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Alan Alda's Flame Challenge Winners Explain "What Is Color?"

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On Sunday, the final day of the World Science Festival, Alan Alda hosted an event to announce the winners of his third annual Flame Challenge, in which he tasks world-class scientists with explaining an abstract concept in a way that makes sense to 11-year-olds. The kids pick the topic (well, a young Alda was responsible for the first year's question: What is a flame?) and judge the submissions. This year, thousands of students in schools around the world voted on written and video entries explaining "What is Color?"

Before announcing the winners, Alda brought out three scientists to explain to the largely elementary school aged audience different facets of the concept of color. Jay Neitz from the University of Washington explained the basic mechanism of how the three different kinds of cone cells in the retina process different wavelengths of light as different colors. The cones register light as red, green, or blue, the different combinations of which render all the thousands of colors we see in the world. While most other mammals, like dogs and cats, have only two kinds of these cones, mantis shrimp have 12 different photoreceptor types—the most in the animal kingdom—and can see a whole range of colors we can't even imagine.

Next up, artist and scientist Bevil Conway demonstrated the mind-boggling power of color induction—or, how a color can look completely different based on the surrounding colors—with a Josef Albers-style painting exercise (see some examples of similar illusions here). He showed a series of slides illustrating how artists use, or subvert, this quirk of neuroscience in their work.

David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine explained the offshoot of perception that is synesthesia, or the blending of senses, particularly as it includes color association. After a scientific introduction—as much as 3 percent of the population is synesthetic—he introduced neuroscientist, violinist, and synesthete Kaitlyn Hova who, with the help of some lighting tricks, demonstrated what sound-to-color association can look like.

The event concluded with the announcement of the Flame Challenge winners. Melanie Golob took home the trophy for the written entry:


And Dianna Cowern's video took first place in the visual category:

You can watch the full presentation online here.

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science
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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