Category Archives: Science

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.

Gunung Merapi Set To Blow

Looks like Gunung Merapi is just about ready to blow up. People are evacuating from around the volcano, the ground is rumbling, ash and gas are spewing from the caldera and it looks dire. I hope people get out of the way, and Borobudur is safe from harm. The ancient stupa is about 10 miles from the volcano is I remember correctly.

Anyway, this guy is blogging from near Mt. Merapi. I think I’ll keep an eye on his weblog for the next few days.

Scattershot Links

Time for a random smattering of links as I clear some tabs off of Camino:

  1. Scientists penetrate fossil magma chamber beneath ocean crust – drilling more than a mile through the ocean floor, geologists drilled through volcanic rock to reach an ancient magma chamber beneath the ocean’s surface. Remember that movie The Core? I wonder if it was like that?
  2. A survey of open source applications for Mac OS XFink and DarwinPorts, more software than you can shake a stick at. And it’s all free.
  3. Vibramfivefingers – A bootie with toes, it’s supposed to fit the foot like a glove. Looks freaky deaky to me.
  4. US Navy obsolete in War on Terror – Another example of that old aphorism that the military always prepares to fight the last war. The world’s most powerful navy has nobody to fight.
  5. More evidence for Nemesis? – That’s Nemesis, the undiscovered companion star of our Sun. The chief proponent of this theory says that newly discovered Sedna orbits in resonance with previously published orbital data for this undiscovered star.
  6. Nile explorers relate their adventures – Rousing adventure tale on the National Geographic website. Wonder how long before it is featured on the National Geographic Channel?
  7. Citizen Cope – Been listening to this guy a lot lately. Once I get my iBook back from Marianas Electronics I think I’ll pay a visit to the iTunes Music Store.
  8. Itchy ‘N Scratchy – Yeah, I got jafjaf. That reminds me, I need to go take my prescription for this.
  9. Odd man out in a cut-throat world – Now there’s a bookstore I wouldn’t mind working in for a few years.
  10. Kryptos confounds sleuths – because of a typo – The mysterious sculpture Kryptos adorns an atrium on the grounds of the CIA in Langley, Virginia. For sixteen years it has stymied cryptographers attempting to decipher the code encrypted across the undulating surface. Turns out there’s a good reason why: the artist made a typo.
  11. Surprise! Bugs at airport blamed on Yingling – Boy, I didn’t see that coming from a mile off.
  12. Warcraft III – Been thinking about actually buying a video game. Of course, it’s three or four years old, but it still looks cool. And it’s cheap…
  13. Nepalis celebrate – Looks like the king caved in and recalled parliament after several years. Hopefully this calms the situation in Nepal.
  14. The English laugh at our low gasoline prices – They pay $8 a gallon in merry old England for petrol.
  15. CNMI mentioned in Alternet – a look at Jack Abramoff’s dealings with the Northern Marianas and guest workers.
  16. Gas prices spurring ‘moped madness’ – I must admit, I’ve been thinking about buying a motorcycle. The incredible mileage is hard to beat, but frankly it would suck to ride a bike on Guam in August.
  17. Apocalysts now – Finally, how about a screed against George W. Bush’s religious overtones? Nothing like scaring the atheists and riling up the devout.

Rivers Flow Beneath Antarctic Ice

A British team of scientists revealed an interesting hypothesis this week. Scientists at the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling announced the discovery of massive rivers of liquid water buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. The rivers run beneath the various lakes that are known to exist under the ice on the frozen continent.

The rivers are ephemeral subglacial phenomena, briefly existing when conditions are right. The lakes exist because of the intense pressure generated by the weight of miles of ice. Occasionally the pressure becomes too much, and the lake pops like a champagne cork, unleashing a flow of water to the next lake which can run for several hundred miles.

The evidence for this discovery is compelling. Between 1996 and 1998, the ice above one subglacial lake on Dome C in eastern Antarctica fell three meters in 16 months, a drastic change that normally would take decades. At the same time in two neighboring areas 290 kilometers away, also above lakes, the ice rose by over a meter.

The only explanation the scientists could find to explain this change was that the water suddenly rushed out of one lake and ran beneath the ice sheet to the neighboring lakes.

The lake that lost the water is 600 square kilometers, about the size of Lake Tahoe. The researchers calculated that the flow of water was probably comparable to a major river, specifically the Thames in England.

It is possible some of these subglacial floods even burst forth upon the surface and reached the ocean in the past. Ice free areas of Antarctica show evidence of past floods, deep trenches carved into the rock by moving water. These floods could be the source.

This sounds a lot like what could be happening on Mars. There are certainly signs of past Martian floods, and hints of massive ice packs buried beneath a layer of dust. I wonder if liquid water could be flowing beneath the ice on the red planet as well?

Avian Flu Coming To Guam?

So I got into a discussion last night about bird flu. The topic was sparked by yesterday’s conference about island pandemic preparedness that featured the Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Richard Carmona.

The basic gist of it was how Guam is a migratory stop off for Asiatic birds. The transiting birds, infected with avian flu, pass it along to the myriad feral chickens on the island. Those chickens in turn pass it to the scores of fighting gamecocks ensconced around the island. The rooster handlers live in close proximity to the birds and the jump to humans will occur there, with 100% fatality.

Huh. That’s an interesting chain of events. Can’t say I’ve ever seen flocks of migratory birds on Guam though.

PS – I know what the H5N1 in H5N1 avian flu stands for. Do you? Here’s a hint; the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was H1N1 influenza virus.