Geeking Science: Nori

Image courtesy of KEKO64 at

My love of sushi and my budget are often at odds now my favorite sushi chef has retired from the local buffet. He was amazing, offering dozens of versions of fresh sushi, and snuck me sashimi on the side. Three plates of sushi for all-you-can-eat buffet prices. The new guy isn’t nearly as good; now the sushi is worth what I pay for it with no sashimi at all. The result is still better than pre-made grocery-store-bought crap so when I need a fix I return to the buffet.

(If you ever want to buy me food, fried chicken and good sushi – at different meals – are the way to my heart.)

Today’s geeking science is about how the sushi craze nearly didn’t happen, how science discoveries belong to the entire world, and how strange and wondrous life forms are.

The full article is available on Ars Technica: “How an unpaid UK researcher saved the Japanese seaweed industry” by Esther Inglis-Arkell, posted November 19, 2017.

Nori, wonderful, tasty seaweed – perfect straight or wrapped around vinegar-soaked rice with a bit of fish, was impossible to cultivate. Japanese farmers every year would put out bamboo and rope frames and wait for filaments to form and grow into large plants. No seeds, no flowers, no saplings, no transplants. Spontaneous generation, or so it seemed. Some years were better than others.

In 1951 production stopped. Spontaneous generation no longer occurred.

Americans didn’t feel the pinch since the Kawafuku Restaurant in Los Angeles, CA didn’t put sushi on the map until the 60’s, where it spread first throughout the urban centers by the 80’s, and finally to Chinese buffets in small Southern cities by the 90’s. But the Japanese lost a favorite food.

On the other side of the world, Kathleen Drew-Baker just completed a path to discover something wondrous. Fired from her teaching job because of the sin of marriage, she became a research assistant (in modern speak, unpaid intern). Common practice of the day required women to be released when they marry so they could pay proper attention to their husband’s careers instead of a day-job; more accurately women were expected to resign and then, if teachers, continue to work unpaid. But that is a different post not related to the scope of this blog.

Back to the amazing Kathleen Drew-Baker. She was poking around with a seaweed that grew in Wales used by locals for bread and soup. The seaweed grew during the winter months, seemingly by spontaneous generation. She looked for spores, thinking fungi. But the spores she found led to a pink sludge growing inside shells during the summer months.

The seaweed led a double-life, during the winter as a leafy green seaweed and the summer as a pink sludge hanging out inside a shell. Like a caterpillar and butterfly without cocoon stage to mark the difference.

Being a scientist she published the discovery in Nature on October 29, 1949 through a paper entitled “Conchocelis-Phase in the Life-History of Porphyra umbillcalis (L. Kutz)“. (Yes, she was allowed to publish under her own name. She wasn’t living in medieval times; she just wasn’t allowed to make a living at being a scientist or teacher.)

In Japan, a scientist ran across it and thought, maybe that applies to the Japanese seaweed too. He looked. It did.

No longer restricted by unpredictable spontaneous generation, the Japanese farmers have gone big business, industrialized farm on the seaweed. Temperature control, testing different shells, maximizing light. Each and every stage of the double-life growth cycle tested and maximized for production. Production on a scale large enough to feed not only a growing Japan, but the rest of the world’s love of sushi.

Cool side note: Every year Uto City holds a festival honor of Kathleen Drew-Baker.

To read the full article (explaining the controls used to maximize nori growth – because who wouldn’t want to know that?!?) go here:

Geeking Science: Wind Power

Ancient windmills in Nashtifan village. Photo: Mohammad Hossein Taghi (CC by 4.0)

What are we going to need when we hit space and start settling other planets? Energy.

With no promise of fossil fuels on planets which may not have millions of years of active biosphere before our arrival, we will need mature energy technologies available universally on planets suitable for habitation.

(1) Solar Power
(2) Wind Power
(3) Water Power
(4) Gravity Power

Anywhere we choose to permanently settle will have these energies available. No guarantee for radioactive minerals needed for fusion and fission takes those two politically fraught items off the plate. Not every planet has a tamed magnetic-sphere (see the posting about Uranus).

To survive humans need gravity, heat (solar), and water. Wind is a by-product of the other three requirements. A planet large enough to have a water system and gravity for humans is going to have uneven heating, therefore wind.

From eSchoolToday “What is Wind Energy”

Humans have been using these energies for millennia, and yet the technologies, likely because of their simplicity and ubiquity, have never been fully developed.

Today humanity is testing out dozens of different windmill designs, mostly based on sail and lift technology. We might want to go old school though.

Ancient windmills in Nashtifan village. Photo: Mohammad Hossein Taghi (CC by 4.0)

Vertical windmills work on drag. Unfortunately drag is less efficient in transferring energy than lift, but some of the benefits may outweigh this downside. For example where horizontal windmills have their mechanisms toward the top, where the rotation center is located, vertical windmills rotation center is at the bottom and any mechanisms needing repair are within easy reach. Transferring energy from the top of a horizontal windmill requires a system to move the energy, often pulleys, which means more things to break.

Nowhere is the ease of maintenance and repair more obvious than the grinding windmills of Nashtifan village, which have been in use for over 1,000 years. To protect the village from the constant winds, a massive 65-foot wall was built. On top of the wall, since they were up there anyway, they put windmills. To make them even more efficient, they added some additional walls to direct the airflow into the windmills. A little rope, some planks, and grinding grain ceased being a constant chore.

Vertical windmills also don’t need any wind-sensing and orientation mechanisms built-in like the lift-based windmills. This reduces efficiency but, again, saves on maintenance. (See the wikipedia entry on “Vertical axis wind turbines” for more details.)

Considering the tradeoffs and developing both types of windmills (and other wind technology like the Vortex bladeless windmill) is part of creating a mature technology. Sometimes easy maintenance is primary and other times most bang for the immediate buck; having options available is key to using a technology to its fullest potential.

Who would think a thousand year old technology may be our go-to energy when settling other planets?

Geeking Science: Uranus Magnetic Field Flips

Image from Nasa

Worlds are opening up as we look to the stars and find planets. Many of the exo-planets found are gas giants, so the little information we have about our Big Buddies in the Solar System is becoming more and more valuable.

On June 27, 2017, Xin Cao and Carol Paty article “Diurnal and seasonal variability of Uranus’s magnetosphere” appearing in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space physics released to some minor shock and awe. Uranus’s magnetosphere is messed up. Not only is its spin axis 98 degrees off – making the planet’s path around the solar system more of a roll than a hover, but Uranus’s magnetic field is tilted at a 60 degrees angle.

The crazy rolling field twists around every day letting solar winds in some of the time, no doubt creating spectacular Borealis for whatever lives on the surface trying to figure out where the north and south poles are. The balance of the time, the magnetosphere pulls off the fan dance, hiding the naked gaseous surface from the winds.

How does the atmosphere of the gas giant remain in the gravity field instead of being blown into space by the winds?

And how many of the gas giants we have discovered outside our system dance like a drunken marble around their suns?

One way to find out is studying our Big Buddies a little more. Uranus’s only visitor has been Voyager 2 in 1986. NASA has possible missions heading that way next decade, maybe; feel free to write your Congressmen to make them a little more possible. I wonder what new mystery Uranus is going to reveal if we drop by again.


Abstract for Diurnal and seasonal variability of Uranus’s magnetosphere. (Last viewed 11/10/2017 – link did not work on 11/16/2017).

Uranus is Even Freakier Than We Thought by Rae Paoletta, 6/23/2017. (Last viewed 11/10/2017).

Geeking Science: Stasis Chambers

Acquired from the SpaceWorks ( image gallery

In May’s Geeking Science posting I discussed The Big Trip (visiting other star systems) in relation to how fast we could get there. Under current technology the closest star, Proxima Centauri, is 63 years away. A lifetime – from birth to retirement.

That’s a long-time to sit in the back seat going “Are we there yet?”

Space science is developing way to shorten the trip by going faster through slingshots and sails. Another portion of humanity’s sciences is devoted to making the trip bearable by letting the travelers sleep for a portion of it.

Science fiction calls them Stasis Chambers. Single person pods keeping individuals safe during long transits by putting them to sleep. Passengers (2016) centered around what happens when two people wake up because their pods malfunctioned, 90 years ahead of everyone else.

Scientists call them Torpor or Hibernation Habitats. They are not going to be a magic bullet instantly freezing and unfreezing people with no aging in between.  They are no longer the dream of science fiction. And they certainly won’t be one per person.

Okay, this is where I started geeking. I am so used to seeing them as individual units thanks to sci-fi movies and television, I had never even considered they should be mass beds. But it makes so much sense. All the sci-fi stories talk about the expense of these units, the complicated wires, energy, fluids, temperature control. Why build it for an individual when transporting dozens or hundreds of people?

How close is Torpor technology to reality? Already arrived. Doctors regularly save lives using “therapeutic hypothermia” where they drop the body temperature by several degrees (to as low as 89.6). The patient’s heart rate drops, blood pressure lowers, and doctors have more time to save lives. Being cautious types, medical doctors limit the state to 2-4 days, but the technique has worked as long as two weeks.

Now to change the Torpor technology in use today from a multi-team, round-the-clock person-by-person to a space-worthy automatic process. Easy-peasy.

Developing the technology – Phase 1 started in 2013, Phase 2 started in 2016.

Yes (fist pump) we are in phase two! To Mars and beyond!


Read more about it at Digital Trends: “Spaceworks may have a real-world stasis chamber for space travel by 2018”

At SpaceWorks: “A Feasible, Near-Term Approach to Human Stasis for Long-Duration Deep Space Missions” (the slide show rocks!)

Geeking Science: Planet of Mystery

Logo from the Planet of Mystery GoFundMe

I am lucky enough to live in a small city with a planetarium – one which had an amazing astronomer named Jim Craig running its programming for over 20 years. This guy geeks science so hard he would go to writer’s conventions state-wide and be on science panel after science panel on his weekends off, because science. He has a tattoo of NASA. When he was let go from the day job, he immediately pounded feet to his computer and started making those astronomy videos he used to make for the planetarium and local school system at home. He named his new production company “Planet of Mystery” and started creating its first program “Red Planet Rising”. The aim is to have low-cost videos available to planetariums, science centers, schools, and other people and entities interested in life, the universe, and everything.

I think if you cut Mr. Craig, he would bleed starlight.

Unfortunately starlight doesn’t pay the bills, or, more specifically the computing power to crunch the videos in any meaningful time frame. If you’re interested in helping out a proven educator provide low-cost quality videos, please consider the Planet of Mystery GoFundMe campaign. Even $10 can make a difference.

The link for the GoFundMe campaign is: