Earth may have underground ‘ocean’ three times that on surface

After decades of searching scientists have discovered that a vast reservoir of water, enough to fill the Earth’s oceans three times over, may be trapped hundreds of miles beneath the surface, potentially transforming our understanding of how the planet was formed.

The water is locked up in a mineral called ringwoodite about 660km (400 miles) beneath the crust of the Earth, researchers say. Geophysicist Steve Jacobsen from Northwestern University in the US co-authored the studypublished in the journal Science and said the discovery suggested Earth’s water may have come from within, driven to the surface by geological activity, rather than being deposited by icy comets hitting the forming planet as held by the prevailing theories.

“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” Jacobsen said.

“I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

Jacobsen and his colleagues are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in an area of the Earth’s mantle known as the transition zone. They based their findings on a study of a vast underground region extending across most of the interior of the US.

Ringwoodite acts like a sponge due to a crystal structure that makes it attract hydrogen and trap water.

If just 1% of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone was water it would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, Jacobsen said.

The study used data from the USArray, a network of seismometers across the US that measure the vibrations of earthquakes, combined with Jacobsen’s lab experiments on rocks simulating the high pressures found more than 600km underground.

It produced evidence that melting and movement of rock in the transition zone – hundreds of kilometres down, between the upper and lower mantles – led to a process where water could become fused and trapped in the rock.

The discovery is remarkable because most melting in the mantle was previously thought to occur at a much shallower distance, about 80km below the Earth’s surface.

Jacobsen told the New Scientist that the hidden water might also act as a buffer for the oceans on the surface, explaining why they have stayed the same size for millions of years. “If [the stored water] wasn’t there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountaintops would be the only land poking out,” he said.


How Ant Colonies Foreshadow the Future of Facebook

They call it “the anternet.”

In 2012, Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon, Ph.D., discovered that the behavior of harvester ant colonies mirrors the fundamental Internet technology known as Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP.

TCP controls the flow of information online by preventing data transmission bottlenecks and the Internet from coming to a mighty, screeching halt. Basically, when fewer people are online, information return is faster. When more people are online, it slows.

Upon observing the scavenging habits of harvester ants, Gordon found that ant colonies are controlled by the same concept. After discovering a large supply of food, more ants leave the colony. When food is scarce, the number of foragers is restricted.

In his New York Times bestseller, Breakpoint, author Jeff Stibel reflects upon the similarities between the Internet and biological networks like ant colonies to make predictions about the future of social networks like Facebook.

“When you look at the most powerful things in biology, in nature and in technology, they’re always networks of things. They’re not individuals,” Stibel tells Mashable

“Biology is technology. It’s notlike technology, it istechnology.”

“Biology is technology. It’s not like technology, it is technology.”


Stibel, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur, knows his way around biological processes and the web. Like an ant colony, he believes, Facebook succeeds only through the combined interaction of individuals. As an ant’s survival depends on its colony, a Facebook user’s social experience is dependent on his friend network.

According to Stibel, all networks — natural or digital — share very similar life cycles. They begin with what’s called “hypergrowth.”

“In nature, all species multiply as much as resources allow,” Stibel writes in Breakpoint. “The same is true of technology and business: If you don’t dominate a market, you give potential upstarts an opportunity to grow and eventually compete with you.”

As Facebook strives to grow as much of a user base as possible — now with over 1.15 billion active monthly visitors — ant colonies rapidly lay eggs and consume their environment’s resources. And both networks have the same motivation: keeping others from taking their place.

“In hypergrowth, you want to grow as fast as you can and let nothing stand in your way,” says Stibel. “Don’t charge, don’t encumber, do nothing to hinder your growth. Because if you do, a competitor’s going to jump in and steal it.”

Harvester ant colonies grow to about 12,000 to 15,000 individuals during hypergrowth. At this point, the sheer amount of ants in the colony begins to inhibit communication. The network can no longer operate efficiently. This stage, Stibel says, is known as the breakpoint.

According to Stibel, networks face two choices during the breakpoint: keep growing or allow the breakpoint to force them down.

“The paradox is that forcing yourself to continue to grow will do more damage than allowing the breakpoint to take effect,” says Stibel. 

“All breakpoints are elastic. The further you go beyond the breakpoint, the harder your collapse.”

“All breakpoints are elastic. The further you go beyond the breakpoint, the harder your collapse.”


In response to hitting their breakpoint, ant colonies shrink down to 10,000 individuals around their fifth year. Other ants are sent off to begin new colonies in new locations. This colony shedding prevents the larger loss that result from starvation and overcrowding, if the network didn’t brace for its breakpoint.

According to Stibel, failed web and social networks are just like ant colonies that didn’t brace for the impact.

“The number of networks that make it to a breakpoint, out of hypergrowth, are virtually zero. Every one of these networks — — they all collapsed. They’re all fractions of their former selves or they’re out of business.”

Halting growth and allowing users to leave seems adverse to the basic idea of social networking and Metcalfe’s law: a cardinal Internet belief system which states, basically, that bigger is better.

“Bigger is better, up to a point. And that point is the breakpoint, where you hit this critical mass. Where you’ve consumed, effectively, all of the oxygen that can be consumed,” says Stibel. “If you’re Facebook, you’ve got all the people on the network starting to intertwine and get tangled. If you’re an ant colony, you’ve got about 10,000 to 12,000 ants in the colony before all of a sudden they start interfering with each other. At some point, in both examples, the communication just becomes noise.”

After breakpoint comes equilibrium. According to Stibel, successful networks see only a small collapse after reaching their breakpoint, through which a more optimized network with faster communication emerges.

Ant Colony

Image: Flickr, BBMexplorer

“It seems paradoxical, but equilibrium is where the real magic happens,”

“It seems paradoxical, but equilibrium is where the real magic happens,” says Stibel. “It’s where intelligent networks get smart, and where business networks start making a lot of money.”


A business network in equilibrium boasts a captive audience. The network is so robust and interwoven in users’ lives that they can’t help but stay on. In equilibrium, the network can begin charging, promoting more advertisements or even selling users’ data — if it chooses. The majority of users will likely be willing to comply in order to stay connected.

“You can do all manner of things because the benefits so far outweigh the negatives that we’re willing to risk privacy to go on the web,” says Stibel. “We’re willing to risk someone listening to our calls to use a cellphone.”

Stibel applies the breakpoint theory to the most popular social network: Facebook.

“I think Facebook is at its breakpoint in many, many markets,” he says. “In the markets that they’ve penetrated, they have saturated. We’ve gotten to a point where there are too many users, there are too many connections between users, and something has to be done to cull it.”

Zuckerberg, says Stibel, understands this. The growth of Facebook looks very similar to that of Gordon’s ant colony.

“They started in Harvard, got about 80% penetration, then they moved to MIT. Then to just the Ivy league schools, then all colleges. It took them three years to open up to the world, each time dominating the market,” he says. “Now that they’ve opened up to the world, they have to make a decision about whether they want to keep pushing past the breakpoint — which is dangerous as all hell — or reap the benefits of a network in equilibrium.”

In equilibrium, says Stibel, Facebook would optimally offer a smaller number of connections, allowing users to more dynamically know what’s going on in their closest friends’ lives. Rather than be bombarded with information from hundreds of users that you don’t know well, relationships would be weighted, giving users the information they want, when they want it.

Facebook should be listening to those users who say, “I don’t like Facebook anymore,” he adds. Those might be the ones who realize the system is breaking.

“In the United States — and I can’t say this more directly — Facebook has to shrink. It has to shrink in terms of connections and in terms of users, or it will implode.”

Stibel can’t predict what direction Facebook will take, but he does offer up some advice for social networks of the future: Look to nature, not to the web.

“We forget that the original engineering is biology; it’s evolution. And we have a lot more to learn from this biology — whether it’s us, ants, termites, whatever — than we could hope to learn from the Facebooks and the Myspaces and the Yahoos of the world. Because they’ve only been around for what, a dozen years?”

The Physics of Keeping Cool

Refrigeration: the process of decreasing the temperature of some thing (my definition). Air conditioning (AC) can be a form of refrigeration.

There are several ways to reduce the temperature of things – like a person or a beer. The history and physics of cooling things can be quite interesting. I’m not a historian, so I am only going to speculate on the timeline of events in the life of refrigeration. However, I feel comfortable explaining the physics in each method.

Humans Discover Sweat

Humans just can’t help it. Sometimes they get hot. But alas! Humans have a built in cooling systems. It’s called sweat. In order to understand how it works, maybe we should first look at temperature. You can measure the temperature in Celsius (°C) or Fahrenheit (°F), but what are you actually measuring?

If I were to give a simple definition of temperature, I would say that it is a measure of the average motion energy of the particles that make up that object. That’s not a perfect definition, but I think it will be fine for now. This means that when you cool something, you decrease the average motion energy (kinetic energy) of its particles.

How does sweat cool you off? It works through the evaporation of water. Let me explain. Suppose we have some water at room temperature (about 23°C). This means that the water molecules in this group of water has an average kinetic energy of some value (it doesn’t matter how much). But not all water molecules are the same. Instead there is a distribution of kinetic energies. Some molecules are moving quite slow and some are moving very fast. It’s possible that these very fast (and few) molecules can escape the liquid water and become gas water (we call it water vapor). What’s left is a water but now with a lower average kinetic energy since the highest KE molecules just left. Here is an older much more detailed post about evaporation.

If this water is a bead of sweat on the skin of a human, the water can be colder than the skin and cool it off through conduction (which I will talk about next).

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This sweaty boy is hot and sweaty after soccer practice. Image: Rhett Allain

Oh, important thing to notice. If your body sweat is working correctly, all of this water-sweat your body produces will evaporate and you will be dry (but still stinky). In very humid regions, the sweat-water doesn’t completely evaporate and you are still stinky.

Cooling by evaporation isn’t just for living things. You can actually use something like this to cool off something in your house. Here is a video I made showing this effect with a wet cloth and water bottle. Oh, you can even use hot water on the wet cloth and it will still cool down the water bottle (or beer).

Really, you should try that experiment at home. It’s awesome.

Humans Learn to Store Ice

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that in the winter, there is ice on the lakes but not in the summer (unless you are in that movie my kids love – Frozen). What if we just take that ice and store it somewhere so it doesn’t melt so fast? Then, in the summer we can bring out out to make lemonade?

That’s pretty much exactly what happened.

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Water is something else you can get cold, but it’s not as good as beer.Image: Rhett Allain

How does ice cool things down? This is called heat conduction. The basic idea is that when two objects are in contact, there will be a transfer of energy from the hotter object to the cooler object until the two reach the same temperature. This leads me to my favorite definition of temperature.


That definition seems so obscure, but it’s actually a fine way to put it.

Back to ice. Ice doesn’t just cool by contact. Well, it does until it reaches it’s melting point at 0°C (32°F). In order for the water to make a phase transition from solid to liquid, it requires even more energy. Where does this energy come from? Yup. It comes from the surroundings.

Humans Create the Kegerator

What exactly is a kegerator? This is JUST like a refrigerator except you put a keg of beer in there. Oh, and you add a tap on the top or door so you can get cold beer without even opening the fridge door. Awesome, isn’t it? You might think I’m kidding about the kegerator, but I’m not. Keeping drinks (and beer) cold was a consideration for both cooling by ice and refrigerators.

But how does a refrigerator work? It’s all about compressing a gas and letting it turn into a liquid and then evaporate back into a gas. That might seem crazy, but here a demo you can do on your own to get an idea of how this would cool. All you need is a rubber band.

Take the rubber band and touch it to your lips to get a feeling of the temperature of the band (lips are more sensitive than your fingers). Now stretch the rubber band as far as you can without breaking it and touch it to your lips again (quickly). You should be able to feel the rubber band is now hotter than it was. Next, just hold it in a stretched position for a short time so that it can cool off to room temperature. Finally, let the rubber band compress back to its original size and feel it again. Guess what? It’s cooler than room temperature. Here’s the same thing in a video.

Your AC and refrigerator don’t use rubber bands. Instead, there is a gas (called a refrigerant). This gas is compressed and gets hot in the process. If you have ever pumped up a bike tire, you might have noticed that the tire gets hot – same idea here. Since this hot compressed gas is hotter than the surrounding air, it transfers (through conduction) energy to the air and decreases it’s temperature. This also causes the gas to condense into a liquid.

The next step is to take this liquid and allow it to expand into a gas. This phase transition and expansion into a gas takes energy. Of course the energy comes from the surroundings. This is the cooling part of the AC or refrigerator. The gas then goes back into the compressor and the cycle continues. Yes, I missed some details but that’s the basic idea.

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The inside of a freezer can get quite cold. Image: Rhett Allain

I didn’t say anything about geothermal cooling. This basically just cooling by conduction expect that you want to make thermal contact with things underground. At some times, the ground temperature is colder than the air temperature and can be used to cool things off. Yes, there are also some other cooling methods. Maybe in the future we will have magnetic based refrigerators.

One final thought: Why is it so much easier to increase the temperature of something than it is to decrease the temperature?  Maybe this will be a future blog post.

Chimps: Better Than Us?

Chimps, everyone knows, are extremely smug. Just look at that one up here. He’s (?) so pleased with himself. Unfortunately, science just gave this insufferable species a major asset in its ongoing war on our collective self-esteem.

A study just released by Caltech researchers found that chimps consistently outperformed humans in a common game-theory exercise called the inspection game (PDF) that models real-world situations like employees trying to catch a quick glimpse of, say, Science of Us while their bosses aren’t watching. Research subjects in both Kyoto and Guinea were paired off with human partners, and corresponding chimp duos performed consistently better.

This isn’t the first time this has happened:

Superior chimpanzee performance could be due to excellent short-term memory, a particular strength in chimps. This has been shown in other experiments undertaken at the Kyoto facility. In one game, a sequence of numbers is briefly flashed on the computer touch screen, and then the numbers quickly revert to white squares. Players must tap the squares in the sequence corresponding to the numbers they were initially shown. Chimpanzees are brilliant at this task… humans find it much more challenging.

One of the researchers explained in the press release that this kind of work will allow us to “map out the set of brain circuits that humans and chimps rely upon so we can discover whether or not human strategic choices go down a longer pathway or get diffused into different parts of the brain compared to chimps.” This knowledge will also, presumably, allow us to finally reassert our dominance over these haughty wannabe humans.

Inside the Science of an Amazing New Surgery Called Deep Brain Stimulation


Like most people in need of major surgery, Rodney Haning, a retired telecommunications project manager and avid golfer, has a few questions for his doctors. He wonders, for example, exactly how the planned treatment is going to alleviate his condition, a severe tremor in his left hand that has, among other things, completely messed up his golf game, forcing him to switch from his favorite regular-length putter to a longer model that he steadies against his belly.

“Can anyone tell me why this procedure does what it does?” Haning asks one winter afternoon at UF Health Shands Hospital, at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“Well,” says Kelly Foote, his neurosurgeon, “we know a lot, but not everything.”

The vague answer doesn’t seem to bother Haning, 67, an affable man who has opted for the elective brain surgery. And it’s hard to fault Foote for not going into greater detail about the underlying science, since he is, at that very moment, boring a hole in Haning’s skull.