Phantom Hitchhikers

Most people who live in America, or read about American folklore, can likely point out a few major "players" in the scene. One of the most prominent of these tales is that of the Phantom Hitchhiker. Scholar Jan Harold Brunvand writes in his book,  The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, that these are "the most often collected and the most discussed contemporary legend of all."

Link Link Link Link

If you're not familiar, the phantom hitchhiker, also known as "vanishing" hitchhikers. Can be a variety of different people. At their base all phantom hitchhikers are strange figures usually picked up on lonely roadsides that, before they are dropped of, they vanish without a trace from the interior of the car. In fact, this is quite an old folktale and there are even stories of them disappearing from carriages and horses! Additionally, they are often picked up by (or being driven near) to graveyards, bridges, intersections, tight turns, dangerous hills, and any part of the road where tragedy has stricken before.

But why are these stories so pervasive in American culture? Well, there are a few reasons. One of them being the prevalence of many people mobile and vehicle-related accidents. Almost every town, even small towns, have a dangerous intersection or a too-sharp-turn...so, in turn, every town could have one of these ghostly hitchhikers, forever traveling on the same stretch of road that killed them.

But that isn't the only theory. 

Scientific American's article on this mentions that there are two lessons one could take from these tales:

1. A reminder of the importance of community...that good people will pick up distraught-looking hitchhikers in need of a ride.

2. They also served as a warning for driving too fast because you too could end up haunting your own stretch of highway.

According to the writer, Krystal D'Costa, says "These stories aren't necessarily "spine tingling," but they reflect larger social concerns and are designed to encourage behavior change."

Resurrection Mary is one of the most popular of all of these stories. Although, we don't quite know who Mary was there are several primary theories. One of them is that she was a young woman who spent a wonderful night in Chicago dancing the night away at the O Henry Ballroom on Archer Ave. At one point in the night, she leaves the ballroom and begins making her way along the roadway. Presumably, a vehicle struck her, left the scene, and she died as a result of the accident. How do those that experience Mary know it is the same girl? Well, her unmistakable white dress and dancing shoes are her trademarks. Oh, and her destination is always the same...Resurrection Cemetery.

There have been over 30 "verifiable" sightings of Mary. The first encounter occurred allegedly occurred in 1939. Jerry Palus claimed he danced all night with the ghost girl at a dance hall on 47th Street, and when he went to drop her off at the address she gave...she vanished and he was at Resurrection Cemetery. According to Prarie Ghosts, he was desperate to find out more information about what he had experienced, "Determined to find out what was going on, Palus visited the address the girl had given him on the following day. The woman who answered the door told him that he couldn’t have possibly been with her daughter the night before because she had been dead for several years. However, Palus was able to correctly identify the girl from a family portrait in the other room."

 

photo: This image is from Martin and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

 

Have YOU Dreamed Lately?

Think about it for a second: when was the last time you dreamed? I mean, really dreamed. Can you remember? Okay, good. When was the last time you dreamed for consecutive nights in a row? Do you think you're dream deprived? The New York Academy of Sciences recently published an article entitled Dreamless: the silent epidemic of REM sleep loss, and they think we might be "at least as dream deprived as we are sleep deprived." 

Link Link Link Link

Let's start off with something easy before we dig into the dream stuff. Any typical sleep follows a "a cyclical pattern of non-REM and REM sleep: At the beginning of the night, deeper non-REM sleep is prioritized; only later in the night and into the morning does REM sleep increase in duration." During these deep REM sleep spikes are when people have the most dynamic and visceral dreams...the ones you remember. 

Do you have sleep cycles down? Good! Now...let's move onto dreams.

Technically, we aren't entirely sure what dreams are. According to Penelope A. Lewis, the author of the Secret World of Sleep, a dream is "something you are aware of at some level. It may be fragmentary, disconnected, and illogical, but if you aren’t aware of it during sleep then it isn’t a dream." She goes on to clarify that not remembering a dream upon waking doesn't mean you weren't aware of it at the time it was occurring...just that it wasn't really cemented into your memory. She also runs through a brief list of theories of what dreams might be (but, again, we don't really know). For example, Sigmund Freud suggested that dreams express our forbidden desires. Or, even that dreams are a kind of virtual reality simulation in which we are able to rehearse threatening, scary, or nerve-wracking situations. This is based in the fact that a large percentage of dreams have to do with a threatening situation. 

So, we don't really know what dreams are...but they seem important in some way or another. 

The author of the article, Rubin Naiman, argues that not only is a deep REM sleep important, but so are the dreams that go along with it. In fact, they are potentially vital to our health. Naiman argues we need to "assess the role of dreaming itself" as a health consequence of poor sleep. 

But, is the loss of dreams a potential public health crisis? 

Maybe.

REM sleep loss is associated with increased risks of all sorts, like obesity, memory problems, and inflammatory responses. People with sleep apnea and have a complete loss of REM sleep are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. In fact, as The Science of Us article points out, "When researchers ran experiments depriving subjects of only REM sleep, they found that most of the negative side effects mirrored those of total sleep deprivation." Since dreams usually go hand-in-hand with deep REM sleep, could preserving our dream-states improve our health?

Luckily, Naiman isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, he offers several strategies for improving the Dream/REM cycle.

1) Try to avoid substance use (like alcohol and drugs) in the hour or two before you go to bed.

2) Decrease exposure to nighttime light (cell, computer, TV)

3) Reduce your reliance on your alarm clock! I know it sounds difficult, but Naiman says “Imagine being abruptly ushered out of a movie theater whenever a film was nearing its conclusion.” Instead of naturally finishing out your sleep cycle, you wake up to a shrill noise. Now, clearly we all have places to be...but I'd be interested in what Naiman thinks about a light-based alarm clock or a "slow" alarm clock that wakes you up in a soothing manner and more slowly than a typical alarm clock.

4) Do your best to get those required 7-9 hours a night.

5) Remember that sleep AND dreams enrich our waking life as much as going for a walk or enjoying an amazing salad can. 

6) Get in tune with your dreams - pay attention them, share them with a friend, and be more aware of them. Creating a positive attitudes towards our "dreaming selves" can help create a better atmosphere in which to dream. 

 

 

The above image is from Flickr User Michael Carian and is liscensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Witch of Pungo

Witch lore in the United States is often eclipsed by the infamous Salem Witch Trials. However, there are plenty of interesting stories scattered throughout the United States. One of the most surprising trials took place in Virginia. In 1706, at 10am the townspeople that found her guilty tied Grace Sherwood's thumbs to her big toes, cross-bound, and dropped her into the western branch of the Lynnhaven River near what is now known as Witchduck Point.

Link Link Link

It all began in 1698. This is when the first accusation was laid against young Grace Sherwood. She was accused of bewitching a neighbor's crop to fail. Allegations continued to roll in for almost a decade. According to Harper's Magazine "She was a shy, secretive maid, and her neighbors told envious stories of her." 

Soon, gossip began to fly. And one tale in particular became the inciting event behind the growing fear of the supposed witch. "[Grace] has crossed the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in an egg-shell, had been pleased with the odor of the rosemary growing on its shores and on her return from this voyage in an open boat had brought some plants for which set out around her cottage." It was because of this lovely little tale that explained why Princess Anne, the town in which Grace lived, was covered with Rosemary. While the townspeople agreed that the rosemary was nice, it was decided that her voyage was "uncanny." They decided that it was "plain that Grace Sherwood was a witch, and ought to be punished." 

Despite being a married woman well-liked by the community, she was still accused of witchcraft. The accusations, besides ruining crops, began to mount. For example, John Gisburne claimed she had bewitched his hogs and cotton. She and her husband, James, tried to sue these attackers for slander but lost each time. 

One of the accusations, from the actual court documents, reads: "Luke Hill and wife. Against them in December, 1705, Grace Sherwood had brought action for assault and battery, claiming 50 of damages and receiving twenty shillings. What this affray may have had to do with the charge of witch-craft does not appear." It seems people began piling on accusations to the point where they were barely related to witchcraft at all.

At 10am on July 10th, 1706 Grace Sherwood went to trial at the second Princess Anne County Courthouse. It was deemed that she was guilty and that she would be tested by the traditional trial by water.

Trial by water, also known as ducking, consists of being tied cross-bound and dropped into water above her head. If she sunk, she would drown but be innocent and would even be buried on consecrated ground. However, if she floated it was proof that she was a witch.

Grace, surprisingly, floated and survived the ducking. After this, she was retrieved from the water and put in the local jail.  However, her survival posed a particular quandary. "There was the law, and there was the evidence. The latter proved that Grace sherwood was a witch, and the former directed that witches should be burned. but then to burn women was a thing unknown in Virginia."  

She wasn't released until 1714, at which point she paid the back taxes owed on her property and returned to her farm. She had a fruitful life as a healer, midwife, and friend to all children and animals. She died in the autumn of 1740 at the age of 80, leaving behind three sons.

Today, her memory is honored. 300 years after the incident. Timothy M. Kaine, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia pardoned her. In fact, Grace Sherwood is known today as the only deceased person in Virginia to be exonerated. Additionally, in 2007 a stature of Grace Sherwood was unveiled on the lawn at Bayside Hospital. She is within "two tenths of a mile of the old second Princess Anne Courthouse of 1706, the court that tried Grace." 

 

 

The above image is of Asheville Bridge Creek, known as Muddy Creek when Grace Sherwood lived on its banks. Asheville Bridge Creek on a foggy winter morning.  27 December 2015, Foggy winter morning, by Lago Mar.

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License.

The Lighthouse of Tévennec

One of the most haunted places in France is out at sea. The lighthouse of Tévennec was first lit in 1857 and is located snugly between the French mainland and the Île de Sein. It sits on a stretch of water known as the "Raz de Sein" in Brittany. Although it lighthouses are supposed to serve as a beacon of light, it has an irrefutably dark reputation. In fact, it was so difficult to get to and so utterly terrifying to its inhabitants, it was automated in 1910. How terrifying was it? Multiple guards went mad, died suspiciously, lost children, and experienced haunting. 

Link Link Link

There is a chance that death and destruction ruled Tévennec long before lighthouses were even invented. According to Breton folklore, Tévennec was the seat of Ankou...the personification of death. Ankou is also known as the grave yard watcher, so this treacherous stretch of sea seems like a good place to set up shop.

In it's 50+ year history it had twenty-three guards the first of which was Henri Guezennec. Unfortunately, the saying "the first is the worst" sticks solidly to Guezennec's time spent at Tévennec. He went utterly and completely mad due to the ghostly, disembodied voices he heard. Guezennec would be the first of many to be driven mad at Tévennec. The second guard suffered a similar affliction and the government changed Tévennec from a one-man to a two-man operation. 

Hauntings aren't surprising in this isolated and dangerous lighthouse. In fact, it is likely that hundreds of people would have met their end near or on the lighthouse, which was located on the "Raz de Sein" a stretch of water notorious for huge waves. In fact, there was a house that was built and re-built three times but the waves were so large they would often go over the roof, ruining the house.

The strange happenings wore on to such a degree that in 1893 crucifixes were embedded into the rocks surrounding the island. It was thought that this could lessen the strange and unexplained going-ons at Tévennec. This was followed by a new kind of search for the guardsmen: married couples. There was a hope that recruiting married couples to keep the lighthouse together would help stave off loneliness and the ill effects of the island. However, it seemed that no guard could last much more than a year. 

In 2015 Marc Pointud set out to spend 2 months alone in the lighthouse (albeit with media and communication tools) which has remained empty since 1910. Pointud might be just the man for the job, though. In 2002, he founded the National Society for Heritage, Lighthouses and Beacons, to preserve the country's lighthouses, especially the forgotten ones. In 2011, the state granted his organization permission to occupy and renovate Tévennec. He spent the weeks there without incident, although he did say he didn't believe in ghosts and did not feel as disconnected and isolated from the world as the guards that came before him. His long-term goal being to eventually turn it into an artist residence. I wonder what dynamic scenes could be inspired by Tévennec's location. 

.The above image is by Calcineur, Self-photographed and is liscensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Witches' Well

Edinburgh, Scotland is a place steeped in wonderful, rich history. Unfortunately, like most cities that have been prominent for hundreds of years this means Edinburgh is also steeped in blood. Seriously, they even preserved a blood stain (David Rizzio, a personal secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, was stabbed 56 times in front of her…and Holyroodhouse, where it happened, displays it). Anyway, back to this story. Today, I want to talk about the Witches’ Well. The Witches’ Well is a cast iron, small fountain and plaque that honors the Scottish women burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Link, Link , Link

So many “witches” were burned that there is a plaque apologizing for the horrific events. It isn’t a huge plaque, most people’s eyes usually go right to the castle, but it is an important one. Actually, it didn't begin as a plaque...it used to be a drinking fountain!

But why is it there? In the 16th century more women were murdered at this exact spot than anywhere else in Scotland. Like many witch trials, these people were denied a proper trial or any escape from a fate that had been decided for them long before they had a chance to defend themselves.

Why were so many witches murdered here, at this specific spot during the 16th century? Well, we can partly thank King James VI for that. James really liked being right in a fashionable way. Some sources credit his desire to become an expert in any topical issue of the time – including witchcraft. In fact, before 1590 he barely mentions witchcraft. But, in 1590 specifically…something happened. 300 witches were accused of gathering together to plan the murder of James. James was known to have the specific fear of a violent orhorrible death so, when news of witches acting against him made its way to the castle James, for lack of a more precise term, freaked out. He even wrote an entire book about the subject, called “Daemononlogie”. The purpose of this short book was to express his views on the subject and engage with the witchcraft going on in Europe in an intellectual manner.

Thanks to James, the promise of political gain, and a touch of hysteria between 1603 and 1625, there were about twenty witch trials a year in Scotland,  and 450 in total. At least half of these trials ended in a guilty verdict and the defendants were executed.

The small plaque, usually filled with flowers, features an image of witches’ heads entangled by a snake. It also includes a lot of interesting symbolism, such asthe Goddess Hygeia, Foxglove plant, an image of the head of Aesculapius (the God of Medicine), It was erected in 1894, after witchcraft trials finally waned.  There are also the Roman numerals equivalent to 1479 and 1722, which represent the height of witch hysteria in Scotland.  There is also an accompanying trough, which displays flora roots, the left pnae has an evil eye accompanied by frowning eyes and nose, and the right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the  ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

The plaque was added to in 1912 to include the following inscription:

This Fountain Designed By John Duncan RSA

Is Near The Site On Which Many Witches Were

Burned At The Stake. The Wicked Head And Serene

Head Signify That Some Used Their Exceptional

Knowledge For Evil Purposes While Others Were

Misunderstood And Wished Their Kind Nothing

But Good. The Serpent Has The Dual Significance

Of Evil And Of Wisdom. The Foxglove Spray Further

Emphasises The Dual Purpose Of Many Common Objects.

For hundreds of years Scotland fell to its own pandemic of witch-hunting that was, at one point, supported by their king. Neighbor turned against neighbor. People began to mistrust because of their fear of witches and their fear of being accused. Husbands lost wives, parents lost children, children lost mothers, friends lost friends. Although small, this monument to the horrific history commemorates decades and decades of terror.

 

Suspected witches kneeling before King James VI; Daemonologie (1597). It is liscensed under public domain. 

The Hook Island Sea Monster

One of the most interesting types of cryptids to dive into, at least for me, are ocean or water-dwelling cryptids. Mostly because some of these cryptids turn out to be actual animals that exist today, such as the giant squid or the goblin shark. One of the most infamous, photo-captured sea cryptids is the Hook Island Sea Mosnter from 1965.

Link Link

First, let's start with a physical description. It is a gigantic sea monster that resembles a terrifyingly ginormous tadpole. It was spotted in Stonehaven Bay, Hook Island, Queensland. Robert Le Serrec, who had a run-in with the monster, said he saw it with his family and his ship-hand in December, 1964.

cqbWUvc.jpg

 

Robert Le Serrec, as you might have guessed, was a frenchman. His family had recently purchased a motorboat and had decided to stay on the island for several months. The family was crossing Stonehaven bay on December the 12th on their motorboat. While on the boat, Robert’s wife noticed a strange object on the bottom of the lagoon. How strange? Well, it was massive, 30ft long, and shaped like a tadpole.

The family started snapping pictures, and Le Serrec's first mate, de Jong, eventually summoned up enough courage to jump in the water with the intent of filming the creature. Initially, they believed the 75-80ft monster to be dead. But, they were wrong.

When Le Serrec got closer and began filming, the serpent opened its mouth and started moving towards them. Frightened out of their minds, they returned to the safety of their boat. When they got settled back aboard the boat, the creature had fled.

Le Serrec and those aboard also reported seeing a wound on the right side of the creature. They later surmised that the creature may have been wounded by a ships propeller in open or deeper water, and had decided to take refuge in the shallow lagoon to recover. Le Serrec also noted that the sea creature as having eyes on the top of its head (which many debunkers note is uncommon for most sea creatures). The eyes were pale with slit shaped pupils. Its was mainly black in color, with traverse stripes. Its skin appeared smooth, in fact - it's whole body was smooth with no fins or spines. No mention of teeth were made. See below for an image, gotten from a Scientific American article (cited above):

Hook-Island-tadpole-monster-composite-600-px-tiny-Nov-2013.jpg

 

Unsurprisingly, many tried to instantly debunk this theory. Claiming it was somehow photoshopped (despite being from 1960s) or otherwise manipulated. Some even claim that it is likely that the picture is just a clever angle on a large school of fish. However, this is vaguely impossible because of how straight the lines are in the pictures.

Those who "want to believe" but find a rational explanation also guessed that the creature could be a huge swamp eel, from the Synbranchidae family. But...these types of eels rarely grow larger than 150cm. Others guessed that it might be a monster-shaped sheet of plastic, weighed down to create the shape.

The exhaustive and well-researched Scientific American article on this, by Darren Naish, concludes that it was undoubtedly a hoax. "in 1959, Le Serrec had tried to get a group together on an expedition that would prove “financially fruitful”, and that he had “another thing in reserve which will bring in a lot of money… it’s to do with the sea-serpent” (Heuvelmans 1968, p. 534). Incidentally, the film supposedly taken of the creature revealed nothing."

 

-All Hook Island sea monster pictures were taken from the Scientific American article, as cited above.

 

Panorama of Hook Island - Niki Gango - Own work

Radio Signals 3 Billion Light-Years Away

In a galaxy far, far away...3 billion light-years away, to be exact, radio signals are being heard. Okay, maybe "heard" is a bit an exaggeration, but they have been detected by astronomers in West Virginia. 

Link Link

The scientists who discovered these radio bursts are part of a huge project dedicated to finding signs of intelligent life in space. Recently, they were able to record 15 repeating fast radio bursts (FRBs) on August 26th, 2017. To record these, they had the help of the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. 

The discovery itself was first  announced as an Astronomer's Telegram and will be described in further detail in a forthcoming scientific article, according to a statement from Breakthrough Listen.

FRBs were first discovered about 15 years ago, and since then there have been roughly 2 dozen unique recordings of them. Usually, they are singular events. But, that changed in 2016. Scientists in the journal Nature announced that they had discovered a repeating radio signal, dubbed FRB 121102. Through consistent monitoring and tracking, they traced this repeating signal back to a dwarf galaxy roughly 3 billion light-years away. Although, the source itself hasn't been found...nothing known in that area of the universe could be producing these signals. At least, not that we know of. Unfortunately, FRBs typically only last a few milliseconds. They appear to come from deep space but because of their minuscule duration, its almost impossible to pinpoint their origin. 

And now, there are more bursts coming from FRB 121102. The Breakthrough Listen team has detected over a dozen more bursts as of late August 2017. Vishal Gajjar, a postdoctoral researcher on the team found these new bursts while monitoring. Over 5 hours, the team was able to collect 400 terabytes of data over the 4 to 8 GHz frequency band, or C-band (which is mostly used for satellite communications transmissions).

Gajjar has said, “As well as confirming that the source is in a newly active state, the high resolution of the data obtained by the Listen instrument will allow measurement of the properties of these mysterious bursts at a higher precision than ever possible before,”

But, just because we don't know where they're coming from doesn't mean scientists aren't theorizing. In fact, a few explanations of FRBs have been brought up. For example, maybe they were caused by a cataclysmic event like a neutron star collapsing into a black hole. One problem with this theory is that an event like that would seemingly one create one burst, so the repeating of FRB 121102 wouldn't make sense and couldn't be accounted for.

Another idea is that they might be coming from a young and VERY magnetized neutron star...but none of those have been detected in that particular region of space.

But, for now, we are still searching. 

The above image is not directly related to the story and is simply a view of the universe as provided by Hubble. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

 

New Discovery: The Largest Sea Dragon!

Will the sea ever stop surprsing us? I hope not. In the last week of August 2017, the largest sea dragon to date was discovered. Except, it was already in a museum.

Link

Sven Sachs was visiting a museum to study an ancient sea reptile when one of the museum's display fossils caught his eye.

The specimen that caught his eye was hardly new. In fact, it was unearthed in the 1990s around Somerset, England. Unfortunately, it wasn't of much interest and remained unstudied. Sachs believed it was an Ichthyosaurs. Ichthyosaurses were large marine reptiles. They evolved from a group of unknown land reptiles that returned to the sea. These creatures fossils were often mistakenly believed to be dinosaur, however it was believed to be more like a sea dragon. Basically, they swam like eels, had long bodies, and were BIG.

Back to Dr. Sachs who said about "rediscovering" the fossil,  "I found it very extraordinary," said Sachs. "[It was] way bigger than any specimen I had examined." After consultation and examination, it was determined that the specimen was of the species Ichthyosaurus somersetensis, the largest of its kind estimating it to be about 10 feet long. In addition to its impressive size, this particular specimen also was carrying a small, seven-centimeter embryo when it died.

One of the reasons it's impressiveness wasn't acknowledged until decades later is because the museum had mistakenly given it the tail of a different Ichthyosaurus species to make it look more complete. 

According to National Geographic, "Sachs believes other unexplored museum collections have the potential to reveal undiscovered species." It is amazing that this new "terrain" of paletology has been opened. Who knows what could be lurking in the dozens upon dozens of unexplored collections that could be hiding secret gems like this one! 

The above image is NOT of the specific Ichthyosaurus, but from a visitor to the Natural History Museum in London. Liscensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.  "Fossil of Ichthyosaurus, an extinct reptile-- Took the photo at Natural History Museum, London" taken by Ghedoghedo.

Rats are Probably Worse than you Thought

Living in a city means I am usually confronted with pests of various kinds - cockroaches, over-confident squirrels, and the worst of the worst - rats. Although D.C. is no New York City or Medieval England when it comes to rats they are still abundant. So, I decided to read up on some "urban legends" about these city-dwellers and see if they were really as bad as we make them out to be.

Well, as it turns out...they're much worse. 

Link Link Link

For example, they CAN actually go through the sewer, up your toilet pipes, and into your home. Seriously, watch the video here for an interesting play-by-play on how it works. Basically, if a rat can fit its head through its opening, its ribs can give way because they are hinged to the spine - and that's how rats can get through the pipe. But, what about the water? Rats are actually pretty good swimmers. They use their tales as a rudder, their back feet to swim, and their arms to "steer". Rats can even tread water for three days straight, and hold their breath for up to three minutes. This is how they survive so effortlessly in sewers and are able to swim right up the pipes and into your toilet.

Oh, and rats are NOT easy to get rid of. This is mostly because they have an extremely low tolerance for being hungry and often go into berserker mode and do anything and everything they can to get their next meal as soon as possible. But, once they find a steady food supply - whether it be an apartment building, garden, or sewer - they really hunker down.

Furthermore, a rat may only venture a few dozen feet in its entire LIFETIME if it is near a food source that keeps on giving. They usually connect a pathway directly from their nest to their food supply and simply make the food run several times a day, every day. These are not a creature imbued with wanderlust. In fact, next time you're in a city see if you see a trail of what looks like grease...it is rat grease. Oftentimes, the trails are so well travelled that the continued use will leave behind grease from a rat's fur.

Oh, and just knocking down one rat population isn't enough to rid a city, or even a neighborhood, of them. It is theorized that killing one rat population just gives the survivors the resources to eat more and breed faster. 

Not to mention, rats can still spread disease better than almost any animal in the game. In fact, after Katrina rat-transmitted diseases were a major public health issue, especially the spreading of bacterial diseases like leptospirosis, which can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, and death in extreme cases.

So, not only can rats horrifyingly crawl through the sewers into your toilets, they are also hard to get rid of and still carry lots of diseases!

 

The above image is from Wikipedia user Edal Anton Lefterov and is liscensed under CC.

The Origins of the Tooth Fairy

If you grew up in America, there's a pretty good chance you had at least one run-in with a tooth fairy. But, where the hell did this strange myth come from in the first place? Does it have ancient roots, is it linked with Greek mythology, is it a wonderful myth as old as humankind?

Not exactly. In fact, it's a very recent mythical being with very American origins.

Link Link Link

Let's first address what we know, more or less, about the tooth fairy today. First, a child has to lose a "baby tooth". The baby tooth is then placed under the pillow at night while the child sleeps. The child may also include a note with the tooth, thanking the tooth fairy and asking for some sort of present or wish. Finally, when the child wakes up the next morning there is a small token underneath the pillow, usually money and the tooth and the note are gone!

Now that that has been established, let's get into where this strange tradition started. 

The tradition of dealing with baby teeth is much older than the tooth fairy herself. According to Michael Higston, a reporter from Salon covering the strange history of the tooth fairy, "Every recorded human culture has some kind of tradition surrounding the disposal of a child’s lost baby teeth."

These disposal methods, of course, was of interest to many cultural anthropologists and researchers and one such researcher, BR. Townend, even distilled it down to 9 basic forms.

  1. The tooth was thrown into the sun
  2. Thrown into the fire
  3. Thrown between the legs
  4. Thrown onto or over the roof of the house, often with an invocation to some animal or individual
  5. Placed in a mouse hole near the stove or hearth or offered to some other animal
  6. Buried
  7. Hidden where animals could not get it
  8. Placed in a tree or on a wall
  9. Swallowed by the mother, child or animal.

This same question - "Where" and "Why" boggled a professor at Northwestern University Dental School, named Rosemary Wells. She began what would become a career-defining search for the origins of the tooth fairy, going as far as opening a museum of the tooth fairy run out of her home and appearing on major entertainment programs like the Oprah Winfrey show.

So, what year did the tooth fairy officially sashay onto the scene? According to the research of Wells and others, around 1927 is her first print appearance. She is a character in a short, 8 page playlet for children by Esther Watkins Arnold. However, there is some belief that she was mentioned orally as early as the turn of the 19th century. Although, of course, there is not much written record of it.

Her origins are believed to be a cross between two myths. First, the legend of a mouse that sneaks into a child’s bedroom and performs the cash-for-teeth swap - a legend that spans everywhere from Russia to Mexico. The second is the typical “good fairy,” a mainly European figure that crept its way over the Atlantic. This lore mixed the rise of Disney in the mid-1960s and became a cultural explosion of the tooth fairy.

It is believed the tooth fairy has remained in the popular zeitgeist for so long because of the purpose she serves. Losing one's teeth, especially at such a young age, can be quite scary. There is the tension of anxiety of waiting for a wiggly tooth to come out, sometimes a necessary tug, and often blood. The tooth fairy myth offers comfort during this strange and uncomfortable time, promising that the pain and scariness of the event will end in a treat from a magical being. 

So, what makes it so American?

In her article "Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith,” Cindy Dell Clark, another academic researcher, argued that "the use of monetary rewards — and leaving money for each tooth, not just the first one, is another distinctly American invention — helps children transition into the world of adulthood, where cash is a symbol of increased agency and responsibility." Not to mention, the rise in popularity follows at a time of American prosperity. During the great depression, just giving away nickels and dimes would not make sense. However, during a time of more economic prosperity, the tooth fairy myth could flourish.

So there you have it - the strange, slightly convulted myth of the tooth fairy!

The above image is from Flickr user Ginny and is liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Victorian Game of Gobolinks

Many of you are probably at least somewhat aware of the power of inkblots and the human mind. Or, at least, the implied power of them as set up by Hermann Rorschach, who created the inkblot test in 1921. However, there was a victorian precursor to this practice of interpreting inkblots: Gobolinks.

Link Link

As defined by a book on the subject, titled "Gobolinks, or Shadow Pictures," Gobolinks are a "veritable goblin of the ink-bottle." Although this book wasn't published until 1896, the idea of Gobolinks had been popular since the 1700s, when it was originally known as klecksography (a fancy word for inkblot art). These once sloppy drip-marks began to become art work in and of themselves and made famous by artists like Justinus Kerner (who was also a physician). 

These goblins of the ink bottles became unique creatures - not purposefully made by the artist but willed into the world through the ink itself, but still abled to be interpreted. The Gobolinks book also made this art form into a game. 

Here's how it works:

1) Players have to 'create' ink blots

2) The paper with the blot would then be folded in half, to create a symmetrical image.

3) Players then have to write a rhyme based on the image

4) The chosen judge then assesses which blobs are the best, the winning blob is then declared a "booby".

As this game was popular at parties, the writers of the book suggested that people should wear outfits that are as symmetrical as possible, to mimics the in blots they'd make.

Gobolink Examples:

Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 9.55.53 PM.png
Screen Shot 2017-08-22 at 9.57.29 PM.png

 

Gobolinks also have a bit of a strange, creepy side. Perhaps it is how symetrical the blots are that make people just a hair uncomfortable...but a follow-up book by different authors in 1907, Blottentots, was written and seemed to, as Atlas Obscura notes "embrace the inherently shadowy, otherworldly look of inkblot creations."

Blottentot Example:

So how did ink blots go from accidental artwork to a party game to physiological test? In 1921, not long after the popularity of gobolinks and inkblot games had ebbed away, Herman Rorschach published "Psychodiagnostics." Rorschach believed that what people perceived in strange, ambiguous inkblots could have the potential to reveal differences in their basic personality structure.

Instead of the ink blot game that asks players to come up with an imaginative poem or rhyme based on the blot, Rorschach asked "What might this be." Based on their answers, he believed he could learn, psychologically, more about people.

For example, if a patient repeatedly sees fighting/violence in the inkblots they likely have a very different mind from someone who sees dancing/athletic activity in the same inkblots. Based on this, he set out to devise a precise system for scoring his test, like whether the test subject was interpreting color, form, or movement. The product of this final test was the previously mentioned Psychodiagnostics, in which he studied 300 mental patients and 100 control subjects.

Inkblot Test:

Rorschach_blot_02.jpg
Rorschach_blot_03.jpg

 

And that is how have inkblots have remained in culture for over 300 years. From art to games to psychological tests. Although, I have to say, Gobolinks might be my favorite incarnation of the inkblot.

 

All the images are public domain, provided by the Archive:

Gobolinks

Blottentots

Inkblot Test

Squids Speak Alphabets...but Without using their Mouths

Squids are some of the most amazing creatures on our planet, and I feel like scientists are always finding out new and interesting facts about these strange, alien-like animals. Recently, the Journal of Neuroscience published a piece that gave us even more insight into squids. What exactly did Taiwanese neuroscientists Tsung-Han Liu and Chuan-Chin Chiao discover and publish? Well, squids might be able to "speak". 

Link Link

Squids are able to change colors at a moment's notice - whether it be their whole bodies, parts of their body, or even creating patterns of shifting colors. As part of their experiment Chiao and Liu wanted to see how, and potentially why, squids changed colors. 

To do this, they placed electrodes in different part of the squid's optic lobe in their brains. According to the scientists, when they stimulated different spots on the lobe, the squid changed colors in the same body part. This then made Chiao think that the optic lobe may control the muscles that manipulate the squid's pigment cells.

Wired did a wonderful report on this strange case, in which they noted Chiao's surprise at how the experiment went. "When Chiao started out, he thought the optic lobe would be organized like the human cortex, with the pigment on different body parts correlating with different locations in the brain: a squidunculus. Not so."

Unlike a human's, it seemed that the squid's body parts weren't singularly represented. In fact, their body parts could be represented, and affected, in more than one spot in the optic lobe. This has some seriously interesting consequences for how we not only understand squids biology, but how we might be better able to understand their communication and what the changes to their skin colors might mean.

According to Chicao, "It’s like the squid has an alphabet of patterns—14 by Chiao’s count—which repeat in a mosaic within the optic lobe. It’s like if your keyboard had hundreds of keys, but still only 26 letters."

But, studying squids brains is difficult because they are so drastically different from our own. What does these 14 color changes communicate to other squids? Why have the set of 14? What can we learn by studying their behavior? How closely related are their communication patterns to humans or other animals?

Right now, Chiao and his team are trying to record and better capture the different combinations of pigment patterns and what they might mean to another squid. Are they having complex conversations? Are they trying to figure out how best to mate? Are they gearing up to fight? Hopefully, in a few more years we'll better understand this strange creature and the power, and potential depth, behind its communication patterns. 

 

This above image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.    Attribution: © Hans Hillewaert. Common squid from the Belgian continental shelf. Picture taken in the lab on board of the RV Belgica, of a live specimen to preserve colour and structure of chromophores.

What is Sleep Paralysis?

Astonishing Legends has touched on the terrifying expereince of sleep paralysis in a number of our episodes. Today, I wanted to dig in a little more deeply into the phenomena of sleep paralysis in order to gain a better understanding of what causes it, what happens, and how to deal with it.

Link Link Link Link

Sleep paralysis seems quite astonishing in nature. In fact, many people report seeing shadow people, hags, demons, ghostly visitations, unexplainable creatures, and even alien abductions. Although these beings are linked to the paranormal, they also frequently appear during sleep paralysis episodes.

First and foremost, it is a sleeping disorder. Sleep paralysis consists, generally, of the feeling of being conscious but being completely unable to move, which can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Often times the vision of some kind of presence will be 'seen' by the victim, although what is seen changes on a case-by-case basis. Some who suffer from sleep paralysis also note physical pressure and even a sense of choking that accompanies a sleep paralysis episode. 

Oh, and sleep paralysis isn't new. In fact, it was recognized in the scientific world by a psychologist, Weir Mitchell, in 1876. In his own words he describes sleep paralysis as:  “The subject awakes to consciousness of his environment but is incapable of moving a muscle; lying to all appearance still asleep. He is really engaged in a struggle for movement fraught with acute mental distress; could he but manage to stir, the spell would vanish instantly.”

So, when does it happen? Well, sleep paralysis happens when a person wakes up BEFORE REM is finished. Thus, giving the sense of not being able to move. Basically, your body's ability to move hasn't been "turned on" yet.

Another thing most people don't know is that there are different kinds of sleep paralysis. There is hypnagogic sleep paralysis, which is what it is called when sleep paralysis occurs as you are falling asleep. Hypnopompic sleep paralysis happens as you are waking up.

Now that we know a little more about what sleep paralysis is, let's dive into what can cause sleep paralysis. It does not appear that sleep paralysis has one "point of origin", as far as stressors go. In fact, several seemingly common things can bring on an episode of sleep paralysis. For example:

  • Medications
  • Other sleep disorders (like seep apnea or narcolepsy)
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stress
  • Jet Lag
  • Caffeine 
  • Alcohol
  • Falling asleep too fast (literally - its skipping your REM/bypassing parts of your REM cycle that can trigger an episode) 

The above list is not conclusive by any means. Not to mention, you can expereince reoccurring sleep paralysis or one-off episodes...potentially caused by different stressors.

So, how did the paranormal enter the realm of sleep? Well, in the narrative and mythology of sleep paralysis, it was believed that demons or otherwise evil beings caused sleep paralysis by literally holding people down to their beds, rendering them unable to move or even sitting on their chests - which could further explain why people feel short of breath or pressure.

Additionally, hallucinations are very common during sleep paralysis, causing people to see strange and surreal creatures because during sleep paralysis the brain is still in 'dream mode', and has the ability to conjure up these images. 

So, how can you guard against sleep paralysis? Sadly, there is no set treatment for combatting sleep paralysis. Often, the best way to fight against sleep paralysis is by treating underlying causes, like those from the list above.

If you have only had one or two attacks, taking care of your sleep hygiene could be a potential fix to the issue. However, if you have continuous, reoccurring attacks you might want to visit a sleep specialist (yes, that is totally a thing)!

If you do have an attack...there isn't much you can do to stop it in the moment. Just remind yourself that this is only temporary and soon you feel much better.

The image above is from Flickr user Matt Anderson and is liscensed under creative commons 2.0.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

One thing I love writing about on the blog are stories of haunted America. Why? Well, because usually at least 1 or 2 listeners have been to these infamous places and have a story or a picture to share, so if you ever have one share them below or send to astonishingcontact@gmail.com! Now, on with the show.

Today, I wanted to talk about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (I know Lunatic is NOT a PC word, but that is what it is called. Please do not think the name reflects AL's thoughts on the victims on this Asylum).

Link Link Link

Like many intriguing and infamous buildings,  the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is hidden in the mountains. In particular, Weston, West Virginia. The building itself is formidable - and that isn't an exaggeration. In fact, this Asylum is America's largest hand-cut masonry building. It operated as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum for over 100 years, 1864-1994.

Not only would this building soon be home to less than savory practices to help those with mental illnesses, but it was built largely by prison labor, beginning in 1858. The Civil War interrupted construction, and the first patients were admitted in 1864, when the hospital was referred to as West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. However, construction continued through 1880. 

Oh, and for those who like an extra added spooky-factor...when completed, the land and buildings comprised of 666 acres.

Despite its massive size, it was really only designed to hold about 250 patients. However, this building did not become one of America's most infamous hauntings because it was a well run asylum. By 1880, right before construction was finished, it already housed about 715 patients. The number continued to grow and doubled in the 1930s. At its peak in the 1950s the facility housed roughly 2,400 patients which far exceeded the limit. The population size lead to mass mismanagement and mistreatment of the patients. Soon enough, gossip and reports began pouring out of the asylum of increasing violence.

The overcrowding, which at this point, had been a decades-long issue, naturally lead to a whole host issues leading to substandard care and conditions. In 1949, the problems became so notorious that the The Charleston Gazette did an entire series of articles exposing the gruesome conditions. These issues included the usual suspects like sanitation issues, broken/not enough furniture, heating issues, and even a lack of light.

However, this expose did not bring the institution down and it continued to operate until 1994. Although the population significant decreased by the mid 1980s, this did not improve conditions. In fact, they had stayed the same or in some cases even gotten worse. For example, patients who could not be controlled appropriately spent inordinate amounts of time literally locked in cages.

One of the most horrifying procedures regularly carried out were transorbital lobotomies, also known as ice-pick lobotomies. The procedure was when a sharp, pronged device was driven through the orbital socket. This caused permanent damage, however it was seemed to 'alleviate' many of the symptoms. These were so popular that one doctor allegedly performed over 225 lobotomies in one week. Dr. Walter Freeman, who helped pioneer this practice in the early '50s, was one of the most notorious doctors of the Asylum.

The final death throes of the building began in the 1990s. In 1992 the Charleston Gazette published another article describing in detail horrendous conditions inside of the asylum. In this year,  George Edward Bodie died after a fight with another patient named David Michael Mason. Furthermore, a patient named Brian Scott Bee, committed suicide and his badly decomposing body was not found for over a week.

Surprisingly enough, the building was named as a National Historic Landmark. The current owners of the building even offer historic daytime tours and paranormal tours six days a week, and even Ghost Tours and Ghost Hunts on weekend nights.

The terrors of the asylum didn't vanish when the hospital went out of official commission. Those who visit the building today regularly report seeing apparitions of nurses, doctors, and even patients roaming down the hallways. There is also an auditory element as well, with many reports of hearing anguished cries echoing through the hallways.

The most infamous haunting is the young ghost of Lily. Lily apparently spent most of her short life inside the walls of the asylum. She was believed to be the daughter of a previous patient, Gladys Ravensfield who was admitted to the asylum after being attacked and raped by soldiers during the civil war. Although some believe she was an orphan left at the steps of the main building. However, sticking to the Ravensfield theory, it was believed she gave birth in 1863 to the baby who was named Lily by the staff. Gladys never fully recovered and eventually descended deeper and deeper into madness due to the horrible expereince and the general unpleasantness of life in the asylum. 

She died in childhood, but the staff memorialized her with a room filled with toys that she was known to interact with, as well as candy. The most popular area on the first floor is Lily’s Room, located in the eastern corner of Ward Four, a “step” between Ward One and the older Civil War section. Lily is known to tug on the clothes of people who she takes a liking to and sometimes even slips her ghostly hand into the hand of female visitors.

 

This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID "highsm.31656". 

Are You Being Watched?

The Science of Us recently did a great article on the Psychology of Being watched that caught my eye. I'm not sure if it's because I live alone in a big city (even though I have friends in and on the same floor of my apartment building) but..I often get that creeping feeing. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, my voice gets caught in my throat, and I am unable to breathe. But, then it is all over. I am un-paralyzed, look around, and feel self-assured that I'm all alone or that no, no one in the metro car was staring at me or following me home as I walked. But why do I so physically and mentally react to the idea of being watched at seemingly random times?

 Link Link

 Well, first of all - it's because people often wrongly assumed we're being looked at. As unselfish as we may be in our actions, we are all at the center of our universe. We can't help it. When someone's eyes are covered, like by sunglasses or the brim of hat, it is easy to assume that we are the targets. Or, someone staring off into space in our direction...well, that definitely means s/he is up to something. As the article says, "The feeling of being watched may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you think someone is staring at you from behind, you might turn around suddenly to face them, causing that person look in your direction." Thus, confirming our own belief that yes, we were being watched...sort of.

However, it isn't just that we're self-centered that we think we're being watched all the time. In fact, sometimes we feel that way because our eyes pick up more than we know. In fact, our brains work overtime compared to what we are consciously gazing at. So, if you're in your house and you think you're being watched, or you're walking down the street, or you're picking up coffee and get that tingly feeling? Well, there's a chance you visually picked up on other cues that are outside of your direct field of vision that you don't as consciously notice.

Don't believe me? Well, luckily science can back me up! In both the "The Science of Us" and "Science Alert" articles, several studies are mentioned discussing what our eyes can pick up that we don't consciously realize.  In fact, research has shown that the our eyes take in, analyze, and react to information "beyond what's processed by our visual cortex - that part of the brain responsible for conscious vision and mapping out our view of the world."

For example, there was a study published in 2013 which looked at a male individual, referred to as "TN". TN was cortically blind. What's this mean? Well, his eyes were in technical working order, but his visual cortex had been damaged, so it can't provide 'sight', at least not in the traditional sense. Although someone who has this condition cannot see what's around them, their brain is still receiving information from their eyes - so, even though he can't see like someone who has fully intact eyes, his brain can still act on information received from his brain.

The study itself tested TN's ability to perceive the world. So, he was shown pictures and his brain activity was recorded. These scientists noticed that there was increased activity in his amygdala "when people in the pictures were looking directly at him."

See, I don't know about you but for some reason...that gives me the heebie jeebies.

According to ScienceAlert, "The amygdala is the part of the brain that prompts our sense of fear and other emotions, and handles facial recognition." And, the article aptly questions "Could it be that our brains are trained to subconsciously recognize someone staring at us, even if it's only in our peripheral vision?"

So, maybe sometimes it is our feeling that we believe we're being watched because, well, humans are self-centric...but could it also be because our eyes are alerting us that there is more than meets our conscious eye? 

What do you think about this feeling? Have you ever felt like this? 

 

The above image is from Flickr user Axel Naud and is liscensed under creative commons.

Ghosts go APA Style

Listeners of the show, and readers of this blog, you might appreciate this little story on how to "Cite Works from the Spirit World." I'm not sure how many of you are still in college, or are active journalists, but who knows - this could be of use to you someday. This particular post was suggested via our new Facebook Group from listener Jen K! 

Link Link

We've discussed spirit communication and the craze of interacting with spirits that happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s a few times on the blog (here and here), but never in the realm of publishing before. In fact, spirit dictation was quite common and many people have published on it, both of their own experiences and academically. 

Luckily, the internet is chock full of stories that you might otherwise not ever seen. But, it isn't just stories that create interest...it's the questions. On the American Psychological Website there is a Q&A section where members of the site can ask questions to the Style Experts on the website for answers about their toughest APA Style questions.

One user, in particular, wrote in something very interesting. Spooked in Spokane asks...

"I need to cite a book that was dictated by a spirit to a medium. Who’s the author here? I was thinking it would be the spirit, but now that I’ve put it into my reference list, it looks kind of weird."

Jeff Hume-Pratuch, one of the aforementioned style experts, approached this question as if it wasn't a strange thing at all to ask. In fact, he even acknowledges that...

"Noncorporeal beings have dictated a number of bestsellers, yet they never seem to cash their own royalty checks."

He then proceeds with a very simple answer based on the above sentence. For bibliographic purposes, the author is the person who entered the work IN the corporeal realm. But to me, this opens up some questions. Do spirits have no publishing rights? So that means beings that aren't in our "realm" get absolutely no royalties and no benefits except some name recognition.  Well...I guess it makes some sense, since we don't know the currency exchange rate for Earth dollars in the spirit world.

It should be noted that not all spiritual communication is non-fiction, in the sense that it is a spirit dictating to a medium or person in the corporeal being quotes, events of their life and death, and other historical "facts" and stories. In fact, there are a few cases of ACTUAL ghost-writing...as in works of fiction dictated by ghosts to those in the corporeal world.

One of the most notorious cases of this strange, literal ghost writing is "Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board", published in 1917. Emily Grant Hutchings was the writer and claimed that this novel had been dictated to her via the ghost of Mark Twain, who had died over 5 years earlier. Sadly, this might have been a bit of a hoax due to the book's poor literary quality, propped up by rejections from Twain's published and estate. It was swiftly put out of print, and most copies were destroyed. 

However, not all of this purported ghost writing was a total flop. In fact, a young woman named Pearl Lenore Curran garnered acclaim from The New York Times, and several other notable literary organizations. Curran, like Grant Hutchings, was dictating for a deceased woman named Patience Worth. Curran communicated with Worth via a ouija board and her life story was a sad one - she had set off from England to America in the latter half of the 1600s only to be quickly killed by Native Americans.  However, Patience didn't just share her actual life story with Curran. She also shared stories and poetry. To this day, no one has definitively debunked the existence of an actual Patience Worth. 

If you're interested in reading more books by ghosts and spirits, you can check out Bustle's list of the 5 Best Books written by ghosts, or click on the source links above!

Oh, and if you're wondering...citing a ghost looks something like this:

"Curran, P. (1917). The sorry tale: A story of the time of Christ. New
     York, NY: Holt. Retrieved from..."

Thanks again for listener and FB group member Jen K for sharing the initial source that inspired this post! 

The above image is unrelated to the story and is from Flickr user Frederick Rubensson and is liscensed under Creative Commons.

 

 

 

 

Biology vs. Physics

Now, I'm usually not one to pit the sciences against each other...but something new has recently come to light. Many of us have believed that it was a fluke of biology that life came into existence, but biophysicist Jeremy England, and those who have studied his work, argue that another branch of science might just be responsible: physics. 

Link

Boiled down as succinctly as possible. Dr. England posits that the inevitable outcome of thermodynamics was the creation of life.

Diving in a bit deeper, this can be understood if we take everything back to the atom. Groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves in order to burn more and more energy. This burn facilitates the "incessant dispersal of energy and rise of entropy or disorder in the universe." According to Dr. England, this constant and growing restructuring effect will eventually foster the growth of more and more complex structures, including life.

Dr. England has been working on proving and further detailing this theory since 2013. Earlier this summer, he had two very important publications in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" and "Physical Review Letters". These publications bring to light some of the most persuasive evidence for his theory that has existed to date.

However, these findings do not yet solidify Dr. England's story, in fact this theory is quite controversial within the scholarly landscape. 

Dr. Eugene Shakhnovich, a former professor of Dr. England's acknowledges England's intellect and capability in the field, but disagrees. Dr. Shakhnovich goes as far as saying that Dr. England's linkages to his work in the lab and the theory of life are “pure and shameless speculations.” He, instead, says that Dr. England's work shows us something concrete...but not necessarily how life evolved. "What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune.” But, perhaps this order was a necessary step to the creation of life. 

Dr. Sara Walker, a theoretical physicst who is also an "origins of life" specialist further poked at Dr. England's theory saying, that life is more distinguished and “requires some explicit notion of information that takes it beyond the non-equilibrium dissipative structures-type process.” For example, Dr. Walker says that the ability to respond to information is an integral part of life: “We need chemical reaction networks that can get up and walk away from the environment where they originated.”

In light of this criticism, according to Wired.com, it appears that Dr. England is wary of conclusions being jumped to. Dr. England says in regards to his recent findings that “In the short term, I’m not saying this tells me a lot about what’s going in a biological system, nor even claiming that this is necessarily telling us where life as we know it came from.”

But notice that he says "in the short term", which seems to suggest with further research he might just be able to prove his theory after-all.

 

The above image is liscensed under creative commons 2.0 and comes from Flickr user Feline DaCat.

Sick Outfit, Girl!

Have you ever heard of tuberculosis? Let me jog your memory. Tuberculosis, also known as TB today, is a bacteria that is spread through the air by someone coughing, sneezing, or....spitting (yuck). TB begins mildly enough, common symptoms include cough, fever, night sweats, and weight loss and could remain mild for many months. This, of course, leads to delays in awareness knowing you're sick which delays treatment and means you're out in the world infecting more people. This will later lead to more severe chest pain and a prolonged cough producing...sputum, and coughing up blood. Throughout the disease it attacks the lungs and also damages other organs, until victims finally waste away. During the 1800s TB began to reach epidemic levels throughout Europe, at this time it was known as "consumption".  Long story short, it isn't pretty...unless you're a fashionista. 

Link Link

Why mention fashion? Well, TB had a long history at the forefront of culture in the Victorian age. As we know, the Victorians could get a little...morbid. So, it is no surprise that they romanticized this slow, all-consuming disease that paled the victim and rouged their cheeks and lips.

Carolyn Day noticed the importance of TB in Victorian fashion so much she literally wrote the book on it, "Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease. “Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty.”  Day surmises that TB, or consumption, was adopted into Victorian fashion because it "enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women.” The thinness, rosy lips and cheeks, pale skin, and the overall appearance of delicacy. Thus, the popular way to do your make-up was to lighten your skin, redden your lips and color your cheeks pink.

TB didn't just influence makeup and what was currently considered in-vogue appearance wise, it also changed what women wore. For example, tight corsets with voluminous skirts especially made to emphasize how waifish women's waists were (try saying that 3x fast).

But in the later 1800s, germ theory came to the forefront and the way TB was viewed was changing...and so was the fashion. In fact, in America and Europe alike many of the campaigns aimed at reducing disease were targeted to women's fashion. Doctors went as far as to decry long, trailing skirts as spreaders of the disease. Medical professional warned that voluminous skirts, so recently in fashion, were capable of sweeping up germs on the street and bringing the disease into the home. So, the voluminous skirts of the earlier half of the century began falling out of favor. That wasn't all that was lost - corsets also fell out of favor because of their restrictive nature and the idea that they could hamper blood circulation. 

We even see a few, lingering effects of TB fashion today. A common way to cure or improve health was to sunbathe for a few hours a week, which lead to being tan to being in-vogue. Additionally, after women lost their trailing skirts and hemlines were raised, shoes became much more of a fashion statement since they were almost always visible. 

And so ends the abridged version of how tuberculosis influenced American and European fashion...even to today!

The above image is liscensed under Public Domain. 
 

300,000 Year-Old Homo Sapien fossils Discovered

In early June paleoanthropologists (yes - an even cooler title than plain old paleontologist!) re-dated and realized some of the oldest Homo sapien fossils ever found had been discovered in the 1960s in Jebel Irhoud.

Link Link Link

The fossils, as well as some artifacts, have been dated to around 300,000 years old and were discovered in Morocco. Why is this important? Well it could push the inception of our species back an extra 100,000 years earlier than originally thought. According to leading experts and discoveries made in the field, modern humans as we know them evolved around 200,000 years ago. But the new fossils shift that window in back to 300,000 years.

Let's go back to that cool word I mentioned in the first sentence...paleoanthropologists. What is a paleoanthropologist? And how are they different from a paleontologist? Well paleoanthropology is the study of the formation and the development of the specific characteristics of humans. It dates back to the 18th century, but has begun playing a more and more major role in our understanding of us in recent years, especially with the advent of more effective technology and dating techniques. 

Let's talk about where these beings were found. They were found in Jebel Irhoud. Jebel Irhoud was not a novel place to find remains, in fact some bodies were originally discovered by miners in the 1960s, but were (as we know now) incorrectly identified as 40,000 year-old Neanderthals.

But...Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute, wasn't quite satisfied with this conclusion. In fact, he believed the skull shapes were all wrong for Neanderthals and actually more closely resembled early humans from abut 150,000 years ago. 

This was the beginning of a long road for Hublin though. At the time conventional wisdom in the field held that early humans evolved in East Africa. With that fact understood, it would make no sense that an even earlier human could be found in North Africa.

This started in the 1980s...and he didn't let go of it for decades. Finally, in 2004, he was able to find 5 different Homo sapiens were found: 3 adults, 1 adolescent, and 1 child, preserved in clay. He got lucky again because the remains were burned. Now, you might think damaged remains would be a bad thing, right? Well, not when it comes to dating. The burn allowed for thermoluminescence dating. Long story short, this technique is able to test to see how much  radiation an object has absorbed since it was last heated, thus providing a strong baseline for dating.

The ability to use thermoluminescence dating, which were backed up further by electron spin resonance dating (from the remaining teeth enamel) confirmed Hublin's original theory: the specimens were early humans dating back to 300,000 years ago. 

Hublin and his team began calling these remains  "early Homo sapiens." In an e-mail to Ars Technia, Hublin clarified that they aren't modern humans, but instead "representative of populations directly ancestral to us."

According to Richard Potts, who directs the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, in an email to the Washington Post he described the new findings to have “small faces shaped distinctively like modern humans, although the brain pans fall outside the range of humans alive today." But, he added, this isn't a big deal “so do several other clearly fossil Homo sapiens from Africa and Europe,” he said.  Comparing these with facial position on known human skulls from Ethiopia, Potts said, “I think we have a good instance of early Homo sapiens from Irhoud.” Additionally, a similar jaw and "modern chin" that all modern humans share are found in this. They also found proof of use of tools and other artifacts. 

The above image is of Jean-Jacques Hublin at Jebel Irhoud and is liscensed under creative commons and wikimedia commons. The image was taken by Shannon McPherron, MPI EVA Leipzig.

A Frightening Haul

A faceless fish, zombie worms, and flesh-eating crustaceans - oh my! All these and more were recently pulled up from the depths of the abyss...and by abyss, I mean some of the deepest parts of the oceans humans have explored so far.

Link Link

The mission itself was called 'Sampling the Abyss'. This mission was headed up by a joint effort between Australia's 'Museums of Victoria' and the 'Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation'. 

The goal of 'Sampling the Abyss' was to explore Australia's easern abyss which is roughly 2.5 miles below the surface of the ocean. Why? Well, this patch of ocean is one of the least explored parts of the entire planet and it is believed that discoveries and research there will further help scientists to understand biodiversity, and maybe even how to best protect it.

The team comprised of 40 international scientists that lasted roughly a month.  The entire month was spent on the  research vessel, aptly named 'Investigator.' The Chief Scientist on this pioneering voyage into the deep is Dr Tim O’Hara. Dr. O'Hara is the deputy head of the Museums of Victoria and hopes to find and collect new specimens with the help of specially created nets and other fishing gear.

One of my favorite finds was the Coffinfish. Although Coffinfish have been documented for quite some time, the ones they discovered were quite interesting looking (if you want to see pics head over here). One interesting things about coffinfish is, well, they aren't fish at all. In fact, their in the sea toad family. 

O'Hara has said about the mission, “We know that abyssal animals have been around for at least 40 million years, but until recently only a handful of samples had been collected from Australia’s abyss,”

The above image is from Flickr user Paramita and is liscensed under creative commons.