April 30, 2010

Acquired Everything

So one of the basic ideas of natural selection and evolution is that you don't inherit acquired traits: even if one's parents are triathletes, that doesn't mean their baby will automatically have glistening, rippling muscles (I just grossed myself out).  It may sound pretty obvious to you, smartypants, but there once was a highly respected scientist named Lamarck who seriously thought that giraffes had long necks due to generation after generation of giraffes stretching their necks to reach the highest leaves on trees.
This is just stupid.

Think about what life would actually be like if you were born with all your parents' abilities and knowledge and pancake-flipping expertise.  You wouldn't even have to go to school because you would have all the information with you from the beginning.  Technology could accelerate at lightning speed because the next generation of engineers wouldn't have to waste 20 or 30 years "learning" and "understanding" physics, calculus, and quantum mechanics... they would have all this information on day 1.  This would be amazing!!! (But do you see any pitfalls yet?)

You wouldn't have to learn how to ride a bike, you would just know because your parents know.
You wouldn't have to learn how to play the piano, you would know because your parents know.

You would be born with all your parents knowledge--their education, their experiences...
(But really think about this for a second... it should totally gross you out.  You with me here?)
I'm thinking it's a good thing it doesn't work this way.

April 27, 2010

Living Fossils

Living fossils are NOT:

-really old people
-dinosaur skeletons that come to life at night
-really, really old people
-zombie mammoths
Living fossils ARE creatures that have been around so long and have changed so little that the ones alive today look just like the fossils we find.

My favorite example of a living fossil is the frilled shark.
These sharks live in very deep waters, so there aren't many photos of them.  Actually, people usually only see them in shallow water when they are dying or dead.  I know, it's sad sad.  But they're awesomely ugly and cool.

Other examples of living fossils:
-horseshoe crab
-a whole bunch of 
insects and other junk

(Psst... while living fossils are not related to zombies, this does not mean you shouldn't be worried about zombies.)

April 16, 2010


Cells don't have sex.  Not usually, anyway.  To make more cells they just split themselves in half.  They don't use a cleaver or a bomb strapped to their chest; they do it in the most civilized of ways...
...dividing the cell parts equally and pinching off in the middle to form two new cells (well, not new, but not really old either... used? pre-owned?),  so really it sounds more like a peaceful divorce settlement than cell reproduction.

I think the term mitosis is a little off-putting for people.  It's one of those science terms that seems unnecessarily alienating.  People see "mitosis," and their eyes glaze over, and their hearts fill with anti-science rage.  Sigh.  Oh, scientists.  Why don't you name things better?  You should have called it splittage or pinchosis--if you really have to end it with "osis" at all.  It would really work better as an "osity," as in morecellosity or not-one-but-two-cell-osity.
Test question:  Use mitosis in a sentence.  
Wrong answer: Mitosis cold, so I need some warm, fuzzy socks.
Correct answer:  Mitosis is the worst choice of word to describe cells splitting in half.

Now, I don't want anyone thinking that splitting other things in half will be a good way to make more of them.  Learn from my mistakes, people.  If you cut the following objects in half, you will not get 2 new whole ones, but instead, a single mangled one:

1.  Teddy bears
2.  Pet fish
3.  Computers
4.  Couches
5.  Sandwiches*

*but please do this if you really do want 2 easily-eaten, half-sandwiches.  I highly recommend this method of sandwich enjoyment.

April 13, 2010

Sharky Sharks

When I was surfing one gray morning near Malibu, CA, I saw something in the water about 40 feet away from me.  It's not unusual to see harbor seals or dolphins out there, so I assumed it was a cuddly marine mammal.  A few minutes later, I looked back to the same spot and saw 3 inches of gray, shiny triangle sticking out of the water.  My only thought was some form of no way.

The 3-inch triangle made a half circle and started traveling in a straight line toward me.  I was sitting up on my board with my legs dangling in the water, so I leaned forward to lie completely on top of the board.  I propped my head up on my wrists and watched the triangle close in on me.  I just stared at it thinking to myself, "I thought this was just in the movies.  I can't believe they swim close enough to the surface to expose their fin like this. Weird."

The ocean surface was a mirror from my perspective, so I saw nothing of the animal this triangle belonged to.  When the triangle got within 2 feet of me, it slowly fell below the water's surface, and I never saw it again.

I kept any limbs out of the water for about a minute after that.  I stayed in the water for another 20 minutes or so before I paddled back to shore to start the half-hour process of removing a damp wetsuit and tying the surf board to the top of the car.

I later found out from a nearby paddle boarder, who had a much better perspective for under-water viewing since paddle boarders are always standing up on their enormous flotation devices, that the shark was about 10' long--perhaps a tiger shark, maybe a great white.

I might have freaked out about the situation had I not seen Sharkwater.  This documentary about sharks (and shark finning--ick) is amazing.

It makes some excellent points about our overactive fear of sharks.  Animals like bears and tigers kill dozens of people each year, but somehow that doesn't result in deep-seated hatred and irrational fear of them.  But sharks, who kill maybe 3 people each year somehow become monsters--a swimming symbol of violence and blood.  The movie examines what it is about sharks that hits a nerve with us humans.  (The rows of teeth don't help much.  Let's be honest.)

The fact is that sharks rarely attack, and when they do, they don't swallow people whole, they take a nibble and usually want nothing more to do with us.  And we are the ones that encroach on their space--not the other way around.  As Rob Stewart (the director, narrator, main man) points out, you wouldn't go for a morning jog in front of a pride of lions, but we swim and surf in sharks' hunting grounds every day.  For bites to be as rare as they are shows just how disinterested they are in us.

The best statistic from the movie: "Each year, vending machines kill more people than sharks do."  If I ever see a vending machine while I'm surfing, I don't know what I'll do.

April 12, 2010

A Sense of Purpose

We like to look at nature and think about purpose.  We ask, "Why is this creature here? How is it helping the ecosystem?"  Or even more human-centric, "How is this helping us?"

Sometimes this sense of purpose can help the tainted reputations of creatures otherwise known as "pests."  Sure, termites are not so fun when they are in your walls, but they play an important role in ecosystems, recycling dead wood and returning those nutrients to the soil.  With this information, a victim of termite damage (such as myself), can sit back and think about how it's just a speck of dust in the cosmic balance of nature.  It's not worth wasting my time cursing small insects, especially such industrious--albeit misplaced--ones.  Maybe you don't sit around thinking about termites and cosmic scales (although I don't see why you wouldn't), but you get my point, right?

Recently my husband asked me what purpose mosquitos serve, hoping for an explanation similar to the termite one--some redeeming quality that he could hold onto the next time he wanted to curse one for biting him.  But it doesn't work that way.  Not every living thing will have what we humans consider to be a noble job in the natural world.  We like to romanticize certain ecological jobs, but not others.  Plants, you guys are cool.  You make food.  Most bugs, you guys can be annoying when you're out of context (like a cockroach in the sink), but when you recycle waste, we appreciate that.  We like roles that in some way can benefit us.  But some organisms just do what they do and we can't find any cosmic relief.  Mosquitos don't have some wonderful purpose that I could calm my husband with. 

I apologize for my horribly-drawn mosquitos.  
Twas the best I could do.

The danger is trying to rationalize every living thing's role in nature according to our definition of "good" and "bad." It's not that simple, and most interactions in nature are both: a lion eating a wildebeest is fantastic for the lion who doesn't starve, but not so good for the wildebeest who got disemboweled.  The Lion King did a good job explaining that eventually it all evens out--it's the circle of life, dude.

We look at nature with our uniquely human perspective, but we should strive to understand without judgment.  Some things just are.  We don't want scientists writing papers about how "lions are jerks" and "mosquitos are inconsiderate."  How we feel about nature isn't relevant.  It is what it is.  We can understand without qualifying.
On a related note: One of my favorite memories from college organic chemistry was a professor describing a chemical process that occurs in nature.  One student asked, "So how is this important to humans?  How can we use this in industry to better our lives?"  I thought it was a little off topic and unnecessary, and the professor did too.  He flared and said, "Why does it always have to benefit us?  Why can't we strive to understand a natural process just to understand?  I don't like when people think only in terms of benefits and profits."  And that was the end of that!
Maybe I should have told my husband that mosquitos, while they bite us, also group together and occasionally save infants from burning buildings.  I think that's a fair trade off for the biting.  Hm, on second thought, they'd better save infants and kittens.