Science of Dune: Worms on Earth
Posted by sibylle in science writing, Science of Dune (Saturday January 26, 2008 at 9:44 pm)


Bootlace worm - Lineus longissimus

Image: Steve Trewhella (published on the MarLIN Web site)

This animal is among the world’s longest. It may reach a length of more than 50 meters!

I’ve been discussing the fictional sandworm of Dune. So far, the data indicate that the planet Arrakis, or Dune, could exist, but that life could not have evolved on a planet in orbit around Canopus (where Herbert places Arrakis). Even if Dune were terraformed and introduced life existed there, it could not long flourish in the absence of plate tectonics.

Now let’s look at what types of worms exist on Earth, where we enjoy abundant water and oxygen, and plate tectonics regularly causes earthquakes and volcanoes that recycle our carbon dioxide (among other things).

The Bootlace Worm, Lineus longissimus, grows over 50 meters long! That’s over 150 feet, and while not quite reaching the proportions of Herbert’s sandworms, it comes pretty close!

This lowly animal won the title of World’s longest animal, when a specimen measuring 180 feet beat out the longest dinosaur and the Blue Whale.

Along the coast of Norway, scientists found 30-meter long individuals and estimate that they can reach 60 meters when they stretch their body to its full length.

So why can’t Dune’s sandworm be this big?

The Bootlace Worm lives in the ocean, with certain problems like nutrient exchange, water balance, excretion, and mobility taken care of since it’s immersed in water. A terrestrial animal faces numerous challenges, such as water balance and thermoregulation that marine organisms don’t have to deal with.

And then, Dune has no oceans and Herbert said that water is poisonous to the sandworm. So we won’t find Lineus longissimus or other animals like it on Dune.



Giant ribbon worm

Dune: the possible . . .
Posted by sibylle in science writing, Science of Dune (Wednesday January 23, 2008 at 8:53 am)

and the implausible, less possible, or improbable.

Let’s look again at how much of Frank Herbert’s Duniverse is realistically possible based on known science, and how much is highly unlikely (in terrestrial science).

1. Arrakis and indigenous life.

When Herbert wrote Dune, we did not yet have the ability to see or find other planets. We assumed they existed—after all, if our sun has a bunch of planets, why wouldn’t other stars have them also? But we had no observed data of other planetary systems. Now we’ve observed over 100 planets and are actively searching for more.

Herbert places Arrakis around Canopus, a yellowish-white supergiant star. Kevin Grazier, on pages 96 – 98 in the Science of Dune, puts the lifetime of supergiants at only a few hundred million years. He concludes that life (as we know it) couldn’t have evolved on Arrakis (life on Earth took 800 my) and that Arrakis would have been terraformed!
Plate tectonics: Heat from the Earth’s interior drives plate tectonics. Credit: World Book illustration by Raymond Perlman and Steven Brayfield, Artisan-Chicago

2. Plate tectonics and life.

In 1999, I attended the Second International Convention of the Mars Society (see my article) and interviewed Chris McKay, of NASA’s Ames Research Center as to whether life existed on Mars.

Early Mars, when some scientists think it could have had life, was warmer and had liquid water on its surface. The planet lost its atmosphere and became much colder. One hypothesis is that carbon dioxide (CO2) is unstable and forms calcium carbonate (CaCO3). On Earth, the subduction plates (plate tectonics) take CaCO3 into the interior where the core’s heat releases the CO2 - a “greenhouse” gas that helps retain heat - back into the atmosphere.

Mars has no plate tectonics and no CO2 recycling occurs. The binding of atmospheric CO2 into CaCO3 may have led to the loss of Mars’ atmosphere and its consequent transformation into a cold, dry, dead planet. When I interviewed McKay he did not think that planets without plate tectonics would long sustain life. Astrobiology Magazine discusses the role of plate tectonics in maintaining Earth’s climate and the nature and distribution of habitable environments in the Universe.
If Dune has no plate tectonics, this could make the persistence of (terrestrial-type) life less likely.

Diana Valencia of Harvard University said, “Plate tectonics are essential to life as we know it.”

Keeping warm
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Monday January 21, 2008 at 8:13 am)


Sunset over Buffalo

Keeping warm

We’ve endured several extremely cold days on the slopes this winter, with highs close to zero (Fahrenheit, not Celsius) and lows in the negative teens. While visitors to Colorado’s ski slopes may think that we always suffer through very cold winters and that temperatures this low are the norm, our normal high for mid- January is 33, with a normal low of 0 degrees and a record high of 50! Our recent temperatures actually hovered closer to the record low of minus 29 for mid-January.

Today, I read of an Iowa runner who lost his toes due to frostbite after a long run.

With these extremely frigid temperatures, I decided it was time to replace my boot heaters. I bought my original Hotronic boot heaters about 2000, so my old batteries no longer lasted the whole day. When we enjoyed temperatures hovering close to zero in the morning, but then warming up to the 20s or even 30s in the day, I could tolerate a weak battery that lasted about 3 – 4 hours. But with the all-day cold plus added wind chill, I bought the new Hotronic FootWarmers with the beefy new m4 batteries.

hot m4.jpg

Hotronics footwarmers

While the manufacturer claims that the boot heater transfers easily from one pair of footwear to another, I would disagree. It requires a bit of installation and adjustment so I took it to the boot shop to have them replace my old foot warmers with the new ones. Our first attempt resulted in frozen feet, as they claimed that I could use the new batteries with the old insoles and heating element. After a day of freezing numb feet, I took the boots back to have the insole heat elements replaced. I’ll report back after I try them again how well they work now.

hot bat m4.jpg

New batteries

Dune: science versus fiction
Posted by sibylle in Science of Dune (Thursday January 17, 2008 at 8:39 pm)


I want to explain and clarify several points in my essay, ‘The Biology of the Sandworm’ in The Science of Dune. When possible, I will include pictures or diagrams in coming posts.

Scientific method

I made some basic assumptions in my essay, which I list below. When I use the term ‘assumptions’, I’m using this term in the mathematical or scientific sense of ‘postulate’ or ‘hypothesize’.

I assumed that Dune obeys the physical, chemical, and other laws of science as we know them from Earth.

My essay, and the other essays in the book, discusses the science of Dune, and I observed known terrestrial scientific laws in my attempt to explain which elements of Herbert’s Duniverse could possibly exist. Science consists of developing testable hypotheses, experimentally testing these hypotheses, and evaluating the experimental results to determine whether these support our hypothesis, or if we must reject it and generate a new hypothesis.

Since we are (so far) limited to performing experiments on Earth (and a very few in space) and have not yet visited any other planets to observe and measure conditions there, we can test hypotheses only under terrestrial conditions.

If we postulate that a planet or organism does not follow known laws, but instead follows another set of to us, unknowable and untestable laws, then we have left the realm of science and entered the realm of science fiction. Herbert, as a science fiction author, presents a planet, Dune, that violates terrestrial laws in several instances. I’ll mention which of his creations and speculations are impossible on Earth, and why.
In future posts I’ll try to address:

oxygen production, plate tectonics and volcanic activity, and sandworm biology in greater depth.

To comment, click the red number to the right of the blog’s title.
Further reading:

George Santayana, Reason in Science Volume 5 of the Life of Reason, Collier Books.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Random House, (1996).

Stephen S. Carey, A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method, Wadsworth Publishing; 3 edition (2003).

Robert M. Martin, Scientific Thinking, Broadview Press (1997).

Hugh G. Gauch Jr., Scientific Method in Practice, Cambridge U. Press (2002).

Barry Gower, Scientific Method: A Historical and Philosophical Introduction, Routledge (1996).

Peter Achinstein, Science Rules: A Historical Introduction to Scientific Methods, Johns Hopkins U. Press (2004).

M. Taper, S. Lele (Eds.), The Nature of Scientific Evidence: Statistical, Philosophical, and Empirical Considerations, U. Of Chicago Press (2004).

H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press (1994).

W. I. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation, Blackburn Press (2004).

M. Cohen, An Introduction To Logic And Scientific Method, Hughes Press (2007).

Sunrise over snow
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Tuesday January 15, 2008 at 12:43 pm)


Sunrise from my house

With Lake Dillon in center right and the Ten Mile Range in the right rear.
Hang on to your skis!

Every day I teach, when my students and I go in for lunch, I carefully place one ski under a tree near the lift, and another ski in a rack across the way near the door to the Summit House, the restaurant at the top of Keystone. When my students wonder why I’m dragging my skis all over, I explain that they’re expensive skis and I‘m worried about someone stealing them.

Turns out I was right to worry about my skis getting ripped off. The January 13, 2008 issue of the Summit Daily says that ski theft in Summit County is becoming a hot issue.

Apparently, in Winter park a Denver woman had all of two hours on the mountain before someone stole her brand new K2 T:Nine women’s skis. And in Breckenridge, police arrested two men who reportedly stole 13 snowboards and three pairs of skis.

To prevent the same thing happening to your brand new board or skis, buy a lock and lock them to the racks, or separate the skis and store them in two widely separated places. One tack a friend of mine used was to spray paint his boards a hideous day-glo orange. That will not only prevent thieves from making off with your new toys, but also make them easier to find on a crowded rack.

Please  comment if you have  suggestions to prevent ski theft, or if you know of more incidents. To comment, click the red number to the right of the blog’s title.

A brilliant ski day
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Thursday January 10, 2008 at 12:31 pm)


Another snowed-in morning.

Today I skied a few runs at Keystone—Bullet, Mine Shaft, Jack Face (bump runs) — and mostly had them to myself. No people on the slope, no lift lines, with fresh powder, sunshine, and cold, but terrific conditions. In fact, I rode the lift alone every time. All this non-stop up and down on the bumps did tire my legs a bit, so I reviewed my exercise program.

Here it is:

Do lots and lots of cardio. I would recommend at least 1 hour three times per week of running, cycling, or if indoors, using the treadmill, elliptical trainer, or bicycle. I’ve been doing 1.5 hours of xc skiing at the Nordic center.


* Altitude fatigues you, which can contribute to injuries, so use cardiovascular (CV) training to help you ski longer. Use CV training for endurance and also include higher-intensity interval training.

* Do some sets of an anaerobic activity (sprints, intervals), to train for brief sprints or short stretches of challenging terrain (steep bumps).

* Since skiing uses the legs a lot, include cross-training activities like cycling, running, swimming, or a similar activity.

* In your strength training, make sure that you do eccentric, concentric and pliometric exercises. Skiers overload and stretch the quadriceps muscles (mine get sore in long bump runs). Pliometric training helps strengthen and condition your knees.

* For advanced skiers, try dynamic sliding wall squats (squat while flexing and extending the legs) or do a leg presses in the gym.

Please  comment if you have  other exercises you would like to recommend. To comment, click the red number to the right of the blog’s title.

Dune: Biology of the Sandworm
Posted by sibylle in books, films, photography, Science of Dune (Wednesday January 9, 2008 at 8:40 pm)


This month, BenBella Books published The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind Frank Herbert’s Fictional Universe, which contains my essay, “The Biology of the Sandworm”. In the essay, I speculate about what would be the characteristics of a 200-meter long sandworm living on a dry, desert planet like Frank Herbert’s Dune. How large can an animal get? And what would the sandworm eat on Dune? How does an animal that large move? And what’s its lifecycle? Where does the oxygen come from, since few to no photosynthetic plants grow on Dune’s surface?

I can hardly claim to answer all, or even most of these questions, but I do postulate several possibilities never envisioned by Herbert (after all, this book is unauthorized). Also, biology has advanced considerably since Herbert first created Dune in 1965, and I rely on new scientific findings to explain how the sandworm could possibly survive and flourish on Dune.

While I’ve been writing about science for years, I generally write about scientific meetings and interview speakers about their latest research. Such work appeared in New Scientist, Red Herring, HMS Beagle, Reuters Health, and other magazines and websites. This, my first foray into the science of fictional creatures on imaginary planets, has proven to be surprisingly controversial. I hope to respond to some of the questions posed in the coming weeks, once I either start another blog to deal with science writing, or metamorphose this one into a biology blog for a time.

Please leave your comments as to whether you’d like to hear about sandworm biology on this blog. To comment, click the red number to the right of the blog’s title.

Snowy morning
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Wednesday January 9, 2008 at 7:51 pm)


Snowed in again

I love sunny mornings. This winter, snowy, gray, blizzardy mornings outnumbered sunny mornings. The few times I’ve watched the sun rise, its brilliant light shining on the snow, each time encouraged me to race quickly inside, get the camera, and shoot a few photos.

After the picture taking comes the inevitable shoveling the snow off the windows. The sun heats our house, and if snow covers the glass, no heat gets in. After about an hour, I’d cleared most of the windows and was late to the day’s cross-country ski training with Justin of the Summit Nordic club. Since they were skate skiing in today’s training, and I’m classic skiing, that wouldn’t be a major loss.

I arrived at the Frisco Nordic Center and tried my skis. I say tried, because the sticky kick wax from Monday, when it was warm and pre-storm, wouldn’t let me move in today’s very cold temperatures (single digits rising slowly to teens). I scraped off all the old kick wax and started over. After scraping wax for a while, I had to go back in the Nordic center to warm up my hands and feet.

Finally, after over an hour of shoveling, and half hour of waxing, I took off to ski. I skied up the Crown Point trail, down to the lake, back up toward Olympian’s, then onto the Frisco Bay loop. In an hour and a half, I saw maybe three other people on the trail. I wish I’d brought the camera there: sparkling snow coated the trees, the sun shone down from a cloudless blue sky, and the winds stayed high along the ridge, blowing up plumes from Buffalo and above Breckenridge. With that much snow blowing in plumes, I was glad to ski down low among the trees. I even heard birds singing—I wonder how they survive the sub-zero nights, high winds, and gelid days?

Please leave a comment about your skiing this year or your training for skiing. To comment, click the red number to the right of the blog’s title.

Nordic ski training
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Monday January 7, 2008 at 4:41 pm)

classic ski.jpg

Classic skiing (photo from McCall, Idaho)

For today’s ski workout, most of us classic skied at the Gold Run Nordic center in Breckenridge.

Here’s the workout, direct from Summit Masters:

Meet at 10:00. Lowell “Mac” Mc Coy will video for technique, classic or skate.
Workout: warm up on Buffalo Flats for 15 min. Ski continuously for 30 minutes thinking of technique, keeping a steady state rhythm on the trail of choice, but not difficult terrain. Then ski 3 x 1 minute at a faster rate with a 30 second slow ski in between for recovery. Cool down 10 minutes.

In addition to the workout, we skied our best up a slight incline for Mac and his video camera. After skiing, we viewed the video indoors and critiqued our technique (mine’s suffering from too little practice. I’ve been on the nordic skis maybe 4 –5 times this winter).

Some Summit Masters are training with the Summit High School Nordic team and their coach, Justin, this winter. I haven’t made it to the training yet since I’ve worked in ski school since Christmas, but now that the rush is over, I hope to train with a real coach. I’ll continue posting our training. Summit Masters meets every Monday and the Nordic team every Tuesday and Thursday, so I should get there once a week unless it’s a big holiday (MLK or President’s weekend).

Happy New Years!
Posted by sibylle in skiing (Saturday January 5, 2008 at 7:52 pm)

NY2.jpg NY1.jpg

Digging out

On New Year’s Day, we spent our morning digging out from the storm that closed Interstate 70 on December 30, trapping over 2,100 travelers overnight in Summit County. On Monday, December 31, with I 70 closed from Frisco to Vail and from Silverthorne to Georgetown, travelers remained stranded at Red Cross shelters in schools around the Silverthorne, Frisco and Breckenridge. But New Years dawned clear, blue, and sunny (outside of the house. Inside, snow covered our windows to the roof).

I wasn’t surprised to hear that December 2007 was the seventh snowiest December with snowfall totals twice Summit County’s historic average, accompanied by frigid temperatures. I knew they’d been low—I was teaching skiing at Keystone with morning lows ranging from minus 18 to minus 6 and highs sometimes in the single digits.
After digging big chunks of wind-blown slab off the windows, we skied a few laps at the Frisco Nordic Center. When it’s that cold, cross-country skiing warmed us up, while sitting and freezing on a chair lift didn’t seem all that fun. We skied down to Crown Point and back up Olympian, about a 15 km loop, with incredible views and gorgeous sunshine the entire tour.

Please leave your comments about your New Year’s activites. To comment, click the reddish number to the right of the blog’s title.

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