"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee



view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Tuesday, er, Thursday Trivia: assorted!

If only there were thirty-six hours in a day! Or, is that "my, how time flies"? Good thing no one is paying me for these posts. I'd have been fired by now. But I have been busy. Give me that much credit, anyway. As you can see by the lead-in post which I've 'stickied' to the top of this page, I've been dabbling in book selling at Amazon.com. It's not difficult, but there is so-o-o much to learn, unless one wishes to operate in ignorance (not advisable as a sound business model). Then there's that whole get-up-and-go-to-work-every-day thing. Yeah, it's a drag (sometimes), but the daily grind keeps my creditors happy. Excuses, excuses... Tonight's column is actually dedicated in the fashion of syndicated columnist Sydney Harris' Things I learned while looking up other things, which he published about once a week years ago. I always liked that title, and used to read those articles religiously. (I'm not certain, but I think Mr. Harris has gone on to his deserved reward. I could look it up...)

Now, then, I'll mention three interesting things I learned while perusing this month's Discover magazine (which I'm pretty sure is a primary source for Jeopardy questions each month). I discovered this magazine originally at my chiropractor's office; it was good reading while waiting for my turn. The articles are short but very well written and cover a broad range of topics under the heading of Science. Here are three snapshots from this month:

Astrophysicists have detected information from a star (or quasar, maybe) which dates back to the supposed beginning of the universe. They place its age at about three and a half billion years (less than our planet), but its light began the journey to here ten billion years ago. In other words, this stellar object is roughly ten billion light years from Earth. That is, to me at least, an incomprehensible number. Even using the fictional 'warp speeds' used to drive the plots of Star Trek, no one can imagine ever traversing distances that outrageous. If you had some really good pot, maybe you could make some sense of it, but I doubt it.

Dolphins have really bad dandruff! According to an article discussing the incredible speeds that these mammals can reach, dolphins shed their entire outer layer of skin at the rate of once every two hours. Marine biologists believe that all that skin-flaking serves an important purpose for the porpoises (ouch!). Studies using fluid-dynamics test methods (using glitter to represent dolphin-dandruff) appear to demonstrate an advantage: the flakes change typical drag-inducing patterns of turbulence somehow, reducing the drag. Scientists have pondered dolphins' apparently inexplicable swimming speeds (they can sprint at nearly twenty-five knots!) for most of the past hundred years. How cool is it that dandruff may be an important component of the answer? This could be huge for NASCAR--how about glitter-covered racecars? Hey, it could work!

Last for tonight, there was an intriguing new investigation into an old topic: did the Spanish conquerors in the New World really wipe out millions of Aztec natives? When Hernando Cort├ęs and his band of military adventurers first reached what is now Mexico, they entered a land populated by at least twenty million natives. In the decades following their invasion, that number was reduced to about two million. Guns and steel only account for a fraction of those horrific losses; the rest have traditionally been attributed to disease, especially smallpox, thought to have been introduced to the defenseless natives by the invading Spanish.

However, new translations of well-regarded historical documents from that period tell a different story. King Phillip II had sent a Surgeon General of sorts to the New World, a man with impeccable credentials (for that era). The doctor interviewed hundreds of victims and performed dozens of autopsies. He diligently recorded his observations in Latin, but those extensive records remained lost from modern awareness for over four hundred years. Brought to the light of contemporary review, and subjected to new scrutiny, those descriptions don't support the smallpox hypothesis. So what was the disease which (apparently) decimated the Aztecs? Hemorrhagic fever--like Ebola and Hantavirus, which is spread by rodents (not Spaniards). Enlightening, and scary. There is neither cure nor treatment for this sort of plague, not then and not now.

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