April 21, 2019

Imperfect and Incomplete

Filed under: Going Places,Science,The Occasional Godliness,Think About It! — Katrina @ 3:12 pm

Over the past 47 days I’ve looked up various information about our world and ourselves. And, I’ve got to say, when you really look at it, we’re in and part of a magical place. We all began as star stuff that formed and evolved under just right and unlikely conditions, and here we all are, on our Earth, on this beautiful (here in Montgomery County MD anyway) Easter Sunday.

As I write this, I’m sitting in Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, where I’ve come for Easter for eleven years now. And, given the line of cars I was in to get in here, a lot of other people have the same idea. And for good reason! It’s gorgeous and peaceful here, full of bright blooming flowers and budding trees. And everyone walking along the path in front of me, young and old, of any race, speaking multiple languages. Some in their Easter outfits having come here from church. Some in yarmulkes, to go on this evening to a seder. And so many others, walking among the flowers and in the sunshine.

What I see is what the world could and should be. I see the shared appreciation of a botanical garden on a spring day.

This past week, I wrote about the women scientists who despite misogyny made huge discoveries about our universe. I wrote about the bizarre iron-rich green icebergs and then some extremely dangerous but fascinating geographic and geologic features around the world. Then about some animals and their amazing abilities. And then some weird trees. Finally, some scientific articles I’d recently read, an all too small sampling of our species’ boundless creativity and innovation.

Outside this place and this day, it’s back to being reminded of all that’s wrong in the world. Even here, they have an exhibit about plastic pollution, a serious problem in need of our so very human ingenuity to solve and clean up. The diversity of the walkers in front of me is elsewhere a reason to kill and enact horrific xenophobic policies. The sexist attitudes that inhibit female scientists are still around, if much less so.

So many of these social issues are a distraction. How much energy gets wasted on ridiculous concerns like someone’s citizenship or skin color or sexual orientation or religion? How much energy is wasted on excessive accumulation of wealth and power by those with zero interest in actually using it for any greater good?

We’re humans. We are life on planet Earth. We are aware of ourselves and our place in the universe. We are the cosmos made conscious, the means by which the universe understands itself. Our presence, our existence, our progress is all a miracle. We inherited the universe in our own time to make our contribution and pass it on to those after us.

So we have to create and innovate, to cure and investigate, to fix and try again and again. We have to take care of each other and explore the world and universe around us and use it all responsibly, to do better each time. This is our sacred purpose. It’s just that simple and just that astoundingly difficult. But we can and must do it.

Happy Easter!

Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
Genetic blends
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet.

Rush, “Freewill

April 20, 2019

Humans Having Ideas

Filed under: Science — Katrina @ 10:57 pm

Where would science be without humans thinking “hey, I’ve got an idea, hear me out…”? Nowhere, because that’s what science is, in a way. We’ve got a natural world and a lot of problems, so we do what humans do and think of how to solve those problems with what nature and the universe has already provided, that we may or may not know about yet.

Need better energy sources? Try bacteria!

When some researchers placed some electrodes into a hot pool at Yellowstone, they found some extremophile bacteria who live in that pool generate a very small amount of electricity. Similarly, other types of bacteria have been found to generate energy from organic matter, or at least they could with the appropriate metabolic tweaking. It seems to be in its early stages, but it could be a viable clean energy source. Very nice.

Need to protect coral reefs from warming oceans? Engineering to the rescue!

Climate change is a clear and imminent problem. On top of reducing emissions, what else can be done? Coral reefs are particularly in trouble, as the rising ocean temperatures are damaging and killing them. So what are some scientists suggesting? Make coral that can withstand the higher temperatures! This could be through controlled crossbreeding or gene editing or other measures. Others are straight up suggesting making clouds brighter, to reflect sunlight away from warming the ocean, an idea that seems neat if desperate and also could easily make things a whole lot worse. But, hey, climate change is a huge problem, and good to float some ideas.

Need to make a lake less deadly and give your people electricity? Maybe a joint solution for that.

A couple days ago, I mentioned Lake Nyos in Cameroon, which had an explosive release of carbon dioxide which killed almost everyone in the surrounding villages in one night. On the border of Rwanda and Congo is another lake which could well do the same thing, Lake Kivu. And worse, as it’d be an even bigger explosion that could kill two million people. Like with Nyos, there are pipes in place to release the carbon dioxide and methane gases in smaller doses to hopefully prevent a disaster. In fact, the methane is being used as a power source for Rwanda! So at the same time, they reduce the gas attack threat from the lake and provide electricity to more people and improve their lives. Yay! Will these measures hold and keep the people around the lake safe? We’ll see. And hopefully they won’t do something astoundingly stupid like drill for oil in Lake Could-Explode-And-Murder-Everyone-At-Any-Moment.

Need to clean your particle accelerator? Get a ferret!

In 1971, the National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL needed to clean the inside of the particle accelerator and clean it well, as even the tiniest speck would screw up their work. So, of course, they get a ferret named Felicia. Ferrets naturally crawl into small dark holes, so she wouldn’t have issues crawling through the accelerator tubes, dragging a big swab behind her to clean it as she went. And it worked! She did this for a while until a robot took over her job. Typical. She died the following year of a ruptured intestinal abscess. Rest in peace and power, Felicia. On another note, at CERN a couple years ago, a beech marten chewed on some wires, and cut the power to the Large Hadron Collider and fried itself in the process. That one was less helpful.

Need to examine lake pollution? How about a robotic eel!

Taking multiple measurements and samples from all over a lake is time consuming and cumbersome and just plain annoying. So some researchers in Switzerland made a robot eel for the job in Lake Geneva. It’s called Envirobot, and it moves through the water gently so to not disturb the water too much itself, and it’s made up of multiple chambers with different sensors for different physical, chemical, and biological tests for the water. It makes these measurements in real time and can map out the source of any contamination, among other things. Pretty sweet.

Need an image of a black hole? Make the whole planet one big telescope!

Just ten days ago, an image of a supermassive black hole was released, the first ever generated. How did they manage that? In a nutshell, with the combined efforts of eight observatories around the world, they formed the Event Horizon Telescope, essentially turning our planet itself into a telescope to collect the energy from this 26,000-light-year-away event horizon. From this they compiled all that data and put together an image of it that we saw all over the place last week. Good job, humans!

(I may not have explained all of these correctly. Sorry for any inaccuracies. Check out the links for better info.)

April 19, 2019

So, Anyway, Here’s Some Weird Trees

Filed under: Check It Out,Science — Katrina @ 10:42 pm

One time I saw a tree that was four trees.

Really. See?

It’s four big trees that, at their base, you can see are all just part of an even bigger one. So it’s a tree that’s four trees. There’s no other way to describe it.

Here’s a tree that’s eight trees.

This is the Octopus Tree on the coast of Oregon at Cape Meares. It’s a couple hundred years old and has been an important ceremonial site for the Tillamook tribe. Either the Tillamook themselves bent the tree like this, or the wind did it. Either way, there it is.

Here’s a tree that’s forty trees.

It looks like just one ordinary tree, but it’s actually got parts of a bunch of trees grafted onto it, all stone fruit trees, so this one tree grows plums, peaches, apricots, almonds, and others. It’s called the Tree of 40 Fruit and it’s a work of art as well as conservation.

Here’s a tree that’s 40,000 trees!

It’s called Pando, and it’s part of Fishlake National Forest in Utah. What appears to be a grove of multiple quaking aspens roughly 130 years old are actually genetically identical stems all connected to an underground root system estimated to be about 80,000 years old.

Here’s a tree on top of a completely different tree.

It’s a mulberry tree with a cherry tree growing on top. Both trees are thriving just fine in this scenario, which is unusual for epiphytes. It’s located in Italy, where it’s called Bialbero di Casorzo. Also called Grana Double Tree. It looks like someone just picked up the full grown cherry tree and stuck in on top of the mulberry, but it in fact grew there on its own, though how it got there was a mystery.

Here’s a tree growing atop a courthouse clock tower.

This is the clock tower of the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg, Indiana. And, ever since the 1870’s, it’s had trees growing out of it. Yes, plural. Some trees lived their whole lives up there and died only for more to sprout. It’s unknown how they got up there or how they’re surviving. They weren’t sure exactly the kind of tree it was until some researchers finally determined it’s a mulberry. Maybe this one will get a cherry tree on top of it, too.

Here’s a tree with its own mobile glass house.

After a whole long history of trying to protect this 18th century tree during the German winter, they finally built a glass house that can move on some tracks to cover it and uncover it as needed.

Here’s a tree that’s also a dining room.

This is the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire, England, and it’s a big fat pedunculate oak that’s likely over a thousand years old. Its interior has been used as a dining room that could seat 20 people. More recently it’s been mostly a hangout for sheep.

Here’s a tree that’s eating a bench.

This is Hungry Tree. It is on the grounds of a Dublin law school and is, well, eating this bench.

Here’s some trees that forgot which way to grow.

They eventually figured it out, but now the trees in this Polish forest have all got this uniform northward curve, and no one really knows how or why this happened.

Here’s some trees that look like they’ll grab you if you get too close.

Sweden has an enchanted troll forest full of twisted wind swept trees because of course it does.

Here’s a tree that just might get up and walk away.

It’s called the walking palm because it’s thought these weird stilt roots mean the tree can walk to where there’s more sunlight by putting down more roots in the intended direction and uprooting the back ones. Is this true? No, of course not. But wouldn’t that be cool?

The first image (the tree that’s four trees) is my own. All others are from Wikimedia Commons. Click on them to go to their pages there.

April 18, 2019

Animals That Are Better Than You

Filed under: Check It Out,Science — Katrina @ 10:36 pm

You’re human, presumably. I’ll bet that makes you think you’re super cool. Certain rights and privileges come with it for sure. But, you know, our fellow animalians have cool stuff going on themselves. Sure, they have claws and sharp teeth and speed. But you’ve got intelligence and technology and can openers and whatnot. That wins out, right? That’s a matter of debate, but for now, here’s some animals you have surely been underestimating…

Hagfish
They’ve been around mostly unchanged for like 300 million years. They have cartilaginous skulls but no jaws or vertebrae. They look like a tube sock with teeth. Good thing, too. If a shark or other would be predator comes along, they wouldn’t sustain much injury in the scuffle. They’ll just tie themselves in knots and slither out of it. And, for good measure, blast the assailant with slime. While assailant is thrashing around and suffocating trying to get the slime off, hagfish gets away. Badass. Can you do that? Didn’t think so.

Archerfish
I met some of these guys at the Georgia Aquarium back in 2016. Archerfish sees a bug above the water, shoots a spectacularly precise water jet at it, and says “Do you want ants? Because that’s how you get ants!” Or whatever kind of bug. They shoot hard and don’t miss and this is from underwater so their eyesight is amazing and a physical marvel itself. Oh, and they totally remember faces. Can you spit a precise jet of water at something three meters away? Didn’t think so.

Cleaner Wrasses
These bright little fish run coral reef cleaning stations. Bigger fish and other critters come by, and the little cleaner wrasses eat any ectoparasites bothering them or any unhealthy scales. This keeps their “clients” healthy, both physically and mentally, as not having parasites to worry about makes life so much easier. And the wrasses get a meal out of it. Not only do their clients stay smart, but they are pretty smart, too. They pass the mirror test! I’m going to assume you recognize the being in the mirror is your own reflection, so I’ll give you that. But the cleaning stations that keep reefs healthy and going? Your own space is probably a disaster and you’re likely doing something or other contributing to climate change which is bleaching and killing reefs. You’re no cleaner wrasse.

Malabar Giant Squirrel
Let’s step out of the water now and over to southern India. Up in the trees are large multicolored squirrels, with black, brown, beige, and seemingly even purple and red fur, and I swear they are totally real. This coloration acts as camouflage to protect them from predators. And to make them look totally fabulous! In fact, Teen Vogue had this to say:

Today, while exploring the Internet, we came across the most beautiful hair we’ve ever seen. Think ombre fade, velvety-soft finish, and glistening hues of midnight blue, burgundy, burnt sienna, tangerine, and yellow ochre. Oh, and did we mention that this was someone’s natural hair color? That’s right, we’re talking about a squirrel.

Is your hair naturally that fabulous? Didn’t think so.

African Painted Wolves
They’re also called African wild dogs. Painted dogs. Whatever you want to call them, they roam the savanna alongside lions and hyenas as a serious egalitarian pack. The monogamous breeding pair is in charge but everyone gets a say. No, seriously, they vote. By sneezing. Also, the pups come first. They feed the pups before the adults. They take care of any pack member who is sick or injured or otherwise can’t be productive. Humans, on the other hand, are always finding excuses to leave behind the young, old, and disabled, always hoarding things for ourselves, and finding ways to make it so certain people’s “sneezes” don’t count. African Painted Wolves have it figured out. What the hell is our excuse?

April 17, 2019

If You Lived Here, You’d Be Dead

Filed under: Check It Out,Science — Katrina @ 11:08 pm

Not everywhere is a place you can live and expect to, well, keep living. Can’t live at the bottom of the sea or the polar ice caps or outer space without some serious technological assistance. But there are plenty of other places on our own planet that are beautiful and strange and otherworldly… that want to kill you dead.

Such as…

Smoking Hills
Canada
Say you’re trekking through coastal northern Canada for some reason. You’re freezing and long for warmth when, off in the distance, smoke! You think it’s a campfire or something, so you rush to get warm.

But it’s no campfire. The hills themselves are burning and have been for centuries and will be for centuries more. The sulfur in the hills ignites when exposed to air and makes any nearby pools of water super acidic, so it’s a smoldering hellscape. This place wants you dead.

So maybe instead of some place cold, Arctic, and acidic, try hot, tropical, and alkaline? Okay, if you insist…

Lake Natron
Tanzania

Is this what you had in mind? Lake Natron is a soda lake (not the kind you have to sacrifice Yoshi for) that’s a toasty 120 degrees and a caustic pH above 12. And if despite that you think about taking a dip anyway, you’ll turn to stone! Well, not quite, but you definitely shouldn’t. This place is more for the cyanobacteria that make the lake so red and for the lesser flamingos that eat them. Not you. This lake wants you dead.

Prefer acid to alkaline after all then? Then take a hop across the Indian Ocean to…

Kawah Ijen
Indonesia
Does this Indonesian volcano have actual blue lava and a cool turquoise lake? Got to check that out!

Or not. The turquoise lake is more acidic than your car battery and its fumes have been known to kill birds midflight. And that blue lava is actually just blue flames from ignited liquid sulfur. Amazing! Less so, however, for the sulfur miners who toil up there and breathe the fumes every day for low wages, leading to serious respiratory problems. Not a place people should be working without protection and better pay! Or just at all perhaps. Because this place wants you dead.

Want to head back north to cooler places? Okay…

Corryvreckan
Scotland
How about a nice boat ride around some Scottish islands? What could go wrong…?

Except for a big ass whirlpool from which there is no escape! The formation of the underwater rocks jutting out from the two nearby islands causes this ferocious maelstrom that will devour you without a second thought. It even tried to eat George Orwell while he was working on “1984”. Was this attempt on the author’s life politically motivated? The world may never know. All I can say is that this Scottish strait wants you dead.

Will sailing across the Atlantic save you?

Old Sow
US, Canada
Nope. If Corryvreckan doesn’t get you on one side of the Atlantic, Old Sow will on the other, and it’ll make squealing pig noises at you for good measure. Just when you thought it was safe to sail around in your little boat in the waters off Maine and New Brunswick… Seemingly innocent locales that totally want you dead.

Better find some land…
(more…)

April 16, 2019

You Can’t Just Ask Icebergs Why They’re Green

Filed under: Check It Out,Science — Katrina @ 9:54 pm

It’s April. It’s spring. Easter is this Sunday. The Paschal full moon will shine this week. Flowers are blooming. Bees are buzzing. The air is warming up as the days are getting longer.

So let’s talk about icebergs.

Why not? I can think of another mid-April where thinking more about icebergs might have prevented certain disaster…

Sorry. Too soon?

Well, anyway, I’m talking specifically about antarctic icebergs, where, by the way, no flowers are blooming, the days are getting shorter, and it’s of course extremely cold.

Even more specifically, about why some of these icebergs are green.

Glacial ice normally comes in white and blue. White means there’s a lot of air bubbles in it to scatter light, while blue has been so compressed by the snow and ice accumulating on top that the air bubbles are fewer, and blue is the only color reflected.

And yet… somehow there are green ones? What’s that about?

For one, the green icebergs don’t have air bubbles and therefore should be blue. It’s not glacial ice but marine ice, ocean water frozen to the undersides of ice shelves. So something is added to the mix to make the otherwise blue iceberg into a green one. Something… yellow, perhaps?

Must be dissolved organic carbon, a.k.a. bits of dead organisms that got stuck in there. That would make the ice yellow, and yellow is what you add to blue to get green, so mystery solved!

Or not. Blue and green have about the same amount of the yellowing dead organism bits.

Anyway, turns out the green is from iron oxides, which you already know if you looked at any of the above links which explain all this way better than I am and also have some cool pictures. Glacial movement grinds rock into some kind of glacial flour (actual term) which gets caught up in the ocean water that freezes under the ice shelves to become marine ice. This contains yellowish red iron oxides to mix with the blue, so there you go. A chunk of that breaks off the ice shelf and floats away, and that’s how you make a green iceberg!

Okay, but so what? Who cares if some iron-laden icebergs are out sailing around?

Phytoplankton, that’s who! They rely on this iron transport, this ferrum ferry if you will, to bring them some much needed nutrients.

In other words, these verdant bits of ice shelf come rolling in, and phytoplankton are like…

April 15, 2019

Science Is Female

Filed under: Check It Out,Estrogen,Science — Katrina @ 11:00 pm

Too often, science has been assigned male. Or at least it’s assumed every major discovery or breakthrough has been achieved by men. And of course for so long it’s been set up so that only men really could. But, even so, a great many women have made significant strides and discoveries in science, much more than is often realized.

So let’s remember some of these awesome women in science. Such as…

Marie Curie
1867 – 1934
Poland, France

-Probably the only one you could readily name
-Originally Maria Skłodowska
-Why are these uranium minerals more active than uranium alone?
-Ah, it’s polonium and radium!
-And that’s a Nobel in Physics!
-Which was almost awarded only to Pierre and to Henri Becquerel before Nobel committee was told “Don’t you fucking dare exclude her!”
-Now isolated radium
-And now a Nobel in Chemistry!
-Explore more uses of radium. What could possibly go wrong?
-What do you mean aplastic anemia?!

Rosalind Franklin
1920 – 1958
UK
-Probably the only other one you could readily name
-Went from noticing coal has holes in it to x-ray diffraction
-Didn’t believe in DNA model building without sufficient data
-Wasn’t sure Photo 51 was sufficient data
-Unfortunately for her, Crick and Watson did not share this view
-Nor did they believe in not reading others’ semi-confidential data and stealing it
-Got trolled into workplace infighting
-Would fight you and win
-Died of ovarian cancer before she could win Nobel
-Is currently in afterlife, pounding her fist while waiting for James Watson, like “Call me Rosy again, motherfucker, I dare you…”

Lise Meitner
1878 – 1968
Austria, Sweden

-Responded to Vienna not believing girls should learn math or science with “screw you, I’m doing it anyway”
-So she got her doctorate at University of Vienna
-Max Planck’s lectures did not allow women to attend, but she did it anyway.
-She became his assistant
Her hair did not catch fire.
-Discovered protactinium.
-Then had to get the hell out of Germany and flee to Sweden because World War II and Jewish
-Then something weird when a uranium atom got split in half…
-Nuclear fission!
-Except only her lab partner Otto Hahn got the Nobel for it. Typical.
-She did share the Enrico Fermi Award with him, though.
-Also, meitnerium.
-She begged for nuclear fission to not be used for destructive purposes.
-Spoiler alert: It was totally used for destructive purposes.

Rachel Carson
1907 – 1964
US

-Aquatic biologist looking at fish populations
-Author of books about the sea
-A wild overuse of DDT appeared
-Used “Silent Spring”
-It’s super effective.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer
1906 – 1972
Germany, US

-Got the unit for two-photon absorption cross section named for her.
-Figured out nuclear shell model.
-Second woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics
-Worked most of her career in unpaid and volunteer positions.
-Her facial expression above shows how she felt about this.
-She did finally get a full paid position at UC San Diego, three years after which she got the Nobel
-Equal pay for equal work!

Mary Anning
1799 – 1847
UK

-She unearthed and understood fossils, before people really knew extinction was a thing.
-Oh, look, an ichthyosaur!
-Wow, a pterosaur!
-Holy fuck, a plesiosaur!!!
-Male scientists: “These are huge finds!”
-Male scientists: “Oh, did you want credit for any of this? LOL”
-Mary Anning: “Have I mentioned those weird rocks you all can’t identify are actually fossilized shit?”

And many many many more. To be continued…

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