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Why Do Speed Skaters Use Such Weird Ice Skates?

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If you watch the speed skaters during this year’s Winter Olympics, you’ll certainly notice something strange about the footwear they’re sporting. With a hinged blade that moves independently from the boot, modern speed skates look nothing like hockey or figure skates—they're clap skates. What’s the purpose of such freaky footgear?

Clap skates were invented almost a hundred years ago, but it took until the last few decades for them to gain traction in the competitive sport. “The modern day clap-skate was developed by a Dutch group in the mid 1980s,” says Scott Van Horne, a former Canadian national speed skater who has studied the biomechanics of skaters using clap skates.

“At first the elite skaters wouldn’t touch them,” Van Horne says, but in 1996, some of the Dutch women’s team took a chance, and switched over. The results were astonishing—everybody in the sport noticed. “Suddenly skaters you might otherwise deem ‘hacks’ were now using clap skates and contending for the podiums,” Van Horne says.

By 1997, clap skaters were breaking world records, and “by the next year everybody had switched,” Van Horne says. At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, speed skating was dominated by the footwear—and has been ever since.

Although these new skates were shaving precious seconds off the Olympians’ times, for a while, nobody really knew why.

“Originally people thought the skate helped reduce friction,” Van Horne says. “With the traditional skates, it used to be that at the end of your stride, you’d push up on to the front of the skate’s blade. You could even see the ice fly into the air.” Conversely, on a clap skate, the blade keeps flat contact with the ice throughout the entire stride.

But as much sense as that makes, reduced friction isn’t really why clap skates are so effective. “Basically what clap skates do is give a more advantageous position for generating power at the knee,” Van Horne says. With the old skates, pushing up on to the front of the skate’s blade meant that the skater’s knee was absorbing a tiny bit more of his/her energy—about 5 percent, according to Van Horne. Pretty small, he admits, but just enough to make a big difference out on the rink.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

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

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

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

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