Cross-species contagious yawning

You know how when you are in a group of people and somebody yawns, and then other people start yawning, and then you too feel the irresistible impulse to do likewise?  Well, if there are dogs in the room, they too very likely will start yawning.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs yawning when people do.  Furthermore, dogs don’t have to see someone yawn; they apparently hear humans yawning, which makes them want to yawn too.  Researchers speculate whether this is evidence that dogs can actually empathize with human beings.  See  Dogs yawn when they hear people yawn, suggesting they empathize with humans – The Washington Post.

Now looking at this phenomenologically, I don’t recall empathy as a cause of my own yawning.  I don’t notice someone yawning, feeling his boredom, and expressing that by yawning in an act of emotional solidarity.  My theory is that in a group in which one person is bored or sleepy, the chances are good, since everyone is sharing the same experience, that other people are also feeling bored or sleepy.  When a person yawns, that reduces the social pressure to repress the outward expression of what one feels, an inhibition that disintegrates completely when more and more people do it.

Now that dogs can also share in this collective experience is intriguing.  Dogs are social animals.  They demonstrate pack behavior.  And, as we know from the Dog Whisperer, they consider human beings to be leaders of their pack.  If the group of people were to all of a sudden start running, I’m sure the dogs would join them.  Maybe it’s the same for yawning, although the meaning and the communication mechanisms for dogs remain mysterious.

Then again, it’s also mysterious why people yawn, what the connection is between feeling bored or sleepy and opening your mouth really wide.  Does anyone have any theories about all of this?

Squirrel and deer potty training

I don’t know whether this is gross or sublime.  Actually, I think it is both gross and sublime.  Mostly sublime:

Baby squirrels must be taught to defecate. This fascinating bit of information came from Don Moore , associate director of animal care sciences at the National Zoo. Earlier in his career, Don worked in Syracuse, N.Y., rehabilitating baby squirrels.

Squirrels are among species — deer are another — where the mother uses her mouth to carry her offspring’s poo and pee away from the nest. This is to protect her litter from predators.

“Evolutionarily, that’s a great strategy,” Don said. “The mother’s removing the only thing that can give [the baby] a scent: the pee and poo.” With no scent to follow, predators can’t find the defenseless baby.

The mother’s selfless act is so hard-wired in a squirrel’s very being that babies can urinate and defecate only after being stimulated by the mother licking around . . . down there.

Orphaned squirrels raised by humans risk becoming constipated and bloated. “The gut stops moving,” Don said. “You don’t want that to happen, so you stimulate them. In fact, you have to start stimulating them just to get them to feed.”

Squirrel moms provide stimulation with their tongues. “We don’t recommend that,” Don said. “We would use a warm, damp washcloth.”

Baby squirrels must have their nether regions stimulated at every feeding from birth to about five weeks of age, when their eyes are open and their fur is coming in.

“It’s a wonderful day when they start doing it themselves,” Don said.

via Answer Man gives the scoop on squirrel poop, other readers’ questions – The Washington Post.

Tornado hits my old stomping ground

I was born in Alva, Oklahoma.  I have memories of going to Woodward, the biggest town within an hour’s drive, to go to the movies.  I had to have been younger than five.  Anyway, Woodward was hit by a tornado early yesterday morning, killing five people.

This video is especially eerie.  It’s dark, but when the lightning flashes you get just a glimpse of this massively wide funnel.




The power of a tornado

At least a dozen tornadoes hit Dallas and northern Texas yesterday.  Here is a video showing a funnel tossing semi trucks and trailers high, high into the air.

View more videos at:

There’s always room at the Hilbert Hotel

I stumbled upon this series on mind-blowing math facts from a couple of years ago.  It’s by Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz and treats things like the weirdness of pi, the quirks of probability, Zeno’s paradox, and some of the fun things you can do with calculus.

(Homeschoolers and other educators, take note:  Recovering mathematics and its different applications is urgently needed today and is the missing piece of a truly classical education.  We are doing things with the language part, the trivium, but we now must bring back the mathematics part, the quadrivium, which is far more than just Saxon math.  What Strogatz does here is show that math is far more than memorizing tables and working out problems, showing that it is wonderful, mysterious, philosophical, and imaginative, something that students need to realize.)

Anyway, here he treats the mathematics of infinity, along with the paradox that some sets are more infinite than others:

Some of its [infinity's] strangest aspects first came to light in the late 1800s, with Georg Cantor’s groundbreaking work on “set theory.” Cantor was particularly interested in infinite sets of numbers and points, like the set {1, 2, 3, 4,…} of “natural numbers” and the set of points on a line. He defined a rigorous way to compare different infinite sets and discovered, shockingly, that some infinities are bigger than others.

At the time, Cantor’s theory provoked not just resistance, but outrage. Henri Poincaré, one of the leading mathematicians of the day, called it a “disease.” But another giant of the era, David Hilbert, saw it as a lasting contribution and later proclaimed, “No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created.”

My goal here is to give you a glimpse of this paradise. But rather than working directly with sets of numbers or points, let me follow an approach introduced by Hilbert himself. He vividly conveyed the strangeness and wonder of Cantor’s theory by telling a parable about a grand hotel, now known as the Hilbert Hotel.

It’s always booked solid, yet there’s always a vacancy.

For the Hilbert Hotel doesn’t merely have hundreds of rooms — it has an infinite number of them. Whenever a new guest arrives, the manager shifts the occupant of room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 3, and so on. That frees up room 1 for the newcomer, and accommodates everyone else as well (though inconveniencing them by the move).

Now suppose infinitely many new guests arrive, sweaty and short-tempered. No problem. The unflappable manager moves the occupant of room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 4, room 3 to room 6, and so on. This doubling trick opens up all the odd-numbered rooms — infinitely many of them — for the new guests.

Later that night, an endless convoy of buses rumbles up to reception. There are infinitely many buses, and worse still, each one is loaded with an infinity of crabby people demanding that the hotel live up to its motto, “There’s always room at the Hilbert Hotel.”

The manager has faced this challenge before and takes it in stride.

First he does the doubling trick. That reassigns the current guests to the even-numbered rooms and clears out all the odd-numbered ones — a good start, because he now has an infinite number of rooms available.

But is that enough? Are there really enough odd-numbered rooms to accommodate the teeming horde of new guests? It seems unlikely, since there are something like “infinity squared” people clamoring for these rooms. (Why infinity squared? Because there were an infinite number of people on each of an infinite number of buses, and that amounts to infinity times infinity, whatever that means.)

This is where the logic of infinity gets very weird.

via The Hilbert Hotel –

Does it ever.   Including a set of guests that there is no room for after all.  Read the whole post and the whole series (which is reportedly coming out as a book).

Contraception is not health care

The great Anthony Esolen reminds us, in the midst of the Obamacare insurance mandate, that contraception is NOT, strictly speaking,  a medical issue:

The use of estrogen as contraception is not medical at all. Quite the contrary. A couple who use estrogen to prevent the conception of a child do not ingest the drug to enhance the performance of their reproductive organs, or to heal any debility therein. Their worry is rather that those organs are functioning in a healthy and natural way, and they wish they weren’t. They want to obtain not ability but debility. They want not to repair but to thwart.

Here it is usually argued that the drug is medical because it prevents a disease. But that is to invert the meaning of words. When the reproductive organs are used in a reproductive act, the conception of a child is the healthy and natural result. That is a plain biological fact. If John and Mary are using their organs in that way, and they cannot conceive a child, then this calls for a remedy; that is the province of medicine. It is also the province of medicine to shield us against casual exposure to communicable diseases—exposure that we cannot prevent, and that subjects us to debility or death. Childbearing and malaria are not the same sorts of thing.

via A Tale of Two Sex Hormones « Public Discourse.

The use of artificial estrogen to prevent conception is, in fact, he argues, parallel to the use of artificial testosterone–a.k.a. steroids–by baseball players.  (You’ve really got to read how he ties baseball into all of this!)

HT:  Mark Misulia