Category Archives: Science

Connect Three

Here’s a new Trail Baboon feature – three connected topics I’ve seen this week. I would say it’s akin to a primate swinging from tree branch to tree branch, but baboons are known for spending most of their time on the ground.

1.  It starts with a nice tidy explanation of how GPS works from Jeff Blossom, who makes maps for journalist Paul Salopek’s seven-year-long globe spanning project, the Out of Eden Walk. Thanks to a group of satellites and Blossom’s maps, we can clearly see exactly where Salopek spent some time standing around in Saudi Arabia. Yes, this technology can track your loitering habits. Even when on a ambitious mission, it sometimes becomes necessary to wait.

2. Those satellites are an essential component in guiding the autonomous cars we were discussing this week. I found a lovely Google video that drives home the point that such cars would be a delight for the disabled, kids, and old people.

3. But there is always a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening to blow your candy-colored dream to smithereens. Like an enormous power grid and technology-destroying electromagnetic pulse from the sun. People (including some at the Defense Department) are considering the ramifications of such a calamity, but none more ardently than Rocky Rawlins of The Survivor Library, who I heard in an interview with Bob Garfield on the program On The Media.

Rawlings is collecting knowledge about how to accomplish basic tasks and build and operate old-world devices that pre-date the digital age. Like how to make and felt a hat, for instance.

As a person with a hat-necessary type of head, I appreciate this attention to detail. But I’m a bit leery of the alarm-junkie quality that many survivalists bring to the task. There seems to be a bit too much of the “I Told You So” quality to their planning – as if this is all a wonderfully fun set up to a supreme moment when the rest of us dullards realize they were right all along.

What priceless skill could you contribute to a smoldering Hellscape of a non-digital world?

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Sounds Like ???

I remain enthralled with this fresh notion of a human-made device sitting on the surface of a rubber-duck-shaped comet that is speeding towards the sun.

Scientists are examining the data collected by the lander Philae before it ran out of power a few hours after touch (and re-re-touch) down. One beguiling piece of information turns out to be the sound the device made when it hit. Apparently there is a lot you can learn from such a thing.

Just by analyzing the sound above, scientists can judge the composition of the comet’s surface. They know that the lander encountered a soft layer several centimeters thick, and the next layer was hard. Researchers also know that Philae bounced a couple of times.

That’s a lot to learn from a momentary crunch.

Inspired by the ability of attentive listeners (aided by scientific equipment) to paint a picture of the actors in a scene from a tiny bit of sonic evidence, I created a document to give researchers from the future something to chew on when considering the meaning of my all-too-brief mission on this planet.

Tooth angle, overbite, jaw strength, lip density, saliva viscosity and tongue thickness are just a few of the qualities that I’m sure can be extrapolated with the right devices. Not that anyone would want to.

And imagine what they might be able to learn about the comet I’m biting!

What is your most distinctive sound?

Coming Soon To A Parking Lot Near You

The ideas-unconstrained-by-reality people are busy imagining the future in a world of self-driving cars. After all, the technicians need to know what to build, and the technology is moving forward at an amazing clip.

People at the design firm IDEO came up with three possible expressions of autonomous car technology.

Pretty impressive, and they even gave one of the vehicles a friendly-sounding name.

But why not name them all?

And while you’re at it, leave a few brain cells unoccupied to do the important work of imagining the worst that could happen.

Notion #1 is Marge, a family car that looks at your e-mail and your calendar and already knows where you want to go when you get into it.

How could this fail? A car with access to your e-mail might know where you ought to go and where you’re supposed to be, but one that looks at your Internet browsing history may fully understand where you’d rather be instead. When you get in your autonomous car you might not know who’s driving – is it your Id or your Super-Ego?

I guess we’ll find out when we get there.

Notion #2 is Cody, a delivery truck that is a nimble, see-through tube reminiscent of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, except it knows where you are and what you want. Combined with Amazon’s purchase-prediction software, these babies may be orbiting your neighborhood already stocked with what the algorithm says you are going to order.

How could this fail? Salespeople will ruin this for everybody by flooding neighborhoods with delivery vehicles that are cruising advertisements for the stuff inside. Imagine the narrow snowy streets of December clogged with gift-laden vehicles, each one jockeying to catch your eye.

Notion #3 is Dante’, a roving work station that is your portable office. Let it take you and your co-workers anywhere – for inspiration or collaboration.

How could this fail? Fights over the beach vs. the scenic overlook vs. the blank downtown brickscape where I can concentrate on this damn report I have to finish! Could we turn the office around so I can have the sun coming in on MY side for once? Do we really have to co-work with them in OUR parking lot today? Why don’t they ever invite us over to their place? Is there something wrong with it?

So many idea clouds, so many gun-metal gray linings. And there are so many notions the IDEO people didn’t suggest …

Notion #4 – is Sherlock, an autonomous chase vehicle that will follow you on that blind date you dread, and provide you with a quick getaway if it’s as awful as you fear it will be.

How could this fail? Hey, it looks like someone is following us. Hang on! My last girlfriend said I’m almost good enough to be a Hollywood stunt driver!

Notion #5 – is Budge, a Parking Space Holder. If we’re going to the Ordway Saturday night I’ll send Budge over there around 4pm to orbit Rice Park looking for one of those handy metered street parking spots to open up when the matinee crowd leaves. Twenty minutes before the curtain rises we’ll head over there in the second car (“Diva”) to trade places and claim our spot while Budge ambles home.

Notion #6 – is Flash Fleet, not a single autonomous car but rather a bit of software developed by highway hackers to commandeer large numbers of autonomous vehicles to “flood the zone”, creating targeted slowdowns and traffic jams at pre-arranged times in carefully selected places. The goal – anarchy.

How could this fail? Actually, this one is a no-brainer. It’s definitely going to happen, and it will be a terrific headache.

What else could happen?

Comet Softly To Me

Early tomorrow (Wednesday) morning the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft currently orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will deploy a lander called Philae. This one-chance-only attempt will be the culmination of a ten year mission to do something that has never been done or even attempted before – to put a piece of human-made machinery on the face of a speeding comet as it hurtles towards the sun.

There is so much that intrigues me about this – not the least of which is the method of landing – described in this New York Times article..

Because Comet 67P is so small, its gravitational pull is slight and the familiar mechanics of landing on a moon or a distant planet are turned upside down. Mission planners didn’t have to worry so much about breaking the lander’s fall because Philae will be released and will drift towards 67P, pulled in gently at what is described as “a walking pace.”

How fast is that? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet it could comfortably approximate the pace of this classic 1959 song by the Fleetwoods.

As the lander meanders towards the comet, planners will watch nervously to see if they are able to connect in a sympathetic and constructive way, or if a stray boulder causes the lander to flip over or a spot of shade renders its solar collectors useless.

Not to indulge in too much space-vehicle anthropomorphism here, but if Philae is able to kiss the surface of this elusive, enigmatic space traveler, it will be a brief, unlikely, and historic romance. The lander will run out of battery power in 62 hours and will fall silent, but not until it has had enough close contact to send back a treasure trove of data.

And what is in this for 67P? Perhaps nothing, though one must wonder if even a lonely, speeding comet has an innate desire to be known. And yes, this Earthling may bring just the sort of longed-for intimacy that has been missing during all the years that 67P has been orbiting the sun.

But in case The Fleetwoods have you thinking of this rendezvous as a perfect extraterrestrial romance, consider this one additional aspect – shortly after Philae and 67P gently touch, the lander will cement their new relationship by shooting a harpoon into the comets surface.

Charming. And such an Earthling thing to do.

Ever been stung?

Ask Dr. Babooner – Comet vs. Lohan

We are ALL Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

I try to keep up with current events but I am usually disappointed at the top stories on Google and the most recent trending items on Twitter.


Invariably these most popular stories have to do with movie stars, athletes, psycho killers and the most alarmingly dangerous  things in the world.

I admit some of this exasperation is a matter of selfish pride.

Because while the world is looking closely at what’s up with Lindsey Lohan, I’m involved in a years-long effort to land a probe on the face of a comet.  I played a small role in planning the project, and so did many, many others.  And yet I’m just not seeing very much news  coverage of what I think is the most important story out there.

Am I wrong to feel slighted?

Think for a minute about how you would go about this task if it were your assignment.

    1. Design a machine that can learn something meaningful about a completely foreign object.
    2. Launch that object into space.
    3. Catch up to a comet.
    4. Figure out where to land on a duck-shaped object going 83,000 miles per hour.
    5. Land, understanding that the surface you’re plopping down on is something you can only guess about ten years before you actually have to do it, and your guess has to be good enough to make it all possible.
    6. I think that’s pretty special, and it leads me to the conclusion that people are incredibly silly because they just don’t care about truly important stuff as much as they should.

      And yet I want their approval SO MUCH!

      Dr. Babooner, what is wrong with me?

      Sincerely perplexed,
      Rosetta Stan

      I told Rosetta Stan that he is suffering from a normal human tendency to feel slighted by a world that inexplicably overlooks one’s exceptional achievements. I commiserated with him, offering the opinion that his effort directed at learning about comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is indeed a major event in the history of human achievement and its outcomes will be remembered forever.

      Unfortunately, Lindsey Lohan and her many fans feel exactly the same way about her West End Debut.

      But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

Red Moon Rationale

The following message was found scrawled in fiery hot red sauce on the underside of a scraped-clean leftovers container outside a barbecue joint in Memphis, Tennessee. The partly-melted Styrofoam was sent to Minneapolis for analysis in the FBI’s Mississippi Watershed Crime Lab, but when it got switched up with a lunch container brought to work by an agent from Eagan and was subsequently dropped (erroneously) into a recycling bin, it got separated out with other materials that were contaminated by food waste and came to the attention of the agency’s Midwest Director of Suspicious Debris, who immediately forwarded it to the Department of Homeland Security, who gave it to the CIA, who handed it over to the Secret Service, where they set it out on the North Portico of the White House because it smelled too funky to bring inside. A gust of wind caught it and the Styrofoam wound up landing at my doorstep. I probably shouldn’t have read it, but I did. And now I share it with you.

Ahoy, Landlubbers,

I has it on good authority that there’s gonna be a Red Moon on th’ mornin’ of October 8, 2014.

Lots of guesswork is goin’ on as t’ th’ possible meaning, an’ none of it ’tis good since red is th’ color of emergency an’ danger an’ blood.

Several of me boys has become quite excited about this, thinkin’ that perhaps th’ advent of a prominent Red Moon might mean some kinda change in their otherwise miserable an’ monotonous lives. Fer them what sees it, th’ shade of th’ lunar orb is supposed t’ be a tad dramatic though any actual lasting effect is highly unlikely.

Here’s a lovely chart about th’ event, made by a sober individual wi’ a scientific mind.

Graphic via Eclipsewise / Fred Espenak
Graphic via Eclipsewise / Fred Espenak

Me boys is a bit too fanciful t’ put much stock in a scientific document like th’ one above. They’s much more influenced by folktales and sayins, ‘specially them what is easy t’ remember.

An’ rumor has it that there is plenty of popular sayins regardin’ sky color an what sailors is likely t’ expect as a result. So of course I Googled ‘em an found some on th’ nautical website

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,
Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

Evening red and morning gray, help the traveler on his way
Evening gray and morning red bring down a rain upon his head
Orange or yellow, can hurt a fellow.

I ain’t never heard none of these sayins, so I surveyed th’ crew an’ sure enough, several of me boys swears by ‘em, especially that one about sailors an’ delight. An then they tells me there’s some extra sayins what is especially about a Red Moon as it relates t’ its position regardin’ the vessel.

Red Moon rising before, pirates should all be sent ashore.
Red Moon falling behind, pirates should not be confined.
Red Moon beside, extra helpings of grog should be tried.

I allowed as how I’d never heard none of this, but rather I had a different set of sayins in mind.

When the Moon rises Red, I’ll swat yer head.
When the Moon rises Scarlet, no fun fer the bar lot.
When the Moon rises Ruby, just do yer duty.
When the Moon rises Crimson, yer at my whim, son.

Th’ boys was not impressed wi’ them sayins, an’ Gimpy claimed I made ‘em up. But what if I did? All sayins has t’ be made up by someone at some point – so why not me, an’ why not now?

Make up a new saying about the meaning of a Red Moon

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?