Mountain Views News     Logo: MVNews     Saturday, May 5, 2012

MVNews this week:  Page 11



 Mountain Views News Saturday, May 5, 2012 


 The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been 
at the cutting edge of research into what happens to 
stars like our Sun at the ends of their lives. One stage 
that stars pass through as they run out of nuclear fuel is 
called the preplanetary (or protoplanetary) nebula stage. 
A new Hubble image of the “Egg Nebula” shows one of 
the best views to date of this brief but dramatic phase in 
a star’s life.

 The preplanetary nebula stage is a short period in 
the cycle of stellar evolution, and has nothing to do with 
planets. Over a few thousands of years, the hot remains 
of the aging star in the center of the nebula heat it up, 
excite the gas, and make it glow as a planetary nebula. 
The short lifespan of preplanetary nebulae means that 
there are relatively few of them in existence at any one 
time. Moreover, they are very dim, requiring powerful 
telescopes to be seen. This combination of rarity and 
faintness means they were only discovered comparatively 
recently. The Egg Nebula, the first to be discovered, was 
first spotted less than 40 years ago, and many aspects of 
this class of object still remain shrouded in mystery.

 At the center of this image, and hidden in a thick cloud 
of dust, is the nebula’s central star. While we can’t see the 
star directly, four “searchlight beams” of light coming 
from it can be seen shining out through the nebula. It 
is thought that ring-shaped holes in the thick cocoon of 
dust, carved by jets coming from the star, let the beams of 
light emerge through the otherwise opaque cloud. The 
precise mechanism by which stellar jets produce these 
holes is not known for certain, but one possible explanation 
is that a binary star system, rather than a single star, exists at 
the center of the nebula.

 The onion-like layered structure of the more diffuse cloud 
surrounding the central cocoon is caused by periodic bursts 
of material being ejected from the dying star. The bursts 
typically occur every few hundred years.

 The distance to the Egg Nebula is only known very 
approximately, the best guess placing it at around 
3,000 light-years from Earth. This in turn means that 
astronomers do not have any accurate figures for the 
size of the nebula (it may be larger and further away, or 
smaller but nearer).

 The Hubble Space Telescope is the first major 
optical telescope to be placed in space. It is named for 
Edwin Hubble, a staff astronomer at Mount Wilson 
Observatory, who in the 1920s used the 100-inch 
Hooker Telescope—the world’s largest telescope at that 
time—to measure the expansion of the Universe by 
observing galaxies beyond our own. 

 The Hubble Space Telescope has a diameter almost 
exactly the same as Mount Wilson’s 100-inch, but its 
location in space—in an orbit more than 100 miles 
above Earth’s atmosphere, with its image distortion, rain 
clouds, and light pollution—places it on the “ultimate 

 Both the Hubble Telescope’s launch in 1990 and 
Edwin Hubble’s work at Mount Wilson Observatory 
were among the most significant advances in astronomy 
since Galileo first pointed a telescope toward the sky in 
1609. They changed for-

ever our perspective of the universe and our place 
within it.

 You can contact Bob Eklund at: b.eklund@


 The number of accommodations 
required to do something is 
directly proportional to God’s 
intention for you not to do it. For 
example, man must wear a special 
suit and breathe pressurized air 
to explore the deep sea or outer 
space. Therefore, we can assume 
God didn’t intend for us to live in either location. 
This is also true of climate zones. I love Southern 
California, the weather has spoiled me for anything 
cooler. Let’s compare our temperate weather to 
that of, say, Ukraine. There, you have to shovel 
snow before leaving leave home, use cigarette 
lighters to defrost car locks, and risk vitamin D 
deficiency from lack of sunlight. Clearly, cold 
weather living was not in God’s original plan. 

 This basic concept can also be applied to food. 
Take the banana. In three deft strokes you have 
the thing peeled and ready to eat. Its soft texture 
requires minimal chewing, making it perfect for 
infants, the elderly, and everyone in between. The only precaution is to avoid slipping on the 
discarded peel. Pomegranates, on the other hand, present a labyrinth of fibrous chambers 
encapsulating seeds coated with delicate flesh. Eating a pomegranate is an exercise in 
dexterity and patience. I can appreciate the high antioxidant value of pomegranate juice, 
but isn’t that what red wine is for? 

 Working off the premise that the path of least resistance is the best in terms of living 
conditions and food, you might be able to guess my attitude toward lobster. I believe in 
veganism, but have yet to adopt that lifestyle. Occasionally I eat chicken, salmon, and 
shrimp. Regarding shellfish, there’s a wide spectrum of difficulty ranging from the clam (one 
hinge to open) to the lobster (a test of aquatic anatomy). Last week, my husband thought it 
would be nice to have lobster for dinner, since it has been relatively cheap lately. We’ll call 
our late lobster “Pat.”

 We’ve done crab before. My husband is an old hand at it. But I’ve never been much good 
at extracting tiny bits of flesh from bony crevices. Usually I end up with cold crab water 
running down my arm as I chew and suck a leg that promises an eighth of an ounce of meat 
at best. The energy expended versus the caloric returns is similar to that of a fox chasing a 
rabbit --at some point it’s better to just let the thing hop away instead wearing yourself out 
chasing it. I don’t care how big the crab is, I’m still going to be hungry when everything’s 
said and done.

 Getting back to Pat. I’ll spare you the details of his/her journey from market to plate. 
Let me just say the pot wasn’t big enough to fit the thing whole, so we had to make some 
last-minute “adjustments.” After cooking, we finally got Pat and its appendages on our 
flimsy cutting board, and it was time for further dismemberment. Several Internet sources 
described the interesting things inside the head and torso including (but not limited to) 
tomalley (the liver and other digestive organs reduced to a chartreuse, semi-liquid) and coral 
(lobster roe, if you are fortunate to get a pregnant Patricia instead of a Patrick). Sources say 
both taste good on toast. It appears a loaf of sourdough and a toaster is enough to rival a nice 
bottle of chardonnay, as far as lobster is concerned.

 After a little battle in the kitchen with Pat’s tail, we finally brought out all its parts on plates 
ready to eat. Pat’s tail was easy enough, because all the grunt work had been done earlier, but 
the rest of it proved unwieldy. At one point, my husband asked if we had a mallet like the 
ones at the seafood restaurants. No... but we had a hammer, like the kind you use to pound 
nails. That’d do, he said. “That’s so unsanitary!” I protested, as he poised the bare hammer 
head over one of Pat’s claws. “We’re not eating this part anyway.” he said. At the seafood 
restaurants, you smash crustacean on sturdy, wooden tables. We, however, were using flimsy 
TV trays. When it was my turn to demolish Pat’s other claw, I wrapped it in a dish towel and 
set it on the floor. Needless to say, the tables, couch, and floor were riddled with spilt butter, 
bits of flesh, and shell particles by the end of the evening. (A note to my landlord --Don’t 
worry, we cleaned it all up!). 

 Yes, lobster is a bit more challenging, my husband admitted. Personally I think the fuss 
involved in eating lobster is part of its revenge. I suppose if I were boiled alive I’d want to 
get even, too!

The Information:

A Theory, A History, A Flood

 The Information: A Theory, A History, A Flood, by James Gleick (Pantheon March 1,2011- 544 
pages), attempts to take on the daunting task of surveying the history and development of two of the 
most significant tools used by humans during our short time on this planet: information technology 
(IT) and communication. While there have been many other developments that have assisted 
humankind to flourish here on Earth, these two tools in particular have allowed us to organize and 
coordinate action at a distance far better than any other species that has lived on this planet. The book 
covers most mediums of communication used by humans, beginning with one of the earliest forms, 
the talking drums of Africa. I thought the author did an especially thorough job on the analysis of 
drum communication, specifically in highlighting the built-in error correction techniques used by 
the drummers to ensure that the message sent rose above the noise of the communication channel to 
ensure that the message received was an exact copy of what was sent. The simple concept of message 
integrity still forms the basis of modern cryptography.

 Next, the author takes on spoken language and our difficult transition to becoming a literate 
species. This trek takes us from the earliest known human efforts at translating internal thought 
into physical form to be observed and interpreted by other humans, to the latter stages of codifying 
spoken language into physical form. This forms the beginnings for the programming of computing 
machines and information technology as we know it.

 The introduction of Charles Babbage and the difference engine is the very first look at what we 
might recognize as a modern computer in its most primitive form. The author spends a great deal 
of energy in demonstrating the inner workings of Babbage’s mind as he worked to produce coding 
for a machine that could manipulate logical symbols. Some of his most ardent struggles consisted of 
convincing a mathematical community that hadn’t the vision to see the potential the new machine 
promised. This is also another in-depth look in computer programming. 

 Subsequent chapters cover such wide-ranging topics as Genetics, Physics (Entropy), Cybernetics 
and even Memes. While these subjects may not appear to have many traits in common to the 
layperson, the author endeavors to show how all of these subjects, including the very essence of our 
persons, are composed of, and exist for the purpose of, the manipulation of information. 

 Criticisms of this book fall mainly into 2 categories; too technical and not technical enough. To 
‘Information Theory’ junkies, the book does not go far enough into the meat of the science but, in 
the author’s defense, the book was not meant to be yet another textbook presented for peer review. 

 The audience is the modern person living in a technologically-advanced society and attempts to 
explain how we got here. For the non-Information Theorist reader there is plenty to grab on to in 
this book, as long as one remembers not to get too intimidated by the science that is necessary to 
explain the concepts presented by the author. The well-detailed 50-page notes section is a nice guide 
for keeping tracking of the many concepts, quotes and characters that traverse the pages of this book. 
Highly enjoyable reading for the geek in you or in your life. 


 I remember as a kid hearing 
the term “birdbrain” often used in 
a derogatory manner, directed at 
someone who’d just done something 
really stupid or absent-minded. 
To me, it seemed like a rude thing 
to call someone, but unlike many 
other words that we kids could have 
used to convey the same sentiment, 
birdbrain was one we knew we 
could get away with in front of 
the adults. The teasingly taunting 
term, “birdbrain” is assumed to 
have been derived from a similarly 
insulting moniker, “bird-witted”, 
which dates back to the early 1600’s. 
The earlier, original term was used 
to describe a person with what we 
might call today, ‘attention deficit 
disorder‘, presumably applicable 
because a bird appears to lack focus 
when flying to and fro in rapid 
motion, with no apparent direction. 
Ironically, in reality, this notion 
could not be further from the truth.

 The presumptuous premise 
behind the use of the ill-mannered 
idiom, “birdbrain” is based on the 
human‘s erroneous perspective 
that birds have proportionately 
small brains, and appear to lack 
intelligence. In applying that 
thoughtless theory to calling 
someone a birdbrain indicates that 
a person who acts foolishly must 
have a small brain like a bird, and 
therefore he must be stupid. The 
remarkable irony behind the use 
of the term “birdbrain”, lies in the 
fact that birds are far-and-away 
more focused than the 
average human believes 
or perceives. As a matter 
of fact, some species of 
birds are even considered 
to be among the most 
intelligent wild creatures 
in the animal kingdom, 
and certain species of 
birds possess some amazing brain 
capabilities that God apparently 
did not see fit to instill in the 
human being. I’m not talking about 
instinctual behaviors only, I am 
referring to scientifically proven 
facts about the biological properties 
of a bird’s brain that equate to 
higher intelligence as we humans 
define it.

 The most blatantly obvious 
example of ‘bird brain brilliance’ 
was proven through an experiment 
conducted by animal psychologist, 
Irene Pepperberg at Harvard 
University. Doctor Pepperberg 
purchased an ordinary pet-store 
parrot that she named “Alex“ (a 
cute, catchy acronym for Aviary 
Language EXperiment), and 
went right to work, teaching and 
observing him. By the end of the 
experiment, Pepperberg wrote 
in her book, Alex & Me that Alex 
could identify 50 different objects 
and recognize quantities up to 6; 
that he could distinguish 7 colors 
and 5 shapes, and understand the 
concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, 
“same”, and “different”, and that he 
was learning the concepts of “over” 
and “under” when he passed away 
on September 6, 2007. Yes, it is 
true that a parrot will sometimes 
simply mimic sounds and words 
with no knowledge of what they 
mean, but they are also capable 
or learning a wide vocabulary of 
terms and concepts with a complete 
understanding of what they mean 
and how to appropriately respond 
to them.

 In case the brain power of a parrot 
does not convince the average 
human that a bird’s brain, though 
indeed small, is yet brilliant, a 
particular very remarkable trait 
possessed by the pigeon is enough 
to turn any human green with 
intelligence envy. What might that 
be, you say? Well, I’ll tell you. The 
pigeon has an internal GPS (global 
positioning system) inside his ‘tiny 
little’ bird brain. The results of a 
recent study conducted by Drs. Le-
Qing Wu and J. David Dickman 
was published in Science, the 
world’s leading journal of original 
scientific research (April 26, 2012), 
describing the fact that “neuronal 
responses in a pigeon’s brain stem 
show how single cells encode 
magnetic field direction, intensity 
and polarity - qualities that are 
necessary to derive an internal 
model representing directional 
heading and geosurface location.” 

 To put it in a nut shell, the pigeon 
possesses a unique neural substrate 
for a vertebrate magnetic sense. In 
other words, a bird-brained pigeon 
is capable of finding any location 
he wishes to find on the earth’s 
surface without having to strap on 
a Tom-Tom! Now run and tell that, 
Getting, Parkinson and Easton! Oh, 
and by the way, that thoughtless 
theory about birds lacking focus 
and direction? It goes right out 
the window when it comes to the 
common park pigeon.

 So, the next time you are tempted 
to call someone a birdbrain when 
they’ve done something stupid, 
think again. In fact, our seemingly 
flighty feathered friends have truly 
got it going on when it comes to 
brain brilliance!

Happy Tails

by Chris Leclerc