Dear followers… we need to talk

Dear Why? Because Science! friends, family, and followers,

For six years, I’ve been in a relationship with this blog. Together, we made beautiful blog babies, learned metric tonnes about the natural (and sometimes unnatural) world, connected with science enthusiasts from around the world, and even made lifelong friends out some of those connections. Our relationship was a richly fecund source of ideas, inspiration, and creativity and it even became the bedrock of a book, Why? Because Science!

However, as much as science remains at the forefront of my interests, I have a new love. Well, truth be told, it has been my love all along but now it beckons to me the way an emotional affair seduces you out of an old, stale relationship. And that love is travel.

I’m leaving you for travel

ugly-baby-crying-pictures-563

What I’m saying to you all is that I now intend to chronicle my adventures as a traveller and all the bizarre foods, fine beverages, tips, tales, and tipsy tales they come hand-in-hand with.

I have agonised over whether to start a fresh blog or evolve this one to become the platform for my new adventure. On the one hand, it feels somewhat like moving a new lover into a home you shared with an old one – it feels a little disrespectful to the old relationship. On the other hand, Why? Because Science! is not my partner, it’s my intellectual child, which means that I can damn well do what I want with it!

Said more respectfully: it is time for me to move on.

New travel blog announcement

I am sad to say goodbye to science, even temporarily, but if I am to maintain a happy and healthy relationship with my creativity, I need to migrate with its flux. And its powerful current is carrying me towards travel writing.

What does this mean for you?

You all came on board with Why? Because Science! because of your interest in science. But now I intend to transform this very blog into a travel blog, which will become a chronicle of my adventures on my home turf of Cape Town, South Africa, as well as abroad. In other words, if this creative journey were a train ride, we’re no longer heading to destination science; we’ve switched tracks to planet travel. If this bores the pants off of you, I understand that you will be getting off at platform “screw this, I’m out!”

Just remember to put your pants back on before you disembark.

It is, however, my sincerest hope that you stay on the train, which brings me to the fun bit. Where exactly are we going?

Destination known…sort of

travel the world

My new venture/adventure already has a name and it’s (insert lengthy drumroll) Wander Woman Thea. Yes, it’s cheesier than Swiss fondue and that’s exactly how I like it.

This new blog is essentially a tell-all of my extreme, borderline obsessive passion for travel and it will provide readers with all kinds of value and entertainment, from travel tips, advice, and thrilling stories to green monster provoking pictures and gut-busting travel anecdotes. Wander Woman Thea will endeavour to connect with, satiate the curiosity, and expand the minds of travel, wine, and food lovers from all over the world.

And, yes, it’s all written in my trademark irreverent style laced with saucy innuendo, bad puns, and tequila jokes. The Facebook page is already set up, which you can check out here and follow and share with all of your friends.

Are you in?

It has been a pleasure and privilege writing about science and having you join me for that adventure. Now, I’m riding off into the sunset (on the back of a T-rex) to a new destination.

Why?

Besides science, I’m obsessed with travel and adventure.

Here we go!

riding_into_the_sunset

Count Down to Book Launch!

Hello minions!

It’s been many moons – hundreds, in fact – since last I posted on this blog site. Many of you have rightly asked if I’m still alive. The good news is that I am indeed still alive. Why then the resounding year-and-a-half-long silence? I have a great excuse, I promise:

I have been writing the official Why? Because Science book! Here’s a sneak peak at the provisional cover… Why- Because Science (2).jpgIn just over two weeks’ time – on the 1st December 2017 – I will be launching it on Amazon. To begin with, the book will be in kindle/electronic format only. Once I have raised the necessary funds, I’ll be able to launch a print-to-order enterprise, which means hard copies! It’s a step-by-step process that’s utterly terrifying and satisfying at the same time. Very much like nipple clamps.

Keep an eye on this space and thank you so much for your loyalty over the years!

The Scientific Method in Memes

the-scientific-method-in-science-memesW

Internet Memes: A Definition… or Approximation Thereof

For those of you who don’t know what a meme is, it’s a kind of visual or graphical internet trend or fad. Each of the above pictures is commonly used to express some sort of humorous comment or quip. The veloceraptor, for example, is often referred to as ‘hypothesaurus’ or better still ‘philosoraptor’ and says things like: “If practice makes perfect, and nobody’s perfect, why practice?”

The white cat, on the other hand always looks clever while making really bad yet somehow funny science jokes such as (and this is the worst I could find): ” would’ve gotten you flowers, but I never botany.”

*insert tumble weed into the desolate wasteland that is your sense of humour*

So now, if you haven’t learnt something about the scientific method, you’ve found out what a meme is, which makes you just that little bit cooler in the eyes of your 15-year old niece.

Battle of the Epic Whirlwinds: Hurricane Vs. Tornado

Earth Satellite Space

Versus

Destructive Powerful Tornado

In the Free State of South Africa, 2012 was a year marked by an outbreak of severe thunderstorms. This province lies quite far inland of the subcontinent, to the northeast of Cape Town and to the west of the Drakensberg; the magnificent mountain chain that borders the eastern coastline of South Africa. These severe thunderstorms caused quite a bit of grief for the inhabitants of the Free State, levelling 55 houses and hospitalising 5 people, according to All Africa online publication. But in addition to the heavy rains, lightning and wind damage, these thunderstorms had the ill-grace to drop a couple of tornadoes too!

To put things into perspective, South Africa is not a country known for tornadoes. If you’re thinking of tornadoes, your imaginative context is probably located in the aptly named ‘Tornado Alley’ in the mid-western states of America. Now, as someone who has a degree in atmospheric science, you can imagine how many questions I was fielding from people who had heard about the severe weather events I just mentioned. Not questions as such: statements rather. People rarely ask me questions about the weather. I think they’re afraid of the answers. I can handle that… but what I couldn’t handle was the fact that people were confusing hurricanes with tornadoes!

“Did you hear about the hurricanes in the Free State?”

Portrait of young woman slapping hand on head having a duh momen

To anyone in atmospheric, Earth, ocean or any related sciences – regardless of your specialization – confusing tornadoes with hurricanes is like confusing your grandmother with Megan Fox. It’s like confusing an elephant with a pineapple. The concept of a hurricane tearing across the Free State is about as alien to the weather educated as a giraffe cavorting around the North Pole. Wearing snow shoes.

But, before you cringe at the memory of you making this rather Herculean error, one must take into account that the majority of you out there aren’t weather educated. That’s perfectly all right! We’re going to change that right now. Hurricanes and tornadoes: what’s the difference? Moreover, what’s the big deal if you get them confused? Well, when it comes to these two somewhat (ok, VERY) tempestuous weather phenomena, size really, really, REALLY…

… really, REALLY, really, REALLY, REEEEEEEEALLY does count.

Hurricanes: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Hurricane Fran satellite image

Satellites captured this fairly terrifying image of Hurricane Fran hurtling towards North Carolina on the 5th September 1996. “Fran” caused so much trouble that they decided to NEVER call another hurricane “Fran” again. 

FYI, hurricanes are named alphabetically according to their order of development during the hurricane season. The first to appear will be named something beginning with an ‘A’, the second ‘B’ and so on and so forth. Hurricane Fran was therefore the 6th fully fledged tropical cyclone to develop that season and one whose limelight was solidly claimed in 2005 by Katrina and again in 2012 by Sandy. Those bitches!

Hurricanes are large tropical storms born over the equator. Fed by prodigious updrafts of hot, moist, sexy air, these giant swirling monsters generate, via condensation alone, 200 times the electrical generating capacity of the entire freaking planet, according to the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. For those of you who like numbers or are easily impressed by them, this equates to 600,000,000,000,000 Watts. This is not even to mention the amount of energy generated by hurricane winds, which is an additional 1,500,000,000,000 Watts of unbridled weather rage!

I don’t even know what that number is… a billion million? A trillion zillion billon million?

Ooh! Aah! Hurricane Statistics

Windy Coast huge waves

  • Damage: Should they make landfall, hurricanes can cause tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Katrina was only a category 3 storm when it had its fender-bender with the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And yet its damage was estimated at $81,000,000,000!
  • Storm Diameter: Hurricanes are huge systems with an average diameter of 800 km (500 mi), although Hurricane Carla, which raged into the Texas coast in 1961, was an especially big girl at 1280 km (800 mi) across.
  • Wind speeds: Hurricanes are wrathful systems with category 5 storms (you do not get larger) generating winds of over 250 km/hr or 156 mi/hr.
  • Associated Severe WeatherHurricanes are social creatures. They have loads of friends they like to bring to the party they tend to gatecrash. These include torrential rainfall, thunderstorms, lightning, hail and storm surges, which is an increase in average sea level that can be in excess of 5 meters or 19 feet! To add insult to grave injury, hurricanes can even generate tornadoes.
  • Weakness: For all their size, energy and capacity for total annihilation, these tropical super storms cannot survive over land. They require a tireless volume of hot, moist air – as is found over the equatorial oceanic regions – in order to preserve storm motion and momentum. That dry continental air just won’t do. Plus, all the friction and turbulence caused by onshore topography (mountains and such) tend to break up the party pretty quickly.

Tornadoes

“Cow…

‘Nother Cow!”

“Actually I think that was the same one”

– ‘Twister’, 1996

I regard tornadoes the same way a sadomasochist regards nipple clamps: they’re deliciously terrifying. Having said this, my opinion is fantastically unfounded because I have never, ever witnessed or had my house relocated by a tornado. If I had, I would probably drop the enthusiasm a notch.

Strong tornado in Kansas

 A Kansas tornado tears across a country roooooad, take me hooooome.

A tornado is a raging column of rotating air that extends from the ground to the base of its parent cumulonimbus cloud, “Cumulonimbus” being the longest and fanciest word everyone remembers from High school geography. I know this because every time I tell someone I have a background in weather, they say, “Oh! So you, like, studied cumulonimbus clouds!”

Yeah, something like that buddy.

Tornadoes are generated by severe thunderstorms in atmospheric environments full of wind shear and abundant lower level moisture, amongst other ingredients. Next time you’re in the bath or swimming pool, make your hand flat, put it in the water and paddle. You’ll notice tiny little vortices or whirlpools that spin off in either direction.

“Wind shear” really just refers to two masses of air moving at different speeds and/or different directions to each other. And, just like your hand in the pool, shear in the atmosphere generates the same kind of ‘whirlpools’ in the air, although you can’t see them because air is invisible. What happens next in tornado genesis is a powerful updraft of air, which pushes these horizontal columns of rotating air vertical. And this is when shit starts getting real.

Severe weather thunderstorm.png

A gorgeous supercell thunderstorm at sunset. This cloud formation, known as a “mesocyclone” to academics and a “mothership” to nerds, is the atmospheric platforms from which tornadoes are commonly spawned.

Ooh! Aah! Tornado Statistics

  • Damage: It just takes one tornado straying into a heavily built up area to rack up damage totals that would bankrupt an entire country. In May of 2011, a single tornado tore through Joplin in Missouri – a city of 50,000 inhabitants. The reports that emerged at the time estimated the damage of insured property alone to be in the region of $3,000,000,000 (billion), and all from a single tornado. This doesn’t even take into account the uninsured losses suffered.

Tornado damage in Lapeer, Michigan.

On the brighter side – Tornado, 1: Insurance companies, 0.

  • Wind Speeds: Tornadoes are violent creatures. The wind speeds that tear around the funnel, more specifically, of F5 tornadoes, have been clocked in at over 500 km/hr or 315 mi/hr. This is more than half the cruising speed of a commercial airliner.
  • Associated Severe Weather: Like hurricanes, tornadoes are social. You will generally find them hanging out with lightning, torrential rain, giant hailstones, wind (duh) and the occasional cow or 18-wheeler semi-trailer.
  • Lifespan: For all their fury, tornadoes are relatively short-lived with the longest ‘twister’ on record having raged on for 3.5 hours. This suspected F5 tornado, dubbed the Tri-State Tornado, tore through 350 km (220 mi) of Illinois, Missouri and Indiana on the 18th March in 1925, leaving almost 700 people dead in its wake.

While hurricanes may boast more impressive size statistics than a single tornado, one should note that the kinds of thunderstorms that generate tornadoes are rarely isolated and often travel in waves with one thunderstorm cell feeding the formation of several others. In 2011, in fact, the National Severe Storm Laboratory recorded the most prolific outbreak of tornadoes in American history! Between April 25th and April 28th 2011, a staggering 358 tornadoes were recorded, with the majority of them having touched down within a single 24-hour period. Thanks to a much more sophisticated weather forecasting and tornado warning system, this outbreak caused half the death toll as the single Tri-state Tornado of 1925.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

real airport weather map Hurricane Frances

There are many big and important differences between hurricanes and tornadoes, most of which are related to scale: scale in size, in wind speeds, in damage done and in lifespan. Hurricanes are huge weather systems that last days and can cause widespread destruction. Tornadoes are much, much smaller weather phenomena generated by severe thunderstorms. Yet, in spite of their exponentially smaller size and shorter life spans, they can do incredible localized damage and frequently boast wind speeds greater than even a Category 5 hurricane.

So, to sum it all up and pack it in a nutshell:

Tornadoes can rearrange your back garden and perhaps relocate your house.

Hurricanes can rearrange your province and perhaps the entire eastern coastline of your country.

The 2015 "Slushy" Waves of New England

It’s too bad that seawater is salty, because with a bit of sweet flavouring, everyone would have had access to unlimited slushy “Slurpee” a year ago, courtesy of Mother Nature!

Video Source: “Giant Frozen Waves Nantucket Beach” Uploaded by Galaxy 11

The United States spent much of February of last year in the frigid grips of a record-breaking icy winter. Yet, in addition to the usual suspects, which include deep snow and biting winds, the cold would seem to have even won over the briny seawater of the north Atlantic Ocean. This video shows a series of images of ocean waves breaking on the shores of Nantucket in New England (northeast USA), only, there seems to be something distinctly different about these waves!

The photographer, Jonathan Nimerfroh, is an avid surfing enthusiast and on a trip to the beach, he noticed something odd about the horizon. As it turns out, the temperatures are so low in the area the water has begun to freeze and so, what we are looking at are giant slushy waves! These icy waves have also been aptly called “Slurpee waves”

The maximum temperature on the day these pictures were taken was at a teeth-chattering -7 degrees celsius (17 degrees Fahrenheit).

What’s truly amazing about this is that salt is known to lower the freezing point of water to well below zero degrees celsius. This is precisely why we throw salt over our driveways to prevent them from icing up. The fact that even the salty seawater in northeast United States began to freeze is testament to the uncharacteristically cold winter they had last year.

What's In a Name? Bad Science, That's What

One of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I have ever read is called ‘Bad Science’ and it’s by Ben Goldacre, an Oxford and London-trained doctor who also dedicates much of his time to writing and broadcasting. In his book, he takes a look at many different products and technologies that have more than just blithely sailed under the radar of good science: they’ve gone on to make their manufacturers billions upon billions of dollars in profits.

Ben Goldacre Bad Science
A must-read for anyone and everyone. Dr. Ben Goldacre revives the ailing enquiring mind by exposing the methodology of corporations using ‘science’ to sell. He runs an interesting blog too, which you can check out at http://www.badscience.net.

Any woman (or her husband) will know that when it comes to buying face cream, there are price discrepancies that could feed an impoverished third world country for a week. A 200ml tub of Nivea Crème, or cream if you had to drop the pretence, costs in the region of $3 and is readily available from Clicks, Boots or any other supermarket or pharmacy. I consider this a bargain. Chanel sells a face cream – ostentatiously named Precision Sublimage Serum Essential Regenerating Cream – that, at $375, is one hundred times more expensive. But Chanel is far from the costliest on the market. According to http://www.totalbeauty.com (at the time of writing)

Guerlain’s Orchidee Imperiale Cream Next Generation goes for *cough* $410-$420

Why? Because it contains special ‘molecular extract’ from orchids.

Orlane Crème Royale goes for *choke* $650

Why? Because it contains 24-carat gold and royal jelly (bee’s glandular secretion.)

Expensive face creams
Orlane Crème Royale goes for $650 a pot owing to its content of bee secretion and 24-carat bullshit, I mean, gold.

But the prize has to go to La Prairie Cellular Cream Platinum Rare, at *faint* $1,200, which is more than the standard income of a middle class South African.

Why, Larry, Why? Because its key ingredient is platinum, one of the rarest elements in the Earth’s crust, which not surprisingly goes for around $1,240 per fine ounce at the time of writing.

Against all Common Sense and Rationality, Platinum Will Make You Look Younger

Wow, impressive! No wonder it’s expensive. With ingredients that require the processing of thousands of acres of expensive and rare flowers, or thousands of tonnes of ore, it’s really no wonder that a tiny pot of cream is so damn expensive. MY question is what on EARTH is platinum going to do for my skin? Platinum is a totally stable and non-reactive metal that, even at high temperatures, is non-corrosive. So coating your face with it may prevent you from rusting IF you were the tin-man from The Wizard of Oz.

I’ve no doubt that the chemists, cellular biologists and other specialists these multi-billion dollar corporations have working for them could explain how vanilla extract might prevent the early signs of skin aging, or how 24-carat gold might make my face look more radiant. But I’m even more certain that there are abundant cheaper alternatives that do EXACTLY the same thing. Under a microscope, vitamin E oil from rare orchids that grow exclusively on the island of Madagascar looks exactly the same as vitamin E oil from something as commonplace as sunflowers.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

expensive face creams

Keeping your skin looking healthy and young is about keeping it hydrated, which also means staying out the sun and avoiding habits such as tobacco smoking. And Dr. Ben Goldacre explains this beautifully in Chapter 3 of his book Bad Science (seriously, give it a read!) If you look at the list of ingredients on the tubs of these various moisturizing creams, there is almost zero different between the $3 tub of Nivea and $300 tub of Chanel. The difference that can be found lies in the addition of super strange and exotic ingredients that are almost always impossibly hard to find. You’re also paying for the brand name, which I can assure you does sweet FA for your skin.

It’s the schism between science and society that enables these cosmetic companies (and many, many other big brand names) to charge you an obscene amount of money for products that are essentially the same as their inexpensive and unpretentious counterparts. Trust me. If it had to be shown in a number of controlled scientific trials that, for example, gibbon ejaculate could reduce the evidence of aging more effectively than your standard moisturizer’s ingredients, I’m sure it would be huge news, complete with captivating headlines…

“Monkey Comes to the Rescue of Your Aging Skin”

“The Fountain of Youth Discovered!”

Refuse those highly processed headlines and do the truth-seeking yourself. And the next time you consider spending more than $50 on face cream, ask yourself how many monkeys were touched inappropriately to bring this product to you.

angry funny gibbon monkey

15 Awesome Human Superpowers

Some people work hard, train hard, educate themselves and push themselves to the very limit to gain some kind of notoriety in life (and the money it tends comes hand-in-hand with). This video is proof that, in addition to being inherently gifted, there are other ways to become famous… be exceptionally stupid. Eating metal screws makes you an idiot. Just because you survive your diet of cars, wheelchairs and bad life choices doesn’t make you special.

Having said that, there are some incredible cases of human superpowers in this video, such as the “human calculator” and the man who learned conversational Icelandic in just one week. My only superpower is being able to make my one eye squint – actually I have two if you count the other one, but that’s far too lascivious to mention here – and so my concluding question to you is: what’s your superpower?

Video Source: “15 Real Life Human Superpowers” Uploaded by Planet Dolan to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=dM3_s0rKBVc