What it Looks Like to Fall Off a Mountain

Stefan Ager was celebrating at the top of the mountain in the Stubai Alps with a friend, filming the scenery and preparing to descend on their skis. Then things went wrong. He had bad footing and started sliding backwards.

Fortunately, for us his camera was rolling the whole time.

Fortunately for him, Ager walked away from the accident, apparently completely unhurt

Discovery Lifts Off

Space shuttle Discovery’s liftoff from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 24 for the last time.

Discovery and its six-member crew are on a mission to deliver the Permanent Multipurpose Module and Robonaut 2, the dexterous humanoid astronaut helper, to the International Space Station.

This is Discovery’s 39th and final mission. It is scheduled to be retired following STS-133.

Watch the Winter Storm Attack (as seen from space)

Watch the animated version of the historic winter storm moving Across the U.S.

From NASA:

In a winter marked by several crippling storms, the storm of February 1–2, 2011, stands out. Heavy snow, ice, freezing rain, and frigid wind battered about two thirds of the United States, making it “a winter storm of historic proportions,” said the National Weather Service. This animation—made with images from the NOAA-NASA GOES 13 satellite—shows the giant storm developing and moving across the country between January 31 and February 2.

This image, a still taken from the animation, shows the storm at 4:31 p.m. Eastern Time on February 1. In the image, the storm measures about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) from west to east. The storm formed when cold Arctic air pushed south from Canada while moist air streamed north from the Gulf of the Mexico. The animation shows clouds building over New Mexico and Texas early in the day. As the system develops and moves northeast, the storm grows and becomes more organized. By the end of February 1, the storm was a sprawling comma that extended from the Midwest to New England.

By 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time on February 2, the National Weather Service reported that 21 states from New Mexico to New Hampshire had received at least 5 inches (13 centimeters) of snow. Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma declared states of emergency. According to news reports, one in three Americans were affected by the storm.

The monster storm brought record snowfall to many areas, including Chicago, perhaps the hardest hit population center. The city received 20.2 inches of snow, a record for February and the third biggest snowstorm for any date in Chicago. The record was set at 23 inches (58.4 cm) on January 26–27, 1967.

The storm left a solid swath of snow from New Mexico to New England. Images of previous 2010-11 winter storms in December and January can be viewed in the severe storms section of the Earth Observatory.


  1. NASA Earth Observatory Historic Winter Storm Moves Across the U.S.
  2. Animated version of the historic winter storm moving Across the U.S.
  3. CNN. (2011, February 2). Powerful storm brings record snowfall across the country. Accessed February 2, 2011.
  4. Masters, J. (2011, January 31). Potentially historic winter storm poised to impact 100 million Americans. Weather Underground. Accessed February 2, 2011.
  5. National Weather Service. (2011, February 2). Historic winter storm. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed February 2, 2011.
  6. National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office Chicago, IL. (2011, February 2). History of 10 inch or greater snow storms in Chicago. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed February 2, 2011.
  7. The Hydrometeorological Prediction Center. (2011, February 2). Storm summary message. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed February 2, 2011.
  8. Wisniewski, M. (2011, February 1). Winter storm engulfs huge swath of U.S. Washington Post. Accessed February 2, 2011.

NASA Finds Alien Life (Not Really)

I was excited when I saw the press release that NASA was holding a press conference to “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

NASA scientists announced that they found a form of microbe that apparently evolved the ability to use otherwise toxic arsenic in their biochemistry!

Although I thought it might have been discovered on Titan (or maybe Mars). The bacteria was found in Mono Lake, an extremely alkaline and salty lake in California near the Nevada border. That means it’s not really an alien, just very different.

Mono Lake has a pH of 10, about twice the saltiness of ocean water and a high concentration of arsenic. That’s going to kill lots of stuff. But not these little critters.

This constitutes the first discovery of a life form capable of replacing one of the “big six” (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus) elements in its genetic makeup. If something can live on a diet of arsenic, a potent poison to us humans, then the standard definitions of “life as we know it” will need a bit of revision.

Study lead author Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues Professor Davies and Ariel Anbar of Arizona State University initially suggested in a paper an alternative scheme to life as we know it. The scientists’ idea was that there might be life in which arsenic and arsentates could work in place of phosphorus and phosphates.

Putting it to the test, they began to study the bacteria that live in Mono Lake.

They grew the bacteria in a laboratory on a diet of increasing levels of arsenic. To their surprise, the microbes eventually took up arsenic and incorporated it into the phosphate groups that cling to the bacteria’s DNA.

However, the research found that the bacteria thrived best in a phosphorus environment. That means the bacteria are not second type of life on Earth, but merely adapted to work with arsenic in place of phosphorus.

See also:

Has NASA Found Alien Life?

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

Think about that for a minute.

Have they found a secret Martian base?

From the background of the participants it sounds more like they have found some extra-terrestrial basis for life that is different from most life here on Earth. I would guess that it is arsenic-based biochemistry happening on Titan.

Let’s look at the participants:

Mary Voytek, Director, NASA Astrobiology Program

“Dr. Voytek’s primary research interest is aquatic microbial ecology and biogeochemistry. She studies environmental controls on microbial transformations of nutrients, xenobiotics, and metals in freshwater and marine systems.”

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow

“I apply a background in molecular biology, biochemistry, and phytoplankton physiology to uncover the sequence of events that shaped the evolution of the modern oceans phytoplankton and life itself.”

“Arsenic as a prebiotic chemical analog of phosphate ( Wolfe-Simon, Davies, & Anbar, 2009). Essentially, arsenic (in the oxidized 5+ state as arsenate) is biologically, so similar to phosphate that many enzymes cannot recognize the difference. This constitutes the basis for much of the toxicity of arsenate and so most detoxification pathways in biology aim to reduce arsenate to more volatile forms for easier removal from biological systems. However, due to the increased mobility of reduced arsenic species, often the toxicity of arsenic increases as the redox state decreases.

To further this hypothesis, we have embarked on two different approaches to test assimilatory arsenic utilization. Firstly, as part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute we are examining arsenate-rich environments to hunt and enrich cultures for organisms utilizing arsenate in novel and unique modes.Here is a good recent review on what is known about arsenic microbial pathways put in an astrobiological context (Oremland, Saltikov, Wolfe-Simon & Stolz, 2009).

In concert with this in situ and/or in vivo type work, we are also collaborating with Dr. Steve Benner and Dr. Nicole Leal at The Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and Dr. Marcelo Guzman to measure the spontanous incorporation of arsenate into a DNA backbone.

There are other approaches to search for life “as we do not know it” here on Earth. For more information, check out this paper (Davies, Benner, Cleland, Lineweaver, McKay & Wolfe-Simon, 2009).”

Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Pamela was a primary author of  Geochronology and Mars Exploration which focuses on the planetary process as a foundation for framing geological and biological evolution.

Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.

“While ‘life’ may universally be a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution, alien life may be quite different in its chemistry from the terrain life that we know here on Earth. In this case it will be difficult to recognize, especially if it has not advanced beyond the single cell life forms that have dominated much of terran biosphere.” [Chemistry, Life, and the Search for Aliens]

Benner is on the Titan team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was an early proponent that the methane on Titan could play the role that water plays for life here on Earth.

James Elser, professor, Arizona State University

Is a champion of the “follow the elements” in addition to water when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

Titan is the largest moon of Saturn, with a dense atmosphere and bodies of liquid on its surface. It’s about 50% larger in diameter than Earth’s moon and bigger than the planet Mercury.

The Cassini–Huygens mission in 2004 discovered liquid hydrocarbon lakes in Titan’s polar regions. These are the first stable bodies of surface liquid found off Earth.

See also

Scary Guatemalan Sinkhole

When I first saw this picture, I thought it was fake:

It appears to be real.

Apparently, the city sits on top of a Karst formation. The underlying limestone is highly soluble to underground water. As the underground water flows, the limestone is eroded, creating a cave. The Mammoth Caves in Kentucky is Karst Geology (.pdf).

In the sinkhole picture, the groundwater burst through the roof of the underground cave, letting the soil fall in and eventually creating a collapse sinkhole. Now it’s a portal into a deep underground cavern.

Videos from the Deepwater Horizon Spill

The US Coast Guard has published a few videos showing the underwater efforts to stop the gushing oil.

Here is the oil and gas stream from the riser of the Deepwater Horizon well May 11, 2010. This video is from the larger of two existing leaks on the riser. This leak is located approximately 460 feet from the top of the blowout preventer and rests on the sea floor at a depth of about 5,000 feet:

Here is a video as they lower the 100-ton containment dome to the sea bed May 7, 2010 as part of an effort to contain the leak from the Deepwater Horizon well.

Why Isn’t Boston Flooded?

With the rest of the state underwater, why has the City of Boston stayed dry? After all that same Charles River that runs along the Back Bay is the same river that has over-spilled its banks throughout Metro West. You would think that Storrow Drive, the Esplanade and the Hatch Shell would be under water.

The answer: the New Charles River Dam. The six pumps in the dam are pushing over three million gallons of water per minute from the Charles River Basin into the harbor.

Here is the NECN story:

The Revolutionary Future of Publishing

Will the world of book publishing be subject to the same revolution as the music industry because of digital content? With the Kindle (or iPad or Nook) do to books what the iPod did to record albums?

It’s not my question to answer. But Jason Epstein from the The New York Review of Books has an excellent view on this in his article: Publishing: The Revolutionary Future

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus. That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

America’s Cup – Now Brought to you by BMW and Oracle

With all of the non-traditional sport focus on the Olympics, I nearly missed the news that the America’s Cup sailing competition was happening in Valencia Spain. The BMW Oracle team triumphed over the Alinghi team. That means the US boat beat the Swiss boat.

Part of my family comes from Newport, Rhode Island, so I’ve had an interest in the America’s Cup. The sailing race was based in Newport starting in 1851. Then in 1983, an Australian boat won the cup and took it down under.

In 1983 the Australians won by using a radical design in the hull of their boat. The Australia II used a winged keel. They also made extensive use of kevlar and carbon fiber.

The BMW Oracle Racing boat, USA 17, was also a radical design. It is a tirmaran that is nearly 90 feet across. It also uses a rigid sail wing instead of a sail. The wing is almost twice as big as the wing of a 747.

Congratulations to Larry Ellison and BMW Oracle Racing.

There is no news on where the next America’s Cup race will be held.


The Winter Olympic Events I Want to See

I don’t have Olympic fever because I’m not that interested in the headline events. My tastes are a bit quirkier.

I hate ice skating. The downhill events are boring, except for the crashes. The snowboard halfpipe is fun, but I can’t tell when one person is doing better than the other.

These are the events I want to see:

Preview: Women's 7.5km sprint Women’s Biathalon
7.5km Sprint
Sat, Feb 13
Preview: Men's 10km sprint
Men’s Biathalon
10km Sprint
Sun, Feb 14
Men's snowboard cross final Snowboard Cross
Men’s Qualifier
Mon, Feb 15
Men's snowboard cross final Snowboard Cross
Men’s Medal Round
Mon, Feb 15
Women's snowboard cross qualification Snowboard Cross
Women’s Qualifier
Tue, Feb 16
Women's snowboard cross final Snowboard Cross
Women’s Medal Round
Tue, Feb 16
Preview: Women's 10km pursuit Women’s Biathalon
10km Pursuit
Tue, Feb 16
Preview: Women's 10km pursuit Men’s Biathalon
12.5km Pursuit
Tue, Feb 16
Preview: Women's 10km pursuit Women’s Biathalon
4 x 6km Relay
Tue, Feb 23
Preview: Women's 10km pursuit Men’s Biathalon
4 x 7.5km Relay
Fri, Feb 26
Curling Basics Women’s Curling
Bronze Medal Game
Fri, Feb 26
U.S. team rock solid behind revitalized captain Women’s Curling
Gold Medal Game
Fri, Feb 26
Curling Basics Men’s Curling
Bronze Medal Game
Sat, Feb 27
Debbie McCormick's photos Men’s Curling
Gold Medal Game
Sat, Feb 27

All images are blatantly stolen from the NBC Olympics webpage.

Home of the World’s Worst Weather?

During an April storm in 1934, a wind gust of 231 miles per hour (372 kilometers per hour) threw itself across the summit of Mount Washington. That stood as a record for the all-time surface wind speed observed by man.

Until two weeks ago.

On January 22, 2010, the World Meteorological Organization released a report stating that a new world record wind speed was recorded on April 10, 1996 in Barrow Island, Australia during Typhoon Olivia. The new record stands at 253 mph.

Mount Washington can still call itself the home of the windiest place in the Northern Hemisphere.

It can still claim its title for the all-time surface wind speed observed by man. The 1996 speed was recorded by a machine.


The 100 Greatest Quotes from The Wire

One of my favorite shows on television was HBO’s The Wire. An enterprising soul put together the video below of some of the best quotes from the series.

Since the quotes are from The Wire there is lots of language that you don’t want your kids (or your boss to hear).

Of course, there are spoilers. So if you have not watched the entire series and are planning to watch it, you may only want to watch the first few minutes.