May 19, 2020
Back in the very early 1970s, in Manchester, my then-girlfriend had a brother-in-law who made a living stealing lead from the roofs of parish churches. Well, it made him a living before he slipped off one particular parish roof and died on the pavement below. I hadn’t thought of him for a while, but he came to mind this morning.
The entrance to our underground parking is a wooden structure that has seen far better days. The roof is made of tin, covered some twenty-odd years ago, by tar paper or something similar, and it is in terrible shape. I look out onto it every day through my home-office window. Some commotion made me look out today, and there were two large crows picking at something, squabbling.
I thought that they had a small bird that they were tearing apart. But looking more closely, I saw that they were actually fighting over bits of loose tar paper. The bigger one flew away with a full mouth load of stuff. The other stayed around and started pulling small sheets of the tar paper off the roof.
I can only guess they use them as nesting materials.
May 9, 2020
I was wandering about how quickly the year is passing; it will be June already in a week or so. That got me thinking about how time seems to speed up as we age, that the days seem more fleeting than they did when I was a kid, or even a young man. And that little reverie kick-started a theory of why the passage of time should seem different at different ages.
Let us first suppose that the neural mechanism for working out how long ago an event of a known date seems to have taken place involves flipping through a catalogue of our memories and making a calculation based somehow on the amount — or “bulkiness” — of the memory pile.
Let us next suppose that one suffers from the occasional short term memory loss — a standard condition of getting older it seems — such that a wide range of time is simply not memorialized.
Thus, when the mind flips through the memory for a particular period, the file seems less “bulky” (because of the missing memories) and the time between then and now will appear to have gone past quicker.
That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!
March 27, 2020
15,560 days ago, Elvis Presley had been dead four days and Groucho Marx for one; Jimmy Carter was into the eighth month of his presidency and serial killer Son of Sam had just been captured. On that day, August 20 1977, Voyager 2 was launched into space.
This morning, 15,560 days later, she is about 17 hours 8 light-minutes away from earth, still heading out. She left the Solar System 508 days ago, heading into the Interstellar Medium, and is still sending us valuable data every day.
Voyager 2 was built in 1976-1977 with tools that we would consider archaic today, and yet these days we have trouble keeping a toaster alive for more than six months!
It has been a glorious and useful and enhancing project and I hope it has many more thousands of days to chat with us.
February 26, 2020
Every since elementary school, at least, most of us have understood that the earth has a moon — just one. Old farts like me even remember when humans walked on that moon, that it was important that we had been there. But it seems we have to revise our knowledge of this singularity.
For the second time in a few years, astronomers have discovered a second — albeit tiny — moon;
“The mini-moon appears to have been orbiting our planet since it was first captured by Earth’s gravity three years ago. Early observations also suggest it is small enough to fit in just about any garage or shed, with an estimated diameter between 2 and 3.5 meters (about 6 – 11 feet).”
It is, in fact, a captured asteroid and its stay with us might be quite brief:
A “previous asteroid … did time as a mini-moon … which did just a few trips around our planet in 2006 and 2007 before being ejected back out into the solar system. [The current asteroid] may be ejected as well later this year.”
So now I don’t feel so short-changed when I read that Jupiter has 80 moons.
February 2, 2020
Today’s date is a rare eight-digit palindrome (reads same, forward and backward) — 02/02/2020 — the only one of its kind this century.
The previous eight-digit palindrome was 11/11/1111, 909 years ago.
We have to wait another 101 years for 12/12/2121.
January 18, 2020
A couple of weeks ago I had to undergo some tests on my heart. Part of the examination took place while I was “at rest” and a second part involved a “stress” test to see how my heart was working after exercise. In my case, probably because I am an old fart, I didn’t have to do any real exercise (such as using a treadmill); instead, they inject you with a drug that apparently simulates the effects of exercise. It certainly felt odd. Anyway, I joked with the technician that they should market the drug to lazy non-exercisers.
Today, I was looking up something else and happened to find that scientists are actually working on a drug to do that very thing.
“Michigan Medicine researchers studying a class of naturally occurring protein called Sestrin have found that it can mimic many of exercise’s effects in flies and mice … [W]hen they overexpressed Sestrin in the muscles of normal flies, essentially maxing out their Sestrin levels, they found those flies had abilities above and beyond the trained flies, even without exercise … The beneficial effects of Sestrin include more than just improved endurance. Mice without Sestrin lacked the improved aerobic capacity, improved respiration and fat burning typically associated with exercise.”
A different “independent study again highlights that Sestrin alone is sufficient to produce many benefits of physical movement and exercise,” says [professor Jun Hee] Lee.”
Ain’t science wonderful? I can see a huge black market potential for beefing up couch exercisers like myself!
January 7, 2020
I spent most of today at VGH having my heart checked out. This involved being injected twice with radioactive dye.
When I got home, I stood in the closet with the door closed but I didn’t glow in the dark, which was a great disappointment.
December 31, 2019
The other day I blamed Einstein for why time seems to go faster by as one gets older. However, a neuroscientist has another idea:
The four minutes will fly by!
December 21, 2019
The following are the finalists of the Nikon Small World competition for 2019. Fascinating stuff!
December 2, 2019
The Magnetic North Pole is a moveable object; it travels around the globe. In a previous post, I mentioned that millennia ago it was positioned far south of where we usually suppose it to be. Now, it has emigrated away from Canada!
According to an article in Forbes magazine,
“What we’ve seen in the past hundred years is that the location of the magnetic North Pole has moved northward. That migration of the magnetic North Pole was switched into overdrive in the past few years, causing the pole to rapidly move … In the recent past, the magnetic North Pole has moved 34 miles a year toward Russia. Just a half-century ago, the magnetic North Pole was wandering about 7 miles each year.”
Apart from Canada losing this natural asset, the movement of the pole affects a lot in our technological world:
“The [North Pole] model update ensures the accuracy of work in governmental agencies around the world. Specifically, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Forest Service use the magnetic poles in their daily operations from mapping to air traffic control. On a more individual level, smartphones use the magnetic north for GPS location and compass apps.”
I’m sure if the Pole moves rapidly over to China, much of Canada’s media will blame Trudeau for it.
November 3, 2019
Here is an interesting view of the types of fall foliage available in various parts of the US; it is from the Washington Post. I looked and looked for a similar chart for Canada without success.
Select image for a closer look.
October 27, 2019
There are many wonderful sights to see in northern Canada, and one of the great joys are the Northern Lights. But as new research reveals, these majestic celestial shows have been fascinating people for thousands of years — and thousands of kilometres from the Yukon.
The earliest records of the aurora have now been identified as coming from the middle of the 7th century BC — almost 3,000 years ago — and from the royal archives of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire. Three separate observers — known by cuneiform specialists for their regular and accurate astronomical observations — report “red glow”, “red cloud”, and “red sky” in reports to their royal masters. Exact dates are elusive, but they appear to be from about 660 BC.
We may wonder how the “Northern” lights could be seen in the Middle East. The researchers explain:
“the Middle East was closer to the north geomagnetic pole in the Assyrian epoch. While the north geomagnetic pole is situated near the region of North America today, it was situated in the region of Eurasia in the mid- to early 7th century BCE due to the secular variation of the geomagnetic field.”
When we are lucky enough to witness these sky dances, we are sharing the pleasures and excitements of hundreds of generations of those who have gone before.
October 13, 2019
This is a 6-minute video that does really well at explaining the evolution of hominds/humans since we split from chimpanzees seven million years ago.
Best seen on full screen. Well worth the time.
October 3, 2019
Edward O. Wilson
It is worth reading Edward O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth” in which he ditches the prevailing kin-selection theory (“the selfish gene”) of evolution’s natural selection in favour of a mix of kin-selection and group selection. In particular, he proposes that cultural and social evolution is propelled by group selection.
“In the search for ultimate causes of the human condition, the distinction between levels of natural selection applied to human behaviour is not perfect. Selfish behaviour, perhaps including nepotism-generating kin selection, can in some ways promote the interests of the group through invention and entrepreneurship … Group selection in its turn promoted the genetic interests of individuals with privilege and status as rewards for outstanding performance on behalf of the tribe.
Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”
He persuaded me, a layman, with logic and good scientific examples. I am amazed that this is still considered an heretical view within biological science.
Wilson was particularly interesting on the development of religion as a human-origined phenomena requiring no external power. I was disappointed, however, with what I saw as his assumption that the homo sapiens of today is the ultimate outcome of evolution, as if evolution has now ceased. Perhaps I read him wrong, but I had this thought at several points in the book.
Well worth reading.
October 2, 2019
Did you know that before 6,000 to 10,000 years ago all human beings had brown eyes? A single gene mutation in a single individual created the change, and so those of us with blue eyes all have that individual as our ancestor, according to a major study by the University of Copenhagen:
“Variation in the colour of the eyes from brown to green can all be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, but blue-eyed individuals only have a small degree of variation in the amount of melanin in their eyes. “From this we can conclude that all blue-eyed individuals are linked to the same ancestor,” says Professor Eiberg. “They have all inherited the same switch at exactly the same spot in their DNA.” Brown-eyed individuals, by contrast, have considerable individual variation in the area of their DNA that controls melanin production.”
They also note:
“The mutation of brown eyes to blue represents neither a positive nor a negative mutation. It is one of several mutations such as hair colour, baldness, freckles and beauty spots, which neither increases nor reduces a human’s chance of survival. As Professor Eiberg says, “it simply shows that nature is constantly shuffling the human genome, creating a genetic cocktail of human chromosomes and trying out different changes as it does so.”
June 28, 2019
I have for many years enjoyed celebrating each 14th March as Pi Day, in honour of pi = 3.14…. However, I have been persuaded that Tau Day is at least as important if not more so.
The value of Tau = 2pi and is thus celebrated on 28th June (6.28). Why this is important is explained in this good short piece from ScienceNews.
“The simplest way to see the failure of pi is to consider angles, which in mathematics are typically measured in radians. Pi is the number of radians in half a circle, not a whole circle. That makes things confusing: For example, the angle at the tip of a slice of pizza — an eighth of a pie — isn’t π/8, but π/4. In contrast, using tau, the pizza-slice angle is simply τ/8. Put another way, tau is the number of radians in a full circle.
That factor of two is a big deal. Trigonometry — the study of the angles and lines found in shapes such as triangles — can be a confusing whirlwind for students, full of blindly plugging numbers into calculators. That’s especially true when it comes to sine and cosine, two important functions in trigonometry. Many trigonometry problems involve calculating the sine or cosine of an angle. When graphed, the two functions look like a series of wiggles, shaped a bit like an “S” on its side, that repeat the same values every 2π. That means pi covers only half of an S. Tau, on the other hand, covers the full wiggle, a more intuitive measure.”
So, Happy Tau Day to you all!
March 21, 2019
I just finished reading Catching Fore: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. It makes an interesting case that food — and the cooking of food — helped drive the evolution of human beings.
Following a detailed energy analysis comparing raw and cooked food, Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, posits that homo erectus evolved out of autralopithecines around 1.8 million years ago primarily as a result of the introduction of cooking. The softness of processed food drove the visible changes between the species in jaw and tooth structure and gut size, while the increase of energy imparted to the food by cooking helped accelerate the massive growth in cranial capacity in erectus.
He also suggests that the evolution of homo erectus to homo heielbergensis (a precursor to homo sapiens) around 700,000 years ago is contemporaneous with evidence showing a more complete control of fire. Moreover, he argues that the societal and cultural changes introduced through the security of fire and the sharing of cooked food are implicated in the emergence of the big-brained homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. These are big claims which he backs up with considerable evidence from both the paleo-archaeologcal record and studies of modern hunter-gatherers.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly and I learned a great deal. However, Catching Fire was published in 2009. In the decade since, there have been enormous strides taken in our knowledge of the human family tree. In that time we have discovered the Denisovans, re-evaluated the Neanderthals, and added homo naledi and homo floriensis to the list of our forebears, along with much else. I’ll need to see how Wrangham’s arguments stack up against the new discoveries.
Whatever the result of that comparison, Catching Fire is well worth the read for anyone interested in the origins of humanity and food.
March 16, 2019
Image: Will Burrard-Lucas
There are some extraordinarily glorious shots of this magnificent animal in an article in Hyperallergic featuring images by Will Burrard-Lucas.
Well worth the look.
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.
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.