Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Eyes Have It

Eyes are complicated, right? You’ve got the ball full of fluid, with a pupil and an iris in the front and photoreceptors in the back, which feed information into the optic nerve and send it to the brain.
In very simple terms, I have just described human eyes. Or the eyes of a wolf, bird, or any other vertebrate on Earth. Are there any other kinds of eyes?
You bet. However, there are a surprisingly few types of eyes, given the variety of animal life on our planet.
Eyes started on Earth as very simple organs, and those super-simple organs are still around today. They consist of a few photoreceptor cells connected to an optic nerve. This allows that creature to know the difference between light and shadow, although they don’t know from which direction the light is coming from. And that allows the creature to regulate circadian rhythms and respond to shadows. That is the eye found in an earthworm, sea urchin larva, sea star larva... The earthworm, for example, doesn’t want to bake in hot sunlight, so if its eyes say it’s bright, it will wriggle around until it senses shade.
The next step in the development of eyes was that the photoreceptor cells were joined by pigmented cells, which allowed this creature to tell the direction of the light. These creatures - like the box jellyfish larva - could now determine which direction to move to get out of the sunlight (or into it) and could respond if a predator’s shadow moved across them.
The third step was actually a split. Not of the eyes, of the types of eyes that evolved, but this step in both types is called Low-Resolution Vision. Some animals developed a ‘cupped’ eye; an eyeball with photoreceptors lining all but the front opening. Other creatures developed compound eyes. Having Low-resolution vision meant the creatures could detect their own motion, avoid objects and find preferred habitats because they saw crude images of objects in the world around them.
Both types of eyes took one more evolutionary step - to High-Resolution Vision - by adding a lens, cornea and iris at the front of each eye to focus the light. With this higher resolution, a creature is able to identify their mate, a co-worker, an approaching predator or something they could eat.
Humans have High-Resolution cupped eyes. They might not stay ‘high-resolution’, and some just don’t work at all, but as a species, that is the type of eye we have. Of course, our high-resolution vision can’t really be compared to the high-resolution vision of eagles. But then, we don’t rely on seeing prey from miles away to keep our belly full.
Eyes are there to fill a need for the owner. If the creature only needs to know if it’s in sun or shadow, then that’s all the eyes will tell it. That species has no need for eyes any more complex than that.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thankful my eyes are so complex.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Have Brain, Will Learn

Research has shown that as people age, staying active will help them stay active. Seems like circular reasoning, but actually, it works with brains, too. However, if you want your aging brain to ‘stay in shape’, you need to be learning new things.
When you learn something new, your brain creates new ‘pathways’ internally. If you do the same job, the same activities and hobbies for 40 or 50 years, your brain’s pathways are practically ‘set in stone’ (figuratively speaking). If you choose not to expand on them, then you will start doing those activities mindlessly. Why think about it? You’ve been doing things this way for decades!
‘Use it or lose it.’ That applies to brains, too. If you don’t exercise your brain, don’t give it new ‘problems’ to solve, it will eventually atrophy. Oh, you may have the same amount of gray matter in your noggin, but it will have forgotten how to wander off those stone pathways. I was particularly struck by the (aging) scientist in one documentary I watched who set aside her science research for a set amount of time each day to... sculpture with clay. Could she get any further away from studying the brain? Well, possibly, but clay sculpture seems pretty removed from research data.
Realizing that I had reached that ‘aging’ part of my life, I took this information to heart. Last year, I took a class on Theatrical Makeup. I had never made beauty makeup a part of my life, so this was definitely something new for me.
The class included methods of making appliances. If you’ve watched Star Trek, think of a Klingon’s forehead, a Ferengi’s ears and head shape, things like that. We had to make up our own character and apply that makeup - including at least one appliance - to ourselves as our final exam. I actually made 3 appliances for my character, and made a wig. Not only did I grossly underestimate how long the wig would take me to make, I had to solve problems, like how to figure out where the appliances would ultimately be attached to the wig, since they extended far into a human’s hairline. It was frustrating at times, but definitely fun!
I’ve recently started making appliances again. Boney foreheads, right now. Yesterday, I pulled my first latex forehead from my first mold. I think it looks pretty good, even if the latex did pool in the ‘boney’ areas. But that’s good, because they dried very thick and will stick up, off the forehead better.
Still, there are better materials that would produce better results. So I’m trying to decide what to try next. Hot foam? I’d have to build and calibrate an oven specifically for that, or make a backing mold that would allow the forehead molds be placed in a toaster oven (which we bought specifically for that purpose.) There’s also this stuff called dragonskin I’ve been meaning to try...

I anticipate lots more fun!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Water, Water Everywhere

Earth has a lot of water; it covers roughly 75% of the planet’s surface, and it gets pretty deep - not quite 7 miles deep at one point. And for a long time, it seemed maybe Earth was the only planet in this solar system that had water.
If we sent people to explore or colonize any of the other planets, we would have to send water with them. The more people we sent, the more water they would need. Did Earth have enough? Would we completely drain the oceans?
Thankfully, we’ve learned better than that by now, since we are - tentatively - thinking about how best to colonize other planets. A brief recap:
1989 - Voyager studied Neptune’s magnetic field, leading to the conclusion that it has a subsurface ocean of water that is 4000°F (Hot!) and is under tremendous pressure.
1998 - Recent discoveries convince scientists that Callisto (a moon of Jupiter) might have a subsurface ocean.
2006 - Neptune has a large amount of water mixed in with its hydrogen/helium atmosphere. This is true also for Uranus, and since its density is only slightly higher than water, there is speculation that most of Uranus is water, in all its forms, with only a tiny rocky core.
2009 - Traces of water were found on the moon, then a ‘significant’ amount of water. Plans are being made for mining it, should we ever decide to colonize or set up a station there.
2010 - Water ice was found on two asteroids. Some surmised that there might be lots of water ice in the asteroid belt.
2011 - It was concluded that dark streaks on Martian slopes were made as salty water (ice) melts and slides down the slope. Water ice is also trapped in Mars’ polar caps, which can reach halfway to its equator during the winter. And a huge slab of underground water ice has been found in its northern hemisphere.
2014 - Ceres, the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt, was found to be spewing water vapor into space. It was speculated that Ceres might have more water than Earth does.
2014 - Gravity measurements suggest that a huge ocean sloshes around under the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also spews water vapor from vents in its south pole. Titan, another Saturn moon, has an under-crust ocean saltier than Earth’s Dead Sea.
2014 - Scientists re-examined data from 1989, and now wonder if there is a subsurface ocean on Triton, Neptune’s largest moon - even if it does have the coldest surface in the solar system.
2015 - Using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists found that Jupiter’s moon Ganymede has a huge salty ocean buried under a thick crust of ice. Laboratory experiments lead to the conclusion that there’s a subsurface salty ocean on Europa, another of Jupiter’s moons.
2015 - Water ice sheets were discovered on Pluto.
You get the idea - there’s plenty of water out there. It’s so fascinating a subject because life AS WE KNOW IT needs water. So when we find water - especially liquid water - in places you would think would be too cold, the next question is, Is there life there?

Let’s go find out.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Love is in the Air

Do you read romances? I have. At times, I would read dozens of romances, one after another. Eventually, I would set them aside and move to another genre.
Mostly, I didn’t find romances very... satisfying. I couldn’t ‘identify’ with the characters.
For one thing, money never seems to be a problem in a romance. Whatever one of the protagonists wants, they buy. With hardly any thought about it. I can’t remember a single instance of the heroine realizing she needs a new coat, but doesn’t have the money for it. Or the hero’s frig is bare, so is his wallet and checkbook, and payday is still several days away. Or one of them has a sofa that’s missing a leg and a hole has duct tape covering it. Apparently, these types of things don’t happen in a modern romance.
That makes it hard for me to ‘suspend my disbelief.’ I grew up on the poor side of ‘middle class’, and I’m still there. I suspect the authors don’t want to anger their readers by making the woman struggling to make ends meet, because that would be ‘sexist’. And they can’t make the man financially struggling, because that might seem to be ‘man hating’. No, they figure both members of their couple need to be strong, independent, self-sufficient... equal.
But people can be strong and capable without having a fat bank account. The world is full of strong and capable people who have to pinch their pennies.
Another thing I find hard to identify with is the chosen location. As I remember, the vast majority of them happen in a huge city - New York, Los Angeles, London, Rome... Okay, I’ve attended conventions in Los Angeles and London, but I can’t say I really know anything about them. I can’t even imagine other huge cities like that, because the biggest city I’ve ever lived in is Kansas City. I remember just about enough about that city to not get lost... as long as I stay on the interstate! So, how am I supposed to identify with people who live in a place so alien to what I know?
You’d think, since I have such strong feelings about the romances I have read, that I would simply avoid the genre. Yet, from time to time, I find myself writing romances, using the pen name ‘Linda Joy’.
When I do write a romance, the location is usually a small town, often one I’ve actually lived in. My main characters may not obsess about money, but they are careful with it. They have jobs/careers that might afford them some degree of comfort, but if they suddenly find they need a new coat, or a new car, they’ll look for a bargain. And hope they don’t hate the color.

My theory is, Love can be in the air anywhere, not just in big cities. It can develop between the struggling and the have-to-be-careful just as well as the well-to-do. But if I can’t identify with the characters - at least a little bit - I won’t be happy with it. And if readers can’t identify with the characters, I will have wasted their time. My readers (AND my characters) deserve better.