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Trial Balloon Category Archive: Science

Moons of Saturn Monday

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 24, 2010 by Dale Connelly (32 Comments)
Filed under: Science

Thanks to the 1,800 + people who stopped by our MPR offices in St. Paul, Rochester and Bemidji yesterday to be part of the Member Appreciation Open House. It was a pleasure to see so many familiar faces, and quite a few new ones as well. I spent the afternoon in our main Radio Heartland studio showing visitors how incredibly easy it is to be a disc jockey. Not only were mere children able to learn the job quickly - several of them became restless and strangely anxious - looking around the room for more challenging work.

Parents, you can thank me later when your brilliant child chooses to become a doctor or a space scientist.

Speaking of space, it's Monday, so there must be more Moons of Saturn on display.

Yesterday I spied yet another striking shot from the tireless Cassini spacecraft, still hard at work 12 and a half years after its launch.

You can click on the photo to see a larger version.

saturns moons.jpg

Two weeks ago we had a look at the moons Pandora and Epimetheus seeming to race around the rings. Saturn has 62 known moons. Imagine if you were with your Saturnian sweetheart, gazing into the nighttime sky. Would it be romantic, or more like watching NASCAR or a parade of dirty icy chunks? You'd need a scorecard. Words of love might have to wait.

Now we see another visual trick where the moon Rhea appears to sit on top of a very tiny Epimetheus. In fact, Rhea is bigger, 949 miles across compare to a mere 70 for Epimetheus. But the difference is exaggerated in this shot by Rhea's being much closer to the Cassini camera.

The eye catching thing about this shot (for me) is how completely fake it looks - the sort of thing I doodled on the back of my notebook in Mr. Tindall's American History class in 7th grade. If I wasn't drawing moons of Saturn, I was doodling superheroes or cars, especially as spring turned into summer outside our classroom window.

What did you do at your desk when you were supposed to be paying attention?

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The Ultimate Repellant

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 21, 2010 by Dale Connelly (40 Comments)
Filed under: Science

Radio Heartland has tickets to another sold out concert at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and singer/songwriter Jake Armerding will perform on Sunday, May 23rd at 7:30 pm. We'll keep entries open until 1pm today, and will notify winners by e-mail later this afternoon.

Enter the drawing.
Obey the rules.
Good luck!

According to "Into Eternity", a new documentary by Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen, the Finns are going to spend ten years building a long term repository for nuclear waste that is designed to be self supporting, meaning nobody has to monitor it; will last for 100,000 years, meaning it has to withstand the next ice age; and safe from the curious investigations of humans or whatever life form may follow us, meaning its location should be obscure, or at least eminently forgettable.

Think of this as a challenge in reverse marketing - the task is to build a place where nobody will want to go.

It's not as simple as making a "Keep Out" sign. What material will be readable 100,000 years from now? What language will be spoken? Finnish? Are there enough vowels on Earth to sustain it for that long? And no matter the language, "Keep Out" always translates as "What Do You Think They Stashed In Here?" No, you can't count on signs. The place itself has to be inherently repellent to life forms. That's not easy to do.

Of course, we've already created such a place with Brookdale Mall.

But the Finns don't share our vast experience with consumer goods and market research. When it comes to drawing a crowd, the American marketplace has tested billions of ideas. We've anointed many winners and a million times as many losers. This history of striving and falling short is our advantage.

When we finally muster the political will to build our own site for long term nuclear waste , we should draw on our collection of spectacular failures and surround the dangerous radioactive byproducts with shops, themed restaurants and family attractions that are proven crowd displeasers. Anyone trying to get close to our radioactive reserves of gene mutating detritus should have to vault over a gauntlet of unpopular cars and struggle past an armada of disparaged appliances. Their eyes and ears (if they have eyes and ears) should be bombarded with despised movies, widely ignored television shows, and repugnant radio stations playing completely forgettable music. This is our armor - a market tested protective shield for those who follow us.

We have to use what we know for the good of all human and creaturekind. Not only must we bury our nuclear waste in the Earth, we'll must submerge it under a mountain of consumer items that we the people can't remember or simply do not like.

I can nominate a few anti-attractions - Mervyn's California, the Chrysler K car, the Salad Spinner and the soundtrack to the Broadway production of Martin Guerre.

What else could we use to keep people away from the nuclear waste?

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The Volcanoes Among Us

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 19, 2010 by Dale Connelly (26 Comments)
Filed under: Monsters, Science

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The mountain is still active and has been rated the second most dangerous volcano in the U.S., after Kilauea in Hawaii.

I visited St. Helens two summers ago and was amazed at the devastation still evident 27 years after the 1980 explosion. The blast-leveled landscape extends for miles. Driving a winding mountain road while surrounded by the bleak ruins of once forested hillsides brought home to me the enormous reach and power of a volcano.

And now I read in a National Geographic article that the U.S. is the world's second most volcanic country (after Russia). We have 169 locations under observation for signs that they are about to spew molten lava, superheated air, and boulders the size of minivans. Mt. Rainier, visible on a clear day from downtown Seattle, is a volcano! And all this time I thought it was just a picturesque backdrop for the Space Needle. Even Yellowstone National Park sits atop a super volcano - something geologists on the ground noticed 40 years ago, verified when photos from space showed the outline of a massive caldera. Egads! Where AREN'T there volcanoes?

If you're willing to go back a billion years there is evidence that eruptions helped shape Minnesota. For instance, the rocks along Lake Superior's north shore are made of hardened lava. And the Paul Bunyan statue in Akeley has a beard so incredibly dark it looks like he toasted it while peering into the mouth of some bellowing inferno. What else would be big enough to toast this chin? But to find active volcanoes today, you'll have to look elsewhere - or will you? Evidently these boisterous monstrosities of nature have established a pattern of hiding in plain sight.

My nominee for a Minnesota location worth watching is the hill where the State Capitol sits. It rumbled all winter and almost erupted with a major economic blowout last weekend, but apparently the pressure has been diverted in such a way that it can continue to build and may reach a truly catastrophic level of readiness as early as next year.

Also, most summer evenings my neighbor tends a smoldering plume that he claims is a backyard fire pit, but I'm suspicious.

If the volcano next door suddenly started belching magma and you had 20 minutes to pack the car, what would you take?

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Science Meets Art

Posted at 6:00 AM on May 11, 2010 by Dale Connelly (31 Comments)
Filed under: Science


Today is the birthday of the late physicist Richard Feynman. (May 11th, 1918). He was one of the best known U.S. scientists, not a very reliable group for generating interest among the press. But he was a colorful character and an accomplished explainer. He was part of The Manhattan Project and the inquiry into the Challenger disaster. He won the Nobel Prize in 1965 and his name is on the Feynman Diagrams for explaining the behavior of subatomic particles.

And he played the bongos.

There are numerous Feynman videos available online. Here's a short one where he challenges the idea that artists can appreciate beauty more readily than scientists.

And here's an interesting clip that features Feynman along with astrophysicists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and "science guy" Bill Nye. It's part of a larger project called "Symphony for Science" led by a musician named John Boswell. Using sampling and auto-tune software, he takes the spoken comments of scientists and weaves their ideas into songs. Feynman is the first performer to appear in this video, playing the drums of course.

For people who love music and lyrics, packing information into a song is a great way to remember it. I'll never forget that the earth revolves at 900 miles an hour, thanks to Eric Idle and "The Galaxy Song". Of course it varies based on where you're standing - more like 1,000 miles per hour at the equator. That's the weakness of sung science - song lyrics demand an unrealistic level of simplicity.

Is there something you have trouble understanding that might make a great subject for an educational song?

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Learned Dreams

Posted at 6:00 AM on April 23, 2010 by Dale Connelly (48 Comments)
Filed under: Science

Radio Heartland has tickets to give away to a concert by Over the Rhine at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at 7pm next Tuesday, April 27th. We'll close off entries at 1pm today and notify winners by e-mail later this afternoon.

Enter the drawing.
Obey the rules.
Good luck!


Trial Balloon today is brought to you by Physicians for Bedrest, promoting completion of the first job you ever had (and the job that still may mean the most for your overall well-being) - the job of sleep!

The evidence in favor of the benefits of sleep continues to mount, and now there are indications that dreaming can be quite beneficial. A study published just yesterday in the journal Current Biology tells of subjects trying to decipher a computer generated three-dimensional maze. The task was to study the maze and to learn how to get to a landmark (a tree) in the center. Hours later, the same subjects were re-tested on the maze to see how their performance had changed over time.

Those who did not sleep between the first and second sessions did no better, and some did worse.
Those who slept did marginally better.
But those who slept AND reported dreaming about the maze showed vast improvement over their earlier performance.

The conclusion? That's anybody's guess, because it involves synthesizing a lot of complicated information. I had to read a whole article about the study and some smarter student's blog and then take a nap before I could even begin to understand it, but this is what I get:

Going to sleep as soon as possible after a difficult bit of learning is the best way to make educational progress.

So those stuck up students who took detailed notes in Mr. Pike's biology class and then made a big show out of re-writing those notes very neatly during the after-lunch study hall should have been more accepting of certain other students who spent that incredibly boring period with their heads down on their desks in daily drool soaked, snore-punctuated, air-gasping naps.

And instead of calling an unconscious fellow learner a "gross, inconsiderate slob" and trying to get him in trouble, it would have been wiser to appreciate how efficiently that learner was consolidating and internalizing the recently acquired information, allowing it to imprint itself on his neural pathways.

And rather than making fun of that learner for his incoherent sleep-state mumblings about Mr. Pike, mashed potatoes and fire juggling walruses, it would have been much more considerate to acknowledge that dreaming is a useful tool that does something mysterious and important that we obviously don't understand and it is in no way an indication that the dreamer is weird, uncool, or may be living a twisted and perverse fantasy life.

So there, Mary Ellen Fitzpatrick!

Do you feel more capable or smarter about something after you've had a chance to sleep on it?

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Fake Steak

Posted at 6:00 AM on January 28, 2010 by Dale Connelly (35 Comments)
Filed under: Science

Scientists are trying to grow pork strips from stem cells - an attempt that may eventually bring protein to your plate by cutting out the middlepig.

Imagine someday sitting down to a pork chop that has never had a hoof attached to it! Dr. Larry Kyle of Genway already has. I asked him what he thought of the lab meat research underway, and this was his response:

None of this is new to me, but I commend anyone out there trying to do different, wild stuff with food. It is only through unsupervised experimental improvisation that I've been able to stumble across the things that I was after but didn't know I wanted!

Dr. Kyle small .jpg

Genway has been creating choice cuts in petri dishes for years and years as part of our Extinct Meats Selection! Thanks to a whim I had about harvesting blood from the stomachs of ancient mosquitos caught in amber, we have been able to duplicate parts of the vanished animals these bugs were biting when they met their demise.

That's how we developed Genway's Brontosaurus Butt! Mmmmm!
We also pioneered Pterodactyl Fingers and everyone's favorite - Jurassic Pork!
They all have the timeless, renegade flavor that hints of a swampy world populated by ruthless carnivores - the taste of wild adventure!

Of course, I can't honestly say if our T. Rex Rib Racks taste anything like the original, but that bit of confusion works to our advantage. We can simply claim that our Prehistoric Meats have the exact same vivid flavor of the originals. Anyone who might contradict us was long ago eaten by a relative of the meal he would be referring to when he criticized us.

That's why it's so brave for these other scientists to try to duplicate meats that their customers have already tasted in a more "natural" form. That's bold and risky, and while I would never try it myself, I applaud the attempt.

My advice - if anyone ever produces lab meat that has a satisfying taste, they should make sure they sign a contract securing all rights for the specific creature who provided the original stem cells. In the future, meat will be marketed by the given name of its source animal. Rather than pork chops, you'll buy Snowball Chops, Loin of Squealer or Ground Napoleon.

And since we won't have to kill them to chew their flanks, the animals whose stem cells we use to fill our plates will become true celebrities. You'll see them everywhere! What if there was one source chicken for all those KFC wings? That's the creature whose picture I'd want to see on the side of the bucket - not Colonel Sanders!

Dr. Kyle has a good point - if artificially created meat ever tastes the same as the original, the change we'll notice won't be on the plate, it will be in the marketing.

Would you ever try meat that had been grown in a laboratory?

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