December 22, 2010

Life's a Niche

There are two ways to pronounce niche. I prefer to pronounce is like "nitch," as this provides me with a comforting mental image of a safe corner in which something belongs. But I've also heard niche pronounced like "neesh." It sounds much snobbier, which probably means it's the correct way to pronounce it, but I don't really care. Niche, in my world, rhymes with ditch. If you're not sure how you want to pronounce it, I made a useful flowchart for you.

Regardless of pronunciation preferences, a niche is your place in an ecosystem. Every organism has its niche, its role, its job, its purpose in the web of life, whether they like it or not.

Plants provide food and shade and habitats for small animals that are then eaten by larger animals. Fungus, bacteria, and insects recycle dead materials and return them to the ecosystem in usable pieces. Everything works together in this giant symphony, and your niche is your place in that symphony, whether it's principal violin, or the guy who smashes cymbals together just once during the concert. It's all important.

We humans have lost our grip on our niche. As it was, we were once scavengers, moving across vast distances to find food and shelter. When we decided to stay put and domesticate crops and cattle, we changed the game completely and lost our place among the natural world.

We now think of our niche, our place, in terms of human society, not the natural world. But I wish we thought about both.

Our human niche is what we contribute to the world through our relationships, our work, and our interests. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, friends, and enemies. We are doctors, teachers, lab technicians, social workers, tech support staff, and graduate advisors. We are home brewers, painters, mountain climbers, and civil war reenacters. Our niche, then, is the sum of our connections and efforts. Unfortunately, when you verbalize your niche, it sounds like your bio on a dating website.

What is our natural niche? We certainly consume everything we can, from minerals in the earth to every edible plant an animal we can find. But we go through life assuming we'll never be lower on the food chain. I don't know anyone who thinks it'd be quite alright to be eaten by a bear.

But even when we die of "normal" causes, we go to great lengths to keep ourselves separate from nature. A crucial step in the natural order is returning your atoms to the ecosystem when you die. Other animals can put your carbon to good use. But we say, "No!" like a jealous lover. "If I can't have it, no one will!" I have heard there is a movement of natural cemeteries that inter people with minimal, um, preservatives, but this is certainly not the norm.

So our biological niche is still up in the air--after all, we modern humans are a relatively recent evolutionary invention. In a perfect world, our new niche would be the protectors of the planet, using our departure from nature to look at the world holistically and watch over it. But like a new parent, we don't really know what we're doing, and we have to sort out our priorities. Eh, we'll figure it out. Or our species will perish. Either way.

So, in my last post of 2010, I welcome you to think about your niche while you write your new year's resolutions.

December 15, 2010

The Importance of Being Snowflakes

A few days ago, I saw a window display with giant paper snowflake sculpture things (wow, I'm so descriptive). I reflected on the awesomeness that is water and it's snowflake-making qualities. Water, I give thee props. You really mean a lot to me, and every other living thing.

As you probably already know, the H-two-O is made of hydrogen and oxygen.

These two atoms work very well together and get along quite swimmingly.

Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom make the molecule that is known as water. It looks not unlike a Mickey Mouse head, but I'll draw it upside down to lessen the mickey qualities. I want you to take water seriously.

The quality of this little molecule that gives it all its awesomeness is the fact that it's polar: it has different charges at different ends. The oxygen end has a negative charge, and the hydrogen side has a positive charge.

When two water molecules come together, they experience a bit of attraction because of the positive and negative ends. This means that water is attracted to itself, like Colin Farrel.

Unless you're a hermit living under a rock, you probably also know that water can exist as a few different states. (I suppose if you were an under-rock-living-hermit, surely you'd be internetless, so I should probably just assume you're not a rock hermit. Is this parenthetical stream of consciousness too off topic? Sorry.)

Liquid water is liquid-y because the water molecules are flying around quickly like anarchists. This is what gives liquid water its shapelessness, or rather its propensity to take the shape of whatever you pour it in.

Flying around like mad might be fun for the water molecules, but it might also be terrifying. We'll never really know for sure.

When water molecules are heated up (say, on my stove), it makes them move faster and faster. The chaos that ensues spreads the water molecules farther and farther apart. There is so much energy, they're going insane. Eventually they move so fast that they overcome the air pressure that has been keeping them together, and they turn into steam.

In steam form (which sounds like something a superhero might yell when he calls upon his super power), the water molecules are spread very far apart. After a liquid existence, where water molecules are bumping into each other all the time, the drastic change might inspire loneliness.

On the flip side, when water cools down to an extreme, the water molecules slow down until they are almost not moving.  As this happens, they become closer together and settle next to each other.

The lack of personal space is a bit controversial. But as they settle in, they start to form a hexagonal lattice structure. Here's what it looks like with just the oxygen atoms drawn for simplicity.

Adding the hydrogen atoms to the drawing is tricky because I'm drawing a 3-dimensional structure in 2D. Some of the hydrogen atoms are sticking up, which I drew as a white circle on top of the red circle. And some of them are pointing down, in which case, I just didn't draw it. Call it laziness, call it lack of x-ray vision. Whatever.

Solids tend to be denser than liquids, so you'd think that ice would sink in water, but it doesn't. This is unusual. Ice is actually less dense than water because of this hexagonal crystal structure. Look at all that empty space!

If ice didn't float on water, it's likely that life couldn't exist on earth. If ice sank, then the entire ocean could freeze over.  Because ice floats, only a thin layer at the surface freezes, leaving plenty of space for life to exist and evolve. This is serious stuff. We owe our lives to ice... unless, that is, you are caught in an avalanche or blizzard... in which case, ice is not so nice.

The crystal structure of ice is also what gives snowflakes the chance to form. It's a million ice crystals piled on top of each other, and the highly organized nature of ice's structure can manifest in symmetrical, pretty snowflakes. It's also no coincidence that we tend to draw 6-pointed snowflakes. That's really how they look: it's the macroscopic effect of the microscopic hexagonal crystal structure of ice. Woah.

Here is a flickr album of some pretty awesome snowflake photos.

Some people worship snowflakes by allowing them to land on their tongue. The proper alignment for this religious activity is shown below.

December 07, 2010

Falling Over is Fun

I'm going to share with you a few stories that involve me and the process commonly referred to as "falling over." There are 3 distinct types of falling over that I engage in:

1. Low blood pressure falling over
2. Just gave blood falling over
3. Vasovagal falling over

The first style is something I engage in quite often. I was blessed/cursed with obscenely low blood pressure: blessed because I probably won't ever suffer any of the numerous health problems associated with high blood pressure, but cursed because it makes me especially prone to falling over. This style of fall-over requires no special circumstances other than going from a sitting to standing position quickly.

My blood pressure is so very low that when I transition from sitting to standing, there isn't enough pressure to entirely overcome gravity. I quickly find that there isn't enough blood in my brain, and so... I often wobble or entirely fall over.

Since I have low blood pressure to begin with, giving blood can be treacherous. I've only donated blood 3 times. 

The first time I gave blood when I was 17, things went swimmingly.

Because I have a rare blood type, B-, the blood bank called me again a few months later to ask that I donate again. I said, "For suresies. I could use some free cookies anyway." While I didn't fall over the second time I donated, I did feel a bit woozy afterwards. But nothing that sitting for a few minutes and having some apple juice didn't fix.

A few months later, I got another call from the blood bank asking for my precious life stuff. I didn't see any harm in going again.

When they called again a few months later, I politely declined.

Before we talk about what on earth vasovagal means, I need to give you some quick background on your autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for responding to external stimuli and adjusting your body accordingly without consulting you.  Bright light? Narrow the pupils. We're running? Increase the heart rate! These things aren't left up to your whims. They happen automatically (unless something is wrong with you).

The autonomic nervous system is a coin with two sides: the sympathetic side, and the parasympathetic side.

The sympathetic division is responsible for the so-called "fight or flight" reaction. As the nickname suggests, this side is a response to some serious stress. When the sympathetic division is in gear, your pupils dilate, your sweat glands work overtime, your heart rate increases, and digestion stops. No use wasting energy digesting your burrito when you're being chased by a grizzly bear.

The parasympathetic division is responsible for the "rest and digest" side of things. The pupils constrict, heart rate slows down, digestion resumes. This is the hippie mellow side of your nervous system.

These two sides or your autonomic nervous system can sometimes lead to something called a vasovagal reaction. After a period of stress, when your parasympathetic (rest/digest) division kicks in to calm things down, it can overcompensate for the stress and lower your heart rate too much, and you can pass out as a result. Vasovagal reactions are to blame for people passing out at the sight of blood.

This happened to me earlier this year when I got a shot. This particular shot (it's the HPV shot, if you really want to know) is more painful than normal immunizations because it's been refrigerated.

As you can see, my arm was very upset about this whole ordeal. It hurt like... well, you know. It hurt! The nurse gave me a bandaid (and not even a spongebob bandaid--just a plain one) and sent me on my way. While I walked out of the office, I put on my sweater, which unfortunately involved moving my shoulder near the injection site. This was bad.

It was then that my autonomic nervous system said, "Okay, our turn to deal with this." 

I felt my heart beating wildly.

Then I felt dizzy.

Then I couldn't hear anything other than a high pitched ringing.

Then I started getting tunnel vision and eventually couldn't see anything.

At the same time, my legs stopped working.

Luckily this happened next to a chair, so I took advantage of its wonderful sitting-on properties, and slumped into it. 

I sat there for maybe 5 minutes waiting for luxuries like seeing and hearing to return to me. Then I drove home.

And those are the 3 ways I occasionally almost die. The end!