I was just thinking earlier this afternoon, as I enjoyed my first quick bite of a meal on the back porch in warm but still bug-free early spring weather, that it’s awful nice for the neighbor whose yard backs up to mine to be able to stash buckets and cans and lawn tools behind his or her shed, out of sight of the house, but it puts that same clutter right in my line of sight. Upon my return from a meeting, as I went to take the trash from the backyard to the front yard, I discovered that the same neighbor’s was suddenly full of multicolored lights—track lighting, paper lanterns, lasers and candles, in shades of blue, turquoise, red, beige, and purple. And there wasn’t a soul out back enjoying all these optical fireworks, almost as if … almost as if … they were trying to get somebody’s attention. But it wasn’t for me—I could see much of the spectacle, but there are quite a few weedy trees and bushes at the back of my yard that made it impossible for me to get a good picture. And it wasn’t for anyone on their block, because it was in their backyard. Hmmm…..
Sometimes when we walk along the River Des Peres, I let Elvis off his leash to sniff and squirt wherever he wants to. A few weekends ago, I caught up to him to find that he and this young garter snake were giving each other the stink-eye. I got between them and waved Elvis off and nobody was the sorrier for the encounter.
Elvis and I were walking up Shrewsbury early Monday morning when a white truck backed into a driveway in front of us. A man in shorts got out and headed up stairs from the driveway to the back of the house. We continued on our way past the house, and had turned left on the next street when I heard someone behind us shout , “Freeze! Hands in the air! On the ground!”
I presumed I had overheard someone pranking the man who’d just arrived at the house, but a split-second later, multiple police sirens went off simultaneously, including one on a car directly in front of Elvis and me. The car turned right and zoomed down to the house we’d just passed.
Searches of local news pages for an explanation have yet to produce any insight. The last time I was that close to a policeman advising someone about what to do to avoid getting shot, I had just pulled into a gas station in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
I pulled right back out.
When I went to work at my first job as a science writer, the very first story I wrote was on attempts to artificially duplicate plants’ ability to make energy from sunlight (the article, for Ames Laboratory’s Outlook Magazine, was called “Secrets of a green generator.” Alas, it’s not online. :( ).
I was pleased to read today of some significant progress in this regard: researchers announced in PNAS this month that they’d created a “nanoconstruct,” a combination of part of a naturally occurring protein from a cyanobacterium (which makes energy photosynthetically) and a protein from a bacteria related to the bugs that cause tetanus and botulinum poisoning. When exposed to sunlight, the nanoconstruct can peel electrons from water at a significantly improved rate.
However, as one commenter on the Io9 site’s story on this finding points out, the problem isn’t really how well we can convert sunlight into usable energy. It’s how we store that energy—our batteries still aren’t anywhere near as efficient as they need to be. I saw a Nobel Laureate speak on the topic of sustainable energy at Johns Hopkins once, and he was openly despairing of the notion that our battery technology will ever get good enough quickly enough.
I was working on a press release on immunity today when I stumbled across this scary little factoid on a WHO site:
»Smallpox killed Queen Mary II of England, Emperor Joseph I of Austria, King Luis I of Spain, Tsar Peter II of Russia, Queen Ulrika Elenora of Sweden, and King Louis XV of France.
Six members of royalty killed, despite their wealth and ability to isolate themselves from the mob. It’s like Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, one of the most grandly and elegantly frightening tales of horror ever written, but with real queens and kings dying!
I wrote an article about a decade ago on whether the last remaining samples of smallpox virus should be destroyed. Andy Summer, then the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, argued passionately for its destruction, easily swatting down every rationale of those who argued for keeping it.
Sadly, the forces advocating for keeping it are still winning. But those in favor of getting rid of it, should, in theory, only have to win the argument once.
Science has an intriguing report today on the reason why sometimes nature gifts us with not one but two rainbows. We owe it all to the burgeroids, it seems. No, not a race of extraterrestrials seeking to open a new fast-food franchise (alien rainbow burgers!) on earth, but rather big drops of rain flattened out by the wind during their plunge to the ground.
Scientists at UC-San Diego and elsewhere found via a computer simulation that these oddly-named raindrops can diffract light in two directions, creating the double rainbow.
It seemed like I was seeing those all the time a little more than ten years ago when I was in Teach for America in North Carolina. I was perpetually hitting a new emotional low, driven there by my many struggles in the classroom, only to look up from the steering wheel of my car and spot yet another double rainbow.
I don’t suppose it counts if you find the fortune on the floor of the elevator at work, does it? Rats….
My photography will be appearing on another magazine cover. Yesterday Security Management magazine called out of the blue asking after the picture above, taken 5 years ago as I crossed the border between Montana and Alberta, on my way to a 5-day hike in Glacier National Park. This border, which follows the 49th parallel of northern latitude (Paris, France is just south of this latitude line) for much of its length, has been kept clear of brush and trees since a WPA project in the 1930s.
In a bizarre coincidence, my friend Tony Jones sent me a link to an article in this magazine, which I’d never heard of until now, just a week or so ago.
Today’s NYTimes Q&A column has an interesting flashback from a NASA employee accidentally exposed to a vacuum via a leaking spacesuit in 1965: seems the last thing he remembered before passing out was the sensation of the water on his tongue starting to boil.
The lower the atmospheric pressure, the lower the boiling points of liquids get.
One can only wonder if the sensation was in any way similar to the urban legend of the kid whose last meal was a bag of pop rocks followed by a big drink of soda.
Also from ScienceDaily: A study from UT Southwestern suggests tanning bed users experience brain changes similar to those seen in addicts. But it’s disappointingly short of details on those changes, and I have to wonder if tanning’s biggest “kick” really hits user’s brains at the tanning bed, where this study was conducted, or at social events. Having never done the former and also never received much of a buzz from the latter, perhaps I shouldn’t speculate. Signed, Michael C.