Science

the Foo Fighters and the Fu-Go

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World War II gave rise to the modern fascination with unidentified flying objects.

the original Foo Fighters

It was during World War II that aerial warfare became closer to what we know it today. Planes were stronger and faster than WWI as well as carried heavier weaponry. Aerial warfare became a critical tactical component to the overall war effort on both sides.

In November of 1944 the American 415th Special Operations Squadron started reporting fast-moving glowing objects in the skies following their planes. Balls of light/fire would appear, move around them, and eventually just vanish. Donald Meiers, a radar operator in the 415th Night Fighter Squadron, is credited with naming this phenomenon. Meiers borrowed a nonsense phrase from the Smokey Stover fireman comic strip. “Where there’s foo, there’s fire” was Smokey’s catch phrase. “Fuckin’ foo fighters” was how Meiers described these sightings. Eventually this was shortened to just foo fighters and came to refer to any unidentified flying object (UFO) during the war. The term UFO wasn’t created until 1953 by the American Air Force.

While foo fighters were first thought to be a German weapon of some kind it was later revealed that German pilots also noticed this unexplained phenomenon. This strange occurrence was also noticed in the Pacific theater by both the Japanese as well as Allied pilots.

While never definitively explained one of the best scientific explanations was that some sort of electromagnetic energy caused the light, similar to St. Elmo’s Fire. Named for the patron saint of sailors (where the phenomenon was seen at the top of ship masts), St. Elmo’s Fire is when a plasma is generated by taking a gas (in this care air molecules) and subjecting it to an electromagnetic field. Like the northern & southern lights, as well as neon signs, the types of gases being ionized determines what color of light is produced.

The source of the electromagnetic energy in this case may have been the planes themselves as similar phenomenon can still be seen sometimes on modern aircraft. You can have a plane is flying in an electrically charged atmosphere (such as around a thunderstorm), a charge builds up on some portion of the plane, it discharges and ionizes the gas near it creating a plasma which glows, and eventually dissipates.

This is perhaps the most plausible explanation. That or some sort of occult inspired mercury fueled Nazi Alien hybrid weapon, if you were to believe the History channel.

Many years later, Dave Grohl was reading books on UFOs and came across this World War II term for unidentified flying objects and named his band after them. He did however later comment, “Had I actually considered this to be a career, I probably would have called it something else, because it’s the stupidest fucking band name in the world.”

the Fu-Go

Meanwhile, in the Pacific theater, a different aerial based activity was also taking place. Between November of 1944 and April of 1945 the Japanese launched over 9,000 balloon bombs with the intent of terrorizing the United States. These fire balloons, or fu-go, were about 30 feet in diameter, filled with hydrogen, carried multiple bombs, and were designed to release their payload after about 3 days when they should have arrived at North America. The secret to their rapid pace across the Pacific was that the Japanese knew about, and harnessed, the jet streams. They released the balloons from the East coast of Japan to rise high up and travel in the easterly moving jet stream. As demonstrated in this US Navy training film, the balloons were designed to systematically release sandbags of ballast based on altitude so the balloon would continue to be light enough to reach North America. From there they would drop their payload pretty much anywhere destroying anything around them.

The Fu-Go was the first intercontinental weapon ever used but were pretty ineffective. The problem was that after they were released, the balloons were uncontrollable. Many never reached North America at all, which the Japanese expected, but of the ones that did only one was effective. On May 5th of 1945 a pregnant Elsie Winters Mitchell and 5 Sunday school children were out for a picnic in Bly, Oregon and saw one of the balloons laying in a field. It is thought that someone kicked one of the bombs and it detonated.

One of the main reasons the Japanese stopped the program was because of how ineffective it was. There was little evidence at all of the balloons doing any damage anywhere. This was partially because the balloons really were ineffective but also because the US government hushed it up.

The US Office of Censorship, which existed between 1941 and 1945, stepped in to put a blackout on any mention in the press of the mystery balloons. If word got out that the balloons were reaching North America then the Japanese may have been encouraged to continue. Discussing the mystery balloons might also have created panic among Americans.

In July of 1947, on a ranch outside Roswell New Mexico, a large balloon crashed down. The US Army informed the press that one of their weather balloons had crashed and they had recovered the wreckage.  Some have described this balloon as being a more advanced design, but similar to, the Japanese fu-go from a few years earlier. Rumors began to spread and soon civilians were talking about UFOs, aliens, and what the government was hiding. Years later in the 1990s the military said this balloon was part of Project Mogul, which was a top-secret cold-war project to launch devices into high-altitudes and spy on the Soviets by listening for long-range sounds of atomic bomb testing. The “flying saucer” was the portion of the device connected below the balloon which housed the audio equipment.

In the meantime though conspiracy theories abounded and developed over the following decades. Perhaps the Japanese Fu-Go inspired US Military devices of similar design that unintentionally started the UFO alien craze. Or, like the foo fighters, the truth is still out there.

Smooth Sailing / Stormy Seas

Smooth sailing / Stormy weather

“Red skies at night, sailor’s delight. Red skies at dawn, sailors be warned.” This bit of meteorological advice for predicting the weather has been true from ancient times to today. So how does it work?

To understand the wisdom behind the rhyme we need to understand the basics of two fields: how weather patterns form and the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (light).

Under Pressure

At a high-level (literally) the jet stream is moving air from west to east at 30,000-50,000+ feet above sea level. When jet streams come together they force other air down towards Earth’s surface. This creates areas of high pressure. High pressure areas also force down particulate matter, dust, “stuff” that is moving around in the air, to gather closer to Earth’s surface.

When streams eventually diverge from one another they create space for the air closer to Earth’s surface to rise back up and occupy. This divergence of jet streams creates a low pressure zone because the air you had compacted closer to Earth’s surface can spread out and fill more space. This also spreads out the particulate matter in the air. It’s in and around these low pressure areas that most storms are formed because as the air is rising up it cools, some of it condenses into water, and storm clouds are formed. Incidentally this is how a barometer works: measuring pressure changes to predict the weather.

I Saw the Light

Anyone who has seen the cover of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon knows that visible light is a combination of light at different wavelengths that, on their own, are different pure colors (red, green, blue, etc). When they come together they make white light. Violets and blues have the shortest wavelengths while oranges and reds have the longest.

Come Together

So what about the rhyme? Weather moves from the west to the east while the sun moves the other way around, from east to west. At sunrise and sunset the the sun is just over the horizon and at such a wide angle its light has to travel through the most amount of Earth’s atmosphere to reach you. When you see a red sky at night it means that the light of the setting sun is passing through a high pressure zone. High pressure zones, with lots of particulate matter closer to Earth’s surface, block the shorter wave length light colors from traveling great distances to reach you. This leaves only the long waves of red light. Seeing red light at night means that the weather traveling east to you will be a high pressure zone, and with high pressure comes clear weather and smooth sailing.

Red skies in the morning are red for the same reason as at night – high pressure zones are blocking out bluer light. However, with the rising sun in the east the high pressure area of good weather giving you that red light is already past you or is passing you. On the heals of high pressure is low pressure, and with low pressure comes the potential for stormy weather.

the Oracle & the Ethylene

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The Oracle at Delphi was one of the most influential persons of the ancient world. Her prophecies, proclaimed from a vapor induced trance state, would guide the actions of the rich and the poor alike. Today the most likely culprit for this frenzy was the organic compound Ethylene, the same gas that ripens fruits & vegetables.

The Oracle

The Oracle at Delphi operated from around 800 BC to around 400 BC. The oracle was actually more than one woman, but was only one woman at a time. She was the chief priestess at the temple of Apollo in the Greek city of Delphi. The oracle at Delphi’s more specific title was that of Pythia after the Greek word for “to rot” named for the smell of the enormous rotting python that Apollo supposedly slayed on the site where the temple was later built.

Nine times a year the Pythia would descend into the lower level of the temple and enter a chamber called the Adyton. The Adyton was generally off-limits, which is also why adyton means “inaccessible / forbidden” in Greek, but was open to the Pythia and her supplicants seeking wisdom during times of prophecy. She would sit atop a tripod, over a fissure in the ground releasing sweet perfume like vapors, and serve as the shamanistic mouthpiece for Apollo. People seeking guidance would draw lots to determine line order but for larger sacrifices (i.e. paying more money) you moved towards the front of the line.

You had the opportunity to ask the Pythia one question, she would give an answer, and then you left. Unless more gold was offered up, there was no follow up question – which would have been useful as the Pythia’s answers are legendary for their cryptic and carefully phrased dual nature. Many answers could be interpreted in very different ways, leading some to their downfall. In 550 BC while considering an attack on the Persian empire the king of Lydia, Croesus, consulted the Oracle. She told him that “If you attack you will destroy a great kingdom.” He took this as the go-ahead to attack. Unfortunately the kingdom she was referring to was his own. He suffered a massive defeat and Persia conquered his lands.

Ethylene

One of the most important components of the Oracle at Delphi’s process is that she entered into a shamanistic like trance induced by the vapors from the crack in the floor of the adyton. Other temples to Apollo around the ancient world also chose to position their adytons over some form of  bubbling water or crack in the ground releasing gases. Interestingly Delphi sits at the cross-section of two tectonic fault lines. In 373 BC a massive earthquake hit the area and it has been theorized that the release of fumes into the adyton may have ended around then as the plates shifted, directing the gases elsewhere. So what were the fumes?

The best theory, from study of the rock and soil, has been that ethylene was the source of the Pythia’s shamanistic haze. Ethylene is an invisible, flammable, sweet smelling hydrocarbon (meaning it composed entirely of Hydrogen & Carbon). Exposure to ethylene starts with a slight sense of euphoria & dizziness but increases to confusion, combativeness, and the flailing of limbs. Much later it was used as an anesthetic in the 20th century until it was replaced, partially because of it’s smell and it’s explosive nature.

Ethylene is also produced by many ripening fruits & vegetables (such as apples, bananas, avocados, mangoes, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, etc). If you want to slow the ripening process you should separate your vegetables and keep them in open air. Keeping fruits and vegetables close to themselves speeds up the ripening process and shorten their shelf lives. In fact, many fruits and vegetables are harvested before they are ripe so they will withstand the stress of transportation. They are then gassed with ethylene to artificially restart the ripening process when they are ready to be sold.

So for hundreds of years the Oracle at Delphi was being exposed to the same gas that ripens fruits and vegetables, and later anesthetized patients in hospitals, sending her into a drug-induced stupor from which she spoke for Apollo and changed the course of history,

Behind the Auroras

Behind the Auroras

The Aurora Borealis & Aurora Australis are both beautiful light shows as well as visual signs that the Earth’s magnetosphere is still protecting us from a constant barrage of destructive particles from the Sun.

The lights

In mythology & folklore the Northern Lights have been seen as both good and ill omens. This tended to depend on your degree of latitude which dictated how frequently you saw them. Tribes more accustomed to the lights such as those of northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland saw the lights as the energies of the departed and worthy of respect. Similarly, different tribes of Alaska saw the lights as dancing spirits of humans or animals.  Further south in ancient Rome, where the lights were seen less frequently, they were seen as a harbinger of war or famine.

Scientifically, the aurora are the result of charged particles from the sun (protons & electrons) interacting with oxygen & nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere. The different colors are the result of which gases the particles encounter at which altitudes. The most common color is yellow-green which is the sun’s particles interacting with oxygen at around 60 miles above the Earth. Nitrogen produces blue light below 60 miles in altitude but produces purple light above that. Red is also produced by oxygen but at altitudes above 150 miles. The light produced in these exchanges lasts only a second or less but the steady stream of particles from the sun can create long lasting light shows.

Special Delivery

The sun is constantly emitting these charged particles. The solar wind regularly delivers a steady stream of particles to Earth but they are also unleashed in larger more powerful bursts through solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). When any of these charged particles approach Earth their path is directed by the Earth’s magnetosphere which is essentially a magnetic force-field generated by the Earth. The magnetosphere deflects most of these particles around & away from the Earth, however some particles are pulled down towards the magnetic northern and southern poles. It’s these particles pulled towards the poles that create the dazzling auroras.

So where is the danger?

The key to the aurora light shows, and our survival, is the magnetosphere. Without it, Earth would be subjected to the full brunt of the emissions from the sun. If left completely exposed these charged particles would gradually strip the Earth of its atmosphere. No atmosphere, no life. It has been theorized that Mars once had a magnetosphere but lost it approximately 4 billion years ago. As a result the atmosphere was carried off into space by the solar wind. With no atmosphere the water of Mars boiled off leaving Mars a barren wasteland.

So the light shows of the auroras are the direct result of the constant defensive protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere. This shield protects all life on Earth from the never-ending stream of charged particles that would otherwise end life on Earth as we know it.