Saturday, December 10, 2011

Valley Forge: Conduit to the Pleistocene

The fauna was a strange menagerie of beasts, which included cheetahs, black bears, mastodons and wolves; white-tailed deer, tapirs and jaguars; turkeys, tortoises, short-faced bears and long-nosed boars. It was a place eerily familiar – yet otherworldly – where squirrels, foxes and whipsnakes lived in the shadows of giant sloths, saber-toothed cats and oversized horses. A kaleidoscopic realm, indeed – inhabited by creatures of all shapes and sizes, and those we conceive of as living at different points in space and time – but one not taken from the pages of a Crichton or Atwood novel. It was Valley Forge during the Pleistocene epoch – 750,000 years before Washington quartered the Continental Army there – and a snapshot of its array of life was preserved in the Port Kennedy Bone Cave, a precious fossil deposit that has given scientists a glimpse of the strange blend of creatures that once inhabited eastern North America.

Here is an artist's rendition of the menagerie that existed in eastern North America 750,000 years ago: 

North American Pleistocene fauna

To learn more about prehistoric Valley Forge and the Port Kennedy Bone Cave, click on this link:

Friday, September 23, 2011

The most powerful Atlantic hurricanes

One of the ways in which meteorologists assess the intensity of a hurricane is by measuring its barometric pressure. Generally speaking, the lower the pressure is in the core of the hurricane, the more quickly air will rush into the core from adjacent regions of higher pressure. Thus, as a rule of thumb, if hurricane A has a lower barometric pressure than hurricane B, hurricane A is thought to have higher top sustained winds, and is therefore the more intense of the two systems.

By that metric (and not according to wind speeds actually measured in the core of a hurricane), the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin was hurricane Wilma in October of 2005. At its peak intensity over the western Caribbean, Wilma registered an Atlantic basin record low pressure of 882 millibars. The storm had top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, and gusts that screamed well over 200 miles per hour.

Using barometric pressure as the sole criteria for measuring intensity, here is a list of the ten most powerful Atlantic hurricanes:

Note : The list above is based on the lowest pressure recorded during the entire life of each storm,  which was not necessarily the barometric pressure of the system at landfall.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The first land vertebrates

During the Devonian period (417 ~ 360 mya) one of the most important changes in the history of life on earth took place. It was during this time that backboned animals began to venture out of primordial bodies of water and onto terra firma, begetting a line of vertebrate land dwellers that eventually led to amphibians, reptiles, and mammals such as ourselves.

While we are descendants of the first backboned creatures to venture onto dry land, the first land vertebrates looked nothing like us. Indeed, they had a bizarre, otherworldly appearance, and resembled something of a cross between a fish and a salamander. Their fossil remains have been discovered in Devonian period rocks, many of which are located in northern Canada.

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to the Wikipedia page for the Devonian period:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Skeptic Stephen Hawking on the soul, heaven, and how we should live

In an interview with the Guardian, Stephen Hawking dismissed the notion that humans have a soul, stating that "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

Hawking's materialistic view that the mind is a naturally evolved computer is rooted in modern science. Since the cognitive revolution of the 1950s, many neuroscientists, psychologists, and computer scientists have used the "mind as a computer" metaphor to guide their investigations of how the brain engages in complex information processing, such as the symbol manipulation that is an integral part of  language. 

In previous interviews, Hawking has also expressed skepticism about the existence of God. When asked by the Guardian how we are supposed to live if there is no God to provide us with guidance, Hawking gave a simple but I think brilliant answer. "We should" he said, "seek the greatest value of our action."

Friday, May 13, 2011

The reports of Freud's death have been greatly exaggerated

For years, academic psychologists have proclaimed that Freud is dead, but recently, new findings have come to light that undermine the conventional wisdom about his legacy. For example, Mark Solms has presented evidence that supports a number of Freud's ideas, including his assumption that dreams are not meaningless psychic phenomena, but motivated, wishful states. Additionally, Jonathan Shedler published a study in American Psychologist last year that showed that Freudian therapeutic treatments are just as effective as newer, so-called "evidence-based" approaches to psychotherapy.

Here is a link to an article by Mark Solms:

Here is a link to the APA page that describes Shedler's study:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Go For Green Contest

The DLN is giving a daily cash prize to the first person who finds the four-digit daily cash code in the print edition of the paper and enters it on the online contest page.

Here are the details:

Kevin J. White of Prospect Park won the first prize of $100. There are 42 more chances to win.You could be the next winner!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The stuff that dreams are made of

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of snowstorms, and the magic, wonder, and excitement that surrounded them. Indeed, I can remember looking at leaden skies, and listening to KYW, hearing about storms and rumors of storms, in the otherworldly sibilance of the AM dial. How I desperately wanted not 2 to 4, 3 to 6, 4 to 8, but 6 to 10 inches of snow to transform the landscape into a world of white wonder, one in which a day off from school wasn't the thing of sleepy wishes, but a dream come true.

Some of those snow dreams stand out in memory; for example, I clearly recall the Blizzard of 1983. I was sick when it began, and was laying in bed, watching the snow whirl past my window, and listening to the wind howl through the trees in my backyard. I recovered in time to venture out into the drifts, build a snowfort, and defend my yard from all would-be invaders, who arrived looking like terrorists, wearing ski masks, and menacingly holding a snowball in their right hand.

A child playing in the snow after the Blizzard of 1978.

My recollection of other storms is a bit hazier, and something like trying to remember a dream after a long and deep sleep. Among those storms I include the legendary Blizzard of 1978. I was very young at the time, but I seem to recall looking out the window at drifts that were like waves on a dazzling white ocean.

I wonder if some day we will look back on the storms of 2010 and 2011 with the same sense of magic and mystery. I somehow doubt it, as the dreamworld of childhood has given way to the harsh realities of life. These days, I am as likely to curse the snow as I am to marvel at its wonder. But there is still something of the magic left, for I laugh when I see kids playing in the snow, and try to remember that for all its troubles, it's still the stuff that dreams are made of.