RealClearScience Newton Blog

Could a Boeing 737 Land on an Aircraft Carrier?

Ross Pomeroy - November 14, 2019

Could a Boeing 737 land on an aircraft carrier? It seems like an absolutely crazy question...

An empty Boeing 737 weighs 75,000 pounds, has a wingspan of 112 feet, typically lands at 178 miles per hour, and requires a minimum landing runway distance of 1,710 meters, about 19 football fields. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ever built, are wide enough for a 737, but only offer a maximum landing runway of 333 meters.

So, yeah, that sounds like a "no."

Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired pilot for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Navy, and a former commander of the International Space Station, thinks it's possible, however. He described how landing a passenger plane on an aircraft carrier might just work to author, comic, and science enthusiast Randall Munroe for Munroe's recently published book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems.

The Biggest Myth About Protein

Ross Pomeroy - November 7, 2019

There's a reason why companies plaster the word "PROTEIN" on their products: the macronutrient has a health halo. While carbohydrates and fats have both been vilified over the years, protein has remained almost entirely unscathed. This is mostly due to an invisible insinuation that is also an omnipresent myth: eating lots of protein makes you build lean muscle.

Sorry, but that's not true.

While muscles absolutely require protein to repair and grow, consuming more protein over what is recommended will not automatically make your muscles bulk up. If that were true, then the average American would be far more muscle-bound, as we consume much more protein than we need, about 100 grams per day compared to the recommended 65.

Interwoven into our notions that more protein will make us stronger is the corollary idea that protein will not make us fat. However, like carbohydrates, protein caries four calories per gram. In the body, protein is broken down into its constituent amino acids. Any amino acids not used for the body's bones, tendons, enzymes, etc. are subsequently converted to glucose (sugar) predominantly or ketones. The glucose can later be stored as fat.

The Prison Study That Changed How Scientists View Obesity

Ross Pomeroy - November 2, 2019

Experiments seeking to produce weight loss are a dime a dozen these days. In the midst of a burgeoning obesity epidemic, there is no shortage of dietary solutions demanding to be studied.

But fifty years ago, as obesity was beginning to crop up on researchers' radar, a study of a different sort helped to radically alter prevailing scientific views on the matter.

Experts today recognize that chronic obesity is a nuanced health issue influenced by behavioral, genetic, physiological, and cultural factors. In the 1960s, however, conventional knowledge held that obesity was a simple problem of laziness.

George A. Bray, a University Professor emeritus in endocrinology at Louisiana State University, dedicated his half-century career to studying obesity. He summarized the archaic views of decades ago (some of which persist in the general population today) in a recent article.

What Lived in North America's Ancient Inland Sea?

Ross Pomeroy - October 26, 2019

Some people consider the Great Plains of America to be "flyover country." The truth of that pejorative falls outside the realm of science. It is true, however, that 80 million years ago one could not cross the heart of North America without flying... or swimming. That's because a great, shallow ocean once stretched from what is now the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

Remnants of the Western Interior Seaway can be found above and below the ground. In Gove County, Kansas, the Monument Rocks jut magnificently seventy feet up from what is otherwise a mostly flat and featureless terrain. The remarkable earthen structures are made of carbonate rocks which formed on the seafloor over the ocean's sixty-million-year lifespan. Standing near the formations, backdropped by a bright blue sky, one can almost imagine standing on the prehistoric seabed back in the Cretaceous Period, 2,500 feet below the ocean's surface.

That's about as deep as the Western Interior Seaway got, which is positively shallow compared to the average depth of oceans today, roughly 12,100 feet. This, however, meant that the Sun's life-giving rays touched a significant portion of the water column, and so, the ocean teemed with all sorts of marine creatures. Paleontologists have unearthed fossils of plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, giant marine reptiles that grew up to sixty feet long. They've also dug up the remains of huge sharks, turtles the size of cars, and clams six feet in diameter, the largest to ever exist.

The Western Interior Seaway formed about 100 million years ago when the mountains that now define western North America lifted up as a result of tectonic forces. Those same forces flexed the land east of the mountain range downward. Waters from the Arctic Sea and the Tethys Sea (now the Gulf of Mexico) flowed in to fill the lowlands.

Five Surprising Facts About Tyrannosaurus rex

Ross Pomeroy - October 22, 2019

To most laypersons, Tyrannosaurus rex epitomizes the dinosaurs, but in truth, the 40-foot-long, 14,000-pound carnivore prowled the Earth for just two million years, a paltry portion of dinosaurs' 165-million-year reign. And that's not the only surprising fact about the "Tyrant King." Here are five more:

1. Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the last non-avian dinosaurs to exist. Fossils suggest that T. rex lived between 68 and 66 million years ago, right up until the notorious Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. This mass extinction was likely triggered when a ten to fifteen kilometer-wide asteroid slammed into the Yucatan Peninusla, releasing energy equivalent to a billion Hiroshima atomic bombs. That T. rex existed at the end of the dinosaur's story presents a thought-provoking fact – as pointed out by science writer Riley Black, "Less time separates us from Tyrannosaurus rex than separated T. rex from Stegosaurus."

2. T. rex may have had the most powerful bite of all time. T. rex sported a four-foot-long jaw and potentially the most powerful bite of all time, though the infamous shark Megalodon might have a bone to pick about that. Speaking of bones, T. rex's jaw could easily crush them, with each of its sizable teeth generating an astounding 431,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, which could have literally caused bones to explode.

3. T. rex only roamed the western part of North America. While T. rex's legend spans the globe, its actual range was limited to what is now western North America, from southwest Mexico to Alaska. Back then, this region was an island continent scientists have dubbed Laramidia, flanked by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Western Interior Seaway on the east, which flooded what is now the Great Plains.

Why Does the U.S. Still Have So Many Lead Water Pipes?

Ross Pomeroy - October 17, 2019

Five years ago, the Flint Water Crisis woke Americans to the potential danger of lead in drinking water. Still, many onlookers might think that this is an isolated problem, endemic to a forlorn city long seen as an outlier  from the rest of America.

While it's true that America's drinking water is safe and generally well-managed, it's also true that tens of millions of Americans rely on public drinking water systems that utilize vast lines of aging lead pipes and maintain delicate systems which prevent that lead from leaching in. Should these safeguards fail, many people could find themselves drinking dangerously tainted water.

Today, we know lead to be a highly toxic metal, particularly dangerous to children, but more than a century ago, we knew it simply to be dense and durable yet also soft and malleable. Moreover, lead is nearly impervious to rust and doesn't decay from soil contact. These qualities made it perfect for smaller pipes called service lines that branch off from larger water mains and carry water to buildings, where they must twist and bend to get to sinks, showers, and toilets. Plumbers also became enamored with lead fittings and solder to rig piping within houses.

"Despite lead being more expensive than steel or other pipes, lead pipes were a better investment for municipalities and building owners because they lasted so much longer," author Seth M. Siegel described in his recently published book Troubled Water.

What If Yellowstone's Supervolcano Erupted?

Ross Pomeroy - October 10, 2019

With its spouting geysers, majestic mountains, awe-inspiring waterfalls, and panoramic views, Yellowstone National Park has the undeniable power to uplift.

But it also has an unparalleled potential to destroy.

Concealed beneath the park rests the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest supervolcano in North America. Each year, millions of visitors trek over a massive magma chamber that, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), stretches from 5 km to 17 km beneath the surface and is about 90 km long and about 40 km wide. A little deeper rests another chamber that's 4.5 times larger.

The Yellowstone supervolcano has unleashed three cataclysmic eruptions in the past 2.1 million years; all well before humans populated North America. The most recent was 640,000 years ago, which formed Yellowstone as we know it and spewed 240 cubic miles of ash, rock and pyroclastic materials over roughly half of what is now the United States.

Has Malaria Really Killed Half of Everyone Who Ever Lived?

Ross Pomeroy - October 3, 2019

Across Earth's history, our planet has been home to an estimated 109 billion human beings. And according to another oft-repeated factoid, half of all the people who have ever existed were killed by malaria, the worst mosquito-borne illness. Mosquitoes aren't merely annoyances, they are mass murderers.

But is this actually true?

There's little doubt that these hellacious insects are prodigious killers of humankind. The bloodsuckers spread all sorts of diseases – West Nile Virus, various kinds of Encephalitis, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, and Zika Virus, for example. However, the damage wrought by all of these diseases is piddling in comparison to malaria. Causing fever, tiredness, vomiting, headaches, and seizures, it struck 216 million people in 2016 alone, resulting in between 445,000 to 731,000 deaths. Believe it or not, that's an improvement over past years. In 2000, there were 262 million cases, resulting in at least 839,000 deaths.

Adding these devastating statistics together almost unequivocably places mosquitoes as the leading killer of human beings all time. But a historical death toll of roughly 54 billion - half of all humans ever? That seems a tad hard to believe, especially considering that malaria is presently responsible for perhaps 1% of all deaths worldwide each year.

What the Heck Is Terrence Howard Talking About?

Ross Pomeroy - September 26, 2019

Terrence Howard is an actor, and a fairly successful one. He's starred in acclaimed movies like Crash, Prisoners, Ray, and Iron Man. Most recently, he has been a regular on the wildly popular television show Empire, portraying music entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon.

Howard also apparently considers himself a revolutionary deep thinker. On Sunday, on the Emmy Awards red carpet, he explained to KTLA-5 television hosts why he had decided to quit acting after 37 years:

"I’ve made some discoveries in my own personal life with the science that, y’know, Pythagoras was searching for. I was able to open up the flower of life properly and find the real wave conjugations we’ve been looking for for 10,000 years. Why would I continue walking on water for tips when I’ve got an entire generation to teach a whole new world?"

Visibly flummoxed, KTLA’s Sam Rubin pressed Howard, "That’s a big remark. What do you intend to do?"

The Most Likely Way That Aliens Would Attack Us

Ross Pomeroy - September 24, 2019

Hollywood often depicts alien invasions as chaotic and apocalyptic. Who can forget the foreboding, heart-stopping sounds of the tripods in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, as they terrorized entire cities and vaporized frightened Earthlings with blazing lasers? And who didn’t enjoy watching fleets of fighter jets battling alien vessels in Independence Day after their enormous flying saucers blasted human landmarks to smithereens with ravenous firestorms?

The odds are good that Earth will never be attacked by extraterrestrials. After all, we haven’t even spotted any! Moreover, if an alien race were hostile, their likeliest form of assault would be nothing like in the movies. It would be far more subtle, but no less nefarious: a computer virus.

Astrophysicists Michael Hippke and John G. Learned considered this possibility in a paper published last year to the preprint server arXiv. Space is big, high-speed travel is difficult, and fleets of battleships are expensive, they reasoned, so the likeliest mode of attack for hypothetically malicious aliens would be code concealed in a message. Such code could contain an advanced A.I. that could sneak into computer systems and spread throughout the Internet, or a virus that would destabilize banking systems and electrical grids. Or perhaps, they suggested, an alien attack could simply be a panic-inducing prank, a statement like "We will make your sun go supernova tomorrow."

The only way to avoid this outcome is not to open a message from extraterrestrials, the cosmic equivalent of deleting a suspicious email.

The Biggest Problem With the American Diet

Ross Pomeroy - September 17, 2019

Ask Americans about what they think is the biggest problem with their diets and you'll probably hear a variety of responses...

"Too many calories." There's certainly a strong case for this. Americans consume an estimated 3,800 calories per day, roughly twice what is needed for sedentary adults.

"Processed foods." There's a growing case for this. Processed foods are often designed to be hyper-palatable, leading to massive overeating.

"Too many carbohydrates." There's less of a case for this. Processed carbohydrates and simple sugars are empty calories, but whole grain-based foods are quality additions to any diet.

The Fear That a Nuclear Bomb Could Ignite the Atmosphere

Ross Pomeroy - September 12, 2019

Early on in the Manhattan Project, the scientists taking part knew that they were pursuing a weapon that could give humankind the unprecedented ability to destroy itself. What they didn't know, however, was how this destruction might occur.

In 1942, Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller, known now as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," entertained a devastating nightmare scenario: that an atomic bomb could ignite the atmosphere and the oceans. He reasoned that a nuclear fission bomb might create temperatures so extreme that it would cause the hydrogen atoms in the air and water to fuse together into helium, just like in our sun, generating a runaway reaction that would eventually engulf the globe, extinguishing all life and turning the Earth into a miniature star.

When Teller informed some of his colleagues of this possibility, he was greeted with both skepticism and fear. Hans Bethe immediately dismissed the idea, but according to author Pearl Buck, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Compton was so concerned that he told Robert Oppenheimer that if there were even the slightest chance of this "ultimate catastrophe" playing out, all work on the bomb should stop.

So a study was commissioned to explore the matter in detail, and six months before the Trinity test, the very first detonation of nuclear device, Edward Teller and Emil Konopinski announced their findings in a report with the ominous title "Ignition of the Atmosphere With Nuclear Bombs."

What Did Other Astronauts Say as They Took Their First Steps on the Moon?

Ross Pomeroy - September 5, 2019

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

We all know Neil Armstrong's famous first words as he took that pioneering step onto the surface of the Moon (or at least we think we do), but there were eleven other astronauts from five more Apollo missions who left their footprints in the lunar regolith. Surely they imparted some memorable words as well!

Apollo 15 Commander David Scott certainly endeavored to follow Armstrong's example.

"As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there's a fundamental truth to our nature," he said. "Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest."

John W. Young on the Moon during Apollo 16 mission. Charles M. Duke Jr. took this picture. The LM Orion is on the left. April 21, 1972

How Did Humans Survive Our Near Extinction?

Ross Pomeroy - August 27, 2019

Roughly 75,000 years ago, Indonesia exploded. A great supervolcano in Sumatra erupted, spewing an estimated 2,800 cubic kilometers of magma and rock into the air. Ash may have been deposited as far as the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and even Lake Malawi in Africa, perhaps farther. Gases ejected into the atmosphere may have caused global temperatures to drop by as much as 18 degrees for several years after the eruption, with a smaller degree of cooling continuing for a thousand years after.

The Toba supereruption, as this event is now called, was a hundred times larger than the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the worst volcanic eruption on record, which caused the notorious "Year Without a Summer." Toba's infamous place in history is etched into the Earth itself as a crater lake (seen top). And as Toba scarred the Earth and altered global climates, it could have devastated life on Earth.

In his recently released book, End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, science journalist Bryan Walsh summarized a 2009 research paper on Toba's potential climate effects.

"Precipitation would have fallen by 45 percent, and vegetation cover would have shrunk dramatically, with broadleaf evergreen trees and tropical deciduous trees dying out. Imagine a winter that lasted for years, like something out of Game of Thrones, shriveling life on land."

Why No Scientific Discovery Is Named After Its Discoverer

Ross Pomeroy - August 22, 2019

"Why No Scientific Discovery Is Named After Its Discoverer." This headline cannot be right... After all, there are so many examples that prove it to be wrong!

What about the Arrhenius equation, which describes the temperature dependence of reaction rates, named after Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius? Or the Fibonacci numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55...), named for the Italian mathematician Fibonacci? Or Dyson spheres, theoretical structures built around stars to harvest their energy, described in detail by American physicist Freeman Dyson?

Well, neither Arrhenius, Fibonacci, nor Dyson actually discovered those things. Arrhenius' equation was first proposed by the Dutch chemist J. H. van 't Hoff. The Fibonacci numbers were well-documented in Indian mathematics more than 1400 years before Fibonacci popularized them. And Freeman Dyson freely admits that he got the idea for "Dyson spheres" from British science fiction author Olaf Stapledon and merely it fleshed out and further popularized it.

These examples, and many dozens more, exemplify Stigler's law of eponymy, which holds that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. And true to his own law, University of Chicago statistician Stephen Stigler credits his eponymous "discovery" to the eminent sociologist Robert K. Merton.

Can Humans Breathe Liquid?

Ross Pomeroy - August 15, 2019

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...

Startling Facts About the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski

Ross Pomeroy - August 6, 2019

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:

At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 20,000 feet above Hiroshima while smoke from the burst of the first atomic bomb had spread over 10,000 feet on the target at the base of the rising column.

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.

Four Debunked Religious "Miracles"

Ross Pomeroy - August 3, 2019

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.

Sundogs in Fargo, North Dakota. Taken February 18th, 2009.

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."

The Biggest Myth About Muscle "Burn" and Soreness

Ross Pomeroy - July 30, 2019

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.

Is Ideology Ruining Sex Science ?

Ross Pomeroy - July 27, 2019

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.

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