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Q & A: How indeed!

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
is it possible to use the sun’s energy to power spaceships? how? is it possible to create oxygen atoms? how? is it possible to raise your IQ by using genetics? how? lastly, is it possible to fix toe ozone layer? how? thanks
- Anonymous (age teenager)
USA
A:
That's a lot of short questions with long answers!

Our spaceships already use the sun's energy to power them. They rely on burning hydrogen, which is often made by either splitting H2O molecules or hydrocarbons like methane (CH4) or both at the same time, to extract the hydrogen. These processes involve input of energy in electrical form or in the form of heat. You can trace most of our electrical energy back to the sun. When we burn fossil fuels, we are transforming solar energy that was stored millions of years ago by plants which decayed and left coal, oil and gas, and most of our electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. Only nuclear (and therefore geothermal) energy doesn't come from the sun.

It is very difficult, but not impossible, to create new oxygen atoms if you didn't have any to start with. This can be done either by splitting heavier nuclei or by combining lighter ones. Our oxygen was formed in nuclear fusion processes in an ancient star which exploded before the solar system was formed, and only a very tiny amount of oxygen atoms have been created since by terrestrial nuclear processes. If you want oxygen atoms, you should instead try to separate them chemically from other atoms they form compounds with. For example, water has lots of oxygen in it which can be separated by electrolysis.

Raising the IQ of someone already born or conceived by using genetics is not something that could be currently done, except perhaps in rare cases where some ailment that's treatable by gene therapy happens to make somebody sick enough to lower their mental abilities. There are very few diseases currently treatable by gene therapy.

It's generally accepted that the main way to get better at intellectual tasks is the same as the way to get better at athletic tasks- serious practice, especially focusing on something you enjoy. Fortunately, there are currently no equivalents of steroids for intellectual traits- no dangerous drugs you can use to 'bulk up'. (That's not to say there aren't people who would be happy to sell you drugs which they say will make you smarter.) Sometimes a little coffee or prescription stimulant can make you more alert temporarily, but for many people larger amounts make them too jittery to think. If by 'IQ' you mean only scores on IQ tests, not the more general intellectual abilities which those tests attempt to measure, it's said that simple test practice can raise your scores some.

The best way we know of to "fix" the ozone layer is just not to deplete it. Known chemicals that prevent ozone formation or break ozone down are chlorofluorocarbons (freon, a once-common refrigerant is an example) and certain bromine compounds. Stop emitting these into the environment, and the ozone hole may have a chance to recover. It goes through an annual cycle of getting bigger and smaller anyway, so we know that ozone can be replenished by natural processes (sunlight and oxygen, but there's probably more interesting atmospheric chemistry going on than just that).

Tom (w Mike W)

(published on 10/22/2007)

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