AAAAAAGH! It Burns Ussssssss! … Also, Science!

On the way to work yesterday evening (actually my today-morning, as I work the overnight shift), I experienced something I have not felt since late March.

Direct sunlight, on my face.

Yes, as the post title suggests, it did not go well.

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEK!

Even though the sun has been rising and setting every day for more than a month, because I work nights I’m one of the last people on station to be out and about when the sun is still high enough to be seen. Earlier in the day, sitting next to the window of our dorm lounge, I noticed that the brightness of the sky hurt my eyes. But it was nothing compared with the full-on, in my face blast of UV rays.

Putting on a brave face for the camera despite the pain... note, by the way, that my parka is not zipped up all the way. After four days of wind chills in the minus 80F realm, it was a balmy minus 22F when I took this.

I fully expected to turn into a cinder and blow away. Maybe that’s where all our black dusty flecks of rock come from. Sure, they tell us it’s because we’re on a volcanic island and there’s no organic matter to overgrow it, but maybe the truth is that it’s just the residue of Winter-Overs who have spontaneously combusted upon exposure to the sun.

In any case, I survived. Squinting, but alive.

I was heading in a bit early to start work so I could duck out for the Sunday Science Lecture, examining the epigenetics of two kinds of segmented worms that live on the seafloor here in McMurdo Sound. Alas I couldn’t stay for the entire lecture, but what I did catch was fascinating.

Epigenetics is basically looking not just at a creature’s genes, but how those genes are expressed and what factors impact expression, from environment to heredity. You may be thinking “duh, heredity, of course” but there’s more to it than Mendel and his peas (shout out to all my science-geek brethren).

I give you, for example, the hinny.

I had never heard of a hinny, though I have heard of a mule. A mule is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. Okay. Now, a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey. Both offspring are the result of a horse and a donkey knockin’ boots, but the expression of their genes changes based on whether Mom or Dad was Trigger. A hinny, compared with a mule, has a more horse-like head, mane and tail, for example.

Here’s another way environment and heredity mess with gene expression, one I found particularly fascinating. Most people know that the survivors of the Dutch Famine in the mid-40s, when the Nazis starved out occupied countries to feed their troops, had life-long health issues associated with having lived through famine. What scientists have discovered, however, is that the descendents of the Dutch Famine survivors–not even just kids, but grandchildren and great-grandchildren–have statistically higher incidences of metabolic disorders. Scientists believe the environment of the Famine affected gene expression of those who lived through it, who then passed down that altered expression to their descendents.

So, based on this meticulous research, I’m going to claim that the junk I can’t lose from my trunk is entirely the fault of some ancestor who had an unnatural appetite for schnitzel.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Also, “schnitzel” is a funny word.

Anyway, although I wasn’t able to stay for the entire lecture (alas I had to leave just when the scientist who described her job as “worm whisperer” began speaking) it was cool to learn even those tidbits.

And now it’s time to catch some Zzzs, something that has more or less eluded me for a few days thanks to minus 80F wind chills which led to frozen pipes in our dorm which led to burst pipes which led to water in the walls which led to black smoke bellowing out of the boiler and the fire alarms going off.

Thirteen days till my fingers and toes prune-out when I soak in a bubble bath that lasts longer than The Lord of the Rings. The extended version.

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