Archive for December 2016

Like many people, I’ve tried very hard to forget my days in junior high school. That was an unpleasant time in my life for all the usual reasons, and thankfully most of it is now a dim blur. But a few pleasant moments do stand out in my memory. One of those was a report I did for my ninth-grade science class. For reasons I no longer recall, the topic I chose was Pascal’s Law, and I must have prepared well for that 10-minute presentation, because I could probably stand up and give pretty much the same talk today, even though I never went on to study any more about it.

Pascal’s Law describes the behavior of fluids in a closed system, and says, to oversimplify somewhat, that the pressure the fluids exert is always the same throughout the system. This is the principle that enables hydraulic presses to work—a small amount of force applied to a piston pushing down on fluid can exert much more force on a larger connected piston, making it sort of like a liquid lever. The same effect has applications in everything from scuba diving to ventilation systems and dam construction.

Pascal, Meet Fisher
Although that little snippet of knowledge has stayed with me all this time, that marked the extent of what I knew about fluid mechanics until a couple years ago, when I wrote an article here about Space Pens. These pens, legendary for being able to write in zero gravity, in a vacuum, or in just about any other situation, use a special thixotropic ink, a substance that’s normally in a gel state but which turns into a liquid when it’s agitated—that is, when the ball rolls against it. It’s liquid just long enough to flow onto the paper, and then it turns semisolid again. (As spiffy as that is, some Space Pen ink turns out to have surprising problems, which you can read about in Space Pens with Purple Ink: A Sad Tale on I Am Joe’s Blog.)

A few months ago, some very cool videos started making the rounds: people doing stunts with something called “non-Newtonian fluids.” If you’re not an engineer, that may not sound very intriguing, until you look at guys running across the surface of a vat filled with a solution of cornstarch and water, but sinking into it when they stand still. That’s a real eye-opener. Or some other guys taking a handful of the same liquid goop and slapping it into solid balls, which then turn back into liquid as soon as the agitation stops. These are just a couple of the many wacky properties exhibited by non-Newtonian fluids—substances that change their viscosity in reaction to stress. (See 8 YouTube Videos Featuring Non-Newtonian Fluid Experiments at SenseList.) And sure enough, the ink from my Space Pen is in the same category.

Non-Newtonian fluids range from the exotic to the mundane. You’ve probably made a cornstarch-and-water mixture lots of times in your own kitchen, and if you made enough of it, you too could walk across its surface. Assuming the proportion of starch to water is right, the solution gets suddenly thick and firm when force is applied to it, as you may have noticed when trying to stir it when preparing a sauce. Stir more slowly, and it flows more easily.

Going with the Flow
But not all non-Newtonian fluids behave this way. Some of them get runnier when under stress, such as Space Pen ink and paints that adhere to a brush when at rest but glide on easily when the brush is applied to a surface. Also in the thixotropic category as well as in your kitchen: ketchup and honey.

There are still other varieties, too, which have different patterns of changing viscosity. Such varied substances as quicksand, Silly Putty, blood, dough, and gelatin fall under the broad non-Newtonian heading. By contrast, Newtonian fluids, or what most people think of as normal fluids, are those (like water) whose viscosity is determined only by temperature and pressure. Sure, water will get plenty firm if the temperature is reduced enough, but no amount of force can make liquid water behave like a solid.

The moral of the story? If you’re stuck in a non-Newtonian fluid—or junior high school—the trick is to remain calm. The more you struggle, the harder it gets. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Non-Newtonian Fluids…

The Wikipedia has helpful articles on Non-Newtonian Fluid, Newtonian Fluid, and Pascal’s Law.

The video that started the current Non-Newtonian Fluid craze is A pool filled with non-newtonian fluid on YouTube. But there are lots of them; see 8 YouTube Videos Featuring Non-Newtonian Fluid Experiments at SenseList.

Other resources on non-Newtonian fluids:

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The Wallace Line

Back in the mid-19th century, a certain naturalist, having spent a great deal of time sailing around the world, collecting and documenting animal specimens, and thinking very hard about why certain species turned out the way they did, came up with a notion that was—and in some quarters, still is—considered heretical: the idea of survival of the fittest, or as it is more properly known, natural selection. That description may evoke the name Charles Darwin, but it could apply equally to one of his contemporaries, Alfred Russel Wallace.

One could argue, in fact, argue that Wallace was the true originator of the idea for which Darwin was to become famous. The two were at least working on the same general problem at the same time though in different parts of the world, and Wallace’s discoveries prompted Darwin to publish his own findings sooner than he had intended. Darwin was an honorable scholar and gave due credit to Wallace, including a mention in the second paragraph of On the Origin of Species. But because of Darwin’s considerably greater influence, Wallace’s contributions to the science of evolution were given far less fanfare. (Interestingly, although Wallace didn’t invent the expression natural selection, there is some evidence that he coined the phrase survival of the fittest, though he was not the first to publish it, and so even that honor goes to someone else: a British economist named Herbert Spencer.)

Father of Evolution Zoogeography
Wallace is, however, remembered for something that has tremendous implications not only for biology but for geology too: an imaginary line that divides what is now Indonesia roughly in half. Islands to the west of the line include Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and Bali; to the east are Lombok, Sulawesi, Timor, and many others. What Wallace noticed during his extensive travels in the area was that the islands in the western part of the archipelago had animal life similar to that found in continental Asia, while the islands in the eastern part of the chain had species resembling those found in Australia. The Wallace Line was his attempt to draw a boundary between these two regions with very different fauna.

What particularly struck Wallace about his discovery was that some islands that were very far apart had the same distribution of animal species, while some that were close together had much different species. Nowhere was this more striking than between the islands of Bali and Lombok, which are separated by only 22 miles (35km) of water. And yet, numerous species of plants and animals—especially birds—that are found on Bali and other, more distant islands to the north and west were absent on Lombok, which had species found on other islands far to the south and east.

Continental Drifter
In 1859, when Wallace originally drew and publicized the line, he couldn’t explain in any detail why these nearby areas had such different species. His theories about natural selection suggested that quite the opposite should have been the case, and Wallace speculated that ancient geological changes must have been the cause. It would be more than a century before the theory of plate tectonics was developed, but Wallace would have been pleased to know that his line closely matches the boundary between two continental plates that were once far apart. Because some of the islands on each of the plates were once connected to each other and to the mainland by land bridges, animals could freely migrate between them, but no such bridge ever existed between the two plates. It just so happens that in some spots these two geological regions have, over many centuries, moved to within spitting distance of each other.

Wallace himself redrew the line with greater precision in 1863. Since then, it’s been subject to a great deal of discussion, controversy, and additional refinement, as researchers have uncovered more detailed data. It’s also been discovered that the zoogeographical division isn’t quite as clear cut as it once seemed. But the fundamental insight that the division between areas of animal species must have been connected to massive geological shifts put Wallace far ahead of his time and remains a remarkable achievement to this day. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about The Wallace Line…

The ever-helpful Wikipedia has articles on The Wallace Line as well as Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, and the expression Survival of the Fittest (which doesn’t even mention Wallace as a potential originator of the phrase).

Other articles about the Wallace Line include:

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I first heard of Wallace when reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; I learned much more about him in Simon Winchester’s excellent Krakatoa.

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For even more detail, see Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line by Penny Van Oosterzee. Or, if you want to read Wallace’s work firsthand, pick up a copy of The Malay Archipelago (1869). You might also enjoy reading Wallace’s explanation and defense of Darwin, Darwinism (1889).

The image of the Wallace Line by Pablo Alberto Salguero Quiles is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license version 2.5.

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by Morgen Jahnke

Insects as Food

Having lived the majority of my life in the northern latitudes, I have rarely had to deal with the everyday aspects of life in a tropical climate. Despite this fact, on those occasions when I have visited countries to the south, I have been able to endure the usual tropical conditions, chiefly high heat and humidity, without too much difficulty. However, there is one aspect of tropical life I find particularly hard to handle: coming face to face with insects of gigantic proportions.

While there are insects I find annoying in my part of the world (such as mosquitoes and ants), their relatively small size makes them seem less threatening than their tropical cousins. I realize that many people are used to seeing such creatures every day and and therefore don’t find them unnerving. However, this knowledge didn’t help me much when I was Indonesia, and we found two enormous water bugs hiding out in the mosquito netting above our bed. After some comically desperate maneuvers, we finally succeeded in banishing the bugs from the room. Perhaps if we had known that water bugs make a tasty condiment (ground up with chilies to make a spicy Thai paste), we might have welcomed them instead.

A Plate of Locusts
Although in Western cultures there is a general aversion to being around insects, let alone eating them, in many parts of the world (and also increasingly in the West) the insect kingdom is seen as an important and coveted source of food. The practice of eating bugs as food is known as entomophagy, and has been part of the human experience throughout history.

There is evidence that ancient cultures in Mexico, Spain, China, and what is now the United States included insects in their diets. The biblical book of Leviticus mentions locusts, bald locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers as acceptable food for the Israelites, and in the book of Matthew, John the Baptist is said to have subsisted on locusts and wild honey. The ancient Romans also reputedly practiced entomophagy, consuming locusts, cicadas, and stag beetle larvae at their lavish feasts.

Today, insect-eating is popular in parts of Africa, Australia, Central and South America, and Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Japan. In some places, such as among the Aborigines in Australia, insects are part of the traditional diet, being a readily available source of protein. In other places, insects are considered delicacies, and are prepared in numerous ways meant to tempt the palate—including roasting, frying, and grilling. In Colombia, for example, Hormigas culonas, or fried giant ants, are a regional specialty. Hachi-no-ko, or boiled wasp larvae, can be found in some restaurants in Japan, along with fried cicadas (Semi), rice-field grasshoppers (Inago), and silk moth pupae (Sangi). (Lots of insects are made into candy and snacks, too; see 32 Edible Insect Foods You Can Buy Online at SenseList for examples of such products.)

How to Eat Fried Crickets
Despite Western societal taboos against human consumption of insects, a growing number of enthusiasts believe there are economic, environmental, and health benefits to the practice of entomophagy. They argue that it is cheaper, and more efficient, to raise insects as a protein source than it is to rely on other animal products, and that it is less damaging to the environment. In addition, they claim that insects provide more nutritive value, while being lower in fat than other types of protein.

These benefits make entomophagy seem like the answer to some pressing problems, but there are a few barriers to it becoming more socially acceptable. Besides the obvious reluctance to eat creatures that many people find repulsive, there is debate about what effect the large-scale practice of entomophagy might have on the environment, with some voicing concern that certain species could be eradicated entirely. Also, some people have adverse reactions to eating insects, whether from allergies or pesticide contamination, making it necessary to educate the public about these dangers.

Despite these issues, as a former vegetarian I understand and applaud people’s efforts to eat lower on the food chain, for both health and environmental reasons. However, I don’t think I’d ever be able to switch to a bug-eating lifestyle, no matter how tasty or nutritious they might be. I’ll leave that to those with more adventurous palates and stronger stomachs. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Entomophagy…

You can purchase Crushed Giant Water Bug Paste (and many other edible insect products) online from Thailand Unique.

To find practical information about pursuing entomophagy, including recipes and shopping tips, visit the Manataka American Indian Council site, the Food Insects Newsletter, the Sunrise Land Shrimp site, or the Iowa State University site.

To learn more about the history of entomophagy, visit the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology or Stalking the Wild.

To see photos of prepared insect foods, go to the Thai Bugs site, Zack’s Bug-Feasting Page, or the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

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Two cookbooks that provide recipes for cooking insects are Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects and the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook.

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On our recent trip to Indonesia, Morgen and I were reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 book Krakatoa, a history of the devastating 1883 eruption of the eponymous volcano (known locally as Krakatau). A couple of hundred pages into the book, the volcano hasn’t yet erupted, but we’ve learned about Darwin, the spice trade, Dutch colonization, and a long list of other things that, in one way or another, illuminate the circumstances surrounding that cataclysmic blast and how it affected the world at that time. Just as Winchester gets ready to describe the big bang itself, he mentions the fact that animals sometimes appear to be aware of an imminent seismic event, changing their behavior markedly just before it happens—often by fleeing, but sometimes by making noise or otherwise acting erratically.

Winchester writes: “There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeographical prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity.” He says that while some geologists concede that animals might sense changes too subtle to register on modern instruments, no one has been able to prove a connection between animal behavior and impending earthquakes or volcanic activity. Nevertheless, a good deal of anecdotal evidence supports this notion, including a particularly interesting tale of a circus elephant that seemingly “predicted” the Krakatoa eruption.

I was unaware of the existence of anything called “ethogeographical prediction,” but I always enjoy learning about wacky pseudoscientific undertakings. So I consulted the usual search engines and found exactly one page on the entire Web that mentioned the phrase “ethogeographical prediction”; it was a review of Winchester’s book. I then tried searching on “ethogeology” instead and found another, different page—also a review of the book. Well, now each term has at least two matches, but I’m no better informed as to who is engaged in this study or with what result. A quick scan of the book’s bibliography provided no obvious clues, either, so it could be that Winchester himself coined the term or that it simply hasn’t caught on widely yet. In any case, it’s clear that ethogeology is a portmanteau of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and geology.

Nothing to See Here
Even though no one referred to ethogeology by name, I did find lots of information about how animals behave oddly before various kinds of natural disasters. The way writers often address the subject matter is by asking, rhetorically, whether this proves that animals are psychic, have E.S.P., or are in some other way supernaturally gifted. In most cases, the writers end up debunking such claims, but I find it troubling that the question is even asked in the first place. I’m pretty sure it’s common knowledge that dogs have a superior sense of smell and that bats use echolocation to find their prey, to take two common examples of animal abilities that exceed those of humans. This, I can assure you, is more of the same—nothing mystical at all is going on.

Unfortunately, no one can yet demonstrate by precisely what mechanism animals apparently become aware of an upcoming earthquake. One theory is that certain animals can hear ultra-low-frequency sounds generated by seismic activity just before an earthquake. Another is that they can feel tiny vibrations in the ground when a quake is brewing. Based on these theories, some researchers are trying to construct measuring devices that mimic the anatomical structures that might be picking up the noises or vibrations. If they work, they could provide some hard data that might lead to more reliable early warning systems. But that’s a big “if.”

I Smell a Volcano
As a matter of fact, we don’t currently know for sure whether animals can be aware of future seismic events at all. It seems that they can, but even if so, clearly this is true only for certain animals, in certain situations, at certain times—which is a little unsatisfying scientifically. Supposing that someone could prove this adequately, the next step would be to quantify it. What does a particular behavior of a particular animal indicate? In order to use animals to predict earthquakes, we’d need a little more to go on than “if Spot starts growling, there might be an earthquake soon.” It could also mean that Spot is hungry, for instance. Getting any truly reliable data is going to be awfully hard, because you’ll never reproduce, in a controlled laboratory setting, the exact conditions of an impending volcanic eruption; nor can you interview your test subjects to find out what they hear, feel, or think.

Seismic events are not the only disasters animals are said to predict. I’ve read stories of animals behaving strangely just before hurricanes, typhoons, and thunderstorms, for example. To study these phenomena, however, we’re going to need an entirely new field: ethometeorology, a term that was, surprisingly, found on zero other Web pages before today. I predict linguistic storms in the near future. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Ethogeology…

This review of Krakatoa mentioned “ethogeology,” and one on this page mentioned “ethogeological prediction.”

Articles that discuss ways in which animals can seemingly predict disasters include:

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Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is a fascinating read. You’ll learn about a great deal more than a volcano!

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Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

I admit that I’m rather obtuse when it comes to religion. I do know enough to recognize that meatballs, pirates, and midgets probably aren’t the cornerstones of a thriving religion, yet these three items are vital to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Participation in this church would involve worshipping an extraordinary being who reveals himself in the form of tangled noodles and russet-colored meatballs. You might think I am making this up. You’ll have to read on to find out.

Every Action Has a Reaction
At the heart of the ages-old struggle between science and religion is the theory of evolution, a concept that many devout religious worshippers don’t want to accept and that hard-core scientists fervently stand by. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, school officials, teachers, parents, and students have been fighting over whether and how to teach evolution in public schools. This argument came to a head in 2005 when the Kansas State Board of Education decided to require the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) alongside evolution in science classrooms. The basis of ID is the proposition that features found in nature did not appear as a result of random processes such as natural selection, but instead were brought about by an intelligent agent—although this agent is not specifically named. ID advocates state that it is a scientific theory that can hold its own next to the theory of evolution. Needless to say, the idea of Intelligent Design, as well as the decision by the Kansas State Board of Education, drew serious criticism from the scientific community. It also caught the attention of Bobby Henderson, a physics graduate who thought ID had it all wrong.

In 2005, Henderson published an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education on his Web site. In this letter he stated that belief in Intelligent Design can take many forms. But the version to be taught in Kansas omitted an important scientific viewpoint, namely, the idea that the world was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or more commonly, the FSM). He requested that the Board consider teaching this theory alongside ID and evolution, and threatened legal action if they refused. The letter included an artistic rendition of the FSM creating the mountains, trees, and a “midgit” [sic] with His powerful Noodly Appendage.

Evidence for the Existence of Him
In his letter to the Board of Education, Henderson gave points of evidence that he believed imply the existence of the FSM. Even though no one was around to witness His creation of the universe, there was plenty of literature to implicate the FSM in the universe’s formation and this lack of observable evidence was enough to create a large following. The letter goes on to explain that “He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is.” The FSM does this, Henderson explained, by altering scientific data collected by researchers who seek to find the true age of the earth, because “the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage.” Furthermore, as pirates appear to be a crucial part of the FSM religion (more about this in a moment), the decrease in their numbers over the past 200 years can be used to explain the increase in global warming and natural disasters on Earth. The dwindling number of pirates is inversely proportional to the increase in average temperature, nicely displayed in the letter by a scientific-looking graph. With such substantial evidence, it’s hard to argue against the existence of Him.

Pasta + Rastafarian = Pastafarian
Anyone who decides this evidence is enough to become a follower will find many attractive features of the religion. First, followers call themselves Pastafarians, a very invigorating term guaranteed to bring about images of cuisine. There is even a Guide to Pastafarianism, easily located on the FSM Web site, which explains that every Friday is considered a religious holiday! Second, as mentioned earlier, pirates are considered “absolute divine beings.” What does this mean for Pastafarians? The right to wear full pirate regalia, of course! The guide even says that shouting “Yar” and wearing the religious head dress every day is totally acceptable and expected. And finally, following the simple rules of Pastafarianism can grant a ticket to heaven where “beer volcanoes as far as the eye can see” and “a stripper factory” await. But don’t take my word for it; you can read the entire guide on the FSM Web site and decide whether a conversion to Pastafarianism is right for you.

All Kidding Aside
If it hasn’t been clear up to this point, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is entirely a spoof on real religion and religious followers; Henderson was clearly taking advantage of the lack of methodological evidence supporting Intelligent Design in an attempt to expose its fallacies as a scientific theory. However, Henderson did receive real responses from Kansas State Board of Education members, including two who planned to vote against the teaching of Intelligent Design in Kansas classrooms. In late 2005, the Board voted 6 to 4 in favor of redefining science so that the search for scientific explanations was no longer limited to natural explanations, and this was viewed as a victory for Intelligent Design proponents. However, in August 2006, pro-evolution candidates took control of the board and emphasize their plan to continue to educate the public about the issue of evolution. As for Bobby Henderson, he has written a book titled The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He still runs the FSM Web site, where he posts the email he receives from various supporters and protestors as well as news updates and holiday greetings.

Evolution itself is still a touchy subject with respect to public schools. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a proponent of teaching evolution in schools, reports that Ohio’s Governor Taft plans to appoint four new members to the state Board of Education before he leaves, and these individuals will be supporters of the theory of evolution. And you might remember the 2004 fight in Dover, Pennsylvania, where it was decided the ninth-grade biology students must be read a statement mentioning Intelligent Design. Later, a federal judge decided that this decision was in violation of the Constitution, but board members who supported the statement had already been voted out. This fight between evolution and creationism even reaches beyond the borders of the United States. The United Kingdom is even taking a stand on the separation of science and speculation, as the government plans to inform schools that they cannot use teaching materials that promote creationism in the classroom. However, it is hard to believe that the fight between evolution and public schools will quietly fade anytime soon.

Henderson capitalized on an issue that is becoming paramount not only to our schools, but also to our society. More and more science finds itself under religious fire. But religion is extremely important to many individuals as it gives them a sense of meaning, while science is an essential component of the push to understand the world around us. In a perfect world, science and religion would find a common ground so that people wouldn’t feel disengaged from one side or the other. Perhaps Henderson’s underlying message is that by keeping religion and science separate, we protect both realms from each other and then absurd constructions like the Flying Spaghetti Monster aren’t necessary. But Henderson’s message may be much simpler: pirates are always cool. Yar! —Jillian Hardee

Guest author Jillian Hardee is a graduate student at West Virginia University studying cognitive neuroscience.

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More Information about The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster…

To learn more about the FSM, the official Web site of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the best place to start. Other sources of information:

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