When Scientists Go Awry

The following is from an exhibit at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum of humorous attempts at classifying plants and animals. The surnames of the scientists involved appear in parentheses.

Abra cadabra (Eames & Wilkins) 1957 – A variety of clam

Hebejeebie (Heads) 2003 – A genus of flowering plant that must give people the creeps

La cucaracha (Blesynski) 1966 – A moth that reminds one of a cockroach

Ba humbugi (Solem) 1983 – A snail much beloved of Ebeneezer Scrooge

Ittibittium (Houbrick) 1993 – A mollusc genus even smaller than genus Bittium

Heerz lukenatcha and Heerz tooya (Marsh) 1993 – Two wasps you would rather notencounter

Riga toni (Evenhuis) 2013 – A fly for pasta lovers

Ytu brutus (Spangler) 1980 – Beware the Ides of March!

North (and Central) American Nebula

Looks Like the Map of North America from Yucatán to Panama

Every once in a while, I check out NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day which frequently has images which make me think. The above picture is technically called the Cygnus Wall of Star Formation. According to the website:

The North America nebula on the sky can do what the North America continent on Earth cannot — form stars. Specifically, in analogy to the Earth-confined continent, the bright part that appears as Central America and Mexico is actually a hot bed of gas, dust, and newly formed stars known as the Cygnus Wall. The featured image shows the star forming wall lit and eroded by bright young stars, and partly hidden by the dark dust they have created. The part of the North America nebula (NGC 7000) shown spans about 15 light years and lies about 1,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).

Makes me yearn to visit Yucatán—yet again.

Terminator Moon

NASA Picture of Terminator Moon

What exactly is a terminator moon. According to the Astronomy Picture of the Day for February 15, 2022, here is the explanation from NASA:

What’s different about this Moon? It’s the terminators. In the featured image, you can’t directly see any terminator — the line that divides the light of day from the dark of night. That’s because the image is a digital composite of 29 near-terminator lunar strips. Terminator regions show the longest and most prominent shadows — shadows which, by their contrast and length, allow a flat photograph to appear three-dimensional. The original images and data were taken near the Moon by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Many of the Moon’s craters stand out because of the shadows they all cast to the right. The image shows in graphic detail that the darker regions known as maria are not just darker than the rest of the Moon — they are flatter.

Geldingadalir

The Volcanic Eruption at Geldingadalir, Iceland

When one takes an international flight to Iceland, one usually lands at Keflavík Airport on the Reykjanes Peninsula. From there, it is a From there it is 30 miles (50 km) to Reykjavík. Those 30 miles contain some of the most desolate volcanic badlands that I have ever seen. It is south of that road, on the way to Grindavík that a fissure in the earth started belching out lava on March 19, 2021. It is still going strong, and it looks like it will destroy the road to Grindavík, forcing the locals to take a more roundabout route to the capital.

The area of the eruption is part of the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system on the Reykjanes Peninsula, a scene of active rifting between two major tectonic plates: the Eurasian and North American. The boundary between these two plates cuts north/south right through the west of Iceland. This is the first eruption on the Peninsula in over 800 years. You can read about the eruption at Hit Iceland and Wikipedia.

The Desolate Reykjanes Peninsula Terrain Seen from the Airport Bus to Reykjavík

I took the above picture from my bus to Reykjavík in June 2013. It amazed me on both my trips to Iceland that the road to the capital was so desolate, so uninhabited, for so many miles. At places, one could see geyser activity marked with little steam clouds. I can only speculate that the Icelanders knew this place was going to blow at some point, so they decided to stay away in droves.

Now, of course, tourists are flocking to the scene of the eruption, but they are warned that things can get ugly fast. In 1783, there was a major eruption along a 27 km fissure called Laki, killing some 9,000 Icelanders with the lava and poison gases associated with the event. You can read about it on the Scientific American website.

No one knows how long the eruption at Geldingadalir will continue, and how much the Peninsula will change as the result of the massive amounts of lava being pumped out.

Struthioniformes

Birds at OstrichLand USA in Solvang, California

Back in the days when there were places to go and when coronavirus was not rampant in the land, Martine and I liked to visit Solvang, about three quarters of an hour north of Santa Barbara. There was a great bookstore (the Book Loft), yummy Danish smorgasbords, Santa Inez Mission, great cookies, and OstrichLand USA.

Ostriches are considered part of the order of Struthioniformes, which includes, in addition to ostriches, kiwis, rheas, emus, and cassowaries. At OstrichLand, there are ostriches and emus.

There is something confrontational about ostriches. One would never consider petting one without risk of being attacked by a sharp beak. You can feed them, but many visitors are afraid to. They’ll take your proffered food, but only while casting a baleful glare at you.

Joshua Trees in the California Desert

Although they are not native to the Southwest, I think of ostriches the way I think of desert cacti: One would no more pet an ostrich than hug a cholla cactus or a Joshua Tree. They’re interesting to look at, but not pleasant to touch.

More “Spooky Action at a Distance”

The Theory Has Been in Play for More Than a Century

Mention Quantum Theory to a non-scientist, and what you frequently get in response is a look of profound puzzlement. Even Einstein has weighed in against many of its premises by calling it “spooky action at a distance.” Elsewhere, he asserted that “God does not play dice.” I mean, if Einstein wasn’t on board with this, how could it be true?

Close to the center of the theory is what is called the Copenhagen Interpretation, proposed by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg around 1925-1927. According to it, in the world of micro particles, there are no equivalent certainties to the world of big objects like stones, trees, or even planets. If you set up an experiment such as the one illustrated below in which a photon is fired at an opaque object in which two slits are cut, the end result on a receiving surface is not nice and predictable. At times, it will seem that a single photon will go through both slits simultaneously, which would seem to be impossible. At times, when light is shone through the slits, it will seem that the light will act as if it were a particle; other times, it will act as if it were a wave.

The Two Slit Experiment Presents a Multiplicity of Results

Every few years, I read another book on quantum theory to see what physicists are doing with it. Currently, I am reading Through Two Doors at Once: The Elegant Experiment That Captures the Enigma of Our Quantum Reality by Anil Ananthaswamy. Like most books on the subject, there is a heavy reliance on the history of the theory over the last hundred years or so, ending with experiments currently in play.

It’s hard to believe that such a simple experiment could flummox so many incredibly smart people, but it does. And it even still flummoxes me.

 

Serendipity: Flowers and Bugs

In Order for Flowers to Exist …

Lately, I hav been reading two old books by naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch: The Forgotten Peninsula, about Baja California, and The Voice of the Desert. I found this interesting paragraph in the latter. I sure do like his writings!

Gardeners usually hate “bugs,” but if the evolutionists are reight, there never would have been any flowers if it had not been for those same bugs. The flowers never waste their sweetness on the desert air, or for that matter, on the jungle air. In fact, they waste it only when no one except a human being is here to smell it. It is for the bugs and for a few birds, not for men, that they dye their petals or waft their scents. And it is lucky for us that we either happen to like or have become “conditioned” to liking the colors and the odors which most insects and some birds like also. What a calamity for us if insects had been color blind, as all mammals below the primates are! Or if, worse yet, we had our present taste in smells while all the insects preferred, as a few of them do, that odor of rotten meat which certain flowers dependent on them abundantly provide. Would we ever have been able to discover thoughts too deep for tears in a gray flower which exhaled a terrific stench? Or would we have learned by now to consider it exquisite?

 

 

It’s Coming for YOU, Bubba!

Look for It the Day Before Election Day!

Ever since that grim day in November 1916 as I twisted and turned in a hotel room in Quito, Ecuador, I have come to the conclusion that something is not right with the universe. I am reminded of Casca’s words in Act I Scene iii of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar:

A common slave—you know him well by sight—
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn
Like twenty torches join’d, and yet his hand,
Not sensible of fire, remain’d unscorch’d.
Besides—I ha’ not since put up my sword–
Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
’These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.

What I am referring to is the news that an asteroid might strike the earth the day before the November 3 “fraudulent” election that will confirm Donald J. Trump in his role as dictator for life.

According to CNN, the asteroid is just a shade over 6 feet—the size of our presidential pretender. I cannot help but think that it will land in such a way as to set fire to our great leader’s impressive bouffant hair-do, and possibly burn him to a cinder in his size 12 shoes. If that happened, it would surely show that there is some justice in the universe.

 

The Ultimate Survivor

A Tardigrade (Milnesium tardigradum)

Perhaps the hardiest creature on the face of the earth, or under the sea, is barely large enough to be seen by the naked eye. There are some twelve hundred species of tardigrade, which, if they were our size, would be terrifying. In fact, they are usually about 0.5 mm in size, have eight legs, and are usually referred to as water bears. Under normal circumstances, they live for several months; but, under periods of extreme stress, roll up into a tiny barrel shape called a tun and turn themselves off for as many days, weeks, months, years, or even decades pass and circumstances improve.

What the tardigrade could survive includes:

  • A few minutes at 151° Celsius (304° Fahrenheit)
  • Thirty years at -20° Celsius (-4° Fahrenheit)
  • A few days at -200° Celsius (-328° Fahrenheit)
  • A few minutes at 272° Celsius (-458° Fahrenheit)

They can also survive at sea level, at the bottom of the deepest depth of the Pacific (the Marianas Trench) and even the weightlessness and radiation of outer space. This was tested at the Space Station: Although some of the tardigrades dies, most survived and returned to normal when they landed on earth.

If you have a few minutes, I urge you to watch this informative BBC video, which contains further amazing statistics about this creature:

We talk about colonizing the planets and distant stars. I am not sure that we could, but I have every confidence that the tardigrades could.

The Day Life on Earth Almost Died

A Piece of the KT Boundary

Around the end of July, I wrote a post entitled Revisiting the Cretaceous Extinction. This week, I read a fascinating story entitled “The Day the Earth Died” in the April 8, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. The asteroid that collided with Earth around 65 million years ago was at least six miles wide and gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and launched 25 trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. The article goes on:

The damage had only begun. Scientists still debate many of the details, which are derived from the computer models, and from field studies of the debris layer, knowledge of extinction rates, fossils and microfossils, and many other clues. But the over-all view is consistently grim. The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phyto-plankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999% of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.

This massive disaster left a signature layer across the entire surface of the planet referred to as the KT boundary, short for Cretaceous-Tertiary. (It is also referred to as the KPg boundary after the Tertiary was renamed the Paleogene by geologists.) This boundary layer is high in the rare element Iridium, which is most often found in meteorites and asteroids.

It is a sobering thought that an object from space only six miles across (10 km) could strike the Earth, which is eight thousand miles across (12,900 km) and end up killing virtually all life, and certainly annihilating the human race.

The asteroid collided with the Earth around Chicxulub on the Yucatán peninsula, which I plan to visit, hopefully with a geologist, early next year.