In Space, Can Anyone Hear You Scream?

iStock/coffeekai
iStock/coffeekai

"In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream." That was the tagline for the movie Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece. Released two years earlier, Star Wars allowed us to hear plenty of things in space, like the whine of TIE fighter engines and the explosion of the Death Star.

So which movie is right? How does sound work in space?

Here on Earth, sound travels as mechanical waves transmitted through a solid, liquid or gas medium (like the air in a room, the water in a pool, or the walls in an apartment building). Pluck a guitar string and it vibrates. The vibration of the string pushes against the molecules of air around the string. Those air molecules, in turn, push against other air molecules, which push against still others, creating oscillations of pressure in the air: a sound wave.

Outer space (which, for our purposes here, we will define as the universe beyond Earth's atmosphere and between planets and other stellar bodies) makes a pretty terrible medium for mechanical waves. It's a vacuum, but not a perfect one. Sound can travel through it, but not very effectively. There's plenty of matter in space "“- stars, planets, asteroids, galaxies, cosmic dust, elemental atoms, etc. "“- and it's all separated by vast distances. Even at the densest parts, there's only a few hydrogen and helium atoms in a cubic meter. If you plucked a guitar string in outer space, it would still vibrate and scraps of matter like cosmic dust and gases might be able to propagate sound waves if you got enough of the matter together, but the sound be too weak for our not-that-sensitive ears to hear.

So, Alien has it right; while it's not strictly true that sound waves can't travel through space, it is true that humans would not be able to hear those sounds. Scream all you want, no one is hear you. There are some loopholes in what we'll call "Ridley's Law," though. Among the things you could hear in space are:

"¢ Anyone talking to you via radio. Radio waves can travel through space because they're electromagnetic, not mechanical, and can travel through a vacuum. Once the radio in your spaceship or spacesuit receives the signal, it converts the signal into sound, which travels through the air in your ship or helmet to your ear.

"¢ A bump on the head. If you're floating in space wearing a spacesuit and you hit your head on something (your ship, an asteroid, whatever), the sound waves resulting from the vibration of your helmet and the object you bumped would be able to travel through your helmet and the air inside it to your ear.

If you've got the right tools, you could also see sounds of a black hole. In 2002, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory detected a B-flat note coming from a black hole in the Perseus Galaxy Cluster, some 250 million light-years away. The note is 57 octaves below a piano's Middle C. That's far too low for us to hear. NASA didn't hear the note, either -- they saw it as ripples in the cosmic gas surrounding the hole, caused by the squeezing and heating of the gas by the gravitational pressure of the clump of galaxies packed together in the cluste. They determined the pitch by calculating how far apart the ripples were, and how fast they traveled.

Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

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iStock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception: in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

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