Category Archives: Science

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?

About these ads
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?

Trapdoor

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?  

Google-mystery-barge

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?

T-Rex

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?

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?

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?