Science Sunday 08-26-17

A Brief History of Flight – Part 2

Lucky Lindy

No other pilot of the 1920s is better known than the American  Charles Lindbergh, who flew his Ryan Monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, from Long Island, NY, to Paris, France, in May of 1927.

Lindbergh was the first person to fly a fixed wing aircraft from the United States to continental Europe, but not the first person to fly a fixed wing aircraft from North America  to Europe.  That honor goes to the team of Alcock and Brown, who flew from Newfoundland to County Galway, Ireland in a mere 16 hours, traversing about 1900 miles at an average speed of 115 mph.

Lindbergh learned how to fly the “old fashioned” way, first as a post World War I barnstormer, then as a flying ace in the US Army Air Service, and finally as a US airmail pilot.

Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight was long and arduous, flying a little more than 33 hours and 3600 miles through icy storms and fog, and without a front window, landing finally at Le Bourget Field just outside Paris, to the acclaim of 150,000 witnesses.  For Lindbergh’s efforts, he won the Orteig Prize of $25,000 (in today’s money, $342,000), and received two medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and The Medal of Honor, from President Calvin Coolidge.

The remainder of Lindbergh’s life was no less exciting.  His first son and namesake was kidnapped and murdered, to much notoriety.  Lindbergh was an avowed isolationist prior to World War II, only seeing the error of his ways after Pearl Harbor.

During World War II, Lindbergh flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific theater, as a private consultant.

Lindbergh died in Maui, Hawaii, in 1974.

Le Bourget Airport is no longer used for commercial flights, but is home to the world famous yearly Paris Air Show.


Amelia Earhart

Perhaps the best know female pilot of all time is the aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

Earhart only lived 40 years, but in that time she accomplished many aerial feats, including being the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic, flying from Newfoundland to Derry, Northern Ireland, in May of 1932, in a single engine Lockheed Vega 5B.  For this feat, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Herbert Hoover.

Married to promoter and publicist G. P. Putnam, Earhart bounced from one record flight to another, until in 1937 she decided to aerially circumnavigate the globe.  Her first attempt, from east to west failed, when she accidentally damaged her plane in Hawaii.

Her second attempt, flying from west to east was initially more successful.  She had travelled an astounding 22,000 miles when she and her navigator Fred Noonan departed Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937, destination the American territory of Howland Island situated on the Equator and the International Date Line.

The date of their departure was no coincidence: they intended to be back in the states in time for the Fourth of July.  But that was not to be, because Earhart and Noonan disappeared somewhere between Lae and Howland Island.

There continues to be controversy as to whether Earhart and Noonan perished at sea, or whether they ended up on some other island, possibly even a Japanese possession.  No one knows for sure what happened to them.

We should remember Earhart not only for her aerial derrings-dos, but also for her service as a nurse’s aide in Toronto helping returning World War I veterans, and her work teaching English to impoverished children.


Aircraft of World War II

Many innovations in aircraft design happened in the run up to (and during) World War II, but I thought it would suffice in this brief history to talk about one plane that probably won the war for the Allies.

I speak of the B17, the flying fortress.  Originally designed by Boeing Corporation, during the war the plane was manufactured by Douglas and Lockheed as well.

The bomber had the deserved reputation of taking a terrible beating while still being able to limp back home to England.

More than 12,000 B17s were made during the period of 1935 to 1945 inclusive.  At the end of production, the bomber had four 1200 hp engines, 13 machine guns, could drop from 8,000 to 17,500 lbs. of ordnance, and sported a 10 man crew.

For a truly moving recollection of what it was to fly bombing raids over Germany in 1943 without a fighter escort, read Half a Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer.

For a review of the “25 planes that won World War II”, see this fascinating article.

Science Sunday 06-11-17


Author Dan Goleman speaks with eloquence about the three kinds of empathy, and how these human qualities, in various admixtures, inform today’s leaders.  As I watched this video, it was hard not to think of the current resident of the White House and the current Speaker of the House, and how they specifically lack emotional empathy.


The Machines Are Taking Over

Call me a Neanderthal, but I refuse to use the self-service checkout lines at big box multibillion dollar chain stores like Home Depot, because these checkout lines are designed to make you do the work normally reserved for human beings, who while low-paid, at least have a job.

Now comes a news story from the BBC about possibly getting rid of pilots on commercial flights. Basically, the aircraft and airline industries want to know if drone technology is advanced enough to be extended to commercial flights, and more importantly, whether the public will accept such a development.

On a much larger and foreboding scale is the question of whether even highly educated people will soon find themselves replaced by machines that can do their jobs better.  Kurzgesagt explores this increasingly likely and dismal future in unrelenting detail:

Are we just frogs in a simmering pot of water?


Antibiotic Resistance and Phages

The medical profession has been in a bit of a tizzy in recent years because the ”age of antibiotics” seems to be coming to an end, with no apparent solution.

Overuse of antibiotics in humans and farm animals has accelerated the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens like MRSA, so-called superbugs.  It is estimated that by the year 2050, if no solution to superbugs is found, 10 million people will die for lack of a viable treatment against the superbugs.

Enter an old-fashioned treatment called phage therapy.  Phages are viruses specifically cultivated to take out antibiotic resistant pathogens without harming the host organism (meaning you).

Phage therapy was considered normal in the early part of the 20th century, but with the advent of antibiotics, it was “forgotten”, at least forgotten by medical professionals in western Europe and the United States.  Fortunately, it was not forgotten by medical professionals in eastern Europe, notably Russia and Georgia.

In the above video, Heather Hendrickson of Massey University, New Zealand, talks about the dangers of antibiotic resistant pathogens, and the great promise of a resurgent phage therapeutic regime.

For some odd reason, phage therapy is not currently allowed in the United States.

You can read about the promise of phage treatment of bacterial infections here and here.


99 Million Year Old Bird

Prepare to be fascinated.  Scientists are reporting that an amber sample found in Burma a few years ago contains an almost perfectly preserved portion of a baby bird that died about 99 million years ago.  Feathers, claws and contemporaneous bugs included.


Oldest Homo Sapiens

For about the last 20 years, scientists have been of the consensus that the human species Homo Sapiens started in East Africa no earlier than 200,000 years ago.  But now Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute – publishing in Nature – makes a convincing claim that humans were around a good 100, 000 years earlier, and residing in a remote region called Jebel Irhoud in Morocco.


Postcards From the Mariana Trench

There’s a panoply of life at the greatest depths of the ocean floor.

Science Sunday 05-14-17

Baby Big Bird

After 25 years of cloak and dagger intrigue regarding the whereabouts and nature of a fossilized “baby dinosaur in the egg” known colloquially as “Baby Louie”, the dino has been identified as a new species of oviraptorosaur called beibeilongsinensis.

While small in its sarcophagal shell, feather-covered Louie would have grown up to be a metric ton, 1000 kg in mass or 2000 lbs in weight, a prehistoric version of our beloved Big Bird.

You Smell!

A recent study by John McGann of Rutgers University asserts that the human sense of smell is on a par with other mammals, including rodents and dogs.

We have been conditioned to think poorly of our noses, says McGann, because of research done in the 19th century, which doesn’t hold up to extensive modern experimentation.

An earlier estimate that humans can only distinguish between about 10,000 scents should be replaced by 1 trillion scents, eight orders of magnitude larger, says McGann.

You can read more about McGann’s study here.

Maybe if we were closer to the ground, we would do some more sniffing around:

In related work, researchers at the University of Chicago have determined that losing your sense of smell is a precursor to a more imminent death.  After testing a large number of people to see if they could distinguish the scents of rose, leather, fish, orange and peppermint, and rating the participants as good, medium and poor sniffers, they found that of these folks who had died 5 years after testing, those with the weakest sniffing abilities were 400% more like to die than those with the best sniffing abilities:

You can read more about this fascinating study here.  I’m off to buy some oranges!

The Metric System

Back in the 1970s, there was much talk about the Unite States going metric.  In particular, there was an oil embargo going on, and for a very short time, gas was sold in liters.

The reason this occurred is that OPEC caused per gallon pricing to exceed one dollar, and the mechanical pumps at that time couldn’t charge prices over a dollar.  Some stations went with per half gallon pricing, and some went with per liter pricing.

Americans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the math, and were incensed that the gas stations might be cheating them, and so in pretty quick order, all the mechanical pumps were retrofitted to charge up to $9.99 per gallon.

At about the same time, pop (or perhaps you say soda) started selling by the liter and two liter, and today, we are quite used to this metric volume measure, at least for our sugary supplements.

Originally, the metric unit of mass, the kilogram, was defined as 1000 cubic centimeters (or 1000 milliliters) of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius, but consequent to the Metric Convention of 1875, the kilogram standard has been based on a solid platinum-iridium cylinder stored in Paris, two copies of which are stored here in the United States at NIST (our weights and measure lab).

Recently, the youtube channel Veritasium visited NIST to see these metric kilogram standard copies.  I was surprised to find out that the US is actually on the metric standard, and all the US-English units we use are defined in terms of their metric equivalents.

FYI, if you in the future choose to drive a car in Europe, you will have to buy gas by the liter, so remember that one liter is about one US quart.  Take the per liter price, multiply by four, and convert that four liter Euro price to US dollars to find out how much you are really paying per US gallon for gas.

Right now in France the price is surprisingly low, at $5.79 per US gallon.

BTW, Brexit enthusiasts, beer in England is still sold by the Imperial pint, which is about 1/6th larger by volume than the US pint.  Explains a lot about UK soccer hooligans!

Sponge Bob Clown Pants

I always liked topology, that area of mathematics which challenges you to see whether you can deform the shape of one shape into another, without using tearing or gluing operations along the way.

Mathematician Kelsey Houston-Edwards of PBS Infinite Series explores this fascinating subject.

Science Sunday

What Really Are Emotions?

Are emotions pre-wired into our brains at birth, or do we learn them, in the context of the norms of the society in which we grow up?  Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University explores this fascinating question in her new book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” and concludes that emotions are definitely not built-in but learned.

The Guardian has a nice review of her work here.


GMOs Redux

Are genetically modified organisms, including common foods like corn, truly dangerous, or has worries about them been exaggerated?  Kurgesagt explores this question.


Short and Long Term Memories

Scientists from MIT’s Riken Institute for Neural Circuit Genetics have published a landmark study in the journal Science that shows that contrary to established theory, short term and long term memories of the same event are formed at the same time, but mature in a transitional sequence.

Mice mildly shocked in a particular environment formed a short term memory in the amygdala, and a long term memory in the prefrontal cortex, this known through brain scanning imaging.  Optogenetic technology designed to turn on one memory or the other was used to show that the short term memory fades (but is retained) even as the long term memory “matures” into existence.

While a beautiful experiment in its own right, there is hope that this research can be used on patients with dementia.


Always Get a Second Opinion

Veritasium explores Bayes Theorem, to see how probabilities can be used to determine how sure we should be about a particular conclusion, and how we humans need to experiment if we want to break out of our preconceived notions of what is really true.


The Loneliness of Perception

In science, it is very common to conflate human perceptions with objective reality.  We say that green laser light has a wavelength of 532 nm, but that light is not objectively green, only that we humans commonly perceive it as green.

Michael of V Sauce addresses this question in his usual insouciant style.


Antibiotics and the Microbiome

I’ve been writing about the microbiome for a while, and how we need bacteria in our gut in order to live a healthy life.

But taking antibiotics often clears out a substantial portion of our microbiome.  Now we learn that taking too many antibiotics can lead to a dramatic increase in polyps in the colon, a precursor to colorectal cancer.



Vulcanologists Arise!


I was surprised to find out, from the Chicago Tribune’s funny pages no less, that the world’s smallest volcano is only about 43 feet high.  It is located in Puebla City, Mexico, and is called Cuexcomate.

You can read about it here.

The picture above shows a metal staircase descending into the (inactive) volcano.

For a good April Fool’s Joke, read about a volcano that is only 2 cm tall and grows on the side of a log.