Monthly Archives: July 2014

6 AIDS Advocates Lost

I looked a little more deeply into what the AIDS research and advocacy community lost on Flight MH17, in this piece for Live Science Health. There were not, as originally reported (and as referenced in my earlier blog post) upwards of 100 AIDS scientists and activists on the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine. The International AIDS conference in Australia to which they were traveling confirmed six people headed to the conference died on that flight.

That included Joep Lange, who was, by all accounts, a pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher, as well as a passionate advocate. The others lost worked as advocates and activists. If nothing else, their work suggests the many ways people can have an effect on this pandemic (and vice versa) — from letting people know that the female condom is a thing to fighting for sex workers’ rights.

How Many Animals Are There?


Let’s say you had to make a new Ark, a SPACE ARK, and a returned Elohim declared that you must reconstitute every species now living on Earth on a new home.

He might make it easier on us by using the old “two of every kind” algorithm. Then, we could more simply estimate what we needed, and the size of our Space Ark. Some of this work has already been done (probably not for that purpose). Here’s an estimate for the number of species on planet Earth: 8.7 million (with an error margin of 1.3 million). That comes from a “new analytical technique” published in 2011 by the Census of Marine Life (don’t worry, they estimated both land and sea life numbers.)

But what if we then were charged with replicating Earth once we arrived, jet-lagged and really sick of spotting inteplanetary license plates, at Earth 2.0? We’d need to breed our stock up to an Earthlike level of biomass. That means we might need to know, so as not to grossly imbalance our felines vs. our lepidoptera, for example, how many animals live on Earth. Not how many species — how many animals? More accurately, how many individual organisms? If you took a head count? Heads on tables, you creepy crawlies, and one hand up.

That’s tougher. I wanted to find a ballpark figure for that number when I was writing yesterday’s post about the dinosaur die-off — basically, I was curious about how many individual dinosaurs lived at any one time (before the mass extinction). So, I thought I’d look into how many animals exist today…and there’s not much on it (that I could find). Here’s an essay from 2009 attempting to estimate how many wild animals roam the planet.

Drawing from various sources, the author lists numbers of, for example, mammals of 10^11 to 10^12 — so on the order of 10 trillion. Land birds (i.e., the remaining dinosaurs) come in a bit lower, at up to 4 trillion. The number of animals, then, if these numbers are at least ballpark believable, will likely stick to the trillions. Tens of trillions, maybe. Possibly up to the 100s of trillions.

The real heavy-hitters come with the insects, at up to 10^19 — or (if I’m counting zeros correctly) 100 quintillion (!!) — the zooplankton, at up to 10 sextillion, and the nematodes, coming in at up to 100 sextillion.

So, in other words, the head count of individual organisms on Space Ark Earth is a lot simpler if you just say, “Several sextillion microorganisms…plus an order of magnitude less insects…and odds and ends of other stuff.” Mammals, numbering merely in the trillions, amount to a millionth, at best, of the insect crowd, and a billionth of the nematodes.

So, how many animals are there on Earth? Doesn’t matter. Focus on the nematodes, Space Noah.

Asteroid Kicked Dinos When They Were Down

via Shuterstock
via Shuterstock

What if…the dinosaurs never died?

Think of that. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Of course, there is the somewhat unfortunate caveat that we, meaning humans, would likely not exist had T. Rex and friends (and meals and competitors) not perished under the clouds of a post-asteroid nuclear winter (or however, exactly, it happened).

But for anyone who was into dinosaurs as a kid (and isn’t that nearly everyone?), I think there must remain a bit of sadness that these big beasts we love  all died. (Yes, I know: birds. But you know what I mean.) It’s a strange bit of tragedy to be aware of as a mostly coddled child: Yeah, those colorful brontosauruses (again, I know) and triceratopses you thrill to see in books at the local public library? They all died. It is real history that all of them, billions of them, trillions of them? — died. All at once. And that’s why you can’t see them in real life.

That’s also what makes this finding a bit heartbreaking: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, well, it didn’t HAVE to end them. It wasn’t such a cataclysmic force that there’s no way the big lugs could have survived. Instead, it caught them when they were vulnerable.

A group of paleontologists found that a set of ecological stresses (volcanoes,  sea level changes, temperature fluctuations, and probably all those brachiosaurus farts) had put the late-Cretaceous world of the dinos in a precarious position. Then the asteroid came and kicked them down the stairs.


It says something, too, about how the asteroid event has come to dominate the theories of how the dinosaurs’ age ended. When I was a kid, I remember there being a lot less certainty. The killer asteroid was just one of several equally plausible theories, e.g., widespread diseases, or volcanoes.

Over time, though, the asteroid has come to be accepted as THE answer. This surprised me when I started writing about popular science in recent years, and so became aware of dinosaur science for, really, the first time since the ’80s. The big-asteroid event had so come to dominate thoughts on dinosaur extinction that the idea that other factors played a role, too, now comes as a surprise.

So, this new finding actually seems to represent a return to previous ways of thinking about dinosaur extinction: volcanoes may have had their say. Other ecological stresses, too. The asteroid was the last word, but not the only one.


Why Einstein’s on T-shirts

via wikipedia

To my mild embarrassment, I still sometimes watch superhero movies. I mean, I thought I was out, but then Marvel dragged me back in with their, in retrospect, brilliant idea to make an interconnected universe of films and TV shows. It’s designed to elicit obsessiveness and loyalty. The movies don’t even have to be that good, though several are.

Anyway, so I’ve watched “The Avengers” several times. Too many times. And one part always bugs me. When Agent Coulson tries to explain to Captain America (dear God, I’m 34 years old) that Bruce Banner is a scientific genius, he says, “He’s like a Stephen Hawking.” Whom, Steve Rogers (the Captain, for the un-nerd) amusingly does not know — because he’s been frozen since the ’40s.

It’s a funny moment, but the joke requires a strain — why wouldn’t Coulson then say, “He’s like an Einstein”? In fact, why wouldn’t he reference Einstein from the beginning? Even were he not speaking to a WWII superhero who had been in freeze storage for 70 years (again, I am a 34-year-old adult), but just to, like, you or me, Einstein would be the natural scientific genius to name drop. You could have been frozen for  even longer than the good captain, wake up today, and the world would still have the same poster boy (literally, often) for the genius of science as when you went under.

Einstein’s last major work, the general theory of relativity, dropped on the scene in 1916. Special relativity came out in 1905, as did Einstein’s paper on the photon theory of light, part of the physicist’s ‘miracle year.’ So, we’re talking roughly 100 years of dominance in the unofficial category of “Scientist Most Likely to Appear on Your T-Shirt.” That’s probably not going to change. He’s a logo now. He’s Mickey Mouse. He’s a Nike Swoosh. He’s Che.

But why? It’s a great question, and not one that I think I’ve explicitly asked myself. Why this guy? There have been other scientific geniuses, before and since (and contemporaneously). But Matthew Francis over at Aeon Magazine did ask. His answer (which, unfortunately, is the very last sentence of the piece) is:

“But because he lived in a special sliver of time, after the lights of fame had begun to shine bright, and before science came to be seen as a team sport, he has become our genius.”

It’s not a bad one. Einstein “arrived” just as the technology for today’s fame machine was coming into prominence. His theories had bearing on the global conflagration that would spawn the atomic age — an age of broad respect, fear and valuation of science and technology. He happened to be a refugee from the source country of said global conflagration, who arrived in the nation that would be the primary economic and political beneficiary of the war’s end. It was also the nation that would be primarily responsible for the coming celebrity culture: the nation with Hollywood and Madison Avenue in it. Plus, he had the hair and the playfulness of a lovable eccentric.

I’m not so sure about the second half of Francis’ reasoning. Does the general public now understand, more than they did in the past, that science is a collective effort, not the province of lone geniuses? I doubt it. The continued power of Einstein the image in the popular imagination would seem to suggest the opposite. I think Einstein maybe just got there first, and fit the spot really well. He worked, and continues to work, fantastically as a logo and mascot — for many reasons that a marketing expert might be able to explain.

You can look over at the burgeoning online fandom for Nikola Tesla. People still want to celebrate the eccentric, lone genius of science (and technology). They still want, wait for it, superheroes (callback!). Captain America and the Hulk are mascots of science fiction. They’ve got great branding that looks good on T-shirts. And for fans of science and sci-fi, they emblematize science in a digestible, tasty snack. Einstein does that, too.


Tree of 40 Fruits

Sam Van Aken
Sam Van Aken

An abomination! A sin against nature! The Devil’s garden!

These are things you might say of the “Tree of 40 Fruits” if you were insane, which I try not to be most of time. But artist Sam Van Aken clearly had vague Biblical allusions in mind when he named his project, right?

Right, the project: It’s a cool mashup of art and horticulture. Van Aken used a technique called “chip grafting” to construct an Ur Tree that produces 40 varieties of stone fruit.

A “stone fruit” is not, as you might have guessed, a cherry-flavored igneous. Instead, it is a type of fruit with a stone inside — think peaches and cherries. Van Aken’s Frankenfruit Tree offers up nectarines, cherries, plums, almonds and etc., all grafted from an heirloom-rich orchard in New York. In spring, the tree transforms into a surreal technicolor cloud of different blossoms, which in turn birth the different kinds of fruit. Check out the picture. It’s downright Seussian.

But, right: “Tree of 40 Fruits.” That’s something that could come right out of King James. Trees and fruits, obviously, are go-to images and metaphors for the authors of the Biblical stories. And 40: From years in the desert to days-and-nights of temptations, it’s pretty Biblical. I’m guessing Van Aken sees the tree, which is saving the fruits of a bunch of heirloom trees from destruction (the orchard was set for the bulldozer), as a sort of horticultural Ark? Or a trial of survival in a trying ecological age?

Or maybe the 41st stone fruit really sucked. But I think there was something, at least subconsciously, about 40 and trees and fruit. For an artist, and for all of us, living today, encroaching ecological destruction should seem Biblical, if not larger, in magnitude.


Loss of a Universe


Damn. Well, this really brings home the loss of a universe in the loss of a human life, doesn’t it?

The Telegraph reports that, among those killed in the crashed (probably shot down) Malaysian aircraft this week were 108 of the world’s leading AIDS researchers.

I mean, are you kidding me? You hear it said that one life touches many, but J. Christ, all those lives dedicated to saving, or at least improving, the lives of millions. One positive, possibly, to take from it: stark evidence of the multiplier effect of scientific research. The awesome people who dedicate their lives to this work become huge.

I will add in the caveat that, of course, every life lost is terrible — because I’m not some kind of monster. But disaster stats on lives lost can unfortunately turn into mere numbers. This one, though: 108–108!!–people working on AIDS. What a damned loss. Just how valuable is one of those minds, any human mind? It’s the size of a universe, right?

The Telegraph focuses on Dr. Joep Lange. He had prestige, and was former president of the International AIDS Society. The paper doesn’t go much into his actual research, so I Wikipedia’d a bit. One of his major contributions was in advocating combination therapy. This strategy has proven a major weapon against HIV’s slippery ability to mutate rapidly. He found that anti-retroviral drugs can drastically reduce a baby’s chance of contracting HIV from an infected mother.

He did a lot more. As did his 107 colleagues.

From Head Count to Identity Crisis


I’ve seen this before.

Here, the Times’ Jane E. Brody writes about how we, meaning humans, are mostly bacteria. It’s a cool, little science neato factoid that’s good for at least sparking a “huh!” or getting a kid with a bit of aptitude to say “whoa!” or a first date to, in her head say, “Well, at least maybe he’s not an idiot.”

In other words, it’s good pop-science — nice on the back of a book, or in a colorful placard at a forward-thinking museum.

I don’t know if Katrina Ray, of Nature Reviews, is the original source of the observation, but that’s who Brody references —  saying there are 10 times as many bacterial cells as human in the quote-unquote ‘human’ body, that they constitute a whopping “99.9 percent of the unique genes” in our mortal coils. That is really cool, huh? But I feel like factoids like that have been circulation in the pop-science aether for a while, maybe for as long as I’ve been aware of this stuff — so, like, the ’90s?

So, I’ve heard this before. And what interests me about the factoid now is not the  “Huh!” weirdness of it the first time you hear about it, but rather, the interesting little pathway to get there.

You need all the biological science that went into defining an organism as a collection of units called cells. Then, the drudge work of characterizing and counting. Then the insight to take a look at the percentages, and realize that the bare numbers might necessitate a shift in how you were looking at things, the black background becoming the foreground. Shadow is now subject. The add-on bacterial cells actually outnumber what you thought was the point of the whole deal: the human cells.

So, now, wait–what?–what is this thing we’re dealing with? A human being with bacteria in it, or a bacterial ecostystem with some human bits trapped inside. Now, from the microscope, to basic algebra, you’ve arrived at philosophy: it’s a pretty deep question of identity.

So, simple head counts turn into identity crisis. That’s way more than a number.

Jimmy Buffett Flying on the Moon


First off, this is exciting: to see someone talking so matter-of-factly about terraforming the moon.

It’s just a three-day trip, writes science-fiction great Gregory Benford. He’s concerned about the Russians targeting the cold south pole of the moon, because it will be so cold. (Maybe they like it cold, Gregory — it’s cold in Russia. That’s one of the  main things about Russia.)

Then he proceeds through the necessary steps: First, you must simply nudge the moon into a different orbit. Just try things over here, instead, Ms. Moon, ok? You give it an atmosphere via ice comets. The comets also position the satellite in a more interesting, and life-friendly, axial tilt.

I suppose when you make a living imagining brilliant sci-fi worlds, terraforming the moon becomes just a simple engineering problem. But it’s awesome that not just Benford, but also sober folks at space agencies like the Russians are working out the specifics. I could actually, theoretically, live to see people living, dying and polluting on the moon! It is with our garbage patches, after all, that we will mark the solar system, and then the universe.

Also, speaking of trash, Benford says, “The deep air will covet heat, making the moon much like a cloudy Florida.” Also, we will be able to fly. So, look out for Parrotheads leaking processed margarita from the skies.