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Prof. A's Science Fix- July 20 2012 Edition

After a brief hiatus for vacation and catching up with work following vacation, I’m back to blogging science for you guys. I hope you like this edition! As usual, comments and suggestions are welcome.


Showing great videos is always a good way to start a blog post. Absolutely do not miss this astonishing video of a water drop hitting the surface of water at 1000 frames per second. If I had such a camera, I wouldn't do anything else but film stuff at this speed and watch the results.

Courtesy of doone who always posts beautiful videos.


And for another fantastic video, at the other tip of the scale, watch this video of the massive solar storms that bombarded our planet last week! The solar storm erupted from the giant sunspot AR1520, that at its peak may have stretched across 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) of the sun's surface. That is a big storm.

And do not miss Michel’s discussion in the group The Daily Cosmos describing these events.


For the science news part of this blog, I’m going to start small, very, very small. Subatomic particle-small. You already know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, you probably live under a rock (not that there is anything wrong with it).


Explaining the importance of the Higgs Boson. Doone didn’t miss a beat and posted theoretical physicist Ethan Siegel’s “Starts with a Bang” post explain the importance of the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, or at least, a “Higgs-like particle”, announced on July 4th by the CERN in Geneva. The Higgs boson is central to the standard model of particle physics  because it explains the masses of all the other elementary particles, the leptons and quarks. Because the Higgs boson was predicted to be a massive, short lived particle, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a very high energy particle accelerator (it weighs > 38,000 tons, and runs for 27km in a circular tunnel 100 meters beneath the Swiss/French border) was built to observe and record its existence can observe and record it. The Higgs-like particle detected by the LHC and announced a couple of weeks ago, has a mass of about 125 GeV/c2 which is "consistent with the Higgs boson". Further work is needed to conclude that it is indeed the Higgs boson, but that is science as usual, the work never ends. Please go to the post for more details, great videos, etc. And on our site, we will avoid calling it the you-know-who particle. It’s a stupid name.


And now that your mind is primed with water drops and small things, the perfect combination is:


Hummingbirds hovering in the rain Hummingbirds need to eat incessantly: their high-speed hovering over flowers to extract nectar has 

high-energy daily requirements.  Since these tiny birds live in areas with normal rainfall, they have to go out there and feed in the rain. How do they deal with the constant hammering of raindrops and manage to be aerially stable under heavy rain? Two UC Berkeley scientists filmed 5 hummingbirds of the species Calypte anna under a garden hose in the lab, simulation light, moderate and heavy rain. Light and moderate rain did not affect their flight, but under heavy rain the birds adopted a more horizontal posture and increased the frequency of their wing beats by a lot.  The postural and speed adjustments work, since the little creatures continued to feed while maintaining good flight control


I like small creatures in general; their small scale, especially small mammals, charms me.  Their abilities for adaptation are astonishing too, especially if there is some bigness within their smallness.


The future belongs to the big-brained. At least if you are a small mammal, for example a rodent, a lemur, etc. Large-brained animals may be less likely to go extinct in a changing world, presumably because brainy creatures can adapt their behavior faster to new conditions. This finding could be used way to prioritize future conservation efforts for endangered species. The relationship between body size and brain size is very predictable across all mammals, but there are outliers with a higher brain-body ratio, which is usually a good predictor of intelligence across animal species. Stanford University scientists found that mammals that weighed < 10 kilograms and had big brains for their body size were less likely to have gone extinct or be placed on the list for endangered species. Being brainy was not an advantage for mammals > 10 kilograms, because of the disadvantage of being physically big. Large species tend to reproduce later in life, have fewer offspring, as well as require more resources; they are also unfortunately more visible to humans. Behavioral flexibility can help adapt to a changing climate, for example, faster than genetic changes can occur and be selected for. For example, a brainy rodent could build a warmer refuge if the climate cools.


And while we are mentioning small creatures that one does not necessarily presuppose to be brainy, how about fruit flies that evolve numerical abilities?


Fruit flies can evolve to count. This is a very neat experiment showing how selection (in this case artificial selection, meaning it's selection by humans, just like we select for domestic animals, etc.) and a sufficient number of generations can result in the evolution of pretty much anything, including unsuspected abilities, such as the ability to react to numbers in Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly). Scientists taught the fruit flies to react to a certain number of flashes, by shaking their container (fruit flies in the lab are kept in jars). It took a long time for the flies to "learn" the correct number of flashes preceding a shake: 40 generations (which in evolutionary terms is not that long, of course). Scientists have long thought that numerical skills are rooted deeply in the entire animal lineage, since many animals have shown some basic arithmetic capabilities. This experiment proves it. How cool is this?


It is sometimes hard to keep in mind that flies can evolve to count, small mammals can be brainy, and that huge mammals such as whales can be remarkably intelligent, too.  Mammals are our kin. And we are hurting some of the biggest mammals living in our oceans with our incessant din. The good news is that they are resourceful.


How whales are dealing with man-made noise. The New York Times has a nice article on new research revealing that whales cope with all the underwater noise we humans create (engines, sonars, weapons testing, airguns, oil drilling, etc.) with the equivalent of our "covering our ears" to dampen it down. Marine biologists have discovered that whales decrease their hearing's sensitivity in response to increased underwater noise, but how are they doing it? Unfortunately we don't have the faintest idea at the moment, but the discovery raises the possibility of warning dolphins and whales in areas where a loud blast will be produced, so they can decrease their hearing before hand. Marine biologists have used a captive false killer whale named Kina (in the photo; look at her eye! expressive, isn't it?) and taught her a conditioned behavior (similar to Pavlov's dogs salivating salivate after hearing a bell): starting with a gentle tone followed by a loud sound, the scientists taught Kina to respond to the warning signal (the gentle tone) by decreasing the sensitivity of her hearing, in preparation for the loud noise. The problem is serious because all the man-made noise is causing declines in foraging and breeding, and in some cases even killing whales and dolphins. The biologists will now study the auditory dampening response in other captive cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales, then they will move to wild populations, to see if the protective response can be induced in marine mammals at risk in the open ocean.


And here is another magnificent example of intelligent animals learning to cope with our penchant for exploiting other animals.

Young gorillas dismantle poachers' snares. Very confident four-year-old mountain gorillas in Rwanda were seen by conservationists working together to destroy snares set up by poachers, just days after another youngster had died from gangrene caused by a snare. It is the first report of juveniles dismantling snares. Conservationists usually comb the forest to discover and dismantle snares, which are basically a vegetation-camouflaged noose tied to a bent branch or a bamboo stalk.  Last Tuesday, tracker John Ndayambaje spotted a trap very close to a gorilla clan. But when he went to deactivate it, he was warned by the group’s silverback to keep his distance (gorillas warn each other and people to stay away, using a series of “pig grunts”).  Then two juveniles, Rwema, a male and Dukore, a female, ran toward the trap. Rwema jumped on the bent tree branch and broke it, and Dukore freed the noose. Then a third youngster, Tetero, joined them and they moved on to dismantle another snare. The little gorillas were so confident, and they seemed to know exactly what to do. Conservationists think that they have been doing this for a while, and they speculated that they might have learned by observing the humans’ technique to destroy the traps.


There is a specific connection between gorillas and Mona Lisa or da Vinci, except that these highly intelligent apes are related to us, and when you see them deactivating snares, you can begin to see how in ~10 million years, you can end up with a work of art such as La Gioconda.


Mona Lisa’s skeleton. Two female skeletons were found in an abandoned convent in Florence, and one of them is presumed to belong to Archaeologists say they have found a complete skeleton buried beneath the floor of an abandoned nunnery in Florence, Italy, which might belong to Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the wealthy merchant Francesco del Giocondo, the woman who inspired Leonardo's Mona Lisa.  There were two wealthy women buried in the convent, the noblewoman Maria del Riccio and del Giocondo’s wife. The search for the bones was prompted by historical research carried out by Silvano Vinceti, who has followed the trail of Mona Lisa by researching convent documents. The historian traced her life from her birth on June 15, 1479, to her death at the convent of St. Orsola, on July 15, 1542, when she was 63 years old. Lisa Gherardini went to live in the nunnery following the death of her husband. In order to positively identify the bones, DNA will be extracted and compared to the DNA of her two sons, Bartolomeo and Piero, who are buried in the church of Santissima Annunziata, also in Florence. The bones will also undergo radiocarbon dating. Once she is identified, the aim is to use the skull to reconstruct Lisa's face to see if her features match that of the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre. Who says that art and science don’t mix? It would be fantastic to see her features reappear after forensic reconstruction.


And while we are on the subject of art, certainly the use of color and hue is paramount to many arts. But do we really all see the same colors? And if we do, do we describe colors with the same words? A case in point seems to be the color of blood.


What’s the color of blood? Is venous blood really blue? In humans? The short answer is no, but, I had no idea that many surgeons, and teachers in medical schools say that non-oxygenated (venous) blood is indeed blue.  Greg Laden speculates as to why this kind of nonsense gets spread out.  He even thinks that this is because up until recently, the vast majority of surgeons were male and therefore “color challenged”, meaning, not really caring about hues and their names or description. Yahoo Answers (not a recommended site when you are looking for scientific answers) has help spread the “blue blood” nonsense. Is it because if we are light-skinned, and we look at our veins, we see that they are blue? Is it because in anatomical drawings, the venous system is always depicted as blue and the arteries as red? Blood is red, no doubt about it. Arterial (oxygenated blood is brighter red than venous blood, that looks dark red, maybe slightly maroon or purple, but the predominant color is red. If you’ve ever had blood drawn, and have looked at the tube, there is little doubt that it is red, is there? Of course, we are talking about mammalian blood only. Mammalian blood is red because the oxygen carrying pigment, hemoglobin, is red. But other organisms, such as crustaceans and other arthropods, use hemocyanin as the oxygen carrying pigment, and hemocyanin is indeed blue or greenish blue. Did you know that horseshoe crabs have powder-blue blood? I bet many of you didn’t. Did you guys know that their baby-blue blood saves human lives? The blood of the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) contains a clotting agent that binds very tightly to fungi and bacterial endotoxins, forming a visible thick gel. The blood of these animals provides us with a sure-fire way to detect even minute amounts of bacterial or fungal impurities in drug preparations or other medical supplies. The clotting agent is capable of detecting life-threatening contaminants at less than one part per trillion! And the best part is, the horseshow crabs are not killed, they are bled every so often to collect sufficient material to produce the Limulus amoebocyte lysate (the clotting material) to be used in medical and pharmaceutical testing.


Art and science mix once again, this time in the realm of architecture. Humans constructions often mimic naturally occurring structures, but can we design buildings that behave like living organisms?


Making "living" buildings by using robotsAkira Mita is a Japanese engineer who wants to create buildings that can respond to the environment, and even our emotions, as biological organisms would. Mita says there is a long tradition in architecture to learn from structures in nature; for example, the famous Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí based many of his buildings on biological models such as seashells, celery stalks, other plant structures. But what Mita wants to do is create architecture based on biology, not only structurally, but in the way the building responds and adapts to environmental conditions, as if it were a living organism. The idea is to use robotic sensors that constantly check the environment of a building. His lab is carrying out fascinating research, using sensors to constantly monitor the structural soundness of a building. But he aims for much more. He wants to use mobile, flexible "e-bio" sensors that can be upgraded with new technology as soon as it becomes available, and his research team is building robots that can respond to signals given off by the human beings in a building, instead of simply sensing temperature or humidity and adjusting to fixed parameters as it is currently done in "smart" modern buildings. He plans to use swarms of robots that, like social insects, can make consensus decisions in a concerted way and then alter the building's environment. It's very, very creative stuff and I would not be surprised if his approach ended up being the way of the future.


Last but not least, since the subject of evolution is a favorite of this site, and atheists in general, because we enjoy combatting the ignorance of creationists, check out and bookmark this great new discussion in the group Evolution DefendersEvolution Notes and News, where we post recent development in the field of evolution, useful links, cool graphics, etc. Choose "Follow" to receive emails when new comments are posted. Don’t miss interesting tidbits such as the fastest speciation described for a marine animal: a starfish species quickly adapted to being live-bearing hermaphrodites to conquer a new environment. This happened at lightning-fast speed for a speciation event: 6,000 years.

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Comment was by Adriana on July 30, 2012 at 9:30am

Thanks, Hope! So happy you enjoy my blog! :-)

Comment was by Hope on July 29, 2012 at 3:37pm

I love your post..

I always wonder why we have blue veins! I thought that was the color of the veins..

Comment was by Michel on July 23, 2012 at 1:50pm

@Archaeo - Can't do the reply-to-comment thing in blogs and under media.

Yes silverbacks probably know that five is much better than three. It's the job definition:

The silverback is the center of the troop's attention, making all the decisions, mediating conflicts, determining the movements of the group, leading the others to feeding sites and taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of the troop. Younger males subordinate to the silverback, known as blackbacks, may serve as backup protection. Blackbacks are aged between 8 and 12 years of age[30] and lack the silver back hair. The bond a silverback has with his females forms the core of gorilla social life.

Comment was by archaeopteryx on July 23, 2012 at 1:09pm

@Michael - RE: "Four chicks is very different from three chicks in the nest."

As are four chicks in the harem, vs three. Don't think Silverbacks can't count.

(sorry, no Reply button near your actual comment)

Comment was by Michel on July 23, 2012 at 12:52pm

Comment was by Doone on July 23, 2012 at 12:43pm

Good point


To the Egyptians, the sun represented light, warmth, and growth. This made the sun deity very important as the sun was seen as the ruler of all that he created

To the modern human, the sun represents light, warmth, and growth. This made the sun deity very important as the sun was seen as necessary to life on Earth.

Ra>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Yahweh, Allah or even Ganesha

Comment was by Michel on July 23, 2012 at 12:30pm

Ra is our only god.

Comment was by Doone on July 23, 2012 at 12:07pm

Wow, the Sun is big!   Of course I knew that but when you realize that the whole land surface of the Earth fits on a small section of the Sun it sinks in.  Ra is a pretty big God! 

Comment was by Adriana on July 23, 2012 at 12:06pm

Whoa! Cool! thanks Michel and doone

Comment was by Michel on July 23, 2012 at 11:59am

This is what our whole world would look like, unwrapped to scale on that patch of Solar surface:

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