Leading intellectual says time came first.

June 28, 2014 Posted by
TIME explained (cartoon)

BOR-ing!

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad explains “time”

I am often asked to explain time.

If I can get off the hook with “It’s what the clock says”, we’re done here. Otherwise?.

Here’s the thing. Lots has been written about this. It get pretty deep out there, believe me. We humans figured out how to count time by using something that moves continuously and uniformly such as the moon traveling around the earth as a proxy for time.  Twice as far meant twice as much time had gone by. Distance traveled equaled time. It’s the idea behind  clocks (the old fashioned kind) where the hands rotate around the face of the clock and time is marked off along the edge.

You can see that this doesn’t tell us a thing. What does uniform mean?

It has been suggested that time represents a change in “entropy” (how much is left of the way things were ordered or “wound up” when the universe started). If that’s true, time started when the universe started. But maybe time stretches out beyond the end of the universe and before the beginning. Maybe there was time before “the first second”.

I’m not supposed to say that, am I?

We’re still unraveling that mysterious first fraction of a second of the “Big Bang” when, supposedly, there was infinite density. Few physicists believe that there was any such a thing. Getting smaller than the “Planck length” ( 10 to the minus 35 meters) may not be physically possible. So something else might have happened other than a so-called singularity. Maybe there were events “before”. Before? Doesn’t that mean there was time?

Some say that there is an illusional quality to time. That we perceive something that isn’t there. That the physical world is sliced up into very small “ticks” making the time dimension granular instead of continuous. All that was, and all that will be, is captured in each of these ticks like frames in a movie film.

I could go on and on but I’m afraid I will mislead. This is a lovely and fascinating area for discussion, but I shouldn’t take take up your valuable time for this. The subject goes deeper than my own brain goes.

Here is an article in Wired Magazine  - an interview with Sean Caroll by Erin Biba.

Your ideas are welcome. Maybe you know more than me.

It wouldn’t be hard.

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The drawing is by me.

Quake, then fire? Not with this device!

June 11, 2014 Posted by
cartoon about old guy

SHAKY

IT’S THE FIRE!

Remember the great San Francisco earthquake?

If you were living in southern california in 1906 you do.

It was as bad as it gets. We didn’t know how to build earthquake resistant buildings back then. Plus a lot of structures had been thrown together during the gold rush a few decades before and were cheezy to start with.

The shaking due to the quake was bad but the fire? That was unbelievable!  

Once the fire broke out, fire fighting equipment couldn’t get through the rubble strewn streets. Not that it would have mattered since there wasn’t any water in the mains.  The fires burned for days. When they were out, the smoke remained in the air. They said it would never go away. They said the air had changed - that sunlight would never look the same again. 

Eventually, the air did clear and return to normal but hundreds of thousands of people had to live in shelters and tents until  they found new homes.

The city recovered. It took years.

Much was learned from the San Francisco disaster. Building codes are much better. Engineers now know how to design a building that can “ride out” the typical movements of an earthquake and the building codes ensure that this knowledge will protect against future quakes.

However, if the gas lines go, it won’t matter.

There are a lot of gas lines.

Will there be another “great fire”? There have been plenty of earthquakes in California since 1906. Some were strong. One had a magnitude of 7.5.

There were no firestorms.

Maybe some of this was luck because - you know what? –  although shutoff valves have been installed, a lot of them are manual. PG&E tells us to keep a 12 to 15 inch wrench around in case it is needed in an emergency. That seems a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? Go find the stupid wrench during a quake?

Where the hell did I put my wrench?

 

The San Francisco earthquake

Indescribable

 

There are also automatic shutoff valves. That’s the right way to handle things, isn’t it?  They activate when there is enough seismic activity or when there is a rupture in a gas line causing a large increase in the flow of gas. MISTER ScienceAintSoBad likes that idea and gives P&G’s new automatic valves a ScinceAintSoBadRating of 10. 

These automatic valves are installed when there’s new construction or when there are major alterations.

Great to hear.

In the meantime, those living in older buildings that haven’t been renovated had better not forget where they put that dopey wrench.

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The drawing is mine and the photograph (courtesy of Wikipedia) is in the public domain.

 

High rise buildings of wood???

May 19, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about wooden skyscrapers

HIgher and higher with wood

  A LADDER TO THE SKY

The tallest building in the world is in Dubai. 163 stories plus another 46 in the spire. There’s more underground too. That’s where the parking is.

Was that thing built with two by fours?

What do you think?  Of course not. Nobody builds high rise buildings out of wood. That was concrete and steel. In fact, the engineers had to figure out new ways to get the concrete up that high – special heavy duty concrete pumps, the most powerful ever made.

It’s too bad that tall buldings can’t be made of wood. It’s a renewable resource, right? Wood buildings are cheaper to heat, cheaper to cool, and have a good “carbon footprint”. They also do better in a fire. Heavy wood structural members can burn but they don’t fold up suddenly like steel. They last longer BECAUSE they burn (instead of turning to jelly when heated). Burning – at least for heavy timbers – is slow.  If you’ve got a fireplace, you know what I’m talking about. A great big log can burn all night.You don’t WANT your nice building to catch on fire but – You know what? – If it ever does, you SURE don’t want it to collapse before you make it down the fire stairs. Another advantage of wood: wood buildings go together easier. The beams and columns are easier to lift and easier to fasten. You can even use nails and screws.

Well could that big building in Dubai have been made of wood? Wood has advantages but steel is stronger. Getting WAY up in the sky like that pushes everything to the limit. If you insist on a 200 story vanity tower, wood’s probably not a good choice. But could more modest high rise buildings be built of wood? What are the possibilities?

Tom Vilsak, US Secreatry of Agriculture wants to see more wood construction. His agency has put up a million dollars for the best designs of high rise buildings from wood.

Wood designs that reach for the stars.

Seriously.

Vilsak’s feels that new uses for wood and hybrid structural products of wood and other materials could put the US out front in new industries. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already employed making wood products. A new market for wood would expand opportunities even more.

A radio tower of wood

387 foot radio tower in Poland

Building high in wood isn’t a new idea. Some very high structures have been around for years.  There’s a 387 foot all wood radio tower in  Gliwice, Poland that was built in 1935. As for new stuff, current plans include a 34 story wooden building for Stockholm, Sweden, and a 30 story tower for Vancouver.

This new USDA initiative should encourage more.

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The cartoon is mine. The photo of the wooden radio tower is courtesy of Wikipedia.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

DEAFNESS: HUMAN STEM CELL TRIALS

Cartoon about hearing research

RESEARCH LIKE THIS ISN’T FREE

HEARING

In 2006, the ever amazing Dr. Stefan Heller  - amazing because of his remarkable pioneering role in research into a cure for deafness –  predicted that we would reverse hearing loss in an animal. He said it would take about five years. Five years later, hearing loss was reversed in a mouse model. Eerily accurate but MISTER ScienceAintSoBad wasn’t surprised. Heller knows his stuff. He’s been at the forefront of this field since it began. (He is at Stanford University’s School of Medicine). 

Where do things stand now? It’s been two and a half years since the first mouse was “cured” of deafness and already we have human trials. In about two months, a human trial will actually begin for adults. Dr. Hinrich Straeker  (University of Kansas Medical Center) will be in charge. His team will insert a gene (the Atoh1 gene) into the ears of the volunteers. The Athoh1 gene is involved in supporting the “microphone of the inner ear” (hair cells). It worked for mice. They had, on average, about a 20 db improvement in hearing. It would be nice if it worked that well for people. Novertis (the pharma company) is partnering on the research. 

There’s also a study  gearing up at Childrens Memorial Hermann Hospital in Texas which is aimed at kids. Dr. Samer Fakhri, is the lead. Stem cells taken from cord blood will be used. This is a  phase 1 (make sure nothing bad happens) study –  an important step.

Just about everything I read about this stuff contains a don’t-get-your-hopes-up warning reminding us that it could take  years – decades probably – before you see anything like a cure for deafness.

You know what? That’s fine. But I love the fact that we have finally reached the point where human studies have begun. If we can somehow increase the meager trickle of funds that supports this research, maybe we can speed things up even more. Spending on hearing loss research is very efficient. You get a lot for your dollar. Graduate student researchers are cheap.

Dr. Heller tells me his “naive dream” is to develop a way to get  funding direct from individuals – grass roots funding, as he calls it –  where “every person suffering from hearing loss would gives $5 – $10.  That would be huge,” he says, “because, right now, almost everything comes from  just two institutions, the Stanford Initiative To Cure Hearing Loss  and The Hearing Restoration Project. And the available funds are very limited. Ten dollars to either of these instutions would make a big difference.”

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad would sincerely appreciate it if you would ask your friends to give. It’s a great cause.

RESEARCH CENTER FOR HEARING LOSS

Even better .  let’s establish – this is Stefan’s idea too – a major research center. The laboratories where much of this work takes place are scattered. Why not relocate them  into a a single hearing research center,  intensifying and focusing the effort of several individual labs? A donation from a private benefactor (or more) could make this happen. With interest rates this low, what are you going to do with all your unproductive investment dollars anyway? Can you think of anything that could change more lives?

A large segment of the population – especially the elderly – live with the world “turned off” because they can’t hear anymore. With your generous help, that can change.

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The drawing is mine (He look better in real life).

 

Malaysia’s MH370. What makes it so valuable?

April 15, 2014 Posted by
Funny cartoon about motorcycles

Misplaced confidence

AN INVALUABLE AIRCRAFT

An airplane disappeared with 239 people on board.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad hates to hear stuff like that. If you have any sort of connection to any of the passengers, you have my deepest sympathy.

What a horrible thing!

Crazy too.

The chances of dying in a fire are about 1200 to 1. From a car accident or from  poison, about 1 in 120. From an airplane accident? About 11 million to 1.

In other words, you are safer – much, much safer – in the seat of a stupid airplane than you are sitting in your own living room where you could get caught in a fire or accidentally eat rat poison thinking it was some new candy treat from the lunatic next door. The disappearance of that airplane – of any commercial airliner-  is unthinkable.

When Manilla’s flight MH370 disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, it was a twelve year old Boeing 777.  An airplane like that isn’t cheap but you can pick one up for 40 to 50 million dollars.

Now that it’s (probably) in pieces at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it’s worth a fortune. The airline industry wants it badly. Because airplane accidents are so amazingly rare, this is a remarkable opportunity to learn from an honest to God airplane accident – an extremely rare chance to improve air safety even more. Boeing needs that thing to figure out if there were any issues with design or manufacture. Insurance companies need a look to settle the many interwoven claims against various parties. The airline needs it so it can prove it wasn’t negligent and to improve its own practices. Malaysia and China need to find it for political purposes because so many citizens want to tar and feather certain leaders over the way the accident was (mis)handled. And even the US which wasn’t directly involved (just one US citizen) would like to have a look at those those black boxes and examine key pieces of the wreckage.

It sounds cold to focus on the “worth” of the wreckage. I don’t mean it that way. I really do feel awful about the accident. However, if you’re trying to figure out why so much national treasure and effort is being invested in the search for this wreckage in “the most dangerous place on the planet”, it may help to understand the importance of the secrets hidden within that wreckage.

SOLVING THE MYSTERY

Will the aircraft be found? Will it ever be possible to deduce exactly what happened?

If you haven’t tuned out by now, you probably know that the search area has been narrowed down. As of this writing, the use of robotic submersibles has just begun. In the opinion of MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, they aren’t exagerating about what a rotten location this is. This area is remote, has indescribably bad weather, and very deep and uncharted water. If the airplane had been lost even a few years ago, it might have been hopeless. This is more like a planetary expedition than sending some soldiers to comb through a wreck somewhere but I think the search will go on until something is found. It’s an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” deal. So much has already been invested, and so much is riding on the results, that I don’t think giving up is on the menu.

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The drawing is mine.

STEM CELLS “HALT” ALS

March 29, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about Stephen Hawkings

HAWKING HAS ALS

LOU GHERIG’S DISEASE

Remember Lou Gherig, the baseball player?

He got very sick.

He couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand up. Eventually, he couldn’t even swallow. Gherig never got over it. And he died from the disease which is now called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. In the US it’s also called Lou Gherig’s disease in honor of a great guy who got a tough break.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis attacks the motor neurons in the body. The most common form of it shows up in the extremeties – the arms and legs – first. Most people succumb to the disease in less than five years.

Physicist Stephen Hawking has had ALS for about forty years. In spite of being  paralyzed, he has managed to leave  his able bodied colleagues in the dust, physicswise. His story is an amazing one. However, no one doubts that Hawking would give up a bunch of his honors and awards to be able to scratch his ear.

A FLICKER OF HOPE

Eva Feldman, University of Michigan neurologist (also President of the American Neurological Association) conducted a small human trial using stem cells to treat ALS. The results were fantastic. The stem cells, which were implanted in one of several locations along the spine, slowed the progress of the disease for some of the patients. Slowed, in this case, meant “no significant disease progression” for the entire two year study. That’s like halted, right? One of the participants put away his cane and took part in a two and a half mile walkathon.

Nine other patients with more advanced disease didn’t do so good. No significant benefit. Since the phase 1 human trial kept a strict lid on the allowed doseage, the real surprise is that so many patients did so well. The phase 2 trial (starting soon) allows a much bigger dose.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is excited about this.  Stephen Hawking could use a little good news. I think , maybe, that will happen soon.

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My drawing.

The Trouble With Guys’ Brains – Study.

March 22, 2014 Posted by
Most men have lousy memories.

THE MISERABLE MALE MEMORY

THE BRAIN YOU’RE BORN WITH

Guys have a problem.

It’s their brains.

You knew that, of course. I’m talking about their memories here. We will defer the many other peculiarities of male thinking for another blog post if you don’t mind. A big honking study of 48,000 people in Norway was carefully done by a team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Here’s what was discovered.

Guys can’t remember worth a damn. (I sure can’t.) They’re really bad at names. (I really am too.) The Norwegian study, called Hunt3, was led by Dr. Jostein Holmen. It was published in  BMC Psychology.

The participants were asked about names and dates, details of past conversations. All the stuff you would expect, right?

The surprise? Guys were awful! They did much worse than women. Nobody knows why. They were bad when they were young, they were bad when they were middle aged and they were bad (just a little worse, actually) when they were old.

The age thing was a surprise though. The expectation was that younger guys would do a lot better on names and dates and such than they did in real life. More education was a good thing as far as good memory goes. And chronic depression was a bad thing. Neither factor was a surprise as the roles of education and depression have been known for some time.

The researchers were stimied. They couldn’t figure it out.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad has a theory however. Back in the days before we were too enlightened to stick women with all the child rearing and family duties, the guys went out and threw spears at oxen while the women busied themselves with keeping track of several generations of kids and adults. Maybe there was a selective advantage to being good at knowing the names and ages and personal details of all those people in your charge. This theory, courtesy of ScienceAintSoBad, isn’t without its flaws but the price is right.

Anyway, that’s it for today folks. You’ll forgive me if I forget your birthday.

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Sure. That cartoon is mine.

 

HOW THE STUPID UNIVERSE BEGAN

March 16, 2014 Posted by
A CARTOON ABOUT THE BIG BANG

BEFORE THE BANG

HOW THE (STUPID) UNIVERSE STARTED

People fall in love with their own ideas. This is a particular occupational hazard for science writers and I apologize in advance for doing this to you but I’m repeating one of my answers to a question on quora.com because, frankly, I am in love with my own answer. It is my blog. I get to choose. Sue me if you don’t like it. (No. Just kidding. Please don’t.)

The question (on Quora) was: Is it necessary for the universe to have a beginning?

I have two completely contradictory answers. You can take your pick.

Here’s the first one:

Life has become more complicated around here lately.

A few decades ago, the universe was a less ambiguous thing (no multiverses on the agenda) and little or no discussion of pre-big-bang physics. A currently hot topic is whether “something” (stuff) could have come from “nothing” (non-stuff). If you feel the origin of stuff is the beginning, then maybe that predates our particular “bang”.

My opinion? I suspect that there was always something and never nothing. I realize that’s hard to swallow. How could there have always been something? Didn’t it have to start? Where would it have come from? But, if the alternative is that the underlying paraphernalia of physicality – the laws of physics, space-time, and quantum principles – have to be initiated out of nowhere, maybe my version – always something – is less hard on the brain.

At some later point in time, I changed my mind:

The “universe” includes more now than it used to. We have started referring to the “known” universe for the part that we can see; the “rest of it” seems to be considerable and may even be “infinite”. The quotes are because of how infinite that infiniteness might turn out to be.

Projecting everything back to a real – if somewhat mysterious – beginning, a point of infinite density, seems to have become more difficult to accept. 30^-35 meters may be the smallest allowable size. It is called the “Planck length” and it appears to shut the door on anything being smaller than that. Even the early universe.

It now seems likely that the actual beginning may have been a small period of time after the unachievable “singularity” when a few grams of energy-matter condensed out of some still undefined process. The birth of the universe has gradually drifted away from a “who knows?” shoulder shrug to a legitimate area for scientific inquiry,

There’s been lots of back and forth about the difficulties (or not) of “something from nothing”. There are many “nothing purists” who insist we start with an utter void without even the occasional virtual particle and show how such a thing could have led to our present condition. They feel there should be no defined laws of physics in that void either. It would seem we have to choose between either a total and complete null or something that’s not much but has enough of somethingness to start things with random fluctations of virtual particles. If it’s the latter, you’re stuck defining something that’s “eternal” (eternal somethingness).

My own vote is that things really did start from nothing. Absolute, absolute nothing. It’s more logical than saying that things “always were”, don’t you think?

How did we get here then? The key is that it is hard to remain perfect if you have to be that way forever. So perfect nothings foul up eventually; they spit out just enough virtual particles or burps of energy to, occasionally, “start the clock” on a universe.

There’s certainly nothing at all illogical about a “nothing” that does lasts forever. However, we know that didn’t happen, don’t we? Look around you. Obvious, right? So the story of creation is the story of a rare and minor instability which, over eternity, yields a brief flicker in a near timeless void. That flicker was mother and father to all of us.

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The drawing which has nothing to do with anything is mine.

 

AN ADORABLE FETUS?

March 14, 2014 Posted by
3D LIFELIKE REPLICA OF YOUR FETUS

IS THIS ADORABLE?

TECHNOLOGY RUN AMUK?

We’re pregnant.

So happy to hear. Will you be wanting hard copy of that first ultrasound?  How about a 3D doll of the kid in utero?

3D Babies has announced a way to make plastic replicas of a fetus from the 3D ultrasound scans. Cute as all get out if you like that not-born-yet look.

Getting a good “shot’ ” of a fetus must be done v-e-r-y carefully. Xrays – any kind of radiation –  is pretty much out of the question, right? However, sound waves don’t hurt anything down there; so ultrasound (high frequency sound waves) is used  to harmlessly form a clear picture of  the infant .  Ultrasound is up around two million hertz. That’s like a hundred times more than the highest frequency anyone can hear . The  short wavelengths are the trick to making pictures with good detail. Some of the latest equipment also does a three dimensional version  which has information about width, height, and depth.

The founders of 3D Babies thought “Depth. Hmm.. With all that info plus a 3D printer, why couldn’t we make a real lifelike replica of the kid?

That’s what they did.

Cartoon of kid aghast at mom

ARE YOU KIDDING ME???

 

IS IT ACCURATE? (DOES IT MATTER?)

The web site says the company uses studies from bioengineeing to create a sculpture that “resembles” your baby. How close is the likeness? It’s hard to say. You probably have to more-or-less take their word for it since, by the time you see junor, he.she will have changed quite a bit.

Here’s the thing.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t have a problem with science, right? That’s obvious. And, you know what? Good taste isn’t a big deal with scientists either.  Darwin’s stuff was so offensive to his contemporaries he wouldn’t let it be published til he was gone.

Gallileo? They busted him for anti-biblicality. He was lucky to get off with house arrest.

If you want to capture Billy in all his pre-delivery glory, why would I object on the basis of good taste? Just remember that there might be some “artistic license” involved in getting from the 3D ultraound data to the plastic baby sculpture thing.

I’m not saying this is the perfect shower gift but if you want to scandalize your friends with something a little different, this might be what you were looking for.

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The photo is a promotional photo from 3D Babies.

The drawing is mine.

 

 

Are Chiropractors For Real?

March 1, 2014 Posted by

 

Cartoon about science

THIS IS SCIENTIFIC?

DOES YOUR CHIROPRACTOR ACTUALLY DO ANY GOOD?

You’ve been to a chiropractor, right? Everyone has.

They’re doctors. More or less. They take the sting out of a backache and they do other stuff too like headaches and such.

Nothing wrong with it.

Here’s the thing though.

They’re not really doctors. They don’t even like doctors. In fact, mostly they’re  not big fans of the scientific method that underlies medicine.

Still. They do something, right?

Paul Ingraham, Assistant Editor of Science Based Medicine, at saveyourself.ca, looks at this. He examines the history and the literature of chiropractic; he also looks at what users have to say about their experiences including a Gallup poll.

His conclusion?

Chiropractic techniques may make some people feel better for a little while but the evidence for long term benefits is pretty sketchy. The studies that appear to support chiropractic aren’t scientifically sound.Even the members of the profession seem to be locked into some kind of ideological dispute about what chiropractors are good for.

Ingraham is perfect for this role. He’s not a hater. He sometimes uses chiropractors himself and refers others for treatment. He modestly insists that he isn’t qualified to sit in judgment. He’s sharing what he has dug up from his own careful research of the literature. Which is why its harder to dismiss what he has to say.

Ingrham lays out the five “big” questions about spinal manipulation: 1) Do chiropractors oversell their services with distateful and overly agressive tactics? 2) Is the historical idea behind “spinal subluxations” as the cure all for countless disorders and diseases faintly ridiculous in a modern scientific era? 3) Are the possible risks of injury or death from spinal manipulations justified by the insufficient evidence for its efficacy? 4) Now that a major scientific review (2014) has failed to demonstrate a good case for chiropractic treatment of low back pain, does this weaken its most basic appeal? and 5) Should chiropractors be allowed to continue treating children and babies where, say some, the chances for harm to the patient are greatest?

Ingraham says the profession, itself, is divided by its response to these basic questions.

The idea  of “subluxations”, so basic to chiropractic treatments since its very beginnings,  is rejected, Ingraham says, by many chiropractors as unsupported by science. (If MISTER ScienceAintSoBad gets to chime in here – It sure is!!) In fact, chiropractors fall into categories. The “straight” chiropractors still cling to the original theory of subluxations. If I understand this right, they wouldn’t be shy about fixing gout and liver disease with spinal manipulation therapy.

The “progressives” are called “mixers”. They focus mainly on the spine where even some medical doctors concede that it might at least make sense to find a beneficial effect from SMT.

Ingraham says there’s very little high quality research that supports the idea that chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy works better than other treatments. But, he says, for some people the “joint popping” effect is pleasurable and may even temporarily relieve pain. For others – not so much. He calls attention to a 7 year old Gallup poll that rates chiropractors at the very bottom of the medical profession for honesty and ethics. Considering how unrealistic people are about their expectations for their doctors – how tough they are on them- patients must really think chiropractors are dirt bags! However, I should caution that medicine isn’t all about popular opinion. A single poll shouldn’t be taken out of context.

Paul Ingraham makes a strong case. He’s probably right. Yet chiropractors continue to have their defenders. Many of them.

Who knows?

Maybe a better study will come along. That’s what makes science fun, right?

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The drawing is mine.