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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Jun 20, 2018

On This Week’s Show

  • The melt rate of the Antarctic...the news ain’t good, folks
  • Mars Rover Opportunity Hunkers Down for the Big Dust Storm
  • Animals Are Doing their best to avoid us, and staying up late
  • Stephen Hawking’s ashes buried in Westminster Abbey
  • The Pub Quiz
  • There is no Climate Lounge today. Tom Di Liberto and his wonderful wife have just brought a new scientist into the world!

Listener feedback

Will Simmonds: "Just wanted to say I love the show, gives me great information and entertainment on my runs. I’m especially loving the pub quizzes, but maybe try expand on the answer with a fact, etc. The New Arsehole of the Month is a fantastic addition. However, I'm rather baffled at how some of these people acquire these high state positions."

Science News with Dr. Amrita Sule and Chris MacAlister

Antarctic Melt Rate Has Tripled in the Last 25 Years

Antarctica is a continent roughly the size of United States and Mexico combined. It is covered with ice sheets. If all of this ice were to melt it would increase the water levels by 60 meters. Although this is not going to happen overnight and these ice sheets have more or less remained in place for past 10,000 years.

Antarctic Petrel

But Antarctica is indeed melting!! Reports published recently revealed that Antarctica has lost around 3 trillion tons of ice in just the past 25 years, and this ice loss has accelerated rapidly over the last five years. This is pushing up the global sea levels by 0.6 mm annually – which might seem pretty small but it’s not if you look at cumulative increase.

For this new study, satellite measurements have been used to track changes in ice sheets since the early 1990s. These satellites scanned Antarctic ice sheets with altimeters to gain information about its volume. Another type of satellite measurement tracked the speed at which it moves towards the ocean. Some satellites are equipped to weigh the ice sheet by sensing gravitational pull of earth. These measurements are helpful in telling you what is its sea level contribution.

There has been some uncertainty associated with regional differences in Antarctica. This study helps clear that up.  For example, West Antarctica and Antarctic peninsula, have been known for some time to lose ice but not east Antarctica, which has been stable for most time. Therefore East Antarctic has always caught the attention of people who deny the science of Global Warming. But recent studies show higher melt rates in certain regions east Antarctica as well. So there you go!

The majority of losses do come from melting of West Antarctic ice sheets due to warm ocean water melting some glaciers from the bottom up. In 25 years, this has caused about 8 millimeters of sea level rise and about 40% of this rise has happened in past five years. This definitely increases our concern about what the future may hold.

BBC Science and Environment, Live Science, Scientific American, New York Times,

Mars Rover Opportunity Hunkers Down for the Big Dust Storm

Did you guys ever see the Martian, with Matt Damon? Despite the lead character being a botanist and the wealth of good science that is in the film; the main event that triggers the plot of the film, the big Martian storm is not so scientifically accurate. Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth so Martian storms don’t reach anything like the severity of our storms. That said, this story is about the Mars rover, Opportunity being put at risk by a Martian storm. And not just any Martian storm but the biggest one ever recorded!

The threat to Opportunity isn’t from the physical impact of the storm itself, but from the Martian dust that is getting blow around in it. Opportunity is solar powered and a big storm like this will seriously reduce the amount of sunlight that makes it down to planet’s surface. Now, this storm was predicted so Opportunity has been put into maximum power saving mode and now all that the guys at NASA can do now is hope that the batteries can outlast the storm.

This isn’t the first time the Opportunity has had to endure a storm like this but there are two crucial differences on this occasion. First, as I said earlier, this is the biggest storm seen to date on Mars, and second; Opportunity is no spring chicken anymore. It is staggering to think about what Opportunity has achieved in its time on Mars. The rover’s mission was initially given a duration of 90 days; this mission is now at well over 5000 days and counting! No other rover has ever covered more distance off world. Opportunity completed a Martian marathon 3 year ago and then kept going!

Opportunity will remain in hibernation for a few weeks so we won’t know anything until the time comes to rouse it from its slumber. But even if this does spell the end for the opportunity mission, that little rover owes nothing to anyone. It has vastly outperformed anything that anyone ever expected of it and it will have deserved a very well earned rest.

Live Science, Live Science, LA Times,, National Geographic

Humans Forcing Animals To Become Nocturnal

Coming back to earth, let’s see what are WE up to and by WE... I mean human beings. Looks like we have now managed to annoy some animals to an extent that they rather sleep through the day and stay up at night just to avoid us.

Count me in too. We “humans” have now  impacted about 75% of earth’s land surface and therefore animals have opted to adapt to a different lifestyle especially when they are in proximity of cities or areas buzzing with human activity. Many animals fear humans and we do come across as noisy and dangerous to them. So they often try to avoid us. But it is becoming more and more difficult for them to migrate to a human free space. Why? Because WE are everywhere.

A study published in Science this week pointed out that mammals across the globe not just limited to coyotes, elephants and tigers have altered their sleep schedules and are becoming increasingly nocturnal to avoid increased human presence.

This kind if behavioral activity has been tracked over last couple of decades by satellites, GPS telemetry or camera traps. This study is a result of meta-analysis of 76 papers about 62 different species spanning six continents.

They looked at a share of nocturnal activity that was conducted by animals  living in regions with low and high levels of human impact or disturbance. Regions with higher human activity correlated with increased nocturnal activity. And theses observations or trends were consistent across continents, habitats, types of animals and even types of human activity.

The author of this study makes a point that, this kind of behavioural shift could have large impacts on ecosystem thus reshaping species interaction. Competitions between predator species could threaten their survival. Also, the animals that are not opting for nocturnal lifestyle could be endangered due to human presence.  

It's important to remember that we are not alone on earth, and more effort should be made to conserve human disturbance free zones especially for most vulnerable and sensitive mammal species.

LA Times, New York Times, Nature,

Stephen Hawking buried in Westminster Abbey, between Darwin and Newton

In the preparation for this show, JD shared his recollection of a biography on Charles Darwin. It contained a chapter about his burial in Westminster Abbey and was entitled “The Agnostic in the Abbey”; well, it would appear that Darwin has now been trumped as the atheist, Stephen Hawking was also interred there last week.

The best way to explain what a privilege it is for Hawking to be buried here is to consider who else has also been bestowed the honour. He rests alongside 18 past monarchs, Geoffrey Chaucer, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Laurence Olivier there are 5 other people from a scientific background; Margaret Cavendish, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, J. J. Thomson and now Stephen Hawking.

Now there may be critics who say that Hawking doesn’t deserve to be laid to rest with the likes of Newton and Darwin. The established works of those two men still form significant pillars within our body of current scientific understanding whereas Hawking’s work is still to have its accuracy verified and he hasn’t even won a nobel prize. Well guess what, neither did Newton or Darwin! By the time that Darwin died, On the Origin of Species had only been published for 20 years; not nearly enough time to test the theories that he presented. This puts Hawking’s ideas very much at the same level.

But we can’t just look at the science here. The true power of Stephen Hawking was as a communicator. It’s seems so poetic that a man who spent half of his life without a voice has been one of the greatest science communicators of all time. Regardless of his scientific credentials (which are pretty phenomenal) the people honoured in Westminster Abbey are people who have created a lasting legacy in the UK and I can’t think of anyone who I have met who has not been inspired by the life of Stephen Hawking.

But I think that we can only end a piece like this by sharing a few pieces of classic Hawking dialogue, like: “I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road”, and “Next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.” And finally, “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there's life, there is hope”. And even though Stephen Hawking’s life may now be over, the hope that he has brought to so many people lives on.

Live Science, The Guardian, Westminster Abbey


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The Effin' Pub Quiz

Dropping the f-bombs today are the fittingly fashionable Amrita Sule, and the fabulously flamboyant Chris MacAlister!

Here’s how it works. I ask a science question and our faction of fantastic friends furnish their flashy answers along with some fanciful feedback.

  1. This fine fellow was born in Danzig, Poland in 1686 and invented the alcohol thermometer in 1709, and the mercury thermometer in 1714? What was his name?
  2. While writing the above question I learned of a word that just may soon become my favorite word in the English language. And that brings me to question 2. I mentioned that Fahrenheit used a mixture of ice, water, and ammonium chloride to determine his first temperature reference point. What is that type of mixture called?
  3. What do we call the emission of light by a substance following the absorption of light or other energy by the substance?
  4. The preserved impression or remains of an animal or plant whose living tissue has been replaced by minerals is better known as a?
  5. Who is this person? An English biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer born in London in 1920 and discovered that DNA crystallizes into two forms.
  6. Where might I find the Tevatron?
  7. What is a facula?
  8. In the human body this is the longest bone. What is it?
  9. What do we call a nuclear reaction in which atomic nuclei of low atomic number fuse to form a heavier nucleus with the release of energy?
  10. Sleeps on one leg, filters its food, and is pink. What is it?

How did YOU do?

Where Have We Been?

JD: Last week I took a trip out to Point Reyes National Seashore again. I trundled over to the Fish Docks on the beautiful Drake’s Bay. Met up with some other birders and searched for the Lawrence’s Goldfinches. No dice. I did get great views of many other birds such a lesser goldfinches, a soaring peregrine falcon. The highlight was a large male California sea lion emerging at the surface with a fat chinook salmon in its mouth. It then shook the salmon, tearing it apart, with salmon roe flying everywhere. It was immediately joined by a host of western gulls to help clean up the mess.

Where Are We Going?

JD: Nothing on the agenda, but more birding. I may go back to Point Reyes on Wednesday to give the Lawrence’s Goldfinches another shot. I hope to be up to speed by then on the new gimbals I have for taking smooth video with my iPhone. I may even do some audio recording as well.

Chris: Camping in the Lake District.

In the Blogosphere

Chris: I’ve been doing some homework following last week’s show. Sunlight takes 5.3 hours to reach Pluto. JD, you are correct; it takes 8 minutes for light to get to Earth and my figure of 8 minutes is actually the time that it takes light to reach Mercury.

I’ve also been investigating Space Suit malfunctions. It appears that the worst spacesuit malfunction occurred in 2014 and it was not necessarily what you may have expected as the danger to astronaut Luca Parmitano was of drowning! Now the use of this word isn’t some technical definition of suffocation; it actually means drowning in water, in space!

A blocked filter in the space suit caused a leak and his helmet started filling with water from the suit’s cooling system during a spacewalk. This eyes, ears, nose and parts of his mouth all filled up with water. He could barely see and had to feel his way back to the air lock.

Why does the suit hold so much water and why a cooling system is needed when it is -270 Celsius outside, but this is because spacesuits need a lot of insulation to protect astronauts so it can get pretty toasty in there so they even have clothing that draws sweat away from the body and then cools it.

Even though NASA have never seem to figure out what caused the failure, they have taken protective action by installing snorkels into helmets now!

This week I am writing about a subject very close to me, sunburn. Not just why it happens but also why its red, when nothing else ever goes red when it gets burnt.

In Closing

Thanks to our intrepid hosts, Amrita Sule and Chris MacAlister!

But most of all, thank you, our wonder audience.

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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