Scientists Record Volcanic Thunder For the First Time

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 14, 2018 4:51 pm
United States Geological Survey photo of 1982 eruption of Galungung, in Indonesia. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

United States Geological Survey photo of the 1982 eruption of Indonesia’s Galunggung. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When a volcano erupts, it can spew a cloud of ash miles into the stratosphere. It makes for an impressive sight, and an even more impressive amount of sheer material — large eruptions can loft cubic miles of rock and ash skyward.

And, to add to the wow factor, the clouds sometimes spawn their own lightning. As the cloud swirls chaotically in its journey skyward, the jagged ash particles are rubbed against one another, causing static electricity to accumulate. Static electricity in nature is released in the form of lightning, and volcanic ash clouds have been recorded releasing salvos of lightning bolts. It’s often called dirty lightning, and it makes for quite a spectacle.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: natural disasters

Goodbye, Professor Hawking

By Bill Andrews | March 14, 2018 11:59 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Well, if you’re on the internet today, you’ve probably already heard: Stephen Hawking died this morning at the age of 76. Almost every single news and science-based website (are there any others?) have stories on the physicist and his amazing life and achievements — chief among them, perhaps, being famous enough to deserve all those headlines. He was almost certainly the world’s most recognizable living scientist, and one of the most famous of all time.

If people know him for anything specific, rather than just being a generically smart guy (this generation’s Albert Einstein), it’s likely for two things. The first — and this is how I first became aware and in awe of the man — is his 1988 book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. The bestseller took readers through a fun tour of cosmology and physics, and it was the first glimpse for many into that daunting world.

Hawking’s genius was not just with equations and abstract theorizing that gave him his scientific bona fides, it was also in being able to explain these concepts to the interested layman in clear, engaging prose. When I first read it in high school, the science and the lucidity of its explanations impressed me deeply — it’s somewhat humbling to think the work I do now, as a science journalist, is in the same vein.

The second thing is Hawking’s diagnosis of ALS in 1963. Given just a few years to live, he ended up thriving for decades, outliving many of his doctors. While the degenerative disease took its toll on the scientist’s body, his brilliant mind remained sharpened till the very end. Just as you didn’t have to be fluent in mathematics to appreciate his popular writings, it didn’t take a PhD to be inspired by the man’s determination to live life to the fullest on his own terms, despite the disease’s effects. If anything, his wheelchair and computerized voice became a kind of signature, an emblem of a man who enjoyed engaging with pop culture as much as the academy.

He had guest appearances on Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Simpsons

The Big Bang Theory

And he made many more such appearances.

Hawking was increasingly rare, a celebrity famous not just despite his academic interests, but purely because of them. Most beloved scientists end up devoting more time to outreach and communication than pure science — which is fine, of course! — but Hawking’s scientific prowess was beyond question. The man has a type of radiation named after him, for heaven’s sake! How much more legit can a scientist be? And yet he still cared about the public, and making sure they “got” it, how amazing and truly understandable such work could be.

Like Einstein before him (whose birthday it coincidentally is today), Hawking symbolized scientific achievement and the vast potential of the human mind. His life inspired many of my colleagues and heroes. The world mourns his death not because black holes and physics are so cool (though they are), but rather as a testament to to the power of science — of our mental abilities to study the universe and understand even just a piece of it.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny,” Hawking once said. Today, it feels bit more tragic, but soon enough it’ll be funny once again.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

All Galaxies Rotate Once Every Billion Years

By Jake Parks | March 14, 2018 11:35 am
Grand spiral galaxy (NGC 1232). (Credit: FORS/8.2-meter VLT Antu/ESO)

Grand spiral galaxy (NGC 1232). (Credit: FORS/8.2-meter VLT Antu/ESO)

In a study published March 9 in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers announced the discovery that all disk galaxies rotate about once every billion years, no matter their size or mass.

“It’s not Swiss watch precision,” said Gerhardt Meurer, an astronomer from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), in a press release. “But regardless of whether a galaxy is very big or very small, if you could sit on the extreme edge of its disk as it spins, it would take you about a billion years to go all the way round.” Read More

MORE ABOUT: cosmology

Scientists Link Arctic Heat and Northeast Blizzards

By Eric Betz | March 13, 2018 3:38 pm
snow falls in times sqaure

(Credit: Shutterstock)

In late February, an invasion of warm, southern air sent temperatures surging above freezing across the Arctic and toward the North Pole. In the two weeks since then, three nor’easters have smacked New England and the surrounding areas.

As the Arctic warms, this trend has become common in recent winters, and it’s drawn new attention to links between the polar vortex — a constant mass of cold, dense air rotating over the north pole — and weather patterns farther south. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Empathy: Part Choice, Part Genetics

By Charlotte Hu | March 12, 2018 4:47 pm
(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Empathy is widely agreed upon to be one of the most human emotions that we possess. Seriously, no one’s ever complained about too much empathy.

It facilitates human relationships by allowing us to examine, understand and process the feelings and emotions of others. The absence of empathy is often linked to disruptive behavioral problems. Given its import in society, a group of scientists from the University of Cambridge and Institut Pasteur analyzed the results from 46,000 23andMe customers to explore whether this most human emotion has genetic underpinnings. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, genetics

Come Hell or Supervolcano, Humanity Will Be Alright

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 12, 2018 4:10 pm
(Credit: Melkor3D/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Melkor3D/Shutterstock)

Every year or so, a fresh rash of concern about the Yellowstone supervolcano spreads across the internet. While the likelihood of an eruption there remains remote, if the caldera were to blow, it could be devastating. Previous eruptions there covered much of North America in choking ash, and likely caused sharp drops in temperature that would decimate crops today.

Living through a supervolcano eruption certainly qualifies as a doomsday scenario. But, humanity might fare better than we think. After all, we’ve already survived one. So, before you purchase a $6,000 pallet of bunker-ready foodstuffs from Costco, read this. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts

Your Weekly Attenborough: Acisoma attenboroughi

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 9, 2018 4:20 pm
(Credit: Greg Lasley)

(Credit: Greg Lasley)

Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra is no stranger to new insects. The prolific odonatologist has dozens to his name, thanks in large part to a sweeping 2015 paper cataloguing the results of 15 years of work in Africa. That effort added 60 dragonflies and damselflies to the scientific record, and was met with general acclaim from critics.

Most people would be content to coast on the success of a mainstream breakthrough, but Dijkstra returned just months later, dropping a brand new, albeit smaller, collection of species. Drawing on his work with the Acisoma genus, “Six, not two, species of Acisoma pintail dragonfly,” functions as a fitting postscript to his exhaustive magnum opus. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts

Wherever They Go, These Spiders Always Evolve the Same Way

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 8, 2018 1:02 pm
A gold-colored stick spider. (Credit: George Roderick)

A gold-colored stick spider. (Credit: George Roderick)

We often assume that evolution is entirely unpredictable. But, that’s not always the case. Some evolutionary changes seem to be at least partly hardwired into a species’ DNA.

For an example, we can look to ecomorphs, species that occupy the same habitat and look generally alike, despite not being very closely related to each other. In some cases, species will repeatedly evolve the same characteristics as they move from one location to another, as if it were predestined.  Read More

MORE ABOUT: animals, evolution

On Twitter, Truths Are Continually Trounced by Falsehoods

By Carl Engelking | March 8, 2018 1:00 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Thomas Jefferson was quite clear in his belief that an informed citizenry formed the very foundation of a functioning democracy. If that’s the case, then the hive mind of Twitter is an indication that our democratic foundation may be crumbling.

It’s impossible engage in rational, productive discussions about the current state of affairs if people can’t sip from a mutual fount of objective truth—the sky is blue, the Earth is round. When we diverge from the truth, we can pay a high price. In 2013, for example, someone hacked the Associated Press Twitter account and falsely tweeted that Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 140 points and kicked off 4 minutes of panic on the trading floor. It was just another day on Twitter. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: computers

Amelia Earhart’s Final Resting Place

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 7, 2018 3:36 pm
Amelia Earhart, photographed in 1936, the year before her disappearance. (Credit: Everett Historical)

Amelia Earhart, photographed in 1936, the year before her disappearance. (Credit: Everett Historical)

Where in the world is Amelia Earhart? It’s a question that has captivated the public ever since the famed aviator went missing in 1937 over the Pacific Ocean.

Theories and conspiracies abound, but most of the detective work has focused on a collection of bones unearthed on Nikumaroro, one of a spray of remote atolls scattered like freckles in the Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: anthropology

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.

See More

Collapse bottom bar