10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Ever wonder what space smells like? That and nine other discoveries this week to rock the cocktail parties.

We’re watching the Parade of Nations part of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies (cultural crack for an Anglophile like myself) and with each passing band of athletes it’s hard not to be struck by the fabulous height of the basketball players. My friend Marcy, smoking an electronic cigarette, blows out electronic smoke and says, “Look at that guy! Imagine the size of his feet.”

“Yes,” I say, cutting my eyes at her quickly. “His feet.”

1. Divas of diving

Even if you’re not normally a sports watcher, you’ve got to love the Olympics, and thus far my favorites have been gymnastics and synchronized diving. Though they haven’t been mentioned in any if-animals-were-Olympic-athletes stories, like this one in Australian Geographic, the imperial cormorant of Argentina may well be a contender in the diving competition.

According to Science Daily, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and National Research Council of Argentina recently fitted one of the sea birds with a camera -- the WCS tracking of the birds is helping to design areas for their protection and to understand the effect of environmental conditions on them. The researchers were “stunned” to see the cormorant dive 150 feet under the ocean in 40 seconds, search for food for 80 seconds, and catch a snake-like fish and wiz up to the surface in another 40 seconds, becoming, SD writes, “superbird.”

Just imagine what the bird could do without a camera on its back.

2. Edge-of-your-seat space drama

The cormorants and the Olympic divers are making amazingly graceful descents. Cross your fingers the same thing happens for the Mars rover.

What Red Orbit’sLee Rannals calls, "The most complicated landing in NASA’s history” will take place Monday, August 6 at 1:31am EDT when Curiosity, the 1-ton Mars rover, lands on the red planet.

This is big. Being-broadcast-in-Times-Square big. It’s even got a catchphrase (cue horror movie music): seven minutes of TERROR!

That’s not a joke: those seven minutes are the window wherein NASA has to bring Curiosity from its 13,000 mph traveling speed down to 1.7 mph for a safe landing from 300 million miles away, Rannals reports. At 180 mph, Curiosity will be released via “sky crane” method with a “backpack fitted with retrorockets controlling the descent speed” lowering the rover by three nylon cords. Probably one of the most nerve-wracking parts is the uncertainty: because of Mars’ distance it takes 14 minutes for signals from the craft to come to NASA engineers here on earth. Check out this excellent video on Space.com for all the edge-of-your-seat details.

Bonus: Shatner and Wheaton.

No, they’re not going, but William Shatner and Wil Wheaton (Captain Kirk and Wesley Crusher in case you have been on Mars for the last few years) both narrate another great little video that details the stages of the landing and the amazing work Curiosity will do once it gets there. The rover will land in Gale Crater, whose layers were likely eroded by water. This geology will show “a cross-section of Mars history” the narration says, and Curiosity will examine rocks and analyze soil samples to see if there has ever been any life on Mars.

3. Exploding termites

When we imagine life on other planets we tend to envision it as being more bizarre than anything you can find on Earth…and yet we make daily discoveries of things right here that are mind-blowingly weird. Or in the case of the exploding termites, back-blowingly weird.

Ed Yong of Discover Magazine reports that a pair of researchers from Brussels and the Czech Republic have found that the fate of elderly termite workers of the species Neocapritermes taracua is to be a kind of suicide bomber in defense of their colony. Some workers have blue crystals on their backs that get bigger as their mandibles get too worn down for the work of youth. The crystals contain a protein that works like our hemoglobin (carrying oxygen through their bodies) and is toxic to other termites. These crystals mix with saliva from a gland in the termites' back (yes, that’s where they keep it). When the colony is attacked by other termites the blue workers bite the interlopers and their backs release a sticky substance that kills invaders (video on the link). When researchers “dabbed the fluid on a competing termite species, 28 percent were paralysed and 65 percent died.”

That’s certainly a self-destruct mechanism worthy of any sci-fi alien or ship...and it’s got a little Logan’s Run "you’re-too-old-to-live" theme going for it, too. (Obviously, if I were a termite I’d have a blue back because I’m doddering enough to remember Logan’s Run.)

4. This pitcher is quite the catcher

So the termite is drafted into kamikaze service for its colony, which is kind of heroic. Ants who encounter the carniverous plant Nepenthes gracilisare simply tricked into klutziness.

Sindya N. Banho of the New York Times brings the story of this exotic pitcher plant, which provides good shelter for ants who want to get out of the rain. In fair weather they’re fine. But when a raindrop hits the top of the plant, BOING! The insect gets dropped into the pitcher. You can see some examples here on the Wikipedia entry for the plant.

So next time someone tells you, “A little rain never hurt anybody,” you’ll know better.

5. Living on an inferno

It’s one thing to have seven minutes of terror over a huge NASA project or a few moments of terror these poor insect have en route to A Bug’s Afterlife. But imagine if your house was sitting above an underground coal fire that had been burning for nearly 100 years?

Hard to imagine, but that’s the grim reality for the people of Jharia, India: A coal fire burning beneath their village that has the potential to consume houses and people; it swallowed 250 homes in a single two-hour period in 1995. Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times writes that the fires, which started in 1916, may be the result of old mines that weren’t properly decommissioned. Locals believe the state coal company lets the fire burn, “hoping residents will leave so it can exploit the estimated $12 billion in high-grade coking coal, used in steel production, that sits below Jharia.” The company denies it, but also says that as much of the natural resource as possible has to be exploited to grow the economy.            

Underground coal fires aren’t limited to this area: a 2010 Time magazine story by Dan Cray says every continent except Antarctica has such fires and that 100 are burning beneath nine U.S. states. There is evidence that fires like these have been burning since the Pleistocene era. 

Both stories are well worth reading, especially about the residents who stay in Jharia because they can’t get a good relocation deal to go elsewhere: Magnier writes, “Widespread asthma, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, not to mention the mental stress, are the price they pay so affluent people in New Delhi and Mumbai can enjoy their energy-guzzling lives."

6. In space no one can hear you…eww, what’s that smell?

Never having smelled a coal fire I don’t know how bad it is. I bet outer space is better.

Though by all accounts it’s pretty whiffy.

"It's like something I haven't ever smelled before, but I'll never forget it.”

You hear that kind of thing said about the odor of dead bodies, but in this case the quote is from NASA astronaut Kevin Ford describing the aroma of space. Life’s Little Mysteries reported on astronauts’ impressions of the scent, which include “seared steak, hot metal and welding fumes.”

So, space smells like a shop class next door to an Outback franchise? Perhaps Frebreeze should be our first gift to the aliens.

Atomic oxygen and a “high energy vibration of ions,” may be part of the reasons space smells the way it does.

Gun powder and ozone were scents also reported by Space.com (via LLM), but astronaut Don Pettit said, “The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation ....It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes.”

Okay, this is odd, but you know where I most frequently remember encountering a sweet, metallic smell? In the sweat of people who drink more than Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year. Since I can’t find anything about this online, it may just be my imagination, but to me, it seems, space is going to smell like a next-day drunk. How very homey.

7. Why you have food cravings

Just reading the phrase “seared steak,” made me crave it. Aside from the obvious “delicious” factor, it turns out that there are certain reasons why we crave the foods we do. Our bodies often know what we need, so though we might not consciously be trying to lower our cholesterol or detoxify, our bodies signal us to eat the right things, writes io9’s Esther Inglis-Arkell

Some of our food cravings are totally understandable, like chocolate. You crave that because you want the high, not because of its legendary "love chemicals." But because it contains cannabinoids, also found in marijuana, you’d have to consume an awful lot of chocolate, she says, to get the same high you would from pot.

Some cravings are a little less common…like clay. I’ve heard of clay cravings, like a young lady on “My Strange Addiction,” who ate pottery, but it certainly isn't common. Inglis-Arkell explains that clay and dirt (the girl on the show also ate dirt as a child) contain kaolin which takes alkaloids out of unripe foods that humans and animals sometimes eat -- alkaloids are toxic to both groups. “When people get a craving to eat clay, they're acting on ancient, and correct, instincts that tell them they've been poisoned.”

She also explains why you might crave coffee as a painkiller, ginger for your heart, and milk in tea and coffee to protect your throat from tannins.

I’m sure there’s some ancient bodily wisdom about craving Doritos, and she just didn’t get around to covering that one.

8. Flipper meet-up group

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but when you’re a fan of or an abstainer of certain things, including foods, you often group with people of like mind: a recent Match.com poll (via Newser) found that 30% of meat eaters would not date a vegetarian. Humans love their subcultures, whether it’s wine-tasting, Comic-Con or Superbowl parties, we like to be with people who share our interests.

Dolphins feel the same way.

For the first time animals, specifically dolphins, have been seen to group according to a shared preference. The preference is for an activity called “sponging,” slipping a sponge onto their beaks to protect them from rough surfaces when they hunt on the ocean floor. Bottlenose dolphins in Australia’s Shark Bay who had learned sponging tend to hang out with other dolphins who sponge, reports the AFP (via Phys.Org). It’s “the first evidence of animal grouping based on mutual interest.”

Other tool-using animals, like chimps and elephants, learn their techniques from each other, but sponging isn’t like that; only the calves of females who sponge learn to do it, so it’s only a small percentage of dolphins who sponge. Study author Janet Mann of Georgetown University told the AFP that the dolphins “spend a lot of time hunting, tend to be solitary, but clearly go out of their way when they can to meet up. You could think of them as workaholic dolphins that prefer to meet up with the other workaholics."

Last week we talked about gorillas who teamed up to dismantle poacher’s snares, bringing to mind Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We're looking forward to the first wolf pack wearing “Team Jacob” T-shirts.

9. A 180 on climate change

Here’s something else friends do together: practice denial.

“We didn’t drink that much wine,” we tell each other through our head-splitting hangovers. Or, “Well, you were craving those Doritos so you must have really needed them.” A little self-deception can be fine if it helps you, say, pretend you’re confident so you can make a presentation, but too much denial can be decidedly unhelpful. 

Which brings us to climate change denial and one scientist who has changed his mind about it, as reported by Neela Banerjee in the Christian Science Monitor.

Richard A. Muller, physics professor at the UC Berkeley and co-founder of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, thought that flaws in prior studies called climate change into doubt. He’s now done a total reversal, saying “Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

From the CSM:

The Berkeley project’s research has shown, Muller says, that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by 2½ degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of 1½ degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

Interestingly, the Berkeley project is funded by the famous Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, which “has a considerable history of backing groups that deny climate change.”

Since so few people, especially those in the public eye, ever willingly say they were mistaken or even that they’ve changed their mind about such a hot-button issue, this is kind of a cool story. And with the record heat we needed something cool, wouldn’t you say?

10. Your fly is open…to danger!

The opinions and activities of scientists have a huge bearing on the way we view important global issues. And then there’s this:

Remember when you were a kid and you made your dolls look like they were having sex? Some scientists do that with dead flies. And yes, it’s a legitimate part of their job description.

Stefan Grief of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany authored a study on how the European Natterer’s bat locates the flies that are its prey. He found that the noises flies make while mating gives their location away to the bats, reports the New York Times’ Sindya N. Bhando. The bats typically use ecolocation to find their prey, but background echoes drown out the sound of the flies. Video showed the researchers that the flies who were just mooching around or being still didn’t get attacked while mating pairs did -- 5% of mating pairs were attacked and 60% of those got eaten.

Isn’t there a song called “Don’t Fall in Love with a Screamer”?

Actually it’s not screaming, but a buzzing noise they make during sex that gives them away. Researchers played it to confirm that’s what the bats were looking for, and this is where the doll thing comes in -- they also mounted dead flies in a copulatory position. Grief said the bats left those alone.

The flies' dilemma -- should they copulate longer, increasing their chance of breeding, but risk death by bat? Or just have a quickie and live a little longer?

Liz Langley is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. #OrlandoUnited. OrlandoStrong.

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