March 18, 2005

!3 Things I Know Nothing About...

13 things that do not make sense news service
Michael Brooks
19 March 2005

1 The placebo effect

DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect...

2 The horizon problem

"... Look across space from one edge of the visible universe to the other, and you'll see that the microwave background radiation filling the cosmos is at the same temperature everywhere. That may not seem surprising until you consider that the two edges are nearly 28 billion light years apart and our universe is only 14 billion years old.

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so there is no way heat radiation could have travelled between the two horizons to even out the hot and cold spots created in the big bang and leave the thermal equilibrium we see now.

This "horizon problem" is a big headache for cosmologists, so big that they have come up with some pretty wild solutions...

3 Ultra-energetic cosmic rays

FOR more than a decade, physicists in Japan have been seeing cosmic rays that should not exist. Cosmic rays are particles - mostly protons but sometimes heavy atomic nuclei - that travel through the universe at close to the speed of light. Some cosmic rays detected on Earth are produced in violent events such as supernovae, but we still don't know the origins of the highest-energy particles, which are the most energetic particles ever seen in nature.
But that's not the real mystery...

4 Belfast homeopathy results

MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum...

5 Dark matter

TAKE our best understanding of gravity, apply it to the way galaxies spin, and you'll quickly see the problem: the galaxies should be falling apart. Galactic matter orbits around a central point because its mutual gravitational attraction creates centripetal forces. But there is not enough mass in the galaxies to produce the observed spin...

6 Viking's methane

JULY 20, 1976. Gilbert Levin is on the edge of his seat. Millions of kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the soil, then there must be life on Mars.

Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the nutrients, metabolising them, and then belching out gas laced with carbon-14.

So why no party?...
7 Tetraneutrons

FOUR years ago, a particle accelerator in France detected six particles that should not exist. They are called tetraneutrons: four neutrons that are bound together in a way that defies the laws of physics.

Francisco Miguel Marquès and colleagues at the Ganil accelerator in Caen are now gearing up to do it again. If they succeed, these clusters may oblige us to rethink the forces that hold atomic nuclei together...

8 The Pioneer anomaly

THIS is a tale of two spacecraft. Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972; Pioneer 11 a year later. By now both craft should be drifting off into deep space with no one watching. However, their trajectories have proved far too fascinating to ignore.

That's because something has been pulling - or pushing - on them, causing them to speed up. The resulting acceleration is tiny, less than a nanometre per second per second. That's equivalent to just one ten-billionth of the gravity at Earth's surface, but it is enough to have shifted Pioneer 10 some 400,000 kilometres off track. NASA lost touch with Pioneer 11 in 1995, but up to that point it was experiencing exactly the same deviation as its sister probe.
So what is causing it?...

9 Dark energy
IT IS one of the most famous, and most embarrassing, problems in physics. In 1998, astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding at ever faster speeds. It's an effect still searching for a cause - until then, everyone thought the universe's expansion was slowing down after the big bang...
10 The Kuiper cliff

IF YOU travel out to the far edge of the solar system, into the frigid wastes beyond Pluto, you'll see something strange. Suddenly, after passing through the Kuiper belt, a region of space teeming with icy rocks, there's nothing.

Astronomers call this boundary the Kuiper cliff, because the density of space rocks drops off so steeply. What caused it? The only answer seems to be a 10th planet...
11 The Wow signal

IT WAS 37 seconds long and came from outer space. On 15 August 1977 it caused astronomer Jerry Ehman, then of Ohio State University in Columbus, to scrawl "Wow!" on the printout from Big Ear, Ohio State's radio telescope in Delaware. And 28 years later no one knows what created the signal. "I am still waiting for a definitive explanation that makes sense," Ehman says...

12 Not-so-constant constants

IN 1997 astronomer John Webb and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney analysed the light reaching Earth from distant quasars. On its 12-billion-year journey, the light had passed through interstellar clouds of metals such as iron, nickel and chromium, and the researchers found these atoms had absorbed some of the photons of quasar light - but not the ones they were expecting.

If the observations are correct, the only vaguely reasonable explanation is that a constant of physics called the fine structure constant, or alpha, had a different value at the time the light passed through the clouds.

But that's heresy...

13 Cold fusion

AFTER 16 years, it's back. In fact, cold fusion never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume - supposedly only possible inside stars - can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

With controllable cold fusion, many of the world's energy problems would melt away: no wonder the US Department of Energy is interested. In December, after a lengthy review of the evidence, it said it was open to receiving proposals for new cold fusion experiments.

That's quite a turnaround...

Read the whole thing
{Hat tip to Aaron Krowne at}

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