The Worldwide Hum

I’ve got goosebumps. I was surfing the net and, just by chance, I came across an article entitled, “Cracking the Mystery of the ‘Worldwide Hum’” and I let out an audible gasp. I quickly read it and realized that something I’ve been hearing, sporadically, for years, might not be a figment of my imagination after all.

It always happens at night. And I’m always indoors when it starts. It sounds like that buzzy, rumbling sound that a semi truck makes when its engine is idling. Or maybe it’s someone driving by while playing music really loudly on cheap speakers, so all you hear is the buzz. Only, this is even louder and it doesn’t fade away. I always expect to see a gigantic truck in my front yard. But of course, I never have.

I can feel the buzzing through the floor and walls. But oddly, when I go outside to investigate, the sound gets more quiet rather than getting louder as one might expect. I’ve walked down to the street and looked both ways. Nothing. Once I even hopped into my car and drove around the block to see if something was going on nearby. Nope. A few times, my husband said he’d heard it, too, but not very loudly.

It doesn’t happen often enough to disrupt my life, and I’ve sort of gotten used to the concept that it must be a figment of my imagination. I have never talked about it with others unless they were present when I heard it. I just kind of looked at it as a periodically annoying thing that goes away after a few minutes.

And then I read this article. Apparently people have been hearing this hum since at least the late 60’s. And many mention that it’s louder indoors, and mostly occurs at night. Wow.

VINDICATION!!!

The man who wrote the article is keeping a database for the purpose of scientifically researching this hum. If you hear it, too, you can add to the database here. It’s called the World Hum Map, and I’m finding it comforting to see how many other people hear this sound. As the home page explains, this is not a website for hysterical conspiracy theories or pseudoscience. It’s a thoughtful attempt to solve this mystery scientifically.

Even though scientists have yet to answer the many questions I have about this hum, I feel like a thousand pound weight has been lifted off my shoulders, because now I know I’m not alone in hearing it. People hear it all over the world. That’s a start. I’ll take it.

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A Temporary Home Schooling Idea

As more and more schools are shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are desperately casting about for temporary home schooling ideas. In order to keep your children up to date on science, I strongly encourage you to check out Zooniverse.org. It’s also a great place to go if you’re stuck at home and bored silly. I can’t think of a better source to get people of all ages interested in science than this people-powered research site.

Check out my previous blog post about this site for more details, but rest assured that even more scientific projects have been added to the site since then. Here are a few:

  • Help the University of Wyoming track and study racoons.

  • Help identify regions of the universe where stars are being born.

  • Track the life histories and criminal careers of Australian prisoners.

  • Listen for earthquakes.

  • Transcribe handwritten letters between 19th century anti-slavery activists.

  • Count, identify, and track giraffes in Northern Kenya.

  • Help characterize the surface of Mars.

Sometimes it takes a village to complete a science project. I’m getting excited just writing this post! Let’s take this opportunity to teach our children that science can be fun!

zooniverse_logo_wide

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Holy Group Grumble, Batman!

Every time we learn something new about the natural world, it makes me realize just how little we know. Given that fact, it’s awfully arrogant of us to act so superior and proprietary. How can we walk through this world with such confidence and act upon it with such haughty indifference when we don’t really have a clue as to what’s going on beyond our ken or how our actions impact said goings on?

Take, for example, this article in the Smithsonian, entitled “Researchers “Translate” Bat Talk. Turns Out, They Argue—A Lot

It seems that thanks to some voice recognition software, researchers have determined that bats not only speak to each other as individuals, using different tones of voice, but they also have matched up certain sounds to certain actions. Predictably, they argue about food and their positions within the sleeping cluster, and invasions of personal space. But they also discuss males that make unwanted mating advances. In other words, they’re not all that different from us.

Except they’re willing to poop in my attic. So there’s that.

Egyptian-fruit-bats

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Get Your Scientific Groove On

I love science. Whether it’s anthropology, meteorology, sociology, psychology, chemistry, oceanography, astronomy… you name it, I’m fascinated by it. I wish I realized that as a child. In public school, I viewed science as just another damned subject I had to get through. And my teachers didn’t inspire enthusiasm. I might have taken another path in life if they had.

Now more than ever, science is important, because our current administration is against all things scientific. When someone encourages you to be ignorant, it’s time to closely examine that person’s agenda. Knowledge truly is power. Don’t let anyone take your power from you.

The most exciting thing about today’s world, in my opinion, is that thanks to the internet, we can now all be scientists. There are all sorts of citizen science projects out there. If you have any spare time at all, even a minute a day, you can make a difference.

Five years ago, I wrote about my favorite people-powered research site. And since then, Zooniverse.org has expanded its studies to an unbelievable degree. On any given day you can track wildlife in Kenya, track solar storms through space, train an algorithm to detect plastics on beaches, explore the ridges on Mars, identify meteors, identify marine mammals, classify orchids, transcribe museum records, annotate soldiers’ diaries from WWI, and find planets around stars, just to name a few of the projects.

I get excited just thinking about it. You can be an explorer without leaving the comfort of your own home! How cool is that?

There are other sites that are interesting as well:

Scistarter.com uses citizen scientists to address local and global problems. You can help collect search and rescue data related to hurricane Harvey, map Mars, detect orca sounds, investigate weather and climate change, help measure the brightness of the night sky, and many other projects that you can search according to your interests.

If you want to get even more hands-on with your scientific inquiries, check out publiclab.org. They help you come up with ways to actually do field science to collaborate on and contribute to locally important matters, with the support of the global community.

And the National Wildlife Federation offers a lot of fun and family-friendly ways to assist scientists in their research. You can monitor fireflies, track the migration of monarch butterflies, count the birds in your back yard, or observe constellations.

There are just so many ways to make a difference now! We can all contribute. We can all make this a better world, in spite of trends to the contrary. Expanding our knowledge is the best way to resist ignorance. Join me!

science

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What is it With Lists?

Is it me, or are lists becoming ever more prevalent? In just a lazy perusal of trending topics today, I came across:

  • 12 most iconic swimsuit moments.

  • 5 tips to get the most cool from your car air conditioning.

  • 25 makeup tips all older women should know.

  • The deadliest snakes ever found on the planet.

  • The full list of the 43 Kmart, Sears stores closing around the US.

  • Top 10 disturbing modern experiments.

  • 10 famous historic figures who suffered horrifying diseases.

  • 81 topic ideas for starting a blog that matters.

What is it with lists?

I get it. We’re all in a hurry these days. We want our information in bite-sized pieces. We want to be able to skim over the boring bits, or the parts that don’t seem relevant to us. But jeez…

I think lists also appeal to our desire to be right. “Top ten rock bands of all time? Oooh! I bet I know!”

And let’s face it: we’re becoming lazy. We want the work done for us. What used cars give you the most bang for your buck? I dunno. You tell me.

If I were more interested in upping the traffic to this blog, I would start posting more lists. Maybe I will do that occasionally. Hmmm. But first I should probably Google the top ten reasons why that’s important in life.

top 10

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Why Do We Need Politicians Anymore?

The other day my dog jumped on me while I was in the middle of REM sleep. It felt like someone dropped a canned ham on me from a two story building. In retrospect perhaps it was a good thing, because it brought something to my conscious mind that had apparently been percolating in my subconscious. Under normal circumstances I’d have lost the thread of my dream-weaving upon awakening, but this was as if the door to my dream world was kicked in. By a canned ham.

Now bear with me, because this is a half formed theory, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.

For centuries, it made sense to have politicians. In a world that was predominately rural, in a time when it took days to travel to city centers and months to get news, it was only logical to have people who would represent you when it came time to make critical governmental decisions. Back then, even the electoral college actually made sense. Imagine that.

But it’s a different world now. In this technologically advanced age, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t all weigh in directly on every single issue that matters to us. One person, one vote, every issue. We could do away with congress entirely. Heaven knows they haven’t been doing much of late in any case.

Think about it. No more years-long election campaigns. No more tedious and warped political advertisements. No more gerrymandering. No more bribes. No more sex scandals. No more ignorant misogynistic rants. No more adding pork to various issues to satisfy a powerful politician’s personal agenda. No more unfair balance of power. Every citizen would have an equal amount of power.

What it would do, unfortunately, is give even more influence to the biased news outlets, because everyone would be trying to sway your opinion before you weigh in on various issues. The misinformation would be flying thick and fast, even more so than it is today if that’s possible. You’d really have to do your homework, and I doubt many people would take the time to do so. They certainly don’t seem to now.

And we’d have to figure out a way to deal with computer hacking.

Like I said, this is a half formed theory. Heaven only knows how we’d pass a budget. But wait. We don’t seem to do that these days anyway.

Here’s the scary part about this concept, the part that will make you blink. In order to switch to this type of pure democracy, barring violent overthrow, we’d have to gain the cooperation of the politicians who are currently in office. They’d have to, effectively, vote themselves out of a job. And they wouldn’t. We have given them all our power, and there is no way that they’ll ever let it go. No way.

I don’t know about you, but I find that rather terrifying.

congress

Playing God—Stem Cell Research vs. English Bulldog Breeding

Whenever I hear people react with outrage at the concept of stem cell research, I have to shake my head. “How dare we mistreat human embryos in such an outrageous fashion?” Never mind that it could result in cures for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, heart disease and diabetes. “We have no right to play God!”

Sigh. Before you get all bioethical, behold the English Bulldog.

bulldog

And here’s what the breed looked like 90 years ago.

historic bulldog

And here’s how their skulls have changed over time.

bulldog skull

What possible benefit could there be for a dental formation like that? And what do you think this does to their ability to breathe?

Through selective breeding, we have turned this once healthy creature into an abomination that can’t even breed naturally. No, English Bulldogs have to be artificially inseminated, because slot A no longer fits into fold B.

They also now have health issues that were not known a century ago. Over time, we have caused their shoulders and hips to spread, and their legs are now at odd angles. This causes elbow and hip dysplasia. The increased wrinkling of their skin which makes them look so cute has resulted in fold dermatitis. I have seen bulldogs with puss in their wrinkles. They’re also very sensitive to heat, and their nasal passages have been so deformed that they have trouble breathing. Due to their outrageous proportions, they are also completely unable to swim. They sink like a stone.

To what purpose have we warped and twisted the bodies of these poor creatures? We did it because we could. We did it because we wanted to. It’s sick.

In contrast, stem cell research has a very important purpose. It could save lives. It causes no one any pain, and would benefit the human race.

So before you start taking the moral high ground about playing God, before you decide to relegate generations of humans to the agony of preventable disease, kindly stop selectively breeding animals, and speak out when others do so. Maybe then I might take you seriously.

A Newfound Respect for Journalists

The other day I got an idea for a blog entry. I was going to write about the death of the wristwatch. I mean, I haven’t seen one in ages. And what do you need one for anymore? We have cell phones and laptops and a whole host of other electronic devices that include time pieces, after all. I haven’t worn one in years.

But something made me ask my Facebook friends, and the response I got was surprising. A whole lot of them still wear them. The reasons were varied. Some did so as a fashion statement or a status symbol. Others did it out of habit; they would feel naked without them. Another mentioned that nurses still needed them for the second hands when taking a pulse. Still another said it was just too big a hassle to dig out your cell phone every time you want to know what time it is.

So much for my blog entry about the death of the wristwatch. I was kind of disappointed, to be frank. I already had it all plotted out in my mind.

But that made me think about journalists. People often grumble that they are biased, especially when the report is something that the complainer desperately wants to disagree with. But to be honest I really am impressed that they aren’t much more biased, given my firsthand experience, humble and limited though it may be. The urge to write the story that you want to tell is almost overwhelming. And doing research is a pain in the neck. I was going to actually sit at the mall or something and see how many wristwatches I actually saw, but then I thought, “Oh to heck with it. Life’s too short.” The constant temptation to be lazy and jump to conclusions and pull the information out of one’s own behind must be hard to resist.

So here’s my own personal high five to all the journalists out there. Keep up the good work. Because work it is, indeed.

reporters

(Image credit minnesota.publicradio.org)

Ocearch—Great White Shark Research

The other day I had a front row seat for what felt like a public television nature special. I got to see the research vessel Ocearch dock beside my drawbridge. They have been here in Jacksonville, Florida, tagging great white sharks off our coast.

001 My picture of the vessel as seen from the bridge.

 ocearch (Photo: Robert Snow)

There have been slide shows, TV reports, and newspaper articles that do this topic more justice than I ever could, and much talk around town regarding Lydia and Mary Lee, two of the sharks they have tagged and are now tracking, one of whom came within 200 yards of our most popular beach (which kind of makes you think).

For a very large city that is so sleepy that it behaves like a small town, this is the most excitement we’ve had since we hosted Superbowl XXXIX and got roundly criticized for how unsophisticated we are. We even made a ham-handed bid for the 2016 Olympics, but quickly came to our senses. We just don’t have the infrastructure for it.

Even so, I love the fact that we have been hosting this research vessel, and actually making a scientific impact. It’s a refreshing change, and a quite welcome one. If you go to the Ocearch Facebook Page, you can see an excellent video of them discussing their time here in Jacksonville and how welcome they felt. (You can even catch a glimpse of one of my bridges.) They say they’ll miss us. We’ll miss them even more.

A Rare Gift from a Dolphin

I am a bridgetender at a bridge that spans the intracoastal waterway in Florida. This job gives me a front row seat to observe nature. The other night at around midnight, I was walking on the bridge to check if all the navigation lights were functioning properly. As often happens, I startled a blue heron, and it did not hesitate to voice its displeasure as it flew away. “SQUAWK, squawk, squawk…” I’ve heard that sound a million times at least. There was a brief pause and then I heard the same exact sound again. Identical. Except that this one came with three jets of water right below me. I looked down and there was a dolphin.

I came to an abrupt halt and just stared in shock. The dolphin had imitated the bird! By using its blow hole. I have never seen or heard anything like it. I stood there trying to accept what I’d just witnessed. As the dolphin swam away, I wondered who I could ask about this.

When I got home from work the next morning, I went straight to the internet and fired off an e-mail to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. I figured, why not go straight to the top? The worst that could happen is that they’d think I was a total crackpot and ignore me.

So, feeling like a nut, I told them my story, and asked, “Have you heard of dolphins imitating other creatures, or making sounds from their blow holes? I didn’t even know they could jet water out of them like whales can. I’m dying to know if I’m completely crazy. I know what I saw, but it was so weird.”

For the next several days I tried to put it out of my mind. I honestly didn’t expect a response. These are very important people engaged in extremely vital scientific inquiries. Why would they waste time responding to little old me? But just a few days later, I received this response:

Hello,

Your message was forwarded to me by the WHOI Information office, since I study dolphin communication. Your observation is very interesting, and no, you are not crazy! I only wish you had had a video camera though since it would have been very cool to document what you heard. Dolphins are renowned vocal mimics, as are their relatives belugas (see attached recent paper by Ridgway et al). And they can be trained to make sounds like you heard (see attached paper by Lilly), but to my knowledge there are no published observations of spontaneous mimicry like you found. If it ever happens again, try to get video of it (I know it was at night, but even the audio would be great). I’m not sure about the water coming out of the blowhole. I guess they could not take in some water and shoot it out if they want to, but I have not personally observed this.

Best,

Laela Sayigh

I was really stunned by this response. Dr. Sayigh is a Research Specialist in the Biology Department at Woods Hole, and also a Research Associate Professor in the Marine Biology department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she focuses on animal communication, behavior and ecology, and here she was, confirming that what I’d seen was within the realm of possibility! I responded to her right away:

Hi Dr. Sayigh,

Thank you so much for your response! I will read the attachments with great interest.

I wish I had a video camera at the time, too, but the odds of me being at the exact right place at the exact right time again would be astronomical. I have been a bridgetender since 2001 and I’ve never seen or heard anything like it before. I feel like it was a rare gift, and don’t expect I’ll ever experience it again. It makes me very happy to know that this is really possible. How amazing.

And FYI, I just watched the movie “Dolphin Tale” about Winter, the dolphin with the missing tail that lives at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and I saw him squirting water out of his blow hole a few times.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my inquiry! I hope you don’t mind, but I write a daily blog, and I’d like to write about this in it. Is it okay if I mention your name?

Dr Sayigh was kind enough to allow me to mention her in this blog, and the papers she attached were, indeed, very interesting. Apparently dolphins can, in fact, be trained to mimic through their blowholes. And beluga whales have been observed, in the wild, to mimic a crowd of children shouting in the distance, and in captivity, to say “out” and their own name.

What I saw and heard that night was like winning the lottery. It was like being given a ticket to be on the front row for a very unique natural performance. It was as if, for a brief moment, the veil between man and dolphin was lifted up, and we were on the same page. I don’t think I’ll ever look at dolphins in the same way again.