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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.

Transcript

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Why a Howling Wind Sounds So Spooky, According to Science
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Halloween is swiftly approaching, meaning you'll likely soon hear creepy soundtracks—replete with screams, clanking chains, and howling winds—blaring from haunted houses and home displays. While the sound of human suffering is frightful for obvious reasons, what is it, exactly, about a brisk fall gust that sends shivers up our spines? In horror movie scenes and ghost stories, these spooky gales are always presented as blowing through dead trees. Do bare branches actually make the natural wailing noises louder, or is this detail added simply for atmospheric purposes?

As the SciShow's Hank Green explains in the video below, wind howls because it curves around obstacles like trees or buildings. When fast-moving air goes around, say, a tree, it splits up as it whips past, before coming back together on the other side. Due to factors such as natural randomness, air speed, and the tree's surface, one side's wind is going to be slightly stronger when the two currents rejoin, pushing the other side's gust out of the way. The two continue to interact back-and-forth in what could be likened to an invisible wrestling match, as high-pressure airwaves and whirlpools mix together and vibrate the air. If the wind is fast enough, this phenomenon will produce the eerie noise we've all come to recognize in horror films.

Leafy trees "will absorb some of the vibrations in the air and dull the sound, but without leaves—like if it's the middle of the winter or the entire forest is dead—the howling will travel a lot farther," Green explains. That's why a dead forest on a windy night sounds so much like the undead.

Learn more by watching SciShow's video below.

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Space
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
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On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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