Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 3 - 3 January 2009

Last week, a large chunk of the world's population celebrated the delivery of presents by a smiling, old bearded gent in a red suit. Millions of kids sit around wrestling with their skepticism, but in the end, many will force themselves to believe, unwilling to spoil such a good deal. The Cosmic Crew, having received another delivery of coal this year, contemplate just what Santa would have to go throught to deliver the presents to all the hopefuls.

Santa is not only the jolliest man on earth, he's also the universe's greatest scientist and engineer. Packing an assortment of possibly impossible technology, we figure that he might actually be able to complete the whole gig in one night; leaving several fractions of a second for consumption of biscuits and beer. We use a whole swath of guesstimates to compute what Santa would require. We also try to future-proof the discussion and imagine what would happen if humans colonised the solar system.

But in spite of Santa's awesome technical prowess, he now has serious competition for his 'hood. In 2001 the Russian government submitted a claim over a huge area that includes the north pole. To support this claim, they sent a research team there in 2007, and symbolically planted a Russian flag on the sea floor right at the pole. Well, with gargantuan estimates of the resources in the area, their claim caused a bit of a stir. Canada, Denmark, Norway and the US also want in the action. As the polar ice cap melts, and the whole arctic region becomes more accessible, the political and legal maneouvering is going to get much more complicated. However, it looks like it will come down to a geological solution. There is a ridge that straddles the north pole, called the Lomonosov Ridge.

This ridge used to be part of the Eurasian continent (which, as the name suggests, includes Europe and...wait for it...Asia), having been attached to the northernmost part of Russia. It essentially broke away from Russia not long after the dinosaurs died out around 65 million years ago. But even if there were dinosaurs still around on the ridge, the poor beasts would have drowned as it subsided, sinking into the ocean by about 54 million years ago. Although, the ridge has a Eurasian origin, the subsequent rifting event places it near the modern North Pole. The Russians believe that the ridge should be classified as an extension of their continental land mass. Yet science never seems to be more opaque than when it affects a political issue.

*Some more info about the Lomonosov Ridge: The rift which caused the migration of the Lomonosov Ridge is called the Gakkel Ridge - but it is not dead. Rumours of it's demise were grossly exaggerated. However, it is in fact the slowest sea-floor spreading ridge in the world, with an average annual rate of 1cm/year. So this means the Lomonosov Ridge is getting further from Eurasia (Russia), but NOT getting closer to North America (Canada). This is because there is no subduction on either side (where an oceanic plate is squeezed under the continent eg. western South America). So both of these two continents are still being pushed apart - at a rate slower than your fingernails grow. The Lomonosov Ridge is just along for the ride.

BETA: Every film about Santa has its own interpretation of how Santa relates to the everyday world. We look at ELF, Santa Claus: The Movie, and The Santa Clause. Each of these films investigates what would happen if one of Santa's folk came into our world, or one of us went into theirs. Hijinks.

The quiz has a festive theme this week, to keep everybody in the holly, jolly mood.

Oops. Mistakes we shouldn't have made but did:

When guesstimating the number of houses Santa needs to visit, Anthony misread his own scrawled calculations. At one point, he meant to say 100 million houses, not 200 million houses. He almost delivered presents to 100 million houses filled with naughty children.

In the show, we were a little hazy about the NASA plan to return to the moon and go to Mars; here's the facts. In 2004 George W. Bush announced that NASA will have put another person on the moon by 2018, and according to a NASA statement in 2007, they will have put a person on Mars by 2037.

The distance between Earth and Mars varies wildly from a maximum of 401 million kms to a mere 55 million kms. Mars' orbit is much more eccentric than Earth's. For more info: http://www.nasa.gov/worldbook/mars_worldbook.html


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