Category Archives: Science


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?  

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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?


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!

Your Congressman,
Loomis Beechly

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


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?


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,

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?


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?


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?


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?


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?