Fun fact of the day

Racism and sexism derive from racist and sexist acts, thoughts, behaviors, and statements made on the basis of race and/or sex. They do not derive from social structures and institutions, though they may be prevalent in those areas.

Fun fact of the day

Take a quick look around a world map and you may just figure out the location of a magma hot spot. The island chain of Hawaii, for example, was born via this way. Hawaiian Islands As the Pacific plate moves, hot magma beneath the Earth’s crust pushes through, forming new land over millions of years. This process has given us the 4 main Hawaiian land masses in addition to well over a hundred tiny islands. Other areas of the world where we see this include the Galapagos islands and the peaks of Kilimanjaro.

Fun fact of the day

As the Earth rotates, the Sun appears to rise over the horizon. As its rays become more and more directly overhead, there is less distance for them to travel through the atmosphere in order to reach us. (This longer travel is what creates wonderful sunrises and sunsets; light is refracted at a greater rate, allowing us to see a variety of frequencies and thus colors.) Keep this in mind if you like to tan. It’s best (i.e., healthiest) to catch your rays in the morning and evening since less ultraviolet light can reach you.

And, as always, don’t believe the quacks who say sunscreen is bad for you. If you’re tanning in the middle of the day, wear it. Cancer is bad, ya know?

Fun fact of the day

Most people assume that metal tends to stay cooler than other objects in a room. For instance, touch the nearest piece of metal to you. For me, it’s on my chair. It feels cold compared to my hand. Now if I touch my desk, which is made out of some cheap composite material, I notice what feels like a clear difference in temperature. Assuming my laptop hasn’t warmed my desk, though, there is no difference. The reason has to do with specific heat capacity.

Specific heat capacity refers to the amount of energy it takes to raise an object’s temperature by a particular amount. For instance, at room temperature, it takes 4.187 joules to raise a kilogram of water by 1 degree (Kelvin). (I remember that number well from my days in a physics class. Why the professor let us round the acceleration due to gravity to 10, but not the specific heat capacity of water to 4.2, I don’t know.) This number, however, will change depending upon what we’re measuring. Metals, for example, tend to be very low. Aluminum is only .897. Copper is .385. This is why your pots and pans heat up so quickly on the stove or why the zipper on your pants is so much hotter than everything else when you finish your laundry.

Going back to that piece of metal near you. If you were so inclined and had the right thermometer, you could be quick to find that it’s the same temperature as the rest of the room. So is any other random object you see that isn’t a light bulb, TV, laptop, etc. The reason why it feels cold is because you’re probably much warmer than the air around you, so when you touch it, the heat from your hand is quickly sapped up. Heat is transferred to metals more quickly than it is to most other common objects.

(Incidentally, this is why ocean temperatures are so important to global warming. It takes a long time to heat up and cool down water. The fact that we’re seeing the swings we are means there is a lot of energy going into the seas.)

Fun fact of the day

Evolution has no goals.

Take the Lenski experiments, for example.

Richard Lenski and his researchers followed several lineages of E. coli for 20 years (in fact, they’re still following them). They would freeze samples every 500 generations so they could go back and re-run the tape of evolution should some fundamental change occur. And, eventually, such change did occur. Some E. coli were able to consume a natural by-product of their environment after nearly 30,000 generations. Lenski et al. unfroze the old generations to see just what enabled the bacteria to obtain their new found skill. As it turned out, they had to go back many thousands of generations; it wasn’t just one mutation, but at least three. The first two were effectively random. But they were necessary in order to get to the third mutation – the one that opened up a new food product for the colonies. But in the re-running of the tape, not all lineages re-evolved the new mutations. They weren’t predestined to evolve a particular trait; nothing was inevitable.

And so it is with all of life. We are our genes, and how our genes are propagated via natural selection is not a goal-oriented process.

Fun fact of the day

About 50 million years ago, the area that is now known as Egypt was covered with an ancient sea. At the bottom of this sea were nummulites, a genus of small seashells made of calcium and carbon. Over millions of years, these creatures would die and stack up on the ocean floor, eventually creating limestone. Fast forward to human civilization and we see this:

This image comes from a limestone quarry near Cairo – the same sort of quarry that the ancient Egyptians used to build the pyramids and other structures of that great civilization. In other words, there is a homogenous mix of fossils that can be found all throughout one of the 7 Great Wonders of the World; the Egyptians owe much of their incredible accomplishments to deposits laid down by dying marine creatures over 50 million years ago.

Fun fact of the day

The term “junk DNA” is a misnomer. It refers to DNA that does not code for proteins – only about 2% of genes do that – buy it unfortunately implies a uselessness of certain DNA. That really isn’t what biologists mean when they use the phrase (or, rather, when others use the phrase; it has been out of vogue amongst professionals for some time now). All they mean is that we have DNA which appears to have no function. This makes sense in the light of evolution since natural selection wouldn’t necessarily be expected to select against useless DNA. After all, why not just leave it there? Unless it constitutes a substantial energy drain, it doesn’t matter.

However, new research is showing that much of our noncoding DNA does serve important functions. Namely, it regulates the genes that do produce proteins. There is still a substantial portion of the genome that appears to have no function, of course. Moreover, there is useless DNA out there that doesn’t code or regulate anything (microsatellites come to mind). However, we’ll all have to wait for further research before we really know the full nature of the human genome.

Fun fact of the day

The little brown bat is one of the most common species of bat in the world. It has a huge range across North America, from the warmth of Georgia to the chill of Alaska. Its young are usually born in May or June, but the yearly roost in my roof (and occasionally my living room – I have yet to find their access point) tends to come to life in July. This could, of course, match with the fact that it takes the young a few weeks to get flying.

One of the greatest things about these little guys is that they can eat upwards of 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. On that basis alone I am recommending that the state of Maine heavily invest in a bat fertility program. Alternatively, if there is a way we can maim the mosquitoes, causing them to suffer before they die, I would be in greater favor of that course of action.

Fun fact of the day

I think most people know where this is:

For those who don’t know where it is, I bet most have still at least seen this image. It’s of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park in California. Notice the square shape of the valley. This is unusual because valleys tend to be formed by two things: rivers and/or glaciers. Rivers result in a V-shape due to their cutting action and glaciers result in a U-shape due to weight and grinding. So why is Yosemite Valley square?

The answer actually does lie in the geological activity of glaciers. When a glacier moves, it has a lot of mass and power behind it. That means it can easily bring tons and tons of rocks and debris along for the ride. Go on a hike anywhere reasonably far from the equator and glacial erratics will not be uncommon.

In the case of Yosemite Valley, a glacier moving through it brought more than a few erratics. In fact, it was more than just one glacier. Over millions of years many glaciers have run through the park, creating a massive lake where we see sheer cliffs in the first picture. On one end of this lake was a moraine, a collection of rocks pushed forward by the weight of all that ice. They built up on each other and formed what was essentially a damn. This allowed the lake to also form, filling in what was then a U-shape. Of course, that shape was still underneath all that water.

So the question that may be popping up from all this is, What is it that lakes do that is important here? The answer is that they create sediment. And with enough time, all that sediment adds up. In the case of Yosemite Valley, it added up to the point where it filled in that U-shape, creating the square we know today.

Fun fact of the day

Rare Earth elements (elements 57-71 plus 21 and 39) have been found to repel sharks. The reason appears to be that they create an electrical current with the shark’s skin, effectively given the marvels of evolution a shock when they get too close. One study found that when the metals were used in certain types of commercial deep sea fishing, incidental (and unwanted) shark captures dropped by about 1/3.

(Also, these elements are called “rare Earth” not because they are rare but rather because they are notoriously difficult to tease away from other substances.)