Boing Boing 

Life-threatening science in a tropical jungle

Taxonomist Kipling Will tracked a rare beetle through the jungles of the south Pacific ... and almost lost his life in the process.

Luis Alvarez: Your new science hero?

Forget Tesla. Luis Alvarez should be the new object of your science history obsession says Ben Lillie at The Last Word on Nothing. Them's fightin' words. But Lillie backs it up. With his son Walter, Alvarez was the first to suggest that a giant asteroid impact had led to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Before that, he won a Nobel for designing a better Bubble Chamber to study electrically charged particles, invented the aircraft blind landing system and night-vision binoculars, found hidden rooms in the pyramids at Giza, investigated the JFK assassination, and was also a creepily outspoken voice in favor of global nuclear armament. (So it's not all awesome stuff.) Read more.

A herpetologist with a secret life as a spy

Early 20th century herpetologist Edward Taylor is known for identifying new species of frogs and lizards, for his curmudgeonly personality, and paranoid racism. Turns out, he was also secretly a spy for the US government during World Wars I and II.

Do science: The life you save may be your own

One of the people who developed the pacemaker is now 86. And he has a pacemaker.

Death, be not infrequent

The oldest person in the world died this year. But don't worry if you missed the event. The oldest person in the world will likely die next year, as well. In fact, according to mathematician Marc van Leeuwen, an "oldest person in the world" will die roughly every .65 years.

Satellites trace the appearance of crop circles in Saudi Arabia

It's not the work of aliens. Instead, you can chalk these crop circles up to humans + money + time. And, with the help of satellite imaging, you can watch as humans use money to change the desert over the course of almost 30 years.

Landsat is a United States satellite program that's been in operation since 1972. Eight different satellites (three of them still up there and functioning) have gathered images from all over the world for decades. This data is used to help scientists studying agriculture, geology, and forestry. It's also been used for surveillance and disaster relief.

Now, at Google, you can look at images taken from eight different sites between 1984 and 2012 and and watch as people change the face of the planet. In one set of images, you can watch agriculture emerge from the deserts of Saudi Arabia — little green polka-dots of irrigation popping up against a vast swath of tan. In another se, you'll see the deforestation of the Amazon. A third, the growth of Las Vegas. It's a fascinating view of how we shape the world around us, in massive ways, over a relatively short period of time.

The trouble with Wernher

Amy Shira Teitel has a nice essay about how we grapple with (and awkwardly avoid) the full legacy of Wernher Von Braun — father of the American space program and a Nazi whose rockets were once built by prison laborers.

Inner monologues — out loud

At the Brainwaves blog, Ferris Jabr writes about a fascinating project. Anthropologist Andrew Irving talked random strangers on the streets of New York City into putting on a headset and speaking their inner monologue out loud as he followed behind them with a camera. The result is something that approximates what it might be like to be able to hear someone else's thoughts.

A woman worries about where she can find a Staples and contemplates her relationship with a friend who has cancer. A man deals with his emotions over two close friends (or, possibly, roommates, or lovers) having a baby together. Another man flits between internal discussions of totalitarianism, speculation about other people on the street, and his own attempts to figure out which direction he's heading. In general, it's all a mixture of engaging and mundane, swirled together.

There are other videos in the series, as well. You can watch them at Brainwaves.

An obituary for Harry Stamps

Who is Harry Stamps? Excellent question. He was the dean of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, but, as his excellently written and tear-inducing obituary explains, he was also "a ladies’ man, foodie, natty dresser, and accomplished traveler" who held the secrets of the world's greatest BLT sandwich and went to his deathbed despising Daylight Savings Time (aka The Devil's Time). A man after my own heart.

Sinkholes: Swallowing everything, including the kitchen sink

If you were horrifically fascinated (horrafinated?) by the sinkhole that swallowed Floridian Jeff Bush and his entire bedroom a week ago, you might be interested in some sinkhole science. The US Geological Survey says that sinkholes are a geologic thing. Certain areas of the country are more prone than others (which you probably knew already). But the formation of actual sinkholes in those sinkhole-prone environments can apparently be prompted by human activities, ranging from old mines that weaken the ground above them; to groundwater pumping that destabilizes the soil; to (get this) leaky faucets. The USGS does not say how many leaky faucets, or how bad a leak, it might take to trigger a sinkhole, but the basic idea is that saturating usually dry soil could cause it to shift, so you'd assume it would have to mean a lot of water leaking into the soil under the house.

The world's tiniest periodic table

Tonight, I got to meet Martyn Poliakoff — the fabulously frizzy-haired University of Nottingham chemist who you might recognize from a series of awesome videos about the periodic table that Xeni first blogged about back in 2008.

This is his business card.

It's a microscope image of the world's tiniest periodic table, which Poliakoff's friends inscribed on a strand of his own hair as a birthday gift in 2010. The hair, which Poliakoff keeps in a glass vial, has earned him a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records.



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Meet the National Unwatering Swat Team

As I post this, the National Unwatering Swat Team should be reaching New York City, where it will do what the National Unwatering Swat Team does best — remove water from places it shouldn't ever be. This is a different mandate than dewatering, in which water is removed from places where it's sometimes okay to have water. (Via Philip Bump)

The chemical playwright

Carl Djerassi, the chemist who first synthesized an effective oral contraceptive, is now an author and playwright. Wired has a really interesting interview with him about his writing work, his scientific legacy, and why he doesn't like to be called The Father of the Pill.

The graffiti of Pompeii

Pompeii is the city frozen in time. Which means that nobody ever came through and cleaned up all the (often incredibly dirty) ancient Roman graffiti (or added their own, more modern, stuff).

So, what you find is a really cool time capsule of the way random, average puellae et pueri talked, at least in certain situations. This is colloquial Latin, and that's not something we get many chances to see.

It's also hilarious. I've seen some of these examples of Pompeiian graffiti over the years, but, as far as I'm concerned, it never gets old. (Ba-DUM-ching!) Some good examples:

From the Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio: "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!"

From the Bar of Prima: The story of Successus, Severus and Iris is played out on the walls of a bar: [Severus]: “Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”. [Answer by Successus]: “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.” [Answer by Severus]: “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

From the House of Pascius Hermes; left of the door: "To the one defecating here. Beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy."

From the basilica: "The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian."

Check out more of these at the Pompeiana website

For more about average Roman life, I really recommend Terry Jones' documentary "The Hidden History of Rome". You can watch it streaming on Netflix. It's a great overview of the little bits that we know about how non-elites lived thousands of years ago.

Via The Nation

Image: Pompeii, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from editor's photostream

Missing scientist no longer missing

About a month ago, Mike Martin published a profile in Psychology Today, all about Margie Profet, a controversial evolutionary biologist and McArthur fellow who had been missing since 2004. (I posted a link to his story here.)

Now Martin says that Margie Profet has turned up—alive, if not totally physically well. His story led her to realize people were looking for her and to get back in touch with her family.

At the time we lost track of her, Margie was in severe physical pain. Not wanting to trouble anyone else, she did not disclose the fact to us or to her friends, but moved to a new location in which she thought the pain would soon diminish. Instead, it persisted for many years. Unable to work because of it and subsequent injuries, she had long lived in poverty, sustained largely by the religion she had come to early in the decade.

Margie is finally home now, recovering from her long ordeal and hoping to find work in the near future. She is very happy to be reunited with her family, and we are overjoyed to have her back.

Read the rest of the letter from Margie Profet's mother at Mike Martin's website

Population growth isn't really our problem

In the course of preparing for a panel here at the Conference on World Affairs, I ran across a 2009 editorial by environmental journalist Fred Pearce, in which he explains why current global population trends aren't as horrific as they're often made out to be. I thought you should read it.

Global population is going up, Pearce writes, but that's not the same thing as saying that birth rates are going up. And, in the long run, that distinction matters. Around the world—not just in the West—human birthrates are decreasing. And they've been decreasing for a really long time.

Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.

This is getting close to the “replacement fertility level” which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don’t reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic “bulge” of women of child-bearing age keeps the world’s population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.

Far from ballooning, each generation will be smaller than the last. So the ecological footprint of future generations could diminish. That means we can have a shot at estimating the long-term impact of children from different countries down the generations.

What I really like about this essay, though, is how well Pearce articulates the real problem, which is over-consumption. Population and consumption might appear to be intrinsically linked, but they're not. As Pearce points out, global consumption is increasing far faster than global population and the average American family of four uses far more land, far more water, far more energy and produces far more emissions than an Ethiopian family of 11.

This is important. I've heard many, many Americans express their fears about population growth over the years. Pearce's essay makes it clear that, when you do that, you're pretty much being a concern troll. The population problem, while still real, is well on its way to solving itself. The consumption problem, not so much. Population growth is a problem of the poor. Consumption growth is a problem of the rich (which, from a global perspective, includes pretty much everyone in the United States). So when you ignore consumption and pin the blame for global sustainability issues on population, what you're doing is blaming the 99% for the mistakes of the 1%.

Read Frank Pearce's entire essay on Yale Environment 360

Image: Family Portrait, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from 12567713@N00's photostream

Autism: Awareness isn't enough

Science writer Steve Silberman does an amazing job covering neurodiversity and the Autism community, so I've been waiting to get his take on the recent Centers for Disease Control data that found the rate of autism prevalence in the United States to be 1 in 88.

That prevalence rate has been on an upward trend for a while, and whenever the new stats come out (these are based on data from 2008), it triggers a shockwave of hand-wringing coverage that treats these figures as if they must be based on an increase in actual incidence of autism, as opposed to changes in diagnostic criteria and methods. This matters, Silberman writes, because the science seems to back up the idea that what we're actually seeing is better diagnosis.

That theory is bolstered by two recent studies in South Korea and the United Kingdom, which suggest that autism prevalence has always been much higher than the estimated 1-in-10,000 when the diagnostic criteria were much more narrow and exclusionary. What’s changed now is that — in addition to the radical broadening of the spectrum following the introduction of diagnostic subcategories like Asperger’s syndrome and PDD-NOS – clinicians, teachers, and parents have gotten much better at recognizing autism, particularly in very young children. That’s actually good news, because by identifying a child early, parents can engage the supports, therapies, modes of learning, and assistive technology that can help a kid express the fullest potential of their unique atypical mind.

The real problem, according to Silberman, isn't a mysterious increase in the number of children with autism. Instead, the problem is how we, as a society, treat those children once they are no longer children.

Once that 1-in-88 kid grows to adulthood, our society offers little to enable him or her to live a healthy, secure, independent, and productive life in their own community. When kids on the spectrum graduate from high school, they and their families are often cut adrift — left to fend for themselves in the face of dwindling social services and even less than the meager level of accommodations available to those with other disabilities.

Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the money raised by star-studded “awareness” campaigns goes into researching potential genetic and environmental risk factors — not to improving the quality of life for the millions of autistic adults who are already here, struggling to get by.

Instead, what people with autism really need is to be a part of their communities. That means acceptance of difference is more important than awareness of difference. It also means that respect, support, and inclusion are more important than frantic attempts to "cure" children who might not have anything really wrong with them.

Read the rest of Steve Silberman's story on autism awareness, autism acceptance, and what people with autism say they really want.

Image: Autism Awareness Ribbon, Colorful Puzzle Pieces, Free Creative Commons Public Domain Download, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from walkadog's photostream