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Six solar system oddities and why we must learn about them
Want some crazy space phenomena? You don't have to leave the neighborhood for it.
- The universe has a lot of weird stuff in it.
- You don't have to travel far to find it. Our solar system is filled with oddities and strangeness. Some that we can't figure out.
- Learning about these things isn't just fun, it can be applied to our lives and can alter our perspectives.
It has been said that the universe is "not only stranger than we imagine, but that it is stranger than we can imagine." John Haldane, the originator of that quote (slightly different wording according to some sources), might have been more correct than he knew. Since his death, we've discovered such exotic objects as pulsars and the cosmic background radiation. Even more out there, scientists have postulated the existence of stuff as bizarre as dark matter, dark energy, and the aptly named "strange matter."
One doesn't even need to leave the solar system to find oddities. Last week, we discussed Saturn's hexagonal storm; today, we'll look at six of the strangest things in our cosmic backyard and consider why time spent investigating them is not time wasted.
Mercury ain't what it used to be
False color image of Mercury (the yellow is water ice).
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
The smallest planet in the solar system constantly outdoes itself. Mercury is shrinking.
Unlike many other items on this list, this strange occurrence is likely caused by a fairly mundane mechanism. As the planet, which is made primarily of metal, has a high iron content, scientists speculate that the planet is shrinking as it continues to cool down from the high internal temperatures it had when it formed.
However, this isn't the end of things. Why Mercury has such a higher iron content remains a mystery. A leading hypothesis is that the planet used to be much larger, but that many of its non-metallic components were knocked away by an impact with a planetoid or that spikes in the sun's temperature caused much of the rocky crust of Mercury to vaporize and blow away, leaving an iron core.
You can spin faster than Venus, if you try.
As seen from Earth, the sun comes up in the east and sets in the west. On Venus, the opposite is true. This is unique among the planets of the Solar System. Even stranger, it would take 243 Earth days to be able to enjoy another sunrise if you could see it from Venus' surface. The planet only rotates at a leisurely 6.52 km/h (4.05 mph), compare that to Earth's 674.4 km/h (1,040.4 mph). For comparison, a Venusian year is only 225 Earth days, meaning a year there is shorter than a day!
The slow rotation speed causes side effects you might not have suspected. While the Earth's rotation causes the center to bulge out somewhat, Venus lacks this and is much closer to being spherical.
A variety of theories attempting to explain all this have been advanced. One argues that this results from the sun's tidal forces in battle with those created by the thick Venusian atmosphere, with the former slowing rotation and the later speeding it up. An amusing hypothesis argues that the whole planet was somehow flipped upside down, and it continues to spin in the same direction as it always has. Another suggests that a massive impact, early in the Solar System's history, knocked Venus so hard it started spinning backward.
This last theory has the bonus of explaining why Venus has no moons, as the resulting powerful tidal forces would have caused any moon there to fall into the planet.
Everything about Saturn’s moon Iapetus is odd
Images of Iapetus' mysterious ridge taken by Cassini.
For a ball of ice a little smaller than Australia, Iapetus manages to contain many odd features.
Discovered in 1671, it was immediately noticed that the moon was only visible for a few months out of the year. Astronomers at the time proposed, accurately, that the moon is tidally locked. So, only one side faces Saturn, and that one side is much, much brighter than the other. Modern discoveries show us that this is accurate, with the dark side being darker than charcoal and the light side shining like well-lit ice. It is believed that the original dark material originated from somewhere off of the moon, but that most of what we see today are lag deposits.
Over time, the heat differences (the dark side gets warmer) cause water ice to sublimate and shift location from the dark side to the light. Over vast amounts of time, this leaves one side shinning with ice and the other dark with the mineral residue the water leaves behind as it moves.
Iapetus also has the distinction of being the largest object in the solar system not in hydrostatic equilibrium, as its gravity is not strong enough to force it into a roughly spherical shape. Resultantly, it looks much more like a walnut than a ball.
Adding to the madness is how it orbits Saturn. It has a severely inclined orbit and travels much further out than the other large moons. While astronomers have no idea why this is, it gives it the advantage of being the one large moon of Saturn where an observer could enjoy a good view of Saturn's ring system.
When the Cassini probe went out of its way to examine Iapetus, it discovered the moon's walnut shape is accentuated by a dark hemisphere-spanning ridge of peaks reaching up to 20 km (12 miles) high. The light side features no ridge but does have isolated mountains with similar mass. The ridge neatly follows the moons equator with uncanny perfection. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the ridge, but they fail to explain why it is only present on the dark side of the moon.
Uranus is a bit crooked
If you remember anything from grade school astronomy about Uranus, it's probably that it rolls along its side like a ball while the other planets spin like tops. Its poles each spend the solstice either in full sunlight or total darkness. It is only during the equinox, when the poles are oriented perpendicular to the sun, that the entire planet has a day and night cycle similar to the other planets.
Why it rolls like this is unknown. The current leading theory involves what seems to be the favorite explanation of astronomers, a large object knocking into the planet in the early days of the solar system. As you might expect, this orientation means that Uranus's poles get more sunlight and heat than the equator does. Despite this, the equator is still warmer than the poles are. The cause of this is currently also unknown.
Neptune radiates heat. Like, a lot of heat.
A slightly retouched image of Neptune's south pole as seen by Voyager 2.
By Kevin Gill from Los Angeles, CA, United States - Neptune - August 25 1989, CC BY-SA 2.0,
The most distant known planet from the sun (sorry Pluto), Neptune gets a tiny fraction of the heat and light that other planets enjoy. It gets less than half as much sunlight as its neighbor, Uranus. As they say, though, it's what's on the inside that counts. Neptune radiates a substantial amount of heat, 2.6 times as much as it gets from the Sun, compared to Uranus' 1.1 times as much.
This internal heating provides the energy needed for Neptune to have the fastest winds in the solar system, with gusts of up to 2,100 km/h (1,300 mph) observed.
Some scientists propose the heat is just leftover from the planet's formation. Others suggest that the ice giants' internal heating might be cyclical, with Neptune and Uranus being out of sync with each other. It is also possible to view Uranus as the strange one, arguing that its internal heating is much lower than it should be. Theories that go this way often suggest that whatever knocked Uranus over took a fair amount of heat with it. The trouble with any hypothesis advanced is that it has to deal with Neptune and Uranus' apparent similarities while also allowing for this single, tremendous difference.
There is a Planet Nine, probably, maybe.
Neptune was discovered after Uranus' orbit was observed to differ from predictions in a way that suggested a large object was influencing it. Neptune was discovered orbiting almost exactly where such a large object was expected to be. Today, a similar problem exists with some objects in the Kuiper belt, leading some scientists to argue for the existence of a "Planet Nine," exerting an influence on their orbits.
Some Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) have clustered orbits. Seen from above, the long ellipses that track their orbits tend to nest inside one another, with their vertexes all pointing in the same direction. Typically, we would expect these orbits to be distributed more randomly. The odds that they would be in the configuration we see them in due to chance are extremely low.
However, a planet around ten times the Earth's size in an extremely eccentric, far-flung orbit would exert a gravitational pull just strong enough to cause this and other strange phenomena observed in the Kuiper Belt.
Alternative explanations for the observed data exist. They range from the mundane proposal that what we see is coincidentally similar to what a planet would cause, to the exotic notion that we should be looking for small black holes rather than a planet. No Planet Nine has been spotted, but various studies have not yet ruled out the possibility of its existence.
Why is any of this important?
Understanding how these odd phenomena came into existence can give us a better understanding of the formation of the solar system in general and the planets in particular. Having a good idea of where something is coming from is very helpful in science, as it can make it easier to estimate where it is going.
That can be very nice to have when you're talking about the rock with odd fitting continents, exploding mountains, and an ever-evolving atmosphere floating in space you're sitting on. Beyond that, many people hope that humans will travel to other bodies in the solar system someday. It might be nice to know a bit about the strange places we might end up traveling to or some of the things we might encounter before heading out.
Even if we don't ever get to Neptune or Planet Nine, studying the odd parts of the solar system can serve as a reminder of how big and how strange the universe we live in really is. Our changing understanding of the universe has impacted how we live our lives before, and more than a few great thinkers pointed to changes in our understanding of astronomy to justify and explain their thinking in other fields.
Plus, given how many of these oddities seem related to things getting hit with giant rocks, these discoveries might help us finally get around to deciding what to do if an asteroid comes our way.
- How fast is Earth moving through space? That depends. - Big Think ›
- An Earth-sized planet found in the habitable zone of a nearby star ›
- Neil deGrasse Tyson: 3 mind-blowing space facts - Big Think ›
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
What’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota?
This is a mysterious map. Obviously about music, or more precisely musicians. But what’s Eminem doing in Missouri? Kanye West in Georgia? And Wiz Khalifa in, of all places, North Dakota? None of these musicians are from those states! Everyone knows that! Is this map that stupid, or just looking for a fight? Let’s pause a moment and consider our attention spans, shrinking faster than polar ice caps.
Researchers make the case for "deep evidential regression."
- MIT researchers claim that deep learning neural networks need better uncertainty analysis to reduce errors.
- "Deep evidential regression" reduces uncertainty after only one pass on a network, greatly reducing time and memory.
- This could help mitigate problems in medical diagnoses, autonomous driving, and much more.
Credit: scharsfinn86 / Adobe Stock<p>On the road, 1 percent could be the difference between stopping at an intersection or rushing through just as another car runs a stop sign. Amini and colleagues wanted to produce a model that could better detect patterns in giant data sets. They named their solution "deep evidential regression."</p><p>Sorting through billions of parameters is no easy task. Amini's model utilizes uncertainly analysis—learning how much error exists within a model and supplying missing data. This approach in deep learning isn't novel, though it often takes a lot of time and memory. Deep evidential regression estimates uncertainty after only one run of the neural network. According to the team, they can assess uncertainty in both input data <em>and</em> the final decision, after which they can either address the neural network or recognize noise in the input data.</p><p>In real-world terms, this is the difference between trusting an initial medical diagnosis or seeking a second opinion. By arming AI with a built-in detection system for uncertainty, a new level of honesty with data is reached—in this model, with pixels. During a test run, the neural network was given novel images; it was able to detect changes imperceptible to the human eye. Ramini believes this technology can also be used to pinpoint <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jan/13/what-are-deepfakes-and-how-can-you-spot-them" target="_blank">deepfakes</a>, a serious problem we must begin to grapple with.</p><p>Any field that uses machine learning will have to factor in uncertainty awareness, be it medicine, cars, or otherwise. As Amini says, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any user of the method, whether it's a doctor or a person in the passenger seat of a vehicle, needs to be aware of any risk or uncertainty associated with that decision."</p><p>We might not have to worry about alien robots turning on us (yet), but we should be concerned with that new feature we just downloaded into our electric car. There will be many other issues to face with the emergence of AI in our world—and workforce. The safer we can make the transition, the better. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His new book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
Can passenger airships make a triumphantly 'green' comeback?
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