Are Meals of Mealworms on Our Horizons?

They are not just for the birds any longer. With the breadbasket of Europe in potential trouble, drought in South America and California, the question of ability to feed a growing global population is a serious one. One potential solution is insect ranches. Insects have been part of the human diet in the past, particularly in countries like Mexico. Aborigines in Australia love witchety grugs. Insects as food could become more common again, but it is more likely they will provide the diet of farm animals, fish, pets, and used for fertilizers. However, they can be ground into a tofu-like substance for the human palate. Recently, the first large scale insect farm has been funded to the tune of five million dollars. The genetics of mealworms and other insects are being studied with the goal of breeding those with the best qualities for sustenance.

Insect ranches would take little land as they are placed in stacked trays, impervious to floods and droughts. I also I presume, once set up, they would require less maintenance than large animals. There is an insect farm in northern France that is 35 meters high.

The author of the article on this topic  points out for the squeamish that lobsters were once considered the insects of the ocean, but of course are now eaten most often for special occasions. Of course, I’d eat anything dripping with lemon butter.

More Impressive Animal Behavior

* Polar bears use rocks or blocks of ice to bludgeon walruses as prey.

* Some tourists dropped their phone off a boat and a Beluga whale retrieved it and brought it to the owners.  <== Click to see the amazing video.if you’re on Instagram.

* Elysia sea slugs can grow an entire new body from a detached head.

*40 species of spiders will eat snakes. They trap them with their tough silky threads. They can even hoist  a roach 50 times their weight spinning  silk ropes around them. Then they feast.

* A water scavenger beetle can walk upside down under the surface of a pond.

* Hummingbirds can fly backwards.

* Male superb lyrebird can mimic the sounds of many other birds all at once, sounding like a flock.

News Flash: We used to think that sharks never slept, but it has just been discovered that they do sleep. However, they sleep with their eyes wide open. Somehow, from the position , amount of movement, and other tests made scientists have discovered their sleep mode.

Are Animals a Different Kind of Human?

Historically, we humans believed that we were in a totally different category from animal life. As zoologists learned more about animals, however, the distinction began to diminish. A recent discovery about chimpanzees further establishes that we are not so special.

An accidental observation of a mother’s inspection of a baby chimp’s wound, followed by administration with a chewed up insect that she grabbed from a nearby branch led to surveillance for such behavior. The mother had repeated her medical treatment until the wound healed. Over a period of fifteen months, nineteen incidents of using insects to soothe wounds was observed.

Not only did the chimps self-medicate and minister to their families, they were found to tend to unrelated chimps. This is quite amazing as it indicates medical knowledge of ways to treat injuries, and also indicates empathy for strangers, presumably of their own kind. At one time, the notion that any living creature other than human could be so capable would have been considered ludicrous. Hmm, I seem to recall writing a blog about plants not allowing their roots to get too close to plants of their kind, but going for all the moisture they could get with stranger plants nearby.

Another recent discovery is that dogs apparently can distinguish between different languages including gibberish. The older the dog the more likely it reacted differently to an unfamiliar language. While this was established by monitoring brain activity, I’ve seen video where dog behavior demonstrated differences. One sees happy mouth with hanging tongue and wagging tail in hearing a familiar language while an unfamiliar one causes a closed mouth, still body, and a frown like “what the hell is this?”

Hank the Tank is not the only black bear menacing homes near south Lake Taho. A number of them have decided they like human food, and use not only their strength but considerable cleverness in getting into food hanging high in trees, cars, and homes. Everyone’s house is a potential Black Bear Diner.

Living in a World of Plastic

Plastic trash washed up from ocean

Bad News: (I always like to get the bad out of the way first.)

Nearly 9 million tons of plastic are entering global waters every year. This is primarily due to a global waste management problem, with developing countries having  the greatest issues. In China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, waste management hasn’t kept pace with the population explosion.

It’s little consolation that among the 20 top dumpers of plastic waste into oceans, the United States is # 20, possibly because of its large coastal population. However, the US is the top producer of plastic waste. At one time, our plastic waste was accepted in China and other countries. Now we must deal with it ourselves.

No surprise that Marine life is dying because of plastic pollution. Our oceans produce 70% of the oxygen in the air. We can live without eating fish, but we can’t live without breathing.

Further, plastic is made from fossil fuels so the production of plastics also contributes to air pollution. Plastics have carbon-intense life cycles. The majority of plastic resins come from petroleum, which requires extraction and distillation. Then the resins are formed into products and transported to market. All of these processes emit greenhouse gases, either directly or via the required energy in the chain. The carbon footprint continues after disposal. Dumping, incinerating, and recycling all release carbon dioxide.. 2015 emissions from plastics amounted to 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2.

Good News: (Yes, there is “some.”) Awareness of plastic contamination is increasing, and members of the UN are in preliminary  stages of  addressing the plastic waste problem.. Proposed caps on plastic production would stop the predicted  exponential increase. They also seek rules to make plastic easier and less toxic to repurpose. Some companies are using thinner plastic in packaging. Scientists continue working on compostable plastic bags, researching enzymes who might liked to dine on plastic, using plastic in paving roadways, and more ways to repurpose plastic waste,

Everyday at home tips: While it is impossible to avoid buying groceries and other products that are not wrapped in plastic, here are a few tips.

  • Take your own shopping bags to grocers and other stores. Even consider smaller ones for loose produce. TJs provide compostable bags for its produce.
  • Don’t buy plastic bags that seal for storage. Instead, save such bags from nuts and other dry products for reuse. Save bread bags as well and use twisties to store dry leftovers, etc. Also reuse hard plastic containers for wet leftovers and organizing small items. I love the very large clear plastic spinach containers for napkins, napkin rings, and any small collection.
  • While much plastic is “recyclable,” at most 10% is actually recycled. Plastic bottles are, but the caps may not be. If not, sorters may throw the bottle out with the cap. If in doubt about any item, throw in the trash or check with your local recyler. Two young men are recycling bottle caps into skate boards.
  • Make certain what you recycle is clean, lest you contaminate a sizable amount of recycled paper,  cardboard, etc. One reason China stopped accepting our waste was because it was dirty.
  • Make your voice heard among your friends, neighbors, relatives, store owners, and political leaders.
  • Out for a hike? Take a bag and glove to pick up trash along the trail. I use the plastic glove from my hair dye kit.
  • In general, consume less. We are running out of space for landfills. New ski slopes?

Bad News sources: ;

Good News source:

PS to Tips: A friend recommended for laundry. Small thin squares torn up into the tub dissolve and clean. Down with heavy plastic bottles!

The Long History of mRNA Vaccine Research

Today’s mRNA vaccines against Covid began with a search for a vaccine against MERS. Many breakthroughs occurred in different areas over six decades as medical science scrounged for financing and encountered many failures. A major discovery was that mRNA, a genetic molecule, is in charge of the human body’s proteins. It is unknown how many different proteins there are in the human body, with estimates between ten thousand and two million. Another major development, which occurred in gene therapy, was the ability to treat disease safely at the genetic level.

The arrival of HIV spurred an effort to find a vaccine using the acquired knowledge. HIV proved intractable, but the additional research increased knowledge of mRNA behavior and gene therapy even further, so much so that with a huge investment by the federal government when Covid struck, it enabled rapid development of Covid vaccines. This time the ideas worked as expected.

The spikes seen in depictions of the Covid virus that can stab their way into our cells are made of a certain protein. Since prior research had determined a means to get mRNA to recognize particular proteins, all that medical scientists needed to do was analyze the molecular structure of the Covid spike’s protein. They must have been amused or shaking their heads at people viewing the development of Covid vaccines as “rapid.”

This extraordinary history is testimony for supporting basic scientific research. If all of that research had not been done, who knows how long it would have taken to develop a vaccine and make it available to the public? In fact, scientists involved in the final stages view it as a long awaited validation of the value of decades of research.

Speaking of the success of scientific research, the scientists who labored over the constrtuction of the James Web telescope are no doubt experiencing much relief along with validation, now that it arrived as its final resting place. Now they anticipate learning more about the strange universe in which we live, and in fact about events in the far distant past.

Postscript: With mRNA vaccines, no dead nor weakened beastlings need to be injected into our bodies as had been the practice for older vaccines. As is true today, many people feared and opposed such vaccines including the one for polio, which originally contained diseased cells from monkeys. I suppose suspicion of new things is a survival trait built into the human psyche. We also sometimes fear what we don’t understand. Hmm, we use cell phones and computers without understanding, but we can see they work. Now, the statistics show that mRNA vaccines work.

This is primarily based on an article: Halting Progress and Happy Accidents: How mRNA vaccines were made. By Gina Kolata and Benjamin Mueller

Can Our Minds Ever Completely Understand Our Brains?

A long history of human effort to understand how we think, began with believing the heart was responsible for thinking. Serious research began with the discovery of electrical impulses traveling between the brain and nerves. Next came discovery of specific functions like respiration and executive thinking governed by different brain regions.

The ultimate question is how thoughts form, and how detected?  

An Article in the New Yorker describes how better use and interpretation of brain scans is yielding results. For example, an observation that imagining walking in your home and playing tennis elicited activity in different parts of the brain led to communication with a vegetative patient. Yes or no questions were asked and the patient successfully imagined one activity for yes and the other for no.

For examples, brain scanning can discover depression and mastery of subject matter— assessed by comparing with experts. Particularly revealing, movies have beeen used to simultaneously plot emotions of many people where the movie is manipulating the feelings.

Mathematics inspired viewing a thought like a point (x, y, z) in 3-D space except that the number of dimensions is larger. For example recognition of a face might involve (face length, face width, length of nose, … size of eyes.) The “coordinates” of a thought may not be numbers but involve other “dimensions” such as colors, smell, taste, sound, with relevant coordinate sets for different situations.

Psychologists have recognized the importance of remembering scripts and scenes to our thinking. The first time one flies it’s distressful. However, after a few trips, we know the script: 1. Check in & deposit bags 2. Go through security 3. Locate gate 4. Wait to board. Even if the scene is a new airport, the script guides you. (The first time my aunt flew,she sat in the waiting room & missed the flight, exclaiming she didn’t know what she was thinking. Someone would come and get her?)

If you somehow woke up from sleep in an aisle with flour & sugar on an adjacent shelf, you’d associate the scene with a grocery store. (Click to see the wonder of a one-year old in a grocery cart for the first time because he’d been home safe from the pandemic all his life.)

Becoming familiar with various scenes and scripts allows the brain to focus on the essentials and filter out distractions. A book on autism describes how the autistic brain gives equal weight to all of the stimuli in a scene as if every scene were new. Consequently, autistics easily become overwhelmed and can end up like my aunt. One view of our brains’ absorbing new situations is that they either associate the new with a familiar scene or script or create a new one.  

Brain scientists are enthusiastic about the promise of incorporating brain scans to uncover much more about how we think.

Have You Heard of the Protein-Folding Problem?

I had planned to highlight the top ten scientific achievements in 2021 on this New Year’s Day, but one achievement stands out so significantly that I’m devoting my blog to the solution of the protein-folding problem.

The human body has around 100 million proteins, which govern much of how our bodies work. Some transport messages between cells; some break down or create molecules like fats, proteins and sugars; some control blood pressure; some replicate DNA; some respond to stimuli, some provide cell structure, and others have different roles. They are the body’s workforce. The shape of the protein molecule determines its job. They are made up of chains of amino acids, which uniquely determine the shape. Biologists have long lusted over the ability to predict shapes from the chains involved, labeling it the folding problem. I had to dig to understand why they used the word folding. The best analogy I could find is to view the given amino acids as ribs on Christmas ribbons. Folding becomes similar to taking a blade of a scissors and dragging it along the ribbon in several places. You end up with those lovely curls, shaped like a helix. Somehow the chain of amino acids dictates where the curls occur.  However, the number of possible shapes from a given chain of amino acids, the order and the number of each, is so large that programming a computer to test all shapes to compare with the given protein is infeasible.

One of the reasons that understanding the relation between the chain and the corresponding protein molecule is that misfolding is responsible for some diseases such as alzheimers, parkinsons, and diabetes. Scientists have been able to associate the shape to function only in a small fraction of the 100 million protein molecules, but using AI, Alphafold, a division of DeepMind, a British company acquired by Google, they can determine the shape from the amino acid chain. Understanding the structure of proteins is said to have tremendous consequences  for designing drugs, controlling disease, designing enzymes to break down plastic, finding ways to capture carbon, and “?.” Further, AlphaFold is making use of their discovery freely available for such purposes.

Let’s view this as hope for a better New Year and an ultimate cure for future pandemics.

PS So far so good for the James Webb telescope’s journey to the far side of the moon.

Mystery on the Moon and Other Notable Science News

  • The Chinese not so long ago succeeded in landing on the far side of the moon. Click and scroll down to see the mysterious picture of the horizon from Yutu, China’s name for their rover, Something that looks like a hut perches in the center of the photo. While, it will take months for the rover to rove over (alliteration intended) to check it out, scientists speculate it’s likely a boulder. However, it has a perfectly cubical shape, unlikely for a boulder, but anything else would be groundbreaking excitement.
Troposphere–bottom layer

Another curiosity due to global warming is that the bottom layer of atmosphere called the troposphere around our Earth is expanding. According to to NASA: “Closest to the surface of Earth, we have the troposphere“Tropos” means change. This layer gets its name from the weather that is constantly changing and mixing up the gases in this part of our atmosphere.”


As the world turns to electricity to slow Earth’s warming, demand increases for  lithium and cobalt to power vehicle batteries, and  these precious metals like all of our resources are limited. It was unclear how successful recycling the metals could be, but it turns out that the recycled products work even better than those made from the newly mined sources.

I need longer legs in this wind!

According some studies, climate change is causing animal (and plant?) species to evolve to survive in the new environment. Not surprising that some species are migrating to different habitats, bears fattening at different times of the year, and conifers shifting growth to different areas. However, it was interesting that some lizards are growing longer limbs to help them stay on leaves in stronger winds.

Hubble is about to become history!

According to a writer for the Science Times, what astronomers are eating these days is their fingernails. The diet will continue through Christmas Eve when the James Webb telescope will launch for the dark side of the moon. Maybe it’ll beat the rover to the myserious hut. It is a bigger and better replacement for Hubble. The potential for learning more about our universe is momentous, but the fear that one of many maneuvers may go astray and put the mission in peril is considerable. Let’s hope the auspicious date of the launch will bode well. OTOH, Rudolph will be too busy to help.

Merry Christmas!

Does The Future of Humanity Depend on Colonizing Mars?

It’s commonly known that our sun will die someday, but if you’re like me it’s of no concern. It’s not expected until about five billion years from now. My worries regard the humans in this century and whether the human race will survive not only climate disasters but the aftermath of shortages to water, food, and energy, which affects our very way of life.

Thus, when visionary entrepreneurs like Elon Musk talk about humans needing to find a home other than Earth and suggesting establishing life on Mars, I’ve rejected the idea as an infeasible solution to Earth’s decline in habitability due to climate change. In my thinking, colonization to any extent simply cannot happen fast enough if at all. I am now reading a book whose title is embedded in this blog’s title that made me realize the concern is over the very long term future.

I was surprised to learn how much thinking and research has gone into ways of making Mars habitable. There are ideas about how to melt ice a few feet under the surface and the ice caps for water for normal use, and for extracting oxygen to replace the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Other plans exist to warm the planet from its bitter temperatures. Solar would provide energy. Further, rockets bringing cargo could be refueled for the return by fuel created via solar energy making room for more cargo. Eventually, they believe the soil could support agriculture using human waste as manure. All of this, not surprisingly, would take centuries. Scientists are considering having the enormous amount of work done or assisted by robots.

While Mars will also suffer if our sun dies, it is thought that humans might be able to hopscotch to outer planets in perpetuity using the technology developed to terraform Mars.

Besides climate disasters and a dying sun, there are other threats to our home. Eventually there will be an ice age—in tens of thousands of years as opposed to billions. A major collision by an asteroid could be disastrous. I’m glad scientists are paying attention. There is a project planned to nudge an asteroid out of its orbit to test the feasibility in case a large one is ever discovered heading toward us.

After the 2008 recession, interest in funding NASA waned, and President Obama asked private industry to take up the enterprise. Indeed, the amount of precious metal in asteroids if harvested could make space travel profitable. One of several TV series about colonies living on Mars provoked an interesting question regarding ownership. One colony was government funded, the other by industry whose goals of research and profit were in conflict. That’s a likely conflict in the future given our history.

Was COP26 a COP-OUT?

It was a Bad News/Good News scenario..

Bad News: (I always like the bad news first.)

1.The pledges fell short of meeting the need identified by climate scientists of containing Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade by 2030.

2. There is no means of accountability for keeping the pledges.

3. The Paris pledge of developed countries to collectively provide 100 billion dollars per year to developing countries was not met.

4. The carbon emitting sources were divided into sectors about which resolutions were made with only 6 resolutions of  97 beginning with “decides”and the rest beginning with words like “urges, welcomes, invites, encourages, …”

5. There was no resolution to provide reparations to island  nations and other small countries who have been hurt by climate change. A leader from Tuvalo, one of the Pacific Islands gave an address standing knee deep in ocean water which a few years ago was beach.

6. Independent investiagtions indicate that a number of countries under reported their net carbon output.

7. Some sectors like agriculture admittedly received short shrift.

Good News:

1. Early days of the climate conference were more promising than previous COPs in that gone were the arguments over whether climate change was human caused. They could settle down to arguments over what to do about it. They passed significant resolutions provided countries actually feel urged to act.

2.The pledges made were also signficant A.Halt and reverse deforestation in 85% of the world’s forests, and land degradation by 2030. 100 countries B. Dedicate 8.5 billion to help South Africa decarbonize its coal-heavy energy system. U.S., U.K., France, Germany, & EU C. No new coal power for decades. 190 countries D. End public financing of overseas oil, gas and coal projects by the end of 2022. 25 countries including the U.S., U.K., Denmark, Canada, Italy & the European Investment Bank.E.. Cut carbon emissions to net zero and increase renewable energy by 100 gigawatts by 2070. India F. Various private individuals & organizations pledged 3.5 billion for various projects. An alliance of private & global organizations plan to tackle access to renewable energy across Africa, Asia, & Latin America.G. End building coal-fired power plants. China in abstentia.

3. There will be a COP27 in a year.

4. Satellites will be more involved in measuring and monitoring results and inhibiting under reporting carbon emissions.

5. While not mentioned by name there is an organization GFANZ (Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero) made up of 450 investment institutions in 45 countries who aim to achieve net zero carbon among the companies they invest in and provide capital from private investors for companies to do the work of meeting the commitments of COP26 and beyond. There may be other parties willing to finance and share solutions. Governments alone cannot or will not be able to supply the necessary capital.

My Conclusions

Whether Cop26 is a failure or a success depends on what happens next. If the world conducts business as usual, it will be a failure. If, however each of the following happens it will be a success: All pledges met, all resolutions taken seriously, sufficient capital to support innovative solutions which are shared among countries, along with a worldwide spark of “let’s get this done together,” which carries into COP27.