Category Archives: Science

Aww, Man, Don’t Say That!

Today’s guest post comes from Steve Grooms.

When I was a grad student I developed a hernia low on my tummy. A hernia is like when a body part meant to be an “innie” decides to poke its head outside and live as an “outie,” creating a tender bulge. Hernias need to be repaired, so for the first time in my life I would need surgery.

When I asked for help at the University of Minnesota Hospital, nurses ushered me into the office of the most famous man at the University, heart transplant surgeon John Najarian. Dr. Najarian promised to fix my hernia. That turned out to be the first in a series of lies told me by my doctors. The University Hospital was a “teaching hospital,” I later learned, meaning Dr. Najarian was probably a dozen feet from me during the actual operation, supervising the cutting and stitching done by a team of wannabe surgeons.

My response to the anxiety of surgery was typical for me. I decided to become the perfect patient. I would respect every directive from my doctors, winning the affection of my doctors with my cheerful compliance.

Exactly the opposite response was chosen by my hospital roommate, a man I’ll call Frank Higby. Frank was a stocky, pug-nosed character from northern Minnesota who had a potentially fatal stomach ailment. Frank talked nonstop, stabbing the air with the cigars he chain-smoked. Cigars were perfectly legal in hospitals of the time.

Frank despised doctors. When told he had to fast before taking an enema, Frank sneaked out of the room in the night, roaming dark hallways until he found the kitchen. He returned with several slices of banana pie and a bag sandwiches. When I asked Frank why he had so much contempt for doctors, he replied that he had been a caddy in Rochester, Minnesota, when he was a kid. “I got to know those sonsabitches when they didn’t know someone was watching them. What a scummy bunch of phonies!”

Nurses told Frank and me that we each had to take three exams: a lung x-ray, a heart exam and a proctoscopic exam. Hospitals in those days were compensated based on how many procedures they performed, so they routinely called for as many tests as they could. When the nurses left the room, Frank rolled his eyes in terror. He said he’d suffered a proctoscopy once before. He called it “the worst experience of my life” and vowed he would rather die than have another. This did nothing to ease my own concerns about the next day.

On the day of our exams, nurses led barefoot Frank away in a skimpy blue hospital gown
that didn’t cover his butt. Although he didn’t look quick, Frank shocked them by breaking free and scooting out of sight in that large building. I learned this from a breathless nurse who came to our room looking for him. After she left, Frank dashed in looking like a cartoon mouse running from a cat. Wheezing heavily, Frank grabbed a phone and called the Pinkerton Detective Agency. He begged them to protect his anus by “sending your eight biggest goons down here.”

Minute by minute, it was growing harder for me to act the perfect patient. About then I had a conference with the man who said he’d be my anesthesiologist. My life would literally be in this man’s hands, so I hoped he would like me.

My anesthesiologist turned out to be a cross-eyed Korean with a thick accent. I tried to bond with him by making good eye contact, but that was difficult because his eyes were cattywampus like the headlights of a car after a front end collision. One eye pointed left and one pointed right. I couldn’t tell which eye I should make contact with.

My anesthesiologist wanted to know what kind of drug trip I wanted to take during the operation. That was unsettling. I thought he was the one who should be telling me how I’d travel through lala land. Instead, he described three different drug trips, giving me more detail about each than I knew how to handle.

Desperate now, I said, “Gee, it is amazing that you know so much about all of these forms of anesthesia! I suppose you have experienced them yourself?”

The cross-eyed Korean drew himself up with offended dignity. “I should say not!” he barked. “I am a Man of Science. I would never expose myself to unnecessary risk!”

When has someone said the wrong thing to you?

About these ads


For a long time we have had plenty of strong health-related arguments to support the idea that smoking is hazardous, but some people persist in lighting up regardless.

Now comes a new bit of information for men that might convince even hardcore smokers that there is a price to pay in lighting up – the loss (in men) of the Y chromosome.

So what, you ask? Women don’t have a Y chromosome and they get along just fine with their two X’s.

Indeed they do, but that’s the point, since women tend to live longer than men. Guys, these researchers think smoking away your “Y” may leave you exposed to cancer.

Which, in a weird way, is good news if you remember the following Trail Baboon post from almost exactly a year ago. It’s one of the most popular articles on this site, and it still resonates, especially now that men’s disparaged “Y” seems to finally have some value.

The post comes from marketing whiz Spin Williams, a wheeler-dealer who is always in residence at The Meeting That Never Ends.

I’m not at liberty to say who made the offer, but  we heard from a very well-known genes manufacturer who was shopping around the famous Y chromosome for a possible takeover.


Naturally, we considered it. The Y is a well known brand name in the chromosome industry, making up a significant portion of all the chromosomes out there. It comes in second only to the X chromosome, which is the runaway market leader. In fact, the X is so reliable and effective, it has a 100% market penetration. Some people love the X chromosome so much, they have two! But there is a foothold – around half the population has at least one X and a Y. It was a bit disappointing to us to learn that very few people have two Y chromosomes, and we noted that as a possible marketing goal, should we decide to do the deal.

Doing our due diligence, we discovered that the Y was for sale because its maker has come to the realization that the chromosome is almost worthless, having been shown through scientific studies to contribute very little to any sense of individual well-being or overall usefulness. Most organizations considering a takeover would have walked away at this point, but my experience has shown me that marketing is more powerful than science. As proof, I offer the fact the we still have a tobacco industry! The value of any particular thing is in the eye of the beholder, and there is solid survey information to indicate that most Y chromosome users love and defend it simply because they already have one, and not because of any inherent benefits it may bring to the table.

And there’s a sizable portion of the chromosome-consuming public that doesn’t understand the product and doesn’t know which brand it prefers.

So in spite of the Y chromosome being inferior, we felt certain we could develop a marketing plan that would boost brand loyalty and make the Y seem more fresh and hip than it does today. Whether we would get to a point where X-only consumers might actually feel some envy for those with a Y was hotly debated at the meeting, with one side expressing certainty that such envy was impractical and impossible, and the other group adamant that Y envy pretty much drives all decision making by X’s. It turns out one of the side effects of having a Y is an outsized enthusiasm for the supposed benefits of Y-ness that X’ers don’t generally seem to share.

Similarly, it was the Y-friendly crowd that was all Gung-ho for immediately pulling the trigger on this deal and sorting out the consequences later. The double-X’s in the room were feeling less impulsive, constantly asking ‘How do we monetize this?’, ‘Where’s the benefit?’ and other fun-stifling questions like that.

Because there was no getting around this fundamental conflict, we walked away from the deal. First, though, we made a surprise bid for the X chromosome, thinking a seller in the mood to divest one of His low-performing properties might take the bait on an unexpected left-field offer for the most popular genetic product in the world.

That was a non-starter, but we all had a good laugh over it.

What is your most prized genetic trait?

Jump, Jive & Wail

I always knew electric eels were creepy.

Not only are these sea eels creepier than snakes, but they seem even more sinister now that we know they can use their electricity to remotely control the muscles of their prey.

The BBC article above describes how researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville discovered that eel current can cause hidden prey to involuntarily ‘jump’, thus revealing their position. You can guess what happens next.

But why were scientists from land-locked Music City so interested in the effect eels can have on the oh-so-correctly-named “unfortunate fish”?

Perhaps it’s really research into the strange power bands have over dancers, especially with the energy of an electric guitar at the front and brass as a conductor.

How are you at operating the remote control?

Problem Drinkers

We didn’t need a scientific study to know that dogs are sloppier drinkers than cats, but it took slow motion photography and close observation to figure out why. It all has to do with tongue motion and fluid dynamics. Cats are able to pull up a delicate, single column of fluid using their tongues, but dogs create a water bowl tsunami by smashing their tongues into the water and using it as a ladle.

Basically, the bigger the dog, the larger the mess around the water bowl. That’s a shocker, of course.

Here are some videos to prove the point.

What is proven by these films? It proves that you can completely indulge any obscure fascination on the Internet, including how cats and dogs (and humans) look when they drink. It also shows that we can use someone else’s hard work as a starting point to ask nonsensical questions like, “Why can’t dogs and cats purse their lips?” and “How would the world change if our pets could drink through a straw?”

It also confirms that slow motion re-play technology is completely wasted on live televised sporting events.

Are you a messy eater?

Sixteen Tons of Asteroid

Now that humans have successfully landed on a comet, excitement is building about the previously strange notion of Asteroid Mining.

Lots of new technology will have to be developed to make this work.

Not to mention a boatload of re-written classic mining songs.

There was never an Asteroid made outta mud.
They’re stone and copper and a whole buncha crud.
A whole buncha crud that’s a-flyin’ around,
That’ll never stop and it won’t come down.

You mine asteroids and what do you get?
A ride on a rocket and a load of regret.
St. Peter did you see me as I flew by?
I’m digging holes in the clear blue sky!

I was born around minerals, buried and old
there was coal and palladium and iron and gold.
But we took it all and we filled our cup
Then the straw boss said “Let’s dig way, way up”

You mine asteroids and what do you get?
A ride on a rocket and a load of regret.
St. Peter did you see me as I flew by?
I’m digging holes in the clear blue sky!

When I got to space then I started to drill.
I dug down and down in that airless chill.
Then I got so deep the whole hole just spun,
so I kept on digging up towards the sun.

You mine asteroids and what do you get?
A ride on a rocket and a load of regret.
St. Peter did you see me as I flew by?
I’m digging holes in the clear blue sky!

If you’re out in space you better let me pass
I will take your metals. I will steal your gas.
And I’ll make tear the end off your flying stone
‘Til it’s as brittle and hollow as an ice cream cone.”

You mine asteroids and what do you get?
A ride on a rocket and a load of regret.
St. Peter did you see me as I flew by?
I’m digging holes in the clear blue sky.

What’s the most physically demanding job you’ve ever held?

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?

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?