Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A-Z Challenge. S. Statement for Today

Today is Earth Day. It should be every day.
It is also 'S' day. So here is my Statement for today.

I pledge allegiance to the Earth, and to the Universe in which it rotates; one planet, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all life.
May all life sing on all Days of this Earth.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A-Z Challenge: Quoting a Quark.

"Quack, quack!", said the Quark. He thought he was a duck.

The neighboring Loon looked over and said, "Oh, hum. How elementary. And what is the matter now?"

"I'm not sure. I can't see where my children are! They are always together. Even if they can't be seen," replied the Quark.

"I see," nodded the Loon.

"No you don't. You can't see them!," exclaimed the Quark. "They tend to group themselves in these 'hadrons', as they call themselves. And they seem to elude me all the time."

Loon ruffled his feathers. "Sure; there is probably a very strong force between them. What are your children's names?"

Quark thought for a moment, trying to remember. "I think their names are Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Bottom, and Top. That is, if I remember correctly."

With a shake of his neck, Loon muttered in his beak, "You've got to be kidding me. And they call this 'fysics?'"

In 1963, when I assigned the name ‘quark’ to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork’. Then, in one of my occasional perusals of ‘Finnegans Wake,’ by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark’ in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark.’ Since ‘quark’ (meaning, for one thing, the cry of a gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with ‘Mark,’ as well as ‘bark’ and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as ‘kwork.’ But the book represents the dreams of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the ‘portmanteau words’ in ‘Through the Looking Glass.’

From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be the pronunciation for ‘Three quarts for Mister Mark,’ in which case the pronunciation ‘kwork’ would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.
—Murray Gell-Mann, in his book The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.
Murray Gell-Mann, born in 1929, is an American physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics (or, that 'f' word, fysics) for his work on the theory of elementary particles. Including quarks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A-Z Challenge: P. I smell Petrichor.

Here in the desert some of us can smell rain even before it falls to the ground around our feet. Yet when the precious blood of life hits the ground, the scents released are intoxicating. A musty odor, an earthy smell mixes and invades your nostrils waking primitive instincts and emotions in our lizard brains. Possibly the oldest scent on this earth, next to the salt-laden smell of the seas, it speaks of hunger, rebirth, enlightenment, and longing. More than anywhere else, it is a call to life in the deserts where water is so scarce. After the initial experience, all newcomers and old-time dwellers dream of the smell of the desert: rain.

The scent of rain on the desert floor after a long period of dryness is a pleasure. It's even sensuous. In fact, it has a scientific name, 'petrichor', coined by two Australian researchers back in 1964. The origins of the term are rooted in Greek and its mythology: petros means stone and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.

The odor is said to be a concoction of a variety of compounds. One source is plant chemicals that are trapped in the earth, or in plant leaf and bark cuticles. Rain water releases them into the air. Some plants exude oils during dry periods, which are then absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. Water from rain will often signal plants to release oils from their cuticles, and droplets displace oils that are trapped on soil surfaces.

Many silicious and clay (argillaceous) materials are known to have odors that are released when wet. During a rainstorm and especially after a drought, compounds which accumulate over time in dry rocks and soil are mixed and released into the atmosphere. Falling water disturbs and displaces odoriferous molecules on surfaces, particularly on dry ones, and then carries them into the air.

In wet areas, a metabolic by-product of soil-dwelling bacteria (Actinobacteria) is secreted when they produce spores during dry conditions. These compounds attach to soil particles. The force of rain landing on the ground sends these spores and the odiferous compounds up into the air. The result is a distinctive scent, called 'geosmin'. The smell of geosmin is often the strongest during the first rain after a dry spell because the largest supply of spores has collected in the soil.

Another contribution to the scent of rain may be ozone, especially if there is lightning. A lightning bolt’s electrical charge will split oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere. These molecules often recombine into nitric oxide (NO), which then interacts with other chemicals in the atmosphere to produce ozone. And this can be blown on the wind for miles.

But why are we so attracted to that smell of rain? Why is it like a siren that calls us and makes us smile? Anthropologist Diana Young of the University of Queensland, Australia, explored the connection between color and the smell of rain. While studying the culture of Western Australia’s Pitjantjatjara people, she observed that they associate the smell of rain with the color green. This suggests that there is a deep-seated link between a season’s first rain and the expectation of growth and associated game animals. Both are critical as a food source. She calls this 'cultural synesthesia', the blending of different sensory experiences on a society-wide scale due to evolutionary history.

For us in the desert and other arid-environments, the smell is also associated with a rebirth and awakening of life.

I can smell the drenched desert floor. It’s not the old heavy odor of wet wood, soggy black mud and swollen green grass of the north country. Nor is it the overwhelmingly sharp salty fish and frothy seaweed smell of the ocean coast. Instead it is an acrid aroma of hidden and dead ancient sea creatures whose shells remain to tell stories, a spicy phenolic scent released from plants that awaken only in the presence of moisture. A strong musky odor from eons of baked, blown and accumulated dust, sand, gravel and rocks encapsulates all these other smells into an undulating mixture that wafts into nasal cavities of warm and cold-blooded creatures. If you open your mouth, you can even taste it.

From those sensory channels, these odors are translated into mixed signals and stories in the brain. It is a discourse that knows no words, only ticklings deep inside that elicit subconscious memories and innate responses. - Excerpt from an essay by Elzi Volk (me), My Desert Smells Like Rain

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A-Z Challenge. Ohm.

In case new readers haven't caught on yet, I have an odd and inexplicable curiosity of names. (My favorite subject is toponyms, but that's for the letter 'T'.) This interest even surfaces in my science writing where I often address scientific names and common names of, well, just about everything in science. Yet, I am also known for totally disregarding official names, including my own. I'll let the couch-psychologists toy with that.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes (literally, desert dust) and listening to a quail thumping outside my window while waiting for my coffee to brew, the roulette in my mind landed on a rather insignificant word for today's letter 'O': ohm.

What's in an 'ohm'?

Some might recall from physics (the 'F' word, 'fysics') class learning about the relationship between the potential difference applied across a conductor and the resultant electric current; aka Ohm's Law.

Those with an engineering slant will immediately gravitate to that Pièce de résistance of electricity, the ohm. It is an SI (International System of Units) unit of resistance: the proportionality of current and voltage in a resistor. The definition of ohm as a unit has undergone several revisions since the 1860's, but it also has been assigned a symbol: Ω. That's easier to remember.

Probably few know that Georg Ohm, the German mathematician and physicist, received most of his education in chemistry, mathematics, physics and philosophy from his self-taught father, who was a locksmith by trade. His brother, Martin, also became a well-known mathematician. Despite the lack of exceptional institutional education, both siblings surmounted that resistance with family motivation. Seems to be the 'Ohm way.'

But there are more 'ohm's to be had. A large impact crater on the far side of the Moon (cue Pink Floyd) is known as the 'Ohm lunar crater'. The name of that crater was assigned by the the International Astronomical Union, and, of course, in tribute to our friend Georg Ohm.

The Ohm River lies in the region of Hesse, Germany, and is a tributary of the greater Lahn River. Suitably, the town of Homberg/Ohm in the valley of the Ohm was famous for its beer in the 13th century.

Now let's go across the ocean to the U.S. The small town in Ohm, California, was named (1900) after the Ohm Ranch. Thomas Ohm, a German native, established the ranch in 1868 and raised grain. I wonder if his crop was hops.

South of the border, a Mexican of German descent, Germán Ohm, was a popular featherweight boxer. His boxing career was short, spanning the age 18 to his retirement at 22. Most of his fights of recognition took place in the late 1950's. Seems that his fists carried the Ohm legacy of resistance.

Sweeping across the globe now to India, and overlapping centuries across time, 'ohm' is also an alternative spelling for 'om'. The sound is a mantra of Hindu origin, but also a sacred sound in Buddhism, Dharma and Jainism. The syllable represents many meanings depending on the source.

Anyone that grew up in the 1960's (me, for instance) will recognize its association with the Flower Child and Peace Anti-war Movements. One explanation probably describes it in both earlier and latter contexts: ""OM" is the reflection of the absolute reality, it is said to be "Adi Anadi", without beginning or the end and embracing all that exists." Or, as I like to put it, "No matter where you go, there you are."

And with that, let's slowly form the syllable 'Om' in our throats and mouths, slowly humming it out with no resistance, and embrace the day.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A-Z Challenge. N. What are 'Names.'

What is a name? What is 'in' a name? It's a Human thing :)

Lizard walked ungracefully into the café front room carrying a carafe of coffee, “Hey, my back legs get tired of holding up all my weight all day in here. But will ya look at these thigh muscles! The chicks are going to really like me.”

“You’re just lazy, Lizard. I see your brothers and sisters running around on their hind legs all the time,” Burro chimed in and quickly changed the subject. “So, I heard one of Juanita’s javelina babies got run over last night by one of those big metal things you humans hide in all the time. She and her family tried to cross River Road again in pitch dark. I keep telling her not to do that.”

Coyote briefly looked up from his bowl on the table and muttered, “Yup. Victoria and Hector were cleaning it up early this morning when I trotted by.”

She shook her head while pouring herself another cup of hot coffee. “What?” asked Lizard looking at She. 

“I’m still trying to get used to a pair of vultures named ‘Victoria’ and ‘Hector’.” 

Coyote put his front paws on the table, uttering a sound that could have been mistaken for a sarcastic laugh. “We only use names for you Humans. We really don’t have names; we have smells.” Lizard and Burro nodded. 

“You mean, each one of you has your own smell? And you name each other by smell?”

Burro chimed in with a bray, “I smell good!”

“No, you don’t, Burro. You stink!” Coyote uttered that sound again, more like a snicker, and proceeded to explain. “We don’t name smells. We just…..smell. And our smells change.”

Lizard nodded, swirling his long blue tail in between his front foot pads. “That’s right. We all smell, and you all smell. Your smell changes, too. I can tell when you are mad by smelling you."

“Right. You Humans stink, too. Now would you please fill my bowl? I’d like more cream this time.” Coyote pushed his bowl towards She.
“Only if you don’t splatter it all over the table while slurping it.” She picked up the brightly colored bowl with 'Coyote’s' painted on it in brown and filled it part way with water, adding a dash of cream.

Written by Myself. Her. She. It. Human. Call me whatever you like. :)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A-Z Challenge: M is Message and Meme.

What is a meme? What is a message? What is a gene? What is the basic denominator of life?

If you consider on a broad scale, information is what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things. That covers all scales, from a phone call, to nanoparticles and electrons, to sound, to firing neurons, to light traveling the universe. Any thing conveyed from one point to another, the 'message', is a transfer of information.

A unit containing information can be thought of as a message. For example, the well-known and greatest significance for the gene is its information transfer in living material. The content of this message carries instructions; it is what determines the structure and function of life. The exchange between a hormone and an organic tissue is an active and dynamic process of information transfer. 

The same can be said of any interaction at any scale and reduced to the laws of physics: for every action there is a reaction. The degree and direction of both action and reaction are dependent upon the information that is exchanged between the two points. Our attempts to understand that information is analogous to decoding the 'message'.

To add another related word to the 'M' box for the day, the information transfer in human social life contains messages that we may or may not be aware of, and which propagates through the social hierarchy like a gene. It is called the 'meme'. A meme is an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

In the 1980's, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins likened our social information transfer to genes in that our ideas can replicate, mutate, and evolve. It was Dawkins that coined the use of the term, 'meme'. Just like in physical and biological systems, information is actively communicated in a network, transmitted and received, coded and decoded. Messages that we receive are processed in our brains and then transmitted into the same or another network where it exponentially mutates, evolves and replicates. 

Dawkins wrote:
“Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. They compete with one another for limited resources: brain time or bandwidth. They compete most of all for attention." (The Selfish Gene)
Messages, memes.....They all transmit, replicate, and evolve information. “All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.” (R. Dawkins)

It's a meme life out there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A-Z Challenge: L. Life is a strange thing.....

One door closes and another opens.

Deja vu from 18 years ago. 

"Life is a strange thing
Just when you think you learnt how to use it
It's gone."
- Shakespears Sister - Hello