Archive for the ‘National Geographic’ Category

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By Michael Finkel
for National Geographic

Published February 18, 2014

Let’s rewind the clock. Before humans existed, before Earth formed, before the sun ignited, before galaxies arose, before light could even shine, there was the Big Bang. This happened 13.8 billion years ago.

But what about before that? Many physicists say there is no before that. Time began ticking, they insist, at the instant of the Big Bang, and pondering anything earlier isn’t in the realm of science. We’ll never understand what pre-Big Bang reality was like, or what it was formed of, or why it exploded to create our universe. Such notions are beyond human understanding.

But a few unconventional scientists disagree. These physicists theorize that, a moment before the Big Bang, all the mass and energy of the nascent universe was compacted into an incredibly dense—yet finite—speck. Let’s call it the seed of a new universe.

This seed is thought to have been almost unimaginably tiny, possibly trillions of times smaller than any particle humans have been able to observe. And yet it’s a particle that can spark the production of every other particle, not to mention every galaxy, solar system, planet, and person.

If you really want to call something the God particle, this seed seems an ideal fit.

So how is such a seed created? One idea, bandied about for several years—notably by Nikodem Poplawski of the University of New Haven—is that the seed of our universe was forged in the ultimate kiln, likely the most extreme environment in all of nature: inside a black hole.

It’s important to know, before we go further, that over the last couple of decades, many theoretical physicists have come to believe that our universe is not the only one. Instead, we may be part of the multiverse, an immense array of separate universes, each its own shining orb in the true night sky.

How, or even if, one universe is linked to another is a source of much debate, all of it highly speculative and, as of now, completely unprovable. But one compelling idea is that the seed of a universe is similar to the seed of a plant: It’s a chunk of essential material, tightly compressed, hidden inside a protective shell.

This precisely describes what is created inside a black hole. Black holes are the corpses of giant stars. When such a star runs out of fuel, its core collapses inward. Gravity pulls everything into an increasingly fierce grip. Temperatures reach 100 billion degrees. Atoms are smashed. Electrons are shredded. Those pieces are further crumpled.

The star, by this point, has turned into a black hole, which means that its gravitational pull is so severe that not even a beam of light can escape. The boundary between the interior and exterior of a black hole is called the event horizon. Enormous black holes, some of them millions of times more massive than the sun, have been discovered at the center of nearly every galaxy, including our own Milky Way.

If you use Einstein’s theories to determine what occurs at the bottom of a black hole, you’ll calculate a spot that is infinitely dense and infinitely small: a hypothetical concept called a singularity. But infinities aren’t typically found in nature. The disconnect lies with Einstein’s theories, which provide wonderful calculations for most of the cosmos, but tend to break down in the face of enormous forces, such as those inside a black hole—or present at the birth of our universe.

Physicists like Dr. Poplawski say that the matter inside a black hole does reach a point where it can be crushed no further. This “seed” might be incredibly tiny, with the weight of a billion suns, but unlike a singularity, it is real.

The compacting process halts, according to Dr. Poplawski, because black holes spin. They spin extremely rapidly, possibly close to the speed of light. And this spin endows the compacted seed with a huge amount of torsion. It’s not just small and heavy; it’s also twisted and compressed, like one of those jokey spring-loaded snakes in a can.

Which can suddenly unspring, with a bang. Make that a Big Bang—or what Dr. Poplawski prefers to call “the big bounce.”

It’s possible, in other words, that a black hole is a conduit—a “one-way door,” says Dr. Poplawski—between two universes. This means that if you tumble into the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, it’s conceivable that you (or at least the shredded particles that were once you) will end up in another universe. This other universe isn’t inside ours, adds Dr. Poplawski; the hole is merely the link, like a shared root that connects two aspen trees.

And what about all of us, here in our own universe? We might be the product of another, older universe. Call it our mother universe. The seed this mother universe forged inside a black hole may have had its big bounce 13.8 billion years ago, and even though our universe has been rapidly expanding ever since, we could still be hidden behind a black hole’s event horizon.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140218-black-hole-blast-explains-big-bang/

ftn of youth

Jackie Snow
for National Geographic
Published July 23, 2013

Five hundred years ago in June, the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon started his journey back to Puerto Rico from Florida after becoming the first European to land on mainland America. After exploring the east coast of Florida, he circled the peninsula and explored the west coast, including modern-day Charlotte Harbor, most likely the location he chose for his second voyage.

According to legend, the explorer set out in search of the fountain of youth, a fabled stream that would extend the life of anyone lucky enough to drink from it.

Thanks to the myth of Ponce de Leon’s trip, Florida—known for its large population of retirees—is now awash in “fountains of youth.” Dozens of bodies of water claim the title of the one legendary fountain, from mineral springs to deep-water wells, not to mention water from a variety of sources that is piped into various built structures.

Only one, however, is known to be radioactive. And, oddly, it might be actually extending life.

In Punta Gorda, a town on Charlotte Harbor, a blocky, green-tiled fountain abuts an empty lot near the harbor. A spigot juts out near the top to release water from the artesian well below. Each of the four sides features a picture of a ship, a tribute to Ponce de Leon.

On the side facing away from the street, a public health notice warns that the water “exceeds the maximum contaminant level for radioactivity.”

The water from the well is also heavy in sulfates, which give it a distinctive smell of rotten eggs. This hasn’t stopped the locals from drinking from it regularly.

“I drank out of that well every day,” said Gussie Baker, a resident of Punta Gorda for all of her 78 years.

Baker used to live down the road from the Hotel Punta Gorda, whose guests would frolic in a pool filled with water from the same aquifer. Baker learned to swim in the pool and passed the fountain on her way to school.

“I love artesian water,” she said. Baker doesn’t live as close to the fountain anymore, but says she would drink it if she were nearby.

Punta Gordians proudly declared the existence of a rejuvenative fountain as far back as 1894. In 1926, they mounted a collection drive to pay for the stout little structure that stands to this day. At the height of its popularity, in the mid-20th century, the handle on the tap had to be replaced every six months.

The environmental movement threatened to put a stop to the locals’ enthusiasm for the fountain. In 1974, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to determine safe levels of a variety of contaminants, including radium. All public water sources were to be tested.

Punta Gorda’s water clocked in at 9.2 picoCuries of radium-226 isotope per liter when it was tested in 1983. This exceeded the recommended radium limit, set at 5 picoCuries per liter.

As a result, in 1986, the city council mulled plugging the well, moving the fountain, and hooking it up to city water. But locals fought back.

“They’ve tried several times over the years to close it down, to seal it up, to move it or hook it to the city water, and the public has always defeated that,” said Wilson Harper, a 71-year-old former water utilities supervisor better known as “Water Bill.”

“The last 15 years it’s been as quiet as a church mouse,” he said.

Lindsay Harrington has worked across the street from the fountain in a real estate office and watched the comings and goings since 1997.

Visitors “usually come with lots of plastic bottles, or big plastic jugs that hold maybe five or ten gallons,” he said.

“We did have an occasion where a gentleman would wash his car there, and I always thought maybe he was hoping it would lengthen the use he would get out of it,” he said. “It was his own automobile fountain of youth.”

Radium shows up in 3 to 4 percent of water around the country, according to a recent study by the United States Geological Survey. Many areas have no radium in their local water. Radium mostly turned up in places that had certain rock formations with particular water chemistry that created the perfect radium sink. Florida made up the third most likely area in which to find radium-laced water.

Zoltan Szabo, a co-author of the study who has worked at the United States Geological Survey for 28 years, explained that Florida’s water is frequently encased in limestone, which doesn’t absorb or store radium. “It’s like a bad paper towel,” Szabo said of the common Floridian rocks.

Artesian water supplies are especially low in oxygen, which also helps draw radium out of the water. Szabo hasn’t looked at the Punta Gorda water supply in particular but says the levels of radium at which the fountain tested are not especially dangerous.

The EPA’s recommended levels are very conservative, Szabo said, and are based on drinking a liter a day for 70 years. Even if that was the amount and length of time someone drank the water, the chance of getting cancer is still low, Szabo said, in the range of 1 in 20,000.

“You’re taking a quantifiable risk,” he said. “If you’re smoking a cigarette, you’re taking a quantifiable risk. Probably more than drinking that water.”

But radium isn’t the only thing that turns up in the water. In fact, a much more humdrum ingredient might hold the secret of its appeal. The water from the aquifer is high in magnesium, the second most common mineral in the body after calcium.

More than 80 percent of Americans are deficient in magnesium, which helps the body regulate heart muscles and control high blood pressure. The World Health Organization recommends that drinking water contain at least 25 milligrams of magnesium per liter, and a U.S. Academy of Science study from 1977 found that 150,000 deaths a year in the United States could be prevented with additional magnesium in water.

According to Carolyn Dean, author of The Magnesium Miracle, the fountain’s 46 ppm of magnesium puts it on par with other mineral waters like San Pellegrino.

The compound magnesium sulfate also makes an appearance in the water. It’s better known as Epsom salt, which has been used in baths to ease aches and pains for years.

Magnesium is regularly removed from many bottled waters by a process known as reverse osmosis. And the fluoride added to many public water supplies counteracts magnesium, too.

Magnesium is especially good for older people: Magnesium deficiency increases with age as the body stops being as efficient in absorption, and many drugs senior citizens take interfere with the body’s ability to digest magnesium.

“Water Bill” Harper has noticed that the fountain is especially popular among Punta Gorda’s older folk.

“One of the problems with city water is we have to maintain a chloride disinfection. It makes everything taste funny,” he said. “The people have learned they can go down and take that water, which is not chlorinated, and let it sit in the refrigerator.

“It’s tasty; it has no reaction with any of their medication. Also, [magnesium sulfate] keeps you regular.”

To Harper’s knowledge, the fountain’s water has not been tested for at least 25 years—although the EPA recommends biannual testing.

When this reporter sent the water off recently to be tested, it got a reading of 14.4 picoCuries per liter, plus or minus 6.4. This is, according to Szabo, within the range of what showed up in the previous test. According to the EPA website, zero is the goal for radium levels.

Between this warning and the ubiquity of bottled water, the fountain is much less popular today. Harrington says days will go by without him seeing anyone at the fountain. But there are still some dedicated drinkers.

Margaret Baumherdt has been drinking from the fountain since 1967, years before any warning went up. Baumherdt, who is now 88, moved to the area when she was in her early 40s and remembers having to wait in line to drink the water.

She gets her daughter to drive her to the fountain from her home in nearby Port Charlotte, the town across the harbor, and fills up as many as 40 gallon jugs at a time. She drinks the water exclusively and even uses it to cook meals like spaghetti. Tap water’s chlorine content doesn’t sit well with her. The fountain water, however, is just right.

“I love the taste,” she said.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130719-florida-fountain-of-youth-radioactive-magnesium-health/

trash

Long lines up Everest.

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By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

Six decades after it was conquered, mountaineers complain that the summit of Mount Everest has become virtually gridlocked with climbers. How did the world’s highest mountain become so congested?

In May 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood alone together at the very top of the world.

Nowadays, the same spot is rather less desolate.

Thanks to advances in mountaineering equipment and the indefatigable efforts of Sherpa guides, more climbers than ever are reaching the peak of Mount Everest – a landmark that was once believed to be impossible to surmount.

According to National Geographic, in 1990 18% of summit attempts were successful. By 2012 that figure stood at 56%.

But this has come at a cost. Critics say the summit has become as congested as a five-lane motorway during bank holiday weekend.

On a single day in 2012, no fewer than 234 climbers reached the peak. By contrast, as recently as 1983 the most successful ascents in a single day was eight, and a decade later that figure stood at 40.

This year some complained of waiting two-and-a-half hours in queues at bottlenecks on their way to the summit.

A striking photograph by German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits – which showed a queue hundreds-long snaking its way up during 2012 – ignited a debate about whether the procession was ruining enjoyment of the ascent.

Westerners can pay anything from $10,000 (£6,600) to $100,000 (£66,000) for permits to climb the mountain and guides to accompany them, and a sizeable tourist industry has sprung up around the base – bringing with it complaints about litter and poor sanitation for miles around.

“There were just people everywhere,” says Ayisha Jessa, 31, a keen climber from London who recently visited Everest’s base camp. At the nearby village of Namachi, she says, “it’s completely commercialised – everything is intended for the Western traveller”.

For many serious climbers, all this has served to devalue Everest.

“It isn’t a wilderness experience – it’s a McDonald’s experience,” says Graham Hoyland, an experienced mountaineer and author of The Last Hours on Everest, an account of the ill-fated 1924 ascent by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.

Advances in weather forecasting mean climbers time their attempts to the same few days each year, worsening the bottlenecks. A better understanding of altitude sickness has also helped more mountaineers ascend 8,848m (29,029ft) to the summit.

For their financial outlay, Westerners are given a plentiful supply of oxygen and, very often, a Nepalese mountain guide assigned specifically to ensure they get to the top.

The tour parties also ascend using fixed ropes, which help less accomplished climbers but are believed by many elite mountaineers to detract from the sport.

Thanks to all this assistance, more than 3,000 individuals have scaled the mountain since 1953.

They include Californian Jordan Romero, who in 2010 became the youngest person to climb Everest aged 13, and 80-year old Yuichiro Miura from Japan, who set the most recent record for the oldest summiteer. An 81-year-old, Nepalese Min Bahadur Sherchan, is attempting to snatch Miura’s title.

“Normally, as long as they are not too ill or too weak, nearly everyone – if they have enough money and patience – can get up Everest,” says Eberhard Jurgalski, who has attempted to chronicle every Everest ascent since 1953.

“Also, if the weather hasn’t been good for a few weeks it becomes much more crowded on the days you can climb.”

Some worry that the influx of inexperienced climbers on to such potentially hazardous terrain could have tragic consequences.

“You have people going up there who don’t know how to operate the ropes or use the crampons,” says Hoyland. “There’s a huge disaster waiting to happen.”

In 1996, eight people died within 36 hours near the summit. In 2012, some 10 lives were lost on the mountain, three of them Sherpas.

So it’s not surprising that tensions have built up.

According to Hoyland, experienced climbers have grown frustrated that long queues of amateurs using fixed ropes are slowing them down.

Tempers on the mountain boiled over in April when a scuffle broke out at 7,470m (24,500ft) between two well-known European climbers, Ueli Steck and Simone Moro, and a group of Nepalese mountain guides.

While complaints are still made about litter and human waste on the mountain, a series of clean-up expeditions has improved the environmental situation, Hoyland says.

But as Nepalese authorities face calls to take further action, proposals to remedy Everest’s congestion have sharply divided climbers.

One expedition company has suggested installing a ladder at the Hillary Step, a rocky outcrop just before the summit, where only one person can go up or down at any one time. But purists complain this would lessen the challenge of scaling the mountain.

Another proposed solution would be to limit the number of climbers. Until 1985, the Nepalese authorities allowed only one expedition on each route to the summit at any one time, and in theory this practice could be revived.

Others suggest, candidates for a permit could be required to undergo training or at least demonstrate mountaineering experience. “If everyone going up had at least a little bit of an idea about the culture of climbing, that would make a big difference,” says Hoyland.

But the notion of imposing quotas sits uneasily with many in the free-spirited world of mountaineering.

Sir Chris Bonington, who reached the summit aged 50 in 1985, says he is grateful that he was there at a time when crowds were restricted.

However, while he believes there is much that can be done to improve Everest’s management, he feels uneasy with the idea of denying to others the opportunity he enjoyed.

“If you say there are only 100 or 200 people coming each year, that’s a lot of people who will never be able to share the incredible personal experience of getting to the top of the mountain,” Sir Chris says.

Restricting the number of visitors would also have a major impact on those who rely on tourism for their income.

“It’s a mountain that people live on, and the local community is completely supported by the climbers,” says Jessa.

The debate will rumble on. And as long as the memory of Hillary and Norgay’s achievement persists, the crowds will keep coming.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22680192

irish-famine-potatoes-brought-back-taters_65301_600x450

by Catherine Zuckerman
National Geographic News

“It struck down the growing plants like frost in summer. It spread faster than the cholera amongst men.”

That description of Ireland’s historic potato blight—from English writer E.C. Large’s book The Advance of the Fungi—may sound extreme, but it’s not. The devastating disease nearly wiped out many Irish potato varieties, igniting the country’s Great Famine in the mid-19th century.

But now, one of those blighted potatoes is making a comeback. Meet the Lumper.

As its name implies, this potato is not especially beautiful. It’s large, knobby, and, well, lumpy, with pale brown skin and yellow flesh. Still, it was widely grown in Ireland before the famine because it did well in poor soil and could feed a lot of mouths.

According to University College Dublin’s Cormac O’Grada, an expert on the history of famines, the blight (Phytophtora infestans) destroyed about one-third of Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 and almost all of it in 1846. Because so many people were poor and relied on potatoes for sustenance, the blight had catastrophic consequences, including food riots and mass death from starvation.

Spuds are faring much better today thanks to modern farming techniques and technology, although potato blight is still an ongoing concern for Irish farmers.

The Lumper was a thing of the mashed, roasted, and baked potato past until about five years ago, when farmer Michael McKillop—a grower and packer for Northern Ireland’s Glens of Antrim potato suppliers—became interested in the antique tuber. He got his hands on some heirloom seeds and cultivated them.

Why revive this particular potato? “I chose the Lumper because of its history and its unusual look and feel,” he said. “The history books said the taste wasn’t particularly nice, so I was fascinated to find out what it was really like myself.”

So how does it taste? Descriptions range from “good” and “pleasing” to “not bad” and “soapy.” The Daily Spud blog calls the Lumper’s texture “waxy,” rather than floury like other potatoes—not necessarily a compliment.

Dermot Carey, the head grower at Ireland’s Lissadell/Langford Potato Collection, which contains more than 200 varieties, has tasted his fair share of different potatoes. He’s not a huge fan of the Lumper: “It’s edible, but it wouldn’t be my favorite.”

The debate over the Lumper’s flavor appeal may never be settled, but one thing is clearly established: The Irish love their spuds. The Irish Potato Federation lists several popular varieties on its website, including the widely grown, red-skinned Rooster, the traditional, floury Golden Wonder, and the newly developed, highly blight-resistant Orla.

Chef and native Dubliner Cathal Armstrong, who owns several Washington, D.C.-area restaurants, has mixed feelings about the return of the Lumper: “I think it’s both exciting and a little frightening, to bring back this species of potato that is related to so much devastation. But I would still love to get my hands on some and see how they taste. I guess it would be similar to bumping into the ghost of a long-lost relative in a dark alley.”

Too bad it’s not available in the U.S. But in Ireland, McKillop’s Lumpers—which he grew to be a bit smaller than those of the 1800s—can be purchased at the retail chain Marks & Spencer through the end of March. As for the future, McKillop has plans to plant ten new acres of Lumpers—enough to yield 150 metric tons for 2014.

Whether or not the public will embrace the somewhat homely spud remains to be seen. For now, said gardener Carey, “it’s pure nostalgia.”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/03/130315-irish-famine-potato-lumper-food-science-culture-ireland/#

National Geographic’s Crittercam team deployed cameras onto humpback whales and, amazingly, captured them bottom-feeding.

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/news/ng-on-assignment/humpback-whales-bottom-feeder-ngoa/