Category Archives: Science

Animal’s Not-Thought-Through Planet Name News

NASA has spotted auroras on Uranus.  Excerpt:

Uranus is the third largest planet in the solar system after Jupiter and Saturn. It’s quite a bit smaller than Saturn, actually, with a diameter of 15,759 miles (25,362 km). Saturn is more than twice as large, but you could still fit 63 Earths inside Uranus. The Planet appears as a uniform blue-gray globe from a distance, but there are some subtle pattern in the clouds when viewed in certain wavelengths of light. It also has a ring system — it’s no match for the majestic rings of Saturn, but it’s got Jupiter beat in that department. In addition, Uranus has the distinction of rotating with an axial tilt of 97 degrees — almost parallel to the plane of the solar system. Astronomers hypothesize it was struck by a smaller planet in the distant past that tipped it over on its side.

The above images show bright auroras glowing in the clouds of Uranus, a phenomenon that was only confirmed in 2011. Astronomers had previously seen auroras on other gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, but never Uranus. Auroras are caused by streams of charged particles like electrons picked up by the solar wind or from a planet’s own ionosphere. They are channeled into the upper atmosphere by the planet’s magnetic field, where they interact with gas molecules like oxygen and nitrogen. The ionized gas then gives off light, which we can observe.

Auroras on Uranus

Insert obligatory “Uranus” pun here.

It’s a common observation among astronomers that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.  Not only is the universe pretty strange in places, our own solar system is pretty weird.  The semi-cool outer gas giants are interesting and strange, and it’s only recently we’ve started getting good looks at them.

Like many biologists, though, I’m still holding out for whatever we may find under the icepack on Europa.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

A 20-mile long ‘spacescraper’ dangling from an asteroid: Could it work?

Not sure I’m buying it – not with current building materials.  Excerpt:

Clouds Architecture Office espouses a dream-big-or-go-home philosophy with its plan to construct the world’s “tallest building ever.” The 20-mile high (or long) megastructure would dangle from an asteroid suspended by a cable system tens of thousands of miles long.

A number of engineering hurdles stand in the way, so would-be atmospheric settlers of tomorrow will have plenty of time to save up for a down payment. Nevertheless, today’s humble surface-dwellers may see inspirational value in proposing such castles in the sky, regardless of their feasibility.

Clouds AO’s “Analemma Tower” riffs on the concept of the space elevator, an orbiting counterweight tethered to Earth by an unimaginably long cable that, once built, could provide more affordable access to space.

But rather than a fixed line to the ground, the firm proposes an apartment building hanging off the lower end of a very, very, very long cable attached to an asteroid. The entire system would orbit at the same speed the Earth turns, so it could hover over a relatively narrow area, rather than zipping around many times per day, like the International Space Station does.

Now, I’m saying this as a guy who once wrote a sci-fi book in which a planet-to-low-orbit space elevator called a “Skyhook” figured heavily.  But at least that scenario depended on future technology that enabled the builders to ‘grow’ carbon fiber nanotubes.

(What’s fun about writing science fiction is the abandon with which we just make shit up.)

But let’s just assume for a moment that this suspended tower notion could be built.  Imagine what will happen when something inevitably goes wrong.  Hopefully the dangling skyscraper (skydangler?) won’t be over a populated area when the cable somehow breaks.

The very thought would be enough to give Damocles nightmares.

Animal’s Daily Massive Footprint News

Holy custom footwear, Batman!

Article here.  Excerpt:

It was found among an “unprecedented” 21 different types of dinosaur tracks and dwarfs a metre-long footprint discovered in the Gobi desert by a team of Japanese and Mongolian researchers.

Palaeontologists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University said their find was the most diverse array of dino footprints in the world.

The remains were unearthed in rocks aged up to 140 millions years old in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Steve Salisbury, lead author of a paper on the findings published in the Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, said the tracks were “globally unparalleled”.

He added: “It is extremely significant, forming the primary record of non-avian dinosaurs in the western half of the continent and providing the only glimpse of Australia’s dinosaur fauna during the first half of the Early Cretaceous Period.

A modern-day dinosaur.

I remain as fascinated by dinosaurs as I was as a little tad, and have made a point of staying abreast of new discoveries.  I’m also fond of correcting folks who say that dinosaurs are extinct; they aren’t extinct at all.  In fact, there are more species of dinosaurs around today than there are species of mammals.

We call them birds.  Birds are dinosaurs, specifically, they are coelurosaurs, a branch of the theropods and therefore cousins to the raptorian dinosaurs and the iconic Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Still, fascinating as they are, I’m just as glad most of the non-avian dinosaurs aren’t around any more.  Imagine a sauropod big enough to make the footprint shown above; one animal could block the interstate for half an hour just crossing over.  And some of the big carnosaurs wouldn’t be too much fun to have around, either.

Still – a big bull T-rex – what a hunt that would be!

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

This is a fun one:  Radiation Reporters Go Bananas!  Literally.  Excerpt:

Long-time readers know that very useful measures of both radioactivity and radiation dose rates are the Banana Equivalent Dose (BED), and a similar measure I think I invented (because no one else ever bothered) called the Banana Equivalent Radioactivity (BER). (The units here are explained in my old article “Understanding Radiation.”)

Bananas are useful for these measures because bananas concentrate potassium, and a certain amount of that potassium is ⁴⁰K, which is naturally radioactive. The superscript “40” there is the atomic number, or the number of protons in the nucleus, of that particular potassium (symbol K) isotope. Because of that potassium content, bananas are mildly radioactive: a medium banana at around 150g emits about 1 micro-Sievert per hour (1 µSv/hr) and contains about 15 Becquerel (15 Bq) of radioactive material.

(Why bananas? There are a lot of plant-based foods that concentrate potassium. It is, however, an essential rule of humor that bananas are the funniest fruit.)

Our radioactive boars are considered unfit at 600 Bq per kilogram. So, a tiny bit of arithmetic [(1000 g/kg)/150 g/banana × 15 Bq/banana] gives us 100 Bq/kg for bananas. All right, so this boar meat has 6 times as much radioactivity as a banana. Personally, this wouldn’t worry me.

So let’s turn to the radioactivity detected off the Oregon coast. This is 0.3 Bq per cubic meter. Conveniently — the joys of metric — one cubic meter of water is one metric tonne is 1000 liters is 1000 kilograms, so the radiation content here is .0003 Bq/kg.

15/0.0003 is 50,000. So, bananas have 50,000 times more radiation than the seawater being reported.

The root cause of all this, which author Charlie Martin has some well-justified fun with, is simple; “science” writers frequently know bugger-all about the topics they are writing about.  This is a good example, although I have to admit Charlie makes a doozy of a blooper regarding atomic number vs. atomic weight in this selfsame article.

But really – fact check any of the science articles on plenty of news sites.  The better of them generally get the broad strokes all right, but there are frequent boners – some deliberate, most just careless.

And, on that note:

Animal’s Daily Random Thoughts

Can Human Evolution Be Controlled?  Sure, we do it all the time.  Every time we choose a mate, every time our species favors blue eyes, or black hair, or living in a cold/warm/temperate climate.  But intentionally?  Sure, we do that all the time too.

It seems how people smell doesn’t much enter into it.

On to other things:  The Baby Boomers aren’t responsible for all the world’s ills.  Who knew?  As a member of the youngest cohort of that aging generation, I heartily agree; only individuals, not groups, can bear responsibility.  There are no group responsibilities, no group rights, only individuals.

From our good friend Jillian Becker:  Raising a mercenary army of racists on public funds.  One has to wonder of what possible use are classes in “white privilege” and such racist (yes, racist, in the truest sense of the word) are.   Educational institutions are, or at least should be, tasked with one purpose:  To produce young adults with marketable skills, so that they may become responsible, productive citizens.  Bullshit classes like this do nothing to that end; they only inculcate a new generation of racists.

Yes, goddammit, racists.  They are teaching young people to judge their fellows by the color of their skin, not by the content of their character.  That is fucking racism.  It’s despicable, and taking money to teach such tripe is fraud.

Walter Williams has some thoughts on the topic as well.

On a brighter note:  Want a $25,000 taco?

Me neither.

On that note, we return you to your Thursday, already in progress.

Animal’s Daily Pale Blue Dot News

The Future.

In 1946, we got our first look at the Earth from space, thanks to a war-surplus V2 rocket repurposed by the U.S. Army.  On Valentine’s Day in 1990, Voyager One took an iconic photo – of Earth as a tiny pale blue dot in the vastness of space.   Excerpt:

We first glimpsed Earth’s curvature in 1946, via a repurposed German V-2 rocket that flew 65 miles above the surface. Year-by-year, we climbed a little higher, engineering a means to comprehend the magnitude of our home.

In 1968, Apollo 8 lunar module pilot William Anders captured the iconic Earthrise photo. We contemplated the beauty of our home.

But on Valentine’s Day 27 years ago, Voyager 1, from 4 billion miles away, took one final picture before switching off its camera forever. In the image, Earth, Carl Sagan said, was merely “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” So we pondered the insignificance of our home. The image inspired Sagan to write his book “The Pale Blue Dot,” and it continues to cripple human grandiosity.

And, about the Voyagers:

There aren’t any space missions like the Voyagers on the docket for the future, but both spacecraft continue beaming back data going on 40 years and counting. Voyager 1 became the first human-made thing to enter interstellar space, back in 2012 when it passed into the heliosphere, the bubble surrounding our solar system. Voyager 2 is expected to pierce the heliosphere around 2020.

Think about that.  There is an object built by human hands, bearing human information, hurtling into the unfathomable deeps of interstellar space, even as you read these words.  In a few years its brother will follow into those empty reaches.

Some day, I’d like to think humans will follow – maybe in a colossal generation ship, maybe in a constant-acceleration starship with a crew in deep-sleep, maybe in some faster-than-light craft driven by some as-yet un-imagined technology.  I’m pretty sure I won’t live to see it, but I would love to be proven wrong.

As a part-time science-fiction writer, I’ve made some guesses as to the shape the future might take.  I’m fifty-five now; I can expect to live to see thirty or forty more years of that future.   I am and have been convinced that our destiny lay out there somewhere, far from this tiny little blue-white ball.

Oh, and here’s the photo.  That’s us in the pale sunbeam on the right; as Carl Sagan said:  “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”  I can’t add anything to that; not a word.

Animal’s Daily Hagfish Slime News

This is a hagfish. Yes, really.

The U.S. Navy may be considering a new kind of body armor.  Made from hagfish slime.  No shit.  I can only add:  Eww.  Excerpt:

It looks and feels a lot like snot, but Navy researchers believe slime produced by the primitive hagfish could help save lives.

The bottom-dwelling hagfish is commonly referred to as a slime eel because it looks like an eel and produces a slimy substance that quickly expands in water to enable it to escape from predators by clogging up an attacker’s gills.

That unique capability is what has captured the Navy’s imagination .

Its researchers believe that, by reproducing the slime, they one day could replace synthetic products derived from petroleum, such as Kevlar that’s used in bulletproof vests. It’s not just science fiction, either.

The Navy says one of its research teams in Panama City, Fla., has already re-created the material. Now it’s beginning to work on how best to turn the synthetic slime into something useful.

“From a tactical standpoint, it would be interesting to have a material that can change the properties of the water at dilute concentrations in a matter of seconds,” Ryan Kincer, a materials engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division, said in a statement.

Here’s what’s interesting about biology; the 4-billion year drunkard’s walk that has been evolution on the Earth has produced some pretty bizarre critters, but also some pretty useful stuff.  One of the reasons medical research depends on animal models for a lot of work is that we can’t simulate a full organism with any kind of simulation; the best computer technology we have today is laughably crude when compared to a biological organism, even one as primitive as the jawless hagfish.

This is also a good illustration of the value of pure research.  Most folks never would have thought that hagfish slime would be good for anything.  But someone got curious, took a good hard look at the substance, figured out how to synthesize it – and now, maybe we’ll have a host of interesting and useful products from that research.

I call that a win.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks again to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

On to a longevity item:  The goal, of course, is to grow human tissues and organs inside swine; this is just one step in that direction.  Excerpt:

Scientists have published the first peer-reviewed account of creating pig–human hybrid fetuses, a step toward growing animals with organs that are suitable for transplantation into humans.

The team that made these chimaeras also reports the creation of mouse–rat and human–cow hybrids on 26 January in Cell1. Such modified animals could provide researchers with new models for testing drugs and understanding early human development.

To create chimaeras, scientists generally inject pluripotent stem cells — which can become any type of organ — from one species into the early embryo of a second species. In theory, the foreign cells should differentiate and spread throughout the body, but in practice, producing viable hybrid embryos has proven difficult.

Algernop Krieger was not available for comment.

There’s been a lot of speculation about human longevity in recent years, and this might be a step in that direction; one way to achieve longevity would be the ability to replace organs with spares as needed.  If the research community can figure out how to produce organs using the patient’s own stem cells, that would be even better; no rejection issues.  But growing them in a pig would be better than no spare parts at all.

And, one would hope, we won’t have any The Island-type scenarios.

Allow me, by the way, to add my enthusiastic support for the concept of longevity.  I’m pretty sure I could live a thousand years and never manage to fulfill my entire bucket list.

Animal’s Daily Interstellar News

The Future.

Uh oh.  It seems a rogue star is going to fly right through our solar system.

In 1.35 million years.  EVERYONE PANIC NOW.  Excerpt:

Researchers have known for a while that a star called Gliese 710 is headed straight for our solar system, but they’ve now worked out precisely when it should arrive.

The star is currently hurtling through space at about 32,000 mph, and is around 64 lightyears away. (One lightyear is around 5,878,000,000,000 miles.)

Gliese 710 is about half the size of our sun, and it is set to reach Earth in 1.35 million years, according to a paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics in November.

And when it arrives, the star could end up a mere 77 light-days away from Earth — one light-day being the equivalent of how far light travels in one day, which is about 26 billion kilometers, the researchers worked out.

As far as we know, Gliese 710 isn’t set to collide directly with Earth, but it wil be passing through the Oort Cloud, a shell of trillions of icy objects at the furthest reaches of our solar system.  

So although 77 light-days sounds like a relatively safe distance, the speeding star could burst through the cloud and shoot these icy objects and comets all around our solar system. Any one of these is pretty likely to collide with Earth.

Let’s be honest; the only reason I find this interesting is because of my own personal science-geekery.  It’s fun to read about.  But nobody should waste much brain-pan activity worrying about the eventuality.  If Gliese 710 does come barreling through our neighborhood in 1.35 million years, one of two things will be the case:

  1. There won’t be any humans left on Earth, or
  2. The humans left on Earth will be so advanced (look back at the last 100 years of technological progress, and imagine where we’ll be in 13,500 times that duration) that the incoming shower of comets and whatnot won’t pose any threat.

So, relax.  If you want to find a real threat to the future of the human race, you need look no farther than the Imperial City – or Tehran.  Those are threats we can do something about.

Animal’s Daily Genetic Diversity News

Here is an interesting bit from our blogger pal Doug Hagin over at The Daley Gator:  So, It Has Come To This Has It?  (Original post here at Moonbattery.)  I made a comment yesterday when it posted, but it got me to thinking, so I thought I’d expand on my comment here.  Excerpt:

Barack Obama himself says that if you can dupe others into thinking you are black, then you are black:

“Well, part of my understanding of race is that it’s more of a social construct than a biological reality. And in that sense, if you are perceived as African American, then you’re African American.”

OK, that does it! Up is down, rain is sunshine. But I have realized something while studying the whole you are what you identify as craze. I now realize that I choose to identify as a billionaire playboy with several sports cars, mansions, vacation homes, a yacht and a muscular body that every woman longs for.

Now, look at the President’s statement above.  Let’s break it down.

Well, my understanding of race is that it’s more of a social construct than a biological reality.”  In this President Obama is correct.  Biologically speaking, the entire concept of race is, well, horseshit.  Humans have less genetic diversity than our closest relatives, chimpanzees.  The concept of “race” is mostly a social and cultural construct; it’s almost impossible to rigorously define “race.”  Barack Obama claims to be the first “African-American” President, but he is the child of a white American woman and a half-black, half-Arabic Kenyan father.  He has none of the cultural markers than define “African-American” as it is generally used, to denote a member of some nebulous group defined more or less by having some ancestor that was a slave in the United States.

So, yes, horseshit.  Which brings us to the second statement in his comment:  “And in that sense, if you are perceived as African American, then you’re African American.

I could claim to be perceived (or even sillier, the modern concept of “self-identifying”) as a ham sandwich, but that wouldn’t make it true.

There are objective realities in the world.  The science of genetics pretty much obliterates, as a scientific model, the whole concept of “race” as applied to humans.  There is only one species of human alive on the planet today, H. sapiens sapiens, and we meet the definition of a species in every aspect.

As I said over at The Daley Gator, there is only one race.  It’s the human race, and every person alive on the planet is a member.