Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Just Another Sink Hole

When you live in Florida, you get used to hearing about sink holes. When one opens up, it is filled with sand and rocks and everyone hopes it doesn’t continue to cause problems, especially if it occurred in a road. Before we moved here, I occasionally heard about a sink hole opening in other places, and they always seemed to swallow a car or two. But sink holes can be fickle things; some start out small and continue to grow until they are huge. Some seem to be bottomless pits that refuse to be filled, no matter how much sand and rocks are thrown into them.

Recently, I heard about a ‘sink hole’ in northern Wyoming, near the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Called Natural Trap Cave, it was discovered in 1970, when it was believed to be some 25,000 years old. Theory says that it opened up alongside a migratory trail used by many species, and they just kept falling in.

Located in a National Park, the sinkhole is 15 feet wide and (currently) 85 feet deep. Chances are that once an animal fell in, it wasn’t getting back out again. When it was first discovered, there was some digging of the bottom of the hole for a few years before it was closed up and left alone. In 2014, a new batch of scientists returned to do some more digging. They were only there for 2 weeks during August of that year, and before they could dig, they had to figure out how to safely get themselves and their gear to the bottom and up again. But what they found when they did get there was stunning; North American lions and American cheetahs, both of which went extinct about 12,000 years ago. During the 70s, scientists had discovered mammoths, short-faced bears, giant camels, and collared lemmings in the pit. Also discovered (but I’m not sure when) were dire wolves, tiny rodents that need to be studied by microscope, bison, grey wolves and horses.

Even though it was August, the scientists reported the hole was like a refrigerator. So much so that some of the skeletons still include DNA, so there will be huge strides in our knowledge of prehistoric genetics.

The 2014 group of paleontologists planned to continue their excavations another 2 years. They estimated that the depth of the pile of dead creatures could be 33 feet, and the digs of the 70s and 2014 had barely scratched the surface. With that said, they thought the bottom of this heap might have animals 100,000 years old.

If that turns out to be true, then this sink hole can’t be only 25,000 years old. That would make this one great, great grand-pappy of a sink hole. And amazingly stable for a sink hole, too.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Unique Argentina Dino

Sometime around 2012, an Argentina rancher found an old bone sticking up out of the dirt. Intrigued, he scratched around, trying to dig it up, then contacted paleontologists at the local museum to come see what he had.

He had found some big bones. And when the paleontologists dug around, they discovered the remains of 6 of the biggest titanosaurs ever discovered.

Titanosaurs lived about 100 million years ago, on all the continents, including Antarctica, which was not covered in snow and ice, and may or may not have been located at the south pole at the time. The ‘Titans’ were herbivores. The most complete skeleton was for a young adult some 122 feet long (its neck was 39 feet) and weighing 70 tons (about the same weight as 10 modern African elephants). One of the femurs uncovered was 8 feet long; long enough to be a living room sofa, if it were more comfortable to sit on. How big would it have gotten when it was fully grown? How did it get that big? And what kind of creature - if any - could consider one of these dinner?

As I stated, there were (at least) 6 individuals found at this dig site, which at the time these Titans died, would have been the flood plain of a river. ALL of them were young adults. But they didn’t die as one group; there were at least 3 separate events that took lives, which may have been a few years to centuries apart. A theory is that the youngsters got separated from their herd and died from stress and hunger.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Pick a Flavor

Several years ago, I heard about this very strange tree that produced 40 different kinds of fruit. On one tree! That sounded pretty weird, but it turned out the tree was produced - over a number of years - by grafting, which has been done for... centuries? Millennia? A very long time.

Sam Van Aken is a sculpture artist who grew up on a farm. In 2008, he began grafting ‘donor’ branches onto a ‘stock tree’. He was looking to create a tree that would bloom in various colors. It was an art project, for him. After about 5 years, he had a tree that bloomed in shades of red, pink and white flowers. The picture I saw was gorgeous.

But the real fun, I think, would be in harvesting the bounty. The types of fruit include almond, apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach and plum varieties. Each ripens at a specific time, starting in July and ending in October (in the US). I’m guessing that you could be picking several different varieties at the same time. A true cornucopia of plenty!

Sam didn’t make just one tree. As of 2014, he had installed 16 trees of 40 fruits around the country. But he wasn’t done. That article showed his plan for producing ‘tree 71’ and a picture of ‘tree 75’. He’d like to make an entire city orchard with these trees.

No 2 trees are alike. First, he starts with a stock tree that thrives in the area where the tree will live. You can’t put an aspen in a place where there are no other aspen trees, and expect it to thrive. Then, over several years, he grafts on branches from various fruit trees.

Sam has 250 varieties to choose from in his nursery, some of them of heirloom, antique, and native varieties of fruit that are no longer produced in any quantity. He also goes to local farmers in the tree’s home area to get local branches to add to the tree. In this way, he introduces diversity to the area, and conserves old varieties that might otherwise be lost.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


 I thought I’d take a look at Tyrannosaurus Rex. We all remember Tyra, right? Always represented as having a mighty roar and sharp, pointy teeth, and teeny, tiny forearms that wouldn’t even reach its mouth. Why would it evolve with such useless arms?

The first thing I discovered was that those tiny arms were quite strong, and each ‘hand’ had 2 sharp claws. So in a fight, if its mouth was already full of opponent, or it was still looking for the chance to sink its teeth into an opponent, those claws could be used to protect its belly, maybe? Well, not its abdomen, but the chest area. Any attack below that would call for leg action, either to stab or slice with its bigger foot claws, or to back up and get those fearsome teeth involved.

Other uses for these arms have been suggested; that they were used to grasp the female during sex, or that they assisted Tyra in rising from resting on the ground. Or from falling down, or being knocked down, or whatever. But one suggestion is actually supported by biomechanical analysis, and that is that the arms held Tyra’s struggling prey as the teeth did the work of killing it. Those arms are almost always shown bent at the elbow and held close to the body. And there’s a reason for that; Tyra’s shoulders could only move 40°, and its elbow only moved a maximum of 45°. So, no charades or sign language for this creature! To help you think about that, a healthy human shoulder can move 360°, while the elbow allows 165° of movement.

I had trouble picturing these restrictions. If you want, try this: Hold your arm down along your body and bend your elbow to make the forearm perpendicular to your body. This is your starting position. Now, keeping the elbow stiff in that position, raise your upper arm to not quite half-way to being perpendicular to your body. That is about how much Tyra’s shoulder could move. Now, extend your forearm to halfway between where it is and it being straight at the elbow. Imagine all the things you and I would not be able to do if that was all the further we could move those joints!

Okay, so these tiny arms may have been somewhat useful, but why did they evolve that way? What were Tyra’s ancestors like? And are there any descendants still around?

It was hard to find anything definitive about ancestors. The family tree that includes Tyra has many branches in that same time period, and they all seemed to have ‘stunted’ arms. A recent discovery from an earlier epoch held an almost complete skeleton of a very similar creature, possibly an ancestor of Tyra and/or other branches of that family tree. That article did not include much description - only that it was ‘horse-sized’ compared to Tyra’s ‘elephant-size - but the ‘artist’s rendering’ showed that ancestor as a skinnier Tyra, with somewhat longer and looser arms. That article stated that the ancestor already had a big brain, keen eye-sight, and sharp hearing at lower frequencies, and deduced that the Tyra family had developed these ‘smarts’ before it developed the brawn.

And of course, when the meteor hit and killed almost all the herbivores, a few Tyras - out of sheer desperation - shed over 99% of their weight, sprouted feathers and became birds. No, not really. When the herbivores died, Tyra’s family tree died, too. But some distant relatives - the maniraptoriformes family - did live on, and some of those did develop into modern birds. Which is good, because those tiny, practically frozen arms of the Tyra family were not going to launch a Tyra into the air, no matter how many feathers it had!

And now I’ll be shoving all this information into the grist mill that is my day-dreaming mind. Perhaps, on another planet, the end of the dinosaurs did not happen quite so fast, and the Tyras did manage to slim down and learn to fly. What do you think? Some kind of bird? Or dragon? Or something else entirely?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Fireballs Are Flying!

Try to imagine you are an astronomer, studying another star some 2,000 light years away, V Hydra. It’s an odd star; bloated, red, old, and pulsing - getting brighter, then dimmer, and sometimes getting much dimmer. It may be nearing the end of its life, to start again as a planetary nebula, and if that happens during your lifetime, you want to see it.

And then it throws fireballs.

No, it doesn’t explode. No, these aren’t corona ejections. They are fireballs.

How did it do that?

In October 2016, astronomers were left scratching their heads as Hubble revealed that’s exactly what happened. They studied the star and its surroundings, and eventually they came up with a theory.

V Hydra has a visible companion star (we’ll call it NNS - No Name Star, because they never mentioned a name for it). NNS is an orange dwarf about 46” distance from V Hydra. Yeah, I know, 46 inches doesn’t make any sense to me, either, but that’s actually 46 arcseconds in astronomy notation. They ‘measure’ the distance between these 2 stars by noting the angle change from looking at one to looking at the other. An arcsecond is 1/60th of an arcminute, which is 1/60 of a second... Look, take 2 meter sticks and lay one on top of the other. Stick 2 pieces of paper between them at one end. The angle at the opposite end is about 50 arcseconds. So V Hydra and NNS look like 2 bumps together from Earth, but being 20,000 light years away from us, there’s a good bit of distance between them. Chances are anything NNS might be doing would not cause V Hydra to throw fireballs around.

It appears that V Hydra has a second companion star, this one too dim to be seen directly from Earth, but astronomers have their magic math formulas to figure these things out. We’ll call this one DIM, because it’s so dim. Anyway, DIM orbits V Hydra every 8.5 years in a very elliptical orbit. This orbit is so elliptical that - now that V Hydra is bloated in its death throes - DIM no longer comes close to V Hydra, it actually travels through V Hydra’s outer atmosphere. Wow. Hot enough for ya?

As DIM travels through V Hydra’s outer atmosphere, it greedily grabs a bunch of V Hydra’s material and stores it in a disk about itself. Remember, planets are born from left-over materials in a disk around the new-born star, so I guess maybe DIM wants to start a family.

But, alas, DIM just isn’t very smart, and starts sending its ‘fledgling planets’ away long before they actually make planets. When DIM emerges from V Hydra’s atmosphere, its storage disk breaks apart, forming superhot blobs of plasma about twice the size of Mars that are tossed into the unknown at a speed that they could travel from the moon to Earth in about a half hour.

Poor DIM. Heart-breaking, isn’t it? Now consider that astronomers believe this has been happening every 8.5 years for about 400 years.

The mind boggles, right? But what can we do? I mean, sending DIM a sympathy card every 8.5 years is a bit much, don’t you think? Probably doesn’t want to talk about it, anyway.

How much would it cost to send a card 20,000 light years? Will a regular stamp do?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Space Pollution

For millennia, mankind has used Earth’s resources however it wanted, and when we were done with something, we simply abandoned it. Most of this stuff will - eventually - return to its component parts, thanks to weather and other natural events.

But there is no weather in space, so what happens to stuff that gets abandoned there?

Mostly, it stays where we left it, usually in some kind of orbit around Earth. Lose contact with an old satellite? That’s okay, we need a new one anyway; we’ll just put the new one in a new orbit. Somebody lost their wrench while working outside? I think the job can still be done with this other wrench and a little ingenuity. The lost wrench? Oh, just move the station another kilometer higher, and you should be fine.

Yes, we’ve been cavalier about the junk we’ve left out there. Some gets sent into a ‘graveyard orbit’ at the end of its usefulness. Other stuff eventually is pulled toward the Earth and (hopefully) burns up before it hits the ground. Remember Skylab? That was scary, to know this big thing was coming down, that it would not burn up completely, but not know exactly where it would hit. Then it broke into pieces, some of which still made it to the surface, and even more uncertainty where they would hit.

Some satellites had a nuclear reactor to power their equipment. At the end of their ‘life’, many were sent to a graveyard orbit, but others fell to Earth, where they became a problem. Even those in the graveyard could be punctured by a micro-meteor and leak coolant from the reactor. The coolant would solidify and become droplets of more junk.

So, let’s see, we have dead satellites, booster stages, fragments of booster stages that have exploded, fragments caused by collisions, and lost equipment, just to name a few categories of space pollution. Now, the movies always depict (these days) a tool as having a tether to connect it to the astronaut, but it apparently took time to think of doing that. The ‘lost equipment’ category includes: a glove, 2 cameras, a thermal blanket, bags of garbage, a wrench and a toothbrush. Okay, those bulky space suit gloves can make it difficult to maintain a grip, but how does an astronaut lose one of his gloves?

People try to keep track of all this stuff, try to avoid collisions with equipment still in use. I don’t know who supplied these numbers, but there are over 170,000,000 pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm, as of July 2013. Additionally, there are 670,000 pieces between 1 and 10 cm (3.9 inches), and 29,000 pieces larger than 10 cm.

So, who cares? Most of it’s tiny, and if it’s big enough to do damage, you just move your ship or satellite out of the way. Yes, most of it is tiny, but at the speeds they travel, even the tiny ones pack quite a punch. And the equipment can’t always move out of the way.

The Kessler syndrome theorizes that once space debris reaches a particular density, there will be a chain reaction of collisions, each breaking its components into smaller pieces, which go on to have more collisions... It’s uncertain whether the Earth has already reached that point, but it’s not something we want to happen. The Earth could become completely swaddled in debris to the point that we could no longer launch ourselves into space. There goes our glorious dreams of a Space Empire! Or even of just getting off this rock to colonize... any place else.

Would such a debris cloud cut the amount of sunlight that reaches us? That might help mitigate global warming! If not, then I guess we’ll just bake ourselves on the ground as we kick ourselves for making it impossible to move away.

There have been many suggestions on how to remove space debris. At least one country has built their idea and sent it up for testing, but couldn’t get it to work. Most don’t see it as ‘cost effective’.

So, here’s my idea. If you have a big problem, you need to think big. Build a space station. I know, we have one, but that’s not big enough. We need a big one, with manufacturing capabilities and housing/entertainment for the workers. Use a small space tug to go out, grab debris and bring it back as ‘raw material’ for building interplanetary space ships.

Or maybe you prefer to sit back and wait for ‘nature to take its course’?

By the way, have you seen the movie Gravity? That was the Kessler syndrome in action.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Swords - Fantasy or Fact?

A Guest Entry by Ta’Yant bilora vi Grrrck (of Floya 4 - There are other Ta’Yant bilora vi Grrrcks, but they aren’t from Floya 4!)

A common occurrence in the genre ‘high fantasy’ or ‘epic fantasy’ is the use of swords, some of which had or are said to have had magical powers. Since many of these stories appear to be set on Old Earth and include other items that also appear in ancient Earth myths and legends - such as elves, dwarves, dragons, magic and the like, I decided to search the ancient texts from the Home Planet to determine how much of the legend of ‘swords’ might be purely imaginary.

First, let me say that it is very difficult to discern whether a particular text is truly factual. So many texts either gave no references or referred to texts that are no longer part of what records we still have, so cannot be verified. Since the chances of finding additional texts seems impossible, with Earth (and indeed, that entire system) in their current inhospitable state, I can only present what I found as a series of supposed truths, with the understanding that it might be completely contaminated with ‘facts’ that are nothing more than ‘beliefs’ of the time.

One source text came to be a wealth of knowledge to me, or would have, if the links to its sources had been intact, or if I had been able to verify anything it said from some other source. Even the title of this reference text was incomplete, consisting of “”. Ancient historians (meaning those who study ancient history, who or may or may not be ancient in their own right) believe this title places it in the ‘wikipedia’ reference source of the 22nd century, which is either famous for being so large and all-inclusive, or infamous for having no basis in fact, depending on which historian is speaking. This article stated that a spatha was a long, straight sword, originally used by the ‘germanic’ people against the ‘romans’, who started with swords that were shorter. The ‘romans’, however, adopted the longer version so that they could stab opponents from a longer distance.

So, if this information is correct, swords were real, and came in different lengths. In my efforts to double-check everything, I could not find ‘germanic’ or ‘romans’ on any maps within the available wikipedia texts. I did find a map (circa 2100) that showed an area called Germany, and somewhat south of that, a city called Rome. If these are the areas of the peoples referenced, further study of even more texts indicate that Germany was a source of many huge wars involving the entire planet, and that the highly religious Rome people were led by a Grand Priest, alternately referred to as ‘The Pope’ and ‘Ceasar’. I personally have trouble with the thought of a ‘deeply religious’ people who carried and used weapons, but I am not versed in all types of religion. Perhaps their religion called on them to dominate others. In that case, I can not be surprised that they eventually came to blows with the war-faring germanics.

I ran across 2 ‘news articles’ from 2015 and 2016. As ‘news stories’, they had no links to any reference materials, but I include them here because I found them so interesting. In 2015, a ‘hiker’(?) found an ‘ancient viking’ sword on the side of the road in Norway, and a specialist from a local museum (?) stated the sword was from 750 AD, approximately 1200 years before it was found. (I can’t make any sense of their calendar! I thought these dates were in the same calendar era, but 750 plus 1200 equals 1950, not 2015!) The specialist went on to say that if given a new handle, the sword could be used ‘today’ (meaning 2015). 

In 2016, a local ‘couple’ found an ‘amazingly preserved’ sword in a ‘field’ near their home in Denmark. This sword, a museum representative stated, was 3,000 years old. Apparently, swords were in use for more than 3000 years, since one of these was that old, and the other only needed some minor repairs before it could be used again! And yes, Norway and Denmark were both on that map, Norway north of Denmark, with a strip of water between them. But research indicated that Norway was colonized by Denmark, so why would they be at war with each other?

My head is spinning, just trying to keep all these ‘facts’ straight and get them presented in a logical sequence. And I’ve just barely begun telling you all that I found in those old replicas! My time for this entry is up, but as soon as I can pick up two thoughts and put them together, I’ll see about writing another entry.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


I’ve talked before about our solar system as if it were a family, with the sun as the parent, and the planets as the children. The moons, asteroids and other bits would be the grandchildren, I suppose.

I am quite fascinated with our solar system. Until scientists find facts about other solar systems, this is the only one I’ve got to study; these are the only planets I can use as a springboard when my imagination wants to design one for a story. So I keep looking for new things about them that I didn’t know before. Luckily, NASA and scientists keep looking at them, too.

Today’s subject is Saturn and its rings.

You’d think the solar system was a big family, with 9 8 planets and several dwarf planets. But for Saturn, 8 or 9 was not enough. Saturn has 62 moons that have names, and another 9 that have not yet been named. Wow! Can you imagine 71 kids? I’d have lots of trouble remembering half their names, not just 9 of them. I had a couple batches of cousins who had 8 siblings in each family. Gram gave up trying to remember our names; all the girls became ‘Pigtails’ and the boys were ‘Junior’.

I didn’t realize just how many moons Saturn has. One day I will have to start looking more closely at them, but today, I’m looking at the rings.

There are 7 rings. They don’t exactly have names, but each is designated by a letter. I suspect the letters were assigned as the individual rings were discovered, because otherwise, there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason for the assignments.

If you start at Saturn and move away from the planet, you arrive at Ring D, then Ring C, Ring B and Ring A. Continue outward, and you will find Ring F, Ring G and Ring E. Between each pair of rings is a gap, a space that is not absolutely empty, but is relatively empty compared to the rings. (I haven’t figured out if any of the gaps is home to a moon, but I do know that some of the moons are somewhere in the ‘rings’. Some day, I have to figure that out.) Each ring and gap is its own width, meaning the distance between the side closest to Saturn and the side furthest from Saturn.

But they are also thin, meaning the distance from the ‘top’ of the ring to the ‘bottom’. Thickness for all the rings is less than 1 km.

If there is one thing Saturn’s rings are, it’s not consistent. The various rings are made up of water ice particles (with a trace of rock for flavoring), but those particles range from the size of a grain of sugar to the size of a house.

The rings are a very busy place. With 71 moons of various sizes orbiting around this big ol’ gas giant, the gravity and magnetic fields are forever fluctuating. The latest probe documented ‘lines’ in some rings, which are called spokes. The spokes come and go, and they aren’t sure what causes them, but they suspect they are a temporary ‘pile-up’ (traffic jam) of particles caused by the gravity or magnetic fields. Or maybe by electricity leaking from storms in Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

And spokes are not the only oddity in the rings. Ring F seems to be ‘braided’. Who taught those particles how to do that?

But don’t worry about Saturn’s rings. Some of the moons (bigger siblings) act as shepherds for the rings, using their gravity/magnetic fields to keep the ring particles where they belong. More or less.

I’ve just barely touched on Saturn, but that’s all for today. After all, it is a gas giant, with a huge family; too big a subject for me to explore the entire thing in one sitting.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What’s Up, Doc?

I’ve reached that ‘special’ age where parts of me stiffen and ache. When I get tired of putting up with this nonsense, and I don’t feel a medical doctor is doing enough for me, I start researching the cause and what I can do about it. Yes, I’ve been known to dabble in alternative medicines, but only if it made a kind of sense to me AND had next-to-no side effects.

Aromatherapy? Sure. That’s just a matter of smell, and most of the essential oils have a pleasant odor, so why not?

Chiropractics? I’m a firm believer. It seems most medical doctors only worry about bones if they’re broken or completely out of place, but those x-rays can show a chiropractitioner that a particular bone is ‘in place’ but slightly twisted. For years, I would off and on see a chiro for a low-back pain that would radiate down one leg. It would take a few weeks for him to convince that bone to stay untwisted, but then I was good for another year or so.

Acupuncture? I don’t like needles, so I’ve only had the electronic kind, but it seems to help, at least with sinuses and headaches.

But a person has to be careful. Some ‘remedies’ or ‘procedures’ are nothing but a scam.

For instance, let’s look at a company called Theranos. Stanford University student Elizabeth Holmes created a wearable patch that could adjust the dosage of drug delivery and notify doctors wirelessly of variables in the patient’s blood. At the age of 19, she founded Theranos and worked to develop chip technology that would make blood tests quicker and cheaper, requiring only the blood from a pin prick, similar to a blood sugar test.

In 10 years, she had raised over $400 million in funding, but her work was done in secret, which did not sit well with some health groups. Also, Theranos did the testing themselves and did not allow their work to be peer-reviewed. Problems ensued, and grew, as Theranos labs failed inspections, the small-dose blood test equipment apparently required test tubes full of blood, and it was found that the labs actually used the exact same equipment that other labs used.

Why does this matter? It’s left a bitter taste in mouths of many people, from investors to corporations who chose to ‘partner’ with the new company to government agencies who were shocked when they inspected Theranos labs, right down to the patients who thought things were really changing, only to find out everything was the same. Oh, maybe one thing might have changed; the work done at Theranos labs may or may not have been less accurate than that of other labs.

That’s why I carefully study ‘alternatives’ to regular medicine, whether they involve ‘ancient knowledge’, a new ‘break-through’, or something in between. I did not work up any enthusiasm for Holmes’ blood-lab chip for a number of reasons:
1. Holmes was a chemical engineering student, which - in my mind - is nowhere near a medical professional.
2. She dropped out of school after one year even though her school adviser - when she explained her plans for a blood-lab chip - told her it wouldn’t work.
3. She ran her company in complete secrecy, which is apparently standard for tech start-ups, but NOT for medical companies.
4. She filled the company board with politicians and military types. She filled the company with engineers. I suppose for a product like she wanted, you would need some engineers, but... where were the physicians?
5. Ten years in, there was still NO SIGN of these blood-lab chips. Really? After 10 years, they could do nothing any differently from anybody else? They couldn’t even come up with a desk-top-sized machine that could take a smear of blood and test for something?

Okay, there are problems with the ‘old’ technology; the patient has to be stuck with a needle and have a significant amount of blood drawn (depending on how many and what tests are to be done), and both patient and doctor have to wait for the results to come back from the lab. It would be exciting to have a blood-lab chip that would eliminate both of these, but we don’t. Even after 14 (almost 15) years, we don’t.

In this case, I guess... Tried and true will have to do.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Prehistoric Groundhog

Groundhog Day happens in February, when everybody - it seems - wants to know ‘Will this winter never end?’ How groundhogs ever got associated with predicting the end of winter is a mystery to me. Did any of them ever get a degree in climatology? No, not a one. They just lay in their borrow, blissfully sleeping through the cold when someone sticks his hand in, grabs one and pulls it out. Still blinking, the confused and shocked groundhog is held up high as a display, a crowd cheers and claps, and then... I don’t know, maybe they stuff the rodent with sweet treats as a reward for being a good sport. Not that the poor guy had any choice in the matter.

I started thinking, ‘Where do groundhogs come from?’ Yes, I know, from mommy and daddy groundhogs. What I mean is, millions of years ago, human ancestors were about the size and shape of a mouse, and they lived underground. Humans are a lot bigger now, and very few of us live underground. So, if we went back to that time - roughly 66 million years ago - would our ancestors be sharing burrows with ancient groundhogs? What would a groundhog from that long ago be like?

66 million years ago, all the southern hemisphere landmasses were gathered together into one supercontinent called Gondwana. Dinosaurs were still around, so I can’t blame our ancestors for seeking safety underground. Groundhogs of that day weighed 20 pounds (about twice the size of today’s groundhogs), had a skull 5 inches long and massive chewing muscles. Let’s see somebody pull one of those out of a sound sleep and hold it aloft!

A sample skull of the creature was found in a rock from Madagascar. This ancient groundhog was probably the largest mammal known for that time period, and lived on seeds, roots and nutty fruits. Its teeth included sharp incisors and wear-proof molars. Large eyes let it see in low light, and the intricate inner ear indicates it could hear higher frequencies than modern man can. A large nasal cavity means it had a keen sense of smell, and most likely it was agile. (The better to dodge large dinosaur feet?)

Alas, that particular rodent has gone extinct. So I’m not sure why it’s called a groundhog. I would assume a ‘prehistoric groundhog’ would be an ancestor of today’s groundhogs, but apparently, it’s only another branch on the family tree of groundhogs. A branch that broke, leaving other branches to fill in the hole.

Well, it did live in Madagascar, so it might have fallen prey to a blind snake, predatory frog or vegetarian crocodile, which were also Madagascar specialties.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Planets Around Failed Stars

Stars can (but don’t necessarily) have a family of planets surrounding them. Planets can (but don’t necessarily) have moons surrounding them. What about the so-called ‘failed stars’? Do they have anything as a family?

Jupiter is sometimes called a failed star. If it had just a bit more mass, fusion could start, goes the argument. Well, not really. It would take 13 Jupiters combined to have enough mass to reach the minimum needed for a brown dwarf, AKA failed star. Also, Jupiter was created within the disk of dust that surrounded our infant sun, which is how planets are made, not stars. Not even failed stars. So we can’t take any clues from Jupiter about the possibility of planets around dwarf stars.

Okay, so exactly what is a failed star? A close apparent brown-dwarf-type object to Earth is SIMP0136. It lies 21 light-years away and is 13 times the mass of Jupiter. Theoretically, it could be a brown dwarf. Brown dwarves form like other stars, but fail to get big enough. They may have some fusion of deuterium for a relatively short time inside them, but it doesn’t last. Any light they produce tends to be in the red and infrared spectrums, so despite being called brown dwarves, they would probably appear magenta or possibly red-orange. And the older the brown dwarf is, the more it cools and contracts, until it can seem to be just another planet. Scientists have recently decided SIMP0136 is just a planet, after all. A rogue planet, big enough and close enough for them to study its weather patterns.

It could have gone the other way. The size of brown dwarves range from a minimum of 13 Jupiter masses to a maximum of 80 Jupiter masses. If it managed to gather more than 80X Jupiter’s mass, it would have made it to actual stardom.

Because brown dwarves are a type of star, at least some of them do have a family of planets, such as 2M1207b and MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb. This makes sense, because brown dwarves form the same way as other stars, just in the middle of a smaller dust cloud. Once the center of the cloud collapses into a proto-brown-dwarf, the remainder of the cloud thins into a rotating disk of dust, which would normally form planets. It is thought that this disk would not extend far, since the entire cloud was small to begin with, so any resulting planets would be fairly close to the brown dwarf. It is also believed that these planets would be rocky, like Earth and Mars, rather than gas giants like Jupiter, because most of the gas would be taken by the brown dwarf. So, let's look at some known brown dwarf systems:

170 light years from Earth, planet 2M1207b orbits a brown dwarf. Its mass is somewhere between 3X and 10X that of Jupiter, and it orbits its primary at approximately the same distance as Pluto from our sun. Although there is some indication of water, it is not likely to be habitable.

Occasionally shortened to MOA-192 b, MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb is about 3,000 light-years away. This small planet is 3.3X Earth’s mass, and circles a small brown dwarf in an orbit approximately 2/3 the size of Earth’s orbit around the sun. It is believed to have lots of ice and gases, more like Neptune than Earth.

And then there’s the quadruplets: a small brown dwarf (2MASS J04414489+2301513, with a mass 20X that of Jupiter) has a companion (5X to 10X the mass of Jupiter) that could be either a planet or a sub-brown dwarf. There are also two other brown dwarves in close association. All four objects together only have 26% the mass of our sun, making it the quad system with the least mass. It is 470 light years away.

So yes, it is entirely possible - almost probable - that ‘failed stars’ will have planets. Or possibly siblings, as in the quad system.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Enigmatic Sounds

I hear things.

I’m not talking about rumors, or all the usual sounds most people hear during the course of their daily lives. I’m not even talking about those creaks in the middle of the night as the house relaxes after a long day, though the sounds I am talking about come to me after the dark of night settles in and mostly after everybody else in the house has gone to bed.

The thing is, I’m don’t think these sounds are coming through my ears.

Ghosts? If it is, they have followed me from our old house in Nebraska to our new house in Florida.

What I hear is - frequently - music. I’ll be sitting here, playing games working on my computer, and I’ll become aware of music. Specifically, a radio playing Elvis tunes, or 50s hits, or once in a while, swing. But it’s not a strong signal; it reminds me of when I briefly lived in Cheyenne, and while I did my homework, I would try to tune in a specific radio station from Oklahoma. I frequently couldn’t find it, but if the clouds between us were in the correct positions, I could. Kind of. As I remember it, the static threatened to overtake the music, and that’s what this ‘night serenade’ sounds like. And there isn’t any DJ.

I’ve heard - now, this is a rumor - that some people pick up radio signals because of fillings in their teeth. But for me, this only started a couple years ago, and all my old-type fillings are much older than that. This past decade, my dentists have used ‘composite’ fillings, which don’t have the same minerals in them.

But static-laced music isn’t the only thing I hear. Last night, I listened to a phone ring for about an hour. We don’t have a land line in our house, and neither cell phone sounds like an actual phone ringing. In any case, this was the kind of ringing when you have ‘dialed’ and are waiting for someone to answer. Nobody ever did, nor did it go to voice mail or an answering machine. It just kept ringing.

I’m not the only one who ‘hears’ this kind of stuff. A couple friends have admitted having similar experiences, and all of us are diabetic. I don’t know if that last part has any bearing on it, but I would like to know why my mind does this. Is it so bored, it’s entertaining itself? How does it pick what it’s going to listen to? I’ve enjoyed Elvis as an entertainer, but I never bought any of his records. The 50s songs would have been popular when I was a child, but I don’t remember listening to a radio at that age. Swing music from WWII was definitely before my time. And a ringing phone? Who was it trying to call?

Now, here’s another way to think about it: When I’m all alone, I hear things that aren’t there. Things that aren’t creepy or scary. So I’m wondering if, when space travel becomes ‘fairly normal’, and some people are traveling by space ship but don’t have constant contact with ‘base’, will they hear things that aren’t there? Would it creep them out? Would they inform base of it at their next contact? Will science have an explanation for this strange brain activity by then?

How long has the ‘human’ brain been doing this? Did the brain of an ancient person entertain itself with birdsongs or the chattering of small animals (think squirrels)?

Okay, confess. What does your brain do when you’re all alone and not paying it much attention?

Thursday, May 4, 2017


I thought we’d talk about Dione today. That was before I found out there were 4 ‘Dione’s’ in Greek mythology and one in the Phoenician mythology of Sanchuniathon. Rather than try to sort through all those, I changed my mind and decided to discuss Dione, a moon of Saturn. (What or who is Sanchuniathon? I may have to come back to that one sometime.)
This moon was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini in 1684. It is also sometimes called Saturn IV.
Dione’s orbit around Saturn is an ellipse, and at its closest approach, it is slightly closer to Saturn’s center than our own moon is to the Earth’s center. Because Saturn is a lot bigger than Earth, Dione races around it, taking 2.74 days to complete an orbit, as well as a Dione ‘day’. It never turns its face away from Saturn. It’s interesting that every time Dione completes one orbit, Enceladus (another Saturn moon) completes two. Each time they pass each other, the gravimetric tugging generates internal heat in both moons.
Also interesting is that Dione is one of a set of triplets. Two other moons of Saturn, Helene and Polydeuces, share the same orbit as Dione. They run around Saturn in single file, one 60° ahead of Dione, and the other 60° behind.
Who knew this kind of stuff could actually happen ‘naturally’? May I should have stuck with mythology after all.
It is believed that Dione is about 2/3 water in various forms, and the remainder is a dense core of silicate rock. The top of the ‘water’ is an ice crust, probably as thick as 99 kilometers ( 62 miles). The temperature at Dione’s surface is about -121°F, which would make the ice so hard, it would act like rock. Between the rock core and the ice crust is about 65 km ( 41 miles) of liquid ocean. The crust does have various features, such as chasms, ridges, long narrow depressions, craters and crater chains.
Dione is pretty well covered in craters, as large as 100 km (62 miles) across. However, most of the craters are on the opposite side as scientists expect them to be. The theory is that on something the size and mass of Dione, anything big enough to make a 35 km (22 mile) crater would be able to spin the moon about. There are enough large craters to indicate Dione did a lot of spinning in the past. So maybe she keeps her back to Saturn, trying to see the next spin-inducing attacker before it hits?
Oh, and let’s not forget the ice cliffs (formerly known as ‘wispy terrain’ when it was discovered by the Voyager space probe). At the time, they were called ‘wispy’ because whatever they were, they didn’t hide the countryside in their vicinity. But more recent photos by Cassini show that these ‘wispy’ lines were, in fact, ice cliffs, fractures created by chasms. We now know that some of them are several hundreds of meters tall.
In 2010, the Cassini probe detected oxygen ions around Dione, but there were so few of them, scientists prefer to call it an exosphere rather than a tenuous atmosphere.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Memphis Not in Tennessee

Once, there was a city called Memphis, but it wasn’t in the US. Maybe you already knew that. I knew it, and that it was in Egypt, but that was about all I knew, so I decided to find out more. If I could. Sometimes, there isn’t a lot of information about an ancient city.

It wasn’t always known as Memphis. It is thought to have started as Inbu-Hedj (the white walls), but it was also known as Djed-Sut (everlasting places), as Ankh-Tawy (Life of the Two Lands) and then as Men-nefer (enduring and beautiful). Men-nefer became Menfe as the Egyptian language evolved, which the Greek changed to Memphis. And in the Bible, this city is called Moph or Noph.

When it existed—all that’s left now is ruins—it was on the west bank of the Nile, right where that big river starts dividing into smaller channels and creating the huge Nile Delta. This put it on the border between the two ancient kingdoms of Egypt; Lower Egypt (basically, the delta) and Upper Egypt (miles and miles of not much of anything). That location proves to be significant, since legend has it that the city was established by the first pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt, some time around 3100 BC. It has been estimated that it held as many as 30,000 people and was the largest city in the world from 3100 BC to 2250 BC, and again from 1557 BC to 1400 BC.

This was Egypt’s capital city through more than 8 dynasties of pharaohs. It declined in importance after the 18th dynasty with the rise of Thebes and the New Kingdom, but revived under the Persians. It again fell to second place after the city of Alexandria was founded, and when Fustat was established in 641 AD, Memphis was abandoned. Sad, but really, this city existed for 3700, almost 3800 years!

Memphis was not just a political and religious center. It was a port city, conducting trade via boats, both from upstream and downstream, where they plied their way through the delta channels to and from the Mediterranean Sea. The port area was surrounded by workshops where craftsmen created supplies and goods to be traded. Because the pharaohs all wanted a huge beautiful tomb, there were also a large number of those artisans living not far from the royal cemetery, whichever one of many that was currently being used.

The city did have residential areas, but it is hypothesized that these were occupied by visitors from other countries.

I read several sites, and they all agreed on the above facts. But I found this to be a bummer of a research topic, full of names and dates, and who pillaged the city when. The Nile Delta is extremely fertile, and one site did mention that was where the farming was done, but nobody told me what crops they grew, what foods they ate, how did they make fabric, how many societal classes existed… I found nothing about ordinary life at any point of this city’s history. Real bummer.,_Egypt

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Long Lost City

There are lots of stories about lost cities. I like to read about them after the archeologists have had some time to dig them up. So this time, I went out looking for what was known about Mohenjo-Daro.

This city was founded around 2500 BC in what is now Pakistan, and was one of the largest cities of the ancient Indus Valley civilization. But that civilization declined, and the city was abandoned sometime during the 19th century BC. It was discovered in the 1920s, so I figure they’ve had time to find some interesting tidbits about who lived there. Let’s see what they’ve found.

Mohenjo-Daro is what it is called now, and that either means “Mound of Dead Men” or “Mound of Mohan”, where Mohan is apparently another name for Krishna. Examination of a city seal found during excavation suggests the city’s name was originally Kukkutarma, the “City of the Cockerel”. It is possible that cock-fighting was a ritual and religious activity here, with chickens bred and raised for that purpose, rather than as food. This city may also be where chicken domestication began, and was then introduced to the rest of the world.

Whatever it was called at the time, the city was built on a ridge between 2 rivers. It was an advanced city, with sophisticated civil engineering and urban development. It was one of the known merchant cities of the Indus Valley civilization.

Mohenjo-Daro was built on a grid pattern, with buildings made of fired bricks, sun-dried mud bricks, and wooden superstructures. One estimate of its maximum population is 40,000 people. It covered about 300 hectares, which is a little more than 741 acres.

The city had 2 sections: the Citidel and the Lower City. The Citidel was built on a 39-foot-tall mound made of mud bricks. It included baths, a residential structure to house 5,000 people, and 2 large assembly areas. The city as a whole had a central market with a big well. Households got their water from smaller wells scattered around town. Waste water flowed into covered drains that lined the major streets. Some houses had their own room set aside for bathing, and 1 even had a furnace to heat bath water! Almost every house had an inner courtyard that included a door to a side street. Some houses were 2 stories tall.

One archeologist found a large building that he thought looked like a place to store grain, calling it The Great Granary. A later archeologist pointed out there was no indication of grain being stored there, and he referred to it as a Great Hall of Unknown Function. Not far away is a large and elaborate bath, waterproofed with a lining of bitumen, which may have been used for religious purification. The city also included “College Hall”, 78 rooms in several buildings that may have been priestly residences.

The city had no walls surrounding it, only guard towers on the west and defensive fortifications on the south. Likewise, no weapons have been found there. It was destroyed 8 times, probably by floods. Each time, it was rebuilt directly on top of the previous city.

Artifacts they found include standing and sitting figures, copper and stone tools, balance scales and their weights, gold and jasper jewelry, beads of ivory, lapis, carnelian and gold, and children’s toys. One bronze figurine depicts a young girl dancing. Since it was bronze, the Indus Valley people knew how to blend metals, casting and other methods of using metal. It also shows that entertainment – such as dancing – was important to them. One of the toys was a cart pulled by oxen, so they did use wheels.

What hasn’t been found is any obvious palace or place of government, although it is suspected that Mohenjo-daro was an administrative center of the Indus Valley civilization. The many baths and grid structure of the streets have implied to some that the culture was more interested in order and cleanliness than they were in rulers.

This is the kind of information I like. I can almost see the city and hear the people living their lives.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Humanoid Robots

On Star Trek; Next Generation, Data was a humanoid robot, right? Actually, no, he’s an android, a robot built to look human. Humanoid robots resemble humans, and sometimes, only part of a human, like from the waist up. C3PO is a humanoid robot.

Building humanoid robots is a circle of learning. In order to build a walking robot, for instance, scientists had to figure out – in broad terms – how humans do it. Once a robot could do it, they studied its movements, learning more about how humans do it, and how to improve the robot’s performance. This has led to better prosthetics for humans, including powered leg prosthetics, ankle orthosis, and biological realistic prosthetics.

Theoretically, humanoid robots can be programed to perform many jobs that humans do, using the same tools humans use. Realistically, at this point, they are more specialized. Some are entertainers, others might be assistants for the sick and elderly. Wikipedia had photos of some of these specialty robots:

Topio is a Vietnamese ping pong playing robot that is 6’2” and 264 pounds.

Nao (pronounced Now) is French, and originally played soccer, but moved on to universities to assist with education and research. As of 2015, some 5,000 units of Nao were in over 50 countries. One Nao can dance, another performs stand-up comedy. The University of Tokyo bought 30, intending to train them to be lab assistants. (I don’t know how well that did or did not go.) At some point, the company was sold and Nao became Japanese. They have been used to help teach autistic children, train ISS crews, and assist the elderly. The most interesting item I found was that in a philosophical experiment, Nao robots were shown to have a basic sense of self-awareness. It is just shy of 2 feet tall, and weighs less than 10 pounds.

Enon, from Japan, was designed to be a personal assistant, and has no legs, but rolls along, so the bottom half looks something like a long skirt. It is self-guided, has limited speech identification (and production), and can carry approximately 1 pound in its arms. I found no information on its size, but the photo I saw indicated it was approximately half as tall as the man next to it.

The robots are coming! The robots are- Well, they’re already here. But they aren’t anywhere near as sophisticated as Data. If you buy one that plays soccer, but then want it to dust the living room, you’d probably have to completely reprogram it, maybe change out the arms, beef up the servo motors, and install more sensors.

Oh, never mind. It’s easier to do the dusting myself.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Hatra in History

As I put together my list of things to research for blogs (and my own edification), I put several of them in line to be done ‘soon’. I thought I had a fairly random method of choosing what to slap on that ‘soon’ list, yet here we are, looking (yet again) at what little is known about an ancient city.

Hatra was founded in the 2nd or 3rd century BC by the Seleucid Empire, which was established by a group of Greeks. But Hatra wasn’t in Greece, it was located in the northern part of modern Iraq. It was captured by the Parthian Empire (based in ancient Iran) probably in the 1st century AD, and it then thrived as a religious and trading center. As an important fortified frontier city, Hatra resisted repeated attacks by the Roman Empire and others, but fell in 241 AD to invading Iranians.

Hatra had more than 160 towers and two walls - inner and outer - that circled an area 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) in diameter. It was a religious center, but it didn’t seem to care what god people wanted to worship; it adopted them all. The major temples were gathered together over 1.2 hectares in the middle of the city, dominated by The Great Temple, which at one time rose 30 meters (100 feet) into the air.

For many centuries, the Hatra ruins were the best preserved example of a Parthian city. Unfortunately, in2015 it was reported that ISIL was destroying the ruins. I did not find any report about how much – if any – of it might remain.

I did see some lovely pictures of the ruins, and they were impressive. I also found a list of rulers for this city, but I didn’t care about that. Archeologists studied the site at various times during the 20th century, and there was some effort to preserve the site. But I have no clue about the topography of the city’s location, no idea where the people got their water and food, what they ate or wore. The only way I could possibly ‘use’ this information in a story would be as the ruins that Hatra has been for so long. And that seems like a crying shame.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Malagasy Dinosaur

When I first read the name Malagasy Dinosaur, my eyes rearranged the letters and I thought I had read “Madagascar Dinosaur”. Then I thought, Of course not. Madagascar isn’t big enough to have had a population of dinosaurs.

Well, it turns out Madagascar is big enough. I guess you can’t judge a place by how it looks on a map. Especially not when it’s snuggled up next to a continent as big as Africa.

Madagascar is an island, and it’s believed it separated from the super-continent Gondwana about 85 million years ago. It has plenty of wildlife of some pretty strange species, as evolution has worked to fill all the niches in the food chain. Fossils found on Madagascar seem to indicate it’s had some strange species for a long, lo-o-ong time. Here’s some samples:

Beelzebofus antinga, an extinct frog that weighed up to five kilo (11 pounds). It is the heaviest extinct frog ever known. (Okay, not a dinosaur, but still…) If they were still around, maybe they’d be raised as food, like a chicken?

Rapetosaurus krausei was a dinosaur that reached 15 meters (49 feet) in length. It walked on all 4 feet and had a small head on a very long neck. It was a vegetarian, so I suppose we’d only have to worry that it might step on us, if we’d been alive at the same time as it.

Rahonavis ostromi was about 50 cm (19-20 inches), wore feathers over its entire body, had claws, a long skull and a mouth full of sharp teeth. Could this be the ‘missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds?

Sinosuchus clarki looked somewhat like a modern crocodile. Kinda. Except it was less than 80 cm (32 inches) long, including a short, broad head and a short tail. It also had teeth perfect for grazing on plants, and bone plates under its skin to protect it from predators.

Speaking of crocodile-like dinosaurs, the Araripesuchus tsangatsangana looked a lot like modern crocodiles, except it had much longer legs.

But none of these interesting creatures were the one called the Malagasy dinosaur. Only the Majungasaurus crenatissimus bears that nick-name. The Malagasy looked similar to a Tyrannosaurus rex, except it only reached a length of 6 to 8 meters (19 to 26 feet) and probably only weighed a ton. Even though it was so much smaller than its cousins, scientists say it took 20 years to reach its full size, so it grew much more slowly than the others, also. They made that discovery by studying cross-sections of several bones from a nearly complete skeleton found in 2003. The bones had marks of annual growth, rather like trees have tree rings. Of course, some bones had marrow in the center, displacing the earliest years’ record of growth. Other bones were hollow, and many of the bones were carved in order to reduce the creature’s weight.

The Malagasy lived 66 to 70 million years ago. However, it seems to have links to dinosaurs in south Asia (India) and South America (Argentina). So, could it be that Madagascar clung to Gondwana longer than was thought?