Lightning strikes upward into space, too

Tom Marcinko @ 23-08-2009

upward-lightningHere’s lightning flowing 40 miles up from the top of a storm, to touch the ionosphere. The photos of this phenomenon, called gigantic jets, were taken by Duke University engineer Steve Cummer.

“Gigantic jets are literally lightning that comes out of the thunderclouds, but instead of going down, like most lightning strokes do, these apparently find their way out the tops of thunderclouds, and then keep going and keep going and keep going until they run into something that stops them,” Cummer explained.

He adds:

“…What struck us was the size of this event.”

It appears from the measurements that the amount of electricity discharged by conventional lightning and gigantic jets is comparable, Cummer said.

But the gigantic jets travel farther and faster than conventional lightning because thinner air between the clouds and ionosphere provides less resistance.

The team was actually looking for sprites, “electrical discharges that occur above storm clouds and are colored red or blue, with jellyfish-like tendrils hanging down.”

Spectacle aside, studying the jets could lead to new ways to predict storms. And if nothing else, it’s something for writers to think about when they design their alien atmospheres.


The Arches of Methone and Other Stories

Tom Marcinko @ 06-09-2008

arcsThe novel I’m shopping around begins on the moon of a ringed gas giant.  You’d better believe that in the next draft, that moon is going to have gorgeous arcs like the ones the Cassini spacecraft imaging team recently found gracing Saturn’s moons Anthe and Methone.

[Image: CICLOPS; tip: io9]


The Kids Are All Right: Children Come by Empathy Naturally

Tom Marcinko @ 11-07-2008

U. of Chicago researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study the responses of 17 children ages 7-12 to images of pain in others.

When children see an image of a person in pain, portions of their brain register that pain on a fMRI scan. When the children see a person intentionally hurt, portions of the brain associated with moral reasoning are also activated.

The scans showed the kids’ brains light up just like those of adults in previous research: Empathy activates the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray, and supplementary motor area; a moral  reaction seems to turn on the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices, and the amygdala.

Psychologist-psychiatrist Jean Decety suggests that empathy is not entirely the product of nurture, and that future studies could shed light on how children learn right from wrong, and give insights into the roots of violence and bullying. (Science-fiction writers, of course, are assigned to write about how this knowledge can be abused by marketing and propaganda.)
[Image: U. Chicago]


Clear astronomical images from gorund-based telescopes? You’ll be lucky.

Paul Raven @ 05-09-2007

RT-70 radio telescope, CrimeaThe advantage of space telescopes like the aging Hubble are their ability to image distant astronomical objects without the fuzziness that Earth’s atmosphere produces. Of course, the big disadvantage is the hideous price-tag of getting the thing to orbit, keeping it there … and keeping it working. Astronomers from the UK’s Cambridge University have developed a neat hack that sidesteps the problem; so-called ‘lucky imaging’ works by comparing thousands of images from two or more ground-based telescopes and using the results to filter out the noise, producing results that rival the Hubble at its best – at a hundredth of a percent of the cost. [Image by Argenberg]