Elephants in the Arctic

It’s nice to be tinct. You have friends. You’re somebody. If you become endangered, you’re very special.

Once extinct, you don’t get any of that. Just peace at last – no headlines, no deadlines, no peer group, thus no peer pressure.

But now even that small consolation is under siege, as scientists scheme to give new life to extinct species like the Southern gastric brooding frog of Australia – extinct since, well, the 1980s – and it’s surely a poorer world without them. The frogs, I mean, not the scientists.

Then there’s the ibex that used to frighten skiers in the Pyrenees. The ibexes (ibices?) flourished until they were killed off to harvest their horns when Pyrex kitchenware was all the rage. Actually, that’s not what happened, but the last Pyreneean Ibex did perish in 1999.

The technology is now in hand to rekindle the extinguishment.

These recent departures are ripe for cloning because their DNA is readily available. More ambitious geneticists are hoping – just hoping – to restore Neanderthals or woolly mammoths.

As Gina Kolata points out in the New York Times, the passing of the woolly mammoth left us without elephants in the arctic. The mammoths once knocked down millions of trees, leaving snow-covered grasslands to reflect the sun’s heat back into the stratosphere. And they trampled snow, strengthening the permafrost, keeping its methane locked up instead of being released as a greenhouse gas. Were the woolly mammoths to return, we might see global warming slowed or reversed in the north, or so goes the dream.

New relevance for elephants!

As for Neanderthals, we all have some of their genes – about 3% of our own genome — but kindly spare us the intrusions necessary to catalogue and collect them. “It would be a really bad idea,” says Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences.

As quoted by Ms Kolata, Greely also questions the wisdom of trying to resurrect the passenger pigeon. We used to have three to five billion of them.

“They would take days to cross a city,” Greely said. “They left cities covered with an inch of guano.”

No serious researcher expects to recover viable DNA from 65 million years ago, a la Jurassic Park. As for more recent extinctions, we can happily relinquish the phantasmagoria of zombie pigeons encrusting our cities, but woolly mammoths were late survivors, too. They were last seen around 4,000 years ago, and their frozen DNA may yet be found.

So let us go on dreaming the mammoth dream. We can’t imagine the antarctic without its penguins. How can we leave the arctic bereft of its elephants?

Rx Roulette

New drugs follow the law of unintended consequences. When you ingest a strong chemical, it’s going to have a number of effects, one or two of which may be good – may accomplish all or part of the intended therapy. The rest of its reactions could be anything but good, and almost never are all of them known.

Pharmaceutical companies call these “side effects.” The intended result of their branded drug is featured early in their TV commercial along with beautiful people having beautiful moments. The chances of unintended consequences are rattled off quickly and quietly at the end.

Here are a few I noted down from four TV ads:

High fever, confusion, skin rashes, dizziness, fainting, thoughts of suicide, severe abdominal pain, wheezing, coughing, chest pain, trouble breathing, headaches, upset stomach, rash, hives, difficulty swallowing, unexpected signs of puberty and body hair, increased risk of prostate cancer, blood clots in the legs, diarrhea, etc., etc. (They talk so fast I missed quite a few.)

Typically, most of the side effects are uncommon, possibly rare. If they ever gave us the percentages of occurrence, we could add them all up and probably find that we stand a fair chance of encountering at least one of these lurking dragons – we just don’t know which one, and neither does the doctor.

Inevitably, wherever such misfortunes strike, liability lawyers (with their own TV commercials) won’t be far behind. I noted the closing lines of one such message:

“If you took Avandia and suffered a heart attack, stroke, or death, call now – you may be eligible to receive a lump sum of money.”

Somewhere out there is a drug with the side effect of making lawyers speak in non sequiturs.

But look on the bright side. The odds are with you. You may not have to take strong medicines; and even if you do, the chances are still good that you won’t be among those small percentages. I’ve taken four heart medications for 17 years with never a problem.

It’s not as if there were serious side effects from eating or drinking or breathing. Well, drinking. And of course there’s obesity. And last week there was news that … you’re not going to believe this …

For kids and teens, eating fast foods raises the chances of severe asthma. And eczema.

Both maladies can be caused by over-reactions of the immune system, which in turn can be affected by the trans fatty acids in fast foods. So the only safe thing left to us is breathing – except that breathing through the mouth can also cause asthma.

And tooth decay!

Why? Because it tends to dry out the mouth, reducing saliva, and, oh never mind.

It’s like this. Life has side effects. You take your lumps, and you may or may not be eligible for a lump sum of money.

Mystery of the Missing Monkey

Iran has a problem, either with rocket launchings or with public relations – possibly both.

Last week, the Iranian space agency hailed the launch of a rocket into space with a vervet monkey named Pishgam aboard. They posted pictures of Pishgam before and after the flight, but according to Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the Times of London, and various online sources, the pictures showed two different monkeys. Pishgam “before” had a prominent birthmark and dark hair, both of which Pishgam “after” clearly lacked.

And while the Iranians showed dramatic footage of a rocket launch, images of its return and recovery were conspicuously missing.

No Pishgam, no parachute, no shipboard reunion with a beloved organ grinder.

U. S. State department officials said they could not confirm that a launch had actually taken place. Iranian spokesman Mohammad Ebrahimi insisted, “The monkey is in good health. The space flight didn’t have any physical effect on Pishgam.”

Of course that would also be true if Pishgam had stayed home.

Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks space launches, said the monkey with the mole was one the Iranians blew up in an unsuccessful launch in 2011, and that last week someone must have mistakenly picked up file footage from that. McDowell thinks the latest launch did in fact take place.

Still, no one has heard from the monkey, and no footage has been shown of the rocket’s return.

Now we’re left to wonder if the Iranians will try to back up their claims by showing yet a third monkey. That at least would reverberate with religious resonance, albeit someone else’s religion:

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Sleepers Awake

Some of the smartest people I know send me an occasional e-mail bearing a time stamp of 2:30 or 3:30 a.m.

I’m familiar with the syndrome. You go to sleep and all is well until sometime between 2 and 4, when you awaken to find that you’re no longer sleepy.

So you get up and read for a while, send a few e-mails, do a crossword or Sudoku, or write an essay like this one – rather than just lie there like the proverbial dyslexic agnostic insomniac who tossed and turned all night worrying about the existence of dog. (Sorry for dusting off that beloved relic, but if you don’t say it aloud at least once this year, you won’t be able to remember it next year.)

I don’t want to make light of real sleep disorders. Chronic or acute insomnia, often related to anxiety or depression, can be a troubling, sometimes disabling affliction.

But we who stalk the corridors for an hour or two and then go back to sleep are experiencing a much milder malady – let’s call it sleepus interruptus.

For committed classicists, that should be somniculosis interruptus; but, either way, it is not a disease in search of a cure. In fact, it may even be good for you. In a recent article for BBC World Service, Stephanie Hegarty cited a growing body of evidence from both science and history that the eight-hour sleep we’ve all been taught to expect may actually be unnatural.

Pharmaceutical companies are not going to appreciate this line of thinking. They’re taking in $5 billion a year for sleeping pills (the so-called Z drugs) and spending $325 million a year on advertising to increase that haul. Some other night, we’ll write about $5,000 mattresses.

A few independent researchers have concluded that “America’s sleep problem” is an invention of Big Pharma, circa 1991, when G. D. Searle introduced Ambien. Others are concerned by the strange side effects –- such as sleepwalking and short-term amnesia — of some of the more popular prescriptions. After all, Z drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta are designed to tinker with one or another of our neurotransmitters, and some of us would rather not let their green moths into our brains.

Especially not when it’s a supposed solution to a non-problem.

Hegarty points to the extensive historical studies of Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, — author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past — showing that humans used to sleep in two distinct cycles, not a single 8-hour shift. He includes over 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – from diaries, court records, medical books, and from literature, including Dickens, Cervantes, and all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey.

These references describe a first sleep starting about two hours after dusk, followed by a waking period of one or two hours, then a second sleep.

“It’s not just the number of references,” Ekirch says, “it is the way they refer to it, as common knowledge.”

During the waking period, people often got up, went to the john, sometimes visited neighbors, or stayed in bed, chatted, read, wrote, had sex, or prayed. Prayer manuals from the late 15th century included special prayers for the hours between first and second sleeps.

Such references began to disappear in the late 17th century, first among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and then, over the next 200 years, through the rest of Western society – roughly the timing of the industrial revolution.

So sleepus interruptus doesn’t call for a pill or a psychiatrist. We should all enjoy the interruption, maybe send some e-mails to Al, knowing that worrying about non-existent insomnia could keep a person awake.

Fringe Binges

The largest bookcase I own covers half a wall in my study and makes a futile attempt to organize the sciences (as does the verse at the end of this).

It starts at the top with two shelves of the hard sciences – math, physics, relativity, basic quantum theory.

Then down through the softer sciences – astronomy, chemistry, biology, evolution, neuroscience, philosophy of science, sociology (psychology is clear across the room in another case).

Next come the grand-concept efforts to pull some of these disciplines together, including some theoretical physics and holistic biology too speculative to make the upper shelves (SETI, superstring theory, quantum gravity, bleeding edge cosmology, the Tao of Physics, theories of everything).

And finally, a shelf and a half of pseudoscience — my psychiatric ward — reserved for creationism, ancient astronauts, UFOs, pyramidology, the secret life of plants, pole shifts, cryptobiology (Yeti, Bigfoot, Nessie), and parapsychology. Fruitcakes every one of them, but even the zaniest authors will now and then surface with a stunning insight or conjecture.

Oh yes, and Worlds in Collision – remember Immanuel Velikovsky?

I had misplaced the book and forgotten about him until a new book came out by Michael Gordin – The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.

Velikovsky was a very big deal in the late 1960s and early 70s but his mischief, like Ayn Rand’s, still endures among those who have reason to distrust reality.

According to Velikovsky, about 3,500 years ago a piece of Jupiter nearly as massive as earth was blown away and turned loose in the solar system, closely approaching earth at least twice and causing all sorts of Old Testament fireworks – parting the Red Sea, crumbling Jericho’s walls, dropping manna from heaven. Finally, an explanation for why the sun stood still and why Ezekiel saw the wheel.

Eventually, Velikovsky’s rogue comet settled innocently into orbit, posing as the planet Venus.

Reviewing Gordin’s book in the London Review, Steven Shapin discusses the difficulties scientists have in teaching us common people the difference between real science and pseudoscience – or, as Shapin calls it, hyperscience, presumably with the accent on the hype.

Gordin goes into this battle in exhaustive detail, but at the end of his review, Shapin comes up with his own litmus test, which bears repeating:

“Beware of hyperscience. It can be a sign that something isn’t kosher.

“A rule of thumb for sound inference has always been that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

“But there’s a corollary: if it struts around the barnyard loudly protesting that it’s a duck, that it possesses the very essence of duckness, that it’s more authentically a duck than all those other orange-billed, web-footed, swimming fowl, then you’ve got a right to be suspicious: this duck may be a quack.”

Perfect portrait of creation “science.” It ducks like a quack.

The Sciences

Psychology is all neurology,
which is just biology
(which is destiny)
and biology is all chemistry,
a subset, really, of physics,
which is part of astronomy
since all those forces trace back
to the way the big bang banged
— either a tirade or a tantrum,
we’re not sure which,
but when we find out,
finally,
we’ll know the gender of god,
thus what to expect next
. . .which is psychology

Verse reprinted from Alan Van Dine’s book, If Instead of Apes We Had Come from Grapes, We Wouldn’t Just Yet Be Wine. (2006, Towers Maguire)

Breaking News! – the Long View

Martin Rees has a fresh perspective on how we humans think about time. A professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge, Rees is also president (as Isaac Newton once was) of the Royal Society.

His thoughts on how the times are changing appear in the 2009 anthology What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (a terrific book – see first comment) published by the Edge Foundation – with an introduction by Brian Eno, of all people.

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To our medieval ancestors – say, in the 1300s or 1400s – the entire lifespan of civilization, the world, the universe, everything under creation, seemed to be a few thousand years. And not many people even thought about it. Day to day, they didn’t expect much to change in their lifetimes, and they were right.

A cathedral might take 200 years to build (Chartres took 600), but a worker cutting stones for its walls knew that eventually someone just like him would be attending services there and hearing the liturgy sung in Latin.

We now know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old – and that our sun has another six billion or so years to burn — but we’re incapable of looking ahead 200 years, as a 14th century church builder could, or even 20 years. Everything is shifting radically within our own lifetimes. Civilization-changing innovations such as moon shots, CDs, PCs, or cellphones blaze like super novae and are then eclipsed within a decade or two. Planners of a half-mile high building in China expect to construct it in four months, with a coffee shop (not a tea house) at the top. But plans are suddenly suspended because more skyscrapers are rising within three years than all the cathedrals built in any three centuries of the middle ages — and officials aren’t sure there will be enough entrepreneurs to worship there.

In the long view, the times will keep on changing, and so will we. As Rees puts it:

“Any creatures witnessing the sun’s demise six billion years hence won’t be human; they could be as different from us as we are from a slime mold.”

Not only is everything transforming at a frantic pace, for the first time we humans are the ones who are making the changes – for good or ill, by accident or by design. Says Rees:

“What will happen depends on us.”

Along with the ominous implications of such a prospect, the professor sees some hopeful signs. Climate change is getting real attention. For radioactive waste sites, governments now require that they be secure for 10,000 years.

And however well or poorly we plan, some of the “people” we impact may differ considerably from ourselves.

“We are custodians,” Rees concludes, “of a posthuman future – here on Earth and perhaps beyond – that cannot just be left to writers of science fiction.”

Breaking News! – the Long View

Martin Rees has a fresh perspective on how we humans think about time. A professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge, Rees is also president (as Isaac Newton once was) of the Royal Society.

His thoughts on how the times are changing appear in the 2009 anthology What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (a terrific book – see first comment) published by the Edge Foundation – with an introduction by Brian Eno, of all people.

*

To our medieval ancestors – say, in the 1300s or 1400s – the entire lifespan of civilization, the world, the universe, everything under creation, seemed to be a few thousand years. And not many people even thought about it. Day to day, they didn’t expect much to change in their lifetimes, and they were right.

A cathedral might take 200 years to build (Chartres took 600), but a worker cutting stones for its walls knew that eventually someone just like him would be attending services there and hearing the liturgy sung in Latin.

We now know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old – and that our sun has another six billion or so years to burn — but we’re incapable of looking ahead 200 years, as a 14th century church builder could, or even 20 years. Everything is shifting radically within our own lifetimes. Civilization-changing innovations such as moon shots, CDs, PCs, or cellphones blaze like super novae and are then eclipsed within a decade or two. Planners of a half-mile high building in China expect to construct it in four months, with a coffee shop (not a tea house) at the top. But plans are suddenly suspended because more skyscrapers are rising within three years than all the cathedrals built in any three centuries of the middle ages — and officials aren’t sure there will be enough entrepreneurs to worship there.

In the long view, the times will keep on changing, and so will we. As Rees puts it:

“Any creatures witnessing the sun’s demise six billion years hence won’t be human; they could be as different from us as we are from a slime mold.”

Not only is everything transforming at a frantic pace, for the first time we humans are the ones who are making the changes – for good or ill, by accident or by design. Says Rees:

“What will happen depends on us.”

Along with the ominous implications of such a prospect, the professor sees some hopeful signs. Climate change is getting real attention. For radioactive waste sites, governments now require that they be secure for 10,000 years.

And however well or poorly we plan, some of the “people” we impact may differ considerably from ourselves.

“We are custodians,” Rees concludes, “of a posthuman future – here on Earth and perhaps beyond – that cannot just be left to writers of science fiction.”

When Science Was Small

Writing in the New York Review (“The Crisis of Big Science,” May 10), physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg recalls the days before cyclotrons and particle accelerators, when major scientists often worked in places that looked like your high school physics lab.

In 1911, Ernest Rutherford was doing exactly that. His team consisted of one postdoc and one undergraduate, and they made a monumental discovery — the existence of the atomic nucleus.

Their tabletop contraption beamed charged particles from radium through a strip of gold foil. When, to their astonishment, some of the particles bounced back, they realized there was something hard and heavy in gold’s atoms.

The experiment was funded by a grant from the Royal Society of 70 pounds sterling – about $340 at the 1911 exchange rate.

Extending their work to further discoveries, the cyclotrons cost millions, the super-colliders cost billions, and the latest one fires protons through a tunnel 17 miles long beneath the French/Swiss border.

Weinberg quotes the late Maurice Goldhaber, who once directed the particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory:

“The first to disintegrate a nucleus was Rutherford,” said Goldhaber, “and there is a photo of him holding the apparatus in his lap.

“I then always remember the later picture, when one of the famous cyclotrons was built at Berkeley, and all of the people were sitting in the lap of the cyclotron.”

Crosswired Craniums

This could be construed as a piece comparing the intelligence of liberals to that of conservatives, but then how could we possibly discuss such a thing without being insensitively snide and insulting to, uh, certain people?

heh heh

And yet the people most likely to be outraged by this a) won’t read it, and b) might be unlikely to understand it if they did.

So here it is, right between the ears, the principal source being a new book by Chris Mooney under the title:

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality.

You can Google a good vest pocket review of the book by the editors of Daily Kos or a better one by Dr. Jenny Blair from the April 1 edition of The Washington Spectator.

As she poses the question: “With its denial of evolution, global warming, and much else in science (not to mention history), the American right is earning a reputation for indifference to reality.

“Why do Republicans resist the facts?”

Part of author Mooney’s answer: “It turns out there are facts about why we deny facts.” A veteran science writer, he explores a growing body of research in neuroscience, experimental psychology, linguistics, and what is now called the psychology of ideology.

How the Other Half Thinks.

A quick summary:

Conservative traits include authoritarianism – seeing the world in black and white, intolerant of uncertainty – a lack of openness to experience, and an intense need for closure.
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In contrast, liberals, like scientists (Mooney calls it “the reality-based community”) are burdened with nuanced, uncertainty-laden styles of thinking.
*
The conservative brain tends to have a larger amygdala, which plays a primary role in processing and memory of emotions. Liberals’ brains are larger in an area involved with error detection.
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Conservatives’ startle reflexes are keener. Fight or flight.
*
Children who grow up to be conservative show a greater need to control their environment as early as age 3.
*
Conservatives care most about protection from harm, fairness, loyalty, obedience, and preservation of purity. Liberals care mainly about the first two.
*
What do they keep in their bedrooms?
Conservatives: organizers, flags, sports equipment.
Liberals: books, music, art supplies.
*
Liberals tend to become somewhat more conservative when they’re distracted or frightened – or drunk.
*
The more education conservatives have, the more certain they are about their false beliefs.

Mooney calls it ‘the smart idiot effect.’

But he doesn’t hesitate to find fault with liberals. In the battle of ideas, he says, they need to shed their Enlightenment misconception that careful argument and marshaling of facts will combat misinformation. It won’t – especially not when dealing with conservatives who are in denial about reality.

Politically, he thinks, the left needs to get more like the right – unite, stop dithering, and use emotionally moving narratives to make their points.

The book’s thesis isn’t the kind you can prove, but as it turned out, Mooney didn’t have to. His lab rats proved it for him.

Even before the book came out, right-wingers were attacking it without having seen it. S.E. Cupp on MSNBC was so infuriated by the assertion that Republicans attack science that she promptly attacked science – echoing Rick Santorum’s dismissal of climate research as based on “phony studies.”

So the truth is, conservatives are a bit different, but they have just as much intelligence as the rest of us. We’ll all be better off once they start using it.

Big Rock Candy Mountain

Six year old Zach is our designated maker of fundamental discoveries. Santa brought him a light projector to use in tracing pictures (what art directors call a Lucy machine). He was thrilled:

“I didn’t even know I wanted this!” he exclaimed. “How could Santa know?”

His reaction was enough to thrill me, too, and to soften my own disappointment.

All I wanted for Christmas was a time machine, but nobody gave me one. Of course I knew it was improbable, but then – among the people reading this might be some great great great grandchildren living in the future, when time machines are common. I had hoped one of them might have cared enough to bring one back – even an old, used one.

But no. And now I know why. I just read an interview with Australian astrophysicist Paul Davies, who says that no time machine they’ve been able to imagine could take anyone back to a time before the machine was built.

Rats!

Davies doesn’t always play the killjoy. A few minutes earlier in the interview, he had acknowledged that we don’t really know the chemical processes that gave rise to life, but then added:

“However, we do know that life appeared first on Mars, and then it came to Earth.”

I love remarks like that — astounding possibilities, casually tossed off as commonplace. Truth is, he was exaggerating – we don’t know that — but he does have good reasons for saying we do.

First, Mars is a smaller planet, so it cooled faster, thus sooner than Earth and was first to have the moderate temperatures that could spawn life.

Second, being smaller, Mars has weaker gravity than Earth, so rocks dislodged from the early Martian surface by the impacts of comets and meteors (which were extremely plentiful back then) could easily be hurled into Earth’s gravitational field.

The traffic has gone both ways, but the busiest lanes are from Mars to Earth.

Here I was hoping for a time machine, but at the momentous dawn of life’s origin on Earth, by what cosmic conveyance does it arrive?

Rocks.

That’s what I want next year, Santa – rocks.