News for Nerds - May 25, 2012

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 5/25/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - May 25, 2012

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we scan the depths of space, transport photons across county lines, investigate the pain associated with bug bites, and give you good reason to hit the snooze button. But first: we boldly go where no urn has gone before.

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It's been a big week for the burgeoning commercial space flight industry. The inaugural SpaceX flight to the International Space Station launched early Tuesday morning, carrying some non-essential cargo for the astronauts currently aboard ISS but mainly acting as a dress rehearsal for future commercial space travel.

This marks a big shift in the philosophy of American space flight, with NASA expected to begin outsourcing its taxi rides to space through privately held companies. In recent months, the domestic space agency had been hitching a ride with Russian rockets, so directing that business to fast-growing American companies seems like a win-win situation.

Of course all of this is just preamble to the really interesting news about the SpaceX Dragon 9 rocket currently heading toward the ISS: it's carrying Scotty's ashes.

Oh yes. Actor James Doohan, best known for portaying Montgomery Scott on Star Trek, passed away in 2005. But his ashes, along with those of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and 306 other people, are packed into a secondary payload aboard the SpaceX rocket. It's part of a partnership with a company called Celestis, which books memorial spaceflights.

If I can't have my body shot into space upon my passing, as I've said many times is my wish, then maybe Celestis is the next best thing.

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Beam me up, Scotty. Any talk of Scotty from Star Trek lends itself to a natural segue to a story about teleportation. So, hey, let's talk about teleportation.

Chinese physicists have made a major breakthrough with something called 'quantum teleportation'. And in so doing, they've managed to teleport a single photon a mind-blowing 60 miles, far outpacing the previous record of 10 miles. How'd they do it? By creating a technique that allows the scientists to focus and steer the lasers that project the photon.

The experts tell us that it's this new technique, and not so much the increase in distance, that is the big deal here. According to at least one intelligence analyst, the practical application for a tool like this is that it can lead to virtually unbreakable codes.

There's a lot to digest here, so if you want to know more about code-breaking or about why this doesn't necessarily mean that we'll be transporting humans anytime soon, you'll have to read the full story. It's sure to tickle your science-nerd senses.

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Creeper Planet? An interesting question popped up this week: Is it possible that even after Pluto's much-publicized eviction from the planet community a few years back, there really is a ninth planet in our solar system?

A respected astronomer named Rodney Gomes, based at the National Observatory of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, believes so. He says that while this mystery planet is too distant to be easily spotted by Earth-based telescopes, its presence at the outskirts of the solar system goes a long way in explaining the unusual orbits of small, icy objects that reside beyond Neptune.

Exactly what type of planet this might be, or even what size, remains to be seen. But there are several possibilities. It could be a Mars-sized planet with an elongated orbit. It might also be a Neptune-sized planet (roughly four times the size of Earth) orbiting 140 billion miles from the sun.

Or it could be none of the above. Because while Gomes is well-regarded in the astronomy community, and while he has pretty compelling computer models to back up his claims, his theory has not yet been peer-reviewed. Until that happens, our solar system is at eight planets and holding.

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Ranking Insect Stings. If you've ever wondered about how to quantify and stratify the pain resulting from various insect stings... well, let's face it, if you've ever wondered about that specific thing then you probably need a new hobby. But just in case you have wondered such a thing, you can finally exhale. Your prayers have been answered.

There is now something called 'Justin O. Schmidt's Guide to Verminous Hurt,' which sounds like it should be the name of a psychedelic 1960s rock album but is actually a ratings scale for determining which insect stings are the most painful. It's based on Schmidt's original Pain Index, first published in 1984 but now updated for the first time in more than 20 years.

It's totally subjective and thus not really very scientific, but it's fun. For instance, did you know that a fire ant ranks fairly low with a pain rating of 1.2 (on a scale of 0 to 4), but that a bullet ant maxes out at a 4.0, with this corresponding description: "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel."

In between those two breeds of ant are all kinds of creepy-crawlies, from a paper wasp to a tarantula hawk. Investigate further at your own risk.

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Wake up, wake up, wake up! And finally, I leave you with a story that asks the hard-hitting question: is your alarm clock making you fat?

A recent study looked at the phenomenon known as 'social jet lag'. Basically this means that when our natural sleep patterns are out of sync with our school or work schedules, our bodies suffer. But how much of an effect does this have on our body weight, and on our overall health?

By studying the sleeping patterns of people aged 16 to 65 and then building a mathematical model around those findings, researchers found that there were a lot of different factors that could predict body weight: age, gender, sleep duration, and yes, social jet lag.

It's long been accepted that people with extreme work schedules, such as night-shift workers, had increased health risks because of their unusual sleep habits. But now it seems that even subtle disruptions in your body's natural sleep cycles can have a huge effect. Says one sleep researcher, "Even a modest difference between weekends and weekdays of an hour or two [in wake-up times] seems to be associated with health outcomes like obesity."

So go ahead. Oversleep on work days or school days from now on. Tell your boss or your parents that science says it's okay.

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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