Tag Archives: natural

What was electricity up to before we discovered it?

Electricity — you couldn’t read ZME Science without it. Would life really be worth living like that? Probably not.

Image via Pixabay.

Luckily, we do have electricity running merrily through our cities and homes, our cars, our planes. We’ve had it for over two centuries now, thanks to the combined efforts of many brilliant minds. But like anything else discovered and not invented, electricity was already a thing in nature before people noticed and learned how to harness it.

Which raises a question — what are some examples of natural electricity?

Ancient currents

Humanity’s earliest knowledge of electricity undoubtedly came from lightning bolts. They represent huge discharges of electrical current, and they’re extremely visible, so we can say for sure that people have been aware of them ever since we first became aware of anything. For all its showiness, lightning was just too powerful and unpredictable for early humans to analyze and understand. They could see that a bolt of lightning would start fires (a theory goes that that’s how humans first learned to use fire), but any direct experiencing of its properties was likely to result in death — which tends to stifle scientific progress.

But there is another, more survivable source of natural electric current: animals. Fish, mostly. Electric eels, electric rays, and electric catfish have been known since antiquity, likely earlier. However, our first evidence of this comes from Antiquity.

Texts from ancient Egypt dating to around 5000 years ago showed that the electrical properties of some fish were already known at the time. They considered the electric catfish to be the protector of all other fish, calling it the “Thunderer of the Nile“. It’s particularly interesting to me to see that they did understand there was an association between thunder and electricity (or maybe it’s just a fluke of translation). Ancient Greek, Roman, and Arabic documents also make note of such fish.

Image credits Keli Black.

Pliny the Elder wrote in Naturalis Historia about the numbing effects of shocks from electric catfish and electric rays, and that they could travel along conductive substances. Since people could feel the effect of these shocks but didn’t understand them, they had a lot of theories about what they were and what they could do. Touching electric fish was sometimes recommended against painful ailments (perhaps due to the numbness they caused) such as gout.

It’s possible that Pliny also had access to ancient Greek texts that discussed electrical animals. But they also studied the nature of static electricity — although it’s unlikely they understood that the two were related — which they believed was a form of magnetism. Some substances would need to be rubbed to become magnetic, they argued, while others (such as magnetite) were naturally magnetic. It does seem a bit of a stretch, looking back, since their theories were based on charging bits of amber by rubbing them, which would then attract light items such as feathers or strands of hair. But magnets don’t attract these same items, so it would be exceedingly easy to prove that it wasn’t the same phenomenon.

Still, there is evidence that at least some ancient peoples had a better grasp of electricity, how to generate it, and some of its uses. The Parthian Battery or Baghdad Battery is eerily reminiscent in structure to (you won’t believe this) a battery. It was made up of a clay pot, with copper and iron rods placed inside. It could have been used for electroplating, which involves using electrical current to plate an item with an atomic-thin layer of another metal (such as gold). That being said, it could also have been a fancy scroll holder, we just don’t know.

These are the historical accounts we have of electrical phenomena. Curiosity would drive people to them and towards their understanding, eventually culminating in the discovery of electricity.

Still, these are just the ones our ancestors could perceive. There are several other sources of naturally-occurring electricity, and some of them can get quite spicy.

Ball Lightning

Ball lightning sounds like a Dungeons and Dragons spell, but it’s a real thing. NASA even knows how to make some.

Reports of such lightning balls are patchy, but some of these reports are centuries old. We don’t really know what causes it, why, or how, but we know it exists. The best way to describe it is as spheres of plasma or lightning of various sizes and of much longer duration than a lightning bolt, up to minutes in some cases. Such spheres float or zip around, witness accounts vary, but they seem to be particularly associated with thunderstorms and other instances of electrical discharges.

Ball lightning seems to be capable of taking on a wide range of colors and sizes, but it tends to be comparable in brightness to a lamplight. Witnesses report being able to perceive it in daylight, and that its brightness stays more or less constant throughout its duration. It’s possible that ancient peoples saw these balls of lightning as well, and that they laid the foundation for stories of whisps, ghosts, or other shiny beings.

Contact with it is probably not advisable, which is a good rule of thumb for any kind of lightning, really, although we don’t really know its effects on contact.

Volcanic Lightning

Mount RinjaniIndonesia, 1994. Cool. Image via Wikimedia.

With a name fit for a heavy metal band, volcanic lightning forms during volcanic eruptions. Friction between particles of ash in the hectic moments of an eruption generates powerful electrostatic charges in a process similar to that in a stormcloud. Eventually, all that energy has to go somewhere, so it discharges in the form of lightning.

We actually have very reliable evidence that ancient peoples knew of volcanic lightning. Pliny the Younger, the nephew of Pliny the Elder, describes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD as being “at intervals obscured by the transient blaze of lightning”.

Aurora Borealis

The northern lights are the product of interactions between the Earth’s magnetic field and charged particles incoming in solar wind. In essence, these particles carry an electric charge which causes them to be repulsed by the magnetic field.

So technically, they form an electrical current. The light and colors are given off by gas particles in the atmosphere becoming ionized (energized) by this current. The color given off is a product of the frequency these particles vibrate on. In the higher layers of the atmosphere, emissions tend to be low-frequency shades of red. These turn more towards green and blue at lower altitudes and ultraviolet at the lowest altitudes.

You might be surprised, however, to find out that the northern lights also make a sound: a hiss-like, cracking sound.

Galvanic corrosion

Batteries turn chemical energy stored in metal bars into an electrical current. That process is known as galvanic or bimetallic corrosion.

Corrosion at the meeting points of mild steel and stainless steel. Image via Wikimedia.

Galvanic corrosion involves the breakdown of a metal with lower electric potential (the ‘less noble’ one) when it is in contact with a metal that has high potential (‘more noble’) through an electrolyte solution. The greater the difference between these potentials, the more power is produced. The flow of ions tapers off as the anode corrodes, which is why batteries slowly stop producing power. However, corrosion at the cathode is inhibited, with incoming ions depositing on its surface.

The earliest official record of this process comes from the 17th century, when the British Admiralty had to remove the lead plates used as sheathing on its ships to prevent iron elements from corroding. Later on, they tried installing copper plates instead (metal was used to coat the wooden bodies of ships to protect them against algae, parasites, and pests). They too had to be removed, as they were eating through the iron rivets used to fasten them to the hull.

Water, especially saltwater, is a very good electrolyte. In essence, tiny batteries formed at the contact between the plates and iron parts or rivets. This process is pretty much unavoidable wherever two metals come into contact and there’s humidity in the air. Modern equipment and infrastructure such as bridges sometimes use a sacrificial anode designed to be corroded and protect other metals, acting as a lightning rod for corrosion.

Another way to do it is to insulate these metals properly. The admiralty found that some of the iron rivets were in perfect condition. The copper plates, they discovered, were delivered to the shipyards in a waxy paper wrapping. Workers wouldn’t always bother to remove this before bolting the plates, and sometimes it caught on the rivet. This would insulate it from the copper, preventing oxidation.

In stars and planets

The Sun, being a huge fusion reactor, generates impressive magnetic and electric fields. One manifestation of an electrical current on its surface is the sunspot.

Our Earth’s upper surface is brimming with massive, low-intensity, and low-frequency telluric currents. They’re primarily generated by changes in the planet’s outer magnetic layer, which in turn is primarily influenced by the sun. Therefore, these currents tend to have a day-night variation and they’re relatively changeable. They also pass through oceans.

In animals

You quite literally could not read ZME Science without electricity. Not even printed out. Our brains need it to function.

Whenever one of your neurons wants to say something to its mates, or send an instruction to your pinky, it has to generate an electric charge to do it. Computers, or Morse code, work using a very similar principle: 1 or 0, signal or no signal, current or no current. These can be compounded to form coherent messages.

Instead of sending them down a wire or processor, our brains do it with ions, charged particles, which bounce on nerve bundles to their destinations. The data our senses perceive is coded into electrical signals and sent to the brain, where it is processed using electrical signals. Any needed response is transmitted back using electricity.

The electromagnetic force is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. They’re like its constitution, and all the other natural laws follow from their interactions. Electricity is one side of this force, the other being magnetism. We tend to think of them as things that you only find in a wall socket or in a lab, but they’re directly involved in everything.

But what fascinates me most is the thought that what I consider to be myself, my mind and memories and personalities, are shaped through electricity in a way. Hopefully, those fundamental laws won’t get overturned anytime soon, because I have a lot of data that I did not back up.

Decommissioning coal-fired plants saved lives and improved crop yields in the US

A new study on the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in the continental United States gauges the health and agricultural benefits it has generated for local communities.

Image credits Johannes Plenio.

Coal-fired power plants are, unsurprisingly, quite dirty. Coal burning is particularly problematic as it generates particulate matter and ozone (which together form smog) in the lower atmosphere. These compounds can affect the health of humans, wildlife, and plant life, and impact regional climate patterns by blocking incoming sunlight.

Jennifer Burney, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, looked into the benefits associated with the decommissioning of such plants. Between 2005 and 2016, she estimates, such decommissions saved over 26,000 lives and in their immediate vicinities in the continental US and helped improve local crop yields.

Coal — still dirty

“We hear a lot about the overall greenhouse gas and economic impacts of the transition the U.S. has undergone in shifting from coal towards natural gas, but the smaller-scale decisions that make up this larger trend have really important local consequences,” Burney said.

“The unique contribution of this study is its scope and the ability to connect discrete technology changes — like an electric power unit being shut down — to local health, agriculture and regional climate impacts.”

The transition from coal towards natural gas has definitely helped reduce CO2 emissions overall, Burney explains, and has helped lower local pollution levels in hundreds of areas. In order to quantify these changes, she combined data on electricity generation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with ground-level and satellite pollution measurements from the EPA and NASA to see how coal-fired plant decommissioning affected local chemistry. She also factored in county-level mortality rates and crop yields from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the same areas.

Between 2005 and 2016, she estimates that the loss of 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat were avoided in the immediate vicinities of these decommissioned plants as a result of lower pollution levels. From this figure, she calculated that coal plants still left in operation in the US over the same timeframe contributed to 329,417 premature deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of the same crops (roughly half of a typical year’s worth of harvest in the US).

All this being said, however, gas-fired plants aren’t completely benign, Burney adds. Even new natural gas units are associated with increased levels of local pollution, but of a different make-up than that released by coal-fired plants.

“Policymakers often think about greenhouse gas emissions as a separate problem from air pollution, but the same processes that cause climate change also produce these aerosols, ozone, and other compounds that cause important damages,” Burney concludes.

“This study provides a more robust accounting for the full suite of emissions associated with electric power production. If we understand the real costs of things like coal better, and who is bearing those costs, it could potentially lead to more effective mitigation and formation of new coalitions of beneficiaries across sectors.”

The paper “The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States” has been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The eye of the Sahara

A topographic reconstruction (scaled 6:1 on the vertical axis) from satellite photos. False coloring as follows: bedrock=brown, sand=yellow/white, vegetation=green, salty sediments=blue. Credit: NASA

This has got to be one of the strangest places on Earth- – but you couldn’t make much of it if you were just walking by.

It’s located in a rather remote area and the few people who noticed something odd about it didn’t know just how odd it really was. That’s why the 50 km formation didn’t receive much attention until some astronauts made reports about it .

Photo by NASA.

Located in Mauritania, the Eye of the Sahara is not really what you would call a structure, but rather a huge circular formation; it was originally thought to be a crater, but the more recent and accepted theories suggest that it is, in fact, a product of erosion that took place in geological time.

Also known as the Richat Structure, the Eye of the Sahara has been studied by numerous geologists.

“The Richat structure (Sahara, Mauritania) appears as a large dome at least 40 km in diameter within a Late Proterozoic to Ordovician sequence. Erosion has created circular cuestas represented by three nested rings dipping outward from the structure. The center of the structure consists of a limestone-dolomite shelf that encloses a kilometer-scale siliceous breccia and is intruded by basaltic ring dikes, kimberlitic intrusions, and alkaline volcanic rocks” – small excerpt from a paper.

You can also see it on Google Maps, it’s really a brilliant view, and you can zoom in and out for proportions (coordinates are 21.124217, -11.395569).


Picture sources: 1 2 3

The ‘hottest’ 7 … hot springs

The idea for this article hit me while I was writing this post about awesome landscapes. I was doing some research, and when I found the amazing things hot water springs can create, it was obvious that this article had to come.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Measuring about 250×380 feet, and being the largest hot water spring outside of New Zealand, the Grand Prismatic Spring is definitely something worth gazing at.

It sits in Yellowstone, high on the top of a mound, and has some small terraces that highlight even better the amazing colours created by the bacteria inside the water.

The vivid colours are the result of pigmented bacteria; the colours range from green to red, depending on the amount of chlorophyll the bacteria has, as well as the temperature of the water.

Mammoth springs

While we’re still in Yellowstone, I just have to mention Mammoth springs.

The amazing springs that showcase terraces was formed due to the occurence of the typical elements: heat, water, limestone, and a fracture system.

Heat and water create the necessary force for the travertine terraces to appear (travertine is a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs and generally associated to hot springs).

Pamukkale springs

In Turkish, Pamukkale means “cotton castle” – and it’s quite easy to understand why.

It was created with pretty much the same elements as Mammoth Spring, but the aspect is not identical, because the deposition of the travertine depends on a number of factors, including weather, temperature, local geochemistry, etc.

Guelma spring

Located in Algeria, this hot water spring draws more and more people, despite the relatively remote area.

Here, you can practically see the travertine formations cascading down like waterfalls.

This happens because of the way it is formed. Initially, the mineral depositions are soft and jelly-ish (so to speak), but as time passes, they harden in whatever position they are left.

Blood Pond

The people who named it sure didn’t have to think a long time when they named it.

There are nine hot water springs in Beppu, and they’ve been nicknamed “hells”, due to the boiling water, and the Blood Pond is the “worst” of them. It’s also the nicest one to look at… at least if you ask me.

The Blue Lagoon

This Icelandic Blue Lagoon has been turned into a geothermal spa, due to the minerals in the water, such as silica and sulphur. These mineral rich waters are reputed to help people suffering from skin diseases.

Jigokudani Monkey Park

The name Jigokudani literally means Hell’s Valley – something with Japanese and hot water springs… can’t find a single one that’s not named hell.

The spring itself isn’t extremely spectacular, but the thing is, it’s famous due to a large population of Japanese Macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys. The smart rascals come down from the cold forests to take a warm bath… and who can blame them ?

Photo sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Japanese project aims to turn CO2 into natural gas

Mankind is screwing up. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is. Not taking care of our natural resources, polluting and destroying habitats, it’s obvious that we, as a species, made some pretty big mistakes, the combined effects of which will come back to haunt us (and already are). But that’s not to say that we’re doomed or something – on the contrary. We can and have to stop these damaging processes and reverse them as much as possible, but that’s not so easy; it’s like U-turning when you’re running at full speed, hard as hell.


Finding a way to store or transform the CO2 is among the top priorities in this fight that we are in. If we can come even close to Al Gore’s challenge, we have to first come up with some innovative and efficient methods, and then apply them as quickly as possible.

Such a project was presented by Japanese researchers from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology. The team led by Fumio Inagaki announced that they intend to employ the help of bacteria to transform carbon dioxide into regular natural gas. He said that such a bacteria exists ‘deep under the seabed off the northern tip of Japan’s main island’. However, the major difficulties here will be to find a way to ‘train’ the bacteria to become more and more effective and accelerate the process of creating methane gas.

They announced that in a few years from now they will be able to shorten the transformation period to 100 years; this may not seem spectacular at all, but it really is! As far as I know at least, this is the first viable idea to not only dispose of unwanted CO2, but even transform it into something useful, basically killing two birds with one stone. This may not have immediate results and does not eliminate the need for CO2 storage, but it rather suggests what we can do with it after it’s stored, being a long term solution.

Israel, in danger of being hit by tsunamis

tsunami3Dr. Beverly Goodman of the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa was doing some research on the ancient port and shipwrecks of the place, when she stumbled upon information that led her to this conclusion.

“There is a likely chance of tsunami waves reaching the shores of Israel. Tsunami events in the Mediterranean do occur less frequently than in the Pacific Ocean, but our findings reveal a moderate rate of recurrence.”

“We expected to find the remains of ships, but were surprised to reveal unusual geological layers the likes of which we had never seen in the region before. We began underwater drilling assuming that these are simply local layers related to the construction of the port. However, we discovered that they are spread along the entire area and realized that we had found something major”

What they did is they drilled at various depths and proceeded to date the layers they found, using two methods: everybody’s friend carbon-14 dating and OSL (optically stimulated luminescence). They found evidence of tsunamis in 1500 BC, 100-200 CE, 500-600 CE, and 1100-1200 CE. There is still much we still have to learn about tsunamis, especially as more and more areas seem vulnerable to their threat. However, this exact need may be what gives researchers the push they need to find out methods of protection.

Huge dust storm chokes Sydney


A significant part of Australia’s east coast, including country’s biggest city, Sydney, has been engulfed by a shroud of red dust blown mostly from the desert outback. Visibility was so bad that most if not all flights were delayed, and of course, there were the usual folks who started screaming that this is the apocalypse. Turns out, it wasn’t.

Photo by Merbabu.

Numerous buildings, including the famous Opera House were covered in a thick blanket of dust and people took cover in their houses or nearby buildings. Lots of folks took to wearing masks and the emergency service reported a huge number of people who came in with respiratory problems. The transportation system was crippled also and doctors warned especially children and elder people to stay indoor until the storm passed, and even a few hours after that.

On Wednesday morning, powerful winds generated by a major cold air front transported tons and tons of dust from the drought plagued outback and brought it into the city. Dust storms are not really that uncommon, but they rarely take place somewhere else than the desert (or nearby areas); also, the pollution levels from the air were the highest recorded ever, with the 15,500 micrograms of particles per cubic meter generating a Mars-like landscape.

“On a clear day the readings for particulate matter or PM10 is around 10-20 micrograms per cubic meter,” said Chris Eiser of the NSW department of the environment. “During a bushfire, when there is heavy smoke around, we might see readings of around 300 to 500 micrograms per cubic meter.”


Locals described waking up to the storm as waking up on Mars, or even yet, in the middle of the apocalypse. The sky was soaked in red, the wind was blowing strongly and the whole scenery was somewhere between eerie and downright scary. They weren’t really as dangerous as they seemed, but they could do a significant amount of damage to one’s health.

“Dust storms are particularly hazardous for anyone with chronic lung disease or sinus disease. Once the particles per cubic metre are above 300, dust storms pose a risk to lung health,” said Dr Phillip Thompson of the University of Western Australia.

Here’s a video and some pics.

Dust storm Sydney 23 September 2009



Pics via The Guardian