Articles

The anti-science movement

The Mesentery Organ

Did you ever learn about the “mesentery” organ in anatomy? I must say that until the story a month or two ago about scientists discovering the mesentery is, in fact, an organ by definition, I’d never even HEARD of it. It’s 2017…I find it absolutely fascinating that there’s so much we still don’t know. However, in a world of tiny smartphones that are more powerful than any computer that existed on the planet when I grew up, people generally take the world around them for granted. They’ve lost their sense of wonder. They’ve lost their appreciation for discovery, and for science. As a result…we get the anti-intellectual movement that seems so pervasive right now. As a result, we get a blithering idiot for a President, a man who spats the name “scientist” as if it’s a four-letter world.

I’m addicted to the internet. I read news obsessively.  I check the same websites multiple times each day, looking for the latest news and information.  That includes basic news sites, but it also includes various science websites, such as ScienceDaily, Phys.org, or some of the big journal sites such as Science or Nature.  I’m always fascinated to read about the latest discovery, the latest experiment, the latest medical trial, or other science-related information.

Evidently not everybody gets so jazzed about science and discovery. One site I check quite a bit is TheVerge, a site focused primarily on technology. They also have interesting science stories from time to time, and I recently read this article entitled “No Thanks to the New Science Thing“.  The author clearly isn’t a scientist…that’s fine…but I do find the article, and the lack of interest in science, to be a bit distressing.  It’s a microcosm of what seems to be happening to a broad swath of Americans, where science, where discovery and awe, are no longer an important part of what makes us Americans.

I “get” some of the sentiment in the story.  The author, Elizabeth Lopatto, focuses on a few science-related stories, beginning with a story of the discovery of “Zealandia”. Zealandia is a 5-million square kilometer area in the south Pacific that includes New Zealand and New Caledonia, but the rest of the region sits under the Pacific Ocean. Because of the geological characteristics of the area, it rightfully could be called a continent.  As the scientists state, “If you could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, then Zealandia would probably long ago have been recognized as a continent.”

The author of TheVerge story is having none of it. To her, the discovery of Zealandia would only potentially be of interest to geologists.  To her, because the new potential continent only is about 1/10th land, it’s NOT a continent, and the story of its discovery isn’t very exciting.  She goes on to mention other discoveries that don’t meet her standards for “scientific discovery”, specifically, the “downgrading” of Pluto from planet status, or the discovery that mesentery is truly a “new” human organ.  To the author, each of these stories are minor discoveries, not worthy of awe, not worthy of the general public’s attention.  To her, they are stories manufactured by the scientists themselves, and aren’t major standalone news stories.

What happened to the America that was caught up in discovery, in scientific achievement, in the simple AWE that comes with new knowledge?  The space race that captured the imagination of the world, the awe and wonder of watching Jacques Cousteau’s adventures (something I LOVED as a kid!), the excitement over the first Space Shuttle launches? What’s happened in the years since?  In a world where the combined knowledge of the entire world is just a keystroke away, have we become so completely numb to scientific achievement that we can’t appreciate discovery for the sake of discovery?

The existence of the mesentery, tissue in the intestinal area, has been known for centuries.  However, it wasn’t considered an organ by definition, until recent research on the tissue. I personally find it fascinating that there are still things we don’t know about the human body.  I find it fascinating we can find a whole new continent under the seas, in the year 2017. This author evidently doesn’t feel the same way, nor evidently do many Americans, given the anti-science mood from many of those on the right.

So here I sit on an uncharacteristically warm South Dakota winter’s evening, sitting at a desktop computer that’s a technological marvel, periodically checking my even more incredible tiny-computer-in-a-box in my iPhone, the warm glow of a LED lightbulb in the lamp by my computer, blogging about people who evidently have no appreciation for the marvels around them.  For me…PLEASE, scientists…tell me about the mesentery!  PLEASE…tell me about a new underwater continent that’s been found! PLEASE…tell me the reasons why you don’t think Pluto qualifies as a planet. I find it all quite fascinating.

And am also a little sad to see so little appreciation for science by so many of my fellow Americans.

In The News – Week of January 8th

Science, nature, and other miscellaneous news for the week:

Binary Star Collision

An artist’s impression of a collision of the two stars in a binary star system. In an unprecedented prediction, two stars are forecast to collide in 2022, potentially lighting up the nighttime skies for several months.

Cosmic collision coming in 2022 — The two stars that are found in a binary star system called KIC9832227 have been forecast to collide in 2022, an unprecedented forecast that, if true, could provide some real celestial fireworks. Scientists are using past observations of collisions from a binary star pair to predict the 2022 collision.  In a past collision, scientists noted that the relative orbital speeds of the two stars sped up in leading to the actual collision, a phenomenon that is currently being observed in KIC9832227.  The actual collision has already occurred, but because the star system is 1,800 light years from earth, the light of the collision won’t be visible until 2022. 1,800 light years is actually relatively close in cosmic terms, which means we could be in for a bit of a show in 2022. The two stars are currently too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but it is thought that for several months, the new star created by the collision of the binary stars will be among the brightest features in the nighttime sky. Along with the total solar eclipse coming to the United States this August, there are some exciting cosmic events happening in the next few years!

Extreme tornado outbreaks increasing in recent decades — The most extreme tornado outbreaks in the United States have been on the increase in recent decades. Outbreaks, defined as 6 or more tornadoes occurring in a relatively short time span, are responsible for the most extensive property damage and loss of life.  According to the research, the largest tornado outbreak occurring in 1965 would have had around 40 tornadoes, while today, the number of expected tornadoes might double to 80.  I’m a bit skeptical of studies that deal with numbers of tornadoes.  We’re so much better at observing tornadoes now compared to several decades ago, both because we simply have a much larger population, but also because we have the technological tools to help us monitor tornado occurrence.  Any empirical record of tornado occurrence is undoubtedly biased towards the present day, in terms of the number of tornado observations.  Still fascinating research. The authors don’t make the case that the increase may be linked to climate change, stating that they found outbreaks are most strongly related to a measure called storm relative helicity, a measure that’s not been predicted to increase under climate change. However the authors have a bit of a “diss” towards climate science, stating that it’s hard to tell whether climate change plays a role “given the current state of climate science”.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

A Costa’s Hummingbird male in flight. Scientists have found a remarkable adaptation in the visual motion part of the brain, a characteristic that may enable the rapid and precise aerial acrobatics of hummingbirds.

Seeing like a hummingbird — We’re animals…smart, sometimes amazing, sometimes incredibly annoying, but we share the same biological characteristics as most other animals on the planet.  Nearly every 4-limbed animal on the planet has a part of the brain that focuses on the processing of visual signals related to motion. The processing is focused on motion in a direction that comes from behind a creature…a very useful adaptation for detecting and responding to an attack from behind, for example.  Scientists have found that hummingbirds process motion-related visual cues much differently than other animals.This part of the brain in hummingbirds is larger than in other birds, and unlike other birds, individual neurons  are all tuned to focus on motion in different directions.  It is thought that this enables the amazing aerial acrobatics flying hummingbirds are capable of, as they can quickly process motion cues and adapt flight direction very quickly.

Media in a tizzy over giant iceberg — A check of science-news websites over the past week has shown many stories of the imminent crack-up of a part of the Larson C ice shelf in Antarctica.  It is a dramatic event, as a 60-mile long, 300-foot wide crack has split a part of the ice shelf.  Assuming the crack continues to grow, an iceberg the size of Delaware (!!) will break off.  It’s certainly a cool event, and one the media can sink its teeth into given the “cool” factor.  Of course the angle the story is written about often focuses on climate change (particularly in the mainstream media), but it really is hard to tell the role of climate change.  What IS dramatic is the continued thinning of the ice shelf overall, the incredible loss of ice mass in Greenland in the last decade, or the loss of sea ice in the Antarctic, event that are all definitely related to climate change. However, it’s tougher for the media (and people in general) to recognize the slow, inexorable march of climate change, versus dramatic events such as the Larson C crack.

Breathing option in Beijing — Air quality has been so bad in Beijing in recent years that officials recently established an “environmental police squad” to crack down on illegal burning and other contributors to the poor air quality. Additional measures announced this week include cutting coal-fired power production by 30% this year, revamping the most highly polluting factories in the region, and restriction pollution levels from vehicles in and around Beijing.  Air you can’t breathe, water you can’t drink…that’s what happens when you put economic growth over the environment, over human health. Keep that in mind when Trump and the environmentally hostile Congress start putting in “business-friendly” policies in the coming months.

You have a new body organ! — Have you had your doctor check your mesentery lately?  Have you even VISITED your local mesentery specialist? Well, probably not.  Medicine knew of the these structures in the digestive system, but they didn’t fit the definition of an organ because it was thought they were distinct separate fragments and not one continuous unit.  What bothers me about this article? This statement…from J Calvin Coffey, who “discovered” its an organ, stating this discovery “opens up a whole new area of science”.  Just because they discovered it’s one piece, not several pieces? Just because it fits the definition of an organ, it’s a new science?  The categorization doesn’t affect actual function of the organ.  This all goes with my “in the news” from last week, and how much of the human existence is defined by how we categorize the world around us.

Hagfish

A hagfish, a creature that evidently has the capability to evade shark attacks thanks to its loose saggy skin. Perhaps being ugly and slimy has its advantages.

Escaping a shark attack with “loose skin” — Ever wonder how a hagfish escapes a shark attack?  Well, neither have I. Hagfish are kind of disgusting looking things, akin to a lamprey or slimy eel.  Scientists (well, these scientists) wondered how hagfish escape when sharks attack.  They have a “slime defense”, emitting a cloud of slime that repels an attack, but that’s usually after a shark gets in a bite.  Scientists found it’s their very loose skin that makes it difficult for a shark’s tooth to actually penetrate into flesh, allowing them to react to attack without a fatal wound.  You DO have to give these guys points for creativity though, with their creation of an “indoor guillotine” that they developed to drop shark teeth into hagfish carcasses.

Chicken intelligence — Not a lot of bird-related science news this week, but there was this piece about the intelligence of chickens.  They’re not a bird you generally think of as being that intelligent, although when my son and I visited Reptile Gardens near Rapid City last summer, they had a trained chicken that came roaring out on cue and stole dollar bills from an unsuspecting audience member.  Evidently this research group felt the need to come to the defense of the poor, intellectually maligned chicken.  They determined that chickens are smarter than  you think that they have distinct social structures (a sign of intelligence) and even an ability to deductively reason.  A quote from the study lead:

“A shift in how we ask questions about chicken psychology and behavior will, undoubtedly, lead to even more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are,” says Marino.

I can’t say as I’ve ever thought about chicken psychology.  But I am thankful that soon I’ll be able to get “a more authentic understanding of who they really are”.  🙂

 

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