Category Archives: Science

Ötzi-quel

This ongoing saga of Ötzi the Iceman fascinates me. I first learned of him from Radiolab a few years ago, but turns out we keep learning more about this mythic Italian mummy:

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Still kinda blown away science can figure this stuff out:

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

More to come, I hope.

Refer Madness: PB & A

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Here’s an interesting one that came to the desk: the PseudoBulbar Affect. (Pseudo “false” + Bulbar, referring to the brainstem.)

A patron said she had it and was looking for some scholarly information about it. According to PBAinfo.org, PBA occurs when “certain neurologic diseases or brain injuries damage the areas in the brain that control normal expression of emotion. This damage can disrupt brain signaling, causing a ‘short circuit’ and triggering involuntary episodes of crying or laughing.”

These outbursts can be inappropriate (spontaneous crying or laughing when neither are warranted) and exaggerated (more intense or larger than the situation merits). Common causes include traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s or dementia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The first reference to PBA is credited to the Charles Darwin, in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and it’s in the kind of language that sounds crass now to our more medically enlightened ears: “We must not, however, lay too much stress on the copious shedding of tears by the insane, as being due to the lack of all restraint; for certain brain-diseases, as hemiplegia, brain-wasting, and senile decay, have a special tendency to induce weeping.”

The more you know.

The Hunt for Vulcan

I’ve never forgotten the scene in Men in Black, when Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are sitting on a bench facing the New York City skyline. Jay has gotten a brief but shocking glimpse of the secret alien world Kay is trying to recruit him into, one that few people know about.

“Why the big secret?” Jay asks. “People are smart. They can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” Kay responds, but “people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

This scene came to mind right after I finished reading Thomas Levenson’s new book The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. Levenson writes about the now-forgotten period between 1859 and 1915 when scientists believed our solar system had a planet called Vulcan within Mercury’s orbit. An anomaly in Mercury’s orbit affected its gravitational trajectory just enough to suggest another mass was tugging on it. Professional and amateur astronomers alike made several attempts to observe this mystery mass, and some reported doing so. But it wasn’t until decades later, when Einstein applied the principles of his new theory of relativity to the orbital calculations, when those sightings were finally reclassified as misidentified stars and the coulda-woulda-shoulda planet Vulcan was expunged from the solar system.

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The Martian

I conducted an experiment with The Martian. Too many times I’ve read a book before seeing its movie version and have come out of the theater disappointed they didn’t show this or showed too much of that, and above all that I knew what was going to happen. Seems the conventional wisdom is that you should read the book beforehand to get the truest experience first and prepare for seeing the movie, but this doesn’t make any sense. Prepare for what? Knowing what’s going to happen so you’re not surprised? I like not knowing what’s going to happen in a movie. So I postponed reading Andy Weir’s book until after I saw the movie.

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How to Feel Small

I like things that make me feel small.

Like If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, a “tediously accurate scale model of the solar system” that, as you scroll horizontally, reveals the vast span of our neighborhood:
moon

Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of time:
time

Or The Scale of the Universe (my favorite), which, as you zoom in and out, shows the comparative sizes of all creation, from the largest supercluster to the smallest neutrino (notice how everything at some point is the same size):
scale

Or Lightyear.fm, a “journey through space, time & music” that plays songs of the past according to how far their waves have traveled from Earth since they were released:
lightyear

How We Got to Now

howI couldn’t put down How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson’s six-part book on “innovations that made the modern world.” The book is an exposition on the theory of the “hummingbird effect,” which occurs when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” The theory is so named because of how hummingbirds evolved a new way to float midair while extracting nectar from flowers, thus having one phenomena (plant reproduction) effect change in another seemingly unrelated one (bird anatomy).

Johnson illustrates this theme in six realms: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of inventors, innovators, and their creations—famous and obscure—whose intuitive leaps of imagination and engineering influenced the world in ways they could never foresee. Fifteenth-century Italian glassmakers displaced by the fall of Constantinople experimented with new kinds of glass, which found use as proto-lenses for scribes in monasteries (their lentil-like shape inspiring the name lens, from the Latin lentes for lentil), which, along with Gutenberg’s printing press allowing for cheaper and portable books, contributed to the rise in overall literacy, which exposed the farsightedness of these new readers, who suddenly realized they needed lenses to read, thus creating a new market for eyeglasses. As Johnson points out, Gutenberg didn’t set out to create a new market for eyewear: the hummingbird effect simply made it happen step by step.

It’s more complicated than that, and Johnson takes care to paint a much richer and fascinating portrait of this phenomenon in action over centuries. I had a lot of fun reading How We Got to Now because Johnson lays out a continuous string of tasty knowledge nuggets from beginning to end. On every page I learned something that I wanted to write down and share with others. We’re living in a big, beautiful, deep world that has a great story to tell. How We Got to Now helps explain why.

Einterstellar

My new definition of cosmic irony: to be in the midst of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe as I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a marvel of a film that directly references Einstein and his theory of relativity. I had a chuckle during the film when that moment arrived, not because I understand the theory of relativity in the least, but because the universe is mysterious and funny in that way.

Einstein would probably agree, according to Isaacson’s book. I picked it up on a whim. For being such a ubiquitous figure I knew nearly nothing about him, and since for the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in (and therefore increasingly perplexed by) astrophysics and the stuff of space, I thought a well-regarded biography of one of astrophysics greatest would be a good place to start. And indeed I’d recommend it to anyone, even, or especially, those who will have to skim over the arcane science passages as I did.

I think Einstein would have loved Interstellar.

Deep & The Divine Milieu

freedivercropAt one point in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason asks his father if there’s magic in the world. Probably not literal magic, his dad replies. But then he asks the boy: if you didn’t know what a whale was and someone told you there was a giant mammal that lived underwater with a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through, wouldn’t you find that pretty magical?

I’d say so. But more than that, I’d call it divine. Scientists, I’m sure, would frown upon using a religious word to describe biological processes and characteristics, but I find it quite appropriate, especially after learning about the profundities of the ocean from James Nestor’s new book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

Perhaps it’s because the book I read before Deep was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, a meditation on the earthly omnipresence of the divine. Consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Teilhard, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, saw the natural world’s evolution not in conflict with the eternal Divine, but convergent with it. Thus the “divine milieu” is not just in heaven but on earth too, manifest in the world around us. Deep, though a study in scientific phenomena, aligns in fascinating ways with the spiritual phenomena described in The Divine Milieu.

Consider the “master switch of life,” a term that refers to the physiological reflexes in the human body that are triggered when we enter the water and intensify the deeper we go. This transformation, writes Nestor in Deep, “protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns us into efficient deep sea-diving animals.” But this isn’t an automatic switch. It requires intensive training, coupled with total peace of mind and body, to fully realize its power and unlock the so-called “doorway to the deep,” the point at about 40 feet down where the ocean stops trying to spit us out and instead draws us down. Surrendering to the immersive power of the ocean is the only way to survive.

Likewise, writes Teilhard in The Divine Milieu: “The man who abandons himself to the divine milieu feels his inward powers clearly directed and vastly expanded by it with a sureness which enables him to avoid the reefs on which mystical ardor has so often foundered.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the freedivers Nestor meets all describe their underwater experiences in spiritual, almost mystical terms: “transcendent, life-changing, purifying. A new shimmering universe.” They could see new things in a way that a life on land couldn’t fathom.

The ocean, like the world itself, seems suspended between the tangible and mysterious, the clearly natural yet utterly magical. Nestor’s book is an ode to the people who inhabit that space in-between, who plunge into the unknown to push the limits of human understanding, like theologians of the sea. (Is sea-ologians a word? It should be.) The water beckons us to explore, to contend with the mystery of the divine as Paul does in Ephesians 3:18-19: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

A dive into the water, taken on faith but also with a clear mind, transforms and renews us all. Only when we’re in over our heads, holding our breath as we’re baptized into the deep, do we really live. Sounds like a divine milieu to me.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, August 2014.

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Math Is A Wonderful Thing

I don’t know whether it’s due to some paucity in my education, a natural curiosity, or a sort of intellectual masochism (or all three), but I’ve occasionally sought out books about topics that often don’t agree with my brain yet still fascinate me. Being free from the shackles of syllabus reading (however instructional and edifying it often was) has allowed me to dabble in whatever topics I want, leading me down educational pathways I rarely dared to traverse before. I’m thinking specifically about math, science, and the other non-writing disciplines I failed to grasp or hone throughout my structured education.

The Joy of x by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician, is my most recent addition to this “continuing education” subgenre of my reading, and a delightful one. Dubbed “a guided tour of math,” this collection of bite-sized surveys paints key mathematical domains like Numbers, Shapes, and Data in broad strokes, simplified enough for English majors like me to understand them yet dense enough to require complete attention and critical thinking. I view Jennifer Ouellette’s splendid Black Bodies and Quantum Cats in the same league: right-brained books written for left-brainers, gateway drugs to some deeper, weirder stuff that should only be handled by professionals.

And I’m happy to leave that stuff to people like Strogatz (or his counterpart in astrophysics: Neil deGrasse Tyson), who are adept at communicating the importance and often invisible influence of the heady material they study to laypeople like me. The more books like The Joy of x and Black Bodies that are out there on library shelves and bookstores and talk shows, the more likely their subject matter gets the sympathy and support it needs. Though I came from the humanities, I also want STEM to get all the love it needs.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield couldn’t just be a fighter pilot, engineer, astronaut, photographer, musician, or the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station; he just had to be a damn good writer too.

At one point in his superb memoir An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield describes what it’s like to exit the ISS into the vacuum of space for the first time:

What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww. … It’s like being engrossed in cleaning a pane of glass, then you look over your shoulder and realize you’re hanging off the side of the Empire State Building, Manhattan sprawled vividly beneath and around you. … It’s overpowering, visually, and no other senses warn you that you’re about to be attacked by raw beauty.

There was something similarly surreal and dreamlike about the sight in front of me now, which I couldn’t reconcile with my prosaic fumbling with the tether hook a moment before. Holding onto the side of a spaceship that’s moving around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, I could truly see the astonishing beauty of our planet, the infinite textures and colors. On the other side of me, the black velvet bucket of space, brimming with stars. It’s vast and overwhelming, this visual immersion, and I could drink it in forever.

In addition to telling the story of his life’s journey to the ISS, Hadfield dispenses great life advice he’s learned over the years and dishes on the culture of NASA. Contrary to the view we have of astronauts as swashbuckling daredevils, Hadfield is humble and forthright about his failings. He’s also candid about the sacrifices he and his family has had to make for him to pursue his dream. Reading this along with Mary Roach’s Packing For Mars provides great insight into the weirdness and wonder of space travel, and the men and women who are just crazy enough to do it.