Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Holy Shit, Aliens!

A while back, I mentioned my favorite folk singer - specifically, how he opened my eyes to supervolcanoes. This same gentleman tells a story on one of his albums about a friend of his named (not making this up) Vlad the Astrophysicist. Here's the full version:

The gist of it is that he asks his astrophysicist friend if there are aliens somewhere in the universe and, if so, why haven't they contacted us? The answer is, in essence, a poetic take on the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation takes the unknowable trillions of stars in the unknowable vastness of the Universe and tells us that, given the observable portion of those stars that have planets capable of supporting life, we can assume that other civilizations must exist, and estimate how many there are.

Of course, when you're dealing with something unknowable, the best you can do to solve the equation is estimate, and estimates so far for the Drake Equation have suggested that there are between 1,000 and 100,000 civilizations somewhere out in the Universe. That's a huge variation, but something is almost definitely out there.

The problem is that the universe is big, and there's an excessively slim chance that any two cultures on such a massive stage will ever meet each other. So, as Vlad pointed out, we seem to be more or less on our own.

But then there's the Wow! Signal.

The Wow! Signal
No, seriously, WOW!
The Wow! Signal was picked up by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, and yes, that's a thing) Project in 1977. It's a 72-second radio burst that came from somewhere other than Earth, and that fact alone is a smack straight to the gob. The listener on deck agreed, and unintentionally named the signal by writing "Wow!" on the printout he made of the event.

Sadly, when the excitement wore off, the stuffy and rational types wrote off the Wow! Signal, saying that if it were aliens, we'd be able to hear it again in the same spot. Case disappointingly closed.

Or not, according to a recent theory that the Wow! signal may have been specifically targeting other civilizations. In other words, this wasn't us listening in on someone's radio chatter, it was their civilization shooting off a message with someone like us in mind. We should know, we've done the same thing. We tossed a brief message off into space where we thought there might potentially be life, and we haven't repeated it.
The Arecibo Message
That's our message to aliens. Yeah. Straightforward, right?
Consider that for a second. First Contact is a concept that could potentially alter humanity's view of itself and its place in the galaxy. It could be the biggest discovery of all time. And it may have already happened.

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Holy Shit, The Plague!

The Triumph of Death

I sometimes like to think of history as a hulking behemoth lumbering forward without altering his course or taking much notice of his surroundings. Every once in awhile, an event will come along and punch history directly in his smug little face, laying him flat and leaving him bewildered and unsure of where to go. One such event was an occasion we like to call the Black Death, which was every bit as fun as its name suggests.

The Black Death is known today as the Bubonic Plague and is caused by a pesky bacterium named Yersinia pestis. It probably originated in China, where it casually murdered about 25 million people. At the time, that was a whopping 30% of China's population, and this tenacious little fella was just getting started. Through the Silk Road, which was a terrific avenue for trading items like silk, spices, and deadly bacteria, the Plague spread to Eastern Europe, where some friendly fleas pulled over and gave it a lift. The fleas hopped aboard rats, who hopped aboard merchant vessels, which set sail for Sicily.
Oriental Rat Flea
Look at his face. He knows what he's doing.
Once the Plague hit, Europe was utterly at its mercy. Today we freak the hell out when we hear about a new type of flu that causes mild discomfort and possibly serious illness if you're very young or very old. Swine flu, for example, has a mortality rate of under 10% and it scared the collective bejesus out of the world. Without any method of treatment available, the Bubonic Plague had a mortality rate of 90%. That's an apocalypse-grade mortality rate given how quickly it spread. How did it get around so fast? The lack of sanitation was the biggest factor, but it was partially due to the unfortunate truth that, in the immortal words of Kay from Men in Black, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

It being close to Halloween, we're seeing a lot of symbolic black cats around. Black cats are considered bad luck today. Way back in the day, people were much more committed to that superstition. As a result, black cats were frequently slaughtered for no goddamn reason. I'm sure you can see where this is going. The cat murder rate went up when the Plague hit and people drew an asinine link between black cats and Black Death. It would have a nice ring of poetic justice to it if it weren't so horrifying. With a reduced cat population, the rat population skyrocketed, and with them came pure, unadulterated death.
His name is Albert
Seriously though, this scares you?
 Within four years of its arrival, the Black Death cut the population of Europe in half. I could stop right there, because holy shit, 50% of Europe straight up died. Throughout its initial course, the plague killed 100 million people worldwide. Keep in mind that we have an absurdly high population count right now. Back then, 100 million people was roughly 1/4th of humanity, for god's sake.
Plague Victims
This kind of death was not what you'd call "dignified," either.
So how, aside from just flat out killing folks, did the Black Death punch history directly in the face? Well, when the people of Europe turned to their political and spiritual leaders for some idea of what the hell was going on with all the death, the response was a dumbfounded, slack-jawed, "Uh...Jews?"

Sadly, that excuse often worked. People believed God was angry, and when God was angry it was usually assumed that the reason was a lack of healthy anti-Semitic violence, so they went ahead and killed a bunch of Jews. Imagine their confusion when a good old fashioned Jew-killing somehow didn't stem the tide. So they went back to their political and spiritual leaders and said, "Seriously, guys, what the hell?!"
Burning Jews Alive. Seriously.
For years, there was no further response, because no one had any way to answer the question. The church, the nobility, and the institution of monarchy took an enormous beating when it became clear that they didn't actually have as buddy-buddy a relationship with heaven as they claimed. The resulting loss of faith, coupled with the sudden depletion of peasant workers, meant that it was time for some major overhauls in how things were run.

Peasants, finding themselves in a unique position where they were in higher demand, petitioned for -- and were often granted -- higher wages, less outright abuse, and the right to leave their jobs without being arrested (because yes, that was a thing that happened). In many cases, the peasants got so fed up they outright revolted. It was the beginning of a power shift that would ultimately tear down the institution of Feudalism and plant the seeds of Capitalism.

For the church, the consequences were equally severe. Their moral authority was damaged almost irreparably. There were already voices of dissent criticizing the corrupt excesses of the Vatican, and this plague was evidence enough that God was pissed off. That dissent would continue to spread at a much faster rate until finally, when conditions were right, a German monk nailed some papers to a door and kicked off the Reformation, in which almost half of Europe took one last look at Catholicism and said, "No, thank you."
Who's up for some horrific holy wars?

Here's the part that really boggles the hell out of my mind: this obscene body count and massive social upheaval was all caused by something so tiny that it was never observed and wouldn't even be discovered until 1894, about 500 years after the fact.
Yersinia pestis
The Microscopic Destroyer of Worlds

Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Holy Shit, Cannae!

Battle of Cannae
Who was the greatest military commander in human history? It's not a totally fair question since human history is a really long time and the whole Shoulders of Giants thing makes it hard to compare today's military mind's to yesterday's, but there still seems to be one name that constantly creeps up: Hannibal Barca. You know, the one who "crossed the Alps on elephants" (though there weren't actually that many of them, and almost all of them died in the journey). When you look at his record, he's a damn good candidate for the honor.

Hannibal Barca
Here he is turning a symbol of Roman authority on its head. I wonder if that's a metaphor.
 Of particular concern is his victory at the Battle of Cannae, where he faced an army double the size of his own, consisting of the most powerful heavy infantry in the world, on unfamiliar lands - and utterly crushed them. Let me set the scene.

Rome and Carthage were locked in a nasty feud for control of the Mediterranean. Hannibal, the top general of Carthage, was coming off of a pretty sweet victory at Lake Trasimene, where he had ambushed and routed a Roman army led by one of the two Consuls, the chief executives of Rome. Rome was laying low for a year, opting to avoid large confrontations and instead picking off Hannibal's army little bits at a time. The people of Rome were unhappy with that strategy. They wanted a big, juicy victory they could sing songs about. The government responded by raising an enormous army of around 90,000, under the joint command of the two new Consuls.

Cannae itself was a critical supply depot, and Hannibal kicked off the festivities by snatching it right out of Roman hands. The Consuls were a bit cross about that, so they decided it was time to lay the smack down on this Carthaginian asshole. Everything looked awesome for Rome up until the day of the battle.

Hannibal was a genius with preparation, and was always able to finagle himself into the right environmental position to get an advantage. On this day, he managed to find a spot where the wind and sun were at his back - which meant the sun and dust would go straight into Roman eyes. That was step one.

Step two was his cavalry. Numidians were, at the time, the very best horsemen in the Mediterranean, and they were on Hannibal's side. They were one of his key strengths, and were guaranteed to chase off the Roman cavalry.

Step three was the feet on the ground, and this is where he showed his masterstroke. Roman infantry typically put their strongest units in the center, where they could punch a hole straight through the enemy line. Hannibal responded by putting his weakest units in the center, but stacking it heavily.  The result was like a big, umbrella-shaped cushion. When something strong hit the center, the shape would bulge at the sides. And that's exactly what happened.
Cannae Formation
Ha! This is gonna be awesome.
 When the Romans hit the center of Hannibal's formation, it looked to them like they were winning hard. Everyone was retreating in front of them, so they just kept pushing. What they couldn't see (remember that dust and sun from earlier?) was that the enemy to the left and right was pushing forward just as much as them. Before long, Hannibal's army inverted its shape and wrapped halfway around the Romans.
Cannae Action

That's when the cavalry came back.
The wildebeasts are the Numidians
Oh ff...
 By the time the Numidian horses charged almost literally up the asses of their army, the Romans were shitting themselves in panic. Never before in recorded history had an army been so thoroughly surrounded on the field, and no matter where they looked, there was no escape. Morale might be the single most important element of any battle, and despite being a bigger force and having stronger soldiers in general, this encirclement sent Roman morale into a free fall.

By the time the dust had cleared, up to 75,000 Roman soldiers were dead, and up to 10,000 were prisoners. Hannibal's losses were somewhere around 5,000. It was one of the most crushing and humiliating defeats of all time, and it very nearly caused the collapse of Rome. Luckily for classicists, Hannibal didn't really have the means to capture cities, so he was unable to press his advantage. Eventually, Rome rebuilt and eked out a major victory against Hannibal that led to Carthage's surrender under grossly unfair conditions.

The Battle of Cannae is remembered today largely because holy shit, how did he pull that off? Specifically, because military academies ask that very question (albeit phrased more politely) to all potential officers.

If you're curious about what happened next, the name Hannibal became synonymous with "boogie man" in Roman culture, and Carthage was so intensely reviled that Cato the Elder, a prominent statesman, ended every single speech he gave, no matter what the topic, with the phrase, "Furthermore, I am of the opinion that Carthage should be destroyed."

Holy shit.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Holy Shit, Stem Cell Babies!

Stem Cell Colony

Stem cells are a scientific miracle. They are cells that can become any cell you want them to be. You take a stem cell and tell it, "Hey! Be a kidney!" and it can grow a goddamn kidney. I could stop there, because holy shit we can grow body parts from single cells, but there's much, much more.

The reason conservative folks have a raging hatred for stem cell research is that until recently, embryonic stem cells were the only ones that could be used to make miracles happen. Embryonic stem cells typically come from abortions, which is a rather unpopular process in many political circles. That's all changing now because of the 2012 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine. These guys have proven that you can do a lot of the same blowing of minds (and saving of lives) by using adult stem cells. So get ready for some enormous medical advances in the next few years.

Again, I could stop there, but it gets even wilder.

The part that sticks out to me - the part that brings the loudest "Holy shit!" from the depths of my boggled mind - is the part where scientists might eventually be able to hand craft goddamn babies from stem cells. Wait! don't say it yet, I'm not done!

Japanese scientists have successfully created both sperm cells and egg cells from non-embryonic stem cells in mice. Both genders of mice. BOTH GENDERS OF MICE. Let that sink in.

This is largely speculation at this point, but it's speculation that is rapidly moving into the realm of plausibility. Do you know what the implications of this are?

 Well...yeah...but also:

The Gay Book
It may be a while before we know how well this is going to work, but no matter what happens...STEM CELLS. Holy shit.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Holy Shit, Monkey Language!

Capuchin Look of Disapproval

Remember how I fucking love monkeys? Because monkeys are both adorable and intelligent, which is a winning combination in my book. How intelligent are they? Oh, rhetorical device, you always know just the right questions to ask! How would you like to hear an example of simian intelligence?

Let's talk about Capuchin monkeys. Capuchins are basically the quintessential monkey's monkey. They're a New World species, meaning they live in Central and South America, and they are the monkey that people usually picture when they hear the word monkey (unless they picture chimpanzees, in which case they're picturing an ape and should feel rather silly for making such an elementary mistake). They are the organ grinder monkey, the helper monkey, and the monkey that gave the most adorable "Heil Hitler" salute in cinematic history (shortly before a tragic rendezvous with some bad dates).

Nazi Monkey
R.I.P., little Nazi. *sniff*

In the wild, Capuchins have an impressive ability to function as a community. They have the same social structure as most other mammals. The alpha monkeys get most of the grub and most of the tail, while the weaker ones have to settle for whatever the alphas don't want. Oh, and you know what else they have? Language. Bona fide language. It's not terribly complex, and it's certainly not the reason an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters will eventually produce the Great Simian Novel, but it's there and it serves its purpose.

See, Capuchins deal with a lot of crap on a daily basis, and much of that crap wants to eat them. Their greatest defense is their agility, which allows them to get away at a moment's notice. If there's a snake, they need to climb trees. If there's a bird of prey, then need to hide in the brush. Their only problem is that their predators have learned to be rather sneaky. What's a Capuchin to do?

Develop language, that's what. They have a different screech for every type of danger. When a snake shows up, one of the monkeys in the troop will say "SNAKE!" But in monkey, so, "BAKADAKA BRAAAK!" Instantly, the entire troop takes to the trees to escape the danger. Pretty cool, huh? It gets better.

Let's say there's a lowly little Capuchin who finds an egg he wants to eat. Social rules say that he needs to give his delicious morsel to the alpha, but he's really hungry, and that Alpha guy is a real dick. He decides he wants to keep the egg for himself, but he has no hope of facing the alpha directly. Once again, what's a Capuchin to do?

The answer: become a filthy little liar. He screeches, "SNAKE!" and everyone but him hauls ass to the trees. With a little chuckle, he pulls the egg from its hiding place and chows down. Does that violate the trust of the troop? Yeah. But a monkey's gotta eat, right? See it in action:

Let's recap:

Monkeys can talk, but only in their language (holy shit!)

They use their power of speech to lie (holy shit!)

Which gives us pretty strong evidence that they have active imaginations. See why I love monkeys so much?

Seriously. Holy shit.