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The violent history of train-wreck publicity

Sometimes a publicity stunt can be a complete train wreck. The hashtag #susanalbumparty that required re-reading a few times, the Air Force One Photoshoot that nearly evacuated Manhattan, and the decision to spice up a production of Henry VIII with a real cannon which inadvertently burned down the Globe Theatre — history is littered with PR events that have gone off the rails.

But there is a bizarre history of train-wrecks being the publicity stunt. They started off as a morbid, redneck bonanza back in the 19th century but have, in more modern times, morphed into psuedo-scientific pieces of political theatre.  Continue reading

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The Nobel Prize winner at the bottom of the garden

Of all the mind-bendingly expensive streets in Chelsea, The Boltons, pictured above, are probably the most picture-postcard perfect. Homes here will cost you somewhere in the vicinity of £2,500 per square foot which, based on Sigma-Aldrich prices, is nearly 20% the price of an equivalent area in gold.

Houses for the mega-ultra-wealthy need staff to run them, which is why in 1954 one of the well-to-do residents of the elite SW10 neighbourhood employed a well-spoken Australian man in his mid-sixties named Willie to look after her garden for her. Willie was an enthusiastic gardener and did a fantastic job. However, as Francis Crick wrote in his memoirs:1

For several months all went well till one day a visitor, glancing out of the window said to her hostess, “my dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?”

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Birmingham flushes £9 million down the toilet every year

Not all that glistens is gold. But sometimes gold can be found in glistening materials that you wouldn’t really want to look in.

A recent study1 has shown that the sewage produced by a city of 1 million inhabitants — for example, Birmingham — will contain about £9 million worth of rare metals, such as gold, platinum and silver.

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If IKEA made Sputnik

I’m moving house in a few weeks’ time, which means I’m idly spending my tube journeys to and from work reading the IKEA catalogue, trying to work out which combination of Billy Bookshelf and Klobo Sofa will look best in the small corner of North East London I’ll soon be calling home.

Meanwhile, in low Earth orbit – the patch of sky about 150-600 km above our heads where the International Space Station floats about – flat-pack DIY generic designs called CubeSats are widely and increasingly in use to power space science.

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chicago green

There’s something in the water

Tomorrow is March 17th, and as they have done every St Patrick’s Day weekend for 52 years, members of Chicago’s Journeymen Plumbers Union have already set about the herculean task of dying their city’s eponymous river a brilliant shade of emerald.

The transformation pays tribute to all that Irish immigration has done for the city, an act of recognition unique to Chicago, and one that is sure to make expat Paddies the world over turn green with envy.

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But the extraordinary effect is surprisingly easy to achieve. All it takes, say the journeyman plumbers, is 18 kg of vegetable dye to give nearly 3 million cubic metres of water the hue of a leaky fluorescent marker.

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Norwegian blues: why when you were born used to be bad for your health

And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun,
And all the shapely body no tittle gone astray.
I mourn for that most lonely thing; and yet God’s will be done:
I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.

–William Butler Yeats

Before the industrial revolution, between the 17th and 19th centuries, the life expectancy of Norwegian peasants followed an unusual pattern. The records show they would drop every ten or so years, before bouncing back up again three years later. This wasn’t the result of a weird disease affecting the farmers and fishermen of the fjords, nor the consequence of periodic bouts of war. Instead, the answer may have been hovering over them. Continue reading

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A nice glass of red: the colourful history of nanotechnology

Since the dawn of humanity people have been fascinated by colour, and with good reason – it’s bloody confusing.

Amazingly, ancient Romans made “dichroic” glassware that could change its hue depending upon the direction it was lit from. It’s an example of lost technology, and whether they understood the optics or the manufacturing process is debated, as a modern understanding of nanotechnology is needed to explain it fully.

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from front and behind.

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from front and behind.

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Wellcome Library, London

Modern plagues & ancient diseases

In his 1821 play Almansor, Heinrich Heine wrote that wherever books are burned, eventually they will also burn people. This eerily prophetic quotation is now emblazoned on the site of the infamous Nazi book-burnings at the Bebelplatz in Berlin.

If we have come to accept that those with no respect for human accomplishments will in the end become equally disdainful of human life, it should come as no surprise that the reverse also holds true. Cue this week’s unhinged destruction of a museum at the historic Iraqi site of Nineveh by the ongoing jihadist frat party that calls itself Islamic State.

Among the priceless artefacts that were put to the sledgehammer and electric drill were two statues of human-headed bulls dedicated to the Mesopotamian God Nergal, built around 700 BC.

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Among many other things, Nergal is known today as the Sumerian God of Sickness and Death, and the study of his worship therefore offers fascinating insights into the spread of infectious diseases across the ancient Near East.

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Academics won’t be typecast no more

All the world’s maths and science problem sheets look essentially the same.

If you’ve been taught these subjects at university, you might recognise them: too-wide margins, a serif font that’s more old-fashioned than Times New Roman, surprisingly good-looking equations and numbered section headings that are more reminiscent of an old textbook than something made on a modern computer. There’s a reason for that.

Problem Sheet Two

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man's foot about to slip on banana peel

Pulp Friction

Tripping on a banana skin can have an audience rolling in the aisles. Assuming, of course, you’re careless enough to leave one lying around.

The now ubiquitous slipping-on-a-banana-peel gag is thought to date at least as far back as 1879, when Harper’s Weekly magazine warned its readers against following in the literal footsteps of inconsiderate fructivores. The great novelist Umberto Eco, for his part, believed that the iconic banana skin evolved as a visual euphemism for far deadlier heaps of dog detritus.

Never having slipped on a banana skin, I’ve often wondered just how dangerous they can be. And for that matter, whether it’s the inside or the outside of the fruit that poses the greater health hazard. Fortunately, these are exactly the sort of slippery questions that scientists have been falling over themselves for decades to peel back and really sink their teeth into.

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In 2012, Kiyoshi Mabuchi and colleagues at Japan’s Kitasato University in Japan decided to formally investigate this phenomenon, by studying the coefficient of friction of banana skins. Their results appeared in the journal of the Japanese Society of Tribologists, a term for scientists who study the way moving surfaces interact.

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