New elements added to Periodic Table; students do not rejoice

updated-periodic-table

There’s no question some subjects get more difficult with time. While history and literature likely remain more or less constant, with some material falling away as new material is added, consider science, where constant discoveries are always being made and added to existing knowledge.

An example: within the past few days, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry has approved the name and symbols for four new elements, bringing the total number of named elements to 118.

The newest additions are nihonium (symbol Nh) for the element 113; moscovium (Mc), element 115; tennessine (Ts); element 117; and oganesson (Og) element 118. All are “superheavy” elements not found in nature.

They were created in a lab by blasting beams of heavy nuclei at other nuclei located inside particle accelerators, according to CBS. They complete the seventh row of the periodic table.

What this means for my children is that there are 10 more elements to learn than when I was in high school. There were seven more elements by the time I took high school chemistry compared to when my dad finished his secondary education.

Even more staggering is the fact that my children will have to learn 42 more elements than my maternal grandfather would have had to have known. Of course, he was born in 1882 and by the time he would have been of high school age, there were only 76 named elements.

The latest elements have been named after a place or geographical region, or a scientist.

Nihonium, discovered at RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science in Japan, comes from the word “Nihon,” which is one of the two ways to say “Japan” in Japanese, and literally mean “the Land of Rising Sun.”

Moscovium and tennessine were proposed by the discoverers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Moscovium recognizes the Moscow region and “honors the ancient Russian land that is the home of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research, where the discovery experiments were conducted using the Dubna Gas-Filled Recoil Separator in combination with the heavy ion accelerator capabilities of the Flerov Laboratory of Nuclear Reactions,” according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Tennessine is in recognition of the contribution of the Tennessee region of the United States, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, to superheavy element research.

Oganesson was proposed by the collaborating teams of discoverers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and Lawrence Livermore to recognize Professor Yuri Oganessian for his pioneering contributions to transactinoid elements research.

“His many achievements include the discovery of superheavy elements and significant advances in the nuclear physics of superheavy nuclei including experimental evidence for the “island of stability,” according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

The naming of an element for Oganessian marks only the second time an element has been named after a living person, the other being seaborgium, for Glenn Seaborg, who won the 1951 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and was instrumental in the discovery of 10 transuranium elements.

(Top: Periodic table of elements. New elements can be seen at far right end of seventh row.)

Corrupt officials scarier than death, snakes, terrorists?

corruption

Given your choice, what’s your worst fear: homicidal maniacs, venomous snakes or corrupt government officials?

The third annual Survey of American Fears by Chapman University reports that most Americans are afraid of “C,” corrupt government officials, according to a story on the report published by Bloomberg.

After corrupt government officials came terrorist attacks and not having enough money for the future.

Other items which garnered significant fear among Americans included Obamacare (35.5 percent), reptiles (33.2 percent) and being killed by a stranger (21.9 percent).

Curiously, 50 percent more Americans are more afraid of corrupt government officials (60.6 percent) than terrorist attacks (41 percent).

What the above points out is that either those conducting the survey or those taking the survey don’t understand the difference between what it means to be afraid of something and what it means to be concerned about something.

To say one is afraid of corrupt government officials implies that one lives in a third world banana republic where there is constant fear that Stasi-like thugs will kick open doors in the middle of the night and drag away opponents, rather than referring to unscrupulous politicians who misuse public funds.

To be afraid of snakes is a very real fear; to be afraid of corrupt government officials, at least the garden variety ones we breed in the US, is not the same thing.

To state a fear of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, indicates a terror of the government program, rather than worry that it won’t work, will cost taxpayers more money or will bring chaos to the country’s medical-insurance infrastructure. You may not like Obamacare, you may think it unwise politically or economically, but do you fear it in the same way as, say, you fear finding a large, angry scorpion in one of your work boots?

Other issues with the survey:

Nearly 30 percent of Americans are afraid of a devastating tornado, just over 23 percent are afraid of a devastating hurricane, slightly more than 22 percent are afraid of a devastating earthquake or a devastating flood, and 15 percent are afraid of a large volcanic eruption.

If you’re a resident of Phoenix, Az., it’s unlikely that any of those items rank high on your list, while someone in Omaha, Neb., might be worried about tornadoes and flooding, but have little fear of earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, at least if they’re rational.

Hawaiians have reason to worry about volcanos, but with the rare exception of eruptions like that of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the rest of the US is pretty safe from this threat.

In other words, it depends on your location, and even then, is it a “fear” or a “concern?”

Residents of Miami have reason to be concerned over a hurricane, but is it a fear that hangs over their heads like the sword of Damocles? If so, they may want to relocate. Same if you’re a San Franciscan fearful of earthquakes.

Finally, 7.8 percent of Americans are afraid of clowns. Personally, it’s not the clowns I’m concerned with, but the people who dress up as clowns.

Hurricane Matthew uncovers clutch of Civil War ordnance

folly-beach-cannon-balls

When word circulated that Civil War-era cannon balls had been uncovered on beach south of Charleston following last weekend’s hurricane, I was somewhat surprised.

While the strength of such storms can’t be underestimated, the ability to move, say, a 12- or 24-pound round shell from the bottom of Charleston Harbor onto a beach would be quite a feat.

It appears that the clutch of 16 cannon balls found Sunday on Folly Beach had most likely been in place since the 1861-65 conflict.

“There was a gun emplacement there during the Civil War and this must have been a stack because they were all consolidated together,” John Manzi, who has a home on Little Oak Island, on the other side of Folly, told USA Today.

Manzi said a friend went on to the beach Sunday and found the Civil War-era shells.

Bomb squads successfully detonated most of the shells, which were badly corroded by 150 years of sand and salt.

An official with the area sheriff’s department said a few of the shells were transported to the nearby Navy base.

Maj. Eric Watson, a public information officer with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, said his office had to wait for the tide to go down to recover all the ordnance.

“When the tide receded, our guys and members of the US Air Force explosive team used a small amount of C-4 to detonate the cannon balls right there on the beach,” he said.

Fuse holes were noted in at least some of the shells, indicating the ordnance was designed to explode, rather than being solid shot, which was used to batter targets.

(Top: Exciting action photo of cannon balls found on Folly Beach, SC.)

Savannah’s Methuselah, sloppy mind or stonecutter’s mistake?

savannah-9-26-2016-191

Claims to amazing longevity are not only legion, they go back thousands of years. Methuselah is noted in the bible for having lived 969 years; Jimmu, alleged to be the first emperor of Japan, was said to have survived more than 125 years; and the Soviet Union claimed that as of 1960 it had 100 citizens between the ages of 120 and 156.

Science, though, recognizes France’s Jeanne Calment (1875–1997), who lived to the age of 122 years and 164 days, as the longest-lived person, at least that can be verified. She lived three years longer than the runner-up, Sarah Knauss of the US, who died in 1999 at 119.

So it was some skepticism that I read the wording on the tombstone of Laurence Dunphey, located in Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery:

“Sacred

to the Memory of

Laurence Dunphey

A Native of Clonmel

County of Tipperary Ireland

who departed this life

December 17th 1834,

aged 145 years”

Were the information on Dunphey’s gravestone correct, it would mean he had been born in 1689, the year before the Battle of the Boyne, fought between English King James II and the Dutch Prince William of Orange. William and his wife Mary had overthrown James in 1688.

The battle, fought near the town of Drogheda on the east coast of Ireland, about 100 miles from Clonmel, resulted in a victory for William, curtailed James’s bid to retaken the English throne and aided in ensuring the continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. It is still a point of pride today with Protestants in Northern Ireland, the more low brow of whom use it as occasion to attempt to whip up anti-Catholic feeling.

Box vault of Laurence Dunphey in Catholic Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Note Southern Cross of Honor in front of grave, apparently depicting belief that Dunphey, who died in 1834 at the purported age of 145, also managed to fight in the US Civil War (1861-65).

Box vault of Laurence Dunphey in Catholic Cemetery, Savannah, Ga. Note Southern Cross of Honor in front of grave, apparently depicting belief that Dunphey, who died in 1834 at the purported age of 145, also managed to fight in the US Civil War (1861-65).

Georgia itself wasn’t established as a British colony until 1733, when Dunphey would purportedly have been 44 years old.

Of course, it’s almost a certainty that Dunphey was not 145 when he died in 1834. It’s possible Dunphey was old, even very old when he died, but it’s more likely that a mistake was made by someone somewhere along the line.

While some Irish immigrants had moved into Georgia from South Carolina in the 18th century and there were Irish who came with founder James Oglethorpe when he arrived in Savannah in 1733, the first wave of Irish immigration directly into Savannah came in the 1830s, with the arrival of individuals to help build the Central Rail Road and Canal Co., later the Central of Georgia Railway.

Had Dunphey immigrated with the very earliest settlers to Georgia, he probably would have been recognized as such as his death; it seems implausible that he chose to leave his homeland and come over with the first major wave of Irish immigrants at the age of 140-plus.

A writer for the Catholic Diocese of Savannah speculated that Dunphey’s age was probably inscribed on his gravestone by “bored Union soldiers” during or just after the War Between the States.

However, the lettering appears identical across the marker, meaning that unless the Federal soldier-turned-mischievous stonemason opted to remake an entire marble slab, it’s almost certain that the grave marker was made shortly after Dunphey’s death.

Two possibilities:

  • Dunphey was very elderly, but uncertain of his age, and he or his family either really believed that he was 145, or, in his family’s case, did so to humor him. In an era when time was much more fluid, mistakes regarding age, even of several decades, weren’t unheard of;
  • There is also the possibility that the stonemason working on Dunphey’s marker simply made a mistake, carving “145” instead of, say, “45.” And given that there’s no “reset” button when you’re working with stone, you get what you get.

Whatever the real story behind the age of Laurence Dunphey – County Tipperary native, US immigrant and long-dead Irish Catholic – he’s managed to achieve a small bit of immortality, no matter how long he really lived.

Even without color, peafowl seems plenty proud

white-peacock

While not a “birder” in the formal sense of the word, I’m often fascinated by the beauty of feathered creatures. Given their striking variety of colors, extensive array of plumage and capacity to compose a seemingly endless arrangement of songs, it’s easy to be captivated.

Occasionally, one comes upon a bird that’s particularly breathtaking, such as the above, a white peahen seen last weekend in rural South Carolina.

After a bit of research, I came to the realization that the above was not an albino peafowl, but one with a condition called leucism, which results in an overall reduction in different types of pigment.

Peahen with normal coloring.

Peahen with normal coloring.

As a result, the bird had practically no coloration in its plumage but retained its normal eye color, rather than having red or pink eyes as an albino bird would have had.

In addition, white peafowl can mate to create white offspring.

The above bird was spotted on the edge of farm and, given the presence of innumerable predators in the area and the fact that an all-white creature would have little chance of blending in in the wild, there’s no question it was a domesticated creature.

Despite the lack of blues, browns and tans normally associated with peafowl, the bird in question still strutted around as though it were the most colorful creature in the county. Some characteristics can’t be bred out, one supposes.

White peafowl have to be somewhat rare; earlier this year, when a white peacock got loose in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, it caused a bit of a stir.

Scientists say Greenland sharks can live for 400 years

greenland shark

Researchers using radiocarbon dating have determined that Greenland sharks, slow-moving giants that live in the cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic, are the longest-living vertebrates on Earth, with one recorded as being 400 years old.

Which explains the old Greenland shark quip that goes something like: “God must like practical jokes; why would He make it so female Greenland sharks reach their sexual peak at age 150 while males reach theirs at 75?

Lame jokes aside, the recent evidence uncovered by the team at the University of Copenhagen nearly doubles the age of oldest-known living vertebrate. The former record-holder was a bowhead whale estimated to be 211 years old, according to the BBC.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of 28 Greenland sharks, and estimated that one female was about 400 years old, according to research published in the journal Science.

“We had our expectations that we were dealing with an unusual animal, but I think everyone doing this research was very surprised to learn the sharks were as old as they were,” said lead author Julius Nielsen, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen.

Greenland sharks, which live farther north than any other shark species, can grow to more than 20 feet and 2,100 pounds.

Determining the age of Greenland sharks proved difficult.

“For some fish, scientists are able to examine ear bones called otoliths, which when sectioned, show a pattern of concentric rings that scientists can count as they would the rings in a tree,” according to the BBC. “Sharks are harder, but some species, such as the Great White, have calcified tissue that grows in layers on their back bones, that can also be used to age the animals.”

But because the Greenland shark is a very, very soft shark, with no hard body parts where growth layers are deposited, it was believed that the age could not be investigated, Nielsen told the BBC.

However the team discovered a means of determining the age of the sharks.

“The Greenland shark’s eye lens is composed of a specialized material – and it contains proteins that are metabolically inert,” Neilson said. “Which means after the proteins have been synthesized in the body, they are not renewed any more. So we can isolate the tissue that formed when the shark was a pup, and do radiocarbon dating.”

The team looked at 28 sharks, most of which had died after being caught in fishing nets as by-catch.

Using this technique, they established that the largest shark – a 16-foot-long female – was extremely ancient.

Because radiocarbon dating does not produce exact dates, they believe that she could have been as “young” as 272 or as old as 512. But she was most likely somewhere in the middle, or about 400 years old, the news service reported.

It means she was born between the years of 1501, or less than a decade after Columbus landed in the Western hemisphere, and 1744, or, 12 years after George Washington was born. Most likely the date of birth was in the 17th century. If she were exactly 400 years old, she would have been born the same year William Shakespeare died.

The oldest invertebrate is a 507-year-old clam called Ming. If the female Greenland shark’s age is at the upper end of the scale, she will have outlasted the long-lived clam – and certainly had a much more exciting existence.

And, for the record, Greenland sharks, both male and female, appear to reach sexual maturity at around age 150.

Nine-banded armadillos: Not just roadkill anymore

silverstreet 8 8 2016 007

Armadillos are like possums in that they are more often seen dead along the side of the road than alive.

In fact, given the abundance of deceased armadillos and possums that are evident throughout much of the year two thoughts come to mind: a) how exactly do the two species remain vibrant?; and b) just how many of each exist in the wild that they can withstand such wilting assaults from vehicles?

While possums have been a regular feature in my neck of the woods for, likely, tens of thousands of years, armadillos are relative newcomers, having only migrated into South Carolina about 25 years ago.

I’d seen the remains of a number of armadillos that had gone mano a mano with cars and lost, but Monday I experienced my first live sighting in the Palmetto State. Driving through the small town of Silverstreet (population 216, not counting interloping armadillos), I spotted Dasypus novemcinctus, or the nine-banded, long-nosed armadillo, in the middle of a yard, rooting around.

The yard was a large, one-acre lot without fencing, so I pulled over, grabbed my camera and walked the 50 yards or so toward the insectivore. It ignored me until I got within perhaps 10 feet of it, then it trundled ahead, keeping a small distance between us.

Each time I moved slowly toward it, it kept ahead of me, but didn’t pay me a lot of attention.

Photo of armadillo taken by someone who actually knows how to operate a camera.

Photo of armadillo taken by someone who actually knows how to operate a camera.

The nine-banded armadillo has been described as a cross between a turtle and piglet, a depiction both entertaining and accurate. Apparently, the creature got its name from Spanish conquistadors, with “armadillo” meaning “little man in armor” in Spanish.

The armadillo’s shell isn’t solid like that of a turtle, but made up of a series of scutes, or bony plates, which overlap and telescope, giving the creature flexibility.

Their expansion into large swathes of the US hasn’t exactly been well received. Not only do they damage lawns, gardens and structures with their digging, but can cause havoc in the poultry and egg-producing industries. In addition, they also eat the eggs of ground-nesting creatures such as rice birds and gopher tortoises.

One of the interesting aspects of armadillos is that they give birth to identical quadruplets, which are usually born in the spring.

Looking at the mammal as it poked around, I was struck by the length and width of its tail and the diminutive size of its head. It was as though someone had stuck a camper shell on a bicycle.

Though this particular armadillo may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing, it was certainly fleet of foot. Once I moved in for a closeup, it skedaddled toward what it thought was a burrow. However, said burrow turned out to be only about 12 inches deep.

It turned around and paused for about 30 seconds, enabling me to snap a few pictures, than made for, in this case, low ground, galloping at pretty good clip across well-manicured grass before disappearing into a culvert.

Given the relatively few number of cars in the area this particular armadillo inhabits, it’s likely it will survive and mate, which will mean more “little men in armor” as time progresses.

(Top: Armadillo trying to hide from nosey blogger in Silverstreet, SC.)