"Touches on a dizzying array of subjects, including UV rays, inert gases, fossils, meteorites, microwaves, rainbows . . . Like many a good teacher, Berman uses humor to entertain his audience and liven things up." —Los Angeles Times
Bob Berman is motivated by a straightforward philosophy: everyone can understand science—and it's fun, too. In Strange Universe, he pokes into the bizarre and astonishingly true scientific facts that determine the world around us.
Geared to the nonscientist, Berman's original essays are filled with the trademark wit and cleverness that has earned him acclaim over many years for his columns in Astronomy and Discover magazines. He emphasizes curiosities of the natural world to which everyone can relate, and dishes on the little-known secrets about space and some of science's biggest blunders (including a very embarrassing moment from Buzz Aldrin's trip to the moon).
Fascinating to anyone interested in the wonders of our world and the cosmos beyond, Strange Universe will make you smile and think.
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About the Author
Bob Berman writes the Strange Universe column in Astronomy magazine. His previous titles on astronomy include Cosmic Adventure: A Renegade Astronomer's Guide to Our World and Beyond and Secrets of the Night Sky: The Most Amazing Things in the Universe You Can See with the Naked Eye. He lives near Woodstock, New York.
Read an Excerpt
The Weird and Wild Science of Everyday Life â" on Earth and Beyond
By Bob Berman
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2003 Bob Berman
All rights reserved.
Look Out Below!
Only a glitch in the laws of chance can explain why all the major meteor showers arrive in a single twenty-week span. During the annual shooting-star fireworks that peak around August 12, October 21, November 18, December 13, and January 3, up to a hundred bits of cometary debris visibly slice through the air just above us every hour. But in early winter the displays end. For seven straight months, little more than sporadic pellets pepper the heavens. So if your personal paranoia extends all the way into space and your HMO doesn't cover you for meteor assault, you'd assume it's safe to relax until midsummer.
No such luck. History tells us that whenever a person, home, or property has suffered a close encounter of the clobbering kind it's happened during non-shower periods. Which makes sense when you think about it. Except for December 13's Geminids, composed of sturdier asteroid fragments, every major shower is made of skimpy, apple-seed-size rubble from comets, lightweight material that burns to oblivion during its collision with our atmosphere. Only a dusty trail lingers like a Cheshire Cat's smile after the intruder has gone to meteor heaven. Sporadics, however, can be made of anything and come from anywhere. They can be rocky asteroid fragments or even bits of the Moon or Mars. Many contain substantial amounts of iron or nickel, and depending on their speed and initial size, some of this hardy stuff makes it all the way to the ground.
Slowed and cooled by the thick lower atmosphere, meteors no longer incandesce as they approach the surface and are barely warm when they land. On August 31, 1991, one smashed into a lawn next to two boys in Noblesville, Indiana, who immediately picked it up and later described it as slightly warm to the touch. In fact, meteors are not hot enough to glow once they've dipped below fifty miles in altitude, having decelerated dramatically from their original fierce speed of twelve to forty-five miles per second down to anywhere from a twentieth to half a mile per second. But that's still fast enough to cause trouble.
Discover magazine's "Risk" issue (May 1996) presented statistical evidence that we're each six times more likely to die from a meteor impact than in an airliner crash. The reason: The post-impact effects of a meteor a few miles wide can wipe out most or all of the human race, while relatively few of us will ever be crash victims.
Virtually all meteors that land or airburst produce some damage, even if they don't remotely compare to monsters that come in on longer time scales and prompt serious philosophical questions about the general stability of the solar system. The most famous such humongous impact destroyed half the life-forms of Earth 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period and the dawn of the Tertiary era — known familiarly to geologists and meteor buffs as the K-T boundary. The resulting undersea crater, some 120 miles across and located just off Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, testifies to the amount of material blown skyward. It blackened the air for years, erased the dinosaurs as thoroughly as a studio's special-effects department, and allowed us mammals to begin our spectacular evolutionary ascent toward rats and sitcoms.
A lesser known but far greater disaster happened 185 million years before that, at the end of the Permian period. In 2002, a team of geochemists led by Tokyo University's Kunio Kaiho uncovered convincing evidence that this greatest mass extinction of all time, which dwarfed the K-T event, destroyed 95 percent of all earthly species. Corroborating recent studies that examined trapped gases from sediments in various parts of the world, Kaiho discovered that the impact also converted solid sulfur into so much sulfur-rich gas that up to 40 percent of Earth's atmosphere was consumed. The resulting frenzy of global acid production pickled the oceans and raised the acidity of the sea's surface to that of lemon juice! Earth was nearly dealt a knockout blow. Plants and microscopic animals that had survived for a million centuries suddenly disappeared forever.
Lesser violence has been far more frequent if not nearly as damaging, chronicled by craters like the Barringer colossus in the desert west of Winslow, Arizona, a hole almost a mile wide created 50,000 years ago.
Nor has the violence been limited to ancient history. Some nonagenarians were alive on June 30, 1908, when more than 500 square miles of less-than-fashionable real estate in Siberia's Tunguska Basin was flattened by a large air-bursting meteor. A man fifty miles away was knocked from his chair by the force of the blast, but no one else in that virtually uninhabited region was injured. Even the damage went unrecorded until explorers, reaching the area a decade later, gaped at the spectacle of countless downed conifers pointing radially outward from ground zero.
The real troublemakers (say, one to five miles across) rarely clobber us, simply because there's so much room around our planet — which is why it's called space. They are becoming disconcerting, however: Increasing ability to detect them is showing how frequently we escape. In 2002, a Tunguska-class asteroid missed us by less than half the distance to the Moon.
Every 1,000 years or so when a big one arrives, the only good news is that most of our planet's area is oceanic or uninhabited; each time, the odds are in our favor. In between, we experience the bam-bam-bam of smaller strikes, which forever fall among us as if hurled by a relentless cosmic baseball-throwing machine. A building in North America is struck every fifteen months, on average.
Sounds ominous. But often a meteor brings temporary celebrity and even wealth. And — so far — never grievous injury, unless one includes the Franciscan monk in Milan who died mysteriously in the seventeenth century after being struck in the leg by a plum-sized stone "falling from the sky" which severed an artery. While possibly true, the account is not confirmable; nor are newspaper reports of a calf struck in Ohio in 1860 and a dog killed in Egypt in 1911.
In our era, the surest instance of injury to a human or animal is reported in a 1954 Life magazine photo-story about a woman in Sylacauga, Alabama. Mrs. E. Hewlett Hodges had been lounging on her couch when a meteor smashed through the roof, ricocheted off her radio, and struck her upper leg. The resultant bruise remains the only confirmed meteorite injury.
Note: Are "meteorite" and "meteor" synonyms? Not at all. A sky streak is always a meteor, and a stone found on the ground is always a meteorite, but the names are interchangeable in only one circumstance: at the moment of collision. Because a meteor becomes a meteorite when it strikes our planet, you can use either term when describing or witnessing an impact. Beyond Earth, the silent, dark, tail-less flying stones have yet another name — meteoroids, which would be the correct term for anything that punches a hole in the Space Station or the shuttle.
Eighteen-year-old Michelle Knapp of Peekskill, New York, didn't believe it herself when she heard a loud crunch outside her house on October 9, 1992. Finding the back of her Chevy grotesquely destroyed, she attributed the damage to some ultrapowerful vandal. She couldn't know that people up and down the East Coast had just seen and videotaped fiery northward-whizzing meteor fragments, and that her car was the lucky recipient of the only piece known to have landed. It didn't seem lucky at first: The damage lay decisively outside the manufacturer's warranty. Even when investigators found the twenty-six-pound meteorite under the car's twisted trunk, the event seemed a bizarre fable in which Destiny had swapped her car for an ugly rock. The happy ending came when she accepted a collector's $69,000 offer for both the meteorite and the totaled ten-year-old Malibu.
Nor did Bob and Wanda Donohue of Wethersfield, Connecticut, feel particularly fortunate on the evening of November 30, 1982. They'd been watching TV (M*A*S*H) when the next room suddenly exploded in chaos. Rushing through the door, they found smoke and dust filling the air, furniture knocked over, and a hole in the ceiling. When emergency personnel arrived, a fireman found a six-pound rock under the table, where it had settled after a few floor-to-ceiling bounces chronicled by scuff marks in the carpet. But insurance covered the damage, and the Donohues generously donated the valuable specimen to a New Haven museum.
They weren't quite as amazed as residents of any other town might have been. Eleven years earlier, in April 1971, the previous meteor known to crash into the roof of a house in the United States had struck barely more than a mile from the Donohues. The freak coincidence may be explainable by Wethersfield's proximity to Hartford, with its high concentration of insurance actuaries — experts who would stake their reputation that the same town cannot be hit consecutively by shooting stars.
And it never stops. Several stray meteors will pass within a few dozen miles of you during the next sixty minutes — with twice as many in the A.M. as in the P.M. hours, because you're then on the leading side of Earth as it speeds through space. You've got as good a chance as anyone else to have an asteroid fragment plop onto your kitchen table, bearing the gifts of damage, wealth, and proof that we do indeed live in a strange universe.CHAPTER 2
Physics in the Morning
You get up, shower, gulp some breakfast, hop in a car or train, and head off to work.
Science? Not much. So let's replay the routine as if we were as fascinated by the marvels of existence as Archimedes or Newton. First, on awakening, glance at the window. If the air conditioning has been on, mist steaming up the outside of the glass means that the dewpoint (the temperature at which dew or fog forms) is higher than the room's temperature, which happens only in extremely humid weather. Moisture on exterior glass is routine in southeastern states, occasional in the Northeast and Midwest, uncommon elsewhere. Bad news. Dress for a sticky day. Even if cloudless, the sky will be milky, not blue.
Does the curtain pull itself inward toward your leg when you turn on the shower? Jets of water from the showerhead will produce this effect: It's Bernoulli's principle. A rapid flow of liquid or gas reduces air pressure in its vicinity. The stream pulls adjacent air along with it, creating a partial vacuum that sucks in the curtain. The same principle makes tornadoes lift roofs and lets airplanes fly.
Shower over, you're warmer if you stay in the stall than if you step out. It's not because the room is cooler but because it's drier. Venturing into lower humidity accelerates moisture evaporation from your skin, and evaporation is always a cooling process because the transition from a liquid to a gaseous phase requires energy. So the leftover water on your skin pulls heat from your body in order to vaporize, chilling you. The refrigerator in your kitchen operates on the same principle.
If it's raining or snowing on your drive to work, watch how all the precipitation seems to come from a single spot directly ahead of you and higher than your eye-level. The faster your speed, the lower the spot from which the shower emanates. This effect is called aberration — a shift in the apparent position of an object due in part to the observer's motion — and it also applies to starlight reaching Earth. All the universe's objects seem displaced a bit from their true position because of Earth's orbital motion. The shift in star position is as much as 20 arcseconds, about the size a grapefruit appears when it's a mile away. (More about aberration in chapter 30.) The radiating point of the rain or snow rises and falls when you brake or accelerate. With a little practice you can accurately determine your speed by the height of this almost hypnotic emanating spot, no speedometer needed.
If the sky is clear, appraise its color. Most people shrug it off; it's blue, so what? But the different shades tell a tale. That the sky gets lighter near the horizon is such an ordinary observation that we scarcely pay attention to it. Yet it gives you an instant environmental report of dust, humidity, and pollution. Looking to the horizon means sighting through thirteen times more air than when gazing straight up. So whatever junk is mixed in gets amplified. Contaminants reflect all the Sun's wavelengths equally, exposing their presence with a whitening effect. Seen from dry, clean sites, the horizon sky barely pales. So the degree of brightening near your skyline is an excellent measure of the air quality of your location; white in the sky denotes filth (or humidity or both).
An emergency vehicle coming at you, siren wailing, will display the wonderful Doppler shift. As it passes you, a double phenomenon suddenly kicks in: The siren's pitch lowers and the spacing between warbles is longer, as if the siren's batteries were wearing out. The sound waves from a fast-approaching police car may strike your ear at 840 mph, while the retreating vehicle's sound arrives at only 620 mph — proof that sound, unlike light, is not a constant. Listen for the same dramatic effect from planes flying overhead.
Stopped in traffic? If you're wearing sunglasses, check out any white clouds near the Sun. Their fringes often display iridescence — vivid pinks, purples, or aquas. The Sun emits no white light; it radiates all the colors of the spectrum. Many surfaces, such as clouds and beaches, reflect all these hues equally, so they reach our eyes and brain together: The scrambled mixture is perceived as white. But since cloud borders often contain rapidly evaporating water droplets of varying diameters, light passing through them travels disparate distances, letting the crest of one light wave coincide with the trough of another, canceling out that light entirely. Removing a major color takes away part of the mix that makes a cloud white. The remaining waves concoct new colors not part of the normal spectrum. Colors produced by interference (like pink and turquoise) are not present in the spectrum of the Sun and the stars; we see these colors nowhere else in the universe.
Similar interferences create those oily colorful swirls of psychedelic design in roadside puddles. Light here is acting like a wave and not a particle, since particles can't interfere in this way. In debates over whether light is a wave or a particle puddle gazers have an advantage.
At the next stoplight, another revelation: Notice how metals around you (like the bumpers of all those trucks) gleam. What's happening when things gleam? Interesting process: Metals have outer electrons capable of absorbing and then re-emitting photons of light, while their inner electrons are frozen in place, with too little flexibility to vibrate and emit photons. (A photon is light in its particle guise.) Result: Sunlight hitting metals does not get past those outer electrons but is reflected from them, making metals neither transparent nor dull but something else: gleamy.
Next stop, take another look at the sky to see if you can spot the Moon. During one week each month you'll easily see it in the morning sky. It will never be full and will always be lit up on the left side. This is the waning Moon, usually a half-moon or nearly so, the phase that lies in front of us as Earth and Moon together orbit the Sun. Look its way and you're in the pilot seat, facing ahead as our planet hurtles through space. When the morning Moon is in front of you, you're looking forward in our orbit and going 66,000 miles per hour over the speed limit.
As you drive, the inside of your car will get warmer, for two reasons. First, humans each radiate an average of 96.8 watts of heat, about the same as a 100-watt bulb. You and a few passengers in an enclosed space will warm it up quickly. The second reason involves sunlight interacting with your car's windows, and reveals the glass's atomic structure. Visible light vibrates about 100 trillion times a second, very nearly matching the natural oscillations of the electrons in window glass. So they readily become stimulated by visual light; each time they're struck by a photon they produce an identical one, which flies on to the next atom and then the next, in an unbroken chain, until a final photon exits the pane and enters the car. This is what makes glass transparent. A photon striking a window is continually reproduced until a perfect copy emerges. The light hitting your eyes is not the same that first struck the glass, but a clone.
Excerpted from Strange Universe by Bob Berman. Copyright © 2003 Bob Berman. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I: WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?
Chapter 1: Look Out Below!
Chapter 2: Physics in the Morning
Chapter 3: We've Got Gas
Chapter 4: The Man Who Fell to Earth
Chapter 5: View from a Window Seat
Chapter 6: Fathoming Water
Chapter 7: The Underworld
Chapter 8: Odd Odds
Chapter 9: Measuring Madness
Chapter 10: Say What?
Chapter 11: Eat the Aliens
Chapter 12: Out of the Blue
Chapter 13: Sky Spectacles
Chapter 14: The Shadow Knows
Chapter 15: Egg-quinox
Chapter 16: Deadly Light
Chapter 17: Nature and Numbers, Rivers and Pi
PART II: WHAT'S GOING ON OUT THERE?
Chapter 18: Now You See Us, Now You Don't
Chapter 19: Oops
Chapter 20: The Discovery That Shook the World
Chapter 21: The Forbidden Light
Chapter 22: Our Nearest Neighbor
Chapter 23: Voodoo Moon
Chapter 24: Space Frolics
Chapter 25: The Big Stink
Chapter 26: Constellation Consternation
Chapter 27: Cosmic Name Calling
Chapter 28: BANG!!!
Chapter 29: Travels in Spacetime
Chapter 30: Light-Speed Magic
Chapter 31: Black Holes: Twisted Space, Frozen Time
Chapter 32: Going to Extremes
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm in the habit of reading a lot of what could be termed "popular science" books--principally, astronomy/cosmology, physics and mathematics. This volume by noted teacher and popularizer (a made-up word?) Bob Berman just might be the best I've ever encountered. Why? Because of its broad range of subjects--"light and time and gravity," as the introduction notes--plus many more phenomena that are part of our daily lives here on Earth, then out to the Moon, other planets, our galaxy and beyond. All of the author's descriptions and explanations are neither too complex nor overly simplified. He gives his readers due credit for substantial intelligence and, perhaps more important, robust curiosity. And he writes well--very well! That's especially important to this retired writer/editor who's almost obsessively picky about getting it right as far as English syntax and overall style are concerned. (A minor quibble: "compose" and "comprise" are NOT synonyms. The solar system is composed of eight planets. The solar system comprises eight planets.) One more element: an abundance of humor, often shared in parenthetical asides. This guy's good. This book's great! Seriously.