Category Archives: Science

Darwin’s Library

I’m pretty fond of Charles Darwin and his works. As well as being a ground-breaking scientific theorist he was also an eloquent writer — (and don’t give me any of that “Evolution is just a theory!” crap! If you think in such a blinkered way you aren’t welcome here! So there!)

I recently happened across a web-site which makes available the contents of Darwin’s personal library in various formats. PDF files of the books are available for download. How incredibly cool! Here’s the site:

Darwin’s Library

Back in the old days, probably before many of you were born, I had a library card that enabled me, as a citizen of Missouri, to check out books from the Truman University Library in Kirksville, MO, proud home of osteopathy! I made good use of that library, and I was grateful to the state of Missouri for making it possible for autodidacts without any formal education to browse the stacks and check out books.

Larry

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A Triumph Of Human Ingenuity

I’m a child of the 1960s. In 1961 my mother called the school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I was in the second grade.

“Would it it be okay if Larry stayed home from school today? He really wants to watch the Alan Shepherd space launch on TV; it’s his birthday, too!”

“That would be fine, Mrs. Ayers — Larry would have to work at it to get behind here!”

During those years I kept a scrapbook of the space endeavors, NASA adventures which inflamed my sci-fi-primed imagination. Later, when I realized that my becoming an astronaut was very unlikely, my interest waned.

Last night I was talking with my father, and he said, “You really need to see the video NASA has released showing an animated depiction of the deployment of the Curiosity Mars machine!”

Pretty damned cool, I thought while I watched the Youtube video early this morning. It trumps the fantasy animations of Pixar! Take a look:

Of course the new rover may not work, as it is enormously complex. I’m rooting for it, though!

Larry

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Paleomicrobiology

Now there’s a new word for you! (or at least for me…) I’d never encountered it until I read a fascinating article at one of my favorite blogs, Small Things Considered. The word means the study of ancient micro-organisms, including human diseases. The subject is worthy of study. As the human population of this over-stressed planet increases there is no doubt we will encounter new viral and bacterial diseases; they are evolving faster than we are!

The article linked to below delves into some recent research into the origin and mutations of the dreaded plague virus. It’s hard to imagine, but 40% of the population of Europe was decimated by this disease several hundred years ago. It could happen again, notwithstanding the marvels of modern medicine.

A Pestis From The Past

If you happen to follow the link (go ahead, it’s better than kitten videos and Facebook updates!) take a little time and look through the archives of Small Things Considered. The site is a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to learn a bit more about the lives of the small living creatures who share our world with us.

Larry

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Detroit Science Center Lip Dub

This is a touching celebratory video. Take any team of people working on a project together and it is likely a few will be able to do the dance moves, etc., and lip-sync pop music effectively. Could this be due to hours of practice at karoake bars, or just singing in the shower and vacuum-cleaner-dancing with only a non-judgmental cat as audience?

The Lip Dub Member Event at the Detroit Science Center! The staff did 2 weeks of pre-production to plan things out. Then the production department and the singers rehearsed for 2 more weeks to get it right. Then the members came out for one amazing night and made it awesome! One walk through and five takes later we wrapped it up, all in time to get the kids to bed on time. Thank you so much to everyone who worked on this and who came out to join us. It was because of all of you the this night was a huge success.
What’s next? Who knows, but you can bet it will a ton of fun.

Detroit Science Center Lip Dub (Don’t Stop Me Now) from Detroit Science Center on Vimeo.

The song is by the British band Queen. Wasn’t Freddy Mercury quite a singer? He died of bronchopneumonia brought on by AIDS in 1991. One of the few Parsi rock singers, he has been missed.

Thanks go to Jennifer Ouellette, whose blog Cocktail Party Physics is one of my favorites. Jennifer posted the video on Facebook, I went to Vimeo and snagged the embedding code, and here we are!

Larry

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The Perfume Of The Earth

One of my favorite scientifically-oriented blogs is Small Things Considered. Veteran microbiologist Moselio Schaecter and fellow-writer Merry Youle are the hosts of the blog. Some of the material is overly technical for me, but many of the posts are fascinating glimpses into the microbial world.

The blog also features posts by other microbiologists. This one by Mark Martin I found to be of particular interest. Did you ever wonder what generates that distinctive odor which arises from the earth after rain has fallen upon dry soil? It’s a pleasant and earthy odor, and it turns out that a bacterially-generated chemical called geosmin is the major component of that smell. A quote from the post:

Certain cyanobacteria and actinomycetes synthesize geosmin, a volatile chemical that is reminiscent of potting soil. (Norman Pace has been known to wax lyrical here, calling geosmin “the breath of the microbial world.”)

Read the post linked below and you will learn the source of that distinctive “ocean smell”:

A Microbe By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet…

In general, Small Things Considered is exemplary, a science-oriented blog which can be comprehended by a reasonably well-educated reader. The writers make an effort to connect microbiological research to the world that the layman perceives. Keep up the good work, Elio and Merry!

Larry

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Carl Sauer On Agricultural Origins

Many years ago I used to get ideas for interesting books to read from the Whole Earth Catalog, and later from Coevolution Quarterly. Many of the books reviewed I would never have heard about without these publications, as I have never been in an academic environment or associated with the type of person who would read such books. Yeah, I’m one of those autodidacts you hear about, pale readers who flutter around the fringes of the academic and scientific worlds, hummingbird-like learners who take their prose nectar where they can. Naturally, aside from being the mother-lode of porn for those so inclined, the internet is a paradise for autodidacts, albeit it’s a paradise infested with the dragons of fallacy and illogical obsession.

One book reviewed and recommended in the Whole Earth Catalog impressed me, and still does to this day.

That book is a compilation of Carl Sauer’s talks and essays concerning the origins of the plants and animals we (and people of other cultures) eat every day, with any luck.

Sauer was a geographer, a specialty which sounds somewhat antiquated these days. Not a narrowly focused scholar, a geographer like Sauer ranged freely through a variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, botany, archaeology, and sociology. You might call him a synthesist and a student of speculative agricultural history. Another of Sauer’s interests was the effect of human occupation upon landscapes. He grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and was well aware of what dire changes had been wrought upon that landscape during his lifetime.

Why speculative? The source material is fragmented and scanty; during the thousands of years during which food plants and animals were developed humanity was pre-literate. All scientists have to go by are the still-existing cultivated plants and domesticated animals, along with the archaeological records, which include seeds and bones found in ancient middens. Botanists and zoologists try to identify still-surviving ancestors of our food plants and animals, populations which haven’t been subject to thousands of years of selective breeding.

The book bears the title Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds; the title of an earlier edition was Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. Though the compilation was published in the early 1950s, from what I can gather from current sources Sauer’s conclusions and analyses have held up well.

One question Sauer ponders is: Why did Amerindian proto-cultivators use mostly vegetative plant propagation south of a zone roughly demarcated by the southern border of Mexico, while ancient plant-breeders north of that line used seed propagation and selection?

Another conundrum he deals with is the lack of domestication and improvement of North American plant species by the ancient first inhabitants of that continent. Blueberries, Jerusalem artichoke (a species of sunflower), perhaps the Paw Paw, the cranberry — really that’s about it. All other food crops grown in North America, both by the first inhabitants and by modern Americans, came from Mexico, Central America, the Andean region, and of course the Old World.

Here’s a quote; you should be aware that Sauer uses the word “hearth” to refer to a region where a particular plant or animal was first domesticated:

The hearth indicated [the interior of the Andean region] provided also, by means of fishing and hunting, aquatic and riparian, the possibility of living in sedentary communities before agriculture was known. Such precondition I hold necessary. The initiators of domestication required a comfortable and dependable margin above mere survival, permanent homes, and a living in communities in which they could share observations and have the leisure to begin the long range experimentation that led to domestication. The business of plant growing and selection did not proceed from “prelogical minds” by hocus-pocus or chance. It required ease, continuity, and peace. It was carried out by acutely observing individuals, primitive systematists and geneticists we may assert, who taught others to identify and select, by lore and skill handed from generation to generation. The plants fashioned by man are artifacts of skilled craftsmen; plant breeders anywhere are still few and exceptional individuals. I have difficulty in visualizing the spontaneous and independent origins of agricultural living and arts by reaching an unelucidated “stage” or “level” of cultural advance, or by assuming that people turned to producing food because they were getting hungrier. Distressed folk were least likely to have the capital reserves for investment in deferred returns. Such progress I should look for as originating in a most favored area, with a society amenable to new ways and recognizing original talent in its individuals. Were such congenial physical and cultural situations present as well anywhere else in the New World?

I admit that Sauer’s prose is a bit convoluted and dated, and lacking in humor. Nonetheless he gets his points across, sometimes eloquently, and he packs many ideas and speculations into a small space. Pithy is the applicable word, I think.

The book is out of print, but a quick look at Amazon.com reveals that used copies are available for as little as four dollars. I highly recommend the book; it’s always salutary to pay attention to the foods which sustain our civilization and their possible origins.

Larry

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Gaseous Nobility

Every day I receive an e-mail from a site called delancyplace.com. Each e-mail contains a short excerpt from a book, mostly books concerning science or history. They are well-chosen excerpts and I enjoy most of them. If you would like to sign up (it’s a free service) here’s the link:

Delancyplace

Here’s an example I received today; I thought it was very well-written:

In today’s excerpt – the Noble Gases, also known as inert
gases, are located in column eighteen on the far right side
of the Periodic Table of Elements and consist of: Helium
(He), Neon (Ne), Argon (Ar), Krypton (Kr), Xenon (Xe), and
Radon (Rn).  Each of these gases, under standard
conditions, are odorless, colorless, monatomic gases, with
very low chemical reactivity: 
 
Noble is an archaic word, less chemistry than ethics or 
philoso­phy. And indeed, the term ‘noble gases’ goes back 
to the birth­place of Western philosophy, ancient Greece. 
There, after his fellow Greeks Leucippus and Democritus
invented the idea of atoms, Plato minted the word “elements” 
(in Greek, stoicheia) as a general term for different small 
particles of matter. Plato­ – who left Athens for his own 
safety after the death of his mentor, Socrates, around 400 
BC and wandered around writing philoso­phy for years – of 
course lacked knowledge of what an element really is in 
chemistry terms. But if he had known, he no doubt would 
have selected the elements on the eastern edge of the table, 
especially helium, as his favorites.  In his dialogue on 
love and the erotic, The Symposium, Plato claimed that every 
being longs to find its complement, its miss­ing half. When 
applied to people, this implies passion and sex and all the 
troubles that accompany passion and sex.  In addi­tion, Plato
emphasized throughout his dialogues that abstract and
unchanging things are intrinsically more noble than things
that grub around and interact with gross matter. 

Helium is also the best example of ‘element-ness’ – a 
substance that cannot be broken down or altered by normal, 
chemical means. It took scientists 2,200 years, from Greece 
in 400 BC to Europe in 1800 AD, to grasp what elements 
really are, because most are too changeable. It was hard to 
see what made carbon carbon when it appeared in thousands of
compounds, all with different properties. Today we would
say that carbon dioxide, for instance, isn’t an element
because one molecule of it divides into carbon and
oxygen. But carbon and oxygen are elements because you
cannot divide them more finely without destroying
them. Returning to the theme of The Symposium and Plato’s
theory of erotic longing for a missing half, we find that
virtually every element seeks out other atoms to form bonds
with, bonds that mask its nature. Even most “pure”
elements, such as oxygen molecules in the air (02) always
appear as com­posites in nature. Yet scientists might have
figured out what elements are much sooner had they known
about helium, which has never reacted with another
substance, has never been any­thing but a pure element.

Helium acts this way for a reason. All atoms contain
nega­tive particles called electrons, which reside in
different tiers, or energy levels, inside the atom.  The
levels are nested concentrically inside each other, and
each level needs a certain num­ber of electrons to fill
itself and feel satisfied. In the innermost level, that
number is two. In other levels, it’s usually eight. 
Ele­ments normally have equal numbers of negative
electrons and positive particles called protons, so they’re
electrically neutral. Electrons, however, can be freely
traded between atoms, and when atoms lose or gain
electrons, they form charged atoms called ions.  

What’s important to know is that atoms fill their inner,
lower-energy levels as full as possible with their own
elec­trons, then either shed, share, or steal electrons to
secure the right number in the outermost level. Some
elements share or trade electrons diplomatically, while
others act very, very nasty. That’s half of chemistry in
one sentence: atoms that don’t have enough electrons in the
outer level will fight, barter, beg, make and break
alliances, or do whatever they must to get the right
number. 

Helium, element two, has exactly the number of
electrons it needs to fill its only level. This “closed”
configuration gives helium tremendous independence, because
it doesn’t need to interact with other atoms or share or
steal electrons to feel satis­fied. Helium has found its
erotic complement in itself. What’s more, that same
configuration extends down the entire eigh­teenth column
beneath helium – the gases neon, argon, krypton, xenon, and
radon. All these elements have closed shells with full
complements of electrons, so none of them reacts with
anything under normal conditions. That’s why, despite all
the fervid activ­ity to identify and label elements in the
1800s-including the development of the periodic table
itself-no one isolated a sin­gle gas from column eighteen
before 1895. That aloofness from everyday experience, so
like his ideal spheres and triangles, would have charmed
Plato. And it was that sense the scientists who dis­covered
helium and its brethren on earth were trying to evoke with
the name ‘noble gases.’ Or to put it in Plato-like words,
“He who adores the perfect and unchangeable and scorns the
corruptible and ignoble will prefer the noble gases, by
far, to all other elements. For they never vary, never
waver, never pander to other elements like hoi polloi
offering cheap wares in the marketplace. They are
incorruptible and ideal."

The repose of the noble gases is rare, however. One col­umn
to the west sits the most energetic and reactive gases on
the periodic table, the halogens. And if you think of the
table wrapping around like a Mercator map, so that east
meets west and column eighteen meets column one, even more
violent ele­ments appear on the western edge, the alkali
metals. The pacifist noble gases are a demilitarized zone
surrounded by unstable neighbors.

Author: Sam Kean

Title:The Disappearing Spoon

Publisher: Back Bay Book, Little Brown and Company

Date: Copyright 2011 by Sam Kean

Pages: 15-17

Here’s a representation of the Periodic Table. The noble gases are in the light-blue column at the far right:

Larry

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