The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. ? Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
This Earth Day, April 22, 2017, scientists, those who support their work, and those concerned about our current government’s disastrous environmental policies will gather in cities and towns worldwide in a march to bring awareness to the state of our planet and what we’re doing to it. I, along with thousands of others, will be marching in downtown Chicago (and doing some sketching).
Here’s the March for Science mission statement as presented on their webpage:
The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.
Hope everyone I know will be there and/or lend their support in body or spirit.
Fall has definitely arrived to the Chicago area, and with it the end to the summer’s familiar ambient buzzing sound coming from the native cicada. This year’s brood was the annual cicada, which according to Wkipedia, are also known as the dogday cicada or harvestfly, though I’ve never heard them called either. I’ve taken some artistic license and depicted the orange eyed and wing tipped 17 year cicada (aka. the periodical cicada) who, according to the “Chicago Botanic Garden website”, aren’t expected to emerge until 2024.
As for the walnuts; our next door neighbor’s grand & glorious walnut tree has branches which extend over our fence, towering far above our driveway. Throughout the later summer months, the sound of squirrels cracking open the hard shells can be head clearly and constantly across the back yard. The falling nuts striking the metal garbage can lids from 20-30 feet act as a warning gong for anyone passing beneath. They’re fairly substantial and a direct hit on the head could lead to hospitalization or, at the least, a nasty bump.
Like cicadas emergences, walnut tree production can vary greatly from year to year, and may be on an “alternate bearing” schedule, producing nuts one year and reserving their resources the next. As it happens, this was a very bountiful year for our neighbor’s walnut tree, with a sea of green, nearly lime-sized walnuts dotting the rear part of our driveway. Later, those that remain after the squirrels have had their fill take on the familiar wrinkled, brown look of dried walnut shells. As a bonus, I’ve discovered that disabling the electric eye on the garage door results in a powerful nutcracker.
I caught this story while listening to on public radio a couple of weeks back about a recent discovery to come out of Rice University’s Dept. of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. A faculty professor there, Janet Braam, found that some produce, which in her experiments included cabbage, responded to light and dark cycles, known as circadian rhythms, days after being harvested. Cruciferous veggies such as cabbage use these cycles to produce cancer-fighting compounds. For nutritionists, grocers, and food distributors, this finding will likely have a significant effect on the way fruits and vegetables are handled. By regulating the light and dark cycles to mimic nature, they’ll be able to coax the maximum health benefits out of their produce.
More info on Prof. Braam and her colleagues’ ongoing research can be found here.
Before cable’s TV’s specialization, science programming on television was a rarity, so when PBS originally aired the 13-hour series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in 1980, it was an immediate hit and remains the most widely viewed PBS series ever worldwide. One of the primary reasons for Cosmos’ popularity was its creator and host, Carl Sagan, who came across as a kindly, wise teacher gently leading viewers through the wonders of the universe.
I, like many others, first became acquainted with Carl Sagan during the initial run of Cosmos and attribute my layman’s interest in science to his contagious sense of wonder. One of the first books I ever bought was his exploration of evolution and how it relates to religious mythology in The Dragons of Eden. And if there’s one book that I believe should be (but alas never will be) mandatory reading for every high school freshman, it’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness, his very readable primer on the scientific method and maintaining a healthy skepticism, or what Sagan calls ‘baloney detection’.
In 2014, a new incarnation of Cosmos will find its home, surprisingly enough, on the Fox network. In another unlikely twist, the series’ producer is Family Guy creator and Academy Awards host, Seth MacFarlane, who has long been interested in bringing the series back to TV. With Cosmos’ originator and host no longer around to MC the proceedings, his duties are being assumed by esteemed astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who succeeds his hero and mentor Carl Sagan as the nation’s most popular ‘popularizer’ of science. During his early academic career, Sagan tried to lure the young Mr. Tyson to study at Cornell University, where he taught, to no avail (Tyson instead chose Harvard for his undergraduate studies.). Nevertheless, they remained close friends and colleagues in the years to follow. With the involvement of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan (Dr. Sagan’s widow and a highly respected author and producer in her own right), I’m hopeful that this new Cosmos will soar to the heavenly heights of the original.
This past weekend, while others rang in the New Year with parties and Bowl games, I entered a dimension not only of sight or sound, but of mind. My daughter alerted me to the Syfy network’s “Twilight Zone” marathon early on NewYears Eve and from that point on I was hooked. Though I’m by no means a Twilight Zone expert, over the years I’ve seen the show seemingly countless times, so I was surprised to find that some of the episodes this go-around were new to me.
Of course the entire series is the brainchild of the ultra cool and stern narrator Rod Serling, who wrote most of the stories and opens each episode with a wry introduction. The series began in the late 50’s, and just as Playboy magazine was redefining the girlie magazine, Serling, who comes across as “Hef’s” more cerebral alter ego, brought the “bug-eyed monster” sci-fi genre from the pulp comics store into mainstream living rooms. The stories endure, despite low budgets and (by today’s standards) cheesy special effects, because of the deep psychological insights that Serling brought to them. He also addressed controversial topics and contemporary hot button issues such as the Holocaust, nuclear war, and racial inequality.
Though “The Twilight Zone” only ran for five seasons, there were a stunning 156 episodes in total, 96 of which were written or co-written by Serling. Two of them, “It’s a Good Life”, which features child star Billy Mumy as a spoiled kid with terrifying mental powers, and “To Serve Man”, in which earthlings are lured to an alien planet only to discover that they’re to be “served” as food, were cited as being among TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time”. So it’s no wonder that I find it difficult to pick a personal favorite episode. Still, here are a couple that stand out for me:
“The Midnight Sun”:
NYC apartment tenant Norma (played by Oak Park, IL native Lois Nettleton) struggles to remain optimistic and cheerful despite the fact that the Earth has left its orbit and is plunging ever nearer to the sun. She finally collapses in fear and despair. (SPOILER:) In a twist on the “it’s only a dream” ending, a relieved Norma awakes from her nightmare oblivious to the news that the doomed earth is actually RETREATING from the sun.
The recent Lars von Trier film “Melancholia”has a similar theme of people trying to keep it together in the face of impending celestial doom.
Cliff Robertson stars as Jerry, a ventriloquist with problems. Besides battling alcohol, he’s convinced that his creepy and malevolent dummy, Willie, is controlling his mind and his act. When Robertson resolves to replace Willie with a more docile costar, things get out of hand.
As a kid, I was thoroughly weirded out by ventriloquist dummies, which I managed to overcome through immersion therapy when I asked and received one from Santa one Christmas. Still, this episode brings back those unsettling feelings, and the final scene, which features a role reversal with the doll/ventriloquist looking directly at camera, is unforgettably eerie.
So now that the “Twilight Zone” marathon has concluded, I wonder whether a new series of half hour sci-fi stories could be as successful today. The Twilight Zone was resurrected for a three season run in the late 80’s and Serling himself hosted the series Night Gallery from 1970-73, which centered more on horror/fantasy stories, but neither attained the cult status and reputation of the classic Twilight Zone series. I’m sure there are many talented writers who could share the duties of scripting some incredible stories. As I see it, the main challenge would be wowing today’s audiences accustomed to lavish sets and production values, something hard to attain with “one-off” characters and situations.
A week ago, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced billion in funding for high speed rail systems in the U.S. While this is welcome and long overdue news, another high speed transportation system is facing its final days and will be shut down for good later this year. And unlike the proposed high speed rail systems, which transports its passengers at top speeds of about 217 MPH, the soon-to-be-closed facility transports its subatomic passengers at 99.999954 percent of the speed of light. After accelerating along a nearly four mile track with the aid of magnets, the particles smash into one another at energies up to 1.96 trillion electron-volts.
The “Tevatron” particle accelerator/collider is located at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, 45 miles west of Chicago. While earning some notoriety on Saturday Night Live several years ago as the home of genetic mutation “Goat Boy”, Fermilab is also home to some of the most intensive research into the nature of subatomic particles. Besides the Tevatron collider, visitors to Fermilab can also see a herd of American bison which roams the grounds. They were brought in by Fermilab’s first director, Robert J. Wilson in 1969 in an effort to help preserve the breed and give local residents and visitors a chance to see the animals first hand. Thanks in part to Fermilab and other conservation efforts, the American bison is no longer on the list of endangered species.
The Tevatron was completed in 1987 and at the time was the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. It only lost that title when the larger and more powerful Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland came online in 2008. For particle physicists, hopes ran high that the intense collisions taking place in the Tevatron would reveal the existence of the hypothetical “Higgs boson” particle, sometimes referred to as the “God particle”. Such a discovery would go a long way toward confirming the Standard Model of particle physics and is considered by many the Holy Grail in this field of study. Just recently, some anomalies in data readings at Fermilab indicated the possible existence of a previously unknown particle, though experts doubt that it’s the Higgs boson.
The $35-50 million per year to operate the facility was deemed too costly by the U.S. Department of Energy, and when Fermilab’s collider shuts down for good in September, it will just be one of many to be closed down for one reason or another over the years. In one spectacular case of government waste, the Supercolliding Super Conductor, which was slated to be built in Texas, was scrapped in 1993 after nearly two years of construction and 15 miles of a proposed 54 mile tunnel had been dug (and nearly $2 billion dollars spent). But the end of the Tevatron doesn’t mean the end of all particle research at Fermilab. In an effort to look for the silver lining, some even say it will spur research into other areas, such as neutrino particles. Still, the demise of the Tevatron, like the end of Nasa’s manned space program, seems to be a setback for “big thinking” when it comes to U.S. scientific research.