Wednesday, 20th September 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. It’s not very often that molasses is a villain in a major story, but it certainly can happen - and did. Explain, please.

A. “On January 15, 1919, a storage tank in Boston’s North End

ruptured and a wave of molasses more than 7 meters high (23 feet) swept through the streets, flattening buildings and killing 21 people,” reports “New Scientist” magazine. The question puzzling historians nearly a century later is why a slow-moving fluid caused such

devastation.

Using data from historical records and from experiments with molasses flow, aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp and Harvard

University’s Jordan Kennedy concluded that unusual currents and cold temperatures were likely both villains in the tragedy. Gravity currents came into play when molasses, a dense fluid, spread

horizontally into the less dense fluid of air, accounting for the speed of the initial spread. Said Sharpe: “It was like being bowled over by a sticky-sweet tsunami.”

And as rescuers tried to save people covered with suffocating molasses, the cold temperatures cooled the goo, making it even more viscous. “Much like quicksand, the more people thrashed about, the more deeply they found themselves trapped.”

Q. One youngster reaches out to accept a 7-centimeter bug specimen into her outstretched hand while another shudders in aversion. Many others lean in with intense fascination. Where are they, and what’s happening?

A. They’re at the “cockroach cuddling corner” of the Arizona Insect Festival, says University of Arizona entomologist Cara Gibson in “Science” magazine. Soon all the other kids are gently cupping

cockroaches in their hands. It’s a “big, bug science party,” as the magazine headlines it, showing “visitors how insects and their allies - 71% of Earth’s described diversity- vary in size, shape, and color.”

As Gibson describes it: “From the beginning six years ago, I have been filled with awe at the connections that can be made by such an event that engages the community,” some 5000 strong, as they make new relationships with their tiny neighbors. “I smile to myself as I overhear what could be a younger version of myself exclaim, ‘I can’t wait to see if these are in our yard!’”

Q. Whatever you think of the advent of self-driving or autonomous vehicles, the automation of driving is certainly going to transform the way we live. What’s one dramatic downside to the coming driverless future?

A. The new world of self-driving cars and trucks is of course good news and bad news, says Susan Hassler in “IEEE Spectrum”

magazine. According to Rice University’s Moshe Vardi, who

organized a recent Humans, Machines and the Future of Work

Conference, self-driving vehicles will have many positive impacts on us and our environment “until you start to think about what it will do to the job market.”

Consider that in the U.S., driving is the most common job in more than 50% of the states, tallying some 3.5 million workers. Then too are the tens of millions of those working “in the infrastructure that supports cars, trucks, and drivers - motels, restaurants, gas stations, you name it - some 50 million by Vardi’s estimate.”

As Hassler concludes, “Technological progress may not be inevitable, but technological change certainly seems to be,” with decided losers as well as winners.

Q. Iran’s Lut Desert is one of the hottest places on Earth. In 2005, a satellite measurement of ground surface

temperature set a record at 70.7C (159.3F). About the size of West Virginia, the desert is mostly devoid of plant life yet sustains a vibrant ecosystem including insects, reptiles and desert foxes. How does the food web hold together without plants?

A. “Dead birds are a frequent sighting in the desert,” reports Richard Stone in “Science” magazine. Researchers hypothesize that

“migratory birds stray into the Lut and, overcome by the intense heat, fall from the sky like manna, forming the base of a food web.” This idea was bolstered by a recent expedition that found scavenged remains of dozens of migratory birds of various species.

As to how the Lut’s denizens remain hydrated, satellite sensor data suggest there may be a hidden sea of briny groundwater a few inches beneath the surface. Indeed, one of the expedition’s trucks broke through the crusty soil and sank up to its axles - in mud. “It was hard to believe,” said hydrologist Amir AghaKouchak, “but the area is really, really wet.”

Q. The “Illacme plenipes” millipede may not sport a

thousand (“mill”) legs, but it does hold the world record for having the greatest number of them. How many is that?

A. 750 legs, says “New Scientist” magazine. And just recently a new species of millipede, “Illacme tobini,” with 414 legs was

discovered in a cave in Sequoia National Park. Its other anatomical features include some 200 poison glands, long silk-secreting hairs and four legs modified into penises. And that’s no joke!

Q. Whatever is a robot doing smoking cigarettes, taking leisurely shallow drags, then faster and faster?

A. Better a robot than a nicotine-addicted Homo sapiens with all the maladies that might attend such a habit. Researchers at Harvard

University designed a machine that can be programmed to puff a

cigarette fast or slow and to take deep or shallow drags, reports “IEEE Spectrum” magazine. They’re able to adjust “the amount of smoke flowing into a lung-on-a-chip, a sensor lined with human lung cells.” With no harm done, they can replicate “the effects on lung disease of a multiple-pack-a-day smoking habit.”

Q. Can you think of any special circumstance when brain loss might be a good thing?

A. The latest data suggest that pregnancy selectively shrinks Mom’s gray matter to make her brain more responsive to Baby (“Nature Neuroscience”), says Laura Sanders in “Science News” magazine. In general, a woman’s reproductive history can reflect long-lasting changes to her brain’s health. “Pregnancy leaves signatures so strong that researchers could correctly predict whether women had been pregnant based on the brain changes,” changes still evident two years after pregnancy.

Further experiments suggested “the regions that shrunk the most—-parts of the frontal and temporal cortices as well as the midline—-are thought to be involved in understanding other people’s mental perspectives.” Perhaps these regions then become more specialized, helping a mother better care for a baby. The regions showed greater responses to photos of a woman’s infant, and tellingly, “moms whose brains changed the most scored higher on a questionnaire about attachment to their babies.”

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