Does Anyone Own the Moon?

iStock
iStock

For decades, science fiction authors have imagined the Moon as one of humanity’s great land conquests, home to space colonies, space prisons, space labs, and space apartments. Jules Verne wrote that we would arrive there by firing astronauts out of a cannon. Robert Heinlein conceived of a moon base that resists governance from Earth and revolts.

With several countries—including Japan, India, and China—making plans for a crewed Moon mission for the first time since the United States last touched down in 1972, the question of who has a claim to the Moon and its resources is less a speculative fiction subject and more one for lawyers. Specifically, space lawyers.

In a post for Real Clear Science, Frans von der Dunk, an attorney and professor of space law (honestly) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Law, examined the question of Moon ownership. Two years before Americans landed on the lunar surface for the first time in 1969, countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union prepared and committed to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which solidified the moon as a “global commons.” It could belong to no single nation, and its secrets, resources, and other untapped potential would be in the service of the greater good. As a goodwill effort, the U.S. even shared soil and rock samples with Russia in spite of the Cold War making such scientific fraternization unlikely.

While no nation can assert land rights on the Moon, the question of who owns resources cultivated from both the Moon and asteroids—which are also materially part of the treaty—is not so clear. If a country is able to mine minerals and other space resources, are they able to claim possession, or must they be shared with the rest of the world?

Von der Dunk isn’t quite sure, which is why “space law” and “space lawyer,” though they sound comical, are probably going to be very real and very needed in the near future. It might be that mining asteroids or the Moon becomes akin to commercial fishing: So long as you’re licensed, you can keep what you catch. But some countries, like Russia, believe anything extracted from space should have communal benefits to humanity as a whole.

One thing is certain: Neil Armstrong planting a U.S. flag on the Moon, while evocative, probably won’t mean a whole lot in space court.

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

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can Soap Get Dirty?

iStock/vintagerobot
iStock/vintagerobot

When you see lovely little bars of lemon-thyme or lavender hand soaps on the rim of a sink, you know they are there to make you feel as fresh as a gardenia-scented daisy. We all know washing our hands is important, but, like washcloths and towels, can the bars of hand soap we use to clean ourselves become dirty as well?

Soaps are simply mixtures of sodium or potassium salts derived from fatty acids and alkali solutions during a process called saponification. Each soap molecule is made of a long, non-polar, hydrophobic (repelled by water) hydrocarbon chain (the "tail") capped by a polar, hydrophilic (water-soluble) "salt" head. Because soap molecules have both polar and non-polar properties, they're great emulsifiers, which means they can disperse one liquid into another.

When you wash your dirty hands with soap and water, the tails of the soap molecules are repelled by water and attracted to oils, which attract dirt. The tails cluster together and form structures called micelles, trapping the dirt and oils. The micelles are negatively charged and soluble in water, so they repel each other and remain dispersed in water—and can easily be washed away.

So, yes, soap does indeed get dirty. That's sort of how it gets your hands clean: by latching onto grease, dirt and oil more strongly than your skin does. Of course, when you're using soap, you're washing all those loose, dirt-trapping, dirty soap molecules away, but a bar of soap sitting on the bathroom counter or liquid soap in a bottle can also be contaminated with microorganisms.

This doesn't seem to be much of a problem, though. In the few studies that have been done on the matter, test subjects were given bars of soap laden with E. coli and other bacteria and instructed to wash up. None of the studies found any evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to the subjects' hands. (It should be noted that two of these studies were conducted by Procter & Gamble and the Dial Corp., though no contradictory evidence has been found.)

Dirty soap can't clean itself, though. A contaminated bar of soap gets cleaned via the same mechanical action that helps clean you up when you wash your hands: good ol' fashioned scrubbing. The friction from rubbing your hands against the soap, as well as the flushing action of running water, removes any harmful microorganisms from both your hands and the soap and sends them down the drain.

This story was updated in 2019.

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