Category Archives: Science

Angry_sun

Here Comes The Sun

Today’s post comes from Congressman Loomis Beechly, representing Minnesota’s 9th District – all the water surface area in the state.

Greetings, Constituents,

I’m deeply alarmed, as I’m sure you are, about news of the latest unprovoked and senseless attack to be launched in such a careless way it could have had serious repercussions for a great many people.

No, I’m not talking about any of the missiles flying back and forth between Israel and Gaza, although of course those are very bad too.

I’m talking about a brazen attempt by our own Sun to take us out .

Information just released by NASA reveals that this sneak attack was so clandestine we’re just figuring out that it happened two summers ago. Fortunately this reckless “solar storm” was poorly timed and flew past planet Earth a week too late – otherwise it would have played havoc with our power grid and destroyed our electrical devices to the tune of 2 trillion dollars.

And as you know, our electrical devices are our very soul.  Not to mention 98% of our memories!

Because I have been in Congress for a while, I know that my colleagues will not let this stand, especially in an election year. I also know that no legislation can pass without an aggressive, vindictive edge.  No doubt within days there will be calls for our weakling President to fire back at the Sun so it doesn’t get the idea that it can wantonly eject supercharged particles in our direction.

I’ve decided this situation calls for an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy. It is essential that we respond to this attack – otherwise the Sun will see us as weak and ineffective.

To paraphrase Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, “The only thing that stops a bad ray from the sun is a good guy with another, different, American sun.”

And because I believe I will lose in November if I don’t paraphrase Wayne LaPierre, I propose we embark on a crash program right now – a Kennedy-style moon-shot challenge – to build our own version of the Sun that can shoot back at the terrorist orb we orbit.

Expensive? Of course. Security is always pricey, but maybe it will cost more to do nothing. Let’s say it will!

Fortunately, America has a lot of coal that is increasingly controversial right now because burning it in our power plants fouls the air. My “American Sun” bill will lift that coal into space, where we can burn it outside the atmosphere and use it to fuel our own, better, friendlier version of this legendary “Chariot of Fire” that has so recently been converted into a terrorist threat.

No doubt there are so-called “scientists” who will say defeatist things like “you can’t burn coal in space” and will claim that the sun is an inanimate object that can’t be intimidated.

But I say “find a way to make it work.” Because even if the sun does not back down, there will be economic benefits. With so many nations turning to solar power (I’m looking at you, Germany!), having an American sun in space will put us on top as a global energy supplier. We can position our sun on the dark side of planet, giving us half of every day to get the rest of Earth hooked on American coal powered light.

But how will we pay?

Again, I have taken a hard look at the votes in Congress and I see that there is little support for taking the money from anywhere except poor people and undocumented immigrant children.

I know we are sending these kids back across the border as fast as we can, but can’t we empty their pockets first? Someday they will thank us if we can use their pocket change to build a Counter-Sun to prevent the destruction of the computers and video games these wanna-be Americans hope to someday be able to play secretly at the desk jobs they dream of stealing from people who were born on our soil!

In short, my plan is our only hope. It is expensive, audacious, militaristic, and unscientific (in a good way!). I believe it has the votes to pass. And just to be sure that it does – it also repeals Obamacare!

Aggressively,
Your Congressman,
Loomis Beechly

What would you do if no electrical devices worked. For a year?

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canines

No Turd, No Canine

I love a good study of something that can’t be measured, which is why I fell immediately for some sparkling new research I saw yesterday about jealousy in dogs. It is even more wonderful than another obscure bit of science that I used to love about contagious canine yawning.

It’s not that I’m fickle, but after caring so much about what dogs must think when I yawn at them, I do need something fresh to occupy my mind and keep the excitement alive.

This latest experiment is just so charming.

Researchers emotionally provoked thirty six dogs by having the owners, in the presence of their pets, give attention to three different things – a book, a moving, barking toy dog, and a pumpkin-shaped Halloween candy bucket.

The book was read aloud. The toy dog and the bucket were talked to and petted like they were real animals.

The actual dogs were not interested in their human’s interaction with the book, but had a negative reaction when their owners coddled the fake canine.

A certain amount of butt-sniffing was done with regard to that toy dog. There was no similar behavior around the Jack-O-Lantern bucket because neither dogs nor science can tell us where a pumpkin’s butt is located. Is it on the bottom or at the stem? Time to fund another study.

At any rate, the canines showed a significant amount of alarm when it seemed like there was a new (phony) dog on the scene.

The conclusion: Dogs get jealous.

An alternate conclusion: Dogs get embarrassed for you when you act like a plastic bucket and a scentless stuffed dog are really alive.

But if dogs do get jealous, they will need songs to soothe them through their pain. My nomination: Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

No one loves you like I do
You’re my man, and I’m “Old Blue”
But then you picked up a new dog at the store
Between me and that pup
You know I loved you more.
So it took me by surprise when I snuffed
and found out your new pet was stuffed
Don’t you know that no turd means it’s not canine?
Fundamental to the design.
Let me tell you no turd means that’s no canine!
That’s the news that comes from behind.
Honey Honey, yeah.

What’s your favorite song about betrayal?

Cerebral_lobes

Brain Strain

Today’s post comes in the form of a letter from perennial sophomore Bubby Spamden of Wendell Wilkie High School.

Hey Mr. C.,

Well it’s past the Fourth of July and the back-to-school sales are about to begin, which got me thinking about starting yet another sophomore year at Wilkie. Some years I wonder if it’s worth the effort. I know lots of people who say it’s a scandal how I keep getting held back in the tenth grade over and over again, but the standards there are high on purpose and there always seems to be a good reason why I shouldn’t advance.

A long time ago I became the poster child for the campaign to end social promotion. So for a lot of families at Wilkie I’m their guarantee that the school is serious about achievement. “As long as that Spamden kid stays a sophomore,” they say, “I’ll know my kid is expected to perform. Imagine! A sophomore forever!”

Anyway, holding me back is now something everybody has gotten very used to, which is maybe the most major reason of all why I’ll never get to be a high school junior. You know how it is when you get into a routine.

So that got me thinking that maybe I need to do something crazy and different to shake things up, which is why I’m writing to you to ask if you could forge my dad’s signature on a form that I have to fill out before I can be allowed to donate my brain to science.

I guess minors need the consent of a parent or guardian to do this, and even though I’m way, way NOT a minor anymore, as soon as they find out I’m a high school sophomore they INSIST I fill out the form. Don’t worry though, you won’t get in trouble because it’s probably not even a crime to pretend to be my dad on a permission form when I’m almost thirty years old!

Did I just say that out loud? Geez, now I’m even more sure there’s something wrong with my brain.

And scientists from all over the world are working right now on solving some of the most complicated mysteries that happen between your ears. So there’s lots of money in the field, and everybody’s arguing over how to spend it.. Some bunch of European brain experts have signed a petition to say the big Brain Project they have going on over there is “too narrow in focus,” which is an odd thing to criticize because when I start flunking tests my mom always TELLS me to focus in on one thing rather than letting my brain “squirm like a toad,” which is a phrase I think she picked up in the ’60’s when people’s brains were really weird. Because toads don’t squirm, they hop. At least they do these days. Maybe things were different back then.

So anyway, they’ll probably decide to do even more research just to keep everyone happy, which is great if you have lots of education in, like, neuroscience and stuff.

I don’t have that education, but I DO have a brain to sell. I’m willing to bet they’ll want to take a really close look at one that couldn’t get out of the tenth grade, just to see what’s wrong with it. I’d like them to take it as-is. I’ve done as much with it as I can and I think the timing is right. Besides, Artie Richter is the smartest kid in 10th grade and he says they won’t have to remove my brain or anything, but I do think if the researchers buy my brain I’ll get to lie around a lot inside MRI tubes, listening to music, which would be an awesome improvement over Mr. Boozenporn’s class this year!

So what do you say, Mr. C.? Will you help me shake things up and change the script this year?

Your pal,
Bubby

Of course I told Bubby that I would not help him avoid going back to school by forging his dad’s signature on a document that allows him to donate his brain to science. But the fact that he thought I might do it suggests there’s some weird chemistry going on inside his noggin, and it would certainly yield some interesting results if the researchers could only get their hands on it.

What could be learned if you donated your brain to science?

WellsFargo

Wells Fargo Wagon

In what will no doubt become a commonplace occurrence, a commercial space supply freighter was launched from North Carolina on Sunday with a bundle of goods destined for the International Space Station.

The Antares rocket is a product of a company called Orbital. Sending satellites into space is what they do, and this – delivering goods to distant, not readily accessed locations, is a growing part of the business. We tend to get bored when everything is carefully planned and what appears risky winds up going completely right.

Given that, this is probably the most boring video on You Tube.

The launch has lots of things going for it – #1 – lots of smoke and fire. And #2 – animation! Meanwhile, up in space, the excitement is building because there’s a visitor on the way – bearing gifts! And we’ve felt so alone, waiting for in the inky dark desolation of space for what seemed like ages!

What item could you NOT WAIT to have delivered?

Bar_magnet

Polar Pivot Poetry

The European Space Agency, analyzing data from a trio of paddle-shaped satellites charmingly called The Swarm, has announced observations that indicate Earth’s magnetic North Pole is drifting southward.

This could mean the magnetic poles are about to flip, something that has been geologically documented as part of the planet’s history, though it only occurs “every few million years.”

So you’ll forgive me if I’ve forgotten exactly how that went the last time. Our magnetic field protects us from deadly cosmic rays, so any alteration is disconcerting to say the least.

How are we supposed to feel about this? The changeover is said to take a few thousand years, so it’s unlikely that you’ll wake up tomorrow with the poles suddenly reversed, but the mere thought of it is already creating a very disturbing effect.

It has started to generate random limericks.

Yes, the poles of our magnetic field
have been known to occasionally yield
to the urge to reverse.
It’s a magnetic curse
when the flip side … Surprise! … is revealed.

Then your compass will turn to the south
and the polarized teeth in your mouth
will so quickly invert
that it won’t even hurt
But you’ll lisp with each thought you espouth.

Your internals will somersault too.
Turning upside down inside of you.
With intestines for brains
You’ll develop new pains
Sitting down on the parts meant to chew.

But your head’s where the flip will appall.
For the plumbing down low now stands tall.
Every word that you speak
Will sound more like a leak
Which may not seem too different at all.

When have you flipped?

ISEE-3

Get Up And Go

Our earlier conversation about “second acts” for people who have finished one career but aren’t done doing things has an off-planet parallel. A group of private space jockeys is attempting to re-start a defunct satellite named ISEE-3, or ICE.

Yes, this once cutting-edge conglomeration of obsolete computer parts has been around long enough to have earned at least two names. This is one of the privileges of age that has been taken over by young people who make it a habit to call themselves whatever they please whenever they want for no reason at all.

Fine, I suppose. But earlier generations approached names with a sense of obligation – you owed it to mom and dad to wear out the one you were born with before taking on another. And this plucky little satellite did just that.

Entering space in 1978 as the International Sun-Earth Explorer #3, (ISEE-3), this machine fulfilled its obligations by spending years collecting data at the edge of the Earth’s magnetic field, examining the solar wind and looking very closely at solar flares and cosmic rays.

But you know how it is with highly technical jobs. After a while they can become a bit dreary.

So when a flashy, exciting comet came whizzing by, ISEE-3 was smitten. Soon, its geeky-sounding moniker was history and our space spinner was off to intercept an exotic-sounding Comet named Giacobini-Zinne. And with this impulsive diversion came the much more dangerous and cool-sounding name, ICE (International Cometary Explorer).

So it seems even our technology can have a mid-life crisis and give in to a sudden, inexplicable alteration of course. This is why we need to let the young be young while they’re young. Short of allowing the kind of name-change anarchy I complained about earlier, of course.

But once off the path of a dutiful drudge, ICE was ready to yield to temptation, sliding into a casual relationship with yet another sparkly comet, the famous and notoriously fickle Halley. I’m not clear on the details, but apparently ICE took up a position between Halley and the Sun, running a calculation that involved both but committed to neither.

So it’s no surprise that by the early ’90’s, ICE was burned out.

End of story? Apparently not. Tomorrow, June 21, a team of modern techies will use updated equipment to send signals to ICE in an old language it recognizes and respects, telling it to boost its rotation by an extra half-spin per minute.

This is important for some reason I don’t understand, but I totally get it that the communicators have to approach this space geezer with antiquated language to get it to respond properly. It’s an awkward twisting of reality designed to get a desired result, similar to what happens when young people speak to us without swearing.

If ICE (or ISEE-3) is smart, it will accept this new mission simply because the alternative is uninspiring – simply to float through space, waiting for the lights to go out.

Pete Seeger said it best in this clip from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968.

How do you know your get up and go has got up and went?

Mars_Extrovert

Extraterrestrial Extrovert Exclusion Expected

I’m not against extroverts – quite the contrary.

Yes, of course I’m an introvert and naturally I’m prone to long stretches of uncomfortable silence. That’s why I rely on the extroverts of the world – they keep the conversation going.

It’s the extroverts out of this world that may become the real problem. It seems the ebulliently sociable are on the verge of being excluded from any mission to Mars.

The tiresome effect of introverts and extroverts being in close confines for an extended period of time is a topic we have already explored here. And all indicators suggest the charm of upbeat, chatty people will wear thin during more than a half-year with nothing to comment on but the same black-and-star-speckled scenery.

When desperate to end a conversation, my fall-back is the generic “Well, I gotta go now.” But locked inside a Mars-bound capsule, there’s really nowhere else to “gotta go” to.

Even short trips can seem endless if there’s someone in the car who needs to manufacture conversation. And anyone who has tried to make small talk can recognize the peril here – in the vacuum of space there’s not much to say about the weather after you agree that you shouldn’t open a window because it sucks outside.

Rather than immediately rule out the extroverted for a Mars launch, I wonder if NASA will consider forming an all-extrovert crew. Yes it would be a talkative seven month journey, but perhaps a TV channel could arrange to broadcast the whole thing live. Some outlets don’t have exceptionally high standards – a group of people saying anything energetically is good enough for basic cable.

But here’s the other problem – what happens after arriving on Mars? Introverts will gain back their strength while quietly pondering the alien landscape, but the likelihood is high that extroverts will feel absolutely lost because there’s no one new to meet.

I’m not one to make iron-clad rules and I certainly don’t want to rob people of opportunity based on personal characteristics over which they have no control, but I wonder if space exploration will ever be a good place for extroverts. Yes, they have many positive and endearing qualities and no one can deny that extroverts are wonderful for loosening things up at a party, but as we’ve seen in countless Hollywood movies, aliens may not be open to the kind of congenial welcome we seek.

So dispatching a landing party that’s skilled in glad-handing and back-slapping could backfire in a cataclysmic way. And after all, there’s no guarantee the extraterrestrials will have backs to slap or hands to receive the gladness.

But even if alien forms of life do have these things, why would they accept our overtures? If they are extroverts they would have already come here and introduced themselves.

And if they are introverts, beware! Nothing is more unpredictable than a moody alien, and everybody knows we can come on a little strong.

What sort of road trip companion are you?

Photo by NASA,ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

All the Colored Lights

The latest space sensation is a new photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope that takes in ultraviolet (UV) light along with the infrared and visible light to reveal a deep look at a universe resplendent with thousands of galaxies and a riot of color.

This represents a significant upgrade to the hobby of stargazing.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the tiny pinpricks of light that dot the night sky. Even though my aging eyes are less and less able to see them with each passing year, I do take a moment from time to time to marvel at the pageant overhead.

But I know I’d spend a lot more time looking up if this is what I saw.

Photo by NASA,ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)
Photo by NASA,ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI)

This is a view to inspire awe and poetry.

Which is unfortunate, because I’m not much of a poet. But I know somebody who is. Or at least I know somebody who thinks he is, which is more than enough because this is a simple blog and not the Norton Anthology of Timeless Verse.

Singsong poet Schuyler Tyler Wyler took one look at the amazing image above and quickly penned a few self-referential lines, which is his habit. He is as fixed in his path as the stars and planets themselves, though much less beautiful when observed deeply.

But there’s one thing this amazing photo has taught me – not to worry about the small things.  The universe is big enough to swallow any poem a human can devise, and it will suffer no ill effects.

Behold!

“The night sky is a wonder!”
the astronomer had said,
as he carefully explained
how starlight shifts from blue to red.

But I wasn’t really listening.
I didn’t truly see.
As I took in all this grandeur
and the tininess of me.

Yes, I know the light reveals
how Heaven’s tapestry is knitted
and the spectrum that we view
is only part of what’s emitted.

But when I stare into space
on any normal summer night
I admit I’m disappointed
that it’s mostly black and white.

Which is why, every December
with the Cosmos overhead
I put all my time and effort
into Christmas lights instead.

How colorful are you?

THE_SUN_768

Something New Under The Sun

We have had an impressive run of discoveries in recent weeks.

From the soon-to-be simple parlor trick of making matter out of light, to the location of a prehistoric underwater volcano that helped form the island of Oahu, scientists have been uncovering all sorts of wonders.

And even as far too many of Earth’s creatures disappear forever, we are finding new ones to hound into oblivion. A distinctive sea anemone was just identified, and you’ll be delighted to know there is a vicious mantis in Rwanda that’s as scary as anything from Jurassic Park.

Not to be outdone by such a pipsqueak, the already-extinct dinosaurs have just wowed us again by producing a creature that was probably as large as a seven story building!

But my favorite discovery story of the week is this study in persistence:

In 1936 a scientific researcher discovered a particular kind of snake on a remote Mexican island and cataloged it for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

You’ve gotta love the pluck of these old explorers. Here’s what William Beebe wrote about that initial moment of contact:

“We walked on, flashing the light all around. Not far from the water on the black lava I saw a small dark brown snake. It seemed to be unlike the one I had found in daylight, having lines of black spots on the body, so I picked it up and cached it in my shirt.”

Naturally. Who wouldn’t do it just like that?

Tromping around an exotic place in the dark and stuffing strange snakes into my shirt is definitely on my bucket list, though I’m saving it for the very last thing. And clearly I’m not the only one who feels this way! Almost 20 years after Beebe felt a wriggle in his blouse, a return expedition tried and failed to find the aforementioned snake and wrote off the original discovery as a mistake. Maybe they didn’t turn over enough rocks, or perhaps their pockets were already full.

Fast forward to 2013 and another effort has validated the first discovery. Overcoming obstacles like limited access (you can only get to the island under military escort) and visibility (the creature is nocturnal and lives on an island almost 700 miles from shore), National Museum of Natural History researcher Daniel Mulcahy has learned that the elusive Clarion Nightsnake really exists!

Of course we love our new creatures to be exciting and dangerous, but based on the latest descriptions (brown, with some black spots) and historically nonthreatening demeanor (excessive shirt-friendliness), it’s on-again, off-again status may be the most interesting thing about the Clarion Nightsnake.

What’s your greatest discovery?

Smokestacks

A Polluter’s Lament

Featured Image taken by Dori (dori@merr.info)

Last week’s White House National Climate Assessment was remarkably blunt about the reality of our situation – that we are already experiencing the effects of an environmental shift.

For some of us in the baby boom generation who have been following this issue for a long time, this comes as a surprising development. Yes, we had heard that our habits of consumption were contributing to a potential catastrophe, but it always felt our role was simple – to create the problem and then to start a conversation about how later generations would face it and solve it.

Sorry about the mess, guys. Good luck!

Now this latest report seems to suggest the we are not going to be able to skip out on the check after all. Any chance I can go back and un-drive all those miles and un-click all those switches that let the power flow?

I didn’t think so. Would a poem of atonement help? I asked Trail Baboon sing-song poet laureate Tyler Schuyler Wyler to write one up, and he agreed because every stanza could include a reference to death – his favorite subject.

The warming fields and rising seas
The melting ice and dying trees
The drying lakes that will not freeze
This all has come up by degrees.

We’d heard it was a thing to dread.
And by our habits it was sped.
But also was it often said,
It won’t get bad ’til we are dead.

But now they say it has arrived!
Not something still to be derived
for our descendants to survive.
It came while we are still alive!

Our sadness, is, of course, profound.
For glacial ice now in the sound
and forest creatures elsewhere bound,
and us, that we remain around.

What have you witnessed that you thought you would never get to see?