Category Archives: Natural Science

Lend me your ears…

indian-cornYou see the wonderful multicolor corn everywhere in New England this time of year. I always want to take pictures, between the contrast in textures and all the colors they contain.

 

I also normally think of the geneticist Barbra McClintock and her discovery of jumping genes, which I’ve mentioned before.

 

p1200329-edit-crop

But I don’t actually pay much attention to the varieties of corn themselves.

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I’ll ask no thing of man or king…

To wrap up Earth Science Week it seemed appropriate to mention the pioneering geologist and professor, Florence Bascom.

 

When she got her doctorate in geology in 1893, Bascom was the first woman to obtain a doctorate from Johns Hopkins.

 

She was the second woman to have a PhD in geology in the United States. (The first was Mary Emilee Holmes, University of Michigan, 1888.*) She is also credited with being the first woman to be hired by the United States Geological Service, the first woman to present a scientific paper at the Geological Society of Washington, and the first female officer of the Geological Society of America.

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Split ammonite fossil earrings in 14K gold fill.

Split ammonite fossil earrings in 14K gold fill.

Since today is National Fossil DayTM, I wanted to do a bit of a show-and-tell. I love working with fossils in my jewelry, and a number of them have ended up on here, so I thought I’d do a brief overview of the ones I use most often

 

Fossils are fascinating. Just think for a minute about the intricacy of ancient life that they preserve. They’re like little time capsules.

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Okay, so I didn’t know this was a thing, but I found out there is a National Fossil DayTM here in the States. It’s the Wednesday of Earth Science Week in October.

 

Now that is my kind of holiday. The idea behind it is to show how much we can learn about the past (and possibly predict about the future) from fossils and the need to understand and preserve them.

 

The National Park Service has some great art and articles as well as a list of related events-check to see if there’s anything going on in your area!

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Book Review: Stoned by Aja Raden

For the most part I really enjoyed this book. It’s a fun read with some excellent lines.* y648

 

I appreciate her efforts to clearly explain things as vastly different as the geological and biological processes that create gemstones and pearls, and different concepts of value to the psychology of want and envy and their roles both in marketing and the shaping of the political world.

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Swift Footed Mystery

I was reviewing a children’s nonfiction graphic novel on dinosaurs-First Second Press’s Science Comics (love the concept!) Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers. It was more about the discovery and scientists than dinosaurs themselves. There were some aspects of the book that I liked, some I wasn’t so fond of.

podokesaurus

One thing that did catch my eye was the name Mignon Talbot. They mentioned that she was the first woman to name a dinosaur. I hadn’t heard of her before. So of course I had to hunt down a little more information. She was a professor of Geology and Geography at Mount Holyoke College for thirty-one years in the early 20th century.

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Happy Darwin and Lincoln Day!

lincoln memorialSince it’s heading toward the end of Darwin and Lincoln’s birthdays in my time zone I’m just linking to an interesting article in Smithsonian “How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the Modern World” about the two men who shared a birthday and never met, but both impacted the way the world thought, and thinks. Continue reading

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Clair Patterson, Rocks from Space, and Metal in the Air

It’s not a secret that I’ve got a soft spot for meteorites, especially the sort that I can get my hands on and turn into jewelry.

 

Since meteorites are samples of the universe outside our atmosphere they are kind of by definition awesome, excepting the occasional mass extinction event causation. But humans are knowingly creating the current age of mass extinction, so who are we to throw stones at non-sentient space rocks?

 

Clair Patterson

A scientist named Clair Patterson (1922-1995) used meteorites to help determine the age of the earth. In studying them to learn about our home, he discovered a much closer and more personal problem-atmospheric lead.

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Bad Moon Rising

 

Friday the 13th falling on a full moon strikes some as a particularly bad combination. (I’m generally not worried about Fridays no matter what the date unless it happens to be the Friday after Thanksgiving, then we’ll talk terror.) Experimentation has shown that neither Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month nor (slightly more plausibly) full moons have any measurable effect on accidents. Scientific American had an interesting article on Lunacy and the Full Moon.

 

But the confluence of those two things and the belief they bring bad luck and madness reminded me of someone I first read about in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

 

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Something of a human bad luck (for the planet) double whammy, Bryson introduces him as “…a regrettable Ohio inventor names Thomas Midgley, Jr. Midgley was an engineer by training, and the world would no doubt have been a safer place if he had stayed so. Instead he developed an interest in the industrial applications of chemistry.”

 

He worked under Charles F Kettering at GM and was the man who discovered that tetraethyl lead in gasoline reduced engine knock.

 

Lead was already known to be dangerous, but was still widely found in consumer products of all kinds.

 

Despite being a neurotoxin, it was easy to extract and work with, and as Bryson adds “almost embarrassingly profitable to produce industrially”. In 1923 General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil formed the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation and started producing lead for gasoline to the public.

 

Workers became ill at staggering rates and the Ethyl Corporation denied that lead had anything to do with it. And kept denying it.

 

In January of 1923 Midgley took a long vacation in Florida, saying that he needed to breathe fresh air after working with organic lead for the past year.

 

A year and a half later he touted tetraethyl lead’s safety at press conference, pouring it over his hands and inhaling its fumes and claiming he could do that daily with no ill effects. Shortly thereafter he went to Europe to be treated for lead poisoning.

 

Pleased by his success with lead, Midgley moved on. Showing “an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny, he invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.”

 

In the late 1920s refrigeration systems used refrigerants that could be toxic, corrosive, flammable and even explosive. GM had Kettering form a new team to investigate better alternatives. His new group included Midgley.

 

They needed a compound that was both highly volatile (vaporized easily) and chemically inert (something that wouldn’t react when exposed to other chemicals). Their group synthesized the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs). They named it Freon. Freon and its successors replaced the old refrigerants and eventually came to be used as propellants as well.

 

After his death it was found that CFCs may be nonreactive on ground, but when they reach the atmosphere they destroy the ozone layer.

 

Ozone molecules are formed by three oxygen atoms rather than the O2 we run across every breathing moment. Down here ozone is a pollutant, but in the upper atmosphere it absorbs 97-99% of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Progression of the hole in the ozone layer.

 

The thickness of the ozone layer varies widely over the globe, and even by season. It’s generally thinner at the poles. But if it were spread evenly around the globe it would be a layer only 1/8 of an inch thick. This is what we have to protect us.

 

Ultraviolet light breaks CFCs down and their chlorine atoms escape. Those rogue chlorine atoms act as a catalyst and break apart the ozone molecules that create the ozone layer. A single chlorine atom can break down tens of thousands of molecules. One pound of CFCs can destroy seventy thousand pounds of ozone.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration diagram of how CFCs destroy ozone.

 

It is estimated that CFC molecules can stay in the upper atmosphere for about a century, destroying the ozone layer all along. CFCs are also greenhouse gases and trap more heat than carbon dioxide. Bryson describes them as heat sponges:

 

“A single CFC molecule is about ten thousand times more efficient at exacerbating greenhouse effects than a molecule of carbon dioxide-and carbon dioxide is of course no slouch itself as a greenhouse gas. In short, chlorofluorocarbons may ultimately prove to be just about the worst invention of the twentieth century.”

 

In the long term, Midgley’s discoveries gave us a world with high atmospheric lead levels impacting our physical health and mental well-being, plus a depleted ozone layer on a rapidly warming planet.

 

In Something New Under the Sun J. R. McNeil said Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”

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black vulture

Here’s a photo I took the other day of really big black birds that I think stopped by to enjoy a light snack of local road kill. I’ve seen the occasional turkey vulture around but never saw these guys.

 

I had no idea what it was, but I’ve got an aunt who is an avid naturalist, so I deferred to her.

 

She identified it as a Coragyps atratus, a black vulture. (They get their species name, atratus, from Latin. It means clothed in black.)

 

juvenile black vulture

She said that her bird books still cite southern Pennsylvania as the northern range of the black vulture.

 

Apparently vultures are relatively recent migrants to New England.

 

In the early 20th century turkey vultures didn’t normally range beyond New Jersey, they were in New York by the 1920s and a nest discovered in Connecticut in 1930 heralded their entry into New England. They only made it to Maine as recently as the 1980s and have now expanded into Canada.

turkey vulture

 

Black vultures were stragglers. They were seen in Massachusetts in 1954, but just started nesting there in 1999. The first confirmed nesting in Connecticut was in 2002. The black vulture’s range is not as large as the turkey vulture’s range. They prefer warmer temperatures and access to water. They appear to be following the turkey vulture in their northward spread as global warming remakes New England into their ideal territory.

 

They’re distinguished by their grey head that looks naked but has bristly feathers up close. (After reading more about them I’m disinclined to get close enough to check. One of their habits when disturbed is to regurgitate their last meal.) They have bulky bodies, short hooked beaks and short tails. Both black and turkey vultures have flat feet and weak toes, unlike the curling talons of eagles and hawks. That’s because they use their feet to brace themselves against carrion while they rip and tear, unlike birds of prey who use their talons for hunting.

turkey vulture-note that its tail is much longer than that of the black vulture, whose tail barely extends past its wings

 

Black vultures are more aggressive and group oriented than turkey vultures. Their aggression means that while they are carrion eaters they are more likely to kill small (or even not so small) animals and birds to eat.

 

Large numbers will group together to tear open large carcasses. A group will also scare a turkey vulture away from a carcass. They’re also the only New World vulture that will attack cattle. They will peck at and harass a newborn calf until it goes into shock and then kill it.

 

black vulture-Cornell Ornithology Lab

They also hunt by sight, unlike turkey vultures who forage by smell. Sometimes instead of looking for meals, they keep an eye out for what the turkey vultures are scavenging and then steal their meal. As scavengers both birds do an important job cleaning up after the rest of the living world.

Audubon’s turkey vultures. He didn’t think they hunted by smell because they didn’t show up when he hid carcasses, but bird enthusiasts now think the carcasses he used were too rotten. Even vultures have standards!

 

Since its range runs down the Southeastern United States through to South America and they are common in Central America, the black vulture was documented in Mayan codices.

 

If you want more gory details, here’s an excellent page comparing the two species and describing their habits. And here’s Audubon Magazine with Sibley illustrations showing who’s who. Oops, almost forgot Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds.

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