Category Archives: Physical Sciences

Nuclear crisis in Japan

In wake of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan on March 11, there have been 6,911 deaths, 2,409 injured, and 10,692 people missing (Wikipedia, visited on March 18th 2011) as well as immense property damage. However, these figures will pale in comparison to the casualities that could result if Japan does not act now to prevent the looming disaster it is now facing. Due to the tsunami flooding backup power stations, six nuclear reactors of the Fukushima power plant had malfunctioning cooling systems, threatening a nuclear meltdown. Should the reactors leak out its radioactive fuel before they have cooled down, radiation levels in the atmosphere may become lethal to residents and possibly a global health threat.

The radiation leaking out of the reactors poses a health risk. The strong radiation emitted from nuclear reactions are able to ionize atoms by knocking electrons out of their orbitals. Nuclear radiation becomes a problem for humans if DNA molecules become ionized by this process. The molecular bonds in DNA may be destroyed either by direct ionization from radiation or by being disrupted by nearby ionized water molecules. The resulting mutations may cause cells to lose their function and die, or the cells may survive but lose their ability to control cell division, causing tumors. On Tuesday, the radiation inside the power plant had reached 400 millisieverts (mSv) per hour, which is many times past the 50 mSv annual limit for nuclear power plant workers. Exposure to high radiation increases the likelihood of cancer and if a person receives 1000 mSv within 24 hours, they may experience radiation sickness from the large number of cells dying. Residents within a 80km radius of the reactors have been evacutated for safety.

The crisis has been averted somewhat as some of the reactors have had electricity restored to their cooling systems, but reactor No.4 is still a candidate for potential meltdown. It is suspected that all the water in its cooling system had boiled away and entire wall from its cooling system has been destroyed, shown in the picture below:

Video for an explosion that occured at one of the reactors:
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According to the news, radiation from the nuclear crisis in Japan should be reaching the West Coast at some time today, but it should be so diffuse by the time it reaches North America that it will have no health effects at all.
Resource for the effects of radiation:

Carnivorous Furniture Powered by Bacteria

Robert Krulwich, in his blog ‘Krulwich Wonders’, recently  wrote about the fascinating and morbid creations of designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau. These creations are typical furniture such as a clock, lamp, and table, but are built to have a carnivorous streak.

James Auger and Dr. Chris Melhuish speak about their creations:

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During the development of a digital wall clock powered by flies, Auger and Loizeau drew inspiration from carnivorous plants that trapped insects and consumed them for nutrients. A trap mechanism, which consisted of a slowly rolling sticky conveyor belt, deposited any unfortunate flies into a microbial fuel cell sitting below the belt. The display of the clock was powered entirely by the energy obtained from the digestion of the flies. However, the conveyor belt motor was powered by battery or through an outlet, since the trap did not catch enough flies to power the motor.

A microbial fuel cell is a chamber that contains bacteria, which consume organic material. During consumption, the bacteria release electrons that the fuel cell channels to generate electricity and power whatever is connected to the cell. Microbial fuel cells have also been used to generate power from algae.

A dirt-based microbial fuel cell (MFC) - By: Engineering for Change via Flickr

Dr. Chris Melhuish and his team at the Bristol Robotic Laboratory have utilized microbial fuel cells to power robots called ‘EcoBots’. These robots are outfitted with microbial fuel cells that created a system, similar to digestion, which effectively extracted and used energy from the environment. For example, dead flies fed to the robot were digested by bacteria in the microbial fuel cells, the ‘gut’ of the robot, to provide energy for motion. Presently, the fuel cells are only capable of powering short spurts of movement. The research team aims to develop microbial fuel cells that are able to power continuous movement.

With the prices of oil rising, this technology is definitely important in the development of an alternative and renewable fuel source. Personally, I would not mind a fly powered clock, but I would steer clear of a mouse consuming coffee table.

Mercury – NASA’s Fifth Planetary Conquest

Image of Mercury from previous Messenger missions. From NASA.

After years of planning and development, NASA’s space probe Messenger finally fell into Mercury’s orbit Thursday evening. At 9:10 p.m. of March 17, when the last rocket that projected Messenger shut off and the probe fell into Mercury’s gravity pull, scientists at the control room in John Hopkin’s University started in a round of applause.

Mercury is the fifth planet that NASA spacecrafts have orbited. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and lacks an atmosphere. This means that Mercury’s surface is super heated by the sun during daytime but drops to hundreds of degrees below freezing at night. Also, without an atmosphere, Mercury’s surface is heavily cratered. The vast temperature different implies that ice could be found inside the craters. The Mercury probe hopes to bring back a year of photography that would help in the research of the creation of Mercury and its composition. With this goal in mind, surveillance of the probe is needed for the next few days. Constant checks on the probe’s health systems, testing of the scientific equipment that is on board is essentially so that the vast amount of data can be collected and  transmitted back to Earth.

This massive project started in 2004 with a budget of $446 million. Hopefully, the probe will bring back valuable data that would useful for planetary scientists to determine the evolution of Mercury.

Messenger also hits close to UBC as one of the Earth and Ocean Science professors, Dr. Catherine Johnson, participated in the project. Dr. Johnson is a participating scientist in the project and hopes to discover the reasons behind Mercury’s magnetic field. The probe Messenger hopefully will gather data that will be of use to Dr. Johnson.

The Keys to Longevity

Longevity is a goal most of us strive for, and in most of our minds the keys to accomplishing this consists of being happy, eating healthy, and not stressing too much. However, it appears that these common assumptions made by people are in fact wrong. In a recent article published by Science Daily (which can be found here), they reported the findings of a twenty year study about longevity and the results are not what we would expect.

Image from:

The study, which is called “The Longevity Project”, was conducted by a group of scientists at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). These scientists examined, and refined previously collected data by Stanford University. The data which was initiated back in 1921, documented the lives of over 1500 children as they grew, starting from the age of ten. The children were studied throughout their lives, and information regarding family histories, relationships, hobbies, pet ownership, job success, education levels, military service, and numerous other details were collected. The scientists at UCR discovered many similarities in the data and they concluded that personality characteristics and social relations from childhood can predict one’s risk of dying decades later.

On average, it was discovered that test subjects who were the most cheerful and had the best sense of humor as kids lived shorter lives. While, individuals that were most prudent and persistent stayed the healthiest and lived the longest. This is definitely counterintuitive to what most people think. It appears that the subjects that were cheerful as kids tended to take more risks with their health across the years, hence risky or dangerous activities shortened the lives of many. Those that were prudence and persistence on the other hand, often developed many important and beneficial habits throughout their lives. The scientists found out that happiness is not a cause of good health, but instead happiness and health are related because they have common roots.

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Furthermore, some of these intriguing key findings include that marriage may be good for men’s health, but it does not really matter for women. Men who remained in long term marriages generally lived longer than single or divorced men. As well continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back counterparts. Lastly, people who felt loved and cared for reported a better sense of well-being, but surprisingly it did not help them live longer. The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others. The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become, healthy or unhealthy.

These results are definitely interesting, and hence we should keep them in mind when we are trying to extend our longevity. In fact, it would probably be beneficial if we started to incorporate some of these findings in to our daily lives. For instance, we should all be more productive, and we should all be more involved. Hopefully in the future, the average life expectancy of people can exceed 100 years old.

To boldly go ever after? The search for habitable planets.

Have you ever dreamed of exploring outer space? Of reaching up into the stars to venture where no person has gone before, exploring strange and exotic worlds all the while saving mankind from imminent destruction? From Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica the imaginative world of science fiction has painted a picture of the galaxy quite dissimilar from our own. Theirs is a universe filled with habitable-world’s innumerable star systems surrounded by small rocky planets. While this makes for compelling story-lines, until recently it was thought that this view couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Earlier this month it was released that NASA’s Kepler Mission, named in honour of German astronomer Johannes Kepler whose work laid the foundations for the laws of planetary motion, had discovered its first so-called Goldilock’s planets. A Goldilock’s planet is a terrestrial (rocky) planet of a similar size to Earth in an area known as the Circumstellar Habitable Zone. A system’s CHZ is a spherical region of space surrounding a star where a planet could theoretically possess the life’s essential element, water. In this zone, planets receive enough solar radiation to keep the bulk of the water above freeing, but not so much as to boil. In addition to being in the CHZ a Goldilock’s planet must also be within a region known as the Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ). Along the same lines as the CHZ the GHZ is a region of the galaxy where it is thought that there is the highest possibility of finding habitable planets. It is far enough away from the galactic core as to not be severely affected by the high-energy radiation common there, but not too far as to be devoid of the heavier elements essential for the formation of terrestrial planets. In the Milky Way this regions starts at around 25,000 lights years from the galactic core and extends to about 32, 000 ly.

While the candidate planets discovered by the Kepler Mission will require careful follow-up to determine if they are indeed Earth-like planets, preliminary observations suggest that five of the fifty-four planet candidates in the CHZ are indeed terrestrial, and similar in size to our own. A new device from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics will likely play a key-role in verifying the characteristics of these new worlds. Knows as the High-Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher or HARPS-North for short, the instrument soon to be installed in the Canary Islands will enable researchers to measure the tiny radial-velocity signal produced by small planets like the Earth. This data allows researchers to determine the densities of the target-planets enabling them to distinguish terrestrial worlds from their more common gas-based brethren.

While these five planets represent a tiny fraction of the over 1200 planet-candidates found thus far during the analysis of over 150,000 star systems discovered by the Kepler Mission, that they were all located in such a minuscule fraction of the galaxy suggests that a universe of boundless habitable-worlds might not be too outside the realm of possibilities.

References Cited:

  1. NASA (2011, February 2). NASA finds Earth-size planet candidates in habitable zone, six planet systemScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from­/releases/2011/02/110202133321.htm
  2. ANI. (2011, 2011-02-15). New device to help confirm kepler’s planetary candidates. The Wall Street Journal,
  3. Mori. (2007). Fermi , what paradox? (image credit). Retrieved 02/15, 2011, from