On May 18th, 2015 we learned about

Where do you put a space station out to pasture?

Retiring vehicles isn’t easy. Ships are beached so that they can be stripped and salvaged. Airplanes are parked in “boneyards” out in the desert. But if the vehicle you’re retiring from service weighs up to 143 tons and is moving through the sky at 25,000 miles per hour, you’re basically forced to look for some place in the ocean where you can avoid pulverizing some terrestrial life. In fact, you’re going to be looking at one place in the ocean: Point Nemo.

Point Nemo is a very special location in the southern Pacific ocean that is the farthest you can get from land anywhere on Earth. The closest shore is 1678 miles away, in Antarctica. It’s also rarely used as a shipping route, which makes it the perfect place to aim and “park” space debris as it falls out of orbit. Once an inactive satellite or resupply ship hits the water, it still has another two-and-a-half miles to sink before hitting bottom. At that point, it will sit in dark, 2° water, and pretty much be as ‘out of the way’ as anything could be.

Its hard to steer a shredded spacecraft

However, this doesn’t mean that dropping spacecraft on this location is a neat and tidy process. As objects hit the atmosphere at sub-orbital speeds, they start to burn and break up. While missions are designed to target Point Nemo with the last of their fuel and guidance systems, uncontrollable damage and fragmentation of the 161 retired spacecraft in question has grown the actual landing zone to around 24,855 square miles. The largest craft, the Mir space station, had a footprint of around 18,641 square miles, even though only 17% of the 143 ton structure survived reentry all the way to the ocean.

My kindergartner asked: Is this anywhere near us? No, this is purposely not near anybody. Well, what about fish? Are these things falling on fish? While there is life in deep portions of the ocean, it’s limited to things like squid, whales hunting for squid, sponges, etc. While animals at the surface are at risk of being killed by debris, nothing should be landing on richer, more densely populated locations like a coral reef.


Source: This Watery Graveyard Is the Resting Place for 161 Sunken Spaceships by Kiona Smith-Strickland, Gizmodo

On May 17th, 2015 we learned about

Learning about snails with my kindergartner

Tonight was a bit of a milestone, as my kindergartner read a book about garden snails by herself and was happy to share her very own new thing for the day. What follows is as faithful a reproduction of her reporting as is practical, along with a few other annotations and related trivia for good measure.

Take it away, kiddo:

The mommy snails first lay little white eggs in a hole. When they’re little, they look like a grown up snail, except they’re all white. And they’re littler. [This would include all snail parents, as they’re hermaphrodites.]

So after that they grow their wrinkles (as in the wrinkles on the top of their foot.) They also grow the twists [or whorls] in their shells. And they grow their color. And then, they’re still small. But then they grow bigger, into a grown up. They’re gown up in two years, and they live five years.

Snails eat dried [well, dead] plants, fresh plants [if decomposing plants aren’t available], and other snails [yep, snails will chomp snails]. When they’re afraid, they make bubbles from under their foot.

Snail-sightings in our neighborhood

Here in northern California, we seem to get just enough moisture to see snails infrequently enough that the kids get excited to find one. While part of their low profile is due to being primarily nocturnal, they may also be spending much of the year hibernating behind their epiphragm. A epiphrapm is basically a mucus membrane the snail uses to seal itself in its shell, protecting its soft body from both the elements and would-be predators like ants.

Oh, and some snails use something called “love darts” that I’ll let you all look up on your own.

Source: Snail by Karen Hartley and Chris Macro

On May 17th, 2015 we learned about

Your DNA tries to prepare you for cold and swimsuit season

While the DNA in your cells is more or less written out at birth, it’s not a totally static set of instructions. Just because the genes are there doesn’t mean they’re always being expressed to build proteins on a daily basis. In fact, it looks like some systems in your body are actually tailoring their activity to seasonal conditions in your environment to best match the challenges most likely to be encountered in rain or in shine.

Looking across data from people in six countries with varying latitude and climates, a number of trends emerged tied to the local climate at the time of year the DNA was sampled. In the winter, people were more likely to have stronger immune responses, with more inflammation of tissues, presumably to help fight disease and infection. Even in a country like Gambia, which doesn’t have much of a winter to speak of, there was a seasonal adjustment of the immune system. It wasn’t tied to winter, but to the rainy season, when mosquitoes and malaria would be of greater concern. In the summer, people’s bodies seemed more primed to burn winter’s fat and retain water to cope with heat.

Despite some clear patterns, researchers haven’t figured out what triggers these shifts yet. It could be shifts in diet or possibly the number of hours of daylight a person is exposed to. Once that’s found, it may help people explain or control autoimmune problems. There’s a chance that a misalignment of the immune system is at play, where your genes are prepping the immune system despite your climate-controlled lifestyle making that less necessary.

Source: Your DNA Changes With the Seasons, Just Like the Weather by Nick Stockton, Wired

On May 15th, 2015 we learned about

Wasabi is good, but we’re all bigger fans of fauxsabi

Wasabi is a pretty unforgettable condiment. Aside from the exciting jolt to the system it provides, thanks to triggering the same pain receptors that would be active in say, a spider bite, it’s being investigated and used for a variety of different purposes other than making sushi yummier. Better understanding of wasabi may soon help pain treatments. The smell of allyl isothiocyanate, the critical ingredient in wasabi, is being used for fire alarms for the deaf in Japan. The weirdest thing though, is that odds are, you’ve never actually eaten the stuff.

Wasabia japonica growing under shades at the Daio Wasabi Farm
Wasabia japonica growing under shades at the Daio Wasabi Farm Wasabi growing at the Diao Wasabi Farm

A few years back, my wife and I visited the Daio wasabi farm near Matsumoto, Japan. The farm featured what looked like a river of plants, all sheltered from direct sunlight by a layer of black shades. This arrangement was more than just picturesque though. Wasabia japonica, as in real wasabi, requires clear running water to grow, and all the river associations were actually necessarily for the plant’s cultivation. Plants take at least two years to mature, and once the plants are processed, the paste made from true wasabi powder is very short-lived, becoming dull to the palate in around 15 minutes.

All this time I’ve been eating a lie

Fresh wasabi with a side of eel
Sign for wasabi-flavored soft-serve ice cream Wasabi soft-serve ice cream was also on the menu (thumbs up!)

Despite many fond memories of eating ‘wasabi’ in sushi restaurants, we were more or less unaware of all of these details when we had lunch at the wasabi farm. Our lunch came with fresh wasabi and graters allowing us to indulge as much as we wanted, and while the flavor was interesting and fresh, it was off somehow. It didn’t match expectations, because it was actually the first time we were eating wasabi instead of a paste made from European horseradish, mustard and green food coloring.

Thanks to the delicate, and therefore expensive, nature of wasabia japonica, it’s not hard to understand why it’s not used everywhere. As a cousin of wasabi, the horseradish has a great bite to it, providing a much more suitable amount of spiciness than other relatives, like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. Both plants have the key allyl isothiocyanate, even if they differ in other compounds, like wasabi’s extra sulfur-based compounds. It’s funny to realize how much I’ve been enjoying an impostor all this time, but with half a pound of true wasabi selling for $70 in the US, I think I’ll be ok sticking with my fauxsabi a while longer.


My kindergartner says: Wasabi is too spicy. I just like the sushi with avocados in it. Fair enough!

Source: Wasabi: More Than Just a Hot Sushi Condiment by Rebecca Rupp, The Plate

On May 15th, 2015 we learned about

Pain prevention through faux-stress responses

When you see that something painful is coming your way, it’s pretty common to tense up and brace yourself for the unpleasant experience. If you hold your breath at those moments, you may be doing yourself a service, reducing the amount of pain you’ll end up feeling from the experience of say, getting a shot at the doctor.

When your body is stressed, your blood pressure increases, preparing you for possible fight or flight responses. You can’t stay in this state of alert indefinitely though, and pressure sensors in your lungs activate, telling your brain to calm things down after a while. In addition to lowering your blood pressure again, part of that de-escalation dampens your nervous system, and thus your sensitivity to pain.

Fortunately, you don’t have to feel you’re in peril to benefit from this idea when dealing with safer scenarios. Holding your breath seems to trigger the aforementioned pressure sensors in the lungs, starting the de-escalation process and dulling your pain sensitivity. It won’t undo pain already in progress, and it generally only changed test subjects pain experience a little bit, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a welcome option for people in for some hurt. If it ‘scales up,’ and can be applied to more intense pain, like a contraction during birth, it may be a very useful technique to coach people on.

Source: Hold your breath to dampen the pain of an injection by Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist

On May 14th, 2015 we learned about

Reinterpreting, and erasing, Romer’s Gap in tetrapod evolution

It makes sense to think of evolution as a steady, continuous process. We often talk about “missing links,” implying that there has been a linear, well, lineage, from a starting point to an end point. But this model may bias us too much against other possible scenarios. What if the evolution of say, legs, wasn’t a perfectly smooth gradation, but rather a series of fits and starts, with a flurry of new body types springing up at once? New fossils found in Nova Scotia seem to support the latter model for early tetrapod development.

The previous assumption was that the transition from aquatic, flippered-bodies to four-legged, terrestrial creatures would have been long and even, even though there wasn’t a clear progression of fossils supporting that idea. In fact, a 30-million-year gap in the fossil record was enough of a problem that its even been named “Romer’s gap,” after the paleontologist who first raised the issue. Early, fish-like forms had been found, and so had more advanced walkers, but there weren’t clear links to tie them together.

The finds in Nova Scotia “solve” the gap by basically erasing it. They put the advanced walkers, who we know supported their stomachs and tails thanks to footprints with no drag marks, as living at the same time as the fishy-crawlers. According to this data, they various groups of animals were contemporaries of each other, at least on a paleontological time scale. The idea that one form didn’t replace the other immediately isn’t really that far out there, as we still live with many creatures that are considered “living fossils.” These creatures can still inhabit certain niches, even if they end up with bodies or behaviors that may have been cutting edge at some point, but is no longer a dominant concept.

Source: Fossils fill evolutionary gap between fish and 4-legged beasts, CBC News

On May 14th, 2015 we learned about

What you’ll say shapes what you see

The rules and structure of the language you speak shapes the way you observe the world. Ideas or concepts, like ongoing action, for instance, that are stressed in a language like English lead English-speakers to focus on actions when describing a situation. Germans, however, lack this point of focus, and more often describe the whole scenario with more interest in possible outcomes. These conceptual preferences aren’t completely hard-wired into the speakers’ brains though, as bilingual people will switch focuses depending on what language they happen to be speaking at the time.

Tests for these ideas included looking at photos or videos of simple scenes and asking test subjects to describe them. When the bilingual subject was thinking and speaking in a German context, they described the scenes consistent with German-only speakers, and vice versa for English. The language being relied on seemed to set the mental context for how to observe events.

Tying up multilingual multitasking

These perceptions could be manipulated too. Bilingual subjects were asked to repeat numbers in one language, which seemed to tie up that part of their thinking. While repeating the numbers, they then perceived the scenes according to the preferences of the unspoken language. So while repeating numbers in German, a speaker would end up describing the scene according to English perceptions. This could be switched on the fly— switching the language of the numbers while the test was in progress caused an immediate reorganization of the test subject’s thinking.

This limber yet structured thinking seems to afford bilingual people a number of interesting and helpful traits. They are better at thinking rationally about economics in their second language. Emotions carry different resonance depending on what language they’re thinking in. They even seem to fend off symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s longer than monolingual people.

Source: How the language you speak changes your view of the world by Panos Athanasopoulos, The Conversation

On May 14th, 2015 we learned about

Emotional empathy leads rats to the rescue

The next time you’re in trouble, hope that your friends are as sympathetic and helpful as a rat. Recent experiments looking at rat behavior showed that these rodents are not only capable of empathetic behavior, but seem to have a strong predisposition for it, helping each other out of troubling situations with next to no hesitation.

The tests placed rats in a clear box with a dividing wall in the middle. One side of the box had a couple inches of water in it, the other was try. The wall then had a rat-operable door, that could be opened only from the dry side. Rats were placed in both sides of the box, which was fine for the dry rat, but extremely distressing for the wet rat, as rats would apparently really prefer to remain ‘dirty rats’ in the most literal sense possible.

Freeing frightened friends

The dry rats could witness this distress, and consistently acted to free the wet rat, almost immediately. Their reaction time was even faster when they had previously been a wet rat themselves, indicating that they remembered the experience, and therefore didn’t want their neighbor to experience the same thing. The final escalation was to put food with the dry rat, making it demonstrate what it viewed as a priority— its stomach or its unhappy colleague. Even at the temporary delay of their own gratification, rats consistently helped the other rat first, sometimes even sharing the food after the rescue.

As a control against rats that just really enjoyed playing with the door, some rats were placed next to dry neighbors, which led to very little interaction. There was no distress and so the rats in charge of the door didn’t seem to care about opening the door.

There’s more to this than knowing that rats can care for each others’ well being. Empathy is actually a very tricky thing, and takes years to really develop in humans. Since we’re already pretty familiar with rat brains, knowing that they can display this behavior will give us a good set of tools to learn more about how empathy functions in the brain.

Source: Rats Forgo Treats to Rescue a Distressed Cage Mate by Carl Engelking, D-brief

On May 13th, 2015 we learned about

Coco-de-mer palms scrimp and save to produce stupendous seeds

Coco-de-mer palms are an interesting example of biological priorities. They live on the two islands in the Seychelles, where the poor soil quality means that plants can’t be huge, extravagant and prolific. Resources have to be allocated very carefully and efficiently, especially for a tree that is trying to grow the largest seeds on Earth.

Part of the palm’s resource efficiency is in its shape. The folds and creases in the wide fronds all act as funnels that help channel water, dirt and even bird poo towards the root of the tree, helping it make up for the low amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus found in the soil. When a frond dies, 90% of the limb’s phosphorus is reclaimed before it falls off, minimizing waste.

A slow metabolism also plays a role in the Coco-de-mer’s growth. A tree normally takes 80 to 100 years to reach sexual maturity. Growing a single seed takes up to 6 years, meaning a tree that lives a few hundred years will grow up to 100 seeds.

Hulking seeds make it all worth it

These record-setting seeds, however, explain all the austerity described above. A single seed can weigh close to 40 pounds, and is too dense and heavy to float to new locales like most coconuts. It’s estimated that the tree spends up to 85% of its phosphorus producing them. And while only 20 to 30% of the seeds need to be successful to keep the Coco-de-mer’s population stable, human interest may be pushing them past the breaking point. Human demand for supposed aphrodisiacs from the seeds is more than such slow plants can keep up with, which is partly why they’re now an endangered species.

Source: How slow plants make ridiculous seeds by Susan Milius, Science News

On May 12th, 2015 we learned about

No perfect answers to the question of purring

While purring cats aren’t exactly difficult to come by, they’re still rather mysterious. We know that the sound is made by vibrating their larynx and diaphragm at once, but beyond that we don’t actually know the nuts and bolts of how it’s done. The other big mystery is exactly why your pet cat, or a big cat like a cheetah, purrs in the first place.

Keep petting me, human

One theory for the purring may seem obvious to anyone with a cat in their lap. A purring cat is usually pretty contented, and so perhaps their purr is a way of letting you know that they’re pleased with your company, and would like the petting to continue. The sound of purrs don’t travel far though, so the range of such communications would be limited to lap-sized distances. The catch is that it’s hard to isolate that motivation, especially since other motivations for purring can exist in the same scenarios.

Audio bandages

Another option is that the purrs are simply soothing to the cat. Just a humans laugh and cry for their own emotional needs, purring might be calming and comforting to the cat. In fact, it may go further than that, as the average cat purr is 26 Hrz, a frequency of sound that may help the cats heal and have stronger bones. This would be very helpful to animals that have punctuated moments of high-impact hunting between lots and lots of naps. Thus the purring may help keep their bones strong, even while the cat is lounging in the sun.

The final answer may be that there is no single answer. While science tries to answer questions by isolating variables, biology often serves multiple purposes with the same structures whenever possible. So a millipede’s glowing may also help it avoid predators. You can laugh because you’re nervous or because something’s hilarious. So purring may be a cat’s version of social communication and help them relax and get back on their feet faster. Or it’s just a case of cats domesticating humans, convincing us that it’s really important to keep them well stocked with Fancy Feast.

Source: Why Do Cats Purr? It’s Not Just Because They’re Happy by Danielle Venton, Wired