More on Water and Dinosaurs
For those who missed last week's 500th column, I noted that, effective January 1, 2010, I've been "fired". Our StocksandNews editor, Brian Trumbore , has decided to revamp the Web site in 2010. In last week's Week in Review column, he clarified my situation, saying that he said he would keep the Dr. Bortrum part of the site intact - he just won't pay me for any columns that I write. Reflecting on the matter, I've decided that, to keep my brain from deteriorating too much, it probably would be a good idea to post a column now and then, perhaps once a month? I've also considered writing an autobiographical book and conceivably could post chapters on the site - just a thought.
Longtime readers will know that I've shamelessly taken any opportunity to mention my hole-in-one some years ago. I've also noted that I broke my leg on the very same hole that marked this crowning achievement of my golfing "career". This year marks the first time that I did not play a single round on an 18-hole course, having played only with our Old Guard group at our local nine-hole par 3 course. I know you non-golfers couldn't care less but Old Bortrum cannot resist telling of last week's last match of the season, a round that demonstrated both the humbling nature of the game and also the reason we golfers return for more.
Prior to last week, my average score this year was 36.5 strokes on this par 27 course, slightly more than bogey golf. My scores ranged from 32 to 42 and the preceding week each member of our foursome had carded a 37, a very unusual situation. But last week I was on fire! Coming to the last hole, I had par on six of the eight holes. On the last hole my drive was perhaps 20-30 yards off the green and I had beautiful approach shot to within a foot and a half of the pin. I missed the 1.5-foot putt! My round of 30, only three strokes over par, was by far the best round of golf of my life, relative to par, but my euphoria will forever be tempered by memories of a missed short putt for a 29!
OK, enough about me. Let's catch up on water on the moon. Not too long ago (October 1, 2009), I wrote about NASA's announcement that analysis of data from three spacecraft showed that there was water on the moon. In fact there seemed to be more or less a film of water over much, perhaps most of the moon's surface. However, if I interpret the reports correctly, the presence of water varied with the time of the lunar day. Also, it may be that the water is mostly bound to minerals and may not be present as water ice?
I didn't mention it in that column, but researchers speculate that the water forms in reactions of cosmic rays with oxygen in the minerals on the moon's surface. Cosmic rays, as we've discussed previously, are not really rays but most are high energy protons. A proton is a hydrogen atom without its electron. When a speeding proton hits the moon's surface it's not unreasonable that it would latch on to oxygen and form water.
Incidentally, I see in today's Star-Ledger in a report by Peter Spotts that NASA is considering extending the life of the International Space Station to the year 2028. One reason for this would be to study the effects of cosmic rays over extended periods of time. We're fortunate here on Earth to have a magnetic field and a substantial atmosphere to help shield us from these protons and other stuff. Astronauts on trips to Mars or stationed on a lunar base on the moon would have to worry about cosmic rays.
Such a lunar base would not get any significant amount of water from the "film" of water we've been discussing. However, within the past couple of weeks things have changed drastically, as you've probably seen or read in the media. On November 13, NASA announced the first results of analyses of the data from LCROSS crashing into the lunar crater, Cabeus. Cabeus is no ordinary lunar crater. In a polar region of the moon, this 60-mile wide, 2-mile deep crater has not seen sunlight for billions of years. You may remember the disappointment when LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) crashing into Cabeus failed to stir up the expected plume of debris visible here on Earth. Although a visually disappointing experience for moon gazers, the crash has turned out to be a resounding scientific success.
Although the November 13 press release from NASA reported only that significant amounts of water were found, a press conference was more revealing (see, for example, the report by Kenneth Chang in the November 14 New York Times). The initial results indicate, according to NASA scientists, that the crash of LCROSS in the crater dug a hole 60 to100 feet wide and "kicked up at least 26 gallons of water." Now that's exciting!
Quite aside from the fact that the finding of truly significant amounts of water bodes well for any possible moon base, LCROSS raises questions that relate to the history of not only the moon but also of our solar system Where did the water come from? Comets perhaps? Or from the Moon itself? Could we extract cores of ice that would reveal answers to past climate history such as ice cores here on earth are revealing? The NASA scientists have also found indications of other compounds in the LCROSS plume that could be of considerable interest.
I find it somewhat ironic that here we are finding water on the Moon, water on Mars and also on other moons of other planets. Yet, here on Earth, a planet loaded with water, one of the most pressing concerns is an increasing lack of availability of fresh, clean water and the concern that rising sea levels could inundate low lying coastal areas worldwide. In the December issue of Discover magazine, Jeremy Jacquot cites an estimate by the World Health Organization that 88 percent of an estimated 2 million child deaths worldwide due to diarrhea are due to inadequate/insufficient sanitation facilities and clean water for drinking and hygiene. Looking forward to a world with several billion more people, the situation does not look promising, to say the least.
Sorry, let's look backwards in time. Recently, on the November 15 60 Minutes TV show, Lesley Stahl interviewed my favorite dinosaur guy, Jack Horner. Horner is renowned for his sometimes unorthodox and very productive findings of dinosaur fossils. Stahl's segment included interviews with Sean Carroll and Mary Schweitzer, another free spirit in the dinosaur field. It was Schweitzer who had the temerity to take precious dinosaur bones, or at least pieces of them and dissolve them in acid! I'm reasonably sure I must have written about her but can't find her name in our search engine.
What Schweitzer found when she dissolved the bones was that there was a gooey residue that she identified as the remains of capillaries in the bones that survived the millions of years since the dinosaur's extinction or earlier. This was a remarkable finding and caused considerable controversy when she first reported the work. The implications were apparent. If the tissue survived, what about the DNA? Of course, the movie Jurassic Park came up and Stahl pursued the question as to whether dinosaurs could be brought back to life if we had the DNA. She also asked whether birds are truly modern day dinosaurs, as is current thinking. She was assured that birds do have evolved from dinosaur stock.
Horner, who purportedly was a model for the dinosaur guy in the movie Jurassic Park, was asked about whether a dinosaur could be resurrected by fiddling with the DNA. Horner brought up his idea, which I think I've discussed in an earlier column, of using the chicken, one of our common dinosaurs, to reverse engineer into a more dinosaur-like critter. His idea is that chickens already have dinosaur genes and by adding or removing genes and using the chicken egg with the altered genes, we could end up with an animal more closely resembling a dinosaur.
Apropos of this topic, back in September I printed out an item from Thompson Reuters posted on the Comcast.net Web site reporting that a team led by Xing Xu in China has found a dinosaur fossil with four wings. This fossil is said to predate the first known bird, Archaeopteryx. I must admit to being rather confused. On searching the Web for more information I ran across an article in a 2003 issue of Nature with Mr. Xu as first author and the title was "Four-winged dinosaurs from China". I also find an article, with Xu as the last author, published online in Nature on October 7 of this year about what I guess must have been another specimen of a four-winged dinosaur.
At any rate, from what I've read, the suggested evolutionary path seems to be that the feathers first developed on the hind limbs and tails as well as on the forelimbs. On the path to becoming birds as we know them, the feathers on the hind limbs faded away while those on the forelimbs became more and more prominent and turned into wings.
I waited until later to post this column, thinking you might not enjoy your turkey as much if you thought you were eating a dinosaur! Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. I know we did. Thank you, Cindy and Harry for a memorable turkey and all the bountiful and delicious fixings.
Allen F. Bortrum