August 30, 2010

Bear's Breakout Bid Foiled By Bicycle

Many species are provably much more intelligent than many humans give them credit for being. Here is the story of one of them.
Spectacled bear
Photo by Kuribo via Wikimedia Commons

Juan the Andean spectacled bear made a bold attempt to escape from his enclosure in the Berlin Zoo. He first paddled across a moat using a log for a raft, then scaled a wall. Juan made a beeline for an adjacent playground full of children. 

Some parents panicked, but the zoo's deputy director Heiner Kloes said that the bear probably did not pose a threat to the zoo patrons. "Spectacled bears eat both vegetables and meat but children tend not to be on their menu," he said. "I'd have been a lot more worried if one of our polar bears had escaped," he added. He did say, however, that he was "alarmed at how some fathers were too busy filming the bear to check where their children were." 

Fortunately, Spectacled Bears are diminutive and relatively mild-mannered animals native to Northern and Western South America. They are the only remaining living bear species in the South Americas. These bears are what is left of a larger bear group called the short-faced bears. They are smaller than bears found in other parts of the world.

Next, the bear tried to commandeer a bicycle but couldn't get the hang of the pedals. Amateur photographers captured the bear investigating the bicycle and roaming around the playground.

Finally, zookeepers with brooms cornered him, shot him full of tranquilizers, and carried him back to his enclosure. Naturally, they removed the logs from the moat to prevent the bear from repeating the escape attempt. Next time, poor Juan will have to find a new way to cross the moat.

August 25, 2010

The Big Swim Across Monterey Bay

Monterey, California-- On Tuesday evening, August 24, 2010, Mr. Bruckner Chase became the second person to swim all of the way across Monterey Bay. The first was a woman who made the swim in 1983. Central Coast News followed Mr. Chase for the entire 23 mile swim from Santa Cruz to the Monterey peninsula, along with a crew of boats. Chase told reporters that he made the swim to bring attention to the state of our oceans and highlight the work being done by the National Marine Sanctuaries and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

On Chase's twitter feed, he announced that too many jellyfish forced him to don a wetsuit on about an hour into the swim Tuesday morning. Good things for him that he had one on hand. Jellyfish,  had forced him to stop his attempt at the same swim last year, but this time he pressed on. He triumphantly set foot on Monterey sand with only about 90 jellyfish stings. Is this one small step for Bruckner, one giant leap for the earth's oceans?

A second woman tried to make the swim just two days earlier, but she had to quit because of the jelly fish stinging her hundreds of times. Bruckner got nearly a hundred in his first hour. Actually, the actual stinging isn't what bothers ocean swimmers. It is the toxin that is deposited by the jellyfish; it actually causes the body temperature to drop and the swimmer is rapidly threatened with hypothermia. Swimmers try to survive without the suit to qualify for the English Channel association official standard. Chase tried last year and got four hours into his swim before jellyfish stings forced him to give up. 

This year, after being defeated in his bid for the English Channel associate official standard, he decided to complete the swim for the purpose of environmental awareness and not standard awards and put on the wetsuit after an hour. Around the world, August is the season for big blooms of jelly fish. Safety teams follow the swimmers in boats as they brave big waves, killer whales, and sharks.

August 24, 2010

All About Birds: Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle in flight above Silver Lake, El Dorado National Park, CA

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a large, predatory bird found in North America. It is the official national bird and of the United States of America. It is actually a species of sea eagle and its range includes most of Canada and Alaska, all of the contiguous United States, and northern Mexico. It is usually found near large bodies of open water with an abundant food supply and large, old-growth trees for nesting.

In the late 20th century the Bald Eagle had almost vanished from the continental United States due to pollution and poisons that found their way into the bird's food supplies. Since then, environmental protection and bans on some chemicals enabled Bald Eagle populations in the United States to recover and stabilize. The species was removed from the U.S. federal government's list of endangered species and transferred to the list of threatened species on July 12, 1995, and it was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the Lower 48 States on June 28, 2007.

Bald Eagles are not actually bald, the name deriving from the older meaning of the word, "white headed" because the feathers on their heads are white. The distinctive white head and tail of this bird create a stark contrast with the black feathers on its body as can be seen in the photo above. Immature Bald Eagles are brown.

August 20, 2010

Honeycomb Cloud "Communication"

A newly-published scientific study has identified a new and exciting cloud structure: wisps of clouds that form a honeycomb-like structure and behave in an amazing and fun-to-watch manner. When these cloud fields appear over the ocean at least, their cycles and patterns are in fact quite regular and not at all random. These open-cell marine clouds "communicate" with each other so that they constantly oscillate, or rearrange themselves, in a synchronized pattern, according to a new study from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Communication, in this sense, is of course being used to describe the way that the clouds behave, and is not meant to suggest sentience to the overly-imaginative.

According to a National Geographic summary, "Inside the thick clouds of the cell walls, water droplets grow, then fall as rain, and the walls dissipate. The raindrops evaporate as they fall, cooling the air, which generates downward air currents." When the downdrafts meet the surface of the ocean, they flow outward, collide with each other and "force the air to move upward again" and "form new open cell walls at a different location," explained study co-author Hailong Wang, who is a cloud physicist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.

The laws of physics cause the patterns to be fractal in nature and while they are fun to watch from below, they look awesome from above. The new clouds eventually rain in unison, too, as part of a cycle of patterned reorganization that can continue for days, according to the study.

August 18, 2010

19th Amendment 90 Years Old Today


The right to vote is not automatic. It has been long fought for and hard won by many groups of people over the years. Ninety years ago today, American women won the right to vote. In honor of this 90th anniversary of votes for women, here is the text of the 19th amendment to the United States Bill of Rights, which was ratified on August 18, 1920, by the Tennessee General Assembly:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

Tennessee was the thirty-sixth state to ratify, giving the amendment the requisite approval of three-fourths of the states. The Washington Post reported today that the amendment passed after 24 year-old legislator Harry Burn changed his vote, at the insistence of his mother.

Black men won the right to vote via the 14th and 15th amendments in 1868, more than 50 years before American women. At the time, women's suffrage advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton faced a conundrum: Stanton had to decide whether to support the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which enabled black men to vote at a time when white women such as herself still did not have that right. It just goes to emphasize the unfairness and dishonor inherent in denying any group of people their rights based on unrelated characteristics such as skin pigmentation, gender, or sexual preference, for that matter. History tends to repeat itself when we don't heed its lessons.

The right to vote is powerful, and power lies with those to exercise it wisely and knowledgeably.

August 17, 2010

Space Station Repaired!

Photo courtesy of NASA
Astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson wrapped up a successful spacewalk on Monday, installing a new ammonia pump to recover from a failure that shut down half the International Space Station's cooling systems.

"We had an extremely successful EVA today," Kirk Shireman, deputy manager of the space station program at the Johnson Space Center, said after the spacewalk. "We're very pleased with the results. We still have some more activities this afternoon and tomorrow to fully recover from the pump module failure, but things are certainly looking positive and we're looking forward to that."

August 6, 2010

International Space Station Cooling Malfunction

UPDATE 8/17/10:
Space Station Repaired!

UPDATE, 8/8/10: 
Two astronauts have gone on one of the longest spacewalks ever - but still did not manage to fix a faulty component on the International Space Station. Ongoing maintenance issues are par for the course with a machine as large and complex as the space station. According to Sky News, Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson were trying to restore the station's cooling system when they spotted an ammonia leak. After eight hours and three minutes they had to abandon their efforts.

"We're going to end up being in this condition... a few more days than originally planned," ISS manager Michael Suffredini said. "The challenge is to get through this problem before the next problem hits the other cooling system."

The International Space Station suffered a massive cooling system failure that astronauts in orbit around earth will try and fix this week.

The  malfunction knocked out half of the space station's cooling system, forcing the crew of six to turn off unnecessary equipment and halt scientific work to avoid any overheating. NASA's space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, ranked the problem as one of the most serious in the 12-year history of the orbiting lab, but stressed the outpost could keep going indefinitely given the current situation. The main fear now is that the second cooling loop could shut down at any moment and leave the station in precarious shape.
For the time being, the crew has everything they need to survive as all life support  systems are active," Suffredini told reporters Monday. "What we're talking about, really, is it would be a significant challenge if we suffered the next failure."

Two of the Americans on board, Douglas Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, will attempt a spacewalk to replace the pump. The 780-pound pump is difficult to handle, and the astronauts will need to guard against any hazardous ammonia leaks.

All images courtesy of NASA.