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Science File | MIND OVER MATTER

The Answers That Are Blowing in the Wind

January 07, 2002|K.C. Cole

Sometimes I sit and watch the wind have its way with the tree outside my house, blowing the leaves into billowy curtains, making them shimmer like sequins on a dance dress.

Of course, you can't see wind. You can only see what it does to things: twirling scraps of garbage into miniature tornadoes; slinking through flags or snapping them to attention; fashioning coiffures of clouds.

We think of wind as something that happens on our home planet: the trade winds that wrap the Earth in swift ribbons, the jet stream, the Santa Anas.

But the universe as a whole is a remarkably windy place.

Jupiter's fierce winds sheer against each other as they shift along with latitude, setting up huge standing hurricanes, some the size of Earth. These storms are visible as red and white oval "spots." The hot winds of Venus blow at hundreds of miles per hour.

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Even gentle Mars has winds strong enough to stir up tiny dust devils on the planet's surface.

There is complicated "weather" in galaxies too, writes British astronomer Sir Martin Rees, "churning up the interstellar gas and recycling it through successive generations of stars--this is how the atoms from the periodic table are built up from pristine hydrogen."

The winds of stars create the atoms that comprise ourselves.

Tightly packed clusters of stars are particularly windy; so many stars in close quarters engage in a fierce gravitational tug of war, ripping gas off each other's atmospheres.

Some stars are so luminous that they literally blow their tops, the pressure of light lifting off layers of atmosphere so rapidly that the star loses the mass of Earth every few days. Live fast, die young.

When stars explode, escaping winds can travel at 1/10th the speed of light, 20 to 30 thousand miles per second. Indeed, the winds of dying stars create some of the most beautiful objects in the sky: planetary nebulae. When the fast winds from the stellar explosion plow into slow winds lingering from the star's previous exhalations, they drape the star's spent cinder in bulbous glowing shrouds.

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Our own sun will one day take its place among this photogenic assemblage. For now, it has its own, albeit tamer, electrically charged wind, sometimes slung toward the Earth by powerful magnetic fields. Descending at Earth's north and south poles, the winds light up the sky in ghostly pink and green auroras.

Scientists can use winds to extract information from nature. After all, a wind is caused by a pressure gradient that makes particles of matter move from one place to another, which is why you can create "wind" by sucking through a straw or blowing through a flute.

Conversely, the detection of wind points to the existence of a difference. Thus, it was the lack of a detectable "ether wind" that helped bury the long-cherished idea that an invisible light-carrying substance pervaded all space. Since Earth moved through the ether, scientists reasoned, it must set up a "wind" as it plowed through. But no wind was ever found.

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Today, physicists searching for dark matter are doing much the same experiment, only searching for the WIMP wind. WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles) are a hypothetical species of dark matter, attracted to our galaxy like moths to a flame but so ephemeral they are all but impossible to perceive other than through gravity. However, as Earth-bound detectors move through this cloud of WIMPs, they should feel an ever-so-slight (you might say wimpy) breeze.

Once you start thinking of wind as matter in motion, you can see it almost anywhere. A galaxy is a spiral "wind" of stars; smoke going up a chimney a sinuous wind of soot; matter falling into a black hole a wind that goes one way.

The universe began when the Big Bang blew space and time into being; that wind of ever-expanding space still blows, sweeping distant galaxies farther away from us, maybe even picking up speed.

There are winds so slow we barely perceive them: the aroma rising from roast beef (a "wind" of food), glaciers (a "wind" of ice).

Others are buried out of sight: the whoosh of hot mineral-rich smoke jetting out of deep undersea vents; the wind of blood that blows through your heart.

Living things make all kinds of wind--breathing, singing, crying, barking, tweeting. Bad breath is a foul wind. Whispers are winds from the heart.

Crowds funneling through a doorway make a "wind" of people. Traffic zooming along the freeway makes a "wind" of cars. All winds collide.

Winds also carry things with them: smells, secrets, radioactive fallout.

I read somewhere that after the World Trade Center attacks, debris traveled in the form of powder up the streets of Manhattan at 50 miles per hour--a wind of concrete and souls.

That windchill factor froze me to the bone.

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