An exploding Falcon 9 could send ripples through space-timelines.
By now, you’ve probably heard about SpaceX’s Thursday morning “anomaly” at its Cape Canaveral launch pad. In fact, you can already watch video of it. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the AMOS-6 satellite payload, which would have brought Internet access to sub-Saharan Africa, was lost.
Every day on this planet, roughly 4 to 8 million bolts of electricity the width of a finger connect heaven to earth, discharging a current of 30,000 amperes and heating the air to 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s no wonder ancient cultures believed lightning was the chosen weaponry of pissed-off gods. You’ve probably seen the grizzly aftermath of a recent strike in Norway that killed 323 reindeer. Wired’s Megan Molteni published an excellent run-down on why centuries of Santa’s sleigh-pullers were doomed atop the Nordic permafrost:
“When lightning strikes, the current flows into the ground and outward, following the path of least resistance. In a warmer place, the electricity would penetrate deep into the soil and disperse quickly (this is called grounding). But in a place like the Hardangervidda, as the current runs into the soil and hits the permafrost layer, it instead spreads out along the surface of the soil, which is saturated with water from annual cycles of melting—and in this case, the massive rainstorms that generated the lightning strike. So the area that gets zapped is way bigger.”
Although lightning has long captured our attention, it wasn’t until the 18th century that scientists started peeling back mythology to understand this frightful electrostatic display. In 1752, French scientists Thomas-Francois Dalibard and Georges-Louis Leclerc, successfully tangoed with lightning when a bolt struck a 40-foot metal pole that they had anchored in a wine bottle, confirming a hypothesis formulated by Benjamin Franklin.
But more than 250 years after Dalibard and Leclerc’s experiment, scientists are still trying to answer fundamental questions about lightning. At the Florida Institute of Technology, Hamid Rassoul, a veteran space scientist and physics professor, founded the school’s Lightning Research Group to carry on the shocking investigations that started centuries ago.
The following are a few of the nagging questions they are trying to answer.
Who hasn’t been shocked while reaching for a doorknob?
The zap you feel is the result of passing the excess electrons clinging to your finger onto the positively charged doorknob. As your finger nears the knob, the voltage is so high that it causes the air to break down and act like a conductor.
The dielectric breakdown of air is very predictable, it always occurs in an electric field that reaches 3 million volts per meter. It’s a fundamental quantity that’s been established in the lab, and tested over, and over, and over again.
The same should hold true for lightning, which is static electricity on a grand scale. But, for some reason, air breaks down inside a cloud when the electric field reaches just 2 million volts per meter, far weaker than expected.
“That defies the laws of physics, or at least everything we know at this point,” says Rassoul. “Nature is managing to create a spark within an environment that doesn’t meet the same expectations in the lab.”
Rassoul says ice particles in the cloud may interact in a way that initiates the spark sooner than expected, but it’s still unclear what gives lightning its final push. Understanding lightning initiation remains the so-called “Holy Grail” of lightning research.
“It’s one of the biggest mysteries of lightning, and for the past 10 years we have been trying to answer that one,” he says.
Bolts from the blue originate in anvil clouds, but can travel vast distances. A single bolt, for example, can travel from a storm on one side of a mountain range and strike on the other side. Even after covering vast distances, they still pack a 130,000-amp punch four times higher than typical strikes — that’s what gives scientists fits.
If you built a gun that could fire packets, or bullets, of electrons, you’d run into a problem with range. Say you set an apple on your friend’s head, and you wanted to peg it with an electron bullet from a distance 300 feet. By the time your bullet reached the apple, the electrons in your bullet would have scattered, dispersing the energy — remember, like charges repel each other.
Bolts from the blue are positively charged, but as they travel some 10 miles through a cloud, they remain compact — about the width of a finger, and powerful.
“We’re not sure how nature keeps similarly charged electrons together for miles in the atmosphere,” Rassoul says.
He theorizes that lightning may travel in packets of electrons that generate a chain reaction of new packets along the way, like dominoes. Rassoul likens the theory to the concept of a generational star ship: The mission would launch from Earth with generation one, but once you reach, say, Proxima Centauri, it’s an entirely new group of people who reach the destination.
“It’s beautiful on paper, but we don’t know how to show it in the lab,” says Rassoul.
“Twenty-seven percent of the time, depending on conditions, the shorter object is hit by lightning rather than the tall object,” says Rassoul. Consider that all-too-common myth about lightning officially dead.
So what determines where lightning will strike, or what researchers call attachment? As you may have guessed, they’re still trying to figure that out, too.
Lightning begins with the development of a step leader, when excess electrons at the bottom of a storm cloud start racing through the air toward the ground. As they push down, the positive charge on Earth’s surface increases. The excess positive charges make their way up through buildings, cell towers — you — and into the air. These are called streamers.
And when streamer and leader meet — bang!
That much makes sense, but what isn’t clear is why a 6-foot-tall man can send a streamer higher into the air than a 100-foot cell tower, even if he’s standing right next to it.
“Sometimes objects change electrical potential so much, they project their positive charge higher than a tower,” says Rassoul. “But why am I sending such a long streamer up there? Again, none of these questions have been answered.”
Figuring out the mechanisms of lightning could increase our predictive capabilities and improve safety — and these are just three of many lightning mysteries. To probe lightning’s secrets, Rassoul’s team is using ultra-slow-motion cameras, inducing strikes with rockets, and using theoretical models and simulations to arrive at new insights.
Over the next several years, no doubt, work by the Florida Tech team and other scientists around the world will yield a better understanding of the power in our skies.
Being stuck in miles of halted traffic is not a relaxing way to start or finish a summer holiday. And as we crawl along the road, our views blocked by by slow-moving roofboxes and caravans, many of us will fantasize about a future free of traffic jams.
As a mathematician and motorist, I view traffic as a complex system, consisting of many interacting agents including cars, trucks, cyclists and pedestrians. Sometimes these agents interact in a free-flowing way and at other (infuriating) times they simply grind to a halt. All scenarios can be examined – and hopefully improved – using mathematical modeling, a way of describing the world in the language of maths. Read More
The 100-meter dash, the pole vault, a marathon, a bike race, and any other sport under the sun have one thing in common: winning depends on pushing physical performance to the max.
The pressure on athletes to push their bodies to the limit has produced a longstanding tit-for-tat between the athletes sneaking chemical agents into their blood or body cells to gain an edge and those trying to detect them.
Recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that any prospective dopers had better think twice about artificially gaining a competitive advantage. The IOC isn’t talking about traditional doping tactics like getting infusions of extra red blood cells or injections of performance-enhancing hormones. Read More
When acclaimed conservation photographer Suzi Eszterhas settled in for the evening, she didn’t know what to expect. She seldom does when trying to photograph elusive, nocturnal creatures. But circumstances on this particular night were unusual. She was sitting in an enclosure—albeit a naturalistic one—and although she knew her photographic subjects couldn’t flee, she thought it was quite possible she might spend the entire night being riddled by biting ants without capturing a single shot. Read More
Here’s the deal: you can write or say Neanderthal or Neandertal, but you should only write Homo neanderthalensis and say “Homo neander-TAL-ensis”.
I promise that will make sense by the end of this.
The name comes from Neander Valley, Germany, where the first recognized Neanderthal fossil was found in 1856 (other Neanderthal bones had been discovered earlier, but people didn’t know what to make of them). Read More
A pale red dot not far from our sun may be orbited by a pale blue dot much different than Earth.
In a shocking find, astronomers Wednesday announced their discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, just 4.2 light-years away. This warm world, cataloged as Proxima b, sits smack in the middle of its habitable zone — the sweetest of sweet spots — where liquid surface water could exist.
But Proxima Centauri is not like our sun. It’s a cool, low-mass star known as a red dwarf. So the planet only qualifies as potentially habitable because it circles its sun in an orbit tighter than Mercury’s. Read More
In 1957 Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders shocked the world by revealing that messages exposed subliminally, below our level of perception, were able to increase sales of ice cream and Coke. The experiment he cited was later shown to be a hoax, but one of Packard’s other assertions, that advertising can influence us below our level of awareness, is absolutely true.
In fact, rather scarily, the vast majority of advertising’s influence on us is subconscious. My own research has shown how the emotive content of advertising enables it to break almost all the rules which we believe govern our own susceptibility to adverts. Read More
When we were children, the summer holidays seemed to last forever, and the wait between Christmases felt like an eternity. So why is that when we get older, the time just seems to zip by, with weeks, months and entire seasons disappearing from a blurred calendar at dizzying speed?
This apparently accelerated time travel is not a result of filling our adult lives with grown-up responsibilities and worries. Research does in fact seem to show that perceived time moves more quickly for older people making our lives feel busy and rushed. Read More
The field equations of Einstein’s General Relativity theory say that faster-than-light (FTL) travel is possible, so a handful of researchers are working to see whether a Star Trek-style warp drive, or perhaps a kind of artificial wormhole, could be created through our technology.
But even if shown feasible tomorrow, it’s possible that designs for an FTL system could be as far ahead of a functional starship as Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century drawings of flying machines were ahead of the Wright Flyer of 1903. But this need not be a showstopper against human interstellar flight in the next century or two. Short of FTL travel, there are technologies in the works that could enable human expeditions to planets orbiting some of the nearest stars. Read More