Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!

Did Musk pick the wrong planet to die on?

Image: upload.wikimedia.org

Elon Musk has said he wants to die on Mars.

By 2024, Elon Musk wants to land humans on Mars – the billionaire entrepreneur has said that he himself wants to go to the Red Planet, and even wants to die there (just not on impact, he quips). But has SpaceX chosen the wrong planet to colonize? If the plan was to pick the closest planet: yes indeed.

While Mars looms large in human culture and imagination, most scientific sources refer to Venus as the planet that's the shortest distance away from Earth. NASA mentions Venus as our closest neighbor. But while it's true that no other planet comes closer – the shortest approach is 0.28 AU (1) or 25 million miles (41 million km) – it's not true that Venus is the closest planet (2) on average (even though that too is often erroneously asserted).

A faulty line-up of the solar system 

Image: Wikipedia

A line-up of the usual suspects. Only the sizes are to scale, not the distances. And they usually don't line up as nicely as this.

"As it turns out, by some phenomenon of carelessness, ambiguity or groupthink, science popularizers have disseminated information based on a flawed assumption about the average distance between planets," write Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe and Samuel Cordner in an article published by Physics Today.

They go on to explain the mathematical method they devised to prove that, when averaged over time, it is in fact Mercury – the first rock from the Sun – that is Earth's nearest neighbor.

Long story short: Mercury is closest to Earth on average because it orbits the Sun more closely. That also means – mind-blowingly – that Mercury is the closest neighbor of all planets in our solar system, including gas giants Jupiter and Saturn and snowball planets Neptune and Uranus on the freezing outer edges of the system.

Unbelievably cool or unbelievably obvious?

Image: Tomment Section

Simulation of Mercury (grey), Venus (orange), Earth (blue) and Mars (red) circling the Sun, and the calculation of average distances to Earth.

In Physics Today, the three scientists describe their method in great detail. For laypeople like (probably) you and (certainly) me, the YouTube video at the top of this post, narrated by Mr Stockman, is more illuminating. In 6 minutes 40 seconds, he had me convinced.

While some commenters agree ("a neat new way to think about it!"), one or two are irritated that the hoi polloi are only now clocking on to this ("Any idiot should have been able to point this out").

Either way, one has to feel for the one commenter who seems to have figured this out a long time ago, but didn't have this video to prove their point: "I told my school teacher many years ago that Mercury is nearest to Earth but they laughed at me."

Video found here on YouTube. If you like your math like Saturn likes its gravity (spoiler: heavy), here's the article in Physics Today.

Strange Maps #966

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.


(1) 1 Astronomical Unit (AU) is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun: 93 million miles (150 million km).

(2) Their name aptly derived from the Greek 'planetai' for "wanderers", planets orbit around the Sun, hence the immense variation in the distances between them.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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