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December 2012 Archives

Uvula, Cerumen, & Coccyx: Your Body Is Weird

Your body is a temple, and what are temples usually filled with? Mystic, ancient texts that few people can read or understand. It's the same with your body's myriad muscles, bones and tissues. You've got a boatload of them, and many have strange names and even odder functions. Here are a few:

Uvula - The uvula is a short, rounded projection of pinkish connective tissue that hangs down in the back of your throat. Not sure what I'm talking about? Look in the mirror and say "Ahhhhhhh." You've now seen your uvula.

The stalactite-like tissue is used in the formation of certain guttural sounds. Massaging it with a finger will also trigger the gag reflex. This makes it a wonder why some people choose to get their uvula pierced.

Tonsils_diagram.jpgCerumen - Cerumen is a bodily substance primarily composed of layers of shed skin, long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, and alcohols. It's often yellowish and wet (but it can be gray and flaky), waxy, and secreted in the ear canal, almost like earwax... Okay, the jig is up. Cerumen is earwax, just a cooler, more science-y term for the stuff.

On a side note, you really shouldn't clean it.

Sternocleidomastoid - Want to get inspired? Doing so will necessitate that you flex your neck's sternocleidomastoid muscle. And by inspiration, I don't mean getting filled with the urge to perform an activity; I mean the act of breathing air through your mouth and into your lungs.

The sternocleidomastoid is a paired muscle found on either side of your neck towards the anterior. You use it to rotate and flex the neck as well as extend your head. It's one of the more overt neck muscles and is unique to mammals. That's why, when designing movie aliens to seem attractive and familiar to viewers, special effects artists make sure to include it.

"Even C3PO has it, in the form of little pistons on his neck. Watch Star Trek: The good guys always have them, and the bad guys don't. It's a classic alien designer trick," biologist Stuart Sumida told Slate.

Sternocleidomastoideus.pngCoccyx: In one of the finest quotes that Wikipedia has to offer, the online encyclopedia reports that the coccyx, while the remnant of a vestigial tail, is "not entirely useless." Commonly known as the tailbone, it's a key attachment site for various muscles, tendons and ligaments, some of which are involved in the vital, custodial function of defecation. We also occasionally sit on our coccyx.

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December 2012 Archives

Have a Very Merry Christmas... Insect Infestation!

shutterstock_115252588.jpgHark! The holiday season is upon us!

All across the country, it's a time for sharing and caring, harmony and love; a time to lend help to those in need and appreciate your neighbors, family, friends, and fellow citizens.

For approximately forty million American households, the holiday season is also a time to bring a filthy, scratchy, allergy-inducing, insect-ridden tree into the living room, where it will remain for as long as a month.

The typical Christmas tree is teeming with holiday decor: needled branches adorned with trinkets and baubles, wreathed in sparkling lights. But behind the ornate festivity lurks a genuine infestation. Aphids, lice, weevils, spittlebugs, moths, mites, and even the odd spider may reside therein.

"There are a number of insects hiding in a Christmas tree," says Bjarte Jordal, an associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway. "In research on Christmas trees there have been found as many as 25,000 individual creep in some of the trees."

"They go to sleep for the winter, or hibernate to use the technical term," Jordal adds. "They usually empty their bodies of fluids and produce a chilled liquid and are completely inactive. But they reawaken when the tree is brought into the heat of the living room."

Most of these insects are invisible to the human eye or are simply adept at hiding. They primarily linger on or in the tree for the duration of the season, but occasionally do attempt to branch out. In 2010, a Virginian reported an instance in which a surplus of giant conifer aphids descended from their conifer confines and overstayed their welcome:

...all of a sudden, one day I saw them all over the floor surrounding the tree. I kept finding more and more spreading out from around the tree into other rooms. Finally we saw they were all over the trunk and branches of the tree.
But fret not, stories like this are extremely rare, so don't let them spoil your holiday cheer! Besides, tree-infesting insects are, for the most part, completely benign. According to Jordal, "As they cannot feed on the limited plants found in most households, the bugs will quickly dry out and die. These insects and bugs do not constitute any risk or danger to people or furniture."

Cinara_piceae.jpgStill, nobody wants to awaken on Christmas morning to find their neatly-wrapped gifts littered with insect corpses. Thus, to lessen the potential for a holiday insect invasion, inspect any tree -- be it a conifer, pine, fir, or spruce -- thoroughly before purchasing. Search for buggy indications like whitish eggs, small holes with sawdust trails, and the creepy-crawlies, themselves. Before bringing the tree into the house, give it a good shake. This should evict many of the insect residents. 

Remember, says Jordal, "when you bring a tree into the comfort of your living room, the tree carries a part of nature with it." If such an earthy notion appeals to you, feel free to extend the holiday spirit to the thousands of insect interlopers. After all, the season is (theoretically) all about sharing and caring!

However, there's no shame in excluding our six- and eight-legged neighbors from those sentiments. Santa doesn't deliver lumps of coal for kicking bugs out of pine trees.

(Images: 1. Christmas Tree via Shutterstock 2. Conifer Aphid by Enlil2 via Wikimedia Commons)

December 2012 Archives

How to Avoid Spontaneously Combusting

shutterstock_119917441.jpgIt's a nagging worry that constantly loiters in the recesses of the mind: "Will today be that day I spontaneously combust?"

I'm hard-pressed to think of a worse way to go. One day, you might be walking down the street, suffering from a faint tinge of indigestion, when suddenly, poof; you're up in flames. Or perhaps you might be slouched in an armchair, lightly dozing and watching football, when the temperature of the living room unexpectedly jumps a few hundred degrees. Nope, that's not the furnace malfunctioning; it's just your torso... on fire.

The only consolation of combustion is this: the unadulterated pain would rapidly trigger the body's vasovagal reflex, inducing welcome, numbing unconsciousness in a matter of seconds.

There are no credible eyewitness accounts of spontaneous combustion, but the aftermath is described like so: Remains are found in the form of an ash heap, but the legs remain relatively unscathed. Furthermore, the surroundings show minimal signs of fire damage. Only the deceased seems to have burned.

Fewer than 150 cases of spontaneous human combustion have been reported over the last two thousand years. The rareness has rightfully engendered skepticism as to whether the condition truly exists. After all, the human body is approximately sixty percent water. It's simply not flammable.

Yet the unexplained cases still beg an explanation.

"The main theory was always alcoholism," microbiologist Brian Ford told BBC Radio. "People always said that people would drink too much alcohol. Their tissues would become soaked in alcohol, and they'd become inflammable."

This false belief has persisted despite the work of noted German chemist J. von Leibig, who, in 1851, pointed out that anatomical specimens preserved in 70% ethanol don't catch fire. Leibig went even further to substantiate the point. In tests that probably wouldn't pass ethics reviews today, he injected rats with ethanol over prolonged periods and tried to set them on fire. It didn't work.

Seeking an answer to the combustion conundrum, Ford recently searched through the well-documented cases of spontaneous human combustion and realized one commonality: all of the victims seemed to have been unwell. When we're sick, or the body is severely stressed, blood glycogen -- a carbohydrate that our muscles use for fuel -- can become easily depleted. This leads to fat molecules getting broken down and used as energy, instead. If the process is accompanied by cellular starvation, which can occur during chronic illness or even during a strenuous gym workout, acetone can be produced.

It's acetone that Ford theorizes may be the culprit for spontaneous human combustion. Not only is it highly flammable, it can also easily mix with water and lipids, and can thus permeate throughout the body.

To test his theory, Ford constructed 1/12 scale replicas of humans using pig tissue previously soaked in acetone. When set alight, the test dummies blazed magnificently, leaving, as Ford described in NewScientist, "a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs," almost identical to the documented human cases of spontaneous combustion.

Ford openly acknowledges that his experiments are by no means conclusive, though they do present the most plausible explanation yet.

Don't fret; it's extremely unlikely (almost impossible) that a human will simply catch fire without an external catalyst of some sort. Our bodies aren't hazardous chemical factories on the brink of disaster. 

But just in case these musings don't assuage your fear of bursting into flames, can you take a couple simple steps to further mitigate the meager chances that you'll spontaneously combust:

1. Avoid activities and diets which promote ketosis, the bodily state where levels of ketones -- like acetone -- are elevated. These include alcoholism, starvation, and diets based on low-carbohydrate and high fat/protein intake.

2. Avoid potentially dangerous sources of flame or high temperature, especially when drowsy. And don't smoke.

(Image: Attempted Combustion via Shutterstock)

December 2012 Archives

A Universal Sense of Scale

"When I look up at the night sky and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than most of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up -- many people feel small, because they're small, the Universe is big -- but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There's a level of connectivity -- that's really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you're a participant in the goings on and activities and events around you. That's precisely what we are, just by being alive."

-Neil deGrasse Tyson


Stop. Look around. What do you see? A computer perhaps? A chair? A pen? A cup of coffee?

We're surrounded by objects scaled to our existence: clothes that fit us (hopefully), cars to move us, buildings to shelter us.

Your immediate world, the one in which you exist each and every day, is -- in a way -- a deception, a cleverly constructed ruse that skews your sense of scale. There's nothing wrong with this. After all, why shouldn't we tailor our environment to be exactly proportionate to ourselves and our needs?

But there's a vast universe out there, filled with organisms and objects invisible to our direct perception, or too gargantuan for us to comprehend.

There are neutrinos: tiny, subatomic particles moving close to the speed of light. At any given time, about 30 million of these particles flit around inside you. If you sliced a pencil in half (length-wise) seventy-three times, you'd whittle down to about the size of a neutrino -- one yoctometer (0.000000000000000000000001 meters).

Much, much farther up the size ladder, we find the carbon atom, the basic unit of the element fundamental to all life on Earth (yes, including you). With an atomic radius of 70 picometers, it's positively gigantic compared to a tiny neutrino. Yet still, if I placed 50 septillion (10^24) carbon atoms onto the open palm of your outstretched hand, you'd only be holding a measly mass of one kilogram.

The carbon atom is dwarfed by one of the smallest carbon based lifeforms: a ciliate protist. These microscopic, single-celled organisms inhabit lakes, ponds, oceans, rivers, and soils. You can't see them with your naked eye, but you can view them clearly under a microscope, provided, of course, that you've magnified at least 100 times.



4.2 billion kilometers away from Earth, lies the dwarf planet Pluto. You might be surprised to find out that its diameter (about 2,300 kilometers) is a little more than half of the length of the United States (4,200 kilometers). No wonder why it lost its planet status!

Just outside our galactic neighborhood, 18,000 light years away, we find the comparatively small Stingray Nebula. I say comparatively because it's only one-tenth the size of other known planetary nebulae. But this astronomical infant is still 130 times the size of our solar system!

480px-Stingraynebula.jpgAlas, the blobby, green and red Stringray Nebula is but a blip compared to the Milky Way Galaxy. Grab a piece of printer paper and make a dot with a fine point pen anywhere on the sheet. The dot would approximately be the Stringray Nebula. The sheet would be the Milky Way.

Our wondrous universe contains objects and organisms great and small. It's difficult to precisely determine where we fit in on this grand scale. The average human is 7 x 20^18 times more massive than a small virus, and 2.43 x 10^29 times less massive than the largest known star, VY Canis Majoris. Depending upon how you want to picture yourself in the grand scheme of things, you can elect to be a giant or an invisible dot.

But no matter where you fit in within the Universe, the one thing for certain is that you do fit in.

(Image: Stingray Nebula via NASA, Matt Bobrowsky)

December 2012 Archives

Isaac Newton: World Will End in 2060, not 2012

While many Americans likely intend to skip town on Friday, December 21st and head out on a holiday vacation, they might inadvertently find themselves skipping the Earth altogether.

In case you haven't heard, a plethora of Doomsday scenarios are portended to play out on that date. (Soothsayers are covering all the bases, I suppose.) With such death and destruction imminent, why spend money on expensive plane tickets or resort accommodations? Even if you survive the Apocalypse, chances are that it will still spoil your holiday (what with the kids whining about fire, brimstone, and a lack of McDonald's). So don't risk disappointment! In Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fashion, you can lie down and put a paper bag over your head, instead!

Let's run down the predictions. If these aren't mutually exclusive, we'll certainly be in for a world of hurt:

  • The Earth may collide with Planet Nibiru.
  • Earth's magnetic polarity may suddenly reverse, crushing us all to smithereens.
  • A giant, unforeseen asteroid will strike the Earth.
  • There will be a planetary or galactic alignment that will somehow overload the Earth with, uh, gravity... cosmic rays... dark matter... and... um... sheer awesomeness? 

Should we take any of these scenarios seriously? At the risk of serious castigation from conspiracy theorists, I'm going to go out on a limb and say not, "No way," but, "No how."

V838_Mon_HST.jpg Though purported as planet Nibiru, this is actually the star V838 Monocerotis, and it won't collide with Earth.

There is no evidence that Nibiru exists, and if it did, astronomers would have been well aware of its destructive trajectory for over a decade. Geomagnetic shifts -- reversals in Earth's polarity -- actually do take place every 400,000 years or so, but they are quite harmless to planetary life and occur over thousands of years, not in one, supposedly bone-crunching moment. No asteroids are slated to pose a risk to Earth until 2020, and that asteroid -- 2012 TC4 -- has a 1 in 43,000 chance of impacting our planet. And astronomical alignments aren't remotely menacing, only tacitly fascinating to astronomers.

But while we may be in the clear this year, it's certainly not too early to be worrying about the next cataclysm that almost certainly won't happen! Calamitous portents abound over the coming decades, but I'd like to gloss over those fantastical predictions from zany whack jobs and focus solely on the forecast provided by one Sir Isaac Newton. After all, he was correct about gravity, the laws of motion, and the spectrum of white light -- heck -- why not about the end of the world?

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689.jpgContrary to what you might think, Newton was not always the supreme rationalist that we've come to revere. He actually wrote more about theology and alchemy than science and math combined. Newton voraciously sought out patterns and hidden codes within the Bible and other holy texts, with the same dedication he lent to inventing calculus.

After much reading and surprisingly simple calculation, Newton arrived at a date for the end of the world as we know it: 2060. Luckily for us, he didn't mean "end" in a literal sense. He picked 2060 as the approximate date that Christ would return and establish a global kingdom of peace. Of course if Newton's prediction comes to pass, we might have to endure the great battle of Armageddon first, which probably won't be too pleasant.

(Images: 1. NASA and ESA   2. Sir Godfrey Kneller)
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December 2012 Archives

If asked out of the blue to picture a telescope, your mind might conjure up an image of a tall, rounded tower crowned with an immense dome, standing sentinel atop a mighty mountain under a clear, night sky teeming with twinkling stars.

The_VLT´s_Laser_Guide_Star.jpgIn all likelihood, you wouldn't envision a circular web of cables strung with 12,000 beach ball-like detectors, each cable about twice as tall as New York's Empire State Building, anchored two miles deep on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea.

km3net cylinder.jpg
The telescopic array just described is called the Cubic Kilometer Neutrino Telescope, or KM3NeT for short. When operational, its primary mission will be to detect high energy, elusive, subatomic particles -- neutrinos -- and map their stellar sources.

Neutrinos move so fast, and are so tiny, that they can pass through almost anything. But traveling at near the speed of light, they occasionally strike atoms and leave tiny residual signatures of their presence, called Cherenkov radiation, which manifests as a cone of blue light. (That's why nuclear reactors glow blue.) By building KM3NeT at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, submersed in saltwater -- a medium much denser than air -- astrophysicists increase the chance that neutrino collisions will occur, and thus that the thousands of sensors affixed to the telescope will detect them.

As you've likely surmised, KM3NeT is undeniably different compared to land-based telescopes. Most fundamentally, while optical and radio telescopes train their gaze to the heavens above, KM3NeT actually focuses downward. It's arranged as such in order to avoid detecting particles with more local origins. Earth's atmosphere is already brimming with neutrinos, but KM3NeT isn't interested in those. Thus, the telescope uses the Earth as a sort of shield to filter them out.

At an estimated cost upwards of 250 million Euros, the project is a tad pricey. Luckily, seven European countries -- France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Romania, Spain, and Italy -- are pitching in.

Construction has recently embarked on research structures in the Mediterranean, off the shores of Toulon, France; Porto Palo di Capo Passero, Italy; and Pylos, Greece. By Spring 2013, construction will be underway on the thousands of calibration and detection units required for the array. Full, on-site construction is slated to begin in 2014.

DOMBAR-DOMSupport.jpg Part of a detection unit with a detector attached.

When completed, KM3NeT will train its gaze toward the galactic center, where it will hopefully detect neutrinos from pulsars, the environs of black holes, and some of the universe's earliest supernovae. Astrophysicists hope that these long-distance cosmic messengers will reveal fascinating stories about cataclysmic events, and potentially even inform us on the nature of dark matter.

(Images: 1) VLT by G. Hüdepohl/ESO via Wikimedia Commons  2 & 3) KM3NeT via Marco Kraan/Propiety KM3NeT Consortium)

December 2012 Archives

For almost half a century, many astronomers have been locked in the enduring Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Sizable telescopes -- astronomers' eyes and ears -- have been trained to the heavens, looking and listening intently for an otherworldly signal. To date, the search has proved fruitless. Apart from the background noise of space and the occasional astronomical event, SETI astronomers have heard naught but silence.

Except, that is, for a span of 72 seconds in the waning hours of August 15th, 1977, when the Big Ear Radio Observatory of Ohio State University detected a remarkable signal that still, to this day, remains unexplained.

That signal is known as the "Wow! Signal," named after the initial, astonished reaction of astronomer Jerry Ehman, who, upon sifting through the improbable data three days later, penned the following:

640px-Wow_signal.jpgTo the layperson, this picture may only seem to display an array of dull, random digits. But when you understand what it represents, you'll realize that it's anything but boring.

The numbers indicate the signal intensity detected by Big Ear for certain regions of space, defined as the ratio of signal strength versus the level of background noise. For example, a blank space would denote a signal between zero and one times as loud as the background noise of deep space, "1" would indicate between one and two times as loud, "2" between two and three times as loud, etc. Letters suggest a more intense signal. "A" denotes between ten and eleven times as loud, "B" between eleven and twelve times as loud, etc.

The Wow! signal -- the circled 6EQUJ5 -- meant that Big Ear detected a signal originating from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius that, at its strongest, was thirty times more powerful than the background noise of deep space!

But what's the big whoop? Scientists have discovered signals just as powerful from pulsars, quasars, supernovae and other natural astronomical phenomena. Why is Wow! special? As Robert Gray, author of the book The Elusive Wow: Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, explained to The Atlantic:

With the "Wow!" there wasn't any noise on any of the channels except for one, and that's just not the way natural radio sources work. Natural radio sources diffuse static across all frequencies, rather than hitting at a single frequency... It was a very narrow band, very concentrated, exactly like a radio station, or a broadcast, from another world would look. 
Furthermore, the signal was detected at a frequency of 1420 Megahertz (1420.4556 MHz to be precise, according to Ehman). This is almost identical to the frequency at which hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, resonates. Years earlier, two Cornell physicists, Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi, writing in the journal Nature, postulated that aliens might attempt to make contact using that frequency, since it would likely be meaningful to a society with an understanding of science.

In the wake of the Wow! signal, with all signs improbably pointing to an extraordinary conclusion, Ehman took the data to colleagues John Kraus and Bob Dixon, and the trio set about the task of disproving the finding, as any good scientists would do.

Did the signal originate from a planet or an asteroid? Nope. It didn't fit the type of thermal emission expected from an astral body, and none were in the vicinity at the time of the transmission.

Did the signal come from a satellite or a spacecraft? No. Again, none were in the telescope's beam at the time of the Wow! source.

What about an airplane? Highly unlikely. No planes are allowed to transmit at 1420 MHz and the Wow! signal almost certainly originated from a fixed point with respect to the celestial background (the positions of stars), meaning that it came from light years away.

How about a computer glitch? Doubtful, as the systems were examined repeatedly afterwards. A ground-based transmission that bounced off space debris? An electromagnetic wave deflected from a star or galaxy? A wave sent from the twinkling of stars? All are plausible explanations, but deemed highly unlikely.

With rigorous analysis performed and all simple explanations pretty much ruled out, the only interpretation remaining was the most improbable one of all: a signal from an alien race. Yet since 1977, astronomers have focused their telescopes at the constellation Sagittarius, pricking up their ears in the direction where Wow! originated. They've heard nothing.

The ultimate rule of science is repeatability, and despite over one hundred follow-up studies on the Wow! signal, it's never once been observed again. "Thus, we have a small sample size of exactly one observation," writes H. Paul Shuch, emeritus executive director of SETI League. "This makes the signal intriguing, and enigmatic. It is suggestive of, but not proof of, our cosmic companions."

Years later, astronomical scientists like David Grinspoon still fantasize about the Wow! signal. Was it perhaps a snippet of conversation between two alien ships? And we were simply in the right place at the right time to eavesdrop?

But others, like Columbia University astronomer Caleb Scharf approach it with skepticism. It's very hard to exhaust the alternative possibilities when we are constantly learning more and more about the universe, he told NPR.

But, he added, "I can't in good conscience say that we will never see something. And I know that if we did, it would be amazing."

(Image: The Ohio State University Radio Observatory and the North American AstroPhysical Observatory (NAAPO) via Wikimedia Commons)

December 2012 Archives

Today, as evidenced by the undying popularity of Harry Potter, it seems incomprehensible that a large majority of Western society would ever look upon witchcraft with anything but sparkling adoration. Yet only four centuries ago, it probably was more common to burn witches than read about their marvelous adventures.

Europe of the 15th century was locked in the loosening, albeit terrible grips of the Black Plague. Death and decay besieged the landscape. Fear was rife, and the population was riven with it.

In trying times like these, humanity is best served by coming together. But more often than not, we unfortunately choose to tear ourselves asunder. Scapegoating becomes our primary goal. So it was in the 15th century, when the Pope and various countries labeled "heresy" as a corruption to be purged. Witches became the prime target.

In 1486, the Malleus Maleficarum -- "The Hammer of Witches" -- was written and published at the behest of Pope Innocent VIII. The manuscript called for witches to be hunted down and killed, and even contained instructions on how to recognize, torture, and execute them.

Matteson_Examination_of_a_Witch.jpgInquisitors sprung up throughout Europe, and, as Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, the whole draconian enterprise quickly became an "expense account scam":

"All costs of investigation, trial, and execution were borne by the accused or her relatives --right down to the per diems for the private detectives hired to spy on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer from another city... Then there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch burned. The convicted witch's remaining property, if any, was divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention turned from poor hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes."

In Britain, witch-hunting was so lucrative that it actually fueled livelihoods. Witch-finders, also known as "prickers," received a sizable bounty for each girl or woman they turned over to the church. Because incentives were purely doled out per witch, prickers were often careless with their accusations. One man confessed that he had been the death of 220 women in his career.

In total, between 40,000 and 60,000 witches were executed in Europe between 1450 and 1750. The craze was fueled by inane fear and unquestioned belief, and it only ended when remedied with empirical reason, skepticism, and humanitarianism brought on by the Age of Enlightenment.