Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Helping The Environment -- With Dynamite!

Ah, the Great Outdoors! The rich smells of vegetation, fresh air, conifers, flowers, and – cordite. Yes, with the miracle of modern explosives, we can blast our way to a better tomorrow.

Case in point: Last Fall the Nature Conservancy restored wetlands in the Klamath Basin of Oregon by blowing up two miles of levees:

Video and article:

In a move that would make the inventor of dynamite proud (Alfred Nobel – yes, for whom the Nobel Prize is named), the Nature Conservancy restored wetlands along the Williamson River. Blowing a river levee sky-high allowed the Williamson River to dump into the Williamson River Delta wetlands, which had been bypassed for agricultural reasons in the 1950s.

Oh, but no one thought about the lowly Lost River sucker fish, whose newborn fish fry required the delta to grow in. Without the delta, these tender, baby fish were dumped directly into Upper Klamath Lake, which could be as much as three degrees colder ("It’s like bringing a fish home from the pet store and dumping it into a cold tank without letting it get acclimated,” says Matt Barry, director of the Williamson River Delta Preserve), and with little cover to hide from predators. Now these fish are endangered. And, by hurting the wetlands, bird species like cranes and terns weren't able to get the habitat they needed. Also, the lake's water quality dropped, in part because wetlands weren't there to absorb pollutants.

Now these little fishies will have a nice, warm, decaying marsh to live and grow in, and their bird friends will have food (the fish!) and homes of their own. Home sweet wetlands.

So let's give an explosive "Hurray" to these naturalists and things that go Boom! It's not everyday you get to blow things up in the name of helping nature.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Aunt Marsha

My Aunt Marsha passed away in her home last Sunday. One of my mother's sisters, she would have been 66 this April.

When I was a very small boy, I couldn’t pronounce my aunt's name. Instead, I simply called her "Aunt She", a name that stuck. My memories of Aunt She are of a free-loving woman who had a great fondness for fun and laughter. She and her husband, my Uncle Chuck, literally had the 17th hole of their golf resort as their back yard. I think they drove their golf cart more than their cars. My teenage summers in the hot, humid South were spent in large part in their heavily air-conditioned home, lounging by the poolside of the resort, soaking in her hot tub, or meandering along the curving, manicured fairways from hole to hole. I would sometimes drive her golf cart for her. Spending the night with them, I would stay up much too late and watch movies on HBO, via their satellite TV (of course, they were among the first to get such a novel system). She enjoyed games, particular card games and Scrabble. She loved gambling, and cigarettes, and Southern food (and it showed). Even the jobs she held reflected her interests in her last couple decades: manning the resort's Pro Shop, working at a liquor store, or working at a cigarette outlet.

But good health isn't something that comes easy to my family. We are prone to circulation and heart problems, weight problems, and other such conditions which aren't amenable to cigarettes, Southern food, or, well, fun livin'. Aunt Marsha had heart attacks, bypass surgery, circulatory problems, and kidney failure.

She is survived by my Uncle Chuck. They were childhood sweethearts, married just out of high school. In an age of high divorce rates, particularly for her generation, a forty-seven year marriage is nearly unheard of. There are lessens to learn from that. She had one son, my cousin Chris (who also has had severe heart problems), and two grandchildren, Lauryn and Christopher (see picture of Marsha with Christopher). Aunt Marsha doted on her grandkids like all good grandmas should.

Despite all of her love of living, she wasn't prone to vanity or ego. She didn't want flowers sent or anything, but there will be a memorial service Friday at the community center there at her golf community. I live half a continent away, so this blog post will have to do, I guess, for showing my love for her.

If I could learn lessons from the life of my Aunt Marsha, it would be that we should never be afraid to enjoy the fun things, and to live for today, but that temperance is sometimes a good thing. I don't get enough exercise, but I don't smoke, and my food is usually organic and reasonably healthy (despite my urges). If I'm lucky, maybe I'll live longer than she did.

Rest in peace, Aunt She. I love you. And when you reach the Great Golf Course in the sky, play a round for me. Perhaps I'll drive your golf cart when I get there.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Did T-Rex Cuddle With Adam & Eve?

What do you think of when I say the word "museum"? School groups of bored kids shuffling from one exhibit to another? Fossils? Rocks? Your grandma's house?

How about dinosaurs living in the Garden of Eden?

No? Neither do I. A museum is a place of learning, where geeky scientists attempt to cause a little bit of scientific learning to absorb into the brains of a typically uninformed public by making what they think will be compelling displays of scientific data or artifacts.

I was amused the other day when a friend of mine (Thanks, PeaceFrogs!) sent me the following link that interviews the founders of the Creation Museum in Kentucky while it was being built back in '06:

If you believe what the Creation "Museum" is telling us, you would believe that the world is only 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs coexisted with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and that dinosaurs climbed onto Noah's Ark two-by-two along with lambs and crickets and lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and they all lived happily and non-carnivorously for 40 days and 40 nights with Noah's soon-to-be incestuous family. Funny, I don't remember reading about dinosaurs in Genesis!

Oh, sweet T-Rex, if only you could cuddle with me at night and keep me warm like you did Adam and Eve in their innocent, Platonic beds!

To teach these "lessons", they use animatronic dinosaurs playing alongside happy little animatronic children dressed in caveman garb and a giant T-Rex tromping through the Garden of Eden.

Yes, and though the Creation "Museum" hides in a shroud of scientific inquiry, like the Intelligent Design mumbo-jumbo they espouse, nary there will you find reference to any peer-reviewed papers in any journals of geology, biology, or ecology. But for the low low price of $19.95 per adult ticket, you, too, can enter the "museum" and partake of such scientific activities as a tour that highlights "God's judgment of the Tower of Babel" or a seminar entitled "Security for faith-based organizations".

Here's a rather amusing interview conducted with the director of the museum and a bona fide scientist:

Wow. Just goes to show that no amount of evidence from tens of thousands of published scientific articles each year will change the irrational mind of zealots. So I have to ask what's really on display at the Creation "Museum" – the supposed "evidence" that dinos laid down with the lions and the lambs, or the white-bread, wide-eyed fundamentalists who cheerfully enter the "special-effects theater complete with misty sea breezes and rumbling seats" and swallow the Bible as literal fact, then file off to the gift store to buy more propaganda illustrating how us evil, godless scientists are lying to them with devil-inspired scientific inquiry.

I wonder how they would react to "museums" inspired by other creation myths, such as that of Hindu or Greek mythology. Would T-Rex be shown hatching out of the creation egg with Brahma? Would velociraptors be depicted strutting around on Olympus with Zeus and Epimetheus? How preposterous would that be? It is no less preposterous to me than the Creation Museum's version.

But, hey, who am I to rain on their holy theme park? Praise Jesus and pass the tickets!

Image ruthlessly adapted from HERE and HERE.

Monday, January 21, 2008

MLK Day 2008

A part of me wishes that one day I could do something so extraordinary for our society that I could have a day set aside for me once a year for people to reflect on my great achievement and, of course, get a day off from work or school to do so.

But then, in order to do that extraordinary thing, I would of course have to sacrifice my sense of privacy, my family life, my day job, and probably get killed by some fanatic who disagrees with whatever noble thing I'm trying to accomplish. Let's face it, there are loonies out there, at every level.

So let's take a moment on this day to think about one of those great figures who sacrificed everything, including his life, to make the world a little kinder and equal: Martin Luther King, Jr. (

Even though my evil global biotech conglomerate does not officially recognize the importance of King's birthday as a symbol of their commitment to equality and diversity, I took the day off. I'm spending it with a group of ethnically, racially, and physically diverse children, including my own, and going for a hike in the woods. Along the way, we'll be reading King's acceptance speech for his Nobel Peace Prize, given for his commitment and action for non-violent change toward equality:

Please join me in taking a moment to appreciate the great diversity that is our country, and recommit ourselves to honoring the equality of all mankind on this very small, very connected world of ours.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Don't Eat That Berry!

I've always been a fan of exotic parasites (as you may have told from previous posts), including in non-human systems. There are lots of yummy stories out there, of worms and such that invade various systems in the body. But the most fascinating to me are those where the infecting organism actually changes the behavior of its host to help it transmit to the next phase of its life cycle.

Consider the lowly pill bug (= roly-poly or doodlebug). There is a little worm, or nematode (or roundworm), which depends upon the pill bug and the European starling for its life cycle. After growing in the starling as an adult (and not harming the bird), it lays eggs in the gut. The droppings containing eggs are eaten by pill bugs. The larvae hatch inside the pill bug and grow inside. Once the pill bug gets large enough, the nematode affects the pill bug's behavior causing it to leave its warm, dark, humid nests and go wandering about in full sunlight and over all sorts of revealing terrain. In response, birds like the starling are more likely to eat the little bugger, thus insuring that the larvae is passed on to the starling to grow to adulthood and continue this fascinating little arrangement. Go HERE for more details.

Another example of a parasite changing the host's behavior involves a parasitic fluke and the little killifish. The fluke grows in horned snails. When mature, it swims out into its marsh and latches onto a killifish's gills, then enters the poor fish and goes to the fish's brain. Yow. Not surprisingly, the fish starts darting around, jerking, and flashing (wouldn't you??) and is four times more likely to be eaten by a shore bird. Once eaten, the fluke enters the system of the bird, lays its eggs, and the droppings are eaten by more horned snails, where they hatch and grow. Go HERE for more details.

So examples of parasites changing the behavior of their hosts to get eaten is not so uncommon. But now some researchers have stumbled upon an altogether different mechanism. A parasite of an ant species makes the ant look like berries, which are yummy to birds:

Some Panamanian birds, innocently pecking away at nice, juicy berries, are inadvertently murdering helpless little ants now, and getting themselves infected with parasites. Not because they like ants, but because the ants are eating a particular species of nematode that, upon laying its eggs in the abdomen of the ants, cause the ant abdomens to swell up and turn bright red like local berries, thus fooling the birds. Nifty. (Another really cool bit of this story is that these ants also have the ability to glide, changing course mid-flight if they fall off of tree limbs!).

So if you happen to be going to Panama's Barro Colorado Island, be careful which berries you eat!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Last I Looked, The Earth Still Orbits The Sun

In pretty much any conversation about how science and reason are separate from faith and religion, inevitably the topic of Galileo and his heresy trial come up. Back in 1633, as almost anyone not still living in the dark ages knows, the great scientist Galileo published his findings that the earth rotates around the sun, contrary to Church teachings (that the sun rotates around the earth). The Inquisition found him guilty of heresy and forced him to recant his findings. It is a glowing example of how religion and superstition have no place in scientific and emperical studies, and how meddling by religion into areas of science leads to setback in understanding our environment, the universe, and the natural laws that guide them. Sorta like Intelligent Design mumbo-jumbo.

So it is with a very troubled brow that I read today an article on about how Pope Benedict XVI is being told to stay away from the opening day of La Sapienza University in Rome, where he was scheduled to talk. Why was a prestigious world leader banned by protests from faculty and students alike?

Because he claimed back in 1990 (then as Cardinal Ratzinger) that the trial of Galileo was "reasonable and just":

Quoting a philosopher, he has said "At the time of Galileo, the Church remained more loyal (or faithful) to reason than Galileo."

Excuse me? Did I just fall on my head? Did he just say in no uncertain terms that belief in an Earth-centered universe was reasonable and that scientific evidence should have been ignored and publically ridiculed? Has the Pope forgotten the last 370 years worth of scientific evidence supporting the modern understanding of our cosmos?

Oh my. And this is the man who followed a pope who said that the Theory of Evolution was a valid and church-supported theory. What's next? Are we to revert to alchemy and witch-burning, Your Holiness?

Personally, I had rather higher hopes for someone with "rat" in his given name.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Grow Your Own Heart

Okay, picture this potential scenario for the not-so-distant-future: You've spent your adult life overweight, eating poorly, no real exercise, smoking, heavy drinking, and with a family history of organ-affecting ailments like heart disease (sorta like me, except for the smoking and heavy drinking parts). Then one day – Bang! – your transgressions come slamming home to you when you have a heart attack. You're rushed to the hospital and saved in the nick of time.

From then on you're stuck on massive heart medicine, maybe have a bypass or two, or even require a heart transplant or artificial heart, right? Maybe not.

They may be able to grow you a spankin' new heart!

That's right. While you are kept alive with more traditional methods, the hospital can simply order you a new heart. They would take a cadaver's heart (or maybe even a pig heart) and "decellularize" it. In other words, they would pump detergents into the donor heart to kill all of its cells, leaving behind only the extracellular matrix – a sort of natural scaffold. Then they would infuse that scaffold with your own stem cells that had been differentiated into heart cells and repopulate the scaffold with them. After a few weeks, the heart would be pumping and ready to transplant into your body. Because they are your own cells, rejection is not as likely, and you could go on your happy, gluttonous way.

Some scientists from the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair recently took the first real steps toward this science fiction-esque scenario:

Scholarly paper, published online in Nature Medicine on Jan. 13:

They infused "scaffolds" of rat and pig hearts with live progenitor cells from newborn rats. The cells differentiated into heart cells then organized themselves and proliferated around the scaffold. After only four days the tissue started having contractions. After eight days, the heart was beating. It's alive! ALIVE!! Mwa ha ha ha ha!

And what this tell-tale heart tells us, in its rhythmic way, is that we may be able to do this with other organs. We can already make artificial blood vessels, skin, and bladders. Now we may be able to make not only hearts but also kidneys, livers, and other "complex" organs. Heck, pretty soon the scaffolds will be artificially grown, too!

Why, there could be no end to the partying, folks! Slam down another bottle of Jack Daniels and huff another pack of cigs, we're living the high life! If you wear out your organs, just order up new ones!

And as for me, seeing as how I already have a mild heart problem and have family with heart and circulatory problems (an aunt and a cousin have had bypasses, and my maternal grandfather died after multiple heart attacks), I guess I can take heart that I may have another option pumping for me in the future.

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Thinking On The Nano-Scale

It's an amazing time in the history of technology, isn't it? It seems every technogadget is getting smaller: cell phones, music players, computers, devices that do all three, your bank account as you purchase them in a vain attempt to keep up with the modern age. Of course, none of these wondrous inventions would be possible without our intrepid physicists working out ever better ways to build things on the nano-scale, such as tiny optical switches, flash memory cards, and even nanotube radios. They are pushing the limits of the infinitesimal for computers and structures made from just a few atoms or molecules.

Sure, sure, sure. Yawn. You material scientist physicist-types are amazing. Now go do something truly useful like, oh, how about making the world's smallest toilet:

Yes, the nano-toilet is one of many nano-sculptures that startles the imagination and makes one wonder, "How is it physicists can have so much time on their hands?" Need to take a really, really small dump? Now you can, as long as your nano-crap is no larger than a red blood cell.

The nano-toilet joins the ranks of other completely useless gee-whiz nano-inventions, which includes the world's smallest guitar, smiley face, and Hebrew Bible.

But my personal preference is this lovely sculpture, based on Rodin's "The Thinker":

I guess you have to think very small thoughts to be on par with this great sculpture, which can quite nicely tuck away into any pore in your body and wear those passing red blood cells as a toupee.

But I always felt sorry for The Thinker. I mean, just think about it, he's naked, he's in a slumped posture, and he's sitting on a freakin' irregular-shaped rock in full view of everyone. How uncomfortable is that? How the heck is one supposed to be pensive under those conditions? Is there any place a naked man in a slumped posture can sit comfortably and think about things?

Why, what better place for a nano-thinker to sit and think than a nano-toilet?

Images taken from HERE and HERE and ruthlessly altered in Photoshop.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Once Bitten, Twice Extinct

Many years ago, when I was thinner, younger, and as wise as your average 20-year-old, I did some ecological research in the wilderness areas of Idaho, backpacking through the Rockies. On one particularly hellish hitch into the woods (during which I suffered acute mountain sickness, was abandoned by my crew leader, and was briefly lost in the wilderness – see previous blog post), my crew and I collected data from a high mountain lake. We arrived at the pristine, picturesque little lake just after dusk and pitched our tent right next to the shoreline, bedding down for the night. The next morning, we realized our dire mistake. Upon unzipping our tent to go take a whiz, we were immediately assaulted by a horde of mosquitoes.

Now, I've been victimized by mosquitoes many times, but this was nothing like I'd ever experienced before. In seconds, all exposed skin was completely covered by these little, black and gray devils. Off! spray had no effect. The only thing we could do was cover ourselves as much as possible with clothing and rain suits and soldier through it.

And then I had to take a dump in the woods. Oh, man! I've never been so creeped out in my life. That was the fastest sh*t I think I've ever taken. My ass was one giant itching sore after that. As I rushed through the process, I couldn't help but wonder how many mosquito-borne diseases I was contracting through my butt. Even if the odds were one in a million, I'm sure I was bitten more than that. It really made me feel sorry for people who live in tropical or swampy regions where mosquito infestations like that were the norm. No wonder diseases like malaria and dengue fever wipe out huge number of people in the tropics each year. It's a wonder humanity doesn't go extinct in those regions (or take a dump outdoors!).

So it should come as no surprise that even the dinosaurs were not immune to the horrors of the not-so-humble mosquito. In fact, two leading entomologists are suggesting that insect-borne diseases may have contributed to the demise of dinosaurs:

George and Roberta Poinar, husband-and-wife entomologists at Oregon State University, have made this argument in their book, What Bugged the Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease and Death in the Cretaceous, which has just been published. These authors are more famous for their work studying ancient insects preserved in amber, and are very well-regarded in their field. I had the honor of working in the same department as Dr. Poinar, for a year and a half, back when I was an entomologist.

Now, likely you're all familiar with the idea of a gigantic meteor hitting in what is now the Yucatan area, causing a catastrophic climate change which likely was the leading factor in the dinosaur die-off known as the "K-T Boundary" at the end of the Cretaceous Period, but one perplexing thing about that has been that the die-off wasn't immediate. It still took thousands of years for most of those dinos to go extinct, and many took much, much longer. Though the meteor theory would be a good kick-off to weaken species, something like disease states would be good candidates for finishing the job. And there is evidence in fossilized dino crap of infections by nematodes, trematodes, and protozoans that could have brought disease conditions and viruses to these reptiles. These sorts of diseases were likely just emerging, so the vertebrates would have had little resistance.

So, basically, the Poinars are suggesting these lumbering beasts were the victims of getting bitten in the ass by bastardly, disease-ridden little mosquitoes and other biting insects and killed because of it.

I can sympathize. My ass still itches just thinking about it!

Images adapted from HERE and HERE.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A New Way To Burn Fat

Happy New Year, guys and gals! It is midnight here at the very moment I type this. As I write, fireworks and, sadly, gunshots (!), are going off all around my home.

It's the best day of the year to forget all those "issues" you've accumulated over the last 365 days: the debt you racked up, those Christmas cookies going to your thighs, the bosses who passed you over for promotion again, your secret love of Britney Spears' music (and her thighs) – you know, the usual.

Yes, it's time to look forward to the new year and to make resolutions that, you swear, you'll actually live up to this time. Losing weight is always on the top ten list of yearly resolutions, given that 66% of American adults are overweight or obese. Maybe you'd like to help your environment this year, such as by advocating alternative fuels? Or perhaps you'd like to help do something heroic, such as setting a world record?

Well, good news! Now you can do all three of those resolutions at the same time! All you have to do is get liposuction, then donate your fat to be rendered into biofuel for a speedboat that will set a new world circumnavigation speed record:

Are you tilting your head in wonderment? Please, please tell me that the previous paragraph wasn't the most surreal thing you've read all year!

What better way to make a statement about saving the world, eh? A New Zealander by the name of Pete Bethune is about to attempt to break the world speedboat record for circumnavigating the globe, and he's doing it in a deliciously alien, futuresque trimaran boat called Earthrace. The kicker is that it is 100% powered by biofuel. Ah, but what makes this story so lip-smackingly yummy is that he is making a tiny portion of that biofuel out of his own liposuctioned fat tissue! But he wasn't a very fat man (he has donated only enough fat to render about 100 milliliters of biofuel), so he is enlisting the additional fat tissue of at least two other, more obese people. In total, so far, they have 10 liters of human fat (picture, if you will, 10 one-liter bottles of your favorite soda).

Now say in unison: Ewww!

That's enough rendered biofuel for only a little more than 9 of the 24,000 nautical miles around the world. It's the thought that counts, don't ya know. Bethune hopes to beat the previous record of 75 days, set in 1998 by the British (and badly named!) boat, the Cable and Wireless Adventurer, an equally-cool spaceship-looking trimaran.

So, did you want to suck off some of your fat for the sake of an environmental message and world record? No? Come on, it's so little for such a big reward!

We've all got to have goals, after all ….