Category Archives: Science

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

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

In a bit of news from around the Arctic Circle, a film crew caught some footage of another starving polar bear.  Excerpt:

This year, biologist Paul Nicklen published a video online of an emaciated polar bear on Baffin Island rummaging through trash cans, looking for food. The polar bear was likely at death’s door when Nicklen captured the footage in late summer.
Nicklen, who founded the environmental group Sea Legacy, said he wanted to highlight the future polar bears face because of global warming. It worked, and the video has gone viral, sparking media coverage about a polar bear that’s a victim of a warming world.

“We stood there crying—filming with tears rolling down our cheeks,” Nicklen said, National Geographic reported.

“When scientists say bears are going extinct, I want people to realize what it looks like. Bears are going to starve to death,” said Nicklen. “This is what a starving bear looks like.”

Yes, bears are going to starve to death.  Mountain lions are going to starve to death.  Wolves are going to starve to death.  It is a sad but inevitable fact in the lives of large predators that some of them never quite get the hang of surviving.  The death rate of young bears in many environments is appalling.

But that’s nature for you.

There are a number of questions that I’d like to have answered that might shed a little more light on the whole thing:

  1. Assuming the bear did die, and it does indeed look inevitable from the film, did anyone do a necropsy on the animal to discover if it was injured, infested with parasites, or diseased?
  2. How old was the bear?  Young bears, especially young males, are frequently injured by larger, older bears as they seek their own territories.
  3. Were any other emaciated bears observed in the area?  If the environmental conditions were the root cause of this bear’s condition, then other bears in the area would be suffering as well.
  4. Where, exactly, was the bear?  Near a human habitation?  Polar bears are creatures of the coast and pack ice, but one hanging out near human habitations may (again) be a young one still learning how to survive, and maybe doing poorly.

In other words, there are just too many possible explanations to just go off and go “RRHHHEEEEE!  Global climate change!  We must cripple our economy now!”  Large predators almost never die peaceful deaths.  They are killed in fights with other predators, they are injured trying to take down a prey animal, they die of disease or by accident, or they just plain starve.  It’s a damned tough world out there, and in the Arctic, it’s several quantum levels tougher.

Blaming this on climate change is some Olympic-level jumping to a conclusion.

Animal’s Daily Martian Chronicles News

Mars probably doesn’t really have a Princess.

Interested in settling on Mars?  Turns out you might find yourself in a pseudo-redwood forest.  Excerpt:

Like other contests before it, the Mars City Design competition aims to solve the problem of building livable and sustainable spaces on the Red Planet, from either the limited cargo astronauts would be able to bring with them or indigenous Martian resources. [How Will a Human Mars Base Work? NASA’s Vision in Images]

MIT’s winning design, which the team calls Redwood Forest, is a collection of “tree habitats” connected through a system of tunnels called “roots.” The roots would provide safe access to other tree habitats, private spaces and “shirt-sleeve transportation,” according to a statement from MIT. The tunnels would also provide protection from cosmic radiation, micrometeorite impacts and extreme changes in temperature. 

Each dome-shaped tree habitat would house up to 50 people, and the team’s vision calls for building about 200 of them, to support a settlement of 10,000 pioneers. The structures would include private and public spaces as well as plants and water harvested from the northern plains of Mars, according to the statement. 

“On Mars, our city will physically and functionally mimic a forest, using local Martian resources such as ice and water, regolith (or soil), and sun to support life,” MIT postdoctoral researcher Valentina Sumini said in the statement. Sumini and MIT assistant professor Caitlin Mueller led the team, which also included nine students.

“Designing a forest also symbolizes the potential for outward growth as nature spreads across the Martian landscape,” Sumini added.

Here’s a word that doesn’t appear in the article:  Terraforming.

Any effort to stay in a place like Mars will result in terraforming, whether we would or not; that being the case, why not make a deliberate effort?  Why not set up a buttload of these domes and leave some uninhabited, so that their free oxygen can be slowly released, building up the Martian atmosphere?

There’s one thing about Mars, though, that we can’t terraform, and that’s the gravity.  Mars’ surface gravity is about .34G; a tad over a third of Earth’s gravity.  Stay on Mars very long and you won’t be able to go home.  Have a child on Mars, and they will grow up looking pretty odd by Earth standards; long bones will grow longer, digits too; a born Martian would be tall, gangly, with long fingers and toes, having grown up at about a third of Earth’s unvarying one gee.

Knowing that – one wonders, how tall would these hypothetical redwoods grow?

Goodbye, Blue Monday

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

NASA researcher is now predicting we’ll find life off-Earth in the next 20 years.  Color me a little skeptical.  Excerpt:

‘Before we go looking for life, we’re trying to figure out what kinds of planets could have a climate that’s conducive to life,’ said Tony del Genio of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

‘We’re using the same climate models that we use to project 21st century climate change on Earth to do simulations of specific exoplanets that have been discovered, and hypothetical ones.’

There are many factors that contribute to a planet’s potential habitability, including proximity to its star.

This dictates whether the planet has the right conditions to sustain liquid water; if it’s too close, or too far, the surface could be dry and barren, or completely frozen.

And, from what’s known about life on Earth, water is key.

‘Everywhere we look, whether it’s a desert or Antarctica or the deepest parts of the ocean or the deepest parts of Earth’s crust that we’ve explored, as long as there’s a tiny speck of liquid water, there’s life,’ NASA explains in a new video, How to Find a Living Planet.

‘And because of that, it’s been central to NASA’s search for habitable environments elsewhere.

Note:  Life =/= intelligent life.  That’s a whole different kettle of extraterrestrial fish, despite the fondest imaginings of the science-fiction writer in me.  Fascinating as it would be, I’d settle instead for just finding some intelligent life in Congress.

But, I digress.

Enceladus and Europa are the prime candidates in our Solar System, but assembling the tech to go and look even there is an expensive and daunting task.  I’d love to see it happen in my lifetime, but I’m resigned to hoping my grandkids see it happen, and hope they will view any discovery with the same sense of wonder I would have.

As for other solar systems – well, the Galaxy abounds with planets, but the only we could detect life would be by detecting the spectral lines of, say, chlorophyll in an alien atmosphere.  That, also, is a ways off yet,

In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with science fiction.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks as always to Pirate’s Cove for the Rule Five links, and to our blogger pal Doug Hagin over at The Daley Gator for the linkback!

Being keenly interested in the future and hoping to see quite a lot of it personally, I found this kind of interesting, even if some aspects are a bit unlikely:  3 Dangerous Ideas from Ray Kurzweil.  My favorite dangerous idea concerns longevity.  Excerpt:

Ray and I share a passion for extending the healthy human lifespan.

I frequently discuss Ray’s concept of “longevity escape velocity”—the point at which, for every year that you’re alive, science is able to extend your life for more than a year.

Scientists are continually extending the human lifespan, helping us cure heart disease, cancer, and eventually, neurodegenerative disease. This will keep accelerating as technology improves.

During my discussion with Ray, I asked him when he expects we’ll reach “escape velocity…”

His answer? “I predict it’s likely just another 10 to 12 years before the general public will hit longevity escape velocity.”

“At that point, biotechnology is going to have taken over medicine,” Ray added. “The next decade is going to be a profound revolution.”

From there, Ray predicts that nanorobots will “basically finish the job of the immune system,” with the ability to seek and destroy cancerous cells and repair damaged organs.

As we head into this sci-fi-like future, your most important job for the next 15 years is to stay alive. “Wear your seatbelt until we get the self-driving cars going,” Ray jokes.

The implications to society will be profound. While the scarcity-minded in government will react saying, “Social Security will be destroyed,” the more abundance-minded will realize that extending a person’s productive earning life space from 65 to 75 or 85 years old would be a massive boon to GDP.

I’m kind of an oddball in the workaday world in that I actually kind of enjoy what I do for a living.  If I could live 500 years, I’d probably work most of that time; I may take the odd decade off here and there, but eventually I’d be pitched some project that sounded interesting in a place I’d want to go, and I’d be off again.  Plus I’m something of a workaholic and just generally prefer to be producing value.

With that said, however, I’m skeptical of Mr. Kurzweil’s optimism in this matter.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see human longevity explode, but I don’t see it happening in the next ten to twelve years.

Still.  In twelve years I’ll be 68.  I’d still be in time for that longevity escape velocity.

Think of all the elk one might take in 500 years.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

I’ve talked about Europa before in musing about the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system, but it seems Saturn’s moon Enceladus is another good candidate.  Excerpt:

With its curtain of geysers and internal ocean, Enceladus is unique. As a result, this small, icy moon is currently regarded as a potential host for life, and so no chance was taken that it might become contaminated by the Cassini spacecraft. Now new research, published in Nature Astronomy, suggests this ocean has existed within Enceladus for a very long time – possibly long enough to create the conditions to develop life.

The geysers are plumes of salty water-ice mixed with traces of carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and other hydrocarbons that erupt along cracks in Enceladus’ south polar region. It was because of these geysers that scientists could work out that Enceladus must have an ocean below its icy crust and that the ocean is active (convecting). A subsequent observation that hydrogen was present in the plumes led to an additional conclusion, that hydrothermal activity – chemical reactions due to the interaction of water and rock – was taking place. But what scientists have failed to explain is what heat source could be powering this activity.

As more observations of the location of the plumes were made, the mystery of the missing heat source increased. The geysers are associated with features known as “tiger stripes” – a set of four, parallel depressions, about 100km long and 500m deep. The temperature of the stripes is higher than that of the rest of the icy crust, so it was assumed that they must be cracks in the ice. There are almost no impact craters in the tiger stripes region, so it must be very young, of the order of a million-years-old. Any model that purported to explain the heat source had also to account for its focused nature – the ocean is global, but why is only the south polar region active?

I’ve pretty much beat to death discussing the gobsmacking, world-changing implications of actually finding life – even microbes – somewhere in the solar system besides Earth.  But the issue at the moment is whether we will continue to search for said life.

Being possessed of an insatiable curiosity myself, I am always a bit irked to find a stunning lack of that trait in others.  There are plenty of folks who bemoan spending money on such exploration, no matter whose money is being spent.  “Better to spend it on feeding people, housing the homeless, or (insert name of latest fad cause here.)”  But I’d like to think that the human drive to explore, to discover, to learn, still drives us as a species.

Be there life or not, on Enceladus or elsewhere – let’s find out!

Animal’s Daily Row Crop News

Farm Worker.

Well, at least someone in Europe is sane where GMO crops are concerned.  Excerpt:

…you can understand why Italian farmer Giorgio Fidenato, who cultivates maize, tomatoes, and soybeans on just twelve acres of land near the northeastern Italian town of Pordenone, is frustrated that he hasn’t been allowed to plant GM crops. Italy banned all engineered crops in 2013, and has since taken farmers to court for flouting the ban.

Fidenato, however, persisted in planting GM crops, particularly maize containing the insecticidal protein Bt, which is highly resistant to the destructive European corn borer, and thus requires far fewer pesticide applications to maintain. For his civil disobedience and stand for science, agitators repeatedly invaded his farm and destroyed his crops.

“Their assault startled me,” Fidenato wrote recently at the Global Farm Network. “I try to follow Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. I believe that we should settle our political differences through peaceful deliberation.”

And that’s exactly what Fidenato did. For the past few years, he and a few farmer compatriots have been arguing their case in courts, insisting that Italy had no scientific grounds to ban GM crops. Their case advanced all the way to the European Court of Justice, the highest court of the European Union, and lo and behold, they won. On September 13th, the court ruled that an EU member state cannot ban GM crops based on the precautionary principle if there is no scientific reason for doing so. The court noted that EU scientific bodies have determined GM crops to be safe.

Yes, you read that correctly:  GM crops are safe.

GM crops, like so, so many innovations, have been the subject of plenty of doomcrying.  and notice above the tactics of the irrational GM opponents:  they invaded Mr. Fidenato’s property and destroyed his crops.

Has a familiar ring to it, does it not?  A group of irrational thugs disapproves of an action (or in some other cases, merely an expressed thought) of another, and they react violently.

One might almost thing the “Antifa” fascists have taken up residence in Italy.


Rule Five Power Of Tears Friday

What if we could solve the world’s energy needs from the tears of children?  No, literally.  OK, well, maybe not just children, but… Oh, read the whole thing.  Excerpt:

The ability to generate electricity by applying pressure, known as direct piezoelectricity, is a property of materials such as quartz that can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and vice versa. Such materials are used in a variety of applications ranging from resonators and vibrators in mobile phones to deep ocean sonars and ultrasound imaging. Bone, tendon and wood are long known to possess piezoelectricity.

“While piezoelectricity is used all around us, the capacity to generate electricity from this particular protein had not been explored. The extent of the piezoelectricity in lysozyme crystals is significant. It is of the same order of magnitude found in quartz. However, because it is a biological material, it is non toxic so it could have many innovative applications such as electroactive anti-microbial coatings for medical implants,” explained Aimee Stapleton, the lead author and an Irish Research Council EMBARK Postgraduate Fellow in the Department of Physics and Bernal Institute of UL.

Crystals of lysozyme are easy to make from natural sources. “The high precision structure of lysozyme crystals has been known since 1965,” said structural biologist at UL and co-author Professor Tewfik Soulimane.
“In fact, it is the second protein structure and the first enzyme structure that was ever solved,” he added, “but we are the first to use these crystals to show the evidence of piezoelectricity”.

According to team leader Professor Tofail Syed of UL’s Department of Physics, “Crystals are the gold-standard for measuring piezoelectricity in non-biological materials. Our team has shown that the same approach can be taken in understanding this effect in biology. This is a new approach as scientists so far have tried to understand piezoelectricity in biology using complex hierarchical structures such as tissues, cells or polypeptides rather than investigating simpler fundamental building blocks”.

The discovery may have wide reaching applications and could lead to further research in the area of energy harvesting and flexible electronics for biomedical devices. Future applications of the discovery may include controlling the release of drugs in the body by using lysozyme as a physiologically mediated pump that scavenges energy from its surroundings. Being naturally biocompatible and piezoelectric, lysozyme may present an alternative to conventional piezoelectric energy harvesters, many of which contain toxic elements such as lead.

You can read the entire paper here.

I could spend some time making jokes about generating power from tears, but that would be in poor taste (not that that has ever stopped me before.)

It’s hard for me to find a practical application for this, but a few do come to mind, mostly having to do with charging personal electronics.  And bear in mind, that’s not an insignificant thing, given the small constellation of personal electronics that are apparently indispensable for our modern lives.  But as the article notes, it is in the world of implantable medical devices that this could really make a difference.  Implantable devices like intrathecal drug pumps and electronic spinal cord stimulators can make a huge difference in the lives of people with chronic pain issues, but these days they are run by batteries.  And those batteries have to be replaced periodically.

Having them run by some sort of biological process would be somewhere past awesome.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks as always to Pirate’s Cove and The Other McCain for the Rule Five links, and to Darkness Over The Land for the pingback!

Moving right along: Ever been frustrated by a left-lane vigilante driving exactly the speed limit in the left lane?  It seems that those speed limits may be based on some pretty outmoded science.  Excerpt:

In the US, our speed limits are derived from old studies, like this one from 1964 by traffic systems researcher David Solomon that looked only at rural roads in the 1950s. In line with conventional thinking, Solomon’s study fuels the premise that speed limits should be based on the speed at which 85 percent of the drivers on a road are maintaining. That means, if most cars on the highway are going 60 mph, that’s what determines the speed limit.

But with around 40,000 people dying in car accidents on American roads every year, something isn’t working, John Lower, a transportation engineer in California, told me. That includes the 85 percent formula, which traffic advocates have called for to be repealed. They’re calling instead for a data-driven system that reflects the actual traffic using sensor technology. In many cases, this will force us to drive slower.

Lower has spent decades as a city transportation manager, and now works at Iteris, an analytics company. He believes it’s time to reinvent the way we implement speed limits. “The way it works now, there are higher-than-expected crash rates along the system,” he said.

Lower’s solution is in line with Vision Zero, a network of traffic safety advocates he is part of, who want to use more recent data and technology to inform our speed limits. (The network is funded by entities including Kaiser Permanente, a health insurance company.)

In an ideal scenario, Lower said, we would be using smart sensors to collect the information from vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians to understand traffic flows. (A quick spin around the internet reveals multiple sensors are already on the market like this, including this one from Urbiotica and another from SMATS.) This data would then be analyzed to set speed limits based on the traffic flow, and the presence of the most vulnerable vehicles (bicycles) and people on the roads.

“Every traffic signal has to have some form of detection,” Lower added.

I have a question:  Who the hell is going to pay for all these detectors?

I’m generally in favor of using technology to make our lives better, but in this case, no thanks.  At present, our roads are publicly funded, and we don’t have the tax dollars to spare to be completely, totally revamping our system for determining speed limits.  Besides, improvements in car design have made driving much, much safer than it was in the 1950s – or even the 1970s.

For now, I’d say we should just stick with our good old-fashioned way of figuring speed limits.  And, on that note:

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

It’s sad and stupid, but apparently people thinking the Earth is flat is still a thing.  Excerpt:

The Flat Earth Society’s site — which posits that the idea of a round Earth is somehow related to the faking of the Moon landing — is remarkably well-designed and professional-looking, eliminating some of the old hallmarks of disinformation on the internet. The ease of creating a website as clean as this one is a problem that has been well-documented by information scientists. As recently as five years ago, high schools were teaching that you could identify a disreputable source by its cheap-looking site, bad design, and messy URL. That no longer holds.

Digital newsrooms churn out coverage of flat Earth truthers using tools that make it easy to find stories bubbling up from the depths of Reddit. Here’s how it works: conspiracy theories get people fired up enough to comment promiscuously, bringing them to the front of Reddit where journalists see them, says The Verge’s editorial director Helen Havlak. When a reporter writes an explainer of a new oddball conspiracy theory, the sharing and hate commenting that drove the theory to the top of Reddit reoccurs on Facebook. And, if the post is coming from a generally reputable outlet or involves a celebrity (e.g., B.o.B. or Kyrie Irving) or a major news event (e.g., a presidential election), it can also get a boost into the Top Stories slot on Google News. “Newsrooms watch each other’s highest-performing stories,” Havlak says. It’s common practice to use a tool that lets newsrooms make lists of their competitors and monitor the popularity of their posts (on services like CrowdTangle, for example) to see what’s doing well for other outlets, and what might be a sure traffic bet if they could find a fresh angle or a reason to weigh in. “People see all the traffic to be had, and look for the next thing trickling up from Reddit,” she says. “Cycle repeats.”

It is perhaps belaboring the obvious to note that counting visitors to a loony-tunes web doesn’t necessarily translate to those people believing in whatever brand of nutballery the site espouses.  However – the fact that a site exists is a pretty good indicator that the people who put the site up believe in that nutballery (parody and satire sites like the Landover Baptist Church aside).

And in this case, that’s just stupid and pathetic.

Seriously, folks – Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the planet thirty-four freakin’ centuries ago.  This is hardly new stuff.  Still – there are people about who believe all manner of stupid shit.  When I was writing Misplaced Compassion, I was frequenting all sorts of Usenet (remember Usenet?) animal rights forums, and once encountered a nutbar who claimed to believe that there was a city of superhuman aliens hidden inside a dormant volcano in (where else?) California.

This is precisely as stupid as believing the Earth is flat.   It’s funny and sad all at the same time.

Animal’s Daily Mr. Sandman News

Ever wonder why we sleep?  I do.  Sometimes it amuses me to ponder how much more I’d get done if I didn’t have to sleep, especially on a day when I have woken up at oh-dark-thirty to head to the airport.

At any rate, here’s an interesting read on the topic.  Excerpt:

…despite all that has been written on the subject and all the effort devoted to studying the phenomenon scientifically, we do not have a clear answer to a question that would seem to be central to understanding the human experience: “Why do we sleep?”

To answer that we need to first ask what sleep is, and what its essential characteristics are. We know that it is probably evolutionarily conserved, meaning that it has persisted throughout evolutionary history ever since it first evolved. Many scientists also think it is universal among animals, though it has been studied systematically only in a small number of species. Sleep may show up under different guises in different species. Dolphins, for instance, may be able to sleep “unihemispherically” — falling asleep with one half of their brains while the other half remains awake. This allows them to perform complex activities, such as swimming to the surface of the ocean to breathe, without waking up. The nematode worm C. elegans enters into a sleep-like lethargus before molting. In many species, including humans, sleep is generally associated with certain postures, such as lying down, and immobility.

It’s not as easy as you might think to tell if an animal is sleeping. A crude but effective way is to test if an animal is “disconnected” from its environment by providing some stimulation that would typically provoke a strong reaction, such as an unexpected noise. If the animal does not react, there is a good chance that it is genuinely disconnected — and thus sleeping, rather than merely resting. Scientists consider such a reversible disconnection from the environment to be a defining feature of sleep. (An irreversible disconnection from the environment would be a coma.)

Why would animals periodically disconnect from the environment?

Maybe disconnecting from the environment is reason enough.

I studied biology years ago, and maintain an interest in the topic.  While behavior was my focus when I was still in the field, I never studied the phenomenon of sleep, other than engaging in it myself.  But here’s the main theory described in this article:

Still, learning, memory, and cognitive ability seem to be promising areas for trying to find an essential function of sleep. One recent proposal that attempts to draw these areas together into a single whole is the Synaptic Homeostasis Hypothesis (SHY), originally put forward by Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli in 2003. (Full disclosure: I did my doctoral research in Tononi and Cirelli’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, though SHY was not my focus.)

To my mind, SHY stands apart from other scientific hypotheses about sleep because of its scope and its explanatory elegance. And, despite the fact that elegance is an important feature of scientific theories, there are surprisingly few elegant theories in neuroscience. This may be because so many neuroscientists treat the brain as a modular kludge, focusing on one specific part of the brain as pertaining to their research specifically. SHY, by contrast, is about neural networks in general.

In other words, sleep fulfills the vital function of sort of “resetting” the nervous system, allowing the collation of information gathered during the waking period.  That’s important in the learning and analysis process.  I’ve experienced it myself; the concept of “sleeping on it” is as old as the ages.

Interesting stuff.  A good night’s sleep my do us a lot more good than we think.