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175. The Great Saharan Eye

In a remote section of the Sahara Desert, Mauritania specifically, there lies this most mysterious formation, the ‘Eye of the Sahara,’ also known as the Richat Structure. Those passing over the large flat dome on the ground do not notice anything particularly out of the ordinary, but when viewed from space it stands out.

The eye of the Sahara is 50km in diameter and when viewed from above it does bear a resemblance to the human eye. Especially when one considers that it is actually a low dome, like a large eyeball peering out of the desert and gazing up into the sky. Its bizarre appearance and considerable size have led to great speculation as to how it ever came to exist. It used to be that no-one understood its formation and even now it has been extensively studied few believe that we are in possession of the truth yet. I suppose we shall have to wait, and see.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2011 in Articles

 

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165. The Pitch Drop Experiment

Pitch is a very tough substance, used to waterproof boats and traditional burning torches. At room temperature you can shatter it with a hammer. The black substance, so dark that it is the source of the term ‘pitch-black’, seemed to be a solid at room temperature; Professor Thomas Parnell disagreed, and set up one of the longest science experiments ever, to prove his point. This became known a the ‘Pitch Drop Experiment.’

The preparation itself took years, in 1927 he prepared a sample in a sealed funnel, then heated it. Three years later it had cooled and settled down. In 1930 the bottom of the funnel was cut, giving the pitch free sway to plummet downwards under the effects of gravity. So began one of the slowest drips the world has ever witnessed. Each drop takes between eight and nine years to form, but form and fall they did. Professor Thomas Parnell only ever lived past two drops of pitch before his death in 1948. The experiment continued without him.

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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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153. Holes in the Ocean

In the shallow blue waters of the Bahamas, Belize and others people often remark upon the brightness of the water; lit by the light reflecting off of the white sand beneath. However one can find deviations from the shallow norm, underwater pits where the land drops away. Circular anomalies which suddenly drill deep down, these deeper spaces filled with darker, and decidedly chillier water. This is a ‘Blue Hole.’

Their entrances can be anything from 25 metres to 300 metres across; their darkness is a result of the depths absorbing the light. These peculiarities of the ocean reach up to, or rather down 202 metres, a lengthy vertical cave. The depth and narrowness of these vertical caves also limits their flow. At the base of the blue holes the water has lost all oxygen, making it inhospitable to anything more complex than bacteria.

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Posted by on June 22, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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140. Going Faster Than Light

Nothing can go faster than lightThat is the immutable irrefutable edict. Einstein’s legacy and the ultimate law, unfortunately it is wrong, just a little bit but it is still wrong. The wrong part is ‘faster than light’. We can, and do go faster than light, and it shows. This is Cherenkov Radiation.

There are two things you need to know, firstly is that light can go at that famous speed, c as it is written in e = mc². The blistering 300,000 km/s. That is the speed of light. Nothing can go faster than that speed, but light doesn’t always go so fast, only in vacuums such as space. When going through actual stuff, Light slows down, and then we can overtake it, with some very interesting consequences. When light goes through water it is slower, and then we race it, and beat it.

You know the sonic boom – when something approaches the speed of sound the air in front literally cannot move away; so pressure builds up until there is a large shockwave. This flies away at the speed of sound and  produces a thunderous sonic boom. When we go faster than light, we get this too, it is just not quite so loud.

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Posted by on June 9, 2011 in Articles, Misconceptions, Trivia

 

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134. Ultra Reindeer Violet

It can see you, in ultravioletSome birds can see ultraviolet light, so can some reptiles and plenty of insects. However mammals couldn’t, until now. Recent research has found that the Reindeer can see Ultraviolet, which is really a first. Why though is a different question.

There is a definite reason why mammals cannot see ultraviolet and it is safety. Mammals tend to life for relatively long times, so can’t risk damage to body parts. Ultraviolet damages eyes, although it is useful it is harmful. Some species of Falcon live for 15 years and use Ultraviolet to look at trails left by prey, if they lived any longer they wouldn’t be able to because simply, their eyes wouldn’t work. The problem is the energy Ultraviolet light contains.

Ultraviolet is light with a shorter wavelength than our normal visible light spectrum, and so it has much more energy. It is the stuff which can cause skin cancer. That suncream/sun block you use. It is stopping that Ultraviolet light bursting through our skin, damaging cells and messing up your DNA. It is however, possible to see ultraviolet in extreme cases. When people have their cornea replaced, if there is a fault then the cornea might not filter out these ultraviolet light, so they can see any source of ultraviolet lights. This is not just harmful, it is actually painful to look at any source.

Taking all of that into account it is especially amazing that Reindeer can both stand it, and make sense of a whole new type of light. Their eyes must have a new kind of protection, or maybe science is wrong. All we know is that they can see it, it is useful for them, and we don’t quite know how they are doing it. Oh well.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Articles

 

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118. The Body’s Light

Extremely sensitive cameras pick up the faint glow of the Human body

Life is light – whilst that may sound like an excerpt from some religious text, it is actual fact. It has been shown that glowing is no longer the reserve of glow worms, firefly’s and deep sea fish. Biochemical reactions in, and on the body of nearly every creature on earth produce thousands upon thousands of compounds, and also light. Practically all life on earth produces visible light, whether it wants to or not. That includes humans – we quite literally glow. Constantly in fact. You are doing it right now. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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95. Henry and the Black Ford

MISCONCEPTION: Henry Ford when speaking about the Model T Ford said, “You can have it in any colour, as long as it’s black.” This was because, obviously, the cars were only available in black to start with, obviously.

TRUTH: Unfortunately that very amusing witticism was never uttered by the man himself. In even more shocking news the original Model T Ford was available in a plethora of colours, being offered for the public’s delectation in blue, red, green and that finest of the rainbow’s children – brown. The Model T Ford if you don’t know, was the first mass production car ever produced, leading the way for the current auto-mobile market as it stands to this day.

Oddly enough though, it wasn’t even available in black for several years. Oh the lies that history tells. Anyway, the black car was a hit with its slick appearance and mysterious lustre, so appealing was it that the car industry has never looked back.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2011 in Misconceptions, Trivia

 

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83. Zebra Barcodes

This is now

FACT: Zebras have stripes, simple, they are white with black stripes. The purpose of these myriad markings is to break up their shapes and make it harder for carnivores to pick individuals out amongst a crowd.

This works to some extent, even on us humans. That is the problem. Simply put, the markings on every zebra are different, but the differences are hard for researchers to discern because the stripes all look similar to the other stripes and so on.  So before researchers would have to tranquilise zebra and then attach a tag to it, so as to later recognise it. Now there is a simpler way.

Zebras have black and white stripes, so do barcodes. So software called Stripespotter was developed. It is a variation of a barcode scanner which works on photographs. Its advantage lies in the ability to work on all sizes of animal, as well as telling you how an animal is similar to others in the database, a boon for researchers.Simply take a photo including a zebra, then draw a square on the patterned side of zebra and now you can identify it any time another photo of it is taken, no need to drug the animal; an activity fraught with mild, but present risks.

So researchers will now scan zebras like barcodes, that is what I call progress. In addition they can use the system on tigers and giraffes, which is good because researchers don’t want to get anywhere near them… giraffes can be extremely aggressive.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2011 in Trivia

 

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73. The Crab and the Vampire

Horseshoe Crabs, odd little creatures indeed. They wander around in shallow ocean waters, surrounded by clouds of dirt and silt. It has been around for over 250 million years. Now it has something new to worry about… vampires.

The Horseshoe Crab has blue blood; and we want it. We are their vampires.

So why? What on earth has possessed us to make us want to harvest the precious blue blood of this harmless relic from many years past. The simple answer is to sustain us. Simply, their blue blood is a bona fide medical marvel.

In 1971 some scientists decided to introduce E. coli bacteria to some of the blood. The blood reacted, it clotted and stuck around the bacteria, preventing further spread. This was great news for the scientists, it showed a reaction to endotoxins produce by many types of bacteria that can cause humans to get fevers or haemorrhagic strokes.

Filled with delicious blood!

The simple clotting mechanism was very useful indeed. For the crabs it is their whole immune system, living in an environment where there can be billions of bacteria per millilitre they hang under the constant threat of infection, and the clotting mechanism is their way of fighting it. The secret is a compound in the blood called LAL (Limulus Amebocyte Lysate) which performs all of the clotting action, neutralising threats from fungi, viruses and bacterial endotoxins.

That is good for the crab and good for us. The clotting happens in under an hour and Horseshoe crabs were plentiful, as well as easy to catch. The Biomedical industry saw its opportunity and once the FDA approved the blood clotting test the blood frenzy began. These days the crab-blood test is the worldwide standard screening for bacterial contamination. A worldwide standard requires resources.

A $50,000,000 industry sprung up, harvesting the crabs along American coasts and selling them. How many? 250,000 crabs a year. Each of which are carted off to LAL laboratories wherein they are washed and examined for any signs of ill health or wounds, we are conscientious vampires after all. If they pass muster we then get about the blood business, draining each crab of up to one third of their blood with a large gauge needle. The blood is then carefully bottled and sent around the world at a handsome profit. One quart (just under a litre) of the blood fetches $15,000, such is our desire for it.

Now, we are not vampires in reality. We don’t really want the blood, just the LAL inside it, and unfortunately the only way to get that compound is to get that precious blood. You see, we need it for just about everything medical. For any drug to be approved, it has to pass trial by blue blood. Any surgical implant such as a pacemaker or prosthetic limb, trial by blue blood and so on. There is a demand and it puts strain on the species.

After harvesting the crabs are placed back in the ocean and take several months to recuperate and build up their blood levels, unfortunately they can go through it all again. The excessive trawling means that it is possible for crabs to be harvested up to four times a ear, an amount that can certainly result in some sick crabs.

The practice of draining their blood is not so safe either, recent surveys suggest that between 20,000 and 38,000 crabs die after bleeding. That’s a death rate of 10 – 15%. Populations then dropped in size and now we are finally taking steps to protect these creatures. Regulations have been put into place so as to prevent over-harvesting. These are all steps in the right direction, however an alternative may be needed. Scientists are working hard to try and produce LAL on its own in the lab, or at least find another source. Until then, humanity shall be medicinal vampires.

Think on that for moment the next time you have any pill or medicine. Think ‘I am a crab vampire’. Even if it makes no sense, at least it’s an interesting thought.

Further reading : detailed article

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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61. Blood Falls

FACT: Over 2 million years ago the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica covered over a small body of water. This body of water contained an ancient colony of microbes and other small organism. After a few years the water was totally sealed over by the glacier, removing all light from it.

Then they evolved independently from the rest of the world. Here in this sealed off body in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, there was no light, oxygen, very little heat and a ridiculous level of salinity. Formidable circumstances which almost no creature could survive. Yet these did.

A fissure in the glacier one day allowed this primordial mixture to escape and cascade slowly out of the Taylor glacier, forming a five-story stream of red liquid resembling blood from an open wound. This fissure allows the water out without letting any contamination in, meaning that underneath the glacier the bacteria and microbes are still evolving.

When it was discovered in 1911 researchers believed the red to be caused by algae, but no. It is a mixture of the microbes and the sheer level of iron in the glacial lake makes the water blood red. It is still pumping out the blood red water at this moment.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2011 in Trivia

 

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