Category Archives: Science

Animal’s Daily Rhinoceros News

Science!

Everyone knows that rhinocerii aren’t doing too well these days.  A big part of the reason for that is because massive ignoramuses in various parts of the world have the idea that powdered rhino horn has some medical value, or that it will result in “male enhancement.”

That has, of course, led to a huge black market in rhino horns.  It’s illegal to raise rhinos for their horn; which that may solve part of the problem, there’s possibly a better solution.

Synthetic rhino horn.  Excerpt:

Belief in rhino horns’ healing capabilities dates back to the second century B.C., as the powder was reported to reduce heat and remove toxins. Demand for horn products has greatly increased since 2008, and today rhino horn is more often valued as an exclusive status symbol.

Matthew Markus, CEO of the Seattle-based biotechnology company Pembient, sees this preference for rarity as an opportunity to reduce poaching. Over the past few years Pembient, along with other companies like CeratoTech and Rhinoceros Horn LLC, has started 3-D printing biologically similar artificial horns. This idea isn’t exclusive for rhinos either, as Pembient aspires to biofabricate pangolin scales, elephant tusks and tiger bones as well. At the University of Oxford one biologist is working on synthetic elephant ivory.

Currently, Pembient’s process involves engineering yeast cells to produce keratin, the predominant protein found in rhino horn, which is then combined with rhino DNA and trace elements. This aggregate makes up the “ink” for printing. So far, Pembient has only created low-fidelity miniature horns, but plans to have larger higher grade prototypes in less than two years. The horns aren’t commercially ready, but Pembient has already received interest from artisans, carvers and industrial designers.

Markus claims that introducing indistinguishable biofabricated horns at one-eighth of the price for real horn would lower wild rhino horn value. “At some point we would crash through the illicit profits that motivate people that go out there and risk their lives,” said Markus.

There are a couple of reasons this might not have the desired effect, though.

  1. Bob didn’t use rhino horn.

    Flooding the market with synthetics allows the ignorant goofs that believe in the medical or “male enhancement” value of rhino horn, to continue believing this utter nonsense – and may increase demand in the short term.

  2. An eventual side effect may be that the wealthy and ignorant may demand proof of the authenticity of the rhino horn, which would drive the price of the real thing even higher.

There are other solutions; for a brief time, South African farmers could be licensed to raise rhinos and periodically harvest their horns.  That produced a lower-priced, legal supply, and if deregulated, the practice could increase rhino numbers (captive, but still) but would perpetuate the stupid myths.

Or the nations of Africa could go back to an earlier practice.

Some years back I met a gentleman of Afrikaner descent, an engineer with a Jo’Burg pharmaceutical company whose brother still maintained the family farm in the bush somewhere out east of the city.  He told me of an “understanding” the South African government had once had with the various safari companies, wherein the safari guides would shoot poachers on sight and nobody in the government would say too much about it.

Harsh?  Yes.  Effective?  I bet it was.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Could we – and by we, I mean humanity – be wiped out by a mega-volcano?  Well, maybe.  Excerpt:

In the Bay of Naples, Europe’s most notorious giant is showing signs of reawakening from its long slumber.

Campi Flegrei, a name that aptly translates as “burning fields”, is a supervolcano. It consists of a vast and complex network of underground chambers that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, stretching from the outskirts of Naples to underneath the Mediterranean Sea. About half a million people live in Campi Flegrei’s seven-mile-long caldera, which was formed by vast eruptions 200,000, 39,000, 35,000 and 12,000 years ago.

The past 500 years have been fairly peaceful ones for Campi Flegrei. There have been no eruptions at all since 1538, and that was a comparatively small event that resulted in the formation of the “New Mountain”, Monte Nuovo. But recent events suggest that this period of quiescence may be coming to an end.

Here’s the scary bit:

“The last eruption of Yellowstone would potentially have put ash across both American continents,” says David Pyle at the University of Oxford. “If you take a continental land mass and you suddenly cover it with 10cm of volcanic ash, all the organic matter and trees will lose their leaves and probably die. Animals will take in chemicals which are toxic to them. The ground will suddenly be much brighter than before, so a lot of the incoming solar radiation might simply be reflected back into the atmosphere, resulting in a lengthy drought.”

With water supplies clogged, electricity transmission lines failing and a complete disruption in ground transport, there would be an immediate crisis.

So, as Owen Wilson might say, the scariest environment imaginable.

While a mega-volcano eruption would indeed have global consequences, I’m not spending much time worrying about one.  I find the geology behind mega-volcanoes interesting (I find pretty much all geology interesting) but if you read any of the science at all, there’s one ting you have to understand while considering the scariest environment imaginable resulting from a mega-volcano eruption:

Geologic time scales.

One of these monsters might go up tomorrow.  Or it might not happen for half a million years.  For the last few million years, ice ages have come and gone; on the geological time scale, glaciers have been marching up and down the Northern Hemisphere like window shades, but the only reason we know anything about the most recent glaciation is from the signs it left behind.

There’s another reason to remain calm:  There’s no point in worrying about something you can’t do anything about.  So, sure, a mega-volcano may wipe us all out tomorrow.  So might a Texas-sized asteroid.  But, while the science is interesting, I won’t bend many neurons worrying about either.

Animal’s Daily Brain Dead News

No, this post isn’t about Congress.  Well, not yet.  But here’s a doc (not named Frankenstein) who is going to try to reanimate a brand-dead cadaver.  Excerpt:

Sergei Paylian was only 14 years old when he was horrified by the death of his young, attractive neighbor in Tbilisi, Georgia. As was the local Soviet custom at the time, her open coffin was carried through the street to the sound of music as a shocked teenage Sergei looked on, confronted for the first time with the issue of his own mortality.

It sparked a lifelong obsession with aging – and how to reverse it.

Now, standing in his neat Florida laboratory that looks more like a dentist’s office, the 66-year-old scientist is explaining how a lifetime of research has culminated in a purified extract he calls bioquantines, ‘combinatorial biologics’ incorporating other species such as frogs and, in the future, sharks that he believes is the key to curing diseases – and even death.

When injected into humans, he claims, the bioquantines find their way to diseased or damaged cells and help restore them to a healthier state.

The company Dr Paylian founded, Bioquark, is part of a broader project called ReAnima – which is ‘exploring the potential of cutting edge biomedical technology for human neuro-regeneration and neuro-reanimation.’

Prediction:  It won’t work.  “Dr” Paylian may be able to resurrect Pauly Shore’s career, but he won’t be able to resurrect a cadaver.  Even if he managed to restore enough brain-stem function to keep heart and lungs working, how much higher brain function would be irretrievably gone?

Prediction #2:  “Dr” Paylian will produce a corpse on a heart-lung machine, somehow provoke some reflex movement, and claim “partial success.”

But the whole idea isn’t hopeless.  Maybe we could mix some of these “bioquantines” into the lunch menu in the Capitol; they might just resurrect Congress into some kind of actual animated activity.

Then again – do we really want them doing anything?

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!

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

Here’s the science headline of the week:  Giant Ziplock Baggies Full of Lambs Are Going to Change Everything.  Excerpt:

In April, researchers announced they had managed to keep several extremely premature lambs alive and growing in artificial wombs. After spending up to four weeks in a clear plastic “extra-uterine device” at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, each sheep transformed from a decidedly undercooked fetal specimen to a much more robust critter with long limbs and a fluffy wool coat, the sort of animal you wouldn’t be terribly alarmed to see plop to the ground in a field on a spring afternoon.

The setup strongly resembles a sous vide cooking apparatus: a tiny, tender lamb floats in a large plastic ziplock, hooked up to tubes and monitors. But a video clip posted by the researchers has the emotional heft of feeling a fetus kick when you put a hand on a pregnant woman’s belly. Visible through the clear plastic, the lamb’s hooves twitch gently as it snuffles its nose and wiggles its ears.

The lambs in the experiment were selected for their developmental similarity to human babies born right on the edge of viability, or about four months premature. Babies born that early are equal parts horrifying and marvelous. Tiny creatures with organs visible through their translucent skin, they’re often called “miracle babies.” But there’s nothing particularly mysterious about those little beings curled up in nests of tubes and wires; they live because of the inspiration and hard work and risk-taking and study and pain of hundreds of people.

I find this interesting for several reasons, not least of which is because I’m the father of a 30-week  preemie (2 pounds, 4 ounces) who is now 21, a college student and a 2nd degree black belt – she turned out pretty great, but lots of preemies struggle with developmental issues.

If this kind of research can help those tiny, tiny babies develop normally and go on to lead normal lives, that’s a great thing.  The last few decades have already seen great advances in neonatal intensive care and the survival rates of premature infants; a few days after our preemie daughter was born, the doctor attending caught me in the hallway outside Mrs. Animal’s room and told me, “you know, twenty years ago they probably both would have died.”  As it was, it was over a month before the docs were certain our little Peanut was going to live.

Live she did, and now she’s tough, smart, confident and very, very capable.  This kind of research will help more preemies grow up to be like Peanut – and believe me, the country could use more young adults like her.

Rule Five Sex Robot Friday

Not a robot.

This seems an appropriate subject for Rule Five Friday:  Reuters says we need to have a talk about sex robots.  Excerpt:

Artificial intelligence (AI) is making its way into the global sex market, bringing with it a revolution in robotic “sextech” designed to offer sexual gratification with a near-human touch.

In a report on the growing market in sex robots, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics said rapidly advancing technologies have already led to the creation of “android love dolls” capable of performing 50 automated sexual positions.

They can be customized down to the nipple shape and pubic hair color, and can cost between $5,000 and $15,000.

Still not a robot.

The increasingly life-like robots raise complex issues that should be considered by policymakers and the public, the report said — including whether use of such devices should be encouraged in sexual therapy clinics, for sex offenders, or for people with disabilities.

Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at Britain’s University of Sheffield, said it was difficult to predict how far or fast the market would grow, or what its effect on societies might be in years ahead.

“Will these robotic dolls be niche? Or will they change societal norms and become widespread?,” he asked at a news briefing. “How would (sex with a robot) equate to a truly human intimate relationship?”

Flesh and blood.

It’s easy to think that someone who may shell out big bucks for a sex-bot is pretty pathetic; to be honest, I’m inclined to think that myself.  But is it a possible answer, say, for a man whose wife has a terminal illness – a man who still has physical urges but no desire to cheat on a wife who is no longer able to engage in sex through no fault of her own?

Maybe so.  No matter how realistic, sex with a robot can’t be considered an act of infidelity; it’s just masturbation with a fancy toy.

Still; consider the last question quoted above:  “Will these robotic

Not mechanical.

dolls be niche? Or will they change societal norms and become widespread?”  My prediction:  They won’t change societal norms, any more than the Fleshlight (Note:  link NSFW!) did.  Sex-bots are just another fancy sex-toy; more expensive and more complex than most, but still just another sex toy.  

Even the incorporation of artificial intelligence into the sex-bot bill of materials wont’ change things much.  The most sophisticated AI still won’t be able to experience the wide range of human sensory input, of emotion, of tingling nerves and twitching muscles that makes up an act of consenting sex between two willing people.

Humans have been using sex toys since they started using tools.  The advent of complex, even AI sex-bots is just another aspect of an old, old theme.

A real girl.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Thanks again to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!

Moving along:  some folks aren’t interested, but I find this fascinating; the latest Kepler survey has revealed thousands of possible new exoplanets.  Ten of those may be earth-like.  Excerpt:

This is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog release of candidate exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system, from Kepler’s first four years of data. It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.

With the release of this catalog, derived from data publicly available on the NASA Exoplanet Archive, there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

Additionally, results using Kepler data suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets. Both results have significant implications for the search for life. The final Kepler catalog will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy, while the discovery of the two distinct planetary populations shows that about half the planets we know of in the galaxy either have no surface, or lie beneath a deep, crushing atmosphere – an environment unlikely to host life.

I’d have to add “life as we know it” to that last sentence.  But it’s still amazing.

When astronomers first started looking for exoplanets (planets outside or solar system) nobody knew what to expect.  Nobody knew if planets were common or rare; nobody knew if our life-friendly little solar system was typical or rare.

Now we know that many, many stars have planets.  I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we find a small rocky planet with the spectral lines for oxygen and water coming to us from its atmosphere.  That’s not a sure sign of life, but it’s a pretty decent one.

I hope I’m around when that happens.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Is it too soon for another aliens post?  Nah.  Let’s have another aliens post!

Why haven’t we encountered aliens yet?  Turns out there are a variety of reasons.  Excerpt:

In 1950, a learned lunchtime conversation set the stage for decades of astronomical exploration. Physicist Enrico Fermi submitted to his colleagues around the table a couple contentions, summarized as 1) The galaxy is very old and very large, with hundreds of billions of stars and likely even more habitable planets. 2) That means there should be more than enough time for advanced civilizations to develop and flourish across the galaxy.

So where the heck are they?

This simple, yet powerful argument became known as the Fermi Paradox, and it still boggles many sage minds today. Aliens should be common, yet there is no convincing evidence that they exist.

Here are twelve possible reasons why this is so.

Go on and read the twelve, but not mentioned is one that I find most likely; alien life may well be so alien as to make any social interaction impossible.

If you haven’t yet, check out the recent sci-fi thriller Arrival.  Movies aren’t usually the best place for possible scenarios for alien contact; nor are sci-fi novels (and I say that as a part-time sci-fi writer.)  But Arrival does a halfway decent job of portraying the visiting aliens as truly alien; they aren’t just humans with odd makeup jobs.

As for convincing evidence; give some thought as to what convincing evidence would be, short of aliens actually showing up here.  In Carl Sagan’s book Contact he had an alien transmission in a radio signal, presenting a string of prime numbers.  That’s a pretty good indicator.

We could always wait for aliens to notice us.  But any such indication would be limited by the speed of light.  Given how long we’ve been broadcasting, that limits our possible contacts to a sphere of about a hundred light years – or less, depending on what specifically any possible intelligence may be watching for.  That’s a teeny, tiny little bubble of our stellar neighborhood.  And there is no reason to think they’d even recognize us as intelligent – or even as life.

The Milky Way may well be teeming with intelligent life.  They’re just beyond our ken.

Climate Hysteria

Today President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, producing predictable howls of outrage from all quarters but most of all from the political Left and the leaders of other nations who will now be denied billions of dollars in income transfers from Uncle Sam.

Some respected scientists weighed in:

This was a bad deal, True Believers.  I’m not a climate change denier; the Earth’s climate has been changing for 4.55 billion years now, and through most of that time it’s been warmer than it is now.  I also don’t doubt that human activity has some effect, although it isn’t worth crippling the economy over.

This was just a bad deal.  The main feature was transferring billions of U.S. dollars to developing nations who were exempt from any requirement to reduce carbon emissions for decades.

The United States has already led the way in reducing carbon emissions.  As a nation, our carbon footprint is lower than it was in 1992.  We don’t need to give away billions of dollars from our already-broke Imperial government to keep moving ahead on this.

Also:  If this was such a great deal, as former President Obama would have us believe, why did he not present it to the Senate and have it ratified as a binding treaty?

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

It seems we’re always twenty years away from fusion power, if you read the popular news sites.  How far away are we really?  Excerpt:

I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.

Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.

What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.

Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?

 Well, there is one significant problem; the Sun has one advantage the the folks trying to build an economically viable fusion reactor lack:  Mass.  About 330,000 times the mass of the entire Earth, in fact.

Sunshine has all sorts of benefits for us here on Earth.

The Sun sustains fusion reactions because of this mass.  It has been fusing hydrogen into helium for almost 5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 billion years.  The Sun’s mass and the resulting (enormous) gravity well does the rest.

Fusion reactors face a more complicated problem.  In the lack of a solar-sized gravity well, fusion reactors rely on a magnetic field or focused high-energy lasers to compress hydrogen isotopes into a fusable mass.

But from what I’ve been reading on the topic, it’s not impossible.  Once the basic physics are established, the rest is a matter of engineering.  I’m pretty sure we’ll break the last few barriers eventually; then the Earth will realize abundant, cheap energy.  It’s mostly a matter of effort.

The energy that powers the Sun could power the Earth.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

This is a subject that I find fascinating, especially since I’m a part-time science fiction writer in addition to being a full-time consultant and part-time blogger:  5 Reasons We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Aliens.  Excerpt:

As we perhaps draw thrillingly/terrifyingly closer to discovering life elsewhere in the universe, the chorus of people warning us to be careful what we wish for is growing louder. Most famously, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has argued for hitting the brakes, reiterating as recently as 2016 his concern about seeking alien contact in his comments about possibly life on Gliese 832c: “One day, we might receive a signal from a planet like this. But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.” For example, European germs were deadly for the natives and some fear that could happen to us.

Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, however, disagrees with all of this. From his perspective, things are considerably less scary than many think. In an article recently published on Literary Hub, he offers a host of comfortingly solid arguments for why we should stop worrying.

The one argument you don’t see in the article is an obvious one:  Intelligent life that arose on another planet is likely to be so wildly, unimaginably different than us as to make any kind of social interaction impossible.

That doesn’t make for good sci-fi, of course; my own first major work of science fiction centered around a first-contact scenario and a resulting interstellar conflict between humanity and an alien race.  Now, in this scenario the two species were similar enough to make social interaction possible; bilateral, senses in the head, communication primarily through spoken language, same senses, similar home planets.

But as a sci-fi buff and a cosmology hobbyist – and a trained biologist – I knew I was using a massive amount of literary license.

If there are any intelligent, star-faring races in our immediate stellar neighborhood, it’s more likely that they are ignoring us either because we’re just too primitive to be interesting, or they are so biologically and socially… well, alien, that they might not even recognize us as life.

I’m not sure which scenario I find more interesting.