Summer winds down and I’m not in the mood to write about any
subjects that require more than a modicum of thought. For now,
I’ll ignore Brian Trumbore’s suggestion to take a week off and
will settle for a column requiring no taxing of my brain. Hence
the following potpourri of follow-ups.
The most far-reaching event this week may be a decision by the
International Astronomers Union. Whatever the decision,
textbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias will have to be
rewritten as the astronomical community answers the question,
“What is a planet?” We’ve discussed a number of times whether
Pluto, with its odd orbit and puny size, should be called a planet,
especially with the recent discovery of a body nicknamed Xena,
roughly 70 miles larger in diameter than Pluto. Hopefully, the
astronomers will settle the matter once and for all.
On another front, there are the doping scandals in various sports,
the latest being the alleged testosterone enhancement in the Tour
de France cycling competition. Is high tech communication
enhancement the “doping” scandal in, of all things, the world of
chess? Brian Trumbore called my attention to an article by
Dylan Loeb McClain in the August 8 New York Times on
alleged cheating during the World Open chess tournament in
Philadelphia on the July 4 weekend. Although no player was
caught in the act of cheating, one was expelled and another was
allowed to finish the tournament under strict observation.
The expelled player was wearing in his ear something he claimed
to be a hearing aid. However, the savvy tournament director
tracked down the name and serial number of the device on the
Internet, where it was described as a wireless receiver useful for
undetected communications between two people. I don’t recall
the July 4 weekend as being chilly; yet the player was wearing a
heavy sweater and refused to be searched. Was the sweater
hiding additional equipment needed to operate the receiver?
The other player was a low-ranked player who, in four games,
managed three wins and a draw against high-ranked masters. We
discussed in a recent column how the rating system in chess is
surprisingly good in predicting the outcomes of matches between
high- and low-ranked players. The player in question did lose to
a grandmaster in the fifth game but then played remarkably well
to beat another grandmaster. In that game, the last 25 moves the
player made matched precisely the moves made by a computer
program known to the chess playing community.
Suspicious, the tournament director asked the player to see him
before the next round. However, the player beat a hasty retreat
to the men’s room and spent 10 minutes in a stall before coming
out to be searched. Nothing was found. In his next two matches
against grandmasters, the player quickly lost both matches.
Coincidence or skullduggery? Remember, defendants are
innocent until proven guilty here in the U.S.A.
Some time ago, I mentioned that a reader, Charles K, suggested
that I look into the subject of birds hopping or striding, as do
most of us bipedal creatures. I’ve been remiss in not pursuing
the subject but not Charles, who last week called my attention to
a brief article posted on a Stanford University Web site. The
posting, titled “Walking vs. Striding” is by Paul Ehrlich, David
Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. I was struck by the ways birds move
along a wire such as a telephone cable or power line. Not that
any sane human would want to try walking on a telephone line,
but we do see high wire artists entertain us by striding ever so
slowly above us. Some daring individuals have even walked on
wires between skyscrapers and over canyons. Birds, of course,
have a built-in safety net, wings, should they slip. They also do
not stride but “hop”, “sidestep" or “switch-sidle”.
Hopping is hopping, both feet in the air. Sidestepping is what
you or I would do if we found ourselves on a narrow ledge on a
tall building. OK, I’d probably faint and fall to the ground! Less
queasy individuals would normally move one leg, say to the
right, and follow by moving the other (left) leg to the right,
repeating this pattern until ducking safely through an open
window. Apparently, some birds also use the switch-sidle,
which, in the same situation on a wire, would involve crossing
the left leg over the right, right leg under the left and so on. I
don’t recommend you try this on a narrow ledge!
I found a surprising number of Web sites devoted to bird
locomotion and found no hard and fast rules on which birds hop
and which stride. Typically, on the ground, large birds with long
legs stride and small birds hop. However, depending on the
situation, hoppers may stride and striders may hop. Frankly, I’m
more interested in what happened when the first dinosaur took to
the air on its way to becoming a bird. Did it run to build up
speed or did it jump or fall off a cliff? Was it as surprised as I
would be if I found I could fly? I don’t expect anyone to find the
answers to these questions.
Finally, we’ve talked a number of times about how the dose
makes the poison. For example, take water, which marathoners
have found can be toxic if drunk too liberally during a race. I
found an intriguing example of the importance of dosage in the
field of conservation in a letter to the editor in my Autumn 2006
issue of Nature Conservancy magazine. The letter writer, Luella
Nelson, questioned a statement in an article in a previous issue
on protecting the prikly pear cactus from a particular type of
moth. The article dealt with the irradiation of moths in the lab to
make them sterile so that when they mated with the wild moths
there would be no offspring. This is a well-known way of trying
to wipe out various kinds of pests.
However, Ms. Nelson questioned a statement in the article that
said when the “sterile” lab moths mated with the wild ones the
offspring were sterile! Nelson noted that millions of men with
vasectomies and their partners would eagerly await the answer.
Christine Mlot, author of the article replied that it’s the dosage-
makes-the-poison situation. In the case of Mediterranean fruit
flies and other pesky flies, irradiation of laboratory flies does
damage their DNA to the extent that they are sterile and produce
no offspring on mating with wild flies.
However, irradiating lab moths to the extent that they were truly
sterile would also render them unable to fly and mate with wild
moths. So, they irradiate the lab moths just enough to damage
their DNA but not enough to ground them. The moths fly off
and mate but the damaged DNA they pass along prevents most
eggs from hatching and those that hatch produce moths with such
damaged DNA that they are truly sterile and can’t reproduce.
I’m assuming vasectomized men and partners can relax.
Update: As I post this column, the astronomers are debating a
committee recommendation that Pluto maintains its planetary
status but as a member of a special class of planets, possibly to
be called Plutons! Stay tuned.
Allen F. Bortrum