Archive for the 'Science' Category


Something Fishy

So, some biotech company called Aqua Bounty made a salmon that grows faster and bigger than normal salmon. The FDA is in the process of approving it, but the U.S. Consumers Union doesn’t trust the research and wants more independent investigation. And furthermore, if the fish is approved for market, they want it to be labeled as a genetically modified food. But the FDA says there’s “no biologically relevant difference” between it and its un-engineered predecessor, so there’s no need to give it any special label. Besides that, argues, Aqua Bounty, if you label it as “genetically modified,” people will be scared away and not buy it.

I don’t know why the genetic modification lobby would be against a label. The stated reason for developing a genetically modified salmon are purely capitalistic: human population growth, increased demand for, um, “fish protein,” and the need to keep production up and costs low. So, act like a capitalist. Put your trust in the market and let the consumers decide if it’s a viable business.

If the genetically modified product is cheaper and there is no difference in quality and people want it, they will buy it, and you’ll have a winner. Congratulations!

If people don’t like it, you have to either work harder to prove it’s the same as naturally occurring fish or just suck it up as a loss. New products fail all the time. Remember Crystal Pepsi?

I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction against genetically modified fish. Humans have been engaging in genetic modification and artificial selection since they stopped roaming the plains, built some tents, and decided to give farming a go. You think God made the vegetables you see at the grocery store? Nope. That dog you have curled in your lap? Sorry. People made them by choosing the stuff they liked and throwing away the stuff they didn’t like. Tampering with nature is just one of our things — and the people who are against GM salmon have been living happily as the products of a society that embraces genetic trickery for generations.

However, we also have the potential to cause great harm with invasive species that can wreck the natural balance — or create a new one.

For that reason, I say label it as what it is. Simple honesty. Any fear of calling it what it is suggests that there’s a reason to be afraid. And don’t be so distrustful of the consumer. If it’s cheaper and it takes good, no one’s going to care anyway.


Green Ham … and Eggs?

Glow-in-the-dark pigs    
Glow-in-the-dark pigs. What else is there to say?

I would not, could not, in a box.
I could not, would not, with a fox.
I will not eat them with a mouse.
I will not eat them in a house.
I will not eat them here or there.
I will not eat them anywhere.
I do not eat green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.



Today is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, but you’d hardly know it. It doesn’t feel much like summer. New York has been blessed with a mild spring this year. I desperately hope the lower temperatures continue.

It is the summer solstice. Basically, it all has to do with the position of the sun — which is way over my head. And everyone else’s too. (Heh heh… get it?) Twice a year, the sun’s path around the earth is the farthest north or south it can get from the Equator. On June 21, the North Pole is tilted toward the sun. Six months hence, on the winter solstice (to us Northern Hemisphere folk), the South Pole will be tilted toward the Sun. On the first day of summer, everywhere north of the Arctic Circle has 24 hours of sunlight, and the length of day at all places north of the Equator is more than 12 hours.

It amazes me to think how much of human belief has been shaped by the length of a day. It’s all down to the accidental 23.45° tilt of Earth’s axis, and its distance from the sun. One or two degrees in either direction, and the whole of human existence could have developed completely differently.

Who knows: If we were tilted a bit further, the polar ice caps would be bigger, we’d all be a little cooler year-round, sleep patterns would be different, biological rhythms would all be different.

We seem to make a bigger fuss over marking the winter solstice. Winter celebrations predate agriculture. As winter approached and the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, and plants, animals and people began to die all around, I can see how ancient people might have been afraid that the sun was disappearing and not coming back. I’d do whatever I could do to get it to come back. Apparently, they lit bonfires and had big parties and built religions. (Today, rather than lighting bonfires, we risk housefires and death by electrifying evergreen shrubbery.) This in turn led to the founding of civilizations and nations and economic systems and flying to the moon and realizing that the whole thing is actually not managed by a guy in a glowing horse-drawn carriage.

My hat’s off to those weirdos who counted the as-yet-undefined units of time between sunrise and sunset, and to all those who broke their backs hauling enormous stones and such just to tell time and mark dates. It’s so easy for us now that they’ve done all the work.


Good-Bye, Pluto!

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Pluto and Charon skulk off to a dark corner of the solar system to pout about their demotion. Charon has reportedly threatened to “kick Earth’s ass.”
[Gene Smith’s Astronomy Tutorial]

I never learned the mnemonic device to remember the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto. I remember the lines of the treble clef scale are the notes E, G, B, D and F, because Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, but I was never aware that My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.

And it’s a good thing, too. I might have wasted a lot of time memorizing this, because it’s all quite useless now!

Dictionary researchers might all now breathe a sigh of relief, but sentimentalists are already having a hard time adjusting to the new order. Because we finally have a workable definition for “planet,” some scientists meeting in Prague have decided to strip Pluto of its planetary status. Pluto and its primary satellite Charon are now “dwarf planets.” I think they’re calling these itty-bitty planetoids “plutons,” in honor of the recently defrocked rock. You know, a consolation prize. No one goes home empty-handed!

Ah, Pluto, you’ve been a good sport all these years. Thanks for playing.

Early reports indicate that Pluto is coping well with the news. “It’s not what we were hoping for, obviously,” the stunned celestial body said, “but life goes on. We’ll get through it all right. I just want to be with my family now.”

The move means a considerably greater loss to Charon, which has less graciously accepted the news. Charon is only a satellite, and now it’s not even the satellite of a planet. Charon, loyal to Pluto to the bitter end, has retracted earlier threats that it would “kick Earth’s ass.”

“It was said in the heat of the moment. I’m sorry. At least I’m not a lousy moon, I guess,” Charon said. “But what am I?”

No longer can our very excellent mother send us pizzas. Now she must instead send us none. Or nowhere. Or maybe noodles. Because Neptune is now officially the furthest planet from the sun in our solar system.

Apparently we were laboring without a definition of “planet” all this time. I don’t remember having any difficulty with the subject in elementary science classes. In fact, I’m sure I’ve taken tests that contained questions assuming a definition the word. Hey — I want those tests re-audited! This may affect my academic performance in retrospect all the way up through college admission. Maybe I could have gotten into an ivy league school. I’ll sue!

Truly, I don’t understand what the fuss is about. This is not a surprise. Pluto doesn’t care. It’s unlikely that there are any life forms on the pla— oops, dwarf planet — who would care, as Pluto only has an atmosphere for 20 years every 248 years. It’s still out there, happily, ignorantly dancing with Charon, waving to us — “Don’t forget about me, schoolchildren of Earth! You haven’t seen the last of me yet!”

the untallied hours