Tuesday, 17th October 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Are you one of the 200 million or so people expected to travel to one of 12 states (from Oregon to South Carolina) to view the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse (TSE) in nearly a century?

A. In fact, it could become one of the most watched eclipses in history, writes Sid Perkins in “Science News” magazine, reviewing three recent books on the subject. A TSE occurs when the moon passes in front of the sun and blocks its entire face, seen from the vantage of Earth. As astronomer Anthony Aveni explains in “In the Shadow of the Moon,” “TSEs arise from a fluke of geometry that occurs nowhere else in the solar system”: the sun is 400 times as large as our moon but also 400 times farther away, making the moon just the right size to cover the sun’s face without blocking its corona.

And this fluke of geometry is also a fluke of history. As planetary scientist John Dvorak points out in “Mask of the Sun,” “because the moon’s orbit drifts about four centimeters farther from Earth each year, there will come a time when the moon will no longer appear to cover the sun.”

Also, in many instances a lunar eclipse occurs two weeks before a solar eclipse—-“a coincidence that may have helped ancient astrologers ‘predict’ an eclipse,” physicist Frank Close writes in “Eclipse.” Dvorak further notes that ancient Babylonians could predict its onset within a few hours, the Greeks within 30 minutes. “And today’s astronomers can pin down eclipses to within a second.”

Q. Whatever happened to that almost-famous “pen for the atomic age”?

A. Although the “Atomic Pen” made a cameo appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the Parker Pen Company that developed it in 1958 never mass produced it, says Evan Ackerman in “IEEE Spectrum” magazine. The show-stopper? The pen was radioactive, calling for “a tiny packet of radioactive isotopes that would heat the ink to produce a selectable range of line densities.” Yet, back in 1958, “in an era promising atomic cars and atomic planes, it no doubt seemed perfectly reasonable.”

Q. In the category of strange pairings in the service of science, that of a robot and the red-eared slider turtle might be one of the stranger. Can you explain?

A. Start with the premise that robots find it hard to get around by themselves but animals don’t. Dae-Gun Kim and colleagues at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology designed robots with a frame that would jut out in front of the turtle’s head holding five red LEDs and a food-delivery tube, reports Timothy Revell in “New Scientist” magazine. The team then glued these small box-like robots to the backs of five red-eared slider turtles, aiming to ride their turtle through five checkpoints in a water tank. Each turtle was “conditioned to associate a lit-up LED with food—-so the robots simply guided it using the LEDs and fed it snacks as a reward for going in the right direction.” The robot hitchhikers were not only successful but actually sped up with practice (“Journal of Bionic Engineering”).

Next, researchers want to power the robots by drawing electricity from the motion of the animal host. Says Nathan Lepora at the University of Bristol, UK: “These robots could be used for surveillance, exploration, or anywhere it’s difficult for humans or robots to reach on their own.”

Q. English is a remarkably agile language, where words form proper nouns that then morph into common nouns and even into verbs. For example, the title character Robinson Crusoe of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel is shipwrecked on a remote desert island for 28 years, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. So you’ll likely understand this 2016 reference: “I had not seen any people… while I was Robinson Crusoed out there on the wet international border” (Robert Wehrman, “Walking Man: The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher”). Can you define these more challenging examples of “people who became verbs”: “out—Herod,” “penelopize,” “mithridatize”?

A. Herod the Great (74-73 BCE-4 BCE) was depicted as a tyrant in medieval mystery plays and lends his reputation to “out-Herod,” meaning to surpass in cruelty, evil, etc., Garg says. And to “penelopize” comes from Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Greek mythology, who waited 20 years for her husband’s return from the Trojan War, putting off her many suitors by saying she wouldn’t marry until she finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. But each night she unraveled what she had woven during the day. Hence, to “penelopize” means to delay an undesired event.

Finally, “mithridatize” (MITH-ri-day-tyz) is named for King Mithridates VI (120-63 BCE), who, knowing his father had been poisoned, tried to acquire immunity from such a death. Hence, the word means “to develop immunity to a poison by gradually increasing the dose.” Adds Garg, “the story goes that after VI’s defeat by Pompey, he didn’t want to be captured alive. He tried to end his life by taking poison but that didn’t work, so he had a servant stab him with a sword.”

Q. How are “water-bottle” bees helping air condition hives during hot weather?

A. These specialized “water collector” bees “fill their bellies with water, then regurgitate it once they’re back at home,” reports “New Scientist” magazine. Other bees then drink the liquid and spit it out around the hive, which cools as the water evaporates. Amazingly, some bees act like “living water tanks,” stocking up for later (“Journal of Experimental Biology”).

Says Cornell University neurobiologist Thomas Seeley, “It’s critical for their cooling. Without it, bees cannot really control the temperature in the nest on hot days.”

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