The third night he found the window closed (no wonder they were having financial problems!). Ever resourceful, St Nick dropped a third bag down the chimney. Towns folk heard of the daughters good fortune, and began hanging stockings by the fireplace.

The Dutch are credited with transforming the saint into the character we know today. Their custom of giving gifts to children on the Day of Saint Nicholas was brought to America by settlers of New Amsterdam (renamed New York when the British took over the colony.)


Bugger All

Sometimes there are discoveries on the Web that don't necessarily make you say, "Wow! Really?" but nevertheless make you stop and think.

If you don't have a Flash player, get one free here. Then take a look at this. The animation is a bit tacky, but Eric Idle (a Monty Python alumnus) provides a unique perspective, guaranteed to cure the holiday blues.

Galaxy Song

Composers: Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Author: Eric Idle
From the Movie 'The Meaning of Life'

Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour,
That's orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it's reckoned,
A sun that is the source of all our power.
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour,
Of the galaxy we call the 'Milky Way'.

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars.
It's a hundred thousand light years side to side.
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick,
But out by us, it's just three thousand light years wide.
We're thirty thousand light years from galactic central point.
We go 'round every two hundred million years,
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe.

The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whizz
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute, and that's the fastest speed there is.
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all* down here on Earth.


* For those who don't understand English (or Englishmen), "bugger all" means "none at all" in American

Obesity Might Be Contagious

Really. A "fat virus," similar to Flu virus might account for some 30% of the world's obesity problem, according to new research.

Richard Atkinson, MD, professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Wisconsin has shown that when the virus, called Ad36, is given to chickens, mice, monkeys, and rats, their body fat increases by 50%-100% even though they ate the same amount as animals not given the virus. "The virus seems to change body composition, so there is an increased percentage of fat," says Atkinson."

Atkinson tested the blood of more than 500 obese and normal-weight eople. He found that 30% of obese people had antibodies to the virus, compared with just 10% of normal-weight people. "If you have antibodies to the virus, you have been exposed. People testing antibody-positive were quite significantly heavier," Atkinson said.

If his results are true, then the virus could be part of this worldwide epidemic of obesity, says Atkinson. "Of course diet and exercise are major issues but it's reasonable to understand that this virus is a contributing factor ... virtually everyone who gets this virus gains weight. It's a pretty robust phenomenon."


A Full Moon Causes Rain

Really. The moon affects how much it rains.

Several independent studies by meteorologists show that the moon's phases affect the weather. Scientists studied eighty years' of data correlating rainfall amount and the moon's position. They found that when the moon's tidal pull is greatest, either a full or new moon, precipitation increases an average of twenty percent.

The exact mechanism isn't understood but it's thought that the moon's tidal pull on wind currents in the upper atmosphere is involved.


Telescope can see 25¢ 60 miles away

Really, Japan has developed a new optics system for the country’s Subaru telescope located on the extinct Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. With the system the telescope could identify a quarter some 60 miles away, and will enable astronomers to study objects that have so far been unobservable, such as the detailed structure of faint distant galaxies billions of miles away.

Designed to minimize the blurring effect of the atmosphere on images captured by the ground-based telescope, the device will help the Subaru scope capture images with a resolution 3.5 times clearer than that of the orbiting Hubble space telescope.

To achieve this exceptional resolution, the observatory has developed a laser system that creates an artificial star, called a guide star, which is used to measure the twinkle created by the atmosphere. The new adaptive optics system uses 188 adjustable mirror elements to smooth out light and produce a sharp image.


You Might Drink Some Comet Today

Really. Icy rocks from space might have provided the Earth with large portion of its water.

The Earth is believed to have formed hot and dry, meaning that much of its current water content must have been delivered after the planet cooled.

Possible candidates for supplying this water are comets. Because of their large ice content, comets from the outer solar system were leading candidates for many years, but then analysis threw doubt on the idea. The water in these comets was shown to differ chemically from ocean water; it has a higher incidence of deuterium--water with an extra hydrogen atom.

But then, recently, a closer band of comets has been discovered which have the "right stuff." In 1999 a member of this band shattered upon its approach to the Sun allowing astronomers to analyze its composition. Unlike its brethren which circle much farther out in the solar system, this closer family of comets has the same kind of water that makes up the oceans, breathing new life into the idea that the comets provided much of the water on earth.


Wright Brothers Fake Flight

Really. While the Wright brothers first powered flight occurred on this date in 1903, it was largely ignored. Back home, some interest developed, but then the bros. staged a press flight near Dayton on May 23, 1904 designed to put a damper on things. Ostensibly because of wind and mechanical issues they never managed a flight until a few days later when only a few reporters were present.

Donald Howard, a former aeronautics librarian for the Library of Congress, in Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers explains how the Wrights, methodical as always, carefully defended their work.

But while Orville and Wilbur Wright threw a veil of secrecy over their own efforts Glenn Curtiss teamed with engineers in America and abroad, freely exchanging information in an attempt to resolve the most difficult challenges in constructing a reliable and stable airplane. Five years after the Wright brothers' first flight, Curtiss piloted his groundbreaking June Bug on its first public flight in America.

Fiercely jealous, the Wright brothers took to the courts in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Curtiss and his airplanes out of the sky and off the market.


99% of all organisms that ever existed are extinct

Really, 99% of all organisms that have existed are now extinct and about 2400 species disappear daily. Most species exist 2 to 5 million years, and--sobering thought--there's no real reason to believe our species is any different.

One reason this is true is there is a continuous, low-level rate of extinction. Recent news articles about the extinction of the Chinese white dolphin highlight one such case.

Some people may argue that this extinction was caused by humans, but competition between species has always been a factor. While it's unlikely that we'll be wiped by an evolving species of kangaroo, it's not beyond question that a "successful" bacteria or virus could wipe us out. Indeed, a species of gorilla is also in the news, threatened with extinction by the Ebola virus.

Another reason for extinction, especially the large loss of species in a brief geological period of time, is mass extinction caused by rapid climate change resulting from volcanic activity and meteor impact, such as when the dinosaurs disappeared some 65 million years ago.

The good news is about 10000 new species are discovered and described annually. Of an estimated 30 million species of animals that exist today, only 1.1 million have been described.


Private Space Investment Twice Governments

Really! Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reports in their December 11 issue that private spending on space-related activities now exceeds that of governments. In fact, only about $70 billion of the $180 billion in worldwide space revenues comes from government.

Among others investing in private space exploration, British airline executive Richard Branson hopes Virgin Galactic will begin taking paying customers above 100 km. in 2009. To reach the edge of space on sub-orbital flights they'll be using SpaceShipTwo designed and built by legend-in-his-own-time Burt Rutan.

However, Branson's SpaceShipTwo and his Virgin Galactic spaceline aren't the only players. For example, Las Vegas real-estate entrepreneur and hotel developer Robert Bigelow is moving ahead with plans to orbit space hotels for tourists and facilities for other private space explorers by 2010.


Meteorites And New Yorkers Are Blood Brothers

All elements heavier than helium were made in the stars, including carbon which is the foundation of life on this planet.

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist and Director at the Hayden Planetarium, the iron in the hemoglobin from the blood of people living in the the tristate area around New York City would weigh the same as the iron in the 15.5 ton Willamette meteorite on display at the planetarium...and all of it came from the same place, the stars.

"We are," as Carl Sagan said, "children of the stars, and there we will return."

Other Galaxies Are Closer Than You Think

Really, if our galaxy were the size of a dime, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) would be about the size of a quarter and just 20 inches away. Pull out a dime and quarter and lay them on a table on either side of two hands spread apart to see a rough approximation of the sizes.

Here's a negative image of M31 recorded, believe it or not, in 1894. The telescope was a 24-inch reflector located in Ireland. The astronomers used glass plates treated with a photographic silver halide emulsion as the 'film' to record the image.

Almost all those little black dots are stars in our galaxy. There are no stars in space between galaxies. The somewhat larger fuzzy spots are other galaxies even farther away.

Here's another image of M31 recorded with modern electronic equipment sensitive to x-ray light onboard the Spitzer space telescope. It's in orbit, like the Hubble, but it's designed to see light with shorter wavelengths.

There are more stars in M31 than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on earth.

But don't plan on a trip to Andromeda any time soon. In astronomical terms it's relatively close, but in human terms it's a veeeery long way away. Even at the speed of light it would take two and half million years to get there.

In fact, the pictures we take are created with light that left Andromeda 2,500,000 years ago. Who knows what it looks like now!*


* Actually, the answer is it doesn't look very different. In astronomical terms not much changes in a coupla million years.

Falling to the Earth's Center Would Take Over a Day

Really. If you can picture a skydiver "free-falling" past the Earth's surface it would take well over 24 hours to reach the center of the planet.

Imagining this thrilling scenario helps illustrate just how far the middle of the Earth is from the surface. It's almost 4,000 miles--farther than the distance between New York and Paris.

Picture jumping out of your plane at 10,000 feet. In a few seconds you'd reach your maximum speed of 124 mph and you'd pass (magically) through the the Earth's surface less than a minute later. But lets hope you packed a lunch because you have a long-haul ahead. Your free-fall will take 32 hours--one and a third days--to carry you to the Earth's center.


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Moon Dirt Could Provide Unlimited Energy

Really. Scientists say there's a substance on the moon that could power the world for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 25 tons could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year.

The substance is Helium-3. Researchers see it as the perfect fuel source: extremely potent, nonpolluting, with virtually no radioactive by-product. Proponents claim it's the fuel of the 21st century. The trouble is, hardly any is found on Earth--only a few hundred pounds. But there's plenty on the moon; it comes from the sun. When the solar wind, the rapid stream of particles emitted by the sun, strikes the moon Helium-3 is deposited in the powdery soil. Over billions of years a couple million tons have built up.

The substance would solve major problems associated with current efforts to use fusion as a power source. Fusion reactors would provide unlimited supplies of energy but have been out of reach so far. One reason is that when deuterium or tritium, the fuels now available, are used most of the energy is put out as neutrons. These are extremely dangerous and destructive. If Helium-3 could be used, very few neutrons and much more energy could be produced. A practical reactor and the answer to our energy problems would be much closer. A very good reason to "reach for the moon."


First Color Photo Was Taken Just After WWI

Not Really! The first color photo was taken during the same year the Civil War began -- 1861!

It was taken by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell
who was the first to show the primary colors are red, green, and blue. Entitled "Tartan Ribbon" the photograph was produced to demonstrate that finding.

The first color landscape photo, below, is more impressive. No, it wasn't painted. It's a true color picture taken over 130 years ago by Louis Ducos du Hauron.

All color photography at the time required at least three exposures of the scene using various filters, and then a lot of darkroom work. So color photos were largely impractical and rare until the development of Kodachrome film in 1935. Eliminating the need for multiple exposures, this film finally made color photography a "snap."


A Full Moon Is Smaller Near The Horizon

Really, that big full moon you saw rising or setting a few days ago was, in fact, smaller than it was a few hours earlier when it was high in the sky.

The setting and rising moon seems huge by comparison to the way the same moon looked a few hours earlier when it was overhead. In reality, the true angular diameter of the Moon is about 1.5% smaller when it sets or rises as compared to when it is high in the sky, simply because it is farther away from you by almost one Earth radius.

"Look how big the moon is!" is the result of an illusion created because of the ways our eyes focus and the way our brain interprets visual information, something called oculomotor micropsia.

To see what this means, the next time you look at the horizon moon cross your eyes. Doing this will cause oculomotor micropsia and double vision, but notice that the moon's angular size looks smaller than it did.


You Can Take A Walk In Space

Really...if you're willing to use a scale model here on Earth you could walk to the (former) planet Pluto, and visit all the other planets along the way.

One way to help visualize the huge distances in space is to imagine a model solar system in which everything is reduced in size by a factor of about a billion. A human on this scale would be the size of an atom, an inch would be about 100,000 miles, and one pace about 36,000,000 miles.

The model Earth would be about the size of--what else--a small blue marble. The Sun would be about the size of your head or a bowling ball, which is a good image because it's dense. The bowling ball that is. The chart above (click to enlarge so you can print it out) shows the distance to each planet in paces. The planets are to scale. If you wanted to go on a star trek, the nearest one (not counting the Sun) would be the same distance as a walk all the way around the Earth.

This space walk works best if you do it on a sidewalk or beach where you can see the whole distance. Leave a rock, stick, or kid at each planet to mark the distance. You're welcome to copy these sheets and print them in quantity for all the kids in the neighborhood or for school class use. Hi-res versions, designed to be printed back-to-back with two folds, are available for free.

Errata: In Fast Facts there is one correction and one change. The Sun is losing weight by the second but it still is 99.8% the mass of the solar system, not 98.8% as stated. Pluto is officially no longer considered a planet, it's a large asteroid; and there is a spacecraft on the way now.


Panda Porn Boosts Libido

Yes, really. Since 2002 China has been trying to arouse its captive pandas' inner-bear by exposing them to videos of wild panda, um...behavior.

With less than 2000 pandas living in the wild, the species is endangered. Captive breeding is key to their survival, but as of 2006 only 15 males had successfully bred in captivity.

Panda females are only receptive for 'a roll in the bamboo' 2 days a year. When the ladies are ready to roll, the pressure is on. Problem is, captive males show little interest.

Keepers theorize that their pandas' low libido stems from not being exposed to sexual activity as they would in the wild. So Chinese breeders debuted panda-porn to turn bashful bears into titillated teddys.

While the results haven't created a panda-monium of bear births, the program does seem to be working. As it turns out, the sounds of breeding, not the visuals, are the real source of stimulation. Picture an ad in Playbear magazine: "For a good time (and the survival of our species) call 1-900-PandaPorn."


Dust Can Stop A Hurricane

Really. Experts believe that Saharan dust storms stop hurricane development.

Meteorologists predicted that warmer oceans temperatures would spawn a "banner crop" of hurricanes this year. But it didn't happen. Only 5 developed compared to 15 last year.

A new study suggests that one reason for fewer hurricanes was more frequent outbursts of hot, dry, dust-laden air blowing off the West African desert. One of these sandstorms, blowing into the part of the Atlantic where hurricanes are born, is shown in the satellite image below.

Scientists have long suspected that these massive storms, with millions of tons of dust covering an area the size of the lower 48 states, can hamper hurricane formation in the Atlantic in several ways.

For one thing, the dust absorbs some of the solar energy the storm needs to strengthen. But more important, the Saharan air is 50 percent drier than ocean air. When the two air masses mix they create a strong wind shear which effectively lops the top off "seedling" storms, stopping them before they get started.

Here dust is a case where dust is definitely desirable: it could stop a storm like Katrina or hurricane Andrew which hit Florida in 1992 and did $34 billion in damages.


Most Dangerous Animal Weighs Less Than a Feather

Really. The most dangerous animal in the world is the mosquito. Its bite transmits malaria killing over one million people each year. In comparison, snakebites kill about 125,000 annually.

Malaria is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito. When the female mosquito bites its host (the males are harmless) to get a meal of blood, it infects its host with the plasmodium protozoa. This single-cell organism attacks red blood cells causing fever, weakness, shaking, chills and, too often, death.

The disease is the leading cause of disease and death in some parts of the world. Its typically found in tropical and subtropical countries where higher temperatures allow these mosquitoes to thrive. More than half of the worlds population is at risk and the proportion increases each year because of inadequate health systems, growing drug and insecticide resistance and other reasons. In Africa, it kills one child every thirty seconds.

Scientists all over the world are working on developing a vaccine. But the malaria parasite is a complex organism with a complicated life cycle. Its antigens are constantly changing, making developing a vaccine very difficult.


A Record: Surfer Rode One Wave Over An Hour

Really! Steve King surfed 7.6 miles in 1 hour and 17 minutes on one wave!

In a wonderful book entitled The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow, the author mentions that on certain dates the changing tide rolls up the river Severn in England as a single wave called a "bore"...a phenomenon he was more than a little concerned about, given that he was sailing a tiny 11 foot dingy. He writes, in passing, that folks have been known to surf the bore wave for miles.

Sure 'nuff, the wave can provide quite a ride. When tidal waters are forced up the Severn Estuary, which becomes narrower as it progresses, the wave can reach 6 feet in height and travel as fast at 20 miles per hour.

The next big daytime tidal bore wave on the Severn will occur on March 20 and 21 2007 around 8:30am.

You Have Relatives Living In Africa

Really, you do. While our cultures may divide us, our DNA demonstrates the fact that we are all descended from a small group of humans who lived in Africa.

Analysis of human genetic material shows that the most common recent ancestor of all men is a man who lived 50-60,000 years ago. The most common recent ancestor of all women is a woman who lived about 150,000 years ago.

Modern humans originated in eastern Africa, and migrated from Africa to Asia, then on to Australia. Meanwhile a band moved into Europe and rapidly displaced Neanderthals. America was probably the last continent to be occupied by Homo sapiens sapiens.

The common genetic ancestor of Neanderthal and modern humans lived about 706,000 years ago. The ancestors of all humans and Neanderthals split into two separate species some 330,000 years later. Recent DNA research indicates that while Neanderthals were in fact a different species from our own, we still share 99.5% of their genome. We share 98% of our genome with chimpanzees.

It's a small world after all, at least as far as our DNA is concerned.


Car Depreciation Costs You More Than Gas

Really. Your car will cost you about $4000 a year for depreciation over 5 years. Even at $3 a gallon, you'll only spend about $1800 a year for gas.

Look at used car prices and you'll find that a typical car loses about 65 percent of its value over five years. That means a $30,000 car will bring you $10,500 if you sell it after five years. So in round numbers you've lost $20,000 to depreciation over 5 years, or $4000 a year.

If your car will go 20 miles on a gallon of gas and you drive a typical 12,000 miles a year you'll burn 600 gallons a year. At $3.00 a gallon thats $1800 a year for gas.

So why do people sit in long lines to save 15¢ a gallon, or $3 on a tank full of gas? They should be worried about buying a car that doesn't depreciate much.

Dinosaurs Disappeared Today

Really. If Earth's history was placed on a calendar with each day representing about 10 million years, dinosaurs became extinct on December 1st.

From January to March, there is little sign of life, then the first single cell microbes appear in early April, with small multicellular clumps forming later in the month. In May vertebrates (fish) emerge, and by July land plants have begun to cover the globe.

In mid-September fish crawl up on land and early reptiles preview the dawn of the dinosaur era, which continues through late November, dominating the world. Birds and small shrew-like mammals first appear in early November, but are overshadowed by reptilian species until today, the first of December, when the dinosaurs disappear abruptly, practically overnight.

By late December, the recognizable ancestors of modern mammals make their debut, but not until noon on New Year's Eve do our first ancestors appear. Between 9:30 and 10:00 pm, Homo sapiens migrate out of Africa to populate Eurasia and the Americas. At 11:59 pm, one minute before midnight, human history and civilization as we know it begins, and virtually all recorded history occurs in the last 10 seconds.

Dec 31 11:59PM - Cave paintings in Europe
Dec 31 11:59:20PM - Invention of agriculture
Dec 31 11:59:35PM - First towns
Dec 31 11:59:50PM - First dynasties in Egypt
Dec 31 11:59:51PM - Invention of alphabet
Dec 31 11:59:52PM - Bronze metallurgy, invention of compass
Dec 31 11:59:53PM - Iron metallurgy, founding of Carthage by Phoenicians
Dec 31 11:59:54PM - Ch'n Dynsasty China, birth of Buddha
Dec 31 11:59:55PM - Euclidean geometry, Roman Empire, birth of Christ
Dec 31 11:59:56PM - Zero and decimals invented, birth of Mohammed
Dec 31 11:59:57PM - Mayan civilization, Byzantine empire, Crusades
Dec 31 11:59:58PM - Renaissance in Europe, voyages of discovery, science
Dec 31 11:59:59PM - Technology, global culture, planetary exploration, SETI

We'll remind you of this on New Year's Eve so you'll have something to think about as the clock ticks down to 2007.

There Are Negative Calorie Foods

Really. There are foods that take more calories to eat than they provide, at least if you use the term food loosely. Celery, is a good example.

An 8-inch stalk of celery contains approximately 6 calories, but just digesting it will burn more than 6 calories, resulting in a negative caloric intake. Contrary to popular belief, chewing and swallowing the celery doesn't burn the calories, it's digesting the tough cellulose that expends the energy.

You can end up with negative calorie intake from cold diet drinks too. Your body burns calories warming the liquid up to body temperature--usually more than the few calories the drink contains. "Anybody for a cold one?" could be a dieter's rallying cry, but it won't work with beer.

Properly prepared cauliflower, cucumbers, spinach, and other veggies can cause your body to burn more calories than you ingest too. But celery with peanut butter or ranch dressing does not count as a negative-calorie food!


Hot Drinks Make You Colder

Really! Drinking a thermos of hot coffee when you're out in the cold may make you feel warmer because it will increase blood flow to your skin, but in the end the drink will make you colder.

A cup of black coffee has essentially no food calories and adds only 5.5 heat calories if it's at 140ºF. But your body uses 1.5 calories a minute just to keep itself up to temperature and functioning. This means that a cup of hot coffee would only supply enough energy to run things for about 4 minutes. Not much left over to heat your body!

But here's the really surprising part. When you're cold your peripheral blood vessels constrict to keep your skin from acting like a radiator--that's why your fingers and ears turn blue. But caffeine is a vasodilator--it makes the smooth muscle in the vessel walls relax so they become wider and carry more blood.

When you drink coffee more blood flows to your skin where additional heat is lost through conduction, convection and evaporation so you'll end up colder than when you started! Try hot chocolate. An average sized cup of ground roasted coffee contains about 85 mg of caffeine, and cocoa or hot chocolate only has 4 mg...and about 450 food calories.


Dog-Sized Elephants Basked in the Italian Sun

Really. Pygmy Elephants about the height of a Great Dane lived on Mediterranean Islands not too long ago.

Unlike dinosaurs who died out hundreds of millions of years ago, pygmy elephants lived well into recorded history. They're thought to be pictured below on an Egyptian tomb dating from about 1,500 B.C. The pygmy elephant is the little figure on the left. It's an adult with full tusks and yet it's waist high and being led by a leash!

These puny pachyderms probably descended from normal-size elephants who made their way from Africa to Sicily, Crete, Malta and other islands during the Ice Age when water levels were lower than now. Then, as the Ice Age faded, water levels rose and the creatures found themselves marooned.

Why did they shrink? Probably through a process termed insular dwarfism. As the normal sized elephants used up the island's limited resources natural selection favored the smaller individuals who needed less food to survive. These smaller animals tended to live and reproduce at a better rate than their larger brothers. This evolution toward "small" continued until, as their remaining skeletons show, adults grew to only about four feet tall.

These tiny tuskers might well have lived until modern times if the last of them hadn't died out, possibly hunted to extinction, during the Bronze Age.

Too bad they're gone. Think how cool it would be to have one as a pet--as long as they could be housebroken.


Cellphones eat chips

Really! Over half of the integrated chips (ICs) being manufactured are going into cell phones.

By the end of next year over 3 billion subscribers, about 45% of the world's population, are expected to be yakking in their car, next you at restaurants, and elsewhere.

One billion cell phones are expected to be sold next year alone, including a new iPhone from Apple, widely rumored to be announced in January. Those rumors suggest the phone will have iPod music capability, a camera, and built-in wi-fi so you can save phone minutes when you're near a hotspot.


The Sky Is Falling

No the sky isn't falling, that's foolishness. But it is interesting to consider how people used to think about the heavens.

In biblical days the sky was referred to as the "firmament," and firm they thought it was--a smooth curved object made of a thin solid material.

The word firmamentum is Latin and a translation from the Greek stereoma, meaning solid dome. That in turn is a translation from the Hebrew rakia, meaning a thin metallic sheet. The sky, they thought, was a close-by, semi-spherical solid dome made from a thin sheet of metal that covered the flat earth, coming down to meet it all around at the horizon.

So when the Book of Revelations in the Bible speaks of the destruction of the Earth and sky, it says--reflecting the then current cosmological ideas and language--"And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth...And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together" (Revelation 6:13-14).

In other words, about 2000 years ago people thought the world would end when the thin metal sheet that the sky was made from rolled up (spro-o-o-ing), and all the glittery little lights that stuck to it fell off. Now we know that the Sun, one of those little lights that just happens to be realtively close, will eventually burn most of its hydrogen into helium, become a red giant, and simply envelop the Earth.


Careful! You could trip over a piece of Mars today

Really. Just a few deliberate searches have found 40 pieces of the Red Planet so far. But scientists are convinced that thousands are scattered across the world and that more fall to Earth each month.

We've brought moon rocks to Earth, but so far we haven't been able to bring any material back from Mars. But, never mind, nature has found a way to provide it!

Scientists know that over eons space-rocks ranging from the size of a car to that of a city have plowed through Mar's relatively thin atmosphere blasting chunks of the planet into space. After a journey of millions of miles, and millions of years, some of these outcasts are captured by Earth's gravity and fall to the surface.

A leading expert, James Head, says that impacts big enough to kick material free of Mar's gravity occur about once every 2 million years. "According to the celestial mechanics people, about 7.5 percent of this material is destined to land on the Earth," Head said. "More than half of that lands in the first 10 million years after the impact. On average fragments from several impacts are in transit all the time. This works out to about one Martian meteorite landing on Earth each month."

The rocks can land anywhere on Earth. Most, no doubt are lost to the oceans' depths. Those that are found are usually discovered in deserts or Antarctica -- places without plant cover and where a rock can lie undisturbed for many years.

If you're lucky and happen to find one, be very careful with it. A Mars rock brings over $1,000,000 per pound at auction.

Your Sun is Losing Weight

Really. The Sun is the fatso of our solar system representing 99.8% of the mass, but it's losing 5 million tons every second!

The Earth from our vantage point seems pretty darn heavy, but it's puny by comparison to other planets such as Saturn and Jupiter. Indeed all the planets are only two cents out of ten dollars when it comes to mass.

Think of it this way, if you were the Sun your undershorts would weigh more than all the planets combined.

The Sun is mostly hydrogen that's slowly being converted into helium by nuclear fusion..."slowly" meaning that 700 million tons of hydrogen are converted into 695 million tons of helium every second. The "lost" 5 million tons is converted to pure energy as described by E=mc2.

If you'd like to know more about Mr. Sun ("You can call me Sol," he says) he was interviewed back in 1987. You find the transcript here.


Fish Is The Most Popular Thanksgiving Meal

Just kidding, that's foolishness! Of course turkey is the most popular Thanksgiving meal. It is in Canada too, although when they borrowed the holiday they decided to celebrate it in October.

The U.S. annually produces about 266 million gobblers weighing in at over 7 billion pounds! That's about 17 pounds for each American, after exports. Pass the Alka Seltzer please!

Turkey consumption has increased 106% since 1970. Back then half of all the turkey consumed was on holidays, but today it's only about 30%. Turkeyburger anyone?

Happy Thanksgiving!


One Cubic Yard of Ocean Weighs More Than A VW

Really. If you ever got walloped by a wave you know they pack a punch. Here's why.

Water weighs 64 pounds per cubic foot and there are 27 cubic feet in one cubic yard. So a cubic yard of seawater weighs 1728 pounds. The original VW Beetle weighed only 1650 pounds!

If that seems hard to believe, consider that 1 cubic foot is almost 7.5 gallons, and a cubic yard is more than 201 gallons. Kowabunga!


Earth's Core is Hotter Than the Sun

Really! The Earth's core is hotter than the outer layer of the Sun.

The Sun's huge boiling convection cells, in the outer visible layer, called the photosphere, have a temperature of 5,500°C.

The Earth's core temperature is about 6100ºC. The inner core, under huge pressure, is solid and may be a single immense iron crystal. The outer core is liquid, and probably acts as a dynamo creating our magnetic field.

But before you get the wrong impression, keep in mind that the core of the Sun is a broiling 15,000,000ºC. That's enough to vaporize rocks in a comet that gets too close, and enough to give you a nasty burn 93,000,000 million miles away after just a few minutes exposure when you're sun bathing.


The vacuum of space doesn't suck, it blows

Really. When you suck on the end of a straw, a slight vacuum is created inside so you can get those last few drops from the bottom of a milk shake glass. But the vacuum of space contains a repulsive force that's so strong the universe has doubled in size as a result. Okay, that took 8 billion years, but who's counting?

The universe was thought to be unchanging, immutable, the "was," "is," and "will be," until Edwin Hubble showed in 1929 it was expanding. Since that time a major goal of astronomy has been to measure the rate of expansion and understand why.

During the late 1990s, observations by the Supernova Cosmology Project of a certain kind of exploding stars called "type one A supernovae" found that the universe was not only expanding, but--much to everyone's surprise--it was expanding at an accelerating rate. An example of a type Ia supernova is shown below on the outskirts of galaxy NGC 4526.

Recently, a team used the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys to measure the properties of 23 distant supernovae. The results of their study just published by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore shows that the force is a fundamental and unchanging property of space itself. Einstein added such a force as a fudge factor to his general theory of relativity and called it the 'cosmological constant', but later decided it was just too weird to be true. But he was right to include it.

There's growing evidence that the source of this repulsive vacuum force is something called dark energy. This poorly understood energy represents almost 3/4 of the mass of the universe (remember, from E=mc2, energy and mass are the same thing). It's probably created by a seething mass of virtual particles that have brief existence in vacuum fluctuations. Indeed, one such quantum fluctuation may have been the spark that set off the Big Bang.


Rice-size bacteria would outweigh the Earth

Really. There are so many bacteria on earth, if they weighed even 1/10th as much as a grain of rice they would outweigh the Earth itself!

They're everywhere. Bacteria are the huddled masses of the microbial world, performing tasks that include everything from causing disease to adding nitrogen to soil.

When people think of bacteria, they likely first consider the nasty ones that cause disease, but the bacteria inside all animals including humans makes up less than one percent of the total.
Scientists have found bacteria 40 miles high in the atmosphere and beneath the ocean floor some seven miles deep. But by far the greatest numbers are in subsurface rocks, soil and oceans.

How many are there? For the first time, a team of researchers from the University of Georgia has made a direct estimate of the total number of bacteria on Earth, and the number makes the globe's human population look downright puny. The group, led by microbiologist William B. Whitman, estimates the number to be five million trillion trillion - that's a five with 30 zeros after it.

The Earth weighs 5,972,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 5.9 x 1021 tons. As noted there are 5 x 1030 bacteria, and one grain of rice weighs .0006 ounces. Multiply the number of bacteria by 1/10 the weight of one grain of rice and you get 9.37500 × 1021 tons, much heavier than Earth.


Deep space is the coldest place in the universe

Not really. The coldest place in the universe is in a cozy laboratory right here on Earth.

Remember, temperature is a measure of motion. If something is hot its atoms are moving fast. Add more heat and they go faster. There's no upper limit. But there is a lower limit to cold because you can slow atoms only so far. Eventually they stop. At that point the motionless atoms are as cold as they can get. This is called absolute zero and occurs at -459 degrees Fahrenheit.

There's nothing in nature that cold. Even the likeliest candidates, objects in remote, dark corners of the universe, are warmed by heat left from the creation of the universe. This ambient energy pervades the cosmos insuring that temperatures in nature normally don't drop below 5 degrees above absolute zero.

There's only been one exception found so far. The temperature of the Boomerang Nebula, 5,000 light-years from Earth, is about 1 degree above absolute zero. It's that cold because it's in a "natural refrigerator" formed by gas outflowing from a star at its core. Expanding gas cools: it cools your freezer, and it cools this nebula.

But to get colder than about 1 degree above absolute zero we have to return to earth. Here, in labs, temperatures lower than 1/1000 degree above absolute zero have been created for over twenty years. But recently scientists took a big step when they cooled atoms down to only a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero, creating the coldest spot in the universe!

Why are they going to the trouble? Atoms that frigid have essentially no electrical resistance and can be packed together much more closely than normal. So, hoping to use these characteristics, scientists envision "cryogenic computers" with storage and processing speeds unheard of today.


Our planet is misnamed, should be Water not Earth

Really. Barely 30% of our planet is dry land, and over 70% is water. We've misnamed it.

Because we're terrestrial beasts, and rather self-centered, we focus on the world we're familiar with, the dry land. But the tiny Antarctic krill that whales eat, for example, are roughly twice the total biomass of humans. Phytoplankton may represent as much as 90% of the biomass in the ocean, and produce over 50% of the oxygen we need to live.

In fact, bacteria account for about 50% of Earth's biomass, while humans are only about 0.33% (less than 1 percent!), showing once again it's not all about us.


Atomic nucleus weighs as much as a stadium

Really! If an atom was the size of a stadium the nucleus would be the size of a pea and it would weigh as much as the stadium. Atoms are about 100,000 times bigger than their nucleus, and nearly all the mass of an atom is in its nucleus--yet almost all the space in an atom is occupied by its electrons.

Since the electron cloud around the nucleus of an atom does not have a sharp edge, the size of an atom by itself is hard to define. But for atoms that can form solid crystal lattices, the distance between the centers of adjacent atoms can be easily determined by x-ray diffraction, which gives us an estimate of the atoms' size. Using this method we find that it would take almost 20 million hydrogen atoms to make a line as long as the dash in the word "x-ray".

Atoms of different elements vary a little in size, but not by much because heavy elements have larger positive charges on their nuclei, which more strongly attracts the electrons to the center of the atom. This contracts the size of the electron cloud, so more electrons fit into a smaller volume. Atoms of lead (atomic weight 207), for example, are about the same size as aluminum atoms (atomic weight about 27), but are about 8 times denser...which is why lead is much heavier than aluminum.

The temperature of a collection of atoms, by the way, is a measure of the motion of those atoms. As the temperature increases, the kinetic energy of the particles increases, and their speed increases. At room temperature, atoms in air move at an average speed of about 1100 mph, and undergo 5 collisions every nanosecond.


p.s. A neutron walks into a bar and asks the price of a drink. The bartender, a nucleus, replies, "For you, no charge." "Are you sure," says the electron? "I'm positive," replies the bartender.