Compulsive Talkers

Recently Kish and I went to a show at Schiller Park.  We positioned our lawn chairs at the best available spot, sat down to wait for the show to begin, and then endured about 25 minutes of the woman sitting directly in front of us talking, non-stop and loudly, to the woman sitting to her left.  We weren’t eavesdropping, either — anyone who was sitting within a 15-foot radius couldn’t avoid overhearing her monologue.

Person Annoyed by Others TalkingWhat was she talking about?  It was a rambling story about driving somewhere, with people the woman to the left clearly didn’t know, because the talker had to keep explaining who was who.  Since we came in mid-gab, we don’t know how the story began.  All we know is that the woman to the left said not one word, while the talker went on, and on, and on, telling a story with no apparent point or purpose.  Only the start of the show finally, blessedly, shut her up.

What, exactly, makes some people talk too much?  It’s hard to understand for those of us who don’t.  As we walked home and considered the astonishing torrent of blather, Kish and I concluded that the woman must have been either stupid, for thinking that her pointless tale would have been of interest to anyone, or totally clueless, for not recognizing that she was boring the snot out of the woman she was talking to — or maybe both.

Interestingly, psychologists can’t seem to put their finger on exactly what causes compulsive talking.  Constant chatter is one of the recognized symptoms of people who have ADHD.  Some compulsive talkers are manic.  Breathless yakking also is associated with anxiety disorders, where people simply can’t deal with companionable silence and feel the urge to talk, talk, talk to avoid any gaps in the conversation.   Some articles link compulsive talking with narcissism and power relationships, where the talker believes their conversation must be intrinsically fascinating and keeps talking as a means of maintaining control.  And there is even a recognized mental condition, called logorrhea, in which people talk constantly and, often, incoherently.

Whatever the psychological cause might be, exposure to a compulsive talker is a useful exercise, because it makes you reflect on your own speech patterns and tendencies.  Our experience with the nonstop chatterbox reminded us that it’s important to shut up, take a breath, and listen to what others have to say every once in a while.

Sleepless, But On Guard

Everyone knows that, as you get older, your sleep patterns change and, for the most part, get worse.  A lot worse.

The arc of sleep goes from the totally out like a light sleep of the very young to the 12-hour power-sleeping capabilities of college students, but it’s all downhill from there.  By the time you’re in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, the realities of shrinking bladder capacity and ever-present concerns about developments in your career and family life combine to make sleep a fitful exercise, with lots of tossing and turning mixed in.  There’s not much REM sleep to be had.

neanderthalerScientists think there is an evolutionary reason for this unfortunate trend — one that goes back to caveman days.  They say older folks sleep less soundly because their role in the tribe was to be alert for potential predators, attacks from warring clans, and other lurking disasters.  In caveman days, the blue-haired set would go to bed earlier than the rest of the tribe.  Then, with their lighter sleep habits, they would be roused by the sounds that a nocturnal animal would make upon entering the cave and could give the alert, so that the more youthful members of the tribe could help to fight the predator.  And the sleepless oldsters would also be first up in the morning, to get that all-important fire going and be ready to deal with any unwanted intrusions by bears or wolves or sabertoothed tigers.

It’s nice to know that there’s an exciting explanation for experiencing poorer, less satisfying sleep as you get older, and that in the dawn of humanity a codger my age would be quickly roused to alertness in order to grapple with cave bears and save the tribe.  I’d still trade it for a solid seven hours of sound sleep.

Our Tangled Family Tree

Consider Homo naledi.  A humanoid species whose remains were found several years ago in a cave in South Africa, it had a smaller brain than our direct ancestors, walked upright, and may have used tools.  And, scientists now believe, it lived between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago — which means it would have been alive and kicking when early humans were, too.

mm8345_20150306_134-3The dating of the remains of Homo naledi suggests that the family tree of human beings is a lot more tangled than people once thought.  As scientists focus more and more on searching for fossil evidence of human-like species, they are uncovering new information that reveals a number of different species romping around the pre-historic world.  The Smithsonian page on human ancestry now shows more than 15 early human species.  With so many variations of humanoids, there are bound to be evolutionary dead ends — and, the more human-like remains that are found, the more likely it is that the different offshoots of the evolutionary tree overlapped in time and may have interacted.

Scientists already believe that, around 300,000 or so years ago — or about the same time as the dates suggested for Homo naledi — there were three different offshoots of one of the root humanoid ancestors, Homo heidelbergensis.  Humans remained in Africa, Neanderthals ventured from Africa into Europe, and Denisovans moved east, into Asia.  We know that, for many years thereafter, there was physical interaction between human ancestors and Neanderthals, because many modern humans have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA.  With three groups of humanoids around, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Homo naledi existing in that same time frame.   And who knows whether scientists will unearth evidence of other distinct, humanoid species that also date from that same time period?

The intriguing question is:  what happened to those other species?  Did the human ancestors simply prove to be superior in brainpower, body design, tool-making ability, and other attributes that gave them an evolutionary advantage and allowed them to simply out-compete the other species for food, living space, and other conditions that made humans more successful in reproducing . . . or did the early humans slaughter those who were different and drive them into extinction?  Maybe there is a reason that the remains of Homo naledi were found in a cave — they were desperately hiding from our ancestors.

Checking Out Saturn’s Geometric Weirdness

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken its first plunge past Saturn, and the results are pretty amazing.  On its dive, Cassini goes from 45,000 miles from Saturn’s surface to as close as 4,200 miles from the spinning cloud cover, and it even threaded the needle by passing between the planet and its famous rings — where Cassini was hit by a few stray particles.

The brief video above shows some of the highlights of the first pass, and you can read about the first pass, and get links to the longer videos, here.  Forget the fact that the video footage from Cassini is black and white, and focus on the fact that we are seeing video taken from a planet that is more than 750 million miles away from our little part of the universe.  And take a good look at Saturn’s incredible strangeness — like the defined hexagonal shape that is formed by the cloud formations at Saturn’s north pole and the completely distinct eye that is found at the center of the polar vortex.  What could cause the clouds to form such unusual, seemingly unnatural shapes?

Why, aliens, of course.

Base 10 Birthday

Later this week I’ll celebrate another birthday.  It will be one of those “decade” birthdays, where the first digit in your age moves up a notch and the last digit in your age cycles to zero again.

Let’s face it:  decade birthdays are somewhat annoying.  Just because our culture long ago settled on a “base 10” number system — presumably because the ancient Egyptians realized that we’ve got ten fingers on our hands, and chose to build mathematics around the concept of ten as the path of least resistance — doesn’t mean there should be any special significance to celebrating a birthday when your new age divided by ten produces a whole number rather than a fraction.  It’s just another year added to the ledger, and the turn of the calendar page doesn’t mean you should feel or act any different.

And yet, everybody treats the “decade” birthdays as if they are some hugely significant milestones.  Sure, 13 and 18 and 21 have their own special elements, but the decade birthdays can actually define you as a person.  Suddenly you’re “in your twenties” or “in your thirties,” and people expect you to behave in a certain way.  And as those decades creep upward, the age-related expectations tend to become even more fixed.

So I’ve got another decade birthday coming up.  So what?  The decimal system doesn’t define me.  In fact, I’m going to pretend that we’ve got a base 8 culture and ignore it.

The Warm Seas of Enceladus

It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond.  To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.

enceladusThe latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn.  Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen.  That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on.  Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?

Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus?  Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.

But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter.  Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there.  It’s something we’re going to have to explore.

Treasure-Hunting Around Mars

Those of us who’ve been waiting patiently — for years, and years, and years — for the United States to get back into the manned space exploration mode have always thought that perhaps crass commercialism might be the impetus.  If governments aren’t spurred by noble thoughts of advancing into the final frontier and exploring for the benefit of all mankind, maybe they’ll be motivated by cold hard cash.  With a compelling case for a serious financial return from exploration, modern governments might — like the European nations exploring the western hemisphere during the 1400s and 1500s — be willing to commission a few ships, set sail, and see what they can find.

We’re about to get an answer to that question, because in a few years NASA will be launching a mission to a solitary asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter that — all on its own — would seem to make space exploration fiscally worthwhile.

1200x600The asteroid, called 16 Psyche, is about the size of Massachusetts and has been battered by meteor strikes.  It’s composed primarily of nickel and iron.  The vast quantities of metal on the asteroid is a kind of treasure trove that causes NASA to say that 16 Psyche is worth about 10,000 quadrillion dollars.  How big is a quadrillion?  Well, apparently there are about one quadrillion ants on planet Earth.  Multiply that mind-boggling number by 10,000, and you get the value of 16 Psyche.  Even Bill Gates would be impressed by that sum.

Of course, we might not want to cart all of that metal back to Earth, because that would be pretty expensive.  We might decide that the treasure trove would be better used to build settlements on Mars, or to manufacture space stations or space craft, or for any of countless potential uses of metal in space.  And it’s all out there waiting for the first intrepid country, or group of countries, that is willing to go out and get it.

So — why not get back into space, already?  We’ve twiddled our thumbs long enough, and you can tell that private enterprise is starting to look pretty seriously at space as an investment and development opportunity.  In fact, some people are arguing that, with private enterprise leading the way, we could be back on the Moon, permanently, in four years, and then moving on to other planets in the solar system thereafter.  Who knows?  Maybe a President who talks about “the art of the deal” couldn’t resist trying to lay claim to a titanic treasure.

With all of the bad things happening in the world these days, it would be nice to turn our eyes skyward.  I wouldn’t mind a little greed for $10,000 quadrillion if that’s what it takes to motivate us to get back into space to stay.