5 Strange Scientific Research Projects

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On Nov. 4, 2011, a crew of six “astronauts” emerged from 17-plus months of isolation from the outside world in the Mars 500 project in Russia, which simulated a roundtrip mission to Mars. The study was primarily a biological/psychological one, devoted to studying the effects such a long-term confinement would have on human physiology during a long space mission. If that sounds strange, it’s only one of thousands of strange research projects or experiments that have been conducted or are currently underway in the world of science. Several of these projects make us first stop and wonder, “Why?” Then they make us think.

5. Rubber Ducks Help Track Ocean Currents

Rubber ducks that washed off a cargo ship in 1992 are still being used to study ocean currents.

Researcher Curtis Ebbesmeyer, with rubber ducks

Many experiments arise from the most serendipitous of opportunities. Just such an event presented itself to oceanographers in 1992 when 29,000 yellow rubber ducks fell overboard from a Chinese cargo vessel in the eastern Pacific. Originally bound for bath-time use by families in the U.S., these durable rubber fowl have been sighted on the beaches of South America, bobbing in the Atlantic, and trapped in seasonal ice packs. While such a deliberate release into the environment would be unconscionable, this singular event has given researchers such as Curtis Ebbesmeyer a chance to track, model, and predict ocean currents around the world. Here’s a map detailing the first 16 years of travels of the ducks that have been dubbed the “Friendly Floatees.”

 

4. The Pitch Drop Experiments

The University of Queensland Australia has one experiment that has been in progress since 1927.

Photo credit: John Mainstone; John Mainstone

Bored? The University of Queensland Australia has what may be the world’s most unexciting live webcam feed, where you can watch a sample of bitumen pitch drip through a funnel at room temperature. But don’t hold your breath; since the experiment began as a study of viscosity in 1927, eight drops have fallen, coming about once every nine years. The last fall occurred Nov. 28, 2000. This is a variant of a similar experiment involving pitch running down a mahogany slide started at the University of Glasgow in 1890 by Lord William Kelvin (who is much better known for his Kelvin temperature scale), also still in progress. Calculations show that the pitch flow rate equals a viscosity of about 230 billion times that of water. The experiment earned the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics, an organization dedicated to recognizing the curious and bizarre. Still, with the last drop falling almost 11 years ago, one could say that we’re “due”… are there Vegas odds out there on this?

 

3. LIGO and the Search for Gravity Waves

LIGO facilities in Washington and Louisiana are searching for gravity waves.

Northern leg of LIGO interferometer, Hanford, Wash.

In 1993, Joe Taylor and Russell Hulse earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for demonstrating the reality of gravitational waves in a binary pulsar system. Since then, direct detection of gravity waves has been the mission of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) a pair of detection facilities based at Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. LIGO went into operation in 2002, and has since been joined by similar detectors in Europe and Japan. Each LIGO installation consists of two “arms” 4 kilometers long in an L-shaped configuration; measurements are made of the interference of laser beams passed down and combined in a method known as interferometry. These measurements need to be ultra-precise, in the order of 1/1,000th the diameter of a proton. Of course, terrestrial vibrations such as earthquakes, land tides raised by the Sun and Moon, and even local traffic conspire to make such detection difficult. This is the main reason two detectors were built; a gravity wave from a distant merging pulsar or black hole pair would pass through the planet at the speed of light and a directional source could be pegged from readings at both observatories. To date, no gravity waves have been detected, but even that helps advance science; since the Big Bang should have generated a predictable amount of gravitational waves during the formation of the universe, the fact LIGO hasn’t found anything yet helps redefine the parameters of the early universe. Detection of gravity waves would open up the realm of gravitational wave astronomy, giving astrophysicists a new tool to probe the universe. Watch for a possible Nobel for the first detection of gravity waves in the next decade, as Advanced LIGO comes online in 2014 sporting 10 times the sensitivity.

 

2. World of Warcraft Virtual Virus Outbreak

A virtual plague in an online game has given researchers a chance to study how a plague might spread in the real world.

Photo credit: Fair use

On Sept. 13, 2005, a deadly virtual plague hit the World of Warcraft online gaming community in the form of the Corrupted Blood viral outbreak. As the “debuff” spell spread, players sought to protect characters, impose quarantines, and even attempted to rescue doomed companions, much as would happen in a real pandemic. The activity actually attracted the attention not only of government officials interested in thwarting a similar biological terrorist attack, but epidemiologists as well. Much like the aforementioned rubber ducks, the Corrupted Blood episode gave scientists an unexpected opportunity to study how populations and individuals might react during a pandemic. Virtual studies of seasonal flu outbreaks have also been conducted via data-mining social media networks such as Google and Twitter, building and tracking the spread of flu cases in real-time.

 

1. Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider in Europe is searching for the elusive

Photo credit: Large Hadron Collider magnets; Gamsiz

In 1954, physicist Peter Higgs proposed an elementary particle that gives the familiar universe the property of mass. This has become known as the Higgs boson, more popularly known to the public as the “God particle.” Discovery of the Higgs has been the name of the game in physics in the past decade; to this end, the European Organization for Nuclear Research at CERN has built the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), an enormous circular particle accelerator 27 kilometers in circumference more than 100 meters under the Swiss-French border. Physicists hope to spy telltale signs of the Higgs via high-speed collisions on protons or lead ions accelerated to high velocity. Such terrific energies would also be ideal for studying early conditions that existed shortly after the Big Bang on a microscopic scale, and may have implications for the concept of String Theory. Initial fears by a small group that the LHC would produce Earth-gobbling “stranglets” or a black hole (or even that time travelers were trying to thwart its operation!) proved to be unfounded as the LHC attained a record-high energy level of 7 tera-electron volts in March 2010. An announcement of a detection of the Higgs may come out of CERN any day now, as the detector is set for its current run through 2012. Currently, any whiff of excitement in even the most obscure physics journal is enough to send rumors flying around the Internet, but what might be even more mysterious for the world of physics might be the implications if the Higgs doesn’t show up as expected.

 

One More: The 10,000 Year Clock Project

The 10,000 Year Clock Project aims to build a clock that runs non-stop for 100 centuries.

Photo credit: P. Kirlin

One of the longest-running current experiments is the Beverly Clock at the University of Otago in New Zealand, which has been running near-continuously since being wound in 1864. But even that feat would be dwarfed by the scale of the 10,000 Year Clock Project, an idea for a clock that would run more than 100 centuries. Conceived by inventor Danny Hillis in 1986, a first prototype now on display at the Science Museum in London has been operational since the start of 2000, and plans are in the works for full-scale versions at sites near Ely, Nevada and Van Horn, Texas. The purpose of the Clock of the Long Now, as it’s known, is to encourage long-term projects that span generations; the challenge is to devise a power source and mechanism that will carry on operation autonomously for millennia. Stop and think — what was civilization and the Earth like 10,000 years ago, and what might they be like 10,000 years from now?

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.