Saturday, August 20, 2016
Sunday, August 14, 2016
Want to experience life on Mars?
The University of Hawai`i, through a NASA-funded research project, is offering the opportunity to be a mock Barsoomian.
But consider carefully.
(Image: Bedrock in the central uplift area of an impact crater on Mars. Credit: NASA.)
There will be isolation. There will be space suits. But there are unlikely to be blasters, little green men or much in the way of excitement.
The Hawai`i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) program at the Hawai`i state university is looking for people willing to spend eight months in relative isolation, as part of a program to figure out how humans respond to extreme conditions.
Participants would spend most of their eight-month mock-Martian period in a geodesic dome at 8,200 feet on the side of Mauna Loa. The program calls it “an isolated Mars-like environment.”
A group of people will live together in tight quarters, separated from humanity, to help our space agency understand for a real Mars mission what kinds of people they should pick, what mixes of sexes they need, what kinds of stuff they need to help keep them sane, and so forth.
“These types of studies are essential for NASA to understand how teams of astronauts will perform on long-duration space exploration missions, such as those that will be required for human travel to Mars. The studies will also allow researchers to recommend strategies for crew composition for such missions, and to determine how best to support such crews while they are working in space,” HI-SEAS says.
It’s not for everyone, but in many ways, it’s not a whole lot different than the ocean voyages that brought foreigners to Hawai`i two centuries ago. Missionary Lucy Thurston spent 157 days on her 1819-1820 voyage from New England to Kawaihae. A little over 5 months.
HI-SEAS is currently planning two eight-month missions, one January to September 2017 and one January to September 2018.
Actually, eight months isn’t all that long. A group of mock Martians is, as this is written, completing a 12-month stay at the dome. It is HI-SEAS Mission Four. They get out at the end of August 2016.
The first such long-stay experiment was for four months, then another four-monther, then eight months, followed by the current year-long stay. Right now, there are six folks living in the 1200-square-foot dome.
Interested? A preliminary application form is here.
Some of the preliminary requirements are these:
“Applicants must be between 21 and 65 years of age. They must be tobacco-free, able to pass a class 2 flight physical examination, and able to understand, speak and write fluently in English. They must meet the basic requirements of the NASA astronaut program (i.e. an undergraduate degree in a science or engineering discipline, three years of experience or graduate study, etc.); in addition, they will be evaluated for experience considered valuable in the program, such as experience in complex operational environments.”
© Jan TenBruggencate 2016
Friday, August 5, 2016
If you want to keep your wits about you as you age, you need to work those wits—but you also need to work your body.
Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise is very important to brain function. That’s been known for some time, and the evidence keeps building.
As far back as 2004, a Hawai`i study found that elderly adults who walk a lot have lower rates of dementia. The report in the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed tests done on hundreds of elderly men, comparing their physical activity with rates of dementia.
“Our findings suggest that physically capable elderly men who walk more regularly are less likely to develop dementia,” wrote the authors of the study, Walking and Dementia in Physically Capable Elderly Men.
The Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2011 stated the case clearly: “A rapidly growing literature strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk,” Mayo wrote.
Scientific American was in there, too, with the headline, “Aerobic exercise bulks up hippocampus, improving memory in older adults.”
A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science said regular aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that tends to shrink with age.
“Exercise training increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2” years, said this study.
A 2014 study showed that specifically in elderly women, exercise increased the size of the hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning.
That study, from the British Journal of Sports Medicine is here.
A Finnish study in February of this year, 2016, found similar results: “Aerobic exercise, such as running, has positive effects on brain structure and function, for example, the generation of neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus, a brain structure important in learning.
That study, done on rats rather than humans, in the Journal of Physiology is here.
And this article in the New York Times argues that it needs to be aerobic exercise, not just muscle-building work.
Most of the work indicates that the effect of exercise isn’t huge but it’s real.
Still, physical activity isn’t everything. You also need to exercise the brain directly.
The American Psychological Association says specific kinds of brain training can help stave off dementia. But not all brain training.
“The mistake some people make is thinking that all brain training is the same. Lumping all brain training together is like trying to determine the effectiveness of antibiotics by looking at the universe of all pills, and including sugar pills and dietary supplements in that analysis. You’ll find that some work and some do not. To then conclude that brain training does not work — or is not yet proven—is based on flawed analysis.” So says Jerri Edwards, PhD, of the University of South Florida, who led a study on the subject, published by APA, above.
Another study suggests intensive learning can actually cause chemical changes in the brain, increasing the amount of a protein that helps protect against memory loss, and even Alzheimer’s Disease.
"You're keeping the machinery going. It makes sense that the more time spent intensely focused on learning, the more your brain is trained to process information and that doesn't go away. That intense kind of learning seems to make your brain stronger," said Auriel Willette, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.
© Jan TenBruggencate 2016
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
University of Hawai`i astronomers have helped identify dozens of planets that are the right size and the right distance from the sun, to potentially sustain life as we know it.
(Image: Habitable zones around different suns. Credit: Chester Harman. View a large version here.)
Astronomers from the Kepler Habitable Zone Working Group, which includes Nader Haghighipour of the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy, writing in the Astrophysical Journal, have described 49 such planets.
Each is within a sun’s habitable zone—not too hot, not too cold—and is less than twice the radius of the Earth, which is required to have a rocky planet. The habitable zone is defined as that zone in which a rocky planet can have liquid water on its surface—something many Earth life forms require.
The team used NASA’s Kepler space observatory to identify the potential new human home planets. But they are also very cautious—just because it’s the right size and in the right zone doesn’t necessarily mean it actually is habitable. But it provides a first step.
“The HZ is primarily a target selection tool rather than any guarantee regarding habitability,” the authors write.
This also doesn’t address how we’d get there. Most such planets, even with technology far advanced from ours, could not be reached within the lifetimes of humans.
An abstract of the paper is here.
A press release on the report is here.
The authors of the paper are Stephen R. Kane, Michelle L. Hill, James F. Kasting, Ravi Kumar Kopparapu, Elisa V. Quintana, Thomas Barclay, Natalie M. Batalha, William J. Borucki, David R. Ciardi, Natalie R. Hinkel, Lisa Kaltenegger, Franck Selsis, Guillermo Torres and Hachichipour.
© Jan TenBruggencate 2016
Monday, July 18, 2016
The scale of the loss of Hawai`i’s native birds is beyond imagining.
It’s just icing on the cake that Hawaiian native birds are some of the most colorful, imaginatively plumed and outrageously beaked birds to be found. Or rather, to have lost.
A new book by Michael Walther, with paintings by Julian Hume, tells the story. It is “Extinct Birds of Hawai`i,” by Mutual Publishing.
Walther calls the loss of species “an ongoing bird catastrophe unequalled in world history during the last 700 years.”
There may be more, but 77 species and subspecies are known to have gone extinct. There are just 26 species of native land bird left.
Hume had to take some liberties with the coloration of birds that went extinct earliest, since many are only known from old bones found in caves and sinkholes. Many others, which have become extinct in the past couple of centuries, have been drawn from life by early birders or can be studied as museum skins, their colors still vivid. There are photographs of the ones lost during the last century.
I was particularly struck by the photo of one of the last three Laysan apapane, singing while perched on a coral outcropping.
Before Captain Cook sailed up to Waimea on the Big Island, the Islands had already lost owls and petrels and geese, ducks and ibis and finches, an eagle, a harrier and a host of flightless crakes, plus some others, like the Kaua`i palmcreeper and the King Kong grosbeak..
Most of the big birds were long gone before Europeans arrived. Then began the decimation of the jewel-hued forest birds.
Nowhere else on the globe has lost so many birds. New Zealand is second, with 50 to Hawai`i’s 77. The Mascarene Islands have lost 37, Tahiti 16, Madagascar 15, and so forth.
Islands accentuate the loss, partly because islands promote diversity, partly became small land areas are more vulnerable to habitat destruction and invasive species.
The Hawaiian avifauna, birdlife, was impressive.
The giant Hawaiian goose was more than four times the size of the Hawaiian state bird, the nene. A thundering example of birdhood.
The favored food of the Molokai stilt own was the Maui Nui finch. We know that from deposits of the fecal pellets of the owl. Both are extinct now.
There was a nukupu`u with a simply stunning bill—more than half the length of the rest of the bird. It was named the Giant Scimitar-billed nukupu`u.
“Species which took millions of years go evolve have been decimated in a geological blink of an eye,” Walther wrote.
The saddest story is not that we’ve lost so many, but that we’re still losing them.
This volume sparely tells the story, and the risk as we stumble into a vastly poorer and less interesting future.
© Jan TenBruggencate 2016