Red Alert!

There are geologists who believe our planet would be better named Ocean rather than Earth. 71% is water, a fact that astronauts have visually appreciated. Life of all kinds no matter what we call our home, is critically dependent on the health of our oceans, lakes, and rivers. Oceans provide 50 to 80% of our oxygen via the plankton that dwell there according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)**  Rain can also be traced back to evaporated water from Earth. The inhabitants of many countries would not survive without fish.

Usually, we cannot see the damage to oceans, lakes, and rivers caused by climate change. The trash on beaches is disgusting, but can be picked up before it contaminates the ocean . However, those who follow the News have been alerted about the Red Tide of algae killing 15 tons of dead fish that recently washed up on Tampa Bay with more to come. This time the ocean has fought back. I can’t imagine the stench. This tragedy echoes 2018 when 20 tons of dead sea life washed ashore. Ancient sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and more lost their lives. Humans living nearby suffer from respiratory illness. Businesses depending on tourism are suffering economically.

The main culprit is fertilizer that has washed into waterways and ultimately the ocean. In addition, the rises in temperature in air and water contribute to the growth of the red algae. The only potentially positive aspect of these disasters is their high visibility. Plankton are also dying off at a rate alarming to marine scientists, but most of us don’t notice. Plankton not only provide oxygen, they absorb carbon, and are at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain.

With heat waves on the west coast and severe flooding in Europe, I am heartened that more politicians are no longer ignoring the dangers of global warming, but I won’t celebrate until aggressive plans are in place to save our planet. Protestors point out that there is no planet B. I am also heartened that scientists and activists are working hard on solutions so much so that all that is needed now is the public will to get our government to act.

**I saw the head of NOAA appear on PBS’s Climate One hosted by Greg Dalton. She described appearing before a Congressional committee in charge of funding. When she mentioned the critical role of NOAA in tracking the weather, one committee member replied that if he wants to know about the weather, he just turns on TV. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I wonder how she was able to contain her poise in explaining to the unidentified gentleman where TV gets their weather information.

Science Curiosities

Trees have Moms!

Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist has studied how trees nurture each other. Logging companies who clear cut but replant often find the seedlings don’t survive. However, preserving and planting them near the oldest largest trees— the mother trees vastly improved the survival rate. Some time ago I recall basing a blog on how plant roots recognize each other. Plants often compete for water, but interestingly if they recognize their own, they share but slurp up what they can from competitors.

Cells that compose embryos can turn on the fountain of youth

Many women today are postponing having children. It turns out that they need not worry that the age of the cells in their ova will be passed onto their embryos and ultimately children. At one time, developmental biologists thought germline cells were immune to aging somehow. (If true, it would be likely that human eggs would be harvested to create an antiaging pill.) Now, it is believed that the embryo somehow resets the biological clock to zero. The hypothesis has been supported by results from studies of mice embryos. If scientists can discover how it works, they may be able  to develop treatments for age-related diseases.

Bats or Lab-leak responsible for Covid? It could be both.

A sociologist in an article in the NYTimes has investigated laboratories that study infectious diseases and has made some interesting speculations about labs that study bats as carriers. She suggests that in some cases insufficient care might have been taken in the handling of the bats. A lab at UNC Chapel Hill discovered evidence that a SARS-like bat coronavirus could directly infect human airway cells. No intermediate animal needed. She also reports traits of the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1977-78, which affected people in their mid 20s or younger, were nearly identical to a strain from the 1950s. Because  viruses would have normally mutated over the time gap, scientists speculate it came from samples frozen in the 50s.  She speculates that labs designed to prevent disease instead contributed  to its spread.

There are brick-sized robots that are searching for survivors of the building collapse in Florida

These small robots must have been around for years to use to search earthquake rubble, but it’s the first I’ve heard of them. They are equipped with cameras and can be thrown into spaces too small to otherwise investigate for human life.

Hey Moms, your offspring changed you before birth.

I’m reading a fascinating book called Mom Genes. It describes scientific evidence that the cells from a fetus can escape into an expectant mother’s body including her brain. Slivers of mice mom brains were compared with slivers of virgin mice. Among humans, experiment after experiment compared and found differences between Mom reactions and reactions of non-mothers.

Why do scientists always pick on mice? Mice share 80% of their gene structure with us, and share hormones, immunities, etc. Their genome has been completely sequenced.

What is Science, Anyway?

Add replication to the quality petal!

During a conversation with a sister, I discovered we viewed the definition of Science differently. I see Science as a careful, prescribed process of discovery, while she saw it as the results themselves. It seems both definitions are used.

Oxford: * the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour (British spelling, of course) of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

*a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject. “the science of criminology” 

I doubt the basic qualitative requirements for Scientific studies will ever change, although new research tools may come with their own specifications for rigorous use. In terms of evolution of knowledge, most is in terms of learning something new about our world, but some results contradict long held principles. An example of the latter kind of evolution is related to a recent blog of mine about muons shaking up the world of nuclear physics— the area of Science I believe most filled with unanswered questions. Since the unexpected level of magnetism of these muons contradicts theory whose roots go back to Einstein this could be a revolution rather than evolution. Scientists await further independent verification, but I’m betting many are looking for corrections in the understanding of nuclear physics.

This is good place to warn the reader about bad Science. An unfortunate circumstance related to media’s love of what’s sensational results in undue publicity to unreplicated studies contradicting accepted norms or fun results like one glass of red wine is worth an hour of exercise. Beware of “Studies show …” without reference to a reliable source as preached in a previous blog.

Mathematics is the tool of Science—sometimes called the Queen of Science. Some is heavy duty advanced mathematics as in quantum mechanics, but most common is elementary statistics. Replication increases the probability of the accuracy of preliminary results. Not only is the media guilty of jumping the gun on a single study, unscrupulous or unschooled researchers seek random correlations by studying many attributes of a sizable sample of say, people. Probability predicts that two or more attributes will coincidently appear correlated. (It is a fact that in a group of 35 people or more, the odds are that two or more have the same birthday. To get the probability that it doesn’t happen one multiplies 35 or more numbers less than one. Then it’s just arithmetic that the product will be small.) Similarly, some correlation of attributes is expected in a fishing expedition with lots of fish, making it illogical to make any conclusion about the discovery of the apparently correlated without replication. The mistake of concluding correlated qualities involve cause and effect is even a more common error in popular communication of scientific studies.

The advertisements of many health supplements use language crafted to sound scientific. Sometimes unjustified claims are scientifically studied and debunked for the sake of the public. This naturally adds to the sense that Science is in flux.

Is Scientific Avoidance of Unexplainable Phenomena Ending?

The above photo was leaked from NASA, It’s not the one in the news. For some time, people who claim to have seen UFOs have been discredited as nut cases. So much so, that many who experience unknown phenomena have failed to report them for fear of ridicule.

Now, the pentagon is about to do a report on the small percentage of events that are not explainable by known ordinary occurrences or at least on one singular event that has been sighted for years by military pilots. It is anticipated that the report will neither confirm nor deny that the strange behavior of this flying object including exuding no visible exhaust, unusual speed, and spinning is extraterrestrial. However, the fact that the object of interest is being taken seriously is remarkable.

So many natural things have taken human beings centuries to explain that it seems odd not to research unexplainable flying objects. For example, I’m not sure we completely understand how generations of butterflies return to the same exact locations year after year or birds to their winter and summer homes, but the fact they do is well established so it’s not treated as astounding as it is. It is believed the critters are sensitive to the earth’s magnetism. Ditto for animal behavior before earthquakes.

I recall hearing a researcher on NPR years ago lament he could not get results published on the possible transmission of information among a single species. He had taught some kind of rodent to accomplish some kind of task, neither of which I remember. He then discovered that the same kind of rodent living across the ocean learned the task much more quickly. Dee de dee dee. Dee de dee dee. Other scientists have tested people for ESP, finding a few individuals who performed well above average over periods of time. Little attempt to replicate these studies have been made to my knowledge. However, that’s what science normally does to confirm what may be new discoveries.

The fact that some Defense Department projects are hidden from the public has added to the confusion over UFOs as in the Roswell mystery. The lie that the debris found was from a weather balloon was not credible. The foil-like material was different than any substance ever seen. Indeed the material was secretly developed and is in use today. At our visit to the Roswell center we ecnountered a group of teenagers with tinfoil hats preceding us into the museum, but accounts that hung on the walls were quite convincing that the weather balloon explanation lacked the credibility that the discoverers displayed. Years later the Defense Department revealed that the debris came from the secret Project Mogul.  Then there are other countries such as Russia secretly spying on us, who might be the source of the debris. Other elements of the Roswell story—namely that some eyewitnesses claimed that there were alien bodies taken from the site—were explained as fallen parachute-test dummies in a more extensive follow-up report.

At any rate, I herald this day if it means sensible people won’t be dismissed out of hand for reporting unusual events.  

The Science of Truth and Belief

Throughout human history, there have been those who promote falsehoods for various reasons: flawed logic, religious beliefs, superstition, and for financial or political gain. However, the challenge of discerning the truth has become greater than in the past because of social media and other online information flooding our brains, decreasing our ability to keep up. A recent article discusses the consequences to our capability to discern the truth. In an attempt at efficiency, humans have historically used simple rules to choose quickly what to believe. Because in the past, most of what we heard was true, we frequently erred on the side of belief. Research supports that we attend to information that is new, exciting, and supports what we already believe. This describes much of the messaging that bombard us online. The more often one hears a false claim, the more believable it becomes as many charlatan politicians and news reporters well know.

A computational social scientist, Jevin West, cowrote Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. In addition to the difficutly of discerning truth, he advises: “We’re also contending with a platform, and with algorithms and bots that know how to pierce into our cognitive frailties.” (I frequently boast that I grew up on a farm and am familiar with the smell of BS.) According to West, times of uncertainty like that caused by Covid prompts more dangerous speculation.

Further, social media uses means to hook us into frequent use by tempting us to get more likes, retweets, etc, which encourages us to share more, particularly unusual posts. Information scientist, Sinan Aral of MIT and author of the 2020 book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health — And How We Must Adapt argues   “Novelty has an advantage in the information economy in terms of spreading farther, faster, deeper.”

Many universities require a course in “critical thinking” as part of their general education requirements. I consider critical thinking as one of the best consequences of a college education. Classes have tips such as considering the source of information, how to recognize flawed arguments labeled : straw dog or straw man device (substitute a similar but easily refuted claim instead of the one in question,) topic avoidance via vague and unrelated generalities, wrong attribution to a respected figure, cherry picking, poor analogies, overgeneralization, quoting out of context, and more.

Will Organ Donation Some Day Become Obsolete?

I’ve always been dumbfounded about 3-D printing. I’m old enough to have taken typing before the invention of word processing, which I took in stride as progress. However, 3-D printing amazes me as nothing short of miraculous. A recent articlecompounds my wonder. Progress has been made on 3-D printing human organs, blood vessels and all. 3-D printed meat and houses have already been accomplished. (I don’t consider guns as progress, but that’s been done..) The new method, stereolithography, uses jelly-like materials known as hydrogels.

Imagine, people who need transplants not having to wait for a suitable donor.

On an unrelated matter, here’s my daughter’s photo of the recent “pink moon.” It wasn’t named pink for the color of the moon but for the color of phlox, which blooms in April. So this pink moon obliged its name.

I also read an article about ways to circumvent Physics Uncertainty Principle. Does that mean that the Uncertainty Principle. isn’t certain. Perhaps my next blog.

Muons Are Shaking Up Physics

The Beautiful Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illionois

A muon is like an overweight electron. Like many subatomic particles, it doesn’t live very long. In 2001, scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island discovered that muons didn’t have the predicted magnetism. It was 2.5 times as large. Since science studies require replication and the experiment was expensive, Brookhaven could not try to verify their result. Fermi Lab in the US took up the challenge. Fermi Lab is near Chicago in Illinois and not far from where I once lived and took advantage of their theater offerings to provide convenient cultural events for their researchers.

Brookhaven retired the 50 ft diameter magnet racetrack that spun the muons, and it was sent on a 3,200 mile trip from Long Island to Batavia, Illinois in 2013 via barge around Florida, up the Mississippi River, then by truck through Illinois. It took years for Fermilab to gear up, but they recently replicated the results.

The result is deemed as important as finding the Higgs Boson. So the magnetism is not what they expected. What’s the big deal? Science is not like mathematics where theories can be proved or disproved. A scientific theory cannot be proved, but it can be disproved. If a scientific theory predicts X, Y, and Z, and later it turns out the X, Y, and Z occur, it is only evidence that the theory is correct. It does not mean that X, Y, and Z are true because of the theory. However, if something predicted by the theory turns out not to be the case, the theory cannot be right. That’s what has just happened. Now, all of the believed theory mostly emanating from Einstein must have a flaw! The challenge is to find it.

An Anthem to Ants

Ants are a fascinating species. They manage their jobs in a bipartisan way such that colonies enviably run smoothly. Fun facts about them abound. People marvel that they carry 10 to 50 times their weight. However, that is just mathematics. Our weight is determined by our volume. If we were to double our three dimensions our weight would double three times so we’d weigh eight times as much. Our strength is determined by area. If we double every dimension, the roughly circular cross section of our upper arm would become four times as much given the forumla for the area of a circle. Thus, our strength would be relatively weaker. Similarly, if we were to halve all dimensions we’d weigh 1/8 as much and be 1/4 as strong, so relatively stronger. We’d be musclebound if we were the same size as an ant.

I don’t recall the politician who perfectly described: big money in politics like ants in a kitchen. You block one entrance and they find another way in. When we first moved to California, a pleasant surprise was the absence of pesky insects, except for ants who invaded our house once a year. Now, I worry that we haven’t seen them for years as insects are critical for our survival.

This blog was inspired by a curious fact that there are pavement ants who clean our urban sidewalks of crumbs, no doubt each weighing much more than the carrier ant. No doubt country ants also help keep things clean. They eat aphids and help with pollination. They are needed for peonies to blossom. The buds have such a tough cover that if ants didn’t chew on them, the peonies couldn’t burst into beautiful blooms My husband learned that as a boy. He received a scolding for spraying antkiller on the buds. He thought he was doing a good deed.

In researching ants, I discovered that there are more than 15,000 different ant species, and their total biomass rivals that of all of the humans in the world. Just glad they’re small.

What’s at our fingertips?

By Jose Luis Agapito

Scientists have recently discovered that the sensitivity of our touch is due to the ridges in our fingertips. Previously, it had been assumed that their sole purpose was to enhance our ability to grip things, presumably not to assist in finding criminals.

Researchers inserted tungsten electrodes into the main nerve of volunteers’ arms. Then they took a card covered with tiny flat- tipped cones—less than half a millimeter high— and stroked the fingertips in different directions varying the speed.They were able to record the activity of single nerve cells, and their locations. The location of the dubbed hot spots matched the pattern of the ridges, which are only .4 millimeters high.

Dogs and other animals do not have ridges on their paws nor are their prints unique. However, dog nose prints are unique because of their bumps and holes. I don’t know if anyone has ever tested whether these contribute to their sensitivity of touch. Given that dogs have superior sense of smell, they shouldn’t need to poke their noses where they do to get a whiff so maybe they are checking out texture as well as smell.

On the other side of our fingertips are our nails. I claim fingernails as my favorite tool for scraping and getting into thin places.

Of course if we got into fingers I could write a long essay of their uses, even individual fingers for communication. I’m suddenly reminded of a story about a man whose hand had been mangled. It was reconstructed including reattaching appropriate nerve endings. Unfortunately, a couple of nerves were swapped such that if the man went to thumb rides, he would give drivers the third finger salute. Ala Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

Do Living Things Have an Adaptive Gene?

It’s as if the Covid-19 virus is stalking the vaccines becoming available and in self-defense is developing a number of mutations. Scientists say it is rather common for viruses to mutate, so perhaps it’s the attention being paid to this one that makes its changing seem so aggressive. There has long been concern about overuse of antibiotics lest nastier bacteria take over.

The evolution of life on Earth is continuous, but we commonly think of it as being very slow and due to random changes that happen to improve a species to an extent that the changed individual is more successful in reproducing. As a result, it becomes the dominant form. I’ve long had trouble with the total randomness of change. To me it seems too many coincidences. Numerous deep sea organisms can bioluminesce. For the ability to create light to have randomly occurred in so many species seems unlikely to me. A deep sea shark called a kitefin was recently found who could biolumenesce. Six feet long, it is the largest known bioluminescent organism.

Further, there are a number of examples of favorable evolution within lifetimes. I recall a case of fresh water fish adapting to salt water dumped into an inland lake by a tsunami. Dr. Dean Edell once described an area with many tall posts that birds claimed as their favorite places to park. This may be because both the birds and posts were white, which made them harder to spot by predator birds. As the posts weathered and turned darker, so did the birds. When the posts were repainted, the birds evolved back to white. The highlighted article describes more examples including viruses, bacteria, and resistance of pests and fish to pesticides as well as moths whose wings turned darker in dirty areas; stray dogs reverting to become more wolf-like; toads imported from Hawaii to Australia became more kangaroo-like, developing longer legs and hopping greater distances.

Some mutations not likely to continue:

I wonder if human thumbs will evolve to be longer and more agile because of the popularity of texting. Epigenetics is a fascinating subject of how genes can be turned off or on by diet or the environment and I suspect may someday explain rapid evolution.