December 2 – A Whale Of A Sound

Today’s factismal: The blue whale is the loudest animal known; its cries can reach 188 decibels, or about twenty times as loud as a jet engine!

Good old Balaenoptera musculus (“muscular winged whale”). Not only is it the largest animal on Earth, ever, it is also the loudest (probably also ever). This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. Interestingly, we are still uncertain exactly why the blue whale makes such loud sounds.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Certainly, it is used for echolocation, but a quieter sound would do as well for that. And it may be used for long-distance communication, but a more focused sound would do as well. And it is possible that it is used for self defense; we know that sharks and other predators will feed on blue whales. But whales aren’t the only things that make noise in the ocean; there are also fish (like the aptly named grunt), waves, and even man. Some researchers think that the increasing clamor in the ocean may be driving the whales to distraction.

And noise pollution isn’t just a problem underwater; it affects the quality of life here on dry land, too. If you’d like to measure the noise pollution at your home, then download the Noise Tube app and see how much you’ve been hearing!

November 18 – Would you like to play a game?

Today’s factismal: The first video game was invented in 1947, 1951, 1958, 1961, or 1977.

Invention is a hard thing to define. Though we may think that we’ll know it when we see it, it is more common that we miss the small changes that build up to create a “new” invention. It happened with the light bulb (invented in 1802, 1841, 1872, and 1879), the laser (invented in 1917, 1953, and 1960), and the video game (invented in 1847, 1951, 1959, and 1977). But unlike the light bulb, which everyone “knows” was invented by Edison, and the laser, which everyone “knows” was invented by Maiman, the video game has no publicly proclaimed father – making it the most honest of the inventions!

The world's first video game (Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

The world’s first video game
(Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

Perhaps the first video game (if we ignore the possible role of the Antikythera mechanism) was the eponymous Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. This device was nothing more than a modified oscilliscope (the cathode ray) with a button that they player would use to “fire” at a target (made from a piece of cellophane placed over the screen). Originally intended for training bombardiers, it enjoyed a brief life as an amusement device before the more active pinball took its place.

Soon after that came the introduction of a computer to the game, most notably with the release of OXO or Tic-Tac-Toe. Powered by a five-ton research computer with a memory 1/2,000,000th as large as the computer on your desk (ain’t progress great?), the computer would print out each move in a game of tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses as the Brits who invented the machine called the game) and won most of the time.

But a five-ton computer a reams of paper don’t exactly make for scintillating game play. And so it took the introduction of the CRT to computers in the late 1950s to give us “Mouse in a maze”, the forerunner of PacMan and all of the other “chase games”. But, unlike its children, in Mouse in a maze, the player constructed the maze and the computer ran the mouse, instead of the other way around.

Or is this the world's first video game? (Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

Or is this the world’s first video game?
(Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

It wasn’t until 1977 that video games took on their final incarnation when Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck realized that there were folks who would pay money to play the games that they’d been giving away for free. So they added a coin slot to their version of “Galaxy Game” which pitted two player against each other in an attempt to destroy the other’s spaceship.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few short years, video games would be in every mall in America and parents would be wondering what happened to their children and their spare change. And the games continue to change. Where it used to take a huge console to play a game, now you can carry it in your back pocket. And where games used to cost a quarter, now they run upwards of $50 each (but you get unlimited lives). But perhaps the best change of all in video games is that now you can play them and help scientists at the same time. Over at Citizen Sort, they are looking for a few good gamers to help them discover hidden connections in their data. To play, head over to:

October 28 – Ligeia

Today’s Factismal: The axolotl salamander becomes an adult without ever becoming a teenager.

Like most amphibians, salamanders are born from eggs laid in water. They swim around for a couple of months before undergoing a metamorphosis where they lose their gills, grow legs and teeth, and head for the hills to feed on other small critters and find other salamanders to continue the species. But when salamanders live in small lakes that are poor in oxygen and food and surrounded by dry wilderness, the salamander may skip the metamorphosis and become a mixture of sexually mature adult and gill-bearing child. This unique state is called neoteny (“keeping childhood”) and is found in almost all species of salamander in exceptional circumstances.

AN axolotl adult smiling for the camera (Image courtesy LoKiLeCh)

An axolotl adult smiling for the camera
(Image courtesy Amphibian Rescue)

But one species makes a habit of the exception. The axolotl salamander, which lives in central Mexico and was a popular food for Aztecs, never becomes a full adult; instead, all of the axolotl (an Aztec word for “Water Monster”) are neotenic. They become full adults without ever being teenagers. They do this because the axolotl is found in only two lakes (one of which is now dried up and the other of which is being drained by Mexico City), both of which are surrounded by desert; they have always lived in exception circumstances and always will.Unfortunately, those same circumstances mean that the axolotl is a critically endangered species in the wild.


A “Water Monster” walking along the bottom
(Image courtesy LoKiCheh)

But the news isn’t all bad; though they are rare in the wild, axolotl are plentiful in the lab. They were the first known neotenic species and have been popular lab subjects and pets since 1863 when the first specimens were shipped to Paris for research. Interestingly, many evolutionary biologists believe that humans are also neotenic and frequently cite the axolotl as an example of how such a species can thrive.

Unfortunately, salamanders aren’t thriving, not everywhere. In addition to the critically endangered axolotl, there are several species of endangered salamander in North America. If you’d like to help scientists track salamanders and maybe learn more about neoteny, then why not join the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program?

September 30 – Open Season

Today’s factismal: Flu season starts tomorrow – are you protected?

Every year about this time two things happen: malls start blaring Christmas carols and doctors start urging people to get flu shots. The first is inescapable (even though it makes Santa cry), and the second is essential. That’s because, though most people don’t realize it, flu can be a killer. For example, in 1918, the “Spanish” flu sickened 30% of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people; if a similar outbreak happened today, there would be more than two billion people sick, or the equivalent of the entire population of China and India combined.

Gobs of the H1 influenza virus, all lumped together (Image courtesy CDC)

Gobs of the H1N1 influenza virus, all lumped together
(Image courtesy CDC)

Even when it isn’t as virulent as the 1918 outbreak, the flu can be deadly. Today it is the ninth most common cause of death in the USA; last year’s outbreak killed approximately 174,000 in the USA alone. It is so deadly because the flu is a rapidly evolving family of viruses that love to live in warm, moist places like lungs. The family of flu viruses is made up of rapidly changing variants that are identified by the proteins on the outside of the shell that holds the virus (that’s what the “H1” and “N1” mean). Because the virus itself changes from year-to-year, the vaccine that you had last year won’t work against this year’s strain any more than a polio vaccine will prevent the measles. And because we don’t know which virus will be the most common in any given year, all that the researchers can do is make a vaccine that protects against the most likely strains; because it provides some protection against all strains, it helps to lower the infection rate.

The H7N9 influenza virus which has just started infecting people (Image courtesy CDC)

The H7N9 influenza virus which has just started infecting people
(Image courtesy CDC)

And that’s why doctors urge everyone to get a flu vaccination every year. The flu vaccine reduces the chances of getting the flu by nearly 70% (that is, if 1,000,000 people who took the vaccine would have gotten the flu then only 300,000 actually do). Even better, the vaccine reduces the length and severity of flu symptoms in those folks who do get sick.  And that’s important because the flu acts as a “gateway infection”; people sick with the flu can develop bronchitis or pneumonia. And the deal gets even worse for folks with heart disease – the flu is known to make heart failure much more likely. Though this is most likely to happen for people who haven’t developed a good immune system yet (such as babies and toddlers) and for folks who have older and less active immune systems (like senior citizens). But in some cases (like the 1918 outbreak), the flu targets healthy people instead, which is why everyone should get the vaccine!

Do the

Do the “Dracula sneeze”
(Image courtesy the University of Arizona)

OK, but what can you do other than get a flu vaccine? Doctors recommend three things: First, wash your hands a lot and practice “vampire sneezes”; that helps reduce the spread of germs and keeps the flu form infecting others. Second, get the flu vaccine; that helps keep you healthy even when someone else forgets to cover their sneeze. And third, report your flu on Flu Near You; that helps the doctors track the outbreak and send resources where they are needed.

Stay healthy!

September 16 – Heart To Heart

Today’s factismal: The technical name for a blood pressure cuff is sphygmomanometer.

Every time you go to a doctor’s office, you meet a nurse carrying one. Most drugstores have an automatic one. And you can even buy little ones to use at home. They are one of the most common medical devices in use today. What are they? The sphygmomanometer or blood pressure cuff (because sphygmomanometer is a mouthful). They get their name from what they do; a manometer measures pressure and sphygmos is Greek (what else?) for pulse. So a sphygmomanometer measures the pressure of your pulse.

Even the Assitant Surgeon general needs to have her blood pressure monitored (Image courtesy CDC)

Even the Assistant Surgeon General needs to have her blood pressure monitored
(Image courtesy CDC)

And it turns out that the pressure of your pulse is a pretty important thing to measure. It tells the doctor a lot about your cardiovascular system; that is, about the way your heart pumps blood through your body. For example, your blood pressure has two numbers associated with it. There is a number that tells the doctor the maximum pressure that it takes to move blood (the systolic pressure) and another that tells the doctor the minimum pressure in your blood (the diastolic pressure).  Typically, the two numbers are about 30 points different, e.g., a reading of 120/90. If the numbers differ by more than 40 points for multiple readings, that could indicate a serious heart condition. And if the systolic number is too high or too low, then that could also mean that you need to see a doctor.

Description Systolic (High) Number Diastolic (Low) Number What to do?
Hypotension <90 <60 See a doctor
Normal 90–119 60–79 Smile!
Prehypertension 120–139 80–89 See a doctor
Hypertension >140 >90 Really go see a doctor

Blood pressure that is too low is known as hypotension and can cause dizziness and fainting; it is caused by things such as shock, blood loss, disease, and simply standing up too quickly. (That last one usually goes away pretty quickly but it has a cool name – orthostatic hypotension.) Hypotension is fairly rare and usually caused by a reaction to medications.

Blood pressure that is too high is known as hypertension; doctors call it “the silent killer” because it can cause strokes, heart failure, heart attacks, kidney failure, and blindness without the victim ever knowing that he has it. And there are a lot of people with the disease. The CDC estimates that one out of every three Americans has hypertension  – that’s 70,000,000 people! As you might guess, something this common and this deadly has a lot of people researching it.

Heart disease rates across the USA (Image courtesy CDC)

Heart disease rates across the USA
(Image courtesy CDC)

And that research is beginning to bear fruit. In a recent study of 9,300 people suffering from hypertension, they discovered that dropping the diastolic pressure below 140 is good but dropping it below 120 is great! When the participants managed to bring their blood pressure back down into the “normal” range, their risk for heart attacks, stroke, and heart failure dropped by a third. Even better, their risk of dying dropped by a quarter! Because the results were so startling and so clear, the study ended two years early so that everyone could be put on a regime to lower their blood pressure.

If you’d like to do a little heart work of your own and maybe work in some citizen science on the side, why not head over to the CDC’s Million Heart website. there you will find tools to help you manage your blood pressure and learn what it will take to prevent a million heart attacks by 2017. To learn more, beat a path to:


September 9 – Rock A Bye Baby

Today’s factismal: Traditionally, Chinese babies were not named until they were a month old.

The naming of babies is a serious business; it isn’t one of your everyday games. That’s because in many traditional societies, babies aren’t named right after they are born. Instead, the new parents anxiously wait anywhere from a week to a month to a year before giving the child a name. But why wait? Simply put, until very recently, many children didn’t live past their first month. As a result, new parents in Egypt would wait a week before having a naming ceremony and parents in China would wait a month.  And this problem wasn’t limited to Third World Countries. Until 1964, the most common age of death in England and Wales was zero; most deaths happened to newborns. One in six children would die within their first year in two of the most developed countries in the world. So what changed?

Most children today make it past their first birthday (My camera)

Most children today make it past their first birthday
(My camera)

Simply put, we got better. We developed vaccines that prevented many illnesses and improved conditions in the hospital so that fewer children (and mothers!) died from childbirth and created new machines to help newborns survive. As a result, infant mortality has dropped to one out of every 252 newborns in a developed country; in some countries, more than 997 out of every 1,000 newborns will survive their first year!  And those improvements have made their way to the developing world as well. In 1990, infants born in sub-Saharan Africa had a one in nine chance of dying. About half of them would die within a month of being born. Today, an infant stands a one in twelve chance of dying. As a result, where we used to lose 12.6 million children underr the age of five every year, today that number is down to six million, or about 16,500 each day.

Poor sanitaion and lack of medicine kill most children (My camera)

Poor sanitaion and lack of medicine kill most children
(My camera)

Obviously, that is still too many children to have die – especially since most of them die from preventable causes. The most common cause of death is malnutrition, followed by diseases such as cholera and malaria. So wat can we do? First, celebrate the progress that we’ve made. Things are getting better. And then work to make sure that we continue to progress. The best way to do that is to contribute to a charity that provides needed healthcare for children and mothers, such as UNICEF. To learn more, ehad over to their website:


September 3 – Hearty Recommendation

Today’s factismal: Your heart will beat nearly 3,000,000,000 times during your life.

Quick! If you are a woman, gather three of your female friends. Odds are that one of the four of you has heart disease. That’s because 42.9 million women in the USA, or about 28% of the female population has heart disease. And it isn’t just women who suffer from this; about one in every twelve men has heart disease. And heart disease is the number one killer in the USA, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths. Heart disease kills more Americans than accidents, diabetes, kidney failure, influenza, suicide, and murder combined.

Heart disease rates across the USA (Image courtesy CDC)

Death rates from heart disease across the USA
(Image courtesy CDC)

And heart disease takes many forms. There’s atrial fibrillation, where the top part of the heart beats in 9/7 time while the bottom part does a waltz. There’s coronary artery disease, where the pipes that lead to your heart get clogged up with fatty plaque. There’s heart failure, where the heart moves only a little blood even when your body wants a lot. And then there’s a heart attack, where your heart just throws in the towel and decides to take a rest on the sidelines for a bit.

Fortunately, there are almost as many ways to combat heart disease as there are types of heart disease. Adding just 30 minutes of light exercise each day by walking, working in the garden, or going for a bike ride, is enough to reduce the effects of heart disease by nearly 3/4. Eating a low-fat, low salt diet cuts the risk of stroke and heart attack by more than 1/3. And keeping an upbeat attitude has also been shown to improve health (and to get you more friends to share those long walks with).

Leonardo da Vicni's drawing of the human heart (Image courtesy Leonardo)

Leonardo da Vicni’s drawing of the human heart
(Image courtesy Leonardo)

Of course, there is more to having a healthy heart than just diet and exercise; genetics and other factors also play a part. And right now, a group of scientists are putting together a “big data” experiment to see just how much each of these things contributes to a healthy heart. At Health eHeart (get it?) they are asking for volunteers to take part in a study that will track participants for ten years. Every six months they’ll ask you to fill out a questionnaire on your health and will ask you to contribute information on your weight and activity level; some participants may also be given the opportunity to do cool things like wear a Holter monitor for a week or have a genetic sample taken. To join in on the fun, head over to: