Category Archives: Science/Nature/Tech

The End of Mythbusters

After 14 seasons it’s over. I don’t want to say I thought it would go on forever because nothing lasts forever and 14 seasons is kind of amazing for a cable show, but I sort of felt like it would go on forever or at least for a long, long time. I sort of thought that… well, I didn’t really think that because I never even thought about it ending until the last two seasons after Kari, Grant, and Tory left, but somehow I sort of felt like the people might retire or leave one at a time to be replaced by other people but that somehow Mythbusters would keep going for many, many more years; if not forever then at least as long as the Discovery Channel still exists.

We watched the finale and the reunion special and the so-called lost episode which was rather obviously “lost” on purpose so they could show one more episode after the finale. Of course the re-runs will be shown on the Science Channel now, as they have been for several years, and I’m pretty sure there are some early episodes that we haven’t seen. I had a thought this morning – there’s a possibility of “previously unseen footage” specials. I hope someone at Discovery thinks of that. Still, it won’t be the same as actual new episodes and I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the cancellation of Mythbusters is tragic. The world NEEDS Mythbusters. There are still people out there who believe every silly thing they see on TV or the Internet. There are still kids who need someone to show them that science is fun. The world, already getting dumber every day, just lost one its most important sources of smart.

Fascinating Fungi

We have had an unusual amount of rain recently so, even in the “dead of winter” mushrooms and fungi have appeared literally overnight. I am fascinated with the growth at the base of this dead tree.

Fungi at the base of a dead tree

Here’s the other side of the same tree.

Fungi at the base of a dead tree

And a different species on an old stump. I see these a lot but usually not this big.

Fungi on an old stump

What is this?

It’s not a guessing game. I have no idea what this is and I’m hoping someone can tell me all about it or at least tell me what to Google. I often find these clinging to oak leaves or just laying on the ground but I’ve never seen them on the plant they originally grow on.

I have no idea what this is

It’s hollow on the inside except for a clump of fibers. I assume there are tiny seeds in there somewhere.

I have no idea what this is

“The Bacteria-Filled Water Droplet of Youth”

A Russian scientist has injected himself with an ancient bacteria that he believes will help people to live longer. I want to make fun of this but at the same time I want to believe there’s something to it. I think making fun of it would be the better bet. He tested it on plants and animals before injecting himself but one “heroic” scientist injecting himself does not carry the same weight of credibility as a double blind study. Still, let’s do that double blind study and see what happens. And hurry up! I’m not getting any younger.

Look! In the Sky!

I did watch the lunar eclipse Sunday night. Not quite the whole event though. Eclipses are both exciting and boring at the same time. They’re very slow. Our modern entertainments have conditioned us to expect things to happen quickly. But eclipses are exciting because… well, it’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m more aware of the reality of the solar system. We’ve all seen the diagrams and the models and it’s not that I ever doubted the reality; I didn’t, but when one object in space casts a shadow on another it really feels real. You know what I mean?

Anyway… I was watching it alone and you really need to watch eclipses with someone else. They should be shared. While I was standing in my driveway looking at the moon I could hear the neighbors in their back yard talking and I was a little envious. I thought about how my mother would have enjoyed watching the eclipse and wished she was there. I also thought that people should have eclipse parties. Not us. We don’t really have any close friends, and family are all too far away to come to an event that late at night. But eclipse parties should definitely be a thing.

* * *

It seems that there is water on Mars. Actual flowing water. This is a really big deal. There was even a Google Doodle. I am not as excited about it as I feel I should be. I want to be but I guess I’ve seen too many announcements of scientific discoveries only to later hear that, “No, wait. Not as exciting as we first thought,” or just, “Oops. We were wrong.” I’ve come to expect that so it’s hard to get excited about stuff like this. Maybe I could get a little more excited if there were some close-up pictures of water on Mars but that can’t happen, at least not anytime soon.

Mmmmm… Seaweed

This is just… just… I can’t even! Seaweed that “tastes like bacon”!. Even making that claim is a crime against nature.

Okay, seriously? I am a bit intrigued. Something that tastes like bacon but might be healthy? That’s like some kind of holy grail of the food world. The problem with this is that foods that people claim taste like other foods rarely do. I suppose I would try it. I think I would be less disappointed though, if they would just say, “This tastes pretty good; give it a try,” instead of telling me it tastes like something else when it really only has maybe a vague hint of that flavor at best.

Seeing Blue… and Yellow and a Lot of other Colors

Researchers believe that we were not able to see the color blue before we had a word for it. This seems totally bizarre to me and I think, “That can’t possibly be true,” but there is some fairly convincing evidence. On the other hand, if we couldn’t see blue before we had a word for it why did we ever need to invent a word for it? But if it is true, it makes one wonder what we are not seeing now because we don’t have a word for it. It also brings up a number of other intriguing questions. Do people who have some kind of language difficulty also have difficulty seeing colors? And what do toddlers see before they learn the names of colors? Does having different names for similar colors – azure, turquoise, sapphire, cobalt – help us to see those colors?

Here’s something else color related: a a test to determine if you are a tetrachromat. I guess you could say my result was “inconclusive”? The first time I looked at the multi-color bar I saw 33 colors. I immediately tried again to check myself and saw only 31. That was a couple of days ago. I did it again a few minutes ago and saw 34 colors. Seeing more than 32 colors in the test makes you a tetrachromat.

Interestingly, the article says that tetrachromats are irritated by yellow. I love yellow – either bright yellow or a soft, buttery yellow; I’m not terribly fond of the more greeny yellows. So maybe I’m really not seeing that many colors? Or maybe I’m just different? Or maybe the article is wrong. I am strongly opposed to the notion that people who are physically the same in some way necessarily have the same likes and dislikes.

Live Long, Be Smart, With Science!

A couple of interesting studies. Of course, I know nothing Earth shaking will ever come of these. The frustrating thing for a layperson who is interested in scientific developments is that we read about an “exciting new discovery” and then it just quickly fades away. Nothing happens. Don’t blame science though. It’s science journalism that repeatedly leads us on and then disappoints us. But anyway…

First of all, a very limited study (only 88 patients) found that meditation alters cells. The participants were all cancer patients but it would interesting to see a broader study. Also, perhaps, other studies to see if other relaxing activities have a similar effect. Maybe just taking time to sit still away from electronic distractions for a few minutes every day could be as good as actual controlled meditation? Anyway, it couldn’t hurt, right?

In an unrelated study, scientists at Johns Hopkins and the University of Nebraska have discovered a virus that makes people stupid. Oh, this opens up opportunity for all kinds of snarky remarks, but I will limit myself to, “Well that explains a lot!” It’s interesting though, to think that they might someday be able to come up with a vaccine against stupidity. (or at least one cause of stupidity) Just think how the anti-vaccine people (as well as, possibly, some other groups) would react to that. “This is going too far! How dare they try to change the way our brains work! Everyone has the right to be stupid!”

The Curious Brain

Interesting article about curiosity and learning.

The study revealed three major findings. First, as expected, when people were highly curious to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning that information. More surprising, however, was that once their curiosity was aroused, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information (face recognition) that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about. People were also better able to retain the information learned during a curious state across a 24-hour delay. “Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,”

I think it’s interesting that they also found that the brain’s reward system is involved in curiosity and learning. My immediate thought: “Well, I could have told them that!” Finding out stuff feels awesome. People who don’t seem to be curious about anything puzzle me. I always wonder what’s going on in their heads if they have no curiosity. What do they think about if they’re not wondering how things work or why things are the way they are? Their lives must be so dull and sad.

What makes some people curious and others not? Everyone is born curious but as we grow up we are gradually conditioned to be less curious. Most parents encourage curiosity, up to a point, in very young children but I think there are probably very few parents who actively lead their children in satisfying their natural curiosity. Busy parents often give short answers that really mean, “Don’t bother me right now.” As children get older and peer pressure kicks in the number of things about which it is acceptable to be curious is greatly reduced and open displays of curiosity are considered “uncool”. Even among adults, people who are openly curious are considered a bit weird.

Lucky is the child who grows up observing his or her parents being curious. Just as the children of people who read books grow up to be readers of books, the children of curious parents retain their early childhood curiosity into adulthood. A few of these children grow up to be scientists and inventors. Many more simply grow up to be adults who continue to find wonder in the world and are rarely bored.

Maybe We Should All Be Reading Stone Tablets

The real books vs. e-books debate gets scientific. I have no doubt that if there had been psychologists back when bound books were replacing scrolls they would have have been presenting all kinds of scientifically valid evidence that scrolls were better, healthier and more natural. I am equally certain that when scrolls were first introduced there were people who criticized them for their impermanence compared to stone tablets. The new will always be bad and scary. At the same time, it’s true that, often, embracing the new means losing some useful or merely pleasant features of the old.

I like both paper books and my Kindle. What I miss most when reading a book on the Kindle is the ability to flip back to an earlier chapter to re-read something related to the latest thing I read. When I’m reading a paper book I often miss Kindle’s dictionary. I also like Kindle’s size and weight. The standard size paperback, which is the perfect size, seems to be disappearing. Many of the books I want to read are only available in hardback or the heavy, over-sized paperbacks. People say they like the way real books feel in their hands. Well, I like the way the Kindle feels in my hands. I didn’t at first. It felt awkward and there didn’t seem to be any good place to get a grip on it, but I got used to it and now I like it. Funny how that works.

Based on personal experience, I disagree with the article’s claim that e-book readers “inhibit reading comprehension” and even make it harder to remember what we read, but the article does present some interesting things to think about – about the way the brain works when reading. These are things future developers of e-book readers should take into consideration. I do think (or hope) real books are going to still be around for a long time. There is really no reason for debate. This is not like electing a president. We can have both.

Oooo! A New Book!

I have irrefutable evidence that my family is the coolest in the world. My son gave me the What If? book! How many sons would give their mom a cool, geeky gift like that?! How many moms are cool enough to appreciate it? Um… well… Enough bragging. This is getting embarrassing.

This is a great gift because I love XKCD and What If? but I often forget to read it for several weeks. (There’s just too much to love on the Internet.) The book has stuff that was on the website plus some extra stuff not on the website, like Weird and Worrying Questions, to which the author gives short, smart-aleck answers. The funny thing about that is that many of the questions to which he gives serious answers are equally weird and worrying.

I got the book this past weekend and I’ve been reading one or two questions and answers a day because that seems like a better way to enjoy this book than a marathon read. Besides, I’m also reading a novel, trying to catch up on several back issues of Smithsonian Magazine, and there’s the Internet. (And there are all those other things that can’t be done with a book or a keyboard.) Anyway, very cool and interesting book. You should get it.

People Will Believe Anything

I already knew most of these: 7 Myths Nutritionists Wish You’d Stop Believing. Number 3 is the only one I really did not know and I had never even heard that rapeseed plants are toxic. It’s one of those “interesting facts” that you always hear – that canola oil is really made from rapeseed but they renamed it because no one would buy something called “rapeseed oil”. Like a lot of “interesting facts” that you read on the Internet, it turns out it’s just a myth. Most of the others I had already seen debunked. Number 7 is obviously just a figure of speech. Pardon me for saying this but, DUH!

The one that gave me a real “AH HA!” moment was #2. Diet sodas make you gain weight. For a few years, I’ve been seeing articles saying this and it not only seems illogical it seems almost like religious dogma. “It is enjoyable therefore it is a sin to enjoy it and don’t you dare think you can “cheat” by drinking diet soda. Sodas are sinful. Period. Drink them not lest thou die.” And my own personal experiences with drinking diet sodas and weight loss/gain suggests it’s not true. But, you know, who am I to doubt a Scientific Study? So, while I disbelieved, at the same time I thought, “It’s probably true, darn it.” Turns out my true feelings on the matter are spot on.

There is a name for this sort of thing: Orthorexia Nervosa (not an officially recognized disorder yet) It’s a matter of degree, of course. Being conscious of what you eat, eating healthy – this is good. What is bad is obsession and using pseudoscience to try to scare other people into adopting your lifestyle.

“Oh!” – “I see, said the blind man.”

I had a 7th grade teacher who, whenever he would explain something to a student one-on-one and they would say, “Oh,” would respond, “I see said the blind man.” I suppose some students might have found this annoying but I always thought it was hilarious and I loved him for it. He was also one of my first Black teachers (I had two that year) and one of my first male teachers.

But that’s not what this is about. I just happened to think of it when I read this. That line from Star Wars, that the Millennium Falcon “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs,” has always bothered me. I mean seriously bothered me. A parsec is a measure of distance, not time. Things like this, to me, are worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.

Well, in fact, it does make sense. And I’m feeling quite annoyed at myself for being such a scientifically illiterate numbskull. This is rather obvious.

The main criticism of the line is that a parsec is a distance. Han saying that he made the run in 12 parsecs is like a runner saying she ran a marathon in 26.2 miles. This would be a legitimate criticism if the Kessel Run was a set distance like a marathon. In most cases, there are several different paths from point A to point B. For example, I live next to a lake, and there is a house across this lake. The direct route from my house to this house is to swim across the lake, but swimming is not an option for me because I can’t swim. To get to this house, I have to walk or drive. The same applies to the closest Target, which is a little over a mile away. To walk directly there, I would have to swim across a lake (a different one; I live in Minnesota) and walk across a freeway. Again, driving five miles is the best way for me to go to Target. On Earth, certain obstacles prevent a straight course; instead, a path around these impediments is the best way to travel.

In space, the obstacles are numerous. Planets, asteroids, comets, meteors, and black holes are just a few of the features a pilot has to navigate around in order to arrive at a destination safely. When Han has to get away from Tatooine, he tells Luke, “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?” According to the material in the expanded ‘Star Wars’ universe, the Maw is a cluster of black holes on one of the possible routes to Kessel. The safest course is approximately 18 parsecs. For Han to have completed the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, he would have had to travel near this cluster of black holes, which is dangerous. A black hole has a strong gravitational pull, and getting too close to one could result in the ship either being destroyed or pulled into the black hole to face an unknown fate. Traveling a direct route in space can be risky, and it takes a skilled navigator to plot a course that will get a ship to its destination in one piece.

The author goes on to say that Han’s boast “doesn’t sell him as a great pilot.” I don’t care. This line that has bugged me for over three decades now makes sense to me. Rays of glorious light shone down from Heaven and angels sang. You can’t take that away from me. Not even by going back to the time vs. distance issue:

The problem with the Kessel Run claim is the fact that Han says the line as an answer to a question about speed. Obi-Wan says he is looking for passage on a fast ship. Han asks, “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?” Obi-Wan replies, “Should I have?” Then Han says the famous line, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” A parsec is a unit of distance, and distance is distance. You drive 60 miles; it could take you three hours if you go 20mph or one hour if you go 60mph, but you still travel 60 miles. Speed is determined by the relationship between time and distance. Again, without knowing how much time it took Han to complete the Kessel Run, the comment is an attribute to his navigating skills and not the performance of the ship. If Han has said, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in 11.7 parsecs in 3 days,” then the speed the Millennium Falcon could be determined, giving Obi-Wan an actual answer to his inquiry.

Okay, so she has a point. Sort of. But note the specific wording of the statement. “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” “The ship.” As if it was the only one that ever did it. A historic stunt that everyone is expected to have heard of, including other details, like time, that are not given in Han’s brief statement. Anyway, that’s how I make sense of it and I’m happy now. Star Wars is officially perfect.

I Can Read Your Mind

Well, actually I can’t. But maybe in the near future? Actually, I have a “wait and see” attitude about this kind of thing. Success in the lab does not always lead to the cool new products suggested by overly optimistic tech articles. If “mind reading headsets” do become available I don’t think it’s something that “everybody” will want. I see it mainly as a tool for the handicapped – people who can’t speak, people who can’t type – and that would be wonderful.

In Space No One Does Laundry

This is a really good article by astronaut Chris Hadfield. (Remember when everyone knew the names of all the astronauts?) 6 Ways Movies Get Space Wrong. It’s not the usual “OMG! That’s so fake!” kind of list that you might expect given the title and the website. It’s a lot of mundane little things that you probably never thought of. Except #5. I’m getting sort of tired of the “How do they go to the bathroom in space?” question. But even that one has a couple of details that I hadn’t read before.

Found on Facebook.

It Doesn’t Mean What You Think

10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing. Scientists don’t always talk like the rest of us. Most of what the average person knows about science probably comes from TV so it would be helpful if TV writers would get it right. Of course that’s not going to happen so everyone needs to realize that TV hardly ever gets anything right. That’s not going to happen either.

The garbage we hear on TV and from our friends gets into our heads and we tend to talk like everyone else even when we know better. I resolved a while back to stop saying “theory” when I really mean “hypothesis” but it’s hard. I grew up hearing everyone say “theory” to mean “an unproven idea” and even though I have known for a long time that that’s not what it really means, that’s still what usually comes out of my mouth. Still, even though I use it wrong just like almost everyone else I know what it really means and I don’t assume that the way I use it is the real or only meaning like most people seem to do.

The misuse of “natural” and “organic” are two of my biggest pet peeves but I think the incorrect meanings of these words have become so fixed in most people’s minds that we can probably never recover the real meanings. And yes, I know that the language changes naturally over time but when people purposely hijack words and change their meanings we lose the original meaning and our ability to effectively communicate suffers. Chemicals is another widely misunderstood word. (Seriously, you must click on that link.)

There are other interesting points on the list: geologic time scales, which are difficult for most people to grasp, which I’m sure is part of why evolution is such a difficult concept for some people, and “survival of the fittest” and, something I hadn’t thought much about, genes “for” specific traits.

Terrible Tech

Ten Terrible Tech Annoyances That Should Be Illegal. Let’s start with the one which is not listed but of which the linked page is guilty: videos that start automatically. We should have the right to choose whether or not we want to watch a video or hear sounds on a website. Now, on to the list.

1.CAPTCHAs. I do hate the things and the one I used to have on this blog didn’t seem to prevent spam at all. But I really can’t blame anyone for trying.

2.Hold music and the right of silence. Either ban all hold music or require Mozart only hold music.

3.Proprietary power bricks. I have been saying this for years. Everything should work with everything else.

4. Printer ink to get consumer advisory labels. Ugh. Not another advisory label. I don’t know… Printer ink is ridiculously expensive and I can’t think of a better idea.

5. No voice-response double jeopardy. “An automated telephone system asks you to enter your name, account number, or other information. … Then why, once we’re transferred to a human operator, must we be asked for the same information again?” They do that even if it’s a live person who transfers you to another person and it’s one of my long time pet peeves. Sometimes when I’m in a really bad mood I impatiently tell them, “I just gave that information to the other person; why do I have to say it all again?” Maybe if everyone made a habit of doing that every time someone would get the hint.

6. Alerts must know their place. “Monitor status messages shall be designed so they don’t block login windows. Appliances like microwaves and dishwashers shall not beep constantly about minor issues, like their cycles being done (once or twice is enough), or their doors being closed.” Yes! And all boxes that require you to click either, “OK” or “Remind me later” or similar choices shall also be required to have a “Don’t Ever Bother Me Again” button.

7. Non-removable batteries: Banned Yes! And no weird sized or proprietary batteries. A dozen or so standard battery sizes should be enough!

8. Software updates shall only update. Definitely! Whether it’s an update or anything else, computers should only do what you tell them to and nothing more.

9. Pasted text must default to “no formatting”. And no additional text. Some sites, when I copy and paste something for my weekly quotes, will add an advertisement for their site. Again, computers (and software, and websites) should do only what you tell them to, nothing more.

10. No more long ads before video content. “The maximum length of a pre-roll ad (the commercial that plays before a video online) shall be at most 15 percent the length of the video itself.” That sounds reasonable but there should also be a maximum length in the case of very long videos. Say, 15 percent or 30 seconds, whichever is shorter.

Anyone have anything to add to those? I’m sure there must be more.