Category Archives: Science

The Back 40 Boneyard

In a southern Michigan soybean field, a farmer found a bent fence post, caked with mud.  Which was no big deal, until he discovered it was actually part of a fifteen thousand year old pelvis of a Wooly Mammoth.

Wooly Mammoths, which are extinct, seem rather exotic for southern Michigan. Though the news accounts carried no suggestion that the farmer felt annoyed by this unexpected find, it had to be a pain in the butt to halt daily agricultural operations to bring in the archaeologists.

But Trail Baboon’s singsong poet laureate, Schuyler Tyler Wyler, became quite excited when I told him about this story, because he considers the Wooly Mammoth to be his totem animal.

Both STW and Wooly Mammoths are large, hairy, under-appreciated creatures whose unexpected appearance can sometimes lead to feelings of disappointment that the discoverer has not found a real elephant, or a serious poet.

STW’s latest work speaks of this in the hirsute behemoth’s lilting voice.

A farmer works for higher yields,
to see his family’s bread won.
But gets my carcass in his fields!
A crop!  Alas, a dead one.

My bones are no commodity
to trade on the exchange,
An old organic oddity.
low-salt, no cage, free-range.

To dig me up is more than play.
I’m ingrained in the ground.
Though true, I’m trespassing today,
‘Twas not when I fell down.

So now they’ve dug up my remains,
and inventoried fully:
Acres of soybeans, tons of grains.
One ancient Mammoth, wooly.

But I’ll make no apology
to that exhausted farmer.
His harvest – part mythology,
part prehistoric charmer!

Ever find a surprise in the dirt?

Celestial Contact

Today’s post comes from Anna.

I have touched the moon.

No really. I touched the moon. Well, part of the moon. Okay, fine, a rock from the moon. A little piece of rock from the moon. For the record, it was very smooth and shiny, not at all like I expected a piece of the moon to be.

My lunar adventure began with a trip to Houston for work. The co-worker I traveled with is a huge NASA fan and has been to a couple other NASA sites. I will not pretend that a trip to Johnson Space Center was not part of the motivation to fly in early to our conference. With a little work from our hotel’s concierge, we were set up with a rental car for the day and off we went, into Houston traffic, after being warned by the clerk at the rental car agency that something like 1 in 4 drivers in Texas does not have a license. Did I mention that Houston traffic is crazy and there were traffic jams by my hotel well into the evening? Yeah. This wasn’t like driving to Duluth.

In the never-never land between Houston and Johnson Space Center (and Not-Quite-Galveston) there isn’t much. Several purveyors of boots. Various and sundry “adult” businesses. More boots. The previously mentioned crazy traffic. Another place to buy boots.


And then, the Space Center. We got there too late in the afternoon to take the tram out to see the building that houses “mission control,” but we did get to climb into the cockpit of a shuttle (decommissioned, sliced off, and all the fun buttons behind plexiglass…so no button pushing for me, dang it). shuttleinteriorA piece of the control console from the Apollo era is also on display with an explanation of the work necessary to change a single button to do task B instead of task A (makes you appreciate how much computing power you likely have in your pocket or purse…computing power you use to play games and check blogs, perhaps more power than was used to get us to and from the moon). There was a progression of space suits and re-creations of the International Space Station – all sorts of good stuff to make a space nerd happy.

And then, yes, tucked back in a corner of the visitor center is the tiny bit of the moon that you can touch, shiny from all the fingers that have grazed it. touchingthemoonI met the man who brought that piece of the moon and he was about as unassuming as the rock he brought back. Harrison Schmitt – the only professional scientist to have gone to the moon and one of the last to stand on its surface (he was on the last Apollo mission). He was in the Twin Cities a couple years ago for an event and apparently didn’t have the patience to wait for his official autograph time at a table, so wandered the floor of the event chatting with folks. I am sure his politics and mine are not at all similar, but he brought back a part of the moon. And I have touched it. And that is a pretty cool thing.

When have you had a brush with the stars?

Big Hole Remains Vast

I’m here to report that the world-famous Grand Canyon in northern Arizona lives up to its billing and is undiminished by time.

In fact, time, which gradually dismantles you and me and blunts the overall effect of abslutely everything else,  only increases the canyon’s grandness.

Such has been the case for either 6 or 70 million years, depending on which creation story you happen to believe.  In a remarkable double-reversal, the old theory is that the canyon is new, and the new theory is that the canyon is very much older, having formed as a by-product of an earlier river that flowed in the opposite direction – as a result of a powerful, rock-cutting  runoff from mountains that no longer exist.

And that mountain range existed in the basin where Las Vegas sits today.  What are the odds?

Name your favorite natural feature of the Earth’s surface. 



Ice Virus Soup

A French research team plans to wake up an ancient virus to study its genetic structure.

This comes as a huge surprise to me.  I’m a cable-connected-American, so the only French people I ever see are on the Food Channel, fighting over condiments.

I had no idea they could be scientists too!

But why would such a person try to revive a virus embedded in a cake of ice?

Only one reason I can think of – glacial ice is a surprise ingredient, thrown in at the last minute to heighten the souffle’ challenge! Leave it to the crafty French to know the secret – bring out the hidden viral flavors and this frosty addition to an ordinary recipe will be a memory-maker.

And (maybe) a killer!

I commissioned Trail Baboon poet laureate Tyler Schuyler Wyler to respond to this story with a few lines of simplistic verse, and although he thought his inept rhymes might sicken a few unsuspecting readers, he did it anyway – because there was money involved.


One wonders – What forgotten woes
reside inside what once was froze?
Old viruses, encased in ices!
Are they strong, like southern spices?

Let’s research it! Here’s the deal –
I will dump some on your meal
and then take notes as you complain
about the fever in your brain!

Science is a lot like cooking.
Tasting, testing, always looking
for the flavor of the day.
inside a pathogen souffle!

That’s the foodie’s fondest wish
uncover some forgotten dish
of which we all are unaware
and dress it up as modern fare –

Like Hepatitis Cassoulet
and Dengue Fever au Flambe’
Chicken in a Herpes Glaze
with fresh Ebola Bouillabaisse.

Mononucleosis Stew
and Influenza Dip au jus,
Spicy Cowpox over rice.
with Meningitis Torte sounds nice.

Steaming viral soup selections.
Tasty, trendy mass infections
locked in ice. Forgotten. Dated.
Soon you’ll see them nicely plated!

What food makes you sick?

All the News That’s Fit to Print in Blowers

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde of Mankato

Mr and Mrs. Harold White were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Einar Rasmussen on Friday night. Mrs. Rasmussen served Swiss steak with pineapple upside-down cake for dessert. After dinner the couples drove into Wadena for dancing at the American Legion club.”

Hot news that story, is it not? Such items were once the staple of small town newspapers. As I recall, they were called “social notices.” Anything to fill space around the ads and the legal notices. (More on the legal notices later.) Who does not want to see their name in print?

Pix 1

My parents spent much of their childhoods and early married life in the central Minnesota town of Sebeka, home of the Sebeka Review, to which my parents subscribed after they moved away. Each Thursday they would read the paper and tell us stories, fully augmented by imagination, about the people mentioned, the kind of tales a newspaper would never tell. The Review published social notices by regions, one of which stood out in our childhood—Blowers Township. My sister got a kick out of the name, “The Blowers News,” which as a joke we always pronounced as you are pronouncing it now, unless you are up on your Otter Tail County geography. It is not bloo-wers, as in people who blow, but blau-wers, as if you were expressing pain with the ow, “oooww.”

Every week my sister read the Blowers social notices aloud. Over time we became acquainted with most of the few residents of this small very rural township. My sister plotted out friendships and feuds. She drew scandalous unfounded conclusions about what the notices really meant.

As for the social notices on our town, my parents’ comings and goings were hot news almost every week. The wife in the couple with whom my parents were socially active was the reporter of such tidbits. A common item would read “Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Birkholz were the guests of My and Mrs. ______________. After a dinner of chicken and dumplings several games of smear were played.” Mrs. ______________ was a devoted fan of passive verbs. In social notices women were always Mrs. His-First-Name Something, as if they had no first name.

If you do not know what smear is and how to pronounce it (Schmear), then you don’t know Northern Minnesota.

Another long gone item was a legal notice, the property tax reports. Each household was listed, by the man’s name of course, unless the woman was in some form single. After each person’s name was the amount of property taxes assessed and if paid or not. My father relished the anger he could express at how much more property tax the few farmers paid than the high-paid citizens in town. The newspapers made good money from printing those long reports.

Pix 2

Doing a bit of research, I learned something new about Sebeka. It is the birthplace of one-time Twins pitcher Dick Stigman, which I knew, but is also birthplace of Kenneth Arnold, the pilot who made the first widely reported sighting of a UFO, or a flying saucer as he called it.

Have you ever been newsworthy?

Similar Simians Self-Select

Here’s how influential baboons can be – they have digital natives questioning the value of social media.

A recent study of baboon behavior found that baboons like to hang out with their own personality types.  Those identified as bold tended to hang out with like-minded baboons, while the meek ones prefer the company of their own sort.

As a result,  groups remain socially isolated and new information tends to stay within the group that discovered it.

Sound familiar?

No, not to me either.  No one in my circle cares much for animal studies.  Even if the creatures aren’t harmed, we tend to agree that they have a right to privacy.

But Trail Baboon poet laureate Schuyler Tyler Wyler, who, frankly, is not one of us, found the report inspiring.  So he penned the following few lines of deathless verse:

Those bold baboons are reckless beasts
They’re wild and fast and free.
So when I want to socialize,
they’re not my cup of tea.

I much prefer the timid ones.
Baboons who are demure.
If thoughtful and considerate,
I’ll hang with them for sure.

And when we convene a confab
to trade news and give reports,
we will screen for type and temperament
to weed out the wrong sorts.

So that when we all are gathered
we’ll stay focused, we’ll be tame.
All our thoughts and inspirations
will be pretty much the same.

Where do you get new ideas?

Battery Flattery

Elon Musk’s announcement that Tesla will develop and sell solar energy storage for the home brings to my attention something that I did not know I needed.

A big honking battery in the house.

Musk said, “The obvious problem with solar power is the sun doesn’t shine at night. The issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They’re expensive, large, and unsightly. The 51-by-33.8-by-7-inch Powerwall, on the other hand, looks like a beautiful sculpture.

There’s another thing that has not been a high priority when going over the family budget.

Buying a big honking sculpture for the house.

But now that I know I could get art AND reliable solar energy all night long from the same purchase,  I’m re-thinking the possibilities.

And since these are all carrying loads of electricity, the sculptures could be outfitted with lights!  The imagination reels with possibilities.

What famous sculpture would you install in your home?