Category Archives: News

birmingham2

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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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.

chicago green 2

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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Norway3-The-carefree-Traveler

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

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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DoubleBlind

Nature’s newest secrets

The academic journal Nature is introducing double-blind peer review. This means that when a paper is being checked for accuracy, the reviewers won’t know who wrote it.

Papers are the main way researchers tell everyone about their work, and peer review is the process by which the journal chooses if the paper should be published. The reviewers are chosen by the journal, and are usually other scientists who do similar work to the stuff in the paper. Continue reading

Hefele

Duet Yourself – the science of polyphonic overtone singing

When most people praise the quality of a duet, they expect to be congratulating two people. But, as a video that’s gone viral this week has proved, that assumption need not always hold true. In just over eight days German singer Anna-Maria Hefele has racked up 4 million views on YouTube by demonstrating her phenomenal ability to sing two separate melodies at the same time.

Hefele’s performance is an example of polyphonic overtone singing, a technique which allows her to produce two distinct notes in perfect harmony.The lower of the two is generated by the vibrations of vocal folds in the larynx: the same process as occurs in everyday speech. This sound wave is said to have a fundamental frequency, as it has the longest wavelength that will fit inside the resonant cavity formed by the speaker’s mouth and throat.

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NYTblue

Nobody ever said dyeing was easy

As anyone who has ever attempted to buy wallpaper with a loved one will know, colours are notoriously difficult to define. One man’s Burgundy is close enough to another woman’s Maroon for Red to be a dangerously ambiguous catch-all term.

But what if more were at stake when choosing colours than marital happiness. What if the choice of one particular shade of blue over another constituted a religious sin. And – as if that weren’t bad enough – what if nobody had actually set eyes on the colour in question since the days of Ancient Rome.

This chromatic grey area is not a hypothetical situation. The disappearance of the colour t’khelet (pronounced with a properly phlegm-filled ‘kh’, if you please) was a pressing question in Jewish theology for well over a millennium. It took generations of rabbis, dye-makers and chemists to bring the dye back from the dead, and in the process explain just how it was that the Jews first got the blues.

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In the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers (chapter 15, verse 38), the Lord tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to “make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and affix a thread of t’khelet on the fringe of each corner.”

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Edward Drinker Cope

The largest dinosaur ever found – and subsequently lost again

What’s the largest animal ever to live on planet Earth? Whether you’re measuring in double decker buses, swimming pools or African elephants, any budding naturalist will be able to tell you that the answer is the blue whale. At 31 metres long and weighing 146 tonnes, this enormous cetacean easily exceeds the paltry dimensions of such pretenders as diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus rex. In London’s Natural History Museum, one of the rare institutions where life-sized models of both animals exist side-by-side, the blue whale has a good three metres on Dippy the beloved Diplodocus.

The blue whale has had to fend off another challenger this week, in the form of Dreadnaughtus schrani, a behemoth from 77 million years ago thought to measure 26m from tip to tip. Dreadnaughtus has made headlines as the most complete sauropod skeleton ever discovered, a body of evidence which provides ample confirmation of its titanic size.

But the absence of such complete remains has never stood in the way of scientists looking to predict an animal’s length and height. The dimensions of the largest dinosaurs have often been extrapolated from just a few fragments of their enormous skeletons. In one notable case, the discovery of a single vertebra led to the prediction of an entirely new species of dinosaur, larger than any that had come before or since. A dinosaur that would make the blue whale look like small fry: Amphicoelias fragillimus.

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Space Geckos

Sex geckos and the nuclear football: a history of getting lost in space

For a science headline to capture the wider public’s imagination, it generally helps if it involves at least one of the following six things:

  1. An out-of-control experiment
  2. Space,
  3. The End Of Life As We Know It
  4. A non-western nation
  5. A weird animal,
  6. Sex

So it came as no surprise to see how quickly Foton-5, the spacecraft of Russia’s troubled biomedical research institute, made headlines around the world. The Washington Post website literally managed to hit 5 out of 6 crowd pleasers with the headline:  “There is a lizard sex satellite floating in space and Russia no longer has it under control.”

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