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Weekend Diversion: Mmmmmm… MEAT!

February 23, 2008 on 1:18 pm | In Life, Random Stuff | 15 Comments

As someone who’s spent a lot of time in a University setting, one of the thing that often shocks me is the number of vegans that are out there. Why is it shocking? Because you need meat for proper nutrition. Now, I thought this was common knowledge, that humans are omnivores and that eating other animal products was the best way to get many of the essential nutrients your body needs. Plus, meat is delicious, and when I’ve gone a long time without eating it, my body physically feels better when I finally have some again.

But apparently, it isn’t common knowledge, because a vegan couple starved their baby to death by feeding it a strictly vegan diet. And to make matters worse, there is some really poor misinformation out there from reputable-looking sources. Take a look at and what they have to say; it’s completely bogus! Additionally, leading vegetarian websites have fabricated information about eating animal products being unhealthy for you. Why do I say that?

Because scientific research shows that vegan diets harm children. Is meat-eating really more unethical, as some claim, than malnourishing either yourself or others?

Let’s take a look at the science itself:

  • Children in Kenya were fed their normal diets, with three possible supplements; one group got 60 grams of meat, one group got a cup of milk, and one group got the caloric equivalent in vegetable oil.
  • All groups gained, on average, an extra 400 grams of body weight compared to the no supplement groups.
  • The meat group showed an 80% increase in upper arm strength, the milk group showed a 40% increase, the vegetable oil, no effect.
  • Finally, the children with meat grew up stronger, larger, and more intelligent as based on mathematics and reasoning tests.

The conclusions of all of these studies? Meat makes kids big, strong, and smart. Now I’m not saying it’s impossible to get all of these effects by adding all the proper vegan supplements to a vegan diet, but if it is, we don’t know what they are. So eat meat, and be happy, healthy, strong, and intelligent.

Or, you can deny reality and be crazy. I’ve made my choice:

…what’s yours?

Q & A: The Age and Size of the Universe?

February 21, 2008 on 6:30 pm | In Astronomy, Gravity, Physics, Q & A | 5 Comments

Alright; this is a question I’ve been putting off for various poor reasons, but Starts With A Bang! reader Andy asks:

If Im looking at something, the light from which has taken 15 billion years to get to me, and there was only an opaque ball of radiation and stuff 15 billion years ago, why do I see formed galaxies? Shouldnt the age of the universe be: TIME LIGHT FROM OBJECT TAKES TO REACH ME + TIME TAKEN TO FORM OBJECT IM LOOKING AT?

In other words, how can I see things like galaxies that are 15 billion light years away, if the Universe isn’t even 15 billion years old?! This is a damned good question, and something that took me about two years in graduate school to figure out the answer to.

First off, how old is the Universe? Well, you can take a look at the oldest stars that we see, and you know the Universe has to be at least that old. So far, of all the stars we’ve been able to accurately date, the oldest is HE 1523-0901, coming in at 13.2 billion years old. (It’s identified in the image at right.)

Want to get more accurate than that? There are other methods, too, like looking at radioactive element abundances (at left). If we know how these elements were created, and we know their half-lives, we can figure out how old something is by measuring how much of that radioactive material is left. That’s how we know that the oldest rocks on Earth are 3.8 billion years old, for example. We can apply these methods to the Milky Way, and we find that it is between 12.3 and 17.3 billion years old. But can we be more certain than that?

Yes. Because we measure the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background (2.725 K), and we know what the Universe is made out of today: 73% dark energy, 27% dark matter, and maybe 0.01% radiation (photons and the like). Put those together, and you can calculate how old the Universe is today, as compared to an arbitrarily high temperature, and you find that it’s between 13.5 and 13.9 billion years old: pretty accurate for my tastes!

So, now we know how old the Universe is. Does that mean that it’s 13.7 billion light-years in size? Surprisingly, no. Take a look at the “model universe” below, which is a balloon with coins (that can represent galaxies, if you like) glued onto it:

Let’s pretend that we are the quarter at the center, and we’re looking at the dime on the left. When the Universe was younger, it was smaller, and the dime was closer to us (left panel). The dime emits light at us, and the light starts traveling towards us along the balloon. But as the Universe ages (middle panel) and ages even more (right panel), the balloon expands. This means two things for us:

  • the light emitted gets redshifted on its way towards us, and
  • the light has to travel a longer distance to reach us than it would have were the Universe not expanding.

So when we see the light from the dime today, and someone tells you how far away it is, it’s not always easy to tell whether they mean

  1. how far away was it from us when the light was emitted
  2. how far away is it now that we observe it, or
  3. how long has the light been traveling towards us, and what is that time multiplied by the speed of light?

When you read a press release, the “distance” they usually (but not always) give is the third option, which is always younger than the age of the Universe times the speed-of-light. But, if you want to know how far is that object from us today, that’s the second option, and that number can be much greater, up to 46 billion light years in any direction from us.

Now, you might ask, does this mean that space is expanding faster than the speed of light? The answer, my dear friend, is yes. Take that brain-buster to your physics teacher and watch him/her go into denial; it’s awesome! (It is, of course, because the Universe expands in a very bizarre, complicated, but moreover counterintuitive way; see the illustration at right.) Then send them to my webpage and to Ned Wright’s page for the more technical explanation.

And if your brain ain’t broke yet, check out the latest Carnival of Space, where they have my post on why we need dark matter!

Lunar Eclipse: Clouded out here!

February 20, 2008 on 8:37 pm | In Astronomy, Solar System, Video | 6 Comments

I was driving home from work at about 6:30 today and noticed the Moon, still orange, hanging low on the horizon. The lower left corner was just starting to be shadowed by the Earth. As it rose a little higher, it turned yellow and then white, as we learned it should.

Then we got clouded out, and right now, during totality, the entire sky is covered in clouds. But I started thinking, “What if I were in space?” Well, the Moon appears red/orange every day during Moonrise/Moonset from Earth, but would appear white from space. But the red/orange during a total eclipse? The Moon would still be that color even from space during an eclipse! Even to a Venusian or a Martian! In fact, to someone anywhere in space, a total lunar eclipse would be the only time the Moon would appear reddish/orange.

That’s all; a quick post because I thought that was neat. Hope your eclipse-watching goes better than mine!

UPDATE: Orbiting frog has a few things to say about that, but one thing they have is a (computer generated) video of what watching the lunar eclipse might be like from the surface of the Moon! Take a look below:

And if you haven’t gotten enough Astronomy yet, take a look at this week’s Carnival of Space, where they link to my awesome post about why we need dark matter!

Pulsars, Dark Matter, and the Size of our Galaxy

February 20, 2008 on 8:22 am | In Astronomy, Dark Matter, Physics, Q & A, Scientific papers | 3 Comments

Alright, startswithabang-ers, Ben, my most avid commenter, saw me online while I was eating breakfast this morning, and pointed me to this new press release. Now, before you get started clicking on everything, the guy who the release is about is Brian Gaensler, who’s a really nice guy, lives in Australia, whom I met at the AAS (American Astronomical Society) meeting in Austin, TX last month. Bryan’s also brilliant.

Basically, what he did was he said, “well, we know what the rough density of hot gas in our galaxy is, and we can measure the timing of these pulsars to extraordinary accuracy.” And that’s true. What he then did was he realized that light of different wavelength gets affected differently by the gas. By realizing just how much, and calculating the arrival time difference between different wavelengths, he figured out how much gas these pulses traveled through, and therefore how far away they are. Now, here’s where it gets interesting (from the press release):

Astrophysicist Professor Bryan Gaensler led a team that has found that our galaxy - a flattened spiral about 100,000 light years across - is 12,000 light years thick, not the 6,000 light years that had been previously thought.

What does this mean? It means our galaxy is twice as thick as we thought! “Our galaxy” means the part of it where gas and stars are, or the size of the galactic disk. Learning new stuff every day.

Now, Ben remembered that I happen to be the world expert (somehow) on using pulsar timing to search for dark matter. And so he asked me this:

I’m guessing since missing galactic mass is one of the motivations for dark matter that this might revise our thinking on that somewhat, too? Maybe help figure out where and what it is?

Does this help me? Unfortunately, no. The pulsars that he used to do this are the ones found in globular clusters (at right). While there are plenty of them, globular clusters are too dense for me to use them to search for dark matter; very dense environments mess up precision timing, since the gravitational signature of the nearby stars would swamp any gravitational signal from dark matter. How dense are globular clusters? If I drew a sphere 4 light-years in radius, centered on our Sun, I would come almost to the next closest star. But if I did this to a star in a globular cluster, I would find that there are up to 1,000,000 other stars in my sphere! That, my friend, is dense!

Q & A: Can We Clone a Woolly Mammoth?

February 19, 2008 on 7:27 pm | In Evolution, Life, Q & A, Random Stuff | 4 Comments

What? Is this a joke, Ethan? Have you been watching Jurassic Park again, drinking Dino DNA or something? No, I got an interesting question from reader and ichthyophobe Lucas:

Over the years a few intact, frozen woolly mammoth have been found and procured by different scientists and governments, most recently Japan. What are they doing with these ancient popsicles? Cloning? Could a frozen woolly mammoth be effectively cloned?

Aaah, the woolly mammoth, something we think of as ancient, but really it only went extinct an estimated 3,700 years ago, with the last mammoths dying on Wrangel Island in Northern Russia. Because we’ve found so many carcasses of woolly mammoths in Siberia and Alaska, we know what they looked like very accurately:

(Apparently, they largely ignored their human predators on the left, and that’s why they’re extinct.) So we’ve got the frozen ones, some (bizarre) scientists are thawing them, and Lucas isn’t crazy, people have been speculating about how to clone them.

If I wanted to clone it, though, what would I need? Well, in the end, you still need a fertilized woolly mammoth egg. This needs three components:

  • An intact egg.
  • Complete woolly mammoth DNA.
  • A fertilized, ready-to-reproduce nucleus.

Well, the first one is easy. You can do it the hard way, which is to thaw a female woolly mammoth and find an intact egg in her ovaries that hasn’t sustained any damage from being slowly frozen after already being dead and decaying. Umm… that sounds pretty preposterous, doesn’t it? But like I said, getting an intact egg is easy. Because you can use an elephant egg. Did you know you can mix eggs like that? Well it’s been done already, a cow has given birth to a live bison, and a human nucleus has been infused into a cow’s egg, and divided just like a fertilized egg! How does this happen? It turns out that, nuclei aside, almost all mammalian eggs are pretty much identical. So that’s step one taken care of, just by getting an elephant.

So now you’ve got your egg. What to do next? Well, I think that’s pretty clear: you’ve got to get it fertilized. You can try it old-school (regular old egg+sperm), or new-school (right). The old-school drawback is that we’d need an intact woolly mammoth egg with intact DNA and intact woolly mammoth sperm. You’re not likely to hit the jackpot twice. Artificially implanting a “naked” host egg cell (elephant egg with the nucleus removed) with woolly mammoth DNA isn’t enough, either. Although we need complete mammoth DNA, and that’s hard to get, because dying, decaying, and getting frozen tends to damage DNA (and for an incomprehensible technical explanation, see here), even getting that wouldn’t be enough. You need complete DNA inside a preserved and undamaged nucleus. In fact, what scientists have found here is that an undamaged nucleus in a damaged cell will often be fine, but a damaged nucleus in an undamaged cell is doomed.

So what do we do? Well, in living organisms, the place to go for undamaged cell nuclei is into the bone marrow. Could this be where woolly mammoths have their best chance for undamaged DNA? I have no idea. What they’re going to have to do is search that whole damned carcass looking for an intact nucleus full of good, healthy mammoth DNA. Then you stick your junk in that egg, and that’s the way you do it.

So what are the prospects for this? Well, from this report, you can try the following as your best bet:

If they can get an intact cell nucleus, they may try to clone the mammoth using an elephant egg and an elephant as a surrogate mother. Or they might use frozen sperm, if they can get any, to try to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid.

So if they get an intact nucleus, they’ll do what I said above, but that second possibility isn’t exactly what Lucas wanted, but damn, is that interesting! Could we even do that — make a woollephant? We don’t know whether woolly mammoths and elephants can breed, whether they’re the same species, or whether their offspring would be viable (or as sterile as mules), but what an interesting possibility!

Thanks, Lucas, for making me learn all this weird stuff to answer your question. Got comments? Got questions? You know you do… ask ‘em here. I’ve got plenty to get to, but more are always welcome!

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