Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Herd of Fuzzy Green 'Glacier Mice' Baffles Scientists (npr.org)
198 points by Xplor 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments





https://thespacewriter.com/wp/2019/11/16/scientists-are-not-...

Start: "Every week, I see headlines in the mainstream media (as well as the “social” and online media outlets) that say something like “NASA Scientists Baffled at….” or “Scientists Bewildered by…”. It’s annoying and tells me that the writer and/or the headline writer is a) lazy and b) doesn’t have a clue about science or scientists. "


You're halfway there.

What's really happening is that the headline writer knows what wording gets clicks.

They're not fools. Their job is just different from what you think it is.


Or, c) they interviewed a scientist doing the research and literally reported the fact:

> "We still don't know," he says. "I'm still kind of baffled."'

Scientists are baffled. It's what gets us out of bed. If we knew everything, we'd be called oracles or something. If we stuck to the comforts of the known, applicable facts, we'd be called engineers.

Humans are curious beings. We enjoy the trivia at the forefront of science, even if we won't read the boring details of the precise scientific answer. Mulling the questions that scientists are investigating is a delight. And yeah, sometimes it's a lazy editor who exploits that curiosity, editorializing without verification, but that doesn't seem to be the case here.


> if we stuck to the comforts of the known, applicable facts, we'd be called engineers.

seriously? you are showing off your knowledge of science by displaying an ignorance of engineering... engineers don't live in emotional comfort, and the best experimental scientists are engineers or they'd never create novel equipment to test ideas.


I agree with your general thought about this, but in this specific article one of the scientists was quoted saying he was "baffled", but only "kind of". Maybe the title should be "Herd of Fuzzy Green 'Glacier Mice' Kind of Baffles Scientists". I would be more likely to read that!

It's not my general thoughts, it's a quote from the post which I thought was a funny enough insight on a frequent pattern in science journalism for the masses.

In their general "journalism" pool (i.e. aside from Nova and Science Friday), NPR/PBS journalism has a really low bar for science knowledge.

There's a new PBS science show hosted by a "journalist" (rather than a scientist) called "H2O: the molecule that made us".

When talking about the atmosphere of the early Earth, she referred to it as "mostly CO2". That's so egregious an error, I rewound and rechecked it five times. The highest CO2 content we know of was 0.04%. "Mostly"?! This means that nobody with fairly basic science knowledge (I don't even have a degree in hard sciences, and this hit me like fingernails on a chalkboard) reviewed the script, or caught it in production, or caught it in previews.


I don't like it when headlines say scientists are "shocked" or "amazed" (those are very rare in science proper, although you do see it when your paper is rejected/accepted by a major journal.

In this specific case, it is an example of baffling.


But the first quote acts like its a new discovery, but then they go on to say it's been known, just under-researched, for 50+ years.


*baffled

One of the scientists was quoted as saying,"I'm still kind of baffled." Guess that seemed like adequate verisimilitude.

After all, scientists like to be baffled ... if you're not, you're probably not looking hard enough. (Ask any cosmologist ;-)


Okay, let's play with the word baffle here to make the headline more fun [1]. I like "baffle: auxiliary devices employed in tank which suppress the effects of slosh dynamics."

So scientists employed a device to prevent the slosh dynamics caused by fuzzy green mice from affecting glaciers! Now THAT is an article I'd like to read!

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baffle


But the scientist is quoted saying he is baffled, if that's accurate I'd say the headline is fair.

Sounds similar to the so-called "sailing stones": rocks in the desert that move seemingly on their own. The explanation for their movement is essentially wind, aided by thin sheets of ice that melt a bit on sunny days: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailing_stones#Explanation

There is a simpler explanation for that phenomenon:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Beneath_the_Ground!


It seems like scientists are always baffled. (What’s that old quote about “the most important phrase in science is ‘hmm, that’s funny...’”?)

Being baffled is pretty much a scientist’s job.


Sometimes I wish I was a scientist rather than a programmer. The kind of baffled I get as a programmer is usually as a result of recent human creations rather than the more numinous natural ones.

The difference is, when baffled by something found in nature, you assume you just don’t understand it well enough. When baffles by something found in programming, you assume everyone else is a moron.

"If debugging is the art of taking errors out of programs, then programming is the art of putting them in." -- someone far smarter (and funnier) than me.

Programming has two stages that alternate: bugging and debugging.

I really like how that site solved the problem of visitors that don't accept tracking. I got a challenge asking me to accept cookies, out get the just-text version.

No images, no scripts, no cookies, no styling. Just the text. What a great thing!


The question I keep asking myself is why tracking and cookies can't be handled at the browser level?

One facet of this: the dominant browser manufacturer is the dominant tracking body.

You can configure your browsers not to accept any cookies, or not to accept 3rd party cookies. These may or may not break many sites.

Tracking more generally is not something that can be prevented by a browser which executes code written by the tracker, and must give that code access to the internet. Even if the SOP was completely enforced, trackers can still store the information on the origin server. Even if the browser doesn't expose any tracking information, the tracker can still measure all sorts of information which may be unique to your system, especially in concert with your IP address.


It's exactly how the text-only Lynx browser handles them. I really wish Firefox would implement the same thing.

It also handles NoScript well

Text, images, and no scripts


When I disable JS with UBlock Origin:

• the "Agree and Continue" button does nothing;

• the "Decline and Visit Plain Text Site" button directs me to the article index at https://text.npr.org/ (instead of https://text.npr.org/s.php?sId=858800112)

Perhaps NoScript special-cases this site?


It does not work in private mode

Perhaps I had opened the page without noscript in the past, and it still had the relevant cookies


I would go with the experimental approach: cover a few glacier mice from the sun and see if they change behavior relative to the others, cover a few from the wind and see if they change behavior, paint a few with heat resistant paint, and so on.

This is probably obvious and not it since they roll and it's not just on antarctica, but did they check that it isn't the entire ice plate under them that's moving?

I asked myself the same question. Unfortunately this isn't addressed in the article. But I think that the glacier researchers probably though about it.

>Bartholomaus

Nice aptronym!


If these are green Tribbles, don’t be fooled by their fuzzy cuteness, they are very dangerous: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribble

This is what they use to make that green drink.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQAG0JEb718


This could be related to this phenomena: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailing_stones

Why the hyperbole? Science has known multiple plant movement mechanisms. They will follow sunlight, mineral content and even their equivalent of pheromones.

Looks freaky though. :)


It's not really hyperbolic - quote from the article:

> "We still don't know," he says. "I'm still kind of baffled."

Science doesn't yet know which motive mechanism these use (they might even use something novel), and that's really cool.


What interesting about these 'glacier mice' is the moss forms into a ball that somehow roll around which is why the moss on the bottom of the ball doesn't die. So far they can't figure out what makes them roll.

>The researchers considered several possible explanations. The first, and most obvious one, is that they just rolled downhill. But measurements showed that the moss balls weren't going down a slope.

"We next thought maybe the wind is sort of blowing them in consistent directions," says Bartholomaus, "and so we measured the dominant direction of the wind."

That didn't explain it either, nor did the pattern of the sunlight.

"We still don't know," he says. "I'm still kind of baffled."

"It's always kind of exciting, though, when things don't comply with your hypothesis, with the way you think things work," says Gilbert.

The work has charmed other glacier scientists who dote on the adorable moss balls.

"I think that probably the explanation is somewhere in the physics of the energy and the heat around the surface of the glacier, but we haven't quite got there yet," says Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute.


Their center of mass shifts as they grow.

Besides growth, their center of mass may also shift when one side becomes damper or dryer faster than the rest, due to sunlight, wind, or the wet ground.


The curved upper/exposed surface could act as an airfoil, allowing gusts of wind to lift the moss-mouse, and move it a bit, and/or rotate it around it’s vertical axis.

If I had to read a clickbait headline, I think "Antarctic Scientists Charmed By Adorable Moss Balls" would be even more effective at getting me to read the article!

Dennis, to King Arthur: "Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate?"

Hey, so called 'scientists' a collection of mice is called a mischief, not a herd. This is obviously not true, glaciers are made of ice, not cheese.

> a collection of mice is called a mischief

I always found this aspect of English, uniquely naming sets of animals, to be simultaneously adorable and thoroughly useless and anachronistic.

Is there a defence of this flock of birds, mischief of mice, whateverthefuck of whosits system? (Does it have a name?) Do all linguistic systems do it?


If you're interested, there's a comprehensive table of animal names with a column for the collective nouns on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animal_names

Some of the terms vary depending on wieght of numbers (say, more than 12) or behaviour at the time, such as migration.


The "Terms of venery" section[0] of the Wikipedia page for collective nouns will probably answer some of your questions. In German, as far as I'm aware, we don't have that many different collective nouns for groups of animals (or at least they are never used outside of hunting circles). We have "Schwarm" for fish and birds, "Rudel" for pack animals, "Herde" for farm animals and most herbivores, "Schule" for whales/dolphins (and possibly some other animals). Those are the ones I can thing of off the top of my head, but there certainly must be a few more. Not eveb close to the variety in English though.

[0]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_noun


I suspect these collective nouns as they are called were invented, or expanded, by the victorians, it's the kind of thing they did (if they were sufficiently wealthy).

A parliament of owls, a murder of crows etc. I can imagine it was a way of excluding people without education.

My speculation anyway. Whole things just seems silly to me.


I believe they may have grown out of “terms of venery” or words specific to hunting - an activity often divided into class-specific groupings.

I do believe you hit the nail on the head. For others who are unaware of the term https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_noun#Terms_of_vener... - thanks

English seems pretty forgiving on this, at least compared to Chinese "measure words".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_classifiers


Japanese has counter words. So you get san-mai tickets for people arriving in san-dai cars. In English that's just three tickets for people arriving in three cars. Note that 'mai' doesn't mean ticket and 'dai' doesn't mean car, it's just a counter so you also have to add in the noun in your sentence.

That seems unbelievable to me but they just go around happily saying that easily.


When you are speaking Japanese the object being counted is either easily inferred by context or placed directly in front of the number.

> thoroughly useless and anachronistic.

As a native English speaker, and armchair linguist, I feel that that sentence describes a rather substantial percentage of English usage, grammar, and (especially!) spelling.


They’re called collective nouns, English is particularly obscure when it comes to these.

God forbid language not be a dry dull affair.



Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: