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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This post on Universe Today prompted me to write up my own little plug for the Science Channel’s new(ish) show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The show is in its second season and is seeing more success than your average run-of-the-mill science show. Obviously having a celebrity figure like Morgan Freeman as the host is big reason for that, but watch the show and you’ll really understand why. It’s just uncannily appealing to hear Freeman’s warm, grandfatherly voice talking about quantum entanglement, time travel, string theory, relativity and all sorts of other fascinating topics that are at the very edge of modern science. The context and delivery of the information is unique, too. It’s hard to present what most average folks regard as “mumbo-jumbo” in a way that keeps them interested for a whole hour, but this show manages to pull it off. Freeman’s own genuine interest in the subject matter is definitely a big reason the show is successful; he has always had a keen interest in these edgey topics and simply decided to make a show in which he both asks these questions to real scientists who are working to answer them and attempts to share that sense of awe and wonder that inspired him to ask said questions to begin with. Tonight’s episode focuses on the question “can we travel faster than light?” This is obviously a very important question to answer if mankind is ever to explore beyond our own solar system. All those convenient workarounds (warp drives, hyper-space windows, wormholes, etc…) you see in science fiction actually have some basis in real scientific principles, and I suspect we’ll get much clearer and layman-friendly explanation than ever before of those principles on tonight’s episode. It airs at 10pm eastern/9pm central on the Science Channel, which most of you should now get if you have regular cable or satellite service.

I’ve been waiting since the end of May for this:

(Click to enlarge) Credit: NASA/Paolo Nespoli

THAT is something that has never been captured on film before. It may not seem like a big deal, but the opportunity to to photograph a space shuttle docked to the ISS from space has never happened before, and never will again. The schedules happened to line up so that a Russian Soyuz capsule undocked from the ISS carrying three astronauts home while Endeavour was still docked. This gave astronaut Paolo Nespoli the opportunity to take photos of the shuttle/ISS combo from the window of the Soyuz capsule as they floated away. They paused the Soyuz some distance away and the space station actually performed a “flip” maneuver to allow for more angles. Please click through to the NASA image gallery and see the rest of these amazing images.

Think the idea of humans boarding a massive spaceship headed into the cosmos for 100’s or even 1,000’s of years (a.k.a. real-life Star Trek) is completely in the realm of science fiction? Think again. Last fall DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the highly secretive experimental arm of the Department of Defense who happened to invent the internet, released an official Request for Information regarding a “100-year starship plan.” Basically, they want people to come up with a fully thought-out plan for forming a team of researchers/engineers/scientists to investigate the technology necessary to build such a spaceship. Needless to say, this is one tiny baby step in a project that could cost many billions of dollars and require decades of advances in propulsion technology, but it’s still rather amazing that there is real, serious effort being put into something that has always seemed so far out of reach for humankind. As pointed out in their RFI, there will no doubt be unanticipated discoveries and technological advances as a “side-effect” of this research. So the actual spaceship itself is not the only purpose of this initiative. It really makes me happy to see something like this happening because I think manned space exploration has been quite stagnant for the last couple of decades. We need this kind of spark to really push forward the technology needed to extend our presence beyond low-Earth orbit. (Via Universe Today)

Ok, that’s really it for this week. Probably. I can’t fathom any more posts because tomorrow morning I will be heading to Manchester with the rest of the Scene/Cream team to photograph Bonnaroo. Keep your eyes on the Nashville Cream for updates on our shenanigans, and to see some of my photos.

Some cool science-related stuff I’ve come across the past few days:

  • Let’s be frank, the climatologists were absolutely dead wrong in their prediction of a warmer-than-average winter in the eastern US for 2010/2011. Their forecast was based on the fact that historically, La Nina winters are warmer in the eastern US. We are definitely in a La Nina winter, so what the hell has been going on? The fact is, the global climate is VERY complex, and our computer models for both short-term and long-term forecasting are still struggling to get a grasp on what’s really going to happen. The main culprit for our cold winter this year is the Arctic Oscillation. This is another large-scale weather pattern that is fairly unpredictable over the long-term, and has so far overpowered any effects the La Nina pattern has had on the southeast US. The Nashville office of the National Weather Service has been posting fairly frequent updates about this situation, so I recommend reading the latest one to get the detailed explanation you may or may not be desiring. It would appear that winter will be re-establishing its grip on TN for a few more weeks at least.
  • In the past year all the major mobile phone service providers have been touting their new 4G networks. But honestly none them have speeds even close to what was traditionally defined as “4G.” The International Telecommunication Union has a set of standards for what speeds can be considered 2G, 3G, 4G, and so on. 4G used to be defined as download speeds of 100 Mbps to 1Gbps. Those kinds of speeds won’t be attained for 4 to 5 years, by most estimates. In December of 2009, the ITU changed the rules on what can be called 4G, which allowed all mobile phone service providers to instantly start labeling their slightly improved wireless broadband speeds as such. Most of these speeds are probably better described as “3.5G” or “3G+” but I honestly don’t care. I just don’t want people to think that the speeds they’ll experience on their mobile browsers is somehow leaps & bounds faster. This information came from an article on Wired that I recommend if you want more detailed info.
  • I came across this amazing video clip on Universe Today on Monday, but am just now getting around to posting. The sense of scale when talking in astronomical terms is very difficult for a human mind to comprehend, so when things like this come along that really help illustrate that sense of scale, I’m fascinated. This video clip shows what several different planets, including another earth, would look like in the night sky if they were as close to us as the moon. Just wait until Jupiter shows up. (According to the comment from the creator below the video, this is actually what it would look like through a weak pair of binoculars… so what you’re seeing isn’t meant to depict the entire night sky, only about 62 degrees of it.) Be sure to click on the HD button and make it full screen.

I’m not going to attempt to rundown all the party possibilities for tonight in Nashville. Just head over to the Nashville Cream and check out their NYE flow chart. There’s really nothing better for determining your course of action for tonight. Whatever you do, be safe and if you plan on drinking, arrange for a DD or a cab or Zingo or SOMETHING.

Instead of creating or linking to any “best of” lists about 2010, I thought I’d round up a couple of articles about what to expect in the science world in 2011.

Discovery News: The Biggest, Boldest, and Baddest Space Missions of 2011

Live Science: The Top Science Breakthroughs That 2011 May Bring

That’s it. I’m out. See you in 2011.

I find it interesting that while this July is shaping up to be one of the hottest on record (duh, just walk outside), just 1 year ago we were experiencing one of the coolest Julys on record. More on that at the National Weather Service.

That cool summer was followed by a cool winter as well, and though it’s hard to even think about snow right now, it was also one of the snowiest winters on record for most of the eastern US. I mentioned this once before, but a new study confirms the findings that last winter’s brutality was due to the convergence of 2 things- El Nino and a negative North Atlantic Oscillation. The former usually brings more precipitation to the southeastern US, and the latter usually brings colder air to the southeastern US. (Via EurekAlert)

I haven’t mentioned beer on this blog in a while… so here’s whats up with my homebrewing endeavors: I currently have a batch of northern English brown ale in the bottles carbonating. Haven’t tasted it yet but they should be ready to drink this coming friday. I’m about to start another batch of the ESB/Pale Ale hybrid that I made in May. That was by far the best batch of beer I’ve made, and it will be the first one I’ve repeated. I’m still not to the point of all-grain brewing yet, as I haven’t built a mash tun. It’ll happen soon though.

Pardon me while I totally nerd-out for a minute… but I must share some news that made me very happy this morning. I first saw this in a tweet from Dr. Neil de Grasse-Tyson. Dr. Phil Plait- astronomer, author, blogger, and relentless promoter of real science and reality in general- is getting his very own show on the Discovery Channel. I’ve been a big fan of his ever since discovering his blog Bad Astronomy. He’s been mentioning a so-called “sooper seekrit project” in his posts for about a year now, and this must be what he was referring to. I get the feeling that there was some sort of miscommunication between him and the powers-that-be at Discovery, because all the tweets and mentions about this new show lead back to this YouTube video, which is basically a promo commercial/sneak-peek at the new series. However, he hasn’t yet mentioned it on his blog or even tweeted about it *update: he finally mentioned it on his blog here. Turns out it will only be a 3-part series… :(* . This doesn’t surprise me given the fact that he’s currently at Comic-Con. It looks like the show is going to take on a Mythbusters-esque vibe but mostly focusing on all the myths and junk science surrounding various doomsday/disaster scenarios such as asteroid impacts, comet impacts, gamma-ray bursts, and hopefully the ridiculous 2012 Mayan calendar myth. I honestly wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if Jamie and Adam of Mythbusters are producers of this show… or somehow otherwise involved with it.

Check it out: *Updated youtube link- they took the video down for a few days and reposted it.*

No idea when this show will air, *the show will probably air this fall* but I’m definitely looking forward to it. Congrats, Phil!