Episode 028 – Boiling Tetrahedron Mini-Brains


<said in epic movie voice> What is…Citizens of Tech?

<said in fake, wondering child-like voice of awe> Citizens of Tech is astronomy!

What else is it?


Something more?


Anything else?

Everything else!

<Back to normal voice> And you know what else Citizens of Tech is? You! Become a Citizens of Tech patron by hurling money at us at CitizensOfTech.com. Look for the Patreon link.

And now, Eric, what’s on today’s show? <starts in the goofy kid voice, clears throat, goes to normal voice>

Today, we have an amber alert, mini-brains on drugs, trashing the south pole, how dumb devices inspire clever laziness, a boiling river, and arguments to fend off the flat-earth society when they knock on your door.


Amber cache reveals a really old flower


  • What is amber? Amber is that nasty resin from trees and then fossilized. If the resin happened to capture something and encase it, you’ve got a well-preserved specimen from the past.
  • You know, Jurassic Park. Only this time it’s a mid-Tertiary period flower.
  • The find was in the Dominican Republic, so…central America.
  • How old? Um…we don’t know. 15-45 million years is the best guess based on the other critters in the amber.
  • The flower genus is Strychnos, where our modern Strychnine tree comes from…a poisonous plant. So, it could be this ancient plant is poisonous as well. But we don’t know, although my bet is that yep, it is. Or some critter would have eaten it.
  • The big deal here? Finds like this add to our body of knowledge about what the earth was like in the distant past. The appears to date from a time when North and South America was not yet connected by a land bridge. That geography is important as plant and animal species spreads are charted over geological time.


Drug experimentation advances with the advent of the reliable mini-brain



  • To make a mini-brain, start with skin cells. We’ve known for a decade how to turn those skin cells into stem cells. Now, we can turn those stem cells into mini-brains.
  • These mini-brains are about the size of a fly’s eye, and model the first 2-3 months of the brain’s development.
  • Yes, these brains actually “think,” in that they communicate with electrical signals over a neural network.
  • More useful for testing the effects of drugs & chemicals on humans then, say, a mouse brain, since they are actually based on human biology. Helpful for studies on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.
  • There were mini-brains before this, but they kinda sucked…too big, rotted from the inside-out, etc. This version is a major step forward.

The South Pole’s Junkyard


  • The South Pole. Really cold. Really hard to get to. Really expensive to get to, as a result.
  • But we humans live there year-round, and have since 1959.
  • Since you can’t just take your worn-out or broken junk to the transfer station or on the curb for the sanitation folks to haul away, what do you do with it?
  • You stash it! And even if it wasn’t impractical to cart it all away, you really want to keep all that junk around. Some of that stuff can be pretty useful when you’re out at the South Pole by yourself.
  • South Pole residents stash their junk in berms – “large piles of snow built into long, narrow rectangular shapes.” They make these berms with snow plows, usually just a few feet tall and wide, although possibly hundreds of feet long.
  • Different berms hold different things…lumber, kitchen gear, boxes, wooden spools, and so on.
  • Snow is a problem. It doesn’t snow much at the South Pole – about 9 inches a year, but it never melts. That means stuff in the berms can be obscured by the falling, blowing, drifting snow, even though the berms are built into the wind to minimize the effect of snow drifts.
  • Every few years, residents head out with shovels and plows to clean up the berms. In January 2016, they had “Berming Man” to get the job done. Ha!

Power Cycle Anything with AA Batteries Using Bluetooth


  • It’s now possible to retrofit your dumb, AA battery-powered devices with remote on-off capability.
  • How? The Tethercell adapter is a sort of battery sleeve. You pop a AAA (not AA)  into the Tethercell, and the Tethercell into the AA slot in the device.
  • The Tethercell has a Bluetooth LE radio in it that you can control with your iPhone through an app.
  • 50-60 foot range is claimed, although I’m pretty skeptical of that in the real world. Maybe if your house is made of farts pooted out by Judy Garland and Rainbow Dash. But hey, maybe. It’s not like Bluetooth audio where you need a consistently strong, uninterfered-with signal before the sound turns to sadness.
  • Anyway…if Tethercell is interesting to you, you can find them 2 for $20 on Amazon.

A Peruvian River Actually Boils


  • There’s a river in the central Peruvian Amazon that, for about a 4 mile stretch, averages 186°F.  It does appear to boil in places — there are shots of bubbling water and rising steam.
  • There’s a lot of water here, too — the river is up to 80 feet wide and 16 feet deep in places.
  • In other words, there’s a lot of energy required to crank up the water to this temperature. And if this doesn’t sound that impressive to you, consider the amount of time it takes to boil a full teakettle of water vs. one that’s only got enough water to fill your cup.
  • Discovered (from a scientific perspective) by Andres Ruzo working on a thermal map of Peru. He’d heard about the myth of the boiling river as a kid. And sure enough, he found it!
  • Let me guess. The water flows through a nearby volcano, right? Nope. The nearest volcano is 435 miles away.
  • Rather, this river is “fault-fed, which means that the water sinks down deep, spends some time underground taking heat from the earth, and then shoots back up through faults and cracks in the Earth’s surface to create this anomalously large thermal river.”
  • There’s a website with more info — http://boilingriver.org. This is about a project to protect the river, and includes cultural history preserved in oral tradition, and a lot more interesting info about this site.


You ever fry ants with a magnifying glass? The Russians want to do that from space. Sort of.



  • Confession, I might have gone after an ant or two in my day. I don’t really remember. I do remember definitely doing some wood burning.
  • Â team of Russians have an idea to launch a “solar-synchronized satellite that will deploy a 16-square-meter tetrahedron-shaped reflector.”
  • A tetrahedron is a 3D triangle – essentially 4 triangles joined at their edges.
  • The reflector will gather the sun’s rays and beam them back to the ground.
  • The end result would be seen as the brightest star in the sky.
  • Interested? Head on up to Boomstarter (sort of a Russian Kickstarter) and throw some rubles at them.
  • Seem pointless? Maybe. But if you think bigger, one possible application for this includes orbital lighting – shine light of the sun on important projects that need to keep going after dark including disaster zones, huge construction projects, or harvests. Or maybe even lighting up entire cities.
  • But I still can’t help thinking about those ants.


How can we tell that the earth is a sphere, not flat?


  • ETHAN: Hi, Mr…uh…Sutphen? I’m Ethan from the Flat Earth Society, do you have a few minutes to consider the flatness of our world? It’s evident all around us.
  • ERIC: Well, have you considered that during a lunar eclipse that the shadow cast is a round one? Aristotle knew that! Or have you considered the fact if a ship on the horizon approaches you that it appears to rise out of the sea?
  • ETHAN: Uh, well…I don’t think that proves very much, because clearly, the earth is…<Eric cuts Ethan off…>
  • ERIC: Okay, so you’re a little slow. Let’s consider some more facts. Why do you suppose we see different constellations in the night sky depending on where you are on the planet? That sort of thing doesn’t happen unless the earth is round. Again, Aristotle thought this through. You should read his stuff.
  • ETHAN: Well, you don’t need to get all huffy…<Eric cuts Ethan off again>
  • ERIC: I’m not huffy, my flat-brained friend. I am a Citizen of Tech. Now listen to these additional proofs of a spherical earth.
    • Consider that sticks in two different locations do not produce the same shadow. Instead, they produce different shadows since the angle of the Sun varies against the stick with the curvature of the Earth. This phenomenon is so consistent that Eratosthenes was able to calculate the circumference of the earth, and that was over 2200 years ago.
    • Besides that, you know how when you climb a mountain, you can see a longer distance? Doesn’t happen if the Earth is flat. Only if its curved.
    • Oh, and how about plane travel? Even been in a jet crossing the Atlantic? You can SEE the curved horizon. And let’s not forget that a plane can fly in a straight line AROUND the earth.
  • ETHAN: All of that is just fine, but I’m sure it’s your perception that’s wrong, as there is no doubt of flatness of this ground upon which I am standing…
  • ERIC: Oh so my perception of the Earth is suspect? Fine. Let’s perceive other planets then. Ever notice how every planet or moon we’ve sent an exploration vehicle past or seen in a telescope is spherical? Any particular reason Earth should be different? Hmm? Logically, our planet should be the same as every other planet we observe. And what about timezones? We know that it’s different times of day on different parts of the planet. That couldn’t happen if the Earth was flat.
  • ETHAN: This is all very silly, and I’m sure there’s an explanation. So answer me this, science man, if the Earth is a sphere, why don’t people on the other side fall off?
  • ERIC: Because gravity pulls objects towards the center of a mass. That’s why gravity feels the same for everyone on the planet Earth. If the Earth were flat and therefore a plane, gravity would pull you towards the middle of the plane. You’d be pulled sideways more than down the closer you got to the edge.
  • ETHAN: It’s clear to me that you are a heretical non-believer, unworthy of further consideration by the Flat Earth Society. You are unwilling to acknowledge what you plainly see around you…<Eric cuts off Ethan>
  • ERIC: What I see around me? I have seen many images from space of our fair planet Earth. In every single photo the Earth is a sphere. Every one. I do indeed acknowledge what I plainly see. And now I see you leaving in your car, heading down the road paved across this spherical Earth to bother me no more.

Content I Like

Storm the Castle



  • Insane collection of nerdery and how-tos.
  • Topics include making video games, model rocketry, astronomy, homebrewing mead, terrariums, fantasy swords, origami, beekeeping, stamp collecting, and so very much more.
  • Site looks pretty web 1.0, and has a lot of ads. But if you can get past the formatting, there’s a ton of information.
  • Companion YouTube channel is under the username “EpicFantasy” with over 600 videos with titles like “Teeny Tiny Popsicle Stick Catapult,” “How to forge a Karambit fighting knife,” and “Make a medieval wax seal.”

Today I Learned

Some fish have filters on their eyes that let them see fluorescence naturally. Their visual world is sort of like the one we see under a blacklight, or when shining blue light and looking through yellow lenses, like scientists do when hunting for fluorescent creatures underwater.




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