Mystery Solved!

Oh. Boy. A mystery solved. Death Valley’s bizarre moving rocks have stumped visitors and scientists for decades. Boulders of black dolomite appear to move on their own across the playa’s flat lakebed, even sliding uphill. No one saw them move – their trails are the only evidence. Now they have been observed. Gentle winds slide the rocks across thin, ephemeral sheets of ice. Many years may pass until conditions are right. “A series of wet winter storms created the perfect conditions from December 2013 through February 2014. Hundreds of rocks scooted across Racetrack Playa five times in 10 weeks…It’s a wonderful Goldilocks phenomenon.”

Volcano Stirs – a poem by Kate Rauner

Iceland earthquakes_bardarbunga_volcano_august_20_map

Iceland earthquakes on August 20, 2014

Fire and ice,
Water and ash,
Volcanoes’ heat
Is tapped at last.
Until the earth,
Twitching hourly,
Offers a class
In volcanology.
Ash to bring
The airplanes down,
Lava threatens
Roads and towns.
Melting glaciers
Flood the sea
And flood the homes
And shops and streets.
The hidden folk
Are Iceland hearty.
When elves dance
It’s a wild party.
As I wrote this, the Baroarbunga volcano was not in a full eruption, so no floods and lava flows yet. Iceland’s thirty active volcanoes provide geothermal electricity, heat, and hot water as well as potential destruction. Wikipedia doesn’t mention if Iceland’s Huldufolk cause earthquakes or eruptions, but I could imagine such Good People from folklore have a hand in the volcanoes.

Hitch a Ride With NASA



I recently posted a poem about The Planetary Society‘s CubeSat, a tiny satellite that fits in your hand. The little guys are standardized, “approximately four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds.”While more than one company will launch CubeSats, NASA is offering rides into orbit with them.The current effort is part of a White House initiative to encourage private space industry, offer educational opportunities, and complement NASA missions. Groups sending up CubeSats must fund the satellite themselves – about the cost of a new car. (Okay, a very nice new car, maybe a Tesla. But that’s still a cheap way to get your mission into orbit. An opportunity for citizen scientists interested in space-based technologies.)CubeSat missions launched through NASA must meet NASA criteria. Applicants will submit proposals electronically by 4:30 p.m. EST, Nov. 25. There’s more here.

The New Doctor Who Saturday

Tom Baker was "my" Doctor

Tom Baker was “my” Doctor

Is everyone ready for the new Doctor Who, premiering tomorrow – Saturday – in the US? The 13th doctor (yes, I count the War Doctor) kicks off the season.

Like many 20th century Americans, Tom Baker was “my” doctor, the measure of all doctors after him and before him. (I watched the doctors out of sequence. My personal quirks: I’ve never seen much of the second Doctor at all, and I am not fond of The Master. But, then, I don’t like Professor Moriarty much in the Sherlock Holmes canon, so consider the source.)

If what I wrote is incomprehensible, perhaps you’re not a Whovian fan. Don’t worry, you can start watching on Saturday: try “not get overly worried about the continuity and minutia and instead enjoy the wit and high-paced, high-stakes adventure.” Doctor Who easily changes the rules, both of the show and of physics, as necessary, so don’t waste energy trying to out-guess him. There’s loads on the Internet if you want background (you may drown in it) or try one little piece here.

Pain On a Scale of One to Ten – a poem by Kate Rauner

Is your pain in your knees?Oxycodone3DanBS
Is your pain in your head?
Who owns your pain
And where has it led?
Who makes the pills
And who makes the rules?
Who gets to decide?
Your struggle’s not yours.
Malpractice insurance,
Politicians and lawyers,
Family and doctors,
Police and employers.
The injured are pitied,
The addicts condemned.
Is heroine cheaper
Than OxyContin?
Fraud or dependence,
From tales we’ve heard
Patients in pain are
And under-cured.


Inspired by a story at The Atlantic regarding pain traced to somatic (“in the body”) origins. Suffering from mental illness is its own topic.

Surfing the Quantum Vacuum



I’ve posted about the Light Sail technology, which can propel a spacecraft with the momentum from the sun’s photons. Here’s another no-fuel technology for spacecraft: the Q-Thruster which uses microwaves generated using solar power. It sounds ridiculous at first; it “violates the law of conservation of momentum.” That doesn’t sound promising, but NASA tested the device and found a very small thrust force. Tiny effects can fool scientists – I remember the “cold fusion” kerfuffle many years ago which quickly died when initial results could not be duplicated.

The NASA team is quoted as writing that the device is “producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and, therefore, is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.” Sounds wild. From EM Drive it seems a related device has been presented at conferences and an evaluation published in a Chinese journal. There’s not enough here yet for me to abandon myself to excitement – I remain cautious. But it would be cool if quantum physics, which sounds so weird, yielded a visible effect that lowers the cost of spacecraft. Keep an eye out for more on this.

PS: I just read this cautionary piece on Don’t break out the champagne yet: “A propellant-less drive technology would be awesome, but we’ve not yet seen sufficient evidence for one.”