Breathe it in – the air around you is roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% argon. During your lifetime, you'll inhale and exhale this life-giving mixture 672,768,000 times. Give the air around you a big hug.
But have you ever wondered if you can breathe liquid? Sci-Fi stories have repeatedly portrayed this possibility, most famously in James Cameron's deep sea action flick The Abyss. Can it actually be done?
In fact, it can, and it already has.
Before we elucidate how, it may help to understand why we can't breathe in, say, water or milk. It has less to do with the physical differences between those substances and air, and far more to do with the fact that they don't contain enough dissolved oxygen. Our lungs operate by pulling oxygen out of the air, and they can't extract enough out of most liquids because most liquids simply don't contain very much. There are some, however, that soak up oxygen like a sponge...
Seventy-four years ago this week, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing up to 226,000 people and leaving thousands more horribly disfigured by burns and radiation sickness. An estimated 2,000 more people would be diagnosed with radiation-linked cancer over the ensuing decades. The bombings and their terrifying effects forced Japan's surrender, effectively bringing World War II to a close.
A debate over whether or not the U.S. should have dropped those bombs persists to this day, but regardless of one's position in that discussion, we can all hope that these weapons will never be used again.
Here are five startling or surprising facts about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
1. The destruction was sudden and swift. The atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively released the energy equivalent to 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. Almost all of that energy was released in the initial thirty seconds after detonation: 35% in the form of heat and light, 50% in a pressure shock wave, and 5% in nuclear radiation. The shock waves leveled almost all structures within a one mile radius from the bombs' detonation. People within 500 meters were instantly incinerated.
For thousands of years, people have been chalking up mysterious phenomena to religious "miracles," assuming these events to be the work of deities. Closer scrutiny invariably turns up a rational explanation, however. Here are four notable examples:
1. The "Weeping" Virgin Mary of Sicily. In 1953, a statue of the Virgin Mary in a couple's house in Syracuse, Sicily apparently started shedding human tears. The Roman Catholic Church later recognized the weeping as a genuine miracle, swiftly endowing the statue with celebrity status. Thousands flocked to see it. This fame persisted relatively unquestioned until 1995, when Dr. Luigi Garlaschelli, a chemistry researcher at the University of Pavia, debunked the miracle. He found that the plaster statue readily absorbs water and can leak it out through scratches in the outer glazing. The Church later rescinded the miracle. Weeping or bleeding statues are very common "miracles," with dozens having been reported around the world.
2. The Sun Miracle of Fatima. In May 1917 in Fatima, Portugal, three children claimed to have encountered the Virgin Mary out in the countryside, who told them she would return on the thirteenth day over the next few months. Their tale grew in popularity, culminating with an estimated 70,000 people showing up at the site on October 13th, waiting for a miracle. On that day, the Virgin Mary "appeared", but only to the children – very suspicious. However, the other onlookers witnessed what has been called a "sun miracle". As investigator Joe Nickell recounted:
"Not everyone reported the same thing; some present claimed they saw the sun dance around the heavens; others said the sun zoomed toward Earth in a zigzag motion that caused them to fear that it might collide with our planet (or, more likely, burn it up). Some people reported seeing brilliant colors spin out of the sun in a psychedelic, pinwheel pattern, and thousands of others present didn't see anything unusual at all."
Most of us have, at one time or another, "felt the burn" during exercise, the point when our strained muscles cry out in agony and plead with us to pause for a rest. The reason for this unpleasant sensation is a buildup of lactic acid, conventional wisdom says. But though supplement makers, health magazines, and personal trainers have parroted this factoid for decades, it's actually incorrect!
Making this myth even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that studies in the scientific literature have been debunking it since the 1970s. In one study, when scientists injected lactic acid directly into muscles, they found no signs that it actually boosted fatigue.
As it turns out, lactic acid, and its far more common conjugate base, lactate, are actually quite useful substances to the body. Produced as a byproduct of the metabolic processes that power muscles, lactate gets rapidly recycled to produce even more fuel for exercising muscles, and the balance is sent to the liver to be converted into glucose, which can also be used to make more energy.
Moreover, lactic acid is not involved with delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, the soreness that can hobble exercisers for days after a strenuous bout of physical activity. Numerous studies have dismantled this hypothesis, but the most convincing was published in 1983. Researchers had subjects run on a treadmill for 45 minutes on a level incline as well as a slight decline. They then assessed participants' soreness and lactic acid levels at set intervals for the following 72 hours.
On November 10, 2018, a controversy erupted in the field of sex science.
Kevin Hsu, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Northwestern, was on the podium at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) in Montreal. Hsu was being awarded the Ira and Harriet Reiss Theory Award for “the best social science article, chapter, or book published in the previous year in which theoretical explanations of human sexual attitudes and behaviors are developed.” He was in the midst of explaining the research for which he garnered the prize, a study of men attracted to trans-women who have not had vaginoplasty but have penises, when he was interrupted by an attendee, Christine Milrod, a sex therapist and independent researcher from Los Angeles.
Milrod took umbrage with Hsu's presentation, particularly Hsu's finding that men attracted to trans-women and men with gender dysphoria – distress a person feels due to their birth-assigned sex and gender not matching their gender identity – may be sexually aroused by the notion of being a woman, termed autogynephilia. Many dislike the notion of autogynephilia because they feel it insults and degrades trans-women by suggesting that their transition from male to female was to fulfill a sexual fetish.
Touting this belief, Milrod repeatedly and aggressively shouted down Hsu at the conference, despite being urged by the moderator and audience members to let Hsu speak.
When a deceased whale washes up onshore or a deer dies in the woods, decomposers rush in to clean up the remains. Specifically, fungi and bacteria absorb the available nutrients via chemical and biological means, breaking down the creature's matter in the process. But what decomposes these microscopic decomposers?
Redirecting this question closer to home, there are as many as a trillion bacteria inhabiting the skin of an adult human. These single-celled microorganisms don't live forever, of course, so what happens to their corpses? Clearly, they don't pile up over the years, gradually transforming humans into walking and talking reservoirs of bacterial husks. So where do they go?
The answer: They get recycled. Unlike larger organisms, when single-celled organisms die, they usually undergo a process called lysis, in which the cell membrane disintegrates. Once ruptured, the bacterium's innards – the cytoplasm, ribosomes, and DNA – all spill out. Where once there was a bacterium, there is now a pile of goo composed of precious materials like amino acids, DNA, lipids, and proteins – a veritable feast! Nearby bacteria swoop in to consume it.
Millions of Americans dutifully fill their recycling bins each week, motivated by the knowledge that they're doing something good for the environment. But little do they know, there's a recycling crisis unfolding.
Starting as early as 2017, municipalities across the country, from Douglas County, Oregon to Nogales, Arizona to Broadway, Virginia, to Franklin, New Hampshire, began landfilling many recyclables or simply canceling their recycling programs altogether. The impetus for this disconcerting change? China.
For decades, the country was content to accept, process, and transform recycled materials from across the globe, but no longer. In July 2017, the government announced new policies that would effectively ban imports of most recyclables, particularly plastics. They went into effect last March. Considering that China has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, this is a huge deal.
Where once China offered a market for the world's plastic bottles, tubs, and other packaging to be turned into – for example – polyester clothing, now, that market is gone. This means that recycling costs have skyrocketed. A few years ago, Franklin, New Hampsire could sell recyclables for $6 per ton. Now, it costs the town $125 per ton to recycle that same stuff!
Locked away within the recesses of your brain is the seahorse-sized hippocampus. Its two interlocking parts are small relative to the rest of the brain, but they perform outsized roles in cognitive function. Decades of research have revealed the hippocampus to regulate impulses and self-control, memory of times, places, and associated emotions, as well as spatial memory and navigation. Put more simply, the hippocampus is a pivotal determinant in how we interact with and remember the world around us. Moreover, it's extremely plastic, meaning that it changes throughout life depending on factors like environmental stimuli, damage, learning, and use.
That's why Véronique Bohbot, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and an associate professor in the department of Psychiatry at McGill University, is mildly concerned with what she sees as a growing trend of hippocampal disuse. As Bohbot told journalist M.R. O'Connor for O'Connor's new book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World , "the sedentary, habitual, and technology-dependent conditions of modern living today are changing how children and adults use their brains."
"People who have shrunk hippocampus are more at risk for PTSD, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and depression. For a long time we thought the disease causes shrinkage in the hippocampus. But studies show that the shrunk hippocampus can be there before the disease."
Earlier this year, an enormous confinement structure was completed and commissioned to seal away the highly radioactive ruins of Chernobyl's number four nuclear reactor, a permanent reminder of the awesome – and potentially terrible – power of nuclear energy. More recently, Home Box Office (HBO) broadcast an even more penetrating reminder – the network's television show Chernobyl garnered rave reviews and enthralled a wide audience. Nuclear power has once again been thrust to the forefront of society's collective thoughts.
That makes this a great opportunity to shine the light of evidence on an issue clouded by confusion. For its rare, yet resonating disasters, nuclear energy prompts fear. But is that fear warranted?
Here are three common myths about nuclear power:
Myth #1. Nuclear is dangerous. In the minds of many, the examples of Three Mile Island, Fukushima-Daiichi, and Chernobyl, are enough to cement this statement as fact. But a full and rational examination of nuclear's operational history swiftly dispels this common myth. As a variety of different analyses have shown, even when you factor in nuclear's memorable accidents, it is vastly safer than any fossil fuel energy source. A NASA study in 2013 reported that "nuclear power prevented an average of over 1.8 million net deaths worldwide between 1971-2009" by displacing fossil fuel-based power stations and their associated dangers for miners, workers, and the general public. Nuclear may even be safer than renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as it reduces the need for hazardous mining.
Fish live in water, and skim milk is roughly 90.4% water, so could fish live, or at least respire, in milk?
A curious Redditor recently posed this simple, yet thought-provoking question to the AskScience subreddit. The simple answer is "no," but the nuanced response sheds light on how fish, and all other organisms, function.
Fish have evolved over many millions of years to survive in water with a certain amount of dissolved oxygen, acidity, and other trace molecules. So, though skim milk is nine-tenths water, it still would be entirely insufficient to support a fish for long. The differences in acidity and dissolved oxygen, not to mention all of the fat, proteins, carbohydrates, and other minerals in the milk that might clog the creature's gills, would quickly spell trouble. The animal would likely die within minutes, if not sooner.
Like the Marvel comic book hero, we are all iron men and women. Iron composes the heme of hemoglobin, the red pigment in our blood. It's stored in ferritin, a protein ubiquitous in almost all living organisms. And, most curiously, it's found in mineral form within the human brain.
That iron mineral is magnetite (Fe3O4), and its name is an obvious clue to its most intriguing property: magnetite is the most magnetic of Earth's naturally-occurring minerals.
So what is a magnetic mineral doing inside our brains? Caltech geobiologist Joseph Kirschvink thinks he might have the answer: Magnetite allows us to sense Earth's magnetic field.
This remarkable ability is present all across the animal kingdom, from bacteria and birds to turtles and bats. Sensing the planet's geomagnetism grants these creatures a keen sense of direction and location, known as magnetoreception. Being able to orient on Earth is obviously a huge advantage, so it's no wonder that this ability is so widespread.
Much of the science performed at NASA borders on fiction. Their job is to bring it into reality. One team intimately familiar with this task at the space agency is called COMPASS. Since 2006, their job has been to take the most preliminary ideas for space exploration and mold them into real, executable plans. A few of those plans have come to fruition, some are currently being worked on, and many more have been abandoned. All, however, are bold visions of future NASA missions – simultaneously fascinating and inspiring.
Here are five of COMPASS' coolest designs:
1. Mars Ascent Vehicle. You may have heard of the Mars Ascent Vehicle, or MAV, from Andy Weir's book The Martian, but the idea was originally born from a COMPASS design in 2010. The basic plan is for a launch platform upon which rests a lightweight rocket. This rocket transports Mars samples from the planet's surface into orbit, where they can be picked up by a waiting ship and returned to Earth. Subsequent considerations involve making a MAV that can be used to ferry astronauts from the planet's surface. Some form of the MAV will undoubtedly be used should humans ever make it to the Red Planet.
Antioxidants have been hailed as health game changers for over a quarter-century. When originally buzzed back in the early 1990s, the compounds, which include beta-carotene, Vitamin E, and glutathione, were predicted to protect against various cancers, heart disease, and neurodegradation. They'd do this by halting the spread of free radicals in the body, molecules with unpaired electrons that greedily rob other molecules of their electrons in order to stabilize. By stealing electrons to pair their own, however, they create more free radicals in the process, producing "oxidative stress." Antioxidants graciously lend their electrons to free radicals without turning ravenous themselves, thus halting the damaging chain reaction.
Early on, in vitro and observational studies showed promise, exciting scientists. Health "gurus" hyped the findings with books and articles. Supplement sellers had a new fad to fill their coffers. Food makers began slapping antioxidant claims on everything from yogurt and snack bars to chocolate and soda. The antioxidant craze was on.
But then, in the early 2000s, results from randomized, controlled trials on humans began flowing in, and the stream of positive results soon turned into a torrent of negative findings. Perhaps the trials weren't long enough, or were conducted on the wrong study populations, some scientists wondered. Over the next decade, more experiments concluded, with more inconclusive or outright negative results. Antioxidant intake didn't boost cognitive performance, or stall dementia, or halt heart disease, or prevent cancer, or lower the risk of Parkinson's.
Today, it's increasingly accepted in the scientific community that antioxidants are not the health promoters they were hoped to be.
It's an unfortunate staple of human nature: all too often, we're mean to others when they screw up or perform poorly. Flunk a test? Then a parent might ground you. Lose a match? Then your coach might yell at you. Botch a presentation? Then your boss might demote you. Even more unfortunate, statistics reinforces these acts of nastiness, even though psychological research suggests they don't actually help.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained this twisted phenomenon in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Earlier in his career, he was teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force that rewarding good performance works better than punishing mistakes, as evinced by scientific research. One of his "students" ardently disagreed, however, citing his own experience that after praising cadets for a well-executed flight maneuver, they usually perform worse on the next try. On the other hand, a harsh rebuke after a failed attempt almost always leads to a better subsequent outcome.
Kahneman wasn't deterred by the flight instructor's anecdote. Instead, he was enthused.
"The instructor was right–but he was also completely wrong!" he recollected. "The inference he had drawn about the efficacy of reward and punishment was completely off the mark."
In 1996, psychologists at the University of Georgia reported an intriguing, controversial result: Heterosexual young men with homophobic beliefs were aroused by gay porn, while their nonhomophobic straight peers were not.
Since the study was published, it has been touted in some circles as proof that many homophobic men are in fact secretly gay themselves.
"The point is that these men already have this arousal naturally, but that they block it because they do not see it as socially acceptable," Dr. Nathan Heflick, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, wrote on the study. "So they form extra strong anti-gay attitudes as a means of appearing heterosexual to others, and perhaps trying to convince themselves they are entirely heterosexual."
But as we are now realizing with so many other seductive findings – and the psychological studies that produce them – this one may not be as firmly grounded as originally assumed. Just 64 heterosexual men, all college students, comprised the original study group. Moreover, the method used to assess sexual arousal, the penile plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow to the penis, has recently come under fire in judicial and academic circles for variation in testing and the potential for false results. Moreover, the University of Georgia researchers admitted the possibility that "viewing homosexual stimuli causes negative emotions such as anxiety in homophobic men but not in nonhomophobic men. Because anxiety has been shown to enhance arousal and erection, this theory would predict increases in erection in homophobic men."
It's easy to envision: A sleek swordfish, many meters long and massive, flaps its powerful tailfin, rapidly accelerating through the ocean water at breakneck speed, until it spears its helpless prey. Wait a second... Then what? How does the swordfish get the fish off its "sword" and into its mouth? It doesn't make any sense!
That's because none of this actually happens.
Turns out, the "swords," or bills, of billfish like marlin, sailfish, and swordfish, are indeed used for hunting, but not as devices to impale prey. Rather, they are wielded as scythes to swipe at larger prey or through schools of smaller fish, knocking them senseless so they can be easily gobbled up.
A few years ago, a team of researchers filmed sailfish underwater swinging their bills at sardines at dizzying accelerations, some of "the highest... ever recorded in an aquatic vertebrate," they remarked. What's more, the merciless attacks were relatively covert – sailfish inserting their foot-long bills into fish schools often didn't elicit an evasive response from their targets.
Netflix brought in $15.8 billion in revenue in 2018 in part because the streaming service floods subscribers with a deluge of binge-worthy content. That's all fine and well when the show is Stranger Things or The Great British Baking Show, but when it's a media production that mangles science and spreads misinformation, it's a problem. Unfortunately, Netflix hosts a variety of documentaries that do just that. Here are the worst offenders:
1. Stink! Filmmaker and father John Whelan spends a lot of time on the phone trying to track down the "toxic" chemicals in his daughter's pajamas, all while asserting that we are guinea pigs of industry bathed in a sea of chemicals. Throughout, he completely ignores the basic principle of toxicology that "the dose makes the poison." This scaremongering documentary can't help but mention the words "toxic" and "chemicals" every other sentence, a tactic of repitition in lieu of scientific evidence to make its ultimate point: "We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals," and the only way to stop it is to get rid of "synthetic" chemicals in favor of "natural" ones.
2. The Magic Pill. Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans loves the ketogenic diet, which encourages eating high amounts of fat and protein and little to no carbohydrates. He loves it so much, in fact, that he made a feature documentary claiming that the diet can treat cancer, autism, and even asthma. Legitimate health experts weren't amused, and the Australian Medical Association even called for the film to be removed from Netflix. This isn't Evans' first run in with woo. In the past, the chef denied the efficacy of fluoride in combating cavities and claimed that sunscreen is toxic.
3. Cowspiracy. Did you know that animal agriculture is the leading contributor to climate change, responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions, more than fossil fuel energy as well as any other factor? No? Good. Because it's completely untrue. This is the lie at the heart of Cowspiracy, which claims that if the world's population "simply" went vegan, we'd save the planet. More nuanced, evidence-based evaluations find that eliminating meat from our collective diet actually wouldn't be as beneficial as claimed. Pesticide production would have to go way up to make up for all the lost fertilizer in the form of manure, and many more people would face nutritional deficiencies.
In Greek mythology, Medusa was a winged woman with slithering snakes in place of strands of hair. All who gazed upon her monstrous face would turn to stone. A curious genetic disease strikes sufferers with a semblance of the horrible fate inflicted upon Medusa's victims.
Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) gradually turns fibrous tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments into bone. The genetic disorder afflicts fewer than one in two million people. As of 2017, only 800 confirmed cases have been identified. All of these patients share a near identical story: At birth, they emerged from the womb with mysteriously malformed big toes – short, stubby, and without a skin crease on account of the toe having only a single phalanx rather than the usual two. As infants, their lives progressed without much incident until between the ages of three and four, when the hallmark ossification, or bone growth, typically begins. Whether spontaneously or in the wake of some sort of physical trauma, lumps form around the neck accompanied by reddishness of the skin and occasionally bruising. Then, over a matter of months, the nearby muscles, tendons, and ligaments slowly harden, transforming to bone. The metamorphosis continues over the ensuing years, first striking the shoulders, then moving to the arms and chest, and finally progressing down to the legs and feet. By age thirty, almost all those afflicted with FOP are locked within cages of their own skeletons, often unable to move at all. By age forty, most die from complications related to the disease.
While FOP was initially documented in the 17th century, most of our knowledge about the condition came on account of the experience of Harry Raymond Eastlack, Jr. Born in Philadelphia, Eastlack struggled with FOP since the age of four. Each year, he lost more and more mobility, eventually only having control over his eyes, tongue, and lips. Before dying of pneumonia at age 39, he expressed the fervent desire to donate his skeleton to science. It has now been displayed at the legendary Mütter Museum in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia for well over forty years, and is heavily utilized as a reference by researchers studying FOP.
In 2006, some of those researchers led by Frederick Kaplan at the University of Pennsylvania pinpointed the precise gene responsible for causing FOP. ACVR1 is integral to bodily repair, but when mutated, the repair mechanism goes haywire. This explains one of FOP's most disturbing effects: any sort of trauma, from a knock on the thigh to the stab of a needle, can cause the surrounding tissue to slowly ossify. Early sufferers of the disease found this out the hard way. In the mid 20th century, surgeons would attempt to remove excess bone growth only to find the practice futile. Painfully, relentlessly, the bone always grew back, often leaving patients even more disabled than before their surgeries.
The Victorian Era corset is a heavy duty clothing apparatus, capable of constricting a person's waist down to a dainty 17 inches. A slim midsection and an hourglass figure were all the rage in 19th century Europe, so women (and undoubtedly a few men) of all ages and social classes donned "tightlaced" corsets to keep the trend.
"The stomach and liver are crammed down, with the ribs compressed into drooping S-loops. The neural spines of each vertebra, the little projections that stick up from the central body of each bone, are also pushed out of place. Normally they stack nicely one atop the other in a neat midline ridge, but in long-term corset wearers these spindles of bone jut to this side or that."
The practice prompted a public uproar, with doctors penning articles and books decrying corsets as a health "plague," one on the same level as tobacco, gambling, strong drink, and illegal speculation, wrote Charles Dubois. Physicians blamed corsets for causing tuberculosis, cancer, liver disease, heart damage, and a host of other ailments.
The patella, or kneecap, is one of the most incredible bones in your body. As a sesamoid bone, it is embedded within a tendon, where the quadriceps and patellar tendons meet. There, the rounded, triangular bone protects the knee joint and acts like a pulley, allowing the tendon to transmit more force with smoother motion.
Kicking myself for not thinking of demonstrating this biomechanical principle this way myself. pic.twitter.com/bAta34O4n4— Paul Ingraham (@PainSci) February 24, 2016
Yes despite the kneecap's obvious usefulness today, its evolutionary history is not entirely understood.
"We know almost nothing about what the kneecap did when it first evolved, when both the tendons that held the bone and the bone itself were thinner and not as well developed," paleontologist Brian Switek wrote in his recent book Skeleton Keys. "It may have been a matter of crossing a certain threshold when individuals who just happen to have sesamoid bones at their knees were better able to cope with the stresses of running and, as luck would have it, left more offspring to carry on the trend."
The trend since spread to most four-footed animals, apart from reptiles and marsupials. Birds are also noted for their kneecaps. In the process, the patella has grown into one of the most unique and intriguing bones. Here are four fascinating facts about the kneecap: