Animals!

Evolution has created wild and weird animals. Get to know a few of them.


Pablo Escobar’s hippos: Why drug lords shouldn’t play God

Females run spotted hyena society for a fascinating reason

Sloths: Evolutionary losers or the true jungle king?

On the origin of beauty: Darwin's controversial idea about sex

Giving animals rights enriches our own lives

Is animal cruelty the new slavery? 

The extinct animal Bill Nye would bring back to life

Bill Nye: Zoos enrich our lives but cost animals their dignity 

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  • The universe is expanding faster and faster. Whether this acceleration will end in a Big Rip or will reverse and contract into a Big Crunch is not yet understood, and neither is the invisible force causing that expansion: dark energy.
  • Physicist Dr. Katie Mack explains the difference between dark matter, dark energy, and phantom dark energy, and shares what scientists think the mysterious force is, its effect on space, and how, billions of years from now, it could cause peak cosmic destruction.
  • The Big Rip seems more probable than a Big Crunch at this point in time, but scientists still have much to learn before they can determine the ultimate fate of the universe. "If we figure out what [dark energy is] doing, if we figure out what it's made of, how it's going to change in the future, then we will have a much better idea for how the universe will end," says Mack.

    • Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
    • Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
    • Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.

    Astronomers detected a first of its kind hot Jupiter-like planet without clouds or haze. Such planets are very rare, with only one exoplanet with a clear atmosphere previously found – that one classified as a "hot Saturn".

    The "hot Jupiter" exoplanet WASP-62b is 75 light years away from Earth, coming in at about half the mass of our Jupiter. It completes a rotation around its sun in only 4.5 days (compared to 12 years for Jupiter). That closeness to the star makes the planet extremely hot.

    The discovery was made by astronomers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. The gas giant was actually first located in 2012 using the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) South survey. But the unique state of its atmosphere has only been understood now.

    Munazza Alam, a graduate student from the Center for Astrophysics who led the study, was working on her thesis that involved exoplanet characterization when she zeroed in on the atmosphere of WASP-62b.

    She used the Hubble Space Telescope for data and observations that were made via spectroscopy, a method of detecting chemical elements by studying electromagnetic radiation. In particular, Alam focused how WASP-62b looked as it came in front of its host star on three occasions. Observing visible light in such instances can show the existence of sodium and potassium in the atmosphere of the planet. The scientist could see no potassium but a complete fingerprint of sodium's presence. This led her team to conclude that the exoplanet's atmosphere lacked clouds or haze, which would have hidden the sodium's clear signature.

    Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

    Credit: Jackie Faherty

    "I'll admit that at first I wasn't too excited about this planet," Alam said in a press release. "But once I started to take a look at the data, I got excited." Seeing the sodium was "the smoking gun evidence that we are seeing a clear atmosphere," she added.

    Finding such a planet is very unlikely since astronomers estimate under 7% of exoplanets have clear atmospheres. Studying them can help us understand why they were formed in a way that is different from most planets, according to Alam. Without clouds and haze getting in the way, it is also easier to study the chemical makeup of such a planet.

    Jupiter itself has a complex and chaotic cloud structure, formed at different altitudes:

    Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft

    The astronomers plan to study WASP-62b further upon the launch of the next-generation James Web Space Telescope later in 2021.

    Check out the new study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    • Outside of stocks and bonds, some people make money investing in collectibles and make a fair amount on them.
    • One stamp even sold for a billion times its face value.
    • The extreme dependence on future collectability, however, limits the potential of most of these opportunities.

    The question of how to make your money work for you is a never-ending problem. While stocks, bonds, and currencies of all kinds are common choices, they aren't the only things you can put your money into. Various collectibles, household objects, and clothing articles have made headlines for being sources of income for people who can predict which ones will end up being valuable years after purchase and reaping the profits.

    While the word "investment" is a strong one, some people really do buy these items in hopes of reselling them for higher amounts later, much as you might do with stocks or bonds. So, let's look at five alternative investing options with occasionally eye-popping returns.

    Pokémon Cards

    For those who weren't content to catch them all in a video game came a trading card game where you could collect them all. Some classic cards have gained tremendous stature among collectors and Pokéfanatics and sell for extremely high prices.

    An older card featuring Charizard, a fire breathing dragon, regularly sells for thousands online. Given that the card could be purchased for a couple dollars in 1999, this is quite the return. A particular pack of Pokémon cards, which cost $5 in 2003, now sells for $650, 130 times the original asking price.

    Of course, not every card will fetch these high prices. Buying cards as an investment is tricky. You have to essentially guess at which cards will be considered highly valuable at a later date and will be unable to collect dividends before selling them.

    Furthermore, you have to presume that people will be collecting the cards years after buying them. While Pokémon has remained popular, it is a bit of an outlier in terms of enduring success.

    Sneakers

    Credit: Junior Samson on Unsplash

    People from all walks of life—from skateboarders to the First Lady of the Philippines—enjoy collecting shoes. An entire subculture exists for people interested in collecting sneakers, and some people make quite a profit in it.

    The Nike SB Dunk Low Reese Forbes Denims, priced initially at $65 in 2002, are commonly valued in the thousands of dollars now. The Nike Air Jordan 1 Retro High x Off White "Chicago" shoe sold for $190 a mere four years ago, but now sells for $4000 a pair.

    A Huffington Post article points out that most of these shoes offered better returns than gold over the same period. The same article quotes YouTube personality Mr. Foamer Simpson and his explanation of the difficulties of making money on shoes:

    "There's a guessing game or element of unpredictability that makes it exciting for some collectors. With sneakers, you kind of never know. Sure, you know what sneakers are more limited or which ones were harder to get, but even with that, it fluctuates a lot. A sneaker that was very valuable two years ago might all of a sudden crash and no longer be valuable."

    Toys of all kinds

    If there's one thing everybody loves, it's what they loved when they were children. That often translates into old and rare toys fetching insane prices at auction.

    Beanie Babies, those little stuffed animals from the 1990s, once sold for thousands of dollars online, not bad considering they originally cost $5. LEGO sets, particularly those featuring well-known franchises like Star Wars, can sell for hundreds online.

    As with Pokémon cards, the success stories are dependent on what people are interested in collecting long after most people forgot the toy existed. While some collectors have ideas on how to gauge what might or might not end up being valuable later, there seems to be a considerable amount of luck involved.

    Stamps

    The hobby of kings has occasionally made some people as rich as one, with rare stamps and extensive collections fetching high prices at auction.

    One of the famous "Inverted Jenny" stamps, a rare misprint showing an upside-down airplane, sold for $1,593,000 at auction. The most valuable stamp in the world, the British Guiana 1c magenta, last sold for $9,480,000, a billion times its face value. For those interested in a shorter-term investment, the USA Forever stamp has gained a face value of 75% since its introduction and can still be used to send a letter.

    Coins

    Credit: Anthony from Pexels

    For those who want to invest in actual money but without having it do money-related things, collectible coins may be the ticket.

    The misprinted Wisconsin State Quarter, featuring an extra leaf on an ear of corn, can sell for up to $2,800, though the price has declined in recent years. Older coins made of precious metals are also highly valued; a silver dollar from 1804 sold for nearly $2,000,000 at auction. Even old wheat pennies can sell for a couple of dollars today.

    While these collectibles can provide high returns on your investment in them, they don't provide dividends, and their value is entirely dependent on how much collectors are willing to pay for the particular item you have. As a couple of the above examples show, tastes can change and leave your investment worthless. If you have some luck, an eye for trends, and the good fortune not to have thrown out your old stuff, you might be able to make a fair amount on it.

    Of course, if you manage to get rich because you found an old coin in your desk after reading this article, be sure to remember who wrote it.

    • NASA's Mobile Launcher Platform-2 supported the launches of historic Apollo missions, including two crewed missions to the Moon.
    • The space agency is in the process of deconstructing the platform to make space for its new Space Launch System (SLS).
    • NASA's Artemis program aims to launch three missions, including a crewed mission to the lunar surface in 2024.

    NASA plans to scrap its Mobile Launcher Platform-2 (MLP-2), the gigantic structure that helped launch more than 50 missions, including Apollo 12 and 14, and the tragic 1986 Challenger mission.

    NASA is getting rid of the historic platform to make room for a newer mobile launcher that, unlike MLP-2, will be capable of supporting the agency's Artemis-era Space Launch System (SLS).

    "We're getting rid of MLP-2 now not because there were no customers [for its use]. We're getting rid of it because we're running out of parking places," Scott Tenhoff, project manager for MLP-2's demolition at Kennedy Space Center, told collectSpace. "That there's a contract out now to build Mobile Launcher-2, something had to go."

    The agency tried seeing whether institutions like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum were interested in preserving parts of MLP-2, which measures 25 feet high, 160 feet long, and 135 feet wide, and weighs more than 8 million pounds when unloaded. But with no takers, NASA chose to scrap it to make room for the new infrastructure.

    "We ran out of parking spots, so that's why we chose to get rid of MLP-2," Tenhoff said.

    MLP-2 is one of three platforms constructed in the 1960s, the other being MLP-1 and MLP-3. NASA will use MLP-1 to condition the crawlerway, the road on which crawler-transporters carry platforms, rockets and spacecraft at a speed of 1 mph. The crawlerway is 130 feet wide, nearly the size of an eight-lane highway.

    To ensure the crawlerway can handle massive weights for the upcoming Artemis 1 mission, NASA is loading its MLP-1 with concrete blocks that weigh as much as SLS and its umbilical launch tower.

    The agency plans to use MLP-1 for future crawlerway conditioning, and to store the MLP-3 in Kennedy Space Center. As for the MLP-2? Tenhoff said there's not much to salvage, given that the structure was built for the specific purpose of launching Apollo-era rockets.

    Those launches included:

    • 1969—Apollo 9: The third crewed Apollo mission.
    • 1969—Apollo 12: The second crewed mission to land on the Moon.
    • 1971—Apollo 14: The third crewed mission to land on the Moon.
    • 1973—Skylab: The first U.S. space station, launched aboard a modified Saturn V rocket.
    • 1986—Challenger: A failed Space Shuttle mission which resulted in an explosion that killed all seven crew members.

    A new era for NASA

    The Artemis program aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024, and after that a voyage to Mars. While it's unclear whether President Joe Biden will change the timelines of the program, the overall goal is to establish a moon base from which astronauts can conduct long-term research and experiments.

    "After 20 years of continuously living in low-Earth orbit, we're now ready for the next great challenge of space exploration — the development of a sustained presence on and around the moon," former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "For years to come, Artemis will serve as our North Star as we continue to work toward even greater exploration of the moon, where we will demonstrate key elements needed for the first human mission to Mars."

    In November 2021, NASA plans to launch Artemis 1, which will be the first flight using SLS and Orion. The mission aims to send the Orion spacecraft, uncrewed, to orbit the moon. In 2023, Artemis 2 aims to send a crewed mission to fly by the Moon, while Artemis 3 plans to put American astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.


    • Charles Darwin speculated that wingless insects thrived on windy islands because they weren't blown off the land.
    • While the reasoning was slightly faulty, researchers have now proved Darwin's 165-year-old "wind hypothesis."
    • This finding is yet another example of how environments shape the animals that inhabit them.

    All animals adapt to their environment. Even humans, self-isolating animals that we are, are shaped by our surroundings. Every one of us is interdependent with the environment that we inhabit—it shapes us as much as we shape it.

    While the Buddhist notion of interdependence dates back roughly 2,500 years, we didn't understand how profoundly the environment affects biology until Charles Darwin. Now one of his theories, long known as the "wind hypothesis," has been shown to be true. It only took 165 years to verify his observations.

    To be fair, the wind isn't the only reason increasing numbers of insects no longer grow wings. But as a new study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, shows, the wind is a major factor in this evolutionary decision.

    Not that the world is about to be overrun with unwinged critters. Roughly 95 percent of the world's insect population can fly. After boating around coastal Morocco, Darwin noticed something odd on the island of Madeira: many local beetles (his personal passion) were wingless. He suggested flying beetles would have been blown off the island given the strong winds. He then speculated that apterous (un-winged) beetles were better suited for the environment.

    The theory commenced with a bit of a bet between Darwin and his friend, geographical botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, as explained by lead researcher, Rachel Leihy, a Ph.D. candidate at Monash University's School of Biological Sciences:

    "He and the famous botanist Joseph Hooker had a substantial argument about why this happens. Darwin's position was deceptively simple. If you fly, you get blown out to sea. Those left on land to produce the next generation are those most reluctant to fly, and eventually evolution does the rest. Voilà."

    \u200bCharles Darwin statue

    Charles Darwin statue

    Credit: Christian / Adobe Stock

    Monash researchers looked at three decades of data on various insect species living in Antarctica and 28 Southern Ocean islands—including Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Ellef Ringnes, Bathurst, and St. Matthew—and discovered a trend: wind (as well as low air pressure and freezing temperatures) made flight nearly impossible to resident insects. They simply didn't have the energetic resources needed to take to the sky. Better to crawl around and scavenge.

    Darwin wasn't completely right. He thought the evolutionary adaptations were due purely to wind throwing insects off the island. But nutrition matters too. Flight consumes a ton of energy. The windier it is, the harder insects have to work. Battling a gale requires an inordinate amount of calories. As the team writes,

    "Strong winds can also inhibit normal insect flight activity, thereby increasing the energetic costs of flying or maintaining flight structures. This energy trade-off is more complex than Darwin's single-step displacement mechanism because it requires genetic linkage between traits associated with flight ability, flight propensity, and fecundity or survival."

    Still, you have to hand it to the man. During a time when most humans assumed animals were all the result of metaphysical tinkering, Darwin gazed out into nature and connected the dots. His mind has inspired over a century-and-a-half of scientific progress as we continue to build on—and, as this study shows, prove—his theories.

    Darwin knew that every animal is the product of its environment, and therefore must respect both its boons and its boundaries. Talk about a lesson we need today. Environments are known to become very hostile to foreign invaders when pushed too hard. Right now, we're courting disaster. Hopefully, we won't wait for evolution to ground our ambitions.

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    Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."