Category Archives: Funny

A quick follow-up to DolphinGate: cool science!

One of the things that surprised me about the weekend’s DolphinGate flap was that most of the mainstream articles I read were acting as though the paper that they were wildly misinterpreting was providing the first evidence for dolphins engaging in same-sex behaviours.  The Huffington Post is a great example of this;  here, for example, is the first paragraph of their story:

Dolphins were once humorously alluded to as “gay sharks” on an episode of “Glee,” but a new study suggests that bisexuality and even homosexuality among the marine mammals may be very much a reality.

I’ll admit that this caught me off guard, because I was under the impression that the dolphin same-sex play was a well-established fact.  How was everyone reporting this as a big surprise?  Yet when I spent a few minutes poking around on Google Scholar, I couldn’t immediately find a good reference for when this was first talked about in the literature.

Thankfully, the internet provides all!  Justin Gregg of the Dolphin Communication Project mentioned my piece on Twitter and, seeing an opportunity to get to the bottom (?) of this, I reached out to ask him if he knew when these behaviours were first observed.  Justin came through in a big way:

1948!  I can’t get at the actual paper (#icanhazpdf?), but the abstract is a gem of scientific understatement:

A summary of observations of captive porpoises is given. Vision and hearing are well-developed, and vocalizations are produced in the form of “jaw-snapping,” whistling, and barking. In captivity the porpoise shows a diurnal sleep cycle. There is a stable dominance hierarchy. Both homosexual and heterosexual behavior has been observed, as well as masturbation in the male. An instance of live birth is described. The play of the porpoise is complex and goes on for long periods. They manifest many and definite fears. The homologies of these types of behavior with that of other mammals is discussed. When various characteristics of porpoise behavior are considered and compared, the animal may be located at many different points in a scale of phylogenetic complexity. Although no information is available on problem-solving in this form, other types of behavior place the porpoise at a place in the developmental scale between the dog and the chimpanzee.

I’ll have to own up to my own foibles here, though, because the conversation may have gone a little down hill after that.

[Insert your own jokes here….]

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Nerd fight!

I got into a bit of a scientific nerd fight today online with @hylopsar, and I thought that I might make a record of our duel for the internets to see.  It’s good for a laugh, so go check it out:

View the story “Nerd fight!” on Storify

(I tried embedding it but that failed miserably, so until I can do that you’ll have to view it on Storify’s website).

Humans are the only animals that …

When I saw this tweet by Ed Yong, I had to smile:

… because it reminded me of a quote I love from Daniel Gilbert’s awesome book Stumbling on Happiness:

Priests vow to remain celibate, physicians vow to do no harm, and letter carriers vow to swiftly complete their appointed rounds despite snow, sleet, and split infinitives. Few people realize that psychologists also take a vow, promising that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book, a chapter, or at least an article that contains this sentence: “The human being is the only animal that . . .” We are allowed to finish the sentence any way we like, of course, but it has to start with those eight words. Most of us wait until relatively late in our careers to fulfill this solemn obligation because we know that successive generations of psychologists will ignore all the other words that we managed to pack into a lifetime of well-intentioned scholarship and remember us mainly for how we finished The Sentence. We also know that the worse we do, the better we will be remembered. For instance, those psychologists who finished The Sentence with “can use language” were particularly well remembered when chimpanzees were taught to communicate with hand signs. And when researchers discovered that chimps in the wild use sticks to extract tasty termites from their mounds (and to bash one another over the head now and then), the world suddenly remembered the full name and mailing address of every psychologist who had ever finished The Sentence with “uses tools.” So it is for good reason that most psychologists put off completing The Sentence for as long as they can, hoping that if they wait long enough, they just might die in time to avoid being publicly humiliated by a monkey.

Of course, he writes this just before going on to put his own Sentence in print for everyone to see, but with an introduction like this I’ll cut him some slack.  Perhaps one day I’ll write The Sentence myself…

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Bad physics in the comics…

Posting has been kind of quiet lately, because I’ve been preparing not only for my Ph.D. defence on the 20th of July, but also my move to Sydney where I’ll be taking up a post doc.  But I still have plenty to say, and I thought I would start to clear out the backlog of things I wanted to talk about.

First up on the list:  some bad physics in a comic book.  I’ve been reading old issues of The Hulk that are lying around, and I saw this set of panels that caught my eye (The Incredible Hulk #170, Dec. 1973):

Hmm. Something doesn't seem quite right...

Now, I’m not a physicist, but something doesn’t quite work here.  For one, acceleration in this situation wouldn’t be constant – it would be subject to resistance from the air, so that speed would top out at the Hulk’s terminal velocity.  From Wikipedia, the equation for terminal velocity is V_t = \sqrt{\frac{2mg}{\rho AC_d}}.  We’ll use some approximations for the Hulk’s weight (635 kilograms at his heaviest) and area (if we assume he’s falling perpendicular to the ground and that his width is about a third of his height, that gives an area of about 8′ * 2.24′ = 1.66 metres squared), and use a drag coefficient of 1.28 for a flat plate perpendicular to flow (since he seems to be falling parallel to the earth and not rolling into a ball or such).  The density of air at sea level is about 1.22 kg/m^3, and so using all that we can come up with an approximate terminal velocity here:

V_t = \sqrt{\frac{2 \cdot 635 kg \cdot 9.81 m/s^2}{1.22 kg/m^3 \cdot 1.66 m^2 * 1.28}} = 69.33 m/s

(The density of air changes with altitude, but this is fine for an informal look at the problem…)

Back in the original units of the comic, this is about 155 miles per hour, not 11,000.  (Did no-one notice that at 11,000 miles per hour, Banner would have covered the 8 miles in less than 5 seconds, even accounting for the acceleration?)  Even hitting the ground at 155 miles per hour would generate a fair amount of energy, though.  Using the work-energy theorem, we can take a rough guess at how much:

W = \frac{1}{2} mv^2 = 0.5 \cdot 635 kg \cdot (69.33 m/s)^2 or 1526111  joules.

Assuming (very inaccurately) that this energy would be translated into an explosion, we can guess at the TNT equivalent of the impact and get a value of 1526111 J / 4184 J/g = about 364 grams of TNT.  Not something I’d want to be sitting on top of, but not a world-breaker.

What about if he’d actually been falling at 11,000 miles per hour?  Well, that’s about 4917 metres per second. Running the same calculation as above, we get 7676162257 J, or 1834646 g or about 1.83 tons of TNT, in the range of a bunker-buster bomb – much less exciting to be sitting on top of.  The Hulk would probably be okay, but whoever he was carrying (and I forget who that is), would likely be a fine pink mist.

Of course, I’m not a physicist, and I’m working off of a vague memory of undergraduate physics courses here.  I welcome corrections from more savvy readers!  And I have to cut the writers a little slack – after all, it was 1973, and it’s not like they could just pop open their web browser and take a look at Wikipedia.

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An old favourite of mine for Friday.

It’s Friday, and my brain-thing hurts from all the reading-stuff I’ve done this week, so here’s an old AAAS talk that I was reminded of the other day.  It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, but you’ll only get most of the jokes if you’ve attended a scientific conference or seen a typical scientific presentation:

YouTube – Chicken chicken chicken.

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