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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”*…

 

fossil record

In one fell swoop, Robert DePalma may have filled in the gap in the fossil record

 

On August 5, 2013, I received an e-mail from a graduate student named Robert DePalma. I had never met DePalma, but we had corresponded on paleontological matters for years, ever since he had read a novel I’d written that centered on the discovery of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex killed by the KT impact. “I have made an incredible and unprecedented discovery,” he wrote me, from a truck stop in Bowman, North Dakota. “It is extremely confidential and only three others know of it at the moment, all of them close colleagues.” He went on, “It is far more unique and far rarer than any simple dinosaur discovery. I would prefer not outlining the details via e-mail, if possible.” He gave me his cell-phone number and a time to call.

I called, and he told me that he had discovered a site like the one I’d imagined in my novel, which contained, among other things, direct victims of the catastrophe. At first, I was skeptical. DePalma was a scientific nobody, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, and he said that he had found the site with no institutional backing and no collaborators. I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people.) But I was intrigued enough to get on a plane to North Dakota to see for myself…

Douglas Preston recounts what he found: the young paleontologist looks increasingly likely (as other scientists assess his work) to have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth, the missing fossil evidence that recounts the almost-instant extinction of most life on the planet: “The Day the Dinosaurs Died.”

See a second-by-second visualization of the event here.

And for more on the threat that asteroids still present, and how we can protect the Earth from a repeat of that mass extinction, visit the B-612 Foundation.

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience

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As we extricate heads from the sand, we might spare a thought for a scientific forebearer of DePalma’s, Edward Drinker Cope; he died on this date in 1897. A paleontologist and comparative anatomist (as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist), Cope led many natural history surveys in the American West for the precursors of the U.S. Geological Survey, making important finds on his trips, including dinosaur discoveries.

220px-Cope_Edward_Drinker_1840-1897 source

 

 

Written by LW

April 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“ALLIGATOR, n. The crocodile of America, superior in every detail to the crocodile of the effete monarchies of the Old World”*…

 

LA-Farm-3-600x467

Lunch at the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles

 

Judging by the popularity of the Jurassic Park franchise—five feature films, with a sixth blockbuster scheduled for 2021, three “Lego” Jurassic Park shorts, various theme-park attractions, some forty-six theme-related video games, even a Jurassic Park Crunch Yogurt—dinosaurs (once the province of paleontologists and children) have had a stranglehold on our collective imagination for more than a quarter century. Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel sold more than nine million copies; three years later, the first mega-film, directed by Steven Spielberg, became the second highest-grossing film of all time, earning over $1 billion worldwide.

Though less enormous, less voracious, and lacking dramatic soundtracks to pave their entrances and exits, formidable flesh-and-blood, non-animatronic prehistorics do actually walk among us.

Alligators have been around for some 200 million years, which is 135 million years longer than their dino contemporaries. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that that extraordinary longevity was threatened. Pretty impressive, given all the environmental changes that have ensued in the interim, and the fact that their brains are about the size of a walnut…

Biologically, Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, caimans, gharials) are closer to birds, dinosaurs to snakes and lizards, but they share a common ancestry. Fossils reveal that back in the day, some alligators grew to nearly forty feet in length, weighing in at 8.5 tons. Simply put, Crocodilia are the closest living examples of the Jurassic’s ancient denizens.

“Dinosaurs and man, two species separated by 65 million years of evolution, have just been suddenly thrown back into the mix together,” notes Jeff Goldblum’s character, Alan Grant, in the 1993 film. “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”

In the case of their alligator cousins, it wasn’t just suddenly. Throughout the American south, they’ve always been pretty much unavoidable.

On the big screen, our relationship to Crichton’s creatures is set and predictable. We enjoy the terror they inspire from the dark safety of our upholstered seats. Alligators, in cinema, have always been as dependable in their villainy as Nazis. What better way to dispose of pesky early Christians or enemy Russian spies?

In the real world, the relationship of humans to ancient apex predators is far more complex

Hermes handbags, roadside attractions, carwash poachers, mail-order pets, “The Florida Smile”– B. Alexandra Szerlip on the contradictory dance between gators and men: “21st Century Prehistoric.”

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ruminate on the reptilian, we might spare a thought for Warder Clyde Allee; he died on this date in 1955.  A zoologist and ecologist who researched the social behavior, aggregations, and distribution of both land and sea animals, he discovered that cooperation is both beneficial and essential in nature. The “Allee effect,” as it came to be known, describes the positive correlation between population density and individual fitness of a population or species.  While his findings are in tension with those of another  another ecologist, George C. Williams who stressed the importance of individual selection, Allee’s emphasis on groups and cooperation remains influential.

90px-Warder_Clyde_Allee source

 

Written by LW

March 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The midpoint in medicine between excessive emotional involvement with patients and a complete lack of empathy is not a simple one to locate”*…

 

elphant nose

 

In sixteenth-century Leuven, a troubled man sent for a physician to help him with his unusually long nose. The man believed that his nose was of ‘such a prodigious length’, it resembled the ‘snoute’ of an elephant. It hindered him in everything he did, to the extent that sometimes it ‘lay in the dish’ where his supper was served. His physician, at this point, artfully and carefully, ‘conveighed a long pudding’ onto the nose of the desperate man, and then with a Barber’s razor ‘finely cut away’ the offending pudding nose while his patient was drowsy from a sleeping draft. The physician prescribed him a wholesome diet and sent the man away, relieved of his extraordinarily long nose, and the burden of ‘fear of harme and inconvenience.’

This case history was described in the English translation of the medical treatise, The Touchstone of Complexions (1576) by the Dutch physician, Levinus Lemnius, as an example of ‘melancholicke’ fantasy. Instead of assuming the man was possessed by a malevolent spirit or demon (a possible diagnosis at this time), that he was a ‘lunatic’ and beyond treatment, or dismissing his delusion to his face, the sixteenth-century physician in the story entered into the world of the ‘phantasie’ to try and help his patient’s obvious distress.

We very rarely read histories of incidents from this period where physicians are concerned for the emotional and mental wellbeing of their patients to this degree. Usually the tendency has been to emphasize the ‘barbarous and debilitating’ treatments of early modern medicine – its bloodletting, purging, and surgery without anaesthetic, or to highlight the moralizing religious doctrine behind treatments of illnesses of the mind or ‘passions’. Yet, here was a doctor trying an imaginative solution to a problem he believed stemmed from an imbalance of the humour ‘melancholy’ in his patient’s body….

More examples of empathetic early healers and the bizarre cases they “cured– the man with frogs in stomach, the man whose buttocks were made of glass– at “The Man with an Elephant’s Nose.”

* Christine Montross, Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab

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As we make it better, we might send revolutionary birthday greetings to Edward Donnall “Don” Thomas; he was born on this date in 1920.  A physician and medical researcher, Thomas shared (with Joseph E. Murray) the 1990 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his work in transplanting bone marrow from one person to another – an achievement related to the cure of patients with acute leukemia and other blood cancers or blood diseases.  Although this prize usually goes to scientists doing basic research with test tubes, Thomas was a doctor doing hands-on clinical research with patients.

230px-Edward_Donnall__Don__Thomas source

 

Written by LW

March 15, 2019 at 12:01 am

“You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap”*…

 

Fast Fashion

 

Remembering that the world has roughly 7.7. billion inhabitants…

In 2015, the fashion industry churned out 100 billion articles of clothing, doubling production from 2000, far outpacing global population growth. In that same period, we’ve stopped treating our clothes as durable, long-term purchases. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found that clothing utilization, or how often we wear our clothes, has dropped by 36% over the past decade and a half, and many of us wear clothes only 7 to 10 times before it ends up in a landfill. Studies show that we only really wear 20% of our overflowing closets.

For the past few years, we’ve pointed the finger at fast-fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever21, saying that they are responsible for this culture of overconsumption. But that’s not entirely fair. The vast majority of brands in the $1.3 billion [sic- it’s $trillion] fashion industry–whether that’s Louis Vuitton or Levi’s–measure growth in terms of increasing production every year. This means not just convincing new customers to buy products, but selling more and more to your existing customers. Right now, apparel companies make 53 million tons of clothes into the world annually. If the industry keeps up its exponential pace of growth, it is expected to reach 160 million tons by 2050….

Churning out so many clothes has enormous environmental costs that aren’t immediately obvious to consumers. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the fashion industry is contributing the the rapid destruction of our planet. A United Nations report says that we’re on track to increase the world’s temperature by 2.7 degrees by 2040, which will flood our coastlines, intensify droughts, and lead to food shortages. Activists, world leaders, and the public at large are just beginning to reckon with the way the fashion industry is accelerating the pace of climate change…

It’s not just our closets that are suffering: “We have to fix fashion if we want to survive the climate crisis.”

The apparel industry is not, of course, unaware of all of this.  For a look at how they are responding, see Ad Age‘s “How Sustainability in Fashion Went From The Margins To The Mainstream“… and draw your own conclusion as to efficacy.

[photo above: Flickr user Tofuprod]

* Dolly Parton

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As we wean ourselves from whopping-great wardrobes, we might spare a thought for a man who contributed t our ability to measure our progress (or lack thereof) in addressing climate change: George James Symons; he died on this date in 1900.  A British meteorologist who was obsessed with increasing the accuracy of measurement, he devoted his career to improving meteorological records by raising measurement standards for accuracy and uniformity, and broadening the coverage (with more reporting stations, increasing their number from just 168 at the start of his career to 3,500 at the time of his death).  The Royal Meteorological Society (to which he was admitted at age 17) established a gold medal in his memory, awarded for services to meteorological science.

150px-GeorgeJamesSymons(1838-1900) source

 

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”*…

 

Isaac_Newton_laboratory_fire

An 1874 engraving showing a probably apocryphal account of Newton’s lab fire. In the story, Newton’s dog started the fire, burning 20 years of research. Newton is thought to have said: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”

 

Imagine a black box which, when you pressed a button, would generate a scientific hypothesis. 50% of its hypotheses are false; 50% are true hypotheses as game-changing and elegant as relativity. Even despite the error rate, it’s easy to see this box would quickly surpass space capsules, da Vinci paintings, and printer ink cartridges to become the most valuable object in the world. Scientific progress on demand, and all you have to do is test some stuff to see if it’s true? I don’t want to devalue experimentalists. They do great work. But it’s appropriate that Einstein is more famous than Eddington. If you took away Eddington, someone else would have tested relativity; the bottleneck is in Einsteins. Einstein-in-a-box at the cost of requiring two Eddingtons per insight is a heck of a deal.

What if the box had only a 10% success rate? A 1% success rate? My guess is: still most valuable object in the world. Even an 0.1% success rate seems pretty good, considering (what if we ask the box for cancer cures, then test them all on lab rats and volunteers?) You have to go pretty low before the box stops being great.

I thought about this after reading this list of geniuses with terrible ideas. Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C cured everything. Isaac Newton spent half his time working on weird Bible codes. Nikola Tesla pursued mad energy beams that couldn’t work. Lynn Margulis revolutionized cell biology by discovering mitochondrial endosymbiosis, but was also a 9-11 truther and doubted HIV caused AIDS. Et cetera. Obviously this should happen. Genius often involves coming up with an outrageous idea contrary to conventional wisdom and pursuing it obsessively despite naysayers. But nobody can have a 100% success rate. People who do this successfully sometimes should also fail at it sometimes, just because they’re the kind of person who attempts it at all. Not everyone fails. Einstein seems to have batted a perfect 1000 (unless you count his support for socialism). But failure shouldn’t surprise us…

Some of the people who have most contributed to our understanding of the world have been inexcusably wrong on basic issues.  But, as Scott Alexander argues, you only need one world-changing revelation to be worth reading: “Rule Thinkers In, Not Out.”

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we honor insight where we find it, we might send carefully-addressed birthday greetings to Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator; he was born on this date in 1394.  A central figure in 15th-century Portuguese politics and in the earliest days of the Portuguese Empire, Henry encouraged Portugal’s expeditions (and colonial conquests) in Africa– and thus is regarded as the main initiator (as a product both of Portugal’s expeditions and of those that they encouraged by example) of what became known as the Age of Discoveries.

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“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change”*…

 

dyson640

 

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

An important essay by Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: “Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author.”

* Leon C. Megginson (often misattributed to Darwin, on whose observations Megginson based his own)

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As we agonize over the anthropocene, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that James Watson’s The Double Helix was published.  A memoir, it describes– with manifest hubris– “perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin’s book,” the 1953 discovery, published by Watson and Francis Crick, of the now-famous double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Crick, however, viewed Watson’s book as “far too much gossip,” and believed it gave short shrift to Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution via clues from her X-ray crystallography results.  It was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson’s home university,  Harvard dropped the arrangement after protests from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (their supervisor, who shared the Nobel Prize);  it was published instead by Atheneum in the United States and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.

In any case, the book opens a window into the competitiveness, struggles, doubts, and human foibles that were baked into this landmark in science.

220px-TheDoubleHelix source

 

“For I have trained myself and am training myself always to be able to dance lightly in the service of thought”*…

 

dance

For the last 11 years, Science and the AAAS have hosted Dance Your Ph.D., a contest that challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance. [see here and here]

This years winners have been announced:

Scientific research can be a lonely pursuit. And for Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, even the subject of his research is lonely: singleton electrons wandering through superconducting material. “Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature,” Yapa says. “Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!”

Six weeks of choreographing and songwriting later, Yapa scooped the 2018 “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. The judges—a panel of world-renowned artists and scientists—chose Yapa’s swinging electron dance from 50 submissions based on both artistic and scientific merits. He takes home $1000 and immortal geek fame…

Learn more, and see other category winners at “The winner of this year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest turned physics into art.”

* Søren Kierkegaard

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As we tempt Terpsichore, we might spare a thought for Glenn Theodore Seaborg; he died o this date in 1999.  A chemist, his discovery and investigation of plutonium and nine other transuranium elements was part of the effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb; it earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Seaborg went on to serve as Chancellor of the University of California, as Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, and as an advisor to 10 presidents– from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton– on nuclear policy and science education.  Element 106 (the last of the ten that Seaborg discovered), was named seaborgium in his honor.

Like so many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Seaborg became a campaigner for arms control.  He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

 source

 

Written by LW

February 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

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