Monday, November 21, 2011

Predictions are Risky Business

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Predictions are Risky Business

Since time began predicting the weather has probably been a favorite pastime for humans. I can even imagine a caveman peering out his cave door and looking up to the sky and trying to estimate if it would be a good day for a hunt. Maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but weather predictions must have been among the first scientific observations.

Over time, these predictions became weather proverbs or sayings which were passed from one generation to another until they became accepted as fact. Many of those sayings that we hear today actually came from the area near the Mediterranean Sea and were even recorded in the Old Testament. Some proverbs often repeated in the Midwest actually originated in Germany and Sweden. Even Shakespeare wrote “If feet swell, the change will be to the south, and the same thing is the sign of a hurricane.” Wait a minute, Shakespeare?

The problem with depending on proverb is that they are not always wrong, but they are also not always right in all times and in all places. Many of them are not based on any kind of scientific fact and are founded instead on strange relationships---wolves and crops, sky colors and bad results, holy days and weather, cats and dogs and cattle, spiders and smoke, crickets and frogs, or rheumatism and rain.

But all of this concern about scientific accuracy does not detract from the fact that they are fun to consider and repeat. Many of them actually do have some basis in scientific principles.

Take the often repeated, “red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning,” which has to do with dust particles made more visible by the approaching high pressure. Others with scientific basis are “clear moon, frost soon” and “halo around the sun or moon, rain or snow soon.” Another intriguing saying is “a sunny shower won’t last an hour” and everyone knows that when that happens that “the devil is beating his wife.”

During this time of year, we look for signs that might tell us about the severity of the winter. I’ve heard people remark on the fact that the juniper, holly and other trees with berries are full this year indicating that the winter will be harsh. The fur coats of certain animals and the thickness of their tails supposedly indicates low temperatures for the season.

The indicators from the animals are some of the most fascinating. “If the bull leads the cows to pasture, expect rain; if the cows precede the bull, the weather will be uncertain.” “Cats scratch a post before wind; wash their faces before rain; and sit with backs to the fire before snow.” “Pigs gather leaves and straw before a storm.” “The louder the frog, the more the rain,” must lead to the descriptive phrase, “frog strangler.”

Whatever their origin and accuracy, these proverbs are part of the culture.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Invasion of the Fruit Fly

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Invasion of the Fruit Fly

It’s the little things that matter in life sometimes. I can’t solve the problems of the world, but I do expect to control who lives in my house. For the past two years, I’ve had a pest problem. It’s not the two-legged or four-legged variety. It’s the common fruit fly, scientifically known as drosophila melanogaster.

In my quest for knowledge about my enemy, I found both plants and animals on the North Carolina list of invasive things. The familiar kudzu, cocklebur, horseweed, and even mint, were among the plants needing control. Beaver, alligators, fire ants, and starlings are on the list of animals in our area that are of recent concern.

In fact, fruit flies might not be invasive, but they are obnoxious to most people who find them in their homes. One hundred years ago people who were innocent of the concept of a fly even having a life cycle, thought that they just “spontaneously generated” if they left a piece of meat lying around. It wasn’t until the 17th century that an Italian doctor experimented and found out the truth.

The little creatures prefer ripe fruit which contains the ingredients needed for their diet. Once they are established in your house, they can survive on a variety of nutrients like sludge in the sink drain, a sour mop, damp flour, or food fermenting in crevices. They can then patiently wait for you to bring more fruit into the house so that they can continue their productive life cycle.

So how do you rid yourself of the pests and hope that they live happily ever after somewhere else? The internet offers many home remedies, and you can even buy fruit fly traps at hardware and home and garden stores. As an experiment, we set up two types of traps at our house using apple cider vinegar, dish washing detergent, and different types of covers. Both versions did an excellent job of trapping the vermin. Then they landed in the mixture and died.

Scientists have used the fruit flies for years as substitutes for humans in genetic research. They are useful because they reproduce so quickly that many generations can be studied in a short time. Their genome has been completely mapped, and they have been used in the study of human diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

They have also been used to study how space travel affects genes. It is thought that the gravitational forces that animals are exposed to in space travel may cause genes to express themselves by commanding cells to make different proteins. Ultimately, this activity might cause changes in many cells in the body. The history of the use of fruit flies by scientists is fascinating.

The moral to my story could be that we need to be careful how we judge things. What is a pest to you might be the key to finding solutions for life in the future. Who knew?
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