Space bugs: Clouds of insects zap planes


Q. How high up do flying bugs go? Do they splatter on the windows of airplanes, causing problems? -A. "Rach" Nid

A. Many insects– and other "bugs" like spiders and mites– ride thermals to high altitudes much like soaring vultures, says Virginia Tech researcher Curt Laub. Migrating monarch butterflies have been seen at 4000 feet. In Africa and the Middle East, migratory locusts fly in radar-able swarms millions strong at a mile high and more.

Flying planes with insect-census traps on the wings, USDA researcher P.A. Glick estimated there are millions of bug "aeroplankton" above any given square mile of land. Most he caught were under 3000 feet, but one spider unfurled a strand of silk and rode it balloon-like to 15,000 feet. Thus airborne, says Iowa State entomologist Robert E. Lewis, spiders have been known to ferry on the jet stream across the Atlantic Ocean.

Essentially floating on the wind, many insects ride weather fronts to cross high mountain passes and oceans to different continents. Moving en masse, moths, grasshoppers, or aphids do pose a minor hazard to aviation as small planes pass through these very real clouds of insects, says University of Arkansas's Timothy Kring. But commercial jets

fly much higher than these, so their problem is more on takeoffs and landings– forcing heavy windshield scrubdowns.

Q. Are sleepwalkers acting out their dreams? –Heidi

A. Quite the opposite. During dreaming sleep, people are actually paralyzed, capable of jerks and twitches but little body movement. Without this motor shutdown function, the nocturnal world might be inhabited by peripatetic dreamers fleeing imagined monsters or trying to fly.

So a sleepwalk is one of those times you know the person isn't dreaming but is rather in a deeper stage of sleep (stage 3 or stage 4). Somnambulists will generally just sit up, get out of bed and go for a stroll, says Dr. Peretz Lavie in The Enchanted World of Sleep. Their eyes are wide open but unseeing; they find their way by memory and thus may trip over unexpected obstacles.

Sleepwalking is a form of "automatism," where learned behaviors are repeated. In one case that puzzled Lavie, a six-year-old boy was seen to get up and go as far as the lab's attached electrodes would allow, "then he began to wave his hands around with strange and exotic movements." When shown the video later, his parents revealed this was just part of a school play where the boy played the role of the sun.

Q. For the truly beer curious, how might your beloved brew behave in the zero-G of Earth orbit or outer space? –C. Conklin

A. Behold Earth beer, its myriad multi-sized bubbles rising in strings from "nucleation sites" in the opened bottle or in the glass. Positively buoyant, they speed up and spread out in the liquid like so many untethered hot-air balloons, says Craig Bohren in Clouds in a Glass of Beer.

With space beer, you can forget buoyancy and rising bubbles, there won't even be a flat liquid surface to rise to, says University of Washington aerospace professor Adam Bruckner. You can't pour anything out of a bottle or can!

Pop the cap and the air space won't necessarily be at the top, in the neck. It can be anywhere, as a large bubble or several, depending on how the container was handled.

Under standard pressure in the space capsule, bubbles will form and grow in place, and given sufficient numbers, a foam may result. Shake the bottle beforehand and the contents will spew out, as on Earth. "Only difference is you can sit back and watch the spherical globs of space beer float away."

In reality, astronauts aren't allowed carbonated drinks in orbit, says New Scientist magazine, because a body needs gravity to burp excess gas. "No beer is one of the many sacrifices one must make for space exploration."

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