Aliens on a hollow moon…

Looks like there are some crazies frequenting the comment pages of Scientific American.  See? There, on that article about a NASA mission to try to test for water on the moon.

Alien lunar base… ūüėÄ

I’m almost surprised that no one has yet claimed that the moon actually is made of green cheese.

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Exploding metal (shiny)

Well, I found¬†a summary of how fireworks work. ¬†It doesn’t really explain some of the more interesting patterns; it just describes the basics. ¬†The firework shell uses black powder (gunpowder) at its base to launch it; when this lights, it ignites a fuse that delays the explosion long enough for the shell to reach the right height. ¬†The fuse ignites another powder that explodes the shell, lighting the components that actually produce the visual effect and pushing them outward away from the shell.

Those components (another site calls them ‘stars’) burn from the outside in. ¬†It should be pretty obvious, but what they’re composed of determines the color they burn. ¬†Various metal salts are used to produce the visual effects. ¬†About.com has a nice page with info on what the different elements used do.

I already knew that magnesium burns white (cheers to high school chem class for letting us test this empirically!); so does iron, if it’s hot enough (iron burns red, otherwise), as well as aluminum and titanium. ¬†All four of these create sparks, so mostly they’ll be the ones that create the crackling sparkler look in some fireworks. ¬†Antimony is used for glitter (shimmer?).

Lithium and strontium can also be used for red light; orange is calcium; green is barium; yellow is likely sodium. ¬†Copper burns blue, which I find interesting – in glazes for pottery, copper can create either green or red color, depending on whether it was oxidized or reduction-fired (the difference being abundance or lack of oxygen for the fire). ¬†We burned copper in chemistry class, too, but I don’t remember what it looked like. ¬†Quite the colorful element.

As far as the different patterns and color changes, I guess that would just depend on how the ‘stars’ are packed into the shell. ¬†Coat one metal salt with one that makes a different color, and the light will change color when the outer layer has burned through. ¬†Pack ‘stars’ with more ‘stars’, and perhaps that gives you a secondary explosion – just as the first burst fades, the blast powder inside the ‘stars’ ignites, lighting the second round of ‘stars.’ ¬†Or similar for the rocket launcher firework.

Yeah?

Video games ‚Ȇ evil

In¬†a new article today, one of SA’s writers argues that certain video games can provide tangible benefits (like improved perception of things with low contrast) to the people who play them, especially kids. ¬†I can’t personally speak to the sight example; I never played much by way of action-based games. ¬†The closest I got was probably when I played through Zelda on SNES (WaveRace 64 is anything but low contrast, and I only played part of Ocarina of Time).

But is it any surprise, really, that video games can be beneficial?  Was it that hard to see past the blood on Mortal Kombat?

I played mostly RPGs, growing up, and to be good at those you have to learn to strategize. ¬†(I’m low on HP – if I hit, and don’t kill the enemy, it will probably kill me; if I defend, I’ll be in the same situation next turn. ¬†That’s assuming it doesn’t cast Icebolt and beat me anyway. ¬†If I try to run, I could be blocked…and probably beaten. ¬†What should I do?)

You also have to learn a bit of frugality in the earlier games. ¬†If you can do it, it makes more sense – and is faster in the end – to¬†not buy the new weapon that you can afford now when you know you’ll need a better one when you get to the next town anyway. ¬†Hours of slime-killing to save for your first sword in Dragon Warrior I, anyone?

Also, they introduced me to some figures from various mythologies and religions – Shiva, Indra, Gilgamesh, djinn, Io, and so forth. ¬†So when I first read about the ‘real’ ones, it sparked a connection for me. ¬†It was already personally interesting, because I knew the names and hadn’t realized they were taken from real-world beliefs and narratives. ¬†Some RPGs really are thoughtful (sometimes even thought-provoking) pieces of work.

Beneficial?  Heck yes!

A way to put an idle computer to good use

I guess I’ve seen BOINC on a computer or two before (including the one I use at work, which really doesn’t have the processor power or ram to handle it); but I never realized what it is. ¬†The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (UC Berkeley) contains a number of scientific projects that require a great deal of computing power to process data, more computing power than they have – unless they want the project to take a really long time.

So the BOINC software lets you join in on whichever projects catch your eye – you download the program and let it run when your computer would otherwise be idle. ¬†Basically, you donate some of your computer’s processing power to help run through data in scientific projects ranging from creation of a 3D model of our galaxy to protein research (aiming at new treatments for various diseases) to climate model simulations.

I want to download this on my Sammy. ¬†It’s only the power of a five-year-old processor, but this is still a pretty cool program. ¬†I’d like to support it. ¬†(Now if I had a computer powerful enough for good rendering, I could run BOINC enough that I’d surely notice the difference in my electric bill…then I wouldn’t run it as much, though.)

Thanks to SA’s 60-second science blog for the post on one of the BOINC projects.

The sense in crazy dreaming

I read a couple of interesting articles on Scientific American today…

Left brain, right brain

The first was on how or why – and more interestingly, when – specialization evolved between functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain. ¬†Apparently, even in the first vertebrates, one side of the brain would be more active than the other in certain types of situations. ¬†That’s one or two hundred times longer ago than the beginnings of hominid life. ¬†Normal, routine activity and perception would belong to the left brain, and recognition and response to unexpected circumstances to the right – and these patterns may have led to speech, facial recognition, and our asymmetrical tendency toward right-handedness. ¬†(Curious: the article says that right-handedness shows up in a number of other species, from other primates to whales.)

Not everything was new, but there were interesting examples that back up the distinction between the left and right brains. ¬†Note: many animals react more strongly to predators in their left field of vision (right brain) than in their right (left brain), and humans tend to respond to a threat more quickly with their left hand than their right. ¬†Also, regarding reasons for specialization to be favored by natural selection, chickens with lateral processing (specialization) were able to multitask better and/or faster than chickens whose “left” and “right” brain specialization had been compromised (whose brains were ambidextrous, in effect).

I’ve been used to thinking of “left brain” – “right brain” talk as half imagined; we’re pretty adaptable beings, after all, besides which, I usually hear the distinction used by people who just want to say that they particularly like either artsy stuff or mathy stuff. ¬†So, nice article.

Are crazy dreams good for us?

The other article was on theories as to the reasons why we dream, and why our dreams are so, well, weird. ¬†We know our brains are more active during REM sleep, and one theory is that dreaming is sort of like a screensaver. ¬†It’s a workout – keeps certain parts of our brains active while others are restored, maybe. ¬†But why are our dreams so visual, yet so lacking in sound and smell? ¬†Well, someone awake in the dark couldn’t see well anyway – so perhaps visual stimulation in dreams leaves us less vulnerable than would auditory or olfactory stimuli, to which the darkness when we sleep is irrelevant. ¬†And maybe those recurring nightmares of being chased, or of falling, or of being attacked are a way of simulating threats – giving us a chance to ‘practice’ responding to threats in relative safety.

What I don’t get, though, is this: supposedly, dreaming can aid us in problem solving. ¬†There’s a nice anecdote about a study participant who was struggling with one of a set of puzzles given to her to work on before she went to sleep. ¬†She fell asleep frustrated, and in a dream saw the problem in a much more visual, metaphorical scene, which allowed her to see the solution. ¬†I have no trouble believing this story; intuition itself can be trained, I am convinced, and that seems to lend itself to the thought that we can process problems through dreaming (and certainly in a very different way than when we are awake!). ¬†And it seems familiar, too, like this kind of thing has happened to me. ¬†Probably it was during those late nights of paper-writing during my first semester of philosophy classes. ¬†But there’s no explanation here for a question that burns much stronger than just what dreams do: how, exactly, does this happen? ¬†How do dreams¬†work?