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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ten things you don’t know about the Earth

Look up, look down, look out, look around.

— Yes, "It Can Happen"

Good advice from the 60s acid band. Look around you. Unless you’re one of the Apollo astronauts, you’ve lived your entire life within a few hundred kilometers of the surface of the Earth. There’s a whole planet beneath your feet, 6.6 sextillion tons of it, one trillion cubic kilometers of it. But how well do you know it?

Below are ten facts about the Earth — the second in my series of Ten Things You Don’t Know (the first was on the Milky Way). Some things I already knew (and probably you do, too), some I had ideas about and had to do some research to check, and others I totally made up. Wait! No! Kidding. They’re all real. But how many of them do you know? Be honest.

1) The Earth is smoother than a billiard ball.

Maybe you’ve heard this statement: if the Earth were shrunk down to the size of a billiard ball, it would actually be smoother than one. When I was in third grade, my teacher said basketball, but it’s the same concept. But is it true? Let’s see. Strap in, there’s a wee bit of math (like, a really wee bit).

OK, first, how smooth is a billiard ball? According to the World Pool-Billiard Association, a pool ball is 2.25 inches in diameter, and has a tolerance of +/- 0.005 inches. In other words, it must have no pits or bumps more than 0.005 inches in height. That’s pretty smooth. The ratio of the size of an allowable bump to the size of the ball is 0.005/2.25 = about 0.002.

The Earth has a diameter of about 12,735 kilometers (on average, see below for more on this). Using the smoothness ratio from above, the Earth would be an acceptable pool ball if it had no bumps (mountains) or pits (trenches) more than 12,735 km x 0.00222 = about 28 km in size.

The highest point on Earth is the top of Mt. Everest, at 8.85 km. The deepest point on Earth is the Marianas Trench, at about 11 km deep.

Hey, those are within the tolerances! So for once, an urban legend is correct. If you shrank the Earth down to the size of a billiard ball, it would be smoother.

But would it be round enough to qualify?

2) The Earth is an oblate spheroid

The Earth is round! Despite common knowledge, people knew that the Earth was spherical thousands of years ago. Eratosthenes even calculated the circumference to very good accuracy!

But it’s not a perfect sphere. It spins, and because it spins, it bulges due to centrifugal force (yes, dagnappit, I said centrifugal). That is an outwards-directed force, the same thing that makes you lean to the right when turning left in a car. Since the Earth spins, there is a force outward that is a maximum at the Earth’s equator, making our Blue Marble bulge out, like a basketball with a guy sitting on it. This type of shape is called an oblate spheroid.

If you measure between the north and south poles, the Earth’s diameter is 12,713.6 km. If you measure across the Equator it’s 12,756.2 km, a difference of about 42.6 kilometers. Uh-oh! That’s more than our tolerance for a billiard ball. So the Earth is smooth enough, but not round enough, to qualify as a billiard ball.

Bummer. Of course, that’s assuming the tolerance for being out-of-round for a billiard ball is the same as it is for pits and bumps. The WPA site doesn’t say. I guess some things remain a mystery.

3) The Earth isn’t an oblate spheroid.

But we’re not done. The Earth is more complicated than an oblate spheroid. The Moon is out there too, and the Sun. They have gravity, and pull on us. The details are complicated (sate yourself here), but gravity (in the form of tides) raises bulges in the Earth’s surface as well. The tides from the Moon have an amplitude (height) of roughly a meter in the water, and maybe 30 cm in the solid Earth. The Sun is more massive than the Moon, but much farther away, and so its tides are only about half as high.

This is much smaller than the distortion due to the Earth’s spin, but it’s still there.

Other forces are at work as well, including pressure caused by the weight of the continents, upheaval due to tectonic forces, and so on. The Earth is actually a bit of a lumpy mess, but if you were to say it’s a sphere, you’d be pretty close. If you held the billiard-ball-sized Earth in your hand, I doubt you’d notice it isn’t a perfect sphere.

A professional pool player sure would though. I won’t tell Allison Fisher if you won’t.

4) OK, one more surfacey thing: the Earth is not exactly aligned with its geoid

If the Earth were infinitely elastic, then it would respond freely to all these different forces, and take on a weird, distorted shape called a geoid. For example, if the Earth’s surface were completely deluged with water (give it a few decades) then the surface shape would be a geoid. But the continents are not infinitely ductile, so the Earth’s surface is only approximately a geoid. It’s pretty close, though.

Precise measurements of the Earth’s surface are calibrated against this geoid, but the geoid itself is hard to measure. The best we can do right now is to model it using complicated mathematical functions. That’s why ESA is launching a satellite called GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) in the next few months, to directly determine the geoid’s shape.

Who knew just getting the shape of the Earth would be such a pain?

5) Jumping into hole through the Earth is like orbiting it.

I grew up thinking that if you dug a hole through the Earth (for those in the US) you’d wind up in China. Turns out that’s not true; in fact note that the US and China are both entirely in the northern hemisphere which makes it impossible, so as a kid I guess I was pretty stupid.

You can prove it to yourself with this cool but otherwise worthless mapping tool.

But what if you did dig a hole through the Earth and jump in? What would happen?

 Where my own hole through the Earth ends up.

Well, you’d die (see below). But if you had some magic material coating the walls of your 13,000 km deep well, you’d have quite a trip. You’d accelerate all the way down to the center, taking about 20 minutes to get there. Then, when you passed the center, you’d start falling up for another 20 minutes, slowing the whole way. You’d just reach the surface, then you’d fall again. Assuming you evacuated the air and compensated for Coriolis forces, you’d repeat the trip over and over again, much to your enjoyment and/or terror. Actually, this would go on forever, with you bouncing up and down. I hope you remember to pack a lunch.

Note that as you fell, you accelerate all the way down, but the acceleration itself would decrease as you fell: there is less mass between you and the center of the Earth as you head down, so the acceleration due to gravity decreases as you approach the center. However, the speed with which you pass the center is considerable: about 7.7 km/sec (5 miles/second).

In fact, the math driving your motion is the same as for an orbiting object. It takes the same amount of time to fall all the way through the Earth and back as it does to orbit it, if your orbit were right at the Earth’s surface (orbits slow down as the orbital radius increases). Even weirder, it doesn’t matter where your hole goes: a straight line through the Earth from any point to any other (shallow chord, through the diameter, or whatever) gives you the same travel time of 42 or so minutes.

Gravity is bizarre. But there you go. And if you do go take the long jump, well, your trip may be a wee bit unpleasant.

6) The Earth’s interior is hot due to impacts, shrinkage, sinkage, and radioactive decay.

A long time ago, you, me, and everything else on Earth was scattered in a disk around the Sun several billion kilometers across. Over time, this aggregated into tiny bodies called planetesimals, like dinky asteroids. These would smack together, and some would stick, forming a larger body. Eventually, this object got massive enough that its gravity actively drew in more bodies. As these impacted, they released their energy of motion (kinetic energy) as heat, and the young Earth became a molten ball. Ding! One source of heat.

As the gravity increased, its force tried to crush the Earth into a more compact ball. When you squeeze an object it heats up. Ding ding! The second heat source.

Since the Earth was mostly liquid, heavy stuff fell to the center and lighter stuff rose to the top. So the core of the Earth has lots of iron, nickel, osmium, and the like. As this stuff falls, heat is generated (ding ding ding!) because the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, which in turn is converted to thermal energy due to friction.

And hey, some of those heavy elements are radioactive, like uranium. As they decay, they release heat (ding ding ding ding!). This accounts for probably more than half of the heat inside the planet.

So the Earth is hot in the inside due to at least four sources. But it’s still hot after all this time because the crust is a decent insulator. It prevents the heat from escaping efficeintly, so even after 4.55 billion years, the Earth’s interior is still an unpleasantly warm place to be.

Incidentally, the amount of heat flowing out from the Earth’s surface due to internal sources is about 45 trillion Watts. That’s about three times the total global human energy consumption. If we could capture all that heat and convert it with 100% efficiency into electricity, it would literally power all of humanity. Too bad that’s an insurmountable if.

7) The Earth has at least five natural moons. But not really.

Most people think the Earth has one natural moon, which is why we call it the Moon. These people are right. But there are four other objects — at least — that stick near the Earth in the solar system. They’re not really moons, but they’re cool.

The biggest is called Cruithne (pronounced MRPH-mmmph-glug, or something similar). It’s about 5 kilometers across, and has an elliptical orbit that takes it inside and outside Earth’s solar orbit. The orbital period of Cruithne is about the same as the Earth’s, and due to the peculiarities of orbits, this means it is always on the same side of the Sun we are. From our perspective, it makes a weird bean-shaped orbit, sometimes closer, sometimes farther from the Earth, but never really far away.

That’s why some people say it’s a moon of the Earth. But it actually orbits the Sun, so it’s not a moon of ours. Same goes for the other three objects discovered, too.

Oh– these guys can’t hit the Earth. Although they stick near us, more or less, their orbits don’t physically cross ours. So we’re safe. From them.

8) The Earth is getting more massive.

Sure, we’re safe from Cruithne. But space is littered with detritus, and the Earth cuts a wide path (125 million square km in area, actually). As we plow through this material, we accumulate on average 20-40 tons of it per day! [Note: your mileage may vary; this number is difficult to determine, but it’s probably good within a factor of 2 or so.] Most of it is in the form of teeny dust particles which burn up in our atmosphere, what we call meteors (or shooting stars, but doesn’t "meteor" sound more sciencey?). These eventually fall to the ground (generally transported by rain drops) and pile up. They probably mostly wash down streams and rivers and then go into the oceans.

40 tons per day may sound like a lot, but it’s only 0.000000000000000000000002% the mass of the Earth (in case I miscounted zeroes, that’s 2×10-26 times the Earth’s mass). It would take 140,000 million trillion years to double the mass of the Earth this way, so again, you might want to pack a lunch. In a year, it’s enough cosmic junk to fill a six-story office building, if that’s a more palatable analogy.

I’ll note the Earth is losing mass, too: the atmosphere is leaking away due to a number of different processes. But this is far slower than the rate of mass accumulation, so the net affect is a gain of mass.

9) Mt. Everest isn’t the biggest mountain.

The height of a mountain may have an actual definition, but I think it’s fair to say that it should be measured from the base to the apex. Mt. Everest stretches 8850 meters above sea level, but it has a head start due to the general uplift from the Himalayas. The Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea is 10,314 meters from stem to stern (um, OK, bad word usagement, but you get my point), so even though it only reaches to 4205 meters above sea level, it’s a bigger mountain than Everest.

Plus, Mauna Kea has telescopes on top of it, so that makes it cooler.

10) Destroying the Earth is hard.

Considering I wrote a book about destroying the Earth a dozen different ways (available for pre-order on amazon.com!), it turns out the phrase "destroying the Earth" is a bit misleading. I actually write about wiping out life, which is easy. Physically destroying the Earth is hard.

What would it take to vaporize the planet? Let’s define vaporization as blowing it up so hard that it disperses and cannot recollect due to gravity. How much energy would that take?

Think of it this way: take a rock. Throw it up so hard it escapes from the Earth. That takes quite a bit of energy! Now do it again. And again. Lather, rinse, repeat… a quadrillion times, until the Earth is gone. That’s a lot of energy! But we have one advantage: every rock we get rid of decreases the gravity of the Earth a little bit (because the mass of the Earth is smaller by the mass of the rock). As gravity decreases, it gets easier to remove rocks.

You can use math to calculate this; how much energy it takes to remove a rock and simultaneously account for the lowering of gravity. If you make some basic assumptions, it takes roughly 2 x 1032 Joules, or 200 million trillion trillion Joules. That’s a lot. For comparison, that’s the total amount of energy the Sun emits in a week. It’s also about a trillion times the destructive energy yield of detonating every nuclear weapon on Earth.

If you want to vaporize the Earth by nuking it, you’d better have quite an arsenal, and time on your hands. If you blew up every nuclear weapon on the planet once every second, it would take 160,000 years to turn the Earth into a cloud of expanding gas.

And this is only if you account for gravity! There are chemical bonds holding the Earth’s matter together as well, so it takes even more energy.

This is why Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. The Death Star wouldn’t be able to have a weapon that powerful. The energy storage alone is a bit much, even for the power of the Dark Side.

Even giant collisions can’t vaporize the planet. An object roughly the size of Mars impacted the Earth more than 4.5 billion years ago, and the ejected debris formed the Moon (the rest of the collider merged with the Earth). But the Earth wasn’t vaporized. Even smacking a whole planet into another one doesn’t destroy them!

Of course, the collision melted the Earth all the way down to the core, so the damage is, um, considerable. But the Earth is still around.

The Sun will eventually become a red giant (Chapter 7!), and while it probably won’t consume the Earth, it’ll put the hurt on us for sure. But even then, total vaporization is unlikely (though Mercury is doomed).

Planets tend to be sturdy. Good thing, too. We live on one.

Conclusion

Well, that cheery thought brings us to the end of my list of things you may or may not have known about the Earth. I had lots more. How much does the atmosphere weigh? What’s the average mass of a cloud? Stuff like that, but these are the ten I liked best. If you’ve got more, feel free to leave them in the comments!

But remember the main point here: you live on a planet, and you may not know all that much about it. The only cure for that is learning, and that’s driven by wonder. Keep wondering, and keep learning. And don’t forget to look around.

Will the world end on Wednesday?

Jon Henley

Purple haze shows dark matter flanking the 'Bullet Cluster'. Photograph: AP.

Be a bit of a pain if it did, wouldn't it? And the most frustrating thing is that we won't know for sure either way until the European laboratory for particle physics (Cern) in Geneva switches on its Large Hadron Collider the day after tomorrow.

If you think it's unlikely that we will all be sucked into a giant black hole that will swallow the world, as German chemistry professor Otto Rössler of the University of Tübingen posits, and so carry on with your life as normal, only to find out that it's true, you'll be a bit miffed, won't you?

If, on the other hand, you disagree with theoretical physicist Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith of the UK Atomic Energy Agency, who argues that fears of possible global self-ingestion have been exaggerated, and decide to live the next two days as if they were your last, and then nothing whatsoever happens, you'd feel a bit of a fool too.

Rössler apparently thinks it "quite plausible" that the "mini black holes" the Cern atom-smasher creates "will survive and grow exponentially and eat the planet from the inside". So convinced is he that he has lodged an EU court lawsuit alleging that the project violates the right to life guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Prof Llewellyn Smith, however, has assured Radio 4's Today programme that the LHC - designed to help solve fundamental questions about the structure of matter and, hopefully, arrive at a "theory of everything" - is completely safe and will not be doing anything that has not happened "100,000 times over" in nature since the earth has existed. "The chances of us producing a black hole are minuscule," he said, "and even if we do, it can't swallow up the earth." So, folks, who do you believe?

Comets Disguised as Asteroids

By Jeremy Hsu

An asteroid cruising through the solar system six years ago seemed just another silent ship sailing in the eternal darkness, until it flared up with the startling brightness of a comet's halo.

Just like that, the space rock known as NEO 2001 OG108 was re-classified as C/2001 OG108 in 2002, from asteroid to comet. Scientists now suspect that 5 to 10 percent of other Near Earth Objects (NEOs) may also be comets lurking in disguise as asteroids.

"That was the first real evidence we have of objects that look like asteroids but are comets in the NEO population," said Paul Abell, a planetary scientist with the Planetary Science Institute who is located at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Now he's heading a NASA-funded study to sort out which are which.

The astronomy files

Telling apart comets and asteroids matters more than just to sticklers. Knowing the composition of NEOs is crucial to preventing possible collisions with Earth, especially when a collection of comet pieces bursting in the atmosphere can have far deadlier consequences than an asteroid. Finding out about the materials in comets and asteroids also provides hints about the early evolution of the solar system.

Abell's research may even uncover future targets for spacecraft to investigate, similar to the Deep Impact and Stardust missions. He is working with Faith Valis, director of the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory at Mount Hopkins, Ariz., to try and identify suspect objects for sure as comets or asteroids.

The most mysterious objects don't give up their secrets easily. Far-off comet bodies resemble dirty snowballs that lack the halo or "coma" they get once they approach the warmth of the sun. As a result, such objects can appear "blacker than coal" to telescopes because they reflect just 3 percent of light that hits them, Abell told SPACE.com.

Fingering the culprits

The former NEO 2001 OG108 got as close to us as the orbit of Mars before acquiring its coma, which kept astronomers guessing up until then. Another object that continues to arouse controversy is 3200 Phaethon, a suspected asteroid that some observers believe to be the husk of a burned-out comet.

The uncertainty goes to the heart of comet evolution. Scientists argue about whether some comets simply lose their surrounding cloud of dust and gas, or form hardened shells to contain the loose icy material that makes up comets.

So far, Abell has set his sights on three comet culprits in the crowd of space rocks. NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility at Mauna Kea in Hawaii allows his group to see the chemical composition of different objects, and even find the unique fingerprints of comets depending on their origins.

Stranger and stranger

For instance, some comets come from the Kuiper Belt, a disk-shaped icy cloud past the orbit of Neptune. Other passing comets such as Halley's Comet start from much further away in the Oort Cloud, which lies far beyond Pluto's orbit at 1,000 times the distance from the sun to the Kuiper Belt.

"There are some indications that there may be spectral differences between things that come from the Oort Cloud and things that come from the Kuiper belt," Abell noted.

The survey has a long way to go after analyzing just three objects, Abell said, but that's how science works. You get a result, and then you can start asking better questions.

Can Science Improve Man's Best Friend?

Australian Shepherd. (Credit: iStockphoto/Virginia Hamrick)

If you could design the perfect dog, what would it look like? Tall, short, fluffy, wiry, black, white, tan or brindle?

While animal buyers often look closely at physical characteristics, behavioural traits can make the difference between a dog becoming a much loved and pampered family member, or a mistreated or neglected unwanted animal.

According to Monash University researcher Dr Pauleen Bennett from the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine, science and breeding can be used to produce dogs that have characteristics desired by average dog owners and are well suited to the domestic environment.

"For many people the dog is the only living animal with which they have any form of regular personal contact and of course, many pet dogs are treated like royalty," Dr Bennett said.

"Yet, animal welfare shelters are forced to put to death thousands of unwanted dogs each year, and many pets are still subject to cruelty, neglect or inappropriate care. Even the most well-intentioned owner can place their dog's wellbeing at risk through exposure to the stresses of high density living, anxiety triggered by long hours spent alone, and even obesity or diabetes caused by overfeeding."

Characteristics Australian owners want in their pet dogs include being friendly, obedient, affectionate and healthy, while undesirable behaviours included nervousness, destructiveness and excitability.

"Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions," Dr Bennett said.

"Successfully matching the dog, its requirements and behavioural traits with the understanding and desires of the owner should mean the animals are more likely to enjoy good welfare throughout long, healthy and happy lives."

Dr Bennett said it was an exciting time to be working in her area. She presented her research at the 2008 International Animal Welfare Conference on the Gold Coast, Sunday 31 August to Wednesday 3 September.

"The whole issue of animal welfare is gaining momentum socially and Australia is well-placed to lead the world in developing socially responsible relationships with animals," Dr Bennett said.

Yes, Google Did Patent The Ocean-Powered Data Center

Written by Hank Green

Oh Google, will you never stop surprising me? Turns out, back in 2007, Google put in a patent application for an wave-powered server farm. According to the patent, they would like to distribute data centers closer to users, but it is sometimes difficult to come across places to put the server farms and cheap electricity to power them.

Well, to solve that problem, Google thought maybe they'd put the server farms on a boat, and power the farm itself with a web of wave-power buoys. In addition, a sea-water cooling system would keep the whole operation from overheating.

You can read the whole patent application here. I love the way Google thinks, though I'm not entirely sure that this is going to turn out to be a large-scale solution. I mean, what happens in places without good waves, or when the weather turns placid...does the internet go away? I don't think I could handle that.

Original here

Countdown starts in quest to pierce secrets of Universe

Particle physicists believe they will throw open a new frontier of knowledge on Wednesday when, 100 metres (325 feet) below ground, they switch on a mega-machine crafted to unveil the deepest mysteries of matter.

The most complex scientific experiment ever undertaken, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will accelerate sub-atomic particles to nearly the speed of light and then smash them together, with the aim of filling gaps in our understanding of the cosmos.
It may also determine the outcome of novel theories about space-time: does another dimension -- or dimensions -- exist in parallel to our own?

After nearly two decades and six billion Swiss francs (3.76 billion euros, 5.46 billion dollars), an army of 5,000 scientists, engineers and technicians drawn from nearly three dozen countries have brought the mammoth project close to fruition.

At 9:30 a.m. (0730 GMT) on Wednesday, the first protons will be injected into a 27-kilometre (16.9-mile) ring-shaped tunnel, straddling the Swiss-French border at the headquarters of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

Whizzed to within a millionth of a percent of the speed of the light, the particles will be the first step in a long-term experiment to smash sub-atomic components together, briefly generating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the Sun in a microscopic space.

Analysts will then pore over the wreckage in the search for fundamental particles.

"We will be entering into a new territory of physics," said Peter Jenni, spokesman for ATLAS -- one of four gargantuan laboratories installed on the ring where a swathe of delicate detectors will spot the collisions.

"Wednesday is a very major milestone."

The LHC is massively-muscled machine compared to its CERN predecessor, the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider, and an ageing accelerator at the legendary Fermilab in Illinois.

It has the power to smash protons or ions -- particles known as hadrons -- together at a whopping 14 teraelectron volts (TeV), seven times the record held by Fermilab's Tevatron.

The leviathan scale of the project is neatly juxtaposed by its goal, which is to explore the infinitely small.

Physicists have long puzzled over how particles acquire mass.

In 1964, a British physicist, Peter Higgs, came up with this idea: there must exist a background field that would act rather like treacle.

Particles passing through it would acquire mass by being dragged through a mediator, which theoreticians dubbed the Higgs Boson.

The standard quip about the Higgs is that it is the "God Particle" -- it is everywhere but remains frustratingly elusive.

French physicist Yves Sacquin says that heroic work by the LEP and Fermilab has narrowed down the energy range at which the devious critter is likely to spotted.

Given the LHC's capabilities, "there's a very strong probability that it will be detected," he said.

Some experts are also hopeful about an early LHC breakthrough on the question of supersymmetry.

The supersymmetry theory goes way beyond even the Higgs. It postulates that particles in the Standard Model have related, but more massive, counterparts.

Such particles could explain the unsettling discovery of recent years that visible matter only accounts for some four percent of the Universe. Enigmatic phenomena called dark matter and dark energy account for the rest.

CERN Director General Robert Aymar is confident the massive experiment will yield a correspondingly big breakthrough in penetrating these mysteries.

"It is certain that the LHC will yield the identity and understanding of this dark matter," he said in a video statement.

CERN has had to launch a PR campaign aimed at reassuring the public that the LHC will not create black holes that could engulf the planet or an unpleasant hypothetical particle called a strangelet that would turn the Earth into a lump of goo.

It has commissioned a panel to verify its calculations that such risks are, by any reasonable thinking, impossible, and France too has carried out its own safety probe.

Either way, the end of the world will not happen on Wednesday, for the simple reason that the LHC will not generate any collisions that day.

These will probably be initiated "in a few weeks" as part of a phased programme to commission the LHC, testing its equipment and evaluating work procedures before cranking it up to full strength, said Jenni.

Looking at the daily mountain of data that will have to be analysed, "it will take weeks or months before one can really hope to start discovering something new," he cautioned.

"The LHC is more than a machine. It is the intellectual quest of our age," the British weekly New Scientist said in this week's issue.

"With luck... today's physics textbooks will start to look out of date by the end of 2009."

World's biggest atom-smasher: Mission profile

Following is a mission profile of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest atom-smasher, which is due to start operations on Wednesday:

- Hunt for the HIGGS BOSON, a theorised particle that would explain why other particles have mass. Confirming the Higgs would fill a huge gap in the so-called Standard Model, the theory that summarises our present knowledge of particles. Over the years, scientists have whittled down the ranges of mass that the Higgs is likely to have. But they have lacked a machine capable of generating collisions powerful enough to to confirm whether this so-called God particle really does exist.

- Explore SUPERSYMMETRY, the notion that a whole bestiary of related but more massive particles exists beyond those in the Standard Model. Supersymmetry could explain one of the weirdest discoveries of recent years -- that visible matter only accounts for some four percent of the cosmos. Dark matter (23 percent) and dark energy (73 percent) account for the rest. A popular theory is that dark matter comprises supersymmetric particles called neutralinos.

- Investigate the mystery of MATTER AND ANTI-MATTER. When energy transforms into matter, it produces a particle and its mirror image -- called an anti-particle -- which holds the opposite electrical charge. When particles and anti-particles collide, they annihilate each other in a small flash of energy. According to conventional theories of the cosmos, matter and anti-matter should exist in equal amounts, but the puzzle is that anti-matter is rare.

- Replicate the earliest moments after the BIG BANG that created the Universe. At its primal stage, matter existed as a sort of hot, dense soup called quark-gluon plasma. As it cooled, sub-atomic particles called quarks clumped together to form protons and neutrons and other composite particles. The LHC will smash heavy ions together, briefly generating temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the centre of the Sun and freeing quarks from their confinent. The researchers can then see how the liberated quarks aggregate to form ordinary matter.

The CERN atom-smasher: A factfile

Here is a snapshot of the world's biggest atom-smasher, due to start operations on Wednesday at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) near Geneva:

-- The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will accelerate hydrogen protons or lead ions to more than 99.9999 percent of the speed of light. The experiments will take place in a ring-shaped tunnel 27 kilometres (16.9 miles) long and up to 175 metres (568 feet) below the ground. The tunnel stretches out from Swiss territory and into France, looping back into Switzerland.

-- The beams run in parallel in opposite directions. Powerful superconducting magnets then "bend" the beams so that streams of particles collide within four large chambers. The smashups will fleetingly generate temperatures 100,000 hotter than the Sun, replicating the conditions that prevailed just after the "Big Bang" that created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago.
-- Swathing the chambers are detectors which will give a 3-D image of the traces of sub-atomic particles hurled out from the protons' destruction. These traces are then closely analysed in the search for movements, properties or novel particles that could advance our understanding of matter.

-- In top gear, the LHC will generate nearly a billion collisions per second. Above ground, a farm of 3,000 computers, one of the largest in the world, will instantly crunch this number down to about 100 collisions that are of the most interest. The data will then be sent out to a grid of institutions and universities around the world for analysis -- a sort of mini-World Wide Web of its own.

-- The tunnel is the world's largest fridge. The super-magnets are chilled to a temperature as low as -271 degrees Celsius (-456.25 degrees Fahrenheit), which is colder than deep outer space, to help them overcome resistance.

-- The collision chambers are herculean in scale. The biggest, called ATLAS, is 46 metres (149.5 feet) long and 25 metres (81.25 feet) high, or about half the size of the Notre Dame Catheral in Paris. At 7,000 tonnes, ATLAS weighs almost as much as the Eiffel Tower, and has 3,000 kilometres (1,875 miles) of cabling. Nearly 300,000 tonnes of rock were dug to house ATLAS and 50,000 tonnes of concrete were poured. In one year, ATLAS will generate 3,200 terabytes of raw data, equivalent to 160 times the three billion books in the US Library of Congress.

-- In the course of a 10-hour experiment, a beam might travel more than 10 billion kilometres (six billion miles), enough to get to Neptune and back. At full intensity, each beam will have the equivalent energy of a car travelling at 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) per hour. The LHC will use up 120 megawatts of power, equal to all the households in the Geneva area.

-- LHC collisions will generate 14 teraelectron volts (TeV), amounting to a high concentration of energy but only at an extraordinarily tiny scale. One TeV is the equivalent energy of motion of a flying mosquito. There is no safety risk, says CERN.

-- The LHC cost 6.03 billion Swiss francs (5.46 billion dollars, 3.9 3.76 billion euros) to build.

Original here

Five Weird-Ass Wind Turbines

Written by Hank Green

We're starting to get used to wind turbines...not just the idea of getting a significant portion of our energy from the breeze, but also to their form on the horizon. But while the traditional tri-blade has its advantages, there are those who would see it replaced.

Though we've entered the realm of rapid growth, the innovation phase is far from over, so here are a few of the more radical designs for wind-capturing devices out there. The huge, the odd, and the ingenious.

The MagTurbine is the largest concept for a wind turbine that has ever come across our editorial desk. By using permanent magnets to eliminate all friction, the MagTurbine can theoretically be as huge as it needs to be. In fact, the optimal size, apparently, has a base of roughly 100 acres. Yes, it's a wind turbine the size of a small town...but it could conceivably produce enough power (1 GW) to light a medium-sized city.

Significantly less huge, but still huge (and a lot more feasible) is the Grimshaw Aerogenerator. Aside from needing someone with a degree in fluid dynamics to figure out how exactly this gigantic TV antenna is supposed to capture wind power, it's pretty exciting. The idea is to keep the number of installations down by creating larger turbines. This design by Grimshaw Architecture might be rated as high as 9 megawatts, about two times the power output of today's largest turbines.

Getting smaller, but staying just as weird, we have the Flo-Design, shrouded turbine. Resembling a jet engine, Flo-Design says that their turbine creates far less turbulence than traditional turbines, can capture significantly more of the wind, be spaced closer together in wind farms, and can be deconstructed to fit on one truck. The biggest disadvantage is that no one has ever seen a working prototype outside of this awesome 3D animation.

We've seen our fair share of building-integrated wind turbines, but this one takes the cake. By filling in a space between each level with a scoop that will capture the wind, the designers of this rotating tower (currently under construction in Dubai) say that the tower will actually be able to power itself. EcoGeek remains skeptical about the claims, but it's certainly one of the weirdest turbines I've yet seen.

Last on the list for today is the Magenn Blimp Turbine. We've seen our fair share of tether based kite turbines, and while Magenn's blimp might not be the weirdest, it's certainly the closest to actual implementation, with a test blimp currently in operation and plans to start gathering power from a blimp farm next year. Each blimp is lighter than air and conducts the generated electricity to the ground via an electrical cable that also tether's the blimp to the ground. They flight at between 90 m and 200 m, allowing them to get at higher winds without the need for all that excess steel and carbon fiber.

To be honest, when we were going through our archives, I was stunned at how many weird-ass wind turbines I found, so I think this is likely going to be just the first part of a two, possibly three part series. So if you want to see some more weird ass wind turbines, keep your eyes on EcoGeek or sign up for our RSS feed.

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Chicken Manure to power 90,000 Homes in the Netherlands!

by Mike Chino

Here at Inhabitat we love to see innovative reuses for organic waste, and so we’re perpetually fascinated by the potential of poo to be used as a renewable source of energy. Last week Dutch agriculture minister Gerda Verburg announced a groundbreaking development for the field as she unveiled the world’s largest biomass power plant to run exclusively on poultry manure. The plant will convert a third of the nation’s chicken waste into energy while running at a capacity of 36.5 megawatts - enough to power 90,000 homes!

Part of the promise of biomass energy lies in its two-for-one benefit: it generates energy while disposing of waste. We’ve covered poo power schemes in the past, but never on such a massive scale!

Situated in Moerdijk, the 150 million euro plant was constructed by the Dutch multi-utility company Delta. It will convert roughly 440,000 tons of chicken manure into energy annually, generating more than 270 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The plant also addresses a key environmental problem in the Netherlands: “managing the vast excess stream of chicken manure, which, until today, had to be processed at a high cost”.

Delta’s biomass plant has even been described as being carbon neutral, since it will prevent the manure from sitting in fields and seething greenhouse gases into the air. Once methane from the poultry waste has been extracted and ignited, the left over ash will be used to make fertilizers and other agricultural products.

Peter Boerma, the CEO of Delta states:
The biomass power plant is one of the strategic components of our energy mix, which includes a wide range of renewable sources, as well as nuclear power. This diverse energy mix is needed to meet the ever increasing demand for electricity, but for us, building a smart and clean fuel sourcing strategy is more than meeting the consumer’s demand, it is a matter of meeting our social obligations.
Photo credit:Paul de Lhama

+ Delta

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