Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's boom boom (get your mind out of the gutter)

I broke my pants.
Happy Valentines Day, folks!

To mark the occasion, I wore my red hot pants today. They’re a little… tight. So tight that as I held the belt loops and squirmed into them this morning, the belt loop broke right off the pants. Uh well- girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Little hearts littered my inbox and Facebook page this morning. Why is it that the heart is a symbol of love? It bears little resemblance to the organ, which is in function but a muscle, void of any emotional capacity or storage. Seeing as it’s Valentine’s Day, this is a great opportunity to explore where your heart gets its mojo.

The heart beats to it’s own drum, quite literally. Your heart has its very own power supply and time-keeper. That is to say it does not receive signals from the brain telling it to beat. This was surprising to me when I first learned of the heart’s independence, since other autonomic functions- like breathing and digestion- are all orchestrated by signals from the brain.

The heart has two electrical nodes- little groups of specialized cells that initiate and manage your heart’s contractions. The sinoatrial node, located towards the top of the heart, is the big daddy. It initiates the heart beat. If the SA node sparks 60 times a minute, then your heart beats 60 times a minute. Ah lah, your pulse!

The second node, called the atrioventricular node, is located a little farther down than the SA node, to which it is directly wired. The purpose of having this second node is to set up somewhat of a delay system- the AV node contracts the bottom half of the heart about a tenth of a second after the SA node activates. As a result, the cells of the top half of the heart (atria) contract slightly before the bottom half of the heart (ventricles.) This creates more of a wringing motion, rather than the entire heart contracting in on itself at once. That wouldn’t move blood very effectively. But the heart contracting top-down certainly does.

After all, when you listen to someone’s heart you don’t hear “boom… boom…. boom.” Instead, you hear “boom boom…. boom boom….. boom boom.” You’re hearing your atria contract, followed shortly by your ventricles.

So, if you have a honey, I dare you to make your move tonight by asking to “listen to his or her sinoatrial node activate approximately 0.1 seconds before the atrioventricular node.” It will be romantic and s-e-x-y.

What would you do without me to up your Valentine’s Day game?

Bonus question: Which node do artificial pacemakers mimic?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

more than just a pretty face

A few years ago, I went to the Georgia Aquarium for my 22nd birthday. I saw some Spider Crabs straight out of a Steven King novel, a pair of Beluga Whales I secretly wanted to set free, some crazy little seahorsies, and Lion Fish. It was difficult to get good pictures through the thick glass, but the Lion Fish pictures turned out well.

These predatory creatures have creamy white scales streaked by bronze and caramel stripes that decorate their fins and eyes as well. They are attention-grabbing; spikes and stark patterns often suggest that there’s more than just a pretty face at work.

These fish are highly venomous. Their dorsal fins have pokey spines that stick out the top. Inside each spine is a reserve of venom that leaks into any tissue the spine may puncture. Divers that get stuck by these guys experience a host of symptoms that include general pain, local paralysis, breathing suppression, dizziness, vomiting, fever, diarrhea. People rarely die from stings, but children and people with certain allergies certainly can die.

So why am I telling you about Lion Fish? Well, they are wreaking havoc on our Eastern seaboard. Lion Fish are native to the Pacific, but thanks to careless humans, they are now present in the Atlantic. They first appeared in the late eighties, early nineties. Some think that maybe the six captive Lion Fish kept that escaped during the destruction of a Florida aquarium during Hurricane Andrew established the invasive population. Others hypothesize that bored and irresponsible exotic pet owners released their Lion Fish into Atlantic waters.

Regardless of how it happened, they are swimming rampant now. They have no natural predators in the Atlantic, and even potential predators take one look at those spikes and are all “HELL no.” They’re gobbling up native species of fish to the point of threatening their survival. I saw a deal on TV recently with Jeff Corwin where they took a manned submersible down to past 400 feet, where they found Lion Fish. That’s ridiculous- no one thought they’d inhabit depths past 200 feet.

When they encountered the bad boy hunting on a reef at 400+ feet, they speared him and put him in a net to take back to the lab. I imagined children all across the country simultaneously gasping at Jeff Corwin participating in the killing such an impressive animal. But he explained it well, noting that it’s not the Lion Fish’s fault, and it is not a “bad” animal. But it doesn’t belong. As guardians of the Lion Fish and every other species of animal on earth, it’s our job to manage them.

They hauled the Lion Fish up to the surface and cut it open. They found six different species of fish in its stomach- valuable information that can help us figure out how to save our Atlantic ecosystem.

It’s easy to form an emotional dislike, almost hatred, of invasive species. But it’s not like they’re little mustache-twirling villains out to destroy the world. They’re animals, and they’re doing what they know to do. Good practice biology tells us to marvel at all life, even invasive Lion Fish. With the big picture in mind, managing and exterminating populations is part of our role as their protectors.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ham and Nye: Pennies for my thoughts?

The debate between Nye and Ham last night was enjoyable to watch. Both men were gentlemanly and represented their respective world views well.

Of course, as most conversations between science and creationism do, this one hit a wall when Bill Nye asked Ham “What evidence do you have for that?” and Ham replied with a bible verse.

Not all Christians are so literal in their interpretation of the bible. Billions of people value the bible and regard it as holy, but, like Captain Barbossa, see its words more as “guidelines than rules.” This, I dig. Reconciling one’s core religious beliefs with what he or she sees with his or her own eyes. There is still an element of belief required, but it fits with observable fact. It’s quite lovely.

This bible business is the very root of the disagreement. Creationists believe the bible is infallible, that it is inspired by God, that it cannot be questioned, and foremost, that it is true. That every word of it is true, as it is written. Black and white, no questions asked. It says there was a flood 4,000 years ago? Then there was a flood 4,000 years ago. Disagree and you go to hell.

For these people, evolution challenges their very essence. Their most precious beliefs, beliefs that they would die for, are in their view threatened by what science is finding. So scientists, remember to have compassion for these people. Don’t be jerks, don’t assume they are stupid. Don’t say they have no place in science. There are lots of brilliant minds out there who feel overwhelming pressure to not deviate from the words of the bible, and while they should stay away from evolutionary studies, they are still valuable to progress. Open-mindedness, folks. It’s what’s missing from the creation movement, and will also be the remedy.

Let’s stand firm by our science and keep spreading its marvels, but be patient with those who resist it.

Their views will no doubt evolve; it’s only natural.