Category Archives: Science

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!
Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Thanks to our blogger pal at The Daley Gator for the Rule Five links!

This fine Monday I find myself in the environs of Knoxville, Tennessee, here to deliver four hours of training before emplaning to Boston, where I will stay until Friday, likewise delivering training.  So, posts this pre-holiday week may be a trifle terse.

Meanwhile:  Here are the most likely spots for extraterrestrial life in the Milky Way galaxy.  Excerpt:

To support life as we know it, planets must have liquid water and orbit in the right place in their solar systems, not too close and not too far from their star. Similarly, life will not emerge or survive for long near the centers of galaxies. Here, the high density of stars means that at any given time several could be exploding, frying off a planet’s ozone layer and exposing any surface life to deadly ultraviolet rays.

So in the new study, researchers led by physicist Duncan Forgan of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K., focused on the regions far from a galaxy’s center. They used computer simulations to model an entire Milky Way–like galaxy and its neighbors, the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies. They then simulated the distribution of gas, stars, and planetary systems within those whorls of stars. Finally, they allowed these galaxies to evolve over billions of years, while mapping out their evolving habitable zones. “We’re the first to look at how the history of galaxies affects their habitability,” Forgan says.

For every type of star in the simulation, Forgan and his colleagues estimated the probability that terrestrial planets would form, some of which might be Earth–like or might be as inhospitable as Mercury. They also estimated the chance that a giant planet as large as Neptune would form near the star, as it would disrupt potential earths that could have assembled there. Then they analyzed the likelihood of short-lived life-friendly worlds that happened to be in stellar systems too close to dying, exploding stars.

Space ChicksThe team’s simulations show, perhaps not surprisingly, that potentially habitable planets are more likely to remain so if they form in areas far from dense conglomerations of stars, where more supernova explosions occur. The results indicate that for the Milky Way and other spiral galaxies, the most dangerous regions are in the galactic centers, whereas the more diffuse spiral arms pose fewer hazards and are therefore more hospitable to life. Earth lies near the inner edge of this habitable zone.

Still, the universal speed limit – that is, the speed of light in a vacuum – makes it highly unlikely we will visit any of these places any time soon, unless we can find some way to sidestep time and space itself – as in the (admittedly wonderful) movie Interstellar.

In the meantime, I’d settle for finding some signs of intelligent life in Congress.

Rule Five Friday

Going meatless can make you crazy, it seems.  Going without bacon would certainly do it for me.  Excerpt:

More and more women are vegging out…of their minds. New research suggests that along with shedding pounds, slashing cancer risk, and boosting life expectancy, vegetarianism could come with lesser-known side effects: Panic attacks. OCD. Depression. WH investigates the puzzling blow of going meatless—and how to stay plant-based without going mental.

Her symptoms were sudden and severe. Drew Ramsey’s 35-year-old patient had always been fit and active, but her energy had flatlined. When she did manage to drag herself to the gym, it didn’t help. She felt anxious and was often on the verge of tears for no reason, even when she was with friends. Worst of all were her panic attacks, a rare occurrence in the past but now so common that she was afraid of losing her job because she had trouble getting out of bed, and she’d become terrified of taking the New York City subway.

2015_12_11_Rule Five Friday (2)Ramsey, a Columbia University professor and psychiatrist with 14 years of experience, wanted to put her on medication. His patient demurred. She was so conscious of what she put in her body, she’d even given up meat a year ago, having heard about all the health benefits of vegetarianism. So Ramsey prescribed something else: grass-fed steak.

It may sound like an episode of House, but Ramsey had a hunch. He’d seen a dramatic link between mood and food before (he even researched it for his forthcoming book Eat Complete), and guessed that his patient’s well-intentioned meat-free diet was the very thing causing her mental deterioration. Sure enough, six weeks after adding animal protein back onto her plate, her energy rebounded and her panic attacks dropped by 2015_12_11_Rule Five Friday (3)75 percent.

Let’s be up front about this much:  The patient described above’s meat-free diet may have been “well intentioned,” but it was ultimately meaningless; “ethical veganism” has been roundly debunked.  The massive cost in animal lives of plant agriculture alone puts the lie to the “death-free lifestyle” claims of vegan activists.

But we’ll set that aside for the moment.  Let’s use some actual reasoning; humans evolved as omnivores.  We have relatively unspecialized teeth capable of dealing with all sorts of foods.  We have an intermediate digestive system, neither the big fermenting stomachs of obligate herbivores nor the short acidiferous guts of 2015_12_11_Rule Five Friday (4)obligate carnivores, but rather something in between.

In the past there have been near-humans who specialized in a vegetarian lifestyle.  They died out.  Our ancestors were likely adaptable, quick-witted scroungers and scavengers who made a decent living in the African savannas by eating almost anything available.

In fact, the science behind our diets provides an explanation for the nitwittery of vegan nutbars; the article continues:

Yet anthropological evidence shows that, long before we could choose to subsist on cashew cheese and tofu, animal flesh provided the energy-dense calories necessary to fuel evolving cerebellums. Without meat, we’d never have matured beyond the mental capacity of herbivores 2015_12_11_Rule Five Friday (5)like gorillas.

Today, stronger brains are still powered by beef—or at least, by many of the nutrients commonly found in animal proteins. At the top of the list are B vitamins, which your noggin needs to pump out neurotransmitters such as glutamate; low levels of it have been linked to depression, anxiety, and OCD (sound familiar?). Similarly, meager levels of zinc and iron, two nutrients far more prevalent in meats than veggies, may manifest as moodiness—or worse. “I’ve had vegetarians come in thinking they’re having panic attacks when it’s really an iron deficiency,” says Deans. Without iron to help blood shuttle oxygen around, the brain gets less O2, leaving it sluggish and more prone to misfiring. Then there’s tryptophan, an essential amino acid found almost exclusively in poultry. Your body can’t make it on its own 2015_12_11_Rule Five Friday (6)and needs it to produce serotonin, a hormone that acts as the brain’s natural antidepressant.

Need to engage the old brain pan?  Eat some steak first!  Or better yet, some bacon.  Or a steak with bacon.  And fried chicken.

It’s what’s for dinner – and it makes you smart!

2015_12_11_Rule Five Friday (7)

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!
Happy Hump Day!

Ever wondered what happens when you get shot?  Wonder no more. Excerpt:

Most of what we learn about gunshot wounds, we learn from watching television. A small sliver of this programming is actually educational, like the ballistics tests performed on Mythbusters. (Some lessons: Bullets fired into liquids will stop or disintegrate rather than slice through seawater a la Saving Private Ryan, and a weapon that would blow a victim backwards would also blow the shooter back.) But these examples are outliers. Depictions of gun violence in fictional shows and movies are routine, and often wildly imaginative. Those depictions are distorting understanding of what bullets can—or can’t—do to bodies.

Honestly, most of the gun handling in television and movies ranges from awful to cringeworthy.  Even otherwise excellent shows like Firefly features some pretty awful gunhandling.  A few actors are actual shooters and can portray an experienced shooter pretty well – Tom Selleck is one such, and Firefly’s Adam Baldwin is another.  But for the most part, gunplay as portrayed in movies and TV is a good way to blow lots of holes in the air.

The article continues:

Lavery sustained his wounds at close range, the fateful round fired from a Soviet-designed PKM 7.62 mm machine gun. Lavery had quickly positioned himself between the shooter and a younger American infantryman, an instinctive decision for which he would receive the Silver Star. “I have no doubt that he saved my life,” the infantryman said later in a sworn statement. Nick seemed indestructible. Earlier, during the same deployment, a grazing round scarred his face, and shrapnel from an exploding RPG injured his shoulder. On this day, his ‘good luck’ ran out.

The femoral artery runs down the thigh, using the femur as a backstop. It supplies oxygenated blood to the leg, and in healthy adults is between 5 and 10 mm in diameter. The relatively small but powerful projectile that hit Lavery’s massive leg barely could have followed a deadlier trajectory: It struck and shattered his femur, severing his femoral artery in the process. Unaware of the arterial damage, his powerful heart continued pumping large quantities of blood toward the oxygen-starved muscles in his right leg, causing valuable blood cells to accumulate uselessly in the expanding interstitial space. Without immediate medical intervention, the wound would have killed him. He survived, but lost his leg above the knee.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a gunshot myself; in my case it was a 12-gauge shotgun to the lower leg just below the knee, from about 3 feet away, from behind, causing a a considerable amount of damage to the calf muscle but missing bone and major arteries as described above.

Sad-BearI was pretty lucky.  We were in a remote place far from any medical care; it took an ambulance 30 minutes to arrive on the scene.  If my femoral artery had been severed it’s probably my career would have ended right then and there.  And as to how it felt?  It felt like someone hit my leg with a sledgehammer, but it didn’t knock my leg out from under me or knock me off my feet – although I did hit the ground pretty quickly and pretty hard.

It really wasn’t any fun at all.  And no, I couldn’t have continued walking, moving, fighting or anything else.  I was finished at that point.

That is what getting shot was like – for me.

Animal’s Daily News

Probably not actually one of our ancestors.
Probably not actually one of our ancestors.

The picture of human origins is a complicated one, and now it turns out one early human was more complicated than we thought.  Excerpt:

A mysterious extinct branch of the human family tree that once interbred with modern humans was more genetically diverse than Neanderthals, a finding that also suggests many of these early humans called Denisovans existed in what is now southern Siberia, researchers say.

In 2008, scientists unearthed a finger bone and teeth in Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains that belonged to lost relatives now known as the Denisovans (dee-NEE-soh-vens). Analysis of DNA extracted from a finger bone from a young Denisovan girl suggested they shared a common origin with Neanderthals, but were nearly as genetically distinct from Neanderthals as Neanderthals were from living people.

A deeper understanding of extinct human lineages could shed light on modern human evolution. For instance, analysis of the Denisovan genome showed that Denisovans have contributed on the order of 5 percent of their DNA to the genomes of present-day people in Oceania, and about 0.2 percent to the genomes of Native Americans and mainland Asians. These DNA contributions not only signify interbreeding between the two groups (scientists have yet to definitively call Denisovans a separate species), but also may explain the origin of some traits of living humans.

Probably not an accurate reproduction.
Probably not an accurate reproduction.

The Denisovans and the Neandertal both contributed to the modern human genome.  Several modern human traits – red hair, blue eyes, adaptations for high altitude, maybe even pale skins – may come from one or both  of these species.

The fact that out of several human species, only ours remains on Earth, has long been a subject of debate among paleoanthropologists.  But there really isn’t just one untouched human species – we carry bits of those long-lost peoples with us.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of human origins.  It’s in interesting field, and one that seems to uncover some new information almost every month.

Animal’s Daily News

Yum BearIt seems life finds a way.  Excerpt:

Everywhere scientists have looked on Earth, they have found signs of life. They’ve looked in the deepest oceans and the driest deserts, and in every case, life—in some form or another—was flourishing. But Kelly Wrighton and Mike Wilkins aren’t satisfied that the search is over, so they’re looking for life in a place more extreme than ever before.

Which is why the married couple, both assistant professors of microbiology at Ohio State University, are at a new fracking well being drilled just outside Morgantown, West Virginia. Before Northeast Natural Energy can send down fluid to fracture the Marcellus Shales, buried more than 1.5 miles below the surface for 400 million years, Wrighton, Wilkins, and a team of scientists will be collecting rock samples hauled up from the deep.

Unlike previous samples, which were collected after the well had been fracked first and thus contaminated, these samples will be pristine. It will give the microbiologists their best shot to find signs of microbial life.

Wrighton and Wilkins have spent their burgeoning careers studying the microbes dozens, even thousands of feet beneath the surface of the Earth. Such deep subsurface microbes have to contend with high temperatures, in some areas well above the boiling point of water. They also have to manage extremely high pressures and high concentrations of salt. Perhaps the most difficult task is finding energy. Cut off from solar energy, subsurface bacteria had to rely on chemical reactions or sinks of oil and natural gas to make their living.

The implications of extremophile life are fascinating.  If life can exist beneath thousands of feet of rock, around boiling-hot ocean vents, and in water pockets sealed in salt crystals for millions of years, then life can exist almost anywhere.

Like, say, under the ice in Europa, or in the organics geysers of Titan – or maybe in the clouds of Venus, or the whirling ice fogs of Jupiter or, yes, in the underground brines of Mars.

Thoughtful-BearMind you, there is still no evidence for life in any of these places.  But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; there may be some kind of extremophile life hanging on in one or more of these places.  If there is, I hope they find it in my lifetime; I’m very anxious to see what effect that will have on people’s understanding of our own little wet blue ball in space.

Animal’s Daily News

Messin' with Sasquatch.
Messin’ with Sasquatch.

Why don’t people see the Yeti any more?  Probably because they don’t exist.  Excerpt:

The last person in Chendebji to have seen possible evidence of the yeti is a younger famer called Norbu.

The first time was 20 years ago, he says, when he was 18. He was in the mountains with his cattle when he saw a large footprint and the body marks of a yeti in the snow. The mere sight of them made his hair stand on end.

Then, five years later, Norbu says he discovered something very unusual – a lair made out of intricately woven sticks of bamboo.

“The yeti had broken the bamboo trees, folded them into a semi-circular shape, with the two edges of the bamboo in the ground. He had then slept inside the den. I could see the marks left by the yeti inside the nest,” he says.

News of the lair travelled beyond the village and two months later, two men arrived as Norbu was making wood shingles for his house. They asked to see the lair, so he agreed to stop work and show them. Because it was so far away, the three of them had to spend the night in the yeti’s nest. The trip passed off peacefully.

That was the last time anyone in Chendebji saw traces of the yeti.

They should come to the U.S., where the yeti’s cousin is regularly featured on television:

 It’s possible to forgive these villagers, who presumably lack an education in biology and population dynamics, for believing in an ancient legend.  But Americans, who have access to all the information in the world – come on, folks.

Here’s the reason I’m well past skeptical as far as the existence of these creatures:  You can’t have just one or two large animals like this wandering around.  You have to have a population, and that means not dozens but thousands of animals – even when you’re talking about large, reclusive critters.

And in the case of the American Pacific Northwest, you’re also talking about an area with a pretty decent population of humans – many of whom hike, and camp, and generally spend a lot of time in the woods.

triple-facepalmFinally, in this day and age, everyone has a camera and video recorder easily and instantly to hand, in the form of their cell phone.  And still – Jack Links commercials aside – nobody has produced a convincing photo.

What will it take to get me to believe in these animals?  A live capture or a carcass – nothing less. In all the years that the Bigfoot/Sasquatch/whatever legend has been bandied about, it’s inconceivable that one has never been shot, or hit by a car, or died somewhere of natural causes and been found by a hiker.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  In this case, there is just no such proof.

Animal’s Daily Poop News

Confused BearDo you look at your poop?  Apparently it’s a good idea.  Excerpt:

As a scientist, I freely admit that I inspect my poop every day. And after reading this paper, I’m glad I do. That’s because one of the most obvious signs of colon cancer is a bloody stool, and you can only detect it if you’re looking at your doo-doo regularly. But do most people inspect their poops? Well, these gastroenterologists decided to find out. It turns out that I’m in the minority; only 27% of participants looked at every poop and wipe, and a whopping 6% never looked at either their turds or their used toilet paper. And the scary part? There was a clear association between the frequency of scatological viewings and whether they successfully reported bloody stools. So the next time you take a poop, remember to take a peep!


OK, in my days as an actual biologist, I never really made much of a specialty of poop.  (Behavior and taxonomy were more my fields.)  But, I admit, you can probably tell a lot about an animal (people are animals, after all) by its poop.  Paleontologists are always excited to find coprolites – fossilized poop – because they give indications of environment and behavior, by providing evidence of what an animal ate during its life.

Standing-BearIt seems that inspecting your own poop can give early warning of various conditions including rectal cancer; that’s probably a good thing.

Still, if I take up this advice, I suspect it’s only going to be a quick glance, and not a close inspection.

Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!
Happy Hump Day!

There are, or have been, about 2.3 million named species of living things on the Earth.  Here’s an idea of how they are all related.  Excerpt:

A first draft of the “tree of life” for the roughly 2.3 million named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes — from platypuses to puffballs — has been released.

A collaborative effort among eleven institutions, the tree depicts the relationships among living things as they diverged from one another over time, tracing back to the beginning of life on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago.

Tens of thousands of smaller trees have been published over the years for select branches of the tree of life — some containing upwards of 100,000 species — but this is the first time those results have been combined into a single tree that encompasses all of life. The end result is a digital resource that available free online for anyone to use or edit, much like a “Wikipedia” for evolutionary trees.

 “This is the first real attempt to connect the dots and put it all together,” said principal investigator Karen Cranston of Duke University. “Think of it as Version 1.0.”

Here’s a (small) image of the tree:


It’s an interesting look at the nested hierarchy of life on Earth.  If a higher-resolution copy interests you, you can see the full picture here.

Consider the amazing profusion of life that this little wet mudball has seen in its 4.55 billion year span.  It seems logical that life would originate anywhere conditions permit – those conditions being a combination of environmental and chronological conditions.  But that’s just a guess.  Who knows?

Fortunately there’s plenty of life here on Earth to keep a biologist happy – even if that biologist is, like yr. obdt., not currently working in the field.

Animal’s Daily News

Image from linked article.
Image from linked article.

I love dinosaurs.  This dromeosaur was recently found to have had feathers and proto-wings. Excerpt:

If the original “Jurassic Park” film was made today, its velociraptors may have had feathers. A study from the the University of Edinburgh reveals that fossils of a new dinosaur dubbed Zhenyuanlong suni — a close cousin of the iconic raptor — were recently discovered in China. Unlike its movie star relative, this dinosaur had feathers and wings.

“This is the largest feathered dinosaur [discovered] with a complex set of wings, made up of layers of quill-pen-type feathers, “ study co-author and University of Edinburgh paleontologist Steve Brussatte told “It was about six and a half feet long and weighed 44 pounds, or so. Not a giant compared to T. rex or Brachiosaurus, but very big for a dinosaur with huge wings.”

The fossils were discovered in Liaoning Province in northeastern China, where thousands of other feathered dinosaurs have been unearthed. The skeleton was found complete and remarkably well–preserved, which Brussatte attributed to volcanic activity in the area.

“Volcanoes would occasionally erupt and bury these animals, turning them to stone, like a prehistoric Pompeii,” he said. “They were buried so quickly, in the right chemical environment, that soft tissues like feathers didn’t have time to decay, so they were often preserved.”

Excellent BearThe link between dinosaurs and birds – who are actually dinosaurs, a branch of the Theropods – is so fuzzy as to be impossible to draw a line and say “on this side is (non-avian) dinosaurs, on this side is birds.”  But biology is like that.  The Permian transitions between reptiles and mammals is similar; there is no solid dividing line.

But that’s how biology works.  Evolution doesn’t proceed in a straight line.  It’s a drunkard’s walk between environments and ages, with dead ends, fits and starts; the story of life on Earth has been a massive branching tree with lots of broken branches and even a few that split and then rejoin.  It’s messy.  It’s chaotic.  That’s probably why plenty of folks don’t understand it.

I find it fascinating.

Goodbye, Blue Monday

Goodbye, Blue Monday!
Goodbye, Blue Monday!

Just a few short notes on this sunny western Labor Day.

First and foremost, thanks again to The Other McCain for the Rule Five links!  Be sure to check out the extensive totty compendium at the link.

How To Make A Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactor.  Which is something we need more of.  Let us hear it for real clean energy.

Cats Don’t Need Their Owners.  No shit.  Cats in general are only marginally “domesticated” and readily go feral.  Feral cats are a plague on songbird populations, as well.

The Feds Fund Quackery.  Add this to a long, long list of bullshit funded by the Imperial government.

2016 may be a big year in batteries.  Given the explosion in personal technology, this comes as no surprise.

And now, the Tooele County dove population beckons.  Happy Labor Day,  True Believers!

Girl Hunter