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What could possibly be more awesome than a TORNADO MADE OF FIRE?!? Not much. This is a spectacular natural phenomenon that occurs in wildfires. It’s the same atmospheric process that causes dust devils- the difference here is that the strong updraft is from the heat of the fire, so it’s much more intense than a normal dust devil. The hot air rises rapidly and the surrounding winds happen to be flowing into the updraft at just the right angles so that the rising column of air gets a twist. From there the law of conservation of angular momentum takes over and the vortex becomes self-sustaining. This one was captured recently in Australia.

Also from the department of TOTALLY AWESOME: Warp Drives (like the ones they used in Star Trek) may actually be much closer to reality than ever thought. NASA physicist Dr. Harold White has recently done some tweaking of the theoretical design of the famous Alcubierre Warp Drive, originally proposed in 1994 by physicist Miguel Alcubierre. The original design, while theoretically possible, was completely impractical because it required more energy than a human mind can comprehend. But with Dr. White’s tweaks, the amount of energy required to run this thing suddenly became more plausible. Essentially the ship would be able to travel much faster than light, without actually traveling faster than light. It does this by literally compressing a region of space-time ahead of it and expanding a region behind it. The ship itself is in a bubble in which it never breaks the speed of light relative to the space-time it’s in. Think of it like surfing a wave of space-time. Granted, the amount of energy require to run the Warp Drive is still roughly equivalent to 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs, but with a little antimatter (about 500 kilograms) that number is not out of reach. The problem is that the idea hasn’t been tested in real life. So Dr. White and his team are currently attempting to actually warp space-time on a microscopic scale in their lab. Take a moment to digest that. Right now, we are attempting to warp space-time in a lab. It doesn’t get much more awesome than that. For more info on how the drive actually works check out this article on Extreme Tech or this article on Discovery News.

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Part of my intense nerdyness comes from my childhood when I was obsessed with fire. Yes, like many young boys, I was a pyromaniac. And I still am. I’m just a much safer, more cautious pyromaniac. Every year for the 4th of July I like to indulge my inner 14-year-old boy by buying and even making my own pyrotechnic devices. I thought I would share one recipe/method for making a homemade smoke bomb. It’s pretty simple and safe- provided you follow these directions very carefully.

Ingredients: Equal parts sucrose (aka table sugar) and potassium nitrate (aka saltpeter or KNO3), a container, and a fuse. (Just pull a fuse out of a bottle rocket.)

Saltpeter is relatively easy to come by if you know where to look- it can usually be found in small mom & pop drug stores (never chains like Walgreens for whatever reason…) or in hardware stores where it’s sold as stump remover. There are several different kinds of stump remover but the one you need is usually called “stumpout.” Just check the label and shake it to make sure it’s really potassium nitrate in powder form. I used stump remover in the one I made last year and it worked great.

Mix the KNO3 and sugar (equal parts) together well and put them into a saucepan or pot. Heat the mixture in the pot VERY SLOWLY on an ELECTRIC stove eye. Let me say that again- heat it VERY VERY SLOWLY on an ELECTRIC stove eye. DO NOT heat it on a natural gas stove as it will greatly increase the risk of accidental ignition. The electric stove eye provides a slower, more gradual source of heat. Obviously, the best place to do this is OUTSIDE on a portable heat plate, and be sure you wear some kind of eye protection. Carefully monitor and stir the mixture and as soon as you notice it starting to melt, turn the heat back down just a bit- you want the bare minimum amount of heat necessary to melt the mixture. It will begin to turn a brownish orange color- keep stirring and monitoring the temp. Once it’s all a gooey liquid, pour it into whatever container you’ve chosen and insert the fuse. Simply allow it to cool and harden and you’re good to. Don’t try to make a really huge one, either- if the chunk is too big it will burn too fast and potentially explode. Here’s a great video of the final product in action:

The powder form of this mixture (pre-melting) will burn quite well and produce a lot of smoke, but the melting allows the fuel and oxidizer to blend in a way that the powder form can’t. This is why the melting method yields a steadier, smokier burn.

The most important thing here is safety:

HEAT SLOWLY- VERY VERY SLOWLY

USE AN ELECTRIC STOVE

WEAR EYE PROTECTION

MELT IT OUTSIDE IF AT ALL POSSIBLE

Image via boston.com

Image via boston.com

Boston.com, website of the Boston Globe, has an interesting article on how to create hallucinogenic effects without taking drugs such as LSD. These are pretty interesting, and I want to try them. I’ll let you know how it goes…

I wonder why M.I.A. hasn’t told anyone what she named her baby… It’s probably hard to pronounce, but seriously, does it really need to be a secret? Hipster Runoff muses about what it might be.

Earth, Wind & Fire are teaming up with Chicago for a huge US summer tour. It’s RETRO, people!

Scientists have finally confirmed that reality, is in fact, real. Like, the world actually exists when someone is not observing it. Phew… I’ve always been worried that reality doesn’t really exist… Seriously though, even the scientist who headed this experiment called the results “preposterous.” Something about this whole thing is perplexing to me though… basically what they’re claiming is a paradox; that they observed something without actually observing it. We are, though, talking about quantum mechanics here. The quantum world is probably the hardest thing in science for our brains to comprehend. Trying to visualize or understand the quantum world from our large, worldly perspective is simply impossible, so me trying to wrap my feeble mind around this experiment is futile in the first place. No matter how hard to understand, this could be a major scientific breakthrough… as long as the results can be duplicated and further analyzed.Via Kottke.org.

Now for a bit of debunking. Everyone has heard the claim that water going down a drain spins opposite directions in opposite hemispheres, the same way that large cyclones and storm systems rotate clockwise in the southern hemisphere instead of counter-clockwise as in the nothern. It’s not true. The Coriolis Effect is responsible for the rotation of large-scale storm systems such as hurricanes, but it simply does not affect something so small as water going down a drain. It only applies to large masses over long distances. The only thing that determines how water spins down a drain is the surface of the basin and/or the direction the water was poured. Unfortunately everywhere along the equator one can find rigged demonstrations that do nothing more than suck money from gullible tourists and contribute to the spread of ignorance.

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