Brown-Eyed And SAD

In the Midwest, Seasonal Affective Disorder (aptly known as SAD) is a real issue.  During the months between November and March, when the days are short and the skies are almost unrelentingly gray and gloomy — like this picture I took on Saturday from our back steps — lots of otherwise sturdy and resilient Midwesterners find themselves down in the dumps and absolutely sick to death of overcast weather.

Scientists are taking SAD seriously and have conducted several studies of the condition.  The data indicates that about five percent of Americans experience SAD — I’d be willing to bet that the percentage is a lot higher in the Midwest during the winter months — and women are about four times as likely to have the condition as men.  And now a study has concluded that people with brown eyes may be more likely to experience the SAD symptoms.  The study also indicated that blue-eyed people, in contrast, are less affected by the lack of sunlight.

Why would eye color matter?  Sunlight affects mood and vitality through the eyes.  The author of the paper about the study hypothesizes that “the blue eye mutation was selected as a protective factor from SAD as sub-populations of humans migrated to northern latitudes.” The mutation that led to blue eye color occurred about 10,000 years ago and was thought to simply be associated with “the general package of pale skin in northern latitudes.”  The scientist now thinks that “given that frequencies of blue eye coloration reach their highest proportions in the most northerly latitudes of Europe, and given SAD rates reach their highest figures at the most northerly latitudes, then another possibility is that the blue eye mutation is maintained in such areas in order to alleviate the effects of SAD.”  In short, in the northern climates natural selection may have advantaged people with the blue-eyed mutation because they were more capable of dealing with the gloom than their brown-eyed friends and therefore were more likely to survive and reproduce.

It’s now the SAD season in the Midwest.  Fortunately, I’m not brown-eyed.   My eyes are a bright burnt sienna, and I’m not prone to SAD.  But lots of people around here are, and I sympathize with their reaction to the grayness.  Many Midwest snowbirds head south not so much in search for warmth as in search for sunlight.

 

Advertisements

Smart Dogs, Dumb Dogs

Occasionally you’ll hear someone talk about how smart their dog is.  The Brown Bear, for example, will rave about the intellectual abilities of standard poodles.  The Soccer Goalie will brook no argument that border collies are the smartest breed around.  And Russell argues that his dog Betty, who is not a purebred, is as quick-witted as they come.

hvrzriwAs for us — well, our Lab Dusty was well trained and seemed reasonably bright, and Kasey, our poodle, was clever.  Our Lab Penny?  Well, she was generally amiable if sometimes stubborn, and always hungry.

Those of you who are convinced your dog is the next animal Einstein might be disappointed to learn the results of a study published recently in Learning and Behavior.  It determined that “[t]here is no current case for canine exceptionalism” and, in reality, dogs are pretty ordinary compared to other “carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters” like wolves, chimpanzees, and cats.  What’s more, dogs aren’t at the top of the charts when it comes to sensing human emotions.  The article linked above notes:

“Even more surprising, dogs do not appear to be exceptional in their ability to perceive and use communicative signals from humans. According to the domestication hypothesis, dogs have been bred to be especially sensitive to human cues such as hand signals. As Lea and Osthaus note, dogs can indeed use human cues. However, contrary to the domestication hypothesis, they are far from unique in this ability. For example, the reigning champions of the ability to follow human hand signals are the bottlenose dolphin and the grey seal.”

So why does everybody other than Lab owners think their dog is intellectually gifted?  It’s called the Lake Woebegon Effect.  Everybody thinks that they — and their pets, too — are above average.  The article notes:  “In a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers had 137 pet owners rate both their own pet and the average pet on a range of traits, including intelligence. The results revealed that the people rated their pets as above average on desirable traits and below average on undesirable traits.”

So, in all likelihood your dog isn’t a wunderkind.  So what?  They’re good company, they willingly will sport funny hats, and scientific studies also show that people who have dogs may enjoy health benefits from the companionship they provide.  Our canine pals may not be geniuses, but they’re good to have around.

The Sleepless Years

Here’s a conclusion from a scientific study that will shock anyone who has ever been a parent:  most babies don’t sleep through the night.  And the study also reaches another, equally startling determination:  most parents pay a lot of attention to trying to get their infants to sleep through the night.

Thank goodness we’ve got scientists around to confirm the obvious!

newborn baby cryingThe study found that 38 percent of babies that were six months old were not getting even six uninterrupted hours of sleep at night, and more than half weren’t sleeping for eight hours straight.  One-year-olds were only marginally better, on average, with 28 percent not yet sleeping for six hours and 43 percent not sleeping for a solid 8 hours at night.  The study also found that many parents worry about their baby’s sleeping habits, with mothers reporting feeling tense and depressed about trying to get their child to sleep through the night.   The researchers offered this reassurance for anxious parents, however:  after following babies from birth until the age of three, they found no material developmental difference between kids who slept through the night at a young age and those who took longer.

The study’s authors seem to attribute parental focus on their new baby’s sleep habits solely to developmental concerns.  I’m sure that some of the attention to infant sleep is attributable to reading the “baby books” about what is normal and what isn’t, but my personal experience teaches that at least some of it is naked parental self-interest.  When our boys got to the point of getting a good night’s sleep — which incidentally meant that Kish and I got a good night’s sleep, too — we felt like we had crossed the Rubicon and should be popping the cork on a bottle of champagne.  When a baby finally starts eating simple solid food (if you can call baby food “solid”) and falls into a sound sleep with a full belly, the mood around the house takes a decided turn for the better.

What’s up next for the scientific researchers trying to confirm what every parent knows?  A careful examination of the joys of changing baby diapers?

 

The New Space Race

The old Space Race, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, is on full display in the excellent film First Man.  The new space race doesn’t have the same ideological, future of civilization elements as the old one, and is a lot more multi-faceted, but it’s just as important to our long-term future in space.

And right now, the United States is winning.

wvws_falcon-heavy-demo-2310The new space race focuses on commercial spaceflight and launching vehicles into space.  For years, the United States was playing catch-up to the Europeans, and trailing badly.  The Euros were launching the majority of satellites and vehicles into space, using their Ariane rocket, while the United States was retiring its primary launch vehicle, the space shuttle, without having any back-up in place.  In 2011, when the shuttle was retired, there were no commercial satellite launches from any American spaceports, and for the next few years the launch industry was dominated by the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, launching from government-backed providers.

But now the tide has turned.  America led the way in commercial launches in 2016 and 2017, and 2018 is shaping up to be even better.  The trend is so pronounced that European advocates are afraid that they are falling behind and won’t catch up.

The reason for trend is that the United States has made room for commercial entities, like SpaceX, to enter the launching game.  While the United States government still is a major player in space, SpaceX’s focus on innovation and cost control, through use of reusable rockets, have made it extremely competitive in bidding for launch jobs, whether it is commercial satellites being placed into orbit or missions to the international space station.  And new entrants to the competition, like Blue Origin, are set to participate — which is likely to make the American lead even more pronounced.  The article linked above notes:  “the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort.”

It’s nice to know that American capitalism, and good old-fashioned competition, can still produce innovation and leadership — and now in space.

Escape Of The Cocaine Hippos

When murderous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, Colombian authorities no doubt thought his days of affecting the country were over.  They didn’t count on the impact of his . . . hippopotamuses.

120824_ex_hippopod-crop-rectangle3-largeEscobar was a quirky narcoterrorist who kept a zoo on his sprawling estate.  After his death, most of the animals were removed, but his four hippos were left in a pond there. You’ve probably guessed what happened next.  The four hippos soon lumbered out of the pond and off Escobar’s property to the nearby Magdalena River, where they made their new home.  In the last 25 years they’ve been thriving.  Nobody knows exactly how many there are, but estimates are that between 40 and 60 hippos are there on the river, swimming about in that curiously dainty hippo way, breeding like crazy, and otherwise doing their hippo thing.  Colombians have dubbed them the “cocaine hippos.”

But here’s the problem — hippos aren’t a native species to South America.  In fact, they are an invasive species, and some Colombian conservationists and biologists are concerned that the hippos are wrecking the environment and harming the other occupants on the river, such as otters and manatees.  And, because hippos eat on dry land but deposit their waste in water, the hippo discharges are changing the nutrient composition of the river and nearby waterways.  Even the hippos’ swimming may be affecting the indigenous species, by affecting the muddiness of the rivers and thereby upsetting nature’s delicate balance.  As a result, some ecologists say the hippos need to be removed or their population otherwise curbed — which may be easier said than done, when you’re talking about territorial, thousand-pound creatures living in the wild who aren’t exactly eager to interact with humans.

But others say, “not so fast.”  They think the escape of the hippos was an inadvertent example of “rewilding” — the concept of putting non-native flora and fauna into an area to fill a vacant ecological niche.  It’s like the decision to release timber wolves back into areas of the country that they had vacated decades ago, except in this case some are arguing that hippos are in effect replacing large herbivorous creatures that went extinct in the South American ecosystem in the last 20,000 years — creatures like the toxodont (which incidentally sounds like the name for a dental care product).  Still others argue that having a surplus population of hippos in South America is a great thing, just in case the African hippos might be subject to extinction due to changes in their environment.

While the debate rages, the hippos continue to enjoy life on the Magdalena River.  Their escape and success reaffirms once again what the Jeff Goldblum character said in Jurassic Park:  life somehow finds a way.

Raining Frogs

It’s been a tough few months for the people who live along the North Carolina coast.  First, it was abnormally heavy rains in June and July.  Then, in September, Hurricane Florence hit and left the area battered and flooded.

adult3And now, it’s raining frogs and toads.

The conditions are all related.  The heavy rains earlier in the summer, and the many puddles left by Hurricane Florence, created ideal conditions for tiny critters like the eastern spadefoot toad.  It’s one of a number of frogs and toad species that thrive in such conditions — and are biologically designed to go from birth to mature reproductive adulthood in a very short period of time.  In short, it’s high times for the eastern spadefoot right now, and it and the other frog and toad species are taking advantage of the many available love-puddles to engage in “explosive breeding.”

Once the frogs and toads take care of that biological imperative, their rapidly growing legions go searching for drier locations — and, because the conditions are so damp, that means houses, and cars, and other places where people don’t want or expect to encounter frogs and toads.  The darned things are everywhere, croaking and hopping and staring at people with those big yellow frog eyes.  Carolinians are finding frogs and toads in their kitchens, clinging desperately to the windshields of cars, and falling on them when they leave their houses.  It’s got to be unsettling, to say the least.

Over time, the puddles will dry out, the conditions will change, and the frog and toad population will return to its rightful balance.  For now, though, the people of North Carolina have to be wondering what’s next.  Locusts, perhaps?

Searching For Planet X

Astronomers want to know what’s out there beyond the orbit of Pluto, the tiny world that once was deemed a full-fledged planet but now is classified with the non-PC designation of a “dwarf planet.”  Specifically, they want to know whether, far past Pluto’s orbit, the gigantic and provocatively named “Planet X” lurks in the dark interstellar void.  And now they are beginning to find evidence that suggests that Planet X may actually exist.

181002095442-01-planet-x-super-teaseIn 2015, researchers at Caltech concluded that there was mathematical evidence that there was a “Planet X” that followed a long, elongated orbit at the far outer reaches of the solar system.  The Caltech team used data about the unique orbits of certain objects in the solar system, applied advanced equations and computer simulations, and hypothesized that the orbits were being affected by the gravity of a large planet with a mass about 10 times the mass of Earth that followed an orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune.  The hypothetical planet was called “Planet X,” or “Planet 9.”  (Either planet name, in my view, would fit well in the title of a ’50s sci-fi thriller beginning with The Creature From . . . .)  The hypothetical planet won’t get an official name, by the way, until it is actually discovered and its existence is confirmed.

So far, there is no visual evidence that Planet X exists.  This week, however, astronomers from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced that they have verified the existence of a 200-mile wide rock orbiting billions of miles beyond the orbit of Pluto.  They found the object using telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and Arizona, and the existence of the object is consistent with the Planet X theory.  In fact, one of the astronomers said:  “These distant objects are like bread crumbs leading us to Planet X.”

The Bread Crumbs Leading To Planet X wouldn’t be a bad name for a sci-fi thriller, either.  Either way, it’s good to know that scientists are out there looking for evidence of whether we should add a long-lost, distant cousin to our solar system family.