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Cloudy With a Chance of Catastrophe: Predicting the Weather in Space

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Image credit: NASA

In 1859, while observing sunspots, a young astronomer named Richard Carrington recorded a geomagnetic storm so powerful, the electrical currents it sent to Earth were enough to keep the newly invented telegraph operating without a battery. Centuries later, though humans have sent robots to Mars and even strong-armed a couple engineers into walking on the moon, the science of space weather, the changing environmental conditions in near-Earth space, has largely managed to elude us. In fact even the term “space weather” is new; it wasn’t used regularly until the 1990s.

Now, an international project led by China is hoping to advance the study of space weather by light-years in order to minimize the dangerous impact a storm in space might have on us fragile Earthlings.

If experts are correct, there's a chance that a serious space weather threat will arrive sooner rather than later – and the risk to humans is greater than you think.

Oddly, the trouble is that we’ve become too advanced. Because humans today are so dependent upon modern electrical technology, a space storm the size of the one Carrington recorded in 1859 could cause catastrophic problems if it occurred tomorrow. According to a 2008 National Academy of Sciences Report, from long-term electrical blackouts to damage to communication satellites and GPS systems (not to mention billions in financial losses), the results could be devastating worldwide.

Luckily, scientists are hopeful the KuaFu project will prevent (or at least minimize the impact of) this kind of disaster.

Our Eyes on the Sun, The Sun in Our Eyes

Named for Kua Fu, a sun-chasing giant from a Chinese folktale whose pursuit to tame the brightest star in our solar system ended after he died of thirst, the KuaFu project will create a space weather forecasting system 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth's surface. The goal is similar to the one from the legend: to observe changes in solar-terrestrial storms, investigate flows of energy and solar material, and improve the forecasting of space weather.

Not necessarily to tame the sun, but, at least, to understand it.

Proposed in 2003 by scientist Chuanyi Tu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the project will place three separate satellites at strategic points in our solar system to observe the inner workings of space weather. China's National Space Administration along with the European and Canadian Space Agencies will work together to man them.

“Being aware of the impending blindness to space weather and its effects, we consider a mission like KuaFu absolutely mandatory,” said Dr. Rainer Schwenn, one of the developers of KuaFu. “If 'space weather' keeps being considered an important science goal, then KuaFu is a real key project.”

The satellites will offer an unprecedented ability to glean information about the often tumultuous relationship between the sun and Earth, by allowing scientists to observe both the star and its effects on the planet simultaneously. To now, this process has been viewable only via computer simulation.

“You have to look at the two systems simultaneously [to most accurately forecast space weather]” said Dr. William Liu, a senior scientist at the Canadian Space Agency who took over as project leader when Chuanyi Tu retired two years ago. “It's a real observation; it's what's actually happening.”

Space Storm Showdown: What Do We Do?

So, if the power-grid frying, billion dollar damage-wreaking storm is inevitable, how much will forecasting it actually help?

Lots.

According to Liu, predicting space weather activity can give the operators who maneuver satellites in space the information they need to protect them and us from harm.

For example: If companies know a storm is approaching, it gives them a chance to tweak their loads before their systems descend into chaos and shut off power for, say, the entire East Coast of the United States.

“That's how you prevent catastrophe,” Liu explained. “You reduce the load on the parts that are more sensitive.”

While the project was originally scheduled to be completed this year, Liu’s current estimates put its debut at 2016. Despite the delays, he remains optimistic it will come to fruition, pointing out that international collaborations like this one often stir up scientific and financial challenges that delay the launch process.

Whether the KuaFu project will be able to predict space weather accurately all of the time is up for debate. Liu, however, is confident that, at the very least, it's a step toward that direction .

“With this launch and operation, we'll make our predictions better. Whether it will be 100 percent, that will be too much to ask, but it will definitely improve our knowledge.”

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Heritage Auctions
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10 Vintage Canes With Amazing Hidden Features
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Heritage Auctions

Sometimes a vintage walking stick is more than a dapper statement piece. It can also be a men’s grooming kit, a croquet set, a microscope, or even a projector. Multipurpose canes were all the rage at the turn of the 19th century, and now some of the most unique examples of the trend are going up for auction.

The Gentleman Collector auction from Heritage Auctions will feature dozens of canes, many of which offer bonus features beyond what meets the eye. Check out these useful, sneaky, and oddly specific specialty canes, which hit the auction block on September 22.

1. THE COIN COLLECTOR’S CANE

Cane with a weight in the handle.

Can’t decide if you identify more as a rabologist (someone who collects canes) or a numismatist (someone who collects coins)? This artifact will appeal to both halves of your heart. Inside the ebonized wood handle of this late 19th-century cane is a space for weighing and storing coins. Just push a button to reveal the tiny brass scale.

Estimated price: $7000 - $10,000

2. THE MAGIC LANTERN CANE

Cane with hidden projector.

Who needs a bulky iPhone taking up space in your pocket when you can carry a miniature movie theater in your walking stick? The top of the "magic lantern" cane slides up and acts as a portable projector. Point it at the nearest wall to view the hand-painted illustrations housed within the shaft. A tiny torch brings the full-color slideshow to life.

Estimated price: $3000 - $5000

3. THE CIDER MAKER’S CANE

Cane that makes cider.

There's nothing like a long walk to work up a thirst for a glass of cider. With this walking stick in hand, you can get to work making one immediately. The interior wood rod of this device doubles as an apple press. Along the the tin shaft is a siphon and spout for collecting juice.

Estimated price: $1000 - $1500

4. THE ARCHITECT’S CANE

Cane with hidden architect's tools.

With a mahogany shaft and a leather-wrapped handle, this walking stick is a piece of art on its own. Architects can twist it open and use the supplies inside to draw up something equally exquisite. The handle has two secret compartments containing a compass, graphite, and drafting tools. Inside the lower part of the cane is a level, straightedge, letter opener, an elevation drawing, and a plumb-line (a pendulum with a rope-suspended weight).

Estimated price: $3000 - $5000

5. THE WELL-GROOMED GENTLEMAN’S CANE

Cane with hidden grooming kit.

The original owner of this grooming kit/walking stick combo was likely the envy of every fancy gentleman in town. Inside the cane’s segmented oak shaft are vials, brushes, a sponge, a button hook, and shaving supplies—everything necessary to look fresh and fine on the go.

Estimated price: $4000 - $6000

6. THE SPY CAMERA CANE

Chrome handle of a cane.

The hidden camera is the quintessential spy accessory. This circa 1980 cane, based on a patent from 1904, holds its camera and film winder inside the chrome handle. Snap it closed and the device transforms back into an inconspicuous, black walking stick.

Estimated price: $6000 -$8000

7. THE SPITTING CANE

Cane handle shaped like a face.

The handle on this item portrays a man’s face scrunched up into a nasty expression. What it does is even nastier: Push a button on the top and liquid comes shooting out the mouth. The trick cane could possibly be used for good, like refilling people’s drinks at parties. Or you could just fill it with water and spray anyone who invades your personal space.

Estimated price: $1500 - $2500

8. THE CROQUET PLAYER’S CANE

Cane with miniature croquet set.

You wouldn’t think that a mallet, a ball, and a full set of wickets would fit easily inside a cane, but a 19th-century inventor found a way to make it work. Of course, this croquet set is much smaller than one you'd find on a lawn. Luckily a desktop makes a fine alternative to a playing field.

Estimated price: $800 - $1200

9. THE MICROSCOPE CANE

Cane with hidden microscope.

A botanist going on a stroll through the woods would be fortunate to have this walking stick with them. Upon spotting an interesting specimen, they could pause their journey and use the cane as their miniature laboratory. The ebonized wood shaft contains a compartment with glass slides and vials, and the detailed silver handle holds an actual brass microscope.

Estimated price: $3000 - $5000

10. THE CROSSBOW CANE

Cane with wooden eagle handle.

If you’re still not convinced that canes can be hardcore, take this specimen from the late 1800s. The carved eagle-head handle is intimidating on its own, but pop it off and you have all the components necessary to put together a crossbow. Brandishing a dangerous weapon never looked so classy.

Estimated price: $1500 - $2500

All images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
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Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. or LA, or by visiting their website.

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