Category Archives: Science

We are ALL Dr. Babooner

Ask Dr. Babooner – Comet vs. Lohan

We are ALL Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

I try to keep up with current events but I am usually disappointed at the top stories on Google and the most recent trending items on Twitter.


Invariably these most popular stories have to do with movie stars, athletes, psycho killers and the most alarmingly dangerous  things in the world.

I admit some of this exasperation is a matter of selfish pride.

Because while the world is looking closely at what’s up with Lindsey Lohan, I’m involved in a years-long effort to land a probe on the face of a comet.  I played a small role in planning the project, and so did many, many others.  And yet I’m just not seeing very much news  coverage of what I think is the most important story out there.

Am I wrong to feel slighted?

Think for a minute about how you would go about this task if it were your assignment.

    1. Design a machine that can learn something meaningful about a completely foreign object.
    2. Launch that object into space.
    3. Catch up to a comet.
    4. Figure out where to land on a duck-shaped object going 83,000 miles per hour.
    5. Land, understanding that the surface you’re plopping down on is something you can only guess about ten years before you actually have to do it, and your guess has to be good enough to make it all possible.
    6. I think that’s pretty special, and it leads me to the conclusion that people are incredibly silly because they just don’t care about truly important stuff as much as they should.

      And yet I want their approval SO MUCH!

      Dr. Babooner, what is wrong with me?

      Sincerely perplexed,
      Rosetta Stan

      I told Rosetta Stan that he is suffering from a normal human tendency to feel slighted by a world that inexplicably overlooks one’s exceptional achievements. I commiserated with him, offering the opinion that his effort directed at learning about comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is indeed a major event in the history of human achievement and its outcomes will be remembered forever.

      Unfortunately, Lindsey Lohan and her many fans feel exactly the same way about her West End Debut.

      But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

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Red Moon Rationale

The following message was found scrawled in fiery hot red sauce on the underside of a scraped-clean leftovers container outside a barbecue joint in Memphis, Tennessee. The partly-melted Styrofoam was sent to Minneapolis for analysis in the FBI’s Mississippi Watershed Crime Lab, but when it got switched up with a lunch container brought to work by an agent from Eagan and was subsequently dropped (erroneously) into a recycling bin, it got separated out with other materials that were contaminated by food waste and came to the attention of the agency’s Midwest Director of Suspicious Debris, who immediately forwarded it to the Department of Homeland Security, who gave it to the CIA, who handed it over to the Secret Service, where they set it out on the North Portico of the White House because it smelled too funky to bring inside. A gust of wind caught it and the Styrofoam wound up landing at my doorstep. I probably shouldn’t have read it, but I did. And now I share it with you.

Ahoy, Landlubbers,

I has it on good authority that there’s gonna be a Red Moon on th’ mornin’ of October 8, 2014.

Lots of guesswork is goin’ on as t’ th’ possible meaning, an’ none of it ’tis good since red is th’ color of emergency an’ danger an’ blood.

Several of me boys has become quite excited about this, thinkin’ that perhaps th’ advent of a prominent Red Moon might mean some kinda change in their otherwise miserable an’ monotonous lives. Fer them what sees it, th’ shade of th’ lunar orb is supposed t’ be a tad dramatic though any actual lasting effect is highly unlikely.

Here’s a lovely chart about th’ event, made by a sober individual wi’ a scientific mind.

Graphic via Eclipsewise / Fred Espenak
Graphic via Eclipsewise / Fred Espenak

Me boys is a bit too fanciful t’ put much stock in a scientific document like th’ one above. They’s much more influenced by folktales and sayins, ‘specially them what is easy t’ remember.

An’ rumor has it that there is plenty of popular sayins regardin’ sky color an what sailors is likely t’ expect as a result. So of course I Googled ‘em an found some on th’ nautical website

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,
Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

Evening red and morning gray, help the traveler on his way
Evening gray and morning red bring down a rain upon his head
Orange or yellow, can hurt a fellow.

I ain’t never heard none of these sayins, so I surveyed th’ crew an’ sure enough, several of me boys swears by ‘em, especially that one about sailors an’ delight. An then they tells me there’s some extra sayins what is especially about a Red Moon as it relates t’ its position regardin’ the vessel.

Red Moon rising before, pirates should all be sent ashore.
Red Moon falling behind, pirates should not be confined.
Red Moon beside, extra helpings of grog should be tried.

I allowed as how I’d never heard none of this, but rather I had a different set of sayins in mind.

When the Moon rises Red, I’ll swat yer head.
When the Moon rises Scarlet, no fun fer the bar lot.
When the Moon rises Ruby, just do yer duty.
When the Moon rises Crimson, yer at my whim, son.

Th’ boys was not impressed wi’ them sayins, an’ Gimpy claimed I made ‘em up. But what if I did? All sayins has t’ be made up by someone at some point – so why not me, an’ why not now?

Make up a new saying about the meaning of a Red Moon

cerebral_lobes (1)

Missing Organ Report

Doctors in China have discovered that a 24 year old woman who, as a child, had been slow to develop in key areas like walking and speech, has lived her entire life missing a key part of her brain.

X-rays show the woman has nothing but spinal fluid where her cerebellum should be. This is a problem since the cerebellum makes up 10% of the brain’s overall volume and contains more than 50% of its neurons.

The amazing thing about this woman is that the rest of her brain somehow managed to adapt, taking on responsibility for crucial functions normally controlled by the missing cerebellum. She learned to walk and speak and even became a mother in spite of the formidable challenges she faced with balance, movement and cognition.

And until recently, no one knew why she was having problems, or what an amazing story her life tells us about human resilience and adaptability.

Imagine how she must have felt to receive this stunning news!

I can only guess that it was a relief to finally have a biological explanation for all the difficulty she has faced.

Doctors have just informed you that part of your brain is missing. Which responsibilities are usually covered by the absent area?

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 4.43.22 PM

Our Home in Paradise

Image: (Nature video)

One of the pipe dreams I occasionally entertain is that I have found a way to live on a Hawaiian island. And since this is a complete fantasy I make certain my island home is situated at the end of a long dirt road and that it sits on a rocky outcropping, surrounded by a merrily sloshing surf and whales that salute me with blowhole water jets as they swim past.

It’s a lovely, impossible scene.

But now with the publication of new research we discover that our actual planetary home in the Milky Way is on the outer edge of a vast collection of galaxies that connect through gravity as a supercluster now called Laniakea, which means “Immeasurable Heaven.”

Finally, a Hawaiian name I can add to my address.

It is coastal property, sort of. But rather than overlooking the water we are one with the current, flowing with neighboring galaxies in a long, thin line towards “a gravitational dense basin of galaxies known as the Great Attractor.”

I’m somehow comforted by the knowledge that everything here is being pulled towards The Great Attractor. It explains so much about our behavior. And I’m glad it’s a GREAT attractor that’s dragging us along and not some dumb little diversion that leads absolutely nowhere.

So three months from now, when icy pellets are flying past your window and the temperature is -20, remember that none of this can change the fact that you live on the edge of Laniakea.

Where is the most beautiful place you’ve lived?


Trap Door

My imagination was captured the other day by this article about recent discoveries at an intriguing place in Wyoming called Natural Trap Cave.

The cave was first explored by paleontologists in the 1970’s, and then sealed up for thirty years.

The 2014 expedition has been making news for the variety of animal remains found in a well-preserved state at the bottom of this naturally formed pit. It’s 85 feet deep with a hidden opening perfectly positioned to receive unwitting prey in full flight from a pursuing animal, or scavengers too hungry to resist getting tragically close to the edge.

Since no one has been in the cave for several decades and the only way to get down to the bottom is to rappel (or fall) in, I immediately took Natural Trap Cave off my vacation spot list even though it would be a true wonder to behold.

But because art can transport us to places we will never go, I did commission Trail Baboon’s Sing-Song Poet Laureate Schuyler Tyler Wyler to craft a rhyming masterpiece from the point of view of some prehistoric horse, pack rat or other careless mammal who tumbled into the abyss.

This is what he gave me:

Sprinting through the underbrush I hurtled at a run.
And by the time I saw the hole my plummet had begun.

A sudden transformation. Total darkness fell at noon.
My legs continued churning like a roadrunner cartoon.

I couldn’t gauge the distance. Eighty feet? Perhaps a mile?
No matter. At the end – I’m just a fossil on the pile.

I’ve been here undisturbed for 20,000 years (about).
To every new arrival, far too late, I say “Watch out!”

While I admire the brevity of this work (you can’t write an epic about falling 85 feet), I did challenge STW on his use of the roadrunner cartoon imagery. A short-faced bear (extinct 11,000 years ago) is just one of the animals found at the bottom of this pit who would have no familiarity with the Merrie Melodies oeuvre. The others include every single creature whose remains are down there.

Thus, I argued, this work violates the rule that says an artist must honor the boundaries of the fantasy world he creates. Obviously, the poem-writing skeleton of an extinct animal would never have had the chance to watch Saturday morning TV. Thus, the roadrunner reference makes no sense and should be removed.

STW responded in verse, as usual.

While I honor all opinions about every work of mine,
You’ve mistakenly put “artist” and “boundaries” in the same line.

You cannot know what I had in mind, exactly, when I wrote,
I control the contours of my world and you don’t get a vote.

When the animals looked upwards from their unexpected leap,
they had visions, as you would, if you were dying in a heap.

And what last hallucination would you see at your life’s close?
Some would opt for God or Yaweh. But for me, it’s Warner Bros.

If the TV was on in your hospital room at the very end, what would you want to watch?  


Barge Traffic

Last fall we were enthralled by the news that Google had floated two mysterious barges on the east and west coasts of the United States, for what purpose the fevered minds of conspiracy theorists everywhere could only guess.

And there were many guesses. The least exciting ones had to do with the barges being mobile showrooms for Google’s “Glass” product – basically a head-mounted computer that projects a screen image on the lens of a pair of glasses. It is a device so extremely powerful, it can make anyone, even some of the world’s most gorgeous models, look like a complete dork.

But Google being Google, it has incredible resources at its disposal and no shortage of imagination, therefore there is no limit to what secret purpose the barges might be hiding.

One of my favorite guesses came from tim during a discussion of this issue on Trail Baboon’s companion blog, The Baboondocks.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 1.51.30 PM

To this I say “Yes”. Clearly tim had already been in the transporter and his head had been turned (possibly all the way around) by the mind-scrambling potential of this secret, barge-borne technology.

And it makes sense that the labs would be floating in San Francisco Bay and off the coast of Maine – this was Google’s way to create safe, mobile and discreet places to work on a device that teleports items (and someday, people) from coast to coast, or planet to planet.

They are safe because barges are islands that can be detached from shore to discourage intruders and curious, snoopy competitors. Mobile so the technology can be moved to a better location if reception is weak. And discreet so the horrible disfiguring, non-survivable teleporter accidents that are bound to occur can be quietly dumped into the sea.

It all makes a weird kind of Google-ish sense.

But now we will have to re-imagine what Google is up to, because the company has started to sell off its mysterious barges.

Or at least the barge in Maine has been sold. But to whom? And how did the buyer know it was for sale since no one understands what the barges are for to begin with? Is there a mystery structure realty firm that cuts secret deals for enigmatic properties?

And why sell now? Is the experiment complete? And if so, was it a complete success, or an utter failure? So many questions!

What does this mean?


Tyrannasaurus Hex

A new scientific study suggests there was a parting of ways quite long ago dividing dinosaurs that were able to change quickly from those that were set in their ways.

The difference is this – the prehistoric behemoths who started shrinking rapidly eventually morphed into birds.

When a meteor struck Earth and changed the climate, the “bigs” were thrown off balance and began starving while those creatures who were smaller and lighter had a better chance at survival. Those that didn’t adapt or did so too slowly, were fated to perish.

I’ve struggled to imagine the dinosaurs-to-birds transition. In my mind’s eye I can put feathers on T. Rex, but I can’t picture him being chased away from the feeder by a squirrel.

So I asked Trail Baboon Poet Laureate Schuyler Tyler Wyler to pen a few lines to put this research in context. He deflected the compliment (as usual) and said the very gradual process of natural word selection that would lead to developing original verse on such a scientific topic could take years to complete.

But he could do it in ten minutes if he was allowed to steal a poem from someone else.

That wasn’t what I had in mind, but since the topic here is speedy adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances and time is short, I relented.

Forgive us, Edgar Allen Poe.

Back in the Cretaceous era, dinosaurs still roamed the Terra,
Many of them kept on doing what they’d always done before.
On they plodded, often napping. On occasion they heard flapping.
Lightly feathered flutters slapping, clapping many times and more.
Sounding nothing like the locomotion of a dinosaur.
They knew not what was in store.

One contingent started shrinking naturally and without thinking;
All the rest kept eating, eating, eating, eating, eating more;
Gorging on the food abundant, massive creatures turned redundant.
Every day another plate awash with calories galore.
Plumping up at every pore.

When the skies began to darken, many of the beasts did harken
Seeing that their kind was doomed some moped about, à la Eeyore.
Others, bent to problem solving, rather late, began evolving.
Well behind the group already changing – changing at their core.
Sprouting wings and hollow bones is rather an exhausting chore.
Transformation made them sore.

Dinosaurs becoming birds left some observers lost for words.
While others questioned feathers as an element of what they wore.
Why, they asked, would scaly creatures not retain their scaly features?
Turning into fish that swim instead of avians that soar?
Quoth the Raven: Albacore!

What was your most dramatic transition?