Sunday, 20th May 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. What happens to garbage once it is interred in a landfill?

A. Through hands-on excavation, archeologist and garbologist Bill Rathje found that a well-maintained, airtight, dry sanitary landfill acts more like a mummifier of trash than a decomposer, reports Edward Humes in his book "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash." Fifty-year-old newspaper was readable, steaks and hot dogs intact after decades, guacamole pasty and green after 25 years, onion peels and carrot tops recognizable after 20, and grass clippings still green after 15. The slowly decaying material is held in place by surrounding non-biodegradable plastic, and this "trash matrix" has the unintended benefit of sequestering to some extent toxic materials (paint, motor oil, insecticide and more) from the water table.

Other surprising results: There's Rathje's "First Principle of Food Waste," that is, the more repetitive your diet - the more you eat the same things day after day - the less food you waste. Also, during times of expected scarcity, wastage tends to go up, not down; people lay in more provisions than they actually need, and end up throwing more away. Finally, well-publicized toxic-material collection days sponsored by sanitation departments may backfire, leading to a surge of toxic waste from those who gather the stuff for disposal but, for some reason, miss the official collection.

Here's the big picture: Americans make more trash than anyone else on the planet, throwing away about 7.1 pounds per person per day, accumulating to some 102 tons over a typical lifetime. Notes Humes, "Each of our bodies may occupy only one cemetery plot when we're done with this world, but a single person's 102-ton trash legacy will require the equivalent of 1,100 graves. Much of that refuse will outlast any grave marker, pharaoh's pyramid or modern skyscraper: One of the few relics of our civilization guaranteed to be recognizable twenty thousand years from now is the crisp bag."

Q. This one definitely belongs in the "big idea" category: Picture a flattish, layer cake-like volcano big enough to cover a continent, with seemingly endless oozing lava ripping open miles-deep cracks in the Earth's crust. What might have happened next?

A. Such an enormous volcano zone may have given rise to several of Earth's mass extinctions, says Eric Betz in "Discover" magazine. Try to imagine a lush forest that thrived in the Antarctic Circle some 260 million years ago. Park University paleobotanist Patty Ryberg and colleagues are working to uncover the fossilized remains of this forest and to understand what killed off about 90% of life on Earth in our Backed by a global campaign to map Earth's ancient mega-eruptions, plus advances in rock dating, scientists now believe that "the size of an eruption or asteroid isn't as important as the type of rocks incinerated." For example, the end of Triassic life may have occurred when organic matter-rich rocks deep below the surface released gases like sulfur and carbon dioxide that, in erupting, raised the temperature dozens of degrees Fahrenheit and eventually gave rise to the dinosaurs.

Corroborating evidence came from a recent drilling expedition to Mexico's dino-killing Chicxulub crater: the asteroid involved hit relatively rare sedimentary rock rich in sulfurs. "The dinosaurs might've survived if the space rock hit elsewhere" ("Nature").

Q. Smart technology is taking center stage in many venues, including San Diego, California. What is the far-reaching innovation being ensconced there?

A. Sensor-laden streetlights (developed and operated by Current, a subsidiary of General Electric) that can monitor temperature and humidity, spot parking spaces, listen for gunshots and track air pollution, reports Tekla Perry in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. Why streetlights? According to Austin Ashe, Current's general manager for intelligent cities, because they "have power, ubiquity, and the perfect elevation-—high enough to cover a reasonable radius, low enough to capture a lot of important data."

Some 3,200 such lights will help San Diego determine, for example, "what intersections are the most dangerous and need to be redesigned, based on information on near misses, not just the accident data." And expanding on the city's existing ShotSpotter, the lights will not only locate the source of gun fire but also detect other sounds like breaking glass or cars crashing.

Since much of this data will be publicly available, the city is encouraging software developers to build targeted apps that might identify the quietest walking route for those interested in easy conversation; or employ traffic and location data to help visually impaired people safely navigate street crossings (a "digital cane" app); or find hot spots in real time "by tracking where pedestrians are congregating or heading." And there's more to come.

Do smart streetlights have a future in your city? Stay tuned!

Q. There may be more to "nose-witness identification" than meets the eye. How so?

A. Researchers from Portugal and Sweden had male university students watch a video of a man assaulting a woman while sniffing a scent they were told was that of the suspect, reports "Discover" magazine. Later, when given a "lineup" of five odor samples and asked to identify the person they had smelled, the "witnesses" pinpointed the would-be suspect an impressive 75% of the time.

As Swedish neuroscientist Johan Lundstrom explains: Every person has a unique scent, like a fingerprint, with a large genetic component. "Even trained sniffer dogs have a hard time distinguishing between identical twins, unless the twins are on different diets."

How human body odor can act like a scented fingerprint is still unclear, but PET scans indicate that human scent affects the brain differently than other scents, lighting up areas responsible for social processing. Much more information can be extracted from body odor than from normal odors, says Lundstrom.

Q. It may not take much to get you interested in a daytime excursion in the sun. Long ago, what was it that started mammals doing this?

A. Though mammals date back at least 160 million years, most were small and spent their first 100 million years in the dark, possibly only foraging at night, says Claire Asher in "New Scientist" magazine. The dinosaur extinction 66 million years ago may have "opened up new niches for mammals, particularly daytime foraging."

Today, many mammals are active during the day (diurnal) but have eyes adapted to darkness. Interested in determining the advent of diurnality, Tel Aviv University Roi Maor and colleagues compared the lifestyles of 2415 living mammals with their related but extinct ancestors and found that diurnality appeared 65.8 million years ago—-a few hundred thousand years after the dinosaur extinction ("Nature Ecology & Evolution").

According to the research, monkeys and apes and other simian primates-—our direct ancestors--were the first solely diurnal group with visual systems specially adapted to daytime. As nocturnals it would have been hard to communicate, explains Maor, so their sunny lifestyles might have affected their sociability.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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