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."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cold calves

Lyuba and Khroma (IMAGE ABOVE, MORE HERE) are newborn mammoths that lived 40,000 years ago and are now providing unprecedented details about the early development of prehistoric pachyderms. Lyuba, discovered by reindeer hunters in 2008, was only one month old when she died in northwest Siberia. Khroma was found in 2009, 3,000 miles away in northeast Siberia, and had died at the age of only two months. American paleontologist and lead author of the newly published study, Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan, explains, "This is the first time anyone's been able to do a comparative study of the skeletal development of two baby mammoths of known age. This allowed us to document the changes that occur as the mammoth body develops. And since they are both essentially complete skeletons, they can be thought of as Rosetta Stones that will help us interpret all the isolated baby mammoth bones that show up at other localities."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Icky import

A post on the Wall Street Journal blog explains that the Chinese love to eat rabbit, particularly the residents of Sichuan province. Of the global production of 200 million pounds of the meat, 30% is consumed in China, with 70% of that – some 420,000 tons a year– going to Sichuan and the neighboring municipality of Chongqing. Nearly all the rabbits bred for their meat within the country itself are sent to Sichuan, but they are still not enough to satisfy the demand. At least one local supplier has begun to import rabbit from France. While the Chinese will eat it stewed or spiced, they prefer just the head and have raised the consumption of this delicacy to a fine art. Manager Yang Xiaomei of the Chengdu branch of the well-known Sichuan restaurant Shangliu Old Mother Rabbit Heads explains, “There are so many little bones. The more you suck, the tastier the rabbit heads are.” Click the link for how-to instructions…

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chariot chamber

In the Early Bronze Age, more than 4,000 years ago, lived and died a well-respected chief in what is now Lagodekhi, Georgia, in the south Caucasus.. His 39‘ (12 m) high burial mound – looted in ancient times – still contained numerous grave goods when it was excavated in 2012. A timber chamber within the mound housed clay and wooden vessels, flint and obsidian arrowheads, leather and textiles, carnelian and amber beads, and 23 artistically crafted gold artifacts. Several servants or family members were sacrificed for burial with the chief, and he was laid to rest with a unique wooden armchair and 2 ornamented chariots. But put to rest your visions of a well-appointed leader zipping across the steppes with the wind in his hair. This was before the domestication of horses in the area and the chariots would have been pulled by oxen…

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Friday, July 11, 2014

Preserved in what is now Peru

An international team of archaeologists led by Józef Szykulski of the University of Wrocław, in Poland, have discovered 150 mummies in the Tambo River delta in the northern region of the Atacama Desert in Peru (PHOTOS HERE). The naturally mummified remains date from the 4th to the 7th centuries A.D., predating the Tiwanaku and Inca civilizations by almost 500 years. The bodies had been buried wrapped in cotton veils, reed mats, and fishing nets accompanied by numerous grave goods:
  • Quivers with bows and arrows tipped with obsidian heads
  • Maces with stone or copper finials
  • Weaving tools
  • Copper and gold jewelry
  • Decorated and intact pottery

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Finger ~ Print

This device, currently in development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is not intended to replace Braille. It will give the visually impaired access to books and newspapers, but also allow them to access menus at restaurants, forms at the doctor's office, and the text on their computer screens. A team at the MIT Media Lab has spent the last 3 years developing the FingerReader, a prototype that fits on the finger and is equipped with a small camera to scan text. A synthesized voice reads the words aloud and vibrations let the user know his or her finger is straying off the line (VIDEO HERE). There are other optical character recognition devices available, but they are bulky and do not read in real time. The FingerReader plugs into a computer, laptop, or phone, but cannot yet read a touch screen. After they solve that and some other challenges, the MIT team hopes to bring the device to market so that it is affordable to the 11.2 million people in the U.S. alone who could use it.

HALLOWEEN-Click for captions