December 2010 Archives

The Higgs Boson: Science Fiction?

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Particle Tracks.jpgDo you know the dark mystery that keeps physicists running around with giant magnets? Maybe you were afraid to ask. It is The Mystery... (It's getting suspenseful now) ... Of The Missing Boson!

Funny as it seems, the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) has not been able to detect the Higgs boson. How could that be? It appears to particle physicists that there must be a Higgs boson, yet it remains a hypothetical prospect.

Theoretically, the role of the Higgs boson (this can be viewed as a "force") is to give other particles mass: it is similar to what happens when light goes through air. Light hits the air molecules and slows down: in this manner, particles traveling through a "Higgs field" are slowed down to a higher mass.

But the Higgs boson might not exist. The argument is that Higgs bosons are said to be hadrons made up of top quarks, and top quarks were made in the reheating period of the electroweak era. Now, they had to have mass, or else energy could not have cooled into them. As in E=mc squared, the energy equivalence is to mass, and not matter. When the Higgs boson formed in the quark epoch, it supposedly gave mass to all particles, which like the top quark already had mass.

In the case that the hypothetical Higgs boson is not a reality, here's my "Higgsless model" of how particles get their mass: 

According to Einstein's theory of special relativity, energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Therefore, if a particle transforms its mass into energy, then it is traveling at the speed of light. That makes sense, as photons have no mass and are traveling at light-speed, and as neutrinos are almost massless and travel at almost the speed of light.

One of my counterarguments is that if the resulting particle had no mass, it would not produce energy. But the "rest mass" (the mass that all particles at a standstill would have) would produce energy, and that energy would determine the speed of the particle. This is the simple answer to why the Higgs boson has not been detected in the LHC!

Santa (Dew) Claws

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Rudolph Red-Nose Reindeer.jpgYou probably remember the names of the nine famous reindeer doing warm-ups this season: Prancer, Dancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, Dasher, and, of course, Rudolph. But most likely you don't know the following interesting facts about caribou. (Which are really the same thing. You must caribou about that.)

Julius Caesar.jpg
Did you know that Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Julius Caesar all saw reindeer? Caesar's description of it was:

"There is an ox shaped like a stag. In the middle of its forehead a single horn grows from between its ears, taller and straighter than the animal horns with which we are familiar. At the top this horn spreads out like the palm of a hand or the branches of a tree. The females are of the same shape as the males, and their horns are the same shape and size."
                -Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Chapter 6.26)

Female reindeer stay in herds. Males are solitary, but join the girls during the breeding season. Like elk, the males win a group of females by rutting. Male reindeer horns fall off in the winter, but female horns don't. 

Reindeer often make a clicking sound that leads people to think they have hurt ankles. However, this species of deer has dew claws (these look like high heels) on the hooves. This sound is normal. Perhaps reindeer think they're cool tap dancers for doing it. 

Reindeer have predators: wolves, wolverines, bears, and coyotes. Reindeer prey on lichens, sedges, and other grasses, digging them out with their hooves in winter. In captivity, they are fed grains.

And, just to be on the safe side, I'll say most. But most reindeer do not have red noses!

Birdseed Christmas Ornaments

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chickadee.jpgMaking birdseed Christmas ornaments is supposed to be a simple kids’ craft. Of course, it has been elaborated, so that you are supposed to use cookie cutters, add ingredients to the birdseed, and bake them in the oven. But the old-fashioned way is much quicker and easier.

This craft had been on Mom’s to-do list for a long time. We had a bird feeder, but that was year-round. When we finally made them, we used ice-cream cones as our base, covered them in peanut butter, and rolled them in birdseed. Then, we attached threads and hung them outside on the bottlebrush. Within two hours of sitting in the sun, the peanut butter had melted off the ice-cream cones, taking the birdseed with it. Perhaps blue jay.jpgthis ought not to be attempted in places with a warm
climate or on unusually hot days.

Pinecones can be used rather than ice-cream cones, but the scales should be open instead of closed so that there is plenty of space for putting the peanut butter and birdseed. The best substitutes for peanut butter are honey or vegetable shortening.

These ornaments attract the same kinds of birds as a regular feeder. The standard species include cardinals, chickadees, sparrows, warblers, mockingbirds, blue jays, etc. If you do this regularly, migratory birds may also put you on their list of rest stops!

Tuataras: The Endangered "Living Fossil"

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ttara.jpgThe tuatara is the last member of an order of reptiles that lived, along with the dinosaurs, 225 million years ago. The order is rhynchocephalia, which comes from Greek and means "beak head." The tuatara is called a "living fossil," but in some ways this is the wrong name for it. Although in some respects it seems a little more primitive than some of the more modern reptiles, scientific experiments have proven that its rate of molecular evolution* is quicker than that of any animal yet tested.

The Maori word "tuatara" has been translated in many different ways, but the most common meaning is that tua means 'back,' and tara, 'spine.' Both the males and the females have spines (actually just flaps of skin), but the males' are larger and can be stiffened in order to attract a mate or fight another male.

There are two types of tuataras. For a long time, the Cook Strait tuatara (also called the common tuatara) was the only kind known to exist. Then, a second one, the far rarer and slightly smaller Brothers Island tuatara, was discovered. Today, the classification of tuataras is controversial, with some people arguing that there are two species, while others hold that it's one species, just slightly adapted to its environment. One way to distinguish the two types is that the Brothers Island species is olive-green with yellow speckles, while the Cook Strait tuatara, which is usually mottled and always has white spots, varies from green to grey, dark pink, or brick red. It can also change color throughout its lifetime. Additionally, when caught by a predator, a tuatara can drop its tail which continues to wriggle, allowing time for escape. Their tails do grow back, but they are often a different color plus shorter. They also can lose spines and regrow them and will shed their skin annually.

The adult tuataras are nocturnal and as a result eat mainly insects that are active at night. Beetles are their favorite food, but they sometimes eat lizards, birds, and bird eggs. They do not have real teeth as humans do. Instead, their teeth are sharp protrusions of their jaw bones. Tuataras have two rows on their upper jaws and one row on bottom. The lower teeth fit between the top teeth when the tuatara's mouth is closed and are useful for eating hard insects. Tuataras are the only animal with this kind of dental arrangement. Unfortunately, having built-in teeth means that they can't replace them as they wear down. Older tuataras have to switch to soft food, like larvae, slugs, and earthworms, and eventually make do with smooth jaw bones.

Adult tuataras can go for an hour without breathing if they need to -- even if they don't need to, a resting adult may take only one breath an hour. Although they are cold-blooded, tuataras prefer cool weather to hot. They stay active in 50° weather, while many lizards don't. Like many other reptiles, tuatara eggs are very sensitive to temperature. If the eggs are incubated at 70° F, they have an equal chance of being male or female. At 64°, they are guaranteed to be female and above 72°, they are almost always be male. One threat from global warming is that the weather will be too hot for female eggs to incubate and the remaining males will not be able to find mates. Even if the eggs are laid, that's no guarantee that they're going to hatch because many predators enjoy eating them. If a theoretical tuatara had just laid a fresh clutch of eggs today, and no one was going to eat them, it would still take more than a year for them to hatch (incubation takes 13 to 16 months because they stop developing when they get too cold).

At 13 to 20, they reach maturity, but they don't stop growing until they're thirty. That is a long childhood, but it is not exactly an ideal one. Tuatara moms are not very attentive. They lay their eggs once every four years and then leave. The hatchlings must hunt in the day to avoid being eaten by adult tuataras at night. Then, they have to dig their burrow for protection. Burrowing is much easier for an adult tuatara, because they do not mind staying in 'hotels.' Whenever they sense danger, they dart into the nearest burrow, which is often inhabited by nesting seabirds. The birds go fishing during the day, and the tuatara goes hunting at night. The birds do not seem to mind this arrangement -- except in the occasional case where a tuatara eats one of their chicks.

One feature visible in tuatara hatchlings is their "third eye," also called a "parietal eye." This comes with its own lens, cornea, retina, and non-functional connection to the brain, which makes scientists think that it evolved from a real eye. This can be seen through the skin on top of the tuatara's head until it is a few months old, when scales and pigment will have covered it. One possible use is to tell the time of day or the season. Interestingly, tuataras also have three eyelids. The first closes from the top, the second from the bottom, and the third horizontally. This last is a clear one, called a nictitating membrane, which protects and moistens the eye while still allowing the tuatara to see. Their eyes also focus independently.

The chief reason tuataras are endangered is that introduced species, such as the rats and dogs first brought by the early Polynesian settlers, prey on tuatara eggs and hatchlings. The Europeans brought more of these pests, as well as cats and ferrets. In 1895, New Zealand's government fully protected the tuataras, but their population continued to plummet as rats reached one island after another. Even as late as 1984, they killed all of the tuataras on a 25-acre island. For a long time, tuataras lived only on 32 remote islands. On the mainland, where captive release programs have been operating, one nest and one hatchling have been discovered in the wild. Many fenced preserves also keep tuataras, which also benefits other endangered species, such as kiwis, other birds, lizards, and the giant weta, a flightless insect. More than 60,000 tuataras are estimated to live worldwide, which means that this remarkable reptile can resurge in the wild.

Kiwi Conservation Club
San Diego Zoo

*Molecular evolution means that the DNA is changing over time, which is, simplified, the same thing as evolution, only on a tiny scale.

Holly, mistletoe, amaryllis, poinsettia and pine probably are in your house this holiday season. Here are some interesting things about these plants:

Amaryllis is planted as a bulb. It has red, pink, or white flowers that bloom just after the leaves reach their greenest point. It originated (strangely for a Christmas plant) from the Cape of Good Hope. They need little nourishment, and will grow in peat moss or pebbles. 

Poinsettia.jpgPoinsettias' bright red petals are actually leaf bracts. If you look, you will most likely see a small bunch of yellow flowers. How did it become a Christmas tradition? Here's how the story goes:

A Mexican maiden had no money to buy a gift, so an angel appeared and told her to gather some of the weeds that grew abundantly by the road. She did and left them in front of the altar. They then bloomed into the first poinsettias. The star-shaped leaves are said to have been symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem, and their red color represents sacrifice.

Untitled-1.gifMistletoe was considered to have magical healing powers by the Druids, so they hung it at wintertime. The Scandinavians made it out to represent peace, relating the plant to their god Frigga, who was goddess of love. And that is how the tradition originated of kissing under the mistletoe. But, when  the Church banned mistletoe because it was apparently a heathen custom, some farmers suggested using holly instead. Holly has therefore become another trademark of Christmas. 

Trees, as you might already know, came through Martin Luther and St. Boniface. The Norse people thought their god Thor lived in a tree. St. Boniface cut down the so-called Tree of Thor to undermine this myth, and he found a fir growing in its branches. He then decided to take the fir home. Martin Luther, however, decided it would be a good idea if those trees were a Christmas celebration. He saw it as an alternative to the traditional Catholic nativity scenes. And that is how they came around to be Christmas symbol.

Surprisingly, every Christmas plant has an interesting historical story behind it. 

Walking Bear in A Winter Wonderland

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Polar Bears Play Fight.jpgA polar bear, or an Ursus maritimus, is a type of bear that lives in the Arctic. It eats ringed seals and leaves its mother at one to two and a half years old. In the space between then and when they can mate the adolescent bears are called subadults.

In the fall, a pregnant female polar bear will dig a den where she spends the winter without eating anything. In the spring she comes out, normally with a litter of two cubs. Then, she makes her way with them down to the shore, where she catches a ringed seal, fish, or scavenges the remains of an animal (a beached whale, for instance) for the family's first meal. She will never go back to the den. 

In her den, a polar bear does not hibernate, in the technical sense. A hibernating animal is classified by a slower rate in breathing and a lower body temperature. She does not do any of these things. The female polar bears will fight any male bears who are near her showing signs of aggression against the cubs, even though male bears clearly have the advantage: a male weighs up to 1300 pounds, whereas a female weighs only 600. 

Contrary to popular belief, a polar bear does not hide its dark nose while waiting at a breathing-hole made by a seal. This was a misconception started by the fact that the cream-colored fur makes for good camouflage.

Unfortunately, polar bears are becoming endangered because of global warming, like in the movie Arctic Tale. Polar bears already overheat after excessive activity and it is worse for them the hotter it gets. (Just so you know, in Alaska a new refuge for these playful bears was created last Wednesday with 187,157 square miles in it. Click Here for more information.)
Polar Bear Fast Facts:

The longest-lived polar bear celebrated her last birthday when she was 42. Her name was Debby and she lived in a Canadian zoo.

When polar bears run, they can get very hot. This is due to extremely thick insulation underneath their fur, and, of course, their fur itself. 

Polar bear paws are covered in small bumps, which help them not slip on ice.

A polar bear is also known as an ice bear, nanook, sea bear, or walking bear.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from December 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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