Month: April, 2022

Autonomous Trucking – Where Exactly Are We? (And Other Questions)

With the current shortage of truckers, it makes you wonder what the state of autonomous trucking is right now. At least, it prompted one of my Patreon supporters to ask the question, and many others in today’s lightning round video.


So Tesla recently opened GigaTexas, which is apparently the largest factory in the world, they held a huge opening party, many of your favorite YouTubers were invited to it… I was not one of them.
But the plan is to spend this year getting caught up on Model Y orders and spin up the 4680 cells; structural battery and all that and then next year finally get into production on the Cybertruck and Roadster.
And also one other one what was it… Oh yeah. The semi truck. Remember that one?

I seem to recall when they first announced the Semi, I put on my Joestradamus hat and said that I thought it would be their most successful product… I had my reasons.
At the time, and this was a few years back, electric cars were still struggling to gain acceptance in the wider market, the main reason being the higher cost of electric cars.
But I thought that they would be much more popular with trucks and commercial applications in general because the cheaper cost of charging and maintenance would make them more profitable – they would pay for themselves a lot faster.
Plus they showed how you could do these autonomous convoys where you could drive the lead truck and have 2 trucks driverless behind you, basically allowing an independent contractor to haul 3 times more cargo.

Now, there’s still time for me to be right… but the implementation of this has been a lot slower than I expected.
Everybody seems to agree that the trucking industry is on the verge of a major disruption from autonomous technology. The question is when is this actually going to happen, and what effects will it have on our society?

That’s just one of several questions I was asked by Patreon members this month, which I’m about to tackle… Right now.

Fishtail – Discord – April
What lavalier mic do you use? Have you ever studied comedy?

I took a couple of classes from the Barbershop Harmony Society, I’m just wondering if you took classes on comedy.

  • Sennheiser
  • Riff about improv and standup

Cole Parker – Patreon – April
I recently saw there was a shortage of truckers. What’s the status of self driving trucks? Otto had a Coors beer pilot a few years back. What happened to that and what’s the current state of automated trucking?

So I found a couple of articles about the Otto beer run, that was back in 2016, and from what I can tell, it wasn’t a regular route they were running, it was just kind-of a publicity stunt? It looks like they only did it once. It was a 120-mile route from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs.
But this is a good question because I mean that was 6 years ago, and I’ve gotta say, I thought if automation was going to take off anywhere, it would be the trucking industry. Specifically long-haul trucking.

Because there’s a monetary incentive for companies to automate this, not just in terms of paying for drivers but from spillage from accidents, insurance costs, plus most of this long-haul driving is done on highways, which is actually the easiest thing to automate, I mean Teslas have been handling that pretty well for years.
So… what’s the deal?

Well the deal with Otto is they were bought by Uber actually just before that run in 2016. And in 2017 it looks like they pivoted away from automation and just created an Uber Trucking app.
In 2018, Co-Founder Lior Ron left Otto and in 2019 the other Co-Founder Anthony Levandowski was indicted on 33 counts of stealing trade secrets from Google, because he had previously worked for Waymo. He was actually pardoned later by Donald Trump.

If you go to the Otto website, they seem to be focused specifically on warehouse automation. Autonomous Mobile Robotics, AMRs.
But as far as the current state of truck automation… yeah, this is probably going to have to be its own video because there’s a bit of a rabbit hole here.
I will say there’s another company that’s getting some press right now called TuSimple that did a similar route at the end of last year, driving a truck with no human intervention from Tuscon to Phoenix.

But they’ve been testing over the last year and a half and have driven 1800 driverless runs over 150,000 miles and they hope to start retrofitting rigs in 2024 for commercial use.
It’s pretty interesting, they talk about wanting to set up a 2-tiered system where driverless long-haul trucks make do the driving on the highways between cities, and then maybe outside of cities, they get handed off to local drivers who cover the last-mile in city traffic and side streets.
But yeah for a lot of reasons like you mentioned I think there’s a lot  that’s going to happen in the autonomous trucking space; it’s super interesting so methinks this might be a stand-alone video.
Daimler and Volvo working on autonomous trucks too back in 2016

John Regel – Discord – April
If you could cameo on any movie / tv show / youtuber / commercial / anything, what would it be?

I still fantasize about being on SNL.

John Regel  – Discord  – April
Oh No! The tachyon amplifier on the time portal machine has overshot it’s return to null and is now giving you a window to yourself 5 years into the future. You have a time-dilated window during which you can ask yourself exactly one question and expect to get one answer. What is the question that you’d ask your 2027 self?

Can I see myself in 5 years? Because if I can, it would probably be something like, “Have you heard of moisturizer? Seriously, pal?” I guess I would ask if the underground Mole People will grant me shelter from the surface-dwelling mutant warlords, or will I need to perform the rite of sacrifice to earn inclusion in their tribe? (a beat) I predict an eventful next few years.

Robin – Discord – April
if the Russians seem to opt so much for poisoning, why do many seem bungled, and some survive and get thrown in jail, then not poisoned.  Is there some weird rule book?(please just call me Robin and roll your eyes — the full name is a little incriminating, lately)

I… Don’t know how to answer this. I think the whole nature of poisoning murders is that they’re supposed to be covert and undetectable. So maybe the “bungles” are all just part of the subterfuge?  Maybe they just suck at it?

Brian Beswick – Discord – April
Are we on the verge of a better boom boom machine?

This is a lot like NERVA – mentioned in my post-Apollo video I could definitely see this as being useful for unmanned probes, doubtful we’d see anything like that on crewed missions in our lifetimes. But I know they’re pretty cagey about launching nuclear material. I’m curious how much uranium would be needed vs. an RTG. Not so much boom boom but ssshhhhhhh

Mark Hoffman – Patreon – April

Let me start off by saying this may just be me…but…does the odor from flatulence seem somewhat exacerbated when expelled underwater? Perhaps something to do with the molecular composition coming to contact and interacting with H2O?

I have never thought about this. But…

So, when you fart in an open room, that gas then diffuses into the air around it, spreading in all directions, assuming there is little air movement – at a rate of about half a centimeter cubed per second.
Methane makes up a big percentage of our farts, and it has a molar mass of 14, which is slightly lighter than nitrogen and oxygen, which makes up most of our atmosphere, so it will float up ever so slightly.
And if this is your own fart, that would need to cross a good 44 centimeters or so before it reaches your nose, dissipating the whole way, and the average fart volume is let’s say 150 milliliters so what you actually wind up smelling is just a tiny amount of the original boof. (Average size of a fart – 17-375 ml)

If you’re underwater however, whether you’re standing in a pool, or sitting in a tub, and you pop a fart, and let’s say that fart does a frontal assault and floats up to the surface, that bubble that pops just inches from your nose? That has not been diluted at all. That is the pure stank.
That is basically like putting your nose just a few inches from your anus and then cutting one. So yeah, I don’t think it’s any kind of chemical reaction, I think it’s just… full concentration.
But I haven’t really thought about this much…

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Talking Vintage (And Future) Space With Amy Shira Teitel – Episode 10

Amy Shira Teitel is a historian and journalist who made a name for herself as a blogger and YouTube creator focusing on mid 20th-century history, specifically the space race with her YouTube channel, Vintage Space. But her interests go well beyond rockets and moon landings (she can read ancient Greek, which is insane). Today we talk about the frustrations of being an online creator, the dangers of being pigeonholed, and the amazing past and future of space travel. Her newest book, Fighting For Space is available in bookstores and online.


“Don’t Look Up” Could Actually Happen

Don’t Look Up is a satire that imagines what modern society’s reaction would be to an Earth-killing asteroid that generated a lot of acclaim – and backlash – since it came out last year. But what if that did happen? What are our actual plans to deal with a major asteroid strike?


Last year, the movie Don’t Look Up premiered on Netflix to huge critical and audience acclaim. And just a few weeks ago, it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Of course now there’s a bit of a backlash against it because I guess it was a little too popular.

But if you’ve been living under a rock or didn’t see the Oscars, the movie is about a team of astronomers who discover an Earth-killing asteroid and the frustrations they have getting the rest of the world to take it seriously.

It’s an obvious satire of climate change and the recent pandemic that basically points a finger at the way we’ve reacted so far to a long-term existential threat and says, what if we acted like that with something much more near-term? How bizarre would that be?

For me anyway, I thought it did that brilliantly in fact some of it was a little too close to home for me, but like I said, there has been a bit of a backlash for being a little too on-the-nose and self-congratulatory, so no, it didn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars. And nothing else interesting happened that night.

But the whole thing got me thinking about asteroid strikes, which are a real threat. And it got me wondering… What exactly is our plan if a Don’t Look Up scenario were to occur?

You might be surprised to hear this but every day, our planet receives visitors from outer space. I’m not talking about Grays or Zeta Reticulans… Although, who knows?

No, I’m talking about meteors, and there’s a lot more of them that hit the Earth than you might think.

In fact, Earth is constantly attracting material from outer space. This is mind-blowing to me, 100 tons of material enters Earth’s atmosphere every day. 100 tons! Most of it burns up in the atmosphere but every day 17 meteors make it to the surface. meteoroid is the more general term, but any object burning in the atmosphere is a meteor

Actually that’s not true. If it reaches the surface, it’s a meteorite.

Yeah, we tend to use the word meteor to describe small rocks in space but technically a small rock like this flying around in space is a meteoroid.

Once it enters the atmosphere and burns up, that streak across the sky, the shooting star, that’s actually a meteor. And then once it hits the ground, it’s a meteorite.

Think of it like other minerals you might find on the ground like calcite, anthracite… meteorite.

And an asteroid is bigger than a meteoroid. It’s more like a planetoid; tiny planet.

But yeah, somewhere on Earth every day 17 of these things fall from the sky. Now, most of the Earth’s surface is water so most of them land in the drink but every once in a while, one hits land. And every once in a long while… They can do some damage.

Meteor Crater, AZ

Last year, 2021, I visited the Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. Also known as Barringer Crater, it’s nearly a mile wide and 550 feet deep, and it was created by a meteor impact some 50,000 years ago.

The meteor weighed hundreds of thousands of tons and released something like 9-10 megatons of TNT.

Which is roughly the same energy released by the Tonga volcano in January. The one that did this.

And honestly, it’s pretty mind-blowing to see in person. Especially the part where you start seeing giant out-of-place rocks and boulders strewn all over the place for dozens of miles before you get there.

And this… wasn’t even that noteworthy as impacts go.

Keep in mind this is meteor crater. It was made by a meteor. Asteroids are bigger.

Planet Killers

According to NASA, a meteor the size of a football field hits every 2000 years or so. Asteroids large enough to cause extinctions and end civilizations come along “every few million years.”

Some of these are comets but most of the largest impacts we know about have been from asteroids.

The most famous one, of course, is the one that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago and created the Chicxulub crater in Mexico.

Luckily impacts on that scale are extremely rare. In fact, only two craters on Earth rival Chicxulub for size and they’re both around 2 billion years old.

So it’s incredibly unlikely another planet-killing impact will happen in our lifetimes. I mean… If our entire species survives to see the next one, it’ll be pretty impressive.

But an impact doesn’t have to be a planet killer to ruin your day

Chelyabinsk and Tunguska

In 2013, a meteor that fell over Chelyabinsk, Russia injured 1419 people

7200 buildings were damaged over an area of tens of kilometers, not by pieces of the meteor landing on it but from the shock wave when it exploded in mid-air.

In 1908, a much larger explosion devastated an area near the Tunguska River in Siberia. It more-or-less flattened eight-hundred square miles of forest

Uprooted trees formed a ring around the blast’s center, where upright trees were stripped of limbs and bark

Hundreds of reindeer died, but no humans, which was lucky. Not so lucky if you’re a reindeer.

What is a NEO?

NASA defines an NEO as comets or asteroids that pass within 1.3 astronomical units of the Sun.

An astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance between the Earth sand the sun, so just under 93 million miles (150 million kilometers). So basically anything near or inside of our orbit, NASA considers an NEO, and takes particular interest in them.

That’s not just because of the danger. Asteroids and comets are like time capsules from the birth of the solar system. It’s thought that comets were formed in the same process that created the outer gas giants and asteroids are from the process that created the inner rocky planets.

So yeah studying either of them is like opening a window to the solar system 4 billion years ago.

Of course we’d rather go to them than have them come to us. You know, because of the whole…thing.

Near Earth Objects whose trajectories bring them uncomfortably close to Earth are upgraded to Potentially Hazardous Objects, or PHOs. And now I’m hungry for Vietnamese noodles.

Asteroids are by far the most common, so they’re sometimes referred as PHA — Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.

PHOs of all kinds have been tracked by astronomers for years, but efforts got a major boost in 2005, when congress passed a US law directing NASA to identify 90% of NEOs over a certain size. (140 meters)

Asteroid History

And that my friends put NASA in the ‘stroid huntin’ business.

Of course ‘stroid huntin’ goes back a long way. The first first asteroid was discovered in 1801, and was given the name asteroid because it means “starlike”. In a dead language people used to speak.

By the year 1900, 464 asteroids had been discovered. By the year 2000, we had 108,066 in our catalog. It’s almost like our technology progressed in that time.

But to give you an idea of how much our technology has continued to progress, in the last 20 years we’ve discovered nearly 10 times as many asteroids. NASA’s current count is just over 1.1 million. That’s some good ‘stroid huntin’.

They range in size from a diameter of less than 10 meters to the largest asteroid in our solar system, Vesta, which is about 530 kilometers. This is the asteroid the Dawn space probe visited in 2011.

Thankfully Vesta is not an NEO, it’s located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where most of the solar system asteroids hang out, though they have been known to migrate.

Which brings us back to the danger ‘stroids.

Good News, Everyone!

First of all, the good news is there are currently no known PHOs is expected to hit us in the next hundred years.

The not-so-good news is that there’s still a lot that need to be found. NASA estimates there should be about 25,000 that fit the parameters of the 2005 directive… and so far they’ve found about 10,000.

When you scale that up to asteroid size, NASA estimates there should be about 4700 PHAs. So far we’ve found 2263 of them. As of the time I’m recording this.
(NASA considers an asteroid that passes within half an AU from Earth to be a PHA)

So yeah, we’ve only found about half of the danger bois that should be out there. But the ones we know about tend to be the larger ones, so it’s not likely another Chicxulub will sneak up on us in our lifetimes.

But what if one does? What if that one in a trillion Don’t Look Up scenario comes true? What are our actual plans?

Threat Mitigation

Well, in the US anyway, the plans fall to NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which yes, sounds like the group the Men In Black work for.

By the way, the PDCO is the umbrella office over the Near Earth Object Observations Program that is finding and tracking them in the first place.

So the first thing the PDCO would do is send a probe to study the danger boi because it’s not just the size and trajectory that matters, we also need to know it’s composition.

Because some of these objects are solid iron and others are essentially piles of rubble in space. Hitting one with a missile will have different effects than hitting the other.

In the case of a solid doom rock, there is the option of just nuking it. And my nipples got hard just saying that.

But yeah, NASA has proposed this, not because it would destroy it, but a nuclear blast could deflect it off course, which is all we need to do.

A smaller asteroid might not need to go nuclear and could just hit it with a conventional missile or projectile – the sciency term is “kinetic impactor”.
But these aren’t the best options for the rubble-pile asteroids because an explosion could just cause it to disperse into a cloud of rubble, much of it still directed toward Earth.

It’s like instead of getting hit with a bullet we get hit with buckshot – still not much fun.

So an alternative for rubble-pile doom rocks is landing a rocket on the surface and pushing it off course. This would work for the solid ones as well.

But let’s not kid ourselves, we wanna nuke it if we can.

Now, if the asteroid made of the right material we might be able to deflect it with a laser.

This is known as laser ablation. Basically, the laser would melt part of the asteroid’s surface, and the plumes of gas and ejected material would create enough force to slowly move the asteroid to a safe orbit.

This might could even be done with a large mirror or fresnel lens.

But “slowly” is the operative word, here, this is only an option if the asteroid has the right composition and we find it WAY in advance.

Now, if we get really unlucky and a massive danger boi sneaks up on us, deflection might not be an option. We may have to go straight to disruption.

I mentioned earlier that if we blow up a rubble-pile asteroid it may just create a shower of smaller asteroids. Well it turns out if you hit it hard enough, it might actually work.

I’ll be honest, when I started researching this I really didn’t think that this was a serious option, but there’s a chance that a big enough explosion could turn a dangerous asteroid into space foam.

One recent experiment simulated what would happen if a 1 megaton bomb were detonated near a 100-meter asteroid. They found that it would would disperse 99.9% of the asteroid’s mass.

Instead of a city-killer, they were left with a chunk no bigger than a Chihuahua’s head. Which is the weirdest measurement I’ve ever seen on this channel…

Americans will do anything to not use metric.

But it could work! And by the way, it doesn’t have to just be one bomb, we could send multiple bombs, the first one breaks up the asteroid, the second flings the pieces further off track, repeat as needed.

It’s not like we don’t have thousands of nuclear weapons sitting around.

The question is, could we pull that off in time?

Back in April 2021, NASA conducted an exercise to put existing technologies to the test. They set up a fictional scenario involving an asteroid of unknown size and composition, and gave international experts 6-months lead time.

It… didn’t go well.

They concluded that no existing technology could do the job. No existing rocket could deliver a nuke in time. No existing spacecraft could collide with enough force.

Six months, the experts concluded, is simply not enough time. Opinions differ on how much time would actually be needed but the NASA official who designed the scenario said five years, at least.

(react) Now would be a good time to remember that the chance of this happening is extremely low. But still, we need more information on the PHOs we know about and we need more tools to detect PHOs.

Just like cancer, early detection is key.


Thankfully some awesome new tools are on the way.

2026 is looking to be a big year for planetary defense for a couple of reasons, the first being the Near-Earth Object Surveyor.
NEOS is a space-based, infrared telescope specifically designed to help NASA finish its mission of cataloging 90% of large NEOs.

It’s kind-of been stuck in development limbo since 2014, but it’s recently cleared a major hurdle, so appears to on its way.

Also 2026 is when NASA expects to get data on the DART mission.

We heard a lot about this when it launched in November of last year, but DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. And it’s the first time we’ll attempt to redirect an asteroid using a kinetic impactor.
Its target is a 160-meter wide asteroid named Dimorphos that orbits a 780-meter wide asteroid named Didymos. It’s kind-of like a moonlet.

A mini-dangerboi.

The idea is that DART will slam into Dimorphos at a blistering 6.6 km per second, which should move its orbit closer to Didymos.

Currently, it takes 11 hours and 55 minutes to orbit, it’s expected after the blast it’ll orbit every 10 minutes. And this will be detectible by Earth-based telescopes.

Now to be clear, neither Didymos nor Dimorphos are a threat to Earth, this is merely a test to provide data on asteroid deflection.

So yeah, it launched last year, it’s set to collide in September of this year, 2022, and we’ll be able to tell if it was successful pretty soon afterwards.

But in 2026, a pair of cubesats developed by ESA will rendezvous with Dimorphos to examine the aftermath and see what went right… or what went wrong.

Either way, it’ll provide insights that will improve our deflection plans. And might help astronomers sleep better at night.

A Near-Miss That Wasn’t

Just a few months ago — January 2022 — a discovery was made that probably caused a few nightmares.

On January 6, an asteroid called 2022 AE1 was spotted on what appeared to be a collision course.

Work to Be Done

Because yeah, a year-and-a-half is not enough time to deflect it with current technology. Now, I want to say that if we really only had a year an a half to save ourselves that it would clarify things and we’d find a way to solve the problem. Recent events have given me reason to doubt that.

Which is why Don’t Look Up resonated so much when it came out. With the current wave of distrust in science we’re seeing, would people be willing to fund an emergency project to stop a threat that we can’t see? One that’s not going to affect us for a couple of years? Tell me what you think down below.

This whole topic is interesting because simultaneously 100 tons of space stuff falls to Earth every day… but the chances of any of it being catastrophic is extremely small.

I guess that’s just the reality of being on a rock flying through a vast galaxy filled with tiny rocks. And a handful of dangerbois.

What Was The Worst Year In Human History? | Answers With Joe

We’re living in trying times, maybe you heard that somewhere? But there have definitely been worse times to be alive. In today’s video, we look back at some of the worst years in human history, including one year that historians seem to agree was the worst of them all.


Dear Advertising Industry,
It is April of 2022. The pandemic has been going on for two full years and yet I still continue to hear the terms “unprecedented times,” “trying times,” “new normal” in every commercial block of any television program or pre-roll ad. On behalf of, well, everyone, I am writing to humbly request that you please, for the love of God, stop.

We are all well aware of the clogged toilet this world has become and don’t need to be reminded of it or for our anxieties around said chunk-filled bowl to be weaponized against us in an attempt to take our dwindling reserves of money.
And at the very least, understanding that weaponizing our anxieties is in general the whole point of advertising, it would be preferable that you at least, you know, try to be original? Use a different phrase? Come at it a slightly different way?

Allow me to make some recommendations.
Instead of saying “unprecedented times,” perhaps something along the lines of, “post-decency years”
Instead of “trying times,” try “the excruciation hours.”
Instead of “the new normal” how about “the old abysmal”

These are options I just came up with. Surely if you put all your 20-something junior copywriters in a room with a bottle of whisky and a bag of edibles for a day they could come up with something that would really sing.
So with that, I look forward to hearing what you come up with. Good luck and happy flibbity-floobity.  Ooh, I’m gonna keep that one.
Signed, the world.

The Times We Live In

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote American Revolutionary Thomas Paine.  Over a hundred years later, British statesman Joseph Chamberlain said no time he could remember had brought so many “new objects for anxiety.” Sound familiar?
These days, we’re reminded constantly that things are bad.  We live in troubled times, unprecedented times.  Times of the new normal.
And I’m not here to say we don’t have problems.  We definitely do.  But as Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire.
Yes, I just went from quoting Thomas Paine to Billy Joel. Don’t judge my journey.

Believe it or not, there have been worse times to be alive than any in recent memory.  Today, I’d like to take a look at some years considered the Worst Ever by experts.
There is one that seems to be the agreed upon worst, and we’ll get to that later but first let’s start with some contenders.

1347 – The Black Death

Spoiler alert, pandemics are going to be a bit of a theme on this list
The Black Death began in the 14th Century, when a variety of bubonic plague swept through the Near East, North Africa, and Europe
Picture it: it’s Sicily, 1347. A fleet of trade ships docks at the port of Messina. Everybody in town comes running see what’s on the boat because… well they didn’t have internet back then, it was the thing to do.
But as they get to the dock, they find out the ships have a surprise waiting for them. And that surprise is that most of the soldiers were dead.
Of those who were still alive, most of them were sick, their bodies covered in sores, called buboes in Latin, thus the name of the plague.
Now they knew about the importance of quarantining in these situations, but before officials could get the ships quarantined, the plague leapt to the onlookers
Inside of a year, it was all over the continent
By the time it had runs its course, something like 200 million people had died — most ironic website name ever, based on this page
For scale, 200 million was 30 to 50 percent of the European population at the time
Like, Covid sucks, and we all know someone who has died or at least know someone close to someone who died, but imagine if half the people you know developed strange swellings, started bleeding and vomiting, and then just died within a day.
You’d be pretty freaked out, right?

Well, people in the 1300s were freaked out too. And when people freak out, they tend to gravitate toward their worst impulses. Like finding a group of people to blame.
Throughout the Black Plague, attacks were levied at Jewish towns and neighborhoods, killing thousands of Jewish people, it’s actually known as the Medieval Holocaust.
Funny how a disease that kills Christians and Muslims and Jews equally is somehow the Jews’ fault
So yeah the Black Death was just about as horrible as you’ve heard. Probably worse. And it reshaped the world in some ways.
But the first outbreak can be traced to that fleet of ships, which is why 1347 is our first contender for Worst Year Ever.

1177 – Bronze Age Collapse

And speaking of ships, our next contender involves a group of people who… probably had ’em. They’re called the Sea Peoples.
The Sea Peoples are one of the biggest mysteries of all time, nobody seems to know where they came from but suddenly in the 13th century BCE, they appeared out of nowhere, attacking Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, and the Hittites.
And whoever they were, according to archaeologists, they helped trigger the collapse of the Bronze Age in 1177 B. C.
I say “helped” because they were far from the only problem. In fact, they were probably the result of other problems.
Like a lengthy drought in the decade before the Sea People’s invasions, that drove them to raid other countries for resources.
And a famine that had already raged across the empires the Sea Peoples attacked, which made them especially vulnerable.
The tomb of Pharoah Ramses III records a devastating battle with the Sea Peoples. Egypt won, but went into decline soon after.
But the Hittites got it worst of all. Its capital city was destroyed and they basically ceased to exist as a people.
Another Sea Peoples victim was the Canaanite city-state of Megiddo

There are ruins on the Mound of Megiddo from that conflict, though it’s not alone, there were a lot of battles fought over Megiddo over the years, which by the way, is where “Armageddon” comes from.
Are you Armageddon it?
Ultimately it was a perfect storm of disasters and conquest that destroyed multiple economic systems all at once. Civilization was set back hundreds of years and some empires were lost forever.
All this tumult started circa 1177 B. C. which is why it’s a contender for Worst Year Ever.

1816 – The Year Without A Summer

I’ve mentioned the Year Without A Summer in past videos, mostly in just a, “huh, isn’t that an interesting nugget of information” kind of thing.
Turns out it was a pretty traumatic event.
The previous year, 1815, saw possibly the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history at Mount Tambora, in Indonesia
It ejected 180 billion cubic meters of material and may have killed as many as 90,000 locals. But the problems were just getting started
There was so much ash from Tambora, and other, knock-on eruptions, that temperatures around the world plummeted.

The next summer was so cold, people actually froze to death in snowstorms – and I’m not talking about in some distant part of the north; this was continental America.
This snow and frost damaged crops and triggered famines across Europe and China.
This destabilized society and riots broke out in England that became known as the Bread or Blood riots.
In India, colder temperatures flipped nature on her head and caused a drought in their monsoon season and flooded during their usual dry season.
And this affected way more than crops, it actually had the weird effect of causing a local strain of cholera to mutate to adapt to the flipped weather. This mutation was able to bypass human immunity and caused one of the largest cholera pandemics of all time. It eventually killed 2 million people.

All of that is a lot of damage from one volcanic eruption. But that’s how insane the Mount Tambora eruption was.
And that’s why 1816 is a contender for the Worst Year Ever

1914 – Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand

So far on this list, disease and disaster have played the largest role in making years the worst. 1914 is a little different.
What made it terrible was politics. And war. Which is like spicy politics.
The first half of the year was pretty calm, as things go.

The biggest story of the first six months was the accidental sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland.
Which everyone seems to have forgotten about, but 1012 people died, it’s the 7th deadliest shipwreck in history.
But yeah, that was the good part of 1914.

Because in June of 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. His wife, Maria, was also killed, by the way, that’s another piece of news that often gets forgotten
He was assassinated by a terrorist – or freedom fighter, depending on who you listen to – with the goal of uniting the citizens of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Austria-Hungary had conquered part of Serbia in previous years so this was something that had be boiling up for a while but this assassination is what sent both countries into war.
Both called on their allies to help out, and within a few months, the world was neck deep in what we now call the First World War.
Over the next four years, from 1914-18, about 20 million people were killed. Up to half of them were civilians
Tens of millions more were displaced and scattered throughout Europe, which helped spread illnesses.

It’s estimated the pre-Columbian population may have been as high as 112 million, so we may be talking about 100 million deaths. It’s just staggering.
One particular wave of influenza became especially virulent and spread around the entire world, infecting half a billion people, and eventually killing 50 million people.
This was of course the Spanish flu, which by the way didn’t begin in Spain, but all the other countries had sort-of censored reporting about it except Spain. So since they were the ones that were talking about it, it kinda got stuck on them.
Now most of the suffering in all this occurred in the years that followed 1914, but it did all start from events that happened in 1914.
Which is why 1914 is definitely a top contender for Worst Year Ever

1492 – American Epidemics

Yeah, we’re going there.
For 400 years, the year 1492 has been celebrated in American culture as the year America was discovered.  (a beat) There is a contingent of people on this continent that see it differently.
We’ve all heard what a monster Christopher Columbus was but the biggest effect his “discovery” had was completely unintentional.
Because while yes, millions of natives were killed in war or enslaved, these are a drop in the bucket compared to the deaths caused by foreign diseases
The indigenous peoples of North and South America had been separated from the rest of the world for tens of thousands of years and had never been exposed to things like smallpox, influenza, or our old friend the bubonic plague.

These and many other diseases killed countless millions of people. Various studies have put the population decline between 50 and 95%.
It’s estimated the pre-Columbian population may have been as high as 112 million, so we may be talking about 100 million deaths. It’s just staggering.
The only disease that we think went the other direction was syphilis, which sucks, but didn’t exactly have the same impact. In fact, Europe’s population increased by 25% in the 100 years following Columbus.
And supporting that growth required resources. Which the “New World” was ripe with. And thus began the violent conquest of North America in earnest, which drove families, tribes, nations, and cultures to the brink of extinction.

So no. They don’t celebrate Columbus Day.
And it’s why I think 1492 should be a contender for Worst Year Ever.
But still there is one year that many scholars say is worse than all of these. A year that’s worse than the years that started the Black Death, the Bronze Age Collapse, an Endless Winter, a Global War, and the near-Genocide of Indigenous Americans
I’ll start with an appeal to authority. The theory I’m about to explain is not mine

The Case for 536

Medieval scholar Michael McCormick put forth the theory that the worst year of all time was 536 AD. And much like 1816, the culprit was a massive volcanic eruption.

Frozen Summer

Actually possibly two volcanoes according to ice samples and tree ring data, it’s thought that there may have been one in El Salador and one in Iceland.
Regardless, clouds blanketed the Sun from Europe to Asia, and global temperatures fell. And they stayed down.
Just as in 1816, there were summer snowstorms, crop failure, and widespread famine, we have actual records of people starving in Ireland and China.
All this hunger weakened the population and caused outbreaks of disease, one of which would go on and become the first true global pandemic.

The Plague of Justinian

This became known as the Plague of Justinian and it did the most damage around the Mediterranean and Middle East, just destroying the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires.
It featured all the plague hits – buboes, vomiting, and swift death, and it wiped out 40-60% of the population.
It became known as the Plague of Justinian because Justinian was a Byzantine emperor at the time and while this was going on, he insisted on having a big old war.
He was trying to reunite the Western and Eastern arms of the Roman Empire, and he was brutal about it. According to the court historian, Justinian demanded plague survivors pay the taxes of their deceased neighbors to pay for his wars.
So, Famine, Plague, War… We’re running out of horsemen here.

Climate Disaster

But it wasn’t just a Mediterranean problem, archaeological evidence shows there were floods in Peru around 540
It’s not known if the volcanic eruption had anything to do with it, but it led to the large scale migration of the ancient Moche civilization, who abandoned their cities and disappeared. 

Economic Collapse

Back in Europe, the economy collapsed for more than 100 years.
They actually know this because silver mining leaves traces in the atmosphere and ice core samples show a huge gap in the century following 536.
Is it Really the Very Worst?
So, to review, 536 was a Year Without a Summer that kicked off a period of starvation, plague, war, climate change, and economic upheaval. In other words, “Trying times”
What was it like to actually live through the worst year ever?
As humans, with a limited life span, we have a hard time seeing the historical context of the times we live in. For the most part, we just keep our heads down and try to make it another day.
But labels like “worst” and “best” depend on historical context. After all, one bad year might spark a century of innovation.

The Personal Touch

But between the plague, famines, and floods, there’s a high probability that one of those would have personally affected you in the period kicked off by 536.
And this is at all levels of society. I mentioned Emperor Justinian’s court historian earlier – he lost a wife, kids, and grandkids to the plague
But he had no idea what was going on in South America. Didn’t even know it existed.

Worst Years Today

Whereas today we know all the problems happening all around the world all the time. On top of the plague and now war.
I don’t know I think there’s an argument to be made that our communication infrastructure could be causing us to feel more anxiety, confusion, and panic than at early times in history.
So in that sense… Maybe we actually are living through some of the Worst Years Ever
But of course that same communication technology is making us more able to find solutions to these problems and innovate and adapt.  Maybe that will be our legacy.
Look, the last few years have been…not great. But when we look back in the decades to follow, when our descendants look back in the coming centuries, with some historical context, maybe it won’t all be bad.
Maybe it’ll be seen as the catalyst for a period of radical advancement that set the world on a whole new course.
What that course turns out to be is up to us.

There’s A “Bermuda Triangle” In Space

There’s an area of space called the South Atlantic Anomaly, or the SAA, where the Earth’s magnetic field is significantly weaker, allowing solar and cosmic radiation dangerously close to the atmosphere. From the beginning of the space age, it has caused issues with satellites and astronauts as they passed through it, with some satellites actually being destroyed because of it.

But… why is it there? What causes it? And should we be concerned about it?


Humans have known about the geomagnetic field for at least 2400 years with compasses and navigational equipment. But it was only mapped for the first time in 1701, by Sir Edmond Halley, the comet guy.Humans have known about the geomagnetic field for at least 2400 years with compasses and navigational equipment. But it was only mapped for the first time in 1701, by Sir Edmond Halley, the comet guy.

To make his map, Halley sailed the Atlantic for nearly 2 years and collected observations at 170 locations
Scientists these days make maps using complex instruments on the ground and in space, but they have to be careful about those space based observations
Because there’s one region of the Earth’s magnetic field that’s particularly dangerous to pass over. It’s this one spot where the field is particularly weak and has had consequences for satellites from the beginning of the space age. It’s known as the South Atlantic Anomaly.


The oldest detection of the South Atlantic Anomaly — or SAA — I could find is from August 1960
A team of scientists at the Lebedev Institute of Physics, Moscow noted “intense charged particle flux” at 300 kilometers over the southern Atlantic Ocean
The satellite that registered the flux counted 100 times more particle collisions than in regions outside
300 kilometers is much closer to Earth’s surface than most of the inner Van Allen Belt – The altitude of the belt varies, but it typically goes no lower than 600 kmWhy is the SAA an exception?
It’s because for some reason the field strength right here is weaker, bottoming out around 22,000 nanoteslas, which is  about half the typical strength at that latitude
Weaker geomagnetism means high-energy particles can get closer to Earth before they’re deflected by the magnetic field

A weak field means a lower Van Allen Belt, and more energetic particles
Since it was first detected in 1960, the belt has been detected as low as 200 km
You might be wondering if this spot is more dangerous for humans and, yeah, it is. Thankfully few humans need to go there – more on that in a second


What does need to go there are satellites – and this is a problem.
Communication and scientific satellites can be affected in this region, most commonly by Single Event Upsets, or SEUs.
This is when an energetic particle interacts with a satellite’s computer, which can  cause a discharge in computer memory
For us non-computer scientists, that means a small amount of information stored in the computer is lost
To get slightly in the weeds for a second, computers store information as bits — ones and zeroes

These bits are combined to represent documents, videos, and anything else stored on the computer
In a satellite, a bit might be part of instructions for how to relay a TV signal or how to burn fuel to stay at the right height
So you can see why losing part of that information would cause problems, not just in keeping it from operating correctly but just staying in orbit.
But this is a known problem, so some manufacturers add shielding to protect against SEUs, but this can get expensive, and adds weight.


So more often than not, satellites that pass over the SAA have to compensate for SEUs in another way
Depending on the satellite’s mission, this might involve checking data against a backup – Sometimes whole backup computers are built into a satellite
Other times, all that’s necessary is a little common sense
Landsat, a type of mapping satellite operated by the US Geological Survey, occasionally show spots of bright white on its photos, sometimes followed immediately by a dark spot.
This means that a particle oversaturated the camera’s detector. The white spot, the dark spot happens when the detector recovers.
But the Landsat operators know this, so they know they can discard the affected part of the image.

By the way, here’s a map of where Landsat SEUs have occurred. That big blob of red and yellow dots is inside the South Atlantic Anomaly.

Another strategy used by satellites is to power down sensitive equipment
All but one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s cameras are regularly powered down for this reason. Hubble actually spends 15% of its time over the SAA
Pictures from the camera that stays on are often affected by particle impacts, but operators expect this, they consider it a small price to pay for extra uptime


In fact, they’re a steal compared to the problems the SAA has caused for other satellites
In 2016, the Japan’s space agency JAXA lost a $270 million x-ray telescope called Hitomi. Probably because of the SAA.
An SEU, or something like it, made the satellite lose orientation. And when it tried to rotate back into position, it went out of control and spun itself to pieces
I should mention here that that’s an extreme case. Not all satellites have to pass through the anomaly and most that do make it out all right. And most cases of SEUs just cause minor problems. It’s not like this is the Bermuda Triangle or something.

Although, I covered the Bermuda Triangle and proved that it’s not any more dangerous than the rest of the ocean. So maybe this is like the Bermuda Triangle.
But this actually is slightly more dangerous. So maybe this is more of a Bermuda Triangle than the actual Bermuda Triangle.
Oh no, I’ve fallen down a logic spiral. Which is the Bermuda Triangle of sanity!
Anyway, satellites are one thing, but what about people passing through the anomaly?


Because they do. Quite often. In fact, the International Space Station passes over it 3 to 4 times a day
ISS orbits between 330 and 435 km, so it does dip into the inner Van Allen Belt

But only a little. And it’s fast, so it’s only over the SAA for 3 to 5 minutes per pass
Still, the space station is exposed to higher levels of radiation during that time
So the hull provides some protection for astronauts and equipment, water stored in racks around the walls provide more
Water is actually a better shield than some types of metal, as it contains more particle-blocking nuclei
Long term studies show that ISS astronauts receive about 0.3 Sievert per year of radiation. That’s 60 times the average dose of a person on Earth; well shy of a fatal dose, but still significant.
Even mild radiation exposure over time can increase the risk of cancer. Standards at NASA allow for increasing that risk by no more than 3% over a career
No ISS astronaut has reached the limit and so far, none have shown evidence of radiation having a dramatic effect on their health


But they have made some interesting observations. And by that I mean, sometimes they see things.
You’ve probably heard of the strange flashes of light some astronauts have seen. These are thought to come from high-energy particles shooting through the eye
They were first observed on Skylab, circa 1974, and were especially common during flyovers of the SAAh

Don Pettit, inventor of the zero-g coffee cup, described his experience with SAA flashes in a 2012 blog entry:“As we pass through this region, eye flashes will increase from one or two every 10 minutes to several per minute.”

I don’t know about you but I’m paranoid enough that that would FREAK ME OUT.
But… Why? Why is this here? What causes this?


Before I answer, let’s go back to Edmond Halley for a minute
To make his map of magnetic field lines, the famous stargazer took three different measurements: Latitude, longitude relative to London, and magnetic declination
That last one’s the kicker
Simply put, magnetic declination is the difference between true north and magnetic north
It’s also known as “compass variation” since it tracks the angle between north on a compass and the North Pole
If you thought that angle was zero, don’t feel bad, most people do. But in fact,  Earth’s magnetic axis is about 9.41 degrees from the rotational axis — note that this is the ref that gives 11 percent as an approximation in #1…looks #6 gives updated numbers for 2020, but please check my reading

Interestingly, I talked about this a little bit in my Bermuda Triangle video, too. It’s one of the explanations for it. See, it all comes back around…
By the way, you might see different numbers online, that’s because the magnetic axis shifts. It can actually move up to 55km a year.

So if you imagine the magnetic axis were a simple bar magnet, it wouldn’t lie in the dead center of Earth, it would have to be several hundred kilometers off-center. (a beat) Also magnetic north is technically a magnetic south pole, but I think we’re confused enough.

Point is, there are different theories to explain why there’s this difference in angle. The most accepted one has to do with how the geomagnetic field is generated


Earth’s inner core is thought to be a sphere of solid iron. Or at least it used to be, recent models suggest it may be mix of materials in what they call a superionic state.
(over graphic or animation)This solid or semi-solid inner core has a diameter of about 2400 km. Surrounding that is a thick outer core — 2200 km thick. This is thought to be mostly liquid iron and nickel.

And it’s the movement of that liquid that generates most of Earth’s magnetic field. But… it’s not the perfect sphere we usually see it depicted as.
Nope, it’s lumpy. And bumpy.
And because of that, the magnetic field it generates is lumpy and bumpy as well. Meaning different intensities of field strength in different places.
The SAA is one of those places, specifically an area of low strength…possibly due a notable bump.
We have made maps of the core using seismic data that does show two large blobs deep below the SAA. So there you go.


An interesting theory came out last year in 2021 that these bumps were actually caused by the Theia collision 4.5 billion year ago.
The Theia impact is also thought to be what stirred up the core and gave us a nice strong magnetic field in the first place.
But its thought that pieces of Theia became embedded in the core, causing the lumps that created the Anomaly.
But there are problems with this theory, notably the blobs of Theia appear to be under the Pacific, so why isn’t there a Northern Pacific Anomaly?
It’s still very much up for debate but it’s an interesting thought that we have satellites being slapped out of the sky by what is essentially the ghost of a dead planet. Sleep tight, kids.


One last thing to mention, I talked about how magnetic north is moving a minute ago, well, over the last century, it’s also been getting weaker
Measurements from 1850 onward indicate it could completely decay in 1300 years

The study of magnetic traces in ancient minerals indicates that over time, the geomagnetic field can reverse. North can become south. Up becomes down. Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!”
Yes, the poles flip from time to time, in fact it’s happened 183 times over the past 83 million years
It’s possible the current weakening of the magnetic field means we’re heading for another reversal. You might have heard about this in clickbait headlines. But this is conjecture
Despite the weakening trend, the present field is still relatively strong compared to values it’s had over the past 50,000 years.


But this weakening has led to changes in the South Atlantic Anomaly. In fact, it’s been growing for the last 50 years.
It also appears to be splitting in two, forming eastern and western lobes
But, NASA and other space agencies are keeping a close eye on it, there are whole fleets of satellites monitoring the SAA and the geomagnetic field overall. And while they have been surprised by this, it seems to be more dynamic than they thought, there’s no real cause for alarm.
Despite what you might have read, a sudden geomagnetic flip is unlikely, and losing the field completely is more unlikely still.
The archaeological record shows countless changes and many reversals in the geomagnetic field
Life has always found a way



The Island Of Meaning With Dr. Brian Cox – Episode 9

Dr. Brian Cox is a science presenter for the BBC in Britain and one of the most in-demand science communicators in the world. Today, he sat down with me to talk about a wide range of topics, from extraterrestrial life, to how he got interested in science growing up, to the absurd scale of the universe and our small but very important place in it.

He also talks about his upcoming 50-city tour this summer in North American, Ireland, and the UK called Horizons: A 21st Century Space Odyssey, where they employ groundbreaking visual effects to tell the story of the history of the universe and life on Earth. You can check dates and buy tickets at


Infamous Disasters: The Tacoma Narrows Bridge

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a modern marvel when it was first built, but soon became one of the most infamous disasters ever filmed. Before the bridge was even finished, construction workers noted how it tended to sway violently in even moderate winds, and despite efforts to make it stop, on November 7, 1940 it plummeted into Puget Sound, taking one victim with it – a dog named Tubby. Footage of the swaying bridge, which came to be known as “Galloping Gertie” has become some of the most bizarre footage ever recorded, showing a bridge made of steel and concrete twisting and flexing like it’s made of rubber. But a lot was learned from Galloping Gertie that went on to make future bridges much safer. So in today’s video, we look at this event, what led to its demise, and what we learned from it.


Good morning everyone. Today let’s talk about something really sexy… Infrastructure.

Sorry, I gotta be careful so this video doesn’t get demonetized.

If you’ve been paying attention to the screaming hairdos on TV over the last year, you heard about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed into law this last November. (2021)

It was contentious because… well, everything is these days, but specifically because it was a huge spending bill, it was budgeted at a trillion dollars. That’s trillion with a T. And an R. And an I. And an L. And a–

But the argument for it is it would create jobs and send billions of dollars to state and local governments to upgrade things like airports, roads, transit systems, water systems, and so on.

With $26.5 billion of it earmarked specifically for bridges. The Department of Transportation actually has a program for this, it’s called the Bridge Replacement, Rehabilitation, Preservation, Protection, and Construction Program. Or, the BRRPPC…P (a beat) Excuse me.

This program is the largest dedicated bridge investment since the interstate highway system was built and will help repair around 15,000 highway bridges.
But… that’s a lot of money, and it’s been a challenge to get some people behind it, so at the beginning of the year President Biden did some traveling around to some places giving speeches to promote it.

One of those places was Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, because there are a lot of bridges in that area that need repair.

So he went there on January 28th to give a speech about the need to update bridges, but he had to cancel… Because a bridge collapsed.

It was a 477-foot bridge called the Fern Hollow Bridge that was built in 1973 and had been listed in “Poor” condition by the National Bridge Registry since 2011.
here were actually 5 cars on the bridge when it went down and 10 people were injured, but thankfully nobody was killed. It really could have been a lot worse, the bridge carries 14,000 cars a day.

And the fact is there are thousands of bridges like it around the country, many of them several decades old and barely hanging on.

But at least they got several decades of good use. Unlike the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Which despite being a modern marvel when it was built, barely lasted 4 months.

It’s become one of the most spectacular bridge disasters of all time. A disaster that taught us a lot of lessons – that would be used to save a lot more bridges.

If you’ve never been to Seattle, you should go. It’s a lovely town and one of the reasons why it’s so lovely is Puget Sound.
Puget Sound is a complex system of channels, embayments, estuaries, and islands where the Pacific Ocean flowed in and just kinda went all crazy in there.

It’s the home of Seattle, but also Tacoma, Everett, and Olympia, all separated by a maze of peninsulas and inlets. So it’s not the easiest place in the world to get around.

People wanting to travel from say, Tacoma to the Kitsap Peninsula, would have to travel far south, west, and then back north to get where they wanted to go.

Sure, ferries help transport people and are often used in the Sound. But they can be slow. And you have to follow their schedules.

Two things we Americans hate the most are a lack of freedom to hit the open road whenever we want and inefficient use of our time.

So, what do we do to guarantee those God-given rights from our Founding Fathers?

In the case of the city of Tacoma, you build a bridge. But before that, you need money, something that would prove to be a problem for the state.

The Washington State legislature created the Washington State Toll Bridge Authority in 1937 and gave $5,000 (about $97,000 today) to commission a study for a bridge over the Narrows.

An engineer named Clard Eldridge was hired and he proposed a suspension bridge design, which was still a fairly new idea, but it had worked well in other places.

They were hoping that tolls would be enough to pay for the bridge but the study showed that no, it wouldn’t be nearly enough. So, they turned to the Federal Public Works Administration (PWA).

This was the program set up by FDR to help create jobs during the Depression.

They asked for $11 million (around $220 million in today’s dollars). And many buttholes puckered.

They needed to get the cost down, so they brought in Leon Moisseiff (Mo-sieff), he was a bridge engineer from New York who was a consultant for the Golden Gate Bridge. And he had some ideas.

Early plans for the bridge included a set of 7.6-meter (25-foot) deep girders to sit under the roadway, which would make it stiff and less moveable.

He suggested using shallower 2.4-meter-deep (8 feet) supports, which meant a slimmer bridge, but also a cheaper bridge.

And like with most things in life, the PWA chose the cheaper design by Moisseiff.

It approved $6 million for the bridge. Bridge tolls would contribute almost $2 million more to help pay for it, for a total cost of $8 million.

Construction began on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in September 1938.

It took 19 months to complete and actually came in under budget at $6.4 million.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge had a main span of 853 meters (2,800 feet), making it the world’s third-longest suspension bridge at the time.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge wasn’t expected to have a lot of vehicular traffic, so it was designed with just two lanes and only 12 meters (39 feet) wide.

This was very narrow considering how long the bridge was. And those 2.4-meter-deep girders made the roadway extremely shallow.

The bridge opened on July 1, 1940.

Around 10,000 people showed up for the dedication and opening ceremony. 

Tolls started at 55 cents and were reduced to 50 cents two months later after the bonds were refinanced.
Officials praised the bridge as an essential economic and military portal to the Olympic Peninsula.

It was called a triumph of man’s ingenuity and perseverance.
“Everyone marveled,” wrote historian Murray Morgan, “at the gossamer grace of a structure so long.”
But the honeymoon period ended quickly as one major problem affected the bridge, a problem that had been happening for a while.

During the final months of construction, the bridge began to move in a wave-like motion.

Workers gave it the nickname “Galloping Gertie” and would often suck on lemons to combat seasickness.
The bridge would buckle and sway during windy conditions.
Strangely, this didn’t stop people from driving across the bridge. Driving across it became like a carnival ride.

They’d wait until the wind was just “right,” and then pull their cars in line to “ride the bridge.”

Even with all the movement, people considered the bridge safe.

A bank even put up a billboard on the Tacoma side saying it was just as safe as the bridge.

Several ideas were proposed to help the bridge move less. These included

  • Add cables to the girders. They were attached to 50-ton concrete blocks on the shore but broke after they were added.
  • Add cable stays. These would connect the main cables to the bridge deck at mid-span. They didn’t stop the bridge from moving less.
  • Add hydraulic buffers between the deck’s floor system and the towers. But this system was damaged when the bridge was sand-blasted before being painted.

The Washington Toll Bridge Authority hired engineering Professor Frederick Burt Farquharson from the University of Washington to create tests of the bridge in a wind tunnel.

The professor and his students built a 1:200-scale model of the bridge and a 1:20-scale model of a section of the deck.
He concluded his first studies on Nov. 2, 1940, offering two solutions to fix the issue.

  • Create holes in the lateral girders and along the deck so air could flow through them and help reduce the lift forces.
  • Add fairings or deflector vanes along the deck to give it a more aerodynamic shape.

The first option was rejected because those changes couldn’t be undone.

The second option was chosen, but it wasn’t done because there wasn’t a bridge anymore.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed on Nov. 7, 1940, at 11 a.m., with cables snapping and concrete crashing into the water below.

Its collapse would eventually earn it the nickname “The Pearl Harbor of Engineering.”
A Tacoma reporter named Leonard Coatsworth was driving across the bridge with his dog, Tubby, on the day the bridge collapsed.

“Just as I drove past the towers, the bridge began to sway violently from side to side,” he recounted. “Before I realized it, the tilt became so violent that I lost control of the car… I jammed on the brakes and got out, only to be thrown onto my face against the curb.”

He could hear the concrete cracking. He tried to get his dog but was thrown against the curb again.

Coatsworth crawled around 457 meters (500 yards) to the towers. His hands were bleeding, bruised, and swollen. His knees were raw.

Professor Farquharson was at the bridge making measurements and ran to try and save the dog. But Tubby bit him and he gave up the effort.

Coatsworth watched from the toll plaza as the bridge broke and his car fell into the Narrows below.

Tubby was the only fatality.
So, why did the bridge collapse? Two reasons: high winds and a design that didn’t plan for them.

At that time, suspension bridges were kind of new. Most bridges were built out of concrete or stone.

Because of that, wind wasn’t much of a factor.

But with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, there were winds of around 70 kilometers per hour on the day it collapsed.

Its center torsionally vibrated at 36 cycles per minute across nine different segments.

That vibration increased, and the motion changed from rising and falling to a two-wave twisting motion.

While the center part remained pretty steady, the other two halves twisted in opposite directions.

Aeroelastic flutter caused the bridge to finally collapse.
Most bridges have trusses that let wind pass through. But with this bridge, the wind was forced to move above and below it.

This caused a flow separation. When this happens and there’s an object present, it can lead to a Kármán vortex street situation.
In the case of this situation, winds would hit the top part of the bridge, pushing it one way, while winds would hit the bottom part, pushing it the other way.
This is what caused the twisting motion and increased vibrations that led to it collapsing.

One way to help make sure this doesn’t happen is to place a gap in the middle of the bridge to allow air to flow around the structure.

Also, having trusses that allow wind to pass through is helpful.
Designers can also install diagonal braces made from steel to help make the structure stiffer when it experiences a high wind load.

The cross braces squeeze together and help prevent the bridge from flopping over.

Today, engineers and designers use model bridges in wind tunnels to test the ability of bridges to withstand high wind loads before beginning construction.

Wind loads affect all sorts of other structures besides bridges.

Skyscrapers, for example. The higher we go, the more wind forces have to be accounted for.

So engineers use computational fluid dynamic analysis and wind tunnel testing to identify pressure loads and design to counteract those forces.
They also have to design for resonance.

Much like a plucked string on a musical instrument, buildings have resonant frequencies that they are inclined to vibrate at.

Wind vortices only have an effect on a building when their frequencies line up with the building frequency.

If these vortices push back and forth at the same rate as the structure’s resonant frequency, they may create huge forces, just like what happened with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

But design can disrupt the wind flow around a building. Things like rough surfaces or irregular shapes help break up the wind energy into smaller energy fragments.

These fragments create smaller vortices around a structure, which leads to it being more stable.
In the end, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was rebuilt and reopened in 1950. And you can still drive across it today.

This time, the workers nicknamed it “Sturdy Gerdie” because it was galloping no more. By the way, can everything be named by bridge workers from now on?

Suspension bridges were still new at the time but the lessons learned from this collapse have ensured that nothing like this would ever happen again.

So all we have now is this crazy footage of a bridge made of steel and concrete flapping and swaying like it’s made out of rubber. Like I’ve always been fascinated with this newsreel footage, I remember seeing it as a kid and I was just like… How?

And it was only when I researched this that I learned there was a dog in that car. RIP Tubby.



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