Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


Understanding Daylight Savings Time

March 9, 2014

earthEarly this morning (2:00AM local time), we “sprang forward” and advanced our clocks one hour.  What was 2:00 in the morning suddenly became 3:00.  Daylight Savings Time is nothing more than a cleaver shift of daylight hours to better conform to when most people are up and about.  It does not create more time of light; it simply is a better use of it for most of us.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the first proponents of such a shift in time.  Back in his day, there were very practical reasons for such thinking, even if he did write somewhat satirically about it[1].  Today, its impact is debatable but does arguably make better use of the day.

Understanding just what really takes place requires a little background.  The earth has 24 time zones.  Think about it for a moment, it also explains a day being 24 hours.  Now I know a day is not exactly 24 hours but we are not trying to set an atomic clock here, gallon chemistry will do.  Humans tend to be creatures of the day, or diurnal.  If the whole of the planet used a single time zone, in London, the sunrise could be 6:00AM on a given day but sunrise would be 11:00AM in New Your City and 2:00PM in Los Angeles on that same day. For centuries, locations around the world used a local time based on the rising and setting of the sun.  As we became world travelers, thank you Ferdinand Magellan, the need to standardize time from one place to another became increasing important. 

Now for a little bit of geometry, and you told your 8th grade teacher you would never use it!  If you think of the planet as a globe, its diameter is a circle with 360°.  When people started to think about time in relation to available daylight, they figured why not make a time zone for each hour of the day.  You do that by dividing 360° by 24 hours.  This gives each time zone 15°.  Think about it this way, when the earth rotates 15° one hour has passed.  Our time zones follow lines of meridian and bisect the North and South poles.  The middle meridian of a time zone is called a standard meridian.  The boundaries of each time zone are plus and minus 7.5° from its standard meridian.  For example, New York City has a central longitude of approximately 74° West.  That puts it 5 time zones away from Greenwich, England, which is the zero reference point.   The standard meridian is 75° West.  The -5 time zone runs from 67.5° West to 82.5° West.  That puts New York City pretty close to the middle of the time zone.  When it is midnight in New York City, it is 5:00AM in London.

That is more than enough of the nerdy stuff.  The thing to remember is each time is one hour different from the time zone next to it.  When we move clocks forward, or spring ahead as they say, we are simply saying we now set our clock to -4 time zones away from Greenwich instead of -5. This has the effect of making the sunrise and set one hour later.  When we wish to end Daylight Saving Time, we simply fall back, or return to our actual time zone of -5.

If we did not take advantage of Daylight Saving Time, during the summer months, as the length of daylight increases, the sun would rise very early, like 4:00AM early. That is not much use to most of us. Daylight Savings Time is not some big conspiracy or governmental mind control trick. It simply is a way to better use available daylight. 


[1] Franklin, Benjamin, and Nathan G. Goodman. “Letter to the Editor of the Journal of Paris, 1784.” The Ingenious Dr. Franklin: Selected Scientific Letters. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Pr., 1931. 17-22. Print.


Yes Virginia, Global Warming Can Mean Lower Temperatures

February 16, 2014

Snow DayI’ve notice something recently, when I make a comment about all the snow or how cold a day might be on social media, a comment akin to “so much for global warming” always seems to creep in.  I have to shake my head and wonder about the education level of people making such comments.  It is one thing to make a smart-ass comment for effect; I do it all the time.  It is another matter entirely to drink the disinformation of news networks and apply it to serious issues like global warming.

In a very large part, the confusion of us lay-people is due to the moniker, “global warming.”  It is all too easy to miss-apply it and miss the real point is energy trapped in the upper troposphere and tropopause, not the relative high or low temperature of a particular day. 

For those who have forgotten middle-school earth science, the troposphere is the atmospheric layer we live in.  It extends from the earth’s surface up to about 10 miles or so.  The tropopause is the dense boundary between troposphere and the stratosphere.  These parts of the atmosphere are where the weather happens. We all know as you go higher, it gets colder, but that is only to a point.  Once you reach the tropopause, the temperature stabilizes; it then increases through the stratosphere before it again drops.  It is not uncommon for temperatures in this region to reach as low as -75°C (-103°F).

Just for the sake of clarity, the layers of our atmosphere, in order away from the earth, are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and exosphere.  The ozone layer lives within the lower stratosphere but is not considered a true atmospheric layer.  Commercial jetliners like to fly in the lower stratosphere too, as it puts them above thunderstorms, clouds and such.

The term global warming, applies less to the temperature at the earth’s surface and more to the energy stored in the upper troposphere and tropopause.  A 1°C change in the average temperature in this area has a huge impact of the weather at the earth’s surface.  This is because the energy required to change the average is tremendous.  Notice I did not say it has a huge impact on the temperature at the earth’s surface.  The change affects the weather in the form of high and low pressure systems and ultimately the jet stream. The temperature will fluctuate up down, for sure, but it is the increase storms and their severity we will most readily endure by warming. 

This is why a warming in the upper troposphere and tropopause can result in lower temperatures and cause a great amount of snow.  In reality, it supports the theory of global warming.  So, keep this little tidbit in mind next time you hear someone make a silly comment about cold weather disproving global warming.  Simply shake your head and realize the person making such a comment does not know what the hell they are talking about when it comes to global warming.



Voyager I just keeps going!

August 17, 2013

Wow, Voyager I has reached the heliosphere, basically, the edge of the solar system. I remember well the day it was launched in 1977.  This is the first manmade object to reach this far out into space.  It is humanity’s first attempt to shake hands with other sentient beings.

Other spacecraft, Pioneer 10 and 11 for instance, had simple plaques.  Sort of a “Property of Earth” thing, but Voyager I and II have special records aboard that give a road map, greetings in 55 languages, and sounds from Earth, as well as visual instructions on how to play the record.

NASA still receives data from both units.  They will start to exhaust their fuel sometime after 2020.  We will lose contact but both travelers will keep going, hopefully to fulfill their ultimate goal of making contact.

There was a time when we reached for the stars.  Now…


Looking to the Heavens

April 13, 2012

Throughout human history, looking to the heavens has always intrigued and awed us.  For much of that history, the nature of the universe we live is was unknown, much of its nature still is.  To cope, humans placed supernatural qualities upon the night sky.  Still, as we look back to our ancestors, it seems they understood they were connected to it somehow, just as we are today.  As knowledge progressed, so did our understanding of that connection.  Whether we use the sky to navigate, tell a horoscope, look for evidence of God, or study it its vastness to

First Picture from Space

understand how everything came to be, it is certainly one bad-ass place.

Just over sixty-five years ago, the first pictures from space were recorded[i].  They were taken from a German V-2 rocket captured after World War II.  (Click here to watch the newsreel clip)  Not until then, did we really know if space beyond our atmosphere looked like what we thought.  From the beginning of recorded time, to just over sixty-five years ago, we could only guess.  Since then, we have been on sort of a photographic orgy when it comes our consumption of pictures from space.

Still, it was not until the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in April of 1990 (Happy Anniversary Hubble!) that the “awe-factor” went through the roof.  Its ability to take images without the distortion caused by our atmosphere put its images in a class of their own.   They are simply stunning.  HST is in the last phase of its life-cycle.  Currently, Hubble is joined by the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST), launched in 2003 and when HST is no longer operational, SST will still be feeding our need for pictures from the farthest reaches of the universe.  My only hope

Crab Nebula

is we do not allow HST to fall to earth and burn up in the atmosphere.  It needs to be in the Air & Space Museum.

Sometimes when I look at these images, I feel really small.  At the same time, I am comforted knowing I am part of such a vast and wonderful universe.  After all, even a cell in your fingernail gets to be part of you as a whole.  Without it, you would be diminished.  Without us, the universe would be diminished too.

As it is, we get to enjoy the pictures from our orbiting telescopes, even if we do not understand just how things like a planetary nebular really form.  We guess and theorize but, just like before that picture from the V-2, we do not know.  Maybe that is the real draw; space holds the same sort of magic for us today as it did for our ancestors thousands of years ago.  While thy wondered about these dots of lights racing through the sky, we wonder at a nebula sixty-five thousand light-years away.  While we think of their astral mythology as antiquated, perhaps our descendants thousands of years from now will view E=mc2 and the Big Bang Theory the same way.

Star-Forming Region of NGC 3324

[i] Reichhardt, Tony. “” Air and Space Magazine. Smithsonian Institution, National Air & Space Museum, Nov. 2006. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.



One Big-Ass Universe

March 19, 2012

Part of the problem in understanding the universe is its immense size.  Numbers measured in divisions like parsecs, light years and astronomical units mean little to nothing to most of us.  To help understand, here are some truly nerdy facts about our universe broken down so the average human can understand them:

  • Light travels 186, 282 miles in one second. That means a ray of light could circle Earth 23.5 times in one second.
  • As Earth orbits the Sun, its distance is between 91 million and 94 million miles.  It takes light from the Sun about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to reach us.  That same ray of light would circle Earth about 11,689.5 times in the same period.
  • Earth’s average diameter is 7,913 miles.  The sun’s average diameter is 864,300 miles. That is 109 times larger than Earth.
  • One of the brightest stars in the night sky is Rigel, in the constellation Orion.  Its diameter is 65 million miles.  That is 75 times larger than the Sun.

Now remember, light makes 23.5 trips around Earth in one second.  It takes light 5 minutes and 48 seconds to travel around Rigel one time. In fact, Rigel takes up about 70% of the distance between the Earth and Sun. Just image the tan we’d get if we orbited Rigel!

  • Our solar system is pretty big, to us at any rate.  Counting Pluto as its edge ( I know Pluto is not the real edge but all that gets “nerdier” than I wish to go ) That same ray of light that circled Earth 23.4 times in a second takes about 5.5 hours to reach Pluto.  Look at it this way; it is almost 3 billion miles from the Sun to Pluto.  That means you would need to circle Earth over 379,122 times to cover the same distance.

We have only reached the edge of solar system, using Pluto of course, and the numbers based on a unit we know and understand, like a mile, is useless.  After all, when was the last time you took a 375 million mile trip?  This is why astrophysics comes up with measurements like parsecs.  It helps define the great distances of space in numbers easier to digest.  Here is what some of the common units really mean:

  • Astronomical Unit: au for short. To avoid the lengthy and uber-nerdy definition of au, think of it as the distance between the Earth and Sun.  Or about 92 million miles.  In early astronomy, it sort of made sense as a handy break point.
  • Light-year: ly for short. It is simply the distance light travels in 365.25 days. It is a big number, remembering light circles Earth 23.5 times a second and a year has 31,556,926 seconds; light makes 741,587,761 trips around the Earth in a year.  Another way to see it; a light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles or 1,966 times longer than from Pluto to the Sun.  Having said all that, and just to show how far above mere mortals astrophysicists are, light-years is a term they use for us laymen.  Astrophysicist like to use the next measurement unit – parsec.
  • Parsec: pc for short.  Unlike au and ly, a parsec is based on pure mathematical theory.  Au uses an average distance and is sort of arbitrary; ly uses a distance measurement based on time.  Parsec measures distance based on good ol’ geometry.  A parsec is the distance from the Sun to an object in space which has a parallax angle of one arcsecond.  The name comes from the parallax of one second.   I know, I know, you did not sign up for a math class.  For us it simply means it is about 3.2 ly or 19 trillion miles. Do I really need to figure out how many orbits around the Earth that would be? Ok, it’s just over 2.4 billion trips about Earth.

There are other even larger, units of measure for space.   Trying to convert them down to size is pointless as the reference number itself become a laughably large.  We are talking billions of stars spread over trillions of miles.  The universe is one really big place.

When we think about the universe, we must account for its size.  Just in our solar system alone there are immense size differences to deal with.  If we think of the size of Earth as a peppercorn, Jupiter would be a golf ball and the Sun a volleyball.  At the same scale, Earth would be about 25 paces from the sun and Jupiter about another 110 paces.  I guess Walt Disney was right; it is a small world after all.  Maybe it’s just one big-ass universe.


Water, water, everywhere!

December 30, 2011

When I travel I like to read the local newspaper.  Now, being in Houston, the local paper of choice is the Houston Chronicle.  According to its page in Wikipedia (Houston Chronicle), it enjoys the ninth largest circulation of any newspaper in the United States and managed the advent of the internet very well as their website receives over 75-millon views per month.  It is an article in today’s edition (Horswell) that brings something to mind.

In her article titled City Lost Millions to Water Leak, Cindy Horswell touches on many key factors regarding wasting a natural resource, in this case – water.  She rightly points out the cost of pumping, treating and dispersing water, only to have it wasted by a leaky supply system.  Such problems in a water system incur cost while failing to deliver revenue to offset them.  It is not a small amount of water, the article cites the city’s own data showing over 18-billion, yes that’s billion with a “b,” gallons of water lost this year.  To put that into some sort of perspective, that is around 900,000 average-sized swimming pools worth of water.

The article brings a specific problem into focus; the water system’s infrastructure is in need of major repairs.   Cost is always an issue but the story is correct to point out that past neglect leaves Houston with a much larger problem today.  If taken seriously, the water system can be fixed.   Moreover, providing funds for ongoing maintenance and repair needs to be a constant priority to prevent a second round of staggering leaks and the cost to return the system to a manageable state.  900,000 swimming pools of waste is simply unacceptable but as bad as that is, there is another problem brewing, one the city council cannot fix – waste by users.

Waste in home and commercial use has two basic forms, wasteful use of water and leaks. Wasteful use refers to things like brushing your teeth with the water running, wasting about 1.3 gallons with each brushing.  Much like the issues Houston now faces, leaks are primarily caused by not properly maintaining infrastructure.  Home and businesses owners fail to make needed repairs and face the same sort of increased repair costs in the long run.

While the amount of water wasted per home or business might be small, the overall waste for all homes and businesses is staggering.  Take the brushing example; let’s assume 40% of Houstonians leave the water running while brushing.  For the larger Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown metropolitan area and its 6-million people means that 40% would waste 3,120,000 gallons per day or 1,138,800,000 per year.  Just from something simple like brushing!

As for leaks, a 2 drip per minute leak on a single faucet wastes 69 gallons per year.  If we assume 25% of homes in the Houston area have at least one faucet that leaks, 27,577,540.5 gallons wasted annually. That’s 27-million gallons wasted over silly, simple to fix, faucet leaks.

As bad as faucet leaks are, they pale when compared to a leaky toilet.  Most toilet leaks are caused by worn-out flapper vales.  This is the big rubber flap at the bottom of the tank.  A leaky toilet wastes around 200 gallons per day.  If 10% of Houston area homes have leaking toilets, that adds up to 31,973,960 gallons per day or 11,670,495,400 gallons per year.

Of course, these are but a few of the more obvious examples of waste and leaks and only takes the 1,598,698 homes and apartments in Harris County  (U.S. Census Bureau) into account.  Commercial businesses most likely waste much more.  The point is waste is not limited to the supply system.  Business and individuals collectively have just as large a role to play in water conservation.

Many arguments are made for and against particular ways to conserve water.  Avoiding that argument, here is something we all can agree on – cost.  Using the numbers calculated above and the price per 1,000 gallons used in the newspaper article ($2.81), Houstonians spent just over $36-millon this year in wasted water; a whopping 12.8-billion gallons.  Again, that is billion with a “b.”  Add that up with waste at the water system level and Greater Houston wasted at least 30-billions gallons of water in 2011. Using the pool example, that is 1.5-million pools worth of water.

Houston faces substantial cost to repair its water supply system and it must be done.  Still, that does not end the problem as waste at the system level is only part of the problem.  There is much lower hanging fruit to be had for all of us at the individual and corporate levels saving as much, if not more water.  As the Chronicle’s article concludes:  “Our water is precious and growing scarce.  It’s not that limitless supply that we used to think.”


Horswell, Cindy. “City lost millions to water leaks.” Houston Chronicle 30 12 2011: A1, A15.

Houston Chronicle. “Houston Chronicle.” 29 12 2011. Wikipedia. 29 12 2011 <;.

U.S. Census Bureau. State & County QuickFacts, Harris County Texas. 2010. 30 12 2011 <;.


What If We Lost Seattle

January 10, 2011

Imagine if you woke up on January 1, after a fun New Year’s night, made your coffee, tuned in the news and heard every person (man, woman, and child) in Seattle, Washington suddenly died, roughly 616,000 people gone from the planet forever.  It would shock our nation; it would shock the entire world.

Describing the instant magnitude of such a loss is beyond the power of words.  What if the loss spread out over the course of a year, is it any less devastating?  Take Afghanistan, our emotional house would be no less devastated if we lost the 100,000 or so U.S. service members currently serving in a year, much less a number like 616,000.  No, spreading such a massive loss over a year does nothing to negate the impact.

So why is it, in our society, we happily ignore the loss of a Seattle’s worth of population every year?  Over 1,800 people a day, every single day, lost!  The major news organizations do not bother to report it, at least not with the same sensationalism a 22-year old idiot with a gun commands.  Do not misunderstand, the unfolding tragedy in Arizona, with its senseless brutality, requires immediate coverage if we, as a people, wish to understand it.  The question is, given the overwhelming magnitude of loosing over six-hundred-thousand Americans yearly, why we show it such little concern.

Now, Seattle is in no more danger than any other place, in fact, it seems less likely something dire happens there than in other cities.  Seattle simply has a convenient population size to compare to the number one killer of Americans – heart disease.  According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC), in 2007, the most current year for such data, 616,067 people died in the United States from heart related issues[1].  Seattle’s population, in 2009, reported in at 616, 627 making it the 23rd most populous city in the country[2].  In other words, enough Americans die each year from heart disease, alone, to populate any city in America except the top 22.  For example, heart disease kills more Americans, each year, than live in the following cities:

o  Atlanta, Georgia – 540,922 people

o  Omaha, Nebraska – 454,731 people

o  Miami, Florida – 433,136 people

o  Washington, DC – 599,657 people

o  Sacramento, California – 466,676 people

o  Cleveland, Ohio – 431,369 people

[Population figures taken from U.S. Census data[3]]

Oddly enough, we already have the answer to reduce the impact of heart disease.  It does not require some newfangled program, discovery, invention, or billions of tax dollars.  What we need is awareness and the ability to correct our behavior (easier said than done for sure).  Perhaps that is the reason heart disease receive the relatively low attention it does, the answers are with individuals and not in some pill.  According to the Mayo Clinic’s website[4], here are five easy steps to reduce the risk of heart disease:

  1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. By now, everyone knows the danger of smoking.  It leads to atherosclerosis as well as introducing as many as 4,800 chemicals into the body, but the danger does not end with smoking tobacco.  Snuff and chewing tobacco present a danger to the heart as well.  Nicotine restricts or narrows blood vessels making the heart work harder to supply oxygen to the body.  Not to mention, smoking also increases the chances of the number two killer in America – cancer.  In other words, want to kill yourself, smoke like a chimney.  It may not be the most pleasant way to go but you cannot argue with its success.Another point, car companies spend millions, if not billions, to make safer cars.  In 2007 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 41,259 car related deaths[5].  That is less than 10% the number of deaths by heart disease.  While not all heart disease related deaths are attributable to smoking, large portions are.  How much money do tobacco companies spend to make their product safe?
  2. Get active. Participating in physical activity for at least 30-minutes on most days of the week provides benefits in just about every aspect of life.  It reduces the chances of developing conditions that place strain upon the heart, conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.  While these condition carry problems all their own, they also adversely affect the heart.Remember, things like gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs, and walking the dog all count.  You do not have to exercise strenuously to achieve benefits.  Need another reason to exercise?  Many study show moderate exercise improves the sex life.  Who needs more reason than that?
  3. Eat a heart-healthy diet. There are many diets and plans out there, most focus on dropping weight rather than improving heart-health. Eating a special diet called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)[6] can help protect your heart as well.  Following the DASH diet means eating foods that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt.  The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products that can help protect your heart.  Following this diet along with being active will reduce your weight as well.The Mayo also goes on to say “Heart-healthy eating isn’t all about cutting back, though.  Most people, for instance, need to add more fruits and vegetables to their diet — with a goal of five to 10 servings a day.  Eating that many fruits and vegetables can not only help prevent heart disease but also may help prevent cancer.”  What does all that mean, people do not have to starve to lose weight and have a healthy heart.
  4. Get regular health screenings. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels.  But without testing for them, you probably won’t know whether you have these conditions.  Regular screening can tell you what your numbers are and whether you need to take action.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight. A healthy weight lends itself to a healthy heart.  Carrying too much weight is simply all around bad for the body.  It stresses the joints, lungs, and circulation as well as the heart.  A modest reduction of 10% is beneficial for heart health.  According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a couple of key guides are Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist size[7].  As muscle weighs more than fat, the index can give high numbers for people with a healthy weight.  For that reason, waist size also comes into play.  Anything over 40” for men and 35” for women is overweight when the BMI is over 25.  Here are the basic guidelines:

o  Underweight = <18.5

o  Normal weight = 18.5–24.9

o  Overweight = 25–29.9

o  Obesity = BMI of 30 or greater

While these steps are not a guarantee in preventing a heart attack or developing a heart related disease, they do greatly reduce the risk as well as provide for a generally healthier life.  So often, in today’s world, we depend upon science or some invention to solve a particular problem.  In this case, there is no need to wait.

Heart disease, being the number one killer of Americans, is something we can address without the help of technology or waiting for some pharmaceutical miracle drug.  It is up to us, through our individual action, to change the reason for heart disease not being in the news from apathy, to its being only a minor cause of death.  Let’s make it a story with no need to cover in the first place.

[1] “FASTSTATS – Deaths and Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <>.

[2] “Population Estimates.” Census Bureau Home Page. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <>.

[3] ibid

[4] Staff, Mayo Clinic. “Heart Disease Prevention: 5 Strategies Keep Your Heart Healthy –” Mayo Clinic. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.

[5] FARS Encyclopedia. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.

[6] The DASH Diet Eating Plan. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.

[7] “Calculate Your BMI – Standard BMI Calculator.” Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <>.

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