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Why Do Our Ears Pop When We Ride In Airplanes?

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You’re sitting on a plane destined for a far off place, sandwiched between two people, and you're doing your best to sit back and get comfortable. But as the plane takes off and makes its rapid ascent toward cruising altitude, a baby begins to cry, the people around you wince, and finally, it hits you—a buildup of pressure, tightening your ears and sinuses, that compresses your head like a vice that won’t let go. The plane continues upward until it stabilizes thousands of feet above the ground and then—POP!—your head feels fine.

Whether you’re in an airplane soaring through the sky, on an elevator heading to the top floors of New York’s tallest skyscraper, or making a deep dive underwater, your ears will most likely pop. The explanation for why this occurs is simple: It’s pressure. But what, exactly, is happening inside your ears?

Under Pressure

When a plane ascends, the air pressure in the cabin lowers at a rapid rate. This sudden change causes an irregularity with the pressure in the inner ear. At such high altitudes, the pressure pushes outward on the eardrum—the thin membrane between the external and middle ear that transmits sound—and causes the tension you feel in your head. (The pressure also reduces your ability to hear.)

One way to release this pressure is through the Eustachian tube, a 1.4-inch long cavity in the middle ear that connects the ears to the nose and throat. Yawning, swallowing, or even chewing gum opens the muscles of the Eustachian tube, causing air to fill the space and equalize that sometimes debilitating pressure caused by rapidly changing altitude. During that equalization, the air forcing into the tube makes that pesky popping or crackling sound, alleviating some of the discomfort the fluctuation caused.

Fancy Maneuver

When yawning or swallowing doesn’t do the trick, people use what is known as the “Valsalva Maneuver.” Named after Antonio Maria Valsalva, a 17th century Italian physician whose scientific specialty was the ear, the maneuver consists of closing the mouth, pinching the nose, and exhaling as if to blow up a balloon. It isn’t recommended, however, as it may cause barotrauma—damage to bodily tissue caused by a pressure difference inside and outside the body—or further auditory damage from the violent pressure equalization pushing outward.

After you’ve heard that pop, the pressure should be equalized, and the pain gone. You can watch some in-flight entertainment, or chow down on the packet of peanuts the flight attendants give you—at least until the descent, when, thanks to the rapidly increasing pressure in the cabin, you might have to go through the discomfort, and popping, all over again.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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