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october 2009

Putting Earth's history to sound

Geophysicist Dave Engebretson of Western Washington University in Bellingham has struggled with his eyesight since birth. But when his vision took a serious downturn in 1996 — today he has difficulty recognizing faces up close — Engebretson grasped for the world of sound. He has made a considerable hobby out of audifying scientific data — taking numbers from datasets and setting them to sound frequencies to create seconds-long clips at his home studio.

22 Sep 2009

Nanoscale carbon capture

Thanks to a bit of luck, the key to carbon sequestration may lie in a circular, bowl-shaped compound that draws carbon dioxide right out of the air.

27 Oct 2009

The cosmos on key

Engebretson’s latest project involves taking the orbital periods of all eight planets in the solar system and turning them into corresponding frequencies: Planets that have short orbits like Mercury have higher frequencies, whereas more distant planets with longer orbits like Neptune have lower frequencies.

22 Sep 2009

Tracking volcanic ash: Helping airplanes avoid catastrophe

For more than 9,000 years, Chaitén volcano quietly towered 1,122 meters over southern Chile. The volcano seemed almost asleep: Its wide crater, shaped by layers of ash and pumice from an ancient eruption, held two lakes and a giant dome of obsidian — the same glossy black rock that was used in prehistoric times to shape artifacts found at archaeological sites as far as 400 kilometers away. Almost at the foot of the volcano, just 10 kilometers to the southwest, a small village grew into the town of Chaitén, population 4,200.

15 Apr 2010

Earth tides in A major

Earth experiences small, millimeter-sized tides, called Earth tides. Using a dataset from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California from A.D. 1600 to A.D. 2200, Engebretson calculated the net gravitational force of the sun and the moon at particular intervals and then mapped them onto the A major scale.

22 Sep 2009

Musical magnetic reversals

Although Earth’s magnetic field currently points toward the North Pole, the planet’s magnetic dipole flips direction every few hundred thousand years or so. Engebretson tracked the last 85 million years of these magnetic reversals, with higher pitches representing shorter polarities (a period of time when the direction of the magnetic field stays the same), and lower pitches longer ones.

22 Sep 2009

The trailblazers

Volcanologists have long been assessing the impacts of volcanic ash and gases on the environment and human health. This effort began in earnest when volcanologists at the U.S. Geological Survey undertook extensive studies of the environmental characteristics of ash from the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruptions. These studies included water leach tests showing that rain falling onto fresh ash can be quite acidic due to the liberation of acidic gas species that condense onto ash particles in the eruption cloud.

01 Oct 2009

Before Lucy: Older hominid Ardi challenges thinking about human evolution

Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil, has long been the poster child for early human evolution. But now she’ll have to share the spotlight with an even older hominid. After spending the last 15 years studying an ancient hominid species about the size of a chimpanzee, scientists revealed details about the 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus in a press conference today.

01 Oct 2009

It's all in the wrist: Humans lack a knuckle-walking ancestor

Though counterintuitive, scientists have turned their attention away from the feet and to the wrist and forearm to better understand how humans evolved upright walking, or bipedalism. African apes are humans’ closest living relatives, and because these apes knuckle-walk, some paleoanthropologists have suggested that African apes and humans share a knuckle-walking ancestor. A new study, however, reveals that lumping the locomotion of all African apes together is a mistake: Knuckle-walking may have evolved more than once in the ape lineage.

01 Oct 2009

Not the oldest hominid

At 4.4 million years old, Ardipithecus ramidus is not the oldest known hominid. In 2002, scientists announced they had discovered a hominid skull from the Sahel region of Chad. Named Sahelanthropus tchadensis, the species dates to about 7 million years ago. And a few years earlier, scientists had announced the discovery of several hominid fossils, including a thigh bone, in Kenya that dated to about 6 million years ago. They named the species Orrorin tugenensis.

01 Oct 2009