Category Archives: Science

Team of Eight

Today’s post comes from Verily Sherrilee

I’m one of those folks who can’t quite get over the fact that Pluto has been demoted from planet to dwarf planet. I’m not a complete fanatic; I haven’t cried over it and I haven’t written any poison pen letters to Neil deGrasse Tyson whose Hayden Planetarium was the first to build an exhibit with the Pluto demotion for all the world to see. Although to be completely honest, I DO own a t-shirt that says “Pluto. Revolve in Peace. 1930-2006.”


I was not thinking about Pluto this morning until I went to the post office to replenish my postage stamp stock. They know me pretty well there and know that I’m always looking for new and fun stamps. When I said I needed stamps today, the clerk said, “Oh I have some new ones to show you.” and pulled out some national park stamps and also a sheet of stamps with the eight planets. They’ve very pretty but I couldn’t resist a “poor Pluto” comment.

EightPlanets2The clerk laughed and said “Wait, you’ll appreciate this” as he disappeared into the back. A minute later he returned with a four-stamp sheet with Pluto and the New Horizons spacecraft (the one that did the close flyby of Pluto recently). At this point I was laughing as well, knowing that I am clearly not the only one out there who is still mourning the loss of Pluto from our team of nine. Of course I had to buy a sheet of those as well. I’m not a stamp collector or saver but I might have to make an exception for the Pluto stamp!

What can’t you just let go of?

The Flooding Room Scenario

A new projection suggests that if carbon emissions continue unabated, massive ice melt and expanding oceans will threaten coastal communities on a global scale.  I’ve you’ve been paying attention to this, the advent of a new  prediction that there is a huge climate calamity on the way is something that could have totally been predicted.

The relentlessly regular release of dire news into our environment makes me think of that Hollywood movie scenario where the heroes are trapped in a sealed room that is slowly but inexorably filling with water.

When I mentioned this to Trail Baboon’s resident poet, the relentlessly rhyming but terrifyingly simplistic Tyler Schuyler Wyler, he immediately retreated to his frosty garret. Within hours he had calved off a chunk of doggerel so massive, it could support its own family of penguins.

The doorway clicked shut. There was no pathway out
For the windowless chamber was small.
With a single intrusion. A lone data spout
trickled estimates out of the wall.

Global temperature readings dripped into the room,
Dire missives of gases and soot.
As more studies leaked out of this pipeline of doom
I began to think we were kaput.

There was rapid decay in a glacial ice sheet.
caused by currents a fraction too warm.
As the science gushed in I was swept off my feet,
treading data in silent alarm.

As I floated and flailed in this wave of research
it rose quickly with every new proof.
Not a foothold or ledge. Not a grab bar or perch.
Just my head, and hot air, and the roof.

How I prayed for a hatch or a door or a drain.
A release valve to lessen the flood
of alarming insights swirling around in my brain
of a someday submerged neighborhood.

So the moral is “think harder while you can choose
to do things that will lessen the tide.”
Don’t get trapped in a room filling up with bad news
That you wish that you were not inside.

How do you manage your intake of discouraging news?


One easy way to explain the incongruities of a complicated and often disappointing world is that nefarious “others” are furiously working behind the scenes to conceal what is truly going on.

But I’ve always had a problem accepting conspiracy theories that describe a vast fraud perpetrated on millions of people by a secret cadre of powerful deceivers. It’s not that I have more faith in people than your typical climate change denier – rather quite the opposite.

More than the faked Moon landing, the shooter on the grassy knoll, or the recovery of alien remains at Roswell, I completely believe in the inability of humans to keep their mouths shut, especially when they’ve got a really juicy story to tell.

Elaborate conspiracies must eventually come to light whenever people are involved, which is always.

And now a physicist has produced a paper that uses mathematics to show how unlikely it is that conspiracies can remain hidden.

According to David Robert Grimes, it would take about five years for the bitter truth to come seeping out of mixed bag of plotters.

If you’re skeptical, take a look at this small section of the paper that explains the research.

Screenshot 2016-01-28 at 8.18.48 PM

I have no idea what any of that says, but those are some convincing looking equations. How can I NOT believe something so clearly mathematical? Get a load of those numbers and symbols! Because I find them baffling, I know they must be true.

When I mentioned all this to Trail Baboon’s Singsong Poet Laureate Tyler Schuyler Wyler, he quietly informed me that a major pharmaceutical company had already printed his poem about this very subject in secret code embedded in the side effect warning that accompanies a major anti-flatulence drug.

I like to think I’m pretty smart, and my friend Ted is stupider.
I say this ’cause he’s quite convinced the president’s from Jupiter.

He claims it’s all a massive hoax cooked up by some Hawaiian
who encountered aliens one night when they’d just dropped their guy in

to destabilize the country that would make the biggest fuss
over plans they had to subjugate the populace – that’s us!

So this guy from outer space – he needed many, many cronies
to become the president. He built a phalanx full of phonies

to support a story good enough to make him seem for real.
There are many, many people implicated. It’s surreal

how no one has spoken up about it yet, except for Ted.
Who has made me swear to secrecy – or else I’ll wind up …

Can you keep a secret?

Embracing Rush Hour

With so many people and (lately) nations agreeing that we have to reduce our carbon output to preserve life as we know it on this planet,  it is reasonable to expect that we will all be driving less in the future.

Except that there’s no way we’re going to be driving less.

Humans, especially American humans, are too much in love with their cars and the ease of personalized combustion-engine-powered travel to give up these convenient machines anytime soon.

Technology may make our cars “cleaner”, though even the most advanced electric vehicles simply trade emissions created at the tailpipe to emissions created at the power plant.

And while computer-driven cars will certainly be more fuel efficient thanks to the removal of the lead foot from the equation, there is some thought that unless we get the laws right, autonomous vehicle technology could result in more miles traveled (and gas burned), not less.

Here’s a startling look at Rush Hour from a director named Fernando Livschitz and his company, Black Sheep Films.  Livschitz did the opening credits sequence to Stephen Colbert’s new show on CBS.

RUSH HOUR from Black Sheep Films on Vimeo.

Hilarious and terrifying, in that it feels like someone is going to die but you’ve gotta love the music and the timing.

Describe a close call you had on the roadway. 

Crows Got Tool Talent!

Thanks to cameras attached to the tail feathers of some New Caledonian crows, researchers have now observed the birds building tools and using them in the wild.

These elusive creatures were seen fashioning hooked stick tools to root out food – a remarkable discovery that sheds a bit of light on animal thought processes.

Or if it doesn’t, at least it shows us animal thought as interpreted via the cranial processes of humans like study author Jolyon Troscianko of the University of Exeter, in England.

“In one scene,” Troscianko said, “a crow drops its tool and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterward, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.”

This is a likely explanation. But it is only one, and it assumes crows think like us, which may not be the case! I can think of at least three other options.

  1. The crow dropped its tool, forgot about it completely, and then in an “aha” moment, picked a hooked stick it suddenly found at its feet.
  2. The crow dropped the tool on purpose to fake out the potential food, and then grabbed the tool again when the mistakenly relieved morsel slithered into a more exposed location.
  3. The crow dropped the hooked stick when it realized it had a camera stuck to its tail and it was giving away the company secrets. And then picked the stick up again when it thought, “oh what the Hell,” if I keep acting like I’m committed to the hooked stick, they’ll never find out about all our other crow-made tools, like the cawk gun.”

Hard to know exactly what is going on in the tiny mind of a clever crow.

If scientists pasted a camera to your tail, what tool would they see you use?

Brain Sex Science

I was delighted to learn last week that after scientists conducted a close examination of the one sexual body part no one obsesses over, it was concluded that human brains are not distinctly male or female.

That’s right  – no real difference.  Both sexes come to the dance with the same basic between-the-ears equipment.

When I revealed this to Trail Baboon sing-song poet laureate Tyler Schuyler Wyler, he swept out of the room with no comment and tromped up the stairs to his tiny garrett.

I couldn’t tell if he was hurt, angry or inspired.  Until he appeared several hours later with this:

A research shelf is where they sat.
The bottled brains of May and Matt.
Who once, in life, met in a bar.
Now side-by-side, each in a jar.

Their first encounter didn’t last –
an opportunity both passed.
But in the lab, a perfect date.
Paired up by color, size and weight.

The lab assistants, on a whim,
located hair for she and him.
On the containers, fitted snug,
A girly wig. A manly rug.

The hair was fluffed and teased and plump.
They called them “Marilyn” and “Trump”
And everyone enjoyed the laughs
of brain jar hairstyles, over glass.

But years went by as well they must
The jars and wigs collected dust
Experiments were rather rare
for brains floating beneath fake hair

Until the lids came off one day.
They lifted out both Matt and May
and placed them in sink to drain.
That’s a big deal for an old brain.

With samples taken, back they went.
To their containers, both were sent.
Except no one had thought to ask
which brain belonged inside which flask.

But still they float inside their jars.
Which brain is Venus, and which Mars
has not been proven to this day –
without the wig and the toupee. 

Describe your favorite headgear.


A Weekend Getaway

Although there’s no real reason to want to escape on this mild December weekend in the heart of what is already one of the busiest travel times of the year, we do have the opportunity to transport ourselves to Pluto today, thanks to new images released by NASA.

I would not have guessed even last year that I’d be able to sit in my living room on a sunny Saturday morning and do a flyover of Pluto. The texture of this distant terrain is fascinating, but not so much that I’d like to see it first hand.

The heat source is a bit distant for my comfort.  I’m fine watching from here.

The image above is of Pluto’s moon, Charon.  They’re calling the dark smudge at the top of the moon “Mordor”, which sounds like the first bit of travel marketing for this far end of the solar system.

No doubt the Plutonian Tourism Agency (PTA), when seeking to book tour groups, would have a big challenge in closing the deal, with an average surface temperature of -384 F.

One time honored tactic is to show impossibly beautiful people having fun in the location being advertised.  But its hard to see those models when they’re sealed up inside their spacesuits.

And for outright fun, how about “surviving”?

What travel marketing tricks work on you?