Apex Predators

Orca Skull Cast

With teeth like these it is easy to see why the orca is the apex predator of the sea. Even Great White sharks run in fear from Killer whales, because the whales like to feed on them. They eat the shark’s liver and only the liver, for its iron.

I’ve seen orcas in the wild. It was in Puget Sound. Carl and I were taking a late ferry across to the Olympic Peninsula. Anne and Jay had already taken the four kids across and we were going to join them for a weekend whale watching expedition. Two orcas crossed in front of the ferry. Those were the only whales that we saw. The weather on the Pacific side of the Olympic was so rough that even though we did go out in a boat, it was impossible to see any whales.

While sharks may enjoy a fearsome, but noble apex predator, in the orca, we humans are not so lucky.  According to Timothy Winegard’s NY Times article, “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us“, our apex predator is the mosquito: 

She gently lands on your ankle and inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis. With this straw she sucks your blood, while a sixth needle pumps in saliva that contains an anticoagulant that prevents that blood from clotting. This shortens her feeding time, lessening the likelihood that you splat her across your ankle.

Researchers think that mosquitoes may have killed half of the 108 billion people who have ever lived, but they don’t do this alone. They are assisted by the likes of malaria, Zika, West Nile, dengue and yellow fever. It doesn’t help that Type O blood, my type, is their preferred menu item. When I used to drink a lot of Coke, Anne always said that the bugs like me more, because my blood is so sweet. It is, but not because of any soda that I might have drunk.

People have been trying to deal with this scourge forever. We tried poisoning them with DDT, but then they just mutated a resistance. Florida’s Disney World is a more enlightened success story. Even though it was built in a central Florida swamp, it is pretty mosquito free. This is accomplished not with chemicals, but by turning all of the once stagnate swamp water into flowing water. Mosquitoes won’t breed in moving water. Disney World is big enough to create its own ecosystem, but most of humanity can’t afford this solution or its park prices.

The advent of modern genetic technology, in the form of Crispr offers us the opportunity to up our game. Throughout history our battle against the mosquito had been a onesided disaster. Using Crispr scientists have already created sterile mosquitoes. Maybe Bill Gates and a few more of his billionaire colleagues can chip in enough money to make enough of these drones to put a dent in the 100 trillion world mosquito population? Until then, keep slapping.

Dinosaur Doomsday

T-Rex Sue

Next week’s New Yorker will feature an article by Douglas Preston entitled, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. This piece describes the work of Robert DePalma and the discoveries that he has unearth at Hell Creek, South Dakota. DePalma is a relatively unknown paleontologist, a University of Kansas doctoral candidate, who may have discovered the moment of one of the most significant events in the history of life on Earth.

Sixty-five million years ago the Cretaceous period or the age of the dinosaurs ended and the Paleogene period or the age of the mammals began. The culprit for this catechismic change is believed to be an asteroid that came crashing to earth in what is now the Yucatan peninsula. Evidence for this event can be found worldwide in what is called the KT layer. The Paleogene was originally called the Tertiary and the term KT persists, below KT dinosaurs, above none.

In Hell Creek, DePalma has discovered a primordial soup, a mix of mammal and dinosaur fossils, along with fish, plants and insects, all within this site’s KT layer. Some specimens have been burnt, while others are so perfectly preserved that they must have been encased in mud at the moment of death. Also common at his dig are tektites, ejecta of super heated rock turned to glass, possibly from the hypothesized asteroid strike. At that time, the Dakotas were part of an inland sea and the idea of a tsunami washing over everything there fits well with some of these finds, like fresh and salt water fish on top of each other.

According to Preston, DePalma is a bit eccentric, a standout as such in a field with more than its fair share of unusual characters. Combine this trait with his penchant for secrecy and his relatively low scientific stature and you have a recipe for simply being dismissed. DePalma has had some impact though. He once unearthed a hadrosaur and noticed that there was a nodule on one of its bones. A CT scan showed a T-Rex tooth embedded. This find helped to refute the theory that the T-Rex was solely a scavenger.

Slowly and little-by-little DePalma’s work is being disseminated. His lack of transparency and the dramatic nature of the findings will receive their first real test, when next month he publishes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If even a tenth of what he purports is true, it should rock the world.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Numeri (Numbers) Plate, Laura de Santillana, 1977

Neither snow nor cold nor gloom of night shall stay this blogger from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. Braving the polar vortex, Anne and I first did our Gyrotonic workout and then continued on to Science on Tap. Liberty Vittert, a visiting professor from Glasgow in Mathematics and Statistics was the night’s speaker. Her talk was entitled, How to Win the Lottery and Get Away with Murder. Here she is via YouTube giving the TEDx version of this talk.

With our previous exercise, we arrived later than normal, but Joanie had our table ready and Pat just beat us there. The usual hosts were absent due to a family emergency and without their tutelage the venue’s flakey AV systems reared their awful heads and plagued Dr. Vittert’s talk. She straight off wrecked my planned question, “Which high school did you go to?” Growing up in Saint Louis, she knew that such a question would be code for who are you. Burroughs indicates that she was a local high flyer. 

The gist of her talk was that we can defend ourselves from the chronic misuse of statistics through common sense. The get away with murder portion of the title comes from the OJ Simpson trial. In it, one of the defense lawyers argued that only one in 1/2500 of women who are abused, were murdered by their abuser and you can’t convict on a 1/2500 chance. A more correct way of viewing it is that nine out of ten women who are murdered by a spouse had been abused. The police have always known this and that is why they always suspect the husband.

The how to win the lottery part of the title presents a strategy for dealing with incomprehensibly big numbers, by characterizing them using a real world situation. Imagine a bathtub, the biggest that you’ve ever seen and then imagine that that tub is filled to almost overflowing with kernels of dried rice. Take one of the kernels, paint it gold and then plunge it down into the rice. Then standing at the bathroom door, charge people two bucks to blindfold themselves and pick one grain of rice. This example illustrates both the futility of buying lottery tickets and why government loves them. As the saying goes, it’s a tax on people who can’t do math or more correctly can’t visualize the math.

Numeric Nonsense

Fraser’s Spiral

The Fraser’s spiral illusion is an optical illusion that was first described by the British psychologist Sir James Fraser. The illusion is also known as the false spiral or by its original name, the twisted cord illusion. The overlapping black arc segments appear to form a spiral, but the arcs are in fact concentric circles. The visual distortion is produced by combining a regular line pattern (the black circles) with misaligned parts (the differently colored strands). It is like many other visual effects, in which a sequence of tilted elements cause the eye to perceive phantom twists and deviations. The illusion is augmented by the spiral components in the checkered background. It is a unique illusion, where the observer can verify the concentric strands manually. When the strands are colored differently, it becomes obvious to the observer that no spiral is present. So class, take out your Sharpie and outline one of these circles on your screen.

Infinitely many mathematicians walk into a bar. The first says, “I’ll have a beer.” The second says, “I’ll have half a beer.” The third says, “I’ll have a quarter of a beer.” The barman pulls out just two beers. The mathematicians are all like, “That’s all you’re giving us? How drunk do you expect us to get on that?” The bartender says, “Come on guys. Know your limits.”

G.H. Hardy, an Oxford and Cambridge mathematics professor, professed to be an atheist, but in dealing with providence, he bore in mind the possibility that life’s operation might, after all, be manipulated by God, with an understandably low opinion of Hardy. He also considered air travel dangerous. Once, shortly after Hardy had left on an overseas flight, a colleague found a note lying on his desk that read, “I have proven Fermat’s last theorem.” The news spread and by the time Hardy returned home all the world was agog to learn the proof. Hardy had to explain that he had not proved it—the note had been insurance. God, he said, had been forced to bring him back alive to show him up as an imposter.

How many mathematicians does it take to change a light bulb? One: she gives it to three physicists, thus reducing it to a problem that has already been solved.

Find x

Why’d the chicken cross the road? The answer is trivial & is left as an exercise.

Finally, I’ll leave you with Mathgen, an Internet toy that allows you to generate fake scientific papers. It is a program to randomly generate professional-looking mathematics papers, including theorems, proofs, equations, discussion, and references. Try it for yourself! Here is one of mine: Fermat’s Last Theorem, M. Regenaxe, T. Maxwell and V. Fermat. The results look realistic enough. Just don’t hang around so long that you are asked to explain them. 

Vulgar Fractions

Distorted Circles, Jim Wilcox, 1982

Lord Tennyson, the poet, once received a letter and a fraction of shade from Charles Babbage, the mathematician, which read:

In your otherwise beautiful poem, Vision of Sin, there is a verse that reads:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

It must be manifest that were this true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of death. I would suggest that the next edition of your poem you have it read:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 ⅙ is born.

Strictly speaking this is not correct. The actual figure is a decimal so long that I cannot get it in on one line, but I believe 1 ⅙ will be sufficiently accurate for poetry…

Vulgar fractions is a term used to designate common fractions. Unicode that!

Particle Mirror

Mark and Anne – The Video Game

The Particle Mirror is part virtual mirror and part interact computer simulation. Created in 2017 by Karl Sims, it is on display at the Boston Science Museum. This playful exhibit allows visitors to interact with virtual particles by moving. It creates a video image on a large wall, which is augmented with special effects to give the impression that you are in the same room as the particles. A sensor detects people in front of the display so they can push the particles around with their movements. The exhibit cycles through various modes with different visual effects. This display is naturally located in the Wicked Smart Gallery.

A physics simulation determines the behavior of each particle. Gravity, swirling motions, collision avoidance forces, and air friction are combined with people’s interactions. These forces allow your motions to push the particles. The results can resemble bouncing balls, fireflies, falling snowflakes, sparkling glitter, foamy bubbles, or even molecules. Pictured are bouncy balls that repel each other and tend to spread out so they are evenly spaced. We played with this exhibit as it cycled through its different modes until some kids showed up and we felt compelled to share.