Radioactive gummy bears, renewable trams and moon geese

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Josie Ford

Hybrid learning

A man in a hide jerkin and disposable face mask sits knapping flints against the backdrop of an unaccountably large, bright red tractor. Rounding a corner, a 3-metre-high luminous yellow grinning gummy bear suddenly looms over us, from which we flee through a door into a side room where Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is talking soulfully about 100 per cent renewable trams.

Not Feedback’s latest cheese dream – although close – but sure signs we were on the shop floor at New Scientist Live Manchester, as part of our drive to bring the office stationery cupboard to you.

Like many people, Feedback currently finds being in real places with real people a discombobulating experience that requires several deep-breathing exercises and us remembering to wear something on our bottom half. Many attendees in Manchester weren’t actually in Manchester, but watching it all from the safety of their own underpants at home, which brings its own challenges, it turns out. When digital attendees complain that the main stage is freezing, getting someone to turn up the thermostat in the hall doesn’t cut it. Lesson learned as the boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds slowly melt, as indeed the people in the hall did.

The truth is out there

“Don’t think of a black hole as a Hoover, think of it as a couch cushion”. Astrophysicist Becky Smethurst – Dr Becky to her legion of YouTube fans – won the prize for the most unexpected metaphor of the event, her point being that you are less likely to get sucked into a black hole than to lose your car keys down the side of one. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, we were delighted to learn from Dallas Campbell and Suzie Imber’s talk on how to leave Earth about the 1638 book The Man in the Moone, written by Church of English bishop Francis Godwin, in which the protagonist flies to the moon in a chariot towed by moon geese. We would take this option, which strikes us as classier than the unspeakably vulgar rockets favoured by today’s billionaire class.

We also now know the current location of the first sandwich in space, what an industrial vacuum does to a marshmallow and how to make a rocket with half an Alka-Seltzer and a 35-millimetre film canister. That’s definitely one not to try at home. For anyone tempted, all the talks are available in the metaverse.

Going nuclear

The 3-metre-high mutant gummy bear was, it turns out, advertising the benefits of nuclear power. Feedback regards this as brave, as we also do the UK Atomic Energy Authority titling a talk “Nuclear Fusion: Forever 30 years away”.

Still, we learn that a gummy bear is about the same size as a uranium fuel pellet, that one fuel pellet produces enough power to drive an electric car 20,000 miles and so a 3-metre-high gummy bear would make enough electricity to power 2 million electric cars for a year in the UK. This makes us happy.

Blowing in the wind

Meanwhile, out in the real world, the real world was still going on. The gummy bear is possibly a more appropriate unit of power for a family magazine than that contained in a tweet from the Victorian Trades Hall Council that Paul Campbell forwards us following our session on “how big is a gigawatt?” in last week’s Feedback.

It celebrates the announcement of 2 gigawatts of wind power capacity to be installed off the Australian state’s coast in the coming 10 years, or as the tweet has it in an accompanying picture: “SH**LOADS OF POWER. SH**LOADS OF JOBS”.

Clue: it wasn’t “shed”. We idly wonder if this is now a unit of power and how many horses it would take to produce it. Around 2.7 million, we make it. They would be a truly magnificent sight riding in the waves, although we do wonder whether any of this counts as clean energy.

Butt out

While our back was turned, we also discover that a portion of Twitter declared 1 to 8 March InverteButt Week in celebration of the backsides of creatures without backbones.

We doubt the world truly needed this, but then again, with past headlines in this august publication such as “Comb jelly videos are rewriting the history of your anus”, perhaps people in glass houses shouldn’t throw… slugs.

This leads us to delve rather more deeply than we might otherwise have done into the lifestyle and morphology of the bristle worm Ramisyllis multicaudata, a detailed study of which, published last year, seems to have been a prime mover of InverteButt Week. The worm lives, with delightful specificity, within sponges in Darwin Harbour, northern Australia. Its single head is buried deep within the sponge, but its body randomly branches out into up to 1000 rear ends that poke hopefully out of it. The gut is continuous throughout all these branches, yet doesn’t seem to process any food, leading to speculation that the worm has “adopted a fungal lifestyle”.

This sounds pleasingly louche, like flying with the moon geese. Even more fun is that, when it comes to reproduction, new heads – complete with brains and eyes – start forming and bud off from the worm’s butts. Cute.

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