Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pictographic Age of the Earth

You can read a person’s life history on their face - every wrinkle, crow’s feet, frown line, forehead wrinkle, freckle peppering, tells a story of countless smiles, frowns, laughs, days at the beach, furrows and surprises.  In the same way, we can see the Earth’s story, crow’s feet, laughter lines, age and story from looking at her.

She's a beaut.

She's also quite old.

Welcome to Eniwetok atoll home of thickest and oldest known coral deposits.  Drills have gone down 4,610 feet of pure coral deposits.  Estimates of the amount of time that depth would take to produce go back as far as 40 million years.
Dendrochronology: the study of tree rings.  Using the above technique we can date logs as far back as 11,500 years before present.

Antiparos, Greece.  This cave system has some of the oldest know formations dating back to the Eocene, 45 million years ago.  Noteably, many formations there look like the world's biggest turds.  See above.

Antarctica's got ice cores going back 740,000 years.

Grand Canyon.  Rocks as old as 2 billion years.  Canyon formation took 1.2 million years.  Only a slow, steady rush of water could carve this meandering trench but leave the rest of the sediment surrounding it intact.  

Marine sediments go back 136 million years ago east of the Mariana's trench in the Pacific.
Old as dirt.  The next time you're at the beach, appreciate how old that sand may be.  Dirt near the Himalayas has been calculated at 55 million years old.
I hope you never fill up without realizing the age of what you put in your car.  I also hope you realize that the energy that powers your house (most likely fossil fuel related in America) is power stored from the sun eons ago.  Many fossil fuels were formed almost 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period.  They could not have formed quickly.  They represent far, far, far, far too much biomass.  There are ten trillion metric tons of coal and about 10 trillion gallons of oil and natural gas in the world.

There are caves in the Grand Canyon that have piles of shasta ground sloth feces 30,000 years thick.
Above is an 11,000 year old glass sponge from the depths of the East China Sea.

All that and I didn't even mention radiometric dating and the fossil record.  Ok, I'll at least throw in a picture.  :)  Check out the beautiful, regular, ordered, specific, layering.  JBS Haldane, a biologist, said that he'd stop believing in evolution if you could find a rabbit in a Precambrian fossil layer.  He's still waiting (well, he's actually dead, but we're still waiting. hehe)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why Women Date A%@holes - An Evolutionary Perspective

Redneck A&%hole Doorbell

According to some surveys, 51% of women fantasize about being raped.

If you're anything like me, that's shocking.  Utterly shocking.  Some women, on some level, seem to want to be hurt? That's seems crazy!  WHY?!

That's not the only shocking thing about women.  Think of your single female friends.  How often do you hear a woman say, "How do I always wind up with @$$holes?"  You know how it goes.  Nice guys always finish last.  Women seem to like bad boys, jerks, cocky womanizers, sleeze balls.  Why is that true of so many of our female friends?  

Why do women date a#%holes?!

Furthermore, as a heterosexual male who's interested in what women are attracted to, I find it strange that women are so magnetically attracted to men that are funny.  When you think about it, it really can be as shallow as men liking big boobed bimbo beauties - both are just forms of entertainment, one visual, one mental.  Why is it that a guy can be a shallow, two-faced, gutter louse, but if he can make a girl giggle he can have her?  And does evolutionary psychology have anything to say about this subject?  Of course!

Quick evolution review:  Living organisms want to do two things: survive and reproduce.  When picking a mate you want two things from their genes: that they'll help your offspring survive and reproduce.



Survival is easy to understand - pick a mate that shows signs of being healthy - ornate plumage, coloration, antlers, capable of physically demanding displays or competition, etc.

Picking a mate that will help your offspring reproduce is quite a bit more complicated.   It's a surprisingly farsighted way of thinking for some lowly animals.  You aren't just thinking about the next generation.  You're actually thinking ahead to your children's children (completely unbeknownst to them, of course).  At that point it isn't just picking out what you like. You have to think about what other females want, sometimes for seemingly arbitrary reasons.  This is called the Sexy Son Hypothesis.  You want to pick a father that isn't just healthy and has good genes, but you want to pick a male mate that will produce sons that other females will think is attractive so that they'll reproduce and your genes will continue on.

Enter trouble.

Think about how this can go sinisterly and utterly wrong.  Evolution can cause women to be attracted to something that's bad for them like rape or being with a manipulative jerk if it means that their male offspring are more likely to reproduce because of having that attribute.  The classic example of this is the one we've already referred to - rape.  Over countless generations women may be selected for that are attracted to aggressive, anti-social, risk-taking, domineering, power-hungry, abusive men if that increases their offspring's fecundity.  Say it ain't so, but it is.  Thankfully that isn't the only or even largest selective force, but it's there and explains a lot about women's choices.

Back to the humor question.  Why are women attracted to cocky quick-wits?

What attributes does humor demonstrate and what's their relevance?

    • High IQ - the brain can serve as a 'peacock's tail' and demonstrate genetic superiority.  Half the human genome encodes for brain phenotypes.  If half the genes are good, the rest probably are, too.  Translation: if you can say a good pick up line and make a girl laugh you might have good enough genes to reproduce with.
    • Socially savvy - you have to understand people if you're going to be able to work your way up the social hierarchy ladder and have a large harem or high quality monogamous relationships.  Humor flexes your social understanding muscles.
    • Confidence/dominance - same basic idea.  Status is important.  It's how you get high quality mates or high quantity mates.  Being funny typically means you're confident, which means you can succeed social (or have), which means your sons may, too.
So, there's part of evolution's answer to a question I've had for a very long time.  Women want what other women want, who want what other women want, who want what other women want, infinitum.  In other words, women date a*%holes so their sons will also be a#%holes.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sinuses - You Need Them Like a Hole in the Head

What's the point in having holes in your head?  

Ever had a sinus headache?  Ever have them clog up while trying to dive/free dive?  Ever wish you could drill a hole in your face to relieve the pressure?  Yes, yes and yes.  Why are they there?  I'll save you some time and the summary is that no one really knows, but here are some stabs that I was able to come across

  • The 'Air-Conditioner' Face Hypothesis: 
    • They filter and humidify the air. Passing through these caverns the air is slowed down and moistened like in a small, warm, gross cilia filled cave. It should be noted, though that it's been calculated that sinuses increase the humidity of the incoming air a paltry 1-1/2 percent.
  • The Smell Pocket Hypothesis
    • Being slowed down may give the olfactory receptors more time to sample the air and by being moistened we're able to smell more keenly. Some super sniffer mammal's sinuses have receptors in them, but this is not the case in humans.

  • The Make-Your-Head-Not-So-Fat Hypothesis
    • Apparently evolution is dying to make your noggin not so ridiculously heavy by putting holes in it. I'll quote Cecil Adams from Straight Dope,"Some researchers have estimated that if the sinus cavities were filled with porous bone instead of air, the head would be just 1 percent heavier. Also, many heavy-headed mammals have absent or rudimentary sinuses." It does grow quicker and less costly, though.
  • The Crash Test Dummy Face hypothesis
    • Cars are build with crumple zones to cushion an impact. This hypothesis says that evolutionary history had so many facial blows that organisms with holes in their face were selected for.

  • The Echoy Canyon Face Hypothesis
    • In singing lingo, using your 'head voice' might not be so bad after all. They just might serve as resonance chambers that may actually be tuned to make your voice more nasally, shall we say? Cats don't have unfilled sinuses and have no difficulty being shrill and annoying, though. Giraffes, which have quite large sinuses, are nearly silent...

  • The Hollow Chocolate Easter Bunny Face Hypothesis
    • Remember when you were a kid and you'd bite into that massive chocolate Easter bunny and think, "Hey!  It's hollow!  Those cheap skates!"  Maybe sinus holes are just cheap ways to fill in gaps in between different necessary parts of your head.

Summary: nobody knows. Maybe they're just a weird evolution history hold over!

Here's what it'd look like to sniff the underwater mines from Mario
"Just take a little off the front."
This is awkward on many levels.
Here's a look at Dr. Manhattan's sinuses

Only 19.95!!!! new application to the beloved little tea pot song...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bats Are Helicopters and Birds Are Jets - Or, Why Birds Can't Echolocate

I, as well you should be too, am fascinated with the idea of senses outside of the human norm.  Ultraviolet, Infrared, electro-magnetic, lateral line, blood hound like sniffers, pit viper pits, and the quintessential example--echolocation are boggling to consider.  What does it 'look' like to them?  Can they hear in 'color'?  Are those potential 'colors' the same as our colors just applied differently?  What would it be like to experience that breadth and depth of perception!?!?!?!!

(Aside thought: Take dolphins for example.  They can detect a quarter sized object 100 feet away.  Furthermore, they can like Superman see through material and see a fish under the sand or hiding amongst weeds.  They can even tell if another dolphin is pregnant.  Geewillakers!  Eegad!)

Ever have this thought, though?  If bat echolocation is so awesome (And it is awesome.  There are more species of bats than all other mammals combined) why aren't there birds that can echolocate?  (Okay, there are some that can a little, like the chimney swift)  It certainly isn't for lack of vocalizations!  And, it isn't that they don't have great hearing, either!!!  Why then aren't there super owls that mega-death the bats out there?  Why are birds so gosh-darn restricted to be denizens of the day?!?  Let me hit you with something: birds have been around at least 3-4 times longer than bats.  Why the heck can't they echolocate?!!!

So, I had a thought.

Have you ever seen a bat fly?  They kind of look like big moths/butterflies flying.  They flap, flutter almost haphazardly.  Birds seem to flap more when they slow down to land, but bats flap less.  If I may stereotype, birds cruise and bats float.  The difference just might have something to do with the way their different wings evolved.

You remember this from school, right?  Plane wings are shaped like bird wings--the top is convex and causes lift. Once the bird gains enough speed the wing takes over, in a sense, and its shape causes flight.

Bats don't have that luxury, though.  Or, is that such a bad thing?...

Bats, like pterosaurs, don't have this Bernoulli effect going on as much.  They just have a thin membrane stretched between feet and digits.  This isn't all bad, though.  While bullet like speed is sacrificed, what is lost is more than gained in dexterity and agility.  This membrane isn't simply flappy skin.  It has muscles and, particularly in the case of bats, has finger structures that can modify the shape of the wing to enable dazzling maneuverability juking, hovering, and stopping on a proverbial dime.

So, birds are jets and bats are helicopters.  Birds slice the air.  Bats caress and churn the air.  To oversimplify: birds wing shape lifts them, while bats flapping provides their lift.

It just may be that birds can't hack flying in the dark because they just have to go too fast to be airborne.  Evolution is constrained to only work with what it's has or had.    If birds had wings with ruddering fingers and membranes then maybe they, too, could slowly go nocturnal and echolocative.  For now, though, bats rule the night!!!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why Aren't Plants Black? - A True Evolutionary Enigma...For Now!

Plants run the world, not humans.  You may not have ever really and truly thought about it that way, but it's true.  If they weren't around, neither would we.  The reason being, of course, is the entire food web in which we are a part is dependent on the solar powered compounds, like sugar, that plants make.  Plants are so stinking important that our vision is most adapted to seeing shades of green, hence why night vision goggles scopes are green tinted (How awesome is that, right?  See diagram to the right).  So, from that perspective answering the question of how plants work is just about one of the most important question biology can really answer.

But, there's a problem.

An enigma concerning plants.

They're green.

Apparently it is easy being green.

Have you ever thought about that?  Why the heck are plants green?  Think about what it means to be green.  Being green basically says, "I want all the color spectrum EXCEPT green wave lengths."  Why do plants throw away green light?  Why not use green light to harness more solar energy?  The enigma gets even deeper.

What's the most abundant wavelength of light at the surface of the Earth?  You guessed it!  Green!!! (I should say, I've seen/heard different things on this, though.)

Notice the peak at green.  Also, ever wondered why we see the visible light spectrum and not infrared or ultraviolet like some insects?  Well, it's the most abundant, that's why!
Why, why, WHY would plants reject, ditch, throw away, ignore the most abundant wavelength at sea level?!?!?

From all I can tell, no one really knows, but here are some possibilities:

1)  No particular reason.  Plants could be pink.  They could be orange, yellow, red, black or deep purple.  In fact, bio-astronomers don't look for green when looking for alien foliage.  To them, green is arbitrary.  Not only that, but the spectra that alien-Earths have could be quite different with a different star and atmosphere.  Back on Earth, though often underappreciated we have many red, purple and brown photosynthesizers typically in the form of different types of algae and cyanobacteria.  There have even been some recent discoveries of infrared harnessing algae.
2)  They just don't need green.  Blue and red (the spectral peaks from which they absorb) do quite nicely.  Evolution only does what it needs to.  It doesn't 'know' that doing things differently might be better.  (I should say this is hard for me to swallow.  4 billion years of evolution and mutations and this green handicap is still around for no reason?  There has to be some kind of advantage?  Right?!...right?...)

3)  Blue and red (which plants utilize most) are the peaks of energy and photon densities.  'Relative photon flux density' is how many photons strike per time interval in a given area and 'irradiance' is how much energy they pack per time interval and area.  So, perhaps it's not a coincidence that green gets ignored.  Notice the surprising dip in energy in irradiance for green wavelength light on the surface of Earth.

4)  Rejecting green acts like shades.  This isn't completely ridiculous considering how plants use a good number of complex molecules to dampen the intensity of light...but...why green?  Why?!

5)  Earth might have been purple early on since retinal (a purple molecule used in some photosynthesis) was most likely easier to make in the oxygen poor atmosphere of early Earth. The archaea of today demonstrate the functionality of this purple molecule quite well.  It gets interesting when you start to overlap the spectra of purple and green photosynthesis.  Consider the reason they're purple is that they reject blue and red, the very spectra that green plants eat up!  Perhaps, the purple tinted water of early Earth was conducive to a late coming niche filler like chlorophyll to take advantage of the bounty!  Could this be a coincidence?  Absolutely.  But!  It is interesting that what green plants don't use, retinal archaea do use and vice versa.

Related links:

Blind Cave/Subterranean Dwellers - Ancestor's Resemblance

Enjoy the pix!

This guy above has these gel covered 'hairs' that are super sensitive to movement allowing it to 'see' the surroundings via vibrations.

See!  The eye sockets are still there, but they don't do anything!!
I just thought these below were interesting.  They're the skulls of blind snakes.  As an aside, I was lucky enough to see a blind snake in Namibia when I was curious enough to turn over the right rock.

Texas blind salamander
Kauai cave wolf spider 
Here's the conclusion: blind cave/subterranean dwellers are marvelous examples of evolution in that they show history.  We are all descendants of a common ancestor and the evidence of our evolutionary history is on and in every part of us.  Just like you resemble your parents, so do these examples resemble their millions of years ago ancestors who had eyes that worked.  Some of them even have some new tricks up their sleeves, like the ones with motion sensor hairs.