Lectures for a New Year: Mary Roach is an Awesome Space Nerd

Mary Roach is thoroughly awesome: she's funny, whip-smart, and well-read. In other words, she's one of us. Roach is the author of Stiff, Spook, Bonk, and most recently Packing for Mars; in this lecture, Roach tells stories about space (mainly from NASA), including exactly the kinds of questions we all have about space: what's it like to be there? Does it smell weird? How does food work? What if you get mad at your fellow astronauts? And of course, what's up with the toilets??

Topics: funny (and sometimes slightly gross/weird) stuff that happens in space. Roach has interviewed tons of people, plus read zillions of transcripts of NASA transmissions, to find the best bits for you.

For: anyone who is not currently eating lunch.

Representative quote:

"The Space Toilet. You may not really appreciate gravity in your lives the way that you should. ... [In space] you're sitting on a shop vac, essentially." Later: "Okay. I give people the impression that this entire book is about crapping in space, and it's not, really, honest to God, it's not. But there's just one more thing [about crapping in space] I have to tell you."

Viewing tip: jump to about three minutes in for the actual lecture. Also, you can download the lecture directly from YouTube (link is below the video player) if you want to take it offline.

Further Reading

You're in for a treat, as Roach's books are universally awesome: funny, smart, educational, and easy to pick up -- basically great vacation reads, but with science content. The book she discusses in the lecture above is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. See also: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex; and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.


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This Giant Baking-Soda-and-Vinegar Volcano Tops Any Science Fair Project
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The baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, an elementary school staple, has received a super-sized upgrade. As Atlas Obscura reports, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry revealed their 34-feet version of the classic science project in celebration of their new Pompeii exhibition.

The mountainous structure relied on the same chemical reaction as smaller artificial volcanoes, but this time the reaction was recreated on a much larger scale. After wrapping the three-story scaffolding with brown tarp, museum staff filled it with 66 gallons of vinegar and 50 gallons of baking soda, plus water and red food dye to create two geysers of pink liquid.

While it's still a fraction of the height of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano towers over anything you’d find in an elementary school science fair. After showing off the project in front of a crowd of 3000 people, the museum plans to submit its creation to the Guinness World Records committee for consideration.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Science Explains Why You're Not a Morning Person
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Can't get out of bed in the morning? Allow science to tell you why—and whether or not you can change that.

I’m awful in the mornings. Can science fix me?

Maybe not, but it can explain why you’re such a sleepyhead (which may or may not be of interest to your boss). “There are morning people and evening people,” says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, director of education at UC-San Diego’s Sleep Medicine Center. “We call them larks and owls.” Which one you are has to do with your circadian system.

How does my circadian system work?

A region of 20,000 nerve cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus keeps your body on schedule throughout the day, regulating everything from hormone levels to when you digest food. And, of course, when you feel sleepy.

How does that explain me?

Larks are “phase advanced,” meaning they feel tired early in the evening. Owls are “phase delayed”—a pattern most common in teens and young adults—and don’t feel tired until late at night.

Should I be concerned?

Larks do have a mental edge. In 2013, a study found that early and late risers have structurally different brains. Larks have more quality white matter, which helps nerve cells communicate.

Can I change that?

A little bit. Your circadian rhythm changes over your lifetime. Babies wake at dawn, while teenagers can’t get out of bed before noon. As adults age, mornings typically get easier. You can also hack your clock by sticking to a regimented sleep schedule and avoiding light before bed. Light receptors in the eye tell your brain when to call it a night.

Can I blame this on genetics?

You bet! In 2012, scientists discovered a single nucleotide near a gene called “Period 1” that determines whether you’re an owl, a lark, or in between.


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