Wednesday, March 17, 2010

BAIL OUT!!! (Special Saint Patrick's Day post)

As he dropped the first bomb in the bombing raid he was assigned to go on, the pilot couldn’t help but think how this would help his reputation: He would be hailed as a war hero, fearlessly swooping over the enemy territory putting them in their place. But halfway through the mission, an enemy plane suddenly appears out of nowhere behind him! Try as he might to shake him, the enemy’s plane is a superior model and stays within striking range. The enemy pilot gets a lock and blasts off the tail fin with ease. Our hero’s plane careens out of control, plummeting down to earth towards his imminent doom.
But our hero has one last trick up his sleeve: his ejector seat. Even though his adversary was technically superior, this useful trick allows him to escape, living to fight another day.

What could this possibly have to do with science, you ask?
Well, lean back and grab a cold one; it’s story time.

While we’re on the subject of bailing out, I would like to thank Nikki for being the only friend who DIDN’T bail on me on Saint Patrick’s Day.
I love Saint Patrick's Day!  First of all, it's a great excuse to quality test the green spirits.  Second, since my name is Patrick, I feel a certain obligation to be extra thorough in that testing.  (The first two shots may have been fine, but we all know that only having two data points does not constitute a trend.)

As I sat there all by my lonesome wondering if anyone would show up, naturally my mind wandered to science. (Even when I’m drinking, I’m still incredibly nerdy apparently.)

Anyway, there is a parallel to the ejector seat in the animal world, which allows escape from otherwise deadly situations.

That’s right: some lizards can “bail out” from a predator attack. For the relatively small price of a tail, it can escape to live another day.

How is this possible? Easy: they just add stuff to turn the shot green.

Oh, you meant the lizard? Well, they have special "fracture planes" spaced regularly down the length of the tail that allow it to snap right off. After it falls to the ground, the tail starts to wiggle and move on the ground, giving the lizard a chance to escape while the predator is focused on the moving tail.

Of course, the lizard does have to spend resources and energy into growing the tail back. Until it does, the lizard will be off balance and more vulnerable to predators, since it no longer has a tail it can drop.

[1] Lizard tail loss - Autotomy

Friday, March 5, 2010

The integral of e to the 2 x squared plus 2 x minus one

There I was, studying (okay, cramming) Calculus II at 8:00 a.m. the morning before the test. Why had I not studied the nights before? Because I was studying for my Marine Biology and Microbiology Lab Practicals, that’s why. One class had to get the boot, and I picked Calc since I knew weeks ago this exam was a lost cause anyway.

In between cursing my three back-to-back exams, feverishly erasing, and peering at figures with shaded regions under curves from x = 0 to x = 5 with no comprehension whatsoever, I fantasized about having a photographic memory. Wouldn’t that be great? Sorry Studying, but it’s over; I’m dating your hotter younger sister, Alcohol.

Anyway, I spaced out once or twice due to the fact that I was running on about two hours of sleep over the past week, and my mind wandered to an episode of Monk. Randy loses all of his money at Blackjack, and Monk (who has a photographic memory) wins it all back for him – not by counting cards, but by memorizing the order of the cards while he watches the dealer shuffle the deck. Think Rainman, but as a detective for the San Francisco PD.
If I had a photographic memory like that, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Well, I may not have a photographic memory, but there may be a way to have the next-best thing. Every few years, ads for those miracle “memory pills” (Ginkgo biloba) resurface.
Apparently, they help boost memory or cognitive ability or something. Or they could just be a placebo. I went to the Google search page to start my quest for answers (Bing fails at life).

According to this website by the University of Maryland Medical Center, all the studies about this leaf (the medicine is made from the leaves of a certain yew tree) may not agree, but the common benefits seem to be:
  • Treating circulatory disorders
  • Enhances thinking, learning, memory, and cognitive function
  • Treating dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease)
  • Reduces feelings of depression (for people with Alzheimer’s disease)

But what is in these leaves that makes them so effective?
“More than 40 components isolated from the ginkgo tree have been identified, but only two are believed to be responsible for the herb's medicinal effects: flavonoids and terpenoids. Flavonoids are plant-based antioxidants. Laboratory and animal studies have shown that flavonoids protect the nerves, heart muscle, blood vessels, and retina from damage. Terpenoids (such as ginkgolides) improve blood flow by dilating blood vessels and reducing the stickiness of platelets.”

Cool. Maybe if I give them a try, I’ll actually pass a Calc test for once.