Archives for posts with tag: Science

The First Day of Spring is but two days away: Easter Lilies, jonquils, irises, and daffodils push up through soil; buds return to trees; avid gardeners start seeds; and cats pounce Springtime prey. Indeed, Spring is upon us. As are the allergies, the thunderstorms, and the bugs. I thought I would try to appreciate these creepy-crawlies by reading David MacNeal’s “Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them.”

We’re introduced to bugs with a staggering statistic: “for every one of us [humans] there are roughly 1.4 billion insects.” According to MacNeal, that’s 10 quintillion bugs, approximately 7,400,000,000 humans and 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects. In other words, it’s a bug’s world and we’re all just living in it. It makes sense, then, that we learn about the who, what, when, where, and whys of bugs and the influence they have.

MacNeal opens his self-proclaimed cabinet of curiosities with those who breathe life into dead bugs. That is, bug taxidermists. In an Entomology Department (of a boutique) in Lower Manhattan, we learn that pinning bugs isn’t as simple as catching one and shoving a pin through its thorax. Meet Lorenzo, who’s pinned and mounted bugs for twenty-plus years. He pulls a water bug (cockroach, really) out of an overnight-soak solution. Equally appalling and interesting is that the bug was dried, packaged, and shipped from Thailand to be mounted and purchased in NYC. Lorenzo further prepares this cockroach, I mean water bug, by carefully removing its innards and otherwise making it suitable for mounting and selling. In short, it must look good—collectors like a pretty bug. And, oh, the amounts of money they’ll spend to get one.

Vanity collections and collectors aside, MacNeal illustrates that all sorts of people study all sorts of bugs for all sorts of reasons. Leaving Lower Manhattan’s buggy boutique, we go underground with entomologists who study ants. We discover that their studies and modeling of ant behavior may lead to a better understanding of our own interactions with and impacts on the world. We learn how ants have influenced algorithms, specifically that of the Internet’s transmission-control protocol (TCP).

We come up for air in Colorado, where a woman works with tarantulas in a “Rearing Room” and we head to a “Mosquito Factory” in Brazil. In Brazil, we dig into the seemingly useless lives of mosquitoes not unlike the way they will soon dig into us. Fun fact: Half of human deaths, since the history of humans, are attributed to mosquitoes. Another fun fact: Beetles have destroyed over 60 acres of North American forests since 1994. Yet another: Because of bugs, wallpaper was once infused with DDT (which wasn’t banned until 1972).

Yet, in spite of death and decimation, bugs are, in fact, beneficial. Well, maybe not mosquitoes (or fleas), but bugs spur innovation. Insects can help us become healthier, fight disease, and, according to the author, perhaps help us “end our antibacterial plight.” Not to mention the increasingly apparent health benefits of eating bugs. Seriously! ‘Micro-livestock,’ as those within the field call them, contain significantly more calcium and iron than meats commonly consumed in the Western world. Other bug benefits include “first responders” that gnaw through decay, pest-controlling insects that save billions of dollars per year in the US alone, and the positive affects bugs have had on 21st century medicine.

What I took away from this book is for every bad bug, there is a good bug. Do I have a greater appreciation for these creepy-crawlies? Uh, sure. Other than mosquitoes. Lastly, I might mention that this book is not for the weak-stomached, as the author describes exterminators who allow bed-bugs to feed on their arms (and he tries it himself), the horrific symptoms of those with yellow fever, and other gut-wrenching, stomach-churning matter. Overall, the content of this book was fascinating, if at times appalling, and the writing good, if at times dense. You know, dense like the jungle. Where there are lots of bugs.

As always, happy reading.

bhbFormed when stars collapse, black holes are a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists since they were predicted in 1915 by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Black holes have infiltrated pop culture as well, appearing as plot points in dozens of books, tv shows, movies, and even video games. Difficult to study because they are so far away and because they so powerful they can literally suck in light, black holes are a great mystery of science.

Janna Levin introduces these phenomena with the fact that, if two black holes were to collide, they would produce a sound. The universe is full of sound, she tells us, we just can’t hear it. But what if, science asks, we could? This question led to a quest over two decades old.

Officially begun in 1994 by the National Science Foundation, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually two observatories working together to seek out whatever sounds the universe might be making. The research that led to the foundation of LIGO came from an international team of dynamic scientists.

Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, Rochus E. Vogt, and Barry Barish are not household names. They are, however, some of the scientists whose research created the basis for LIGO. Drever, for instance, used mirrors in his Scottish backyard to detect Earth’s movements, leading to the mirrors used at the LIGO institutes. They are, if you’ll indulge me, the bad boys of astrophysics. Strong personalities and fighting fueled by mistrust and lack of scientific progress nearly ended LIGO before it began.

Levin provides intimate biographies of the major players in this quest to hear the sounds made by the universe. These biographies serve not only to provide a look at who is involved, but they also give depth to the story, showing how these scientists are connected to the likes of Galileo, Einstein, and Oppenheimer. Each of the LIGO scientists were independently brilliant, all unknowingly working on the same problem from their locations around the world.

Perseverance has proved a powerful force for LIGO. The team, plus or minus founding members, survived and has been listening to the universe since the mid 1990s. Upgrades were made to the stations over the years. Most recently, upgrades were completed in 2015, making the observatories more sensitive than ever before. Future upgrades are planned, and a there is talk of building a third observatory in India.

The punchline to “Black Hole Blues” is that in February of this year, LIGO announced that they had detected the waves created by the collision of two black holes. There are strict guidelines in place for analyzing any data collected by the observatories. The discovery was actually made shortly after the most recent upgrades were made, but the results had to be confirmed. Goal achieved, the team has helped prove Einstein’s 101 year-old theory about what happens when black holes merge.

Levin’s book is less about black holes than humankind’s quest for answers about them. Black holes were only recently proven to be real. They are thousands of lightyears away from us and we’ll most likely never be able to study them up close. What drives a person to devote their life to research this unknowable phenomena? Like black holes, we may never have all the answers to the questions that surround them.

How to Fake a Moon Landing by Darryl CunninghamTeen Nonfiction

How to Fake a Moon Landing looks at the controversies surrounding things like climate change, evolution, fracking, alternative medicines, and the moon landing and applies cold, hard logic and scientific evidence to these controversies. Cunningham takes time to explain each subject, detailing the history behind the subject, the controversy itself and why there shouldn’t really be a controversy. He’s very thorough and makes some really good points.

I found the chapter on homeopathy quite interesting. I had no idea what homeopathy was before reading How to Fake a Moon Landing, so I was fascinated by how it “works” and the pseudo-science behind it. I think it’s especially helpful that Cunningham explains how even though homeopathy’s remedies are ultimately harmless, the denial of science-based medicine in preference of homeopathy is harmful.

All-in-all, How to Fake a Moon Landing is a great book for anyone interested in the full, controversies included picture of the subjects discussed as well as for readers who just want to know what all the hubbub is about. Cunningham’s use of comics and pictures is an inspired choice. This format makes the subjects approachable and the information easier to digest.