The shrub, a creosote bush, grows in a ring, which continually
Titan, a moon of Saturn, has an atmosphere that is similar to
Earth's in the period when life was first emerging on our planet.
Titan is the only satellite in our solar system with an atmosphere
microscopic (too small to see) grains to boulders as big as a house.
The study of Saturn's rings began with Galileo's discovery in
1610, and continues today with the help of the Voyager spacecraft
and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Which cells in the human body are most numerous?
The most numerous cells in the human body are the bacteria that live
in the digestive system. These organisms form a complex ecology with
over 400 species. There are estimated to be as many as 100 trillion
of them, on average, in the human body!
The best known of these species is Escherichia coli, the common gut
bacterium. Other species include Helicobacter pylori, which causes
ulcers, and Lactobacillus acidophilus, which may help to suppress
Other than bacteria, there are about 10 trillion cells in the human
body, of which the most numerous are brain cells (about 100 billion)
and red blood cells (about 30 billion).
What is the longest unit of distance measurement?
The longest unit of distance is the "Hubble Length," which is the
radius of the observable universe. That's about 10-15 billion light
years. This unit of length was named after Edwin Hubble, an
astronomer who discovered that the universe appears to be expanding.
A light year is the distance light travels in a year, which is about
5,866,000,000,000 miles, or 5.9 Trillion miles. The Hubble
Length is (minimum) ten billion times that, or 59 sextillion miles!
(American definitions for billion, quadrillion and septillion are
being used here.)
Cosmologists (scientists who study the history of the universe)
suspect that the universe may go on far beyond the edge of what we can
see. No one knows just how big it really is.
What early civilization used base-20 mathematics?
The Maya civilization, which flourished in Central America between 300
and 900 AD, developed complex mathematics and astronomy using a
base-20 numbering system! Base twenty numbering is called vigesimal,
which is also today's Cool Word.
Unlike our modern system which uses powers of ten to represent large
numbers, the Maya used powers of twenty. They had a special symbol
for zero, a dot for one, and a dash for five. Multiples of twenty
were written at the top, and the number was read downwards.
The Maya also had a very complex calendar involving 20 consecutive
names. Days were counted off in groups of 13, resulting in a 260 day
cycle. The calendar was also carefully related to the movements of the
sun and planets.
How do coral reef fish get clean?
Coral reef fish visit special places where they can be cleaned of
parasites by other fish! A "cleaning station" is advertised by small,
striped fish called cleaner wrasses, that do a kind of dance to
At a cleaning station, visiting fish lay on their sides and open
their mouths and gill slits. Then they remain still, while the
cleaner wrasses dart around their bodies, picking off and eating
parasites and fungi.
The visiting fishes might even be large predators, that would
normally gobble up the small cleaners, yet they sit patiently and do
not eat them. The service provided is well worth it, since there is
no other way to remove the parasites!
When was the first New York subway opened?
The first New York subway train was built in 1869-1870 by Alfred Ely
Beach. It ran for one block between Warren and Murray streets, and
became a popular attraction, ridden by 400,000 people in its first
year of operation!
Beach was convinced that a pneumatic (air-pressure driven) subway
train system was the right answer to New York's overflowing traffic
problems, but he was unable to obtain funds for the project. He
resorted to building the subway secretly, disguised (and funded) as a
Unfortunately, a stock market crash made it impossible to continue
development of the project, and it was 25 years before New York was to
plan a practical subway system. Beach's pneumatic subway was bricked
up and forgotten until 1912, when workers digging a new subway tunnel
discovered the old system.
How can the growth rate of ice crystals be increased tenfold?
Ice grows much faster in a strong electric field! The increase in
growth rate depends on the strength of the field, with the largest
increases happening in strong fields. The fast-growing crystals tend
to form long, thin needles.
Why do electrified crystals grow faster? No one knows for sure. One
scientist suspects that the high electric field may break down the
water's surface tension, so that molecules cling more easily to the
Other materials might also crystallize faster in an electric field.
There's lots of interesting research to do, and maybe some useful
applications, like extremely thin needle probes for use in
What are the most complex kinds of protozoa?
The most complex protozoa are the ciliates, a large group of mostly
free-swimming single-celled organisms. Some of the protozoa in this
group reach lengths of up to two millimeters. One of the commonest
ciliates is Paramecium, which is very plentiful in freshwater ponds.
Ciliates possess short, hair-like fibers called cilia that whip back
and forth, propelling the cell through the water. The cilia are
controlled by an elaborate network of internal sensory and activation
fibers, made out of protein molecules joined end to end!
By delicately coordinating the beating cilia, a ciliate can navigate
with extreme precision. Some, like Didinium, are voracious
predators, actively hunting down other fast-swimming ciliates and
consuming them whole.
Which snake builds a nest for its eggs?
The female king cobra is the only snake that builds a nest for her
eggs. When the female king cobra is ready to lay her eggs, she picks
a spot in the leaves on the jungle floor. She then uses her body to
scoop up leaves into a pile. This is a difficult task and can take
several hours. Once her nest is complete, she lays 18 to 40 leathery
eggs and then piles more leaves on top of them. She guards the nest
for about 3 weeks until the eggs hatch.
The newly hatched king cobras are about 18 inches (46 cm) in length.
They are jet black with yellow stripes. As they grow older, they
become olive brown or gray. Adult king cobras may reach lengths of
18 feet (5.5 m) long and weigh 20 pounds (9 kg).
King cobras live in the jungles in the Philippines, Malaysia,
southern China, Burma, and the Malay Peninsula. They feed on other
snakes and rodents. They are not aggressive snakes and will
generally only strike when threatened. Prior to striking the cobra
will assume the position for which it is famous. The head is raised
and the loose skin on the neck expanded into a hood. They strike by
pushing their heads forward and biting with their short fangs.
How do military submarines navigate silently underwater?
Military submarines detect underwater obstacles by their gravitational
Navigation underwater is tricky because the water can be murky and
deep ocean is pitch black. Sonar can solve the problem by detecting
reflected sound waves, but military subs need to stay silent.
A gravity gradiometer solves the problem by detecting the tiny
differences in gravity between points a meter or so apart. It can be
used for navigation, and also for mapping the three-dimensional
structure of rock layers under the seabed.
Current models are delicate machines that need to be adjusted
frequently. In the future, much more sensitive gravity gradiometers
might use strange clouds of extremely cold atoms (called Bose-Einstein
condensates) to detect very weak gravity gradients.
Where is the oldest known astronomical observatory?
The oldest known observatory on Earth is in the desert of Egypt, at
Nabta. It comprises a stone circle and other structures, constructed
at least 6,000 years ago. That's a thousand years before Stonehenge
and similar structures were built in England, and long before the
The stones were apparently dragged from sandstone beds about a mile
from the site, and placed in alignment with the annual summer
solstice, as it would have been seen at that time. Other, more
distant stones are also aligned in the same way.
Because the climate of the area was wetter in those days, parts of
structures would have been submerged in temporary lakes at certain
times of year. Researchers suspect the structures may have served a
ritual purpose related to the beginning of the rainy season.
Which were the first true chordates?
The first chordates (animals with a dorsal nerve chord) were tadpole-
like creatures something like the larvae of modern marine animals
called tunicates, or sea squirts.
As adults, they were probably sessile (attached to solid objects)
lacked a reinforced nerve chord. But their larvae were free-swimming
creatures with a semi-rigid, hollow tube (notochord) containing a
bundle of nerves, and they had a head and a tail, probably with a fin.
Through a process called neoteny [nee-AHT-un-ee], the features of
larvae began to be retained in the adults. Eventually, the swimming,
reproducing tadpole-like chordates evolved into the first primitive
Possible Fact to Think about
A thermodynamics professor had written a take home exam for his
graduate students. It had one question:
"Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs
heat)? Support your answer with a proof."
Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's
Law (gas cools off when it expands and heats up when it is
compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the
First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time.
So, we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and
the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume
that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no
souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell,
let's look at the different religions that exist in the world
today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a
member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are
more than one of these religions and since people do not belong
to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all
souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can
expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially.
Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because
Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure
in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand as
souls are added.
This gives two possibilities.
#1 If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which
souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will
increase until all Hell breaks loose.
#2 Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the
increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will
drop until Hell freezes over.
So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Ms.
Therese Banyan during my Freshman year, "That it will be a cold
night in Hell before I sleep with you," and take into account the
fact that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations
with her, then #2 cannot be true, and so Hell is exothermic.
What's the shortest unit of distance measurement?
The shortest unit of distance is the "Planck Length," which is the
distance scale at which the known laws of physics break down, and we
can no longer describe the structure of space and time. It's named
after Max Planck, the physicist who first proposed that mass and
energy come in discrete packets (quanta).
The Planck Length is 0.0000000000000000000000000000000016 centimeters.
In other words, one centimeter is about 625 million trillion trillion
Physicists suspect that if we could somehow magnify the view of space
at the scale of the Planck length, we would see a churning, foaming
stew of ever-changing shapes. At this scale, space and time wrap
around each other in unimaginable ways.
How did people in ancient times make astronomical calculations?
The most important astronomical instrument before the invention of the
telescope was the astrolabe, which was invented more than 2,000 years
ago. Astrolabes were in regular use until about 1650.
Typical astrolabes were six inches or more across. They were usually
made of brass or other metals, with dials and circular plates that
could be rotated to correspond to time of day, latitude, the height of
the sun or a star, or other values.
Astrolabes were used for hundreds of purposes, all related to the
positions of the sun, stars, and planets in the sky. They could tell
the time of day (based on the height of the sun), predict various
astronomical events, make astrological readings, and (in the world of
Islam) tell the times for the daily prayers.
How can microscopic objects be manipulated?
It is possible to move and trap very tiny objects using light! "Optical
tweezers" can hold objects as small as single cells (or even viruses) by
shining a focused laser beam onto them.
With optical tweezers, it is possible to trap and move living cells
even internal parts of cells) without damaging them. The technique has
even been used to insert new genes into cells.
An optical tweezer is created by shining the laser beam through the
objective lens of a microscope. If the target object moves away from the
center of the beam, a tiny force pulls it back in. Although the force is
very small, the object's mass is also very small, so the force is
sufficient to move it.
How do bobtailed squid protect themselves against sharks?
The bobtailed squid of Hawaii (Euprymna scolopes) uses
luminescent (glowing) bacteria to become invisible to sharks!
Bobtailed squid are only active at night, along with many other sea
creatures. This does not guarantee safety from bottom-dwelling sharks,
however, as they look for dark shapes against the relative brightness
of the ocean surface.
The squid have light-emitting packets called photophores on the
undersides of their bodies. These photophores contain the luminescent
bacteria and are complete with lenses and diaphragms to control the
amount of light emitted. When the sharks look upwards from the
bottom, they don't see the squid, because their glow is as bright as
the surface of the water.
What plant is protected by biting ants?
East African and Central American acacia trees are patrolled by swarms
of aggressive biting ants that viciously attack any intruders!
Why do the ants protect the trees? The acacia trees provide them
shelter inside modified thorns called pseudogalls. The trees also
offer good food, grown on special glands. The acacia trees benefit,
because the ants keep away anything that might want to eat the leaves.
But there's a catch: the tree's flowers need to be pollinated by
flying insects. So the flowers release a chemical that causes the
ants to stay away during the time they are open! When the flowers
have been pollinated, the ants return to protect the ripening seeds.
What lives under the bed?
There is a whole ecosystem under most beds! Balls of dust and hair,
along with fibers from furniture, collect into habitats for a variety
Chief among these creatures are the dust mites, who might number
in the tens of thousands under a normal bed. Dust mites can cause
allergies in some people, sometimes resulting in quite severe
Also present under most beds are fungi, molds, and countless
bacteria, plus possibly silverfish and other tiny insects, and maybe
even a spider hunting them down.
What kind of wheelchair can walk over obstacles?
A researcher at the University of Pennsylvania has invented a
wheelchair that uses a pair of robotic arms to climb over curbs,
steps, and other obstacles.
The new wheelchair is designed as an all-terrain vehicle, with an
adaptive computer brain that can be programmed to handle unexpected
events and recover from off-balance situations.
The wheelchair's two arms respond to the resistance they encounter,
adjusting the force they use to lift the chair over the obstacles.
Each arm has two motors and a rubber grip-tip. The designers suggest
that eventually the arms might be fitted with hands!
What volcano erupted in the middle of a cornfield?
In 1943, a crack opened up in the middle of a Mexican cornfield, and
volcanic dust and gases began to spew out. Within hours, a brand new
volcano had formed!
The Paricutin volcano, which eventually covered two villages and
annihilated 25 square kilometers of forest, remained active until
1952. Today, its black cinder cone looms 424 meters tall.
Volcanoes like Paricutin are part of the Pacific "Rim of Fire," a
belt of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific ocean. They form when
melted rock pushes up underneath a continent. This occurs as a result
of subduction, when one section of the crust (the hard outer layer of
the planet) pushes under another section.
What kind of animal can see in the infrared?
Snakes in the pit viper family (Crotalidae) can see in the infrared!
These snakes, which include rattlesnakes and copperheads, have small,
heat-sensitive pits below their eyes. Information from these sense
organs is combined with visual data to give the snake heat-sensing
A rattlesnake can strike a warm-blooded target accurately, even if
its eyes are covered. Like a pinhole camera, the heat-sensing pit has
no lens, only a tiny hole and highly sensitive tissue lining the back
What passenger airliner will travel at Mach 10?
Researchers at NASA have designed a new kind of engine called a
scramjet that will make possible a Mach 10 (ten times the speed of
The new Hypersoar aircraft will be able to fly between San Francisco
and Tokyo in only an hour and a half, instead of ten hours. It will
fly at ultra-high altitudes, over 100,000 feet. During the flight,
the Hypersoar will repeatedly "skip" off the top of the atmosphere,
like a stone skipping on the surface of a lake.
Each skip will cover 1200 miles. The plane's engines will fire only
at the bottom of the cycle, while it is in the atmosphere. The
passengers will experience about 1.5 g's (one and a half times normal
gravity) at the bottom, and about two minutes of weightlessness at the
top of the arc.
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