Author: Anthony Kendall

Half-Brothers in the Womb

Image Credit: Dateline NBC
Image Credit: Dateline NBC

In 1993, Wilma Stuart gave birth to two baby boys. They were fraternal twins, so some dissimilarity was to be expected. However, only one of the boys seemed to take after his parents of white Dutch heritage. The other sported a much darker complexion.

Wilma’s pregnancy was due to in-vitro fertilization (IVF), in which her husband’s sperm was combined with her ova in a petri dish. In an unforgivable breach of proper medical procedure, however, the pipette used to transfer material had apparently been reused after a visit from a previous sperm donor. Wilma Stuart’s ova were fertilized by both men, and two of the re-implanted embryos matured into healthy young boys.

Strictly speaking the boys were only half-brothers, even though they were delivered as twins. They entered the medical literature as yet another documented case of heteropaternal superfecundation, a scientific term meaning “different fathers, multiple babies.” Most such cases, however, are not the result of IVF, but rather more traditional conception methods.

The Coherent Light Infantry

In 1960, when scientists first developed Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, skeptical scientists and engineers joked that this new LASER was a “solution lacking a problem”. But within just a few years, practical uses began to arise for the new technology. Steady advances over the next few decades allowed ever-smaller lasers to produce more powerful and precise beams, and a plethora of new types of lasers were invented that further expanded their application.

Today lasers are ubiquitous and diverse. Several hundred of the smallest lasers can fit on a single microchip, and the largest fills a facility the size of a Wal-Mart. Some generate continuous beams for hours or even days, while others fire a pulse no more than one-millionth of a nanosecond long. In between these extremes lie the everyday lasers inside our CD and DVD players and at the grocery store checkout. But if you’re like me, the first thing you think about when you hear “lasers” is sexy and exotic futuristic weapons, which have been a staple of science fiction since H.G.Wells described a laser-like “heat ray” in his 1898 book The War of the Worlds. Over a century later, though we’re still waiting for our laser guns, some primitive laser-based weapons are finally beginning to appear.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Spaceship

The year was 1957. The power of the atom had been unleashed upon the world. Technology—along with just about everything else—was booming. Safe, plentiful nuclear energy promised to be too cheap to meter, and radioactive waste seemed only a minor concern. It was an age of optimism and naiveté; a time of action without consequences.

Though man was the master of the Earth, only once had he managed to explore beyond the confines of the atmosphere, in the form of a beachball-sized spacecraft called Sputnik. Werner von Braun’s rocket men had drawn up plans for spacecraft that would launch humans into orbit, but even then it was clear that inefficient chemical rockets would allow only a few to enter space; the rest of mankind would be mere spectators. Fresh from their success with the atomic bomb, a small team of Manhattan Project physicists gathered to try and change all that. Working in secret within the brand new Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now called DARPA), they designed and tested an enormously ambitious nuclear spaceship concept that would have made everything the Soviets and NASA were doing seem like hobby rockets in comparison. The codename was Project Orion.

The Dark Tale of Colliding Superclusters

The Bullet Nebula in Visible and X-Ray Light
The Bullet Nebula in Visible and X-Ray Light

For all that mankind has learned through science, the Universe has so far managed to keep most of its secrets. For instance, we don’t know where the Universe came from, what its fate will be, or even its most basic composition.

But over the last few decades, tantalizing clues and some very intelligent guesswork led astronomers to an astounding hypothesis: the ordinary matter that stiffens our bones and fuels our suns plays only a bit part in the grand epic of existence. Astronomers now believe that for every kilogram of normal matter like atoms, electrons, and quarks there are five kilograms of dark matter.

Very recently, astronomers announced what many had thought impossible, the direct observation of the existence of dark matter. Billions of years ago, two galactic superclusters collided. The collision occurred at a relative velocity of over a million miles per hour. Not since the Big Bang itself has the known universe experienced so violent an event. The aftermath of this collision offered what may be a once-in-Creation opportunity to finally “see” dark matter itself.

Extinction of the Passenger Pigeons

Male Passenger Pigeon
Male Passenger Pigeon

Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes Migratorius) were once so numerous that by some estimates they outnumbered all the rest of the birds in North America combined. The swift birds were capable of flying in excess of 60 miles per hour, and frequently migrated hundreds of miles in search of suitable grounds for nesting and feeding. Yet their speed and mobility were no match for the advancing settlers of 19th-century America. In less than a century, the most numerous bird on the planet was completely eliminated from the wild by a ruthless campaign of eradication.

The story of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is a dark one. It is a tale, like that of the American Bison, of the dangers of uncontrolled hunting and wanton extermination. It also chronicles the expansion of a new nation, the limitless vision of the Victorian Age, and the conquering of the American wilderness. But sadly, it mostly details what happens when a species that is uniquely and exquisitely adapted to its environment meets a predator equally well adapted to slaughter.

Project Babylon: Gerald Bull’s Downfall

Gerald Bull is a prime example of a man who created his own luck—unfortunately for him most of it was bad. A brilliant and distinguished artillery engineer, Bull spent much of his life in the upper echelons of government-funded weapons research. Though his career took him down a convoluted and often difficult path, he devoted his professional life to a single-minded pursuit of his dream: to build a gun large enough to shoot satellites into orbit.

Bull nearly single-handedly resurrected the science of supergun artillery, and in so doing played a major role in 2 wars. But Bull’s confrontational style and brusque manner won him very few friends within the governments for which he worked. His poor networking skills combined with a near total disregard for the dangerous politics in which he meddled led to heavy fines, a short stint in prison, and ultimately, to his assassination.

Earth’s Artificial Ring: Project West Ford

At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, all international communications were either sent through undersea cables or bounced off of the natural ionosphere. The United States military was concerned that the Soviets (or other “Hostile Actors”) might cut those cables, forcing the unpredictable ionosphere to be the only means of communication with overseas forces. The Space Age had just begun, and the communications satellites we rely on today existed only in the sketches of futurists.

Nevertheless, the US Military looked to space to help solve their communications weakness. Their solution was to create an artificial ionosphere. In May 1963, the US Air Force launched 480 million tiny copper needles that briefly created a ring encircling the entire globe. They called it Project West Ford. The engineers behind the project hoped that it would serve as a prototype for two more permanent rings that would forever guarantee their ability to communicate across the globe.

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