Kilauea eruption, junk news effects, human quantum tests: this week in science | Miles O'Brien Productions

Kilauea eruption, junk news effects, human quantum tests: this week in science

The Big Island is getting bigger by the moment…

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983. But what’s happening on the Big Island now is unprecedented. As I write, 15 fissures have opened up in a community near the volcano, spewing lava over more than 116 acres. Thirty six structures have been destroyed–27 of them homes.

Fortunately no one has been hurt–including the scientists who are there trying to gather as much data as they can as this eruption unfolds.

One veteran Kilauea watcher, geologist Mike Garcia would normally be there but is finishing up some teaching duties at the University of Hawaii–Manoa. As soon as he is free, you can bet he will be making his way to the eruption zone.

I had the good fortune to meet Mike a couple of years ago. I interviewed him in Honolulu and saw the work he does, analyzing samples of newly-created rock from various volcanoes in the Hawaiian chain. They spend a lot of time analyzing the mineral olivine that forms in the lava.

“Because it’s the first thing to crystallize in these magmas, it tells us a lot about the mantle source, where the magmas came from, and it can also tell us a lot about the magma’s history,” graduate student Kendra Lynn told me.

A few days later, we got into a helicopter and landed right on top of the volcano. We might as well have landed on another planet. Garcia gathers samples of fresh lava from the volcano in order to better understand its history and predict its future behavior.

Watching him quench red-hot, oozing lava in hissing buckets of water is an experience I will never forget. To get a taste, you can watch some of that footage on our website as well as listen to the latest episode of my podcast, Miles To Go, in which I caught up with Garcia about the ongoing eruption.

How does junk news change our perceptions?

The junk train keeps a-rollin’! This week, we aired the third and penultimate installment of our PBS NewsHour series on junk news, that sometimes false often misleading clickbait that we just can’t seem to kick.First, we showed you rare glimpse into the inner workings of Facebook–trying to assess the scale of the junk news problem for their platform. Then, we met Cyrus Massoumi, a prolific publisher and marketer of hyper-partisan news nuggets.Series producer Cameron Hickey–a coder in his life before cinematography–built some software to help track the spread of misinformation, fake news, and other varieties of junk across the internet. That’s how we found Massoumi.

But even more interesting, perhaps, was that Cameron found his own grandmother, Betty Manlove, was consuming copious amounts of this junk news. If you missed it, you get to meet her–and a few other interesting characters–in this week’s installment, which you can watch below.

Next week, we return to Facebook to see what they are doing to curb the spread of misinformation on their platform. It will be our final segment in the junk news series, and I can’t believe it’s almost over. What a ride!

There’s been a lot more I learned during this journey than can ever be shared in a few short news segments (though we try!). The interviews we conducted for this series are chock-full of interesting facts and thoughts, so we decided to share them on my podcast, Miles To Go. You can find a list of all relevant junk news episodes here.

What caused the Southwest flight 1380 accident? New details emerge.

The National Transportation Safety Board has released a brief update on its investigation of the Southwest Airlines flight 1380 accident last month, which left one person dead and several injured.

The Boeing 737 was forced to land due to catastrophic engine failure, and former FAA inspector Mary Schiavo and I thought that it was likely to be a engine fan blade issue when we talked on my podcast, Miles To Go, shortly after the incident.

The new NTSB update confirmed our suspicions:

“The No.13 fan blade had separated at the root; the dovetail remained installed in the fan disk. Examination of the No. 13 fan blade dovetail exhibited features consistent with metal fatigue initiating at the convex side near the leading edge. Two pieces of fan blade No. 13 were recovered within the engine between the fan blades and the outlet guide vanes,” reads the update.

Laboratory analysis also confirmed metal fatigue cracks had spidered from the leading edge of the fan blade, likely the cause of the blade snapping off and demolishing the engine from inside.

Fractured surface of broken fan blade dovetail, with origin area of fatigue indicated. Credit: NTSB. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Fractured surface of broken fan blade dovetail, with origin area of fatigue indicated. Credit: NTSB.

The accident engine fan blades had accumulated more than 32,000 engine cycles since new.

The NTSB says Southwest maintenance records indicate the blades were overhauled at about 20,000 cycles, in November 2012. At that time they were inspected visually and with a fluorescent dye that can reveal cracks. Since the overhaul, they were lubricated six times and in each case they were visually inspected.

Three days after the incident, on April 20, 2018, the FAA issued an emergency Airworthiness Directive requiring ultrasonic inspections of all fan blades on engines that have accumulated 20,000 engine cycles and subsequently at intervals not to exceed 3,000 engine cycles.

The investigation is still underway and it will be a while before the final report comes out, but when something like this is discovered, urgent action is taken before the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.

They say the rules in aviation are written in blood. It’s a grim but true statement.

As I did on the NewsHour, I commend the pilot and the crew for their masterful handling of the harrowing situation.

How to better track underground nuclear tests? Look at mountain heights.

As the world prepares for talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula actually seems like it could be on the table.

However, decommissioning a program shrouded in secrecy will be difficult. The process will be greatly sped along if North Korea were to share more information.

Right now, we know precious little about the regime’s capabilities. What we’ve learned has primarily come from controlled visits of American scientists and satellite sleuthing, which we recently covered for the NewsHour.

A new paper released this week adds to that trove of data.

Scientists from Singapore, Germany, China, and the U.S. combined forces to develop a new technique of monitoring nuclear tests remotely.

The state of the art currently is to use seismometer readings and satellite photography to try and determine how much of a wallop was packed in an underground nuclear explosion.

Now, however, researchers have used the sophisticated radar satellite TerraSAR-X to measure minute changes in the surface height of Mt. Mantap, below which North Korea has conducted all of its nuclear tests.

The radar imagery showed that the summit of the mountain slumped about a foot and a half and its slopes splayed out, in some parts by over 11 feet, as a result of the September 2017 nuclear test.

Combining this with other available data, the scientists were able to determine that the test blast had an equivalence between 171 and 209 kilotons of TNT. This is more than 10 times the yield of the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and on the higher end of estimates previously reported for the test.

This newer, more precise reconstruction of underground nuclear tests can help security analysts and politicians understand what we are up against as nuclear talks hopefully begin between the U.S. and North Korea. And when they do, they will surely call on the expertise of Sig Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Lab and one of the few Americans to have visited the hermit kingdom (and most certainly the most knowledgeable American physicist with a background in nuclear weapons to go there).

Sig was shown around some of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, thoughts about which he shared on an early episode of Miles To Go.

Can people bring enough randomness to quantum experiments?

Einstein may have been a genius, but there was one thing that really bugged him toward the end of his life: quantum mechanics. The randomness of it, the sheer chaos made him famously quip, presumably in disgust, “God does not play dice.”

Well, since then, quantum mechanics has grown to become a mainstay of modern physics. But what we’re realizing more and more is that, though God does play dice, those dice are sometimes strangely loaded.

I’m talking about the idea of quantum entanglement, what Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” This is when two particles, after interacting and then forcibly separated by theoretically any amount of distance, seem to transmit data to each other instantaneously when measured.

In terrible laymen terms, it’s as if two dice made in the same factory for some reason simultaneously rolled sixes in casinos on two different continents. This kind of observation has been recorded many different ways across decades of experiments. Are these “dice” communicating instantaneously? If so, how? We just don’t know…

The results of these kinds of entanglement experiments are striking. They imply not only that Einstein’s theory is fundamentally incomplete at describing our world, but that the process of observation changes the world around us.

Testing this is tricky, since our own biases in how we use instrumentation creep in and muddy the data. But, there have been tests called Bell tests that have been carefully designed to show this “spooky action at a distance” as well as weed out the biases.

And, this week, scientists have reported the largest and most successful such Bell test.

About 100,000 people from around the world were recruited to create random strings of numbers that were fed to 13 various Bell tests around the world, which then used those random numbers to set parameters for their experiments.

These random numbers were much more, well, random than computers can come up with, and spreading them over so many people and experiments seems to have gotten rid of the pesky “freedom-of-choice” bias that has been present in past Bell tests.

The “freedom-of-choice” bias comes from the fact that true randomness is hard to create in our world–computers use complex equations that spit out numbers that seem random to us but actually have an underlying pattern or bias that can derail a sensitive Bell test. Having people from all over the world contribute random strings of numbers actually provided more randomness for a Bell test than ever before.

The results? Entangled particles still behaved strangely in most of these experiments, as if they were able to communicate information to each other faster than the speed of light. This lends more credence to the idea that there truly is some “spooky action at a distance.”

How this all works exactly still remains elusive, but this report may pave the way for large-scale, citizen science studies of this fascinating topic.

Not only does God play dice, the dice are loaded. Credit: Alex Chambers | Unsplash. | Miles O'Brien Productions
Not only does God play dice, the dice are loaded. Credit: Alex Chambers | Unsplash.

That’s it for this week. Hope you don’t have too many entanglements planned this weekend. I’ve got big plans to cat sit for my friend Schrödinger, though I’m not sure if I’m getting the dead cat or the live one.

By the way, if you want to get this roundup and other news earlier, sign up for my newsletter:
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Banner image credit: USGS.

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