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The Whippet #165: Blood, ink, shark, moon

McKinley Valentine — 8 min read

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So if you think you might like to be a researcher for a TV show, I will tell you this: it involves a lot more cold-calling strangers than you might expect. Like, "can you, a medical doctor, stop treating sick children for half a day to come and give your expert opinion why we close our eyes when we sneeze?"

It's not just finding an answer to the question, it's finding a person with an appropriate job title willing to say that answer on camera.

Asking people to be on TV is a weird thing because you have no idea whether you're asking a huge favour (some people are busy and have no desire to be on TV), giving them an exciting opportunity (people who want to be on TV or are fans of the presenters), or something in between ("ugghhh I really don't want to but I should because it's good for my career").

As a neurodivergent person, if there's one thing I love, it's ambiguous social dynamics!

On which note, hit me up if you can physically be in Sydney and are any of the following?

  • You are an avionics engineer.
  • You work or study at a lab with a bomb calorimeter.
  • You're an uber driver, and could talk about what passengers do to earn a low rating (besides the obvious big things like being abusive).
  • You work in a hospital around ventilators and suchlike, and could give an informed opinion on whether and to what degree phones interfere with medical equipment and/or pacemakers. Perhaps a cardiologist or nurse?
  • You are one of the founders of Mexican restaurant chain Guzman Y Gomez (look it's worth a shot).

On my work email for this one, mckinley /at/ mercuryscout /dot/ com

Despite the third paragraph, you would unambiguously be doing me a favour.

'Articles' icon

Carl Sagan was involved in a top secret plan to nuke the moon

"The main objective of the program was to cause a nuclear explosion that would be visible from Earth. It was hoped that such a display would boost the morale of the American people."

They wanted to nuke the moon to boost morale. This is 1958 by the way, so before the moon landing. The project was run by the US Air Force.

A ten-member team was assembled at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago to study the potential visibility of the explosion, the benefits to science, and the implications for the lunar surface. Among the members of the research team were astronomer Gerard Kuiper and his doctoral student Carl Sagan, [24 at the time]. Sagan was responsible for the mathematical projection of the expansion of a dust cloud in space around the Moon, an essential element in determining its visibility from Earth.

While they do talk about how "it would help in answering some of the mysteries in planetary astronomy and astrogeology", the fact that Sagan's role was calculating whether it would be enough of a spectacle makes it pretty clear that's a figleaf.

Project A119 on Wikipedia

Fun bonus – the project was top secret and the reports were destroyed when the project was abandoned in 1959, but Sagan breached his agreement by putting the title of two papers he'd worked on in his scholarship application for University of California, Berkeley:

  • Possible Contribution of Lunar Nuclear Weapons Detonations to the Solution of Some Problems in Planetary Astronomy
  • Radiological Contamination of the Moon by Nuclear Weapons Detonations

I have a lot of sympathy, early-career CVs etc require scraping up every possible relevant achievement you can think of. But can you imagine being on the scholarship committee and coming across those paper titles in a student's application?


Waterfall that looks like blood in Antarctica

Blood Falls, Antarctica

The imaginatively named Blood Falls is an iron-oxide (rust) tainted plume of salt water that comes up through fissures in the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

Its source is a pool underneath the glacier, beneath 400 metres (a quarter of a mile) of ice. That pool is believed to be have been sealed off 1.5–2 million years ago, making it an ecological time capsule. (We can't access the pool itself, but we can study the water that flows from it.)

The subglacial pool is home to an ancient, isolated ecosystem of iron-eating microbes ("ferric ion metabolising microbes").

Subglacial Microbial Communities in McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica
A schematic cross-section of Blood Falls showing how subglacial microbial communities have survived in cold, darkness, and absence of oxygen for a million years in brine water below Taylor Glacier. (Zina Deretsky)

At this point it gets beyond my science-understanding capacities, but "such a metabolic process had never before been observed in nature" and you can read more about that here.


Drone footage of sharks swimming through a school of fish

Just cool. (Taken off the coast of New York. Video's been around since 2017 I think, but it's new to me.)


Squids create shadow clones to escape their enemies

It turns out squids do way more things with ink than you think!

First and obviously, they can release it in a cloud, like a smoke bomb, to cover their escape.

Second: they can mix it with mucus to form a gelatinous fake squid that holds its shape.

This type of inking is called a pseudomorph, 'false body'.

These pseudomorphs are roughy the same size as the cephalopod releasing the ink. Because of the similar size and appearance to the cephalopod, predators are often observed attacking the pseudomorph while the cephalopod escapes unharmed. [The Sea Change Project]
Squid ink pseudomorph
Credit: Faine Pearl (more oceanography photos on her instagram)

They can form long thin strings of ink, which scientists think are probably meant to look like the stinging tentacles of jellyfish and keep people away.

And they add ink to their eggs, presumably to camouflage them.

From a much more in-depth piece, Why do cephalopods produce ink? What it's actually made of, how it evolved, everything you could want.

The pigment in squid ink is mostly melanin – the same thing that makes pretty much any animal have dark skin, eyes, etc. Standard animal paint.

"Blood, ink, shark, moon" in the style of Basqiat – DALLE-2

Found the perfect way to show what ChatGPT is

You have probably come across a lot of ChatGPT explainers, so I'll keep this brief. The thing to understand is that they are not 'intelligent'; they don't understand or analyse the words you give them – they're like a fancy version of autocomplete. They've scanned vast amounts of text, and they know what words usually go together.

Skim-read and you'll miss it

In the case above, ChatGPT has seen probably thousands of instances of this logic puzzle, and it has seen the answer – "the surgeon is the boy's mother" – given alongside that puzzle thousands of times, so that's the answer it provides. It doesn't matter that you've very clearly said he's the boy's father, because ChatGPT doesn't 'understand' the question (or the words "biological son"). It's just extrapolating from patterns.

This comes via Paul Mainwood on twitter, who also gave it the Monty Hall problem:

(ChatGPT insists on switching to Door 2, even after Paul reminds it the car is behind Door 1)

and the River Crossing puzzle:

(ChatGPT gives the complicated 4-trip 'solution')

I also shared these just because I find the rephrasings of the puzzles to be very funny. Riddles for people who are really bad at riddles.

Unsolicited Advice

It's scarier to talk about what you love than about your failings & vulnerabilities

Autistic author Tim Clare wrote a non-fiction book called Coward, about anxiety  – a combination of personal journey and talking to leading researchers.

On his podcast (Death of a Thousand Cuts; mostly about writing craft), he said people keep telling him how brave it was to open up about his anxiety. And he said: they have no idea. What would be really brave is to talk about his special interest, the Mario videogames. To get completely into the deep lore of Mario to the degree that he gets emotional about it because it means so much to him. That's what he knows (thinks?) will weird your average person out and turn them glassy-eyed and uncomfortable.

That rang true to me. Firstly just the flat fact that you can't tell what's brave for a specific individual unless you know what scares them. What's hard for you might be easy for someone else, and vice versa.

(That's one of the nicest things about having people who know you well. They can recognise when you're being brave and congratulate you for it, because they know what scares you.) (If your reaction was, "no one knows me well enough for that", tell them next time. "I'm scared to do X" and then later "I did X". Or just after the fact, "I did X even though I was incredibly scared.")

But for me at least, the content of what he's saying rings true for me. I have no difficulty talking about weaknesses and problems and failings with strangers, but only people close to me know the things I care about and love – those are the things I want protected from the harsh eyes of strangers.

I actually have a weird brainworm where, the very very very best articles I come across, I often don't put in The Whippet. Partly because they're complex, but also because I get anxious about not doing them justice, not selling them enough, not convincing you to love them like I love them.

I read an anecdote about a famous artist's mother, who hid her favourite books whenever she had visitors, because she didn't want them talking about thee things that were sacred to her.

Of course, there's another element to Tim Clare's situation. While we have drastically reduced stigma around neurodiversity and mental health problems, it doesn't go that deep.

There's not much stigma to saying "I have autism". But there's still stigma to actually behaving like you have autism (tics like hand-flapping or rocking, talking about your special interest if it's not a 'normal' one).  And being applauded for saying "I have an anxiety disorder, sometimes that makes life really hard for me" is different from having a panic attack at work and people not judging you for it later.


Thanks for reading!

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