Category Archives: Science

Don’t Let The Stars Get in Your Eyes

It should be obvious by now that I’m fascinated by outer space, a place I’ve seen on TV but will probably never visit. If I did get a chance to leave the atmosphere, I would want a window seat and would spend most of my time looking back at the place I’d just come from.

From what I’ve seen on the printed page and the flat screen, all views of Earth from orbit are enthralling. Even the ones that don’t allow me to say “Hey, there’s my house!”

I don’t know how long it would take for the scenery to become ordinary or (heavens forbid!), boring. Maybe that’s not possible, but there’s a chance we’re going to find out now that a couple of guys have been sent to the International Space Station to stay for a year.

Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will help answer a boatload of questions during their odyssey.

The one that caught my eye (literally) is this one – quoted from the BBC article linked above:

“However, there are other problems that doctors still need to study and understand. They have poor data on the effects on immune function, for example, and there is considerable concern about the damage spaceflight causes to the eyes. This is a newly recognised phenomenon, and appears to be related to the way fluid is redistributed in a weightless body.

Pressure is seen to build in the skull and on the optic nerve, and a large number of astronauts return to Earth complaining that their vision is not as good as when they went up.”

So in other words, space is beautiful, but the longer you stay, the less you’re going to see.  If diminished vision is part of the deal you have to cut to experience the stunning visuals of long-term space flight, is it worth the price?

When have you agonized over a trade-off?

We Are Stardust

The latest news from deep space is that scientists believe the explosion of a supernova at the center of our galaxy generated enough cosmic dust to make everything on Earth 7,000 times over, including us.

But then that should come as no surprise, since the noted scientific researcher Joni Mitchell, along with her lab assistants Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young detailed our connection to stardust back in 1970.

Long before that (but after that supernova explosion), Hoagy Carmichael was using chords to depict stardust, and Mitchell Parish provided some elegantly twisty lyrics to turn the focus of the song outward and back on itself at the same time.

Strangely, because it is a work of art and doesn’t have any particular physical qualities outside of the paper its notes and words are written on, the Carmichael/Parish song Stardust is actually one feature of our cultural landscape that’s NOT made of stardust. But that couldn’t protect the song from some savage treatment – me trying to wrangle it into something that reflects this latest bit of astronomical information:

Sometimes I wonder how the stuff
that makes us up, came to be around.
Floating free, scientists agree,
some dust congealed to me and you.

When we were brand new,
drifting in a constellation!
Ah, but that was long ago,
and our coagulation means that to stardust we belong.

Exploding ancient stars
gave off some light, and a lot of stuff.
The stuff survived. Later we arrived.
I can’t explain it, nor can you.

I believe they know
So let’s all just say it’s so.
We’re stardust, you and me,
Debris from chaos, long ago.

What are you made of?

A Little Bend in the Light

I was trying to get my mind around the news that astronomers have observed multiple images of a supernova exploding by simply looking in the right place and understanding the strange effects of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, when the phone rang.

It was Trail Baboon poet laureate Schuyler Tyler Wyler calling to beg for a commission.

Things have been a bit tough in the poetry game of late, and what with large companies like General Mills and Target retrenching, the slogan and tagline market has dried up almost completely.

“Give me something complex to boil down into a few lines of verse,” he said. “I have to keep my toolkit sharp in case the discount clothing and packaged food industries bounce back and there’s a sudden need for fresh jingles.”

Of course I gave him the only thing I had – that a star exploding on the other side of the universe nine billion years ago has appeared in our sky at least four times, and it all makes perfect sense. I told him I would buy him a cup of coffee next Wednesday if he could make it rhyme.

Here’s his reply:

To see a Supernova pop
is not so hard to do.
Just float some denser galaxies
between the star and you.

Then get it properly aligned
Nine billion years ago,
to let dark matter intervene
so you can watch it blow.

The light from the explosion
has to go around each side.
So when you view the fireworks
you see it multiplied!

The images arrive distinct
and separate as they please.
A single Supernova that can say
cheese cheese cheese cheese.

What spectacle would you watch over and over and over and over?

Overlapping Shadows

Time now for an occasional (OK, this is the second one, ever) feature of Trail Baboon – Connect Three.

Three current news stories share a common feature – in this case the linkage is anything but obscure – it’s a simple shadow.

The first one has to do with a particular portrait of Bill Clinton in the National Portrait Gallery. Artist Nelson Shanks says the canvas he painted of President Bill Clinton in 2006 includes the shadow of a blue dress, a reference to the famous Monica Lewinski garment which, having been smeared by Clinton himself, left a permanent stain on his presidency.

This, I suppose, is where being an artist trumps having political or financial muscle in that you get to make a lasting commentary. It’s not clear why Shanks would reveal this particular artistic choice right now. Perhaps it’s a bid to set his Clinton image apart from at least 54 others in the Portrait Gallery.

Ah, the Shanks Portrait. That’s the one with The Dress!

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Meanwhile, far out in space at the constantly moving intersection of comet science and human ingenuity, the Rosetta spacecraft has taken a picture of its own diffuse shadow on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This news is getting enough play to suggest that we retain our ability to be amazed by simple things. Not only could we locate, chase down and go into orbit around a comet – we’re able to throw a little shade on one too. Fascinating. We are enthralled at any bit of evidence that hints at or own existence. Does this light make my butt look big?

And finally, Disney Characters shadowed shoppers in a mall in Massapequa, New York. I’ve been to Disney World and believe me, it’s just like this – you walk along minding your own business while a duck follows your every move just a step behind.

Close enough to reach into your pocket.

How are you as a mimic?

The Galaxy Hillbillies

The discovery of a gigantic black hole from the dawn of time has me feeling a bit like that small town boy who thought his world was pretty huge, until he found out about New York City.

We’re such small potatoes, universe-wise, the only way I can get my head around it is through the lens of the literature of my youth – TV show theme songs.

So these scientists was lookin’ at a big black hole,
though goin’ to visit wasn’t anybody’s goal.
The one that they found – was as wide as it was tall …
It made everyone feel impossibly small.

A massive hole. In vast space. Texas trench.

It was further away than a lot they’d seen before
It was large as the sun plus a dozen billion more.
They said “this is bigger than an older hole should be,”
An’ they added it all up to another mystery.

Dawn of time. Ancient gas. Quasars.

What’s the biggest city you visited as a youth, and what effect did it have on you?  

Sleep Scold Slackers

 Photo : Thomas Bresson

The National Sleep Foundation’s Expert Panel on Sleep Duration (let’s just call them the Supreme Court of Sleep) has ruled on the amount of rest you’re supposed to get and their ruling is an eye opener.

No, literally. You can have your eyes open more often now.

What?

The new chart identifies specific age groups and suggests a broader range of  sleep hours are “appropriate” based on your seniority.

I have to admit this is a disappointment.  I expect the National Sleep Foundation to caution, warn and scold me about my sleep habits.  In fact, I don’t even look at a report from any sleep expert unless I want to feel like a smoker – someone trapped in an unhealthy pattern of self-destructive behavior.

But reluctant  snoozers will notice with some relief how the recommended amount of down time has shifted:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened two hours to 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened by one hour to 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range widened by one hour to 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13)
  • School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category)

Aside from those always-so-contrary “newborns”,  where the  “acceptable” sleep ranges have widened, they’ve been increased on the low end rather than the high. In fact, only one upper limit was moved – the one for Teenagers, who gained an extra half hour that they can claim “… is perfectly normal. I’m a teenager.  Get off my back.  Geez, mom!”

Of course the usual cautions about not getting enough sleep remain  in the report – you can do serious damage to your health and well-being by skimping on Z’s.   But the takeaway for those who want to stay up late or (horrors!) get up early – you  just got a little more legit.

The big winner – Infants! They gained two hours on the front end – extra awake time to devote to thumb sucking and gently cooing at faces. That’s the best case scenario. In reality, they’ll spend it screaming for dad and smearing poop around the crib.

Toddlers, preschoolers and school age children all got an extra allowable hour of wakefulness. And geezers (65+) got their own category with the lowest upper boundary of all the age groups – eight hours.

Time to get up, grandma.  Quit pretending!

I’m not sure why the sleep boundaries were “widened”, but if you look at the methodology you get an idea of what went in to crafting this new report:

Fifty-eight searches using combinations of search terms related to sleep (eg, time, duration, and sufficiency), age groups (eg, newborn, adolescent), and outcomes (eg, performance, executive function, cognition) yielded 2412 articles. The review team identified 575 articles for full-text review. Of the 575 articles, 312 met our inclusion criteria. Pertinent information (eg, sample size, study design, results) from each article was extracted and included in the literature review materials. Articles were sorted based on the strength of the study and presented in descending order in a summary chart. Expert panel members received print and electronic versions of the literature.

So members of the 18 person panel only had to wade through the particulars of 312 scientific articles to make their judgments about much sleep we need.   And only a third of those panelists were sleep experts – the others came from  such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Anatomists, the American College of Chest Physicians … you can almost hear their inner deliberations …

“Do I really have to read all this?  This isn’t even my real job – how did I wind up on this friggin’ panel?”  

Busy people.  Highly schooled people.  Graduate school and PhD survivors who had other, equally important obligations, mulling over a persistent question – how much sleep do I really need?   And how do I get my work done?

All-nighter, anybody?

 

Forbidden Prehistoric Love

Header image: "Le Moustier" by Charles R. Knight -Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

New conclusions reached about a 2008 archaeological find support the notion that we humans  mixed genes with our near-relatives, the Neanderthals, many thousands of years ago.

We weren’t that different.  Contrary to popular belief the so-called “cavemen” had brains that were roughly the same size as ours, and our developmental speed was similar.

My favorite line from the Live Science article is this one:

Probably the most debated aspect of Neanderthal life in recent years is whether or not they interbred with humans. The answer remains ambiguous, with scholarly opinions ranging from belief that they definitely interbred to belief that the two groups didn’t exist on earth at the same time.

I’ve known couples just like that – hard to believe they could exist on earth at the same time.

Thoughts about a human-Neanderthal love affair lead to so many questions, not the least of which is how to pitch your woo to a near-but-not human partner.

“Interbreeding” is such an ugly term, I decided it would be a fitting challenge to try to work it into one of the the prettiest love songs I know.

You have such broad and stocky features,
the ridge across your brow seems so strong.

Our lips (I have to stoop to reach yours)
are whispering, perhaps, that our love is wrong.

The way you wield a club. Your ugly scar.
A hot Neanderthal is what you are!

Ice age! It feels so cold and lonely.
But this age can be more tender and kind.
When interbreeding’s on my mind.

Alas, it is tough to keep the romance alive between such mismatched characters when fire and tools are all they have in common.

What  artifact might fuel speculation about your extinct love affairs?