Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Astronomy, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Albedo: upon further reflection, it keeps getting better.
“Albedo: upon further reflection, it keeps getting better.”

I used to think “albedo” was a term for sex drive in people without skin pigmentation. This led to some very uncomfortable conversations. And, as someone who doesn’t tan very well, a lot of unsuccessful pickup lines.

As it turns out, albedo means something a little bit different. It’s another word for “reflection coefficient”, which is the ratio of light reflected off an object to the amount of light pumped in. For a highly shiny object — Gwyneth Paltrow’s forehead, say — then you have a high albedo, close to 1. On a much darker surface — where light rays check in, but they don’t check out — the albedo will be very close to zero.

A partial list of substances on the low end of the albedo scale:

A 7-11 asphalt parking lot: 0.12
Charcoal: 0.04
Vantablack carbon nanotube substance: 0.00035
C. Montgomery Burns’ shriveled heart: 0.002
Black hole: 0(-ish)
Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove album (revised cover): 0.000000001

(How much more black could it be? The scientific answer is: negligibly more black, allowing for measurement variability and prevailing experimental conditions. Nigel Tufnel wasn’t so far off.)

The albedo of most objects is affected by two things: the angle and the wavelength of light streaming in. Light glancing past is easier to reflect, and some materials have a preference for absorbing or bouncing back light of various colors.

In fact, that’s how we perceive objects as having colors; we only see the wavelengths bouncing off them that they neglected to absorb. If every substance sucked up every wavelength of light like some kind of solar paper towel, then they’d all be completely black.

Unlike non-solar paper towels, which are white. Because the Brawny man will clean up your coffee spills. But he’ll never take away your sunshine.

In astronomy, albedo is an important characteristic of faraway objects, and can be used to determine what they’re made of. One of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, has a surface of nearly pristine ice, and an albedo of 0.99. You could basically use Enceladus as a mirror to see if there’s spinach stuck between your teeth, except that its 750 million miles from your bathroom and your face would freeze if you got anywhere close to it.

This week’s flyby — or more accurately, screamingwhooooshby — of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft is providing details and answers to a question first raised by albedo measurements of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. These bodies (as well as Pluto’s other moons) are thought to have formed from a collision of two large objects many millions of years ago. But looking at light reflected from them, Pluto has an albedo in the range of 0.49 – 0.66, while Charon is much darker, at 0.36 – 0.39.

Why the difference? Are the two made of different substances, after all? Did somebody polish Pluto up to try to get it reinstated as a planet? Or is Charon just going through a “goth” phase?

These are answers that albedo alone can only hint at, for objects at the edge of our solar system and for planets many, many light years away. It’s not a perfect tool for astronomical discovery — but for the places our probes (and horny albinos) can’t reach, it’s an awfully good start.

Image sources: University of Washington (albedo spectrum), ChaCha (Gwyneth aglow), Brass Collar (“none more black”), Got a Nerdy Mind? (the Brawny menagerie)

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· Categories: Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Acoustic levitation: be uplifted by the sound.
“Acoustic levitation: be uplifted by the sound.”

Imagine you found an insect in your bathtub — a beetle, say. And also imagine that you’re a kind and compassionate soul — or maybe you actually are, in which case bully for you, Gandhi — and you want to move the beetle outdoors without harming it. That’s where the situation gets a bit complicated, because:

You don’t want to grab the bug, because you might accidentally bend a leg or antenna or something.

Also, you don’t want to catch the bug in a box or glass, because that’s cruel — and we’ve already established you’re a tree-frenching envirohippie paragon. At least for the duration of this thought experiment.

And really, you don’t want to touch the bug at all, because it’s gross. I don’t care how you feel about Mother Nature’s skittering nightmares. Nobody’s touching them on purpose. Ew.

So what do you do? It seems like yelling at the beetle to get the hell out of your bathtime sanctuary wouldn’t help — but actually, it might. If you could yell in a very specific and consistent way, and get the insect in just the right spot, and also maybe have a machine do the yelling for you, to make it less stressful for everyone.

(After all, what did that disgusting little bug ever do to you, other than rubbing its filthy thorax all over your tub?)

If you could produce just the right sort of sound waves, at a high enough volume and a suitable frequency, you could actually lift that beetle off its porcelain perch into mid-air, without ever physically touching it. The process is called acoustic levitation, and can be a lifesaver for manipulating things you don’t want to touch. Even with a Kleenex.

Acoustic levitation — or sonic levitation, as it’s sometimes called — relies on the force of sound waves colliding with an object. Under normal circumstances, this force is tiny. It might nudge a few atoms around, but it’s too weak to get anything fancy accomplished.

However. If you concentrate enough sound waves together, then channel your inner Nigel Tufnel and turn the volume all the way up to 11, those puny nudges multiply into a force that can defy gravity — at least when applied small objects, like that bathtub beetle. Or a computer chip. Or an unstable chemical.

Of course, it helps to use “ultrasonic” signals — those outside the range of human hearing — lest you blast out your own eardrums trying to float a butterfly off your medicine cabinet. Typical volumes for effective acoustic levitation signals are 150 decibels and higher.

That’s basically the equivalent of listening to a NASA rocket launch from the comfort of a chair that’s been strapped to the bottom of the solid fuel booster. Or sharing an elevator with Donald Trump. But because human ears can’t “pick up” ultrasonic frequencies, we’re not deafened by the prodigious ruckus being created by acoustic levitation experiments. We’re also too big to be lifted off the floor by those experiments — and that’s where the beetles and other small objects come in.

There are many advantages to holding something in the air using only sound. Those computer chips, for example, could be examined — or even manufactured — with a complete panoramic view, and no worries about using electromagnetic forces for levitation, either. Chemicals can be mixed or tested without fear of breaking their container, because there is no container. And yes, maybe you could get an insect out of your bathroom without needing a desperate shower yourself.

Mostly, scientists are working on the computer chips and chemicals sort of applications for acoustic levitation. But maybe a beetle crawling up some egghead’s shower head will get them moving on the last one, too. We can only hope.

In the meantime, researchers have managed to move objects around with sound, too. With the right mix of frequencies, sources and intensity, levitated objects can be made to dance, move and travel around the acoustic field. This opens up huge possibilities for what acoustic levitation can do in fields from manufacturing to medicine. Maybe someday, we’ll all have kits that will float those bathroom beetles right out the window to freedom, No muss, no fuss.

In the meantime, I suggest yelling at the bugs as loud as you can. That might not get rid of them, but at least other people will probably come running. They’ll probably know what to do. Or at least bring a Kleenex.

Image sources: LiveScience (acoustically-levitated beetle), Cool Advices, Brooklyn Magazine (Nigel Tufnel, going to 11), Salon (Trump, mid-dump)

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· Categories: Biology, Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

“Where there’s an ‘oh face’, there are endorphins.”

It’s no wonder people get excited about endorphins. If you believe the Wikipedia, endorphins are released “during exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food consumption, love, and sexual activity”.

On the other hand, so is ass sweat. But you never hear fitness gurus talking about “runners’ butt”. What’s so special about endorphins?

The first hint is in the name itself. “Endorphin” is actually bits of two words jammed together; namely, ‘endo-‘, meaning internal, and ‘-orphin’, meaning morphine. Without the ‘m’ or the ‘e’, for some reason — which just goes to show, even scientists lose their shit and get sloppy when morphine is involved.

Endorphins aren’t literally morphine made inside your body; they’re small peptides recognized by the same brain cell receptors that bind morphine. But whereas putting morphine in your body leads to dependence, drug addiction and 19th century Chinese opium dens, releasing endorphins blocks pain, promotes mild euphoria and helps you power through that third order of Chernobyl hot wings.

Another thing endorphins may do is create the fabled “runners’ high” that annoyingly healthy people with spectacular calves are always yammering about. For years, scientists couldn’t directly test brain endorphin levels in runners to confirm the theory, so it could have been anything causing the buzz: adrenaline, fancy running shoes or compression shorts two sizes too small. But new technology finally allowed them to pin the phenomenon on increased endorphins glomming onto brain cells during a jog.

Not that they ruled out the compression shorts. They just didn’t want to look too closely at those.

(Also, different researchers point to the neurotransmitter anandamide, which is an endocannabinoid, or — you guessed it, body-made weed juices.

Man, our bodies are so busy making knockoff drug compounds, I’m surprised we ever get anything accomplished.)

So endorphins are pretty important. Remember: exercise, pain, eating spicy food and having sex. All activities in which we make the same face, and all associated with endorphin release. It’s probably no coincidence.

There can be downsides to endorphin production. Studies suggest that postpartum depression is a side effect of endorphin withdrawal. Apparently, the placenta produces endorphins during pregnancy, and the fetus milks that good-time vibe for all the nutrients it can grab. After birth, Mom’s endorphin levels suddenly drop and she can fall into a funk.

(So can the child, presumably. But the kid’s so busy learning to drool and poop and cram things into its mouth that it probably doesn’t notice.)

There’s also depersonalization disorder, a mental issue linked in part to endorphins. And the ever-present risk of accidentally signing up for an endorphin lab study — because seriously, researchers love these things.

In one experiment — proving what enormous dicks scientists can be sometimes — they studied people getting acupuncture treatment, probably for stress or pain relief. So how did they measure the amount of endorphins released?

With spinal taps. Because nothing says “relief” to an endorphin researcher quite like, “let me suck some spinal fluid out the small of your back”.

So exercise and sex it up and stuff wasabi up your nostrils, if you want. But maybe — for your safety, and everyone else’s sake — keep your endorphins to yourself.

And ditto for the ass sweat. Just sayin’.

Image sources: GuideChem (alpha-endorphin), Inquisitr (Sonya Thomas wing face), Dogs in Need of Space (happy runners), Smosh (“Oh” face)

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