Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dinosaur


Whenever you’ve been in any profession long enough, you’re bound to be thought of as “the old guy.” And that’s the nice way that some may refer to you. Just as likely, some of the younger and fresher faces on the team are liable to refer to you as “the geezer” or “the relic,” and that’s just the stuff you can print. But as I age I have come to view these labels as a sign of respect, and am proud to say that I’m getting to be (and may even be considered by some) one of these old coots, and have the pleasure of working with many others of similar status.

So it was with esteem that I recently called one of my far-flung associates a “dinosaur.” I see Steve Theodore one or two times a year out west when my travels take me there. He has a more than a few years and a ton of experience under his belt, and so this appellation seemed appropriate in a friendly joshing manner. What I didn’t realize until then, however, is that the label may mean far more in a natural history sort of way.

Seems several years ago Steve and his son were out hiking near their home in the Valley of Fire, a state park in Nevada about an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas where they live. They had been there many times before, wandering around the local rock formations and landscapes. After a night of camping, they woke up one cool September morning to scramble up the rocks and onto a ridge which provided an unobstructed view of the sunrise. Taking a break to enjoy the view, they happened to glance down and something caught their eye. "As we were standing on this one rock, I said, ‘Evan, is this what it looks like to me?’ And he said, `These are footprints.’”

They looked around them to find what turned out to be nine parallel sets of tracks containing more than 90 individual fossilized paw prints on two rock slabs. The tracks appeared to be heading uphill, based on the depressions. In some cases there were imprints from three-clawed toes, while other traces looked to have four toes. They varied in size, with some about the size of a quarter and others about the size of a 50-cent piece. There were even some larger prints that were about the size of human foot.

Steve and his son had hiked before in the park, and had seen the petroglyphs, or rock art, which had been scratched into the walls thousands of years before by early Indian inhabitants. But they had never seen, much less heard about, preserved footprints that were obviously from some creatures that lived in a much more distant past.

They took pictures, noted the location and continued on their hike. Upon returning, Steve emailed some of the pictures to Steve Rowland, a geosciences professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose specialty is paleontology. Steve R. quickly got back to Steve T. with a simple question: “Where did you get these, and can you take me there?” The Theodores met up with the professor, a Paleontologist from the Nevada Museum of Natural History and a park ranger, and headed back their find. There they took lots of pictures, plaster casts and measurements.

Back in the lab, Rowland went to work, and was able to identify at least one set, as "ichnogenus Brasilichnium." As the name implies, these were similar to fossils found in Brazil in 1911 by a mining engineer. The theory is that these early mammals were small dessert creatures, probably something akin to furry squirrels. “These were the guys running between the legs of the big Jurassic dinosaurs," postulates Rowland.

The rest of the tracks are still being studied and investigated. According to Theodore, “A second set of what looks like a webbed-type foot is yet to be confirmed. The third and largest prints, the ones the size of a human foot, are in question as to whether they are tracks or just coincidental erosion in the sandstone. What makes it hard to believe that it is erosion is the fact that they are all equal in size, shape and distance apart from each other.”

As to the story these tracks tell, Theodore says there are two theories. “The first guess is that the little creatures were being hunted. All 90+ tracks are parallel and appear to be moving in the same direction. But at one point, the biggest tracks suddenly turn at a hard right angle pushing up a mound of mud, as if whatever made them darted off quickly to chase something. The other theory is that there was a watering hole nearby and the path to it narrowed down to where many species wanting to drink had to move through the same spot.”

Unfortunately, if you go to Valley of Fire, you won’t be able to see the prints for yourself. “The area is now ‘restricted’ and even we are prohibited from going there,” says Theodore. “I was in the park not long ago and asked one of the employees if there are any dinosaur tracks in the area. I was told that there weren't, which tells me that they still don't want it publicized. No doubt if the location were known the tracks would be vandalized, or worse, pried up and stolen.”

At this time, Rowland and his colleagues continue their investigations. As for Theodore, aside from looking forward to the time when other people get to share in the discovery that he and his son made, he has one other hope. “Should they be unable to identify one of the tracks, there’s a chance we might get to name it. Yes folks... a Theodorasaurus could be on the loose! Or maybe Ted-Rex is more appropriate.”

And so next time I see Steve and call him a dinosaur, it may be more than just a joke or a sign of respect. If the scientists come up dry, he might be able to hold a little ceremony, and see his family name become enshrined for generations of future schoolchildren to memorize. And I won’t be talking to just a co-worker, but to a whole new type of beast.

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Marc Wollin of Bedford has never had anything named for him. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Food Sciences

I confess: I was jonesing for some Peeps.

You know, Peeps. Those marshmallow chicks in bright colors that make their ubiquitous appearance around Easter. With a consistency somewhere between old chewing gum and new Styrofoam, and a shape that resembles an actual chick the way that Tofurkey resembles a Thanksgiving bird, they appear in every drug store for a few weeks in the spring, then disappear just as fast. Thankfully, an associate had bought a couple of boxes to give to her husband. As had her mother. Also her sister. And her sister-in-law. Net net, she was overrun with the things. So with the holiday over, she brought them in and put them by the printer in the office, where I dove in.

But as I stuffed one into my maw, I wondered if I was doing myself any harm. Let’s face it: they have little taste, are shelf stable for 2 years and add absolutely no nutrients to your diet. So are they animal, vegetable or mineral? Has anyone really looked into the minutia of this foodstuff/object? Turns out others have wondered this as well, and subjected them to an exhaustive battery of tests.

Back in 1988, researchers at Emory University ran the candy through numerous trials. Among others, they froze them in liquid nitrogen, heated them in an oven and put them in a vacuum chamber. In nearly every case, about what you would expect to happen happened: they were seriously dented but not destroyed. Their results confirmed why, to quote the researchers, “Peeps are rarely found in polar regions” and why “Peeps are poorly equipped as fighter pilots.”

Just why would scientists at a major center for knowledge (OK, probably a bunch of bored graduate students with some time on their hands after a night of hard partying) expend the effort to make these discoveries? Probably just a one-time thing, right? Well, it turns out that others have the same kind of insatiable curiosity, resulting in a huge body of “scientific” research into other innocuous elements of our everyday lives.

Take T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S., a project conducted at Rice University. The acronym, derived from the snack of the same name, stands for “Tests With Inorganic Noxious Kakes In Extreme Situations.” Following standard scientific protocols, “Each test consisted of two Twinkies. One Twinkie acted as the control, and was not touched during the course of the experiment. The other Twinkie was subjected to various stimuli and its reactions recorded, photographed.” And just to make sure there would be no questions asked should the Nobel committee call, “After each test, the control Twinkie was consumed to ensure that it would not be inadvertently used in another experiment.”

And the experiments themselves? To test the effects of gravity, the cakes were taken to the sixth floor and dropped, with their resulting condition noted. To test its solubility, they were immersed in water. And in the resistivity test, electrodes were attached and electrical current was passed through them. Since the cakes passed no current, the researchers concluded that, “If you want to electrically isolate a room from static or higher voltage electricity, you can simply line it with Twinkies.”

Then there’s the research that has been done concerning SPT-based combustion. SPT, by the way, stand for Strawberry Pop Tarts. This contribution to the scientific compendium was based on the accidental observation that this prepackaged pastry, when stuck in a toaster, could be made to “emit flames like a blowtorch.” Not wanting to take the claim at face value, a researcher in Texas conducted an experiment, documenting every step from preparing the sample (“A SPT was removed from the box and its protective packaging and carefully placed into the toaster slot”) to extinguishing the resultant flames (“A reluctant research assistant sprinkled baking soda on the flames. The reluctance was understandable given the potential for premature SPT ejection.”) Among the conclusions: “We believe that frosted SPTs may successfully produce even larger torches. Further research in this area is warranted.”

Other foodstuffs have been suggested to equally rigorous scientific study. One enterprising individual did a distribution analysis of those conversation hearts that you find on Valentine’s day, the ones with the cute sayings. She discovered that there are roughly 70 sayings represented in the typical 283 piece 9 ounce bag. Top sayings included “Dream Girl” (9 occurrences), “Wise Up”(8) and “Write Me”(7). She also noted that “a single serving size is 40 pieces. We believe that is also the current World Record for ‘Most Conversation Hearts Consumed in One Sitting.’”

It keeps on going. Almost no product is immune from someone poking, prodding or otherwise testing it. Turns out that a yellow squeeze bottle of French’s Mustard is good for approximately for 80 hot dogs at an average of 5 grams of mustard per hot dog. A pair of Duracell D cells lasts in a flashlight for 116 hours.  There are four thousand, eight hundred and two Cheerios in a box.  And the average distribution of M&Ms over 10 packs shows that orange is the most common color at 24%, while yellow is the least common at 12%.

Yes, you can say that these are people with way too much time on their hands. You can wonder why their tuition (and probably some of your tax dollars) are being used in pursuit of this lunacy.  But as I reached for another Peep, I appreciated the fact that someone took the time to examine more closely this blob of sugar that makes its appearance but once a year. And let me tell you… after eating two, that’s plenty often enough.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford has can resist eating anything unless it has sugar in it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ground Below Zero (Part 1)

The first thing you notice is the blue roofs.

As your plane descends lower, you realize that they are tarps covering the thousands of buildings damaged in the hurricane. Just 4 months after Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, causing $75 billion dollars in damage and the displacement of 1.5 million people over 90,000 square miles, it’s a region struggling to get back to normal, a state that will never be what it was. And a few days there merely confirms that despite the best positive outlook anyone can muster, the future is very much in doubt for many months and years to come.

Much has been written about what happened on August 29th and the days after, including a flurry of reporting just this week as the commission tasked with reconstituting the city delivered its recommendations. To be sure, pictures have been published and stories told, one more remarkable than the next. Like many, I had watched and read about the disaster and its aftermath. But none of that prepares you to walk into the seventh circle of hell that is the damage zone. What follows is no so much a coherent narrative, but a set of impressions that struck me as I toured the region and spoke to the locals on a recent visit.

When you land at Louie Armstrong airport, you’re struck by the unnatural quiet. You’re likely to be the only plane taxing around the airfield. That’s because the city’s economy was based on the tourist trade, which is gone. No tourists means no planes, and so the airport is a ghost town.

Downtown New Orleans is no different. A minority of office buildings are open, and many have only partial occupancy. So few are walking down the streets. Nighttime is the same, with restaurants and bars slowly opening, but lacking for customers. Even Bourbon Street is quiet, with bands playing to empty rooms. At lunchtime, we were working through, and I suggested that we order some sandwiches to be delivered. “You can order from a few places,” my local contact remarked, “but you’ll have to pick them up yourself. There’s nobody to deliver them.”

From a high floor, the extent of the flooding was pointed out to me, running from horizon to horizon, covering 80% of the city. As overwhelming as it seemed, it was suggested that to truly appreciate the magnitude I go and see the damage for myself. So I asked my local crew to take me. They suggested we meet the next morning at a Starbucks out near the Lake District. We met at a generic strip mall, with stores and shops and restaurants, an area that could have been anywhere save the ubiquitous blue tarps and piles of trash still present at many a curbside. I followed them down the street and crossed a canal. And that’s when I realized that things were different.

As soon as we descended the bridge there was no life. No cars, no stop lights, no sounds. We drove some, then turned into a neighborhood. Block after block after block after block of destroyed homes. It was like the pictures you see of Somalia or Beirut, but the wreckage here was caused not by explosions but by water. Walls torn open, piles of dirt and debris, cars filled with dried mud. In the trailing car I flashed my lights, and pulled along side. “We should pull over and take some pictures,” I said. They looked at me blankly: “We’re not even close to the center.”

Ten more minutes of driving brought us to the area near one of the levee breaks, what one resident called Ground Below Zero. In every direction was utter devastation caused by flood waters sitting in homes for weeks. The disaster relief people say they have seen this before, usually associated with tornado damage in the Midwest. But they're used to seeing 1 block, 2 blocks, 4 blocks of debris. Never miles and miles of total ruin.

Every single home has urban search and rescue markings spray painted on the front. A circle with an “X” through it indicates that a team has been through. The initials of the searcher are in one quadrant of the “X,” the date in another, and a number in the last. In most cases, the number is zero. In others, it’s a integer, signifying the number of bodies that have been found inside. Other notations explain situations that shorthand doesn’t cover: "1 Dog DOA/Broom."

Drive further from the epicenter, and the apparent structural damage seems less. But a stop at the home of an acquaintance reveled that while the walls seemed intact, they were covered with black mold up to an unmistakable water line. Nothing short of removing all of the sheetrock below that point would make it habitable again.

Signs of rebirth are scattered. On random occasional streets, work crews work their way slowly along, picking up trees and utility poles that block the roadway. Some homes have FEMA-supplied trailers parked in front, and every couple of blocks is a Porta Potty. FEMA, by he way, is the new local four-letter “F” word, and is widely known to stand for “Fix Everything My Ass.”

As we headed out of the area we continued past miles of homes showing no signs of life. Likewise the gas stations, restaurants, dry cleaners and movie theaters that make up a neighborhood. It’s a chicken and egg situation: how can the businesses rebuild with no client base… but who would want to live in a war zone with no amenities for miles? Is it any wonder that many of those who moved away are considering not returning.

We headed north out of the Crescent City and up along the Gulf Coast, where the damage was not from levee breaks but from the storm itself. And that trail of tears is where we will pick up
next week.

-END-

Marc Wollin of Bedford urges all who can to donate to a Katrina related charity. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inqurier.