Science: Evolution, Ultrasound, Scam, Star, CorvidBy Bob Snodgrass
Present: Barbara M, Howard R, Dave F, Dick M, Bruce G, Bob S
This was a small but pleasant meeting. We began with Barbara presenting material from the Economist about climate change and the evolution of animals. A recent paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution reviewed many changes in animal bodies resulting in bigger beaks, limbs, and ears. Warm blooded animals are developing larger tails, legs and wings. All of these are easily understood as adaptations to release more heat. This is an extension of Allen’s rule that appendages are bigger in warmer climates. Such studies often begin with museum specimens; we may question just how typical the animals were that 19th century naturalists collected, but overall the evidence for larger appendages, especially in birds is very extensive.
This led into discussions of birds relatively isolated on islands and genetic bottlenecks. We often hear of postulated bottlenecks in human evolution, but evidence for them isn’t strong.
Howard spoke next of the effects of sound on various materials, including living tissues. Ultrasound means sound at frequencies above the upper limit of human hearing, about 20,000 Hz. Ultrasound was first used for depth detection and in metallurgy for fracture identification, but medical applications were soon appreciated. Langevin was the first to show harmful biological effects of ultrasound in 1917. He showed that it could kill fish in a small tank. Diagnostic medical ultrasound has never been shown to be harmful but is a form of energy. I commented on the current use of focused ultrasound to increase the permeabililty of the blood brain barrier tp certain drugs, by producing tolerable degrees of heat in that area. This is typically used for the treatment of localized tumors.
This brings up the so-called Havana syndrome, referring to diplomats who developed various symptoms which were thought to be possibly caused by ultrasound. Israeli researchers postulated in 2018 that these symptoms were due to toxic levels of pesticides. However, affected individual often hear a loud sound as the first sign of a problem, followed by pressure and pain in the fact, plus nausea and dizziness. It is generally assumed that this syndrome, which can be very long lasting, is due to some kind of focused ultrasound or microwaves. There’s no reason to assume that it’s cause is always the same. Anyway, the Havana syndrome has been around since 2016 and still keeps popping up in the news.
Dave spoke of the major problems with ransomware today. It has often interfered with the operation of hospitals and other public resources. It typically begins with phishing to get the passwords of a system employee- we were unable to deliver your package, your bank must temporarily shut down your account, etc. – all bogus
Bob closed with two reports. The first concerned stars ‘eating’ their planets. As we get more information about the processes that generate stars and planets, new and unsuspected things keep turning up. Stars and planets are definitely still being formed many places in our universe. Both processes can be quite complex. Star formation begins with the collapse of interstellar dust clouds, sometimes aided by shockwaves from supernovae explosions or heat generated by rotation- the milky way is rotating as are all galaxies. This process, aided by gravity, generates heat and star formation. There would be no stars or planets without gravity. These processes often generate binary or multiple stars, formed from the same cloud. They should identical or nearly so in chemical composition.
It seems that about 1/3 of all stars in the Milky Way are binaries- we can’t tell about very distant stars. However, they are often dissimilar in composition. Heavy elements such as carbon, silicon, oxygen, and magnesium first had to be created from huge star explosions (supernovas) and the stellar cores of the first generations of stars before the first planets could form. There was a time when the universe had stars but no planets. If the two members of a binary pair show major differences in composition (remember that stars must be relatively near for this analysis) it is assumed that planets were formed but then consumed- this process takes millions of years. We can’t watch it in action. We have only artist’s drawing. It’s not entirely clear why this failure of planetogenesis is relatively common, but we now believe that most stars have planets in spite of the frequent consumption of some (nearest) planets.
Second, Bob reported on a number of studies of cognition in parrots, cockatoos, etc. Because I’ve always been
interested in what crows and other corvids can do (such a using a key to open a lock) I initially dismissed those reports, saying to myself, well corvids can do more …of course they don’t imitate speech and other sounds. By 2018, we were seeing articles saying ‘Ravens and Crows Are Earth’s Smartest Birds. Their brains may be tiny, but corvids have been known to outsmart children and apes’.
However, the tide is turning. More and more articles insist that parrots are brighter or a least as bright- I presented some comparisons. However, the sophisticated answer is that it’s not possible to compare these different birds in ‘intelligence’. Corvids are generally better tool users, while parrots can distinguish objects by color, type, and texture and have far better vocal learning. Hence, we don’t say that one group is smarter than the other, we say that they are different and that the word intelligence is misleading. I’ve reluctantly had to give up my ideas that corvids are the smartest birds; they can do a lot but our tests of animal intelligence are all artificial.
Don’t forget that our next meeting will be Monday, October 11th. I hope to see a good turnout and will present a brief review of the Sept. 14th KISS lecture on interstellar objects then.