To reach Steve’s place, turn south at the lights

For years, sky gazers in Canada have been training their camera lenses on a wispy strand of purple light running across the country from east to west, sometimes flanked by neon green fingers that appear to wave.

It looks like a piece of the aurora borealis, or the northern lights: blushes of pink or green that illuminate the night sky at high latitudes, caused by solar particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

But this strip of light is different. It has always appeared farther south, beyond the bounds of normal aurora sightings.

Amateur aurora watchers have taken hundreds of photographs of this adjacent phenomenon, often drawing out its fluorescent colors with long exposures or photo editing. They called it Steve, as a sort of placeholder until a more formal name could be found.

Now a research paper has shed light on what Steve actually is, and scientists have proposed a moniker: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. So, it’s still Steve. But as a “bacronym” — a retroactive acronym.

The paper was published March 14 in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It suggests that Steve has a lot in common with a phenomenon called a “sub-auroral ion drift,” or SAID, in which ions flow very quickly from east to west, closer to the equator than the aurora borealis.

Like the northern lights, SAID results from interactions between charged solar particles and the Earth’s magnetosphere.

“It’s something that we know that’s actually been studied for 40 years,” said Elizabeth MacDonald, a space physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who led the paper’s research team. “But they have never been seen to have this optical component.”

In other words, SAID usually looks nothing like Steve, with its long purplish streak and green fingers. That leaves many questions unanswered, and scientists are still working on those.

MacDonald and others worked with data from Swarm, a constellation of satellites run by the European Space Agency, and learned that Steve is a strip of ionized gas as hot as the Earth’s core and moving through the air at about 4 miles per second.

High-flying physics for a wild petunia

When it’s time for the hairyflower wild petunia to pass its genes to the next generation, it does it with a bang.

To reproduce, the plants flings tiny seeds from a small torpedo-shape fruit more than 20 feet through the air. That’s not an easy task.

The seeds are discs about a tenth of an inch in diameter — smaller than the circles that fall out of a hole punch — and 1/50th of an inch thick, the equivalent of three sheets of paper.

“It’s like throwing confetti,” said Dwight Whitaker, a professor of physics at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

But somehow these seeds slice smoothly through the air.

In an article published recently in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Whitaker and a trio of undergraduate physics majors worked out what happens in that moment of explosion that launches the seeds so far.

The seeds sit within a small fruit that is a bit over 1 inch long. A spine along each half of the fruit is made of three layers, which shrink at different rates as they dry. That creates a strain that bends them outward. The two halves remain held together by glue.

Drip some water onto it, the glue dissolves and the fruit violently splits in half.

With ultrahigh speed video — up to 20,000 frames a second — Whitaker and his students slowed down the action, watching as hooks in the fruit accelerated the seeds to speeds of more than 30 mph, similar to how the curved scoops used in the sport of jai alai can accelerate a ball to more than 100 mph.

“It just looks like this gentle, beautiful motion,” Whitaker said.

New difference between alligators and crocodiles

How do you tell an alligator from a crocodile? The most obvious way to discern the two reptiles is to stare down their sinister snouts. Alligators have U-shaped faces that are wide and short, while crocodiles have slender, almost V-shaped muzzles. And if you’re daring enough, take a gander at their chompers. When an alligator closes its mouth, you tend to see only its upper teeth. Crocodiles on the other hand flash a toothy grin with their top and bottom teeth interlacing.

Many of the differences between the two center on their heads and mouths. Now, researchers from Japan have identified what they believe to be another feature that sets the reptiles apart: Alligators tend to have shorter humerus bones in their forelimbs and shorter femurs in their hind limbs than crocodiles, the team reported recently.

“This information could help explain differences in their ecology and locomotion, including the strange fact that, while small crocodiles have been observed to bound and gallop, alligators have not,” Julia Molnar an evolutionary biologist from the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Alligators and crocodiles diverged evolutionarily during the Late Cretaceous period some 80 million years ago.

— New York Times News Service

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