Category Archives: science

Solving the Mystery of the Carolina Bays

The origin of the Carolina Bays presents a formidable puzzle for geologists and astronomers.  The elliptical bays with sandy rims look like they were made by huge impacts, but they do not have the characteristic markers associated with extraterrestrial impacts.  The dates of the terrain on which the bays are found span millennia, forcing scientists to conclude that the bays must have been made by the action of wind and water over the last 140,000 years.  A new geometrical survey has found that the Carolina Bays are perfect ellipses with similar width-to-length ratios as the Nebraska rainwater basins.  This book starts from the premise that if the Carolina Bays are conic sections, they must have originated from oblique conical cavities that were transformed by geological processes to their current form.  Mathematical analysis following this line of reasoning provides clues supporting the idea that the Earth was hit during the ice age by an extraterrestrial object.  The impact may have triggered the Younger Dryas cold event and caused the extinction of the North American megafauna and the Clovis culture.  The Carolina Bays are the remodeled remains of oblique conical craters formed on viscous ground by secondary impacts of glacier ice boulders ejected from the primary impact site.

Our grandchildren will have to cope without fossil fuels

If the exploitation of fossil fuels becomes economically prohibitive in 50 to 100 years, our grandchildren and our 4th generation descendants will have to find new ways to power their cities and industries. In addition, they will have to try to reverse the effects of global warming from the combustion products of fossil fuels that we are using today.

It is unlikely that industrialized nations will give up the use of fossil fuels any time soon because they are so convenient and so cheap. In spite of the Kyoto Protocol and similar agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the use of fossil fuels will only stop when these fuels cannot be economically extracted from the Earth. BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy” published in mid 2014 says that the world has in reserves 892 billion tons of coal, 186 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 1688 billion barrels of crude oil. At current rates of usage, the oil and gas will be exhausted in 55 years, and the coal will last 113 years.[1]

Hydroelectric power will not be a viable option in the future because global warming will reduce the glacier ice in the mountains which is the source of the water in the rivers. Similarly, the experiences with Chernobyl and Fukushima show us that we cannot build nuclear power plants that guarantee the safety of our environment. One accident can make the surface of the Earth uninhabitable for hundreds or thousands of years, and no satisfactory solution has been found for the problem of disposing of nuclear waste that remains radioactive for millennia. The zone contaminated by the Fukushima disaster is roughly 310 sq miles (800 sq km). Radioactive cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, and since it takes about 10 half-lives for any radionuclide to decrease to a tolerable radiation level, the Fukushima exclusion zone will be closed to human habitation and farming for at least 300 years. The Fukushima nuclear reactors are still leaking radioactive material, and if one of the heavily damaged reactors should collapse, additional radiation would be released and much of Japan could become uninhabitable.[2]

This only leaves geothermal, tidal, wind and solar energy as the safest and most reliable power sources for the future. Geothermal energy is used extensively in Iceland, but places which are not in volcanic areas would have to dig very deep to tap the heat in the crust of the Earth. The use of energy from tides and marine currents may only be practical in coastal areas. Similarly, the use of wind energy may only be feasible in areas with constant winds.

Solar energy appears to be the most abundant and widely available clean energy source, and it can be harvested through photovoltaic cells and through biofuels. Biofuels require irrigation, and that is a problem when our supply of fresh water is limited. In a world where there is much hunger, it is a perversion to use corn or cane sugar to fuel our machinery. Farmland should not be used for fuel production because the population of the Earth will only increase and therefore more land will be required for food production. Only cellulose from grasses, or the inedible parts of plants should be used for biofuels. Perhaps algal aquaculture on the surface of the ocean or harvesting the algal blooms that pollute the oceans might be a source of biofuels. If photovoltaic cells could be produced by processes that do not cause pollution, the roofs of our buildings could be covered with photovoltaic cells that could help us meet many of our daily energy needs. Germany is already making substantial progress in the use of solar energy in houses and factories.

[1] BP. Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.

[2] Steven Starr, Costs and Consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster.

Could methane be stored as a clathrate on Mars?

The first definitive detection of methane gas on Mars was reported in 2009[1]. The atmosphere of Mars is highly oxidized, consisting mainly of carbon dioxide gas (95%). With a photochemical lifetime of only 400 years, methane should not be present unless it was released on an ongoing basis. On Earth, about 95% of the methane is produced by biological organisms and the rest is produced by geochemistry. The presence of methane on Mars demonstrates that Mars is an active planet which is actively releasing trace gases that provide a window into its internal processes.

The release of methane on Mars suggests that Mars might now harbor an active microbial life below the surface, but it is also possible that the release of methane is driven by chemical reactions of hot rock with water and carbon dioxide deep underground. The seasonal release of methane suggests thermal control of the release mechanism.

A possibility that thus far has not been considered is that methane can be trapped within the crystal structure of water to form methane clathrate which on the Earth is found in permafrost and at the bottom of the ocean. The phase diagram of methane clathrate[2] shows that it may be possible that methane clathrate would be stable in the Martian environment with an atmospheric pressure of 600 Pa and temperatures averaging 218 K at the surface. Underground, the pressure would be higher making the formation of methane clathrate more likely.

Although scientists are very eager to find some kind of life on Mars, the seasonal variation of atmospheric methane could just be due to the decomposition and regeneration of methane clathrate, or some other physical or chemical process. Let us not forget that Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, has lakes of liquid methane on its surface. Jumping to the conclusion that the presence of methane indicates life is not good science. Proof of life will have to come from biology, and not necessarily from chemistry.

Learn about Earth’s atmosphere

[1] Mumma, MJ; Villanueva, GL; Novak, RE; Hewagama, T; Bonev, BP; DiSanti, MA; Mandell, AM; Smith, MD, Strong release of methane on Mars in northern summer 2003, Science, Volume: 323, Issue: 5917, Page: 1041-1045, Year: FEB 20 2009

[2] Laura A. Stern, Stephen H. Kirby, William B. Durham, Peculiarities of Methane Clathrate Hydrate Formation and Solid-State Deformation, Including Possible Superheating of Water Ice, Science, 27 September 1996, Vol. 273 no. 5283 pp. 1843-1848
DOI: 10.1126/science.273.5283.1843

Neandertals among us

Neandertals lived in Europe and Asia from about 250,000 to 30,000 years ago.  They had bigger brains than modern humans, but they never advanced technically beyond the stone age.  Not too many years ago, archeologists and paleoanthropologists thought that modern humans had outcompeted the Neandertals and caused their demise.

Advances in analysis of ancient DNA and genetic testing have revealed that the Neandertals did not just disappear.  They mated with modern humans when they met in Europe thousands of years ago and produced offspring with genes from both species.  Modern humans of non-African origin have up to 3% Neandertal DNA.  The people with the greatest concentration of Neandertal DNA are found in the region of Tuscany, Italy.

The story of human evolution is becoming clearer with the use of genetic testing.  A tiny bone found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia provided DNA of previously unknown people which were different from Neandertals and modern humans.  It turned out that these Denisovan people actually contributed 3% to 5% of their DNA to modern Melanesians and Australian Aborigines.  The importance of the tiny bone would not have been recognized without genetic testing of its DNA.

Learn more about Human Evolution

Carolina Bays formed from slow-speed glacier ice impacts

According to a recent theory, during an ice age, 12,900 years ago, a meteorite or comet struck the massive glaciers that covered the Great Lakes region.  The catastrophe caused the extinction of the saber tooth tigers and other large animals that lived in North America at that time.  Thus far, no meteorite fragments from such an impact have been found.  The formation of the Carolina Bays has been claimed to be one consequence of the extraterrestrial impact.  A meteorite strike on the Laurentide ice sheet would have sent enormous ice boulders from the glaciers, many as big as two football fields, all the way from central Michigan to the Carolinas and Georgia.  The impacts of the huge chunks of ice formed shallow craters that became the Carolina Bays.

A new impact model solves the mystery of why almost all the Carolina Bays are perfect ellipses by interpreting them as conic sections.  The oblique impacts created tilted conical cavities which at the intersection with the level surface of the Earth are conic sections that appear as elliptical craters.  The ice boulders had velocities of 3 to 3.6 kilometers per second, which is much slower than the 17 kilometers per second for asteroids or 50 kilometers per second for comets.  Impacts at the slower speeds would create shallow oval craters. The craters would be deeper at the terminal end due to the inclined incidence of the impact. The craters would also have raised rims, particularly at the terminal end of the ellipse.  When the glacier ice impactors melted, the melt water created pools in the depressions.  Most of the oval pools eventually filled by silting and viscous relaxation of the ground to produce the Carolina Bays.

Geologists have refused to accept Carolina Bays as impact sites because the target zones do not exhibit signs of shock metamorphism created by high velocity impacts and no meteorite fragments or chemical elements from meteorites have been found.  The new impact model states that the slow speed of the glacier ice impacts would not produce shock metamorphism, and because the glacier ice is of terrestrial origin, there would be no traces of meteorites or sidereal chemical elements. However, the model predicts the location where it might be possible to find stones that were originally embedded in the glacier ice.

Read more about the Carolina Bays

The End of the World is coming

The End of the World is coming on December 21, 2012 according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.  Enough people are concerned about this doomsday prediction that they are taking special precautions.  In Michigan, Matt Wandrie, superintendent for Lapeer Community Schools, closed 30 Michigan schools two days early for the Christmas holidays.  There were numerous rumors circulating about potential threats of violence against students following the recent shootings that killed 20 children in Connecticut.  According to Wandrie, the ancient predictions of apocalypse were a secondary concern, but the rumblings about violent threats against schoolchildren were more serious.

Rational people should know that time does not stop just because your clock stops.  Calendars are just clocks that measure time in days instead of minutes.  So, reaching the last day of the calendar does not mean that the world will end.  It just means that you need to flip the page of the calendar to start measuring a new era.

Calendar adjustments have been made throughout the ages.  Pope Gregory XIII introduced the calendar that we now use on February 24, 1582.  The Gregorian calendar corrected an error in the Julian calendar that preceded it.  The Julian calendar considered the year to consist of 365.25 days, when in fact it is about 11 minutes shorter. This discrepancy, although small, caused the seasons to drift by about three days every 400 years. At the time of Gregory’s reform, the vernal equinox that marks springtime was already 10 days earlier than in Roman times.  The new calendar skipped 10 days to get the seasons in agreement with earlier times.  This was equivalent to setting the hands of a clock forward for a clock that had been running too slowly.  Superstitious people believed that this change of the calendar would cut their lives short by 10 days.

The end of the world has been predicted and described many times.  The Biblical story of Noah’s Ark tells how the world survived when God decided to destroy the world because of mankind’s evil deeds.  But the world did not end. The real end of the world will come in about 5000 million years when the Earth is engulfed by our Sun after it runs out of hydrogen and changes into a red giant star.  We will not be around to see that.  Before then, a supervolcanic eruption or a collision with a large asteroid would be two natural events that could wipe out mankind, but we cannot predict when that might happen.  In the meantime, we will be lucky if we are able to survive the next thousand years without becoming extinct from our own pollution and our weapons.

Learn more about the End of the World

Scientific Research in Washington DC

Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Institution of Washington as an organization for scientific discovery in 1902.  The organization changed its name in 2007 to the Carnegie Institution for Science to reflect the fact that scientists work not only in Washington, but in six scientific departments on the West and East Coasts of the United States.  The Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism are both located on a beautiful campus at 5241 Broad Branch Road, NW in Washington, D.C.

The Department of Terrestrial Magnetism was founded in 1904 to map the geomagnetic field of the Earth. This goal was accomplished by 1929, and the focus of the department’s research shifted toward understanding the Earth and its place in the universe.  Today, the department has an interdisciplinary team of geophysicists, geochemists, astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmochemists and planetary scientists.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton is the director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. Dr. Elkins-Tanton conducts research on the evolution of terrestrial planets, and the relationships between Earth and life on Earth.  One of Dr. Elkins-Tanton’s latest projects analyzed the relationships between large volcanic provinces and global extinction events, focusing on the gaseous emissions of sulfur, chlorine, and fluorine from the Siberian flood basalts and their possible contribution to the end-Permian extinction 251 million years ago.  In the above photograph, Dr. Elkins-Tanton introduces a lecture on the use of pressure to make novel materials by Dr. Timothy A. Strobel of the Geophysical Laboratory.

Dr. Strobel answers questions after his presentation

The Geophysical Laboratory was founded in 1905 to examine the physics and chemistry of Earth’s deep interior. The laboratory is a world-renowned center for the study of rock compositions. The laboratory’s research in high-pressure and high-temperature physics has produced many scientific publications in both Earth and material sciences.

Dr. Russell J. Hemley is the director of the Geophysical Laboratory.  His research program has expanded to include high-pressure experimental and theoretical studies in condensed matter physics, Earth and planetary science, and materials science.

The Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism host a series of Neighborhood Lectures at 5251 Broad Branch Road, NW, Washington, DC 20015.  The lectures are open to the public and provide information about the research programs.  Light refreshments are served after the lectures.  Click this link for more information about the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Learn about the Timeline of the Earth

Skeptics doubt global warming

A NASA report stating that it was “unprecedented” that melting was taking place on 97 percent of Greenland’s ice cover was criticized by people who doubt that global warming is actually occurring. The critics point out that the current melting may be part of a regular planetary cycle that recurs approximately every 150 years, with the last one happening in 1889. Furthermore, they say that the current fires in the west coast and the drought in the central and southern part of the U.S. are just variations within the normal range of weather patterns and are not the result of global warming.

Is global warming real, or is it an exaggeration? If it is real, and if it is caused by the carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, there is something that we can do about it by switching to alternate sources of energy. If we don’t do anything about global warming, there are serious consequences. Two major things will happen: 1) as the ice in Greenland and Antarctica melt, the sea level will rise by several feet flooding coastal communities around the world, and 2) the shrinking glaciers and snow cover in the mountains will decrease the flow of fresh water in the rivers thus reducing our crop yields and our food supply.

Some scientists have predicted that there will be a mass extinction event in about 200 years if nothing is done about the rate at which we are putting carbon dioxide into the air. Basically, we are killing ourselves and many other fragile life forms with our pollution. After humans are gone, other life forms will inherit the Earth.

The following video shows a huge newly discovered rift in Antarctica that will create a giant glacier when the ice finally breaks. You may hear about this in the news soon.

Did Cleopatra bathe in milk?

At last, healthy feet

It has been widely reported, although not confirmed, that Cleopatra bathed in milk. The practice may seem eccentric and somewhat bizarre, but close analysis indicates that bathing in milk or washing the skin with milk has some merits.

At room temperature, milk is fermented by bacteria that produce lactic acid. Such bacteria are commonly found in yogurt. Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid with the chemical formula CH3CH(OH)COOH. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) are used extensively in the cosmetics industry in products claiming to reduce wrinkles, fade age spots and improve the overall look and feel of the skin. They are also used by dermatologists in chemical peels, and by beauty spas and home kits in lower concentrations. The effectiveness of alpha-hydroxy acids for improving the skin is well documented, although there are many cosmetic products with exaggerated claims. It is quite reasonable to expect that washing the skin with milk could promote the growth of lactobacilli bacteria that would help to remove dead skin cells by the action of the acid generated. In addition, the butterfat in milk would act as a moisturizer to prevent the skin from becoming dry.

Recent studies have revealed that many microbes inhabit the skin and mucosa of the digestive system of healthy humans. It is estimated that there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body and that these bacteria are beneficial by preventing the growth of pathogenic organisms.[1] In view of this, we should question whether the use of antibacterial soaps is useful or harmful. Killing the beneficial bacteria on our skin could leave us vulnerable to infections by fungi and disease-causing bacteria.

I recently read Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone. This book describes the life cycle of fungi and the lengths to which people go to find edible wild mushrooms. The book points out the pervasiveness of fungi throughout nature, the fungal infections that afflict humans, and the intricate and delicate balance of conditions required to culture mushrooms.

I decided to integrate some of the ideas of the human microbiome and the knowledge that I had gained from reading this book to fight a minor, but persistent athlete’s foot infection that I had had since my early twenties. For more than 40 years, I had used antifungal powders and creams to keep the infection in check, but nevertheless, I still had scaly feet and rough heels.

My new treatment consisted of scrubbing the feet with a lava stone to remove dead skin while showering. After the shower, I rubbed about one tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide to each foot so that the bubbling action of the hydrogen peroxide could loosen flaky skin. While the feet dried, I mixed one teaspoon of plain yogurt with a quarter cup of milk and stirred. Once the feet were dry, I applied the milk inoculated with yogurt to my feet making sure to rub the feet thoroughly, including between the toes. I allowed the milk to air dry, and applied a little bit of coconut oil to the feet as a moisturizer. My feet looked healthy with no sign of fungus infection after two weeks of this daily treatment, as shown in the picture above.

I feel that this experiment, although not scientifically rigorous, demonstrates that the milk-yogurt mixture changed the environment of my feet to promote the growth of bacteria that inhibited the persistent fungus. Looking at Cleopatra’s milk baths from this perspective makes a lot more sense now.

[1] Human microbiome, Wikipedia

Global warming brings early cherry blossoms

Carpet of cherry blossomsThe USDA published a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map based on the average annual minimum winter temperatures.  Growers and gardeners use the map as a guide to determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. When the new guide came out, it was evident that the hardiness zones had shifted further to the north.  This is a clear indication that the plants feel that the weather is warmer.  Some lettuce plants that sprouted in the fall in Washington, DC survived the winter without freezing.  Washington’s famous cherry trees reached peak bloom two weeks earlier than usual, and the Cherry Blossom Festival had to be held earlier.  By the end of March, which is the usual time of the festival, the flowers were gone and the ground and the cars were covered with cherry blossom petals.
Car covered with cherry blossoms
The release of the new hardiness map did not mention global warming because this is a political hot topic in the United States.  If global warming is accepted as a fact, there are economic implications.  For example, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will have to be controlled by reducing the combustion of fossil fuels.  This would reduce the profits for energy producers, car manufacturers, and many other industries.  To maintain the current business models, it is better to deny global warming and continue burning fossil fuels.  There is another reason why manufacturers would like to keep the status quo.  If the cost of fossil fuels is raised to try to reduce their use, new alternative fuel technologies and green power sources will be developed to compete with existing industries.  This is bad for the businesses that profit from the consumption of fossil fuels.  They will be like the buggy whip manufacturers that eventually went out of business when internal combustion vehicles replaced horse-drawn carriages and became the main mode of personal transportation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Global warming poses a real threat to our ecosystems, including the risk of mass extinctions.  The winters with little snow, tornadoes before springtime, rising sea levels, and early blooming of trees are all signs of warmer weather.  The rise in temperatures is correlated with the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide which started with the industrial revolution.  It is getting harder and harder to deny the impact that our industrialization is having on our planet.

Geologic history of the Earth and global warming