Think It, Feel It

It is possible to catch leprosy from an armadillo if you are a human or an armadillo. Were you to handle an infected armadillo and contract the disease unwittingly you might never notice, around 95% of humans are immune to leprosy. Even if you did contract leprosy it could easily be stopped early on. That is for real leprosy, what about imaginary leprosy? What happens if I told you that you had leprosy – and you believed me?

If you believed that you had leprosy from your excessive armadillo handling sessions, something curious would happen. You would look up the symptoms, then they would manifest. Your skin might become rough, your muscles would feel much weaker and you might notice that the nerves in your hands and skin aren’t working, it is harder to feel things. The problem is this; nothing at all is hurting you, you should be healthy. Then medicine enters.

Medicine would have little physical effect on you, after all there is nothing to fight. You would suffer the side effects, but if you believed the medicine would work, your symptoms would disappear.

In The Mind

It all felt real, in fact those effects were real, though there was only one external factor. The idea of leprosy. A person believing they had a disease, as long as they know the symptoms, will develop the symptoms. This is the extreme case of mind over matter and it is most definitely a real problem. This is the nocebo effect. Nocebo comes from the Latin for I will harm. It is the evil twin of the more famous Placebo effect.

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Cherenkov Radiation: When Things Go Faster Than Light

Cherenkov radiation from a nuclear reactor core300,000 kilometres per second is the limit, the speed of light, nothing can exceed that speed. This is one of the most famous results of Einstein’s famous e = mc². That is nice, and convenient, except for that things can go faster than light. Why? The speed of light, the ultimate limit, is only reached in the vacuum of space, otherwise, we can slow light down, and overtake it.

Light always slows down when it passes through matter, and when objects overtake it we get Cherenkov radiation. It is a visual sonic boom, and it works in the same way. Sonic booms are the result of reaching the speed of sound; sound ahead of the object can’t dissipate or get away, so pressure builds. When the speed is exceeded the pressure is released as a terribly loud shock wave that bludgeons the ears of anything within a few kilometres. Cherenkov radiation is similar, but quieter. To observe it, you will need a nuclear reactor core and a lot of water.

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The Immortal Jellyfish

Leave a jellyfish out in the sun for long enough, and it will evaporate. Over 95% water, jellyfish are ludicrously simple creatures. They have no brain, no lungs and no eyes. Assemble some tentacles, a stomach cavity, an umbrella head and you are nearly done. For respiration they just have skin thin enough to let oxygen slip through. Yet in this simplicity there is variety, and in one case, immortality.

Turritopsis nutricul is the immortal jellyfish and no hulking monstrosity. Adults are 5mm across, and transparent. Were you able to spot it you would see an approximate circle surrounded by anywhere between 8 and 24 tentacles protruding, wiggling and wobbling contentedly. When the jellyfish gets bored, or when things get tough it can change. It begins to grow younger.

It moves onto a surface and grips on tightly. Then it slowly becomes a blob. As a blob it performs the special process, transdifferentiation. This is the way in which some animals, like crabs, regrow their limbs. Cells become simplified, then are remade as new types of cell, giving a crab a new arm, or a starfish a new tentacle. Turritopis nutricul is unique in the animal kingdom because it does this to its entire body.

The jellyfish emerges as a perfectly formed child, ready to live all over again. As long as the jellyfish isn’t killed and doesn’t evaporate, scientists expect that the trick can be repeated infinitely. Making it the only possibly immortal creature.

Given their long lifespans, it is no surprise they want to travel; they are spreading from their Caribbean home to places as varied as Spain, Japan and Panama. As long as the water is warm, they may find their way there, bringing a dose of immortality to waters near you. Long live the jellyfish!

Further Reading:

Discoblog Article

Wikipedia Article on Transdifferentiation

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The Explosive Dogs of War

Release the hounds!

An anti-tank dog in training.

Once upon a time in the Soviet Union, the Anti-tank dog was invented. It was a simple idea, but not so simple a process. In 1924 the Revolutionary Military Council permitted the use of dogs within the military: to assist with this a special military dog training school was founded in the Moscow Oblast. It was then realised that they had a school but no teachers, and so a motley crew of animal trainers was assembled from such varied persons as hunters and circus performers.

Leading animal scientists produced a wide-scale training program for the dogs. For a while it was the ‘normal’ stuff; rescue, delivery of first aid, enemy attack and carrying messages. Then came the 1930′s and the big idea. Why not make the dogs… blow up?

A further 12 regional military dog training schools were built and three of them produced these rather unusual weapons. There were some teething problems.

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Death By Utopia

John B. Calhoun relaxing in Universe 25

In the late 20th Century, John B. Calhoun decided to make Utopia; it started with rats. In 1947 he began to watch a colony of Norway rats, over 28 months he noticed something, in that time the population could have increased to 50,000 rats, but instead it never rose above 200. Then he noticed that the colony split into smaller groups of 12 at most. He continued to study rats up until 1954. Then in 1958, he made his first lab.

He bought the second floor of a barn, and there he made his office and lab. For four years he had Universe 1, a large room hosting rats and mice alike. It was split into four spacious pens connected by ramps, each filled with rats. The thronging mass of rodents produced an odour so strong that unaccustomed visitors took several minutes until they could breathe normally. In 1963 he produced his most famous creation, Universe 1. The worlds first mouse mortality-inhibiting-environment.

2.7 metres square with 1.4m high walls. The ‘Universe’ was surrounded by 16 tunnels leading to food, water and burrows. No predators, no scarcity, the mice would have to be blind to not see the utopia around them. At least it began as Utopia. Four breeding pairs of mice were introduced into Universe 1. After 104 days they adjusted to the new world and the population began to grow, doubling every 55 days. By day 315 the population reached 620. Then is stopped. The population grew much more slowly as the mice came against the limit of space, their only limiting frontier.

Society broke. Young were expelled before they had been properly weaned and were arbitrarily attacked by excessive aggressive male mice. Females became more aggressive, non-dominant males became passive, not retaliating to attacks. The last healthy birth came on the 600th day. Then there were no new mice. Then there were none.

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The Frog Test, the Birth of the Pregnancy Test

From urinating on various grains and seeing what germinated in Egyptian times to burning ribbons in the 17th Century, pregnancy tests have historically been unreliable. Then the 20th Century came, and it brought science.

In the 1920′s the presence of hCG, a chemical produced by the placenta, was discovered to be a way of telling that someone (presumably a woman) was pregnant. The first tests were created in the same decade, using animals. They worked on the principle of injecting the woman’s urine into the veins of a mouse or rabbit, waiting for at least a day and then removing the ovaries. On examination of the ovaries they could find out what effect the urine had on the ovaries and draw their conclusions. Unfortunately the animals had to be killed to do this; it was reliable, but expensive.  Then came a new way, a better way, the ‘Frog Test’.

Lancelot Hogben discovered that the same test could be performed on the female African clawed frog. After being injected, if the frog produced eggs within 24 hours, the woman was pregnant. No killing, and yet the accuracy remained. This saved time, and even meant that frogs could be reused. The ‘Frog Test’ was the world’s first cheap and reliable pregnancy test and became the international standard for decades. At the end of the 1950′s it was finally supplanted by technology, technology which went on to produce the pregnancy tests we all know, but don’t all use.

Further Reading

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Jumping From Space: The World’s Greatest Fall

The high point of Kittinger’s career.

The fastest speed ever reached by an unaided human is just under the speed of sound, achieved under the name Project Excelsior. In 1959 and 1960 The United Stated Air Force ran a series of 3 parachute jumps. Jumps so high that they bordered on space, the highest parachute jumps to have ever been attempted. The 3 jumps were undertaken by a Captain Joseph Kittinger and the records he set still stand today.

Project Excelsior was started in the 1950′s with the lofty ambitions of tackling the threats of the new altitudes being reached by military jets. Many kilometres up, ejecting was not safe. Test dummies released at those heights would spin uncontrollably as they descended, exerting lethal forces on their bodies. Additionally pilot’s suits weren’t designed for the extremes of cold faced in the upper atmosphere. Were an incident to occur up there, a pilot would literally catch their death of cold.

Under Project Excelsior a multi-stage parachute was designed to prevent the spinning. Then a special suit that could combat both extreme pressure and the cold was made.  Combined, the whole ensemble weighed as much as an entire person, but tweaking could wait. With the test data from dummies, a prototype and one willing test subject, the first jump was made. Excelsior I.

16 November 1959, Kittinger was sent up in an open gondola attached to a vast balloon. He went up with the suit, parachutes, a heart monitor and a couple of water bottles. Slowly he drifted up to the test height of 23 kilometres. His altimeter told him to go, and Kittinger made to jump – there were difficulties. The water bottles had frozen and expanded. Whilst leaving the gondola he brushed against one and set off the parachute deployment timer.

The moment he was outside his first parachute stage deployed. At those low speeds it fell with him. The main parachute tangled around his body,ensnaring him while cords were wrapping around his neck. Without the parachutes working properly he fell into the death spin. The forces from his rotation restricted blood flow and he lapsed into unconsciousness. At the worst point his extremities were subjected to 22 times the force of gravity.

3,400 metres above earth, the reserve parachute opened out and he landed safely. Excelsior I was a success, he had survived – if barely. He was not deterred.

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Sun, Sea and Snake Island

Ilha da Queimada Grande

Just off of Brazil’s coast lies the quiet Ilha da Queimada Grande. A picturesque island covered in verdant rainforest and surrounded by azure seas. Oddly enough, given its favourable location and pleasant climate, it is totally uninhabited – uninhabited by humans at least. It makes up for this with an abundance of other wildlife, specifically an abundance of poisonous vipers. Vipers so deadly and so numerous that nobody has successfully lived on the island.

Now snakes were mentioned, but there is only one type of snake on the island. The Golden Lancehead Pit-Viper. This snake ranks among the most poisonous on earth, so poisonous it presumably killed any other species of snake, because no other species of snake are found on the island. Fortunately for the rest of the world, these snakes are only found on Ilha da Queimada Grande, meaning humans, and other species of snakes can rest easy.

Initially this shouldn’t be a problem, they’re just snakes. They cannot operate tools, work with fire or plan. The Brazilians can deal with snakes. The problem with the island is not snakes, it is A LOT of snakes. Compared to anywhere else on earth, the sheer density of snakes found there is on an entirely different scale.

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