Where Things Move Quickly and Darkly

I came across a great article from the New Yorker with an interesting title. In fact, my interest lasted all the way to the end.

Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?

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“Albert Einstein (Nobel)” by Unknown – Official 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics photograph. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

If you get the feeling that science is not as pure of thought and logic as it pretends to be, then you will find some comfort in Adam Gopnik’s approachable review of the deeply hidden controversy surrounding what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Spooky action is the weirdest of all science, and makes telepathy and clairvoyance seem almost banal by comparison.

In my opinion, parts of Gopnik’s none-too-technical article remind me of the quote by Dr. Jason Parker, the protagonist in the science fiction thriller, “Middle Waters“. In a supposed speech to the open-minded Emerald Path Society, Parker said, “There are regions between heaven and Earth where magic seems real and reality blurs with the surreal. It is a place where things move quickly and darkly, be they friend or foe. The hard part for me is knowing the difference between them.”

Gopnik expressed that thought more prosaically by the following: “”Magical” explanations, like spooky action, are constantly being revived and rebuffed, until, at last, they are reinterpreted and accepted. Instead of a neat line between science and magic, then, we see a jumpy, shifting boundary that keeps getting redrawn.”

Gopnik goes on to say, “Real-world demarcations between science and magic … are … made on the move and as much a trap as a teaching aid.”

To be honest, I did leave out Gopnik’s entertaining reference to Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Again, if you have ever been suspicious of the purity of science, the New Yorker article is well worth the read.

Unlike the concerns of Einstein, Neils Bohr and the rest of the cast of early 20th century physicists, the anxiety of Jason Parker, the fictional hero, is not cosmological; it’s personal. It’s every bit as personal as it is for each of us when we sometimes question our sanity.

Yes, real life can be like that sometimes, when things intrude into our ordered lives, as quickly as a Midwest tornado, but with less fanfare and warning. But every bit as destructive. And it is at those points, those juxtapositions with things radical, unexpected, that we end up questioning our grip on reality.

After all, what could be more unexpected and unreal seeming than the notion that cosmological matter we can’t see, dark matter, could send comets crashing into the Earth, as Gopnik mentioned, and the  Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall wrote about in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.

So, Jason Parker had every reason to be wary of things that move quickly and darkly. They can be a killer.

Sometimes, as in the case of Parker, those internal reflections do end up having a cosmological consequence. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to occasionally reexamine our lives for the things which may seem one day to be magical, and the next day to be very real.

In short, the magic should not be dismissed out of hand, because, after all, just like “spooky action at a distance” and “dark matter”, it may not be magic after all.

 

 

Burn My New State Flag – I Don’t Care

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I’ve decided to invent a new series of non-controversial flags for all 50 states of the United States of America.

I began with a plain white flag. Not much to be controversial about there. (By the way, I was not the first to think of that.)

Then I proposed adding to each state flag the two letter state identifier used for our postal system. We’ve been using those for decades, so again, no controversy.

For instance, the Florida flag would be white with FL in the middle of it. If the state is really proud of itself, it could be a big, bold FL. If they’re a little embarrassed by, oh I don’t know, crime rates, hate crimes, voter apathy, or whatever, they could use smaller letters, and maybe not bolded. The voters could decide.

But voters would not get a choice on the overall design. Two white letters on a pure white background – that is the state flag formula.

Of course I tried this idea out on a focus group made up of mixed gender identity, mixed ethnic, educational level, and mixed financial levels. I even took care to keep the test group evenly divided among political parties.

And that’s when the trouble began.

Unfortunately there were many, many complaints, but I’ll only mention some of the more interesting ones; all based oddly enough on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Take my state of Florida or example. FL stands for Florida of course, but the “F” in it represents the element Fluorine, a chemical which I believe has strengthened my teeth since childhood. But some believe it is a toxic chemical dumped into our water supply by all levels of government, (county, city, state and federal) to poison Americans. [Google it. I will not provide a link to those websites.] I’m highly skeptical of that notion, but I wouldn’t want to offend them by forcing them to look at “Fl”uorine on their flag.

And then there’s Florida’s neighboring state, Alabama. AL can stand for Alabama, but it also is the symbol for aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and not very strong. Some Alabamians don’t like that word association, even though it’s been on their U.S. mail since 1963.

AR for Arkansas also means Argon, a narcotic gas. Some didn’t want to be associated with stoners.

GA for Georgia is also gallium. Gallium melts at approximately body temperature, which was too troublesome of an association for those who are still pained by Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia. A melting-in-the heat mineral connotes weakness, which Georgians certainly don’t want their flag suggesting.

The most memorable scene in "Gone With the Wind" was the recreation of Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's destruction of his own munitions train. The scene was filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles in December 1938.
A frame from “Gone With the Wind” published at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/08/31/The-burning-of-Atlanta-seared-into-America-s-memory/stories/201408310090

CA for California, also stands for calcium, a component of lime, which is basically crushed limestone. Water and carbon dioxide react to form acidic water that dissolves limestone. With an atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and global warming, some apparently fear that acid rain will dissolve their state, leaving nothing but caverns leading straight to geological fault lines. Even though I don’t think there’s an awful lot of  limestone in California (certainly not like Florida), some just don’t concern themselves with the facts. Apparently, for them this fear is too horrendous to contemplate, so CA is out as far as a state flag goes.

MT stands for Montana, or Meitnerium. I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of that one, but apparently some apologist did. I was quite surprised to find out that Meitnerium was created by Germans after a week of bombardment of bismuth with iron. The notion of Germans bombarding anything with iron for a week was simply too painful for those who had survived the Nazi bombardment of Russia and Poland. Apparently some take the analogy very seriously. The MT flag had to go.

Louisiana, or LA, is also Lanthanum, which in Greek means “escapes notice”. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. It was reported that students from the LSU Chemistry Department strongly objected to being compared to a soft, highly reactive, and hardly noticed element. I guess I can see their point.

PA or “Protactinium” sounded like an interesting element synonymous with Pennsylvania. That is until someone pointed out the following from the Los Alamos Periodic Table of the Elements. “Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no practical uses for protactinium other than that of basic scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is generally extracted from spent nuclear fuel.” OK, I get it. There is basically nothing in that sentence that would be a point of pride for Pennsylvanians.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Not far away geographically or chemically from PA is MD, or Mendelevium. That element is named after Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian Chemist who apparently invented the (or maybe “a”) Periodic Table. He is certainly a noteworthy man to help us remember the state of Maryland (MD), but ever since Vladimir Putin went on the offense in Eastern Europe, no state wants to be associated with anything Russian. I can understand that.

Then there is Indiana, or Indium. Now who could find anything to complain about either Indiana or Indium? Well, lo and behold, someone read that Indium gives out a high-pitched “cry” when bent, somewhat like a little girl I suppose. That20140530_125613 discovery immediately condemned it as being sexist, mocking our youngest young ladies.

Really? This is getting ridiculous.

There were a few flags that were not deemed objectionable by anyone. For example, MN stands for Minnesota, or Manganese, as in deep-sea manganese nodules. No one objected to MN, so Minnesota, I guess your flag stands. The same went for SC, South Carolina, or Scandium; no objection. Then there was CO for Colorado, or Cobalt, and MO for Missouri or Molybdenum.

Ironically, people have been writing these state initials on their stationary for years and no one objected. However place the same initials on a state flag and someone gets offended; which is a fact that puzzles me. You see no one salutes a state flag. No one pledges allegiance to it. It has no power, no meaning. If you don’t like my flag, make up your own!

To be fair and all-inclusive, I thought about alternative flag designs that might appease everyone. Suppose we just number the states in the order in which they entered the union (ratified the Constitution). The first four would be Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But of course some highly competitive New Yorkers might be miffed that Georgia, a Southern State, entered the Union before New York did. And we can’t have any New Yorkers miffed.

So then I considered a random number generator. Your state might be State 87.42 and the adjoining state might be 91.82. That was a fine idea until I considered that the same problematic scientists who fussed over their concerns with a Periodic Table of the States would question how truly random was the random number generator.

It exhausts me to think of the possibilities.

So, if I was King for a Day I would simply say this is how it will be: All states will have white flags with two letter state identifiers. If someone doesn’t like it, then burn it, deface it, walk on it; I don’t care. It has no meaning except to let people know what state they’re in. And if that’s a problem, if people really don’t know what state they’re in, then using my powers as King for a Day I’d give everyone a free GPS.

Now, does that make everyone happy?

 

Of Mussels and Whales

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Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It was a coincidence forty years in the making. I was recently at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, talking to Scripps professor and physician Paul Ponganis about deep diving whales. He told me about the recent discovery that Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, an elusive whale species, had been found to be the deepest diving of all whales.

How deep I asked? One whale dived to 9,816 feet, about 3000 meters. At that depth, water pressure exerts a force of about 4400 pounds per square inch (psi), equal to the weight of a Mercedes E63 sedan pressing on each square inch of the whale’s ample body surface. That is a seriously high pressure, a fact that I knew well since I had once created that much pressure, and more, in a small volume of sea water in a pressure vessel at the Florida State University.

Early in my science career I published my work on the effect of deep ocean pressure on intertidal bivalves, a mussel (Modiolus demissus) being among them. I found that if you removed the hearts of such molluscs (or mollusks) and suspended them in sea water, they would continue to beat. Furthermore, those excised hearts would beat when subjected to 5000 psi of hydrostatic pressure. As if that wasn’t surprising enough, the slight genetic differences between Atlantic subspecies and Gulf Coast subspecies of mussels resulted in the isolated hearts responding slightly differently to high pressure.

 

oyster-anatomy
If you’ve eaten live raw oysters, a cousin to mussels, you’ve eaten beating hearts like the one in this photo. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )
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The mussel Modiolus demissus in their natural habitat at low tide (Photo credit: rzottoli, Salt Marshes in Maine, at HTTP:// wordpress.Com )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was a remarkable finding I thought since none of those mussels had ever been exposed to high pressure; ever as in for millions of years. (This study occurred long before the discovery of deep sea vents and the almost miraculous growths of deep sea clams.)

Eventually my research transitioned from invertebrates to humans. Humans, like intertidal mussels and clams, are not normally exposed to high pressure. But like my unwilling invertebrate test subjects, sometimes humans do get exposed to high pressure, willingly. But not so much of it. Deep sea divers do quite well at 1000 feet sea water (fsw), manage fairly well at 1500 fsw, but don’t fare well at all at 2000 fsw. That depth seems to be the human pressure tolerance limit due to the high pressure nervous syndrome, or HPNS. At those pressures, cell membranes seem to change their physical state, becoming less fluid or “oily” and more solid like wax. Cells don’t work normally when the very membranes surrounding them are altered by pressure.

The Beaked Whale is genetically much more similar to man than are mussels. Therefore, man is far more likely to benefit by learning how Cetaceans like whales tolerate huge pressure changes, than we are to benefit from the study of deep diving (albeit forced diving) clams and mussels.

As I talked to Dr. Ponganis it was obvious to him, I suspect, that I was excited about learning more about how these animals function so beautifully at extreme depths. But to do that, you have to collect tissue samples for study and analysis in a laboratory. The only problem is, collecting useful tissue samples from living whales without hurting them may be a bridge too far. Humans rarely even see Beaked Whales, and if the Cetaceans wash up on shore, dead, their tissues have already been degraded by post-mortem decomposition, and are no longer useful for scientific study.

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MIT’s RoboTuna; ca. 1994. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Potentially, here is a job for underwater Cetacean-like robots that when released in a likely Beaked Whale environment, can locate them, dive with them, and perhaps even earn their trust. And when the whale beasts least expect it, those robotic Judases could snatch a little biopsy material.

If only it were that easy.

Considering how difficult it would be to acquire living tissue samples, would it be worth the effort? Well, if man is ever to dive deeper than 1500 to 2000 feet without the protection of submarines, we must learn how, from either the mussels or the whales. My bet is on the whales. Unlike mussels, the whales dive deep for a living, to catch their preferred prey, squid and deep sea fish.

 

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What are arguably the first studies of the effects of high pressure on intertidal bivalves (mussels and clams) can be found here and here. Moving up the phylogenetic scale, Yoram Grossman and Joan Kendig published high pressure work on lobster neurons in 1990, and rat brain slices in 1991. I made the leap from mussels to humans by conducting a respiratory study on Navy divers at pressures of 46 atmospheres (1500 feet sea water), published in 1982. For a more recent review of high pressure biology applied to animals and man, see the 2010 book entitled Comparative High Pressure Biology. My theoretical musings about the mathematics of high pressure effects on living cells can be found here.

With time, these studies, and more, will add to our understanding of mammalian pressure tolerance. However, it may well take another generation or two of such scientific effort before we understand how the Beaked Whales make their record-breaking dives, and survive.

 

 

 

To Elect a Mockingbird

file000319876044The days when Kings led their Army into battle are long gone. Not so, for princely animals who through loyalty, devotion, or instinct act at times with seemingly calculated personal abandon.

It was a spring day when I stopped my car at an intersection, then made a gentle right turn onto a crossing street. In front of me, scarcely 30 feet away, a curious standoff was underway.

A mockingbird was standing in the road, face to face with a cat that weighed a good 100 times more than the bird. They were no more than five feet away from each other. Since it was spring, I’m guessing that mockingbird was defending a nest with young.

As the cat saw my car approaching, he moved from the center of the road to an adjacent driveway, and the fearless bird flew up to the top of a mailbox just a few feet away. There the slim grey bird held the high ground and acted as hawkish as a little bird can. It was not in him to be intimidated by a much larger, more powerful, born-killer of birds.

As I continued down the road and lost sight of that duo, I had a funny thought. If that mockingbird ran for political office, I think I’d vote for him.

Granted, that was a curious, and to me humorous, thought which I rethought when I shortly thereafter found myself reading to my Granddaughter the best-selling book “Duck for President”. 61UbeEcTm8L__SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Well, OK then, maybe it wasn’t such an idle thought after all. If a duck can be elected, at least in the mind’s eye of children, how much better a mockingbird?

 

 

 

I am Neanderthal, Pt. 3

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Neanderthal. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

I feel like a seeded watermelon.

Ever since I was created by the curiosity of government and university scientists, I have lived through no efforts of my own. I have the largesse of the U.S. government to thank for that. You see, they paid for the research that created me.

And now, I contribute nothing to society. I pay no taxes, work no jobs. The only decisions I’m allowed to make are restricted to which television program to watch, or which book I want to read. (In case you wondered, I’m not a slow reader. I read quite well, thank-you.)

I live basically in a zoo, except I am the only specimen there, and the zoo keepers all wear lab coats. I suppose the lab coats are designed to protect them were I to spit on them or throw excrement.

I admit, as a child I used to act out with what you consider primitive behavior, throwing feces to vent my anger. I do have tough skin, but no child wants to be continuously poked and needled and questioned. Would you?

But I’ve outgrown that. I’ve learned that when it suits me I can produce a terrifying stare or a teeth-bared snarl that scares the crap out of the more timid researchers. Ah yes, I do enjoy having fun at their expense. It’s about the only thing they can’t control in my otherwise manufactured and manipulated world.

And of course they don’t dare punish or threaten me, because I am, after all,  the rarest person in the universe, the only living Neanderthal.

But about that watermelon?

Having nothing to do of any real value gives me time to think … lots of time. Now, since a part of me is a part of you (genetically that is), I’ve been inclined to wonder why my kind is gone, and you Homo sapiens have become the overlords of the planet, at least for the time being.

And I’ve decided that I am truly a seeded watermelon, and you’re seedless.

The seedless watermelon is very much like the older, and almost extinct seeded variety, but with one subtle difference; it’s infertile. (If this analogy becomes too Freudian for you, just keep your mind on watermelons.) Watermelon is, I sincerely believe, one of God’s gifts to man.

But of course you Homo sapiens weren’t content with that. No, you decided to take advantage of a genetic flaw, a freak watermelon with few if any seeds, that is quite incapable of sustaining itself in the gene pool.

Since spitting out melon seeds is apparently such a difficult proposition for your kind, the seedless variety is overwhelmingly popular. It has crowded out the natural watermelon from grocery stores, so I hear.

Watermelons
Photo Credit: Steve Evans (Watermelons) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been reading about how, based partially on my IQ test results and other research, scientists have decided we weren’t mentally inferior to you. And for sure, as my own testing by the Army has confirmed, we were far stronger.

So what’s not to love?

OK, we are a little shorter, squattier than Homo saps, and from what I hear tall men have a selective breeding advantage over shorter men. So could it be simply a matter of Neanderthal women preferring to breed with you guys,  the new kids on the block, and not with us more vertically-challenged guys? Could that be why my kin disappeared, and why many of you have Neanderthal genes?

I mean, really, could it be that simple; a matter of sexual attraction? Did short-sighted Neanderthal women breed our unique species out of existence?

Well, who would have thought an infertile and obviously biologically deficient watermelon would have replaced the real thing in popularity?

But it has.