Even in space, astronauts can’t miss a beat. A recent study on the International Space Station had 12 astronauts use ultrasound machines to monitor the condition of the heart before, during and after flight. Results reveal the shape of the heart becomes more spherical during extended time in microgravity. Researchers from the American College of Cardiology say these findings could lead to cardiac problems for the crew even though the heart returns to a normal elongated shape after returning to Earth. The heart doesn’t
have to work as hard in space which leads to loss of muscle mass ultimately causing the change. The hope is to find ways to counter the problem starting with the amount and type of exercise needed to guarantee safety on long duration flights.

Read more…

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Arizona Science Center’s Dorrance Planetarium had the opportunity to have a conversation with Bobak Ferdowsi, “NASA icon,” and asked him questions ranging from his role with Curiosity to the imagination of science. Our interview with him continues below in the last of a 3 part series.

Planetarium: You were involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission as well, so which would you personally rather do, land on Mars or glide over the rings of Saturn?

Ferdowsi: I don’t know that there’s a good answer. I think there’s just something about physically seeing a thing that I helped make sit there and be a part of the landscape and drive around it. The Cassini has done some incredible science. The pictures are far more breathtaking than the pictures we’ve taken on Mars. But there’s just something to me, maybe it’s a little bit of the human spirit of exploration of seeing something that humans built that’s physically there. There are no tangible science benefits, I mean there is looking back at the mission, but nothing comes down to the tangible science benefit to me. For me, it’s really just some emotional call. Maybe because I know that’s the Pathfinder for the people setting foot there. Seeing the wheel there is the proxy for my foot one day on Mars. Saturn’s gorgeous and the moons are amazing, if anything I’d be more excited to send something to a moon of Saturn, but there’s that very physical, very tangible feel. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m here at NASA today.

Planetarium: Do you think there are any odds of seeing a Curiosity or Opportunity in some kind of Martian Smithsonian years down the road?

Ferdowsi: In terms of bringing them back, almost certainly not. It’s possible that one day space travel becomes so cheap — and we’re slowly getting to a point where it’s cheaper and cheaper with commercial space flight — that we will have the ability to bring things back. But we have the engineering models here on Earth.
When people come to JPL for the open house for our tour, sometimes they get to see Curiosity’s twin, and what is a recreation of a Martian landscape for the rover to practice driving and drilling and doing different activities. I think that will probably make it to the Smithsonian. We have to keep it here in case something should happen to Curiosity and we need to try something out here. When Curiosity’s time comes, when it’s time to retire the mission, I’d love to see that in a museum. I don’t think people realize how big this rover is. There’s nothing for perspective, it’s just a solitary rover on the surface.

Planetarium: What do you think of when you look at the stars?

Ferdowsi: I think a bunch of things. I think, one, I would love to go out there one day and see it. I still get emotional when I see the Milky Way galaxy. I think, more than just the stars, I think it’s the sense that we’re part of a galaxy. In LA sometimes it’s hard to realize. But there’s something about seeing the Milky Way galaxy and realizing there are so many stars and we are part of just a little bit of the galaxy, of the Universe.
Then my mind will inevitably drift; somewhere out there I am optimistic that there are life forms, and they are looking to the sky and seeing a completely different picture of the Universe around them, but also longing to learn and maybe meet other people one day.
I think that’s part of who we are. I think that’s what makes our species so special, that ability to look beyond our own existence and say ‘what else is out there?’
The night sky is still a very magical place to me. I think sometimes it comes up that science makes things less magical or exciting, and I think the exact opposite. I remember learning about how airplanes fly, and thinking about the Universe is kind of the same thing. Even if you know ‘stars are formed this way’ and ‘planets happen this way’ it’s just all the more, I would say splendid and awe-inspiring to see it in person. It’s kind of a great place to be, to both appreciate it and also to be able to be influenced by it emotionally.

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hallucinate?

Perhaps you think that hallucinations only occur due to the effects of drugs or because of mental illness. As it turns out, there are a few other scenarios that could spark a hallucination in a person’s mind. One of those is sensory deprivation.

In today’s world it is almost impossible to escape the stimuli of the senses. The sounds of the city, the smell of the mixture of aromas found in your home or office, the taste of your lunch, the feel of everything you come in contact with, as well as the sight of all these things and more. So how would it be possible to experience sensory deprivation? Well, there are some specialized rooms similar to those used for solitary confinements that are devoid of light and sound. The use of these rooms can be controversial due to allegations that they have been used to torture prisoners of war, making them more suggestible to their captor’s wishes.

A documentary study filmed by BBC put six volunteers in such a room for 48 hours and found that the majority experienced hallucinations, paranoia, and showed higher signs of suggestibility after leaving the room. In another study by Dr. Oliver J. Mason, who studied the effects of short term sensory deprivations, it was shown that just 15 minutes of sensory deprivation could still lead to side effects such as hallucinations, depression, and paranoia.

The reason we hallucinate in times of sensory deprivation is due to what researchers call “faulty source monitoring.” This occurs when the brain misinterprets the source of what it is experiencing.  When you are experiencing thoughts inside your head, your brain confuses whether those thoughts originate from inside your mind or outside, ergo, hallucinations.

A new trend in today’s world is known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy, or REST. In this type of therapy, it is thought that sensory deprivation can be used to induce a relaxed state of mind.  This therapy can be done in two common ways:  Chamber REST, which involves lying on a small bed in a dark sound proof room, and flotation REST, in which you float in a pool of salt water in an equally dark and soundproof tank.  These tanks supposedly help improve creativity, performance on tasks requiring high concentration, stress levels, and stress related health disorders.

Although REST and the studies mentioned above have different objectives and somewhat different outcomes, they all rely on depriving the senses of stimuli. Further research is needed in order to better understand and determine the effects of REST or any other form of sensory deprivation. Whether sensory deprivation leads to depression and paranoia, or whether it can be a healthy way to relieve stress is still a bit unclear.  Perhaps you may want to try it for yourself to find out.

Discover more unbelievable facts at “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!®” at Arizona Science Center through May 4, 2014!

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Did you know that the type of bacteria that make feet smell stinky can also produce a buttery, nutty-tasting German cheese called Limburger?  Cheese and other foods like coffee, chocolate, fruits and vegetables, meats, wheat, and teas get their distinctive flavors and smells from their unique “terroir.”  “Terroir” means the “taste of place.” Foodies use this term to describe how a particular environment contributes to the character of the products grown there.  It refers to the amazing ability of living things to absorb and magically transform the elements in their surroundings to produce the essence of flavor inside our favorite foods.

You might be surprised to discover that microorganisms play a chief role in developing the flavor, fragrance, and appearance of many culinary delicacies.  The special tastiness that bacteria, molds, and fungi bring forth in our foods cannot be replicated outside of their one-of-a-kind patches of earth known, and protected in Europe, as “appellations.”  For example, one of the stinkiest cheeses, Taleggio, is cave-aged and washed with saltwater, which causes special bacteria to produce a rosy rind, a smell like wet grass mixed with body odor, a creamy texture, and a tangy and meaty flavor that is also described as fruity and slightly salty.  It can only be produced in Northern Italy.  Nobody else can call their cheese Taleggio, even if they use the same bacteria and process to create it. This is because nobody else can recreate the singular blend of conditions found there that result in the one-and-only sensory experiences it delivers.

Too often we focus on the troubles that microbes cause us in terms of disease.  The antibacterial industry makes billions of dollars off our fear of the illnesses they might cause.  In response, we have spent a great deal of energy and money on destroying the microbial world around and within us.  But wait!  Half of our external world is made up of microbes that make beer bubbly, chocolate complex, and cheese pungent; not to mention produce, purify, and recycle our environment, make breathable air, clean our water, and convert our waste into nourishment for our crops.  So, when we destroy them, we are also destroying the tiny chefs that make life’s tasty treats, like “Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis” that makes sourdough tangy and “Leuconostoc mesenteroides” that make pickles puckery.  

But here is a twist! We would like to suggest that you yourself are a delightful product of a unique terroir.  Because it also turns out that one in every ten cells in your body is a microbe that helps you make vitamins, use nutrients, and fight disease. The microbes and molecules in your surroundings have infiltrated your body and they determine your vitality and appeal. Your insides and outsides are a petri plate for them.  Your external terroir has become your internal terroir. Whether or not you smell like Limburger cheese or something more appealing is determined by the chemicals that you and your microbial cohabitants are giving off.  Your unique blend of bodily contributors makes you who you are and you should not expect to be full-bodied and vigorous without the aid of your microscopic friends who must be nurtured and protected to ensure that you also flourish.

There are scientists hard at work characterizing just what microbes should inhabit a given environment for it to be “healthy.”  That includes each one of us and even distinct regions of our bodies.  They are quantifying microbial profiles that contribute to obesity, autoimmune disorders, metabolic syndromes, and inflammatory diseases.  They are finding that, while we are each a singular blend of microbes, chemicals, and conditions, there are some that are more common in healthy people and others common in sick people. Soon, we will have a new branch of medicine that rehabilitates our inner microbial habitat while concurrently healing the microbial ecology of our surroundings since they are so intimately connected.  Scientists are learning what body chemistry is needed to properly tend our microbial gardens.  It seems that refined sugar, preservatives, and processed foods support the growth of the microbes that cause disease and deplete the microbes that sustain health.

Maybe we need to start being protective about our terroir, like the European crafters who make the world’s finest foods. This requires us to be picky about the places we live, and consider them at the microbial and chemical levels as much as for their beauty and functionality.  We can inoculate our inner and outer worlds with the microbes that will bring out our best smells, textures, and um flavors?

Learn more about these amazing microbes in this week’s Bio Buzz lecture: “Is it Time to be Anti-Antimicrobials?” on April 19!

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How many of you stayed up to watch the spectacular blood moon and lunar eclipse?

Last night, Earth’s shadow blocked out the Sun’s light casting a red tinted veil over the moon. This was the first lunar eclipse of 2014 and is the kick-off to a tetrad which consists of four consecutive lunar eclipses that will happen over the next 18 months!

As you watched or look through the pictures today, you may be asking why it’s called a “blood moon.” The term “blood moon” was inspired by the reddish color of the moon as it reflected the sunsets and sunrises happening around the world. While the moon was shadowed from the sun, some of the sun’s light was able to shine through Earth’s atmosphere and because red light is better able to penetrate the atmosphere, it created a red hue.

And although tetrads are rare, they aren’t a sign for despair. While there were no tetrads between 1600 and 1990, there will be about 9 sets of tetrads during the 21st century. You might call it a new trend!

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Arizona Science Center’s Dorrance Planetarium had the opportunity to have a conversation with Bobak Ferdowsi, “NASA icon,” and asked him questions ranging from his role with Curiosity to the imagination of science. Our interview with him continues below in part 2 of this 3 part series.

Planetarium: Let’s say you were given a $10 billion budget for a NASA mission. What do you do?

Ferdowsi: It’s hard to say. I’m not sure all the time what $10 billion would get me. There’s a couple of places in our solar system that I really have always wanted to be a part of. I’m not done with Mars, I love it. But I would love to see a Europa mission, somehow that we’d send a submarine there that melts through the ice and then we’d swim in this potentially salty ocean beneath the ice surface and just see what’s underneath there. Everywhere we find water on Earth we find life, so it’s a possibility of a different world. That’s where I would go.

Planetarium: What would you say to an eleven year old who’s becoming interested in building things?

Ferdowsi: I would highly encourage it. For me, it’s one of the most satisfying jobs. It’s a little different than expectations, a little different because, specifically for missions like we do, they don’t happen that often. A mission will take eight, nine, ten years from the time someone’s conceived of it to the time that it’s on its way. It was nine years from the day I started to the day we landed on Mars. So it’s a long time. It’s a little surprising to me when people ask ‘is that too long? Do you feel like you’re accomplishing things?’ It’s the amazing things along the way that are really exciting.

The first time you see hardware come out and you see the physical object you helped design. Or the first time that you put things together and they work. All those things are really rewarding experiences that you have to live for. You can’t just live for ten years from now I have to do something, it’s really an everyday challenge that you get to declare victory over, and it’s really fun. It’s incredible to be part of something where everybody is so motivated and energized and excited to do this, and you feel like you’re part of something bigger, and there’s this sense that ‘yeah, we are all really working together towards a common goal or challenge.’ That’s so fulfilling.

Planetarium: Why is informal communication, like twitter, important to you?

Ferdowsi: Before landing I would tweet something and nobody would really listen or hear. There’s that ‘what’s the point’ in some cases. But now I’m beginning to realize that there’s this amazing ability, that you don’t really get with traditional media, that you don’t get on the news, or on the radio, or on TV to communicate with people who are really genuinely excited about what it is that engineers and scientists do that’s not headline news every day. But they want to know ‘how do I get into this field’ or ‘what makes X so interesting’ ‘what makes Mars such a fascinating place’ ‘why is this rock more exciting than that rock.’ I don’t think there’s another medium, yet, that allows us to have that communication. And it’s one of those things that’s really important to us — I’m always excited about my job, I’ve always loved it — but it is impressively energizing to realize that other people are really excited about it too. The feedback that you get when people share their excitement, it sort of excites you to go back to work and do more. Sometimes you can get a little lost in the day-to-day things, but with twitter and the interactions with people there, you can learn together because I don’t always know the answers to questions that some people ask.

Planetarium: Besides the landing, do you have a favorite personal story about your time with NASA?

Ferdowsi: I don’t know if there’s a specific event or story like that, but one of the most exciting things I remember was one of the first system tests we did, and it was one of the first times we integrated the kind of guts of what was going to be the spacecraft together. We have a test facility here that has a practice rover and a practice hardware setup from the cruise and descent stage and everything else. It was the first time we put the flight together, and we were in there and testing it and I remember probably spending twenty hours of every twenty-four hours in there — just getting home to sleep for a few hours — and at that point we still thought we were going to launch in 2009. We were working really hard and it was really exciting and amazing to see it all start coming together. I remember it wasn’t too long after that where they said ‘hey, we’re not going to make it in 2009, we’re going to have to go to 2011 for the launch.’ I remember thinking ‘that’s unfortunate’ maybe I had other plans, or another project, or something else. After that experience, there is nothing that I would of rather done than go back to work on the mission. I just thought ‘this is what I’m working for. Even if it didn’t launch yet, this is still an amazing experience.’ That’s one of those times where I really felt excited and happy to be a part of it.

I think the other thing that was exciting and maybe less of a story was when I joined the team (a small team of about thirty people) but there were already a couple people that I recognized from the 1997 Pathfinder mission and it was, in a sense, a fan-girl moment. These people, they’ve done this, they’ve sent things to other planets before. And these were, in my book, the rock stars, and I thought ‘I can’t believe I get to work with these people.’ That was a very exciting and kind of surreal moment, too.

Check back next week, April 21, for the rest of our interview with Bobak Ferdowsi!

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Twenty minutes, that’s not a very long time.  Ignoring all distractions, you could probably read this 300+ word post at least 15 times before 20 minutes pass.  We’re not even going to bother trying to guess or calculate that for a speed reader but we’re confident it’s a lot more.  Now think of all the things you can do in 20 minutes: Watch a sitcom (without commercials, the theme song, or credits); or order, receive, then consume your order at a fast food joint; or run 2-4 miles depending on your pace; or write a letter to a friend; or call your parents just because.  In any one of those instances, you receive a lot of information and detail.  Some of it is stored in your short term memory then lost forever in the near future, and far less, if any, is stored long term then recalled years later.  Chances are, at the end of 20 minutes, you couldn’t tell me the name of the person who took your order at the fast food restaurant, or the color of the shirt the main character was wearing at the start of that TV episode. After 20 minutes of reading this article repeatedly, I doubt you could write it or repeat it from memory with 50% or more accuracy.

Try spending 20 minutes admiring a view and taking in the sights and details, then step away and try drawing, from memory and in detail, the view you just admired. It might be pretty difficult and near impossible for most people. Believe it or not, Stephen Wiltshire is able to do this. An artist from London, Wiltshire has drawn and painted from memory multiple works representing skylines and cityscapes including those of New York City, Tokyo, and Dubai.  In order to get the view and image in his memory, he took a helicopter ride of the city, which lasted about 20 minutes, and then he did some sightseeing for his own pleasure. Furthermore, as if drawing from memory is not impressive enough, these works of art are not on a small scale 8.5” x 11” paper (not to say that’s not a feat), but are drawn over days on canvasses that are multiple feet long measuring in the teens.  Did you catch that part where we said days, plural? Days have passed.  More information and stimuli have reached his brain since his ride finished, and have been processed and stored. We struggle just trying to remember and visualize where we parked this morning.

Discover more unbelievable facts at “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!®” at Arizona Science Center through May 4, 2014!

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We see children as engineers. They plan and design, build and test, and communicate their ideas through their work.

Last week at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair (AzSEF), Arizona Science Center engaged children in open-ended engineering using gigantic foam blocks. Children piled, placed, stacked and even tumbled these uniquely shaped blocks to create imaginative figures and forms. Through the experience of making choices about the pieces they use and exploring their own interests, children have the opportunity to problem-solve, work collaboratively, and construct knowledge about engineering in the world around them. These skills are not just important for success in school, but they are also meaningful skills that children will need and use for the rest of their lives.

For example, while students were building, Arizona Science Center’s Stephanie helped two sixth grade girls hold up their structure as they collected more pieces. The girls designed a “human-like robot” and learned to balance the weight equally between the bottom and top of the structure. They built knowledge about cause and effect and learned how to communicate effectively between each other.

A seventh grade boy fit another rounded block on top. He placed two plastic balls in the sockets. The head began to lean forward and to solve the dilemma, the boy figured out which pieces would hold the weight in a more balanced way. He decided that heavier pieces should go nearer to the bottom to act as a structural base.

Together, the students collaborated to create a structure that was functional and self-sustaining.

ASC Outreach Photo 2

How do you encourage engineering skills in your kids or students?

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On August 6, 2012, the Mars rover Curiosity broke through the Martian atmosphere then parachuted down at supersonic speeds, taking retrorockets down to the surface before finally lowering itself from a sky crane, all 154 million miles away from Earth. Huge audiences watched the landing and saw the crew of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory jump up and celebrate once Curiosity touched down on Mars. One of those celebrating on TV wore a Mohawk, his team voted him to wear it, and instantly became famous.
Bobak Ferdowsi, known to the internet as “Mohawk Guy,” was the Flight Director for Curiosity and has since become something of a NASA icon appearing on talk shows, internet memes, and even getting a shout out at the State of the Union address. However, Bobak still had his feet planted firmly on Mars.
Arizona Science Center’s Dorrance Planetarium had the opportunity to have a conversation with Bobak over the phone and we asked him questions ranging from his role with Curiosity to the imagination of science.

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab Holds Viewing Mars djkck1ffnW2l

Planetarium:  Most of the audience that watched the Curiosity landing had never witnessed anything quite like it. We missed the Moon landings and the previous Martian landings weren’t available like Curiosity was. So, to you, besides the internet fame, what did that landing mean?

Ferdowsi: It was the first time I’d ever done something like that. It was nine years of my life, and so it was very personal. I think that’s what you saw when you saw everyone’s reaction. It was a personal accomplishment. All of the long hours and missed dinners with friends and things like that — at that moment kind of fade away and you’re like, ‘we did it. We made the right choice.’ It was incredibly powerful. It’s one of those things that I don’t think was any way to prepare for emotionally. Good or bad, people always know we’ve had success, but people kind of forget that there was a chance it wasn’t going to be successful. There was no way for us to know what that would feel like without doing it before. Some people had done it before, and of course, they were still an emotional wreck during that landing.

Planetarium:  How did you first become interested in science?

Ferdowsi: I don’t have an exact day or moment. I think there was a general tendency towards that in my childhood. A lot of science fiction growing up, reading Arthur C. Clark, and Asimov, and watching Star Trek — that was a big thing. From there it sort of progressed into playing with Legos and being curious about how things work. Spending time with science fair projects, I think I always enjoyed those kinds of things, asking questions and seeing if I can answer them. Eventually that grew into a real love of the sciences and mathematics where you can get answers by asking questions and following a process that leads you to a real answer, whether it’s research or it’s doing experiments on your own.  I think by the time I got to high school it was pretty clear that’s what I wanted to do.
I think the moment for me when I went from ‘hey, I like science’ to ‘hey, let’s do specific things’ was in 1997 when the Pathfinder mission landed on Mars. That was, for me, the first time I’d ever seen pictures come back from another planet. I’d seen pictures in books from the Mariner probe or from Viking, things like that, but there was something very different in knowing that it was happening in that moment. Seeing live, essentially, photographs from another planet. There’s still some things to me that for all the time that I’ve spent in space and seeing pictures, some absolutely gorgeous pictures from Saturn and Jupiter and all those places, there’s something extremely tangible and emotional about seeing a physical object that people have built sitting on another planet. I thought this calls to me.

Planetarium: Relating to Science Fiction and building things, and even your famous Mohawk, how important is it to have an imagination for science?

Ferdowsi: I think it’s tremendously important. You rarely find scientists who don’t have a creative outlet as well, and I don’t mean just at work. Maybe it’s a little obvious, maybe it’s not obvious, if you look at a landing like Curiosity’s landing where you have this rocket powered jetpack, there’s no doubt that that’s the work of some creative, maybe slightly mad, people. Because that’s not the way that we’ve done things before, that’s not the status quo of airbags and so on; it’s not even the Viking landing with the rockets on the bottom — a great idea. With that kind of stuff you have to be able to be creative to work in this field because you’re constantly dealing with challenges that people have never dealt with before. That’s part of it. I think for all of us that’s a way of mixing the analytical mind and the artistic mind.

Stay tuned for the rest of our interview with Bobak Ferdowsi April 14 and April 21!

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How long can you hold your breath?

30, 40, maybe 60 seconds?

For most people the thought of training yourself to hold your breath longer in order to dive deeper into the ocean seems like an odd activity. To some however, this can be a passion, a sport, or even a way of life.

Diving without the use of supplemental gear is not a new concept; people began practicing this thousands of years ago.  In times without scuba gear it was necessary to collect fallen valuables and possibly collect ocean floor materials without the aid of extra oxygen.  It is believed that in Ancient Greece divers would strap weights to themselves and reach depths of up to 100 feet in search of sponges. Asia is famous for a group of women called the Ama who for the last couple thousand years have trained themselves to go down in search of edible seaweed and clams, a practice still used today. The Bajau people, sometime known as the sea gypsies of Malaysia and Indonesia have long practiced deep sea fishing requiring them to hold their breath for several minutes and descend more than 60 ft.

Free diving nowadays is often seen as a competitive sport that is practiced in many parts of the world. Although highly dangerous, this sport can also be very rewarding. Like other sports, free diving is a way to challenge and push the body to its extreme.  Before the 1950’s scientists believed that diving past about 115 feet would cause our chest cavity to implode due to immense water pressure. One man, Enzo Maiorca changed that when he returned safely from over 115 feet. It was then realized that at such depths our bodies experience something called blood shift which causes the lungs to fill with plasma preventing collapse.  On top of that, our bodies also compensate by undergoing some automatic adjustments once exposed to water.  A term known as the mammalian dive reflex allows our bodies to reduce the heart rate and metabolism in order to slow the rate we use oxygen.  When a person holds their breath the body immediately begins to divert blood from muscles, skin, and other extremities towards the body’s vital organs such as the heart and brain. The goal is always to be relaxed; the mind plays a serious role in free diving. Expert free divers focus on breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to help push them further in each dive.

Free diving is a great sport for beginners as well. The body can be trained to hold its breath for 45 seconds which can get you down to about 30 feet. Anything past that requires more rigorous training and practice. Herbert Nitsch, a world famous free diver has gone down over 700 feet! But this is not to be taken lightly, free diving has injured and killed many people and only those who are serious and disciplined should undertake such challenges.

With free divers constantly competing over record titles pushing their bodies further than ever imagined, who knows how far the human body will go? Our bodies always seem to astound even the brightest of minds.

Discover more unbelievable facts at “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!®” at Arizona Science Center through May 4, 2014!

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