Things are always changing among the stars, even if it’s not always obvious
Q. With apologies to William Shakespeare: What’s in a name, Gros Michel or Cavendish? A banana by any other name would be as tasty — right?
A. Not really. Bananas at 25 pounds per American per year are the most popular fresh fruit eaten, but they aren’t the same as those your grandparents ate, says Dan Lewis in his book “Now I Know.”
“Prior to 1960, the standard commercial banana type was the Gros Michel (a.k.a. “Big Mike”), a larger banana type that, by many accounts, was also tastier.” But it succumbed to Panama disease that attacked the plants’ roots and rapidly spread through major banana plantations, ending commercial cultivation.
Enter the Cavendish banana, genetically resistant to Panama disease but also genetically identical to every other Cavendish — in other words, all of them are clones. And therein lies the problem: Any disease successfully attacking the Cavendish could wipe out the entire type. Already, a newer strain of Panama disease has found its way to Cavendish banana plantations in Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and all the way to Southeast Asia. Some plantation owners have taken extreme measures to prevent a Cavendish Apocalypse, even going so far as to burn down entire fields to stop the disease from spreading.
Q. Some of us terrestrial beings have a real fascination with all things extraterrestrial, including why a day on Venus is longer than its year, how the almost-million-pound International Space Station (ISS) ever got into orbit, and why the Big Dipper will eventually become the “Big Spatula”?
A. #1: Venus rotates so slowly that it takes 243 Earth days to complete one diurnal spin, says astronomer and columnist Dean Regas in his book “Facts from Space!” And because it is closer to the Sun than Earth is, the time it takes to orbit the Sun once is only 225 days. In fact, Venus is the only planet in the solar system whose year is shorter than its day.
#2: As to the ISS — a joint effort between the United States, Russia, and others — it was transported into space, piece by piece, starting in 1998. Currently weighing more than 900,000 pounds, it is 239 feet wide, 356 feet long and 66 feet tall — room enough for its six crew members and the replacement crew, and even guests.
#3: The stars in the Milky Way are moving rapidly through space, but because they’re so far away from Earth, they barely seem to change. But that won’t be the case millenia from now: “The stars in the Big Dipper, for instance, will shift among themselves and look like a ‘Big Spatula’ by the year A.D. 75000.”
Q. For adult women, menopause can have its ups and downs. For rats, it may be all downhill. How so?
A. A new type of bait called ContraPest “makes rats infertile by triggering early menopause in females and impairing sperm production in males,” says Alice Klein in “New Scientist” magazine. It has no known side effects, and the rats eventually die of natural causes.
According to biotechnologist Brandy Pyzyna, one breeding pair of rats can produce 15,000 pups per year, but field trials with the bait in both urban and farm settings saw a one-third to one-half decline in rat population. So even a one-third reduction in a few months means “you’re already talking 5,000 fewer rats, and the population will continue to go down.” Also, she argues, fertility control is more effective than outright killing since with the latter, other rats will simply move in to the territory.
More research needs to be done to ensure that native rodents — some of which may be endangered — don’t eat the bait. Pyzyna and her colleagues are also working on a reformulation to target other pest species, including mice, feral pigs and even feral deer, dogs and cats.