July 18, 2007

Questions From My Wife VII: Not My Wife, Though She Also Asks Me About Poop

Taking another grant writing break to answer a reader's question. Stacy T. writes:

What does whale poop look like?

As far as I can tell, whale poop is a mystical substance. It's mostly water-soluble and appears as a giant cloud in the water. (See the image posted -- the ring shows whale flatulence bubbling to the ocean surface and that cloud is the poop.) Scientists can tell what the whale has been eating based on the poop cloud color -- this one probably had a good meal of bright red krill. Actually, scientists can look at the excrement to learn about the animal's health as well. Since whales poop mostly water (thus the cloud) any solid or waxy chunks indicate that the whale could be sick and not absorbing much of its foods' nutrients. One of the problems in whale research is the inability to observe whale poop. This would allow scientists to track migration habits and population levels over years of study. Interestingly a dog has been trained for the explicit purpose of detecting whale excrement for research.

Ambergris, a sperm whale bile duct excretion, is released from the whale's intestines. While technically not poop, scientists think that whales produce this in order to sweep large foreign items from their digestive system. Ambergris (literally "grey amber") has been used for centuries as a medicine and in perfume. And while gross, it is not actually a controlled substance, as it seen as a natural animal byproduct and has not been regulated since 2001.

July 17, 2007

Questions From My Wife VI: Myths, Legends, and Other Means of Trickin' Folk

Taking a short break from writing the Postdoctoral Grant of DOOM (ie tricking the government to pay for me feeding a ton of illicit drugs to unsuspecting mice) to bring you another installment of QFMW.

Where did the idea of the unicorn come from? It's nowhere near as interesting as other fantasy creatures, just a horse with a random horn stuck on its head. What creative genius came up with that?

The unicorn is represented in texts as far back as the Old Testament to writings of Leonardo Da Vinci to elementary school folders. Mythologically speaking, the unicorn has a beard, lion's tail and cloven hooves. However, the typical modern view is it is a white horse with a single horn in the middle of its forehead. There are a few current theories on what people were thinking when they came up with the idea, some, as with many mythological beasts, deriving from misinterpreted skeletons.

1) Elasmotherium sibiricum - a large ancient rhinoceros. It is quite possible that skeletal remains of this creature could definitely be thought of as a horse-like creature, with a huge central horn reaching lengths of 7 feet or more.

2) Mutated animals - Gene mutations are always occuring. The possibility that a goat or ox could have developed a single misshapen horn to a recessive gene is very likely. This process has actually been replicated by people that fused together growing horns of young goats or calves.

3) Bizarre interpretations of foreign animals - British monarchs Elizabeth I and James I often told tales of being given unicorn horns from explorers who had spent considerable time in the arctic. Arctic unicorns? Probably just narwhales. Marco Polo depicts a unicorn in his travels as "scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead... They have a head like a wild boar's… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at." Marco? Maybe you saw a rhino? African antelopes like the oryx are also possibilities for a unicorn-like interpretation if they stand in profile.

Okay then, smart guy, what about the tooth fairy?

Yeah, this one is plain weird. How we're able to convince our kids of this (and were convinced ourselves) remains a complete mystery to me. I remember figuring it out by requesting that the Tooth Fairy sign and date a form for acquisition of my tooth...you know, for proper filing purposes and tax records and whatnot. I totally recognized my dad's handwriting.

The accepted American commercial spiel is that after a kid loses a tooth, it goes under the pillow. The tooth fairy comes in the night, takes the tooth, and rewards the kid monetarily (after signing the necessary paperwork, of course). But other countries have their own traditions. An English tradition is to throw the tooth in a fire to prevent needing to search for it after you die. Vikings gave children cash for teeth in order to make jewelry out of them -- apparently they thought kid parts were sources of great power. Better than toes, I guess. Several countries told stories of giving teeth to mice, and the Spanish equivalent of the tooth fairy is a mouse named Ratoncito PĂ©rez. Which is awesome. These ideas, combined with European folk tales of fairies were combined in the 1949 publication of "The Tooth Fairy" by Lee Rothgow and into American legend.

July 6, 2007

Losing Patience. Need a Vacation.

The wife and I haven't taken a real vacation in maybe 2 years. She can accrue vacation (kinda), but mine runs out at the end of the year if I don't use it. We both are in desperate need of something relaxing. So the dilemma -- where should we go? We have to factor both potential for fun and relaxation, while keeping costs down. TRIP=(F+R)/$.

1) Atlanta -- We've been wanting to go here for a while. V has never been to the Coke Museum (and they just opened the new one). Plus there's a Louvre exhibit at the High Art Museum and the new aquarium.
PROS: Relatively inexpensive, family in town = probable good meal out at a nice place, close enough to drive in under 4 hours.
CONS: Short trip, not as relaxing?

2) Gatlinburg -- Been a while since either of us have been there. Interesting combination of the commercialism of the city with the expanse of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
PROS: Beautiful in the fall, drivable, lots to do with the actual city and the hiking trails through the Smokies.
CONS: More expensive in the fall, lots of traffic if we do drive, filled with tourist traps and kinda cheesy.

3) Orlando -- Mostly because I haven't been to Disneyworld in ages.
PROS: Again, not terribly expensive. Even if we want to stay on the resort, there are less pricey options.
CONS: Requires airfare.

4) Las Vegas -- Neither of us really care to gamble or anything, but we just want to see some shows.
PROS: Can get good deals on hotels and airfare.
CONS: Since we don't really gamble and don't care much for nightlife, would we be bored?

5) San Diego -- Going here for a conference in early November. Possibly could stay a few days extra and have Valerie meet me.
PROS: Never been to southern CA, great beaches, world famous zoo and other attractions, free airfare for me, great weather in late fall.
CONS: Logistics of making sure it all runs smoothly, transportation (?), may need to get a more cost-effective hotel as the place I'm staying will be directly downtown, Valerie flying here by herself.

6) Charleston, Caribbean cruise -- Norwegian runs a 7 day cruise from Charleston that stops in the Caymans, Cozumel, and Key West.
PROS: Mind-bogglingly inexpensive (you can get a ticket for under $400 a person), meals included, hits plenty of places we want to visit, lots of time for relaxation.
CONS: Excursions could be expensive, long drive to Charleston, is 7 days too long to be on a boat?

7) Paris -- Neither of us have been to Europe past England.
PROS: It's France.
CONS: Cost. Flight. And also, it's France.

So, there we are. Please comment with opinions. I'll add any information (and anything else I can think of) to the Pro/Con list. Also, feel free to suggest alternatives. Where's the best place you've been to lately, even if it's just down the block?

July 5, 2007

Questions From My Wife V: Color Evolution

What is the point of hair and eyes coming in different colors? I get the evolutionary reason for different skin shades, but not the hair and eyes.

Actually, the genetics of skin color is very complex and is not yet fully understood. So far 4 genes regulating skin color have been identified, and there may be more yet to be found. There are a few theories for the diversity of skin color, such as the balance between avoiding exposure to ultraviolet radiation and production of Vitamin D. Darker skin has the advantage of blocking UV rays and reduced instances of skin cancer due to increased presence of melanin, but lighter skin lets in more light, which is crucial for the formation of vitamin D. Thus areas with less direct light, such as around the poles, have lighter pigmented skin.

However, many scientists view this idea as too simplistic, as it has obvious flaws. People living in the same latitudes -- the Australian aborigines and the Amazonian tribes; the Inuits and the Swedes -- have widely varying skin coloration. Plus most cancers are rarely factors in evolution -- most cellular damage is done far past prime reproductive age. Even Darwin didn't think natural selection had anything to with geographic variations of beauty traits. Current theories are returning to the viewpoint of Darwin and suggesting the evolution of skin color has more to do with sexual choice and picking partners by physical traits that happen to be socially important, but not much else.

Questions behind variations of eye and hair color are very similar to this. Sure, it could have happened for a reason. Legitimate scientific evidence exists that suggests the color of the iris shapes the ability to see in certain light conditions. But while it is more comforting to assume natural selection is involved, it seems more likely that it is not.

Sexual selection is a complicated theory, and not only attributed by Darwin to be the basis of racial differences, but also the general hairlessness of humans and possibly the creation of humor, music, and art. One theory by John Maynard Smith suggests that the human brain was created to its cumbersome levels by sexual selection -- very much like the plumage of a male peacock.