Misdivided creations

Recently, I learned that several words in common use are in fact misbegotten coinages, formed by an imperfect split between the article and the noun.

  • “Adder” came from “a nadder”
  • “Newt” came from “an ewt”
  • “Nickname” came from “an ekename” (an “eke” name was an “extra” name)
  • “Nuncle” (now obsolete) came from “mine uncle” (a respectful address)
  • “for the nonce” came from “for then anes” (obsolete “the ones”)

This kind of word is referred to as a “misdivision” or (more technically) an improper “metanalysis“; actually, there are lots of terms for this error: rebracketing, juncture loss, junctural metanalysis, false splitting, and refactorization, according to Wikipedia.

The evolution of language (and how we can change right along with it) never ceases to amaze me. I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of these!

Amphibians and their alien adaptations

There is a female frog that swallows its eggs to protect them from predators until they mature. Once swallowed, the eggs secrete a substance that inhibits the production of hydrochloric acid in the frog’s stomach and halts normal muscular contraction that shifts food through the stomach and into the gut. Effectively, the frog’s digestive system turns off for six weeks for this “gastric pregnancy”. Not only that, the baby frogs get so big that they compress the female frog’s lungs, and for the last part of this experience she has to breathe through her skin instead. Imagine her relief when the frogs finally emerge from her mouth. (Photo by Mike Tyler)

This and other ultra-fascinating facts are to be found in David Attenborough’s book, “Life in Cold Blood.” I’ve only read the first chapter (on amphibians) so far, and literally every page has some interesting new fact on it. Not only that, but it is chock-full of gorgeous pictures of the animals being described. They’re all so interesting and alien that I’m nearly moved to get an aquarium and populate it for the observational opportunities.

Did you know?

  • Some fish (e.g., lungfish) have primitive lungs (simple pouches lined with blood vessels) and can breathe air.
  • The great crested newt lives out of the water, in damp regions, returning to the water to breed. Their eggs lack pigment to protect them from UV, so the female individually wraps each egg in a plant leaf with her hind legs (she lays 2-3 every day from March until mid-July! Talk about unending labor!).
  • Many salamanders in the northeastern US have lost their lungs and breathe entirely through their skin, developing long tails that increase their surface area relative to their volume.
  • Caecilians somewhat physically resemble earthworms, though they are amphibians. They burrow, and they’ve become sightless, although they do still have eyes — they’re just covered by skin. They are carnivorous, and in some species the female rears her young by repeatedly growing an outer skin, letting them nibble it off, and then resting and regrowing the skin. You can actually watch a video of this from the BBC’s Life in Cold Blood show. Wow, they’re tough! (Never go in against a Caecilian…)
  • Different frog species may only be able to hear certain frequencies, which correspond to their own vocal range, so that they need not be confused by the cacophony of other species.
  • The transformation from tadpole to frog is, really, simply miraculous. It is an herbivore as a tadpole, with a long coiled gut to permit digestion of plant matter. It grows front legs inside its gill chamber which then burst out fully formed on the sides, it develops lungs, its gut shortens and it becomes a carnivore. It basically completely reconfigures itself for an adult life in an alien environment, with alien food and a different means of mobility required.

I’m even more in awe, at the diversity and innovation of life on our one single planet, than I was before opening this book.

An opportunistic study of exoplanets

The EPOXI mission was born out of the desire to make use of the Deep Impact spacecraft, after it successfully hit Comet Tempel 1 with a separate smaller spacecraft. Two missions were selected to make use of Deep Impact: EPOCh (Extrasolar Planet Observations and Characterization) and DIXI (Deep Impact eXtended Investigation). If you stick DIXI and EPOCh together, you get… EPOXI. The proposers got kudos from NASA HQ for this acronym.

EPOCh has just finished its main investigation, which involved observing seven stellar targets that were believed to have planetary companions. I recently attended an excellent talk summarizing the results by Dr. Drake Deming, the deputy PI for EPOCh. They used Deep Impact’s camera to watch for the characteristic dip in stellar brightness when a planet transits across it. Since the camera was not designed for observing distant stars, it had no automatic stabilization, and the star would appear to wander all over the CCD. Tracking the star in the data once it was downlinked to Earth, and applying a different correction for each pixel in the CCD, makes ground processing challenging. However, they’ve been able to analyze this data and extract some interesting findings.

  • They studied a Neptune-sized planet (radius about 4 times that of Earth) orbiting the red dwarf star GJ 436. It has an eccentric orbit that is likely to be influenced by a second, smaller planet. EPOCh has searched industriously for a signal from this smaller planet, so far not yet finding it (down to 1 Earth radius, the limit of what they can see with this instrument).
  • A secondary transit happens when a planet goes behind its host star, from our perspective. This also causes a (smaller) dip in total brightness because the planet no longer reflects light from the star. This dip can help provide an upper bound on the albedo (brightness) of the planet. (Neat!)
  • They also observed the Earth from Deep Impact, treating it as if it were an exoplanet and trying to see if they could accurately infer its properties. These observations serve as the perfect validation set to help us do a good job of interpreting similar observations of other planets, when we get to the point of having them. More details will appear in a paper on this subject of how an alien observer would view planet Earth.

Even better, the data collected by EPOCh will be released to the public in the spring. So you can try your hand at analyzing it, too!

And of course, stay tuned for news from the Kepler mission, set to launch on March 6. It will stare at (relatively) nearby stars specifically seeking Earth-sized planets in the “habitable zone” (where liquid water is stable). It will survey so many stars that even a null result (if they don’t find any Earth-sized planets) would make an interesting statement about the distribution of planets in the galaxy. It’s far more likely, though, that they will find such planets. We live in such exciting times!

Volcanoes in my backyard

So again, on Sunday, I drove out to explore Amboy Crater (also see wikipedia’s article). It is a fairly recent cinder cone caused by volcanic activity out in the desert between 6000 and 500 (yes, only 500!) years ago. Once you get to the parking lot (about a 3-hour drive from here, not exactly my backyard), it’s a 2-hour round-trip hike to the crater, up to the rim (250 feet high), and back down and out. You get some spectacular views from the top of the desert and the huge lava field created by the cinder cone. I’d show you some views captured by me, except that I somehow left my camera at home (with my whole daypack, including lunch, extra water, batteries, etc.). I realized this just past Barstow (halfway to Amboy) and it wasn’t worth going back. Instead, I’ll just link to other people’s photos! (Photo at right is from Golden Gate Photo.)

Between Barstow and Amboy, I couldn’t help stopping to check out a few geocaches. One was inside Siberia Crater, an even smaller cinder cone (sadly, I didn’t actually find that one!). Another one was on a Route 66 loop off of I-40 (nice detour!) and another was at Amboy Crater itself. Boy, it was fun to sit on the rim and dig through an old ammo box full of plastic toys! There’s also a totally awesome cache just east of Amboy (the town), marked by a shoe tree. No, really: an old tree is hung about with hundreds of shoes.

The path out to Amboy Crater is marked with occasional educational plaques containing little facts about the desert. Two that stood out to me:

  • Desert lizards do “push-ups” to get warm (because they cannot regulate their own body temperature). But based on my previous knowledge (and some quick googling), this is totally wrong. Push-ups are a form of display, aggression, or communication, used in competition and in mating. If you’ve ever been the target of a push-up display, you’ll have noticed that the lizard points itself at you while doing it — it’s not a mindless set of calisthenics. Maybe the BLM needs to work with factcheck.org.
  • The tarantula bite is not deadly, but in self-defense it may flick hairs off its back, to which most animals (including humans) are allergic. This seems to actually be true! There’s even a word to describe these stinging hairs: urticating (check out some awesome photos of these hairs). They can cause anything from mild rashes up to anaphylactic shock.

But about the crater itself: there are lots of interesting volcanic features, including a lava field 24 square miles in extent; pressure ridges, where the lava has buckled upward; and stretches of pahoehoe (smoother) lava (although what I saw wasn’t as smooth or distinctive as that in Hawaii). There are also reputedly “squeeze-ups” of bulbous lava and “bowl-shaped depressions” where lava surfaces sank, but I didn’t see these. The view from the crater rim was excellent, with long shadows from the winter sun even at 3 p.m., gusty wind, and waving grass and brush colonizing the lumpy black lava field. (Photo by h.seng.)

Living on 24 hours

On Sunday, I drove out to Amboy Crater in the desert between Barstow and Needles. More on that later. On the drive out I listened to the LibriVox recording of How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day, a book written in 1912 by Arnold Bennett. It’s a delightful book with tips not about time management per se, but more about how to enjoy living your life in the hours available. His tips include:

  • Get up earlier in the morning. You don’t really need as much sleep as you’re getting, and it keeps you from more interesting mental activity. “Most people sleep themselves stupid,” he quotes.
  • Difficult tasks are good for you. He lauds the “necessity for the tense bracing of the will before anything worth doing can be done,” indicating that this is what separates him from the cat on the hearth. Well, he has a point; the deliberate choice of difficult endeavors is not something a cat regularly attempts.
  • You aren’t really tired when you get home from work. “Mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity […] all they want is change, not rest.”
  • His prescription: use the morning commute to train your mind to focus on something, anything, of interest, and keep it there for the whole time. Use the evening commute to learn about your self: analyze your behaviors, desires, goals, and really get to know what makes you happy. Use 3 evenings a week to, basically, improve yourself: e.g., pick an art you like (music, ballet, theater, etc.) and learn about how it is produced, its details, its history, and your enjoyment of such performances will be greatly heightened. Or do some “serious reading”, by which he means, specifically, “difficult reading.” He recommends “imaginative poetry” as the most difficult sort, and therefore best for you. He recommends starting with “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which I am now intrigued by and have placed on my to-read list.
  • Reading time should be split half and half between reading and reflecting on what you have read. I find this an interesting proposition. He notes that you will make slower progress, but it will be richer progress. This seems likely to be true, yet could I force myself to spend so much time on reflection and analysis? A good challenge!

Overall, I found the book thought-provoking and very entertaining as a reading (listening) experience alone. It’s only 1.5 hours long spoken, so I imagine it’s an even quicker read… consuming a minimal amount of your 24 hours.

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