If you’ve been around dogs much, you know that they tend to yawn. In fact, they yawn a lot. Russell’s dog Betty, for example, is a ferocious yawner, with the all-out yawn frequently followed by a full-bodied stretch.
Why do dogs yawn — and for that matter, why do humans yawn? Just about every species yawns, and scientists don’t know exactly why. Yawns clearly happen in response to periods of boredom or fatigue, but they don’t seem to help resolve those conditions by, for example, energizing the yawner and equipping him or her to withstand more of a droning meeting. So why yawn in the first place? Yawns also can occur during times of stress or social conflict — for both humans and dogs. And once a yawn begins, you just can’t stop it, no matter how embarrassing yawning at that particular moment might be.
Once of the more interesting things about yawns is that, in certain species like humans and chimpanzees, yawns are contagious. A good yawn from someone in a room can set off a chain reaction of yawning, and people who are empathetic are most likely to yawn in response to the yawn of another. But research also indicates that a good yawn from a dog’s human friend can provoke a yawn in the dog. In short, contagious yawns happen between two distinct species. Scientists believe that this is another indication of the incredibly close emotional connection between people and dogs.
They don’t call dogs “man’s best friend” for nothing. So the next time you transmit a good yawn to your dog, enjoy that empathetic moment — and then take her for a walk, will you?
At some point in your life, a family member probably told you that “money can’t buy happiness.” And another family member might have added: “Yeah, but it sure can rent it for a while.” The relationship between money and happiness is a topic that people just can’t resist discussing — and one that researchers can’t resist studying.
A well-known 2010 study of happiness and money determined that happiness does increase with earnings, but that money-related happiness plateaus at the $75,000 income level. The most recent study, in contrast, found no cut-off point. Instead, it concluded that all forms of well-being continue to increase as income rises. And, according to the lead researcher, the reason for the connection between money and happiness is that money gives people a sense of more control over their own lives and better choices about their lives. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. And it also shouldn’t come as a surprise that the study found that people who earn more work longer hours and feel stress about their work.
I’m confident this won’t be the last study of money and happiness, although I really wonder whether such an elusive connection can really be studied and quantified in a meaningful way. It makes sense that people with more money feel more control over their lives and have a sense of well-being simply because they know they can eat and have a roof over their heads and aren’t always lurching from one financial crisis to another, buffeted by forces beyond their control. But I also know people with lots of money who aren’t very happy, and people with modest incomes who lead rich, fulfilled lives. There doesn’t seem to be a cosmic formula, with money and happiness being two elements in the equation, that applies to everyone.
Obviously, the Earth’s Moon is pretty great, as moons go. For the broad sweep of human history, this beacon of our night sky has inspired lovers and songwriters and literature, encouraged early humans to develop calendars and create the science of astronomy, influenced the tides of our oceans, and provided a bright light to help illuminate the dark night and early morning hours. For a dead, lifeless celestial body that is pockmarked with craters, that’s a pretty impressive list of achievements.
To the folks at Popular Mechanics, though, our Moon isn’t at the top of the lunar heap. When they decided to sit down and rank the more than 150 moons in the solar system — including ones you’ve probably never heard of, like Epithemius and Janus, which share the same orbit around Saturn, Dactyl, a moon that actually orbits an asteroid rather than a planet, and Mimas, which looks uncomfortably like the Death Star from Star Wars — our Moon didn’t fare very well. In fact, the Moon barely cracks the top ten, coming in at number 8. The Popular Mechanics crew concludes that it’s just not as interesting from a scientific standpoint, or as charismatic, as other moons. In fact, you get the sense from the comments reported in the article that the number 8 slot is actually kind of a pity ranking, given just because the Moon is our moon and we give it a capital M. The Old Man in the Moon has got to be disappointed.
The Moon came in behind Iapetus, Ganymede, Europa, Triton, Enceladus, Io, and the top-rated moon, Titan, which also orbits Saturn. These bodies all have features the Moon lacks, like liquid oceans, actual atmospheres made up of exotic combinations of chemicals, volcanic activity, bright colors, or the possibility of alien life.
OK, I get it: but has anyone ever actually written a song about Enceladus, or Titan?
It’s been about a year since the coronavirus started to spread in earnest and unleash its wrath on an unwitting world. Since that time, tens of millions of people have been infected, countless more have died, and therefore the focus understandably has been on fighting a desperate, rear-guard action to try to minimize the spread and effects of COVID-19. But . . . will we ever know, for sure, the origins of the virus and how it came to shut down the world?
Initially, many people thought that the virus had its roots in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where a virus that previously was limited to animals somehow made a leap to humans. Increasingly, however, people are exploring the alternative “lab leak” scenario. That hypothesis posits that the virus had its roots in a naturally occurring condition among animals, but than was modified and bioengineered and made even more infectious in a medical laboratory — in this case, a lab somewhere in Wuhan.
And here’s the scary part: the people who are articulating the lab leak scenario do not believe that COVID-19 was intentionally designed to function as some kind of biological weapon. Instead, they believe it was created and enhanced in infectiousness and virulence as part of routine, ongoing experimentation with viruses — and that, through negligence and inadvertence, it somehow got out of the controlled environment and began its destructive rampage across the globe. In short, they believe medical researchers throughout the world have been engaging in incredibly risky behavior with incredibly risky viruses, and through someone’s mistake or carelessness, we’re now all paying the piper. If that hypothesis is what actually happened, this wasn’t some naturally occurring phenomenon, but a self-inflicted wound that didn’t have to happen in the first place.
Reading the New York article, I found myself thinking: didn’t anyone involved in funding or supervising or performing this kind of incredibly risky research ever read The Stand, Stephen King’s novel about a bioengineered disease that decimated the world? And didn’t the scientists who were engaging in this research have a bit of humility about their capabilities, and question whether they should be playing God with viruses that could potentially sweep across the world?
We may never know exactly how COVID-19 came toravage the world. It’s unlikely that, if the lab leak scenario is true, someone will step up and admit that they opened the door to allow a global pandemic to escape. But Congress and the incoming Biden Administration can take a good, hard look at precisely what kind of risky research is being performed, at taxpayer expense or otherwise, and consider whether that research should be shut down entirely, or subject to much more rigorous controls than currently exist. We may not learn from whence the coronavirus came, but we can take the lab leak scenario seriously, and try to prevent a human-engineered disease from killing unwitting victims, smashing our economies, and throwing millions of people out of work in the future.
This morning I woke up and, as I do first thing every morning, I reached over to the end table to retrieve my glasses. Of course, I used my right hand to pick them up and put them on — just as I use my right hand to do just about everything, without a conscious thought.
Like the vast majority of humans, I’ve got a dominant hand. A pen goes naturally into my right hand, and I can produce somewhat legible handwriting with it. Trying to pick up and use a pen with my left hand feels incredibly weird, and I can’t write anything with it. The same holds true for throwing a ball, or using a towel to wipe down the kitchen counter. The right hand does the lion’s share of the work; the left hand helps from time to time by, say, doing its share of keyboarding and holding an object the right hand is working on.
Somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of humans are right-handed, between 10 and 15 are left-handed, and a tiny fraction are ambidextrous (able to use either hand with equal ease) or mixed-handed (preferring to use the right hand for some tasks and the left hand for others). Why is that so, as opposed to a world where every human can use either hand at their whim? What causes “handedness”?
I find it fascinating that something as basic to the human condition as handedness remains shrouded in mystery, resisting the best efforts of scientists, geneticists, and behavioral psychologists to figure out why it happens. It reaffirms that we’re all pretty complex organisms, and there’s still a lot about homo sapiens that remains to be discovered.
Because the meteor made its lonely 4.5 billion year journey without being affected by much of anything before alighting on the frozen crust of Strawberry Lake, scientists believe that the organic compounds it features are likely to be similar to the compounds that were brought to a young Earth by meteors shortly after the Earth’s formation. And in those early days of the solar system, meteor strikes were much more common — meaning that meteor bombardment could have left the young Earth littered with carbon compounds, just waiting for the spark that turned them into the most primitive forms of microbial life. Exactly how that happened is still a matter for scientific — or religious, or philosophical — debate.
I hope to live long enough to see humans establish a strong foothold in space, and on other planets, and maybe even get up beyond the Earth’s atmosphere myself. Who knows? It may turn out that, when we venture into space, we’re really going . . . back home.
In Maine, we love our lupine flowers, which seem to grow everywhere — even by the side of the road, without any tending. We have three beautiful lupines right in front of our house, and I’m interested in trying to grow lupines elsewhere on our property. But if you want to harvest lupine seeds and grow lupines, you need to work at it.
Later in the summer, the lupine flowers are replaced by lupine seed pods, which look like hairy pea pods. (This is not surprising, because lupines are a part of the bean family of plants.) If you want to harvest the seeds, you need to wait until the seed pods dry out and you can hear the seeds rattling around in the pod. Then you patiently open the pods one by one, free the seeds from the pod, drop the seeds into a storage container — in our case, a coffee cup — and then wait to plant the seeds until the end of the season. If you plant them too early, they’ll be found and consumed by birds and the other hungry critters of Maine. The lupine seeds then need to experience multiple weeks of cold weather before they germinate and new plants can grow.
Unfortunately, I waited too long to do the seed harvest from the plants in the front of the house. By the time I checked them, most of the pods had already burst open and dropped their seeds — and lupine seeds are incredibly tiny and heavy, so I wasn’t going to be able to find and retrieve them from the ground. However, I found some unopened pods, and we retrieved some additional pods from plants along the roadway. With the help of Dr. Science and the GV Jogger, who pitched in with us and enjoyed the simple pleasures of pod opening and seed retrieval, we’ve now collected several hundred of the small black seeds, which I will try to plant this fall.
According to the Mainers, you should try to position the lupine seeds in areas where there isn’t much competition from other plants. In addition, lupines seem to prefer rocky soil — and we’ve got plenty of that. I’ve got several locations in mind where I would love to see some lupine plants take root. I’ll be hoping that some of the seeds avoid the foraging of our neighborhood birds and animals, so that next spring we’ve got a serious lupine bloom on our hands.
There’s a little crab apple tree in the side yard of our place in Stonington. I feel sorry for it. The tree seems to struggle and has never produced fruit or flowers during the time we’ve had the place. It has remained small and spindly despite my best efforts to help it grow. I’ve tried watering it liberally, and I’ve driven those tree fertilizer spikes into the area around the tree to try to give it nutrients. Unfortunately, it remains stunted. It may just be that the rocky soil isn’t good for a tree.
This year, a kind of white discoloration appeared on some of the leaves on the tree. In trying to figure out what it was, I learned something kind of cool about the University of Maine. The U of M Cooperative Extension offers the services of a plant disease diagnostic lab that will test any sample you send and let you know what the problem is. You just clip off some leaves that show the problem, put them in a plastic bag, give them your name and address and email information, and send the sample off to Orono, Maine for analysis.
We took advantage of the service to send in some clippings from the little tree for examination and testing. Yesterday we received a report from one of the scientists working at the lab — about a week after we sent it off. That’s pretty impressive, and much appreciated.
The news about our little tree was bad and good. The bad news is that the tree now has to deal with a fungal condition called venturia inequalis, which is commonly known as “apple scab.” It’s not exactly an attractive name, but then fungal conditions typically don’t get lyrical monikers. According to the report, “apple scab” is common on apple trees that have not been bred for resistance to the fungus — so now we know that the little tree lacks good breeding, in addition to its other issues. The good news is that the condition isn’t fatal, or even all that serious. The diagnostics lab scientist does not recommend fungicide, and simply recommends raking and disposing of the leaves after they drop from the tree this fall. And a University of Massachusetts website identified in the diagnostics report says we can hope that the tree will be better next spring.
So we’ve learned something neat about how the University of Maine serves the surrounding community, and confirmed that our little tree’s bout with “apple scab” means it has another challenge to contend with. And now we can only hope that the little tree, like everythingelse, will be better — much better — in 2021.
When we first started coming to Maine, I was amazed to find that it had fern-filled forests (try saying that three times fast). I had always associated ferns with warm, wet climates a lot closer to the equator, but that was clearly wrong. Ferns thrive throughout Maine and are found pretty much everywhere — including outcroppings of ferns at multiple locations in our down yard, one of which is shown in this photo.
I like the look of ferns and am happy to have them in our yard. They grow in clumps that wave lazily in the breeze blowing in from the harbor, and present with lots of different shades of green depending on the angle of the sunlight. They’re a lot more attractive than the weeds that would be growing there otherwise, and they are hardy plants that really don’t require much care after they have taken root. I’m trying to help a little patch that has started up in one rocky, out of the way part of the yard, and basically I’m just going to water it and circle it with stones to protect it from the weedwhacker.
I also like ferns because deer apparently don’t care for them. The ever-hungry neighborhood deer might gnaw the tops off every flower that is ready to bloom, but they leave the ferns alone. Ferns . . . those, I think I can safely grow.
Yesterday’s constant rain and drippy, overcast conditions brought the snails out of their normal hiding places and onto our driveway and other wet surfaces. I took the picture of the little guy below just outside our front door.
Terrestrial snails are part of the phylum Mollusca and the class Gastropoda and are closely related to slugs. The name of the snails’ class comes from the Greek words for belly and foot, because snails move through the progressive expansion and contraction of one large, muscular foot under their shell. The snail’s foot has a gland that secretes a coating of mucus, and the snail then glides on that coating of slime. The fact of a single foot and the need for slimy mucus generation helps to explain why snail movements are so deliberate.
There are dozens of different species of snails in Maine, some of which were actually brought to the state from Europe. (Why Europeans did this is anybody’s guess.) Because of their need for slime, snails avoid direct sunlight and wind and prefer moist, damp areas — like gardens, where they are commonly found. If you’re trying to get rid of slugs and snails, which can cause harm to some plants, the U of Maine webpage helpfully notes that “removing boards, rocks, logs, leaves and dense growth helps” and that it “is also wise to minimize shaded areas, rock walls, rock gardens, or forested borders and leave bare ground or close-cropped grass next to vegetable or flower beds.” No stones, or rock walls, or rock gardens, in Maine? Good luck with that!
Interestingly, the snails of Maine all are supposed to have shells with whorls that move from the center in a clockwise direction. Nobody really knows why.
Snails don’t bother me, and I try not to disturb them when I’m gardening. I don’t think they are doing much harm to our flowers and plants, and I figure anything that is living in slime with only one foot deserves a break.
The fog bank is out there. You can see it on the water, lurking and looming, just beyond the little island in the middle of the harbor. The fog bank is so thick that it totally obscures all but the highest hilltop on Isle au Haut, wiping it clean from the photo.
It’s been pretty foggy here for the last few days, and for the native Midwesterner the speed — and seeming perverseness — of the fog movement is breathtaking. You might see fog in the distance, and the next thing you know it has barged into town and your bare skin is covered in moisture. On other days, the fog might wait out on the horizon, keeping its own counsel and deciding if, and when, to roll in and blanket the sun. And on other days, the fog is simply gone, and you can see for miles out into the harbor without a hint of fog to be seen anywhere.
Dr. Science would tell you that fog is a natural condition caused by a process called advection, when warm, moist air passes over a cooler surface — in this case, the bracing waters of the Penobscot Bay and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the islands in the bay — and water vapor in the air condenses to form water droplets that make the fog opaque. That’s a very scientific explanation, but it doesn’t quite capture the almost human, unpredictable qualities of fog.
Because we know the fog is out there . . . waiting.
It’s fair to say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far. In fact, it’s fair to say that 2020 is not only below average, it is probably the worst year that I’ve experienced in my lifetime. With the coronavirus pandemic, government-ordered shutdowns, massive shocks to the economy and resulting unemployment, and widespread civil unrest, it’s safe to say that, when the clock nears midnight on December 31, no one is going to be looking back fondly on the year limping to a close. To the contrary, I would expect that people will be drinking heavily to forget the year gone by and to toast the arrival of a new year that is bound to be far better — that is, assuming we make it to December 31.
And that’s really the significant, underlying problem with 2020: it has forever altered our perception of what could actually happen. Before 2020, anyone predicting the arrival of a strange new virus, sweeping closures and stay-at-home edicts, and the other elements that make this year such a bummer would have been laughed out of town. But now — well, it seems like just about anything is possible, doesn’t it? That’s why gun sales, survival gear sales, and, relatedly, liquor sales are through the roof. So far, 2020 has been like Edvard Munch’s The Scream brought to life.
The strikingly counterfactual element of 2020 opens the doors to many possibilities that seemed absurd only a few months ago. Remember those stories we see from time to time about asteroids and meteors coming uncomfortably close to Earth? Well, it’s 2020, so . . . better get that survival gear handy. And for everyone who’s wondered about when we’re actually going to make contact with intelligent alien life, well, it seems like 2020 is the ideal year for that to happen, doesn’t it? And it’s not going to be cuddly, adorable E.T. aliens, either. Because it’s 2020, after all, think Independence Day or Predator or Aliens, and you’re probably going to be closer to the mark.
To prepare myself mentally for the rest of this year, I’ve tried to identify every worst case, disastrous scenario that we’ve been warned could happen — locust invasions, massive solar flares, global warming and cooling, zombie apocalypses, Ragnarok, the reunion of ABBA — and am bracing myself that they all might happen this year. And if we make it through without finding ourselves on a denuded, brutalized planet that has to endure a remake of Waterloo, I’ll raise my glass to 2020 come December 31.
The successful launch yesterday marks two milestones. It’s the first launch of human beings into space from the Kennedy Space Center since 2011, when the last space shuttle mission occurred. More significantly, the launch is a huge step forward in America’s entire approach to spaceflight and space exploration and development. The launch vehicle and “Crew Dragon” capsule carrying the astronauts were designed and built by SpaceX, one of the many private companies that are working to make spaceflight a successful commercial venture.
The new approach has several consequences. For one, it is unquestionably cheaper for taxpayers. In addition, the interplay between private companies looking to control costs while delivering the required product and governmental engineers who have long experience with spaceflight issues is producing innovation and new perspectives on how to solve problems. And finally, the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, demonstrates that commercial spaceflight works. SpaceX is one of many private companies that are making space their mission, and yesterday’s triumph will undoubtedly spur other companies to look to space as a new frontier for investment and commercial activity. If, as many of us hope, spaceflight is to become a routine activity, with expansive space stations and lunar bases and the exploration of Mars as the next steps, the involvement of private investment and private capital will be essential to making that dream a reality.
Yesterday’s launch marks the Era of the Dragon in spaceflight. It’s the first time in history that equipment built by a private company has carried human beings into space. It won’t be the last.
The testing was quick, easy, and efficient. They’ve set up a drive-through testing facility in one of the rear parking lots of the administration building of the sprawling Mt. Carmel East hospital complex. Your doctor puts your name on a list and writes you a prescription for the test, and you drive up and wait in your car for your turn. As people are tested, the car line moves through two lanes of testing that occurs under tents, like cars moving through a toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. When I arrived shortly after the testing facility opened at 8 a.m., I was probably tenth in line, and all told, I think it took me less than a half hour to make it entirely through the process.
When it was my turn I donned my mask and drove through the tent, which was manned by four nurses who thoroughly disinfected themselves after each encounter with someone being tested. A pleasant and professional nurse who was fully clad in protective gear — helmet, face shield, gown, and gloves — took down my information and then conducted the test. It was one of the viral tests to determine if I currently have coronavirus, and it consisted of sticking a long Q-tip swab pretty deep into my nostrils, gathering some mucus, and putting it into a plastic bag. I was told that the sample tested positive for coronavirus, I would be notified, and if the test was negative I wouldn’t be called and should just show up for my appointment. I never got a call, so I’m apparently currently free of COVID-19. (The viral test is different from the antibody blood test, which would tell you if you had the coronavirus at some point in the past and have developed antibodies against it.)
News reports on coronavirus typically report raw statistics on how many people have the illness. Expect to see significant increases in the numbers, simply because more mobile testing stations like the one I used are springing up everywhere. Given what I saw, I’d guess that my testing facility probably processes several hundred tests each day, and there are similar testing facilities in Columbus and across the country. We’re going to start to get a lot more data on the coronavirus as a result.
On our midday walk yesterday Kish and I passed this display on one of the German Village byways. I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it might have been part of a science project for some youngster who has been home schooled for the past six weeks after the shutdown of Ohio schools. It reminded me, at least, of science fair displays in the gymnasium when I was a kid.
The coronavirus shutdowns have put pressure on everyone in many different ways. Some people have been furloughed or lost their jobs altogether. Some have had to continue working at their public-facing jobs under the threat of infection. Some have had to learn new technology to do their jobs remotely. And all of us have had to adjust to staying inside and not doing the things that we used to take for granted, like going to a restaurant for a lunch that you didn’t cook yourself or stopping off at a bar with friends to watch a ball game while drinking a cold beer.
But the challenges for those parents who have had to combine the adjustments that all of us are facing with trying to entertain, and educate, young kids at home is more difficult by several orders of magnitude. In fact, it’s mind-boggling, and it takes the concept of the SuperMom and SuperDad to an entirely new level. So if what we saw on our walk yesterday was in fact a kid’s science project, I tip my cap to the Mom or Dad who came up with the idea of their own little at-home science fair. And who knows? That little science project might spur a lifelong love of gardening for the student.
Many of us have talked about recognizing, thanking, and rewarding the health care professionals, the truckers, the people working in the grocery stores, the delivery truck operators, and the others who have played such an essential role during the shutdown. Let’s not forget the parents of young children in that richly deserved chorus of praise and gratitude. They are doing something that most of us would never even think of trying. And, long term, what is more important that taking care of kids, and keeping them healthy, and safe, and heading in the right direction during a global pandemic?