What Are the Northern Lights?

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iStock

Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

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What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Do Tires Have to Be Filled With Air?

BookyBuggy/iStock via Getty Images
BookyBuggy/iStock via Getty Images

Paul Misencik:

This is an issue that has perplexed me for most of my life, because pneumatic tires filled with air seem like the last anachronistic, 19th-century component of a modern automobile, and an idea which should have disappeared many decades ago. In an era where even the internal combustion engine itself is giving way to electric motors, and where a new economy hatchback has exponentially more computing power than the Space Shuttle, pneumatic tires don’t seem to make sense any longer.

(And before I get flamed, I know modern tires are vastly more advanced and reliable and capable than their 1930s counterparts. Blowouts, which were a common occurrence when I was a kid, are pretty much unheard of today. Modern tires are great, but they are still vulnerable and maintenance-intensive in a way that doesn’t make any sense to me.)

Companies have experimented with non-pneumatic passenger vehicle tires in the modern age—one of the primary drivers was Michelin. But the tires weren’t filled with solid rubber. In fact, they didn’t even have sidewalls. They were open on the sides, and they had a support lattice of structural polyester ribs, with a ton of air space between the contact patch and the (now deformable) wheel.

One of the big problems with switching from pneumatic tires to non-pneumatic tires is the fact that the current air-filled tire is an important component of the suspension of a vehicle. The flex in the sidewall is a critical part of the compliance of the suspension and substantially affects a vehicle's ride and handling. (Which is why race car drivers sweat tire pressures at each corner of the vehicle so much, as even a small change in tire pressure can have a big effect on the handling and grip of a vehicle.)

If a company like Michelin wants to make a non-pneumatic tire, they'll improve their chances of finding success with it if the new design mimics the compliance and flex characteristics of the outgoing, air-filled models as closely as possible. That way, Michelin would be able to sell the new, non-pneumatic design as a retrofit to older vehicles whose suspensions were originally designed with pneumatic tires in mind. And that is hugely important because if they can’t, it becomes much more difficult to convince manufacturers to change over to the new design—particularly after the mild debacle of Michelin’s failed “TRX” metric tire idea of the 1980s, which required the use of a special wheel and which, despite being by most accounts a superior design in almost every way, never really took off. (Owners of 1980s Ferrari 512 Berlinetta Boxers and some Saab 900 turbos will know what I’m talking about here.)

Non-pneumatic Michelin tires are also rather weird looking, and it’s not clear which manufacturers, if any, would take the risk of being the first to offer them on a new car.

So that is the real issue: Any non-pneumatic tire design must be not only clearly superior to the pneumatic designs of the past, but it must be functionally identical to the outgoing models they would replace, and they must be visually acceptable to consumers.

I hope it happens, though. I hope someone cracks the nut. Pneumatic tires are a 19th-century application still being used on 21st-century vehicles, and at some point that needs to change.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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