Jun 28, 2018
Koko, the famous ‘talking gorilla’, has died in California aged 46.
Koko was born in 1971 in San Francisco zoo and when she became ill she needed hand-rearing. The student for the job was Penny Patterson, who also taught her some American sign language. In a couple of years Koko learned 80 signs, before she was moved to Stanford University.
It is claimed she could understand 2000 English words and knew 1000 different signs. Apart from that, Penny Patterson described evidence for a sense of humour and a charming and creative sense of word play - she referred to a zebra as a ‘white tiger,’ a Pinocchio doll as an ‘elephant baby,’ and a mask as an ‘eye hat’. Koko famously loved cats - her favourite kitten was called All Ball, and the way she handled her kittens is obviously full of care. She tickled Robin Williams back in 2001 and it was claimed she ‘grieved’ when told of his death.
Koko’s life and treatment attracted scepticism and criticism as well as plaudits. The former arose from overinterpretation of the results she gave scientists - after all, she was taught to sign, mainly to respond to humans, it was not a spontaneous desire to communicate or chit-chat as human infants have. There is also the danger of projecting human emotions onto animals. For example, my family has dogs, and although we think they show emotions like jealousy (like when one tries to steal the other’s food), this may partly be our projections. (Secretly still convinced the young one gets jealous). The fact Koko trembled her lip when told Robin Williams was dead may not be crystal clear signs of grief. An example of projection and over-inference in animal studies is that of the horse Clever Hans.
The criticism was also born of her environment and diet - although she was given many toys (and pets), obviously her home was entirely unnatural for a gorilla, her diet was humanised, she was given many different supplements by a ‘naturopath’, and she didn’t have the chance to socialise with other gorillas. Slate published a fantastic article summarising the many criticisms of ape sign studies.
Her species, the western lowland gorilla, is considered critically endangered today. Today, studies into ape communication such as the study of Koko’s life are less likely to receive ethical approval. Quote from Barbara King, an anthropologist - it's not very respectful of the world's biodiversity to insist upon making apes into furry versions of ourselves. Koko taught us so much about the great ape mind, even while she paid a cost, in her own daily life, for our scientific curiosity.
So generally then, Koko was a star, but we shouldn’t be looking to replace her.
Most of us have heard that everyday matter, the stuff that we can observe like atoms and molecules, make up only a small percentage of the universe. Dark energy comprises about 70%, and dark matter is about 25%. Although we don’t know exactly what they are we can calculate their mass by their effects on what we can observe. But there’s that roughly 5% of everything that is ordinary matter, more accurately known as baryons. We know this from observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. So we’re on pretty solid ground there.
After years of observing galaxies, and using every tool in the cosmologists’ toolkit we’ve only been able to observe half of the predicted baryonic matter, the ordinary matter, that the universe should have.
Last week a paper was published in Nature that just may very well account for the missing baryonic matter in our universe. The paper’s lead author, Fabrizio Nicastro said: “The missing baryons represent one of the biggest mysteries in modern astrophysics.”
But progess has been made over the years. Astrophysicists have calculated the mass of all the stars in the universe. They then added in the interstellar gas inside of galaxies and this up to about 10%. I’m not talking 10% of the mass of the universe, just 10% of the expected mass of baryons, which as you now know, comprises only about 5% of the universe’s total mass.
Still with me here?
Okay, we’re up to 10% of baryonic matter. Now add in the gas that surrounds galaxies like gigantic haloes. Then toss in the even hotter gas that fills galaxy clusters. That now brings us up to almost 20%. Better, but not particularly satisfying.
Through some different observational techniques astronomers then turned their attention to the super colossal gas filaments that run between galaxy clusters. And that brought up to 60% of the predicted baryonic matter.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
And here’s where the this new paper by Nicastro and his team comes into play. They didn’t just start looking last week, by the way. They’ve been at this for almost 20 years. The team used the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory to observe a quasar. A quasar is a galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its core that emits intense radiation in the form of x-rays all the way to visible light. According to Nicastro, “After combing through the data, we succeeded at finding the signature of oxygen in the hot intergalactic gas between us and the distant quasar, at two different locations along the line of sight. This is happening because there are huge reservoirs of material – including oxygen – lying there, and just in the amount we were expecting, so we finally can close the gap in the baryon budget of the Universe.”
This was one paper, although it took them 20 years to get to this point. Still, they have plans to look at more quasars with the XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra space observatories.
Also, better space observatories are scheduled to be launched in the late 2020’s that will provide even more data. But right now it seems we have found all the ordinary matter in the universe.
Florida, Russia and Nigeria. Different corners of the world, united by the fact they are all struggling to up the ante against HIV and AIDS infection.
These are the metrics we can use to gauge progress made in the fight against HIV, as explained in an excellent article published in Science. How many people are living with the virus? What is the rate of new infection? What percentage of infected people are receiving antiretroviral drugs, which both stave off disease and prevent transmission? How many infected people have progressed to AIDS and how many have died from it? And how many children are infected by their mothers?
Nigeria, Russia and the American state of Florida stand out from their neighbours because they are ‘first’ for at least one of the metrics I just mentioned. They all face differing challenges. For example, Nigeria has a high rate of mother-to-child HIV transmission, Russia has a high death rate. Florida has a high new infection rate, partly because many people there with HIV are unaware of their status, as testing isn’t as widespread as it could be.
If you are a data nerd, you should look up the article called ‘Ending AIDS? These three places show the epidemic is far from over’ published on the 14th June on the Science website. There are some great interactive charts and graphics that elegantly sum up the data.
Have you seen the headlines? "World's Sexiest Shark Wrangler? Jaws Are Dropping Over this Ab-Tastic Ocean Expert's Instagram". That was from People Magazine in May.
From the Daily Mail also in May, "Picture of shark wrangler holding a 12-foot hammerhead goes viral – but it's not for the reason you're thinking". I’ll tell you the reason. Yes, it’s his rippling abs!
I’m talking about Elliot Sudal, the latest internet sensation who hooks and captures these menacing monsters from the deep and wrestles them ashore, all the while looking ABSolutely fabulous doing it. But this is 2018, and the good guys don’t slaughter sharks any more.
After wrestling the fearsome beasts on to the beach Mr. Sudal does what any modern day muscle-man would do. He poses alongside, and sometimes sits on these vanquished creatures. He even invites other people to do the same, especially if they look really awesome in a bikini. Being the good guy, Mr. Sudal applies a tag to the shark before dragging it back into the water, after the photo op of course, and lets it go back into the deep.
What a great guy!
According to the Daily Mail, “He works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” and that “Sudal's job takes him to exotic locations like the Bahamas and Nantucket catching anything from bull sharks to sting rays.”
Let’s hear what his employer, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has to say about their star employee and shark hunter Elliot Sudal:
“Mr. Sudal is not and has never been an employee of NOAA Fisheries nor is he formally affiliated with any of the agency’s programs.
The agency remains concerned with Mr. Sudal’s shark and sawfish handling practices. Physical handling should be minimized, all species should be kept in the water while tagging and then released quickly. During tagging, sharks should not be dragged onto dry sand...for any reason.
Mr. Sudal’s tagging of an endangered smalltooth sawfish caught in Florida in April 2017 was investigated by NOAA and resulted in a compliance assistance letter from NOAA’s Office of General Counsel informing him of the Endangered Species Act issues and the safe handling protocol for sawfish.”
This public notification by NOAA is highly unusual, and reflects the seriousness of the situation. Mr. Sudal has been presented in the media as an employee of NOAA. That is false. Mr. Sudal has been claiming to be a conservationist. Mr. Sudal has violated nearly every guideline of NOAA’s shark tagging guidelines. But hey, those pictures and the viral videos are awesome, huh?
So awesome that they’ve landed Elliot Sudal on the beach as the Blue Streak Science A**hole of the Month.
JD: I visited Point Blue Conservation Science. Point Blue is a private conservation science organization that is, honestly, far bigger and more wide-ranging that I’d thought. They used to be known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, but they took on the moniker of Point Blue Conservation Science because their scope is much wider than just birds. They are certainly California-centric with research going on all over the Bay Area, offshore including the Farallone Islands, and as far away as Alaska all the way down to Antarctica!
I met several of their key staff members who seemed quite keen to share their research, and hopefully we’ll be sharing that with you, our audience.
JD: I have nothing planned, except to practice some video techniques with my new gimbals.
And that concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
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