Tyler Simko

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Tyler Simko

Quantumaniac is where it’s at - and by ‘it’ I mean awesome.

Hi! My name is Tyler Simko. Over here, I post a ton of astronomy / math / general science in an attempt to make your brain feel good. My aim is to be as informative as possible while posting fascinating things that hopefully enlighten us both to the mysteries of our truly wondrous universe(s?). Plus, how would you know if the blog exists or not unless you observe it?

Boom, just pulled the Schrödinger’s cat card. Now you have to check it out - trust me, it said so in an equation somewhere.

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Why We Haven’t Met Any Aliens
The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that life had evolved quickly and progressively on Earth. They figured our galaxy holds about 100 billion stars, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extraterrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked, simply, “So, where is everybody?” That is, if extraterrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Since then, the Paradox has become ever more baffling. Paleontology has shown that organic life evolved quickly after the Earth’s surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life forms, evolution shows progressive trends toward larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology has revealed several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. So evolving intelligence seems likely, given a propitious habitat—and astronomers think such habitats are common. Moreover, at least 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extraterrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing: no radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.
It looks, then, as if we can answer Fermi in two ways. Perhaps our current science over-estimates the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Maybe extraterrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Indeed, Fermi’s Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.
I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.
The fundamental problem is that an evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. This was a key insight of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s; although evolution favors brains that tend to maximize fitness (as measured by numbers of great-grandkids), no brain has capacity enough to do so under every possible circumstance. Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction. As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.
The result is that we don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness—subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.
Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360, people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: iPods, DVDs, TiVo, Sirius Satellite Radio, Motorola cellphones, the Spice channel, EverQuest, instant messaging, MDMA, BC bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental and social development—athletics, homework, dating—are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute. Take, for example, the MIT graduates who apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.
Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, Zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment—the top 10 patent-recipients were IBM, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Matsushita, Samsung, Micron Technology, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba and Fujitsu—not Boeing, Toyota or Victoria’s Secret. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Our neurons over-stimulate each other, promiscuously, as our sperm and eggs decay, unused. Freud’s pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. Today we narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broadcasting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.
Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out when the game behind all games—the Game of Life—says “Game Over; you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce.”
Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Some individuals and families may start with an “irrational” Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratifica tion, child-rearing and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the religious right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace left. Their concerns about the Game of Life will baffle the political pollsters who only understand the rhetoric of status and power, individual and society, rights and duties, good and evil, us and them.
This, too, may be happening already. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and anti-consumerism activists already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our creative-class dreamworlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the Earth as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox.
By: Geoffrey Miller

Why We Haven’t Met Any Aliens

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that life had evolved quickly and progressively on Earth. They figured our galaxy holds about 100 billion stars, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extraterrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked, simply, “So, where is everybody?” That is, if extraterrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Since then, the Paradox has become ever more baffling. Paleontology has shown that organic life evolved quickly after the Earth’s surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life forms, evolution shows progressive trends toward larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology has revealed several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. So evolving intelligence seems likely, given a propitious habitat—and astronomers think such habitats are common. Moreover, at least 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extraterrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing: no radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

It looks, then, as if we can answer Fermi in two ways. Perhaps our current science over-estimates the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Maybe extraterrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Indeed, Fermi’s Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.

The fundamental problem is that an evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. This was a key insight of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s; although evolution favors brains that tend to maximize fitness (as measured by numbers of great-grandkids), no brain has capacity enough to do so under every possible circumstance. Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction. As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.

The result is that we don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness—subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360, people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: iPods, DVDs, TiVo, Sirius Satellite Radio, Motorola cellphones, the Spice channel, EverQuest, instant messaging, MDMA, BC bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental and social development—athletics, homework, dating—are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute. Take, for example, the MIT graduates who apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, Zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment—the top 10 patent-recipients were IBM, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Matsushita, Samsung, Micron Technology, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba and Fujitsu—not Boeing, Toyota or Victoria’s Secret. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Our neurons over-stimulate each other, promiscuously, as our sperm and eggs decay, unused. Freud’s pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. Today we narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broadcasting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out when the game behind all games—the Game of Life—says “Game Over; you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce.”

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Some individuals and families may start with an “irrational” Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratifica tion, child-rearing and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the religious right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace left. Their concerns about the Game of Life will baffle the political pollsters who only understand the rhetoric of status and power, individual and society, rights and duties, good and evil, us and them.

This, too, may be happening already. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and anti-consumerism activists already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our creative-class dreamworlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the Earth as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox.

By: Geoffrey Miller

Pro Tip: Wear Black Clothes to Keep Cool, Not White
We’ve all heard the argument. “Wear white during hot, sunny weather because it will keep you cool.” Nope. In fact, the truth is found in the exact opposite - black clothing keeps you the coolest! 
What our eyes perceive as white is actually the combination of all possible visible light. The white clothing will inevitably reflect the great majority of wavelengths coming into it. Nothing groundbreaking here, that’s common knowledge. But it’s only half of the truth! 
Heat is not just coming from the sun, but also from our own sweating, hot (maybe in more ways than one) body. This heat source is also a hell of a lot closer than the sun. When wearing white clothing, all of the wavelengths of heat coming from one’s body are reflected right back! But when wearing black, it absorbs everything coming from the body. With the help of just a bit of wind to ‘clear’ the absorbed heat, black clothing (with identical conditions of course - thickness of clothes and what not) is the far better choice to keep cool! 

Pro Tip: Wear Black Clothes to Keep Cool, Not White

We’ve all heard the argument. “Wear white during hot, sunny weather because it will keep you cool.” Nope. In fact, the truth is found in the exact opposite - black clothing keeps you the coolest! 

What our eyes perceive as white is actually the combination of all possible visible light. The white clothing will inevitably reflect the great majority of wavelengths coming into it. Nothing groundbreaking here, that’s common knowledge. But it’s only half of the truth! 

Heat is not just coming from the sun, but also from our own sweating, hot (maybe in more ways than one) body. This heat source is also a hell of a lot closer than the sun. When wearing white clothing, all of the wavelengths of heat coming from one’s body are reflected right back! But when wearing black, it absorbs everything coming from the body. With the help of just a bit of wind to ‘clear’ the absorbed heat, black clothing (with identical conditions of course - thickness of clothes and what not) is the far better choice to keep cool! 

Hubble Watches Star Clusters On a Collision Course

Astronomers using data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have caught two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging. The clusters are 170,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy to our Milky Way.

What at first was thought to be only one cluster in the core of the massive star-forming region 30 Doradus (also known as the Tarantula Nebula) has been found to be a composite of two clusters that differ in age by about one million years.

The entire 30 Doradus complex has been an active star-forming region for 25 million years, and it is currently unknown how much longer this region can continue creating new stars. Smaller systems that merge into larger ones could help to explain the origin of some of the largest known star clusters.

Lead scientist Elena Sabbi of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and her team began looking at the area while searching for runaway stars, fast-moving stars that have been kicked out of their stellar nurseries where they first formed. “Stars are supposed to form in clusters, but there are many young stars outside 30 Doradus that could not have formed where they are; they may have been ejected at very high velocity from 30 Doradus itself,” Sabbi said.

She then noticed something unusual about the cluster when looking at the distribution of the low-mass stars detected by Hubble. It is not spherical, as was expected, but has features somewhat similar to the shape of two merging galaxies where their shapes are elongated by the tidal pull of gravity. Hubble’s circumstantial evidence for the impending merger comes from seeing an elongated structure in one of the clusters, and from measuring a different age between the two clusters.

According to some models, the giant gas clouds out of which star clusters form may fragment into smaller pieces. Once these small pieces precipitate stars, they might then interact and merge to become a bigger system. This interaction is what Sabbi and her team think they are observing in 30 Doradus.

Also, there are an unusually large number of high-velocity stars around 30 Doradus. Astronomers believe that these stars, often called “runaway stars” were expelled from the core of 30 Doradus as the result of dynamical interactions. These interactions are very common during a process called core collapse, in which more-massive stars sink to the center of a cluster by dynamical interactions with lower-mass stars. When many massive stars have reached the core, the core becomes unstable and these massive stars start ejecting each other from the cluster.

The big cluster R136 in the center of the 30 Doradus region is too young to have already experienced a core collapse. However, since in smaller systems the core collapse is much faster, the large number of runaway stars that has been found in the 30 Doradus region can be better explained if a small cluster has merged into R136.

Follow-up studies will look at the area in more detail and on a larger scale to see if any more clusters might be interacting with the ones observed. In particular, the infrared sensitivity of NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will allow astronomers to look deep into the regions of the Tarantula Nebula that are obscured in visible-light photographs. In these areas cooler and dimmer stars are hidden from view inside cocoons of dust. Webb will better reveal the underlying population of stars in the nebula.

(Source: sciencedaily.com)

Photos of Curiosity on Mars and the Environment

These photos taken from space shows of Curiosity’s landing site and the stunning environment that the rover may explore over the coming year on Mars.

Ever since Curiosity landed last week, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been snapping pics ofthe rover from space. This latest shot, taken using the satellite’s HiRISE camera, is the first to capture Curiosity and the surrounding environs in vivid (false) color.

The northernmost part of the image, representing the area nearest to Curiosity, is fairly flat and uniform. The rover itself can be seen sitting in a discolored spot, surrounded by dust that was blasted when the sky crane’s rockets brought Curiosity down for a safe landing.

Farther south are enormous sand dunes and various geologic features that the rover may visit as it travels to the base of its eventual target: Mount Sharp. These colorful outcrops include hydrated minerals, clays, and sulfates that will help scientists unravel the complex watery history of Mars. Curiosity may be sitting atop similarly interesting features right now but dust obscures their view from orbit. With the rover on the Martian surface, geologists are eager to start probing that environment.

A person in orbit around Mars would not see this area in these colors — in reality the bluish regions are more of a gray color. HiRISE took the photo in infrared wavelengths, and the image was then enhanced to bring out subtle differences. Rocks tend to be bluer while dusty regions are redder. As well, rougher surface materials are redder, showing off the different textures that Curiosity may visit.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona [Full-resolution 1500 x 13400 pixels]

In gymnastics, the giant is a move gymnasts use on the high bar to increase their rotational speed. This allows the gymnast to do something else, usually an amazing release or dismount.

So, just how does this move work? Let me start with something other than a gymnast. Consider a stick that is hinged on one side so it can move in a circle like a gymnast. Since this is a rigid stick, certain things will happen. First, as it rotates down it will increase in rotational speed because energy is conserved. The lower the stick in its rotation, the lower its gravitational potential energy and the greater its kinetic energy (and speed).

If the stick starts from a rest, it will end at rest at the same height with the same amount of potential energy. Actually, it wouldn’t go quite as high because of frictional forces. Of course, this is not what you want as a gymnast. You want to go higher (or all the way around) and increase your angular speed. But how?

Let’s take a look at a giant. Here is Danell Leyva’s high bar routine from the 2012 Olympic Trials:

The nice thing about the men’s bar instead of the women’s bar is you don’t have a lower bar getting in the way. When women do the giant, they must adjust their legs so they don’t hit the lower bar. This makes it more complicated to explore just what is happening.

It should be clear that if you want to swing higher or faster, you must add energy to the system (in this case, the Earth and the gymnast). One way to add energy is to exert a force as the center of mass moves. In general, the work done on an object can be calculated as:

Here d is the distance over which the object (the center of mass in this case) moves and θ is the angle between the force and the direction of motion of the object.

As the gymnast moves up after reaching the lowest point, he bends his legs up just a bit. This moves the center of mass a bit closer to the center of rotation. Here are two images from Danell’s routine to illustrate:

Moving the center of mass closer to the bar isn’t easy. In this position, the gymnast doesn’t have to fight gravity so much since he is almost horizontal. However, because the center of mass is moving in a circle, there does need to be a force pulling it toward the center of rotation. If you want to get it closer, you need to pull even more. So, here is your increase in energy.

The gymnast has to do work (on himself — I know that sounds odd) to move the center of mass closer to point of rotation. This energy comes from the gymnast’s muscles and goes into the rotational kinetic energy of his motion.

Of course, if the gymnast stayed in this bent leg position, he would gain some rotation speed on that one giant. But what if he wants to continue to build up speed? He must “reset” his position. To reset and still add energy, he does this at the highest point. Here he again needs to do work on the system since he is raising the center of mass. Now he is back in the position he started in, only going a little bit faster.

Here is a plot of the magnitude of the velocity for the gymnast’s center of mass as a function of time.

For each successive time he gets to the bottom position in his giant, he is going just a little bit faster. This faster speed is just what Danell Leyva needs in order to do his double layout release move and still have time to catch the bar.

Incredible Images From Space Shows Curiosity on Surface of Mars

Images:

1) The full portrait of Curiosity and its components.

2) The Curioisity rover on the surface.

3) The rover’s parachute.

4) The crashed sky crane. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Stunning photographs from space shows NASA’s Curiosity rover sitting safely on the surface of Mars. Taken with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, the picture captures incredible details of the surface along with the robotic components that helped Curiosity stick its landing.

“This is like the crime scene photo here,” said Sarah Milkovich, HiRISE investigation scientist during a NASA press conference Aug. 7.

Zooming in close, black streaks can be seen where the rover’s rockets disturbed bright surface dust, revealing darker soil underneath. Researchers have used these streak patterns to infer Curiosity’s orientation, which matches up nicely with information from the rover’s first pictures on the surface.

Down and to the right is the rover’s heat shield, which protected the probe as it plummeted through the Martian atmosphere. It is sitting about 4000 feet from Curiosity on the surface. The backshell and parachute — over to the lower left in the image — sit about 2000 feet from the rover while the sky crane, which gently lowered the rover to the ground, is above and to the left about 2100 feet from Curiosity. NASA engineers will continue poring over the photo for clues of exactly how Curiosity’s complex landing sequence unfolded.

How Much are Olympic Gold Medals Worth?

As far as the value of the raw materials in them, this varies from Olympiad to Olympiad.  For the current 2012 Olympics in London, the medals are the largest of any in Olympic history, weighing in at 400g for the gold medal.  Of this 400g, 394g is sterling silver (364.45g silver / 29.55g copper) with 6g of 24 karat gold plating.  At the current going rate for gold and silver, this means a gold medal in the London Olympics is worth about $624, with $304 of the value coming from the gold and about $320 coming from the sterling silver.

Of course, athletes can often get much more than this selling the medals on the open market, particularly for momentous medals, like the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 men’s U.S. hockey team gold medal.  Mark Wells, a member of that team, auctioned his medal off in 2012 and received $310,700 for it, which he needed to help pay for medical treatment.

Most auctioned medals don’t go for nearly this much, though.  For instance, Anthony Ervin’s 50 meter freestyle gold medal won in 2000, even with all proceeds going to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, only sold for $17,100.  John Konrads’ 1500 meter freestyle gold medal won in 1960 only sold for $11,250 in 2011.  This is a great return in terms of what the raw value of the materials are worth, but certainly nowhere close to Mark Wells’ medal.

Gold medals in the Olympics weren’t always made mostly of silver.  Before the 1912 Olympics, they were made of solid gold.  However, they tended to be much smaller than modern medals.  For instance, the 1900 Paris gold medals were only 3.2 mm thick, with a 59 mm diameter, weighing just 53g.  For perspective, the London 2012 medals are 7 mm thick, with a diameter of 85 mm and, as mentioned, weigh 400g.  The 1900 Paris gold medals at today’s value of gold are worth about $2685.  For the 1912 games in Stockholm, the last year the gold medals were made of solid gold, the value of the gold medals at current prices of gold would be $1207.86.

If the current 2012 Olympic gold medals were made out of solid gold, they’d be worth about $20,266 each.  This may seem do-able, considering how much money the Olympics brings in, until you consider just how many medals are awarded during each summer Olympics.  For instance, in these 2012 Olympics, about 4,700 medals will be given out, so over 1500 gold medals. At $20,266 each, that would be just shy of $32 million dollars for the gold medal materials alone.

As it is, with the current gold medals having about $624 worth of materials, then $330 for the silver medals (93% silver, 7% copper), and $4.70 for the bronze (which are mostly made of copper, with a very small amount of zinc and tin), about $1.5 million is still being spent on the materials alone for the medals awarded, not to mention the cost of minting them.

Bonus Facts:

  • Strict guidelines are set for the minting of Olympic medals.  For instance, for gold medals the silver must be 92.5% pure silver (with 7.5% copper), and they must include at least 6g of gold for plating the medal.  They also must be at least 3mm thick and 60mm in diameter.
  • Nobel Prize gold medals really are made of mostly gold.  Today they are made with 24 karat gold plating and 18 karat green gold (gold with a small amount of silver) for the rest.  Before 1980, they were made from 23 karat gold.
  • The practice of giving out gold and silver medals is thought to have its origins with the military.  Before a standard set of military awards were created, it was common to reward soldiers (in a variety of militaries throughout the world) for special achievements by giving them gold and silver medals.  For instance, in the United States, special awards were given to commanding officers in the form of gold medals and the officers under that commander would receive silver medals.
  • The gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, being smaller than the current medals (Barcelona medals at 9.8 mm thick, 70 mm in diameter, weighing 231g) are only worth about $484 at the current price of gold and silver.

(Source: todayifoundout.com)

Do Sports Drinks like Gatorade Really Work? 

Just in time for the Summer Olympics in London, a top science journal has issued a blistering indictment of the sports drink industry. According to the series of reports from BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal), the makers of drinks like Gatorade and Powerade have spent millions in research and marketing in recent decades to persuade sports and medical professionals, not to mention the rest of us suckers, that a primal instinct—the sensation of thirst—is an unreliable guide for deciding when to drink. We’ve also been battered with the notion that boring old water is just not good enough for preventing dehydration.

I’ve been as susceptible to this scam as anyone else; I knew, or thought I knew, that if I’m thirsty after my half-hour go-round on the elliptical trainer, it means I was underhydrated to begin with. So for years I’ve been trying to remember to ignore my lack of thirst and make myself drink before working out. Not any more.

The BMJ's package of seven papers on sports performance products packs a collective wallop. The centerpiece is a well-reported investigation of the long-standing financial ties between the makers of Gatorade (PepsiCo), Powerade (Coca-Cola, an official Olympic sponsor), and Lucozaid (GlaxoSmithKline) with sports associations, medical groups, and academic researchers. It should come as no great surprise that the findings and recommendations that have emerged through these affiliations have tended to include alarming warnings about dehydration and electrolyte imbalance—warnings that conveniently promote the financial interests of the corporate sponsors. 

And who knew there was something called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute? According to the BMJ investigation, “one of GSSI’s greatest successes was to undermine the idea that the body has a perfectly good homeostatic mechanism for detecting and responding to dehydration—thirst.” The article quotes the institute’s director as having declared, based on little reliable evidence, that “the human thirst mechanism is an inaccurate short-term indicator of fluid needs.”

Another study in the BMJ package finds that the European Food Safety Authority, which is authorized to assess health claims in food labels and ads, has relied on a seriously flawed review process in approving statements related to sports drinks. A third study reports that hundreds of performance claims made on websites about sports products, including nutritional supplements and training equipment as well as drinks, are largely based on questionable data, and sometimes no apparent data at all. One overall theme emerging from the various papers is that much of the research cited was conducted with elite and endurance athletes, who have specific nutritional and training needs; any such findings, however, should not be presumed to hold for the vast majority of those who engage in physical activity.

Critics have long blasted sports drinks as being loaded with calories and unnecessary ingredients. (Not to mention concerns about the environmental costs of producing, shipping, and discarding all those millions of plastic bottles.) Yet the product category represents a lucrative and growing market, with US sales of about $1.6 billion a year, according to the BMJ. In fact, Powerade is the official sports drink of the London Olympics, and Coca-Cola is hyping the brand with a campaign featuring top-tier athletes.

The BMJ papers address two related but distinct questions: Should people who exercise seek to proactively replace fluids lost, or can they rely on thirst to guide them during and after physical activity? And when they rehydrate, do they need all the salts, sugars, and other ingredients dumped into sports drinks, or is water fine? The correct answers are: best to rely on thirst, and water is fine. All that stuff about replacing electrolytes and so on you’ve been hearing all these years? Never mind! The evidence doesn’t support it.

Overhydration presents a far greater risk of serious complications, and even death, than dehydration.

In a commentary accompanying the investigations in the journal, Timothy Noakes, chair of sports science at the University of Cape Town, points out that overhydration presents a far greater risk of serious complications, and even death, than dehydration. Moreover, he notes, the notion that fluid and electrolytes must be immediately replaced is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of our past as “long distance persistence hunters” in arid regions of Africa.

"Humans do not regulate fluid balance on a moment to moment basis," Noakes writes. "Because of our evolutionary history, we are delayed drinkers and correct the fluid deficits generated by exercise at, for example, the next meal, when the electrolyte (principally sodium but also potassium) deficits are also corrected…People optimize their hydration status by drinking according to the dictates of thirst. Over the past 40 years humans have been misled—mainly by the marketing departments of companies selling sports drinks—to believe that they need to drink to stay ‘ahead of thirst’ to be optimally hydrated."

(Source: alternet.org)

Chemistry On Mars

The Mars Science Laboratory will be seeking clues to the planetary puzzle about life on Mars, the Curiosity rover is one of the best-outfitted chemistry missions ever. Scientists say Curiosity is the next best thing to launching a team of trained chemists to Mars’ surface.

“The Mars Science Laboratory mission has the goal of understanding whether its landing site on Mars was ever a habitable environment, a place that could have supported microbial life,” says MSL Deputy Project Scientist, Ashwin Vasavada, who provides a look “under the hood” in this informative video from the American Chemical Society.

“Curiosity is really a geochemical experiment, and a whole laboratory of chemical equipment is on the rover,” says Vasavada. “It will drill into rocks, and analyze material from those rocks with sophisticated instruments.”

Curiosity will drive around the landing site at Gale Crater and sample the soil, layer by layer, to piece together the history of Mars, trying to determine if and when the planet went from a wetter, warmer world to its current cold and dry conditions.

The payload includes mast-mounted instruments to survey the surroundings and assess potential sampling targets from a distance, and there are also instruments on Curiosity’s robotic arm for close-up inspections. Laboratory instruments inside the rover will analyze samples from rocks, soils and the atmosphere.

The two instruments on the mast are a high-definition imaging system, and a laser-equipped, spectrum-reading camera called ChemCam that can hit a rock with a special laser beam, and using Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy, can observe the light emitted from the laser’s spark and analyze it with the spectrometer to understand the chemical composition of the soil and rock on Mars.