When it was reported that many of the footballs in the AFC Championship game were inflated below the required minimum pressure, the triumphant New England Patriots were accused of cheating. Looking for an explanation, Chad Orzel whipped out some footballs, a freezer, and the Ideal Gas Law to do some delving. Physically, air pressure depends on the volume of a gas, the number of molecules contained therein, and temperature. Since the volume of a football (versus a balloon) doesn’t change much depending on how much air is inside, a change in temperature was the best chance for an innocent explanation. But Chad writes, “unless they did the pre-game testing of the balls in a sauna, or the post-game investigation in a meat locker, thermodynamics alone can’t get the Patriots off the hook.” According to the Pats, they do some special mumbo jumbo to the outside of the balls before filling them to the required minimum pressure, after which the pressure settles down. Um, what? Chad writes that this explanation suggests the Patriots have “been preparing balls that were technically illegal for a long time.” Underinflated balls are said to be easier to throw and catch, especially in the rain.
This new year, researchers concluded that 2/3 of the difference in cancer risk between different parts of the body can be attributed to the number of stem cell divisions those parts undergo. More cell divisions reflect a higher risk as errors that occur naturally during the DNA replication process can contribute to the development of cancer. In other words, the same genetic mutability that enables evolution also ensures that many people will be afflicted by a terrible disease. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers suggests this is one reason our cells naturally get old and stop dividing: because if they continued forever, too many mutations would accumulate in the individual.
Of course, mutations are rare and unpredictably distributed, and not all of them are dangerous, making who gets cancer largely a matter of chance. The new study shows which cancers are most influenced by lifestyle factors such as using tobacco. PZ writes,”colorectal and lung cancers do have a significant risk beyond what can be accounted for by stochastic errors, so pursuing a reduction in exposure to risk factors, like diet and smoking, can have a useful role in reducing the incidence of these cancers.” On the flip side, the incidence of pancreatic cancer (for example) can be totally accounted for by random mutation.
On Life Lines, Dr. Dolittle examines the fascinating parallels between hummingbird and insect flight. He and/or she writes: “The researchers placed nontoxic paint on the wing of a ruby-throated hummingbird at 9 different spots then videotaped the animal flying at 1,000 frames per second with 4 cameras simultaneously.” Despite being far removed from insects on the phylogenetic tree, hummingbirds “stir up air around their wings in a way similar to insects like mosquitoes and dragonflies.” This is an example of convergent evolution, as natural selection engineers similar solutions for very distant cousins. On Uncertain Principles, Chad Orzel attests to another kind of convergence, one also based on re-arranging the letters of a code. In the 17th century, as Galileo made his stupendous observations about the solar system, he distributed his findings in cryptic anagrams to keep them on the down-low. Johannes Kepler, a psychic savant if there ever was one, untangled Galileo’s anagrams incorrectly— but still managed to elicit unknown truths from the jumble. He interpreted one of Galileo’s missives to confirm his idea that Mars had two moons—a fact that would not be known until 265 years later. (Galileo had intended to convey that Saturn had two “ears” of a sort, which turned out to be its rings.) In another message, Galileo conveyed his landmark observations about the movement of Venus, which Kepler unscrambled to say something about a rotating red spot on Jupiter. Little did he know it actually existed.