Our Constantly Moving, Changing World

If you’re like me, on a day-to-day basis you feel you’re living at a fixed place of the Universe. You’re incognizant of the fact you’re moving about 1,000 miles per hour because of the rotation of Earth. The rotation of iron at our core causes electricity, hence magnetism. It’s as if Earth has a long magnet running through it. We have a magnetic North and South pole. I’ve blogged about the change in position of the North pole, recently moving East at tens of miles per year, indicating to geologists a flip of the North and South poles will happen soon. Of course “soon” is in ecological time so if you’re reading this, it is unlikely to be in your lifetime, but  It is likely to upend—pun intended—human lives.

Now, it appears that there are big changes in another moving part of Earth, namely ocean currents. Again, apart from waves, we don’t think of water deep in the ocean as racing around the globe, but it does. There are many currents, which circulate in loops. The most well-known is the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. It is responsible for European countries’ temperate weather compared to other countries at the same latitude. It travels in a roller coaster loop. Warm water moves north along the east side of the US. Its high salt content makes it denser, as well as its cooling in encountering colder water. As a result, the current dives lower.

Scientists have detected signs that the current’s speed is slowing down. The evidence is indirect as they have only been tracking the current’s speed since 2004. However, temperature, microbial organisms in the ocean floor, and many other measurements have been tracked longer and are consistent with considerable slowing of the current. At least part of the reason for the slowing is due to the melting of Arctic ice, which has little salt content and cools the current more rapidly forcing the current downward further south.  If the current were to stop completely, we would enter an ice age as depicted in the movie, The Day After Tomorrow. It is ironic that global warming would be the cause of an ice age. Again, we won’t see it in our lifetimes, but in the short term the slowing is believed to increase the number and severity of hurricanes and storms.

I’m glad I’m old. It’s the only thing thatt keeps me going.

Quarks Can Have charm or Be Strange

At one time physicists thought that the atom was the smallest unit of matter. Then, in the 19th century protons, electrons, and neutrons were discovered that make up atoms, and have positive, negative, or no electrical charge respectively. Naturally, this inspired much research on the nature of these particles. In particular, the questions of whether these constituted all of the subatomic particles and whether these were indecomposable into even smaller particles. Over time, more subatomic particles were discovered, and labeled elementary if they were not composed of smaller particles. Muons, pions, photons, bosons were one many discoveries, and determining their properties required further research.

It turned out that an abstract area of mathematics, namely Group Theory, was useful in organizing the collective information. As a mathematician, I was fascinated by the fact that particle physicists believed the picture would be more elegant if other particles existed with specific properties. Given these properties, the physicists were able to design experiments to detect the conjectured particles. They succeeded. It was as if a biologist predicted the existence of an animal whose size, appetite, and habits were known, and then set a trap appropriately large with enticing food in an area conducive to its existence. I love that the physicists believed that the universe consists of mathematical beauty.

The newly discovered particles were called quarks, which came in six “flavors”: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. Each of the six quarks has an antiquark. Originally, only three quarks were discovered. Further, it turns out that one can never isolate a quark. It always occurs with its antiquark partner.

When the Rubik’s cube became all the rage, I used Group Theory to concoct moves that could be used to restore a messed up cube. It turns out that one can never have a single twisted corner and all the other pieces in place, but you can have two twisted corners, one clockwise and the other counterclockwise like the quark and antiquark. What a fun coincidence! Well, not a total coincidence since Group Theory is the connection.

Free image/jpeg, Resolution: 3300×2200, File size: 772Kb, Puzzle Game Cube Rubik’S Cube

What’s most new—within the last decade— is the discovery at CERN of a subatomic particle made up of four quarks. The article calls the particle exotic, possibly because it’s the first made up of four quarks of the same flavor, namely charm, and of course their antiquarks.

What is interesting is that some posited particles such as the Higgs boson exist but have extremely short lives once isolated.

Physicists are amazing and also have an amazing sense of humor. Check out the faux and funny discovery of a new substance called administratium. It has one neutron, 125 assistant neutrons, 75 vice neutrons and 111 assistant vice neutrons.

How Amazing are Eggs and Scientists’ Curiostiy?

If you regard seeds as eggs, then all life begins with eggs. Many of our days also begin with eggs: fried, boiled, scrambled, poached, or omeleted. I like my fried eggs crispy.

Yummy

Scientists study the most unusual things. A recent study involved trying to determine the criteria that birds use to reject eggs that don’t belong to their nests. Lazy birds like cowbirds try to get other birds to do their egg-tending for them. They tested for size, shape, and color. Size turned out to be the most significant aspect for Mama Bird to decide which of those eggs didn’t belong. Most peculiar is that an egg that was  Robin’s-egg-blue and similar in size to Robin’s eggs, but shaped like an octahedron was not rejected. I would have thought it uncomfortable to sit on.

Ouchy octahedron

I do know that mother birds are very protective of their eggs as their future babies. I grew up on a farm, and had the daily job of gathering eggs. The hens had nests in a specially built bookcase-like frame. If a hen was in a nest, I knew I would get pecked if I tried to remove her or her egg. I would take off a shoe, put my hand inside, and push her head to the side as I reached under and collected her egg. Fortunately, she didn’t chase after me when I left the henhouse.

Other scientists discovered that even before hatching, some birds receive and remember parental alarm calls, which slightly shake the eggs. Further, the about-to-born chicks can pass on the information to other eggs in the nest. Once again, the scientists decided to test this by removing eggs from nests and subjecting some eggs to alarm calls and not others. Then they were returned to the nests, and measured response times to alarm calls were a few seconds faster in the nests with the exposed eggs. Who would have thought?

Hey, did you hear that?

A more significant and controversial issue faces human beings as medical science now has the capacity to alter DNA in human eggs. While the ability to correct to prevent life-threatening diseases sounds like a miracle to impending parents, the idea of designer babies has so far checked scientists from going too far.

Hate Preparing for a Colonoscopy? There’s a Better Way

Related to problems with septic tanks as waste management systems, problems with human waste management systems have been inspected by colonoscopies.

Recently, I was surprised and delighted to discover that a home test has been developed that detects whether you need one. It is claimed to be equally effective as .colonoscopies in saving lives. Instead of drinking lots of nasty stuff, and then spending the rest of the day rushing to the throne, you go once and swab a small amount. Mail it to a lab for analysis and wait for the results. The new tests can detect microscopic amounts of blood, in which case you will need further investigation and possible treatment. I infer that you’d schedule a colonoscopy with the intention of having any polyps removed,

This is precisely what I’d like medical science to include in its research, cheaper and easier means of saving lives. I hope this country will have a serious discussion about the expense of adding a few months of life to people who are on their last legs.

Colonoscopies are not recommended over 75 years of age as going under anesthesia is not risk free, and colon cancer is slow growing. This test could continue to be used at any age and a risk assessment can be done.

Necessity is the Mother of Scientific Inventions

Catherine Coleman Flowers a MacArthur Foundation “genius”, is partnering with environmental engineers at Columbia University on the design of a toilet that will turn solid waste into fertilizer and liquid waste into water clean enough for washing clothes. This sounds amazing for a future with more people on the planet requiring more fresh water from a diminishing supply, along with more food and energy.

However, her inspiration was not futuristic, but based on what is happening in the county of Lowndes in Alabama where she grew up. Low income families with no public sewer available relied on a septic system, but due to climate change—not necessarily due to carbon dioxide—the average yearly rainfall has increased over time, resulting in the water table level rising. A septic system not only requires a tank, but a drain or leach field. The sludge remains in the tank, which has to be pumped out periodically. The effluent flows into the drain field. With the high water table, the effluent didn’t sink into the soil but bubbled up onto people’s properties, providing an environment for hookworms and other nasty small critters harmful to human health, something rarely seen in developed countries. The cost of specially engineered septic systems is out of reach for the ordinary resident, but the $500 cost of more frequent removal of the sludge is a Catch 22. On top of this, people were once fined for lack of maintenance.

As I thought about the problem, I found myself angry that people had to live this way, but in my research was heartened to learn that the problem had reached the attention of the federal government, partly because the county was the hardest hit by Covid-19. One of the residents testified before Congress. Bernie Sanders and Jane Fonda visited the area. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working on the issue of turning sewage into drinking water worldwide. Some funds have been provided to finance the special septic systems In Lowndes Coutny. At least ten have been installed.

However, according to Flowers, not only this Alabama county but also the flooded coasts of Florida to thawing Alaska towns contain an estimated half-million U.S. households that lack adequate sanitation. According to the CDC more than 35% of the world population is in the same situation. This larger need has inspired her to design a better septic system, one that is inexpensive and easy to run and maintain. It will separate waste into various recyclable elements. She also plans sensors that can monitor for signs of pathogens, including the coronavirus. Her article doesn’t explain how it will work nor how it can be done cheaply, but I salute her.

My New Years Visions for Science

By Bart Everson – https://www.flickr.com/photos/editor/46900157282/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76273955

* One of my visions is that plastic, Styrofoam, etc. will be replaced by products that won’t languish in a landfill. I was delighted to receive an online order recently with packing peanuts made of starch. They dissolve in water and are biodegradable. The sender claimed they were cheaper than Styrofoam. Evidently, they have been around since the 1990s, but they were new to me.

* I’ve blogged before about biodegradable plastics being developed and already some such bags are in use. I am anxious to see them become the norm. Now, I can only reuse plastic packaging as much as possible. No more seal-a-meal bags!

*I’d love to see a way to scrub carbon dioxide from the air that is safe and economically feasible . Scientists are quiet about their work on it for fear that people will believe society need not worry about pollution, and of course fear of failure or unintended consequences.

* How about battery storage for electricity becoming cheaper and more available so that solar and wind energy use can be maximized.

* I see electric airplanes in our future. Work has begun on small planes.

*The kind of scientific medical discoveries that I long for are those that will result in less invasive surgeries and more affordable cures. I find myself amazed at what research shows can be done, but often at tremendous cost.

*And wouldn’t it be great if someone invented a pill to erase our memories of the agony of 2020.

Here’s to better 2021 to all!

Eloise

Miss some 2020 Sky Visions because of clouds?

Geminind meteor shower on Dec 13th? Click here.

Saturn Jupiter conjunction on the winter soltice? Click here.

Our Brain is Our Clandestine Command Center

According to a recent NYTimes article, we are barely conscious of our most frequent brain activities, namely those that run our bodies. If our body begins to become dehydrated we feel thirsty and drink water. Our brain can instantly makes us feel quenched even though there hasn’t been enough time to replenish the blood stream. It anticipates the end result. (Hmm, unfortunately, we don’t feel full soon enough after beginning to eat.) A normal body requires water, salt, glucose, nutrients, sleep, movement, etc. The brain sees its job as anticipating your body’s need to replenish the required resources. This automatic management by our brains is scientifically known as allostasis.

Our Command Center Brain Controls Our Needs

The article likens this brain function to a personal financial advisor who manages your deposits and withdrawals. You can’t withdraw much energy if you haven’t made a sleep or nutrient deposit in days.

Most of this is not new, but most of us hold the view that our brain has this automatic side, which we don’t think about and a thinking side. However, the author of the article, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University professes that the brain is not for thinking and all brain activity is in service of maintaining the body.

I interpret her claim to mean that what we see as purely mental cannot be separated from allostasis. Deep breathing is physical, but It can act to calm us. More sleep can replenish emotional energy as well as physical. Presence on social media can deplete our social energy while not satisfying our need for human contact. Most people are experiencing weariness due to the Covid pandemic and the recent election, i.e. our brain is making withdrawals from our well-being, and we need to consider making deposits such as taking a nature walk, listening to music, watching light-hearted television, and in my case doing jig-saw and other puzzles proportional to the amount of time we worry about the 2020 world.  Hmm, am I withdrawing from my mental energy or adding to it when I use my brain on puzzles? Not sure.

Another hmm. The brain may spend more energy on our bodily functions, but thinking is indeed one of its functions. We may not be able to live without the brain making sure our bodies stay shipshape, but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t think. How would we make scientific discoveries without the brain, for example? Perhaps the author meant thoughts related to feeling rather than analyzing, deducing, researching, and understanding..

♡ Love Your Family and Friends, but ✋Trust Science!

Most of us understand Covid is a serious disease with death a genuine possibility. However, we view our friends and family as decent people who shower, brush their teeth, don’t have body odor, and maintain their homes as well as they can. If we think with our gut instead of our brain we wonder how they could give us Covid? Ditto for ourselves. If we’re feeling fine, we are fine or just have a cold. It is particularly difficult when a person with those views invites others to events, putting people in the awkward position of explaining a lack of trust the event is safe.

Understandably, it will be particularly difficult with the holidays upon us to make tough decisions. Grandparents will be craving to play itchy-gitchy-goomie with their adorable little grandchildren. We all look forward to sharing holiday cheer with our loved ones, but is it worth the risk? Medical scientists don’t think so without quarantines and Covid tests. Thank goodness for online meetings.

This difficulty is why some people have formed bubbles to retain some social contact at low risk. If carefully formed, the risk can be minimized. However, too many people do not understand that this does not mean multiple bubbles: one for neighbors, one for work mates, one for relatives, one for playing sports, etc. Because of something similar to the seven degrees of separtion theory, bubbles should not overlap and be kept small. Bubble members should share their habits, and agree on the rules inside and outside of the bubble. In most cases, social distancing and mask wearing should still be practiced. Consider the diagram below of overlapping bubbles. Imagine yourself as the dot in the bottom right bubble, and someone with Covid labeled C in the bottom left bubble. You may have never heard of person C, but someone in your bubble is only 4 steps away from him or her.

I know we are all weary of masks, not attending fun events, avoiding shopping indoors, but with vaccines and a new administration determined to contain Covid, there is hope the end is in sight.

STAY SAFE!!

Science and Political Will

Election day is past. Whether our votes were determined by taxes, the stock market, availability of jobs, the Supreme Court, healthcare, immigration, racism, social programs, influence of news or social meda, , or future of the planet, there is one thing we can and must agree on. We need to pressure our government representatives and talk with our friends and neighbors about respect for Science.

No form of government is perfect. To function well, a Democracy depends on an informed electorate. Unfortunately, we live in a world of conflicting information overload. Truth is difficult to discern with social media. (Fortunately, there are fact-checking sites online.) A more serious flaw in our particular Democracy is a structure that discourages long-term planning. Our elections are funded by donations, and the elected must spend an inordinate amount of time raising campaign funds. House representatives are up for election every two years effectively meaning they are always running for office. Presidential campaigns grow longer and more expensive. Imagine the good that could be done with the billions spent.

The upshot is that our government officials have less time to be concerned with long term planning. As an example, excellence in education is not uniform across the country because it is expensive. Yet investment in quality education more than pays for itself by providing a competent workforce, more people paying taxes on higher incomes, less need for programs for the poor, and an overall better quality of life. Just as families who plan ahead fare better, so do countries by properly maintaining and improving our infrastructure, providing affordable healthcare, clean air, energy and water supplies, and more. Population increase further elevates the need for long term planning.

It is the scientific community whose goals are intended for the long-term betterment of human society. Scientists prepare for years before embarking on a lifetime of research. The federal government supports a host of agencies involved with the science required for a better future, but it is unclear that those we elect pay them sufficient heed. The most serious threat to our future is climate change. The scientists have the answers, and as a community say the biggest obstacle to protecting our world is the lack of political will to implement solutions. Our role as citizens is to pressure those in power to trust science. Our lives depend on it.

Earth is in our hands

Less pollution More carbon absorbing trees

Check out this beautifully done video imagining a world where essential workers go on strike to make a better world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2m8YACFJlMg

Rewild Earth for Human’s Sake!

 

David Attenborough’s latest documentary—A Life on Earth— takes his concern about how we humans are managing our home to a new level. Instead of a voice-over with gentle concerned warnings, he speaks to us directly with his dismay emanating from his brimming sad eyes.

The film brings home how biodiversity makes our living world tick, but loss of wild areas means the clock for human life is ticking. Mass extinctions have happened five times in human history, and Attenborough wants to stop the next one.

For 10,000 years the average temperature didn’t vary by more than 1 degree Celsius. Dry and rainy seasons regularly and predictably alternated over most of the globe enabling farmers to provide our food. Then things began to change. In 1937, our world population was 2.3 billion, 66% of the Earth’s land was considered wild, and the number of parts of carbon molecules per million was 280. In 2020, the population is 7.8 billion, only 35% of our land is wild, and the number of parts of carbon per million has increased to the dangerous level of 415. Environmentalist Bill McKibben named his organization 350.org after  the safe level of 350.

In the 1950s modernization progressed at pace, and human life became easier with sophisticated appliances, cars, TVs, and planes taking us all over the world. Earth seemed infinite with unlimited resources. Only our astronauts beginning with the Apollo missions could see the beauty and  finitude of the blue marble.

Over Attenborough’s long career, he bore witness to the decline of mountain gorilas, whales, and so many species that today only 4% are wild. (I guess the rest are pets or awaiting to be served at our tables.) The number of acres of rain forests—gardens of biodiversity— has also drastically declined. As an example, Borneo was 75% rain forest in the 1950s, but today half of it is gone. 15 billion trees per year are slaughtered. Many efforts to replenish biodiverse forests are feeble because the newly planted trees are of a single variety—Palm Oil trees. The supply of fresh water is down by 80%.

Without significant action, by 2030 the Amazon will burn and the Arctic ice disappear. By 2040 the soil will thaw, releasing methane, a more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Sustainable living is required for human’s continued existence with decent lives. Biodiversity, is the key and  entails  rewilding our Earth. We need to plant trees, trees, and more trees of appropriate kinds. An organization called Restor is gathering data for achieving the right mix of wild plant and animal life. More information on Restor will be part of an upcoming series: Age of Nature on PBS:

Deserted town near Chernobyl

A plant and fish based diet is sustainable but one built around meat consumes too much land to sustain our growing human population. The natural world will rebuild without us. Chernobyl is evidence as natural trees have flourished. In working with rather than against nature, we can save ourselves. Behaving wisely is as critical as applying our best scientific efforts.