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October 30, 2007

Aliens Use Death Rays (Again)

0710toasterfire.jpgOn Oct. 30, 1938, the Associated Press sent a notice to all of its editors on the newswire:
"Queries to newspapers from radio listeners throughout the United States tonight, regarding a reported meteor fall which killed a number of New Jerseyites, are the result of a studio dramatization."

Of course, the meteor carrying Martians with flame-shooting guns and poisonous gas was just Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast. Old history from the time of cure-all elixirs and eugenics. Right?

Well, maybe not. The major Italian magazine L'espresso ran an article on Friday (in Italian, "E.T. Speaks Sicilian") that aliens may have caused hundreds of unplugged household appliances to burst into flames in northern Sicily back in 2004. It cited a leaked interim report by the Italian government that either a secret military test or alien experiments caused a brief electromagnetic emission between 12 and 15 gigawatts.

The Cabinet of Wonders delves into British newspaper reports for an answer.

Without a real report it's pointless to speculate about the source of this event. To add a little solid science to this entry I should mention that electromagnetic waves from solar superstorms have been known to cause problems with electric grids, a phenomena we briefly covered on page 302 of the 2007 World Almanac.

Links:
Solar Storms and Their Human Impacts (NASA)
War of the Worlds broadcast (Internet Archive)

Flickr photo by The Redbird

September 5, 2007

Visualization of the Day #2: Boomerang!

Ah, Almanac season. Tomorrow is the second in a string of important deadlines for the next edition of The World Almanac, so I'm churning through final approval of a half-dozen chapters while also trying desperately to chip away at the small mountain of early-draft chapters that has quietly accumulated on my desk (thanks a lot, Sarah, Andy, and Lisa).

boomerang.jpgBut that doesn't mean I don't have time to catch up on one of my favorite blogs, information aesthetics—which drew my attention to today's earlier, rather heavy Superfund link, and also to this more enjoyable chaser, an article on the Science of Boomerangs at Popular Mechanics. Cool time-lapse photos of LED-tipped boomerangs at night, a nice visual explanation of boomerang aerodynamics (a small snippet, at right), and at least one truly terrible pun from Eric Darnell, holder of several boomerang world records:

Darnell has himself set world records for endurance (43 catches in 5 minutes) and maximum time aloft (1 minute and 44 seconds). He has also sold millions of boomerangs. He says he isn’t into the sport for the money, although he admits, “I make many happy returns.”

Groan.

Science of Boomerangs at Popular Mechanics (via information aesthetics, again)

May 2, 2007

Ethical Considerations in Space Travel

55Cancri.jpgEver watched the original, 1968 version of Planet of the Apes? Remember that scene where they crash land after traveling in deep space, and Charlton Heston's character discovers one of his crew members died while in hibernation because of an air leak in her chamber?

I swear I haven't ruined anything for those who have yet to see the movie, but I was reminded of that scene after reading an Associated Press article from Tuesday. The article details what NASA must consider as it sets its sights farther into the universe:

"How do you get rid of the body of a dead astronaut on a three-year mission to Mars and back?

When should the plug be pulled on a critically ill astronaut who is using up precious oxygen and endangering the rest of the crew? Should NASA employ DNA testing to weed out astronauts who might get a disease on a long flight?"

The article mentions that NASA already has some policies in place, like the amount of radiation an astronaut can safely be exposed to. As for the other stuff, an "ethical framework" will have to be constructed, according to a quote from NASA's chief health and medical officer.

Links:
"On Trip to Mars, NASA Must Rethink Death" (AP)
C. Alan Joyce's previous blog entry about The World Almanac's picks for Top 10 Celestial and Space Exploration Events of 2007

Image: Artist's concept of a large, rocky extrasolar planet. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

April 24, 2007

A New Space Race (and other news)

ISS%20Marathon.jpgI’ve read some interesting news about the International Space Station over the past week as the 14th expedition crew was replaced by the incoming 15th expedition. It has been overshadowed by much more important breaking news, and rightfully so. But I thought I’d give a bit of a recap of some of the more notable events:
  • Michael Lopez-Alegria set two U.S. space records. He spent 215 days in space, setting the U.S. record for one trip. He also completed five spacewalks, which gave him a total of 10 for his career, the most by any American. (NASA incorrectly cites his total time 57 hours, 40 minutes as another record but Jerry Ross spent 58 hours and 18 minutes in space during 9 walks.)
  • Charles Simonyi, chief designer of Microsoft’s Word and Excel programs, became the fifth space tourist. He arrived with the incoming 15th crew on April 9 and left with the departing 14th crew on April 21. He brought a meal of quail, duck, rice pudding and dried fruits catered by his friend Martha Stewart.
  • On April 16, Sunita Williams ran a marathon in space in conjunction with the Boston Marathon, the first time any person has run that long a distance in zero gravity. She ran all 26.2 miles on a treadmill with an official time of 4:23:10. NASA has posted footage of Williams running the marathon.

The marathon woman will also handily beat Lopez-Algeria’s time in space record if she remains on board until the current crew departs in October.

ISS News and video from NASA
Charles Simonyi’s Webpage for the trip

Suni running the marathon. Image credit: NASA

March 1, 2007

A Big Week for Big Planets

170592main_pia08362_full.jpgOn Feb. 28, NASA's New Horizons probe pulled off a planetary slingshot maneuver, using Jupiter's gravitational field to trim several years off the probe's journey to Pluto. That rendezvous won't occur until 2015, but in the meantime, New Horizons' close approach to the largest planet in the solar system is expected to yield some exciting imagery in the near future. Visit NASA's New Horizons page for past photos and new updates as the mission progresses.

If you absolutely have to have a fix of gas giant photos this week, you're in luck! NASA just released a slew of gorgeous photos from the Cassini spacecraft, offering never-before-seen views of the ringed planet (like the one at right).

And just for good measure, here's the full listing of The World Almanac's editors' picks for top celestial and space exploration events of 2007--including the New Horizons flyby at #2:

World Almanac Editors’ Picks
Top 10 Celestial and Space Exploration Events of 2007

  1. Perseid Meteor Shower: Aug. 13 peak coincides with the new Moon; excellent viewing throughout the night.
  2. New Horizons (NASA): probe slingshots past Jupiter, en route to Pluto in 2015; closest Jupiter approach on Feb. 28.
  3. Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA): scheduled to launch Aug 3, arriving on Mars in May 2008.
  4. Planck/Herschel (ESA): two new orbiting observatories, scheduled to launch July 2007.
  5. Chang’e-1 (China): first Chinese lunar orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2007.
  6. Waxing Crescent Moon paired with Jupiter, Nov. 12: One of the best dates to view this pretty pairing, due to close proximity of the two bodies and visibility soon after sunset.
  7. GLAST (NASA): Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope, launch set for Aug. 7; will study extremely energetic objects and phenomena.
  8. Waxing Crescent Moon between Venus and Saturn, June 18: One of the best dates to view this celestial grouping.
  9. NOAA-N Prime (NASA): new weather and climate satellite, scheduled to launch Dec. 6.
  10. Saturn at Opposition, Feb. 10: Saturn’s closest approach to Earth, and the best time to view and photograph the planet and its moons throughout the night.

December 7, 2006

Pearl Harbor

Pearl%20Harbor%20USS%20AZ.jpg It was in the wee hours of the morning 65 years ago today that almost 400 Japanese planes decimated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Famously recalled as the “date which will live in infamy,” Roosevelt almost referred to it as “a date which will live in world history” (as commenter DianeWT mentioned last week).

This month’s World Almanac E-Newsletter has a great special feature for those interested in reading about Pearl Harbor in greater detail.

Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times have articles recounting the day in their respective cities. And the New York Times waited until today to run this interesting obit on Lt. Kenneth Taylor, one of the first two Americans to gun down a Japanese plane at Pearl Harbor. He passed away Nov. 25.

Also, the Pacific Aviation Museum, an aviation battlefield museum, opens today at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. And the USS Arizona is still leaking oil?

For all your other Pearl Harbor reference needs, the Naval Historical Center website is very comprehensive.

Motion picture frame of the forward magazines of USS Arizona (BB-39) exploding after being bombed. From the Naval Historical Center and National Archives.

November 22, 2006

Flying Across the Pacific

The China Clipper Today marks 71 years since the first commercial transpacific flight. Pan American’s China Clipper, a Martin M-130, departed from San Francisco Nov. 22, 1935 heading for the Philippines. It arrived at Manila on Nov. 29 after overnight stops at Hawaii and Pan Am “Skyways Hotels” at Midway, Wake, and Guam.
The actual time spent in flight was 59 hours, 47 minutes. Now the same trip can be done in one or two legs in about 12-15 hours. The China Clipper averaged 143.3 mph compared to the 650 mph cruising speed of a Boeing 747. But it was a huge leap forward from the ocean liners that would take more than 20 days to cover the same distance. Of course, airfare was exorbitantly expensive, far higher than what even the most brilliant World Almanac editors could afford. When regular passenger service began Oct. 21, 1936, a roundtrip ticket to Manila cost $1,438.20 or about $21,000 by today’s prices.

Check out a brochure for the China Clipper, some photos, and other memorabilia from the original journeys at David Faige’s amazing on-line collection.
-Andrew Steinitz

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