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.


Space Chimp Lives!

June 27, 2017

Today I’d like to share an amusing photograph from the early days of space exploration. This is Ham the Chimpanzee.

His name comes from the laboratory that trained him for his mission: the Holloman Aerospace Medical Center. That’s important to know because Ham’s training is a key part of his story.

Ham was not just another confused and frightened animal strapped into a rocket and launched into space (though it sounds like he was definitely very frightened during his trip). Ham had a mission. He had a job to do during his flight. And he did it.

Specifically, Ham was trained to push a lever when he saw a flashing blue light. During training, he was rewarded with a banana pellet if he did his job correctly (he was also punished with electric shocks if he did his job incorrectly).

Ham’s success was significant because it proved that even under the physical stresses of space flight, it is possible to respond to visual stimuli and perform basic tasks. A human astronaut would therefore be able to operate the controls of a spacecraft during flight, which was an important thing for NASA to know in the early days of space exploration.

P.S.: I assume human astronauts are still rewarded with banana pellets when they do a good job (and also punished with mild electric shocks when they do their jobs incorrectly).

Links

Ham (Chimpanzee) from Wikipedia.

A Brief History of Animals in Space from NASA.

Ham the Astrochimp: Hero or Victim? from The Guardian.


Sciency Words: Stochastic

June 23, 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:

STOCHASTIC

At first glance, stochastic appears to have a pretty easy definition. Basically, it means random. A stochastic event can be defined, quite simply, as a random event. So why do scientists need this weird term? Why can’t they just say random if they mean random?

I’ve seen this word now in a surprisingly wide range of scientific fields, most recently in relation to the population dynamics of endangered species and then in relation to the magnetic field of Jupiter. The thing is that in actual usage, stochastic and random aren’t quite synonyms. A better definition for stochastic might be “seemingly random.”

The word originates from a Greek word meaning “to aim at” or “to shoot at.” So it’s an archery term, but the Greeks also used it to mean “to guess at.” I like this linguistic metaphor because a guess really is like aiming for the truth; whether or not you hit the mark is another matter.

Anyway, the word seems to have migrated from Greek to German to English, and in its modern scientific sense it refers to something that might be predictable in theory but appears to be random in practice. As an example, you may have heard that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could set in motion a chain of events ultimately leading to a devastating hurricane.

In theory, these butterfly-initiated hurricanes could be predicted, if only we knew the exact locations and flapping behaviors of every single butterfly on Earth (along with a million and one other factors). But in practice, since we can’t gather all the necessary data, we can only make educated guesses about when and where the next hurricane will hit.

In other words, hurricanes are stochastic events. They seem random, even though they’re not.


What’s the Minimum Viable Population of a Space Colony?

June 21, 2017

Let’s say we’ve found a human-friendly planet orbiting another star, and we’ve decided to go colonize it. How many people should we send? In terms of maintaining a healthy human gene pool, what’s the minimum viable population for a distant, isolated space colony?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent many a sleepless night pondering that question.

I sincerely doubt anyone can provide us with a firm, specific number. However, there is a sort of generalized rule of thumb in the field of conservation biology called the 50/500 rule.

Originally proposed in 1980 by geneticist Ian Franklin and biologist Michael Soule, the 50/500 rule tells us:

  • Populations below 50 are under near-term threat of extinction due to inbreeding.
  • Populations below 500 are under long-term threat of extinction because the gene pool is too small to adapt to environmental changes.

Except the 50/500 rule is not a hard scientific law. It’s just a rule of thumb, and it has many, many detractors.

Even Michael Soule, one of the co-creators of the rule, seems to have gotten pretty frustrated by the way people took the rule literally. Here’s an interesting and, I think, revealing article about some endangered parrots. A team of conservationists contacted Soule, asking if they should even bother trying to save these parrots, because there were only 48 left.

There also an argument to be made that the numbers 50 and 500 are too low and that a 100/1000 rule would be more appropriate. And of course, can we really apply this rule to all species equally when some species reproduce more rapidly than others or face different kinds of environmental challenges, etc, etc….

Still, if we’re trying to imagine a colony of humans on some distant world, a colony struggling for short-terma and/or long-term survival, I think the 50/500 rule at least gives us a good place to start.