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The Physics of Noah’s Ark

Paramount Pictures’ approach to Noah is a big-screen extravaganza with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m thinking it’s probably a lot different from Crowe and Connelly’s last two pictures together, Winter’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind. I also expect that in future years it may become an Easter/Passover season staple on TV, akin to Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments.

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Students at the University of Leicester have taken a different approach to the biblical narrative. They decided to figure out whether the ark could have floated. And the answer, according to the university’s press release is:

Hurrah! The animals could have floated two by two according to physicists.”

Now, I would have put in a comma after the second “two.” And at first glance it wasn’t clear to me that the physicists were calculating the buoyancy of the boat versus the animals. I imagined sheep and goats bobbing by in the water.

Actually, the conclusion is that the ark could have floated with about 35,000 pairs of animals on board. And the physics and math used by the group of graduate students is definitely cool.

The group’s calculations considered the buoyancy of the ark, as well as its weight. “[I]n order for it to float, these two forces need to be equal,” says research lead Oliver Youle in the university’s press release.

The research team did have to make various assumptions for their calculations. For example, they took an average of the ancient Hebrew and Egyptian cubit measures. (A cubit is supposed to measure from the elbow to the middle fingertip.)

The team assumed the ark was made from cypress wood. That’s a generally accepted translation for “gopher wood,” which is not known in modern times.

And then the team had to figure out the mass of the animals on board. Since they couldn’t readily weigh specimens of all the species, they relied on earlier research suggesting that the average “animal” weighs as much as a 23.47-kilogram sheep.

“Our conclusions were that the ark would support the weight of 2.15 million sheep without sinking and that should be enough to support all of the species that were around at the time,” says Youle.

The team’s findings appear in the Journal of Physics Special Topics.

“We’re not proving that it’s true, but the concept would definitely work,” says fellow researcher Thomas Morris.

Having the math and physics work out obviously isn’t as big a miracle as God intervening to save Noah’s family and myriad species from nature. Yet it’s still pretty impressive.


Voyager Sails Out of the Solar System

Artist's concept of Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s concept of Voyager 1. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Ladies and gentlemen, Voyager 1 hasn’t just left the building. After 36 years, the spacecraft has now left the solar system.

When Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977, Jimmy Carter was president. Ted Turner was suspended from baseball for a year. The original Star Trek series had ended eight years earlier. And Star Trek Next Generation wouldn’t debut for another ten years.

Voyager 1 let NASA do some spectacular science in those three dozen years. Among other things, the spacecraft sent back measurements and amazing images of Jupiter and Saturn. It helped scientists study the plasma, or ionized gas, at the edge of the solar system. And, on a more philosophical note, the spacecraft’s “pale blue dot” image from 1990 reminds us how tiny Earth is in the vastness of space.

The spacecraft also carries a “golden record.” The gold-plated copper disk contains sounds and images of Earth, along with greetings in 55 languages and data on Earth’s location.

I think it was humorist Dave Barry who questioned whether we really want any hostile aliens to know where we are. And now they’ll also get all that data stored on the spacecraft’s glitzy 8-track tape.

Anyway, just two years after Voyager 1 launched, it came back to haunt Earth in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Granted, that was fiction, but still, you have to wonder. That movie’s director, Robert Wise, also directed the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as The Sound of Music. As Voyager 1 continues to sail beyond the solar system, I find myself remembering that movie’s famous quip: “Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.”

Without any disrespect to the late Mr. Wise, I personally prefer J.J. Abrams’ more recent Star Trek movies. My own view is that William Shatner came off as too egotistical and unbelievable in his “God’s gift to woman” portrayal of Kirk. Chris Pine is much more likable in the role, and even the arrogant bits are all done with a wink to the audience. And yes, I already have a review copy of the just-released DVD for Star Trek: Into Darkness. I’ll use it for research on writing projects—and also for enjoyment.

So, so long Voyager 1. If aliens out there do find you, it will be interesting to see if they bother playing the golden record. “Hello from the children of planet Earth.”

Voyager's signal as recorded by Earth radio telescopes. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF/ . See

Voyager’s signal as recorded by Earth radio telescopes. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF/ . See

Sew what, NFL!

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

The NFL has a new “public safety policy” this year: no purse, no fanny pack, no diaper bag, no backpack, not even a binocular case.

In my view, NFL’s “Be Clear” policy clearly has a discriminatory effect on women. We wouldn’t mess with a purse if clothing manufacturers gave us enough roomy pockets for us to carry around our necessary stuff.

You’re lucky if you can fit a small coin purse in some of the front slash pockets of the pricier slacks sold at Coldwater Creek, Chicos, and JCPenney. And don’t get me started on those fake welt decorations on the backs of pants. They promise a pocket, but give you nothing.

Thus, NFL’s “Be Clear” policy won’t really affect whether guys can carry in their wallets, chewing gum, combs, and other stuff securely. Many women, however, will either have to leave the wallet at home or scour stores for pants that can accommodate it.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of saying, “Sew what, NFL!” When I go to games this year, I’ll be wearing some of my clothes made from Saf-T-Pockets patterns.

And while lots of NFL teams will likely be selling overpriced see-through bags, I can make my own 12” x 6” x 12” clear plastic bag. And I already have!

I don’t got to a lot of NFL games, but the last thing I want to worry about is how to carry in my stuff. Nor do I want to buy one of the NFL’s bags and let them profit from a policy that I believe has a discriminatory effect.

What’s more, I made a separate bag for my friend Tina. She’s got season tickets, so she goes to a LOT of games. Tina’s tote is a slightly different design, with a top-closing zipper for security. The zipper is pink, of course.

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

(c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Unfortunately, any necessary personal products will still be on view for everyone to see. It wouldn’t be so bad if the NFL’s restrooms dispensed free sanitary products or disposable diapers of different sizes.

My response: Slip-in sleeves on both bags I made carry a quote from the character Esposito in Woody Allen’s classic movie, Bananas:

“In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

It’s probably too much to hope that the gate checkers will see through to the irony.

Time for a Gravity Tractor?

Neil deGrasse Tyson wants a gravity tractor. Then if an asteroid comes careening on a collision course with Earth, we could tow it out of the way.

The possibility of a collision isn’t too far-fetched. Earth had a relatively near miss last month when Asteroid 2012 DA 14 came about 17,000 miles close to Earth. If it had hit, we would have had big trouble. Scientists think an asteroid collision wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

NASA/JPL image by P. Chodas (NASA/JPL):

NASA/JPL image by P. Chodas (NASA/JPL):

Why not blast an asteroid out of the sky like Bruce Willis did in the 1998 movie Armageddon?
Well, dealing with debris could be a big problem. “In America we’re really good at blowing stuff up, and we’re less good at knowing where the pieces fall,” Tyson told The Daily Show host Jon Stewart this week.

A gravity tractor isn’t far-fetched either. The solution would also involve a rocket launch. But instead of blasting an asteroid, the rocket would hover near it. The rocket and asteroid’s gravity would pull on each other. Things made of matter do that.

As that starts happening, jets on the rocket would move it slightly away from the asteroid. Gravity would get the asteroid to follow the rocket. Do this early enough, and you could change the asteroid’s path. Then it would miss the Earth.

Actually, astrophysicists have been talking about this idea for years. “Gravity Tractors Beat Bombs,” announced the journal Nature in 2005. The same issue presented a gravity tractor design by NASA Johnson Space Center scientists Edward Lu and Stanley Love.

Funding isn’t available yet for a gravity tractor. But maybe it’s something to consider. As Tyson said, “I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the galaxy when aliens learn that we all went extinct from an asteroid when we had a space program that could have done something about it. That would just be embarrassing.”

Year of the Snake—Movie Edition

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Snake starts this weekend, and that calls for a celebration—whether you’re Asian or not. It’s also a good time for a bit of snake science.

Earlier this year, scientists reported the discovery of a new snake in Mozambique, Thelotornis usambaricus. Don’t get too chummy with this twig snake, though. This reptile’s venom is deadly, and there’s no known antidote yet.

Winter is also a good time to snuggle up and watch a snake movie. Snakes on a Plane is probably my all-time favorite. Not only is the 2006 Samuel Jackson drama a good action flick, but it’s got one of the best titles of any film in the last ten years. While the scenario is unlikely, it also makes a good science point: Not all snakes and venoms are alike. Knowing what type of snake struck can save precious time for a bite victim.snakeclipart

Of course, snakes slither through lots of horror movies—some of which are quite horrible. For a lighter take on a venomous snake, check out the 1955 comedy, We’re No Angels. Viewers never actually see Albert’s pet coral snake, Adolf. But Adolf proves that snakes don’t have to be big to be deadly. And Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov deliver fantastic performances in a classic Christmas movie.

On the flip side, you’ve got to love the Incredibly Deadly Viper in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. For one thing, the name shows that scientists have a sense of humor. The herpetologist Montgomery Montgomery bestowed the name on the snake as a joke. More importantly, while all snakes are cold-blooded, they’re certainly not all killers. In fact, the majority of snakes are not venonous. The trick lies in knowing which is which.

Happy Year of the Snake!

What’s your favorite snake movie?
And what’s your favorite snake science fact?

Trouble with the Curve

So, Major League is still my all-time favorite baseball movie. Nonetheless, we rented Trouble with the Curve this weekend, and I enjoyed the father-daughter drama. Some critics cast Clint Eastwood’s 2012 film as the antithesis to another good baseball drama, 2011’s Moneyball. Eastwood’s crotchety Gus Lobel disdains the statistics-rich Sabermetrics that helped get Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane to the playoffs. Yet Lobel still relies on the laws of physics.

In Trouble with the Curve, sound tells Lobel that a Grady Sizemore 7/7/06hot scouting prospect isn’t hitting a curve ball right. This makes sense when you consider the physics of baseball. In nontechnical terms, a bat’s sweet spot is the point where it will hit a baseball the farthest. Basically, the bat transfers the most energy to the ball upon impact. In the process, the bat absorbs the least vibrations. We hear sound when vibrations cause waves to move through the air in certain ways. Absorb fewer vibrations with the bat, and the sound of the ball-bat collision will vary.

In a later scene, Lobel’s daughter Mickey recognizes a gifted amateur pitcher from the sound of his pitches hitting a mitt. If any physics experts read this and can suggest a good explanation, please post a comment or email me, and I’ll do a follow-up post. Otherwise, to my way of thinking, the sweet dramatic moment doesn’t necessarily follow from the physics. Yes, a ball thrown harder should make a louder sound when it strikes a mitt. However, if someone threw amazing pitches for me to catch, the sounds from my end would be more like “Oops” or “Ouch!”

Physics comes into the picture again when the drafted hot prospect faces off against the amateur pitching phenom. Pitchers give the curveball a topspin instead of the backspin that a fastball has. The different spin makes the ball curve downward and drop more than you’d expect from gravity alone. SUNY Geneseo physics professor Charlie Freeman and research assistant Michael Canfield have demonstrated the effect with high-tech video equipment, computer analysis, and Styrofoam balls. Check out the diagrams at Freeman’s web page, .

The different spin also produces an optical illusion. The ball may seem to change direction, which makes it even harder to hit. American University’s Arthur Shapiro and his colleagues illustrate this “perceptual puzzle” at .

In short, major league players have to be able to hit a curveball, along with a fastball, slider, and other pitches. All of us have to obey the laws of science. And movie writers should double-check their science stuff.

What are your favorite baseball movies and why? Do any of them raise science questions you’d like to see explored further?