Category Archives: Nature

Science writing: To the point

If you’re going to write about science — get to the damn point. All I need is the highlights, the topics, the bullet points. And if there are pertinent details, make them brief and absent of flourish.

So many of the literary news outlets publish narrative science articles that I’m afraid it’s become an art. A pointless and irritating art.

Take this one for instance (don’t go here, don’t give them the courtesy):

7,800 words in that frickin’ thing. I don’t have the time or patience to burn thirty minutes slogging through some “writer’s” portrayal of science dudes’ childhoods: “When he was 11, his mother bought him a subscription to a medical encyclopedia series.” Fuck-me-Alex.

Get to the point and get out. It’s science — just the pertinent facts, ma’am. All the actual data required to deliver the concepts of brain tissue reanimation could have been provided in a tenth the words. But no, the writer had to turn it into a biography.

And this happens time and time again. 10,000 word diatribes about artificial intelligence and machine learning, or meandering missives on Neanderthal DNA in modern Homo Sapiens. It seems that every sexy scientific topic begs a “story.” Sorry, I don’t want window dressing on my low earth orbit launch technologies, or thermal depolymerization of ocean plastic…

I just want the concise, to-the-point facts about the advances or failures of the science and technology. Spare me backstories, please. If you have to, write a sweeping expose’ on some social or historical topic or event — leave the science for the fact writers.

 


Built in obsolescence

DNA and the mechanisms of aging have been selectively engineered to maximize population growth and the saturation of an ecosystem by any and all species.

We are born, grow, procreate, raise offspring and die.

DNA depends on this cycle. If there were no natural selection of dominant (maximum ecosystem exploitation) species, then at some point, such a non-optimized species would most likely experience a calamitous shock, unable to adapt, move or cope, the result would be extinction.

Natural selection expects you to die. In fact, extending our age well past the viable range of procreation and raising offspring is counter-productive — as far as DNA is concerned. Old, you’re just a waste of resources.

We were designed (not really, but the end result might be thought of in this way) to die by age 50. By twenty-five, you would have produced offspring and would now be in the throes of raising them. By fifty, your done. In most cultures, by fifty, you’re already a grandparent having already passed on any wisdom to your children and potentially your grandchildren.

It’s like Logan’s Run but Carousel happens at 50. Your little red jewel glows until 49.364 and then — wink — out it goes. DNA is pretty much Logan’s run, but without the big bang at the end marking your “Ascension.”

Oh, sure, some will argue that elders impart existential experience and advocacy for the species. But this is just bollocks. The fact remains that throughout human existence this fifty-year maximum (on average) was pretty much the standard. Only in the last few hundred years have we breached this lifespan threshold.

And sure, there have been long-lived sages of old who wrote stuff down on tablets, scrolls, papyrus and whatnot. Information that has been tumbling along, building like a snowball to provide us the incredible advances we enjoy today.

But DNA does care about that stuff. It’s Eat-Pray-Love, but for all organisms.

Eat. Grow. Fuck. Die. That’s DNA for ya.

 

 


The Day the Earth Died

I don’t often share such articles, but this one sticks out as critically important. It regards the KT moment, the end-of-days for Dino the Dinosaur. And what you’ll find is that it appears that a paleontologist has found evidence of the exact moment of the Chicxulub asteroid impact.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/08/the-day-the-dinosaurs-died

— The KT event continues to attract the interest of scientists in no small part because the ashen print it left on the planet is an existential reminder. “We wouldn’t be here talking on the phone if that meteorite hadn’t fallen,”

— The Tanis site, in short, did not span the first day of the impact: it probably recorded the first hour or so.


Hummingbird miracle

We feed hummingbirds.

It’s an easy thing to do and provides hours of viewing pleasure. I got to thinking about the mechanics of a hummingbird and had to wonder about some of the factors that go into allowing such a creature the ability to do what they do.

For reference, a human eye-blink takes about 1/3 of a second, ~300 milliseconds of time. And this, it turns out, is about the reaction time of a human. BANG! goes the starting gun and 1/3 second later we’re off the block.

hummingbird

(Creative Commons image)

For a hummingbird, this reaction time is cut by about 100 fold. Within three to five milliseconds, a hummingbird can interpret an oncoming obstacle, a branch say, process this image as a threat, send a signal to its wing muscles, adjust its flight and avert disaster.

There are a few aspects that make this possible. One is its brain and ocular processing. A hummingbird has special processing which is especially evolved to instantly identify oncoming threats. How a thing changes observable size — the closer the bigger — is the trick there. Another, more important, is the creature’s size. Electrical signals, traveling through neurons, takes time. The shorter the distance, the faster the reaction. If a hummingbird were the size of a crow or eagle, or human, the distance to send a “TURN RIGHT OR DIE!” command would grow and take a proportionally longer time. Additionally, its size constrains its weight which being slight, allows it to instantly change course — less weight, less inertia, easier vector changes.

We don’t often think about milliseconds in nature, but the hummingbird personifies such measurement. It’s truly a wonderment of evolution, a miraclulous biological machine.

 


Your ancestors survived

Yeah, when you think about it, your ancestors had to survive. But consider their lives, lives directly connected to you.

The probabilities are extremely high that at least one of your:

  • grandmothers died in child birth,
  • grandfathers was killed by a wild beast,
  • ancestors killed another human,
  • ate mammoth, giant sloth, or wild auroch,
  • slept in a cave for most of their lives,
  • migrated over vast stretches of land,
  • suffered wicked injury and inhuman depravity,
  • survived famine, flood, fire and feud,
  • and in the end, produced you.

~~~

Addendum…

I went seeking historical causes of death throughout human history and ended up deducing the following. This applies to the approximately 100 Billion souls calculated to have lived and died thus far.

• Approximately 1/3 of all humans who have ever lived probably died from Malaria.

• Another 1/3 died from infectious disease (Tuberculosis, Pneumonia (Influenza), Cholera, Typhoid, Plague, etc.).

• The last third died of the remainder of dominate causes of death divided into a number of categories:

1/10th of 1/3rd (~3 billion people) died each from:

  • Religion/War
  • Heart Disease
  • Cancer
  • Infection (septicemia)
  • Homicide/suicide
  • Fire, flood & famine (natural disasters)
  • Personal accidents
  • Neonatal (before age 1)
  • Old age
  • Misc. (snake/insect bites, predation)

The numbers are fuzzy of course. No one can possibly ever know the truth. But this rough guide might be handy at a cocktail (or Halloween) party.


Twenty pounds of acorns

UPDATE: 30 hours later and all the acorns are gone; squirreled away into every orifice the land and forest can offer. The juniors, naively, try to bury what they steal from the pile in the yard, directly. Pat, pat, tuck, tuck, their little paws smooth the ruffled grass and earth in the pretense of an undisturbed, you-didn’t-see-anything condition. Were humans to vanish this instant from the area, no doubt, in a year we’d have oak-sprouts bursting forth. In 20 years, a new forest would emerge. But, alas, we, nature’s infidels, persist. Hopefully, some of those luscious nodules find their way into those furry rascals’ bellies, come spring.

Brooke Breazeale bet me 5 pounds of chestnuts I couldn’t find 20 pounds of acorns. So I had to show her up.

I rigged a bag-on-a-hanger and a broom and, ahem, cleaned up.  Boy, are our squirrels gonna love that pile!

Over near where I now work (woohoo, 5 weeks down and 500 more to go!) are acres of massive oak trees that drop the most gorgeous, plump acorns. The “mast” have pale yellow flesh and I find myself wanting to chaw down on a few of the lovely specimens. Of the local tribes of the Willamette Valley, the Kalapuya, who claimed this area before Lewis & Clarke and John Astor showed up (John Jacob Astor is the namesake of Astoria — and a member of the Waldorf Astoria family hotel chain), used to harvest these seeds, shell them, leech them to remove the testas (which contain bitter tannin), and then mash them up to make meal for flatbread. I have considered replicating their process, but, alas, Dave’s Killer Bread is a lot more easily come by…

If you’re not familiar with the Willamette Valley — it’s the reason the Oregon Trail was created.

Enjoy you rambunctious tree rats, you.


Squirrels Love Dave’s Killer Bread

Dave’s Killer Bread vs Acorns.

Here you will witness an experiment. Below you will find an array of acorns matched with a line of Dave’s Killer Bread.

Now, truth be known, EVERY squirrel in our back hard loves DKB. They eat it out of our hands and fight over it like demons.

However, notice the progression of missing nuts. Below you you will see one larger, wiser squirrel FORGO the bread in lieu of the acorns — every time he comes back (yes it’s a he). He comes back TEN times to take every nut.

Yet the younger, adolescent squirrel, will take the bread — every time — ignoring the nuts. In fact, we had two youngsters bopping up and taking bread while the older squirrel sequestered every nut on display out into the yard.

I opened the door and sat their trying to capture photographs of these guys. (Look at the size of those acorns!) This was about 18 inches away. The big fellow came in and gave me a sniff once, but opted for — you guessed it — another acorn.

The bread is this nutty, heavy protein stuff that the tree-rats beg for on a daily basis. To actually ignore it is an amazing feat of dedication vs temptation. The wee squirrels didn’t give a fuck about the future, “gimme my daily bread you damn humans!” The adult had one thing in mind, take every nut and save it. It was a stunning example of the dichotomy of youth vs elders.