(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Science

“The daily hummingbird assaults existence with improbability”*…

Black Metaltail Hummingbird (Metallura phoebe), Peru

High in the Andes, thousands of meters above sea level, speedy hummingbirds defy near-freezing temperatures. These tiny flyers endure the cold with a counterintuitive trick: They lower their body temperature—sometimes as much as 33°C [over 90°F] —for hours at a time, new research suggests…

Among vertebrates, hummingbirds have the highest metabolism for their size. With a metabolic rate roughly 77 times that of an average human, they need to feed nearly continuously. But when it gets too cold or dark to forage, maintaining a normal body temperature is energetically draining. Instead, the small animals can cool their internal temperature by 10°C to 30°C. This slows their metabolism by as much as 95% and protects them from starvation, says Blair Wolf, a physiological ecologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

In this state, called torpor, a bird is motionless and unresponsive. “You wouldn’t even know it was alive if you picked it up,” Wolf says. But when the morning comes and it’s time to feed, he says, the birds quickly warm themselves back up again. “It’s like hibernation but regulated on an even tighter schedule.”…

One of Nature’s (many) marvelous tricks: “To survive frigid nights, hummingbirds cool themselves to record-low temperatures.”

* Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters

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As we admire adaptation, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek; he was born on this date in 1632. A largely self-taught man in science, he is commonly known as “the Father of Microbiology“, and one of the first microscopists and microbiologists (he discovered bacteria, protists, sperm cells, blood cells, and numerous structures in animal and plant tissues). A central figure in the Golden Age of Dutch science and technology, his letters to the Royal Society were widely read and richly influential… which is fair dues, as it’s widely believed that van Leeuwenhoek was inspired by illustrations in  Robert Hooke’s earlier book, Micrographia [and here].

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“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen”*…

Wisdom is full of paradoxes. It is one of the oldest topics in the intellectual history of humanity, and yet talking about wisdom can feel odd and disingenuous. People seem to have intuitions about who is and isn’t wise, but if you press them to define wisdom, they will hesitate. Wisdom, with its mystical qualities, sits on a pedestal, inspiring awe and trepidation, a bit of hushed reverence thrown in. It’s easy to distil wisdom’s archetypes in history (druids, Sufi sages) or popular culture (Star Wars’ Yoda, or Harry Potter’s Dumbledore), but harder to apply to the person on the street. Most people would agree that wisdom is desirable, yet what exactly is it?…

Some psychologists are increasingly confident that they can now measure– and nurture– wisdom, superseding the “speculations” of philosophy and religion: “The Science of Wisdom.”

* Oliver Wendell Holmes

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As we savor sagacity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honors since “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

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Written by LW

October 22, 2020 at 1:01 am

“You cannot store them To warm the winter’s cold, The lad that hopes for heaven shall fill his mouth with mould”*…

[Earlier this month] craving sweets, Colin Purrington remembered the Twinkies.

He’d purchased them back in 2012 for sentimental reasons when he heard that Hostess Brands was going bankrupt and Twinkies might disappear forever.

“When there’s no desserts in the house, you get desperate,” says Purrington, who went down to the basement and retrieved the old box of snack cakes, fully intending to enjoy several…

Like many people, Purrington believed Twinkies are basically immortal, although the official shelf life is 45 days. He removed a Twinkie from the box, unwrapped it — it looked fine — and took a bite. Then he retched. “It tasted like old sock,” Purrington says. “Not that I’ve ever eaten old sock.”

That’s when he examined the other Twinkies. Two looked weird. One had a dark-colored blemish the size of a quarter. The other Twinkie was completely transformed — it was gray, shrunken and wrinkly, like a dried morel mushroom.

He posted photos on Twitter, and they caught the attention of two scientists: Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, who study fungi at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “Matt is going to want that Twinkie,” thought Lovett, the instant he saw the mummified one.

That’s because, in the past, their lab has tested how well molds grow in Peeps, the classic Easter treat. Fungi actually found it difficult to survive on Peeps, because of the food’s low water content. “In a way, they are kind of like an extreme environment, right?” Kasson notes. “The food industry has crafted the ability to make foods that have a long shelf life.

Still, Kasson says, fungi are everywhere and have an amazing set of chemical tools that let them break down all kinds of substances. “You find fungi growing on jet fuel,” he says…

They reached out to Purrington, who was only too happy to mail them the Twinkies immediately. “Science is a collaborative sport,” he says. “If someone can take this and figure out what was actually growing, I’m all in. I really want to know what species exactly was eating my Twinkies.”

The Twinkies arrived at the lab, and the researchers got to work…

The illuminating (if not appetizing) tale of “A Disturbing Twinkie That Has, So Far, Defied Science.”

* A.E. Housman

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As we stop stockpiling snacks, we might send variously-well preserved birthday greetings to William A. Mitchell; he was born on this date in 1911.  A chemist who spent most of his career at General Foods, he was the inventor of Pop Rocks, Tang, quick-set Jell-O, Cool Whip, and powdered egg whites; over his career, he received over 70 patents almost all of them for processed food items or preparation procedures.

MITCHELL

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Written by LW

October 21, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The forces which displace continents are the same as those which produce great fold-mountain ranges”*…

Some 240 million years ago, the patch of land that would one day become the National Mall was part of an enormous supercontinent known as Pangea. Encompassing nearly all of Earth’s extant land mass, Pangea bore little resemblance to our contemporary planet. Thanks to a recently released interactive map, however, interested parties can now superimpose the political boundaries of today onto the geographic formations of yesteryear—at least dating back to 750 million years ago.

The results are intriguing: During the Early Triassic Epoch, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for example, was wedged almost directly adjacent to Mauritania, yet to be separated from the Northwest African country by the vast waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ancient Earth, the tool behind this millennia-spanning visualization, is the brainchild of Ian Webster, curator of the world’s largest digital dinosaur database [an old friend of (Roughly) Daily]…

Visualize the changes between the Cryogenian Period and the present: “This Map Lets You Plug in Your Address to See How It’s Changed Over the Past 750 Million Years.”

* Alfred Wegener, the originator of theory of continental drift

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As we go with the flow, we might send rocky birthday greeting to Maurice-Irénée-Marie Gignoux; he was born on this date in 1881. A geologist, he helped chart the stratigraphy of the Mediterranean during the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) and the Quaternary Period (from 2.6 million years ago to the present). His work with “fold models” (that allowed playing out the tectonic forces at work in continental drift and in the formation of mountains) led to a deeper understanding of the structure of the Alps.

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Written by LW

October 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“To see a world in a grain of sand”*…

A knotted human hair

Nikon has announced the winners of the 2020 Small World Photomicrography Competition and has once again shared some of the winning and honored images with us. The contest invites photographers and scientists to submit images of all things visible under a microscope. More than 2,000 entries were received from 90 countries in 2020, the 46th year of the competition.

More astounding photos at “Photographing the Microscopic: Winners of Nikon Small World 2020.”

All of the winners are here; links to winners in other categories (e.g., video), here.

* William Blake

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As we get small, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Patricia Bay Haroski, a secretary at the State Farm Insurance Company, registered Boss’s Day with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Haroski chose the date because it was the birthday of her boss… who was also her father.

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Written by LW

October 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

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