Category Archives: Science

Screenshot 2014-04-04 at 9.43.24 PM

Goats in the News

An Irishman says a ewe on his farm has given birth to a rare Goat-Sheep.

The animal is exactly what you might imagine – the product of a union between a goat and a sheep. According to the BBC article and Wikipedia, such offspring usually don’t survive.

This one, however, is thriving. He’s faster than a typical sheep, and woolier than a normal goat.

Of course when a story like this surfaces on the Internet, alarm bells go off and a skeptical reader looks for signs of a ruse. And this tale has them.

For one thing, the farmer’s name is Paddy Murphy. I’m not saying such a name is unlikely – far from it. I would argue the opposite – Paddy Murphy is a go-to Irish name that any writer from The Onion would choose.

Paddy Murphy’s would also be a logical first choice for anyone with enough cash and bad taste to open a phony Irish pub in Coon Rapids. And sure enough, the farmer owns a pub, (Murphy’s, naturally), though his is in County Kildare.

Yet I believe this story, because I love the odd duck and pull for the underdog. Which would be the Underduck – a sad-eyed and lovable but highly temperamental hairy billed beast. And the story originates with an unimpeachable source – The Irish Farmers Journal.

No one would make that up.

What sort of hybrid are you?

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Five Seconds Grace

Students at Aston University in Birmingham, England have conducted an experiment and claim to posess data that lends credence to the famous 5-Second Rule for dropped food.

They fumbled toast, pasta, biscuits and sticky sweets, and then left the morsels on different types of flooring for up to 30 seconds.

These calculating slobs of science found that time is a significant factor in the transfer of bacteria from a floor surface to a munchie. Remarkably, the experiment found that food dropped on carpet picked up fewer contaminants than food dropped on flooring that is less plush.

Additional findings: that wet food drew more invisible unsavories than dry food, and women were more likely to pick up and eat dropped food than were men. That last one runs against the stereotype that women are less disgusting in every respect. I can only reconcile it by assuming that, rather than pick up dropped food, men are more likely to grind tidbits into the carpet with their feet before plunging their hands deeper into the chip bowl.

Although its findings are contradicted by study after study after study, this unpublished and non-peer reviewed research is good enough for me, because now I can begin to imagine living in a more forgiving world where mistakes can be undone with no penalty as long as you realize it right away.

I’m not saying I do a lot of dumb things, but most of the time while committing my major screw-up-of-the-day I pretty much know it immediately – often while in the act.

Although putting it that way might have been an error.

Never mind. Undo!

What if there was a Universal Five Second Rule (UFSR) that allowed you to instantly take back anything at all if it seemed wrong within five seconds of commission – a contract signature, an unkind word, an errant throw, a dropped match, a Facebook post or an e-mail?

The irreversibility of ill-considered choices is what makes it worthwhile to think before acting. In a world governed by the UFSR, some people would abandon discipline and take back virtually everything. And then there would be an expansionist lobby – if five seconds works, why can’t we make it fifty seconds? Or five minutes?

“A slippery slope,” as they say. Which, if you stepped onto one, is exactly the sort of thing you would want to revoke before the consequences hit.

What is the proper length for a grace period?

The Extra Long Cobra Banana - Delicious Hot or Coiled

Science Fare

Today’s post comes from Dr. Larry Kyle, founder and produce manager at Genway, the supermarket for genetically engineered foods.


Vindication is mine!

Anyone who knows my work at Genway understands that I have been a misunderstood and lonely pioneer. Scientifically I have blazed unthinkable pathways in the genetic manipulation of plants and animals. And ethically I have set a new standard for non-regulated, devil-may-care experimentation. Have I done things that were questionable? Yes. Ill advised? Of course!

There was a time when people called me mad. MAD, I say! And THEY said it too! They said LOTS of things.

Hah hah hah hah hah hah hah!

When I developed fresh-as-life toast that lived in a terrarium they said I should be investigated.
When I invented the Genway Screaming Halloween Pumpkin, they said I should be prosecuted.
When I used terrier DNA to create barking tulips, they said I should be stopped!

But they couldn’t lay a hand on me because I had no University affiliation and took no money from the government. I financed my work with proceeds from product sales at Genway, and through urgent contributions from neighbors and acquaintances who wanted only one thing from me – that I stay far away from their homes and their families.

Yes, some other researchers called it “vanity science”, and even extortion. But I knew if I waited long enough the rest of the scientific community would eventually come around. And now they have, because I see there is a major article in the New York Times that claims Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science!

“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”

Yes! Now the most groundbreaking science will be done by those who are best at separating rich people from their fortunes! Whim based research will shape a tomorrow that you won’t recognize and no one can predict. How quickly the Brave New World I dreamt of has become a reality!

The Extra Long Cobra Banana - Delicious Hot or Coiled
The Extra Long Cobra Banana – Delicious Hot or Coiled

Why let government chart a course when the future really belongs to guys who have the twisted curiosity to wonder what might happen if you combined a banana with a King Cobra, and the fat bankroll to find out?

Hah hah hah hah hah hah hah!

And in case you didn’t read it with the right amount of spirit, yes – that’s a maniacal laugh!

Yours in Unsupervised Experimentation,
Dr. Kyle

What sort of research would YOU pay for?

Photo by Matt Wier under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 license

Twinkle Winkle

Photo by Matt Wier under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 license
Photo by Matt Wier under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 license

I really don’t have the patience to go out and stare at the night sky for very long, which is why I so appreciate it when brilliant people who follow the paths of planets, stars and asteroids tell us that something highly unusual is going to happen and then it does – right down to the second!

Early Thursday morning, March 20, the distant (78 light years away) star Regulus will be briefly obscured for sky watchers in parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Eastern Canada by the passage overhead of an asteroid named Erigone, pronounced (air-RIG-oh-knee).

Is this a big, jaw-dropping kind of space event, like a solar eclipse or an incandescent alien swarm of interstellar bees engulfing the moon and setting it on fire?

No! But it is quite rare. Rare enough so that maps have been published and in the nation’s most populous area serious people are thinking about staying up until 2 am to see a tiny light in the sky not be there for about 14 seconds, and then come back.

Simple pleasures are the best.

Pleasures as simple as a familiar nursery rhyme, re-cast as a conversation between an Earthbound observer and a distant light.

How appropriate that each verse, when sung sweetly, lasts exactly as long as Regulus will be invisible.

Regulus, so far away,
Spotted you towards break of day.
You’re a bright but tiny dude.
Star of the first magnitude!
Regulus, intense and proud.
Shiny, showy, sharp and loud.

Twinkle, Twinkle, little star
Now I don’t see where you are!
You were there but now you’re dark.
Were you light or just a spark?
So long star. This has been real.
Hey, you’re back! So what’s the deal?

Asteroid Erigone,
floating between you and me,
had the angle and the size,
to obscure me from your eyes.
Briefly blotted out, you see.
Thanks a bunch, Erigone!

Twinkle Twinkle, little star.
Resurrected! There you are.
Thought I lost you for a time.
Just a verse within this rhyme.
That was much too long, I think.
Twinkle, winkle, twinkle, wink.

Some people, Hollywood stars, mostly, can pull off a wink and make it seem sexy. When I wink it just looks like I’ve got something stuck in my eye, which is why I never do it.

What makes a wink work?


Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Relationship watchers across the galaxy are deeply upset and universally disappointed over the unexpected break-up of asteroid P / 2013 R3.

“I’m devastated”, said Haley Stalker, a pop culture romance maven who got word via Twitter that there had been another major parting of ways.

“After TomKat and Bennifer split so suddenly I promised myself I was done following stars. “They’re so unstable! P / 2013 R3 wasn’t flashy, but solid as rock, or so I thought”.

Friends of P / 2013 R3 were equally nonplussed. Telesto, speaking for all the moons of Saturn, said “We’ve all seen comets dissolve and meteors just vaporize, but asteroids have always represented commitment and solidity. We thought P / 2013 R3 was literally set in stone.”

The dramatic dissolution was caught on camera by a paparazzi named Hubble S. Telescope, who has a history of taking photos that show heavenly bodies in a brutally realistic light.

We may never know why P / 2013 R3 couldn’t hold it together, but the pain of parting has been captured over and over again in songs like this one:

What are some of your favorite break-up songs?


Is There Cheese After Life?

Archaeologists have determined that a mummy entombed 3,600 years ago was adorned with lumps of cheese – apparently to give her something to enjoy in the next world.

I can see why this woman’s custodians wanted to send her packing with a few tasty morsels. What is there to look forward to in a bring-your-own-cheese afterlife? Not much, I would guess. Sounds pretty cheap.

What’s amazing is that the deceased person in question, the so-called “Beauty of Xiaohe”, is so well preserved after 3,600 years. The New York Times described the burial location as being in a “terrifying desert”. The name of the place, Taklamakan, is said to mean “go in and you won’t come out.”

I’d think anyone would be relieved to check out of such an arid wasteland. But something doesn’t seem right. Now that the Beauty of Xiaohe is closing in her fourth millennium of mummydom, why hasn’t she gotten around to eating her snacks? When I set out on a long trip, I pretty much empty the goodie bag in the first hour and wind up hitting every rest stop afterwards. To leave the fromage unmolested for so long shows admirable restraint, and qualifies The Beauty of * for a poem or a nursery rhyme of some sort.

Naturally I chose the one that ends with cheese.

In the original, which is (inexplicably) about a farmer trapped in a computer (a Dell), the verses gradually have his estate acquire a wife, a child, a nurse, a cow, a dog, a cat, a mouse, and finally, the only prize any dead person truly cares about – cheese. This one is only slightly different.

The mummy doesn’t smell
The mummy doesn’t smell
Heigh-ho the derry-oh,
The mummy doesn’t smell.

The mummy lost her life. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

Her life wasn’t mild.(2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

It could have been worse. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

We’re looking at her now. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

And we are all agog. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

She has no body fat. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

Her tomb is like a house. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

The house has some cheese. (2x)
Heigh-ho the derry-oh …

The oldest cheese we’ve known.
The oldest cheese we’ve known.
Heigh-ho the derry-oh,
The oldest cheese we’ve known!

What food would you want to be buried with?


Still Hanging Around

More unfortunate news for England’s Richard III – a year after he suffered the indignity of having his bones excavated from underneath a parking lot, researchers have received the green light to map his genome.

This means Richard III’s genetic secrets will be laid bare, including any serious medical conditions he was predisposed towards. Scoliosis, anyone? That’s the prevailing reason to resist having one’s DNA decoded – to avoid potential discrimination based on the likelihood that you will develop an expensive malady down the road.

Fortunately for Richard III, he doesn’t have to worry about such things because Obamacare is now the law of the land, so he can’t be denied coverage based on a pre-existing condition! He is also protected by the fact that he’s not from around here, and is already disintegrating.

Yet Richard III is still alive as a cultural figure even though his reputation remains dark. It’s bad enough to have great artists (Shakespeare!) interpret your legacy. They don’t really care about you – just their form of expression. And now the great scientists will have a go at telling Richard III’s story their own way. These test-tube shakers and number crunchers have no reason to be kind either – it’s all a collection of data points to them. So you could say Richard has an endless literary shelf life and will soon gain a timeless scientific stature too, but immortality of any sort is wasted on the dead.

Would you rather live forever as a dramatic villain, or a museum exhibit?


We Live Inside!

One of the surprises that came out of my recent trip to Fort Myers was discovering the remnants of the Koreshan Unity Settlement – a Utopian community established there in 1894 by a charismatic leader named Cyrus Teed, who believed in some fairly progressive things including the educational value of artistic expression and full equality between the sexes.

The opened sphere, showing the spinning gasses inside.
The opened sphere, showing the spinning gasses inside.

But there was at least one thing major thing he got wrong. Teed preached that the Earth was a hollow sphere, and we lived inside it. He thought the globe that we know so well was actually inverted – with the continents pasted around the underside of the curve. Looking up (or inward), you would see a revolving ball of gas that was layers thick, only allowing us to view the refracted rays of the sun, located at the center. The sun, rotating once each 24 hours, was light on one side and dark on the other – thus giving us day and night.

The land beneath our feet was also layered, but digging through it would eventually bring you to the outside of the sphere, beyond which there was … nothing.

Teed and his followers considered the commonly accepted idea of a limitless universe with humans living on the outside of the globe under a distant sun and with planets and stars all whizzing around in their own orbits as inherently chaotic and unknowable, putting God beyond the reach of human understanding. Teed said the Koreshan system “… reduces the universe to proportionate limits, and its cause within the comprehension of the human mind.”

Easily said, though it didn’t take very long for his book, The Cellular Cosmogony, to lead this particular human mind to a state of exhaustion. Still, I would love to have a t-shirt featuring their motto – “We Live Inside!” After all, it’s not that different from the philosophy of Minnesotans in January.


The Koreshans went to great lengths through observations and experiments and words, words, words to support their notion that the wide horizon visible off the Florida coast actually curved up with a smile, rather than down with a frown.

Cyrus Teed died in 1908 and while his utopian settlement lingered for a few decades it eventually faded away. A prime directive of complete celibacy for the most ardent followers of Koreshanity might have had something to do with that. The last Koreshans gave their vast tract of land to the State of Florida in 1961 which allowed for the establishing of a state park.

What impressed me most in this brief encounter with Cyrus Teed and his philosophy was the power a charismatic person with absolute conviction can have over others who are less certain in their beliefs; and once convinced, the amazing ability we humans have to cling to ideas that are completely and obviously wrong.

How do you know you’re right?

turning tree

The Geezer Trees

The internet has something for everyone, including the advanced-age contingent desperately trolling websites looking for a tidbit to suggest that they still matter.

turning tree

That news came yesterday in the form of a global study of trees that reached a surprising conclusion. Big old trees suck up much more carbon than younger trees and continue to grow aggressively in their later years, overturning the depressing expectations about aging and decline that appear to remain true with just about every other living thing.

Somehow, elderly trees manage to stay relevant. They dominate the forest. Of course this cheerful news demanded a parody of what may be America’s best-known tree poem. With apologies and thanks to Joyce Kilmer

I’m thrilled to hear this new decree
That old age benefits a tree.

An elder tree, with vigor blessed
adds height and girth and all the rest

At rates that common sense confounds!
But old folks also put on pounds,

and widen out and suck up space.
Should old trees be less in your face?

The answer: an emphatic “No!”
These geezer trees – please let them grow!

And when an elder tree expands
wrap ancient trunk with heart and hands

and hug it tight! It’s adding mass
to kick those young trees’ woody ass.


What improves with age?


As Seen From Space

Today’s post comes from the Mars Curiosity Rover

OK, I’m a robot and I speak and think in numbers. It’s not in my programming to quibble with you about language. So I must be having a software malfunction because I feel compelled to complain about the words you use.

I made news on Earth because a NASA satellite orbiting Mars snapped a photo that includes me and my zig-zag tracks in the Martian dust. “Curiosity Rover Spotted From Space” is one of the headlines I noticed. This is troubling from a public relations standpoint, since part of my mission is to build enthusiasm for space exploration. But being “seen from space” puts me in bad company. Only excessive, grotesque things like The Great Wall of China and horrible catastrophes like tsunamis and forest fires ever make the news for being seen from space.


Besides, look at this picture. Can you really see me? I know the last time my photo was posted on this blog I was complaining about how huge some parts of me looked. But here, I’m a speck in the middle of the left hand side of the image. Big deal! Whenever I look at this picture, I feel diminished and alone.

But here’s my real problem with the wording. Saying I’ve been seen FROM space suggests that I am currently somewhere that is NOT in space, which is not true! I am in space. Space is my home.

“Ah,” you might say, “you’re on the surface of a planet and therefore technically you are not in space.”

Don’t argue technicalities with a computer. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”, “You can’t handle the technicalities.”

We all agree Mars is in space and I hope we can accept that I am on Mars. To say I am not also in space would be like saying a tick on the neck of a moose is not also in the woods.

The same is true of Earth. The planet and all its inhabitants are forever part of the cosmos. Therefore, when you sit down at the breakfast table each morning and stare at your Cheerios, your breakfast is in space and you observe it from space.

So you see, “seeing something from space” is not that special.

This may seem like a lot of words to waste on a relatively small point, but please humor me. Have you looked at the pictures? I’m extremely alone up here, and I’ve got nothing else to think about!

Your extra-planetary vanguard,

Yes, OK. I admit we’re all in space. Was that so hard?

What commonly used word or phrase irritates you?