Pigs, Sharks, And Snowmobiles: Kari Byron Talks Hosting Large Dangerous Rocket Ships


Science Channel

As co-host of MythBusters, Kari Byron deals with explosions, rocket sleds and general chaos all the time. But not even that experience could prepare her for the spectacle that is Large Dangerous Rocket Ships (LDRS), an annual competition-turned-Science Channel special that Byron began hosting 3 years ago. “The first year I went I felt like I was in a warzone because there are rockets going off constantly,” she says. “Every minute, there’s another one launching off. 3-2-1, pew! 3-2-1, pew! I was shell shocked. But now I’ve gotten used to it.”

Each year, LDRS moves to a different, very remote location. “We have to be somewhere far out, because generally they have to close off airspace when we’re doing extra-wild things,” Byron says. This year, rocket enthusiasts converged on Potter in upstate New York. “We’re basically out in a large field,” she says. “Some people have rockets taller than they are, and some have small model rockets, but everybody’s having a good time. There are rockets going up all around you, and you just have to be on your toes and make sure they don’t come down near you.”

The Main Events

This year’s LDRS special focuses on two events: Fastest to 10,000 Feet (that’s what they close off airspace for) and Odd Rockets, where competitors try to turn any object they can think of into a successful rocket—and land it safely. This part of LDRS is particularly fun. “People are always trying to top what happened the year before,” Byron says. “I’ve seen these guys launch port-a-potties and coffins. And this year, there’s everything from pigs to sharks. It's pretty wild.” But the craziest thing she saw get launched into the air was, hands down, a 400 pound snowmobile. “That was pretty weird, because that’s not one of those things I would have looked at and thought Hmm, I wonder if I could make a rocket out of that? But that’s why these guys are out there. They’re geniuses.”

While some competitors launch existing objects—like that snowmobile and a vintage television set—there are others who build their quirky rockets from scratch, an involved process that calls for lots of design, pre-LDRS tests, and troubleshooting. “I really like the challenge of the aerodynamics of the weird things they get into the air,” Byron says. “Anything that’s shaped like a rocket, it’s like, yeah, yeah, of course that’s going to go up! But when you see people fly things like a pig, you’re like, Wait a minute. How do you even go about modeling a pig to try to get over the drag factor from the legs and the ears? They spend so much time just coming up with the perfect skin—maybe they’re just shaping it in this minute way that nobody would notice but them—but it could make all the difference to the rocket.”

Often, the Odd Rockets crash and burn, and that's all part of the fun (at least for people watching on TV). “[These competitors] know they’re trying to launch things that were never meant for the sky,” Byron says. “It’s a gamble. They get disappointed because they do put all that time, effort and love into it, but when it goes wrong, it’s all part of rocketry.” But when those rockets built to go to 10,000 feet fail to launch, that’s a different story. “When those really expensive, beautiful rockets don’t go into the sky,” Byron says, “that’s when I feel bad.”

The More, The Merrier

This was the 31st year of the LDRS competition, and it doesn’t surprise Byron at all that people keep coming back—or that more people want to join in on the fun. “I think everybody’s got a real fascination with space and flight, and being able to create these rockets is this amazing way to touch the sky for a minute,” she says. “A lot of people who are competing are engineers or they’re in aerospace, and [LDRS is] something that’s natural to them. But there are also a lot of kids out there, getting involved and learning how to make these things work." This mission, in particular, is one Byron is passionate about. "I always love looking for new and interesting ways to get kids—and people in general—interested in science, and I think rockets is a great way to do that, because it’s such a flashy thing to be able to explain science with," she says. "The sound of these rockets going up is beautiful—it’s this shoo! It’s fascinating to watch, and being able to create something that goes up that high is amazing.”

And don't forget the sheer fun in creating those increasingly wacky Odd Rockets. Take note, next year's competitors: There's one object Byron really wants you to make into a rocket. “I’d like to see a full-sized car!” she laughs. “I wonder if they could get a car up in the air?”

Large Dangerous Rocket Ships airs Sunday, October 28 at 10 pm on The Science Channel.

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania
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Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]

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