News for Nerds - The Shocking Science of Mudslides

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 4/4/2014 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - The Shocking Science of Mudslides

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we'll watch a robot set a world record, we'll have some fun with mousetraps, and I'll introduce you to the 'chicken from hell.' But first, here are your headlines.

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The recent (and tragic) mudslides in Washington have received a lot of attention this week. But what causes a mudslide like that in the first place? How does this even happen?

You might be surprised.

While major environmental forces like earthquakes sometimes play a role, the most common factor is much less obvious: gravity. That's right, gravity. Fires also play a big role in many mudslides, because when trees burn, their root systems may also be destroyed, leaving the soil vulnerable to heavy rainfall.

And that's not even the end of the story. In the wake of a major mudslide, treacherous terrain abounds. In Washington, the debris field is about one square mile wide, and as deep as 40 feet in places, with quicksand-like muck, mud and ice everywhere. Check out this video from the NY Times for more.

- story from The Huffington Post, photo from Staff Sgt Rory Featherston via US Armed Forces

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On a lighter note, here's a question you probably haven't considered since you were in grade school: why do zebras have stripes?

After literally centuries of debate, scientists believe they have the answer. It's not because they need the stripes as camouflage to confuse predators, as previously suggested, and it's not a cooling system or a helpful tool for courtship. A zebra's stripes, it seems, are nature's own bug repellent.

Based on huge stacks of data involving the migratory patterns of flies, the relative thin-ness of zebra hair, and most interestingly, an experiment which allowed researchers to paint horse mannequins, biologists from UC-Davis believe that their analysis "settles the question pretty well."

The reason zebras need this protection is evolutionary, but the reason it works is even cooler. Flies seem to prefer to land on dark surfaces, which reflects the kind of polarized light that reminds them of the water or mud where they breed. Light surfaces are not as attractive, but striped patterns are even worse, presumably because they confuse the flies' navigational sense.

So I guess that settles that. Moving on.

- story from NBC News, photo from Lunkwill via Wikimedia Commons

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Here are some other cool science stories that you might enjoy:

  • For my longtime radio partner Jane London, I dug up a robot story! More specifically, it's a story (and video) of a robot that set the world record for solving a Rubik's Cube in the shortest amount of time: a mind-boggling 3.253 seconds. Prepare for the coming robot revolution, folks.
  • For the many NFN fans who crave dinosaur stories, here's a good one: scientists have discovered a fearsome new bird-like dinosaur from the late Cretaceous period. At 10 feet tall and 500 pounds, it's no wonder that this new species is being called the 'chicken from hell.' Yikes.
  • And finally, for everyone who loves a good laugh in the name of wacky science, here's a video that answers the age-old question: what would happen if a person stuck their arms onto a table that's covered with 150 mousetraps? Seeing is believing.

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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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