Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Epic Battles of Monsters

Perhaps, it’s in human’s nature to find out who’s the ultimate champion. From the bloodbath in the Colosseum during Ancient Rome to the modern-day debate about Batman vs Superman, we simply love to know who’s the mightiest of all.

How about an epic battle between nature’s most fearsome creations?

Using the time machine, we brought back nature biggest, baddest monsters to battle for the title: King of the Ocean and Lord of the Land.

 

King of the Ocean: Mosasaurus vs Megalodon

Mosasaurus. Image credit: Sea Rex 3D: Journey To A Prehistoric World

 

Mosasaurus is a gigantic lizard (18 metres) that once dominated the Cretaceous seas 90 million years ago. It is believed to leave the land for the water. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event wiped out all the dinosaurs, including Mosasaurus.

Mosasaurus pretty much dined on everything, from shellfish, sharks to its own kind. Mosasaurus had about 50 massive sharp teeth. Its paddle-like limbs and strong tail provided it the speed, agility, and dexterity to be a deadly predator.

 

Megalodon Size comparison. Image credit: Fossilera

 

Megalodon lived during the Cenozoic Era and became extinct at the end of the Pliocene 2.6 million years ago.

How scary is Megalodon? Imagine the great white shark, except now it’s as big as a school 15 metres school bus. We could literally walk through a Megalodon’s 7 ft. jaws as though it’s a door. A door filled with more than 250 razor-sharp teeth. Given its humongous size, it feasted on whales and large fishes to survive. Megalodon is believed to be a strategic master as it patiently waited to strike with its preys with deadly precision.

 

The Battle:

The Ultimate Showdown: Mosasaurus vs Megalodon. Image credit: AcidGlow

 

Upon being released into a gigantic fish tank, both sea monsters started circling each other. Mosasaurus initiated the attack, trying to rip off a huge piece of its opponent.

Megalodon countered with its massive bite. After several clashes, both monsters went back to circling the other, looking for the opportunity to deliver the deadly bite.

The Ultimate Predator: Megalodon. Image credit: RyanBurns1988

 

Eventually, Mosasaurus had to surface to breathe, and this turned out to be its last breath as the Megalodon strike beneath the Mosasaurus with lightning speed. Although the Mosasaurus had thick skin, it would be not much for the unearthly fangs, cutting it to pieces.

Winner: Megalodon

 

Lord of The Land: Tyrannosaurus vs Spinosaurus

T-rex. Image credit: Wild Republic

 

Tyrannosaurus rex, arguably the most well-known dinosaur of all time, stood two-storied strong and was as long as a bus. T-rex came from North America, late Cretaceous period. The ferocious predator had the strongest jaw ever: a 4-foot-long jaw perfectly tailored for bone-crushing action. With that jaw, it could tear off 150 pounds of flesh in a bite.

Combine this with its massive thighs and powerful tail for balancing, and you have one of nature’s most ferocious predators. As though that’s not scary enough, this apex predator was also one of the smartest dinosaurs.

However, its profound weaknesses lie it its running ability and short forearms.

Spinosaurus. Image credit: National Geographic Kids

 

Although outshone by its counterpart in popularity, Spinosaurus remains as the biggest meat-eating dinosaur ever. Being a few feets longer and taller, it had the size advantage over T-rex. Spinosaurus lived in the Cretaceous period in Africa. In terms of diet, Spinosaurus resembles a crocodile, primarily dining on fish. Its mighty forearms with sharp claws were useful for hunting its prey.

Chad a massive sail-liked bone on its back, which is speculated to shedding heat and protecting against predators.

Despite dominating the rivers, Spinosaurus did not have much experience fighting bigger dinosaurs.

 

The Battle

The Big Showdown. Image credit: images.search.yahoo.com

 

The earth-shuddering roars of the two beasts blasted through valleys, as the greatest fight of in the land unraveled. T-rex charged at Spinosaurus‘s neck, trying to deliver the killer bite. The Spinosaurus dodged and snapped back. They went back and forth. Although both did not suffer severe injuries, bruises from bites and cuts were all over both dinosaurs.

All Hail, King T-rex. Image credit:i.pinimg.com

 

The Spinosaurus wore down as it wasn’t used to standing on two limbs. That’s when T-rex attacked. When the Spinosaurus lowered down from exhaustion, the T-rex delivered it otherworldly bite, snapping Spinosaurus‘s neck.

It thunderous roar followed, daring, “Who’s next?”

Winner: Tyrannosaurus


Spreading the cosmic seed of life

One of science’s greatest mysteries is the origin of life. To begin answering this, it’s worth discussing if life began on Earth or arrived from somewhere else via meteors. But how can meteors transport life-forms through the harsh vacuum of space to colonise new planets?

The Oort Cloud

The Oort Cloud might play a part in cosmic colonisation. So, what is this Oort cloud? Take our solar system with its 9 planets (fighting for Pluto’s rights) which orbit our sun via the force of gravity. Encapsulating these revolving planets is a spherical shell of ice and rock, known as the Oort Cloud (originally theorized by the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort). No one has seen the Oort Cloud because it’s so far from the sun, and thus is theoretical and may not exist. However, astronomers like Jan Oort had to explain a mystery within the Solar System. When comets pass through Solar System, they continually die by colliding into planets, or being ejected away by the forces of gravity. But despite these losses, comets just keep appearing. The astronomers wondered, why? By observing the rate of new meteors, Jan Oort decided there must be a massive reservoir of comets surrounding the Solar System. Thus, the ‘Oort Cloud’ theory was born.

The Oort Cloud                                           Credit via Flickr from Lwp Kommunikacio

Cosmic Spread of Life

So how does a reservoir of comets propagate life across the galaxy? Comets in the Oort Cloud are only loosely held by gravity because they’re so far away from the sun. Consequently, outside forces can easily dislodge them from their gravitational grip. Nebulas, a cosmic broth of gas and dust, are such a force. Star systems (like the Solar System) pass through these Nebulas as they revolve around the galaxy. Once they meet, gravitational forces from the nebula could dislodge comets from the star system’s Oort cloud.

If that happens, the rocks in the Oort cloud could jettison away from the solar system into deep space, never to be seen again. Alternatively, they could turn inwards and plunge into the solar system on a path towards the sun. If a comet collided with life-bearing planet (such as Earth), chunks of rock containing a variety of microbes would be blown into space away from the sun. These rocks carrying escapee microbes could then enter the same nebula. Stars and planets are born from snowballing gas and dust inside nebulas, and there’s a chance these newly-formed planets contain liquid water. So, if these microbe-containing rocks collide with these planets, the microbes could survive and reproduce in a new home. As the nebula matures into a star system and continues its journey through the galaxy, it too may disperse life the same way. Thus, life may be seeded around the whole galaxy.

Nebula                                                         Credit via Flickr from Riccardo Mussi

Hardy Microbes

But even if these unlikely events took place, could any microbe withstand the harsh vacuum of space? Researchers on the International Space Station tried to answer the question by studying a type of bacteria Bacillus pumilus, which releases spores to give rise to new bacteria. These spores are often deployed to resist extreme conditions, such as high heat or radiation. When the researchers exposed the spores to the extreme conditions of space, they found some survived for 18 months, hardly long enough to survive a cosmic voyage. But if these are Earth-dwelling microbes, why would they need the ability to survive in space? Maybe their unique trait was passed down by space-faring ancestors to arrive on Earth. The ability of space-survival may have depleted over generations because there’s no need for it on Earth.

Bacterial spores Credit via Flickr by Anthony D’Onofrio

Although comets flying around the galaxy carrying colonial microbes seems far-fetched, comets in the Oort Cloud and space-faring bacteria provide at least some evidence to back up these ideas. Who knows, maybe we have distant relatives in a faraway star system.


Aboriginal Astronomy: Navigating Seasons by the Stars

Not sure what to have for dinner tonight? What if the answer to this everyday question could be found in the night sky? You just need to know how to read the language of the stars.

‘Impossibly Beautiful Sky – Milky Way over Australia’ by Ed Webb via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Language of the Stars

Did you know that there are 150 indigenous languages in daily use today across Australia? This incredible diversity is also reflected in indigenous stories and knowledge systems relating to the night sky. Like the languages, these also differ from region to region in Australia.

Archaeoastronomy (a bit of a linguistic mouthful!) is the study of how societies in the past interpreted the stars and other phenomena in the sky. It also studies the historical role of astronomy in culture and everyday life. Researchers such as Dr Duane Hamacher and his students are working with indigenous communities around Australia to piece together stories and artifacts to gain a better understanding of Aboriginal Astronomy.

A petroglyph (suggested to depict a lunar eclipse event) in Ku-ring-gai National Park, NSW. Photo Credit: By Poyt448 Peter Woodard via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Sky Calendar

Stories and knowledge systems relating to the night sky were significant to Aboriginal cultures in a number of different ways including: guiding relationships between people; cultural and ceremonial practices; and guiding relationships between people and the land (nature).

In terms of the latter, Indigenous Australians tracked the movement of stars to predict the changing of seasons and linked them to important natural events on earth. For example, in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, the appearance of the M45 star cluster (you might know it as the Subaru logo) rising three hours before dawn signaled the arrival of the coldest nights of the year.

‘A colour-composite image of the M45 star cluster. Image Credit: By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory The science team consists of: D. Soderblom and E. Nelan (STScI), F. Benedict and B. Arthur (U. Texas), and B. Jones (Lick Obs.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tracking and prediction are made possible by understanding how the sky works. Different stars appear in the night sky at different times of the year due to the Earth’s rotation around the sun (and the Earth’s tilted axis). On any given day (at a certain position of the earth’s orbit) we are facing out towards a different section of the galaxy. The stars that we can’t see at that point in time are the ones that are hidden behind the sun.

As we orbit 180 degrees (over 6 months) around to the other side of the sun, the stars that were obscured can now be seen and vice versa.

Emu in the Sky

Interestingly Western interpretations of astronomy focuses mainly on the bright objects in the sky – the stars. Constellations you might be familiar with such as the Southern Cross or Orion’s belt are imagined by drawing lines between the stars, like a dot-to-dot exercise.

Aboriginal astronomy on the other hand also takes into account the ‘negative spaces’ of the sky. The Coalsack nebula is a dark patch that stretches across the southern section of the Milky Way – our galaxy. Many indigenous groups across Australia see this nebula as an emu, though they have different names and stories associated with it. The Boorong people from Victoria call it Tchingal; in Northern NSW it is known as gao-ergi.

‘The Coalsack Nebula’ Image Credit: Naskies via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples from Northern NSW tracked the movement and orientation of this nebula across the sky to keep pace with the breeding season of the emu on land.

The emu’s first full appearance in the sky is in April – May (before this, you can only see the head and neck of the emu). During this time the emu is angled in a way to appear to be running. This coincides with the mating season of the emu on land, where the female emu must run to pursue the male in courtship.

‘Emu in April – May’. Image Created by Bob Fuller using Stellarium Software. Emu artwork by Ghillar Michael Anderson. (Many thanks to Bob Fuller for his permission to use his images in this post)

In June – July, the emu moves into a horizontal position, signalling the nesting season. This is when emu eggs are available for collection and become an important food source during the winter.

‘Emu in June – July’. Image Created by Bob Fuller using Stellarium Software. Emu artwork by Ghillar Michael Anderson. (Used with Permission)

In August, the emu in the sky leaves the nest and heads West – signalling that it is too late to collect eggs, as they begin to hatch.

‘Emu in August – September. Image Created by Bob Fuller using Stellarium Software. Emu artwork by Ghillar Michael Anderson. (Used with Permission)

There is a large rock engraving of an emu in Ku-ring-gai National Park, NSW. It is in Kamilaroi country and is thought to be significant to the story of the emu traversing the sky. The emu in the sky aligns with the emu engraving on the rock during the significant months of June-July, when the eggs are collected.

Seasonal Eating

Another example of Aboriginal astronomy being used to guide relationships between people and nature can be found in Victoria. In Western Victoria natural food sources are scarce during the winter drought. The Wergaia people have a story about a woman called Marpeankurric who set out to search for food during this difficult time. She followed some ants that were marching into a bush and then disappearing underground. Curious, she started to dig to see where they were going. Marpeankurric uncovered a termite’s nest and dug up highly nutritious larvae (which they called bittur in their language). This food source sustains the Wergaia people throughout winter. When Marpeankurric passed away, they believe she became the star that we now call Arcturus (its Western name). Arcturus is a red giant, the reddish colour of this star is thought to reflect the colour of the ants she discovered. When this star rises in the evening during the winter, it signifies time to begin harvesting the bittur.

Scientific Stories

In addition to being important indicators of seasonal changes and food source availability, indigenous Australians also used the stars for navigation, ceremony, and cultural traditions that continue on today. Indigenous Australians have been developing complex knowledge systems for tens of thousands of years and passing this information on through the art of oral storytelling. They are the original master science communicators in Australia.

These fascinating stories which connect culture, history, nature and science make gazing at the night sky all the more meaningful. Luckily some of these stories have survived through time. There are many researchers and indigenous groups working together to bring to light the rich cultural and scientific history we have here in Australia.

Telling stories seems to have the potential to stand the test of time (if tens of thousands of years is any indication!) – but only if we take the time to learn them, to listen and to continue to pass them on however we can.


Seeing into the future with weather forecasting

Looks like the mercury is dropping to 9C tonight but very warm tomorrow and even warmer on Friday, 25C although a little wet! Spring has definitely kicked in.

Own screenshot via The Bureau of Meteorology

How is it that the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) knows this though? Is it a matter of some clever meteorologist staring at a weather map, maybe adding some lines and symbols and then coming up with this week’s forecast simply out of intellect and experience? About seventy years ago that was the case, but you would’ve been lucky if you got the weather more than a few hours ahead correct.

The future state of our atmosphere or in other words, the forecast weather, is actually governed by a whole bunch of maths/physics equations. These equations mainly arise from fluid dynamics, equations describing the flow of air and liquids, and thermodynamics, equations describing how heat flows in air and liquids (and solids by extension). If calculus doesn’t scare you too much, a nice summary of these equations can be found here.

Despite all this, it wasn’t until 1922 that a clever mathematician called Lewis Fry Richardson realised this. He was the founder of ‘numerical weather forecasting,’ which basically means using numbers rather than charts to predict the weather.

File:Lewis Fry Richardson.png

Lewis Fry Richardson – The father of modern weather forecasting via wikimedia commons

Richardson had a problem however. Due to the enormity of calculations involved, by the time the weather forecast had been calculated, the weather would have already passed. In fact the first ever numerical weather forecast, done by Richardson, took him 6 weeks to calculate and that was for only a 6 hour forecast! Not overly useful knowing it’s going to rain six weeks ago, albeit these were vital foundations.

 

Richardson therefore envisioned a ‘forecasting factory,’ a place where 64,000 ‘computers’, (this being the traditional definition of computer; a person who makes calculations) could work together in a stadium-like setting to calculate weather forecasts all over the globe. The idea was, for obvious reasons, impractical and Richardson’s ideas couldn’t be utilised until the invention of digital computers in the mid-1950s. These could finally do enough calculations quick enough to forecast the weather before it had already passed.

 

Since then computers have only become quicker and smarter. The Bureau of Meteorology’s current $77 million supercomputer can perform trillions of calculations a second, allowing for pretty accurate forecasts up to 7 days in advance.

Supercomputers fill entire rooms! Image via Flickr

The actual process of creating a weather forecast involves collecting temperature, pressure, humidity, density, wind direction and magnitude data as well as many other variables and applying the data to atmospheric models in the supercomputer. The ‘model’ is the set of equations described earlier that govern atmospheric flow. The supercomputer applies the data it receives to these equations (a huge task given how much data the computer receives) and outputs a forecast. The meteorologist’s expertise will analyse the data, make necessary adjustments and communicate the data to the relevant stakeholders.

 

Interestingly BOM’s largest stakeholder is the aviation sector not the public, as pilots are far more reliant on an accurate forecast compared to us on the ground. A wrong forecast in the air can be the difference between life and death whereas on the ground it probably means not having your umbrella handy when it unexpectedly rains!

Quality pilot knowledge of the weather = a safe flight. Image via Flickr

So why is the forecast sometimes wrong and why is it no longer accurate more than 7 days ahead? This is mainly as a result of the chaotic nature of the Earth’s atmosphere. It comes down to the fact that the tiniest atmospheric disturbance could be a storm within a day. This is a branch of mathematics known as ‘Chaos Theory’, sometimes referred to as the butterfly effect in meteorology. It describes the true sensitivity of the atmosphere, using the analogy that ‘a butterfly’s flap in Argentina could cause a hurricane in Texas.’

The abilities of computers therefore quite obviously have limits when it comes to disturbances on such an infinitesimally tiny scale.

Computers are however constantly developing at unimaginable rates. At the rate forecasting has improved since the last century who knows how far in advance we’ll be able forecast in 50 years. Maybe one day you’ll be able to plan next year’s summer holiday day-by-day based on the one year weather forecast!


Biohacking – DIY of the future

Science fiction loves exploring the idea of upgraded humanity.  For example, some characters have superhuman strength and defense abilities due to mechanical exoskeletons, like Tony Stark in Iron Man, or Matt Damon’s character in Elysium. Some modifications improve memory, as in the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You, while some help you forget, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, a growing movement of biohackers – part DIY self-improvement enthusiasts, part mad scientists- are blurring  the line between science fact and science fiction. They conduct experiments hoping to unearth our human potential by upgrading ourselves to be better, faster, and stronger.

Some biohackers take nootropics, a class of cognitive enhancing supplements which are used to improve focus, memory, and intelligence. The extensive list here includes everything from ritalin, caffeine, and marijuana, to some substances that I have never heard of, such as Huperzine A and Centrophenoxine. I personally would not suggest engaging in these so-called “smart drugs”, because if a cognitive supplement actually had all the benefits they claim to have, and were safe to use, it would be well documented with scientific research. That being said, I do rely on caffeine about 3 times a day.

At first, the biohacking movement seems diverse, largely dependent on the individual’s area of interest. There is a subculture called Grinder (not related to the one you’re thinking of) where people try to improve their bodies by implanting devices that measure body temperature, or vibrate when facing north, or by injecting LEDs under the skin, to mimic the natural process of bioluminescence.

LED implant, Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you would rather not have LED lights surgically inserted under your skin, you can opt for a Firefly tattoo, or more officially, a sub-dermal tritium lighting implant, which uses the decay of radioactive tritium gas to make a glowing light under your skin. You might be hesitant to put a radioactive glowing substance in your body, but don’t worry, they make it safe by giving it a special coating of lead oxide glass.  You get to choose from a wide range of colors, but the implant itself if just a small rectangle of light. It’s easy to imagine more personalized designs in the future. Firefly implants start at $99, but you may want to splurge on the local anesthetic, an extra $35.

What’s the point of all this, you may ask? Some biohackers do it because they want to improve the human condition, or because it pushes the edge of what’s possible. Some do it simply because they want to glow in the dark.  Biohacking modifications are frequently dangerous, usually untested, and often not approved by ethical review boards. That being said, if you are interested in this movement, you don’t have to go all out right away. Biohacking doesn’t have to be extreme. For example, wearing a Fitbit allows you to collect biometric data on the number of  hours you sleep, the steps you take, and your heart rate. The great thing about biohacking is that it’s bringing futuristic science out of the movies and into our homes, and generating interest among everyday people about what the future (and present) of humanity could be. 


Number of posts found: 2157