Sciency Words: Dinosaur

April 13, 2018

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

DINOSAUR

I did a Sciency Words post on the word dinosaur before, when I participated in last year’s A to Z Challenge, but I never felt satisfied with that post.  For one thing, I missed a golden opportunity to tell you one of the coolest sciency things I’ve learned: dinosaurs are not extinct.

Or rather, to be more technical about it, dinosaurs are or are not extinct depending on how you define the word dinosaur.  You see we have two different systems for classifying life: the traditional Linnaean system and an alternative system called cladistics.

In 1735, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his book Systema Naturae, introducing the world to his system of binomial nomenclature.  All of a sudden, we humans became Homo sapiens, our cats became Felis catus, and so forth.  But under Linnaeus’s system, plants and animals (and also minerals) had to be classified purely according to their physical characteristics, not their evolutionary heritage.  Darwin’s On the Origin of Species wouldn’t be published for another 124 years.

Then in the 1950’s, German entomologist Willi Hennig introduced a new and improved system which he called phylogenetic systematics, but which has since been renamed cladistics.  A “clade,” in cladistics, is a group of animals that share a common ancestor, and if one animal is part of any given clade, then all of that animal’s descendents are part of that clade too, according to Hennig’s system.

Both of these systems are still in use today.  As this article from Ask a Biologist explains, “[Claudistics] is useful for understanding the relationships between animals, while the Linnaean system is more useful for understanding how animals live.”

So because birds evolved from dinosaurs, birds are dinosaurs, claudistically speaking.  Birds are like a subcategory of dinosaur.  And thus the dinosaurs are still here, strutting and flapping about on this planet.


Sciency Words: Clean Meat

April 6, 2018

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

CLEAN MEAT

There’s a newspaper clipping that’s been circulating around the Internet for a while.  It says:

To all you hunters who kill animals for food, shame on you; you ought to go to the store and buy the meat that’s made there, where no animals were harmed.

This is a stupid quote, purportedly made by a very stupid person (though I’m of the opinion that this was always meant as a joke, because nobody could be that stupid, could they?).  But maybe at some point in the future, thanks to advancements in cloning technology, we really will be able to make meat without harming animals.

Researchers are already working on the idea.  They call it “clean meat.”  What’s clean about it?  Well, because it’s grown from animal cells in controlled, laboratory-like conditions, clean meat is far less likely to pick up bacterial contaminants. Also large-scale production of clean meat would have less of an environmental impact than traditional animal farming, making it cleaner for the environment.

Personally, I’d be happy to eat clean meat.  I’d feel a lot cleaner, morally speaking, if I knew no animals had to suffer to make my delicious cheeseburger.  But there seems to be a lot of concern among the scientific community about whether or not the general public would be willing to eat this stuff.  According to this brief article from International Social Science Research, the key will be making sure the public is well educated about clean meat, especially the health benefits, before the product hits the market.

P.S.: Special thanks to Patrick Walts for cluing me in about this in response to one of my dining on Mars posts.  If clean meat works out here on Earth, it will certainly make it a lot easier to feed a growing colony on Mars, or on any other world for that matter.


Sciency Words: Entomophagy (Dining on Mars, Part 3)

December 22, 2017

Today’s post is a special combination post, continuing my Dining on Mars series and also my regularly scheduled Sciency Words series. Today’s new and interesting science or science-related term is:

ENTOMOPHAGY

When humanity finally makes it to Mars, we might not be going alone. We may end up bringing some insects with us.

To be clear, this wouldn’t be an accidental thing. No, we’d be bringing our insect friends on purpose. Why?

The word entomophagy comes from two Greek words meaning “insect” and “to eat,” and it refers to the practice of eating insects.

Personally, I’m not too keen on becoming an entomophage, but that has more to do with my cultural background than anything else. In many parts of the world that are not the United States or Western Europe, entomophagy is quite normal, and in the near future it may become an important means of feeding a growing global population.

But insects-as-food may be even more important for feeding the early colonial population of Mars. That’s because efficiency is the key to surviving on Mars, and insects make for an extremely efficient food souce. They don’t require a lot of room or resources compared to other sources of animal protein, and when you eat them very little goes to waste. I’m told with some species you’re supposed to remove the wings before cooking, but otherwise the entire insect body is edible.

Apparently insect flavors can vary a lot from species to species, and sometimes depend on what the insects ate themselves. I’ve heard certain species described as “nutty” or “lemony” or even “minty.” Others have more meat-like flavors. According to this article from bugible.com, giant water bugs taste like salted banana, and sago grubs taste a little like bacon. And pan-fried crickets with soy sauce taste amazing, or so I’m told.

Actually, after writing this post I’m feeling a bit hungry. Maybe I could get used to entomophagy after all. Anyone care to join me for lunch?


Sciency Words: Astro-Paleontology

December 8, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

ASTRO-PALEONTOLOGY

This may be a first for Sciency Words. Usually I discover new words to share with you during the normal course of my research, but this time I thought to myself, “astro-paleontology has got to be a thing by now,” and then went and found that it is.

Or at least it almost was. Back in the 1970’s, astronomer John Armitage wrote a paper titled “The Prospect of Astro-Palaeontology,” officially coining the term. And then it seems nobody followed up on the idea.

The word paleontology comes from several Greek roots and means the study (-logy) of that which existed (-onto-) in the past (paleo-). It think we’re all familiar with what this really means: digging up the fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other organisms that died long ago. By adding the Greek word for star into the mix (astro-), Armitage created a term for the search for and study of the fossilized remains of life on other worlds.

The blog Astro-Archeology did several posts about Armitage’s work. I recommend checking out all three of these posts:

To be honest, I don’t have a whole lot to add to what Astro-Archeology already wrote on this subject, except that the search for alien fossils on Mars is about to heat up.

None of our current Mars missions are equipped to search for life on the Red Planet, either living or dead. But NASA’s next rover, the Mars 2020 Rover, will be. Specifically, Mars 2020 will be designed to hunt for fossilized microorganisms.

So maybe the term astro-paleontology is due for a come-back.

P.S.: You may have noticed that John Armitage and Astro-Archeology spelled this term as astro-palaeontology and I’m spelling it as astro-paleontology, without the extra a. This is a British spelling vs. American spelling thing.


Sciency Words: Brainjacking

October 6, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

BRAINJACKING

This is the kind of word you’d expect to find in one of those young adult Sci-Fi dystopia novels. Instead, I first encountered the term in a recent issue of Scientific American.

The word brainjacking is formed by analogy with hijacking. One possible definition involves a parasitic organism taking control of a host’s brain, perhaps altering the host’s brain chemistry in some way. A well known example is the zombie ant phenomenon, which is caused by a parasitic fungus.

But Scientific American was actually talking about humans, not ants—humans with medical implants in their brains, implants which may be vulnerable to hacking. Deep brain stimulation (D.B.S.) systems are sort of like pacemakers for the brain, and they’ve proven to be effective at controlling the symptoms of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.

According to the abstract for this paper from World Neurosurgery, electronic brainjacking could come in two forms:

  • Blind attacks, which require no patient specific knowledge. Hackers could incapacitate or kill patients, or they could steal data from D.B.S. devices.
  • Targeted attacks, which do require some knowledge about the patient and how, specifically, the D.B.S. system is being used. Hackers could attempt to induce pain, control motor functions, enhance or repress emotions, or manipulate the brain’s rewards system.

Apparently these D.B.S. devices do not have a lot of security features built in, and what’s more they’re deliberately designed to be accessed and programmed wirelessly. That might at first seem like a serious design flaw, but it’s actually a necessary feature. In case of an emergency, E.M.S. personnel may need quick and easy access to your device.

Based on what I’ve read about brainjacking, there are zero documented cases of hackers actually attempting to do this… yet. But it’s clearly something both neuroscientists and cyber-security experts are worrying about.

And if there ever is a future where brain implants become ubiquitous, for both medical and non-medical purposes, then brainjacking may be a word everyone needs to know.


Sciency Words: Tardigrade

August 4, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

TRADIGRADE

Tardigrades, a.k.a. water bears… there’s just something lovable about them. They’re kind of cute for microorganisms (or kind of horrifying, depending on which picture you’re looking at). And they’re absurdly tough. They can survive almost anything. They can even survive in space.

There have been several experiments now where tardigrades were taken to low Earth orbit and exposed to the vacuum of space for prolonged periods of time. Most of them survived the experience. In the absence of food, water, or oxygen, tardigrades can enter a state of suspended animation, and their cells have the ability to repair their D.N.A. if it gets damaged by solar or cosmic radiation.

In fact tardigrades seem to be so well adapted to the hazards of space that it’s sometimes suggested (usually not by serious scientists) that these little guys might come from space.

German pastor and zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze is credited with discovering tardigrades in 1773. Goeze called them Kleiner Wasserbär, which is German for “little water bear,” because the way they walk on their eight pudgy, little legs reminded Goeze of the plodding movements of bears.

In 1777, Italian biologist/Catholic priest Lozzaro Spallanzani made further observations of these creatures. Spallanzani called them il Tardigrado, meaning “slow walker,” again because of the slow, plodding manner in which they walk. The English words tardy and tardiness are closely related, etymologically speaking.

Today we’ve retained both tardigrade and water bear as common names for these creatures. Apparently some people also call them moss piglets, which is just adorable. Over a thousand species of tardigrade have been identified, all classified under the phylum Tardigrada.

As for the question about where tardigrades came from—are they native to this planet, or did they immigrate to Earth from someplace else?—I can only say this: if tardigrades do have an extraterrestrial origin, they must have arrived on Earth a very, very long time ago. The oldest known tardigrade fossils date back to over 500 million years ago (meaning they may have been here since the Cambrian explosion).


Sciency Words: Type A Behavior Pattern

July 28, 2017

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

TYPE A BEHAVIOR PATTERN

In my daily life, I’ve been hearing a lot about type A and type B personalities lately. Don’t know why. It just keeps coming up in conversations for some reason, but I’m never sure which one I’m supposed to be. Since these are scientific terms, I figured it was time I did some research.

Turns out that type A and type B were originally cardiology terms. They didn’t come from the field of psychology at all. Back in the 1950’s, some cardiologists noticed that they had two kinds of patients: those who sat calmly in the waiting room and those who fidgeted impatiently.

The fidgeters came to be known as “type A,” and they seemed to be more likely to have coronary disorders than the “type B” non-fidgeters. Soon a study was conducted. The type A behavior pattern (abbreviated T.A.B.P.) was further defined as “[…] an intense, sustained drive for achievement and as being continually involved in competition and deadlines, both at work and in their vocations.”

These were people with a lot of ambition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they also tended to stress themselves out. They got impatient easily, both with themselves and with others, and were sometimes prone to hostile behavior at work, home, or basically anywhere. With that in mind, the results of the study may not seem like a surprise: a clear corrolation between type A behavior and an elevated risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

If you’re type A, don’t panic. There were some big problems with that initial study, most notably that it only sampled middle-aged men and failed to account for other key health factors like diet. Subsequent research on both men and women of all ages produced less conclusive results.

And yet debate continued for some time after that, possibly because of some undue influence by the tobacco industry. It seems tobacco companies surreptitiously funded more research on type A behavior then argued, both publically and in court, that personality types pose a greater health risk than cigarettes.

It seems cardiologists started abandoning this whole idea by the 1990’s. Psychologists still seem to use the terms, but sparingly. At this point, I’m not sure if the whole type A vs. type B thing is meaningful anymore, scientifically speaking; and yet a lot of people do seem to identify as one or the other.

So I don’t know. What do you think? Are type A and type B behavior patterns useful ways to describe people, or should we just let these terms go?

P.S.: If I must pick one or the other, I’m going to start telling people I’m type B, because I don’t fidget in waiting rooms.