Remembering A Lost Opportunity

February 13, 2019

It is with immense sadness that we contemplate the death of the Mars rover Opportunity.

Sent to the red planet in January 2004 with an anticipated lifetime of just 90 days, Opportunity found ways to survive, to keep moving, and to keep sending us vital scientific information until last summer.  In the course of its life, it traversed more than 28 miles of the planet’s surface.

In June 2018, the rover was covered by a massive dust storm, clogging her solar panels, and cutting her off from communication with earth. NASA engineers have tried to contact the rover but, finally, have had to give up the attempt.

Opportunity has given us more than a decade of extraordinary learning; she will be missed.

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Pandora’s Seed Fails To Blossom

December 13, 2018

I spent a week reading “Pandora’s Seed: The Unforseen Cost of Civilization” by the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells, and I was thoroughly disappointed.

I’m guessing that if it was a reader’s very first introduction to the disasters caused by the Neolithic Revolution — hierarchy, stress, planet destruction — then perhaps some of the chapters would be of value. But for the many who have studied this topic for a long time, including a couple of mentions on this blog, this was little more than a recap.

There was too much of the Sunday supplement style of writing, describing flights to exotic locales, cab journeys, and the minutia of other scientists’ looks.  I sometimes thought I was reading the lead-in to a People profile. He did have the occasional good line; perhaps the best of which correctly describes agriculture as “a virus, expanding in influence despite its negative effects on human health.”

But this was generally too shallow a dive for me.


William Smith and the Discovery of Geology

December 9, 2018

A review of “The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” by Simon Winchester.

Winchester is an extraordinarily prolific writer with at least 18 full-length titles to his name, most of which have been very well received, and scores of magazine and TV articles. I have previously read his “The Professor and the Madman” (about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary) and “Krakatoa.”  He has developed a non-fiction style that is eminently readable while packing in an immensity of well-researched material.

William_Smith_(geologist)His story of William Smith, the low-born farmer’s son who first understood the stratification of geological layers and, more importantly, the value of the specific fossils found in each layer, is brilliantly told.  Smith’s trials and tribulations, including a period in debtors’ prison — many of which were a direct result of the English class system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are described in detail, as is his ultimate triumph and celebration as an old man.

In between this very human story, Winchester weaves a clear portrait of the science that Smith discovered — the lie of the ancient rocks across England — and the great hand-coloured Geological Map that he finally published in 1815.  An item of particular interest was the use of his discoveries by those — the majority — who still believed that the earth was just 4,000 years old, while many scientists quietly, secretly, realized that Smith had shown the earth to be a far more ancient object.

A very good read.


A Whole New Kingdom Of Life

November 16, 2018

When we try to classify the myriad forms of life on earth, the most fundamental breakdowns are at the Kingdom level:  we have the Kingdoms of Animals, of Plants, of Bacteria, of Fungi. All life as we knew it fit into one of the Kingdoms and could be classified and linked as such.

Except, that is, for the few hemimastigotes that were then known.

In a lucky find, as reported by CBC, Canadian researchers identified two more species of these rare creatures. More importantly, perhaps, they captured the genomic information.  From that analysis, they are happy to announce that hemimastigotes are so different from all other life that they form a brand new fifth Kingdom all of their own..

It is so rare an event that the Tree of Life is reorganized so radically, that we need at least to report it.


Whales and Their Odd Sleep

November 13, 2018

What is it that we don’t already know about whales? They have been the planet’s favourite cause for many years now. Well, it seems that they don’t need very much sleep; and the sleep they do get may only be in half their brain at any one time. So suggests some research from 2008.

Sperm whales literally drift to sleep, but it’s a snooze like no other, according to a recent study that found whales perform slow, rhythmic dives as they slumber. Because these drift dives keep the whales in constant motion as they rest, scientists now think the seafaring mammals sleep with one side of their brain at a time. The two sides alternate until both are rested …

whale sleeping

The scientists observed two types of drift dives. The first, head-up drift dives, happen when a whale’s rear end slowly sinks into the water from a horizontal posture. During the second type, head-down, the whale descends slowly with its head directed toward the ocean floor. It travels downward about one or two body lengths in depth before flipping back upward toward the water’s surface. The researchers think the whale’s internal buoyancy causes this natural upward motion, similar to how a sinking apple eventually bobs back to the surface …

“Their bodies have found a way to cope, offering evidence that sleep isn’t necessary for development, and raising the question of whether humans and other mammals have untapped physiological potential for coping without sleep,” said Jerome Siegel, director of the Center for Sleep Research at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Interesting research. There was more detail in the original story from Discover News, but the link now fails,


60 Years Ago — “Beep Beep Beep”

October 4, 2017

I was just a few weeks away from my 8th birthday when my father sat me on his knee specifically to listen to our old radio spit out some strange sounds — “Beep.  Beep.  Beep.”  Even through the static we knew we had never heard the like of it before.

On October 4th, 1957 — just sixty years ago — the space age began with the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite.  I’m sure the surprise in the US was far greater than we felt in Europe.  We Europeans were already terrified of the power of the grey beasts just a few hundred miles to the east of our cozy nest in West London.  It seemed to many that Russian tanks could overrun Europe at any moment, and the technological genius of Sputnik simply confirmed our anxiety.

But again, there was always that secret spot inside that reveled in the fact that a European power had beaten the Americans into space.  And for my socialist grandfather and his cadre of friends, it was yet another sign that the Workers’ Paradise was superior in every respect to the Mickey Mouse- and Doris Day-loving capitalists.

In the end, I’m sure this had little to do with the ultimate end of the Cold War.  The costs of the space race were minuscule compared to the economy-shuddering trillions spent on the arms race by both sides.  But without Sputnik and all that followed, we would be a very different and more distanced world today.


Aphantasia: Hard To Imagine

June 29, 2016

One of the delights of each week for me is to listen to the Quirks & Quarks podcast on CBC Radio. I always learn something and this week was no different.

I learned that there is something called aphantasia, which is an inability to produce mental images. Those with this condition have no mind’s eye and do not “see” things in their mind as most of us do.  For example, if someone is talking to me about Paris, then an image of the Eiffel Tower may well pop up in my head. But for those with aphantasia this doesn’t happen.

aphantasia

Oddly, this doesn’t seem to affect imagination directly because one sufferer is the author Michele Sagara, well-known for her narrative depictions of fantasy worlds. Another is Blake Ross, founder of Firefox.

This is a recently discovered disorder because those who have it assumed everyone thought the way they do, and those without it had no idea that mental images could be done away with.  The discovery was essentially accidental.

The podcast is worth listening to. It begins at 1:31.