Does Dark Matter Not Exist?

A mysterious force, known as dark matter, has baffled scientists for decades. Many scientists think dark matter is responsible for the accelerating growth of the universe. However, a new study purports that dark matter might just be an illusion.

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If it does indeed exist, it is estimated that dark energy would make up roughly 68% of the energy that we can currently observe. Despite this large percentage, it is only 10 to the negative-27th kilograms per square meter...which makes it near impossible to see in the laboratory. Furthermore, the idea of dark energy helps us to explain things, for example the overall shape of the Universe and even the patterns of matter that we can see in space but can't quite explain.

And, although it is currently assumed to be correct...it hasn't been wholly proven. However, it is not without it's potential and it is fundamental to our understanding of the universe. In fact, it was Einstein himself who proposed the cosmological constant as a way to explain exactly why all the mass scattered throughout the Universe..."wasn't pulling back together under the attraction of its own gravity." But, like I said, there isn't a whole lot of concrete proof...it's just a theory that fits into our understanding of the observable universe. A theory that was later disproved by Hubble, who was able to prove that the universe was expanding.

So why even mention the cosmological constant? Well, in this piece from early 2017 it was proven that, while the universe WAS expanding...it's expansion rate is starting to speed up. Now, back to the dark matter. Dark matter + the cosmological constant we get the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (ΛCDM) model, which aims to explain how the universe evolved.

The ΛCDM model, in this case, assumes a uniform expansion that progressively gets faster and faster. Why? Well, because of an increasing push of dark energy that works to overcome the pull of other matter that is distributed, more or less, evenly throughout space.

Now, NASA released a new study putting all these big ideas together in this release. Researchers used these theories, along with new data, and have argued that previous approximations of what the universe consists of have largely ignored influences of large scale structures within the Universe.

Dr László Dobos, co-author of the paper "Explaining the accelerating expansion of the universe without dark energy" says,  "Our findings rely on a mathematical conjecture which permits the differential expansion of space, consistent with general relativity, and they show how the formation of complex structures of matter affects the expansion..These issues were previously swept under the rug but taking them into account can explain the acceleration without the need for dark energy."

Though, it should also be pointed out, the proposed model is not without its faults. The model Dobos and her partner created makes its own necessary assumptions. But, if it is in fact able to stand up to further scrutiny it could become incredibly important in proving how the Universe's expansion is accelerating without the need for negative pressure.

The argument for dark matter, at this point in time, is still largely up in the air.

 

 

 

the above image is from flickr user Katie187 and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

Winston Churchill & Aliens

Thinking of Winston Churchill likely brings to your mind a number of things: England, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, World War II, and more. But what about aliens? Yep, Winston Churchill was very curious about our universe. In fact, in a recently found essay from 1939, he writes about aliens, our universe, and more.

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The essay itself was found in a galaxy far, far away. Okay, it wasn't that far but it wasn't found it England! In fact, it was unearthed in the Churchill museum in Fulton, Missouri. As noted, it was first written in 1930. However, it appears to have been edited again by Churchill sometime in the 1950s. The essay itself is not some long document on UFOs, aliens, and more - so don't get too excited. But, it is an 11-page authenticated essay by Churchill himself.  

In the journal it was found in, he titled the essay "Are we Alone in the Universe?"

Timothy Riley, the museum's director, invited astrophysicist Mario Livio, to review the essay and give his thoughts on it. After reviewing the piece, Livio remarked how similar it was to today's scientific process in trying to figure out if there is life on other planets. In fact, he told Space.com "[I] was even more astonished, because I saw that this great politician is musing about a real scientific topic, an intriguing scientific topic, [and] he is reasoning about this in the same way that a scientist today would go about it."

In a surprisingly humble move, Churchill muses "I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilization here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe which contains living, thinking creatures," he continues on with this train of thought, writing "or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time."

The essay structure itself is quite interesting...

1. He first sets up to define what life is, and settled on "comparatively highly organized life,"

2. Then he mentions places that would be smart places to look for life (water, or where it is feasible for water to exist)

3. Then he asks what are the necessary ingredients for life to exist

4. From #3, he believed that only Venus and Mars would have these necessary ingredients - so that is where life should be searched for first. Like Goldilocks, all the other planets are too hot or too cold. He also considered the existence of exoplanets which, at this time, were not proven.

Livio commented about Churchill's organization "This chain of logic is astounding, in my opinion, for a politician," 

It is interesting to think that this famous politician, known and respected for so many decades and even today, actively and critically thought about life on other planets. And not only mused if it exists, but what exact conditions would be needed to sustain it and where we should be looking for it. 

 

The above picture of Winston Churchill is liscensed under Public Domain of the UK. 

Squids and Octopi Continue to Baffle (and Amaze) Scientists

Many marine biologists continue to be enamored with the study of Cephalopods, in particular squids and octopi. In early April 2017, researchers discovered something even more alien about these baffling creatures: they can edit their DNA.

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In a study published in Cell, an academic journal, Joshua Rosenthal’s published his work and insight on the RNA editing abilities in squid. First, let's have a quick lesson on how MOST creatures DNA works: typically RNA acts as a middleman in how DNA makes proteins and faithfully transmits the message in the genes. And, typically, these creatures have no say in how it is transmitted. Except, as it comes to light, octopi, squids, and cuttlefish can change or edit the message that gets read out to make proteins.

This is particularly interesting because it seems to be the reason behind their slow evolution. The article in Cell goes as far as saying that this editing process lead to "positive selection of editing events slows down genome evolution.” Rosenthal adds, "Editing is important enough that they’re forgoing standard evolution,” 

What is even more interesting is the fact that most organisms posses the enzyme needed for gene editing. However, it just isn't widely used. One of the largest reasons it isn't used is because it can cause more damage than it does good. Scientists have investigated it, but, according to an article in Wired, largely abandoned the research into it, as it wasn't entirely worthwhile.

Queue Rosenthal and his team of researchers. Squid DNA/RNA first became of interest to him because he realized it was a little bit different each time he looked at it. As Wired says, "Where the genetic material of humans, insects, and other multi-celled organisms read like a book, the squid genome reads more like a Mad Lib." 

However, the conclusion of the article in Cell presents only a hypothesis: that these creatures used DNA editing to maintain a more complex brain structure instead of going through a natural evolutionary process. It is this brain structure, likely a product of RNA editing, that allows these animals to do all the amazing things they are well-known for: camouflage themselves, using tools, solve puzzles, and even communicate.

The above image comes from Flickr user damn_unique and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

The Contemporary Hermit: Exploring Christopher Knight's 3 Decades of Silence

Beowulf is one of the most pervasive stories in our written history (in the Western canon, at least). In fact, it is believed to be one of the oldest stories that was written down. And, its pervasiveness tells us something about the importance of the community during this time period (as does the work of the Pearl Poet and several other unknown early authors). This story brings to mind strong themes about community, customs, and leadership. Recently, I came across the story of Christopher Knight and became slightly obessed. How a man could go against these long-lasting desires of humans to communicate, to live together, and to be in the world as units (whether it be a family unit, a mead hall, and beyond). Why did this man drive into the woods and never leave?

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I want to start with a little background on Christopher Knight, and you can read more at the links above. He was born in 1965, and grew up in a relatively normal middle-class family in Massachusetts. Although he notes his parents were not over emotional or talkative, there were no signs of abuse or misconduct on their part. In fact, in more than one interview he shifts his reason for hermitage off his parents and often even calls them good parents. He also got along fine with his brothers, although when they visited him in jail almost 30 years after seeing him, they said they didn't recognize him. In high school he was noted as having good grades, but little-to-no social life and barely any friends, if any. He graduated early and, like one of his older brothers, took a 9-month course at a technical school in Waltham, Massachusetts and shortly thereafter got a job he took a job installing home and vehicle alarm system.

The only strange thing about his family? They never reported him missing. It is suspected that they hired at least one private investigator, but no report was ever made to the police.

However, the lack of report isn't wholly bizarre. Knight drove to Maine in 1986 at the age of 20, and never returned. At this point, he was a grown(ish) adult and perhaps his parents and family figured he deserved and/or wanted privacy. They speculated that he likely went to Texas and/or the Rocky Mountains...for reasons I'm still not clear on. 

It was a late summer day in 1986 when he made the long drive from Massachusetts to Maine, driving, not knowing exactly where he wanted to go, until he was out of gas. In an extensive interview with GQ he said, "I drove until I was nearly out of gas. I took a small road. Then a small road off that small road. Then a trail off that." He parked the car. He placed the keys in the center console. "I had a backpack and minimal stuff. I had no plans. I had no map. I didn’t know where I was going. I just walked away."

Because it was still summer and relatively warm out, Knight didn't have to worry too much about food and shelter. He largely foraged for food, including eating roadkill, during these first few weeks alone. However, he soon began craving vegetables and other foods that he missed from home. This is when the stealing began. Although, he notes, he always felt bad about the stealing. By the time he was caught in 2013, he would have committed roughly 1,000 burglaries (he committed about 40 peryear). He was even more scared, interestingly enough, because he did not want to get caught and taken back to society.

Although he fled from society, modernity, community...it was what allowed him to thrive during his time as a hermit. 

He roamed the woods for two years, but finally found the perfect place for his campsite, and where he would spend the next 25-years at in peaceful solitude. He only re-entered society in the dead of night, usually around 1 or 2am, to steal what he could.

And he didn't just steal food, no, his collection was impressive: he had a box spring mattress, books, pillows, countless propane tanks, disposable razors, a radio, alcohol, laundry detergent, and more. Although he lived in the woods, he still survived off of modern inventions and commodities. In fact, he had so much stuff that, in the event any one ever approached his camp, he had a go-bag and enough inventory hidden in a nearby cave that he could start anew without too much strife.

In 2013, he was caught and taken to trial. He served a sentence of 7-months in jail and then released. However, his release would be dependent on him staying in society and either keeping a job or continuing his education. I find that this is one of the worst punishments to give a hermit- of-volition - they must return to society and they can never seek the asylum of nature, for an extended time period at least. At the end of his sentence, and countless hours interviewed by GQ journalist, Michael Finkel, he told him-after being asked countless times-why he disappeared. He left because he felt content in the woods in a way he did not feel content in society. He braved harsh winters, contemplated suicide, and acted as a thief for almost 30 years just for the feeling of contentedness. 

This makes him an interesting figure.  Why? Well, most hermits can be categorized into three types: protesters, pilgrims, and pursuers. Protesters are leaving society for "x" reason, pilgrims leave for a religious journey, and pursuers leave to find higher knowledge or truth for art, writing, or other studies. But Knight doesn't fit cleanly into any of these - his quest for contentedness was not recorded by himself, he kept no journals or video diaries or anything of the like. He does not consider himself religious. And, well, he didn't have that many issues with society at large.

Knight is a person who did not feel content around other people. Painfully shy for most of his life, he found social interactions inextricably complicated and, largely, unfruitful. So he left. He was not comforted by people, only what they produced. And herein lies what is truly fascinating about Knight: was he an outlier of the human race? As mentioned earlier, the need for human interaction for security, well-being, success, creativity, and relationship-building have been present for thousands of years. So, how and why did Knight reject something so wholly that one would think would be engrained in his nature?

He just did not fit in. He did not feel at peace in the world. So, he went and found his own piece of the world (although, it was, technically, on private property) and made his peace there.

Does this make him crazy? an outlier? a person of interest? or just a person? 

These questions have been plaguing me for days and I think the answer is...just a person. Some people's happiest places are with family at the dinner table, others at the beach with a good book, and some at a coffee-shop buzzing with activity. Why can't Knight's be in the woods, alone. Is it really any stranger than the rest of us? Or, perhaps, he was just brave enough to do what he wanted.

 

 

The above image comes from Flickr user Simon Gehrig, and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0. It is unrelated to the above story. 

 

The SPANISH Witch Trials

As AL's resident (and self-proclaimed) Witch expert and fanatic, I wanted to bring to your attention another view of the Witch Trials. In the 17th century specifically, there was a huge spike in Witch Trials around the world (although this spike would is merely one jump in the timeline of Witch Trials through history). However, most of the ones stories we hear from that time, especially in America, are of the Salem Witch trials, or Witch Trials in the U.K. and Ireland. But, during this time period, there were Witch Trials going on around the world. Keep reading for a little taste of the Spanish Witch Trials - but, be forewarned, there might be more to come!

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Like I said above, these specific Spanish Witch Trials took place during the 17th century, but were by no means the only Witch Trials to take place in the country's history. They are known as the Basque Witch Trials and the actual trial specifically began in January of 1609, but it was after 2+ years of serious Witch hunting.

Similarly to other Witch Trials during this time period, and throughout history, they were motivated for religious reasons. These trials were specifically to cater to attacking those who still performed 'Pagan' rituals, especially herbalists, healers, and mid-wives. It is important to note that these sorts of people also had special standing and respect in the community, and thus power, that the new government did not like and that threatened Catholicism. This is one of the main reasons these groups of people were so heavily persecuted. Muslims, Jews, and Protestants were also among the accused. 

The Basque word for Witch was "Sorginak", which was also the word for female attendents of the Goddess Mari held a Witches' Sabbath every Friday, these gatherings were called akelarre. Here it was said that Mari and her consort, Sugaar, met in caves to create storms and wreak havoc. More specifically, some of these people had been tried for practicing Witchcraft at Olabidea or Infernuko erreka, which translates to “Hell’s stream.” 

Sorginaks, in particular, share some common Witchlore that will be familiar to many. For example, they could shape-shift into cats and it was said that they specifically bothered Catholic women. More unique to Sorginak's was the fact that they practiced most of their magic in caves, particularly the Zugarramurdi cave.

During this time, roughly 7,000 people in the area were accused of Witchcraft. Of these 7,000, a few thousand were deemed guilty in the initial trial, or remained suspects, and continued on to harsher review. The first phase of these trials ended in 1610, when 31 of the accused people were sentenced. Roughly a dozen of the accused were burnt at the stake. However, it is important to note a fair amount of people succumbed to the torture, which is how many confessions were received, and died without being "properly" tried.

One other interesting thing to note about these trials was the thread of skepticism that moved throughout the trial process and proceedings. The recordings of the trial took up almost 11,000 pages, and it was clear that each of these cases were looked at with a high level of scrutiny. One judge in particular, who was the youngest of the 3 judges and more 'liberal' judge, named Salazar. About the trials in general he believed he had found no substantive proof of witchcraft on his travels, or in the light of pursuing many of the confessions.  This, obviously, did not bode well for Salazar. The two other judges, Alonso Becerra y Holquin and Juan del Valle Alvarado, unsurprisingly  accused Salazar as being in league with the Devil. However, Salazar stayed true to his belief that not only were many of the accused not Witches, but that Witches didn't exist at all and that no one should be further prosecuted. 

This was elevated to the Central Office of the Inquisition, and many in the main office seemed to agree with the younger judge as well. This is likely why, although the huge number of the accused, only about a dozen people were put to death.

The above picture was taken by Flickr user Urko Dorronsoro and is one one of the Witch caves in Basque. It is liscensed under creative commons.

How Long Does it take to make a Smeagol?

And by a Smeagol, I mean a cave fish. Cave fish are a whole different breed of fish, and many of them can be traced back to open-water swimmers. So how does this strange process happen...and why?

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First, a little background on what cave fish are. As I mentioned up top, cave fish were once open water swimmers. While there are over 150 species of cave fish, many cave fish are threatened and can only live in small ranges. They typically have reduced pigment, as compared to other fish, and smaller eyes.

According to a study released just a few days ago, it only takes a few hundred years to make a Smeagol, excuse me..*Gollum, Gollum*. However, cave fish take a little longer - but not as long as we once thought. A new fish discovered in Germany - the first European cave fish to be discovered - is giving scientists more insight in to the process of becoming a cave fish.

Okay, but what does finding a new cave fish have to do with it? Don't we find them semi-regularly? Well, we do...but not in Europe. In fact, it was thought that cave fish could not colonize in Europe because of ice-age glaciers. Until just a few thousand years ago (12 to be exact) Europe, and all of its caves, were under ice...which then blocked ANY connection be above, and below, waterways. This would make any fish dwelling in caves impossible.

But, then the ice started to melt...and that's where our little fishy friend comes into play.

The fish shares many of the same characteristics as other cave fish - it is pale, small, and even has whisker-barbs sprouting from its head. It is believed to be of the loach family and even though it was found over year ago, still has no name...scientific or otherwise. But, because 12,000 years ago Europe was covered in ice, and as that ice slowly melted underwater springs and pathways began to open, it must have taken 12,000 years, or less, for cave fish to completely branch off from their ancestors.

However, I should say that calling this a Smeagol fish is a bit of an exaggeration. As noted, it took a few thousand years for this loach relative to turn into a true cave-dweller. However, Smeagol's life span wasn't even a tenth of that! According to Tolkien, Smeagol/Gollum was roughly 589 years old when he died. Although this is QUITE old for a hobbit, it isn't even a thousand years. So, if he died at 589...the Smeagol -> Gollum transition (similar to normal fish -> cave fish) likely took somewhere between 100-400 years. A few years after Smeagol stole the ring, he went into hiding in a cave near Goblin Town and there he remained undisturbed for 471 years. When he met Bilbo, Bilbo describes him not as a hobbit...but as Gollum - sallow-skined, strange-eyed, and living in almost total darkness in a wet cave. Sounds a little bit like our new cave fish, doesn't it?

 

This photo is unrelated to the above story and was taken by Flickr user m01229, and is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

A Massive Pharaoh Has Been Unearthed

In early March archaeologists, from Egypt and Germany, unearthed the remains of an ancient Egyptian statue they believe could depict one of history's most famous rulers. Although there aren't many clues as to which Pharaoh it directly depicts, there is one hint - the inscription: Nebaa.

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This discovery was made by the joint effort Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities and researchers from the University of Leipzig. This was especially helpful considering that there were multiple factors that made this a tough dig site, such as a rising water-table, industrial waste, and even a growing rubble pile.

It was discovered in a working class neighborhood in Cairo. Cairo is built over the ancient city of Heliopolis.  It has been submerged in ground-water for goodness knows how long. In fact, it is believed to be King Psammetich I, who ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BC. This means it could be up to 3,000 years old. Originally, it was thought it was a depiction of Ramses, given its proximity to a temple worshipping Ramses. But, as noted earlier, they know believe it to be King Psammetich. 

So far, they have found the bust of the statue, the head, the crown, an ear, and a fragment of the right eye. The statue is believed to be roughly 26-feet long. It is constructed from quartzite. 

However, this wasn't the only artifact discovered. The archaeological team also discovered a limestone statue of Pharaoh Seti II the grandson of Ramses II. 

 

The above picture is not related to the story and is by Flickr User Chris Buckridge. It is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

 

Earth's Oldest Fossils Could be the Push for Discovery of New Life in the Universe

Early this month, researchers made an exciting announcement - the discovery of what they believe to be the oldest fossilized sign of life. But what does this finding have to do with the discovery of life on other planets?

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The fossil is from a rare piece of earth's oceanic crust. This unique sample revealed micro-meter sized tubes. These tubes are believed to be the remnants of long-dead, iron-eating bacteria. It is surmised that, based on similar currently-living specimens, that they lived on the ocean's floor near hydrothermal vents. But how long-dead were these creatures? Well, it estimated that they were alive somewhere between 3.8 and 4.3 billion years ago.

This is important because it pushes the creation of life to just a few hundred thousand years of the planet's creation, according to the journal Nature.

So what does this have to do with push for finding life on other planets?

Well, scientists have surmised that Mars also had large pools of water at one time. In fact, there is some, albeit weaker, evidence that Mars also had oceans. Based on this theory that there was water on Mars at some point, it follows that, matched with a thicket atmosphere and all the chemicals needed to create life...that there was in fact, (microbial) life.

According to planetary scientist Jeffrey Johnson with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, "Unlike Earth, and even Venus, there are significant areas on Mars' ancient surface that are really well preserved and provide great places to search for past habitable environments and the bio-signatures they might contain,"

Thus, it could provide analog to Mars' timeline of life and increase interest in further investigation of life on Mars!

This photo is of Mars and is not directly related to the story. It is liscensed under Creative Commons 2.0, and is from Flickr User by Kevin Gill.

 

A Ghost Ship Found Almost 100 Years Ago is Still a Mystery

96 years ago, a 5-masted, 225-foot schooner crashed into the shoals of Hatteras, NC. The ship's sails were fully engaged, and, as Coastguard searched the ship they did not find the crew that engaged these sails. The only living soul aboard the ship was a cat, oddly enough, with six-toes. One of the only clues of this strange shipwreck? The ship's name: Carroll A. Deering.

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Locals spoke about the mystery constantly, as the coastguard and FBI investigated the ship. In fact, there were 5 total investigations by different government and private institutions to try and figure out what, how, and why the Deering met its fate on the shores of Hatteras.

The 225-foot Deering left Boston and picked up a load of coal in Norfolk in late 1920, bound for South America. The Deering company hired W.B. Wormell to replace Capt. William Merritt, who became too sick to make the voyage.

Joe Shwarzer, the director of the North Carolina Maritime Museums, says "This is still one of the great unsolved maritime mysteries...There are any number of potential explanations for it.”

However, we do know a little bit about the Deering and its journey before it turned into a ghost ship. The Deering company hired W.B. Wormell to replace the previous captain, who was too sick to make the long voyage. Lucky for him, eh? It left Boston to pick up coal from Norfolk in late 1920, and it was bound for South America, and then would make its way back to Boston.

 The ship was making its way back home when it was sighted on January 28th, 1921. This is supported by a report lightship at Cape Fear, south of Wilmington. It was spotted again on January 31st, at approximately 6:30am by Andrew Gray, a member of station 183. Gray spotted the schooner stranded on the outer edge of Diamond Shoals. Several other reports were made of the stranded ship, however, rough waves that morning prevented any rescue boats from heading out.

When rescue crews were able to get close enough to investigate by sight, they reported no signs of life...or the life boats. Rescue crews returned four days later and boarded the boat, as the weather had calmed down by this time.

Upon boarding found food on the galley stove, clothing in lockers, 3 pairs of boots in the captain’s cabin, and even a bed that had been recently slept in, according to a 1921 Virginian-Pilot report.

Theories abound on what happened to the crew - and why they would leave food and supplies on board. For example, given the extreme weather it is possible that they could have tried to make for land but drowned or wrecked in the process.

Or, equally as believable, it is possible that the crew was distressed and the steamboat, the Hewitt, picked them up. Sadly, the Hewitt sank a few days later...potentially taking the Deering crew with it.

 The Bath, N.C., Daily Times had a slightly more nefarious conclusion - that pirates had raided the ship and killed and/or enslaved the crew. However...wouldn't true pirates, ya know, steal everything they could (like the boots and food that were noted as being left)? Though, 3 other ships disappeared around this same time and it was thought to be the work of pirates or rum-runners.

Even more nefarious, there were papers found at a Russian communist office in New York which called for its members to seize any U.S ships they could. Thus, the Deering could have been one of the targets (according to reports of the day.)

At the end of it all though? We don't know. Despite several searches of the eastern seaboard no bodies, evidence, or clues were found that would lead us to discovering the Deering's true fate.

One thing does remain of the crew - their six-toed cat, which, according to locals, has produced a long-lasting progeny of equally-toed cats amongst the island. 

 

The above image is from Flickr user Apasciuto and is liscensed under creative commons. It is not related to the story - simply an image of the ocean!

Why Are Swordfish So Fast?

Swordfish are some of the most notoriously fast creatures in the ocean. In fact, they can allegedly reach up to 60 miles per hour. Which, for a fish, is pretty darn impressive. But, although this is undoubtedly one of the most-recognizable fish, on menus and in the sea alike, parts of their being are still a bit alien to us.

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Cue John Videler, of Leiden & Groningen University, who has studied the physics behind swimming fish for much of his career. Swordfish have always been of interest to him, not just because of their quickness, but also because they are great swimmers. 

Their efficiency is largely due to the ingenious design of their bill. Basically, when swordfish swim layers of water flow along the surface of its bill. However, the faster it gets the currents that are made by these layer can create drag. The bill, once doused in oil, is also porous and rough to further limit turbulence and decrease drag.

What else did John Videler and other researchers discover? Well, that there is a baseball-sized gland in their heads with slathers lubricating oils all their heads to help further increase their speed and is another drag-reducing aspect of swordfish.

The oil production also explain another quirky feature of the swordfish - they are one of the only fish with a "concave hollow at the front of their heads an slight inward-curving bowl that, counter-intuitively, ought to increase drag," according to National Geographic writer, Ed Young. Videler believes that this hollow is in fact shaped so that the water that zips by is create an area of low pressure, allowing the oil to be sucked out of the gland and then coat the bill.

Although this is an interesting theory, it is important to note it is still a working theory. Videler intends to conduct more experiments to further prove this idea. 

The above image is from Flickr User Jocelyn Kinghorn is not related to the story. It is licensed under creative commons 2.0.

 

The Push for Driverless Cars to be Home-Like Spaces

There does not seem anything really warm and inviting about driverless cars. However, some of the people developing the technology apparently want these cars to become extensions of our homes. Places where we can have conversations with travel companions, eat a meal, and even play videogames in. Okay, I know you can do most of these in the car already, but the idea is it will feel more like a living room and less like, well, a car.

In an interview with Inverse, Kota Kobayashi says "People don't actually do that much on planes...It came down to these three things: relaxation, entertainment, and productivity." And that is what Kobyashi expects out of self-driving cars. He follows up with, "Inside a car is a quite private, intimate space, which is different from the public space of an airplane,” said Kobayashi. “A very good example of intimacy is having sex. Most people aren’t going to do that in a public space.”

Okay, okay...now it's getting a bit strange. But - he is making a point. Fully driverless cars won't just offer us convenience, but they'll become extensions of home, office, or even coffee shop. 

Oh, and did I mention he doesn't expect cars to be a one-size fit all automobile. What do I mean by this? Well, there is the idea that there will be different 'kinds' of cars to purchase, and not the typical binaries of small vs big, luxury vs affordable, and red vs blue. Instead, there is the idea that, eventually, there will be sleeping cars, meeting cars, and even family-friendly cars. 

So, although most people see driverless cars as a breakdown of communication (no more friendly banter with uber drivers, happy chats on the way to work with a carpool group, etc) many who support the technology believe that they will be intimate and comfortable spaces where we can further engage as we would at the home, office, or other social spaces. 

The above image is of Google's in-house riverless car and is liscensed under cc by-sa 4.0

The Soay Island Sea Monster

1959 was, no doubt, an interesting year, even for cryptozoology. As a fan of cryptozoology myself I often think I have read all the best stories on these creatures, their findings, and their origins. However, in this line of work, I find myself always discovering new stories. The one I'm discussing today, the Soay Island Sea Monster, is one of those.

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Soay Island lies on the west coast of Scotland and is best known for being slightly south of Skye, fishing...and sheep. In September of 1959, however, it got a bit more exciting. Tex Geddes, a shark fisherman, and James Gavin, an engineer, had a very strange expereince. 

Tex and James heard heavy breathing before they actually saw the Soay monster. Upon going to the edge of the book, they saw a dark, and very large, object from their boat. When it moved a bit closer, they got a closer view of a scaly, apparently hump-backed, creature with what they described as a tortoise-lad head, a large mouth, and a serrated back. 

It is important to note that the accounts of the monster differ slightly between the two men. James had a more moderate approach, claiming the exposed part of the body was somewhere between 6-8 feet, whereas Tex claimed it was closer to 8-10 feet. Tex, humorously, linked it to the head of a donkey in size.

The sighting and accompanied story soon gained traction, and was featured innational news media in outlets such as the Illustrated London News. Tex was the main catalyst for this, and wrote about the encounter to prominent zoologist and writer, Maurice Burton. 

But did they truly seem some kind of primitive sea-dragon, a curiously deformed large animal...or just a sea turtle? Well, writer Darren Naish, who looked into the case, believed it to be the Occam's Razor of answers: a sea turtle. 

According to Naish, some sea turtles are known for having tall(ish) triangular dorsal structures, beak-like mouths, and long necks. However, he does concede that no sea turtles of the sizes the two men reported have ever been round. So, he admits, there is a chance that it is an unknown species of large marine reptile. The proposed existence of a giant sea-turtle is not impossible.

Either way, the story gripped Scotland in the late 1950s and continues to challenge both marine biologists and cryptozoologists today. 

 

The above image is a picture of the Sea Caves of Soay and are unrelated to the story (besides, well, the fact that it is an image of Soay) taken by John Allan. It is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

The U.S. Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Is About To Set A Record

X037B is merely a week away from setting a record on its current top secret mission. If this plane is able to remain in orbit until March 25th, it will officially break the mission-duration mark of 674 days, as established in October of 2014.

 

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Interestingly enough, the reason there is so much of a story regarding this potential record-breaking is because there is no story. The Air Force has been notoriously tight-lipped about the entire mission and the general public has no idea what the touchdown plans, if any, are.

Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman, told Space.com, "The landing date will be determined based on the completion of the program's on-orbit demonstrations and objectives for this mission,"

But this just creates more mystery surrounding not only when and if the plane will break the record, but what the objectives of this mission are. And rumors abound. One of them is a bit scary - that the plane might actually be a space-weapon. Other more banal rumors guess that the plane is testing space tech and helping researchers conduct experiments.

We'll be keeping an eye on this developing story, and look forward to seeing if it will remain in orbit and break the record, or come down.

 

The above image is of a Boeing X-37B inside payload fairing before launch, this image is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States

 

An Entire Town is the Subject of a HUGE Sleep Experiment

Bad Kissingen appears to be like any other small resort town in Barvaria. With a population of 20,000 it is sizable and almost impossible to imagine that all of its residents are the subject of tinkering chronobiologists. Chronobiologists study the cyclical phenomena in living organisms, and their adaptations to solar and lunar related rhythms. Although not necessarily focused on sleep alone, Chronobiologists also investigate other biological rhythms, development, reproduction, ecology, and evolution among others.

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Okay, so what does this have to do with Bad Kissingen? Well, Thomas Kantermann wrote a book called, "Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World" , which has some petty interesting ideas about sleep. A team of scientists and Kantermann are conducting a civic experiment with the goal of promoting optimal sleep. Kantermann has nicknamed the city "Chrono City". 

But, how can someone monitor, analyze, and improve an entire town's sleep? Well, residents of the town are first equipped with a wearable devices with a sophisticated app that tracks sleep in relation to a wide array of waking variables, from diet to social activities. According to the scientists the goal is to gather "significant insights into the interactions between chronobiology and the manifold structures of the society....[and then] to design innovative and directly applicable solutions" to sleep issues.

So we answered, what and how...but what about why? Well Kantermann and his team would then analyze the collected data to make important decisions based on our cyclical time - like when school starts or work ends. In fact, there have even been talks about rigging the town's light or handing out "intelligent alarm clocks" (whatever those are). 

Although this project is still underway, it is a massive undertaking that I believe will allow them to make interesting conclusions about how we structure our lives, especially when one considers we spend 1/3 of it asleep.

However, this strange experiment is not without its hurdles. Benjamin Reiss, a writer for Popular Science, doubts how useful these conclusions will be, and how effective the changes made because of them will be. He further explains that he thinks they are fixing a, for lack of a better metaphor, broken system with broken tools. The inclusion of alarm clocks, no matter how smart they may be, is one thing that broke the sleep cycle in he first place. Not to mention the use of all-seeing screens, mountains of data, and even apps concerned with productivity. 

Personally, when i first began reading about Kantermann and his ideas i found them enchanting. However, Reiss brings up important points - won't all this new data and tracking lead to stress and concern about how one's data is being produced....thus leading to negatively affected sleep schedules.

I still stick with what I said earlier in this post - hat I believe i will allow them to make interesting conclusions about how we structure our lives. I remain wary of how the data has the potential to be skewed due to added stress/general weirdness and what tools they would use to improve it. However, if everyone consents...why not find out more about sleep and cycle?

The above picture is from Flickr user Maria Morri and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

An Update on One of Astonishing Legends’ Favorite (real) Creatures!

As our listeners know, we’re big fans of a little creature called Tardigrades, also known as water bears. They may be only half a millimeter long, but they can live through astonishing conditions such as -458 degrees (fahrenheit) or as high as 300 degrees! In early fall 2016, researchers in Japan published a new analysis of the entire genome of this fascinating animal.

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One of their best survival tricks is called “cryptobiosis” which basically an extreme form of hibernation where ALL metabolic functions stop. This suspends the creature between life and death, thus allowing it to survive almost anything. Even more impressive, it can even be dried out to roughly 3% of its normal water content and come back to life with a simple spalsh of water. But how is this possible?

Geneticist Takekazu Kunieda, along with his colleagues, from the University of Tokyo found some of the genetic tricks that have helped the tardigrades to survive in extreme environments. However, the process of this research was a bit complicated.

First, because it is easier to study these processes when housed within mammalian cells. So, in order to create a successful study the researchers cultured humans cells to produce bits of the tardigrade genome. From this space the cells of the tardigrade could be manipulated to figure out exactly which genes give these creatures their incredible resistance to all sorts of environments.

In living creatures, dehydration can wreak havoc among cells and even rip apart DNA. For example, Humans are made of, depending on age/gender, about 55-65% water. Imagine that shrinking to 3-10%…needless to say, it would be drastic and likely impossible. However, unlike humans tardigrades have a protein called Dsup. Dsup has the ability to hold DNA together, even under the stress of drying out.

Additionally, when Kunieda and his team pinpointed this impressive protein, they also found that it protects the DNA from radiation. Kunieda says, “Tolerance against X-ray is thought to be a side-product of [the] animal’s adaption to severe dehydration,”

One of the most important takeaways is that the researchers found that human cells, aided by Dsup, reduced x-ray damage by up to 40%. The future of medicine may heavily affected by this seemingly minuscule creature!

 

The picture above comes from Flickr User Eden, Janine and Jim and is licensed under Creative Commons.

What are the Origins of these Weird Pings?

From the floor in one of Canada’s northernmost territories a strange pinging is happening..and officials have yet to identify the source or cause. And it isn’t necessarily new, in fact it has been happening for months.

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The pinging can be heard in the aptly named Fury and Hecla Strait, a channel of water in the Nunavut region of Canada. Canadian Department of National Defence was informed of these strange noises and have searched for its cause, but it has not been a fruitful search and they came up blank.

They had a variety of theories. They did not rule out it could be a submarine at first, though they quickly found that was not the case. Ashley Lemire, a department spokeswoman, said that various multisensor searches in the area, including a 1.5-hour acoustic search, failed to detect any anomalies that could account for the sound.”The crew did not detect any surface or subsurface contacts,” Lemire told The Guardian. “At this time the Department of National Defence does not intend to do any further investigations.” Several reports were passed to the military, which sent a CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft to investigate on November 1st.

More concerning is hunters in the area claim the sound is scaring away wildlife. This is an interesting development, as if it was a natural or naturally occurring noise it might have less affect on the wildlife.

In fact, legislative assembly member, George Qulaut has been quoted saying,  “That passage is a migratory route for bowhead whales, and also bearded seals and ringed seals. There would be so many in that particular area,” Qulaut said, recalling his own days of hunting there. “This summer, there were none.” So, not only is it driving away animals…it is completely diverting them from their regular migratory routes.

Other theories have arisen. For example, they claimed a mining company that has operated nearby. However, the company denies having any equipment in the water. Other locals have surmised that Greenpeace could be behind the sound, scaring wildlife away from the hunting ground. However, a spokesperson for the environmental organization has denied these allegations.

Even more interesting,  not everyone can hear it. Another local legislator, George Qulaut, told CBC that he couldn’t. However, it should be noted that said he is nearly deaf. But boaters passing through the area have said they heard it, as well as a number of callers to a local radio show

At this time the Canadian Department of National Defence does not intend to do any further investigations.

Is the Gateway to Another Dimension in New Jersey?

The New Jersey Pine Barrens houses dozens of long-abandoned, or barely inhabited, towns. But there’s a town in the spiraling, seemingly endless Pine Barrens that has become a bit too strange to ignore. Located on the unassuming Magnolia Road is the infamous Ong’s Hat.

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In fact, Ong’s Hat was a lively town at the time, and has been on record since 1778 The name, it is believed, comes from an overnight shelter built by a farmer whose surname was Ong. There’s another wonderful folk tale, common amongst Pine Barren settlers, about the legendary Ong.  The story goes: Ong had a fabulous silk hat, a luxury at the time. But, a jealous lover stomped on his hat, ruining it, and in frustration Ong tossed the elegant hat into the air, where it got caught on a very high pine branch. The hat remained there for many years and served as landmark which identified the small village.  This isn’t the only version of the strange tale of Ong. Another version says Ong was a tavern keeper who either painted a silk hat on his sign or threw his hat into a tree after getting angry with a woman. The town seems to reflect the silk hat was renowned for alcohol, bootlegging, and ever prizefighting.

But, by 1936 Ong’s Hat, though still on maps, practically did not exist. By that time, nothing existed except a clearing, an abandoned shed, some crumbles of brick, and remnants of roofing that suggested houses had once been situated there.

So, what does all this have to do with other dimensions? Hold on – we’re getting to that.

Recently, “Ong’s Hat: The Beginning”, authored by Joseph Matheny, has brought the town gone in the blink of an eye back into the spotlight. Matheny does not clarify completely whether he intended the work as fact or fiction. He’s said, “The split between who believes the book is fiction versus nonfiction is pretty even.”  Some claim that the book is pure fantasy, others a hoax, some folklore, and others a hint of truth.

According to Matheny’s book, the Moorish Orthodox Church of America was founded in the 1950s by a group of white jazz musicians, poets, and artists that were formerly members of the Newark-founded Moorish Science Temple. Its members traveled the world, learning philosophies and spiritual practices from all different masters of the eastern world. One of the more important travelers was Wali Fard.

When Fard finally returned home in 1978, he spent all of his savings on a large swath of land, 200 acres to be specific, in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Along with a ragtag group of runaway boys from Paramus and two lesbian anarchists, he moved onto the property and left the Moorish science Temple for an even MORE exclusive sect, the Moorish Science Ashram.

Fard then published a series of newsletters proclaiming his beliefs and those of the Moorish Science Ashram. Those on the fringe who read his words and seemed to gravitate towards him, and the Pine Barrens. Soon, he had people flocking to his land. Among these new believers were two scientists looked down upon for their radical views — Frank and Althea Dobbs.

If those names sound familiar to you budding UFOlogists, you’re not wrong. the Dobbs twins were raised in Texas in a UFO worshipping cult that was founded by their father. However, these siblings weren’t exactly something to mess with. Before the commune, both were working at Princeton where they submitted their PhD on something they called ‘cognitive chaos’.

When they finally arrived at Fard’s land in the Pine Barrens, they set up a laboratory in a trailer…and began to make discoveries that shook the commune to its very core.

In the remote locale provided by the Pine Barrens, they were free to work further on their ideas that pushed them out of the mainstream science community. So, what is ‘cognitive chaos’? Well, the Dobbs twins believed that people could tap into unused/under-used portion of their brains and do some incredible things, such as stop aging and get rid of diseases. Their research allowed the Ashram  to found the Institute of Chaos Studies.

Within three years the twins, and the community at large, had stumbled upon an extraordinaryly bizarre device that came to be known as “The Gate” by the small community. This was one of a series of strange devices that the Dobbs, and others in the Institute of Chaos Studies, referred to as “The Egg.” In short, people were hooked up to computers and then their brain waves were charted. By experimenting with sex, drugs and other mind wave manipulators, the scientists learned how to control the chaos they found within the mind in hopes of being able to control it.

Multiple reiterations of the Egg were tested, but it was the fourth iteration that finally made something…’happen’.  One of Fard’s Paramus runaways was the test subject. When the 4th Egg was activated, he and the device itself disappeared. Allegedly, moments later, it rematerialized. The boy claimed that he had traveled to the dimension next door to ours.

This was the opening of ‘The Gate’.

But on the heels of this discovery, disaster struct. The community had to leave their Pine Barrens compound due to a chemical spill from the nearby Fort Dix, which was leaking nuclear material into the surrounding area. But, instead of fleeing out of the Pine Barrens…they fled dimensions. The community used the gate to transports themselves, and all of their possessions, into an alternate dimensions. In this dimension, they claimed, they still lived in Ong’s Hat but humankind had ceased to exist.

After a return to our dimension, they claim that the government got wind of the kind of experiments being conducted at Ong’s Hat and stormed the compound there, and even killed seven members of the group.

Some say it was Delta Force who did the killing, while others blame operatives of the Russian or Danish militaries.

 

This picture is from Flickr user Jim Luckah, and while it is not a picture of Ong’s Hat…it is a picture of the Pine Barrens, and is licensed under Creative Commons.

Curiosities Coming to Light at the Harvard Museum

The Harvard Museum is renowned institution dedicated to anthropology. Recently, it’s going through some big changes to re-establish its role in the field of study. For one day only some of its odder holdings will be showcased to celebrate the museum’s 150th anniversary.

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It’s called “All the World is here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology” and the exhibit opens in April. It will feature approximately 600 objects!

Some of the curiosities that will be featured will be Lewis and Clark’s grizzly bear claw necklace, the infamous Fiji mermaid, and prehistoric earthwork. However, some items, like the mermaid, will soon be re-established so they can be permanently viewable by the public.

The museum currently houses over 1 million artifacts, but only a fraction are currently on active display. This is a push to show-off and share with the public all the museum has to offer.

Jeffrey Quilter, the Peabody’s director, says These collections are never dead. They’re constantly being revitalized by people who come back with new ways to study them.” This is a certainly a lively way to prove that.

It is interesting to note that P.T Barnum curiosities still provide wonder for those who view them, just as they did when they were actively carted around the world.

Birds, Snails, and Parasite-Induced Zombism (Oh My!)

We’ve all heard about human zombies, but what about snail zombies? There is a dastardly devious worm that hijacks a snail’s brain and leads that brain to sacrifice itself.

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The parasitic worm is called “Leucocholordium Paradoxum” and lives primarily in north america and Europe.

Once it infiltrates the snail’s body, it crawls not the snail’s tentacles. These tentacles, for added spookiness, are translucent and you can actually see the worm working its will from within.

Snails typically have the instinct not to crawl up plants, because it is safer to stay away from the light. But this worm is so intense that it turns the snail against its instincts in order to get the snail visible to birds.

Want one more layer to this complicated plan? Birds don’t really like snails -but they do like caterpillars. It’s tentacles, and the worm inside, resembles a caterpillar on a leaf and the bird becomes interested. Typically, they snatch one of the tentacles, allowing the worm to enter its guy and travel through it its rectum. In the bird’s rectum, it becomes an adult and produces.

Once the worm is ‘passed’ with the birds droppings, snails come across and feed on them.

And then the parasite’s eggs get into a new snail…and so on and so forth.

The above picture is not infected with Leucocholordium Paradoxum and is from Flickr User Andy Powell and is licensed under Creative Commons.

 

The Central Point of Origin for our Monsters

Our fears, whether you are a true believer of monsters or not, all start in one central place: our minds. And what better time to explore the origin of ghosts and ghouls and vampires and hard AI than Halloween?

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It appears there are certain sects that we cleave our monsters into, and each embodies a deep, perhaps even primal, fear. However, they all appear to be rooted in scientific and social advances. From the first groups of people living together to enclaves of religion to the Enlightenment and even in the modern day, our monsters seem to spring from our own advancement, and our fear of that advancement.

Our first, perhaps most primal and desperate fear, is embodied in the monsters that remind us of the irrevocable and uncontrollable power of nature. We see these in the classical world like the Minotaur of ancient Greece, Grendel from Beowulf, and the Sphinx of Egypt. However, these monsters did not stay in our mythology books, like us – they evolved. We see them in the famous creature-features of the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the contemporary era in films like Jurassic Park and, dare I say, Sharknado. We are fascinated, and terrified, when reminded that nature has a will all its own and will, likely, never reveal its full hand.

Then there is the man-made monster, a beacon of the power and destruction man can bestow upon the world, even if s/he does not mean to. We see it as far back as the first iteration of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and it has reappeared again and again, especially throughout the entertainment series. It seems, to me, that there are two distinctions within this category. First is the accidental monster – the zombie, the ruination of our Ozone layer, or even a deathly virus. These man-made monsters are uncontrollable, insatiable and thoughtless. Then, the second subsection of the man-made monster: the cognizant monster. This is like Frankenstein’s monster who rebels, or an AI that becomes more and more aware of its unfair plot in ‘life’ and plans to enact revenge or even a scourge upon the world.

Similar to the man-made monster is the monster within. This kind of monster was born from the study of the brain, of psychology, and of the notion of the individual. This brings to mind the idea that humankind is the only real ‘monster’ that exists. These human monsters, rarely supernatural, remind us of the dark side and the malevolent power that lays dormant (or worse, active) in every person. This can be found, perhaps, in the obsession of true-crime, which became popularized in the 1800s with Penny Dreadfuls, and continues with now-classic films like Silence of the Lambs and The Shining.

The fourth category is the so-called “monster of the past”. These are distant memories of the past turned villains, like how Vlad the Impaler became the forever-feared Dracula. It is a reminder, as professor Leo Braudy says, “that, however powerful our science and understanding, we can’t escape from the dark lore of the past.”

We seem, again and again, to resurrect and recreate and birth anew these monsters in these four simple, yet endlessly fruitful, categories. Are the simply ways of imagining our fears and controlling the narrative? Or, are they the result of deep-rooted, impossible to remember primal fears that were given to us at a time none of us can remember?

Have a spooky halloween, hope this gives you something to chew on! – Astonishing Legends

The above picture comes from Flickr User Victor P. and is licensed under Creative Commons.