Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Cutting Through the Fog with the SciSchmoze

Fog over San Francisco. Credit: New York Times

Hello again Science Fans!

Before I moved to the Bay Area, I lived in South Florida. As they do everywhere, people there talked about the weather and how it was always too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry, but never “normal”. While a sample of one doesn’t prove anything, our weather lately certainly hasn’t been “normal” what with a record-breaking heat wave, followed by an earlier-than-usual winter storm, followed by more heat.

One of the biggest influences on our local weather is fog. But even that seems to be changing, and the fallout could be substantial. This New York Times article takes an in-depth look at our coastal fog, including some nice animations.

I recently wrote about discoveries around the world that have reappeared as rivers and lake levels have dropped in response to drought. Here’s a map showing some of the discoveries.

Procyon lotors, better known as racoons, are crafty, intelligent critters. In my early teens, my family spent a week or two each summer fishing in Ontario, Canada. There was a large board nailed between two trees that was used for cleaning your daily fish catch. One particular fish we caught had a hook stuck in its head in such a way that my father could not get it out. We disposed of the head, and other fish refuse, in a metal garbage can with a tight fitting lid, that was inside a wooden crate that had a latched wooden top, and had a boulder on top of it, all meant to disuade the raccoons. That evening we heard a crash, looked outside, and saw a raccoon that had gotten past all the safeguards to remove the fish remains from the trash. Of course, the raccoon ignored all the efforts we made to chase it away and continued to eat. We worried about it getting hurt by the hook.

The next morning we went out to look at the results. The only part of the head remaining was the bone structure. Way over on the far corner of the board, out of the way, was the fish hook. Scientists at UC Berkeley have been studying raccoons to determine just how smart they are.

But raccoons aren’t the only animals adept at side stepping our attempts to keep them out. Consider sulfur-crested cockatoos in Australia!

Then there are ants. The past few weeks have shown the ant population close to my house to attempting to move indoors. All my neighbors are complaining about them getting into everything. I suspect the extreme heat forced them inside. Have you ever thought about just how many ants exist on the planet? A new study provides an estimate, and it is a LOT!

One of the very first lectures I attended at the USGS Western Region Headquarters years ago was on the topic of salt pond restoration in San Francisco Bay. I was struck by the complexity of the ecology, and how concerned the numerous agencies involved were with unintended consequences of their attempts to restore the wetlands to their original state. Here’s a progress report, and it contains very good news.

Let’s talk about the James Webb Space Telescope. In addition to looking deep into space, the JWST has also looked at our sister planets, with spectacular images of Mars, Jupiter, and Neptune released in the past month. The Mars images were problematic in that JSWT is designed to look at very faint objects a long way from here. The sensitivity of the cameras is such that focusing on something close runs the risk of being over-exposed. Still, the images are wonderfully detailed. The image of Neptune showed the planet’s rings, the first time we’ve seen them in over 30 years. Included was the imaging of a faint ring previously not seen and closer to the planet. Also visible in the images are half of 14 Neptune’s moons.

Meanwhile, there may be a problem with one of JWST’s instruments. There may also be issues with the models currently in use to interpret the data the JWST sends back to us.

This past Friday, Dr. Alex Filippenko gave a talk on the first results from the JWST as part of UC Berkeley’s homecoming weekend. In case you missed it, the talk was recorded and is available for viewing here. Alex has been voted Best Professor at UC Berkeley a record nine times, and this lecture shows why. He can take a complex subject and make it easily understandable, even when he’s been awake for 31 hours! This lecture is well worth an hour of your time.

The Perseverance Rover has collected some rock samples from Mars in an ancient river delta where life may have thrived. Now all we have to do is wait 20 or 30 years to get them back!

All this space exploration begs the question “Are we alone?” We may know the answer to that in the next few decades!

Tomorrow, the DART mission will test if it possible to alter the trajectory of an asteroid, thereby preventing it from striking Earth. NASA will crash a rocket into asteroid Didymos B. You can watch and listen to several talks about the mission on NASA Live, as well as YouTube and Facebook. The coverage begins at 3:00 PDT and impact is expected at 4:14 PM.

You’ve probably never heard of Igor Klymenko. He’s 17 years old and was living with his family in the suburbs of Kiev when the Russian military invaded seven months ago yesterday. During his time sheltering from the war in the basement of a home, he invented a Quadcopter Mine Detector! He has since received the Global Student Prize ($100,000!) and is now studying at the University of Alberta, Canada while continuing to refine his invention. What an inspiration!

My Ukrainian friend and her daughter are still living in Zaporizhzhia, which has been under increased shelling and bombing in the past month. Things at the nearby nuclear plant seem to have calmed down a bit, but not the explosions heard daily in the city itself. I’m very concerned for her safety.

The mystery of superconductivity in high temperature cuprate crystals appears to have been solved after 35 years of research. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to comprehend working on the same scientific mystery for that long a period of time!

In addition to the DART coverage, here are my recommendations for this week:

Have a great week in Science!

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