Category Archives: Science

Lonely Mountain

It’s both intriguing and heartbreaking to read this headline: Mountain-Size Asteroid To Fly by Earth on Monday.

It’s intriguing because this will offer a valuable chance for Earth-bound scientists to examine a large asteroid without having to leave the ground. The asteroid, known as 2004 BL86, will glide by at a distance of 745 thousand miles – roughly three times the distance from here to the moon.

In space terms, that’s close.

Not close enough to be dangerous but sufficiently close for radar observatories in Puerto Rico and California to collect images and data that will help us understand more about 2004 BL86’s surface, composition and orbit.

The resolution possible at this distance with radar telescopes is said to be good enough so that the pictures will reveal details as small as “the length of a typical car.”

If nothing else, we’ll soon know if 2004 BL86 has enough parking.

But it’s heartbreaking because the author of the source article called the asteroid a “mountain“, which fixed an image in my mind that I can’t shake.

While we’re watching it, what if it’s watching us?

I see a solitary wanderer, roaming the universe, looking for a home and scouting the nearby terrain for something that appears familiar and, if not friendly, at least fun.  A space mountain would spot many likely companions on Earth’s surface, including (of course), Space Mountain.

They say we’re safe from a collision with 2004 BL86, but that doesn’t account for the power of loneliness and longing.

Twinkle, Twinkle, lonely peak.
Is our planet what you seek?
As you fly by, so detached,
can you spot an earthly match?
Twinkle, Twinkle, if you please.
Just don’t join the Pyrenees.

Have you ever crashed a party?  

Birds of a Feather

"Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0"

The latest word from the journal Science about Bar-headed Geese is that they can fly really high.

Like almost-the-summit-of-Everest high.

Actually, legend has it Bar-headed Geese have been seen flying over it at 29 thousand feet, but researchers have only tracked them to 24 thousand using GPS. But that’s still mighty impressive, given the physical cost of getting to that altitude for a bird that constantly flaps its wings.

They do it by staying close to the ground. Sounds easy, but in the Himalayas, the ground is quite vertical. That means these amazing birds gain and lose vast amounts of altitude only to re-gain it over the course of a long journey – something like going on a roller coaster ride if you had to run the length of the tracks rather than ride.

It makes one think Old Mother Goose may not have always been the doddering, bespectacled granny figure in a rocking chair. Perhaps she looked down on Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay while making up rhymes somewhat like  (but not quite) “To Market, To Market.”

To mountain, to mountain, to go very high.
Down again, down again, out of the sky.
To mountain, to mountain, to flap in thin air.
Down again, down again, nary a care.
To mountain, to mountain, on wings and not legs.
Down again, down again, hawks can suck eggs.

The stamina of these amazing birds was described this way in the Science article:

“In the lab, they nudged geese to run on treadmills in reduced oxygen to simulate high altitudes, which revealed that the birds could keep running at top speed for 15 minutes. Humans would not be able to sustain that pace in such conditions.”

Goosey, goosey flyers,
Bird who never tires.
Upskies and downskies
What strength your life requires!

As speedy as the jaguars,
As fearsome as the bears.
An up-and-downy athlete
who doesn’t take the stairs.

Picture it – a goose on a treadmill. Fifteen minutes, full speed, nonstop. Who says science isn’t fun?

What was your most amazing physical feat?

Rotation Indications

Now that we know the age of stars can be told by measuring their speed of rotation, the jig is up for those  celestial impostors who claim to younger than their velocity indicates.

Fess up, Polaris. You’re getting a little long in the tooth!

For some odd reason, it put me in mind of this classic Disney song.

When you time a spinning star
You can know how old it are
Every revolution tells
a tale that’s true.

When it’s whirring like a top
Chances are it’s just a pup.
When the spinning lessens then
it’s more like you.

Stars get old.
Their slowing, up above,
is a precursor of
someday exploding.

Don’t know much, but this I do …
Stars revolve ’til they are through.
When you time a spinning star
you’re spinning too.

How good are you at guessing the age of people and/or things?

Limerick Formation in Space

I had no idea there was an object in the asteroid belt big enough to be considered a “proto-planet.”   Ceres is about to get its close-up as a NASA probe closes in for a rendezvous in three months.

Ceres (pronounced SEER-eez) has enough gravity to hold itself in a spherical shape, and scientists think there may be some water there, but apparently that is still not enough to get past the “proto” stage, planet-wise. I confess I am not aware of the technical requirements for a space rock to advance beyond big-asteroid status, but there is some doubt that Ceres will ever qualify.

Why?  For me, a place is not a place unless it can generate a decent limerick.

Based on my remote amateur observations, Ceres will fall short, as witnessed by these promising starts that were never able to form fully functioning rhymes:

There was a young fellow from Ceres
Who delighted in posing odd queries.
Such as, “Why do birds fly?”
And “What constitutes pie?” …

There once was a woman from Ceres
an admirer of Timmy Leary’s.
She said “Let’s all drop out”
For she was no Girl Scout …

An ill-defined creature from Ceres
Had appendages he called his “dearies”.
They were all rather cute,
but fell out of his suit …

Sorry, Ceres. Planetude seems very far away indeed.

To prove that you originate from a genuine place, write a limerick about where you’re from.

Aww, Man, Don’t Say That!

Today’s guest post comes from Steve Grooms.

When I was a grad student I developed a hernia low on my tummy. A hernia is like when a body part meant to be an “innie” decides to poke its head outside and live as an “outie,” creating a tender bulge. Hernias need to be repaired, so for the first time in my life I would need surgery.

When I asked for help at the University of Minnesota Hospital, nurses ushered me into the office of the most famous man at the University, heart transplant surgeon John Najarian. Dr. Najarian promised to fix my hernia. That turned out to be the first in a series of lies told me by my doctors. The University Hospital was a “teaching hospital,” I later learned, meaning Dr. Najarian was probably a dozen feet from me during the actual operation, supervising the cutting and stitching done by a team of wannabe surgeons.

My response to the anxiety of surgery was typical for me. I decided to become the perfect patient. I would respect every directive from my doctors, winning the affection of my doctors with my cheerful compliance.

Exactly the opposite response was chosen by my hospital roommate, a man I’ll call Frank Higby. Frank was a stocky, pug-nosed character from northern Minnesota who had a potentially fatal stomach ailment. Frank talked nonstop, stabbing the air with the cigars he chain-smoked. Cigars were perfectly legal in hospitals of the time.

Frank despised doctors. When told he had to fast before taking an enema, Frank sneaked out of the room in the night, roaming dark hallways until he found the kitchen. He returned with several slices of banana pie and a bag sandwiches. When I asked Frank why he had so much contempt for doctors, he replied that he had been a caddy in Rochester, Minnesota, when he was a kid. “I got to know those sonsabitches when they didn’t know someone was watching them. What a scummy bunch of phonies!”

Nurses told Frank and me that we each had to take three exams: a lung x-ray, a heart exam and a proctoscopic exam. Hospitals in those days were compensated based on how many procedures they performed, so they routinely called for as many tests as they could. When the nurses left the room, Frank rolled his eyes in terror. He said he’d suffered a proctoscopy once before. He called it “the worst experience of my life” and vowed he would rather die than have another. This did nothing to ease my own concerns about the next day.

On the day of our exams, nurses led barefoot Frank away in a skimpy blue hospital gown
that didn’t cover his butt. Although he didn’t look quick, Frank shocked them by breaking free and scooting out of sight in that large building. I learned this from a breathless nurse who came to our room looking for him. After she left, Frank dashed in looking like a cartoon mouse running from a cat. Wheezing heavily, Frank grabbed a phone and called the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He begged them to protect his anus by “sending your eight biggest goons down here.”

Minute by minute, it was growing harder for me to act the perfect patient. About then I had a conference with the man who said he’d be my anesthesiologist. My life would literally be in this man’s hands, so I hoped he would like me.

My anesthesiologist turned out to be a cross-eyed Korean with a thick accent. I tried to bond with him by making good eye contact, but that was difficult because his eyes were cattywampus like the headlights of a car after a front end collision. One eye pointed left and one pointed right. I couldn’t tell which eye I should make contact with.

My anesthesiologist wanted to know what kind of drug trip I wanted to take during the operation. That was unsettling. I thought he was the one who should be telling me how I’d travel through lala land. Instead, he described three different drug trips, giving me more detail about each than I knew how to handle.

Desperate now, I said, “Gee, it is amazing that you know so much about all of these forms of anesthesia! I suppose you have experienced them yourself?”

The cross-eyed Korean drew himself up with offended dignity. “I should say not!” he barked. “I am a Man of Science. I would never expose myself to unnecessary risk!”

When has someone said the wrong thing to you?


For a long time we have had plenty of strong health-related arguments to support the idea that smoking is hazardous, but some people persist in lighting up regardless.

Now comes a new bit of information for men that might convince even hardcore smokers that there is a price to pay in lighting up – the loss (in men) of the Y chromosome.

So what, you ask? Women don’t have a Y chromosome and they get along just fine with their two X’s.

Indeed they do, but that’s the point, since women tend to live longer than men. Guys, these researchers think smoking away your “Y” may leave you exposed to cancer.

Which, in a weird way, is good news if you remember the following Trail Baboon post from almost exactly a year ago. It’s one of the most popular articles on this site, and it still resonates, especially now that men’s disparaged “Y” seems to finally have some value.

The post comes from marketing whiz Spin Williams, a wheeler-dealer who is always in residence at The Meeting That Never Ends.

I’m not at liberty to say who made the offer, but  we heard from a very well-known genes manufacturer who was shopping around the famous Y chromosome for a possible takeover.


Naturally, we considered it. The Y is a well known brand name in the chromosome industry, making up a significant portion of all the chromosomes out there. It comes in second only to the X chromosome, which is the runaway market leader. In fact, the X is so reliable and effective, it has a 100% market penetration. Some people love the X chromosome so much, they have two! But there is a foothold – around half the population has at least one X and a Y. It was a bit disappointing to us to learn that very few people have two Y chromosomes, and we noted that as a possible marketing goal, should we decide to do the deal.

Doing our due diligence, we discovered that the Y was for sale because its maker has come to the realization that the chromosome is almost worthless, having been shown through scientific studies to contribute very little to any sense of individual well-being or overall usefulness. Most organizations considering a takeover would have walked away at this point, but my experience has shown me that marketing is more powerful than science. As proof, I offer the fact the we still have a tobacco industry! The value of any particular thing is in the eye of the beholder, and there is solid survey information to indicate that most Y chromosome users love and defend it simply because they already have one, and not because of any inherent benefits it may bring to the table.

And there’s a sizable portion of the chromosome-consuming public that doesn’t understand the product and doesn’t know which brand it prefers.

So in spite of the Y chromosome being inferior, we felt certain we could develop a marketing plan that would boost brand loyalty and make the Y seem more fresh and hip than it does today. Whether we would get to a point where X-only consumers might actually feel some envy for those with a Y was hotly debated at the meeting, with one side expressing certainty that such envy was impractical and impossible, and the other group adamant that Y envy pretty much drives all decision making by X’s. It turns out one of the side effects of having a Y is an outsized enthusiasm for the supposed benefits of Y-ness that X’ers don’t generally seem to share.

Similarly, it was the Y-friendly crowd that was all Gung-ho for immediately pulling the trigger on this deal and sorting out the consequences later. The double-X’s in the room were feeling less impulsive, constantly asking ‘How do we monetize this?’, ‘Where’s the benefit?’ and other fun-stifling questions like that.

Because there was no getting around this fundamental conflict, we walked away from the deal. First, though, we made a surprise bid for the X chromosome, thinking a seller in the mood to divest one of His low-performing properties might take the bait on an unexpected left-field offer for the most popular genetic product in the world.

That was a non-starter, but we all had a good laugh over it.

What is your most prized genetic trait?

Jump, Jive & Wail

I always knew electric eels were creepy.

Not only are these sea eels creepier than snakes, but they seem even more sinister now that we know they can use their electricity to remotely control the muscles of their prey.

The BBC article above describes how researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville discovered that eel current can cause hidden prey to involuntarily ‘jump’, thus revealing their position. You can guess what happens next.

But why were scientists from land-locked Music City so interested in the effect eels can have on the oh-so-correctly-named “unfortunate fish”?

Perhaps it’s really research into the strange power bands have over dancers, especially with the energy of an electric guitar at the front and brass as a conductor.

How are you at operating the remote control?