Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It's the Climb

In homage to my daughter, I will say that Miley Cyrus had it right…it’s the climb. In this case, by Bar-headed Geese.

Bar-headed Geese journey each breeding season from India, which is at sea-level, up over the Himalayan Mountains, on their way to Asia. That is quite a trek for a little breeding.

The journey is long, but more interestingly it is high. Bar-headed geese fly over the tallest mountains in the world. These are mountains where the air is so thin that avid climbers die on their peaks. The bodies largely remain there because it is too strenuous to bring them back down, given the available oxygen, and the air is too thin to support things like helicopter flight. Yet, the geese make it not only to the tops of the mountains, but over them.

It was long thought that the geese used tail winds to push them up and over the peaks. But, now with the advent of satellite tags, placed directly on the geese, we know that they pump their way up and over all by themselves. They fly when the winds are calm. They can travel up the peaks at amazing speeds of 1.1 vertical kilometers per hour. They can go from sea-level up and over a peak of 6000 meters in just 7 or so hours.

So, how do they do this? They have a larger than average wingspan for their size. That means more lift when they fly. They have a special form of hemoglobin in their blood. Hemoglobin is the molecule that carries oxygen and gives our blood the characteristic red color. It is an iron-based molecule, which is why iron is so important in our diets. The goose’s hemoglobin allows them to pull available oxygen from the air better than you and I, or any other bird or mammal for that matter. And, they breathe more deeply and more efficiently under low oxygen conditions.

You’d think with that kind of ability such a species would be protected from almost any kind of threat. But, Bar-headed Geese were, sadly, also one of the first victims of avian flu. On their nesting grounds their eggs are prone to predation by foxes and other small mammals as well as ravens and seagulls. And, females even raid the nests of other females. So, while they a high-fliers in one respect, in other areas they are just another goose.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Top 10 New Species for 2011

It is that time of year again. The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University released the top 10 new species of 2011.

Last year I wrote about my favorite on the 2010 list, the Dracula minnow. Measuring just 17 millimeters long when fully grown, this little minnow, while tiny, is a close relative of the common goldfish, the carp, and the other minnows you might have known from childhood. Many of your pet store variety fishes are in this group of carps and carp-like fishes. And, if you have looked closely at Goldy residing in your child’s fish bowl, you might have noticed Goldy has no teeth. This group of fishes has been around for a long time, and, in fact, lost anything even resembling true teeth nearly 50 million years ago. But, the Dracula minnow has developed bony spurs on its jaws that project through the skin and look just like nasty fangs.

My favorite for 2011 is, of course, another fish. This year it is the pancake batfish. Batfish are all-around oddly cool fish. They are flat, live on the bottom, and rarely swim. Instead, they walk. Their paired fins, normally located on the sides of a fish, are located more or less underneath the fish. And, they walk on these fins, like feet. They walk all over the bottom of the ocean.

This particular batfish is pretty special because it was only discovered because of the Gulf Oil Spill. Turns out it lives pretty much only where the oil was. Scientists had not explored the region that intensely prior to the spill, and upon investigating the spill’s impact, found this little critter.

This year’s list also contains a cricket that pollinates orchids, a fruit-eating monitor lizard that measures over 6-feet in length, a glowing fungus, an iron-eating bacterium discovered on the hull of the Titanic, a jumping cockroach, and a species of antelope called a duiker, a leech with teeth so large it is named after the famed T. rex.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Bird Brains

Ever wonder why there is a plethora of pigeons frequenting most downtown areas and not a bunch of smaller, nicer, or prettier birds? It turns out that pigeons are smart. Recent research has revealed that most birds that are urban, meaning they live in the city, have bigger brains than birds that live in the country. And, big-brained birds have a greater potential for what we like to call street smarts.

Of course, people who own pigeons, nice domesticated ones as opposed to the trash-eating ones on the street, have known this for a long time. Pigeons are highly trainable and have been used to carry messages during wartimes for many countries, including the US. In fact, 32 individual birds have actually been awarded medals for their service to the British military. Pigeons are also bred for sport, such as racing, and we have attributed many a romantic tradition to doves, even though doves really are just small pigeons (in fact, the name ‘pigeon’ and ‘dove’ are used interchangeably by scientists)

Why study bird brains? Alexei Maklakov and his European colleagues were actually interested in the effects of increased urbanization. As our human population booms, more and more areas are going to be urban instead of rural. They wanted to know which sorts of species fared well in this steadily enlarging urban setting. Brain size was linked to the ability to survive in novel and changing habitats, such as the city.

So, if city birds are smarter than country birds, does this mean the country birds are in trouble? The research shows that smaller brained birds tended to avoid urbanized areas. This means that as these areas get smaller, the available habitat for such birds is shrinking. That we are losing much of our wild lands is nothing new. However, the notion that bird brains just cannot cope with the change, is new. This research suggests that the smaller birds simply have trouble adjusting to change.

Makalov and colleagues suggest that street smarts ‘help birds find innovative solutions to problems such as a lack of trees, ubiquitous plate glass windows, and deciding whether or not to eat street-cart hot dogs off the sidewalk’.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cat got your tongue?

Most of us who have pets have, at one time or another, watched them lap up water or some form of liquid from a bowl. Cats and dogs, unlike us, do not have complete cheeks, therefore they cannot form suction to draw the water out of the bowl the way we can, for instance with a straw. It is also why they cannot give us a big smooch and we have to accept a sloppy swipe of the tongue as a ‘kiss’. In order to drink, we have assumed that they use their tongues much like a soup ladle and scoop water from the bowl. Judging from the mess of water constantly spread around our dog’s bowl, this is certainly true, at least for dogs.

But, recently, a scientist from MIT (in Cambridge, Mass), sat at breakfast watching his own cat drink from her bowl. And, he was intrigued. Subsequently, he recruited a few colleagues and, on their own time (not funded by university time or funds), they filmed the cat, and later nine others, drinking. The high-speed video revealed that cats do not make ladles with their tongues.

Instead, they employ a tricky combination of physics principles, inertia and surface tension pitted against gravity.

Cats simply dip their tongue into the water and pull it back up. The water tends to adhere to the tongue and be drawn upward into the mouth because 1) the tongue has imparted some upward motion onto the water, called inertia, and 2) because water molecules like to stick together. The ‘stickyness’ of water is due to molecular forces holding the atoms together. Water likes to adhere to itself, a simple phenomenon we know as ‘surface tension’. We see surface tension all around us. For example, when water beads up and runs down our windshields, it is the surface tension forming the beads. The beads readily contact and merge with other beads, forming larger droplets.

In the cat’s case, gravity will eventually win out, and impart a force larger than the forces maintained by surface tension. And, the water will fall back into the bowl. But, hopefully not before some of the water has made it into the cat’s mouth along with the tongue. A careful trick of timing maximizes the amount of water that makes it into kitty’s mouth.

A trip to the local zoo revealed that all felines may in fact use this unique physics trickery to get a drink. Lions and tigers both showed this same behavior. Just goes to show you, even our household pets have something new to teach us if we pay attention!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Black Holes and White Galaxies

The largest black hole that we know of, at least in nearby galaxies, is the black hole in galaxy M87.

M87 is not our galaxy. Earth and the other planets we know and love are part of the Milky Way Galaxy, so named because of the dense band of stars that passes through it creating a milky-white colored path. This milky white band of stars is only apparent as such from a certain vantage point. From here on Earth, all of the stars we see in the night sky are actually a part of the Milky Way. As such, our galaxy is a relatively light place.

Black holes are areas of the universe so dense that not even light can penetrate them. Thus, these areas appear as black regions, and appear to literally suck the light from surrounding regions inward. The idea that black holes such everything inward is a bit of science fiction. However, they are literally so dense that they can in essence have their own level of extreme gravity. Once objects get close enough to the black hole they can only go onward into the hole because of this gravitational effect. The point of no return, beyond which light or other objects will go forward into the hole, is called the Event Horizon, so named because any event (light emission or other) that happens beyond this point will not be observable outside the hole. Therefore it is impossible to determine if the event occurred at all.

The black hole in the Milky Way Galaxy is a mere 2 billion solar masses, or 2 billion times the mass of our sun. Some estimates place this at closer to 4 billion. But, even that number pales compared with the black hole in M87. The black hole in M87 is now estimated to be 6.6 billion solar masses.

These super massive black holes are probably formed by merging smaller black holes. Smaller black holes are commonly formed by collapsing stars. Once a star runs out of fuel to burn, it cannot maintain itself and collapses in on itself, succumbing to its own gravity. If the star was dense enough, it will form a stellar black hole as a result of this event.

M87 appears to be the result of hundreds or more mergers of smaller black holes, and could now swallow our whole galaxy. In fact, it could swallow more than 4 of them. But, we are in no danger. The M87 black hole is also more than 50 million light years away from Earth.

In addition to being the largest black hole on record, M87 provides physicists their best chance to study black hole physics, which, by and large, is still only theory at this point.

Consider donating to Wikipedia, the source of information for many of the links found here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can we still make a difference?

Global warming, climate change, rising sea-level…oh my. Some believe it is real, some believe it is a myth. Regardless of what you believe, it seems we hear about it constantly these days. You cannot escape it.

I personally think that some level of global climate change is real. We just cannot possibly be emitting that much pollution and smoke and carbon products into the atmosphere and not have some impact. How big is the impact? I don’t really know. But I am willing to try to do my bit to make the impact a little less. Whether you believe the earth is a gift from a Creator, or that it was created by the Big Bang, either way it is now ours to care for and we should indeed do our best to do so.

The problem is that this global climate change stuff is so hyped up by the media that we have become numb. The ‘doom and gloom perspective’ is that things are so bad, you just cannot think about the repercussions of all this global change without basically wondering why we should even bother. It is the only alternative. If you believe the doom and gloom, and lets face it, the media is driven by such extremes, then it almost paralyzes you with fear. If you think about it too hard, it could send you into a full on panic. What will our kids’ lives be like? Our kids’ kids?

And, so, we are largely numb to the problem. So numb that it has become almost hip to not care. It is like a defensive mechanism we collectively have evoked.

So, it is wonderfully reassuring to read a story where we find we can still make a difference. Recent research into the fate of the polar bears and the retreating sea ice gives us that hope. Polar bears, as a species, were given a fatal diagnosis a couple of years ago. With the loss of sea ice, they were losing their habitat, and were predicted to be extinct by 2050.

The most recent models still support that result, as reported by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. However, they also have begun to experiment with the effects of reductions in green house gasses. The good news is that rather moderate reductions, like those being planned by some countries, would actually slow the ice loss to a point that major areas of polar bear habitat would be protected.

Are we going to be able to do that – to reduce emissions? Only time will tell. But it is sure reassuring to know that we can still stop the effects of what is so often pitched as ‘the end of the world’

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikipedia – Why you should care…

Today’s column is not so much a scientific rant, like I normally provide, but a plea:

Support Wikipedia.

What is Wikipedia? It is an on-line encyclopedia of sorts. It is the 5th most visited site on all of the internet. More than 400 million people use Wikipedia and its sister sites every month, so they claim. It has information on just about everything. I use it often when I teach, admittedly checking the facts against my own understanding of a subject before referring students to the site, but it is nearly always correct. It has a level of accuracy, I think, that shames the entire rest of the internet, all sites combined.

Why is Wikipedia amazing? It provides information, for free, to anyone and everyone that wants access. And, after all, that is my motto, Science Is For Everyone. Although wikipedia is not just science, it is a collection of facts that has the same appeal as science, at least for me.

John Goma, an editor for Wikipedia, recalls “I found a Wikipedia article on a topic that I had studied when I was a math student. I noticed that a few important points were missing. I hit the edit button, made some changes, and I've been writing and editing ever since. “ He states “Wikipedia is the sum of all those moments of discovery by millions of editors like me. People across the world add their time and energy to the vast, ever-growing store of knowledge that Wikipedia has become. But what's really remarkable about Wikipedia is that it's the product of volunteers working one entry at a time. And because Wikipedia is free of advertising, those of us who create and use Wikipedia have to protect and sustain it.”

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's Wikimedia’s commitment. The Wikimedia Foundation is the foundation raising the funds to keep Wikipedia alive.

Want to know where your money would go? A donation to Wikipedia/Wikimedia supports technology and people. The Wikimedia Foundation develops and improves the technology behind Wikipedia and nine other projects, and sustains the infrastructure that keeps them up and running. The Foundation has a staff of about fifty, which provides technical, administrative, legal and outreach support for the global community of volunteers who write and edit Wikipedia.
Many people love Wikipedia, use it every day, but a surprising number don't know it's run by a non-profit.

Just type Wikipedia in your browser search bar and you’ll be there. Support the quest for knowledge and free access to it.