Friday, July 4, 2008

A Day For Big BIG Explosions

Happy Independence Day! (and, may I add, I'm glad to be back to my blogging routine!)

As I write this, the night's first fireworks are exploding around my home. Yes, today is the day that pyromaniacs dream of all year long, when they legally get to set off explosives and display them for all to see. Cool.

Oh yeah, and it's the country's birthday. Yada yada yada.

Actually, being hyper-patriotic, this day means a great deal to me. My flags are out, and I'm thinking about those I consider to be national heroes: people like my niece who are fighting for, or have fought for, our country's national interests and safety (though, may I add, the war in Iraq has little perceivable interest for our country in either regard), and people who are exercising their right to freedom of speech and democracy, like myself, by publicly opposing our President in his attempts to tear down those rights (or the separation of church and state, or his trampling of people's right to privacy, the Geneva Convention, environmental consciousness, etc etc).

But I digress. Let's get back to the intoxicating topic of things that go BOOM in the sky.

Last Monday, June 30, was the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event:

Yes, a century ago in 1908, just after 7 AM in the Tunguska wilderness of Siberia, a massive meteor exploded several kilometers above the surface, releasing the equivalent energy of 185 Hiroshima bombs, leveling 800 square miles of forest.

Now THAT'S fireworks!

Due to the remote location and the state of science and communications of the period, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the explosion. Enough gaps, at least, to lead to the occasionally wacko interpretation as to the cause of the event, everything from mini-black holes to UFO's (see my previous blog post on one, HERE, which also talked about how one of the meteorite fragments had gone missing from storage). Personally, I'll stick with the scientific explanation.

So I hope you've taken the chance to go outside to eat a hot dog, drink some brew, and set off some sparklers, bottle rockets, fountains, and other assorted explosives to celebrate the founding of our great nation. And while you're at it, ponder how, a century ago, one particular explosion lit up the sky from Siberia strong enough to read newspapers at midnight in China and be read by sensitive barometers as far away as England.

Happy 4th of July!

Image taken from HERE.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where The Heck Have I Been?

Geez! Where the heck have I been for the last couple weeks?

No, I haven't given up blogging. I was on a business trip, then my wife was sick, then I was sick, now we are simultaneously: a) having wood floors installed in half our house, b) stripping wallpaper and repainting our dining room, and c) repainting our master bedroom.

It's enough to drive an angry lab rat crazy! Ever tried living in a construction zone – with two small children – while sick? It ain't fun, and it's just barely begun. (My blogging pal, Maggie, at Mind Moss, can attest to this, having gone through this last year!) It's enough to make me howl at the moon.

So please stay tuned. Lots of good stuff to write about, but it may be as much as a week before I get back to my usual blogging schedule.

In the meantime, there will be a fantastic full moon on June 18th. This is a solstice moon, meaning that the moon will be full around the time of the summer solstice (on the 20th), which means that the moon will be hugging the horizon.

This makes the moon appear unnaturally large and spectacular, an optical illusion known since ancient times but nonetheless wonderful to behold. Here is a link that explains it:

So, in a couple nights, go outside and enjoy the early summer night and its nice, full moon. I'll try to join you, but there's a good chance I'll be sniffing paint vapors while tip-toe-ing around the half-installed bamboo flooring.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sure, But Which Gene Helps Her Remember Everyone's Birthday?

Last week it was announced that, for the first time, the full genome of a woman had been sequenced:

The lucky gal was Dr. Marjolein Kriek, a clinical geneticist at Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, where the study was undertaken. This was not only the first sequence of a woman, but also the first of a European.

The sequencing had taken six months, reading over 22 billion base pairs (the "letters" of DNA for you non-science types out there), but had been run in-between other experiments. If it had been run straight through, it would have taken only 10 weeks. Typical. Once again women get second billing! Go on, you female lab rats! Throw down your test tubes and burn your bras! I'll only gawk a little.

The first human sequence, as you may remember, was completed in 2001 using the combined DNA of several people. The next was that of Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix structure. "Gene hunter" Craig Ventor was next. The final two were of Yoruba African men (I didn't know about those two, but now I'm curious).

In the words of the principal scientist of the study (as quoted in the article), "So it was time, after sequencing four males, to balance the genders a bit”. He smiles: “And after Watson we also felt that it was okay to do Kriek”.

Get it? Watson and Crick? Discoverers of the structure of DNA? Ha ha! Ha. ha. (sigh). Scientist humor….

Now that they have sequenced the X chromosomes of a female, the researchers say they are better able to study X chromosome variability.

That's well and good. But what I'd really like to know is which genes control that desire and ability of women to schedule everything. Or to coordinate their blouse with teal pumps. Or how to have a conversation on their tiny cell phone while simultaneously wiping a child's runny nose, stopping another child from climbing the bookcase, and writing up a report for their high-pressure career.

Yeah, that's right you sexy Dutch chicks, I've got your number (or at least the number of base pairs), and I've got a little Jean Gnome for you to "sequence". Giggity giggity.

Image altered from HERE.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Science Tattoos!

For many years I have wanted to get a tattoo. I've balked at the price and at the lack of seemingly decent tattoo parlors around where I live, but I've decided to go ahead with what I can find.

And what kind of tattoo am I getting? A flaming skull? A heart inscribed with my lovely wife's name? Pictures of my kids? "Momma"?

No, of course not. I'm a scientist, after all. It's got to reflect my scientific interest (no offense to Mom, my wife, my kids, or skulls, thank you).

I am choosing to have permanently inked into my left upper arm the image at left. It is the first critter I studied, while as an undergrad. I studied the Cottonwood Borer beetle's reproductive anatomy and behavior in GREAT detail. Yes, not all science is for the betterment of mankind, but I found it fascinating, and still do. The beetles are about 2 inches long from the front of their head to the tip of their butt (though the antennae are longer). That little research project (which also involved learning some pretty detailed and traditional procedures and instrumentation) led to years of entomological research, then toward a career in biotech. The beetle isn't exactly colorful, but the story behind it means a lot to me. Sadly, we never published the work.

And then yesterday I came across this amazing blog dedicated to nothing else than documenting science-themed tattoos, imprinted onto scientists who study those topics:

Absolutely fascinating! People have sent him pictures of their tattoos on everything from evolution to zoological anatomy, subatomic particles to mathematics, computing to ecology.

Some of my favorite examples from those pages include THIS one, THIS one, THIS one, THIS one, and THIS one (but it is so hard to choose!). Enjoy!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day '08

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, when we remember and recognize all those men and women in uniform who went into harm's way for our country (whether the war was justified or not) and, in many cases, gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect our nation's interests.

Right now, the giant American flag that was presented in my grandfather's memorial service is hanging in my bay window, completely covering the glass there. Grandpa served aboard a supply ship in the Pacific during World War II, but came home safely. My great uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II Europe. He came home, too. I also had a step father who served in the Korean war. A fall from an icy tank injured his back, but he came home. He never really recovered from his back injury, but he had a far harder time dealing with the mental wounds of war. And my lovely young niece is, right now, patrolling the edges of Sadr City in Baghdad. She is shot at often, and the risk of being killed by bullet, mortar, or roadside bomb is very real. I am lucky that none of my relatives has actually died while at war. Let's hope it stays that way. She comes home in August, just before her 23rd birthday.

But the danger doesn't end when they walk through that door to their good ole home. A recent study found that 1 in every 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

That's 20% of returning veterans. Of those who seek treatment, only about half receive "minimally adequate" treatment.

The biggest effect of PTSD is depression, with suicide as the worst outcome. According to the Pentagon's own assessment, soldier suicides are five-fold higher than before the wars began, and currently that rate is at its highest ever since the start of the war (SOURCE). At least five soldiers commit suicide each day. That means that the number of suicides may soon outpace the number of combat deaths.

In a recent phone call, my niece commented on how surreal it is, fighting there in Baghdad, where you drive around in a big city, like any big city, where there are cars and people walking around, except there you can expect to be shot at at any moment, and everyone you are supposedly fighting for wants you gone and may be conspiring against you.

This isn't the war my grandfather and great uncle fought, or even my step father. Those we were liberating wanted us there.

So as you enjoy your day off, going boating, cooking hot dogs with the fam, reading blogs by liberal scientists, or simply gathering around the home entertainment system to watch this week's episode of American Gladiator, give a thought to those who have fought for your country, and another for those who are fighting for their lives right now.

Hang in there, my niece. I'll see you soon. Though this holiday is meant to remember our soldiers who have died, my flags fly for the living heroes, too, and one day soon this unjustified war will be over.

Addendum: On a closely related note, May 17 was Armed Forces Day, a day where we celebrate all that our combined armed services do for us (and, I might add, a holiday which is practically unknown or ignored outside of miltary circles, as far as I can tell).

Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Keeping Yourself Pale May Also Make Coral Reefs Pale

I love the smell of cocoa butter. It sends me immediately into daydreams of hot, summer beaches and cool water.

If that statement seems odd to you, then you are either old and forgetful or younger than 25, or were too much of a lily to go outdoors.

Back when I was a kid, running around mostly-naked on the beach during summertime, the word "sunscreen" meant a wide-brimmed hat. I would slather Coppertone on myself. That rich, mildly-chocolate smelling yummy lotion infused with cocoa butter seemed an excellent means by which I could saut̩ rotund little body to a beautiful tan in no time without sizzling to a crisp in the mid-day Southern sun. SPF values were something like 2 or 4, which meant that drenching myself with Coppertone only protected me four times longer from imitating a beet, which I did often. Anytime now I expect skin cancer to crop up and remind me why my grandma carried an umbrella (which she called a "parasol") to shade herself when she went outside (and with good reason Рshe developed skin cancer in her elder years).

But by the 80's, the term "suntan lotion" was gradually being replaced by "sunblock" or "sunscreen", until now you never hear the term "suntan lotion". HERE is a good discussion about the change in terms.

Is it wrong of me to be wistful? Maybe it's because I live in the Northwest, where it's too testicle-shriveling cold most of the year to lay around nearly naked absorbing photons, but I just don't hear about people trying to get tans anymore. Everyone's too busy coating themselves with sun-repelling chemicals. I miss being brown.

Besides, this picture illustrates how "artistic" you can be with your melanoma-inducing love of sun (see THIS page for information on the artist).

Oh, sure, sure, I know all the arguments. Skin cancer = bad. Pale = good. Love the skin you're in. No one wants to look like an alligator by the time they're 45. Even I use Coppertone Sport sunblock, with SPF 15, and my children, who are dark-complected African-Americans, get coated with Baby Blanket sunscreen, SPF 50+.

But before we pat ourselves on the back for being health-conscious and educated about the potential dangers of UV radiation, let us consider a recent study that shows that sunblock lotions washed off of our sweaty, body-surfing bodies are contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs:

Yes, in addition to the effects of global climate changes like increased UV radiation, increasing water temperatures, and rising water levels, plus industrial pollution, which endangers some 60 percent of coral reefs, some 10 percent of reefs are also at danger to being bleached by dangerous by-products produced when sunscreen breaks down. 78 million tourists who visit these reefs each year may gawk at the incredibly diversity of fishes and corals, but they are also releasing some 4000 to 6000 metric tonnes of sunscreen into that water. Researchers demonstrated that even small doses of sunscreen can bleach coral reefs within 96 hours of application, probably by stimulating viral infection of the coral.

No, I'm not advocating giving up the sunscreen. But maybe my grandma had the right idea. Let's not rely completely on painting our bodies with chemical sunscreens. Bring a parasol. Or at least a beach umbrella. But I still recommend getting out from under it enough to get some Vitamin D and maybe darken your skin enough to hide the veins. Ew!

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Hell Of A Toothpick

Try to guess what the next three things have in common:

1. Last night I shoved a small, plastic stick with a wad of cotton at the tip into my ear canals and scraped out loving chunks of brown-yellow wax. It was nice to hear clearly again.

2. Today I go to the dentist to have my bi-annual tooth scraping and (bloody, painful) reminder to floss more often.

3. I plan to spend my supposed recession-deflecting economic band-aid of a stimulus package on something that makes me ignore the catastrophic national debt and economic recession.

Yes, you likely have already received a large sum of money from our government who, in their infinite wisdom, has waged an unjustified war that has cost the average American family $20,900, promoted big oil to record profits and record prices at the pump (the cheap stuff was $3.92 / gallon in town today!), and allowed fiscal irresponsibility to lead us into a recession. But, hey, even though it has cost each family dearly, they'll throw a trifle thousand bucks or so back at ya to spend on that new HD TV or, you know, buy the medicine that grandma needs because our failing healthcare system let her down. Thanks for the money, Dubya. It'll pay off about 1/8th of the average family's credit card debt. No need to invest it into our educational system, for instance, or social security.

Some folks suggested new and exciting ways to spend your stimulus package. Mark Morford had some good ideas (like buying one share of Google stock, filling four tanks of gas, or saving for the massive bonfire celebration to be held on 1/20/09).

Personally, I think a better way to blow your stimulus package would be to follow the lead of a wealthy Spanish galleon captain from the 17th century: a toothpick / earwax spoon made of solid gold:

Divers recently unearthed from the sands of the Florida Keys a 3-inch long personal grooming device made of solid gold which has a toothpick at one end and an ear wax spoon on the other end (see picture). This is the latest find of years worth of searching for a fabled lost galleon, the Santa Margarita, which was sunk during a hurricane in 1622. So far they have found bars of gold, a lead box filled with pearls, and gold chains, but have yet to find the ship. This golden toothpick / earwax spoon has an estimated value of around $100,000.

Are you as horrified as I am that such a thing exists as an "earwax spoon"? Ew! And to have a toothpick at the other end! Double ew! Don't mix up one end from the other! You're likely to get a mouth full of yummy ear wax or a pierced eardrum with gingivitis.

But, hey, isn't it really just a status symbol? This little tool was apparently worn on a necklace. Wearing it on your neck, you would be proclaiming to the world, "I can afford a golden toothpick and you can't." You would also be proclaiming, "I have such bad earwax and tooth plague that I have to carry a special tool around my neck at all times to deal with it." But who cares? You're rich! Women will want to lay you no matter how horrible you look, just for a chance to get their own golden earwax spoon.

So, please, run out and get a golden earwax spoon / toothpick of your own. According to our government, it will help the economy. Sound economics.

Now that's picking your teeth with style!

Image taken from HERE.