Have you heard ‘the Hum’?

From the BBC:

For decades, hundreds of people worldwide have been plagued by an elusive buzzing noise known as “the Hum”. Some have blamed gas pipes or power lines, others think their ears are faulty. A few even think sinister forces could be at work.

“It’s a kind of torture, sometimes you just want to scream,” exclaims retired head teacher Katie Jacques.

Sitting in the living room of her home in the suburbs of Leeds, the 69-year-old grandmother describes the dull drone she says is making her life a misery.

Wow! My sister is somewhat sensitive to electrical sounds – she can hear electric motors and fluorescent lights and such. I hope this isn’t the kind of thing she has to deal with!

via BBC NEWS | Have you heard ‘the Hum’?.

The World’s Fastest Camera!

This is cool:

Laser Camera

That is an image taken from a new camera called STEAM, which stands for “Serial Time-Encoded Amplified imaging”. This bad boy has a virtual shutter time of half a billionth of a second! It can do this by using “a fast laser pulse, which then gets stretched in time and detected electronically”, resulting in six million images per second! Amazing!

Read more about it here.

The Mystery of The Bloop

During the Cold War, the US Navy created a vast network of underwater microphones (called hydrophones) to keep tabs on Soviet submarines. Called SOSUS (for SOund SUrveillance System), the hydrophones were first installed in the “GIUK gap” – the stretch of ocean between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, an area where Soviet subs were known to operate. By the 1960s, the Navy had expanded SOSUS to include most of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as many parts of the Pacific. In 1961, the system tracked the USS George Washington during her entire run between the United States and the United Kingdom. By early 1962, the system was capable of tracking the Soviet’s diesel submarines. And later that year, a SOSUS tracking station in the Bahamas played an important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis by keeping the Navy informed about Soviet submarine maneuvers around the Caribbean.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the Navy suddenly had little use for the system. Additionally, better technology had led to the development of smaller, easier to use hydrophones that could be easily deployed in a theatre of war as necessary. Many listening stations were abandoned, and several others were condensed. Although the Navy still listens to the hydrophones, most of the day-to-day operation of SOSUS has been turned over to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who use it to listen for underwater earthquakes and volcanic activity, for monitoring whale migration patterns, and other scientific interests.

And, during the summer of 1997, those scientists suddenly became very interested. That’s because SOSUS recorded a sound that remains a mystery to this day. Something off the southwest coast of South America, at approximately 50° S 100° W, made a sound… a sound that defies explanation.

The BloopThe sound is of a very low frequency, in the range that some animals use to communicate. But here’s the thing – the sound was picked up at two different hydrophones stationed some 3000 miles (5000km) apart! This automatically rules out almost any man-made source of the noise, as a sinking ship breaking up on the ocean floor or a shifting undersea cable can’t possibly make a noise that loud. It’s possible for whale calls to travel that far through certain “thermal layers” in the ocean, but those conditions didn’t apply in this case. In short, many scientists are convinced that the only possible source of the sound is an as-yet unidentified animal. The only thing is, that animal would have to be “several times” the size of a blue whale to make a sound that loud. And an animal just three times the size of a blue whale would be truly enormous – around 300 feet long and 570 tons in weight!

Is such an animal out there? For now, we simply just don’t know.

Listen to “The Bloop” (sped up 16 times to make it audible):


Read more about The Bloop at this NOAA page, this page at CNN.com, or this page at Wikipedia.

Hypnosis on the Highway

Have you ever driven a long distance… and then realized once you reached your destination that you can’t remember large portions of your journey?

This used to happen to me fairly frequently when I first met Lisa and was driving from Atlanta to Charlotte on a regular basis. I’d leave my place in Alpharetta, Georgia, and when I got to Lisa’s home just outside of Charlotte, I’d realize that I had no memory whatsoever of driving through South Carolina. I knew that I had obviously done it (I was in North Carolina, after all)… but I’d try to remember passing certain landmarks in South Carolina, and I’d draw a complete blank.

Come to find out, this phenomenon is called highway hypnosis and it’s a fairly common thing that also affects people that do repetitive tasks, like assembly line workers.

Apparently, the mind is able to divide itself in two: one part handles the task at hand – like driving, or assembling a widget – while the other concentrates on something else. Normally, the “conscious” part of your brain is in control when you’re doing a task; the “subconscious” part of your brain is supposed to stay quietly in the background. However, during a fit of “highway hypnosis”, the two parts become “equal” in your brain. The task may then shift to the subconscious part of the brain, while the conscious part thinks about other things.

Amazingly enough, there’s apparently no danger when your mind is in this state. Someone in a state of highway hypnosis is able to respond to external events (like swerving to miss a pothole or errant driver cutting you off) almost as quickly as someone not in a state of hypnosis.

Glucometer Tattoos?

Scientists at Draper Laboratory, a research company out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, are developing an injectable nanomaterial that fluoresces under infrared light in the presence of predetermined amounts of glucose. The idea is to make something like a tattoo that can provide constant monitoring for diabetics. So far, investigators at Draper have developed a version that can detect sodium, and are now working to transfer the technology to glucose.

via Coming Up: Injectable Under Skin Glucose Sensors – Medgadget – www.medgadget.com.

Hubble’s Next Discovery: You Decide

You’re In Control! In 1609, Galileo turned his telescope on the night sky for the first time. Now, 400 years later, your vote will help make the momentous decision of where to point modern astronomy’s most famous telescope.

“Hubble’s Next Discovery — You Decide” is part of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s observations. People around the world can vote to select the next object the Hubble Space Telescope will view. Choose from a list of objects Hubble has never observed before and enter a drawing for one of 100 new Hubble pictures of the winning object. The winning image will be released between April 2 and 5, during the IYA’s 100 Hours of Astronomy, a global astronomy event geared toward encouraging as many people as possible to experience the night sky. Vote by March 1 to swing Hubble toward your favorite target.

via HubbleSite – Hubble’s Next Discovery – You Decide.

The “Detox” Myth

For years, I’ve been arguing with New Age nuts over the whole concept of “detoxing”. It seems to me that human evolution created a prefect mechanism for “detoxifying” the body: the liver, kidneys and colon. As far as I’m concerned, those three body parts can handle almost anything you can consume, and any other substance is probably a poison (in which case you should stop reading this and call Poison Control immediately) or a recreational drug (in which case you should stop reading this and put on some music and a trippy screensaver). Anything else, in my view, is hokum.

And it appears that the British charitable trust Sense About Science agrees with me. In a recent study, the organization found that most of the more outlandish products (think Kinoki foot pads) made completely false claims, while more mundane products used a very loose definition of “toxins” in order to claim that they “detoxify” the body. For example, a Garnier face wash claimed to “detoxify the skin”, but the company defined “toxins” as  “dirt, make-up and skin oils” – toxins that any soap could remove.

Read more about it here.

Dreaming in Color?

This is an interesting story. It seems that Scottish researchers at the University of Dundee have discovered that how you dream is influenced by the type of media you’re exposed to.

People 55 and over – who were exposed to a great deal of black & white movies and television – tend to dream in monochrome around 25% of the time, while people 25 and under almost always dream in color. Even more interesting is that, according to Eva Murzyn, a psychology student who carried out the study, is that “before the advent of black and white television, all the evidence suggests we were dreaming in color”. Studies carried out from 1915 through the 1950s suggested that overwhelming majority of dreams were in black and white. This did not change until the 1960s, when color films became standard and color TV started creeping in to home. By that point, later results suggested “that up to 83-percent of dreams contain some color”.

Murzyn feels that something happens between the ages of 3 and 10 that affects the way we dream, and that whatever media we are exposed to during this time plays heavily into it. I wonder what it will be like for kids of the future that are exposed to 3D HDTV? Engadget thinks that they’ll “wind up dreaming in heavily-compressed SD stretched to the wrong aspect ratio, buffering endlessly before failing out due to a missing plugin”.

X-Rays from Scotch Tape

How’s this for cool? Normal, everyday Scotch Tape (or sellotape, for you British readers) gives off x-rays when pulled off the roll in a vacuum. According to this article at USAToday.com, UCLA researchers

[used] a machine [to peel] ordinary Scotch tape off a roll in a vacuum chamber at about 1.2 inches per second. Rapid pulses of X-rays, each about a billionth of a second long, emerged from very close to where the tape was coming off the roll.

That’s where electrons jumped from the roll to the sticky underside of the tape that was being pulled away, a journey of about two-thousandths of an inch… When those electrons struck the sticky side they slowed down, and that slowing made them emit X-rays.

The UCLA eggheads hope to refine the process enough to create cheap x-ray equipment for paramedics, developing countries, and places where electricity is hard to come by (like a ranger station in a national park, for example).

Should office workers worry about getting cancer from Scotch tape? Apparently not. The phenomenon only occurs when Scotch tape is unrolled in a vacuum. So you should be fine… unless you’re taping together documents in outer space!

The Smoot, Defined

You’ve heard of feet and meters… but have you ever heard of the Smoot?

Back in 1958, Oliver Smoot began attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was also pledging for the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. At 5′ 7″, Smoot was the shortest pledge by far, so his future frat brothers came up with a personalized initiation for him: they took him to the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge and used his body to measure the length of the bridge, with an exhausted Smoot standing up and lying down every time the frat members marked off another “Smoot”. The bridge was eventually found to be 364.4 Smoots long.

The prank became something of a local legend in the Boston area. In the years following the prank, whenever the city of Boston painted over the “Smoot Markers”, the fraternity members would surreptitiously sneak back onto the bridge and paint them back. After a few years of back and forth between the city and the fraternity, the city of Boston eventually gave up and announced that they would no longer paint over the markers. In the past few years, the city has even warmed up to the markers by providing an off-duty motorcycle officer to warn traffic as the fraternity members repaint the markers. I believe that the city even uses “Smoots” as their official measurement of the bridge!

Over the years, Smoots have taken off as something of a “geek joke”. You can even convert between feet and Smoots with Google calculator: open a Google window and type “8.5 feet in Smoots” into the search box. On the next page, Google will have your answer (1.52238806 Smoots).

Smoot eventually became chairman of the American National Standards Institute, was in the news lately because of Smoot Celebration Day at MIT, where he received a plaque which will be installed on the bridge later this year.