Tag Archives: science

Body Movin’

Hey, you. Did you know that by the time you reach old age you’ll likely have produced enough saliva to fill a couple of swimming pools?

Or that an adult human has 206 bones in their body — the smallest and lightest of which is the tiny stirrup-shaped bone in your middle ear called the stapes?

And are you generally aware that your body will probably slough over a hundred pounds of dead skin cells during your lifetime, so that when you dust your house, you are literally wiping up yourself, not to mention messing with the primary dinner source for entire colonies of dust mites?

Annnnnd…. did you know that your very own brain has around 100 billion neurons connected by up to 1000 trillion synapses? That’s more synaptic action than grains of sand on a beach. A big beach. All jammed into the lumpy double lobes of your great gray walnut-looking brain.

Yep! It’s part of the science of the human body — our anatomy and physiology — and it’s what I’ll be reading and writing about for the next year or so as we embark on a brand new Crash Course series, coming at you in January 2015.

So if you have a body and want to get to know it better, check it out, you magnificent beast, you:




Science is Taking Over the World!

Well, okay, science has been running the world, or at least a good bit of it, since the beginning, but for the next two weeks SciShow, one of the programs I write for, is taking over the country.

We’ve got ads running on actual television, billboards plastered on buses and in subways, and we’re running a special episode-a-day series for the next two weeks, answering the world’s most asked questions.

I wrote today’s installment: What is Love? (Baby don’t hurt me.)

Yeah, kinda like the meaning of life . . . not the easiest topic to attempt to explain in three minutes. Shoot, I didn’t even get to quote Shakespeare or Marvin Gaye. I did successfully get Haddaway stuck in my head for a few days though.

Anyway, it’s nice to see SciShow getting some more national attention and love from Google and YouTube. We work hard to produce a wealth of original, fun, and educational content, all available for free. I mean, I work in a bubble — from home in the woods, usually in slippers and sweatpants. But knowing curious people all over the world are watching our episodes, learning something, hopefully chuckling, occasionally correcting us, and in general getting psyched about science . . . well, that means everything.

An Ant’s Life

When  I was little, probably in second or third grade, my brothers and I would ride our bikes around and around and around our Madison city block, counting laps and presumably burning off summer energy. Being an ardent, near-obsessed animal lover even then, I would keep my eyes on the sidewalk and swerve around, trying to avoid the dusty caramel ant mounds that popped up in between the pavement cracks. At least one time I let my young sense of, what … guilt? obligation? melancholy? mortality? take over and I walked around the block, picking up the dead ants we’d accidentally run over. Being dramatic, the process wasn’t complete until I’d personally apologized to each tiny corpse, and then buried then in mass in the back garden. I am sure I even put flowers on their little grave.

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Photo credit: JMK

When I hear other people talking about burning ants as kids, or shooting squirrels, or experimenting with their new-found god-like human powers in other violent ways, I think about little me and the ants. Maybe I was a weirdo, but at least I was a compassionate one. In the end, those ants kick-started my young grave-digging career — I laid many more cat- or road- or dog-killed animals  to rest with a violet or dandelion bouquet. It also started at least half of my actual career — studying and working to protect and conserve and understand various wild animals and their ecosystems.

Why I am wistfully talking about ants? Well, because I just watched yet another example of stellar, creative science storytelling — Stanford biologist Deborah M. Gordon’s animated explanation of how ant colonies work. Check it out:


Back in my kid days, we had Zoo Books, class field trips to local marshes, and a little zoo down the street I spend countless afternoons wandering. Today the depth and diversity of interesting, free science education mediums is dizzying, and I’m proud to be part of that community.

I want to believe if we take the time to notice things — if we understand them better — if we teach our children how incredible say, ants and their complex kingdoms are, maybe they won’t be temped to burn or squash or hunt them down for no reason. I’m not saying anyone needs to be burying dead bugs in the backyard, but it would awesome if everyone looked down more, forgave their watermelon-thieving ways, and at least tried to step more gently.

Photo credit: Rakesh K. Dogra


Flying Jewels

The last couple of months we’ve been party to some serious bird drama out in the yard. Specifically, the love and war between hummingbirds. Around here we’ve got the fiery Rufous , the petite Calliope, and the chunky black-chinned.

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Rufous Hummingbird. Public Domain

I could tell you how incredible these tiny fliers are — how their specialized metabolisms can convert sugar directly to muscle-energy without the rigmarole of first converting it to stored fat, or how they are the only bird who can fly backwards forgoodnesssakes, and how their wings can beat up to 200 times per second, supported by their monster pecs which account for 30 percent of their body weight, and would make even Arnold weep in jealousy and delight…

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Black-chinned hummingbird. Photo credit: Mdf

But really, all I want to say is that I have grown custom to their thrums and hums. That if I stand on a ladder next to their feeder, I can watch them lap the red sugar-water with only mild concern they may actually become tangled in my hair. And that they remind me growing up catching glimpses of ruby-throats in the big picture window at our cabin in the northwoods; and of the time, when surveying a wetland in Glacier,  I found three tiny eggs in an impossibly delicate little nest fastened to a fir bough, hanging over the water; or when one flew into the house and I patiently waited for it to calm, then held it in my hand, feeling the pulse of that bombastic little racing heart in my palm. These are all gifts.

Still, on the matter of hummingbirds, I doubt anyone could say it better than my writer friend Brian Doyle. Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read his excellent piece Joyas volardores. Think of it when next you hear the kinetic buzz and hum of one of these amazing little birds.

Calliope Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Kati Flemming

Joyas volardores

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment. A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas volardores, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.

Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be. Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmet-crests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.

Hummingbirds, like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight. The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

The biggest heart in the world is inside the blue whale. It weighs more than seven tons. It’s as big as a room. It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it, head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon. This house of a heart drives a creature a hundred feet long. When this creature is born it is twenty feet long and weighs four tons. It is waaaaay bigger than your car. It drinks a hundred gallons of milk from its mama every day and gains two hundred pounds a day, and when it is seven or eight years old it endures an unimaginable puberty and then it essentially disappears from human ken, for next to nothing is known of the the mating habits, travel patterns, diet, social life, language, social structure, diseases, spirituality, wars, stories, despairs and arts of the blue whale. There are perhaps ten thousand blue whales in the world, living in every ocean on earth, and of the largest animal who ever lived we know nearly nothing. But we know this: the animals with the largest hearts in the world generally travel in pairs, and their penetrating moaning cries, their piercing yearning tongue, can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

Mammals and birds have hearts with four chambers. Reptiles and turtles have hearts with three chambers. Fish have hearts with two chambers. Insects and mollusks have hearts with one chamber. Worms have hearts with one chamber, although they may have as many as eleven single-chambered hearts. Unicellular bacteria have no hearts at all; but even they have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling. No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel The Plover. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org