Dolphin wearing a sponge tool. (Photo: Eric M. Patterson, from PLoS ONE)
Update added at end.
Back in 2005 I wrote about dolphins that had developed a culture of placing protective sponges over their beaks to root along the seafloor for fish, which was noteworthy as a rare instance of tool use among cetaceans. (In my post on the subject, which I brushed off for use here last February, I also discussed how some dolphins seem to use bubbles as tools, too, and I flagged Emily Anthes’s Wonderland post with video about those.) Now it may be clearer why those dolphins go to so much trouble. Georgetown University researchers Eric M. Patterson and Janet Mann have reported in PLoS ONE that dolphins off the coast of Western Australia that use this technique can catch more nutritious fish and may thereby improve the odds of their offsprings’ survival.
Serendipitously, Maggie Koerth-Baker, the brilliant science editor for Boing Boing, recently wrote about her visit to the zeppelin Eureka, just on the heels of my own posts here and at Txchnologist about airships. She offers an independent confirmation that as appealing and inspiring as these vehicles may be, they suffer from practical drawbacks that help to explain why our skies are not festooned with them.
As she writes, Maggie had been looking forward to a ride on the Eureka, which is a new technology zeppelin that carries 12 passengers and two crew, primarily for tourism but also sometimes for research jobs that need a hovering platform. The Eureka sounds like a marvelous little craft (I use “little” advisedly as an endearment, because it is longer than a 747), and Maggie’s enthusiasm for airships shines. She comes to recognize, however, that their comparatively large size, low speed, ballast and ground support requirements, and susceptibility to wind, among other considerations, do make them less practical than airplanes for most aviation jobs, as I had discussed.
No, it is not the fearsome olgoi-khorkhoi, the Mongolian death worm of legend once feared by Gobi desert dwellers, nor an unspeakable dhole from H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Nor is it a prop Shai-Hulud sandworm left over from one of the Dune films, nor a pre-Cambrian graboid from the Tremors movies, nor even something from Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s upcoming prequel to Alien, though it would fit right in with any of those productions. But by the carpeted dais of Carl Linnaeus, what is it?
A hydrothermal worm, but of what species? (Image: FEI)
The microscope maker FEI posted this scanning electron micrograph in its image gallery with only the label “hydrothermal worm.” (And thanks, while I’m at it, to Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing and JWZ for bringing it to my attention.) Unfortunately, that labeling leaves much to be desired because the description “hydrothermal worm” fits a great many wee beasties.
In the alternate worlds of steampunk fiction, glorious airships rule the skies, untroubled by lingering Hindenburg karma or pesky competition from other flying machines. One way that the television show Fringe flags scenes set in its heroes’ antagonistic parallel universe is by showing a New York skyline ornamented with passenger dirigibles (and a World Trade Center that never fell). Airships in our real world may not currently be much more than floating novelties, but enthusiasts for their technology have never given up on the dream of founding a new airship industry built around transporting people and cargo. Whether they can do so is debatable, but one factor that might tip the balance in their favor—perhaps unexpectedly—is climate change.
Last week, Txchnologist magazine published my story about efforts to bring back commercial airships. Many of the projects involve what are more accurately called hybrid airships. Helium inside their rigid or semi-rigid structures gives them some innate buoyancy (or static lift), but most of what holds them in up is aerodynamic lift from air rushing past their broad, flattened fuselages. These hybrids would also often use vertical thrusters to assist with takeoffs and landings, and ground-effect skirts (like hovercraft) as landing gear so that they could put down on either earth or water. (See my story for more details.)
Next time you’re in an elevator, don’t stare at the other passengers—especially if they’re strangers. Even if you think you’ve noticed some spark of connection and that your unblinking gaze conveys only warmth and friendship, don’t stare at them. However you intend it, it will come across as creepy and possibly threatening. It’s just not cool.
That doesn’t sound very inflammatory, does it?
Ever since Rebecca Watson of Skepchick and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe spoke about being accosted in an elevator, she has been showered with repulsive reactions, some of the worst of which came from the evolutionary biologist and atheist icon Richard Dawkins. Fortunately, posts at Pharyngula, Bad Astronomer, Shakesville, Pandagon, Greg Laden’s Blog, Bug Girl’s Blog and countless other sites have risen to her defense, and Rebecca has of course been more than capable of taking care of herself, too. What’s clear, beyond the fact that Rebecca’s remarks brought out a lot of people’s unrecognized misogyny and anti-feminism, is that most of them seem not to understand her point, despite Rebecca and others having explained it repeatedly. However redundantly, I thought I would take a crack at it, too.
The terrible discovery that Marie Joseph, a 36-year-old mother of five, had drowned in a public swimming pool in Fall River, Mass., turned all the more macabre with the subsequent revelation that her body—spotted by chance this past Tuesday evening—had rested in the murk at the bottom of the pool for two days, unnoticed by dozens of swimmers or six lifeguards. The scandalous details of the case, from the unacceptable cloudiness of the water to reports that lifeguards ignored warnings from a 9-year-old boy that the woman was in trouble, are of course now driving an all-too-late crackdown. It’s hard to imagine that details emerging from the ongoing investigation will lift any culpability for the tragedy from those responsible for the pool’s safety.
Nevertheless, the sensational, blameworthy details of this case (no doubt soon to become the basis of an episode of Bones, if the show hasn’t already done something similar) should not distract from the more important truth that avoidable drowning deaths happen far too often in all sorts of situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average about 10 people a day die in the U.S. from accidental drownings, and that figure does not include an additional 500 or so drowning deaths from boat-related incidents. About 20 percent of those who drown are under the age of 15, and for every one of those who die, four others receive emergency treatment for drowning.
See updates below.
Much has already been written on the sad fact that of the 51 young women who vied to be Miss USA 2011, only two—Miss California (Alyssa Campanella), who ultimately took the crown, and Miss Massachusetts (Alida D’Angona)—unequivocally supported the teaching of evolution in public schools in a question during the preliminaries. Tanya Somaneder at Think Progress has a particularly thorough and damning review of the pageant contestants’ reactions to the question:
All of the contestants were aware of the question ahead of time. Indeed, according to one pageant veteran, the women were “scared to death” of a Prejean-like fiasco and were “concerned that there is a right or wrong answer.” In their apparent struggle, 96 percent of them either “confused the evolution of species with the origin of life (not the same) or said a variation of Miss Michigan’s line that it’s ‘silly’ and ‘ignorant’ not to know ‘both sides’ including, evidently, religious views in public schools.”
Consider it proof that the opponents of evolutionary science are not just intellectually bankrupt.
Imagine my delight upon learning this news from the National Center for Science Education:
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — the 2008 creationist propaganda movie fronted by Ben Stein — is scheduled to be auctioned, lock, stock, and barrel, pursuant to the bankruptcy proceeding of Premise Media Holdings LP. According to a document (PDF) filed in the United States Bankruptcy Court of the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division, on May 31, 2011, the trustee of the bankruptcy estate is seeking to auction “[t]hat certain feature-length motion picture (‘Picture’) ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ and all collateral, allied, ancillary, subsidiary and merchandising rights therein and thereto, and all properties and things of value pertaining thereto.” The auction is scheduled to take place on-line from June 23 to June 28, 2011.
The high bidder will become the owner of the movie that The New York Times (2008 Apr 18) described as “[o]ne of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time … a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry … an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike”….
It’s music to my ears because back when Expelled debuted, I put no little effort into documenting its various assaults on science and truth. Here’s an essay I wrote about Expelled’s odious attempts to blame the Holocaust on Darwin; here’s a piece with Scientific American’s Steve Mirsky about some of the other misleading parts of the film; here’s a podcast in which Eugenie Scott, the NCSE’s director, Mirsky and I discuss the film, and here’s a recording of the bizarre roundtable discussion that SciAm’s editors and I had with Mark Mathis, an associate producer who screened the movie for us. Many others on the Web also rallied against the film, of course, and the NCSE’s Expelled Exposed site features links to a number of those resources, too.
Shortly after 12 a.m. this past Thursday, night owls in Wichita, Kansas, felt a midday swelter suddenly intrude on the darkness. The temperature had been an already sultry 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but then the winds unexpectedly lashed up to gale-force gusts and for the next 20 minutes the mercury soared almost one degree a minute, peaking at 102 degrees F.
As subsequent news stories described, Wichita had experienced the rare meteorological event called a heat burst—a downward blast of unusually warm air produced by the collapse of an air pocket at high altitude. Most of the reported explanations of what caused the incident (and the temperature surge) struck me as a bit sketchy, however. After all, isn’t air from the upper atmosphere much colder than that at ground level? Where would all that extra heat come from? For those who are curious, here is a bit more detail.
Discriminating readers who have intuited that the new film X-Men: First Class is not a documentary probably already suspect that its science might be a bit askew. For Scientific American, I’ve written a short commentary about some of what it gets wrong about evolution, for example. Still, it looks like those of you who have gathered today outside the moat of my home and stronghold, the Fortress of Sullenness, have some additional questions. Let me answer what I can. Yes, you in the back.
Thank you. Isn’t it customary to warn people at this point that there may be spoilers ahead?
Sure, why not. SPOILER ALERT, people. SPOILERS AHEAD. I don’t think I’ll be saying anything too sensitive. But read at your own risk.