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Silly mysteries solved

Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
Where do missing socks go? Would you believe they drop into a mini-black hole?

Now let us consider cosmic mysteries of a completely different sort ... for instance, why do socks disappear in the laundry?

Many hypotheses have been put forward: The eminent thinker Jerry Seinfeld once proposed that socks carefully plan their escape. Another researcher invokes quantum mechanics. Some crackpots even suggest looking under your washer's agitator or in your closet. Can you believe that?

Last weekend, an eminent panel of theorists (including myself) gathered to reflect upon "cannibalistic socks" and other riddles at the SpoCon science-fiction and fantasy convention in Spokane, Wash. I think we may have made as much headway as the Solvay Conference did back in Einstein's day. Here's the rundown on our results:

Where disappearing socks go
Some people have suggested that socks go missing in the laundry because a space-time warp somehow transforms them into belly-button lint and dust bunnies that appear out of nowhere. That's only half-right. Take a look at this diagram of the modern clothes dryer, then note the similarity to this picture of the ATLAS detector at Europe's Large Hadron Collider. Is that mere coincidence?

I didn't think so.

Dryers have been spinning away since long before the LHC was ever conceived, driving socks into collisions so energetic they build up powerful jolts of static electricity. Can anyone deny there's a chance - even if it's a 1-out-of-10500 chance - that such collisions could generate miniature black holes? And can any scientists truthfully say there is absolutely zero chance that such black holes could grow large enough to gobble up one of a pair of socks, leaving the other behind as a kind of laundry-hamper Hawking radiation?

I didn't think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... the Not-So-Large Ban-Lon Collider. Your laundry room contains a device perfect for doing small-scale experiments in string theory. (Or is that yarn theory?)

Interstellar travel
How can we possibly get to other stars? Some at SpoCon held out hope for the Heim Drive, a device that is supposed to convert gravitational energy into electromagnetic energy and send spacecraft zooming through shortcuts in space-time. The last time I wrote about this, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss told me the idea was "completely crackpot," but some Cosmic Log correspondents thought that judgment was way too harsh. I'm not sure which would take longer: making the centuries-long trip to Alpha Centauri using existing propulsion technology, or finding a way to build an honest-to-goodness warp drive.

However, there is another possibility that I'm surprised hasn't gotten more attention. It's a little something I call the Clerk Drive.

Have you ever noticed how hardware-store clerks seem to disappear instantly the moment you need advice on whether to buy the 5/16 or the 11/32 doohickey? I do believe many of them have mastered the knack of quantum teleportation to the break room, achieving what is effectively faster-than-light speed over short distances. All we need to do is find a few with a sense of enterprise, give them a title and put them in command of our first starships. The title? That's obvious: Captain Clerk.

Perpetual motion
Talking about breakthrough propulsion naturally led to the search for a perpetual-motion machine - and the solution to that perennial poser has been known for a long time. Because cats (like geckos) always land on their feet, and toast always lands on the floor buttered-side down, all you have to do is attach a buttered-side-up piece of toast to a cat's back (or to its feet, in an alternate design). Logic dictates that when you throw the cat up in the air, it should levitate above the ground like a frog spinning in a solenoid.

Some theories suggest that you could channel "cat-toast" power by attaching a turbine to the spinning cat, as shown here. The effect would last only as long as the cat stayed alive, but you could get around that limitation by putting the cat in a box with a radiation device. That way, there's always a 50 percent chance that the cat is alive ... as long as you don't open the box.

The only problem is that a recent study has questioned the whole antigravity cat hypothesis. This research claims that the cat would land on its feet, but the toast would eventually flip buttered-side-down anyway. The probability of that happening hits 100 percent if the cat can find an expensive carpet to curl up on.

Mars and the Maya
When I got back to the office, I came across a couple of e-mail messages on matters that were just as much on the scientific fringe - but motivated by serious concerns. One was from Mariele Bogran, telling me that the Great Mars Hoax ("Mars will be as big as the moon in August") was starting to get mixed up with tales of the coming Maya apocalypse:

"I am writing to inquire about the Mars hoax. Recently a similar e-mail to the one you have mentioned came to my attention. After looking for some facts to back it up I immediately came to find the Cosmic Log you posted last year. Now, I live in Honduras, and as you may know, the Mayas had a great empire here in Copan. The Mayas predicted the Mars sighting in their calendar thousands of years ago. So this e-mail has been creating quite a buzz in Copan. Proposals for a major festival and activities revolving around the Mars sighting are being drawn up. However, before any further steps are being taken, I would like to confirm whether the claims in this e-mail are true or false. ..."

If the e-mail to which Bogran refers is the same one that makes the round every August, it's a garbled version of outdated truth. Back in August 2003, the planet Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in tens of thousands of years. If you peered at it through a telescope under the best conditions, the Red Planet might have looked as big as the moon does when seen with the naked eye. But Mars will never come as close as the moon, and the planet poses absolutely no danger to Earth.

This month isn't a particularly good time to observe Mars. The next close encounter is due in January 2010. At that time, it will be almost twice as far away as it was in 2003 - as illustrated on this Web page. By the way, it'll be even farther away in 2012, when the ancient Maya calendar silently resets itself.

The 12th planet
My reports about Jupiter's Great Black Spot prompted this question from Danilie Howe: "Could the spot on Jupiter be the 12th planet?" That's a reference to the Nibiru legend, which claims the Sumerians knew about a faraway planet that periodically entered the inner solar system and created havoc on Earth.

I dashed off a quick note saying that the impact was likely caused by an object that measured only a few hundred meters (yards) in width - far too small to be a planet. Howe wrote back, asking if I knew where the 12th planet was.

If she meant a threatening planet like Nibiru, my answer would be that such a planet is not known to exist. As I write in Chapter 13 of "The Case for Pluto," a large planet could theoretically exist far out on the fringes of the solar system, perhaps out in the Oort Cloud. No existing telescope is powerful enough to detect such a world, although that situation may change. Even if Planet X existed, it wouldn't pose any threat to Earth in the foreseeable future.

NASA's David Morrison has written extensively about the astronomical side of the Nibiru myth, and language scholar Michael S. Heiser handles the historical side. Heiser contends that the Sumerians used "Nibiru" to refer to Jupiter, or to Mercury, or to a star - but not to a planet beyond the five known to the ancients.

The question remains, however: Where is the 12th planet? Today, we know of four terrestrial planets (Mercury, Mars, Venus and Earth), four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and five dwarf planets (Eris, Pluto, Ceres, Makemake and Haumea). That makes 13, and there are probably many more yet to be recognized (though the International Astronomical Union currently draws the line at the biggest eight).

Based on illustrations by NASA, ESA and A. Feild (STScI)
This graphic compares the sizes of five dwarf planets and their moons with the size of Earth and its moon. The top row shows, from left, Eris and its moon, Dysnomia; Pluto and its three moons, Charon, Nix and Hydra; and Makemake. The bottom row shows Haumea and its moons, Namaka and Hi'iaka; Ceres; and Earth's moon. A small slice of Earth's disk is visible at the bottom of the picture.

OK, so which of those is 12th on the list? Just for argument's sake, I'm going to go with the IAU's chronological order of designation as planets (dwarf or otherwise). The status of the first 11 was established by the IAU's 2006 resolution, which means Makemake went 12th a little more than a year ago, and Haumea went 13th last September.

Therefore, if you really press me to identify the 12th planet, I'd go with Makemake - which is roughly 50 times farther away from the sun than we are. Even at its closest point, it's still 35 times farther away and thus poses no threat to our planet. The only thing threatened by Makemake and the other dwarfs is our preconception of what a planet has to be.

Do you have additional thoughts on scientific myths or mirth? Feel free to pass them along below. I'm on vacation through Aug. 16, but I'll still check in every now and then to approve your comments.

More silly science:

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