A contingent of Zygotes just got back from seeing They Might Be Giants in concert; the band is promoting their new kids album, Here Comes Science. The show was fun and included this number, which is near and dear to our bone-digging hearts:
Earlier this month, Nature released a paper describing the major results of the Chinese Panda
Genome Project: a draft sequence covering 94% of the bear’s genome. Thanks to
the “cuddly” factor – who doesn’t love the cute fluffy pandas? -- the paper
got a fair bit of press. And almost all of those articles focused on bits of
the panda genome that seemed a little surprising: that pandas can’t make
enzymes for digesting cellulose even though they eat nothing but bamboo, that
they can make enzymes for digesting meat and fat despite their vegetarian diet,
and that that they can’t taste meat thanks to a mutation that knocked out the unami
receptors on their tongues.
There’s just one problem: those things might be surprising
if you just think of a panda as a weird bear with a grass-eating habit, but they
actually make a lot of sense when you pull back and look at pandas in the context
of their evolutionary history. The place where pandas sit on their family tree lets
you predict what you might find in their genes. And in this case, those
predictions would be confirmed. Let’s look at those ‘surprising results’ again below the fold:
When I was a college undergraduate, DNA analysis was still incredibly high-tech and cutting-edge. The procedures were time-consuming, the experiments often failed, and only a handful of labs in the country were set up for it.
What a difference a couple of decades make. Now DNA analysis is so cheap and convenient that a couple of high-school students can check household dirt and food containers to see what's really in a New York apartment. Two students from Trinity School in Manhattan (not far from the American Museum of Natural History, where they did the lab work) found genes from 95 species in their New York apartments -- and discovered that 1 in 6 food products were mislabeled. They may have also discovered a new subspecies of cockroach.
This week is, of course, the mid-year break at most schools, so my son is home during the day on weekdays. Today he turned on the TV to watch the PBS channel. We've had trouble picking up that station since it went digital, but a few days ago my daughter spent about an hour painstakingly adjusting the antenna, so now we get it again. The images are slightly pixelated, making the cast of Sesame Street look like the suspects on Cops, but it just makes me nostalgic for the days of "snow" and double images on broadcast television.
At one point I asked my son what he was watching, and he replied, "The Dinosaur Train." That made me look up. See, back in 2008 I wrote a short story called "The Dinosaur Train," which appeared in the July '08 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (You can pick up that issue in electronic format here.) How the heck could he be watching my short story on television?
Well, it turns out that now there's a PBS educational show called The Dinosaur Train, produced by the Jim Henson Company. I've only watched part of an episode, and it seems to be straight dinosaur facts done with cartoony computer animation. No valuable life lessons that I could see, which is always a mercy. Overall it looks pretty good.
No, I'm not suing anyone. You can't copyright a title, and other than the convergence of dinosaurs and trains there's no real similarity between my story and the TV show. Given the amount of time it takes to develop and release an animated television series they must have been working on this before I ever set finger to keyboard. Still, it's a neat coincidence and I doubt I'll be able to resist any requests by my son to watch it.
As we do every year about this time, we're linking to the coolest, oddest, and most resolutely un-ironic Christmas theme Web site in existence: the NORAD Santa Tracker. It's just a matter of hours now before the giant radars and Keyhole-series satellites get to work. There are animations, and -- my favorite -- live commentary from the officers and airmen at NORAD headquarters.
I bake a lot. But most of my creations, although I've had people rave about the way they taste, aren't going to win any beauty contests. Ginger crinkles? Round and brown. English-style gingerbread? Square and brown. Grandfather's rugelach? Light brown and blobby. So I'm consumed with envy by the science cookie creations over at Not So Humble Pie. Fruit flies, lab mice, gingerbread microbiologists, and beautiful sparkly zebrafish are just a small sampling of what Ms. Humble does with cookie dough and royal frosting. That woman wields a mean icing tube.
I know I'm too much of a klutz to even attempt most of these designs, but maybe I can manage a simple batch of petri dishes this holiday. (Aren't they awesome?)
Welcome a 162 pound, 5-foot-4-inch baby boy, born on Monday to Puiji, a beluga whale at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He was a breech birth (that’s head-first, for a whale), but popped right to the surface for his first breath anyway. He got the hang of surfacing to breathe pretty quickly, but his swimming still needs work. As a rule, baby cetaceans are pretty floppy creatures (their bodies have to fold in half to fit inside the uterus – see the image below from Etnier, et al. 2008), but his tail should stiffen up in a few weeks and make him a far more efficient swimmer.
At times I think Japan must have some secret Ministry of Stuff That Will Freak Out The Foreign Devils. How else to explain this: A Tokyo department store is now selling robot duplicates of people. That's right, for Christmas you can give that special someone an exact android replica. (Presumably their first U.S. outlet will be in Stepford, Connecticut.)
I don't know about the rest of you, but if my wife told me she was getting a robot duplicate of me made, I'd start brushing up on my robot combat tips at the very least. Or go hole up in a bunker in the mountains with Sarah Connor and the gang.
Probably the creepiest aspect of this incredibly creepy story is that apparently most of the buyers so far have bought robot duplicates of themselves. Either they're the world's worst narcissists, or they're such boring people they figure nobody else will be able to tell the difference anyway.