Science!

Jul. 5th, 2014 04:47 pm
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[personal profile] corvi
Three news stories I enjoyed reading and want to share:



I. Hippos Invade Columbia

Columbian Drug lord Pablo Escobar kept a menagerie at his palatial estate, including 4 hippopotamuses. Since his death in 1993, the hippos have been reproducing like crazy, and now there are at least 60 and they are starting to take over the Magdalena river, much to the surprise of fishermen in the area. There are no hippo-eating predators and no droughts in Columbia, so there's not much pressure on their population. Observations indicate every mature female has a calf every year. At night they leave the river to eat crops and occasionally kill cows that get in their way. Programs to eradicate or sterilize them have been proposed, but they're so cute there's always a public outcry, and those options are expensive, so it's not clear what will be done about the hippos, if anything.

Locals report barbecued hippo tastes like pork.

BBC story about the hippos.


II. Tibetan EPAS1 gene found in Denisovan genome

About 4 years ago, a genetic study done on Tibetans and Han Chinese found a bunch of genes apparently useful for Not Dying When You Live At Altitudes With Only 60% Air Pressure. One of them was a variant of EPAS1, which is apparently the Most Not Dyingest, judging by how prevalent it was in the Tibetan population. It has something to do with transporting oxygen in the blood, but we're not entirely sure what - it seems to cause the production of less hemoglobin. There was a lot of speculation how how amazingly Not Dyingest EPAS1 must be to have become so widespread since Han and Tibetan populations diverged about 3000 years ago.

In a weirder twist, a match to the unique Tibetan version of EPAS1 has just been found ... in the Denisovan genome - a subspecies of human known only from two teeth, one finger, and one toe bone found in a cave in the Altai mountains (also found in the cave: human bones, neanderthal bones. Awesome all-species prehistoric party cave?). It is now believed that Tibetans got the Useful Not Dying Gene by cross-breeding with the Denisovans.

Sadly, you can't read the original article in Science online for free, but here's a summary.



III. Qiblah from Orbit

This is only news to me, the conference happened in 2006, but I really enjoyed reading about a conference called by the Malaysian Space Agency, Angkasa, trying to figure out how a Muslim ought to pray facing "toward Mecca" while in orbit around the Earth.

Not that facing toward Mecca on Earth is easy either. Some mosques in North America face Southeast (the direction of Mecca when viewed on a flat earth map) and some Northeast (the Great-Circle direction toward Mecca, shortest distance around a sphere, shown on the map, which was deigned to accurately show distances to Mecca from anywhere on Earth). Living on a sphere is hard.

The conference decided one should:
  1. Pray toward the Ka'aba if one can see it. 
  2. Imagine that the orbit is a giant planet, project the Ka'aba up onto the surface of the orbital sphere, and pray in that direction (via great circle)
  3. If very far from Earth, pray in the general direction of Earth.
  4. Pray towards "wherever" if none of that is doable. I'm kind of curious what word in Arabic got translated as "wherever" in English, it's weird thing to see in an official religious document. :)
They also said that if you were in a spacesuit or something and unable to stand and bow, you could move your eyelids to denote the different prayer positions, and that prayer times should be determined by the timezone you launched from, otherwise, with a sunrise every two hours, you might lose a lot of time praying. 

Just thought that was neat.

Wired article about the praying in space conference.


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