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Archive for January, 2008


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Tikal

Tikal is the greatest of all Mayan cities.  During the time period when the Maya dominated the Yucatan peninsula, the pyramids of Tikal were the tallest structures in the western hemisphere.  The city was founded around 200 B.C.  It seemed to be abandoned in 900 A.D. for unknown reasons.  The site was discovered again by 1848 and has been going excavations ever since.

Tikal lies outside the city of El Peten, Guatamala.  The towers of the city are well restored and surrounded by the rainforest, as the actual towers, some of which reach 212 feet, are located within the Tikal National Park.  Wildlife is abundant in the park as a result of this. 

The best time to take this trip is from November to April.  The room and board costs around $60 for a doubles room in a hotel very near to the site.  Although Tikal is absolutely magical at any time of the day, special passes are given to visit the Great Plaza after hours on days when the moon is full.

Tikal was built to impress and astound.  And 2200 years later, it still does just that.

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The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a 6,000 foot-deep, 277 mile-long, and 18 mile-wide canyon in Northern Arizona.  It took nature about two billion years to create this great void by way of erosion courtesy of the Colorado River.  The river runs 277 miles through the Grand Canyon.  Even though about 4 million people visit the Canyon every year, about 3,600,000 of them never make it past the guest shop and entrance.  There is still plenty of wilderness all throughout the Grand Canyon. 

The best way to experience that wilderness is to hike the canyon — rim to rim.  Most experts suggest that you start at the steep North rim, continue through the gentle basin toward the center of the canyon and then make your way back up to the Southern rim.  The trek goes through some tough terrain, so it could take up to three days to hike the 24 mile trail. 

If hiking isn’t your forte, there are plenty of other activities to do a the Grand Canyon, including rock climbing the canyon walls, kayaking or white water rafting the Colorado River, or taking mule rides around the canyon. 

The park admission cost is $20 per car, so it is best to car pool and go in groups.  The best times are from March and April, and September and October, as these months are the least busy times.  The park is, however, open year round.  Lodging costs anywhere from thirty dollars (a ranch dorm) to three hundred dollars for a canyon-view room.  Mule rides cost an astounding $345 per person, while rafting trips are $107. 

This is a truly scenic natural wonder and a must-see.  It is truly a GRAND Canyon.  The colors of the rock are accentuated in the sunrise and sunset, making for a great memory.  For more information, go to www.nps.gov/grca

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All this science talk is well and good, but I saw an article in Smithsonian magazine about travel which inspired me to blog a list about places you should travel to before you die.

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There seem to be a plethora of lists describing where to visit and things to do before you die.  Most are unattainable (who has the time or money to visit 1000 much less 50, or in this case 35).  So I tried to keep my list semi-reasonable.

Whether you only visit a couple of these places or all of them, your life will be enrichened by the experience either way.  Every day, from tomorrow on, I will blog about 1 place to visit on each of the 7 continents (5×7=35).  I hope you have fun reading about the places, begin to dream, and learn something in the process.

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Scientists made a remarkable claim saying that the Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, or the white-crowned sparrow migrates using a map.  This bird summers in Alaska, but flies south to Mexico and the southwestern United States for the cold winter months.  The trek is amazing in and of itself, but these birds use a map to get to the southwestern portion of the western hemisphere. 

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An adult white-crowned sparrow

Researchers caught fifteen adult and fifteen juvenile sparrows in Washington (the state) and flew them (via plane) to New Jersey.  They then placed radio transmitters on the birds and let them go free.  The adults headed southwest, where they already flew several times and managed to gather a mental map of the area.  The juveniles, on their first trip, however, flew straight south instead of southwest and would have missed their goal. 

The researchers thus discovered that the birds will instinctively fly south for their first migration and build a mental map of the area.  When they return next year, those birds can access the map and fly to their wintering grounds by a different, shorter route.

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Kangaroos do not release as much flatulence as cows.  Now, I know what you are thinking right now, “Uhhhh.  So what?”  Well, this is much more important than you think. 

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A good example of how much cows contribute to global warming.

Cow farts contain a lot of methane, which is a gas that adds to global warming by thickening the ozone.  And seeing how much they flatuses they release and how many cows are currently being raised, you can do the math.  In fact, about 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are emitted from bovine behinds. 

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A red kanaroo eating.

Kangaroos, on the other hand, have a specialized bacteria in its stomach that cuts methane content to next to nothing.  Scientists believe that if the bacteria can be transferred to cows and sheep, the 14 percent of harmful emissions from bovines can be eliminated. 

There are added bonuses for farmers who otherwise may not want to pay for the procedure.  Adding the bacteria to cow stomachs will make the animal’s digestive process more efficient, and save millions of dollars in feed cost.  Athol Klieve, a senior research scientist with the Queensland government, said, “Not only would they not produce the methane, they would actually get something like 10 to 15 per cent more energy out of the feed they are eating.” 

Researchers are quoted as saying it could take up to three years just to isolate the kangaroo bacteria, before the process of transferring them to cows and sheep can even be contemplated.  This is where bioengineers like me can do work that can help the environment.

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A picture of the Dust Bowl

The Earth is running out of soil.  Great?  You always hear about global warming and acid rain and pollution, but never anything about the poor soil conditions of the planet.  A new study compiled by Dr. David Montgomery at the University of Washington says that current farming practices are causing soil to erode faster than more soil can be produced. 

Plowed land, Montgomery discovered, erodes at a bit over one millimeter every year, while the world only creates about 0.2 millimeters annually.  He also calculated that soil at an average thickness will be completely depleted within several thousand years.  This amount of time corresponds horrifyingly well with how long many of the great civilizations, including the ancient Mayans, have lasted.   And at the rate with which we plow and farm the soil, this number may be smaller for our current civilization. 

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An example of soil erosion.

Do not despair however, as there is a cure to this ailment.  No-till agriculture is a process in which a specialized drill inserts seeds into the ground without destroying the top layer of soil.  The problem with this is that only about sixteen percent of United States farmers use this method of agriculture.  Worldwide, the percentage is even smaller (only 5%), probably because poorer farmers cannot afford to purchase the equipment.  Yet, if we continue on at the rate we are going, we may all be gone within a few thousand years because of lack of food.  Thus all of our accomplishments will literally be “dead as dirt.”

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Duke University surgeons and immunologists have discovered a reason for the appendix.  The appendix was previously thought to be useless, as it seemed to have no effect on digestion.  The appendix is a three inch appendage near the beginning of the large intestine. 

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A diagram of the large intestine and appendix

Dr. William Parker of Duke University made the realization the greatest concentration of biofilms in rats and baboons, concentrated groups of helpful bacteria, was in the cecum, a pouch located near their long intestine.  The secum is located in the same location as the appendix, so Parker decided to test for biofilms in the appendix.  Bingo.  The appendix contained the greatest collection of biofilms in the human body. 

It turns out that the appendix works as a fortress for helpful bacteria.  It is well designed for its function.  The narrow opening prevents the intake of gastric juices and fecal matter.  It is, however, close enough to the large intestine so that it can release bacteria back into your digestive tract (alimentary canal) after bacteria-destroying diseases like diarrhea, cholera, and stomach flu.  Since diseases like these quite common, you are at a survival disadvantage if you do not have an appendix protecting those wonderful bacteria. 

So, tell your appendix thank you today.  It has been called useless for many years.  The least you could do is give it some credit.

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