A No-Bake Method for Making Bricks on Mars

As anybody who’s ever tried to cram a week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on suitcase can attest, smart packing is key. Nowhere is this truer than on missions to space, where every single ounce counts. Now engineers have figured out a way to ditch one bulky item: the chemistry equipment that Martian settlers would need to turn the planet’s dirt into bricks. They published their research in the journal Scientific Reports.

While some researchers are hard at work puzzling out how to feed future colonists, others, like structural engineer Yu Qiao of UC San Diego, want to make sure we’ve got somewhere to live when we get there.

NASA is currently investigating a number of different building methods and materials, including 3-D printing. The most obvious solution might just be for settlers to make building materials out of Martian soil—or it would be, if the soil’s chemical composition weren’t so tricky. Researchers have come up with ways to transform the dirt into bricks, but these involve complex chemistry or bringing along bulky equipment like nuclear-powered kilns.

Qiao and his colleagues thought there might be a way to simplify the chemical approach. They analyzed the soil and its physical properties, hoping to reduce the number of polymers needed to bind the loose sediment into a solid, strong object.

They reduced the number, all right. Their results showed that the soil could be successfully compressed into dense chunks without any polymers at all. The same iron oxide that gives the planet its rusty color can also help bind soil particles together.


Even without rebar, the new bricks are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete. On the right is a sample after testing to the point of failure. Image Credit: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego.

The new bricks are also surprisingly tough, able to withstand more force and pressure than steel-reinforced concrete. Best of all, making them uses a no-bake recipe. The soil can be air-dried and compressed using flattened pistons.

Qiao views his team’s progress as a pragmatic but vital contribution to the future. “The people who go to Mars will be incredibly brave,” he said in a statement. “They will be pioneers. And I would be honored to be their brick maker.”

Header image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

iStock
iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

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