Archive for January, 2012

Saturday Morning Jump


Friday Night Feat

When Man Meets Mouse

University of Chicago scientists found that for rats “the value of freeing a trapped cagemate is on par with that of accessing chocolate chips”; Duke University’s Bilbo Lab found that ratlings who are intensively touched by their mothers are better able to resist morphine later in life. Mice genetically engineered to suffer cleft palates were genetically cured, mice bred into alcoholism for forty generations were found to be three times too drunk to drive, mice deprived of the H3R gene were found to be less likely than wild mice to drink alcohol in the dark, mice deprived of the FoxC1 gene were found to grow blood vessels in their corneas, and pregnant female mice given heart attacks were healed by the fetal stem cells of their pups. Mice who lack SIRTI, one of a class of proteins associated with aging, spend less time floating and more time fighting when about to drown, and are unaffected by Prozac.

—February 2002 Harper’s, “Findings”

To Be Born Again

Star Bound

This time something had told Tom to try going westward. West was a good direction, he figured. You head for the sunset, maybe you can walk right off the edge into the stars.

—Robert Silverberg, Tom O’Bedlam


My arm is in a sling. It was my turn to beat Mrs. Drew and in my excitement I pulled a muscle in my forearm. I should make more of an effort to control my emotions.

—Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight

Even in the 19th Century too many Europeans persisted in the belief that kings and queens and such were somehow some higher order of human. Floating still as a derelict on the waters of the continental consciousness the atavistic notion that there was something at least semi-divine about royal folk; that said humans literally lorded it over others because The Sky Lord had, for reasons that passeth understanding, ordained it that way.

Imagine the surprise, then, of young Hans Christian Andersen, when his mother took him out one day to see, live and in person, Frederick VI, King of Denmark, and occasionally of Norway. And, from his perch in the crowd, young Hans perceived that the royal fellow resembled more the man in the street, than the man in the moon.

“Oh!” Hans cried out. “He’s nothing more than a human being!”

His mother, horrified, hushed him. “Have you,” she hissed, “gone mad, child?”

Although this is not the rabbit hole down which I intend to go, it is worth noting that some people believe that Frederick was Hans’ biological father. And this empurpled personage did express something of an unusual interest in the lad, paying, for instance, for part of the young man’s education.

In any event, when in 1837 Andersen inscribed “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” he remembered this event—seeing the king as he was. In that tale, a couple of sharpies convince an emperor, wholly besotted with his personal apparel, that they possess a magic material from which they can weave a fine set of threads that will remain invisible “to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or who was extraordinarily simple in character.”

The emperor commands that these garments be prepared at once. And so they were.

Of course, in truth, no clothes existed at all. The rogue tailors pocketed the silk and gold they had requested for inclusion in the royal robes, and, when they announced their task completed, presented the emperor with precisely . . . nothing.

The emperor, presented with nothing, says to himself: “How is this? I can see nothing! This is indeed a terrible affair! Am I a simpleton, or am I unfit to be an Emperor? That would be the worst thing that could happen!” And so he effusively praises the miscreants for their magnificent work. As had his ministers and courtiers before him—likewise fearing that their perception of the non-existence of the emperor’s new clothes signified some fault within themselves, rather than the Reality that the clothes did not exist at all.

And so the emperor proudly dons his new non-suit, and proceeds to parade, nude, before the people.

The people too had been apprised that their lord would be clad in clothes visible only to the worthy. And so, rather than comment on the spectacle of the royal one wandering naked before them, they gabble madly of non-Reality: “Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor’s new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!”

Till some anonymous little boy gives voice to the true: “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” At which point the farce collapses. Except to the emperor and his minions: “The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.”

Andersen’s story was at the printer, when he decided to change the ending. Originally, there was no boy. And the emperor passed through the whole of the people without a soul speaking the truth. All believed it wiser to remain silent.


Dr. Possum: Seals And Smokes, Dioxides And Dwarfs

(Here it is: Tuesday. Which is sort of like Monday. And therefore time, once again, for Science News & Wisdom from the esteemed Dr. Possum. Said News & Wisdom appearing here every Monday. Or on some day like a Monday.)

The time has arrived one more time. Time for more science talk. New discoveries, new takes on old knowledge, and other bits of news are all available for the perusing in today’s information world. Over the fold are selections from the past week from a few of the many excellent science news sites around the world. Today’s tidbits include carbon dioxide is driving fish ‘crazy’, harp seals on thin ice, most distant dwarf galaxy detected, genetic analysis shows tortoise species thought to be long extinct to be alive today, and the first physical evidence of tobacco in a Mayan container. Pull up that comfy chair and grab a spot near the fireside. There is always plenty of room for everyone. Another session of Dr. Possum’s science education, entertainment, and potluck discussion is set to begin.

Featured Stories
Rising carbon dioxide concentrations from human activity may be damaging the central nervous systems of fish and endangering their ability to survive the future.

Prof. Munday and his colleagues began by studying how baby clown and damsel fishes performed alongside their predators in CO2-enriched water. They found that, while the predators were somewhat affected, the baby fish suffered much higher rates of attrition.

“Our early work showed that the sense of smell of baby fish was harmed by higher CO2 in the water—meaning they found it harder to locate a reef to settle on or detect the warning smell of a predator fish. But we suspected there was much more to it than the loss of ability to smell.”

The team then examined whether fishes’ sense of hearing—used to locate and home in on reefs at night, and avoid them during the day—was affected. “The answer is, yes it was. They were confused and no longer avoided reef sounds during the day. Being attracted to reefs during daylight would make them easy meat for predators.”

Other work showed the fish also tended to lose their natural instinct to turn left or right—an important factor in schooling behaviour which also makes them more vulnerable, as lone fish are easily eaten by predators.


When I Worked

January 2012
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