Sciencey LOL of the Week

unny_science_test_answerI’m almost certain this kid knew the answer and, at the expense of one mark, decided this joke was too good to pass up on.

For those enquiring minds who really do want to know the answer…

Saturn is one of the largest planets in our solar system, in mass and size. It is known as a gassy giant because of its penchant for Mexican cuisine. I’m kidding. Because it is so massive and its gravity so great, that everything from giant space rocks to gass molecules were drawn in towards its centre at the formation of our solar system, approximately 4.5 billion years ago. If Saturn was just a little bit bigger (“a little bit” being an approximation for a whole lot), the intensity of its gravitational pull would have generated the central pressure and heat necessary to initiate nuclear reactions. And THIS would have made Saturn a star! The same applies to Jupiter, which is also a flatulant giant.

So, in other words, Saturn and Jupiter are failed stars… or that is what my astronomy professor always referred to them as.

Picture of planet Saturn

Saturn in all its real colour glory. This image was taken by the Cassini satellite in 2004. As a matter of interest, Saturn appears a sickly yellow colour due to the great glittering clouds of ammonia crystals held aloft in its atmosphere. I can only imagine what smells one would have to endure on a stroll around Saturn. Similar to your single toilet after you and 15 of your beer-soaked friends have relieved yourselves, I’m guessing.

Saturn’s rings are composed of orbiting particles of rocks and ice, some no bigger than snowballs and others the size of a bus, according to NASA’s fun cosmology website. Each of these particles, gargantuam and minute, are by definition moons, all in gentle orbit around the giant planet. They share this orbit with 63 other more “traditional” moons, the largest of which is the aptly-named Titan.

While it is unclear as to why all of this orbiting debris has accumulated into almost perfect geometric circles around the planet, the answer is suspected to lie in gravity. Over the many millions of years subsequent to the formation of the solar system (or seven days subsequent to creation), each particulate, snowball, moon and hunk of rock has had the time to settle into a position that reflects, in part, the force of attraction between itself and its giant parent planet. One might suspect that the larger, heavier particles will be arranged in belts closest to the planet, while the lighter and less dense particles will be in belts further away.

Saturn's ringsAnd you might suspect this because the force of attraction between two objects is proportionate to their respective masses and disproportionate to the distance between them. In other words, the heavier you are, the more attractive Earth finds you, which is why your bathroom scale groans every morning. You can refer to this spectacular blog entry for elucidation on this point: Gravity And The Laws of Attraction, Somewhat Revised.

This is precisely what I thought, but the picture is more complex than that. Each particle in orbit around its central giant – each particle of dust and each bus-sized space rock – is travelling at a certain speed. And while gravity acts to pull these particles in towards Saturn, they continue along a path that is perpendicular to it, rather than careening inwards. The force that propels these “moons” forward is called the centripetal force and you would have experienced that as a child when you were flung off a merry-go-round, because your douchebag brother seemed to think the word “stop!” meant “faster!”

Saturn’s rings are therefore organised into belts of particles that are travelling at different velocities. I have a very helpful reader to thank for this relevation and you will find his comment below.

And so, this gasy giant finds itself swathed in many beautiful, carefully arranged rings all consisting of particles, rocks, snowballs and moons travelling at varying velocities; trapped in an eternal dance around itself. Here’s something else: so does Jupiter and Neptune! The only difference is that the two latter planets’ bridal trains are thinner and far more translucent and so Saturn, with its ostentatious display, has become the planet in our solar system famed for its rings.

beyonce-put a ring on it

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45 thoughts on “Sciencey LOL of the Week

  1. This post was just plain awesome in every way. Thank you for making science so educating and humorous. Bravo to you! ;D

    I would applaud my kids for taking a mark for the sake of a well placed laugh.

  2. I think I would have quoted Tolkien. Something about the number of inner rings for the elven lords and so on until ending with the “One Ring to rule them all” bit. Kidding aside, it’s a fun read and I learn something every time I come here. :)

  3. Nice read again. But if I may, I would lik to draw ur attention to two glitches. One, saturn wasnt formed at the beginning of the universe as u mentioned. Our solar system is quite young at 4.5 billion years as against the estimate of 15 billion for the universe. N second, somewat more substantial, is tat the rings dont have a clean gradient of particles in terms of their masses with heavier in the inner rings n lighter in outer. I dont want to pull up equations n stuff n spoil al fun. But the crux is, the particles are moving in circles, while the gravity is acting perpendicular to their motion, towards the centre of saturn. So, in this case, the role of gravity is to provide the centripetal force for the particles to execute the circle. N masses cancel if u equate the two. The rings, each concentric section of it, hav a range of masses. N the ring distribution is a function the particle velocity. Precisely, the radius of a particle at a distance r is inversely related to the square of its velocity. So, the right way of saying it would be, the rings are a gradient of velocites, an inverse gradient. I apologise for pointing this out. I actually very much liked the post. My intention is to only add to ur quest to understand the physical world around. N correct me if I am wrong with any of the physics above.

    • Never apologise for good science! You are highlighting the scientific rigor this article is clearly lacking! Just to be clear, this was intended to be a quick post minus the physics frills, but you have added that really nicely for me. I didn’t take the time to explain the centripetal force and how it acts to keep objects in orbit around a central mass, mostly because I write for a varied audience who wish to read about science but who may not have the background in physics and what-not to understand some of the more complex subjects. This is why explaining what you have outlined in your comment would have been more appropriate for a full blog post, rather than he shorter one I intended it to be. Hence the omission. Thank you for taking the time to comment and elucidate on these points!

    • Hello again… take a look at the post again ;-) Thank you again for your input!

      I have a question: what do you do that your knowledge of astrophysics is so sharp? I may have to pick your brain in future!

      • Hai. I went through the post again. U r very generous. Sincerely humbled. N yes, I gathered that u didnt want to mak the write-up too rigorous so that ppl from al background could relish it. I wil remember tat.

      • N about what I do, wel this may come as a surprise. Am a physician (yes, the same who wears a white coat with a steth round his neck n walks through the corridors of a hospital!). Just out of med school. But my true interest lies in physical sciences. N you r more than welcome to discuss science.

      • Ah I see! I studied atmospheric science, but I found it impossible to restrain my curiosity. I think took a course in just about every imaginable physical science during my university years! Thanks again for participating in the conversation!

  4. perhaps less a “failed star” and more of a big fish in a little pond. The super dressy types kinda like that position. Elegantly understated colors, while sporting multiple fancy rings.

  5. What intrigues me about Saturn’s rings are the ‘spokes’ on the B-ring, which shouldn’t occur in purely gravitational terms. Because each particle is in its specific orbit with its own periodicity, it should not be possible for dark particles to line up perpendicular to the orbital direction across the different aspides. Yet they do. The likely explanation, as I understand it, is interaction with Saturn’s magnetic field – the ‘spokes’ seem to precess at the same rate as the field spins. Then there’s the hexagonal storm on the north pole – again, likely magnetically mediated.

    A planet of mysteries. I just wish the damn thing didn’t look like a giant glob of urine-smelling caramel brittle.

  6. Love learning about the planets. My favourite DVD series is The Wonders of the Solar System and (second series) Universe by Prof Brian Cox. Wonderful write up full of bits and bobs of info. Marti

  7. Pingback: Blogophilie Mai 2014 (I) | miss booleana

  8. Pingback: Sciencey LOL of the Week | Lmgamboal's Weblog

  9. Just came across this blog and can’t wait to read more! Wow, I never knew that Saturn and Jupiter were failed stars, the solar system has just come together so perfectly!

  10. First off I want to say excellent blog! I had a
    quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
    I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there.
    I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are
    usually wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any
    ideas or hints? Many thanks!

    • I find it’s all about perspective. There’s the component of the blog that delves in to the nitty gritty of the subject, but I always try to start off from a much broader perspective on the subject. I LOVE analogies to every day life – as you will find in the text of my writing. Take a look at some of my other blogs and you’ll see how the introduction is very broad, and yet makes use of analogy and humour. To be honest, I don’t always start with the introduction, nor do I get it right the first time. Sometimes, I’ll go back and completely change it.

      One thing you’ve got to remember is just how important the introductory paragraph is. You’ve got to hook your audience and compel them to read on. There are all sorts of tricks to achieve this, but I find that keeping it humorous and sexy work. If there’s a promise of a good laugh, people will read on… or at least that’s how I work. Good luck!!

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  13. I stop and wonder what if our astronauts were passing around Saturn, (they must’ve measured not to travel near the gravity belt) but what if along with the rest of the debris our space ship will that be rotating helpless or will humans be in control to get out of that circle …?

    • I’m sure that the thrusters or boosters or whatever form of propulsion on the spaceship would be able to overcome the force of gravitational attraction, thereby carrying the astronauts to relative safety. Their biggest issue, however, will be staying entertained on the epic journey home, which takes the average spacecraft three to four years. ARE WE THERE YET??

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