Category Archives: Science

The Galaxy Hillbillies

The discovery of a gigantic black hole from the dawn of time has me feeling a bit like that small town boy who thought his world was pretty huge, until he found out about New York City.

We’re such small potatoes, universe-wise, the only way I can get my head around it is through the lens of the literature of my youth – TV show theme songs.

So these scientists was lookin’ at a big black hole,
though goin’ to visit wasn’t anybody’s goal.
The one that they found – was as wide as it was tall …
It made everyone feel impossibly small.

A massive hole. In vast space. Texas trench.

It was further away than a lot they’d seen before
It was large as the sun plus a dozen billion more.
They said “this is bigger than an older hole should be,”
An’ they added it all up to another mystery.

Dawn of time. Ancient gas. Quasars.

What’s the biggest city you visited as a youth, and what effect did it have on you?  

Sleep Scold Slackers

 Photo : Thomas Bresson

The National Sleep Foundation’s Expert Panel on Sleep Duration (let’s just call them the Supreme Court of Sleep) has ruled on the amount of rest you’re supposed to get and their ruling is an eye opener.

No, literally. You can have your eyes open more often now.

What?

The new chart identifies specific age groups and suggests a broader range of  sleep hours are “appropriate” based on your seniority.

I have to admit this is a disappointment.  I expect the National Sleep Foundation to caution, warn and scold me about my sleep habits.  In fact, I don’t even look at a report from any sleep expert unless I want to feel like a smoker – someone trapped in an unhealthy pattern of self-destructive behavior.

But reluctant  snoozers will notice with some relief how the recommended amount of down time has shifted:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened two hours to 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened by one hour to 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range widened by one hour to 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13)
  • School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category)

Aside from those always-so-contrary “newborns”,  where the  “acceptable” sleep ranges have widened, they’ve been increased on the low end rather than the high. In fact, only one upper limit was moved – the one for Teenagers, who gained an extra half hour that they can claim “… is perfectly normal. I’m a teenager.  Get off my back.  Geez, mom!”

Of course the usual cautions about not getting enough sleep remain  in the report – you can do serious damage to your health and well-being by skimping on Z’s.   But the takeaway for those who want to stay up late or (horrors!) get up early – you  just got a little more legit.

The big winner – Infants! They gained two hours on the front end – extra awake time to devote to thumb sucking and gently cooing at faces. That’s the best case scenario. In reality, they’ll spend it screaming for dad and smearing poop around the crib.

Toddlers, preschoolers and school age children all got an extra allowable hour of wakefulness. And geezers (65+) got their own category with the lowest upper boundary of all the age groups – eight hours.

Time to get up, grandma.  Quit pretending!

I’m not sure why the sleep boundaries were “widened”, but if you look at the methodology you get an idea of what went in to crafting this new report:

Fifty-eight searches using combinations of search terms related to sleep (eg, time, duration, and sufficiency), age groups (eg, newborn, adolescent), and outcomes (eg, performance, executive function, cognition) yielded 2412 articles. The review team identified 575 articles for full-text review. Of the 575 articles, 312 met our inclusion criteria. Pertinent information (eg, sample size, study design, results) from each article was extracted and included in the literature review materials. Articles were sorted based on the strength of the study and presented in descending order in a summary chart. Expert panel members received print and electronic versions of the literature.

So members of the 18 person panel only had to wade through the particulars of 312 scientific articles to make their judgments about much sleep we need.   And only a third of those panelists were sleep experts – the others came from  such organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Anatomists, the American College of Chest Physicians … you can almost hear their inner deliberations …

“Do I really have to read all this?  This isn’t even my real job – how did I wind up on this friggin’ panel?”  

Busy people.  Highly schooled people.  Graduate school and PhD survivors who had other, equally important obligations, mulling over a persistent question – how much sleep do I really need?   And how do I get my work done?

All-nighter, anybody?

 

Forbidden Prehistoric Love

Header image: "Le Moustier" by Charles R. Knight -Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

New conclusions reached about a 2008 archaeological find support the notion that we humans  mixed genes with our near-relatives, the Neanderthals, many thousands of years ago.

We weren’t that different.  Contrary to popular belief the so-called “cavemen” had brains that were roughly the same size as ours, and our developmental speed was similar.

My favorite line from the Live Science article is this one:

Probably the most debated aspect of Neanderthal life in recent years is whether or not they interbred with humans. The answer remains ambiguous, with scholarly opinions ranging from belief that they definitely interbred to belief that the two groups didn’t exist on earth at the same time.

I’ve known couples just like that – hard to believe they could exist on earth at the same time.

Thoughts about a human-Neanderthal love affair lead to so many questions, not the least of which is how to pitch your woo to a near-but-not human partner.

“Interbreeding” is such an ugly term, I decided it would be a fitting challenge to try to work it into one of the the prettiest love songs I know.

You have such broad and stocky features,
the ridge across your brow seems so strong.

Our lips (I have to stoop to reach yours)
are whispering, perhaps, that our love is wrong.

The way you wield a club. Your ugly scar.
A hot Neanderthal is what you are!

Ice age! It feels so cold and lonely.
But this age can be more tender and kind.
When interbreeding’s on my mind.

Alas, it is tough to keep the romance alive between such mismatched characters when fire and tools are all they have in common.

What  artifact might fuel speculation about your extinct love affairs?

Lonely Mountain

It’s both intriguing and heartbreaking to read this headline: Mountain-Size Asteroid To Fly by Earth on Monday.

It’s intriguing because this will offer a valuable chance for Earth-bound scientists to examine a large asteroid without having to leave the ground. The asteroid, known as 2004 BL86, will glide by at a distance of 745 thousand miles – roughly three times the distance from here to the moon.

In space terms, that’s close.

Not close enough to be dangerous but sufficiently close for radar observatories in Puerto Rico and California to collect images and data that will help us understand more about 2004 BL86’s surface, composition and orbit.

The resolution possible at this distance with radar telescopes is said to be good enough so that the pictures will reveal details as small as “the length of a typical car.”

If nothing else, we’ll soon know if 2004 BL86 has enough parking.

But it’s heartbreaking because the author of the source article called the asteroid a “mountain“, which fixed an image in my mind that I can’t shake.

While we’re watching it, what if it’s watching us?

I see a solitary wanderer, roaming the universe, looking for a home and scouting the nearby terrain for something that appears familiar and, if not friendly, at least fun.  A space mountain would spot many likely companions on Earth’s surface, including (of course), Space Mountain.

They say we’re safe from a collision with 2004 BL86, but that doesn’t account for the power of loneliness and longing.

Twinkle, Twinkle, lonely peak.
Is our planet what you seek?
As you fly by, so detached,
can you spot an earthly match?
Twinkle, Twinkle, if you please.
Just don’t join the Pyrenees.

Have you ever crashed a party?  

Birds of a Feather

"Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0"

The latest word from the journal Science about Bar-headed Geese is that they can fly really high.

Like almost-the-summit-of-Everest high.

Actually, legend has it Bar-headed Geese have been seen flying over it at 29 thousand feet, but researchers have only tracked them to 24 thousand using GPS. But that’s still mighty impressive, given the physical cost of getting to that altitude for a bird that constantly flaps its wings.

They do it by staying close to the ground. Sounds easy, but in the Himalayas, the ground is quite vertical. That means these amazing birds gain and lose vast amounts of altitude only to re-gain it over the course of a long journey – something like going on a roller coaster ride if you had to run the length of the tracks rather than ride.

It makes one think Old Mother Goose may not have always been the doddering, bespectacled granny figure in a rocking chair. Perhaps she looked down on Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay while making up rhymes somewhat like  (but not quite) “To Market, To Market.”

To mountain, to mountain, to go very high.
Down again, down again, out of the sky.
To mountain, to mountain, to flap in thin air.
Down again, down again, nary a care.
To mountain, to mountain, on wings and not legs.
Down again, down again, hawks can suck eggs.

The stamina of these amazing birds was described this way in the Science article:

“In the lab, they nudged geese to run on treadmills in reduced oxygen to simulate high altitudes, which revealed that the birds could keep running at top speed for 15 minutes. Humans would not be able to sustain that pace in such conditions.”

Goosey, goosey flyers,
Bird who never tires.
Upskies and downskies
What strength your life requires!

As speedy as the jaguars,
As fearsome as the bears.
An up-and-downy athlete
who doesn’t take the stairs.

Picture it – a goose on a treadmill. Fifteen minutes, full speed, nonstop. Who says science isn’t fun?

What was your most amazing physical feat?

Rotation Indications

Now that we know the age of stars can be told by measuring their speed of rotation, the jig is up for those  celestial impostors who claim to younger than their velocity indicates.

Fess up, Polaris. You’re getting a little long in the tooth!

For some odd reason, it put me in mind of this classic Disney song.

When you time a spinning star
You can know how old it are
Every revolution tells
a tale that’s true.

When it’s whirring like a top
Chances are it’s just a pup.
When the spinning lessens then
it’s more like you.

Stars get old.
Their slowing, up above,
is a precursor of
someday exploding.

Don’t know much, but this I do …
Stars revolve ’til they are through.
When you time a spinning star
you’re spinning too.

How good are you at guessing the age of people and/or things?

Limerick Formation in Space

I had no idea there was an object in the asteroid belt big enough to be considered a “proto-planet.”   Ceres is about to get its close-up as a NASA probe closes in for a rendezvous in three months.

Ceres (pronounced SEER-eez) has enough gravity to hold itself in a spherical shape, and scientists think there may be some water there, but apparently that is still not enough to get past the “proto” stage, planet-wise. I confess I am not aware of the technical requirements for a space rock to advance beyond big-asteroid status, but there is some doubt that Ceres will ever qualify.

Why?  For me, a place is not a place unless it can generate a decent limerick.

Based on my remote amateur observations, Ceres will fall short, as witnessed by these promising starts that were never able to form fully functioning rhymes:

I.
There was a young fellow from Ceres
Who delighted in posing odd queries.
Such as, “Why do birds fly?”
And “What constitutes pie?” …

II.
There once was a woman from Ceres
an admirer of Timmy Leary’s.
She said “Let’s all drop out”
For she was no Girl Scout …

III.
An ill-defined creature from Ceres
Had appendages he called his “dearies”.
They were all rather cute,
but fell out of his suit …

Sorry, Ceres. Planetude seems very far away indeed.

To prove that you originate from a genuine place, write a limerick about where you’re from.