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Tuesday was a truly historic day. I played golf with our Old Guard guys and came within inches of having the second hole-in-one of my life. It was a beautiful high shot ending up just about 18 inches beyond the pin, directly in line with the tee on our par 3 course’s signature water hole. It had to have rolled over or within an inch of the cup! I sank the putt for my birdie, only my third of the year, and parred the last two holes to end up with a 34 after a terrible start on two of the easiest holes. OK, you’re right. There was another event on Tuesday of vastly greater significance.
We talked yesterday with our very good friends in Honolulu and they were ecstatic about the election results; one of their daughters was in school at Punahou at the same time as "Barry" Obama. In addition, their grandson, who’s in third grade, shot hoops with Obama during one of his recent visits to Honolulu. We were assured that Obama is a "very nice man." Let’s hope he does a great job as president.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading an article by Harold Holzer in the November Smithsonian magazine about election day 1860. I was taken by the fact that the prevailing custom of that time was that the political candidates kept relatively quiet and avoided making speeches or doing anything publicly to advance their causes. The feeling then was that a candidate’s words could be seized upon and used to the candidate’s detriment. Another thing caught my attention. In Springfield, Illinois, when Lincoln decided to cast his ballot, he cut off the top of the ballot containing his name and the names of his electors. After all, it wouldn’t be proper for a candidate to vote for himself! How times have changed.
Oh, for a return to those good old days! Actually, come January, I’ll wish for a return to the "good old days" of this year. When I perused the new home page on the StocksandNews Web site, I found that Old Bortrum is purportedly writing about "Weird science, nature’s miracles and Bell Labs history." Well, Bell Labs "history" has taken a disgusting turn as far as this and many other retirees are concerned. When I was prompted to retire from AT&T Bell Labs in 1989, aside from a financial sweetener, there was the medical plan that provided a free Medigap-type coverage, which has proved quite helpful in years when my wife and/or I have had surgeries or other extensive medical problems. Ever since the spinoff of Bell Labs to Lucent Technologies and then the merger to become Alcatel Lucent, things have gone downhill.
Now, French-run Alcatel Lucent has come up with a new medical plan that is not accepted by the large medical group in which my doctors practice. As a result, while our AT&T colleagues continue to enjoy the benefits of the old plan, we Alcatel Lucent-by-default retirees are scrambling to find suitable private plans acceptable to the doctors we want to keep, probably at a cost of $5,000 -6,000 or more a year.
As for Bell Labs itself, there was a recent article in the Star-Ledger about the dropping of materials science research, leaving Bell Labs a shell of perhaps a thousand people mainly doing computer-type work. This at a time when materials science is truly exciting, with nano materials and devices springing up virtually on a daily basis and biomaterials such as DNA being considered as having possibilities in computer switching and storage devices. It’s sad to watch the demise of a resarch lab that was once considered a national treasure.
So much for "history". Let’s turn to "nature’s miracles". To tell the truth, I’m not really into miracles, leaning toward the belief that everything has a reasonable explanation. However, if you’re looking for a miracle, the origin of life here on Earth might come to mind. I’m sure that somewhere along the line I’ve talked about the experiment back in 1953 by Stanley Miller, then at the University of Chicago. Miller was trying to mimic conditions on early Earth by putting ammonia, methane, hydrogen and water in a flask containing electrodes. An electrical discharge was then passed through the mixture and the mixture was analyzed. Sure enough, five different amino acids were formed. Amino acids are basic building blocks of proteins and other compounds found in forms of life.
There was some criticism that Miller’s mixtures were not typical of Earth’s atmosphere in its early life-forming days. Miller did some other experiments, however, that mimicked more closely conditions that might have existed when lightning discharged through the atmosphere around a volcanic eruption with gases laden with steam. Strangely, it appears that Miller never reported detailed results of this and other experiments.
Now, in the October 17 issue of Science, Jeffrey Bada, a former student of Miller at Chicago, and a team of researchers have reexamined the samples left over from Miller’s experiments. As noted in a commentary in the October 20 Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) by Steve Ritter, Miller, before his death in 2007, had mentioned to Antonio Lazcano of the National Autonomous University of Mexico that he had kept extracts of the original experiments. Lazcano mentioned this to Bada, who realized that he had inherited these extracts from Miller’s lab and still had them in his laboratory.
So, over 50 years later, Bada, Lazcano and others analyzed the residues with modern analytical tools and found 22 amino acids and five amines in the residues from the experiment mimicking the volcanic eruption/lightning discharge scenario. Some of the compounds were not identified by Miller and the wider diversity of these compounds makes it even more plausible that the more complicated building blocks of life could have formed. Unfortunately, Miller had a stroke before he died and couldn’t tell anyone why he never published his results on those later samples.
So much for "history" and "miracles". It may not be "weird science" but it is appropriate with Thanksgiving coming up soon. According to a very brief item by Marc Silver in the November National Geographic, wild turkeys are getting pretty cheeky and you may want to keep clear of them. Our cartoonist, Harry Trumbore, has frequent wild turkey visits in his backyard, which borders on a wooded area. Harry might not be surprised at the turkey behavior up in Brookline, Massachusetts. Turkeys were bothering a Brookline family, pecking so hard on the back door that they left marks on the doors. An animal-control officer spotted five turkeys that he figured might be the bothersome critters. As he started toward them, the three gal turkeys took off but the two males launched an attack, one going for his face, the other for his knee. The knee bled so heavily an ambulance was called! Be careful, Harry and family!
Oh, the population of wild turkeys has risen over the past hundred years from about 30 thousand to an estimated 7 million today. I guess we don’t have to worry about the turkey going extinct in the near future. If attack turkeys aren’t weird enough for you, perhaps the inch-long vampire catfish or the more hefty 160-pound catfish known as the goonch will fill the bill.
I read about these obnoxious river denizens in the newscripts section by Faith Hayden in the October 27 C&EN. The article was written in a Halloweenish spirit. The vampire is the candiru, a catfish with a yucky feeding habit. It is shaped like an eel and lingers near the bottom of the Amazon River, awaiting the smell of urine or ammonia from the gills of other fish. It then homes in on that fish and, with sharp teeth and backward pointing spines on its gill covers, sucks blood from its prey. According to Hayden, there have been cases where humans swimming in the river, probably unaware of the urine thing, being invaded by the tiny candiru through - ugh! - their urethras! With backward -pointing spines, removal of the invaders requires surgery.
The 6-foot long, 160-pound goonch is a different sort of gruesome character that inhabits the waters of the Great Kali River near the India-Nepal border. This delightful catfish has reportedly evolved an appetite for human corpses, which are tossed into the Great Kali after Hindu funeral rites. Although it apparently hasn’t been confirmed, the goonch is believed responsible for at least three deaths of teenage boys swimming in the river. The boys were pulled under the water by some critter, never to be seen again.
Maybe I’ll ask Editor Brian Trumbore to pull that "weird science" bit from the home page. I’m much more comfortable writing about black holes or non-gruesome animal life such as intelligent magpies or the late Alex, the African grey parrot.
Erratum (posted 11/11/2008): An article from NASA in today's Star-Ledger indicates that Bada was not a student at Chicago, but was a student of Miller's at the University of California San Diego, where Miller went in 1960.
Allen F. Bortrum