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Thanks to to the reinforced lasso you can now catch a moon or comet. Modified Image : Free to share via
Thanks to to the reinforced lasso you can now catch a moon or comet. Modified Image : Free to share via

 Determined Santa Rosan
—not Settled Science—
Lassoed the Comet’s Tail. 

Oct 23, 2019


Back in the 1930s a Santa Rosan agriculturalist-cum-chemist, Samuel Kistler, became obsessed with uncovering what made jellies what they were. They aren’t solid and neither are they liquid, seeming to inhabit a state between the two. It turns out jellies—gels—are a little of both. Kistler discovered that gelatins are composed of a fragile skeleton of molecule-sized mesh that traps liquid within. He experimented to remove the liquid from the solid framework but the internal scaffold always collapsed. His epiphany was to infuse gas to take the place of the liquid removed so as to support the delicate internal silicon dioxide structure. Thus was the lightest material in the world created, aerogel, composed of an astonishing 99.8% air.

Aerogel isn’t just the lightest solid though; it’s also the best insulator in existence. Just as double-paned windows trapping air between the glass can be outdone by the triple-paned version, aerogel—a foam—is made up of what could be imagined as billions of layers of “windows,” giving thermal insulation beyond one’s wildest imagination. If all this sounds quite astounding the truly incredible part of Kistler’s saga was the reaction of the world: a collective shoulder-shrug.  Decades passed before NASA became interested in the lightest, most effective insulator ever fabricated, but with quite stunning results. 

The primary goal of the Stardust mission was to collect samples of a comet and return them to Earth for laboratory analysis. Image:

In 2004 NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, equipped with a giant “tennis racket” composed of aerogel,   scooped up the material being ejected from a passing comet and returned the samples to Earth two years later. But this eventual startling finale of something at first having garnered no attention whatever isn’t an outlier; hardly. The greatest discoveries in human history often initially elicit the most tepid interest. Electric generators, smallpox vaccines—even airplanes—hardly caused fireworks to be sent into the air in celebration. More often than not it takes science years, decades or centuries to get things right. 

In 2004 NASA’s Stardust spacecraft, equipped with a giant “tennis racket” composed of aerogel, scooped up the material being ejected from a passing comet and returned the samples to Earth two years later. Image: Stardust NEXT spacecraft and Comet Tempel 1. Credit: NASA artist's concept

One of Samuel Kistler’s contemporaries was the Swedish wunderkind Svant Arrhenius, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry in 1903 and the individual who coined the term “greenhouse effect.” It was Arrhenius who first called attention to the connections between how the levels of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere can act as one of the regulators of global mean temperature. Again, though, just as with Kistler’s discovery, the world accepted his findings and simply moved on, having very little to say about it. 

No one disputed Arrhenius’ assertion then, nor is the physics of how CO2 interacts with infrared radiation in question now. The fact is though that it wasn’t any politician, activist, or thundering messianic figure from the 21st century to initiate the current world panic concerning its supposed upcoming apocalypse due to the very gas that every living creature exhales. It was a sober, circumspect, eminently qualified Nobelist who history records as meriting that distinction, and transpiring over a century ago. Nonetheless, Arrhenius never implied there was any doomsday fast-approaching or even waiting in the wings. 

History certainly short-changed Kistler, and at least muddled to some extent Arrhenius’ work, both paying a price, however, for something well worth whatever discomfiture they may have suffered in life or posthumously—the scientific method. Science doesn’t lurch precipitously off any deep ends, ever, in any age, regarding any matter, and certainly not in sanctioning policies involving turning the world upside-down. 

It is a sophisticated science that now is wise enough to know it’s far from all-knowing, having burned already too many heliocentrists at the stake and censured or ignored too many gutsy geniuses who somehow managed to give to the world even as they were being destroyed the knowledge of plate tectonics, jet streams, shattered sound “barriers,” pierced Van Allen Radiation Belts and so much more.

Science oftentimes ignores those it shouldn’t, paraphrases incorrectly others it deigns to notice, and has left strewn over the millennia the broken wreckage of a thousand missteps and blunders. Science knows best who and what it is, learning that salient lesson centuries ago. It now holds on to one unassailable anchor: the scientific method. There is no such thing as a settled science, the very thing that science is not.

David Nabhan writes bi-weekly science columns for both Newsmax (“Shaking Up Science”) and the Times of Israel (“Tectonic Shifts”). Contact:   website:  Ph: (412) 918-1411

David Nabhan, Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology (2017) Skyhorse Publishing, New York;  The Pilots of Borealis (2015) Skyhorse Publishing/Talos Press, New York; Earthquake Prediction: Answers in Plain Sight (2013); Forecasting the Catastrophe (2010); Predicting the Next Great Quake (1996) Newsmax columnist, "Shaking Up Science", Times of Israel columnist, "Tectonic Shifts"

"Santa Rosan Lassoed the Comet’s Tail" (From David Nabhan)



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