Thursday, July 31, 2014

Koala clutch

A koala in Queensland, Australia, had a wild ride last week. He was struck by a car near Maryborough, but clung to the undercarriage until he was noticed in Gympie – a distance of 54.5 mile (88km) down a busy highway at speeds of up to 68mph (110km/h)! "It is absolutely amazing that he has such minor injuries and he survived," says veterinarian Claude Lacasse of the Australia Zoo, where the koala is on pain relievers until he recovers and can be released back into the wild. Almost as lucky as this animal in 2010, his only complaint is that he broke a nail...


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Towers timbers

Nope, not a fossil or a microscopic organism. This is the scan of an 18th c. ship discovered by construction workers in 2010 during rebuilding at the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. At a depth of 22' (6.7 m) below street level – along with animal bones, ceramic dishes, bottles, and dozens of shoes – lay the remains of a wooden ship measuring 32 (9.75 m) long. Its timbers were documented, excavated, and sent to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, where they were soaked in water to keep the wood from cracking and warping. Some timbers were then returned to New York to be analyzed at the Tree Ring Laboratory at Columbia University. After drying fragments slowly in a cold room and cutting thick slices of the wood, the dendrochronologists were able to determine that the vessel was built c. 1773 in a small shipyard near Philadelphia. Chances are that the white oak used to build the ship was also used to build parts of historic Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed. While historians aren't sure whether the ship sank accidentally or was purposely added to the landfill used to bulk up the coastline, scientists are not surprised about its origin. Lead author of the new study published in Tree-Ring Research, Dario Martin-Benito, says, "Philadelphia was one of the most — if not the most — important shipbuilding cities in the U.S. at the time. And they had plenty of wood so it made lots of sense that the wood could come from there."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ancient astronomy

South American archaeologists working on a complex at Licurnique, in the northern Lambayeque region of Peru, have discovered the place where ancient people stood to observe the heavens between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. The petroglyphs engraved on an adjacent flat-surface rock (IMAGE ABOVE) indicate that they tracked the stars and likely used the information to forecast rain and weather patterns to help farmers. Excavators Juan Martinez and Manuel Curo remark, It is worth exploring without a doubt.”


Monday, July 28, 2014

Barometric bloodsuckers

On display at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 was a strange-looking device (REPLICA ABOVE). It was invented by English physician George Merrywether, who originally referred to it as "An Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct." He had been inspired by the lines of a poem entitled Signs of Rain by fellow physician Edward Jenner:

The leech disturbed is newly risen

Quite to the summit of his prison.

Since leeches do in fact become agitated by an approaching storm, Merrywether harnessed 12 of them in separate bottles. When the barometric pressure changed they tried to climb out of the bottles, triggering small hammers to strike a bell. The more times the bell was struck, the greater the likelihood of a storm. The tempest prognosticator remains Merrywether's main legacy, even though the device failed to catch on.


Thanks, Sue!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Blogworthy birdsong

Just days after my post Metamusic, in which I expressed fear that "scientific" music-making would become a bit boring, a reader has pointed out the best example yet. When Brazilian multimedia artist Jarbas Agnelli saw a photograph of blackbirds on electrical wires in a São Paulo newspaper, he saw in his mind's eye the image above. Curious to hear what melody the birds were creating by their perches, he transposed their exact locations as musical notes. The incredibly beautiful result (LISTEN HERE) suggests that God or nature has a much larger repertoire than techno. As Agnelli writes at the end of the video, "I just erased the birds for effect at the end, but didn't change their positions at all. What would be the point?"

Saturday, July 26, 2014


"It's rare that a car with connections to some of the most important figures in history is offered on the market," says managing director Nick Whale of Silverstone Auctions. He is talking about the state limousine used by former Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón and his wife, affectionately known by the public as Evita. The 1951 Cadillac (CURRENT AND hISTORICAL PHOTOS HERE) will be sold at auction in London in September and is expected to go for £200,000-£260,000 ($340,000-$407,000). The car has been on long-term loan to the Museo Evita in Buenos Aires, the staff of which are trying to determine which of the first lady's dresses a jewel fell from. The gem was discovered in the limousine (INTERIOR PHOTO ABOVE AND HERE) and will be included in the sale of the car.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Lego legacy

On February 13, 1997, container ship Tokio Express was hit by a rogue wave off the coast of Cornwall, England, shortly after it left for New York. The ship listed sharply and 62 containers slid overboard about 20 miles off Land's End. The one container that apparently split open contained a total of 4,756,940 Lego pieces, of which an estimated 3,178,807 were light enough to have become flotsam. In the eyes of those who have been cleaning the litter off the beaches for the last 17 years, this was an ecological disaster. But for tourists and treasure hunters, the Legos – which includes daisies and dragons – are collectors' items. Ironically, many of the miniature toys that the shipment contained were nautically themed: divers, pirates and cutlasses, red and yellow spear guns (13,000 units), life preservers (26,600), pairs of flippers (418,000), scuba gear (97,500), brown ship rigging nets (26,400), and the much rarer black octopuses (4,200), as depicted above. Cornish beachcomber Tracey Williams divulges, "These days the holy grail is an octopus or a dragon."


Thursday, July 24, 2014


I fear that pretty soon strangely scientific ways of making music will no longer be blogworthy! I posted about University of Minnesota student Daniel Crawford creating a disturbing solo composition for cello based on the increasing temperature readings of the planet over the past 130 years. I have also posted about German artist Bartholomäus Traubeck developing a way to translate tree rings into music. Now Canadian computer scientist Saif Mohammad and New York University student Hannah Davis have devised a way to transpose the emotions of the written word into song (LISTEN HERE). And scientist and musician Kieran Heather has turned a NASA image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field into sound (LISTEN HERE). Heather concludes, "The end result is strangely musical, yet clearly contains the same organic and seemingly unpredictable complexities that can be found everywhere in nature. It seems 'God' is a fan of Techno…"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Flaws by jaws and claws

The Kamine Zoo in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, has introduced a new program, not necessarily for the enrichment of the animals but to raise money for the zoo and a conservation group. They are allowing lions, tigers, and bears to tear at denim which is then used to make jeans (VIDEO HERE). The fashionably broken-in jeans are auctioned on the Internet, with the first 2 pairs going for ¥152,000 ($1,500) each. In addition to distressing the material, the activity does seem to de-stress the beasts. Zoo director Nobutaka Namae describes, We wrapped several pieces of denim around tires and other toys. Once they were thrown into the enclosures, the animals jumped on them. The denim was actually much tougher than we had thought, and it turned out nicely destroyed.”


Monday, July 21, 2014

Bog voyage

There is a breakthrough about bog bodies to report! Researcher Karin Margarita Frei of the National Museum of Denmark has disproven the long-held assumption that, because many bog bodies were gravely wounded and were buried instead of cremated, they were sacrificed criminals, commoners, or slaves. Frei has applied new chemical analyses to 2 Danish bog bodies – Huldremose Woman and Haraldskær Woman (IMAGE ABOVE) – to show that they had traveled long distances before their deaths and wore clothing that was more elaborate than previously thought. For instance, when Huldremose Woman was discovered in 1879, she wore a skirt and scarf of sheep's wool and 2 leather capes. Frei examined the body microscopically and showed that the mummy had worn flaxen undergarments. Analyzing the strontium isotope in the dissolved fabric and the skirt and scarf indicated that the flax had not grown on the terrain where the bog body had been found, but in areas of northern Scandinavia. Frei says of the Huldremose Woman, "At first we thought this must be a witch—now we think she's a very fine lady with expensive jewelry and expensive clothes and underwear."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Stone unturned

I've been heavy on excavation lately, but this story represents the opposite. In 1964, on the recommendation of archaeologists from Glasgow University, a Bronze Age carved stone was buried to prevent it from being vandalized. The 42' (13 m) by 26' (8 m) Cochno Stone straddles private property and parkland owned by the local council on the edge of Clydebank in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. The 5,000-year-old stone was discovered by the Rev. James Harvey in 1887 and is covered with some 90 fine examples ofcup and ring” carvings that include indentations, grooved spirals, a ringed cross, and a pair of 4-toed feet. Like the Roman dodecahedrons, the Cochno Stone's use remains a mystery. It may have been a map of the earth or the heavens, with symbols of life, death, and rebirth. Or it may have been the scene of sacrificial ceremonies, with milk or water poured into the grooves and channels as offerings. Historian Alexander McCallum, who has lobbied to have the stone uncovered and may soon succeed, agrees with multiple interpretations: "I think it was probably used for lots of things; it was never used for just one thing and over hundreds of years it changed use."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Devolution discredited

A 2006 BBC documentary entitled “The Family That Walks on All Fours” shows 5 siblings living in a remote area of Turkey who are unable to walk upright (CLIP HERE, IMAGES HERE). They have an inherited condition called Uner Tan Syndrome (UTS) and they are used to illustrate a theory developed by its discoverer, neuroscientist and evolutionary biologist Ûner Tan of Turkey's Cukurova University, that people with UTS are a human model for reverse evolution - “devolution” – and offer insights about how our predecessors transitioned from 4-legged to 2-legged walking. In a newly published study by American anthropologist Liza Shapiro of the University of Texas at Austin shows that the family and others with UTS have simply adapted to their inability to walk upright and do not represent an example of backward evolution. She does this by showing that the study subjects walk in a lateral sequence (placing a foot and hand down on one side and then the other), while apes and other nonhuman primates walk in a diagonal sequence (placing a foot down on one side, then a hand on the other side, and continuing in that pattern). Shapiro sums up, "As we have shown, quadrupedalism in healthy adults or those with a physical disability can be explained using biomechanical principles rather than evolutionary assumptions.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Duck-bills in Denali

My favorite scene in the film "Jurassic Park" is when the herd of dinosaurs runs by (CLIP HERE). Something similar happened in Denali National Park in Alaska, U.S., during the Late Cretaceous period (between 100 and 66 million years ago). The site contains thousands of tracks from hadrosaurs, or duck-billed dinosaurs, many with preserved skin and nail impressions (IMAGE ABOVE). The footprints range in size from 5" (12 cm) to 24" (60 cm), indicating that babies, juveniles, adult females, and adult males ran together (PHOTO SHOWING SIZE SCALE HERE). The discovery of the tracksite shows that hadrosaurs not only lived in high altitudes of the polar ecosystem year round, but that they also lived together in a group. Paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, quips, "We had mom, dad, big brother, big sister and little babies all running around together. As I like to tell the park, Denali was a family destination for millions of years, and now we've got the fossil evidence for it."

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Natural selection

"Considering the limited disposable space in so very small a ship, we contrived to carry more instruments and books than one would readily suppose could be stowed away in dry and secure places," wrote Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle. A young Charles Darwin shared his cabin with 404 volumes for their landmark expedition around the world from 1831 to 1836. After the voyage, the then state-of-the-art library was dispersed. Now senior lecturer John van Wyhe of the National University of Singapore has collected and digitized the books – all195,000 pages containing more than 5,000 illustrations (GALLERY HERE) – and made the collection freely available as part of the Darwin Online website. The library includes books in English, French, Spanish, German, Latin, and Greek. The subjects span travel, natural history, geology, history, literature, and atlases and nautical maps. Sums up van Wyhe, "The Beagle library reveals the sources and inspirations that Darwin read day after day as he swung in his hammock during long sea crossings, or as he worked on his specimens at the chart table or under the microscope. For a long time this was lost to us, but this reconstructed library provides us an unprecedented insight into the journey that changed science and our understanding of the world."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Historical ham

My faithful readers know that one of my favorite topics (although not mentioned in the masthead) is old food. Well, have I got a winner of a story for you today! In 1902, a ham was cured at Gwaltney meats in Smithfield, Virginia, U.S., and hung in a packinghouse for 20 years. Once the overlooked leg of meat was rediscovered, owner P.D. Gwaltney, Jr., adopted it as his "pet ham" (IMAGE ABOVE) and opened the iron safe in which it was housed for guests to view. In addition, he fashioned a brass collar for it and carried the ham to shows and expos to exhibit the preservative powers of his smoking method. The meat got an even wider audience when it was donated to the Isle of Wight County Museum, where it currently resides (IMAGE HERE). The now 122-year-old ham would have been dry cured (salted and drained of blood), but after a few years the fat would have oxidized, imparting a rancid flavor. Still, there is some question whether the old ham – as ugly as it is – could still be safely eaten. But as the BBC observes, "To most people 'edible' means more than the ability to eat something without it killing you."

HALLOWEEN-Click for captions