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?