Category Archives: Science

Daphnia in tire soup experiment

Today’s lead story in the Trib highlighted the scientific investigations of two Duluth Middle School students. These young people were way ahead of the School Board when they decided to test whether our rubber tire mulch might be toxic. It is. At least it is to water fleas otherwise known as daphnia.

Whether it is hazardous for children has yet to be established but the story certainly reinforces my decision to replace the rubber mulch in our school playgrounds.

Maybe if we dumped our tire mulch in Lake Superior we could kill off the invasive spiny waterfleas that our fish can’t eat and that so annoy anglers.

Ignorance is Bliss

From Chapter 14 of Destiny of the Republic: A tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President:

“Not only did many American doctors not believe in germs, they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession. They spoke fondly of the “good old surgical stink” that pervaded their hospitals and operating rooms, and they resisted making too many concessions even to basic hygiene. Many surgeons walked directly from the street to the operating room without bothering to change their clothes. Those who did shrug on a laboratory coat, however, were an even greater danger to their patients. They looped strands of silk sutures through their button holes for easy access during surgery, and they refused to change or even wash their coats. They believed that the thicker the layers of dried blood and pus, black and crumbling as they bent over their patients, the greater the tribute to their years of experience.”

Just as many politicians ridiculed Darwin in the Era of the Scopes Monkey Trial and today’s Republican party has concluded that 97% of environmental scientists are ignorant to believe that Carbon is causing Global Warming, there was a time when germs did not exist – at least not in America.

In Chapter 14 poor President Garfield’s medical care has just been commandeered by a self confident Doctor who has already stuck his unwashed finger and two long unsanitized probes into the President’s back. In the next fifty pages I will be reading more about how Dr. Bliss turns a wound that left untreated the President would have survived into a pus filled killer of the President.

Ignorance is Bliss takes on new meaning in this book. It killed Garfield in 1880 just as it threatens to kill the earth as we know it today.

Solar wind not cosmic rays

As fascinating as I find the subject astronomy is not my forte. As I was lazing in a hammock yesterday afternoon enjoying the temperate weather soon to depart I looked up into the tossing leaves of my three poplars and thought about something I’d just written in the last post. I’m about to correct it. I wrote that our planet’s magnetic polls protected us from the bombardment of cosmic rays. No. The magnetism of Earth does protect our atmosphere by preventing solar winds from stripping the Earth bare. There is a connection with protection from gamma rays from space. Ozone. That’s the chemical that began disappearing from the South Pole a couple decades ago from all the chlorofluorocarbons that were released from spray cans and old refrigerators. That in turn pushed up melanomas (skin cancers) where the ozone was reduced.

So there is an indirect tie between gamma rays and our magnetic fields. The magnetism repels the solar wind that would strip the ozone and a lot of the rest of our atmosphere away. Gravitation plays a role too. Earth is the largest of the four inner “rocky” planets and has a little stronger hold on the light weight gaseous molecules as a result. The lightest of them are mose likely to fly off into space unless they are chemically combined with other elements.

The video above gives a good sense of what blasts our inner planets day in and day out. When the winds are particularly intense they produce northern and southern lights. When there is a particulary explosive event that is aimed directly at the Earth the consequences can interfere or even knock out communication systems. In one particulary vigorous such occasion that took place when electronic communications was limited to telegraphy world-wide communication was hit hard. It took place in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, and was called the Carrington Event.

How such an event would affect our space stations or the astronauts within is unclear to me. We are discovering that being in outer space for long periods is not healthy for astronauts – at least in our current flimsy space craft. Better to stay on Earth for a long life.

Paradise

One of my latest sources of information and a highly visual one is Pinterest. On it a few months ago I found this arresting illustration showing Earth with its ocean and atmosphere congealed into spheres representing the non solid components of the planet:

I have always been interested in science beginning with dinosaurs and seashells. As a second grader I reconciled religion and science by determining that Adam and Eve were cavemen. The trouble is that I eventually concluded that Adam and Eve’s eariest ancestors were single celled organisms. Anyone who tells you otherwise is, is, is…..Wrong.

The message I take from this illustration is the fragility of our planet’s zone of habitability. Why are we not like Venus or Mars? Well, yes its partly our being in the goldilocks zone of not too hot and not too cold but there is much more to it. We have a Moon that was likely created by a massive collision four billion years ago. That collision and/or the Moon’s constant tidal influence seems to have given us an active interior which in turn has given us the magnetosphere which keeps killer cosmic rays [Correction – Earth’s magnetism keeps the solar wind, not cosmic rays, from stripping away our atmosphere] from ravaging life on Earth. Without this guide for compases our ocean would probably have been blown away into space as were the oceans of Mars. Perhaps those oceans now coat the comets in the Oort Cloud.

I’ve read many articles on how unlikely the Earth we live on is. At the same time I am inundated with news stories about how a massive human population is undermining the Earth’s livibility. But we only have Earth. I uploaded another space related post on just how remote we are from everywhere else in the Milky Way. It won’t be generations before we can get to other potentially habitable planets. Rather, it will be a hundred generations and possibly tens of hundreds of generations. And that doesn’t even begin to account for the time it will take to “terraform” other planets into zones where we can grow bacteria, insects, fish, palm trees let alone humans.

In the next couple of generations we will need to experiment by sending poor copies of Earth’s environment into our own solar system. Each such vessel will have to take a tiny grain of Earth with it like soup stock or starter dough. They will not be able to carry the zillions of lifeforms on Earth that keep our planet alive but they will have many generations to perfect their zoologies before we dare escape the Sun. In the meantime we must begin working overtime to give the remaining non-human part of Earth some space not to disappear. I love EO Wilson’s suggestion that we keep half of Earth for everything else. Developers will hate that idea and won’t rest until we humans can walk accross the oceans on all the floating garbage we let loose from our coastlines.

I talk about rejoining the Republican Party and bringing some sensibility back to it but the often flakey Green Party might be a better fit for me as I blunder into old age. It might welcome me hey, Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican as well as the founder of our National Parks.

I always liked Joni Mitchel’s song Big Yellow Taxi:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
They took all the trees
And put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half to seem ’em
No no no
Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Hey farmer farmer
Put away the DDT
I don’t care about spots on my apples
Leave me the birds and the bees
Please!
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Hey, now they paved paradise
To put up a parking lot
Why not?
Listenin’ late…

A lot of the Earth that I knew as a child is gone. Even more of the Earth that existed when my Father was a child is gone not to mention what existed when his Father was young.

I’d like more than parking lots left for my Grandchildren.

Cassiopeia

Last night after I parked my car in the garage I looked up to see a jet cross one of the few constelations I can easily identify – Cassiopeia. The other easy ones are the big and little dippers and Orion. The lights from the plane, had they been in my house, would have blinded me but being three miles up were only slightly brighter than the binary star Serius – the brightest in the night sky. Distance is everything in observing the stars.

I recently learned that of the paltry 5,000 stars we can pick out with the naked eye the farthest of these lies in Cassiopia. It is called Cassiopia Rho. It is 100,000 times more luminous than our sun. Its luminosity means we can see it despite its being 4,000 light years distant. I don’t know how many stars are within 4 thousand light year distance of Earth but apparently there are 600 million stars within 5,000 light years.

If mankind ever engineers a spacecraft that could travel at the speed of light (the limit without wormholes) it would take 4000 years to reach Cassiopeia Rho. However the fastest rocket ship we have yet devised travels as a small fraction of this speed (at 1/18,000th the speed of light) At this creeping pace it would take about 75 million years for it to reach Cassiopeia Rho. That is ten million years longer than the time elapsed since the extinction of the dinosaurs. And of course the furthest edges of our own medium sized galaxy are much further yet. The Milky Way’s width is currently estimated to be 100,000 light years and it is believed to contain 200 billion stars all but 5000 of them invisible to the naked human eye.

Superimposed on a picture of the Milky way the pitifully small circle of stars we can see is very tiny. I recall reading that we are fortunate to be investigating the universe at this point 13 billion years from its birth because we can still pick out galaxis that formed within a five hundred million years of the Big Bang. In a few billion more years the furthest of them will begin disappearing from even our most powerful telescopes as the Universe expands at a rate even faster than the speed of light. The light from the most distant object which began heading to earth 13.2 billion years ago comes from a place in the universe that is now 46 billion light years away. Light escaping it today will never reach the Earth. It is for this reason that astronomers say the universe will eventually grow dark. Our Milky Way descendents will be able to see the galaxies and galaxy clusters close to us for some time ahead but those farther away will simply wink out to us as we will wink out to them.

Not to worry – there are still lots of things for us to investigate before they are too far away to be seen anymore. There is an arresting illustration in the Discover magazine I opened up yesterday. It shows the leading edge of the Chicxulub meteor as it begins crashing into the ocean off today’s Yucatan Penninsula. But you can see its other end looming over the Earth nine miles farther behind yet to reach the impact site. The top of that meteor is up higher than the jet I saw flying through Cassiopeia last night.

The Rosetta Comet that we’ve been investigating is only about three miles at its longest point. That’s considerably smaller than the dinosaur killer. Even so, if you stacked it next to Los Angelas you would get an eyefull.

My Buddy nudges me on the previous post

Harry:

From http://lincolndemocrat.com/?p=15171:

“Now if we could just figure out how to tempt some of the 800 extra Duluth East kids to Denfeld to even up the school populations we’d have an even bigger improvement in safety.”

However, as I said to you on September 17, regarding which I have not received a response:

However, I am similarly critical about the decision of the district to have an east high school and a west high school, instead of just one high school “ especially considering that the district had one relatively new facility that was centrally located. Who deserves blame for that? Marshall School functions with such a central location; why couldn’t the public school district?

A lot of water over the dam.

[Your Buddy]

To which I responded:

Yeah. A lot of water over the damn alright……pun intended.

Buddy, your question about a central location for a high school is a good one and I’ve written about it before on the blog. I don’t respond to all of your emails because……well…..I have a life to live. Its not for want of a willingness to reply.

Our task now is to make sure that the decisions we can’t undo don’t further compromise kids out west.

Harry

Meanwhile, I’m over the moon too. My Buddy sent me this link to some very cool pictures of the Apollo landings on the Moon in honor of the Lunar Eclipse Sunday Night. Claudia and I watched it battle the clouds in Duluth until its blood red phase.

I remember bicycling around Mankato, Minnesota, back in 1969 while stealing glances up at the moon when we first landed astronauts there.

Nix that

Its been a long time since I’ve put anything other than ISD 709 miasma on the blog. This is cool and its probably already on Bob King’s Astronomy blog. It shows how the football shaped moon Nix moves in its orbit around the binary Pluto/Charon combination. No spiral here.

I wasn’t kidding about being too clean

In my August 2nd Not Eudora column I joked that the real reason for our health maladies was not vaccinations but too much hygiene or cleanliness……..only I wasn’t really joking.

Take a listen to this NPR report on the microbes that make us more of an ecosystem than a stand alone critter. If you’ve heard people are suffering from more allergies and obesity this could be the explanation. And don’t even get me started on hookworms.

Taking the ice veil off

Our scientific instruments are enabling us to see the world as never before. The Kepler mission has been locating Earth sized planets in stars light years away. Satellites are uncovering buried civilizations from the past and recent work has uncovered a grand canyon under the ice in Greenland an island the size of the Louisiana Purchase or one third the size of the lower 48.

Faithless Christians dismantling public education

Two nights ago I half watched a PBS documentary on the Texas School Board which has out sized power in determining what gets put in the nation’s text books. I was busy whittling down what had been a twenty-inch thick stack of untended Duluth News Tribunes dating back to 2010 to clip and file stories mostly related to the Duluth Schools. The central character in “Revisionaries” was the Board’s chairman, a nice fellow and practicing dentist, Don McLeroy.

For ten years Don has been inserting creationism into science textbooks and taking Thomas Jefferson out of History books. Because Texas orders books statewide for all their public schools unlike most states which allow their school districts to purchase textbooks most textbook publishers base their books on the Texas School Board mandates and have done so for several decades. That might help explain why among the western educated nations the US had one of the smallest number of folks who accepted evolution, 28% of the population.

A few years ago when I was running against Roger Reinert for the State Senate I campaigned in part on my proposal to forbid any Minnesota School District from buying books that had been designed to accommodate the Texas standards. Roger, I support the Red Plan, Reinert won that DFL primary.

Enough digression.

McLeroy struck me as a naif. He and his Board majority require the teaching of creationism the latest alternative to evolution saying that science hasn’t decided between the two “theories.”

The thing that no one else comments on is that this silliness not only turns biology on its head but all other sciences. For his part Dr. McLeroy was shown explaining to some grade schoolers how Noah’s ark was plenty big enough to hold two of every animal in the world. McLeroy believes that the universe is only 6,000 years old. He laughs off dinosaurs living tens of millions of years ago.

But If McLeroy is right then the light from distant stars has only been traveling for 6,000 years. Those who keep up with NASA may know that the medium sized galaxy we live in is 120,000 light years across. It takes a photon of light that many years to traverse the distance of the Milky Way if the physicists are right about this. In a 6000 year old universe we could only see stars about 1/20th of the way across the galaxy. All the others would be as good as invisible to us as well as the galaxies beyond our own. The astronomers have been telling us that their new telescopes have given them a peek at regions of our universe where light we now see began its travel toward us almost 13 billion years ago. Don’s creationism can not accept this.

Since light, a major preoccupation of physics, travels at roughly 186,000 miles per second, Don McLeroy’s universe and the universe of astronomy and physics are irreconcilable. I hate to think how much money we’ve wasted NASA.

Likewise, geology is being taught all wrong. The non-Biblical Earth is 4 billion years old having formed slowly by matter’s coalescence in a ring around what was to become our sun. At first the Earthly blob was mostly cool but it warmed up through friction as it was bombarded by comets and asteroids turning molten. Huge reservoirs of radioactive metals at its core kept it warm until a thin crust cooled. So, say the scientists but all of this geology, astronomy and physics get’s tossed out on its head in Don McLeroy’s 6,000 year old world.

I think there is a larger irony for McLeroy than using his position on a state school board to moot and undermine all this science. I think a larger irony involves his misunderstanding of his own religion, Christianity.

Don made it clear that he does not just have faith in his positions. He knows that his religion is fact. The creation of the universe that he feels is backed up by the Bible is a concrete truth. McLeroy is not an arrogant man. He’s more of a Sancho Panza following his Quixotic scientific belief. There is, however, no humility in this knowledge. The ark could hold all ten or twenty million animals that could have been collected by Noah. The world is 6,000 years old.

But it is not certainty that the New Testament offers. Jesus offers his follower’s faith. It is enough to believe through faith that Jesus was sired by God of a virgin. It is enough to believe that he was crucified, dead and buried and that he rose again from the dead and ascended to heaven to sit on the right hand of God. The reward for for people who have faith in the message found in the New Testament is eternal life. God bestows his grace on people of faith. This is not good enough for McLeroy who apparently survived his public school years without drinking too heavily of science. No, Mr. McLeroy has to place his science lite creationism along side evolution as a co-equal. Nothing can be left behind to undermine faith.

Joseph Stalin might have appreciated Mr. McLeroy’s concern. His purges stunted of a generation of horticulturalists and evolutionists who he replaced with Lamarkian “scientists” like Trofim Lysenko whose theories, Stalin was persuaded, fit better with dialectical materialism.

Of the twelve disciples I most identify with Thomas and his famous doubt. He refused to believe the litany of the Apostle’s creed until he was able to place his hands in the wounds of the crucifiction. Jesus then chided him for his flimsy faith thereby honoring the unquestioning faith of the other eleven.

McLeroy doesn’t really have to worry about the teaching of the birth of Jesus in American textbooks. Tens of millions of children in Sunday School classes have accepted this rather than quarrel with their elders or church. But evolution is different. Many mainline churches grew to accept evolution without considering it a threat to their overall faith. This is not true of McLeroy. He is a fundementalist and he can’t have public schools undermine the faith of students who might begin to doubt a seven day creation. Creationism has to be put in textbooks as a legitimate theory much like Lysenko’s theories had to be put in Joseph Stalin’s textbooks. Doubt must be stamped out. Faith can not be trusted. Or perhaps, like me, Don McLeroy would have been a Thomas but unlike me he finds this thought troubling. He can not trust children who are taught mainstream science to ignore it. He must insert nonsense into America’s textbooks because he can not trust mere faith to uphold the Godly world he wishes to enforce. To me this is a demonstration of Dr. MeLeroy’s faithlessness not his faith. I do not see how God can grant grace to a man of so little faith.

Perhaps, it is even a rejection of the Constitution’s expectation that the state will not promote religion.

Increasingly Dr. McLeroy’s Creation science is Republican science. It may, however, not remain Texas science forever. Dr. McLean was defeated in his run for reelection to the State education Board by about 450 votes. Still, the standards he and his fellow Board members approved for Texas, (and consequently America) will be in force until 2020 or another seven years.

Amblyopia

My Dad had a favorite term: “self fulfilling prophecies.” He warned me against them so often I took the idea to heart. They can be powerful. Shamans used them in tribal societies to put curses on folks who got so caught up in the curse that they conveniently got sick and/or died.

My Dad unwittingly handed one to me when I was in junior high that I made particular use of. When I was struggling with long division (I had a hell of a time keeping place holders straight when I subtracted remainders) he told me that “Welty’s aren’t good at math.” That was good enough for me in succeeding math and algebra classes.

I’ve more recently (starting about twenty years ago) gotten very interested in the notion of the “plasticity” of the brain or in the words of the previous post: “teaching old dogs new tricks.”

So this post from Andy Sullivan caught my cell phone learning attention this morning. Read it and c how the xperts got it wrong.

“Amblyopia is a visual disorder in which the two eyes don’t properly align; sometimes it’s called lazy eye. The standard medical advice is to treat your child early, by getting them to wear an eye patch over the good eye (in order to strengthen the weak one). If you don’t treat the problem early, you can just forget about ever fixing it.”

When a sparrow falls

Apparently I have hornets and wasps to thank for my wine cellar. They carry yeast in their guts and bite wine grapes thus passing it on.

Reading about this reminded me of one of the great miscalculations of Maoist China that caused the starvation of about 30 million people, The Great Sparrow Campaign.

It may be true that no sparrow can fall to the ground without God’s knowing it but that doesn’t mean the consequences are all that obvious to man. That’s worth keeping in mind as Republican leaders keep pooh poohing the notion that releasing hundreds of millions of years of naturally sequestered carbon into the atmosphere over a couple of human lifetimes will have any adverse consequences.Some say that God is in the details so we should be grateful that the Republicans have his ear. I’m sure the close collaboration of God and his party will prevent Lake Superior from evaporating. Apparently some people have been aware of this for quite some time.

Of course, if God’s party is right and America starts acting all godless by allowing gays to marry it could be curtains for ole Gitchi Goomi.