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Posts Tagged ‘Science’

The Questions…

1. What are the names of the three Rice Krispies elves?

2. What is the most valuable residence on earth?

3. Anne Frank and her family were in hiding from 1942 to 1944 in what city?

4. What is the strongest muscle in the human body?

5. What was the duration of the age of the dinosaurs, aka the Mesozoic Era, aka the Age of Reptiles?

The Answers…

1. Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

2. Buckingham Palace in London, which is worth about $5 billion. The palace has been the official royal residence since 1837, when Queen Victoria moved in.

3. Amsterdam.

4. The jaw muscle.

5. Between 150 and 200 million years. The earliest ancestors of humans appeared only six million years ago.

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Groundhogs

This hillside behind the Jefferson Civic Center is home to a sizable colony of groundhogs. Now that spring is here, I’m beginning to see the little guys peeking out of their hidey-holes.

In the photo above, the brownish spots are entrances to their burrow. Sentries are posted here and there to keep an eye out for perils such as me, Jake, cats, hawks, etc.

The critters are Marmota monax, aka groundhogs, aka woodchucks, which are burrowing rodents of the marmot family. They are said to be quite intelligent and have a complex social order that includes whistling to warn the colony of threats.

The hillside is about 15 feet high, providing an excellent view of the area, and some 200 yards long, almost all of it pocked with holes. A sizable colony, it seems.

I’m certainly not a threat to them, and Jake is on a leash, but they don’t know that.

The Rio Grande Rift

You may be aware that the Rio Grande flows down the center of New Mexico, dividing the state neatly in half. But did you know that the river follows a fault that began forming about 30 million years ago when the Colorado Plateau uplifted itself from the rest of the continent?

The Rio Grande Rift runs from southern Colorado to northern Mexico. Below El Paso, the rift continues south into Mexico, but the river turns east there and flows to the Gulf of Mexico as the border between Mexico and the US.

Although classified as a “narrow” rift, the fault averages about 180 miles wide. Geologists say it is expanding at a rate of about two millimeters per year.

Out of Sight

On weekends, Jake and I usually take our morning walk at one of the local schools. No people, no traffic, and Jake can go off-leash.

He doesn’t stray far, but occasionally he disappears from view for a moment, which can be worrisome. One Saturday recently at Jefferson Academy, when he was 30-40 feet ahead of me, he turned a corner, and I lost sight of him. I walked faster to catch up.

A few seconds later, I found him — surrounded by, and being petted by, a group of kids whose basketball game he had interrupted. Jake was gloriously happy.

If reincarnation turns out to be real, I want to come back as a dog.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The first novel depicting time travel was “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, 1889.

● Alexander the Great had a favorite horse, Bucephalus, which meant “ox-head” because of a branding mark depicting the head of an ox. Bucephalus died in battle in 326 BC. Alexander buried him with full honors and founded the city of Bucephala in Pakistan as a memorial.

● All nine species of the flowering plant Datura are poisonous if eaten and can cause fever, hallucinations, psychosis, and even death. Datura also is known as thornapple, jimsonweed, devil’s weed, and hell’s bells.

● In October 1961, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened an exhibit featuring works by Henri Matisse, and they managed to hang one of them upside down. It remained that way for 47 days until an observant visitor informed MOMA of the error. To be fair, the work in question, “Le Bateau” (the boat) is a simple paper cutout depicting a sailboat and its reflection, so…

● The Akita dog breed originated in Japan in the 1500s. In the past, Akitas were used to hunt elk, bear, and wild boar and often were the companions of samurai warriors.

● In informal use, a jiffy is a rough measure of time that means “real quick” or “right away.” Technically, however, a jiffy is a precise unit of time: how long it takes light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum. The answer, as determined by chemist Gilbert Newton Lewis (1875-1946) in the early 1900s, is one-trillionth of a second.

● C. S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy all died on November 22, 1963.

● The KattenKabinet is an art museum in Amsterdam dedicated to works that depicts cats. On display are paintings, sketches, sculptures, etc. by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rembrandt, and others. The museum was founded in 1990 by Bob Meijer in honor of his cat J. P. Morgan.

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Thoughts du Jour

What’s in a Name?

In 1781, using a humongous new 40-foot telescope, British astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. At the time, Mars was thought to be the outermost planet in the solar system.

In 1787, Herschell spotted two moons in orbit around Uranus and temporarily named them One and Two.

As more big telescopes were built and more moons were found, Sir William’s son John assumed the task of formally naming them. Being a proud Englishmen, Sir John broke from the tradition of using names from Greek mythology and named the moons after characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope.

Moons One and Two became Titania and Oberon from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Today, Uranus has 27 known moons. Three are named for characters in poems by Pope, and 24 are named for Shakespearean characters.

Teklehaimanot

Putting up with spam texts and phone calls is a part of life these days, and I have a spam problem that has become especially maddening.

A few years ago, I began getting texts that read something like, “Hi, Teklehaimanot. This is Fred at Liberty Partners. Are you still interested in selling your property at 255 Lakefront Drive?”

The texts arrived regularly from Bill, John, Tina, etc., all asking Teklehaimanot if he wanted to sell various properties. In the most recent one, “Marc” asked if I want to sell 3430 Shorelake Drive in Tucker, Georgia, “in as-is condition.”

My guess is, they’re hoping for a reply to confirm that the number belongs to a live person. Anyway, I just mark the texts as spam, delete them, and block the numbers.

In all, I’ve received 40-50 Teklehaimanot messages. Which I admit is minor compared to the steady bombardment of incoming phone calls flagged as “potential spam.” A modern problem with no solution.

Teklehaimanot, by the way, is an Ethiopian word and can be either a first or a last name. It came from Saint Takla Haymanot (1215-1313), an Ethiopian priest who, legend has it, first spoke when he was three days old, healed the sick, cast out evil spirits, and raised the dead.

Blooey

The San Francisco Volcanic Field is a region of northern Arizona, covering about 1,800 square miles around Williams and Flagstaff, that contains over 600 extinct volcanoes. The volcanic remnants range in age from 6 million years old to a mere 1,000 years old.

The tallest remnant in the field is Humphreys Peak, which overlooks Flagstaff. Humphreys is part of the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain chain left behind after a massive volcano went blooey half a million years ago.

The US Geological Survey says it expects more eruptions to occur, maybe once every few thousand years. But the events are likely to be small and, with luck, will happen in remote areas.

The most recent eruption in the region occurred northeast of Flagstaff in about 1070 AD and created what is known as Sunset Crater.

At the time, the area was home to numerous native settlements, so people almost certainly witnessed the event. And maybe lived to tell about it.

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The Questions…

1. What is globophobia?

2. What is the difference between a meteor, a meteoroid, and a meteorite?

3. How many time zones does the world have?

4. What is the world’s oldest rainforest?

5. What is the Neon Boneyard?

The Answers…

1. Fear of balloons.

2. A meteoroid is a chunk of material passing outside of Earth’s atmosphere. If it enters the atmosphere, it becomes a meteor. A piece that reaches Earth’s surface is a meteorite.

3. 24.

4. The Daintree Rainforest in northeastern Australia. It is an estimated 180 million years old, 10 million years older than the Amazon.

5. A museum in Las Vegas, the final resting place of retired neon signs from the city’s past, many of which are historically significant.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● In Alabama and Georgia, legislation forbids carrying an ice cream cone in your back pocket. The laws were enacted in the 1800s when horse thieves used the cones to entice horses to follow them.

● The producers of Ghostbusters wanted the film to star John Belushi, but Belushi OD’d, so the part went to Bill Murray.

● There is evidence that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, a natural painkiller, as well as hormones that relax your body and improve your sense of well-being. Apparently, “a good cry” is pretty accurate.

● A former Chinese prostitute named Ching Shih (1775-1844) became the most successful pirate of all time. Ching married an infamous pirate captain, then took command of the operation when he was killed. At the height of her reign, she led 80,000 pirates and a fleet of 1,800 ships.

● George Washington was fond of sweets. He made his own eggnog, and when he became President, he installed ice-cream-making equipment in his Capitol office.

● Your body contains 206 bones. 52 of them, 25 percent of the total, are in your feet.

● The teabag was accidentally invented in 1908 when Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, sent his customers samples of a new variety of tea in small silk bags. He meant for the recipients to transfer the leaves to their metal infusers, but many misunderstood and just tossed the silk bags into their teapots.

Sullivan knew a good thing when he saw it. He began manufacturing teabags for commercial production, first of gauze and then of paper. He also added a string and a paper tag to facilitate removal of the used bag.

● The highest mountain in both Europe and Russia is Mount Elbrus, which rises 18,510 feet above sea level. Elbrus is in southern Russia on the isthmus between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. FYI, the elevation of Mt. Everest is 29,032 feet.

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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), the “dean of science fiction writers,” was a stickler for scientific accuracy in his fiction. No surprise for a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and an engineer. Science was in his genes.

In 1952, Heinlein published a story in Galaxy Magazine in which he predicted where science, technology, and society would be in the year 2000.

Most of the predictions were misfires, not that you or I would have done better. But Heinlein was gutsy enough to go on record.

Here is what he wrote.

———

So let’s have a few free-swinging predictions about the future. Some will be wrong but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.

1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — C.O.D. It’s yours when you pay for it.

2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.

3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.

4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.

5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough” into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.

6. We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by.

7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists.

8. Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing “operational psychology” based on measurement and prediction.

9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish “regeneration,” i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.

10. By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.

11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.

12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars.

13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed.

14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.

15. We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.

16. Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance.

17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.”

18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.

19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed.

Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever:

— Travel through time.
— Travel faster than the speed of light.
— “Radio” transmission of matter.
— Manlike robots with manlike reactions.
— Laboratory creation of life.
— Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter.
— Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
— Nor a permanent end to war.

———

Fascinating stuff.

To me, the lost opportunities represented by the failures of the first and 10th predictions are particularly painful. Not to mention stupid and counterproductive.

Just as the space program was gaining momentum in the 1960s and early 1970s, the politicians — the conservatives, of course — crippled it by cutting NASA’s funding.

In time, the Space Shuttle replaced the Moon landings, and then the Shuttle was retired, too. Now, here we sit, hoping SpaceX can do something.

Heinlein would be steamed, too.

Heinlein quote

 

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Brain Damage

Science, I love ya.

I am of the opinion, and have been for some time, that the mindset of people who are politically, socially, and/or religiously conservative is the product of some kind of mental abnormality. It’s a position I have expressed often on this blog, including posts here, here, and here.

I hold that view because right-wing thinking routinely ignores facts and logic. Conservatives are, by nature, remarkably closed-minded. Great numbers of them live their lives hating on and fearing various forces they perceive are out to get them, take from them, or diminish them. For psychological reasons, they seem to need an enemy they can blame for whatever upsets them.

Behavior like that isn’t normal or healthy. The negativity, the anger, the bunker mentality, the resistance to change — it’s always led me to suspect that something isn’t right up in the belfry.

Well, now there is new science that backs me up. Researchers at Northwestern University say they have identified a link between brain damage and religious fundamentalism.

According to their findings, damage to the prefrontal cortex — the “executive” region of the brain, which governs higher mental functions such as decision-making — can diminish “cognitive flexibility,” making the victim less open-minded, less accepting of new ideas, and correspondingly more extreme in religious beliefs.

Specifically, damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex has the reported effects.

prefrontal cortex

The Northwestern study compared two groups of Vietnam War veterans. One group had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, the other had not. The subjects were tested to assess the traits of cognitive flexibility and openness and to determine religious/political beliefs.

The subjects with trauma to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex scored lower on cognitive flexibility and openness and higher on conservatism and religious fundamentalism. The subjects who had suffered no trauma scored the opposite.

Why? Because of the difference between empirical thinking and religious thinking.

Empirical beliefs (science, learning by observation, etc.) are based on real facts in the real world. Empirical thinking also can accommodate change if new empirical evidence warrants.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are the opposite. Fundamentalism and conservatism are fixed and rigid. They discourage progressive thinking. They reject scientific explanations and new evidence. Anything that questions their beliefs and traditions is seen as a threat to group stability and may be opposed aggressively.

Cognitive flexibility, by the way, simply means flexible thinking. This trait allows the brain to switch lines of thought quickly, to consider new evidence, and to adjust beliefs and behavior accordingly. It’s a key survival skill in organisms large and small.

The Northwestern study noted that other factors can influence political and religious convictions, including social environment and innate personality traits. But they emphasized the need to understand the mechanics of how religion works in people because it is so influential in virtually every society.

To summarize:

(1) The trait of cognitive flexibility provides a mental edge in dealing rationally with the world and adapting to change.

(2) Researchers have found evidence that brain damage can reduce cognitive flexibility and lead to an increase in conservative/fundamentalist thinking.

Empirical thinking scores another point for empirical thinking.

Maybe damage to the prefrontal cortex, or faulty wiring in the brain from birth, helps explain the loony behavior of the Republicans in recent times. Maybe it helps explain the bizarre and creepy MAGA crowds that assemble for Trump rallies.

And maybe it sheds light on why an appalling number of people voted for Trump and still support him, despite the empirical evidence that he is a corrupt, amoral con man who is owned by Russian gangsters and should have been ejected from office long ago on grounds of collusion, negligence, malfeasance, and the commission of high crimes and misdemeanors.

But I digress.

fanboy

 

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You may be familiar with an experiment involving five monkeys in a cage, a bunch of bananas on a string, and a ladder. The story has been around for many years.

Sometimes, it’s presented as a scientific study that actually happened (apparently not true). More often, it’s used as an allegory — a parable, fable, cautionary tale, or whatever — that equates the behavior of monkeys to that of people.

The point is to illustrate the absurdity and the dangers of passive thinking. Of mindlessly following the herd.

First the story, then we can discuss.

———

Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, suspend a bunch of bananas on a string, out of reach. Place a ladder under the bananas. Before long, one of the monkeys will try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas.

As soon as he touches the ladder, spray the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, a second monkey will make the same attempt. Again, spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

Soon, when any monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys will act together to forcefully prevent it.

At this point, stop using cold water to punish the monkeys.

Remove one monkey from the cage, and replace it with a new monkey. The newcomer will see the bananas and try to climb the ladder. To his surprise, the other monkeys will attack him.

After another attempt and another attack, he understands that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove a second of the original five monkeys, and replace it with a new one. Newcomer #2 will try to use the ladder to get the bananas and will be attacked. Note that Newcomer #1 will participate in the group attack.

Replace another of the original five monkeys with a new one. Newcomer #3 will try to get the bananas and also will be attacked.

At this point, two of the four attacking monkeys have been sprayed with cold water, but the other two have not; newcomers #1 and #2 have no idea why they aren’t permitted to climb the ladder and no idea why the group attacks Newcomer #3.

Continue this process and replace the fourth and fifth original monkeys. Now all five monkeys in the cage are newcomers and were never sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey will approach the ladder. Why not?

Because, as far as they know, things always have been done that way.

———

This story is especially interesting because of it’s similarity to the beliefs of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner made the controversial claim that “free will” does not exist. He said people inevitably act and react based on previous experience — based on whether a previous action had good or bad consequences.

Skinner believed this opens the door to controlling group behavior, which he called “cultural engineering.” He saw this as a good thing, a means of creating a benevolent utopian society.

Maybe so, but the concept also has ominous Big Brother and 1984 overtones.

Personally, I’m a big fan of critical thinking. Objective analysis. A rational evaluation of the facts. In short, the scientific method.

That approach works pretty well everywhere, not just in the realm of science. For example, in the Marine Corps, in addition to the official motto “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful), many units have adopted the unofficial mantra “Improvise, Adapt. Overcome.”

Excellent advice. But probably not in the lexicon of the average monkey.

Five monkeys

 

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Pete Gross, known to his peers as “Dirtbag” or “Dirt,” is a legendary Colorado River boatman who began his career in the 1970s rowing dories through Grand Canyon. He is now retired and living in Moab, Utah.

Karma handed Pete his nickname; he had a habit of calling everyone “dirtbag,” in the affectionate manner of addressing others as “dude” or “pal.” Eventually, the term ended up affixed to him.

In the boating world, Pete is respected for being not only a skilled professional, but also a sincere, practicing environmentalist. He is known for truly walking the walk.

To get around, Pete rides a bike or takes public transportation. To reach his energy-efficient home in a green community in Moab, you either walk or bike; no cars are allowed.

He doesn’t have a TV set or an internet connection. He goes dumpster-diving at Moab grocery stores on the principle that too much perfectly good food is thrown out. That practice evolved into a local food redistribution program run by Pete’s friends and other volunteers.

Pete lives modestly, with a goal of leaving a responsible footprint on the planet. Yet, he insists he is comfortable and content, and life is good.

In 2009, he was interviewed at length as part of a program designed to preserve the memories and stories of the old-time river guides for posterity. When I came across the transcript, I was struck by his explanation of why he feels so strongly about treading lightly on the earth. He made his case with passion and eloquence.

Here is an excerpt.

————

I remember the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. When I first read about that, my reaction was, “Okay, so it’s made a mess of the whole coastline, but we need the oil.”

But slowly, I came around to the notion that I was basically anti-people, anti-technology. I just chose environmentalism over economics. It was a pretty naive viewpoint, but that was the conscious choice. My attitude was, it was one versus the other.

I’d just chosen that the environment was more important to me, and people and the economy came second. It was a slow realization for me that — whether it was just my misperception, or the powers-that-be fueling the notion that it’s one or the other — it was a big epiphany for me to realize, no! Those are not two mutually exclusive options.

I think there are certain… like, the oil companies and certain powers-that-be have a vested interest in fueling a false… bifurcation? Is that the right word? You have one or the other, you can’t have both.

But really, you can’t have one without the other. Or, you can’t have a healthy economy if you’ve spoiled and ruined your foundation for that, which is the environment.

There’s a book by Amory Lovins — he and some others, Lovins was a co-author — a book called Natural Capitalism that talks about a post-industrial era. What makes the most sense, not just environmentally, but economically, is to realize that there are these natural services that are irreplaceable, yet we place no value on them.

Like our atmosphere, and the biosphere that cycles through nutrients… just the whole cycle of energy, the sun shining on the earth, plants taking the sun, converting through chlorophyll, taking CO2 and making glucose, and then enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which then makes it possible for the plants to grow that make our food, whatever.

There are all these natural services that we can’t replicate, and yet we don’t value them. And so we destroy them in the notion that we’re gonna make a buck. We’re profiting, but we’re destroying our real capital to create this income stream that isn’t sustainable.

That was when I finally had this realization, “Oh, I don’t need to choose that I’m an environmentalist, and therefore I oppose economic development.” I realized you can’t have a healthy economy without a robust, healthy environment.

You know, I look at a forest, and I don’t see board feet. I look at a river, and I don’t see kilowatt hours. But you look at a forest and realize, “Okay, yeah, there’s an economic value to the wood in that tree. Yeah, we could log that tree and mill it and sell it and stuff, and there’s a certain economic value.

But what we ignore is that that tree, standing in place there, is providing wildlife habitat and watershed. It’s helping give us a sustainable clean water source and protecting us from floods, and so on. We cut that tree down, we’re not very good at putting a price tag on how much value it has just in place.

The same thing comes up when you’re looking strictly at river issues, when you talk about dams versus irrigation and water rights.

Well, like we’ve learned with the salmon fisheries. There’s an incredible value to this food source. We have eliminated or almost decimated these salmon populations, which were natural services, provided for free. An incredible food source.

Instead, we put a lot of infrastructure in place, and a lot of irrigation and what-not, to raise cows. Takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, at the price of — we’ve decimated salmon fisheries, for which we didn’t have to do anything. They were there for the harvesting!

————

He had me at “bifurcation.”

Lachs / Wanderung / Kanada

 

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