What Are the Benefits and Uses of Spikenard?

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), also known as jatamansi,1 is an herb originating from the Himalayas.2 It’s commonly used as an essential oil, which is added to perfumes due to its sweet, balsamic and woody scent.3 But aside from its aroma, spikenard contains more healthful components that you can benefit from. To learn more about spikenard’s health benefits and uses, continue reading.

What is spikenard?

For centuries, spikenard has been used in medicine to treat numerous conditions, both physical and aesthetic. Its popularity as a therapeutic agent is widely known throughout the world, with the herb having been used in Indian, Greek, Egyptian, Arabic and Roman medicine. In fact, legend says that spikenard was the expensive ointment referenced in the Bible,4 when Mary Magdalene5 anointed Jesus’ feet.

The spikenard plant typically grows in mountainous regions, between 1,200 and 3,000 meters (almost 4,000 to 10,000 feet) above sea level.6

It is easily recognizable by its rosy or pale pink flowers and its rhizomes that are covered in tail-like brown fibers.7 These rhizomes, which are commonly hydrodistilled to make an essential oil, are the main parts of the spikenard plant that are used in Ayurvedic medicine.8 But because of difficulties in cultivating it at such high altitudes, its rarity and its environment, spikenard has been deemed as an endangered plant.9

While the name “spikenard” is often associated with Nardostachys jatamansi, it actually shares the same name with the Aralia racemosa, the American counterpart of this Indian herb. They do, however, offer different uses, with American spikenard being primarily used for easing coughs, asthma and arthritis.10

Help boost your brain function and get other benefits from spikenard

Spikenard is mainly utilized for its benefits for neurological and mental conditions, such as epilepsy, insomnia and mental weakness. In modern times it’s also been used to treat disorders of the cardiovascular system.11 Numerous studies have focused on the neuroprotective characteristics12 of this herb, with it being used as an alternative treatment for minimizing symptoms and slowing down the development of both Alzheimer’s13 and Parkinson’s disease.14

Its ability to help alleviate the symptoms of both these diseases is due to its high concentration of sesquiterpenes. These are natural chemicals that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and help fight numerous neurological symptoms.15

But aside from this, spikenard can actually have an effect on a wide range of bodily functions. Some of these health benefits include:


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Other uses of spikenard

While spikenard’s aroma is extremely pleasurable, its uses are not limited to deodorizing. Because of the impressive components of spikenard, you can use the oil or extract in numerous ways, particularly for these conditions:

  • Heart palpitations, convulsions and hysteria — Spikenard oil has both anticonvulsive and anti-arrhythmic activities, which help in reducing heart palpitations and hysteria symptoms.22
  • Premature graying of hair — Spikenard essential oil is used as a hair tonic, promoting hair growth and blackening of hair. It has also been found to improve hair luster.23
  • Painful menstruation and constipation — Spikenard extracts has antispasmodic and stimulant properties, which may help alleviate dysmenorrhea and regulate urination and digestion.24

Tips on growing spikenard

If you want to grow your own spikenard, note that this plant may be extremely picky due to the climate and altitude it’s commonly found in. To start, make sure that you have soil rich in carbon and organic nitrogen. At lower altitudes, spikenard prefers a terrain that has a slight tilt. Locate an area that has moist soil and is partially exposed to sunlight. It’s best that you use a litter treatment with manure to boost the organic content of the soil.

To ensure that you’re getting the spikenard roots that have the highest levels of active compounds, harvest after they become mature, usually in September or October in higher altitudes.25

What is spikenard essential oil and how can you use it?

Spikenard essential oil, which has been used for a variety of applications for hundreds of years, has been used in religious rites. In funerals over 2,000 years ago, it was used to anoint the bodies of the departed, alongside myrrh oil and other oils.26 Today, some of spikenard essential oil’s uses include:

  • Hair growth — The nardin, jatamansic acid and nardal terpenoids found in spikenard essential oil may have a positive effect on hair growth activity.27
  • Skin care — Spikenard oil may be used to help alleviate eczema, skin inflammation, psoriasis and sores.28
  • Wound healing — In a 2017 study from Biochimie Open, spikenard essential oil was found to contain cytotoxic and antiproliferative properties, which promoted anti-inflammatory and tissue remodeling effects on wounds.29

Contraindications for spikenard oil use

While there are no proven side effects caused by spikenard, it is suggested that you seek the opinion of a health care practitioner to see if this herb is recommended for you and whether it will interfere with any medications that you may be taking. For topical application, dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil and test on a small patch of skin to check if it causes an allergic reaction to avoid irritation and scarring.

Breastfeeding mothers should steer clear of this herb because of the possible repercussions it can cause. Spikenard oil use is also highly discouraged for pregnant women because of its supposed effect on menstruation. While it may improve menstrual cycles, spikenard may cause dangerous effects during pregnancy.30

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Kidney stones: What are your treatment options? – Harvard Health Blog

If you’ve been diagnosed with kidney stones (urolithiasis), you may have several options for treatment. These include medical therapy, extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL), percutaneous nephrolithotripsy (PCNL), and ureteroscopy.

A brief anatomy of the urinary tract

The urinary tract includes

  • kidneys (two organs that filter waste and extra water from the blood)
  • ureters (two tubes bringing urine from each kidney to the bladder)
  • bladder (organ that collects urine)
  • urethra (a single tube through which urine in the bladder passes out of the body).

The evaluation for kidney stones

If your symptoms suggest kidney stones, imaging is often the first step in an evaluation. For many years the standard of care was a type of abdominal x-ray called an intravenous pyelogram (IVP). In most medical centers, this has been replaced by a type of computed tomography (CT) called unenhanced helical CT scanning. In some cases, such as when a person has impaired renal function or a contrast dye allergy, renal ultrasound may be used as an alternative.

You will also have blood tests, including tests for renal function (creatinine, BUN). Your doctor may suggest other blood tests as well. A urinalysis will be obtained and if infection is suspected, a urine culture will be sent.

Keeping kidney stone pain under control

If you are experiencing the intense discomfort of kidney stones (renal colic), pain control is a top priority. A 2018 analysis of multiple randomized trials looked at different pain relief medicines given to people treated in the emergency department for acute renal colic. It compared nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen) with paracetamol (similar to acetaminophen) or opioids. The study found NSAIDs offered effective pain relief with fewer side effects than paracetamol or opioids. NSAIDs directly inhibit the synthesis of prostaglandins, which decreases activation of pain receptors and reduces renal blood flow and ureteral contractions.

Medical therapy for kidney stones

Most evidence suggests that stones less than 10 mm in diameter have a reasonable chance of passing through the urinary tract spontaneously. You may be offered medical expulsive therapy (MET) using an alpha blocker medication, such as tamsulosin. It’s important to understand that this is an off-label use of the drug. Rarely, tamsulosin causes a condition called intraoperative floppy iris syndrome that can complicate cataract surgery.

Not all experts feel MET is worthwhile, and its use remains controversial. Discuss your options with your doctor or a urologist.

Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy

All shock wave lithotripsy machines deliver shock waves through the skin to the stone in the kidney. Most but not all of the energy from the shock wave is delivered to the stone.

Stone size is the greatest predictor of ESWL success. Generally:

  • stones less than 10 mm in size can be successfully treated
  • for stones 10 to 20 mm in size, additional factors such as stone composition and stone location should be considered
  • stones larger than 20 mm are usually not successfully treated with ESWL.

Stones in the lower third of the kidney can also be problematic because, after fragmentation, the stone fragments may not be cleared from the kidney. Due to gravity, these fragments don’t pass out of the kidney as easily as fragments from the middle and upper thirds of the kidney.

Obesity also influences whether ESWL treatment will be successful. The urologist will calculate the skin-to-stone distance (SSD) to help determine whether this treatment is likely to be effective.

The possible complications of ESWL include:

  • Injury to kidney tissue, such as bruising (hematoma), can occur in a small number of cases, but usually heals without additional treatment.
  • Fragmented stones may accumulate in the ureter and form an obstruction. This is known as a steinstrasse (“street of stones”). A ureteral stent often minimizes any problems associated with steinstrasse. The stent is removed in a few days or weeks.
  • A small percentage of patients undergoing ESWL develop hypertension, although the mechanism is not well understood.
  • An increased risk of diabetes mellitus following ESWL has also been reported. However, these results were not confirmed by a large population study done at the same institution.

Percutaneous nephrolithotripsy

Using ultrasound or fluoroscopic guidance, a surgeon gains access to kidney stones through a small incision in the lower back during percutaneous nephrolithotripsy. A power source, such as ultrasound or laser, breaks the stones into fragments, which are flushed out of the kidney through an external tube or internal stent.

This treatment is usually considered for larger kidney stones (2 cm or more), complex stones, or lower pole renal stones larger than 1 cm. Possible complications may include bleeding, infection, and injury to surrounding organs.


During ureteroscopy, a surgeon places a tube through the urethra and bladder into the ureter, possibly going all the way up into the kidney. Ureteroscopy employs either semirigid or flexible instruments through which the surgeon has an excellent view of everything inside the urethra. The surgeon then uses a power source threaded up through the ureteroscope to fragment the stones under direct visualization. A postoperative stent can be placed for a few days at the discretion of the urologist.

Complications are infrequent, but may include injury to or narrowing of the ureter, as well as sepsis.

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Study Casts Doubt on Safety of Herbal Drug Kratom

“The risk for things like serious respiratory depression is probably less with kratom than it is with other opioids,” Eggleston said. “We saw a very low incidence of this in our data.”

However, other studies also have shown that users can experience withdrawal symptoms, Eggleston said.

“That suggests that patients could develop a dependence or a substance use disorder, as you would with other opioids,” Eggleston said. “To me, that exceeds what I would consider a reasonable risk for an herbal supplement you can buy at a local convenience store or head shop.”

Kratom proponents argue that the new study is flawed because it relies on poison control and medical examiner data, which tags kratom as the main suspect and could fail to consider other possible explanations.

“If a person dies and the tox screen identifies kratom in the bloodstream, that is labeled as a kratom-associated death,” said Mac Haddow, a senior fellow on public policy at the American Kratom Association. “It is just as plausible you could identify caffeine in the bloodstream as a result of drinking a cup of coffee that morning.”

Susruta Majumdar, an associate professor with the St. Louis College of Pharmacy in Missouri, said the new study adds a bit more evidence regarding kratom’s safety, but agreed that its reliance on poison control center data makes for a flawed approach.

Based on available data, Majumdar said, kratom probably is safer that prescription and illicit opioids, but “I think we are getting to a point where we can say it’s addictive.”

Majumdar added that he believes kratom-related deaths are not caused by kratom alone, but kratom combined with other substances.

“People are on multiple drugs, and it’s the synergy between those drugs that is causing the toxicity,” Majumdar said.

Eggleston said he does not advocate a ban on kratom, since studies suggest it might have a role in treating chronic pain and addiction.

Instead, clinical trials are needed to assess kratom’s usefulness and establish its safety at certain doses, Eggleston said.

“Our research is not coming from a place where we want to hinder access,” Eggleston said. “We want the public to have all the information they need and be transparent, so they know what works and what’s safe.”

The study findings were published July 9 in the journal Pharmacotherapy.

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Lego Exhibits Life-Size Moonwalker Model at Apollo 50 Festival

Lego Group’s Apollo 11 lunar module pilot model was built from 30,000 bricks to celebrate the first moon landing. 

(Image credit: LEGO)

Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuit has gone to pieces. Lego pieces, that is.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, a team of Lego Master Builders spent nearly 300 hours designing and building a life-size model of the lunar module pilot and the iconic A7L spacesuit that he wore on July 20, 1969 at Tranquility Base. Built from 30,000 Lego bricks, the model debuted to the public on Thursday (July 18) at the Apollo 50 Festival hosted by the Smithsonian and NASA on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

“For nearly 20 years, NASA and Lego Group have collaborated on projects to inspire the next generation to imagine and build their future in space,” said Bettina Inclán, NASA’s associate administrator for communications, in a statement issued by Lego. “Our latest efforts celebrate the incredible feats we achieved during Apollo 50 years ago.”

Related: Lego’s Epic Apollo 11 Lunar Lander Set in Photos!

The model, which stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall (190.5 centimeters), uses 10 different colors of Lego bricks to replicate the spacesuit’s details, including red and blue for the anodized aluminum connectors and gray for the lunar dust that was picked up while walking on the moon. The model also reproduces the reflection in Aldrin’s visor showing the lunar module Eagle, the American flag and mission commander Neil Armstrong.

In addition to viewing the completed spacesuit model, Lego is also inviting the public to help build another large-scale project during the four-day Apollo 50 Festival. Attendees can assist in the construction of a 20-foot-tall (6-meter) model of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the space agency’s rocket being built to fly the next crews to leave low Earth orbit.

A closeup of Lego’s Apollo 11 lunar module pilot (Buzz Aldrin) unveiled for the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

(Image credit: LEGO)

“Under our new Artemis lunar exploration program, NASA will send the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024 and then we will get ready to take our next giant leap human missions to Mars!” said Inclán.

The Lego display at the Apollo 50 Festival also offers the public the chance to take photos with Lego brick-built mosaics of the moon and Mars.

The activities kick off a month of worldwide events organized by Lego to inspire the next chapter of space exploration, informed by the results of a global survey of children aged eight to 12 years old.

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The NASA Apollo 11 Lunar Lander includes two minifigures, a lunar surface base and new-for-Lego gold-colored brick pieces.

(Image credit: Lego)

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Deep Space Rocket and Launch Control

Lego’s Deep Space Rocket and Launch Control kit.

(Image credit: Lego)

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People Pack -Space Research and Development

Lego’s People Pack — Space Research and Development.

(Image credit: Lego)

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Rocket Assembly & Transport kit

Lego’s Rocket Assembly & Transport kit.

(Image credit: Lego)

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Satellite Service Mission

Lego’s Satellite Service Mission kit.

(Image credit: Lego)

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Rover Testing Drive

Lego’s Rover Testing Drive kit.

(Image credit: Lego)

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Lunar Space Station

Lego’s Lunar Space Station kit.

(Image credit: Lego)

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Mars Research Shuttle

Lego’s Mars Research Shuttle kit.

(Image credit: Lego)

According to a Harris Poll/Lego survey conducted in the United States, United Kingdom and China, most kids (88% in the US, 87% in UK, 79% in China) can identify Neil Armstrong as the first person to walk on the moon when presented as a multiple choice question. Nearly all children aged eight to 12 from China (97%), US (88%) and UK (87%) envision a human going to Mars in the future.

“We are thrilled that children continue to be interested in space exploration and can’t wait to witness their ‘small steps’ and ‘giant leaps’ in decades to come,” said Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for Lego Systems, Inc. “For 40 years we have offered creative play opportunities designed to foster children’s interest in space exploration.”

Beyond the Apollo 50 Festival, Lego is also honoring the moon landing by the display of one of the tallest Lego rockets ever assembled in Canada. From now through Sept. 2, the Ontario Science Centre will exhibit the model, which stands more than 11 feet tall (3 meters) and is built from more than 80,000 bricks. The towering rocket features built-in lights, sound and a fog machine for a smoke effect that gives the appearance the rocket is blasting off.

Lego also recently released a new collection of building sets inspired by NASA’s designs for exploring the moon and Mars.

Related: New Lego Space Sets Take Kids to Mars, Brick by Brick

“Ensuring that building sets, such as the new Lego City Mars Exploration, feature realistic details may further assist kids’ understanding of the influence that human space travel has had on their everyday lives and to enable kids to see themselves playing a part in future missions,” said McNally.

Click through to collectSPACE to watch a timelapse of Lego’s Apollo 11 astronaut build.

Follow collectSPACE.com on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2019 collectSPACE.com. All rights reserved.

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Permanent liquid magnets have now been created in the lab

The rules about what makes a good magnet may not be as rigid as scientists thought. Using a mixture containing magnetic nanoparticles, researchers have now created liquid droplets that behave like tiny bar magnets.  

Magnets that generate persistent magnetic fields typically are composed of solids like iron, where the magnetic poles of densely packed atoms are all locked in the same direction (SN: 2/17/18, p. 18). While some liquids containing magnetic particles can become magnetized when placed in a magnetic field, the magnetic orientations of those free-floating particles tend to get jumbled when the field goes away — causing the liquid to lose its magnetism. 

Now, adding certain polymers to their recipe has allowed researchers to concoct permanently magnetized liquid droplets. These tiny, moldable magnets, described in the July 19 Science, could be used to build soft robots or capsules that can be magnetically steered through the body to deliver drugs to specific cells. 

To make liquid magnets, the team submerged millimeter-sized droplets of a watery solution containing iron-oxide nanoparticles in oil peppered with polymers. Those polymers drew many of the magnetic nanoparticles to the droplets’ surfaces and pinned them there, forming a densely packed shell of nanoparticles around each particle-rich droplet. 

Exposing one of these droplets to a magnetic field forces the magnetic poles of its nanoparticles to point in the same direction. Nanoparticles on the droplet’s surface are crowded so closely that, when the magnetic field shuts off, their magnetic orientations can’t jostle out of alignment, the team found. 

What’s more, the surface particles’ collective magnetism is strong enough to keep nanoparticles free-floating throughout the rest of the droplet in line. “So the whole droplet behaves like a solid magnet,” says study coauthor Xubo Liu, a materials scientist at Beijing University of Chemical Technology. 

ROUND AND ROUND Three permanently magnetized liquid droplets floating in oil spin in response to a rotating magnetic field, wrapping orange dye around themselves.

Like conventional bar magnets, the droplets’ opposite poles attract and their matching poles repel, and dividing up a single magnetized droplet produces smaller pieces with their own north and south poles. Liu and colleagues fashioned simple, spherical and cylindrical droplets, but 3-D printing or molding techniques could create malleable magnets with more complex forms, Liu says. 

Liquid magnets could help soft robots get around, says Remi Dreyfus, a chemical physicist with the French national research agency CNRS, who is currently conducting research at a joint CNRS-Solvay-University of Pennsylvania lab in Bristol, Pa. Rather than rely on inflatable air pouches or electric current to move — which tether robots to wires or tubes — bots injected with liquid magnetic material could be remotely controlled with magnetic fields (SN Online: 9/19/18). 

These droplets might also be combined to manufacture new kinds of materials, such as magnetic sponges or stretchy polymers, says Dreyfus, whose commentary on the study appears in the same issue of Science. “I’m sure people will have many ideas” for how to put ultrasoft magnets to work, he says. 

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Climate Change Will Strain Federal Finances

The federal government is ill-prepared to shoulder what could be a trillion-dollar fiscal crisis associated with extreme weather, floods, wildfires and other climate disasters through 2100, federal investigators have found.

In the latest of a series of reports, the Government Accountability Office says that costs of disaster assistance to taxpayers since 2005 have swelled to nearly $500 billion—and they keep getting higher.

“The federal budget, however, does not generally account for disaster assistance provided by Congress or the long-term impacts of climate change on existing federal infrastructure and programs,” GAO found in the 16-page report, which was presented as testimony to Congress by Alfredo Gómez, director of the office’s natural resources and environment team.

Moreover, the government “does not have certain information needed by policymakers to help understand the budgetary impacts of such exposure,” GAO found.

The findings follow a dramatic escalation in federal spending on disaster assistance since 2005. Much of that money—upward of $450 billion—has been appropriated under supplemental spending packages following disasters rather than through the normal budgetary process.

In 2018, Congress approved $91 billion in disaster spending to help communities recover from hurricanes, floods, wildfire and drought. The outflow of disaster dollars has continued into 2019; Congress has passed bills authorizing an additional $19.1 billion, according to federal figures.

The growing frequency and intensity of disasters is being felt in every region of the country and across a broad cross-section of the economy, from energy and real estate to farming and fisheries.

The report includes 21 examples of climate change’s economic impacts, most of which will place additional strain on federal resources. They include infrastructure damage in coastal zones from sea-level rise and storm surges, increased heat-related mortality in the Southeast and Midwest, changes in water supply and demand in the West, and decreased agricultural yields in the southern Plains and Southwest.

GAO also identified two types of potential benefits from climate change: fewer deaths from cold weather in the Upper Midwest and improved agricultural yields in the northern Great Plains and parts of the Northwest, mainly associated with longer growing seasons.

Financial exposure to climate disasters will be felt hardest in three pots of government spending: disaster response, flood and crop insurance, and operation and management of federally owned property and public lands.

Investigators noted that the National Flood Insurance Program, for example, owes the U.S. Treasury $21 billion associated with massive payouts to flood victims dating back to 2005.

Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in May 2019 that federal crop insurance would cost the government an average of about $8 billion annually from 2019 through 2029 due to worsening floods, droughts and other climate stressors.

Federal properties, like Tyndall Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle, are also facing increased financial exposure from hurricanes and other extreme weather events, GAO said. Hurricane Michael virtually destroyed Tyndall in 2018, and its reconstruction is estimated to cost more than $4 billion (Climatewire, July 3).

Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst and expert on climate adaptation and resilience at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said GAO’s findings are consistent with previous warnings from financial experts that the costs of climate disasters are far exceeding the government’s ability to pay.

Federal agencies “are still treating these disasters as random events. We just throw a bunch of money at them after the fact and assume they won’t happen again. The problem is we’re having these types of disasters every year now,” Moore said.

Spending hundreds of billions of dollars in disaster-specific supplemental relief cannot continue, he added.

“We need to both start accounting for the growing need to respond to disasters within the regular appropriations process,” Moore said. “More importantly, we need to start making investments that reduce our exposure and vulnerability to these types of damages.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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How Long Would It Take to Bicycle to the Moon?

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to step onto the surface of the moon. I still find that amazing—both the moon landing and the fact that it was half a century ago. In honor of that historic occasion, and mindful of our carbon footprint as plans develop for a return trip, I thought I would estimate how long it might take to get there by bike.

What? Yup. As President John F. Kennedy said, we do such things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. They bring up some great physics questions too! I’ll walk you through the basics, and then I’ll leave you some questions for homework.

Let’s just get some implementation issues out of the way. We’d need to string a cable between Earth and the moon, obviously. And you, if you chose to accept this mission, would have a nifty white NASA bike with special grippy wheels to ride along the cable. (We’ll assume no energy loss to friction.) The wheels only roll one way, so you won’t come crashing down if you pause to rest.

Just to be clear, this scheme wouldn’t have worked out timewise for the Apollo program. Kennedy vowed to put a person on the moon before the 1960s decade was out, and as it was, NASA barely made it. Luckily, it took the Apollo 11 spacecraft just four days to get there. Making the trip by bike would have blown through that deadline. But exactly how late would would we have been?

Getting off the ground

For starters, we need some facts to work with. First, how far away is the moon? Since the moon’s orbit around Earth isn’t perfectly circular, there’s no one answer. But let’s go with an average distance of 240,000 miles (386,000 km)—that’s the number I think about when my car is getting old. Once I hit 240,000 on the odometer, I know I’ve gone far enough to reach the moon.

So you might think, OK, a human can pedal 15 miles per hour; I can use that to calculate the duration of the trip. Nope. You might be able to do that on a nice flat road, but in this case, you’d riding uphill—like, straight up. To add another complication, as you get farther and farther away from Earth, the gravitational field gradually weakens. Eventually, you’d be close enough to the moon that it would become a downhill ride and you could just coast.

Instead of estimating speed, I’m going to estimate the power output of a human. If you are a Tour de France cyclist, you might be able to produce 200 watts for six hours a day. (Check out Ben King’s stage 4 ride on Strava.) I’ll use that value for now; you can change it later if you’re not an elite-level cyclist.

Now, how long would it take to move up a short distance Δy on your special moon-cable bike? Let’s say the gravitational field has a strength g (in newtons per kilogram). The change in gravitational potential energy (Ug) for this short climb would be:

Rhett Allain

In this expression, m is the mass of the human (in kilo­grams). Since power (P) is the change in energy divided by the change in time, I can use my power estimate to find the time (Δt) it takes to move up a little bit:

Rhett Allain

Why am I using a short distance? It will be clear soon. First, a quick check: Suppose the human has a mass of 75 kg (165 pounds) and a power output of 200 watts. How long would it take to move up 1 meter? With those numbers, I get a time of 3.675 seconds.

Does that seem too long? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s true you could move up 1 meter of height on some stairs in, like, a second. But you’d be using way more than 200 watts of power. Imagine trying to keep up that pace for six hours straight. Yeah, so this expression looks good.

Dealing with changing gravity

Can we just do this same thing for the entire trip to the moon? No. The problem is that g factor. It might feel like gravity doesn’t change as you climb up some stairs, but that’s just because you wimped out before you really got anywhere. The gravitational field weakens as the distance from Earth’s center increases. We can find the (vector) value of the gravitational field with the following equation:

Rhett Allain

In this diagram, if you’re that gray dot out in space, we can calculate the gravitational force at that point using the equation on the right. G is a universal gravitational constant, ME is the mass of Earth, and r is a vector from Earth’s center to you.

But wait! It’s not just Earth that has gravity. The moon does too, so I need to add another term to my equation. Let’s say the moon has a mass of mm, and the distance from Earth to the moon is R. Now I can compute the total gravitational field:

Rhett Allain

I am sort of cheating by making the component of g due to Earth positive, but this way it will match the value on the surface of Earth from my previous calculation. Here’s a plot of the magnitude of this gravitational field going from Earth to the moon. (Here is the code.)

Rhett Allain

Starting on Earth, the gravitational field is 9.8 N/kg (and that’s good). On the surface of the moon, the gravitational field is in the opposite direction with a magnitude of 1.6 N/kg. That checks out too: The moon’s gravitational field strength is about a sixth of that on Earth.

But for most of the trip, the effects of gravity aren’t zero, but they’re pretty small. Getting started would be the hard part, till you get up to about, oh, 10,000 miles, where Earth’s gravitational pull is only 10 percent of what it is on the ground. That might seem far, but remember it’s 240,000 miles to the moon. And after that, you can really pick up speed. Finally, at the very end, it’s an easy downhill to the lunar surface. Maybe a little too easy—more on that in a minute.

Your estimated time of arrival

Now that I have an expression for the gravitational field, I can repeat my calculation for travel time based on the human power output—this time recalculating g for each small step along the way. Here’s what I get for distance traveled as a function of time. It’s not the whole trip, just up to the point where the ride switches to “downhill.” (Here is the code.)

Rhett Allain

I’m actually surprised: It would only take 267 days. That’s less than I figured! Taking our distance of 240,000 miles, that works out to an average speed of 37 mph. Of course, that is 267 days of pedaling 24/7 at a considerable level of exertion. If instead you pedaled for six hours a day, it would take four times as long—so that’s almost three years, and it’s not even all the way to the moon.

What about the rest of the trip? One option would be to just stop pedaling. You would mostly continue along at the same speed until you were much closer to the moon—but that’s still pretty fast. Once you reached the surface of the moon, you would sort of crash. But how fast would this be? Here is a plot of bike speed as a function of time:

Rhett Allain

Yup. That’s a fast moon bike—super fast. Sometime around day 258 you’d hit 100 meters per second, which is about 220 miles per hour. A week or so later you’d really be making good time, up to 1,000 m/s (2,200 mph).

When the gravitational field gets really small, all of the biker’s energy just goes into increasing the speed. But really, there is an error in my model that would make it even faster (probably). My calculations consider all of the energy from the human going into gravitational potential energy to increase distance. But when the gravitational field is low, it really doesn’t take much time to move “up”—so you end up super fast. This model doesn’t directly take into account the changes in kinetic energy, and it assumes the rider starts with a zero velocity at the beginning of each step. But I still think the overall time calculation seems legit.

I guess it’s a good thing the NASA astronauts used a rocket instead of a bike, though. Now for some homework.


  • Where is the point at which the total gravitational field has a zero magnitude? This shouldn’t be too difficult.
  • In my calculation, I used a rider mass of 75 kg. That’s crazy small, as it doesn’t include the mass of the bike. What if you change the total rider mass to 100 kg or maybe even 200 kg? How does that change the travel time?
  • You can’t ride that long without eating. Using a rider mass of 100 kg, how many sandwiches would need to be consumed to get to the moon?
  • Since you can’t just pull over at a Denny’s or something to eat, you’ll have to bring the sandwiches with you. How much does that increase total mass?
  • Why is there a cable running from Earth to the moon? Estimate the amount of steel needed to make a cable like this.
  • The Earth-moon system is not stationary. Instead, it rotates. How would this rotation change the time needed to get to the moon on a bike?
  • Come up with a plan for landing on the moon. How fast would you travel? When would you slow down? How much energy would need to be dissipated (in some form)?

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AI is Coming Closer to Deciphering Lost Languages

Egyptian hieroglyphics on stone artifact
Researchers had a lucky break that helped them crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics, like the ones shown on this artifact. But many lost languages remain undeciphered, with no Rosetta Stone to point the way. (Credit: Zoran Karapancev/shutterstock)

Since the invention of writing several thousands of years ago, humans have come up with myriad scripts that turn the phonetic sounds of spoken languages into something visual. Most of these written languages have already been deciphered, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to Maya inscriptions to ancient Chinese writing.

In some cases, linguists have simply gotten lucky when it came to breaking the code of lost languages — the Rosetta Stone, for example. Other times, they’ve spent years deciphering subtle patterns in the arrangement of letters within words and words within texts to unlock the keys.

But a few lost languages still trouble epigraphers, those who study ancient inscriptions. For example, the writings of the Olmec and Zapotec are still a mystery, as is the ancient Proto-Elamite script of Mesopotamia. The most notable undeciphered language may be the writings of the Indus Valley civilization, which has seen numerous decoding attempts, none yet successful.

Today, frustrated historians have another tool at their disposal: artificial intelligence. New advances, both in computing and linguistics, are making it possible for algorithms to begin decoding ancient languages. The latest push comes from a team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory as well as Google Brain, an artificial intelligence project. They’ve devised an algorithm that can begin to match words from unknown languages to related words, or cognates, in languages that share the same root. Though the algorithm, published in the preprint server the arXiv, has yet to tackle a truly undeciphered language, it’s a promising step forward.

Language Class

Taking on ancient languages with AI does pose some unique problems, though. Machine learning algorithms are usually trained on massive datasets that they mine in order to learn through associations. Most ancient scripts have only a limited number of samples, making it difficult to feed an algorithm enough data for it to learn.

The process of training an algorithm also involves comparing its answers to known values. When a language is entirely undeciphered, however, this is impossible. You can’t tell an algorithm “Yes, that is a bike,” or “No, that word does not mean ‘stop’” if you don’t know what any of it means.

So, the researchers had to devise other methods of learning. They trained their algorithm using a language that shares a root with the undeciphered script, and paired that with theories about how languages evolve over time from linguistics research. The idea was to find words in the known language that were similar, both in terms of the characters they used and their context within the broader script, to words from the unknown language.

Matching Game

The two languages they used for their research, Linear B and Ugaritic, aren’t technically undeciphered, as both have been largely translated. But, they’re good training tools. The researchers’ algorithm edged past previous efforts, identifying cognates in Ugaritic some 5 percent better than before, and correctly translating over two-thirds of cognates in Linear B.

While the algorithm may not be unlocking Proto-Elamite anytime soon, it is an achievement in one important way. Linear B was used for writing in early Mycenaean (CQ????) Greece beginning around 1450 B.C. It shares no linguistic roots with Ugaritic, which comes from Mesopotamia and is even older. That means the AI needed to parse completely different language systems using a single approach. That’s a difficult task in linguistics, where most scripts require unique tactics to decipher. Finding a single method that’s generalizable to multiple scripts would make the work much quicker.

It may not be soon, but the few still-mysterious ancient languages out there will certainly be cracked open one day. Whether that’s by human hands or computer circuits is currently an open question.

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A New Paper Says That One Dark Matter Candidate Hasn’t Killed Anyone

We may not know what dark matter is, but one thing we do know: it doesn’t appear to have killed anyone by slamming into them – an event that would, at the very least, result in serious injury.


So you can scratch that one off your list of things to worry about in this worrisome world. Which is great and all, but was not the purpose of the pre-print paper that describes these findings.

According to physicists Jagjit Singh Sidhu and Glenn Starkman of Case Western Reserve University, and Robert Scherrer of Vanderbilt University, the fact that no one has died of a dark matter impact allows us to apply constraints to the mysterious stuff itself.

“Our results,” they report, “open a new window on dark matter: the human body as a dark matter detector.”

On the surface, this sounds like some pretty out-there science; for now, we can all read their paper – titled “Death By Dark Matter” – on the pre-print website arXiv, until the scientific community and peer review gives it a closer look, too.

Dark matter continues to be a thorn in the side of cosmology. We know there is something out there generating more gravity than can be accounted for by detectable matter. In fact, the way stars and galaxies move indicates that up to 85 percent of the matter in the Universe is this mysterious undetectable mass. So, we call it dark matter.


Researchers have some pretty whizz-bang detectors out there on the hunt for dark matter, and they have shown us some pretty amazing things. But to date, there have been no conclusive detections of the stuff itself.

Another way to go looking for something is to figure out what it isn’t. That’s where asking if dark matter has slammed into people like mysterious ghost space bullets could be a valuable question.

Macroscopic, or macro dark matter in particular refers to dark matter candidates that would elastically scatter off normal matter across a wide geometric cross-section.

According to the team’s calculations, it’s particles of this dark matter – which they refer to as “macros” – that you wouldn’t want to be smacked with.

“The closest analogy to a macro collision with a human being is a gunshot wound,” the physicists write.

“Note that we are working with a very different range of projectile sizes and velocities from typical bullets. Macros typically have hypersonic velocities but very small geometric cross-sections in our parameter range of interest (as small as 1 micron).


“Hence, their destructive effect is likely to be qualitatively different from that of a bullet; a macro impact typically heats the cylinder of tissue carved out along its path to a temperature of 10 million Kelvin, resulting in an expanding cylinder of plasma inside the body.”

Wait. What.

It’s okay though. Even using a much more conservative benchmark for the effects – the muzzle energy of a .22 rifle – no macro-related deaths were observed over a 10-year period across Europe, the United States, and Canada.

These results constrain macros that may be detectable here on Earth to below a physical size of a few microns, and a mass of about 50 kilograms. The effect on the human body of macros smaller than that is yet to be investigated, but it’s possible that this, too, could be constrained in the future.

As for other dark matter candidates, some of those are yet to be explored; although two separate papers have found that weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, are very unlikely to be causing cancer in humans.

We’ll all be sleeping sounder for that piece of information.

The team’s paper can be found on the pre-print website arXiv.


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