Animals have private thoughts too

Really. Until recently we thought only humans and chimps could recognize their own images in a mirror, and indication of self-awareness. Indeed, other primates and even young children can't do it. But a few years ago dolphins made the grade. Now elephants have shown they can recognize themselves too.

In 2001 Diana Reiss at Columbia University reported that dolphins will position themselves to view marks on their body they couldn't see otherwise, showing they can recognize their own reflections. Dolphins are highly social animals, they have large brains, and seem to show empathy towards one another. So do humans, apes, and another large-brained and empathetic species, elephants. So Dr. Reiss decided to give three Asian elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York City a mirror to see how they reacted.

Animals that recognize themselves in a mirror typically first have a social response: "Who are you?" When they don't get a response they physically inspect the mirror often looking behind it (movie). After repetitively testing the mirror, they realize they're seeing themselves. Sure enough, the elephants inspected themselves with their trunks while staring at their reflections, and one elephant also repeatedly touched a mark (movie) on its head.

Self-recognition is one of those things that we thought sets us apart from other animals because it suggests an explicit understanding that we exist, that we're separate from others, and that we have private thoughts. We thought it was an indicator of highly-developed, abstract thinking, a precursor to more advanced processes like meta-cognitive reasoning (thinking about thinking) that is typical only of humans.


Mount St. Helens wouldn't get a license

Really. When Mount St. Helens started erupting in early October 2004, it was pumping out between 50 and 250 tons a day of sulfur dioxide, the lung-stinging gas that causes acid rain and contributes to haze. In fact, the volcano's emissions were so high that if it were a new factory, it wouldn't have been able to get a permit to operate, according to Clint Bowman, an atmospheric physicist for the Washington Department of Ecology. All of Washington State's industries combined "only" produce about 120 tons a day of the noxious gas.

The 1991 eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines was one of the largest in the past 100 years. The injection into the stratosphere of 14-26 million tons of sulfur dioxide led to a global cooling of about 1 degree a year after the eruption and probably was the cause of the unusually cool U.S. summer in 1992. The climatic impact of Pinatubo was stronger than the warming effects of either El Niño or human-induced greenhouse gas changes during 1991-93.

The eruption of Tambora in Sumatra in 1815--the most violent eruption in modern history--caused the "Year without a summer" in 1816. It snowed in July in New England that year. The climate of the following three years resulted in the worst famine of the century. Food shortages across Europe causing riots and political change in France.

The eruption of Toba 74,000 years ago (also in Sumatra) caused the extinction of 95% of all life on Earth. It was the largest volcanic eruption within the last two million years, equivalent to about one gigaton of TNT and three thousand times greater than that of Mount St. Helens. Human populations may have been reduced to only a few tens of thousands of individuals as a result. We almost didn't make it!

But don't think volcanoes are the cause of global warming--they actually tend to reduce the temperature. Worldwide, people and their activities pump 26 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The total from volcanoes is about 200 million tons a year — or less than 1 percent of the man-made emissions.


Successful brain surgery...with rocks?

Really. This surgery, called trephining or trepanning, removes a piece the skull from a living patient to expose a layer of the brain, the dura mater, which translates to “ tough mother” (Really!). As the name suggests this layer is a tough fibrous membrane which forms the outer envelope of the brain.

The operation was surprisingly common, showing up on many Neolithic skull and was practiced in many areas of the world, with the highest concentration of activity in Peru and Bolivia. Evidence for it also is found in Europe, Asia, New Zealand, some Pacific Islands and North America.

The operation was most often performed on adult males, although it was also performed on women and children. Overall, patients that underwent the operation had an impressive recovery rate. As many as two thirds of the skulls examined reveal various degrees of healing--which is the evidence for survival. Considering the danger of severe bleeding, shock, brain edema, and infection, such postoperative results suggest considerable skill and experience.

The motives for Neolithic trephining have been the subject of speculation since the first specimens were discovered in the nineteenth century. Obviously, the people involved are not around to tell us why they did it and writing did not yet exist. One guess is that it was done to create an entrance or exit for spirits. It might also have been done for therapeutic reasons, such as for headaches, fractures, infections, insanity, or for convulsions.

The operation is still done to treat epidural and subdural hematoma. But today, skilled surgeons do it. And they use modern stainless-steel drills, not rocks!


The Arctic Tern enjoys an “Endless Summer”

Really. This small avian travels from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again each year, a 22, 000 mile round-trip! It does this again and again over a lifespan of twenty years or more. Essentially flying around the world annually, the tern can rack up more than 500,000 miles in its lifetime. That’s equivalent to a round-trip flight to the moon!

There’s an interesting side-effect of this migration: it makes this creature the world’s champion sun-seeker, much more accomplished than the human “Snowbirds” who annually migrate to the warm climes of Arizona and Florida. For these birds which fly from one summer to another, summer never ends. And because daylight in the polar summers lasts 20 hours or more, the tern “catches more rays” in its life than any other creature. Jimmy Buffet, eat your heart out.


Only 3% of you is real

Really...sorta. Most of what you are is actually energy trapped in a field--but, then, that's real too, it's just not the squishy pink stuff you're familiar with.


Mass and energy are the same thing.

Your mass consists mostly of protons and neutrons, but these particles are built up from quarks bound together into proton and neutron 'packages' by the strong nuclear force as described the Standard Model of particle physics.

Your quarks, by themselves, only account for 3% of your total mass. The rest of your mass comes from the energy of the strong nuclear force.

You're mostly 'not there'!


Just 1 second of the Sun's energy output would power the US for 9,000,000 years

Really. Or to use a more “explosive” illustration, multiply the world’s entire nuclear stockpile seven million times and detonate it. That’s also about one second’s solar output. Or put another way … well, you get the point; the Sun puts out a lot of energy.

We only avoid being incinerated by this 800,000 mile wide, 100,000,000 degree inferno because, like a light bulb, the Sun radiates in every direction. That, and the fact that we are 93,000,000 miles away, allows us to experience sunshine as a gentle blessing rather than an incinerating white-hot blast.

But where does so much energy come from? That question stumped scientists from the late 1800’s until the early 1900’s. By then science had come to realize that the earth was billions of years old, not just thousands as previously believed. But they couldn’t figure out what could have powered the Sun that energetically for so long.

The general answer came with the new science of nuclear physics and with Einstein’s postulation of his famous equation E=MC2. This description of the universe explains that energy and matter are one in the same and that conversion of a small amount of matter produces an enormous amount of energy. Finally, here was a possible explanation for the Sun’s unprecedented output!

But the details of the process weren’t figured out until just before World War II, largely through the work of American physicists George Gamow and Hans Bethe. In essence, they described a reaction in the Sun’s core where 600 million tons of hydrogen are fused each second. This process transforms more than ninety-nine percent of the hydrogen into helium. But here’s the key: about one percent of the mass is converted directly into the prodigious energy, a la Einstein's explanation, which has powered our planet for billions of years and which still warms us today.


Shut off gravity and time would stop

Really. There's nothing else that 'holds up' space and time other than the gravitational field of the universe

Time and space are qualities of nature defined by the gravitational field, not by some background 'thing' in which gravitational fields are embedded. Space and time are the physical components of gravity.

When we study electromagnetic fields, we represent these fields by changes in their electric and magnetic components. When we study the gravitational field, we represent it by changes in space and time.

If suddenly the gravitational field of the universe was shut off, space and time would cease to exist.


The stars cause influenza

Nope, that's foolishness. The word 'influenza' actually is derived from the medieval Latin influentia, meaning influence, because doctors once believed epidemics were caused by unfavorable planetary and stellar influences. But we know now that's ridiculous.

Four hundred years ago a way of knowing the facts about the world around us was developed. We still use it today; it's based on empirical validation of ideas. In other words, we just can't believe everything that comes into our heads, we need proof because some things we dream up are just plain loony (as in lunatic...a word derived from a supposed influence of luna, the moon).

After the scientific revolution astronomy became a successful source of understanding about the universe. Astrology began to appeal only to people who didn't take the time to think for themselves. Even today, many people just don't think critically about the wacky claims of astrological con artists.

Actually, it doesn't take much thinking to realize that astrology can't have any basis in reality. For example, what's so significant about the moment you're born--the basis of an astrological sign? Why not the moment of conception 9 months earlier, say? And for that matter, what do celestial conditions years ago have to do with our life today anyway? And why 12 signs, there should be 13.

Sure, if the Big Bang had slightly different characteristics we might not even be here today. But Jupiter (more massive than all the other planets combined) has less effect on you than a dump truck several miles away.

A question to ask yourself is why are people so willing to believe goofy stuff?


Something free is usually worth what you pay

Thanks for the offer of a free 'reading,' Lynn (see her comment on the previous post). How 'bout this: I'll send you a couple dozen personality test results and you tell me--according to your usual chart reading process--which one is mine?

Actually, that's already been done, so let's not waste each other's time.

The experiment, reported in the December 5, 1985 issue of Nature, was a double-blind experiment conducted with the active cooperation of the National Council of Geocosmic Research (NCGR). That organization of astrologers nominated advisers to the study, prepared the horoscopes for the test and further provided a list of astrologers they felt were suitably qualified. The advisers interacted closely with the project and several of their suggestions were incorporated. The California Personality Inventory Test was chosen, for example, because astrologers judged the attributes to be the closest to those discernible by astrology.

Each of the astrologers were given the horoscope prepared by the NCGR and three personality profiles, including one that matched the horoscope they were given. The task was to pick which of the three was the correct one. The method was determined before data was collected, experimenters had no access to the subjects' identities during the period of data collection, and subjects were referred to only by assigned code numbers.

If they selected the correct one simply by chance they'd get it right at least one-third of the time. Astrologers predicted that they would get it right at least 50% of the time, an odd admission that even they thought they'd be wrong at least half the time. (Instead of using your horoscope you could flip a coin to make a decision with equal probability of being correct.)

The study in the end covered 116 subjects with 28 participating astrologers. Only one-third of the choices, exactly what you'd expect due to chance, were correct. As Mythbusters would say


You can watch the Big Bang on TV

Really. You can actually see it if you tune a TV to a channel where no station is broadcasting...what you'll see a TV signal that was sent 13.7 billion years ago.

As we discussed in yesterday's post, heat is just atoms in motion, and the heat of the Big Bang smashed atoms together with such force that after the first flash, the lights went out, and the cosmic dark ages started.

But about 380,000 years later the Universe finally cooled enough for the initial flash of energy created during the Big Bang to be released. Just 400 million years later stars started to form.

Like an immense refrigerator, as the gas in Universe continued to expand the temperature continued to fall to what it is today, just above absolute zero at 3ºK (-454ºF). Energy at that temperature is emitted as microwaves, and we detect the cosmic microwave background radiation as 'snow' on TV.

The image below is a high resolution map of the cosmic microwave background radiation of the Universe created by the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe (WMAP). The data from this spacecraft confirmed the age of the Universe.


You could put your hand in a bucket of Sun

Really. Although the surface of the Sun is about 10,000ºF (6000ºK), it's not very dense --about one ten-thousandth of the Earth's sea-level atmospheric density.

Until about 150 years ago people thought how hot or cold an object felt was determined by how much of a weightless fluid called "caloric" it contained. But Joule came along in 1847 with the idea that heat was really a form of energy, the motion of molecules, and the caloric idea was abandoned.

About the same time, Maxwell and Boltzmann showed that the way molecules move and collide with their container gives rise to a pressure. From Boyle's Law, we know that the pressure is proportional to the temperature, and the kinetic energy of the molecules relates directly to the temperature of the gas. In short, temperature is a measure of the energy of motion of molecules.

So if you could grab a bucket of Sun and take it, say to the moon for examination, you'd find you had a bucket with just a few fast moving molecules in it. You'd actually need something to protect your hand from the cold and low pressure of outer space!


Everyone on Earth would fit in a cubic mile

Really. You could put the entire population of the Earth in a space one mile wide, one mile deep, and one mile high (one cubic mile). We'd all fit in one small corner of the Grand Canyon, which would take about 2500 cubic miles of dirt (or people) to fill.

How do we know? One cubic mile is 147,197,952,000 cubic feet. If, on average, one human being takes up a space 2 feet by 2 feet by 6 feet it means we occupy 24 cubic feet per person. Sure, kids will have extra room and some of us will be a bit squished (or a lot if you're a flabby American); but on average that's about right.

So divide 147,197,952,000 by 24 and you get 6,133,248,000, which means that in the year 2000 when the world population reached 6 billion we'd all have fit in a cubic mile, with room left over for another 133 million folks. The population now has reached over 6.7 billion so today there'd be a little overflow.

But now consider this. If we all stood side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder (and use the same 2 foot width per person), all 6.7 billion of us could make a line around the Earth over 102 times!

Our brains are pretty well equipped to deal with liner measures (rows of corn, lines of wildebeest), but we're easily befuddled by cubic measures. We intuitively know that a line at Starbucks with 6.7 billion people in it would be a long one. But it's hard to imagine that we could pile all those people on Chicago's O'Hare Airport and the pile would only be 500 feet deep.


We'll run out of oil in 50 years.

While we're talking cubic miles here, consider this: World consumption of oil is about 30 billion barrels per year. One barrel of oil is 42 gallons, and 7.48 gallons will fill one cubic foot. So if you work it out, we use slightly over a cubic mile of oil a year.

One estimate puts the initial total at about 2200 billion barrels of crude oil on Earth, of which, depending upon who's estimate you believe, we've used about 45% to 70% so far.

The Energy Resources Program of the United States Geological Survey produces the official estimates of the world oil resources for the U.S. Federal Government. They estimate that the remaining world oil reserves at about 1,000 billion barrels. Current estimates place the exhaustion of the remaining known reserves within the next 50 years.

It sure would be nice if we'd face that reality and make an international commitment to doing something about it. Actually, facing long term realities seems to be a significant human inability. Is that because the most influential world cultures are based around belief systems that actively ignore and even suppress reality?

Your brain burns 20% of your body's energy even thought it's only about 5% of your body weight.

Really. We've known for over 100 years that parts of the brain control their own blood supply depending on how much oxygen they need. We haven't really understood how different regions regulate the flow, but we're beginning to.

The large blood vessels supplying your brain branch to form the network of arteries covering its surface. Inside, the vessels branch into smaller arteries and continue branching until they reach your capillaries, which are only wide enough for one red blood cell to pass through at a time.

Throughout your body, smooth muscle that surrounds your arteries and arterioles regulate blood flow by decreasing or increasing the diameter of the vessel. But blood flow through capillaries is also regulated, even though there are no surrounding smooth muscle cells.

It turns out that an obscure cell type, called pericytes, that can squeeze are wrapped around the blood vessels at intervals do the job. Recent work shows they constrict and relax, changing the diameter of capillaries in response to changes in neuronal activity. This is handy arrangement, kinda like individual plants in your garden having a way of turning on their own irrigation.


Earth's curve tilts bridges

Really. The top of towers of the Verrazano - Narrows Bridge at the mouth of the Hudson river in New York City are tilted almost two inches further apart than the base thanks to the curve of the Earth's surface.

Actually, there are a lot of amazing things about that not-so-famous bridge.

When it opened in 1964, at 4260 feet it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, exceeding the Golden gate completed in 1937, by 60 feet. Today it's the longest single span in North America and the seventh longest in the world. (The longest is the 6,529 foot Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge in Japan, completed in 1998.)

The Verrazano - Narrows Bridge contains enough concrete to construct a single lane highway from New York to Washington, and if the wires that make up the suspension cables were laid end-to-end they would reach 143,000 miles, more than halfway to the moon.

On hot days, the double-decker road bed expands almost six feet and sags 12 feet lower, something that ships passing underneath have to consider. In fact, the Queen Mary 2 had to modify its smokestack to pass under the bridge.


The Sun never sets

Really. Then why do we call the beautiful daily events 'sunrise' and 'sunset'?

It's astounding that we still use language based on an idea that has known to be wrong since 900BC. The Vedic Sanskrit text Aitareya Brahmana states: "The Sun never sets nor rises, that's right. When people think the sun is setting, it is not so; they are mistaken."

A thousand years later, Vishnu Purana, stated even more clearly, "The sun is stationed for all time, in the middle of the day. [...] Of the sun, which is always in one and the same place, there is neither setting nor rising."

The Greeks were on to the idea too. In 300 BC astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos proposed the sun was the center of our solar system, and the stars were far away.

Unfortunately, the idea that the Earth rotates and circles the Sun was opposed until Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642) revived and defended the idea only to have it repressed by the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, astronomer Italian philosopher, priest, astronomer/astrologer Giordanno Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic for his belief in Copernicanism.

Ignoring scientific reality, it seems, is not just a characteristic of today's government.

But individually we're guilty too when we perpetuate ignorance in our language and thoughtlessly ignore the reality that these often spectacular displays are not because the sun sets or rises but because the earth rotates on its axis.

Buckminster Fuller had the right idea, I think, when he coined the words 'sunsight' and 'sunclipse' to identify the phenomena. Try them yourself, they do make reality clearer and the events even more beautiful.


Only 10% of the cells in your body are human

There are about ten times more bacteria cells in your body than there are cells with human DNA. According to Dr. Cynthia Sears at Johns Hopkins, your body contains something like 100 trillion bacteria from 500 to 1000 different species, compared to only about 10 trillion of your own cells.

Don't look now, but we're outnumbered. In fact, there are as many bacteria cells just on the surface of your body as human cell in your body altogether.

The average human is more microbe than mammal, a veritable super-organism comprising 10 times as many microbial cells as human cells. With so many microscopic hangers-on you can afford to shed a few. But you would be in big trouble without any at all. In fact, you wouldn't be human, a paradox that scientists are trying hard to get their heads around.

Until recently, our knowledge has been limited, not least because it was only possible to identify those microbes that could be cultivated in the lab - a mere 1 to 2 per cent of the full quota. Very few studies exist on the bugs that are up your nose, let alone further along the respiratory tract, where there are several different environments, each harboring different microbes. We are pretty ignorant about the eye, too. And when it comes to the female urethra, forget it: most of what we know dates back to the 1970s and primarily relates to women's high susceptibility to urinary tract infections.

In May of 2007, the US National Institutes of Health approved a five-year plan to investigate the human microbiome - the entire microbial content of the human body. The next few years will bring a massive leap in our understanding, but already smaller-scale projects, investigating the microbes of the gut and mouth, for example, are beginning to throw up some intriguing insights.

No two individuals have the same microbial complement, and it even changes over time for each person - but they all share a bacterial core or scaffold. Given that skin is the boundary between you and the outside world, it is hardly surprising that its microbial community is so variable. The balance is extremely sensitive to environmental fluctuations, changing each time you have a shower or even use a new brand of soap. Such differences are there right from the start, with babies delivered by Caesarean section having a different profile of microbes on their skin to those born naturally and therefore exposed to the microbes in their mother's birth canal. We don't know whether these differences are long-lasting, only that by six weeks the complement of microbes living on the skin of infants resembles that found on adults.

Skin bacteria can cause serious infections if they get into your blood, as they sometimes do via hospital catheters, says Mike Wilson, a microbiologist at the Eastman Dental Institute, part of University College London, and author of Microbial Inhabitants of Humans. Some regular skin-dwellers also do damage in situ, causing a multitude of skin complaints, from athlete's foot and impetigo to dandruff.

The rapid flow of partly digested food through your small intestine makes it a poor home for microbes, since the bugs are constantly being washed through. In the colon, however, things slow down and microbial concentrations soar. Thousands of different types of microbe inhabit the gut, an estimated kilogram's worth in the average adult. Without them we would not be able to digest certain foods, metabolise drugs, detoxify noxious compounds or make essential vitamins.

There are two main phyla of bacteria in the colon, the Bacteroidetes and the Firmicutes, as well as Archaea (evolutionarily ancient, single-celled organisms that consume hydrogen and generate methane). It has long been known that gut microflora changes with age, diet and other factors. For example, there is a significant difference in the ratio of microbial groups between breastfed and bottle-fed babies. In breastfed babies the community is qualitatively less pathogenic. Although gut microbes in infants all converge towards a more adult profile by the age of 2, any pathogen is potentially more dangerous before this time because the baby's immune system is still developing. So breast is best from the point of view of the indigenous microbiota.

If we are not using our mouths to chew or swallow food, we're talking, gargling or brushing our teeth. Even so, some bugs do manage to hang on in there. For the most part they do no harm, but under certain circumstances they can cause problems.

The worst of these is the gum disease periodontitis, the most prevalent chronic infectious disease in humans. It begins when normally benign mouth bacteria are allowed to accumulate, forming a sticky layer of plaque at the interface between teeth and gums. This creates an environment in which anaerobic bacteria can thrive, producing enzymes that degrade the surrounding tissues, triggering an inflammatory response and eventually eroding the alveolar bone in which the teeth are embedded. Caries, or cavities, have received more airtime, though. You get them when Streptococcus mutans, a component of plaque, ferments sugary foods to produce lactic acid. This not only erodes the tooth's enamel surface, it also allows S. mutans to proliferate. The bug starts outgrowing the other bugs, many of which can't survive in low pH.

Caries could soon be a thing of the past, though. The University of Florida College of Dentistry has come up with an ingenious strategy for preventing them. It involves a genetically modified strain of S. mutans that also thrives on sugars but, instead of producing lactic acid, secretes an antibiotic that kills all other strains of the bacterium. The treatment, which is now being tested for safety in clinical trials, aims to provide lifelong protection with just a single, 5-minute application.

According to Steven Jay Gould

"Not only does the Earth contain more bacterial organisms than all others combined (scarcely surprising, given their minimal size and mass); not only do bacteria live in more places and work in a greater variety of metabolic ways; not only did bacteria alone constitute the first half of life's history, with no slackening in diversity thereafter; but also, and most surprisingly, total bacterial biomass (even at such minimal weight per cell) may exceed all the rest of life combined, even forest trees, once we include the subterranean populations as well."


Humans and chimpanzees are more closely related genetically than African elephants (big ears) and Asian elephants (small ears).

Really. In fact, there's more diversity within the human genome (85%) than there is between humans and chimps (who share 96% of their genome).

We're going to take a look at these and other astounding facts, and also some equally astounding foolishness people seem to believe is true. In the end, decide for yourself what's real, what's reality.

If along the way we make you laugh, that's wonderful. If we make you mad, we're glad you're involved enough with reality to care. And if we can make you say, "Wow! Really?" well...that's the whole idea.