A Fond Farewell - or Not?
Today marks the end of a year, the end of a decade and, for me, the end of an era. It was on May 12, 1999 that I posted my first column using the nom de plume of Dr. Bortrum. Now I'm posting my last regularly scheduled column. But let's save the farewells until last. One recurring theme over more than a decade has been the surprising intelligence of animals other than ourselves, notably birds such as the African grey parrot, Alex, or Betty, the crow. In my last column, we talked about pigs joining the intelligentsia when it was demonstrated that some pigs pass the mirror test, recognizing that they are themselves being reflected in the mirror.
Not all birds are intelligent and I don't know if any of them have passed the mirror test. I like to think that Alex would have; may he rest in peace. Just this past week, in the December 25 Star-Ledger, there was an article by Tamara Lush of AP about peacocks roaming the Longboat Key in Florida. I've been to Longboat Key, an island on the west coast of Florida, and it's a very nice place to visit if you enjoy sun and sand on the Gulf of Mexico. While in Longboat Key, I don't recall seeing any peacocks but it appears that there are at least some 80 of them now and the residents are not happy.
Aside from the squawking and the pooping all over the place, including in swimming pools, owners of dark cars are especially disturbed by the expense the peacocks generate because they do not pass the mirror test. When one sees its image reflected off the surface of the dark-painted cars, the peacock thinks it's another bird and pecks at the car. One lady, whose house sometimes has 30 peacocks sitting on the roof, has had to have her car repainted twice due to vigorous peacock pecking. No wonder the pesky peacocks provoke negative reactions among those Florida residents. Peacocks aren't only a problem in Florida. The Ledger article tells of an enraged woman in Hawaii using a baseball bat to do in a squawking peacock and then getting arrested for cruelty to animals.
In contrast to the peacocks, there's the sea-dwelling octopus. Nine years ago (11/07/2000) I devoted a column to the octopus. In particular, I was fascinated by the behavior of one octopus that liked to eat crabs. A Nature program on TV described how that octopus was kept in a tank in a room in which another tank housed the crabs that served as food for the octopus. The workers in the establishment were confused when they found that there were fewer crabs in the crab tank than there were the night before. In a night watch, the workers found that the octopus hauled itself out of its tank, dragged itself over and into the crab tank for an extra snack!
Now, in the December 14 Star-Ledger, Kristen Getineau tells of the work of Julian Finn and Mark Norman of the Museum Victoria in Melbourne. These two Australians, whose work is published in the journal Current Biology, observed Amphioctopus marginatus, an octopus engaging in tool use. This is apparently something that hasn't been seen in invertebrates before. These Australian researchers define a tool as something carried or maintained for future use. In searching the Web for more information, I came across a video of the octopus doing its thing and it's truly astounding.
What did the octopus do that so impressed the Aussies (and me) during their 500 or so hours of diving in the waters of Indonesia? Well, humans actually provided the makings of the "tool" by cutting coconuts in two for eating and/or for the coconut milk. Over the years, the sea floor became the dumping ground for the half shells of coconuts. The octopus comes along and sees the half shell, picks it up and carries it to a selected spot for future use . Finding another half shell it does the same. Later, the octopus fits the two halves together, placing itself inside, thus forming a shelter that protects it from predators. Take the time to search for the video (search the terms octopus coconut shell and if you spot a CNN or National Geographic site click on it for the video). I guarantee you'll be amazed and/or amused at the way the octopus picks up the coconut shell and walks with it as though on stilts.
I haven't always stuck to science and technology in these columns. For example, in one of my earliest columns (6/1/1999), I wrote about seeing General Douglas MacArthur at the Cleveland Airport in 1951 when he was on his way back from Korea after being fired by Harry Truman. At the airport , Bob Feller gave MacArthur's son a memento, possibly an autographed baseball. MacArthur's wife was also there. In last Sunday's December 27 Parade magazine section of the Star-Ledger, a reader wrote asking what had happened to MacArthur's wife and son. Parade answered that his wife Jean died in 2000 at the age of 101. His son, who was 12 or 13 when I saw him, chose to fade into obscurity by changing his name and, contrary to his father's prediction of a brilliant military career, chose an arts education. Judging from what I found or did not find on searching the Web, the son has been quite successful in maintaining his obscurity.
There is something of cosmic importance that has been more elusive to track down than MacArthur's son - dark matter. We've talked about how dark matter makes up about one quarter of our universe and is responsible for holding galaxies together. What is dark matter? One suggestion is that dark matter consists of WIMPs - Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. WIMPs, if they exist, are particles that don't interact with normal matter or with electromagnetic fields; this means you can't see them or feel them. They are postulated to interact only via gravity and something known as the weak nuclear force. They are large, perhaps even as heavy as an atom. WIMPs are "cold", slow moving compared to neutrinos, fast moving "hot" particles that just zip right through us and the earth.
Years ago, it was a big deal when neutrinos were finally detected. Now they are detected routinely. Physicists hope to eventually do the same with WIMPs. I'm indebted to our Editor, Brian Trumbore, for calling my attention to articles in the New York Times and in the Wall Street Journal indicating that WIMPS may have been detected. I stress the "may" because, after years of trying, only two events consistent with detection of a WIMP were reported!
The results were reported on December 17 by the Cryogenic (Cold) Dark Matter Search (CDMS) team, after an analysis of data taken in 2007-2008. CDMS, an experiment funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, is located deep in the old Soudan iron mine in Minnesota. Protected by half a mile of rock and layers of shielding materials, some 30 silicon and germanium detectors roughly the size of hockey pucks are designed to reveal any extremely rare occasion when a WIMP hits an atom and is scattered as in a billiard ball collision. Such a collision would generate a tiny bit of heat and possibly charges that move in an electric field. The detectors are cooled down to millidegrees Kelvin, almost down to Absolute Zero, in order to detect the minute effects of such collisions.
I found the CDMS paper reporting the results online and admit to being unable to comprehend the complicated analysis of the data. The big problem is to separate out possible WIMP strikes from a plethora of events involving background radioactivity and cosmic rays penetrating down into the mine. The treatment of the data involved throwing out about two thirds of the data because of too many background events and "blinding" packages of data to avoid any unintentional bias affecting the results. After all this, there were indeed only two events with characteristics that were expected for WIMPs.
The researchers stress that they are not claiming to have discovered WIMPS, as there is one chance in four that the events could be due to background. If I understand them correctly, had they observed about five such events, there would have been about one chance in a thousand that it was background and they would have claimed discovery. In 2010, CDMS plans to increase the number of germanium detectors in the mine by three times. I think that, as best I could determine, the silicon detectors proved not suitable. When I arrived at Bell Labs in 1952, I first worked with germanium crystals and have a fondness for that element.
Another favorite topic over the years has been tracing origins going back to the Big Bang as well as tracing my own personal origins by submitting a sample of my DNA to the National Geographic Genographic project. Recently, I wrote about Ardi, Ardipithecus ramidus, the 4.4 million-year-old skeleton that seems to show that our common ancestor with the chimps was not chimp-like but more like us. I just want to point out that Science, in its December 18 issue, has designated Ardi as its "Breakthrough of the Year". In the Science article, Ann Gibbons recognizes that, as with most discoveries in this field, there are those who question whether Ardi is truly one of our ancestors. However, the completeness of the skeleton and the breaking of the 4 million year barrier make Ardi a skeleton for the ages.
Well, enough of this revisiting of earlier topics. It's time to say farewell to the Bortrum era - or not? For more than a decade and over 500 columns, it's been my privilege to share with you not only my take on selected scientific and technological developments, but also various personal experiences and opinions on such things as musical and theatrical performances. I would also like to thank my loyal readers, whoever you are. Two readers in particular have been helpful with suggestions and comments over the years. They are Dan D., my good friend in Hawaii, and second, Charles K. in Canada. I would be remiss if I did not also thank my wife, who has put up with the accumulated piles of books, journals and papers in more than one room of our house as well with the many hours spent retreating to my office to write and research material for these columns.
Finally, I thank Brian Trumbore for giving me the opportunity to become a professional journalist with a nom de plume and for his calling my attention to many pertinent articles all these years. Actually, Brian's StocksandNews.com has been a family affair. If you haven't caught those rare occasions when Brian mentioned our close relationship, both he and our Lamb cartoonist, Harry Trumbore, are my sons. They are both unique individuals and I'm justifiably very proud of them. At a very young age, Brian was heavily involved in baseball statistics and an avid reader of the morning newspaper, foreshadowing his interests in financial and international affairs and his keen interest in sports so evident in his various columns on this site. Harry, from the time he first picked up a pencil, was drawing and cartoons came rapidly into play. He also always had a way with words, foreshadowing his current job as editor (and award-winning political cartoonist) of a local newspaper.
Oh, I almost forgot the "or not?". With the end of regularly scheduled columns, Brian has stated that he will keep the Bortrum slot open should I want to write occasional columns, be they 6 months from now or whenever. I've thought it over and decided that, to keep my mind in shape (such as it is), I will try to post something in the way of a column once a month. I also may take the opportunity to write a book, an autobiography, and post the chapters on this site, perhaps in the archives. If so, I'll mention it in any columns that I post.
So, farewell until perhaps January 31, 2010. Let's hope that 2010 is a happy and healthful one for all.
Allen F. Bortrum