Very close exoplanet

It turns out that the nearest exoplanet is right next door. Of course, the neighborhood is kind of on the large side. In this case, next door is 4.2 light years ago, orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star, not counting the sun. Proxima Centauri is a very small star, class M, and puts out very little light compared to what we’re used to. This planet (Proxima b) is orbiting in the habitable zone, the so-called goldilocks zone, where liquid water would be possible.

This makes it theoretically possible that life could evolve there. But this is unlikely since the amount of X-ray or Gamma-ray radiation from the star is about 100 of the amount we get, which would break down DNA very quickly. Any life would have to store genetic information in a very robust chemical. Because class M stars are so small, the habitable zone is also very small. Proxima b’s year is about 11.2 of our days long; it’s orbit would be well inside Mercury’s orbit.

Popular Mechanics has a good article on the planet.

Why you get carsick when reading

Do you get carsick when you try to read in the car? It’s very annoying for someone who really likes to bury their nose in a book. There’s this time in the car going somewhere—maybe a couple of hours. Why waste that time just staring out the window, when you could be reading? But once you start reading, your stomach tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you’re going to be sick soon.

Why?

Well, it has to do with how your body interprets mixed messages. Your vestibular system in the ears is constantly telling your brain that you’re moving. At the same time, your eyes are looking at a book that isn’t moving. These mixed messages tell your brain that something’s wrong. And the only thing that leads to this kind of mixed messages—at least the only thing for many millions of years of evolution—is that you’ve been poisoned. The body’s reaction to thinking that it has swallowed something really nasty is to un-swallow it. You know, throwing up.

This doesn’t affect everyone to the same degree, which is just individual variation. Maybe you have genes that don’t get as upset about this. That’s good if you like reading in the car. But it doesn’t bode well if you inadvertently swallow some poison.

How Earth Moves

I just watched a cool Vsauce video on YouTube about how the Earth moves through space. It went into some of the cool things like the difference between sidereal and solar days; the calendar and how 10 days just went missing in 1582, and the path that the Earth (and you) take through space as the Earth rotates on its axis, revolves around the sun, the sun moves through the Milky Way, and us being pulled towards the Great Attractor.

Another reason I liked it is that I was just teaching this a couple of weeks ago. Well, just the Earth’s rotation, revolution, calendar, and seasons. I also touched on the sidereal day.

Anyway, here’s the cool video:

We can now make stems cells from adult cells

Stem cells are the special cells that can turn into any kind of cell in the body. Embryos have them, and use them during development. This has lead to controversy as collecting stem cells needed destroying an embryo. Now we can take cells from an adult, and turn them into pluripotent stem cells by reprogramming them.

This can be done by turning on genes that are active in stem cells, and turning off genes that are active in whatever type of cell they are. Scientists also introduce proteins that are important during embryonic development.

Hopefully this will allow stem cell research in the United States to catch up with the rest of the world.

Math migrane

So, there was this cool post on AskReddit: What’s your favorite maths fact? And one of the comments was about Graham’s Number. Now you may know about the googol (10100). And if you know that one, you certainly know about the googolplex (10googol). And you’d be right in thinking that those numbers are big. And you know that those aren’t anywhere close to infinity. But if you want to think about large numbers, and kick your math up more than a few steps, read this post on going from 1,000,000 to Graham’s Number.

So, on the way to rather large numbers, you may see some mileposts:

These, and a googolplex, are pikers compared to Graham’s Number. To get there, you first have to go up the math ladder from counting, to addition, to multiplication, to exponentiation, to tetration (this is where my math migraine kicks in), to pentation, to hexation, and wayyy beyond.

If, and that’s a big if, you can wrap your mind around Graham’s Number, … well first off, you’re lying, just admit it … but this supremely large number, where there isn’t enough space in the universe to write down all the digits (the train passed that station long ago on this math journey, just read the article at the link), is not even approaching what infinity is. This isn’t anywhere close to aleph-null (ℵ0).

Fracking contaminated drinking water

Scientific American has an article that explains that a former EPA scientist has found contaminants in drinking water that came from fracking. Drinking water from Pavillion WY smells and tastes bad. There are many natural gas wells in the area, many shallow wells under 2000 feet deep. Chemicals used in fracking have been found in well water.

Many labs analyzing well water originally didn’t find fracking chemicals. But it’s not that simple.

“Conducting a groundwater investigation related to fracking is extremely complicated,” DiGiulio said. “It is difficult because a lot of the compounds used for hydraulic fracturing are not commonly analyzed for in commercial labs.”

More recent test have found methanol, diesel compounds, and other fracking chemicals in wells. Many of these chemicals are unstudied, and we don’t know what the safe levels are for them.

Unsurprisingly, industry groups disagree with the findings. More studies need to be done to find how fracking can be done such that it won’t contaminate well water.

New spinal cells for rats

Researchers announced this week that they have regrown part of the spinal column of rats. They implanted neural stem cells in the corticospinal tract of rats, and managed to get them to grow as spinal cord cells. The rats gained an increase in motor function (they could move better after the new cells grew). Previous research had tried to do something similar, but this was the first time they got regeneration of spinal cells. This work shows promise for creating new therapies for humans.

“We humans use corticospinal axons for voluntary movement,” said Tuszynski. “In the absence of regeneration of this system in previous studies, I was doubtful that most therapies taken to humans would improve function. Now that we can regenerate the most important motor system for humans, I think that the potential for translation is more promising.”

Smarts isn’t the most important thing

Being a student is all about being smart right? If you’re smart you’ll do better in school. If you’re smart you’ll be more successful in life. Right? Right?

Well, not really. The most important thing isn’t IQ, or being smart, or learning things fast. The most important thing is grit. Grit is being determined, and able to keep going despite mistakes. It would be great if teaching how to do this were part of teaching curriculum. Please watch the TED Ed video.