Science & The Simpsons, Part I: What’s a fossil fuel anyway?

When The Simpsons started in the late 1980s, very few people would’ve believed that the show could last as long as it has. Like the show or not, you can’t deny how it’s changed the way TV shows look at controversial material and incorporate current events and topics into their plots.

For instance, take Episode 450, “Married to the Blob,” which aired this past January. While the main story line deals with Comic Book Guy’s search for love, in quasi Much Ado About Nothing fashion, the first few minutes of the episode regale us with yet another adventure from the show’s favorite superhero, Radioactive Man.

And therein lies the show’s genius — what seems to be a short aside (an introduction at best) is actually an acute commentary on energy literacy: reflecting some of the struggles the industry faces as we seek to maintain energy independence, all while steadfastly moving into the future of energy production.

The show personifies all major aspects for retrieving and releasing energy. Nuclear energy (fission) is represented by Radioactive Man, and his sidekicks Solar Citizen and Wind Lad represent solar and wind power respectively. In this episode, they face their nemeses, a rough group of villains who call themselves The Fossil Fuel Four. They’re made up of King Coal, Petroleumsaurus Rex, Charcoal Briquette, and the Fracker (the names are likewise pretty opaque, with the characters representing coal, petroleum, charcoal, and the technique of fracking). Through their battle, we see the struggle between sustainable resources and fossil fuels.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance fossil fuels have had in creating the modern industrial world. The Industrial Revolution would’ve never occurred without ready access to coal, and the industrialized world still depends on it to a great extent. Fossil fuels have provided a ready source of energy for centuries now because they are easily burned to release their stored energy. When these fuels burn, they oxidize releasing carbon dioxide and water and produce large amounts of energy relative to their weight. These fuels can be found in solid, liquid and gaseous states (like coal, oil, and natural gas).

As these resources have become more scarce, new techniques have been developed to extract them from the earth, such as fracking (technically called hydraulic fracturing, which uses controlled explosions to break up the bedrock where these fuels are held) and surface mining (which removes vast amounts of surface rock to gain access to minerals).

Part of the reason why these new techniques have come into use is that fossil fuels are not easily or readily replenished. They are — quite literally — fossils, and therefore take a long time to form. (The word fossil simply means “evidence of past life.”) Over millions of years, tiny plants and other organisms would settle on the floor of a body of water (ocean, lake, etc.). Other sediment would settle over them, causing them to decompose in anoxic (read: with depleted oxygen) environments. After hundreds of millions of years of exposure to heat and pressure from added sediment, the organic matter is chemically altered. Depending on the type of organic matter, the amount of time and pressure applied, you get different types of fossil fuels.

It’s the depletion of fossil fuels and the negative consequences from them (such as poor air quality, which can lead to smog and acid rain, and the massive amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which has caused drastic changes in climate) that has led to our current quest for sustainable energy sources.

Editor’s note (Please read the following bold text in a cheesy, comic-announcer-type voice): Will climate change continue unabated? What will happen to Radioactive Man now as he battles The Fossil Fuel Four? Will he defeat his foes — or is it too late? 

Tune in next time as we catch up with our superhero.

Solar Sunspots Hibernation?

Is the cycle of sunspots going dormant for an extended period?

That’s what astronomers suggested at the June 14 annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s solar physics division, held at New Mexico State University. Frank Hill, associate director of the National Solar Observatory’s Solar Synoptic Network announced, “The solar cycle may be going into a hiatus.”

First, let’s review what a solar cycle is.

Check out my previous blog on the topic.

Like all fluid bodies in our solar system, the sun has a magnetic field.  Where these field lines intersect the sun’s surface, convection from inside the sun is blocked, resulting in a cooler region on the sun’s surface.  The cooler region is darker because it emits more infrared light, which is invisible to our eyes.  The number of sunspots on the sun is not constant but varies over a period of about eleven years.  Since we began keeping systematic track of sunspots, scientists have observed 23 such cycles.

02 Sun Structure
Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor

However, the most recent solar minimum lasted much longer than we expected.

We had hoped to begin seeing sunspots in 2008 or 2009, leading to a 2012 peak.  Instead, solar minimum persisted until 2010.  Scientists now expect the current cycle (#24) to peak in May 2013.

According to Frank Hill, several lines of evidence point to a larger trend, in which solar maxima become delayed as well as less and less pronounced, possibly resulting in an extended period largely without sunspots.  One involves the solar ‘jet stream,’ a stream of plasma inside the sun which is analogous to jet streams in Earth’s atmosphere.  About every 11 years, such streams of plasma form near the poles of the sun and then migrate towards the sun’s equator.  When they reach a latitude of about 22 degrees, more sunspot formation is allowed.

Although cycle 24 is well underway, Hill attempted to detect the solar jet stream that will start cycle 25, which in theory should already be forming in the polar regions.  He was unable to do so, leading him to believe the solar cycle 25 may be delayed and its maximum smaller than for cycle 24.

Also, astronomers Matt Penn and William Livingston, upon analyzing 13 years of sunspot date taken at Kitt Peak in Arizona, determined that magnetic fields associated with sunspots now are weaker than during cycle 23.  If the trend continues, these magnetic fields could become too weak to inhibit convection at the sun’s surface, thus preventing sunspot formation.

This may mean that future solar cycles (25, 26, etc.) will have only very small maxima, resulting in a decades-long period of few if any sunspots.

A sunspot viewed close-up in ultraviolet light, taken by the TRACE spacecraft

The last time this happened was the Maunder Minimum, which occurred roughly from 1645-1715.

Astronomers of the day, such as Giovanni Cassini and Johannes Hevelius, were making systematic observations of the sun, and they noted very few sunspots – only about 50 over one 30-year period.  A less severe drop in sunspot activity, called the Dalton Minimum, occurred in the early ninteenth century.  Each of these extended minima were associated with below average temperatures on Earth.  For example, the Great Frost of 1708-09 was among the worst winters in recorded history.

However, not all solar scientists agree that another Maunder Minimum is on the way.

Douglas Biesecker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center points out that cycle 24’s polar jet stream formed about eight months after solar minimum and remained patchy for up to 30 months after that. It may still be too soon after the last solar minimum (December 2008) to draw conclusions about that jet.

Also, Biesecker points out that the raw data on the graph showing the weakening of the magnetic fields in sunspots is scattered and indeterminate enough to allow other analyses.

Of course, only the real sun will determine who’s correct on this issue, and you can observe the real sun right here at the Museum.

Our sundial has three sets of holes aligned with the sun’s midday position at each solstice and at the equinoxes.  As we are  now just past the summer solstice (which occurred at 12:17 p.m. June 21), anyone willing to brave the heat can come to our sundial near local noon (1 p.m. during Daylight Saving Time) and project an image of the sun onto a sheet of paper.  Any sunspots present will be revealed.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.8.08)

Bacteria loves milk.
Creative Commons License photo credit: IRRI Images

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

A NASA administrator insists he backs the upcoming retirement of the space shuttle (leaving the U.S. unable to send astronauts to the International Space Station)  – despite a leaked e-mail to the contrary. Oh – and, the BBC reports that Chinese astronauts (called yuhangyuan) will perform their first-ever spacewalk.

Got bacteria? New research indicates that you shouldn’t be washing your antibiotics down with milk.

Bad news for mathletes: using your brain might be making you fat.

NPR asks: Can physicists be funny? (The answer is YES.) Scientists at CERN are going through improv comedy training to help reassure the public that they’re not about to create a giant black hole that will swallow the Earth.

Arctic permafrost holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere – making it a potential environmental threat. Good thing it’s not melting at a disturbingly fast pace.

Does the President need to be tech-savvy?

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.4.08)

Released to Public: Astronaut Robert L. Curbeam, Jr., STS-116 Spacewalk (NASA)
“Houston…we’ve got a
SPAM problem.”
Creative Commons License photo credit:

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

There’s a new Manhattan floating around the Arctic – and it’s made of ice. Canada’s polar ice shelves are “crumbling at an alarming pace.” In other good news: sea levels will rise much faster than we thought.

It’s possibly the lamest thing ever done in space: yesterday, astronauts spent some time updating their antivirus software.

It was the fake mustaches that tipped them off. Up to 10 percent of Near Earth Objects are comets impersonating asteroids – and new research aims to unmask them.

It’s really, really big: a black hole as big as 50 billion suns.

The ocean has its own lakes – called meddies – and scientists are using oil industry tech to study them.