March 2011

Peak Oil: Humanity's End?

Everyone knows that oil is made from dead dinosaurs (and the forests they grazed upon). But it's worth restating because the point is, they aren't making more dead dinosaurs. It shouldn't be a revolutionary theory that one day we will start to run out of oil. But it was for a lot of people, and the phrase "peak oil" has entered the popular lexicon with a clang of doom.

The strange thing is that the phrase "peak oil" has become conflated with "humanity degrades into a Road Warrior-style post-apocalyptic nightmare." With all the potential catastrophes humanity will undoubtedly face over the next few decades, a decline in oil production seems the least likely to create this scenario. And yet it is on the tip of every good survivalist's lips.

The Voynich Manuscript: 600 Years Old, And Still Unsolved

The Voynich Manuscript is one of the world's oldest and most enduring mysteries. This hand-written book has been carbon dated to between the years 1401 and 1438, about 200 years before Shakespeare's day.

We know precious little about the manuscript, which is named after the book dealer who purchased it in 1912. The book currently lives at Yale University, where it continues to be studied by cryptologists and mystery lovers from around the world.

The Mysterious Mima Mounds

Mima mounds are not a phenomenon particular to the Northwest, although they occur here in their greatest numbers. Mima mounds remain a mystery, despite the best efforts of hundreds of years of scientists and other theorists.

One of the best examples of Mima Mounds can be found just south of Olympia, a few miles off I5 outside Littlerock at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve. Imagine a broad prairie field. Now imagine that instead of being relatively flat, it is humped with a vast cluster of mounds, each about 30 feet around, and up to eight feet high. These mounds go on for hundreds of acres, nestled side by side with a narrow path between them.

We have ample scientific data on what the mounds are. But we know nothing about how they came to be.

Exploding Water

You may, at some time, have received a chain email about the dangers of boiling water in the microwave. But unlike pretty much every single chain email ever sent in the entire history of the internet, this one is actually true. 

We think of "boiling water" as "water that is bubbling a lot." But the bubbling action is just a secondary effect. Water hits the boiling stage at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit).

Typically when this happens, the hottest part (in a pan on the stove, this would be the bottom) starts turning to gas. The gas bubbles up to the surface, cooling the water slightly as it does so. 

Welcome to Sunny Chernobyl

Stuck as we are in the tense middle of the ongoing disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, many people's thoughts turn to the Chernobyl disaster. How does it compare, and what were the long-term effects?

In 1986 the nuclear reactor in the Ukranian town of Chernobyl went red. This plant had no containment shell, and when it blew, it poured a plume of radioactive fallout into the air above the nearby town of Pripyat. The plume followed easterly winds and over the next week it settled over the Soviet Union, moving slowly eastward to Europe.

The official Ukranian government death toll stands at about 50, the number of workers who were killed directly by the explosion. But the number of people who died as a result of the long-term effects of contamination may number up to a million.

Dogu Figures

Evidence of Japan's prehistoric alien visitors?

A few days before the big earthquake in Japan, I happened to stumble across an episode of a show on The History Channel called "Ancient Aliens" which discussed Dogu figurines in depth. I made a note to research them later, and now I can't help but wonder what has happened to these historical sites in the disaster. 

Dogu figurines are small fired clay statuettes of humanoid figures, which were made in the late Jomon Period of Japanese history, between 14,000 and 400 BC. The Jomon culture was a Paleolithic culture of hunter gatherers which settled in Japan and began to create the world's first example of pottery vessels.

There is a lot of variation in Dogu figurines, yet all of them share a similar set of qualities. Clearly these were something of a fad among the Jomon people, an artistic line that lasted for several thousand years. Most reputable anthropologists believe they are fertility symbols, or involved in fertility rituals. (But isn't that what they always say? It's the "tastes like chicken" of the anthropology world. When in doubt, write it off as a fertility symbol!)