Tag Archives: science

Earth’s copper ring; or, a science experiment that didn’t catch on

19 Aug

This pairs well with another post of mine from a while ago:  Science You Never Knew Existed
 
 
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/08/project-west-ford/

The Forgotten Cold War Plan That Put a Ring of Copper Around the Earth

 

 

During the summer of 1963, Earth looked a tiny bit like Saturn.

The same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington and Beatlemania was born, the United States launched half a billion whisker-thin copper wires into orbit in an attempt to install a ring around the Earth. It was called Project West Ford, and it’s a perfect, if odd, example of the Cold War paranoia and military mentality at work in America’s early space program.

The Air Force and Department of Defense envisioned the West Ford ring as the largest radio antenna in human history. Its goal was to protect the nation’s long-range communications in the event of an attack from the increasingly belligerent Soviet Union.

During the late 1950’s, long-range communications relied on undersea cables or over-the-horizon radio. These were robust, but not invulnerable. Should the Soviets have attacked an undersea telephone or telegraph cable, America would only have been able to rely on radio broadcasts to communicate overseas. But the fidelity of the ionosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that makes most long-range radio broadcasts possible, is at the mercy of the sun: It is routinely disrupted by solar storms. The U.S. military had identified a problem.

A potential solution was born in 1958 at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, a research station on Hanscom Air Force Base northwest of Boston. Project Needles, as it was originally known, was Walter E. Morrow’s idea. He suggested that if Earth possessed a permanent radio reflector in the form of an orbiting ring of copper threads, America’s long-range communications would be immune from solar disturbances and out of reach of nefarious Soviet plots.

Each copper wire was about 1.8 centimeters in length. This was half the wavelength of the 8 GHz transmission signal beamed from Earth, effectively turning each filament into what is known as a dipole antenna. The antennas would boost long-range radio broadcasts without depending on the fickle ionosphere.

Today it’s hard to imagine a time where filling space with millions of tiny metal projectiles was considered a good idea. But West Ford was spawned before men had set foot in space, when generals were in charge of NASA’s rockets, and most satellites and spacecraft hadn’t flown beyond the drafting table. The agency operated under a “Big Sky Theory.” Surely space is so big that the risks of anything crashing into a stray bit of space junk were miniscule compared to the threat of communism.

The project was renamed West Ford, for the neighboring town of Westford, Massachusetts. It wasn’t the first, or even the strangest plan to build a global radio reflector. In 1945, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke suggested that Germany’s V2 rocket arsenal could be repurposed to deploy an array of antennas into geostationary orbit around the Earth. So prescient was Clarke’s vision, today’s communications satellites, residing at these fixed points above the planet, are said to reside in “Clarke Orbit”.

Meanwhile, American scientists had been attempting to use our own moon as a communications relay, a feat that would finally be accomplished with 1946’s Project Diana. An even more audacious scheme was hatched in the early 1960s from a shiny Mylar egg known as Project Echo, which utilized a pair of microwave reflectors in the form of space-borne metallic balloons.

Size of the copper needles dispersed as part of Project West Ford. (NASA)

As Project West Ford progressed through development, radio astronomers raised alarm at the ill effects this cloud of metal could have on their ability to survey the stars. Concerns were beginning to arise about the problem of space junk. But beneath these worries was an undercurrent of frustration that a space mission under the banner of national security was not subject to the same transparency as public efforts.

The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences convened a series of classified discussions to address astronomers’ worries, and President Kennedy attempted a compromise in 1961. The White House ensured that West Ford’s needles would be placed in a low orbit, the wires would likely re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within two years, and no further tests would be conducted until the results of the first were fully evaluated. This partially appeased the international astronomy community, but still, no one could guarantee precisely what would happen to twenty kilograms of copper wire dispersed into orbit.

The West Ford dispersal system. (NASA)

On October 21, 1961, NASA launched the first batch of West Ford dipoles into space. A day later, this first payload had failed to deploy from the spacecraft, and its ultimate fate was never completely determined.

“U.S.A. Dirties Space” read a headline in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. 

Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was forced to make a statement before the UN declaring that the U.S. would consult more closely with international scientists before attempting another launch. Many remained unsatisfied. Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle went so far as to accuse the U.S. of undertaking a military project under “a façade of respectability,” referring to West Ford as an “intellectual crime.”

On May 9, 1963, a second West Ford launch successfully dispersed its spindly cargo approximately 3,500 kilometers above the Earth, along an orbit that crossed the North and South Pole. Voice transmissions were successfully relayed between California and Massachusetts, and the technical aspects of the experiment were declared a success. As the dipole needles continued to disperse, the transmissions fell off considerably, although the experiment proved the strategy could work in principle.

Concern about the clandestine and military nature of West Ford continued following this second launch. On May 24 of that year, the  The Harvard Crimson quoted British radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell as saying, “The damage lies not with this experiment alone, but with the attitude of mind which makes it possible without international agreement and safeguards.”

Recent military operations in space had given the U.S. a reckless reputation, especially following 1962’s high-altitude nuclear test Starfish Prime. This famously bad idea dispersed radiation across the globe, spawning tropical auroras and delivering a debilitating electromagnetic pulse to Hawaiian cities.

The ultimate fate of the West Ford needles is also surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty. Because the copper wires were so light, project leaders assumed that they would re-enter the atmosphere within several years, pushed Earthward by solar wind. Most of the needles from the failed 1961 and successful 1963 launch likely met this fate. Many now lie beneath snow at the poles.

But not all the needles returned to Earth. Thanks to a design flaw, it’s possible that several hundred, perhaps thousands of clusters of clumped needles still reside in orbit around Earth, along with the spacecraft that carried them.

The copper needles were embedded in a naphthalene gel designed to evaporate quickly once it reached the vacuum of space, dispersing the needles in a thin cloud. But this design allowed metal-on-metal contact, which, in a vacuum, can weld fragments into larger clumps.

In 2001, the European Space Agency published a report that analyzed the fate of needle clusters from the two West Ford payloads. Unlike the lone needles, these chains and clumps have the potential to remain in orbit for several decades, and NORAD space debris databases list several dozen still aloft from the 1963 mission. But the ESA report suggests that, because the 1961 payload failed to disperse, thousands more clusters could have been deployed, and several may be too small to track.

Active communication satellites quickly made projects like West Ford obsolete, and no more needles were launched after 1963. Telstar, the first modern communications satellite, was launched in 1962, beaming television signals across the Atlantic for two hours a day.

In Earth’s catalog of space junk, West Ford’s bits of copper make up only a fraction of the total debris cloud that circles the Earth. But they surely have one of the strangest stories.

The scheme serves as yet another reminder that it was military might that brought the first space missions to bear, for better and worse. Like moon bases and men on Mars, it’s another long-lost dream born at a time when nothing was out of reach. Even putting a ring around the Earth.

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10 Ways to Happiness – Because Science

8 Aug

http://lifehacker.com/ten-things-you-can-do-to-be-happier-backed-by-science-1065356587?utm_campaign=socialflow_lifehacker_facebook&utm_source=lifehacker_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

 

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

 

Happiness is so interesting, because we all have different

ideas about what it is and how to get it. I would love to be happier—as I’m sure most people would—so I thought it would be interesting to find some ways to become a happier person that are actually backed up by science. Here are ten of the best ones I found.

Exercise More

Exercise has such a profound effect on our happiness and well-being that it’s actually been proven to be an effective strategy for overcoming depression. In a study cited in Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, three groups of patients treated their depression with either medication, exercise, or a combination of the two. The results of this study really surprised me. Although all three groups experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels to begin with, the follow up assessments proved to be radically different:

The groups were then tested six months later to assess their relapse rate. Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38 percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31 percent relapse rate. The biggest shock, though, came from the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9 percent!

You don’t have to be depressed to gain benefit from exercise, though. It can help you to relax, increase your brain power and even improve your body image, even if you don’t lose any weight. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who exercised felt better about their bodies, even when they saw no physical changes:

Body weight, shape and body image were assessed in 16 males and 18 females before and after both 6 × 40 mins exercise and 6 × 40 mins reading. Over both conditions, body weight and shape did not change. Various aspects of body image, however, improved after exercise compared to before.

We’ve explored exercise in depth before, and looked at what it does to our brains, such as releasing proteins and endorphins that make us feel happier, as you can see in the image below.

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

Sleep More

We know that sleep helps our bodies to recover from the day and repair themselves, and that it helps us focus and be more productive. It turns out, it’s also important for our happiness. In NutureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how sleep affects our positivity:

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.

In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”

The BPS Research Digest explores another study that proves sleep affects our sensitivity to negative emotions. Using a facial recognition task over the course of a day, the researchers studied how sensitive participants were to positive and negative emotions. Those who worked through the afternoon without taking a nap became more sensitive late in the day to negative emotions like fear and anger.

Using a face recognition task, here we demonstrate an amplified reactivity to anger and fear emotions across the day, without sleep. However, an intervening nap blocked and even reversed this negative emotional reactivity to anger and fear while conversely enhancing ratings of positive (happy) expressions.

Of course, how well (and how long) you sleep will probably affect how you feel when you wake up, which can make a difference to your whole day. Especially this graph showing how your brain activity decreases is a great insight about how important enough sleep is for productivity and happiness:

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

Another study tested how employees’ moods when they started work in the morning affected their work day.

Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods.

And most importantly to managers, employee mood had a clear impact on performance, including both how much work employees did and how well they did it.

Sleep is another topic we’ve looked into before, exploring how much sleep we really need to be productive.

Move Closer to Work

Our commute to the office can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our happiness. The fact that we tend to do this twice a day, five days a week, makes it unsurprising that its effect would build up over time and make us less and less happy. According to The Art of Manliness, having a long commute is something we often fail to realize will affect us so dramatically:

… while many voluntary conditions don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we acclimate to them, people never get accustomed to their daily slog to work because sometimes the traffic is awful and sometimes it’s not. Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”

We tend to try to compensate for this by having a bigger house or a better job, but these compensations just don’t work:

Two Swiss economists who studied the effect of commuting on happiness found that such factors could not make up for the misery created by a long commute.

Spend Time with Friends and Family

Staying in touch with friends and family is one of the top five regrets of the dying. If you want more evidence that it’s beneficial for you, I’ve found some research that proves it can make you happier right now. Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to how happy we feel, generally.

I love the way Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert explains it:

We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.

George Vaillant is the director of a 72-year study of the lives of 268 men.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

He shared insights of the study with Joshua Wolf Shenk at The Atlantic on how the men’s social connections made a difference to their overall happiness:

The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states than your relationships are worth more than $100,000:

Using the British Household Panel Survey, I find that an increase in the level of social involvements is worth up to an extra £85,000 a year in terms of life satisfaction. Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.

I think that last line is especially fascinating: Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness. So we could increase our annual income by hundreds of thousands of dollars and still not be as happy as if we increased the strength of our social relationships.

The Terman study, which is covered in The Longevity Project, found that relationships and how we help others were important factors in living long, happy lives:

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest.

Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

Go Outside

In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor recommends spending time in the fresh air to improve your happiness:

Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory…

This is pretty good news for those of us who are worried about fitting new habits into our already-busy schedules. Twenty minutes is a short enough time to spend outside that you could fit it into your commute or even your lunch break. A UK study from the University of Sussex also found that being outdoors made people happier:

Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all natural environments than they were in urban environments.

The American Meteorological Society published research in 2011 that found current temperature has a bigger effect on our happiness than variables like wind speed and humidity, or even the average temperature over the course of a day. It also found that happiness is maximized at 13.9°C, so keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading outside for your 20 minutes of fresh air.

Help Others

One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice I found is that to make yourself feel happier, you should help others. In fact, 100 hours per year (or two hours per week) is the optimal time we should dedicate to helping others in order to enrich our lives. If we go back to Shawn Achor’s book again, he says this about helping others:

…when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness.

The Journal of Happiness Studies published a study that explored this very topic:

Participants recalled a previous purchase made for either themselves or someone else and then reported their happiness. Afterward, participants chose whether to spend a monetary windfall on themselves or someone else. Participants assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported feeling significantly happier immediately after this recollection; most importantly, the happier participants felt, the more likely they were to choose to spend a windfall on someone else in the near future.

So spending money on other people makes us happier than buying stuff for ourselves. What about spending our time on other people? A study of volunteering in Germany explored how volunteers were affected when their opportunities to help others were taken away:

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the German reunion, the first wave of data of the GSOEP was collected in East Germany. Volunteering was still widespread. Due to the shock of the reunion, a large portion of the infrastructure of volunteering (e.g. sports clubs associated with firms) collapsed and people randomly lost their opportunities for volunteering. Based on a comparison of the change in subjective well-being of these people and of people from the control group who had no change in their volunteer status, the hypothesis is supported that volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.

In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives:

…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.

Practice Smiling

Smiling itself can make us feel better, but it’s more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to this study:

A new study led by a Michigan State University business scholar suggests customer-service workers who fake smile throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, affecting productivity. But workers who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts–such as a tropical vacation or a child’s recital–improve their mood and withdraw less.

Of course it’s important to practice “real smiles” where you use your eye sockets. It’s very easy to spot the difference:

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

According to PsyBlog, smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks:

Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our attentional flexibility and our ability to think holistically. When this idea was tested by Johnson et al. (2010), the results showed that participants who smiled performed better on attentional tasks which required seeing the whole forest rather than just the trees.

A smile is also a good way to alleviate some of the pain we feel in troubling circumstances:

Smiling is one way to reduce the distress caused by an upsetting situation. Psychologists call this the facial feedback hypothesis. Even forcing a smile when we don’t feel like it is enough to lift our mood slightly (this is one example of embodied cognition).

Plan a Trip

As opposed to actually taking a holiday, it seems that planning a vacation or just a break from work can improve our happiness. A study published in the journal, Applied Research in Quality of Life showed that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation as employees enjoyed the sense of anticipation:

In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. After the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to baseline levels for most people.

Shawn Achor has some info for us on this point, as well:

One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent. If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.

Meditate

Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm. It turns out it’s also useful for improving your happiness:

In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.

Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier live. I believe that this graphic explains it the best:

Ten Simple Things You Can Do to Be Happier, Backed by Science

According to Shawn Achor, meditation can actually make you happier long-term:

Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.

The fact that we can actually alter our brain structure through mediation is most surprising to me and somewhat reassuring that however we feel and think today isn’t permanent.

Practice Gratitude

This is a seemingly simple strategy, but I’ve personally found it to make a huge difference to my outlook. There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for, sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or your partner, and going out of your way to show gratitude when others help you.

In an experiment where some participants took note of things they were grateful for each day, their moods were improved just from this simple practice:

The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

The Journal of Happiness studies published a study that used letters of gratitude to test how being grateful can affect our levels of happiness:

Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a 3 week period. Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction, while decreasing depressive symptoms.

Quick Last Fact: Getting Older Will Make You Happier

As a final point, it’s interesting to note that as we get older, particularly past middle age, we tend to grow happier naturally. There’s still some debate over why this happens, but scientists have got a few ideas:

Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less. Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods—for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.

So if you thought being old would make you miserable, rest assured that it’s likely you’ll develop a more positive outlook than you probably have now.

F*** yeah fluid dynamics – On blenders and cavitation

20 Mar

 

The fluid dynamics of a commercial-quality blender amount to a lot more than just stirring. Here high-speed video shows how the blender’s moving blades create a suction effect that pulls contents down through the middle of the blender, then flings them outward. This motion creates large shear stresses, which help break up the food, as well as turbulence that can mix it. But if you watch carefully, you’ll also see tiny bubbles spinning off the blades. These bubbles, formed by the pressure drop of fluid accelerated over the arms of the blades, are cavitation bubbles. When they collapse, or implode, they create localized shock waves that further break up the blender’s contents. This same effect is responsible for damage to boat propellers and lets you destroy glass bottles. (Video credit: ChefSteps; via Wired; submitted by jshoer)

http://fuckyeahfluiddynamics.tumblr.com/post/45345509325/the-fluid-dynamics-of-a-commercial-quality-blender

Is Silence Going Extinct?

26 Mar

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html?_r=1

Whisper of the Wild

Davyd Betchkal, sound catcher, in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

By KIM TINGLEY
Published: March 15, 2012

Setting off in the predawn gloaming of central Alaska, we were the sounds of swishing snow pants, crunching boots and cold puffs of breath. As sunrise gradually lightened the late November sky, we took visible shape: a single-file parade on a narrow white trail traveling west, deeper into Denali National Park and Preserve. It was three degrees and so still that when we pulled up to rest, I heard no wind, no sibilant leaves, just a barely perceptible ringing in my ears. Tundra swans, kestrels and warblers had all flown south. Grizzlies were asleep in their dens. We tramped over frozen streams and paused to discover water still trickling faintly in hollows below. To the north, a morning blast of pink and orange brightened snow-shrouded Mount Healy at the edge of the Alaska Range; to the south — where the sun is always rising or setting during winter at a latitude just three degrees shy of the Arctic Circle — an alpine ridge remained covered in shadow and alder.

We saw a beaver hut on a frozen pond and moose tracks in snow. Ice frosted the nettles of black spruce and the beard of our leader, Davyd Betchkal, the park’s physical-science technician. Betchkal’s beard recalled that of his hero, the naturalist Henry David Thoreau, at the start of the Civil War. Otherwise he was a 25-year-old Wisconsinite wearing a lime green hat knit by his mother. He and I shouldered backpacks each weighted with 30 pounds of recording equipment. Far up ahead, a park ranger on skis towed more gear by sled.

Our destination was a ridge above Hines Creek, where Betchkal planned to assemble a station to collect a month’s worth of continuous acoustic data documenting an intangible, invisible and — increasingly — endangered resource: natural sound. Our mission was not only to trap the ephemeral but also to experience it ourselves, which at the moment was impossible for three reasons: 1) the chafing of our nylon outfits; 2) the chunking of our military-issue Bunny Boots on ice; and 3) planes.

“If you’re on foot and you choose to focus on the natural quality of the landscape, you’re completely immersed in nature; nothing else exists,” Betchkal said to the back of my head, letting me set the pace as we traipsed steadily uphill. “Then a jet will go over, and it kind of breaks that flow of consciousness, that ecstatic moment.” Meditating on our surroundings, I became a little curious how much farther we had to go. “Don’t think about that — that’s my answer,” Betchkal called ahead cheerfully. “Another answer is that I don’t know.”

An undeveloped swath of land nearly the size of Vermont, Denali should be a haven for natural sound. Enormous stretches of wild country abut the park in every direction save east, where Route 3 connects Fairbanks to Anchorage. One dead-end and mostly unpaved road penetrates the park itself. Yet since 2006, when scientists at Denali began a decade-long effort to collect a month’s worth of acoustic data from more than 60 sites across the park — including a 14,000-foot-high spot on Mount McKinley — Betchkal and his colleagues have recorded only 36 complete days in which the sounds of an internal combustion engine of some sort were absent. Planes are the most common source. Once, in the course of 24 hours, a single recording station captured the buzzing of 78 low-altitude props — the kind used for sightseeing tours; other areas have logged daily averages as high as one sky- or street-traffic sound every 17 minutes. The loudest stretch of the year is summer, when hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to Denali, embarking on helicopter or fixed-wing rides. Snowmobiles are popular with locals, and noise from the highway, the park road and daily passenger trains can travel for miles. That sort of human din, studies are beginning to suggest, is imperiling habitat — in Denali as well as wilderness areas around the world — as surely as a bulldozer or oil spill. But scientists have so little information about what landscapes should sound like without human interference that trying to correct the problem would be like a surgeon’s wielding a scalpel without knowing the parts of the body, let alone his patient’s symptoms. To restore ecosystems to acoustic health, researchers must determine, to the last raindrop, what compositions nature would play without us.

For more than 40 years, scientists have used radio telescopes to probe starry regions trillions of miles away for sounds of alien life. But only in the past five years or so have they been able to reliably record monthslong stretches of audio in the wildernesses of Earth. Last March, a group of ecologists and engineers taking advantage of advances in collecting, storing and analyzing vast quantities of digital data declared a new field of science: soundscape ecology. Other disciplines have long observed how various sounds affect people and individual animal species, but no one, they argued in the journal Bioscience, has yet studied the interconnected sounds of whole ecosystems. Soundscapes — composed of biological utterances like birdcalls, geophysical commotions like wind and running water and anthropogenic noises like motors — are “an acoustic reflection of the patterns and processes of the landscape,” the paper’s lead author, Bryan Pijanowski, an ecologist at Purdue University, told me. “And if we can take sound samples and develop appropriate metrics, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this is a healthy landscape and this is an unhealthy landscape.’ ”

Indeed, though soundscape ecology has hardly begun, natural soundscapes already face a crisis. Humans have irrevocably altered the acoustics of the entire globe — and our racket continues to spread. Missing or altered voices in a soundscape tend to indicate broader environmental problems. For instance, at least one invasive species, the red-billed leiothrix of East Asia, appears to use its clamorous chatter to drown out the native European blackbird in Northern Italy. Noise can mask mating calls, cause stress and prevent animals from hearing alarms, the stirrings of prey and other useful survival cues. And as climate change prompts a shift in creatures’ migration schedules, circadian rhythms and preferred habitats — reshuffling the where and when of their calls — soundscapes are altered, too. Soundscape ecologists hope they can save some ecosystems, but they also realize they will bear witness to many finales. “There may be some very unique soundscapes around the world that — just through normal human activities — would be lost forever,” Pijanowski says — unless he and colleagues can record them before they disappear. An even more critical task, he thinks, is alerting people to the way “soundscapes provide us with a sense of place” and an emotional bond with the natural world that is unraveling. As children, our grandparents could hope to swim in a lake or lie in a meadow for whole afternoons without hearing a motorboat, car or plane; today the engineless hour is all but extinct, and we’ve grown accustomed to constant, mild auditory intrusions. “Humans are becoming an increasingly more urban species, and so we’re surrounding ourselves with concrete and buildings” and “the low hum of the urban landscape,” Pijanowski says. “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”

In Denali, silence and solitude define the winter. Fall, Betchkal says, is the departure of the sandhill cranes — an urgent, lonely trilling of flocks taking flight. Spring returns with wood frogs, the park’s only amphibian. “They’re a riotous little chorus of fellows,” Betchkal told me the day before our expedition, as I watched him assemble and test, in an empty library across from his office building, the station he planned to deploy. Outfitted in a flannel shirt and jeans, he could have been a woodsman readying his traps if not for the headphones he wore. “It’s like a really organic, biological sounding rasping, but it’s really nice, like krrrup, krrrup,” he continued, pausing amid a tangle of wire to roll his R’s. In high school, Betchkal’s band teacher told him that before he could play a note on his trumpet, in order to appreciate how the instrument produced the syllable, he needed to articulate the sound himself. Betchkal thinks the same is true of wildlife sounds: “To understand what they’re all about, you have to make them,” he said. “You’ve got to. People think it’s goofy, but it isn’t. It’s studying.”

Sounds are remarkably difficult to describe without onomatopoeia. Defining the resource he wants to protect — in words and numbers, to scientists and policy makers — is a fundamental challenge for Betchkal and other soundscape researchers. Betchkal, though, is well suited to his role. As a boy, he went camping in Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake State Park with his father, an amateur ornithologist who taught him the pleasures of lying in a sleeping bag listening to birdcalls. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he majored in biochemistry and botany while running soundboards for indie bands at the King Club downtown. For Betchkal, whose office bookshelf holds titles as various as “An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing,” “Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data” and “Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue,” perhaps the greatest appeal of soundscape ecology is the way it intersects other fields of study. “It’s almost like going back to old-school naturalism,” Betchkal said, “where you paid attention to anything and everything that was fascinating. That’s totally what I’m into — interdisciplinary science.”

Surprisingly, soundscape ecology, with its focus on the natural, got its start in the streets. An M.I.T. city planner first applied the word “soundscape” to habitat analysis in 1969 for a study he did on the “informativeness” and “delightfulness” of various sonic environments around Boston. Pushing volunteers about in wheelchairs, first blindfolded, then ear-muffled, then without sensory checks, he discovered that the sounds of seaports and civic centers were just as important as their appearance in influencing how much people enjoyed being there. This was a novel notion, even though objections to undesirable sounds date back to the invention of neighbors. In his influential 1977 work, “The Tuning of the World,” the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer charts man’s relationship with noise. As long ago as 3000 B.C., he notes, the Epic of Gilgamesh discussed “the uproar of mankind,” which aggravated the god Enlil. “Sleep is no longer possible,” he complains to the other gods. In the second century A.D., wagon traffic “sufficient to wake the dead” ruined the Roman poet Juvenal’s ability to rest between Satires. Many English towns were sequestering their blacksmiths by the 13th century, and Bern, Switzerland, passed its first law “against singing and shouting in streets or houses on festival days” in 1628. Over the next 300 years, it also legislated against “barking dogs,” “singing at Christmas and New Year’s parties,” “carpet-beating” and “noisy children.” In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared noise a pollutant.

Only recently, however, have governments from Japan to the European Union begun to recognize natural sounds as a resource requiring protection. When Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916, it was to “conserve the scenery”; not until 2000 did a Park Service director issue systemwide instructions for addressing “soundscape preservation.” In 1986, a midair plane crash above the Grand Canyon National Park — where sightseeing tours had operated virtually unchecked for almost 70 years — prompted Congress to pass the National Parks Overflights Act, requiring the Park Service to work with the Federal Aviation Administration in remedying the “significant adverse effect on the natural quiet” that aircraft there appeared to be having. The act also called for studying the impacts of overflight noise on other parks.

Initial research returned alarming results. In Yosemite, planes were heard 30 to 60 percent of the day. In the Haleakala volcano crater in Maui, 8 to 10 helicopters passed overhead per hour. What’s more, other experiments showed, much as the M.I.T. study did, that noise affected the way visitors saw landscapes: when volunteers viewed photos of natural vistas while listening to helicopters on tape, they rated the scenes less picturesque than they did under quieter conditions. By 2000, the National Park Service had staffed a division to gather data on park soundscapes nationwide and create, with the F.A.A., air-tour management plans at 100-plus locations. More than a decade since — partly because of disagreements between aviation and conservation interests — no such plan is in place, though many parks have begun looking for ways to trim other noise, turning off idling shuttle buses, curbing car traffic and investing in less uproarious maintenance tools. Grand Canyon managers, after nearly 25 years of laboring, last year proposed amendments to the timing and routes of sightseeing flights that would make the park somewhat more serene.

When Denali fielded its first sound station in April 2001, far earlier than nearly every other park in the country, the primary concern was determining the level of annoyance caused by planes and snowmobiles. But scientists were about to realize the damage society’s widening sonic footprint could do to natural ecosystems. In 2003, a Dutch team studying a common songbird, the great tit, reported in Nature that males of the species shifted their calls to a higher frequency in cities, where low-frequency human noise masked their normal song range. Further proof that urban sounds cause wild creatures to adjust their vocal styles quickly followed. Nightingales sing louder in louder environments. Robins — usually diurnal singers — switch to nighttime in areas that are chaotic by day. Subjected to constant mechanical whirring, certain primates, bats, whales, squirrels and frogs all change their cries. Many other animals, it seems, lack the physical equipment to adapt, and perish or move away. Not only are individuals editing their tunes in real time — as the great tits did — but natural selection is also rewarding louder, higher-frequency singers, redirecting the course of evolution.

Species can fight for airtime in a limited bandwidth by changing their volume or frequency, or by rescheduling the timing of their calls. But there’s no way animals can alter their ability to listen — for their very survival — if human noise conceals, for example, the twig-snap of a prowler or the skittering of prey. In the United States, where more than 80 percent of land is within two-thirds of a mile of a road, the listening area available to most creatures is rapidly shrinking. Beyond hunting and hiding, even invertebrates use the gabbing of unwitting cohabitants for navigation. Sightless, earless and adrift in the open ocean, coral larvae seek to settle on tropical reefs by swimming toward the throbs of muttering fish and snapping-shrimp claws. Eurasian reed warblers en route to southern Africa at night flutter blind over pine forests, sand dunes and the Baltic Sea until, hundreds of feet below, the cheeping of other warblers signals the presence of sustaining wetlands. If those aural cues disappear, the species that heed them may be floating and flying without a compass.

Explosive human sounds can have catastrophic impacts, especially underwater, where they travel faster and farther than they do in the air. Porpoises and whales have beached themselves fleeing the high-pitched shrieks of U.S. Navy sonar, researchers believe; they also blame the low-frequency booms ships use to search for oil and gas for fatally ripping through the organs that cephalopods like squid use to detect vibrations. Fewer studies have examined the health impacts of more mundane, chronic noises on terrestrial species, but proof is emerging that the droning of freeway traffic and the 24/7 rumbling of natural-gas-pipeline compressors directly harm the ability of birds nesting nearby to reproduce. Jesse Barber, a biologist at Boise State University who is the co-author of two recent papers about the impacts of noise on land-dwelling animals, writes that “it is clear that the acoustical environment is not a collection of private conversations between signaler and receiver” but a network of broadcasts reaching both intended and invisible listeners. Like pulling Jenga blocks from a teetering tower, removing sounds from soundscapes — or adding them — he warns, “could have volatile and unpredictable consequences.”

In the library across from his office building, Betchkal crawled among cables, politely probing each instrument with a voltmeter like a plaid-clad doctor with a stethoscope. The park has been able to take continuous recordings since only 2010 (previous setups recorded five seconds of audio every five minutes), and the scale and quality of its efforts in the wilderness are among the most advanced in the world. Though each station costs about $12,000, glitches are common: the instruments still aren’t designed to work together, or in outdoor conditions. Wind has toppled them; rivers have flooded them; grizzlies have mangled microphones. Betchkal fiddled much of the morning before he felt satisfied that the station was running properly and began to break it down, packing it methodically away and carrying it to his office. Pulling a checklist from his desk, he started filling bags with tools he might need the next day: blue crystal desiccants in vials to keep the air in the equipment boxes dry, wire strippers, extra cable. He’d never set up a station in November and December before. Part of the point was to add to baseline measurements of the park’s overall soundscape — another was to measure just how quiet the winter could be and preserve that sensation for posterity. “I suspect that it gets down below the threshold of human hearing,” Betchkal said, adding duck seal, Gaffer’s tape and an Exacto knife to the bag. “Below zero decibels.” If he did manage to capture a stretch of quiet that extreme, I wondered, what would it reveal?

“Openness!” Betchkal exclaimed. He paused to chase his thought. “Quiet is related to openness in the sense that the quieter it gets — as your listening area increases — your ability to hear reflections from farther away increases. The implication of that is that you get an immense sense of openness, of the landscape reflecting back to you, right? You can go out there, and you stand on a mountaintop, and it’s so quiet that you get this sense of space that’s unbelievable. The reflections are coming to you from afar. All of a sudden your perception is being affected by a larger area. Which is different from when you’re in your car. Why, when you’re in your car, do you feel like you are your car? It’s ’cause the car envelops you, it wraps you up in that sound of itself. Sound has everything to do with place. What is beautiful about this place? What is interesting or iconic about Alaska? Anyway,” he bowed apologetically at the waist, “that’s a lot of words. What I’m really measuring is the potential — the potential to hear natural sounds. If you’re choosing to listen, what are you actually going to hear?”

Around noon, nearing Hines Creek, we halted on the trail. The afternoon was windless. We were warm from walking but rapidly started to freeze; feeling left our fingers and noses first. Betchkal pointed off the path to the south, across a field of tangled willows, to a steep, snowy ridge, atop which he wanted to put the station. We shook up chemical hand warmers so they’d be hot when we reached the summit and charged into the thicket after Jeff Duckett, the ranger. Branches crashed against jackets and backpacks. We tripped on roots and fell. The sled proved too awkward to carry, and after retrieving two solar panels and a box of gear, Duckett and Betchkal abandoned it. At the foot of the hill, we began switchbacking upward through knee-high snow drifts. A Piper Cub skirted low over our heads, the roar of the engine momentarily blotting out the sounds of our breathing. Reaching the top, we dumped the audio equipment and threw on extra jackets. Betchkal got to work quickly, arranging tripods and running Arctic cable designed not to snap in subzero weather. Below, miles of black spruce spanned the valley separating us from Mount Healy.

Ostensibly, Betchkal’s stations capture exactly what we would hear if we could stand invisibly in the wilderness for a month. The recordings can reveal the sonic relationships that play out in our absence — and help us to modify our acoustic footprint. But our understanding of sound will always be limited by our perception of it. We will never experience the ultrasonic cries of insects, lizards or bats without distorting them. Decibels are self-deception. Bell Telephone Laboratories conjured them to measure loudness in the 1920s (the “bel” honors the company’s eponymous founder), but they represent volume as our ears register it, and the louder a sound is, the less of it we actually take in.

Hearing arguably fixes us in time, space and our own bodies more than the other senses do. Our vitals are audible: sighing lungs, a pounding pulse, a burbling gut. John Cage, the composer, once tried to observe complete silence in a soundproof room, but he still heard distinct noises — made, it turned out, by the nerves and blood of his own body. “Until I die,” he concluded, “there will be sounds.” We can shut our eyes at will, but not our ears, and what we hear is penetrating and physical — a wave entering our head. Even the deaf perceive internal jangling and external sonic feedback. The tactile nature of sound — the way it bounces back to us from other surfaces — helps us locate ourselves in relation to our surroundings and to know what’s behind us or around a corner. Fast asleep, our heartbeats quicken at a loud noise. In the womb, before we are aware, we hear the cacophonous exertions of our mother’s body. Returning from a field trip to the Potomac River refuge in Northern Virginia last year, a fourth grader wrote — in a passage that eventually reached a biologist in Soldotna, Alaska — that “the best thing about this place is that it has such nice noises you don’t feel alone when you are alone.”

In a series of gloveless maneuvers, Betchkal screwed together a weather station that would measure temperature, wind speed and direction, plus humidity. He arranged the solar panels, connected them to a box of batteries and sent power to the instruments: a sound level meter that continuously logs decibels at specific frequencies and an audio recorder. The meter powered on. The recorder did not. “Come on, you little stinker!” Betchkal said. Thinking it might be frozen, he slipped the device under his long johns, yelping when it met his thigh.

The next day, Betchkal showed me on his computer how he uses a program called Splat to analyze the data he gets. “Like in farming,” he said, “you’ve made the harvest, and now we’re going to take that raw thing and cook it or refine it down into something that can be used for different products.” Splat takes the data from the sound-level meter and arranges it on a spectrogram: a blue field of time on which sounds appear as orange shapes, their height representing their frequency, their brightness showing loudness, their length duration. Scrolling through the month, Betchkal labels many sounds by sight. Once he’s done tagging, the data can take on meaning, morphing into a graph of the circadian rhythms of wood-frog calls, say, or a park map of helicopter audibility.

Betchkal also listens to a subsample of the recordings. “I love this clip,” he said, pressing play on his computer. We heard a snuffling at the microphone and, nearby, the bellowing of babies that were actually bear cubs. “Part of my job is to go around and document these rare sounds,” he said, “to better understand the resource that needs to be protected — are there really important sounds out there that are disappearing?” He clicked again, and the tinny gurgle of an ice cave filled the speakers. “There’s thousands of little bubbles,” he said in narration. “I imagine like a big cave, and each room of the cave probably has different ways of reflecting sound. We can share sounds with people who might not be able to walk up to that ice cave and go hang around inside of it. Maybe even better, it excites them enough that they’re like, All right, let’s go on a hike! We’re going to check out an ice cave! Or whatever.”

Listening to Betchkal’s recordings of people passing his stations in the course of their travels can be unexpectedly elegiac. Tents flap, camp stoves hiss, people laugh, sniffle, adjust their packs. Once, trolling through audio from a mountain site, Betchkal happened upon a two-man concert, climbers duetting on guitar and mandolin. Another time, he discovered a rocky summer avalanche, an escalating rumble so deep it shook his desk.

On the ridge top, Betchkal’s body heat and hand warmers failed to revive the recorder. After more than an hour of troubleshooting, a spare pair of AA batteries succeeded in getting the device to work — but that meant, unlike the rest of the solar-powered equipment, it would run for only about a week. “It’s disappointing to me — really disappointing,” Betchkal said. “But that can happen — that does happen. If things go wrong, I’ll come back, and I can fix them.” He wrestled the instrument case closed and sealed it against the snow and wind of the coming month. The weather had begun to seep through our Polartec defenses, numbing our joints; water and pen ink were solids; cheese sticks gonged against canteens. “One last thing we need to do,” Betchkal said, shaking off defeat. “I know everyone’s probably cold and tired, but we’re going to listen. Get comfortable, be sure you’re not needing to fidget with stuff — ” A zipper zipped. Two magpies chirped. I lifted my arms from my sides to shush my sleeves and closed my eyes.

Night fell as we retraced our steps along the trail. The sky turned from lavender to indigo while the snow on the ground and the mountains glowed even when the last of the sun was gone. We headed for Jupiter, hanging low above the trees, and as we walked, I pictured the station back on the ridge, wrapped in the same darkness. When Betchkal harvests the audio, he will find us repacking our packs, exclaiming over our frozen apparatuses and sliding down the hillside into the willow field below. He will also, for three minutes, witness us still our movements and attune our ears to one of the quietest places left on Earth. In that window, I could hear the vastness of the valley — no sound marks materialized, like buoys bobbing on an empty ocean, to segment the sense of infinity. The landscape enveloped me, as Betchkal said it would, and I felt I was the landscape, where mountains and glaciers rose and shifted eons before the first heartbeats came to life.

“Standing in that place right there,” Betchkal told me later, “I had a complete sense that I was standing in that place right there and not drawn or distracted from it at all.” I felt located, too, but I could also imagine that if I hollered, my voice might not ever bounce back — that where I was, precisely, was a ridge top in a wide wilderness on a spinning rock in outer space. Ahead of me on the trail, as we neared our destination, Betchkal’s figure blurred in the darkness. The trees around us disappeared. There were, at last, only our footsteps. Then, barely audible, an inevitable airborne murmur — a sign from the civilized world.

Kim Tingley is a freelance writer and an online columnist for OnEarth magazine.

THIS is why we invest in science. This.

26 Mar

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/03/21/this-is-why-we-invest-in-science-this/

 

THIS is why we invest in science. This.

By Phil Plait

 

Every day — every single day, it seems — I see a note on Twitter, or get email, or hear someone on TV asking why we bother spending so much money on NASA. Billions of dollars! We should be spending that money right here on Earth!

This argument is wrong in every conceivable way. Ignoring that we do spend that money here on Earth, ignoring that NASA’s budget is far less than 1% of the national budget, ignoring that the amount we spend on NASA in a year is less than we spend on air conditioning tents in Afghanistan, ignoring that we spend five times as much on tobacco in a year than we do on space exploration… this argument is still dead wrong.

Why?

Because when we invest in science, when we invest in space, when we invest in exploration, we always, always get far more back in return than we put in. And not just in dollars and cents.

 

 

See that picture above? It shows a new type of rocket engine design. Usually, fuel is pumped into a chamber where the chemicals ignite and are blown out the other end, creating thrust. The design pictured above does this in a new way: as the fuel is pumped into the chamber, it’s spun up, creating a vortex. This focuses the flow, keeping it closer to the center of the chamber. In this way, when the fuel ignite, it keeps the walls of the chamber cooler.

So what, right?

Here’s what: using this technology — developed for rockets for NASA, remember — engineers designed a way to pump water more quickly and efficiently for fire suppression. The result is nothing short of astonishing:

One series of tests using empty houses at Vandenberg Air Force Base compared [this new] system with a 20-gallon-per-minute, 1,400 pound-per-square-inch (psi) discharge capability (at the pump) versus a standard 100-gallon-per-minute, 125 psi standard hand line—the kind that typically takes a few firemen to control. The standard line extinguished a set fire in a living room in 1 minute and 45 seconds using 220 gallons of water. The [new] system extinguished an identical fire in 17.3 seconds using 13.6 gallons—with a hose requiring only one person to manage.

In other words, this new system put out a fire more quickly, using less water, and — critically — with fewer firefighters needed to operate the hose. This frees up needed firefighters to do other important tasks on the job, and therefore makes fighting fires faster and safer.

There is no way you could’ve predicted beforehand that investing in NASA would have led to the creation of this specific innovation in life-saving technology. But it’s a rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.

If for no other reason that’s why we need to invest in science: in NASA, in NSF, in NOAA, and all the other agencies that explore the world around us. It’s for our own good. And it always pays off.

 

[UPDATE: I should have noted that this technology was developed by Orbitec, a contractor with NASA and not NASA itself. The argument I make above still stands, though.]

Nerd Alert – Science Tattoos

1 Nov

Yet another bit of awesomeness from the Discovery blogs.

26 pages of pure dedication to science:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/science-tattoo-emporium/?nggpage=1

I’m working on the design for my first and after seeing all of these I’m thinking I might make some additions… or maybe just wait til next time and become that person who just can’t stop.

Examples:

Zach writes: “It is a half sleeve up my upper right arm based around an image taken by one of the CERN bubble chambers. It is based on this image. I first saw that image my freshman year of college. It had the sublime, simple beauty that only something made of math and science can have. It stuck with me for 8 more years before I actually decided to get it etched into me. Oddly enough, on Valentine’s Day. I guess it was my Valentine’s to physics and science. Oh, and when people ask who drew it, I always respond ‘God.'”

 

 

Drew, an oceanography graduate student, writes:
“This, on my leg, is the incompressible form of the conservation of mass equation in a fluid, also known as the continuity equation. When people ask what it means, I say it defines flow. Sometimes I say it means you should have studied more physics, but that is only when I am feeling like being funny. What it means in more detail is that, for an incompressible fluid, the partial derivative of the velocity of the fluid in the three spatial dimensions must sum to zero. It therefore concisely states the fundamental nature of a fluid.”My advisor took this picture, and I swear he is obsessed (in a good way) with this tattoo. He is giving a talk at Woods Hole next week as he is the recipient of an award, and he is planning to show off ‘how quantitative scripps students are’ which i think is hilarious and only slightly mortifying. Speaking of mortifying, it is slightly mortifying to be sending this email at all–I have to admit I am a little embarrassed. It is definitely the most vain thing i have done today. I do have an ulterior motive which I have no problem admitting: I want to stake a claim on this particular piece. I guess it might be a little lame to want to claim ownership over something so silly but there it is and I guess at least I can admit it.”

 

 

Marc Morency, Quartermaster 1st class, USN, writes: “While I am by no means a scientist, I have been fortunate enough to be paid by the government to get ships from pt. A to pt. B serving in the US Navy as a Quartermaster. I was drawn to the navigation when I joined. In my opinion, it is the only job in the military that is both a science and an art Celestial navigation has been something I have become profoundly interested in since I joined ten years ago. In this age of GPS, it is, in my opinion more important now than ever for Navigators to remain proficient in the old ways to fix a ship’s position using a sextant and trigonometry. My tattoo is the visual depiction of how to plot a line of position from a celestial body using the altitude intercept method, a method which has been time tested for more than a century. For me it serves as a reminder that while technology improves, the sea remains an unpredictable place and it is up to the older generation to teach the younger the old school ways of doing business.”

 

 

Ariel writes, “I am happy to see that other science dorks like myself have inked up our passions. This is the molecular representation of glutamic acid, the amino acid associated with the Umami flavor, the proverbial fifth taste. I am a former chef turned public health major and fell in love with the elegance of chemical compounds but never forgot my unctuous roots.

The Flying Crowbar

13 Apr

excerpts from  Air & Space Magazine, April/May 1990, Volume 5 No. 1, page 28. Written by Gregg Herken, illustrations by Paul DiMar

 

Full Article here (definitely worth the read): http://www.merkle.com/pluto/pluto.html

 

 At the dawn of the atomic age, scientists began work on what might have been the nastiest weapon ever conceived.

Once it switched from booster rockets to nuclear power, Pluto would have been a danger to friend and foe alike

“Pluto’s namesake was Roman mythology’s ruler of the underworld — seemingly an apt inspiration for a locomotive-size missile that would travel at near-treetop level at three times the speed of sound, tossing out hydrogen bombs as it roared overhead. Pluto’s designers calculated that its shock wave alone might kill people on the ground. Then there was the problem of fallout. In addition to gamma and neutron radiation from the unshielded reactor, Pluto’s nuclear ramjet would spew fission fragments out in its exhaust as it flew by. (One enterprising weaponeer had a plan to turn an obvious peace-time liability into a wartime asset: he suggested flying the radioactive rocket back and forth over the Soviet Union after it had dropped its bombs.)”

“The idea behind any ramjet is relatively simple: air is drawn in at the front of the vehicle under ram pressure, heated to make it expand, and then exhausted out the back, providing thrust. But the notion of using a nuclear reactor to heat the air was something fundamentally new. Unlike commercial reactors, which are surrounded by hundreds of tons of concrete, Pluto’s reactor had to be small and compact enough to fly, but durable enough to survive the several thousand-mile trip to targets in the Soviet Union.

The success of Project Pluto depended upon a whole series of technological advances in metallurgy and materials science. Pneumatic motors necessary to control the reactor in flight had to operate while red-hot and in the presence of intense radioactivity. The need to maintain supersonic speed at low altitude and in all kinds of weather meant that Pluto’s reactor had to survive conditions that would melt or disintegrate the metals used in most jet and rocket engines. Engineers calculated that the aerodynamic pressures upon the missile might be five times those the hypersonic X-15 had to endure. Pluto was “pretty close to the limits in all respects,” says Ethan Platt, an engineer who worked on the project. “We were tickling the dragon’s tail all the way,” says Blake Myers, head of Livermore’s propulsion engineering division.”

“so many unknowns surrounded Pluto that Merkle decided that it would take a static test of the full-scale ramjet reactor to resolve them all. To carry out the tests, Livermore built a special facility in a desolate stretch of Nevada desert close to where the lab had exploded many of its nuclear weapons. Designated Site 401, the facility — built on eight square miles of Jackass Flats — rivaled Project Pluto itself in ambition and cost.”

“Just to supply the concrete for the six- to eight-foot-thick walls of the disassembly building, the U.S. government had to buy an aggregate mine. It took 25 miles of oil well casing to store the million pounds of pressurized air used to simulate ramjet flight conditions for Pluto. To supply the high-pressure air, the lab borrowed giant compressors from the Navy’s submarine base in Groton, Connecticut. For a five-minute, full power test, as much as a ton of air a second had to be forced over 14 million one-inch steel balls in four huge steel tanks raised to 1,350 degrees Fahrenheit by oil-burning heaters.”

The 25 miles of oil well casing needed to store air for ramject simulations dominated Pluto's test site at Jackass Flats.

“Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Pluto’s sponsors were having second thoughts about the project. Since the missile would be launched from U.S. territory and had to fly low over America’s allies in order to avoid detection on its way to the Soviet Union, some military planners began to wonder if it might not be almost as much a threat to the allies. Even before it began dropping bombs on our enemies Pluto would have deafened, flattened, and irradiated our friends. (The noise level on the ground as Pluto went by overhead was expected to be about 150 decibels; by comparison, the Saturn V rocket, which sent astronauts to the moon, produced 200 decibels at full thrust.) Ruptured eardrums, of course, would have been the least of your problems if you were unlucky enough to be underneath the unshielded reactor when it went by, literally roasting chickens in the barnyard. Pluto had begun to look like something only Goofy could love.”

“The Navy, which had originally expressed an interest in firing the missile from ships or submarines, also began to back away from the project after successful tests of its Polaris missile. Finally, at $50 million apiece, there were doubts that SLAM was worth the price. Pluto was suddenly a technology without an application, a weapon without a mission.”

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