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Crazy for Mexican Crazy Lace!

Already, now I’m in deep. Since we started rockhounding and polishing this summer, It’s all been focused on self-collected material. Nearly all of that has been done on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in western South Dakota. Now, for the first time…I (gasp!) actually PAID for a box of rocks. Sure, it wasn’t much…$4 a pound, for 5 pounds of rocks. But I’ve crossed a line now, where it’s now fair game to pay hard-earned cash for rocks.  It started when I was on a rockhounding website, and I saw someone who had just gotten a bunch of “Mexican Crazy Lace” agates to tumble polish. It’s a kind of banded chalcedony, found (surprisingly!) in Mexico, in the state of Chihuahua.  Such gorgeous, gorgeous material that tumble polishes very well…I had to have it! Here are some of the raw, un-tumbled pieces that came in my first ever purchase of a box of rocks. Check back in about, oh, 2-3 months, and I should have these polished up!

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace Mexican Crazy Lace Mexican Crazy Lace Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

Mexican Crazy Lace

March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.

Oscar

One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).

Europa

Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.

 

In The News – Week of October 30th

Common Swift - Apus apus

A Common Swift as normally seen…in flight. Photo by Stefan Berndtsson.

No posts since last week’s “In the News”.  There’s a good reason…I’m being cured of my internet news addiction!!  With the election coming up, I’m sick to my stomach thinking a man like Donald Trump is a heartbeat away from the most powerful position on the planet.  No news is good news, right?  Hence my attempts over the past week to kick the internet news habit!  With that…some more science/nature/miscellaneous news for the week:

Common Swifts airborne for 10 months — Common Swifts seem to be in a league of their own in terms of length of time staying aloft.  Scientists recently attached tiny trackers to 13 Common Swifts, a Eurasian species similar in appearance to some of the North American swifts.  In sum, the 13 swifts were airborne for ~99% of their time outside of the breeding season.  A few would land briefly during the winter months, but 3 of the birds didn’t land at all for 10 months straight.

Frankenspinach — Who thinks of things like this? Scientists have used a solution containing carbon nanotubes,and applied it to the leaves of growing spinach plants.  The spinach plants absorb the carbon nanotubes, and when the plants are in the presence of soil containing trace elements associated with landmines and other explosives, the nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be picked up by nearby sensors, alerting monitoring stations of danger.

There’s gotta be life out there — One constant about the earth’s ecosystems is that if there’s just the tiniest bit of suitability to support life, life is found there.  Single-cell organisms can be found in the most hostile of environments, while even more complex life is continually found in new and surprising places. In this recent study, scientists looked at glacial landscapes that had been covered with ice for many thousands of years, but had the landscape recently uncovered as glaciers melt in response to climate change.  These incredibly hostile environments are largely devoid of life when glaciated, but the scientists found that very complex biomes are established very quickly after the ice retreats.  “Life finds a way” (Jurassic Park quote, I believe), which makes it pretty much a slam dunk that it’s not just Earth where life has established itself in hostile environments.  It’s yet another example of why many scientists expect we will find evidence of alien life in the next few decades.

"Classy" sticker

I’ve always thought these kinds of stickers on cars were tacky and crass. In reality, perhaps they are just a graphical depiction of our future of pee-powered cars!

Poop-powered cars — “Hydrothermal liquefaction” may be coming to a sewage treatment plant near you, turning human waste into a viable fuel source. The process converts human waste into a product very similar to oil products pumped out of the ground, a product that similarly can be refined into fuel.  People produce 34 billion gallons of waste every day in the U.S., enough to make 30 million barrels of oil per year. You yourself have the capability to produce a few gallons of fuel per year!  Thus, those classy folks who have stickers on their car showing a little boy peeing on a brand name they don’t like?  The producers of those stickers may have been prescient, and it’s really a symbol of a boy “fueling” his car!!

Ozone hole will still be around for decades — The ozone hole over the south pole grew achieved a maximum area of about 9 million square miles this year.  That still very, very large, but a touch smaller than the average over the last few decades.  It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that scientists even knew there was an ozone hole, which developed due to ozone-depleting chemicals used by humanity.  The ban on those chemicals has set us on the path to restoring normal atmospheric conditions, but as this story notes, it’s going to be a slow process. They estimate things won’t return to “normal” until about 2070.

Roller-coaster therapy for kidney stones — Passing a kidney stone can be some of the worst pain a human being can experience, with some stating it’s even worse than child-birth.  Options are sometimes limited for taking care of kidney stones, but researchers at Michigan State may have a new solution…roller coasters!  The researchers noted several patients of theirs had recently visited theme parks, and had passed kidney stones soon after riding roller coasters.  It’s thought the combination of the vibration and motion helps the body to move a kidney stone through the system.

We’re screwed — Count me as a major cynic about our feeble attempts to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As this story notes, the United Nations agrees, finding that our current efforts to curb carbon are woefully, painfully, ridiculously short of what’s needed to actually mitigate negative impacts of climate change.  Given that Americans in particular seem to prefer sticking their heads in the sand, rather than face scientifically verified reality, it’s not a surprise. We’re just too short-sighted as a species, focused on our own short-term welfare (aka, greed and selfishness), to do a good job planning for long-term catastrophe like this.

Avocado

The world’s most perfect food, but alas, it seemingly has a big environmental cost.

Everything has a cost — Damn. I LOVE avocados.  They may just be the world’s perfect food.  I of course use them in the traditional ways, but guacamole or just plain avocado is SO good on so many other “non-traditional” foods.  But alas, as with most things in life, there is a cost.  As this story notes, avocados are having a much more severe impact in Mexico than once thought, with deforestation and increased water use affecting ecosystems in many areas.  With an explosion in demand for avocados, the story is quite similar to the story of almonds in California, notorious water-suckers that demand a huge amount of resources to produce.  “Niche” products like avocados or almonds clearly can have devastating environmental impacts, just as do some major staple crops.

 

 

 

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