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Dr. Bortrum

 

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01/06/2009

Animal Stories and Weather

Reminder: Bortrum is now on an every-other-week schedule- next new column on January 22.
 

Well, 2008 is history and good riddance. Since we last talked, I’ve turned 81 years of age and have finally agreed to a suggestion that our StocksandNews editor, Brian Trumbore, has been pushing for some time. The suggestion is that I only post a new column every other week instead of weekly. With my care giving activities and my advancing years, I’m finding less time to read about and research topics for these columns. I also encounter writer’s block more often these days.

There are others that share my advancing years, notably the two Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It was January 3 and 21, 2004 when those NASA wanderers landed on Mars and five years later they are still roving, some 20 times longer than their stated mission durations! Opportunity, after exploring a crater named Victoria, is currently headed to another crater, Endeavor, which is seven miles from Victoria. According to NASA, Martian winds have proved helpful by blowing dust off the rovers’ solar panels. However, as on Earth, the Martian weather can be obstinate and Spirit’s solar panels haven’t had a good dusting for 18 months, according to a December 29 NASA news release. As a result, the small amount of power was just enough to get Spirit through the Martian winter, when the Sun’s rays are weaker.

I’m trying to resist the temptation to start off the year with a column on space travelers so let’s turn to a couple of animal stories and perhaps a bit about the weather, which certainly has dominated many of the media headlines this past month of December. You may have seen the TV commercial featuring Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa and Abraham Lincoln. In the commercial, old Abe complains about agreeing to have his likeness put on the penny, now worth so little that people don’t even bother to pick up a penny lying on the ground. Just last week I admit that I ignored a penny on the floor of the local mall. However, if you live in the state of New York, don’t be surprised if you see crows wandering around looking for loose change. I learned of these crows in the "Annual Year in Ideas" feature in the December 14 New York Times magazine section.

For his masters thesis at New York University, Josh Klein went to the Binghamton Zoo to study and influence the behavior of a flock of crows there. What Klein did was to design a machine permitting him to carry out the following experiment. First, he put a mix of peanuts and coins in a dish attached to the machine. The crows naturally came to the dish to eat the peanuts. After a while, Klein took away the nuts. When the crows came, they pecked around in the dish expecting to find peanuts. In the process they would inadvertently knock some of the coins out of the dish into a slot. The machine was rigged to spill peanuts into the dish when a coin dropped through the slot.

We’ve talked before about clever crows and, sure enough, they soon realized that dropping coins in the slot was to their benefit. In just a few weeks, the smartest crows in the flock were combing the grounds for loose change! Klein has expanded his studies, engaging graduate students at Cornell and Binghamton Universities to study how wild crows react to the same machine. The hope is that by engaging crows or other animals in similar types of experiments, not just with coins presumably, we might get the animals to perform useful services for us humans. I can see where, for example, birds might be trained to pick up pieces of litter, helping keep city streets clean.

Brian Trumbore alerted me to a BBC News story about a similar study across the pond at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. There, Valerie Dufour and colleagues were working with two orangutans, Bim and Dok. Bim and Dok learned that they could trade tokens for bananas. Actually, three sets of tokens were used in the experiments - one set was good for bananas for the orangutan with the token, another set was good for bananas for the other orangutan and a third set of tokens wasn’t good for anything. It didn’t take long for Bim and Dok to learn the reward, or lack of it, for each type of token.

The researchers in Scotland were interested in not only the recognition of the value of the tokens but also were concerned with how the two primates would behave as far as sharing tokens that would give bananas to the other orangutan. The female, Dok, was initially much more likely to trade tokens to get bananas for Bim, the male. Bim apparently thought this was a great idea and was happy to point out the appropriate tokens to Dok. However, Bim wasn’t all that attentive in seeing that Dok got her share of bananas. It didn’t take long for Dok to realize her generosity wasn’t fully appreciated and began trading the sharing tokens less frequently. Bim soon caught on; it takes us males longer. He started trading the sharing tokens more until both orangutans were rewarding each other more or less equally.

The researchers call this "calculated reciprocity", in which the animals change their behavior after realizing they can benefit by modifying their own behavior. We, of course, do that all the time. The researchers also tried to get other primates such as chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos to play this game but they were not as willing to cooperate. The researchers can’t determine whether these other animals were simply not interested or were mentally unable to play the game.

Before telling the next story, in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that my wife and I are not cat lovers. Even so, we were sad when Scout died last year. Scout, a female cat, was the longtime pet of our cartoonist Harry Trumbore and his family. On New Year’s Day, we talked to our very good friends in Honolulu. Aside from the fact that their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren had just spent some quality time with a fairly well known fellow by the name of Obama, it was their cat story that I can’t resist telling here.

Many years ago, their established household cat, Augie, was not happy when a second feline christened Thomas Bell entered the picture. Augie showed its displeasure continuously and made it clear that T. Bell was not welcome. Eventually, Thomas Bell had enough and took off to place or places unknown, apparently never to be seen again. However, about two years later, Thomas came back as though nothing had happened and again set up residence in the household. But Augie hadn’t changed and was just as unhappy with Thomas Bell’s presence as previously and again made clear his animosity. So, more than three years ago, Thomas B. once more left for parts unknown. Since Tom Bell’s departure, Augie also departed permanently, now residing in cat heaven.

Fast forward to last week. Who should appear again but Thomas Bell, who walked in and immediately established himself in his old routine as though he hadn’t been away at all. Our friend said that as she was talking to us on the phone, Old Tom was sprawled quite contentedly on the crossword puzzle she was working on. The real puzzle is Tom’s whereabouts in the years between sojourns in our friends’ home and why has he repeatedly returned? Thomas Bell seems to have been well cared for, judging from his appearance, and our friend speculates that it has another home somewhere in the neighborhood. Is he now merely on holiday or will he settle permanently in our friends’ house now that his nemesis is gone? I’ll follow this situation and keep you apprised. Whatever happens, this cat is one smart cookie.

So much for animal stories. Let’s get back to weather. If you watched the ball drop at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, you know that it was bitter cold in our part of the country. I merely went outside to pick up the mail that day and could hardly wait to get back inside, even though I was wearing a heavy jacket and was only outside for about 30 seconds. How those people could stand there in New York for hours and hours is beyond me. Christmas Eve was not great either. We started the day with a coating of black ice that led to all kinds of accidents and falls. For example, our hostess at a party a few days later greeted us with both wrists in casts and one broken arm in a sling, having fallen on the ice. On the other side of the country in Seattle and the Northwest and points in between, snow/ice/avalanches and even pre-flood melting of snow were headlined.

OK, I can’t resist talking about space, specifically the weather that made some headlines back in September, when it was announced by NASA that a million-mile-an-hour wind is losing power. I’m speaking of the solar wind, the wind of particles and radiation that streams out from the Sun’s corona at such a phenomenal speed and continues out to the outermost planets and beyond. I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time after its announcement at NASA headquarters on September 23 last year. NASA researchers and their collaborators have been monitoring the solar wind for almost 50 years and most recently have relied mainly on the Ulysses satellite, a satellite launched in 1990 that orbits the Sun, passing over both poles and the Sun’s equator.

The impressive recent finding is that the pressure of the solar wind is now about 20 percent lower than at any time in the past half century. Surprisingly, the speed is only down about 3 percent - it’s still a million miles an hour more or less. What’s down is the density, down 20 percent, and the temperature of the wind, 13 percent cooler. Not only that, but the Sun’s magnetic field has dropped 30 percent since the mid 1990s.

So, what does this mean for us? Are we in any danger? Thanks to our own magnetic field and our thick atmosphere, we should be OK. The weaker magnetic field due to the Sun and the reduced solar wind that carries its own magnetic field out to the far reaches of our solar system helps keep out high-energy cosmic rays. With the solar wind and magnetic field down, the number of highest energy cosmic rays are up by about 20 percent. While these cosmic particles won’t affect us on Earth they could affect our space travelers, especially any travelers to Mars, as well as electronic equipment in space. Space weather does have consequences.

Finally, I should get back to down to Earth. Did you see that article last week (it was in our Star-Ledger) about the possibility that a mini ice age was triggered by the dust and debris resulting from a meteor or meteors striking Earth some 13,000 years ago? The Earth was just emerging from an ice age when, the researchers propose, meteors struck the Earth and the global warming that was melting the ice was reversed, at least for a time, resulting in the mini ice age. The work appears to be controversial and was published in Science. I haven’t yet received my copy of the journal and will follow up on the work when I do.

The article in the Ledger did spur a silly idea. Could our recent cold snap have been triggered by that well publicized meteorite that fell in Canada a few weeks ago? You’re right, Old Bortrum is losing it. Time to call it a day. Next column on January 22 or sooner.

Allen F. Bortrum

 



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-01/06/2009-      
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Dr. Bortrum

01/06/2009

Animal Stories and Weather

Reminder: Bortrum is now on an every-other-week schedule- next new column on January 22.
 

Well, 2008 is history and good riddance. Since we last talked, I’ve turned 81 years of age and have finally agreed to a suggestion that our StocksandNews editor, Brian Trumbore, has been pushing for some time. The suggestion is that I only post a new column every other week instead of weekly. With my care giving activities and my advancing years, I’m finding less time to read about and research topics for these columns. I also encounter writer’s block more often these days.

There are others that share my advancing years, notably the two Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It was January 3 and 21, 2004 when those NASA wanderers landed on Mars and five years later they are still roving, some 20 times longer than their stated mission durations! Opportunity, after exploring a crater named Victoria, is currently headed to another crater, Endeavor, which is seven miles from Victoria. According to NASA, Martian winds have proved helpful by blowing dust off the rovers’ solar panels. However, as on Earth, the Martian weather can be obstinate and Spirit’s solar panels haven’t had a good dusting for 18 months, according to a December 29 NASA news release. As a result, the small amount of power was just enough to get Spirit through the Martian winter, when the Sun’s rays are weaker.

I’m trying to resist the temptation to start off the year with a column on space travelers so let’s turn to a couple of animal stories and perhaps a bit about the weather, which certainly has dominated many of the media headlines this past month of December. You may have seen the TV commercial featuring Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa and Abraham Lincoln. In the commercial, old Abe complains about agreeing to have his likeness put on the penny, now worth so little that people don’t even bother to pick up a penny lying on the ground. Just last week I admit that I ignored a penny on the floor of the local mall. However, if you live in the state of New York, don’t be surprised if you see crows wandering around looking for loose change. I learned of these crows in the "Annual Year in Ideas" feature in the December 14 New York Times magazine section.

For his masters thesis at New York University, Josh Klein went to the Binghamton Zoo to study and influence the behavior of a flock of crows there. What Klein did was to design a machine permitting him to carry out the following experiment. First, he put a mix of peanuts and coins in a dish attached to the machine. The crows naturally came to the dish to eat the peanuts. After a while, Klein took away the nuts. When the crows came, they pecked around in the dish expecting to find peanuts. In the process they would inadvertently knock some of the coins out of the dish into a slot. The machine was rigged to spill peanuts into the dish when a coin dropped through the slot.

We’ve talked before about clever crows and, sure enough, they soon realized that dropping coins in the slot was to their benefit. In just a few weeks, the smartest crows in the flock were combing the grounds for loose change! Klein has expanded his studies, engaging graduate students at Cornell and Binghamton Universities to study how wild crows react to the same machine. The hope is that by engaging crows or other animals in similar types of experiments, not just with coins presumably, we might get the animals to perform useful services for us humans. I can see where, for example, birds might be trained to pick up pieces of litter, helping keep city streets clean.

Brian Trumbore alerted me to a BBC News story about a similar study across the pond at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. There, Valerie Dufour and colleagues were working with two orangutans, Bim and Dok. Bim and Dok learned that they could trade tokens for bananas. Actually, three sets of tokens were used in the experiments - one set was good for bananas for the orangutan with the token, another set was good for bananas for the other orangutan and a third set of tokens wasn’t good for anything. It didn’t take long for Bim and Dok to learn the reward, or lack of it, for each type of token.

The researchers in Scotland were interested in not only the recognition of the value of the tokens but also were concerned with how the two primates would behave as far as sharing tokens that would give bananas to the other orangutan. The female, Dok, was initially much more likely to trade tokens to get bananas for Bim, the male. Bim apparently thought this was a great idea and was happy to point out the appropriate tokens to Dok. However, Bim wasn’t all that attentive in seeing that Dok got her share of bananas. It didn’t take long for Dok to realize her generosity wasn’t fully appreciated and began trading the sharing tokens less frequently. Bim soon caught on; it takes us males longer. He started trading the sharing tokens more until both orangutans were rewarding each other more or less equally.

The researchers call this "calculated reciprocity", in which the animals change their behavior after realizing they can benefit by modifying their own behavior. We, of course, do that all the time. The researchers also tried to get other primates such as chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos to play this game but they were not as willing to cooperate. The researchers can’t determine whether these other animals were simply not interested or were mentally unable to play the game.

Before telling the next story, in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that my wife and I are not cat lovers. Even so, we were sad when Scout died last year. Scout, a female cat, was the longtime pet of our cartoonist Harry Trumbore and his family. On New Year’s Day, we talked to our very good friends in Honolulu. Aside from the fact that their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren had just spent some quality time with a fairly well known fellow by the name of Obama, it was their cat story that I can’t resist telling here.

Many years ago, their established household cat, Augie, was not happy when a second feline christened Thomas Bell entered the picture. Augie showed its displeasure continuously and made it clear that T. Bell was not welcome. Eventually, Thomas Bell had enough and took off to place or places unknown, apparently never to be seen again. However, about two years later, Thomas came back as though nothing had happened and again set up residence in the household. But Augie hadn’t changed and was just as unhappy with Thomas Bell’s presence as previously and again made clear his animosity. So, more than three years ago, Thomas B. once more left for parts unknown. Since Tom Bell’s departure, Augie also departed permanently, now residing in cat heaven.

Fast forward to last week. Who should appear again but Thomas Bell, who walked in and immediately established himself in his old routine as though he hadn’t been away at all. Our friend said that as she was talking to us on the phone, Old Tom was sprawled quite contentedly on the crossword puzzle she was working on. The real puzzle is Tom’s whereabouts in the years between sojourns in our friends’ home and why has he repeatedly returned? Thomas Bell seems to have been well cared for, judging from his appearance, and our friend speculates that it has another home somewhere in the neighborhood. Is he now merely on holiday or will he settle permanently in our friends’ house now that his nemesis is gone? I’ll follow this situation and keep you apprised. Whatever happens, this cat is one smart cookie.

So much for animal stories. Let’s get back to weather. If you watched the ball drop at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, you know that it was bitter cold in our part of the country. I merely went outside to pick up the mail that day and could hardly wait to get back inside, even though I was wearing a heavy jacket and was only outside for about 30 seconds. How those people could stand there in New York for hours and hours is beyond me. Christmas Eve was not great either. We started the day with a coating of black ice that led to all kinds of accidents and falls. For example, our hostess at a party a few days later greeted us with both wrists in casts and one broken arm in a sling, having fallen on the ice. On the other side of the country in Seattle and the Northwest and points in between, snow/ice/avalanches and even pre-flood melting of snow were headlined.

OK, I can’t resist talking about space, specifically the weather that made some headlines back in September, when it was announced by NASA that a million-mile-an-hour wind is losing power. I’m speaking of the solar wind, the wind of particles and radiation that streams out from the Sun’s corona at such a phenomenal speed and continues out to the outermost planets and beyond. I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time after its announcement at NASA headquarters on September 23 last year. NASA researchers and their collaborators have been monitoring the solar wind for almost 50 years and most recently have relied mainly on the Ulysses satellite, a satellite launched in 1990 that orbits the Sun, passing over both poles and the Sun’s equator.

The impressive recent finding is that the pressure of the solar wind is now about 20 percent lower than at any time in the past half century. Surprisingly, the speed is only down about 3 percent - it’s still a million miles an hour more or less. What’s down is the density, down 20 percent, and the temperature of the wind, 13 percent cooler. Not only that, but the Sun’s magnetic field has dropped 30 percent since the mid 1990s.

So, what does this mean for us? Are we in any danger? Thanks to our own magnetic field and our thick atmosphere, we should be OK. The weaker magnetic field due to the Sun and the reduced solar wind that carries its own magnetic field out to the far reaches of our solar system helps keep out high-energy cosmic rays. With the solar wind and magnetic field down, the number of highest energy cosmic rays are up by about 20 percent. While these cosmic particles won’t affect us on Earth they could affect our space travelers, especially any travelers to Mars, as well as electronic equipment in space. Space weather does have consequences.

Finally, I should get back to down to Earth. Did you see that article last week (it was in our Star-Ledger) about the possibility that a mini ice age was triggered by the dust and debris resulting from a meteor or meteors striking Earth some 13,000 years ago? The Earth was just emerging from an ice age when, the researchers propose, meteors struck the Earth and the global warming that was melting the ice was reversed, at least for a time, resulting in the mini ice age. The work appears to be controversial and was published in Science. I haven’t yet received my copy of the journal and will follow up on the work when I do.

The article in the Ledger did spur a silly idea. Could our recent cold snap have been triggered by that well publicized meteorite that fell in Canada a few weeks ago? You’re right, Old Bortrum is losing it. Time to call it a day. Next column on January 22 or sooner.

Allen F. Bortrum