Category Archives: Science

A Life Told In Bone And Stone

Dr. Gary Heathcote sent me a link to his report on the Taotao Tagga’, the remains of a Chamorro male on display at the CNMI Museum of History and Culture. He lived on Tinian in the 16th century, during the end of the latte stone period and the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the islands.

Dr. Heathcote examined the skeletal remains are draws some conclusions about his life and occupation. In a word, Taotao Tagga’ was very robust, showing telltale signs of a lifetime spent quarrying and transporting heavy stone. He was gravely wounded earlier in his youth, but survived and lived a relatively long and healthy life.

It is a very interesting report, and Dr. Heathcote concludes with some remarks on Guam’s failure to create a museum of similar caliber with the CNMI’s. He has a valid point, which could be extended to the library and schools. It seems as though the civic will to create and fund these bastions of community does not exist on Guam. The museum is in cardboard boxes in a warehouse, the library is in a state of disrepair and the school system is just a complete mess. The cohesive bonds that create a polity are frayed on this island, but this is vital stuff, the very lifeblood of a society. I know it is hard to see the value in these things when the power grid is fragile, villages go without water and there aren’t enough cops on the street, but things like museums, libraries and schools represent an investment in the future. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul to neglect them during these tough times.

Pluto May Yet Be Knocked Off The Planetary Roll Call

Wait a minute astronomy buffs! I reported just the other day about the proposed new planets in the solar system, but on Friday a competing definition of what makes a planet was put forth by a Uruguayan astronomer. Under this new proposal, a planet is an object that is “by far larger than the local population.” So Pluto is out, since it is so much smaller than the other planets and similar to the Kuiper Belt objects that are popping up in astronomer’s telescopes.

Seems some scientists are turned off by the possibility of hundreds of planets in our solar system some day, most of them being tiny snowballs at the extreme edge of the sun’s demesne. And Pluto is the prototypical snowball at the chilly edge of the solar system, with it’s cockeyed orbit and icy consistency.

And for what it’s worth, check out Stephen Colbert dogging the new planets with Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.

Say Hello To Your New Planets

Pluto gets to stay a planet, but 3 additional objects get an upgrade to planetary status. Under a proposal by the International Astronomical Union an attempt is being made to define what exactly is a planet. Until now it has been a touch and go classification. But now astronomers are trying to use gravity as the basis of planetary qualification.

  • The object must be in orbit around a star, but must not itself be a star. In other words; no moons, no matter how large.
  • It must have enough mass for the body’s own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape. That means no oblong asteroids; an object must be larger than about 500 miles in diameter to assume a spherical shape.

Say hello to your new planets, Ceres, Charon and 2003 UB313 aka Xena. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, with a diameter of 512 miles. Pluto and its moon Charon are roughly the same size and will become the solar system’s first double planet, and 2003 UB313 is even larger than Pluto.

New Solar System

What this does not do is recognize large moons like our own, Saturn’s Titan or the Galilean Moons of Jupiter as planets. Just does seem fair that barren little Ceres is a planet while great big honking Ganymede or Titan, both with diameters of roughly 3200 miles, are denied worldly status. But the definition is explicit; Ganymede and Titan orbit their parent worlds, not the Sun, and thus they are moons.

Cloning Neanderthals Is A Bad Idea

A time traveler from the year 2116 has startled scientists with dire warnings about the future of Mankind a little more than a century into the future. Arriving in a ball of blue plasma outside the White House, the naked man was taken into custody by secret service agents. Some members of the press were present for an unrelated event and managed to take a few pictures, which were promptly confiscated. However, witnesses report hearing the man screaming, “Cloning Neanderthals is not cool, man!”
Time Traveler From Year 2116 Warns Scientists

Did Hell Just Freeze Over?

So now suddenly Pat Robertson is sidling up to the godless environmentalists and liberals in his acceptance of global warming? Is this some sort of joke? Not two weeks ago he ran an interview with Senator James Inhofe, implying that environmentalists were in league with Al Queda and sacrificed babies to Satan, to say nothing of conclusively proving that the Lord Almighty did not see fit to cause global warming. Guess that’s a 360° in world view, or maybe a change of heart. Anyway, welcome aboard Pat, though I don’t know how assassinating Hugo Chavez will reduce global warming, your welcome to try.

Random Links

Time for a flurry of random, unrelated links to marginally interesting stuff. Behold the power of the internets!

  • Mapping Medieval Townscapes – An atlas of the towns founded by Edward I between 1277 and 1303. That’s Edward Longshanks, the evil king from Braveheart. Make no mistake, these villages were founded in Wales for the exact purpose that Israel plopped down all those settlements in the West Bank.
  • Nazi aircraft carrier located – A Polish oil exploration outfit has found the wreck of Nazi Germany’s only aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin. The ship never saw action in World War II, and there is some speculation about how it was sunk.
  • Book of Psalms found in Irish bog – A thousand year old copy of the Book of Psalms was discovered by a construction in a peat bog.
  • Virtue Desktops – If you own a Mac, this is worth it’s weight in gold. This gives you four different virtual desktops to play with, just like any other Unix/Linux system. VirtueDesktops is the bee’s knees. I can’t sing it’s praises enough.
  • 86400 Moments – An interesting photo exhibit, documenting a day in Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Apple Support Specifications – Can’t get enough information about current and older Macs? Check out Apple’s support pages with details about every Powerbook, iMac, iBook, iPod, eMac, PowerMac, AirPort, MacBook, Mac Mini or display Apple’s ever made.
  • Mechanical Turk – Looking to make a few bucks doing a mindless job for Amazon? Turns out it is a lot easier for them to pay scads of people a bit of money to identify stuff (pink shoes, jazz records, tabby cats) than to write software to do the same thing. Get in on the action and earn a couple bucks today.
  • Underground Russia – Morlocks
  • Rachel Ray and the food snobs – Just digging through the long tail here folks. I think she looks cute, though maybe a little too perky.
  • Underground Japan – More Morlock technology.
  • Camera phones are ‘obstruction of justice’ – This guy was arrested for taking a picture of cops in a drug bust on his street.
  • Pat Robertson and Senator James Inhofe on the threat of environmentalism – Whoa. That just creeps me out.
  • The Eco-Bubble – Speaking of the environment, maybe it is starting to look like the tech bubble of the nineties. But that ain’t exactly a bad thing.

Alaskan Volcano

I mentioned the lucky happenstance of the space station capturing the Mt. Augustine volcano erupting in the Cook Inlet of Alaska a couple weeks ago; now via Derek Miller’s redoubtable Penmachine blog, here are some more great pictures of this photogenic mountain.

See Mt. Augustine at Flickr

These photos come from a great photo set on Flickr by AKDave, a professional photographer for an emergency services department in central Alaska. Sounds like an exciting job to me.

See Mt. Augustine at Flickr

There’s even a webcam on the island to catch the eruptions. Cool.

A Ring Tone Meant For Deaf Ears

I think I already mentioned this entertaining story about teens using ultra high frequency noises as ring tones for their mobiles, frequencies that older adults can no longer hear. Well the New York Times ran a story on the ring tone yesterday, and they provided a sample of this ring tone for teens only. That set me off on a search for other people talking about this ring tone and I found this, which led me to this. Ochen K. was curious just how high he could hear this noise, and he created a sample of sound files at progressively higher frequencies. I can hear the noise up to 16,000 Hz, then nothing at 17,000. Absolutely nothing. A man’s got to know his limitations.

The Kircher Code

I forgot to mention this interesting article last night in connection with the Da Vinci Code. Instead of Leonardo, why not pause to give Athanasius Kircher a moment’s notice. Kircher was Jesuit priest and genuine Renaissance man who taught mathematics at the Collegio Romano in the 17th century. He also ran the museum at the Vatican. A case could be made that we owe Kircher a far greater debt than Da Vinci. While Leonardo encrypted all his thoughts in private notebooks, Kircher was a prolific publisher. He was the prototype of the modern university professor, though with a polymath’s myriad fascinations. Archaeology, alchemy, biology, mathematics, history, languages, and cryptography, Kircher was truly ecumenical in his tastes and interests.

Monday Link-O-Rama

Time for a Link-O-Rama of stuff I’ve come across in the last week or so. It’s mostly science related stuff, with a couple political stories tossed into the mix. Enjoy.

  • The Condor And The Whale – It’s kind of grisly, but also pretty cool: Check out these California condor’s picking on the washed up corpse of a whale near Big Sur.
  • Giant Impact Crater Found Under Antarctic Ice – Scientists located a massive 300 mile wide impact crater from a meteor strike buried under a mile of ice in Antarctica. They speculate this strike played a part in the Permian extinction event 250 million years ago.
  • From Hawaii to Iraq: A century of American Regime Change

    By Stephen Kinzer’s count, the United States has toppled foreign governments 14 times in the 110 years between the 1893 coup in Hawaii and the occupation of Iraq, making regime change by force as American as apple pie. But Mr. Kinzer says the results are always damaging to the countries involved, and to American security as well.

    Mr. Kinzer, formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, has written on this subject before, in books on United States intervention in Iran and Guatemala. In ”Overthrow” he surveys all 14 cases in an admirably written page-turner.

    Although the book does not add to historical knowledge of the individual cases, it may be the first to bring them together in a comparison over time. This makes the narrative more interesting than a single case study, but also more depressing.

    In Mr. Kinzer’s treatment there are no bright spots. In one instance after another, arrogant Americans are shown tossing out legitimate governments and installing corrupt brutes who turn out to cause more problems for foreign policy than did the ousted leaders.

    Mr. Kinzer’s main explanation for these recurrent misadventures is greed.

  • Ash Plume Photographed from Space – Maybe the Internation Space Station has some uses after all. Astronaut Jeff Williams was the first person to notice the Cleveland volcano erupting on the Aleutian island of Chuginadak on May 23. He snapped some cool photos as the ISS passed overhead.
  • Slab of Ocean Floor Found Deep Within Earth – Geologists discovered a piece of the ocean floor submerged deep within the earth’s molten mantle, halfway to the center of the earth. They believe it offers up clues to the dynamics of plate tectonics, theorizing that the slab actually pulls the ocean floor down towards the center of the earth “like a carpet sliding off the dining room table.”
  • Drought Worsens Water Problems in China – China is in the grip of a terrible water shortage and the countryside is particularly hard hit.
  • Dalai Lama gives Awards to Tutu and Tintin – The Dalai Lama presented Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Light of Truth Award from the Campaign for Tibet, along with another award for the Herge Foundation, publisher of the Tintin series of children’s books.
  • 5,000 Years of Genetic Manipulation in a Cup of Yogurt – Turns out yogurt is a hotbed of genetic evolution. The bacteria that causes yogurt, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, originally ate plants. Somehow it got mixed in with some milk and people discovered it clotted the milk and kept it from spoiling. Thousands of years of yogurt making produced a markedly different creature from that original bacillus, one that can no longer survive outside of its creamy habitat.
  • Ozone Making a Comeback – Finally a little good news about the environment. Almost 20 years after halocarbons (like CFCs) were banned by international accord, the ozone layer shielding our planet from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation is making a comeback. The gaping hole over Antarctica is still there, but the global concentrations are increasing. Make no mistake, the ozone is still terrible depleted and letting unprecedented amount of ultraviolet light reach the surface.
  • Flock of Dodos – I’d like to catch this movie, probably on DVD I guess. Carl Zimmer has good things to say about it, so let me plug it here too.
  • Flores Hobbit and Her Tools – Speaking of Carl and his excellent blog, The Loom, he has a good piece on Home floresiensis, the Hobbit discovered last year in Indonesia. There’s been a lot of discussion about the skull found by the archaeologists, and whether a being that small was the norm on Flores, or just a diseased individual. But it looks like the tools found in the cave were just as diminutive as the Hobbit fossils and show a long period of habitation on the island.
  • Container Wasteland – The interesting bit in this story about railroad and shipping upgrades is the first couple paragraphs. Across the eastern USA, vast yards of empty shipping containers have piled up alongside railroad tracks. “China is shipping so many goods to the United States that the Chinese often find it cheaper to build new containers with low-cost labor and leave their empty ones in the United States than send them home empty.”
  • Meat on a Stick – I like meat. Our species eats meat. It tastes good. But it has all these messy ethical challenges in our industrial era. I can’t say I’m happy eating ground beef from those meat packing plants, or pork from hogs raised in cages. So why not grow our meat? We have the technology to create artificial meat cultured in labs. I’d rather eat something like that than a can of Spam…
  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Nice intro article on number stations, that weird relic of the Cold War (maybe) which can be found on shortwave all over the world. To make a long story short, number stations are used by governments to send orders and instructions to spies and undercover moles. They are rather creepy to listen too, check out the archived recordings.


The Pacific Daily News ran this story yesterday. A team of US and Japanese scientists filmed an undersea volcano just north of Guam using a deep sea remote submersible. The video footage is very cool, showing yellow smokey ash and particulate matter falling from just a few feet away. It is even possible to catch a glimpse of molten lava occasionally.

This is not the volcano on Anatahan Island, which erupted for a couple years. This is an undersea volcano called NW Rota 1, which lies 1,800 feet under the surface of the ocean. 60 miles north of Guam. I vaguely remember hearing about this volcano several years ago, when dead fish and fizzing, sulfurous water were noticed by fishermen passing above the fumarole.

Homo floresiensis – Maybe Not A Hobbit After All

Anthropology is such a contentious field. This whole brouhaha over Homo floresiensis is just typical of the sometimes rather bitter debate over human origins.

The story was reignited this week with the release of a paper in the journal Science. A team from the Field Museum in Chicago stated that the only explanation for the incredibly small brain size of H. floresiensis can only be explained by microcephaly, a genetic disorder that causes small brain sizes. However, the scientists suggest that this microcephalic individual found on Flores was from a tribe of pygmies, explaining the small stature of the skeleton. So maybe her and her tribe of H. erectus were pygmies, and she was a microcephalic. Guess it’s time for another round of rancorous debate.

By the way, microcephalics were frequently exhibited as circus freaks called pinheads by P.T. Barnum and other nineteenth and twentieth century circus impresarios; the most famous was Zip the Pinhead, who was quite famous across the U.S.A. from the 1860’s until 1926.

Smattering Of Science

Some interesting stories floating around on the internet lately:

  • Tomb of Xena uncovered in Peru – Archaeologists unearthed a Moche woman’s tomb in in northern Peru, revealing a rich trove of grave artifacts and weapons. Speculation abounds that she was a tattooed warrior woman, an unprecedented find in South American anthropology.
  • Three Gorges Dam set for completion – Well I guess I’ll never get to the the famed Three Gorges of the Yangtze. The dam is just about finished, with the last concrete being poured this weekend.
  • Solar system discovered – Astronomers located a solar system containing three rocky, medium sized planets. 3 planets the size of Neptune and an asteroid belt are orbiting the star HD69830, about 41 light years away in the constellation of Puppis. The furthest planet is in the habitable zone of the star, and could harbor liquid water.
  • Ancient Egyptian colonialism – In 1550 B.C., ancient Egypt conquered the kingdom of Nubia. A newly discovered cemetery revealed that Egypt absorbed Nubians into the imperial hierarchy. Several high status officials were buried in the cemetery, and most of them were local Nubians. They were uniters, not dividers.
  • Our muddled ancestry – So there was significant interbreeding between human and chimpanzee ancestors several million years ago. Maybe I am a monkey’s uncle.
  • AMD rolls out 64 bit, dual core laptop processor – I think my next computer will be powered by AMD. They are making some really powerful chips.
  • Real Time Satellite Tracking – This is cool, really cool. Coolest link here. Using Google Maps data, track satellites as they orbit overhead. Best fun is zoom in on hybrid mode and watch how fast the ISS space station hurtles across the landscape.
  • Worst president ever? – Finally, it’s not science related, but I was amazed by this quote in the Rolling Stone article:

    According to the Treasury Department, the forty-two presidents who held office between 1789 and 2000 borrowed a combined total of $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions. But between 2001 and 2005 alone, the Bush White House borrowed $1.05 trillion, more than all of the previous presidencies combined.

    That just flabbergasts me. Can this be true? Holy guacamole, that’s a real accomplishment.

Magnetic Records

Came across a couple interesting stories last week about researchers using the logs of seventeenth century vessels to measure the historical strength and location of the magnetic pole. They concluded that the magnetic field is weakening, a finding that corroborates other research into the magnetic field.

Previous magnetic pole reversals were preceded by a weakening magnetic field, and this weakening fits the pattern. The field is still quite strong though, so researchers think a pole reversal could be several thousand years in the future if the weakening continues apace.