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Totally Sciencing It Up: The Shot Heard 'Round the World

February 19, 2013

As if there was any doubt what explosion I'd talk about this week.  But, in case you missed it, there was an impressive meteor event in Russia last week, where a chunk of space rock came plummeting into our inner atmosphere and detonating over the Chelyabinsk region.  Since it actually flew over a fairly well-populated area in Russia, there have been dozens of videos of the event, which is pretty cool because things like this are rare enough on their own.  To give planetary scientists a chance to look at and study the event, though, was invaluable.

The event itself would have been cool enough if a big hunk of rock had simply fallen from the sky.  However, when the hunk of rock exploded in the atmosphere, well, that was something to write home about!  Here's a compilation of some of the best videos capturing the event, thanks to Russia Today's channel on the YouTube:

Pretty impressive, to say the least.  Unfortunately, thanks to the shockwave of the explosion shattering glass and throwing people to the ground, about a thousand folks sustained some kind of injury.  Fortunately, nothing seemed to be life-threatening.

So, why did this thing explode?  Well, we all know that when an object enters the Earth's atmosphere, it begins colliding with all the gas molecules that comprise our atmosphere.  The object giving us our close encounter is usually traveling at such a high rate of speed that it suffers millions of these interactions a second, and the brushing off of gas particles is enough to transfer heat via friction to the chunk of space rock.  This heats the object up until it starts to glow--think about the coils in your toaster, except imagine them traveling around 40,000 miles per hour!.  Since most space rocks have a fairly high content of iron in them, this analogy isn't too far off.  We've all seen pictures of forges and foundries where molten iron and steel are glowing hot.

The reason why iron (and most anything else that glows when heated) does that is because pumping heat into a system adds energy, and when you add energy, you excite the electrons surrounding the atom.  As the electrons get excited--like, literally quivering with anticipation--they jump, much like a corgi looking for a treat.  Unlike the corgi, the electrons have to travel into different shells surrounding the atom.  After jumping, the electrons aren't where they are supposed to be, they are excited, and they now want to go home where they are more comfortable.  The electron then falls back down to its original shell, and when it falls, it releases that energy in the form of light (and heat).  

But why the explosion?  Well, as you might expect, the heating of the space rock isn't uniform.  The composition of the rock isn't uniform, either, and so as it heats, some of the solids in the rock are vaporized--literally turned into gas form--and as we've learned, gasses expanding more rapidly than their container can withstand = explosion.  And explosions = awesome.

And what an explosion!  It was estimated that the Chelyabinsk blast was roughly equivalent to 20 atomic bombs going off at the same time!  Sensors from around the globe picked up on the shockwaves, which does, literally, make it a shot heard around the world.  Im. Press. Ive!

The difference between all these space rocks, also, involves where they are and their size.  Asteroids (literally, "star forms") are very large chunks of space rock, but they are smaller than planets, planetoids and moons, typically have no atmosphere, but they do have enough mass to exert gravitational pull on other objects.  Sometimes the definitions can get a little hinky.  Phobos and Deimos, Mars' moons, are technically captured asteroids from the asteroid belt.  Eventually, someday, they'll crash into the surface of Mars.  Talk about Fear and Dread!

Meteoroids are small chunks of space rock, like our friend who provided the spectacular aerial show over Chelyabinsk, that have not interacted with Earth's atmosphere (yet!).  Once they hit the upper atmosphere and start glowing, they are called meteors.  If, by chance, they make it to the surface of the Earth (which, despite its size, the Chelyabinsk meteor has yet to provide evidence of reaching the ground) they are called meteorites.  Or starmetal, if you're into D&D--which I'm not.  Seriously.  Stop looking at me like that.

Of course, it has to be mere coincidence that this whole thing happened but three days after the DVD release of Skyfall.  *nodding*  Well-played, MGM...well-played...

Friday Morning Latin Lesson: Vol. CV

February 15, 2013

Thank Gods it's the Day of Venus!  See what I did there?  A little bit of Latin/English bastardization!  It's brilliant, I tell you!

Fine.  Be that way.

Anyway, we're sliding down the back-half of February now as yesterday was the mid-point of our only four-week month.  There was something else that went on yesterday, too, but we've already covered that a few times in ye olde blogge.  Yes, I'm a shameless self-promoter.  Actually, I'm just backing up my claims with...well, not fact, since a lot of that was speculation.  So, yeah, shameless self-promotion it is!

The fifteenth of February, though, marked the final day of the Roman celebration of Lupercalia.  The Lupercalia was a three day festival, beginning February 13th and running until the 15th, in which the Romans honored the god Lupercus, sometimes identified with the (somewhat more recognizable) Faunus, who really resembled the Greek deity Pan.  Lupercus was the god who watched over shepherds.  More importantly, Lupercus stood in (and presumably helped protect) the cave where the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf lupa when they were abandoned in the wild.  You might remember that Romulus grew up and later founded the city of Rome (after bashing his brother over the head with a shovel).

Incidentally, a slang word for "whore" in Latin is lupa...not a very loving remembrance for what could be considered the city's matriarch.

So...if we celebrate the Lupercalia in February, why is February not Luperary?

It all boils down to where the month falls on the Roman calendar.  This is the time of year when the world begins to emerge from its long winter slumber (the world here being the Mediterranean...when Minnesota conquers most of the known world, then we'll talk about when spring arrives).  As such, thoughts turn to planting of crops and birthing of babies, which all ties back to fertility.  Februus was a Roman god of purification, and in order to get the world ready for planting of crops, it was time for purification.  Februus is possibly linked to a much older purification and fertility rite, Februa, which was probably adopted in after the Romans conquered the Etruscans.

There is also a chance that Februus is tied to the Roman goddess Febria, who was the goddess of the fever.  The fever (also associated with malaria) was seen to be a sort of internal purification flame; if you survived it, your body was purged of whatever ills had caused the fever, and you were the stronger for it.  Remember, viruses were a couple of thousand years away from being known.

While we were busy celebrating the purification of the world and preparation for planting and birthing the spring clutches of agricultural animals, we might as well throw in human babies as well, right?  So, all of the celebrations about purifying the land and body were lumped in with the Lupercalia.  The final day of Lupcalia was recognized as the Februa.

Lupercalia involved young men of the city running around the city walls.  It wasn't a race so much as it was just a tradition.  All of the women of the city who were pregnant or who were hoping to be pregnant, or who might get pregnant, lined up along the streets and the course of the run, holding out their hands.  The youths running through the streets and around the walls struck the waiting ladies' hands with thongs made from the skin of the goats sacrificed in the name of Lupercus (because wolves like eating goats and sheep--get it!?!?).  This would then bless the women of Rome with ripe, fertile uteri, ready to be impregnated.  It was also to help ease the pain of childbirth and to make sure healthy babies were born, so it wasn't all just foreplay.

As Christianity took hold in the Empire, the Lupercalia was frowned upon (as were most pagan rituals); it was essentially phased out by the fourth century.  There is no real proof, but given the church's predilection toward placing "major" Christian feasts and holidays around popular pagan rituals, there is a chance that the Saint Valentine story was retconned so that he conveniently died during the middle of the Lupercalia.  Here, instead of celebrating a guy with furry goat legs, let us celebrate a man who may not have existed and who was martyred for performing these Christian weddings.  Killing goats, bad; beheading peaceful men, good.

As someone who grew up in northern climes, we didn't start thinking about such things as planting and such until much later in the year.  February was always pretty harsh--it was cold, snowy, and there was a lot of flu and colds going around.  Maybe, for the folks in the south, Februus and his prepping the land for planting season makes sense, but for those in the frigid north, Febria is more appropriate.

Either way, these days February usually invokes images of cold and snow, which provides a perfect backdrop for today's Latin lesson:

Quoniam figeo, tremo!
Pronounced:  "Kwo-nee-ahm fri-gay-oh, tray-moh!"

Shaky translation in the hovertext

As if on cue, the master prognosticators of the area have told us to be ready for snow over the weekend.   It's not supposed to be much, which means that the mass panic will be somewhere short of riotous stampedes in the street, but with minor bouts of teeth-gnashing and wailing.  Thank God no one has decided to name this "winter storm".  Regardless, stay safe, stay warm, and brew up an extra pot of coffee.  I might drop in for a visit.

Totally Sciencing Shit Up Tuesdays: Melts in Your Mouth AND in Your Hand

February 5, 2013

If I say I did a lot of reading during the time when I wasn't posting much, can we call it a sabbatical?  No?  Fine.

Anyway, while I was out and about, gadding about town in my labcoat and safety glasses, I read a book called "The Disappearing Spoon" by Sam Kean.  A quick summary would go something like "Kean investigates the history and position of all the elements on the periodic table."  It wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but for someone with a chemistry degree and a mild interest in the science, I found it to be an enjoyable read.  The science got a little more intense toward the end of the book, but it's still worth a look if you enjoy reading about some of the strange histories that went on behind the elements on the periodic table.

Quick tidbit I picked up:  Did you know that Marie Curie had a bit of a reputation for being a cockmonster?  She was accused, multiple times, of putting the moves on various other scientists by luring them into closets to show how her radium samples glowed in the dark.  And, when in Rome.  Er, Paris...

Speaking of Paris, did you know France has a shitload of elements named for it on the periodic table?  The easiest one to identify is Francium, element 87.  As the segue leading into this paragraph referenced Paris, it, too, is recognized as Lutetium, element 71, which derives its name from Lutetia, the Latin word for the city that we now call Paris (which is named for a warrior from the Iliad...)  The other Franklandia-inspired element is Gallium, number 31.

Gallium is linked to France based on the old Celtic kingdom of Gaul, which Julius Caesar brought under Roman rule in a rather impressive fashion.  There is a second, somewhat contentious origin for gallium's name, but it's also French AND Roman.  The man who discovered gallium, Paul Emile LeCoq, allegedly named gallium for the Latin word gallus, which means rooster, which is what LeCoq means in French.  This has since been shown to be apocryphal, and the etymology is typically associated with Gaul.

In one of those cosmic sort of coincidences, any Latin student worth his or her snuff knows that "All Gaul is divided into three parts"...and gallium is found in the third column of the periodic table because it has three valence electrons.  There has to be a conspiracy theory in there somewhere.

Gallium is an interesting element in that it is a metal--it's shiny lustrous, can be drawn into a wire or molded into a sheet, conducts heat and electricity--and in the morning of a lovely spring day, it is a solid.  By the afternoon, it's a liquid.  In fact, if you hold it in the palm of your hand, it melts!  The melting point of gallium is somewhere around 86F (30C).

Well, this certainly screams for a demonstration, doesn't it?  Absolutely!  Enjoy!

Gallium can possibly be toxic, so don't try this trick at home, or, if you do, don't blame me when the cops show up asking questions.  I'll blame it on Sam Kean, anyway.

Gallium itself isn't used much, but gallium is such a whore for other metals that it alloys readily.  I've never seen this, but apparently gallium and sodium spontaneously mix together to form a T1000-esque puddle of liquid metal which is almost as lethal...just in a really prolonged exposure sort of way.  However, gallium salts make some damned fine blue LEDs, and gallium is responsible for the blue light of your Blue-Ray player (eh? eh?).  A gallium alloy is probably the shit in your thermometers, since mercury be all toxic and such.

Did I say spontaneously alloy?  I DID say spontaneously alloys!

Sure, that was a mild "explosion", but it burst nonetheless.  It did fit the proper definition of a gas (carbon dioxide) expanding within a container (the can) faster than the structural integrity of the container could withstand.  So, hooray Tuesdays!

Gallium also can make some high-quality mirrors, since it is shiny (as well as lustrous) and the surface is highly reflective.  You just need to make an alloy of it with another metal in order to avoid having your mirror get all melty when you're drying your hair.  Curiously, it "wets" whatever it is touching, so if you play with it too much you'll go blind you could end up with a fine, gray sheen on your hands.  Handle at your own risk, Solomon Grundy.

Gallium's size actually allows it to diffuse into the spaces between metal atoms in metallic lattice structures.  You can actually see this happening in the time-lapse video above (the second video); it's the disruption of the metal interactions that make the alloys brittle and/or liquid (depending on how much gallium is present).  For some strange miracle of nature, gallium just loves to get in there and intimately mingle with these other metals.

When it comes to alloys, this element certainly is that kind of gallium.  And we love it!

Monday Monday, Can't Trust That Day

February 4, 2013

There's a certain set of humanity that I really, truly cannot stand.  It is the people who announce that they are not watching the Super Bowl.  Even worse are the people who gleefully announce that they just watch it "for the commercials."  Here's your feedbag, sheep.  Try not to shit on the carpet.

Naturally, I didn't watch the Super Bowl.  I realize that, by typing this, I have become a hypocritical twat.  I'm okay with this.  Mostly, I'm using this as a set-up for the remainder of the sexually-charged, lurid tale I'm about to embark upon.

Okay, it's not that lurid.  I'm just trying to keep your attention.

I didn't watch the Super Bowl, mostly because Green Bay wasn't playing in it.  I don't feel the need to sit and watch a football game when my favorite team is not playing.  If I'm bored, sure.  But, there was a lot of video games to play, laundry to be done, and dinner to prepare last night.  So, no Super Bowl for me.  I've somehow coped.

My weekend was, however, busy as fuck, which is why all this stuff got done late Sunday afternoon and Sunday night.  When a person works two jobs, they tend to spend at least one day of the weekend working; such was my Saturday.  Then, I had to spend Sunday catching up on all those tasks and chores that I did not get done last week because I work two jobs, I am raising a family, and I'm writing a book (or three).  That's a lot of shit to pack into a mere five days.  Occasionally, I enjoy a night's worth of sleep, too. 

On top of all that, it's Girl Scout cookie time.  The sordid tale of that is priceless, as well.  I had signed my daughter up to work the cookie booth on Sunday, from noon to two in case she had basketball practice in the evening.  The Girl Scout troop leader decided to change the location at the last minute.  And, she also decided to change the time.  At the last minute.  But, instead of sending emails warning anyone, we were supposed to check our check-in site.  I'm not even sure I know what that means, but it's what I was supposed to do.  Instead, I drove from one location to another, went home, and then drove back to what was supposedly the correct location.

Man, I love making things more complicated than they have to be.

Finally, we arrived at the right place at the right time only to discover that another troop had set up their booth without clearing it with the Girl Scout council.  We had booth squatters on our territory.  Heads should have rolled.

Instead, I went home and continued with the laundry.

In the end, I crumpled into bed last night, exhausted, around 11:30, knowing full well that the alarm was going to smack me in the face with Kansas at 6:00 in the morning and that this wayward son would be carrying on with his normal, daily routine.  I know, I know.  White whine.  First world problems.  I get it.

I progressed through the morning, preparing the kids, taking them to school, and then I shuffled into work, where my Outlook program reminded me, not unkindly, that I was due to be at a meeting at 9:00.  I hadn't had my second cup of coffee yet.  There needs to be a separate level of Hell dedicated to the nine a.m. meeting crowd.  Level Seven Prime or something.

So, at the meeting, I'm groggy, exhausted, wondering where the fuck my weekend went.  Everyone was focused on the Super Bowl (naturally) and talking about deer antler spray.  My response was something like "yeah, fuck that stabby motherfucker right in his stabhole".  I may have paraphrased that last part, but the general idea has been conveyed (hence the term "paraphrasing). Bite me.  Blogging is hard.

And the meeting progressed.

Later, after the meeting, my supervisor swung by to "check in" with me, because I seemed "a little down" at the meeting, and wanted to make sure "everything was alright."

It's fucking Monday morning, and Monday after the Super Bowl, at that.  Aren't people given a little bit of leniency to not have to have a smile plastered on their face while sipping of the Corporate America Bullshit flavored Kool-Aid?

What?  No, seriously, what?  Is this a new concept, that Monday sucks, that Monday morning might retain some of the vestiges of the weekend, clinging to a person like a forlorn lover still abed?  I thought America was built on the notion that Mondays suck.  Facebook constantly reminds me on Sunday that Monday is the following day and that--watch out--the work week begins anew.

Apparently I missed a memo somewhere that I need to be happy and perky all. the. fucking. time.

So, here's to Monday, the best damned twenty-four hour period of time that can happen to a person!  May no one ever besmirch your good name again!  I so look forward to us meeting once more the following week!

And may all the perky Monday fans have their own Circle of Hell reserved for them.  On Tuesday.