CHAPTER 31 - Batteries, Bugs, Vultures and the Milky Way
Thank goodness, we in our part of New Jersey were spared when Blizzard Nemo and the storm that followed came through largely north and east, leaving us with less than a foot of snow and no loss of power. This time it was our neighbors in the New England, notably Boston, and parts of New York, notably Long Island, that experienced two or three feet of snow and very high winds. I can relate to the situation in Boston, having had a business trip there over a week and a half after the blizzard of 1978. I remember treacherous walking conditions and cars still snowed in. I was originally scheduled to visit there the day the blizzard was about to hit New Jersey and I canceled. The fellow I was to visit thought me overly concerned but the storm dumped some 27 inches on Boston and a hundred people died in the storm's path!
Cold weather brings blizzards and other problems. Last month, in a discussion of the battery problems with the Boeing Dreamliner, I mentioned the Tesla electric vehicle, which, like the Dreamliner, employs lithium-ion batteries. John Broder, in an article in the Sunday, February 10 New York Times, described his experience driving a Tesla from Washington to Norwich, CT. Broder said there were charging stations set up along his route and all was going well until his return trip to Manhattan. Batteries generally don't like cold weather and, in addition to the extra power required by the heater, he had to "condition" the battery before embarking on one cold day. The "conditioning" involved heating the battery. But the real downer was running out of juice and having to put the car on a flatbed truck to get it to a charging station. Broder's experience demonstrates the need for a network of charging stations spaced sufficiently close to each other to take the worry about loss of power out of the picture. The Tesla grew up in California, where cold weather normally is not a problem.
Coincidentally, President Obama recently presented a number of individuals with the National Medal of Science. One of the recipients of this prestigious award was John Goodenough, of the University of Texas. Goodenough received his medal for his "groundbreaking cathode research that led to the first commercial lithium ion battery...". I met John in 1988, when we were both among the lecturers at a two-week NATO conference on solid state microbatteries in Erice, Sicily. While at Oxford University in England, Goodenough had come up with a lithium cobalt oxide cathode, which he mentioned in his lectures in Sicily. It was in 1991 that Sony announced the lithium-ion battery, employing his lithium cobalt oxide cathode, a graphite anode, patented by my colleague at Bell Labs, Samar Basu, and an electrolyte of a class being studied by workers at Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey.
But enough of batteries and cold weather. Let's warm up by turning to the desert and another topic I wrote about in a recent column - dung beetles. Frankly, I had not expected to write anything more about these critters, noted for rolling dung into round balls, which are used as food (ugh!) or as brooding chambers (ugh, again). Previously, I described work on how these beetles cool themselves in the desert heat by sometimes climbing on top of the dung balls. It sometimes amazes me how researchers come up with subjects to study and the dung beetle seemed like a topic of limited interest, if only because of its choice of food and/or habitat.
Now, however, a study has appeared that links dung beetles with one of my favorite topics, the universe, or at least our home galaxy, the Milky Way. How can such a lowly creature be related to such a grandiose entity? You have to know that the brand of dung beetle that rolls up the dung into balls seems to know that his dung balls are coveted by other critters, especially other dung beetles. The beetle will therefore push his particular dung ball away from its source as quickly as possible. Generally, the beetles pushed the balls away in the most efficient manner to hide their treasure quickly - they pushed the balls away in a straight line. It's well known that various animals use such things as polarized light from the sun; some rely on magnetic fields to find their way; some may use the moon or stars. But what about those dung beetles that come out at night?
Our editor of StocksandNews, Brian Trumbore, called my attention to an article by Joseph Serna in the Los Angeles Times on work published in the journal Current Biology. Marie Dacke, of Lund University in Sweden and some colleagues from South Africa were intrigued by their observations that dung beetles rolled their dung balls in straight lines at night, without a moon to guide them. They set up an experiment in a sand pit on a wooden platform two meters in diameter with walls around it to block any visual cues from land-based objects and measured the time it took for the beetles to roll their dung balls from the center to the edge of the platform. They found that on a clear night when the Milky Way was visible the little guys could make their way to the edge with their cargo in as little as 40 seconds. On a cloudy night, however, it took them nearly two minutes.
I was really impressed by the experiments that followed. The researchers taped cardboard visors to the beetles' heads so they couldn't see the sky. They just wandered around here and there with no sense of direction. To really nail down their findings, the scientists had access to a planetarium in Johannesburg. In the planetarium, they repeated their experiments with the planetarium's sky lit only by the simulated Milky Way and the beetles took about 50 seconds to reach the edge. With the Milky Way deleted and only the brightest stars simulated, it took them about a minute. I don't believe that here in the New York metropolitan area, I would be able to see the Milky Way with all our light pollution but there is the Hayden Planetarium possibility. Those of you who have seen Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Hayden's director, on TV know that he's a pretty cool character and would probably be willing to admit researchers and dung beetles for further study.
The dung beetles, who, because of their choice of food and shelter, do provide a valuable service in cleaning up refuse of an obnoxious nature to us humans. Some time ago, I recall writing a column in which I mentioned a major problem developing in the field of refuse disposal. The problem involved a crash in the number of vultures in India and surrounding countries in south Asia. The decline was first noted a couple of decades ago, with the vulture population collapsing eventually to just one percent of its normal total. The vultures provided a dependable free service in clearing the multitudes of cattle and other carcasses in India and adjoining countries. If left lying around, the carcasses could disease and pestilence.
The problem was finally found to be an anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, widely used to treat cattle. When the vultures ate the meat from the carcasses, the drug caused kidney failure and death in the birds and was responsible for the crash in their population. In a rare show of cooperation among the four nations India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, an agreement was reached to ban veterinary use of the drug. As discussed in a Perspective by Andrew Balmford in the February 8 issue of Science, this effort was initiated in back in 2006, with Bangladesh joining in 2010.
Last year, the four countries agreed to further coordinate and improve efforts to address the problems caused by veterinary drugs on vultures. It now appears that these actions may have begun to have beneficial effects, with some vulture populations possibly on the rise. However, there are other veterinary drugs in use with unknown effects on vultures and it will be a long hard road ahead to ensure their survival and growth to perform their valuable services. Coincidentally, as I'm writing this, our recycling truck is collecting our recyclables from our driveway. The world needs both its waste management entities and our animal friends to dispose of all our refuse.
Finally, let's get back to our home, the Milky Way galaxy. Last week, NASA announced that its Kepler mission had achieved one of its major goals, finding a truly small planet orbiting another star in our galaxy. Not only did they find one small planet orbiting its star in the planetary system dubbed Kepler-37, but they found two other planets, also relatively small. The planetary system Kepler-37 is about 210 light-years away from us, with its sun being somewhat cooler and also less active than our sun. This relative quietness helped us to discover its planets by observing its brightness as the planets cross between us and the star.
The smallest planet is only a bit larger than our moon, approximately a third the size of Earth. One of the other planets in the system is only about three-quarters the size of our own planet while the third planet is about twice our size. Unfortunately, all three of the planets orbit their sun more closely than the planet Mercury orbits our sun. Hence they are all very hot planets, not likely to sustain any life as we know it.
Finally, as I was about to post this column, my spellchecker flagged the word "diclofenac". Wanting to make sure the article I read spelled it correctly, I Googled the word. I was surprised to find that diclofenac is the active ingredient in Voltaren Gel and other anti-inflammatory drugs. Some years ago, my wife was prescribed Voltaren Gel to alleviate pain in her back. Now I'm wondering if diclofenac is used in this country in veterinary medicine. I haven't seen a vulture here in Jersey in ages!
Next column, hopefully, will be posted on or about April 1.
Allen F. Bortrum