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144. Gone Pear Shaped

The earth is officially ‘pear-shaped’ – not a round sphere as is commonly believed. Now do not get the wrong idea about this, it is not shaped like some huge interstellar fruit, that, while interesting would be plain ridiculous. It is barely pear-shaped, but pear-shaped enough.

Let us start at the beginning. We used to think the earth was flat, in the case of the Mayans we thought it had 4 corners and was placed on the back of a giant crocodile in a lily pond which in turn was on top of five different coloured trees. Then around 2200 years ago the Greeks, specifically Eratosthenes calculated that the earth was round and even made a fairly accurate estimation of its circumference.

Then comes Columbus. As you can tell, he did not discover that the world was round, it had been known for well over 1000 years before he was even born. He in fact set out to find a new and better trading route with parts of Asia, and failed. He did however succeed in another way by correctly believing the earth was shaped like the aforementioned cosmic fruit. In fact he claimed that he didn’t discover a better trading route to Asia because of the bulging part of the pear near the stalk. To be clear the earth does not have a stalk, but it is definitely a little pear shaped.

You see, the earth is irregular, some parts are rock, some are water and others are melted rock. This means it stretches when forces are applied to it. First thing, the earth spins,the equator spinning the fastest. This means more force on the equator and causes a bulge.

That’s the reason the earth is not round, now here comes the pearification. The earth is irregular remember, so it stretches bizarrely, this means it is not an oblate spheroid or a squashed sphere. Instead the bulge is not on the equator but just south. So now you know, the earth is pear-shaped, or Piriform if you want the correct adjective.

Further Reading

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2011 in Articles, Misconceptions, Trivia

 

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98. Pulling The Poles

MISCONCEPTION: My compass points to the North Pole! How groovily convenient. In fact I could just follow my compass and head towards the north pole if I wanted. Just listen to the needle, needles are always right.

TRUTH: There are two sets of North and South Poles on this earth. They do not exist in the same place.

One is constant and the other shifts. Initially one finds the traditional, stalwart and trustworthy geographic north pole, exactly opposite to the geographic south pole. Both are near-constant, the line between skewers the earth and spins us around is like some demented roundabout.

Then we have the lithe and shifty magnetic poles. These are the things that cause Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. They also move. They are also not even directly opposite, just because the Earth’s magnetic field isn’t symmetrical. This, is what your compass points to, if you have a compass that is.

So why are they moving? The answer is a massive and very hot pile of molten metal which spins like a dizzy corkscrew. It is the core of the earth and it generates the whole magnetic field due to something complex known as the dynamo effect which I shan’t bore you with. Anyway, as with any large molten mass it has flaws, whenever it changes, the positioning of the magnetic poles changes.

This didn’t use to be by much, just a few hundred kilometres here and there… until humanity came along with its computers, washing machines and extremely fancy digital watches. You need to understand this one thing, and if you don’t please just trust me, electricity and magnetism are the same thing, one causes the other and so on, any computer you’ve seen? Produces a small magnetic field. Your tiny phone? Produces a magnetic field. The electrical impulses in your brain? Even they cause a small magnetic field around your head.

Carrying that on it is a small step to say that if you get a lot of small electrical things together one gets a large magnetic field out of all of the smaller ones. Simple. Think about society then. Today there are more electronic devices in existence than people. Each of which will eventually be replaced by 2 other gadgets. We are living at a time when we live with what some would say is a heckload o’ stuff. That has its effect: the cumulative effects of humanity’s electronics obsession is warping and twisting the earth’s magnetic field, we are moving where the compass points, we who walk the world, warp it in our wake.

Right now the magnetic north pole is on the move, heading towards Russia at a pace of 60 kilometres a year, that speed will only increase. In fact by the year 2327, the North Pole will be located in mid-Kansas, while the South Pole will be just off the coast of East Africa.

The gap between the two poles, larger than many countries.

So there we go, you cannot follow a compass to the North Pole. In fact, if you did so right now you would miss by about 971 kilometres. So good luck with that.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Articles, Misconceptions, Trivia

 

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86. Project Isabela

The enemy

FACT: Giant Tortoises, nice creatures, wise and a bit wrinkly. Wonderful.

As you well may know they are common in the Galapagos Islands. In fact each island tends to have its own species of tortoise, and that’s great because one can never have too many tortoises, you can however, have too much of something else.

Goats specifically.

Now we certainly know what goats are in this case; they are invaders. They were aggressive and competitive, their nimble feet and height meant that they were very effective at eating everything the tortoises wanted to eat. This was a problem on 3 of the islands, Isabela Island, Santiago Island and Pinta Island.

The Tortoise were facing extinction; goats ran rife throughout an area over 400,000 Hectares in size and the ecosystems were being decimated. Radical action was required to stop these fiends. That action was Project Isabela. It was an initiative run from 1997 until 2006, a nine-year commitment a minor goat apocalypse.

Using a combination of helicopter-borne snipers and ground crews they set about slowly hacking at the annoyingly alive goat population. Despite the ethical qualms with killing thousands upon thousands of goats, it is seen as being worth it. By, lets say, ‘losing’ the goats there was suddenly no more overgrazing, ecosystems snapped back into place and resumed their business, tortoises did tortoise things and trees became green again and did their typical photosynthesizing thing.

That was why the Galapagos hates and murders goats.Below i footage of some helicopter goat sniping in the Galapagos.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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82. Gravity Glaciers

FACT: Sea levels are important, without them we would not be able to tell those in Holland that they live at the altitude of Salmon, it has its uses.

Unfortunately the seas of the earth are not smooth, in fact sea level is different in every place on earth, depending upon wind, tidal state, and the earths gravitational pull.

In addition there is that menacing issue of global warming, a big factor in our now constantly rising sea levels. Yet there is something else.

As you well may know, this global warming problem is to do with the glaciers melting, but there is more to it then that. More water will leave the poles then there is in the glaciers themselves, the question is, Where is that extra water coming from?

The answer is the bumpy sea levels, the water is already there, the seas at both poles are extremely deep, but the earth’s gravity isn’t strong enough to hold all of the extra water in its place, so there is some other force acting on the water. Actually it’s still gravity. As you know, the poles are covered in ice sheets, ice fields and glaciers. These are the source of the extra force.

The ice sheets at both poles are simply so massive, that they have pulled in the seas and oceans of the world, this excessive gravity means water is stacked extremely highly around the poles, leaving less water about the equator. When glaciers are gone, so is that gravity and we will all be visited by a not insignificant amount of extra water.

So let’s try to avoid melting the glaciers shall we?

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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74. Antarcticas Still Stars

FACT: Antarctica is a land of a great many contrasts. We know it for the inhospitable temperature, the lumpy ice fields and the ferocious winds which tear across its surface. However it also hosts what is officially the ‘Calmest spot on Earth‘.

Near the centre of the continent is the Antarctic plateau that is raised up beyond most winds. Upon it resides a location known only as Ridge A. It is remarkable for the calm, here there is practically never any weather, the air is too dry for snow, hail or any other kind of precipitation and there is never any significant wind. All of these properties plus a night that can last 3 months make it the perfect place for astronomical observations.

How calm is it exactly?

The calm is extended vertically up into the atmosphere. The vast masses of air above Ridge A are so calm that there is practically no wind disturbance. So still is it that the stars don’t even twinkle. Something seen nowhere else on earth.

This is all fortunate as scientists hope to set up a 100 metre high building set up there in the next ten or so years.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2011 in Trivia

 

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70. Rescue Rats and Explosives

FACT: Rats are good sniffers. In fact they can smell explosives.

These are the snappily dubbed ‘Hero Rats’ (I prefer my name Rescue Rats). These rats are trained over the course of 5 months to sniff out TNT, and other components in land mines, allowing them to effectively act as cheap mine detectors in countries such a Mozambique and Angola where live mines maim thousands.a major component in most buried landmines.

It works like this; the rats wander around on leashes, sniffing for the tiny particles released by the mines. When they find a land mine, they react.

They scratch at it. Don’t worry, the rats are too light to set off the land mines so don’t worry, no rat has ever been blown up… by searching for mines. Anyway, once they identify a site the mine is then safely detonated. In this aspect the rats are identical to specially trained dogs, however they have an advantage over the hounds. They are cheap and effective, costing less than half of trained dogs. A real boon for the poor countries whom most require this service.

How effective are these rats?

In 2010 the rats were sent out to Mozambique, by the end of the year they had cleared a swathe of land as large as 100 football fields, getting rid of over 800 mines. A change that makes a real difference to those living there. In  2011 they hope to move into Angola and help save thousands more from injuries or death.

This is however, not the full extent of the rats powers. The same man, Bart Weetjens, has gone further, training his rats to sniff out a real epidemic in Africa, tuberculosis. By sniffing samples and smelling which harmful substances are contained within, a rat can take just 1/200th of a second to find whether or not a sample contains tuberculosis or not. By combining multiple rats they have a 98% effective system for tuberculosis detection, something more effective even than microscopes.Last year, 25 rats alone, stopped over 9,000 cases of spreading tuberculosis and confirmed hundreds of samples tested with microscopes.

The wonders of rats indeed.

For more information watch this talk by the man behind the ‘Hero Rats’.

Alternatively click here to visit the official website.

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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69. The Lost Library of Moscow

The Lost Russian Library

Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. During the mid 15th Century the Ottoman empire is approaching from the east, flattening all in its paths, now it prepares to launch an attack on the city. The sultan rushed to save the most valuable treasures which were kept in the city.

Sophia Palaeologa, the Sultan’s niece, was hastily married to the young Ivan III (Ivan the Great) who would soon become the ruler of Russia. She and her entourage left the city and made it to Moscow via Rome. With her she carried the treasures of Byzantine, amongst the treasures were the treasures of  Constantinople’s library.

This was no ordinary library, and it may have been the greatest library outside the Vatican at that time. Records chronicled hundreds of carts, laden with the rarest and most jewel-encrusted tomes. Hailing from all corners of the globe, written in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Egyptian.

After her safe arrival things started happening back at home; the Ottoman Empire finally broke down the walls and entered in, pillaging and ransacking some of the most beautiful sites in existence. This ‘purging’ cleansed the city of Constantinople and it was renamed Istanbul.

However more interesting things were afoot in Russia, the library was then, and is now, of incalculable value. The Vatican, and the rest of Rome offered to purchase the collection in its entirety but such was its value that Ivan III kept it, however fearing a backlash from Rome he had a secret location constructed, known as the ‘vaults of Liberia'(Liberia comes from the Greek word liber, meaning book. It has nothing to do with Liberia.)

These vaults were located beneath Moscow but the locations were kept hidden. All was good, the library was safe and secure. The Ivan III died, and Ivan IV , later to become known as Ivan the Terrible, entered the scene. At first he was a great ruler, expanding Russia and the like. Then he became unbalanced. He extended the phenomenally large tunnel network beneath the Kremlin to include execution and torture chambers to punish the torture chambers. His secret police eventually killed great swathes of the upper class ‘Boyurs.’ Also killing off everyone else who knew of the library’s location.

So it was just him. He never had a chance to pass the knowledge on. During a chess game he suddenly keeled over and died of a heart attack, and with those last heart palpitations dies the last knowledge of the libraries locations.

There are an unknown number of tunnels beneath the Kremlin, the network is so vast that no-one can even produce a real estimate of the size of the network. During the many privately led and government funded initiatives to search for the library there has been no success. so to this day, billions of Dollars of artifacts and antiquities lie beneath the surface of Moscow, just waiting for someone to find them.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2011 in Articles, Trivia

 

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65. The Omnipresent Banana

MISCONCEPTION: The best fruit is the Banana, I eat lots of different bananas, just because they are that delicious. Mmmm! Bananas.

FACT: I can understand the great enthusiasm and love many people feel for bananas, I really can. However, whilst they are loved the world over and are very useful; bananas are a herb, not a fruit. Whilst they appear to come off of a tree , its just happens to be the worlds largest herbaceous plant… so there.

As I was saying there really are no ends to bananas usefulness, monkeys love them, the leaves are good for waterproofing ceilings or wrapping up parcels. In fact with their easily peeled skin they seem to be perfect for human consumption.This is all good, that is why several thousand years ago humans started cultivating them, before even apples be were looking after the curvy herb. Just remember…

The banana was never meant to be. It is a freak, in the traditional sense at least.

Th banana is a hybrid between to closely related plants, one of which tastes horrible, meanwhile the other is stuffed full with seeds. Due to the fact that nature does no like cross-breeding the offspring, out eponymous hero the banana, is sterile. Bananas cannot breed. Fortunately for the banana lovers worldwide some smart humans realised that by taking cuttings you could produce more bananas, however these would be identical to the original banana.

Over many hundreds of years of trade and expansion we today have reached what many people consider to be the perfect banana. If you have ever had a banana split, smoothie, or bought a banana from a supermarket, it was the same banana. Down to the last gene. It was a Cavendish banana.Every lat one.Unfortunately, due to the magic of having the same sweet taste every time, the banana is susceptible to disease. Currently genetic scientists the world over are working hard to find a way to prevent a banana  apocalypse. This may sound ridiculous but I assure you it is very serious,  it has happened before.

There was once a more popular breed of banana than the Cavendish, it was called Gros Michel, its fame spread and some claim it was even better than our beloved Cavendish. Then one day, catastrophe struck. It was the Panama disease. This condition spread like wildfire because if one Gros Michel could get it, the millions of others would too, and they did. Over ten or so years the disease spread through plantations around the world, reducing millions of tons of delicious herbs to a rotting mess. By the 1970’s Gros Michel was extinct, Cavendish was the king now. The new omnipresent herb in our midst.

So there you have, the rise and fall of a freak of nature, a banana that cannot breed but is everywhere you look. The story of an apocalypse and a new king. The banana is a most phenomenal herb.

For a longer, probably better written article on the sex-life of bananas click here.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Articles, Misconceptions, 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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50. Pando the Trembling Giant

MISCONCEPTION: The Blue whale is the largest organism in existence.

TRUTH: Many would say that Ant colonies count as one organism, but they are also just too small. What we are talking about now is a super-organism, and in the world of super-organisms, ant colonies are small fry.

The largest(known)  super-organism is called Pando, Latin for ‘I spread’. Pando is a tree, or not. It varies depending on your definition of a tree. Pando (a.k.a. the Trembling Giant) is a clonal colony of a single male, Quaking Aspen(Populus Tremuloides). It is located in Utah in the United States of America.

The way it works is this; when the Quaking Aspen wants to reproduce, it both flowers and produces a clone of itself. The cloning just means extending its network of roots and forcing them up through the ground, thus starting a new tree. This new tree has the same genetic makeup and even has genetic markers to say that it actually belongs to the first tree.

The new tree grows with the old one and together they establish a large root network which produces more and more Quaking Aspen, essentially causing the single tree to expand into a clonal colony with a vast root network.

Just how vast is it?Part of a larger Aspen Colony, note the people in the bottom left for a scale reference.

Normally clonal colonies are 0.1 hectares in size, Pando is 43 hectares in size, and weighs 6,000 tons. Now wait, there is more.

The trees on the surface die, the root network is the real Trembling Giant, and it does not die. It constantly sends up new shoots, renews dieing trees and stops supplying nutrients to those which are dead. The reason it cannot die is because the heart of Pando lies too far beneath the ground to be reached by the frequent forest fires. These forest fires are in fact a boon for Pando as it kills off the pesky invading conifers and frees up space for many more extensions of Pando to be sent up.

Due to this invulnerability and protection from competition the heart of Pando is considered the oldest known organism in existence. Experts pin it down to being approximately 80,00 years old. This impressive longevity makes it the oldest known living organism on our fair planet.

Quaking Aspen clones 80,000 years ago the Trembling Giant was but a lone tree living in the perfect environment for it to spread, grow, flower and produce clones. However the environment has changed so much over time that it is much less hospitable towards Quaking Aspens. Experts believe that the changes in the environment have been so pronounced that  Pando has not successfully flowered in the last 10,000 years, meaning its survival is dependent upon producing more clones and hoping for forest fires to wipe out the pesky conifers.

This is impressive but there are many more super-organisms out there, many under-analysed or even unknown. So while this is good, it is almost certain that there are other things even more impressive than this.

It’s an interesting world out there.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2011 in Articles, Misconceptions, Trivia

 

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