has the last word...
SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2020
James Bond latest -- He's on the hunt for a stolen Austin Martin! Bond is famous for his fast cars. Before Christmas a £120,000, lime-green, V8 Austin Martin was stolen near Beeston, Nottingham (Great Britain). The constabulary announced that Det Sgt James Bond was on the case urging witnesses to call if they have any information about the theft that may lead to the culprits.
More police high jinks...
Police social-media appeal for the owner of distinctive silver ring gets thousands of Lord of the Rings responses. The rings have Elvish engravings but the North Yorkshire Police, not recognising Elvish, were blissfully unaware of the Tolkien connection. Thousands of people soon responded with gifs and memes referencing the famous fantasy novel and film series. The regional British police force responded: “We obviously need to brush up on our movie knowledge.”
Marvel Black Panther's fictional country of Wakanda was listed as a free trade partner of the US. The listing was on the drop-down menu for the US Department of Agriculture's foreign agricultural service’s tariff tracker. In December when the error was spotted, the fictional country was removed. Apparently, it had been added to a test version of the tariff tracker.
Powerful hallucinogenic potions found in a 1,000-year-old leather bundle buried in a cave in the Bolivian Andes. The leather kit dates back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization, which dominated the southern Andean highlands from about 550 to 950 AD. The idea that shamans have long used natural psyco-active compounds is not new. What is new is the discovery of a well-preserved shaman kit from a thousand years ago and that the potions are so powerful. The compounds include: bufotenine, DMT, harmine, cocaine and benzoylecgonine. Various combinations of these substances produce powerful, mind-altering hallucinations; even seasoned members of the SF&DA may wish to exercise caution. The tryptamine DMT produces strong, vivid hallucinations that can last from minutes to an hour, but combined with harmine, you can have prolonged out-of-body altered states of consciousness with altered perceptions of time and of the self. The plants found in the bundle do not grow at the altitude where the bundle in the cave was found, suggesting the bundle's owner may have been a travelling shaman or another expert in the rituals of psychotropic plant use, or someone who was part of an extensive medicinal plant trading network. (See Miller, M. J. et al (2019) Chemical evidence for the use of multiple psychotropic plants in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from South America. PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1902174116.).
Humans are getting cooler! The standard body temperature is 37°C or 98.6 °F, right? Wrong! Not only do human's body temperatures get cooler by roughly two tenths of a degree Celsius over an 80-year lifespan but research from N. America looking at birth temperature medical records covering two centuries from 1800AD has found that the average human body temperature has lowered by over half a degree Celsius! The human species is getting cooler. Their results indicate that humans in high-income countries have changed physiologically over the last 200 years with a mean body temperature 1.6% lower than in the pre-industrial era. Why, remains unknown. (See Protsiv, M. et al (2020) Decreasing human body temperature in the United States since the Industrial Revolution. eLife, vol. 9, e49555. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.49555.)
New, non-stick surface for toilets developed. Not to be poo-poohed. The non-stick material is a viscoelastic solid-repellent that can be sprayed onto toilet bowls in two coatings: the first puts down a layer of hair-like molecules and the second makes those hairs extremely slippery. The coating lasts for roughly 500 flushes say the researchers from Penn State University, USA. The thing, not to be sniffed at, is that non-fouling coating that can reduce cleaning water consumption by ~90%. With an estimated 1 billion or more mains-water toilets and urinals worldwide, over 141 billion litres of fresh water are used globally each day for toilet flushing: that's is nearly six times the daily water consumption of the entire population of Africa! Incorporating this coating into sanitation systems will have significant implications for global sanitation and sustainable water management. (See Wang, J. et al (2019) Viscoelastic solid-repellent coatings for extreme water saving and global sanitation. Nature Sustainability, vol. 2, p1,097–1,105.)
Modern takeaway coffee cup enables Game of Thrones to join a the select band of films and shows with misplaced objects in view and anachronistic references. The polystyrene coffee cup appears by Daenerys Targaryen (Morther of Dragons) on the table in the great hall in an episode broadcast on 6th May 2019. The Game of Thrones makers promptly responded in good humour with a Tweet saying that, "the latte that appeared in the episode was a mistake. Daenerys had ordered a herbal tea." They quickly digitally removed the object from the streamed edition of the show and the recorded version of episode destined for subsequent network broadcast. So only if you recorded the episode as it was broadcast will you see the erroneous cup. Other examples of cinematic blunders include a gas cylinder beneath an upturned chariot in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, a Ford mondeo car in the background of a horseback battle in Braveheart (1995), a plastic bottle in a promotional photo for the Victorian and Edwardian series Downton Abbey, a more recent guitar played by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), set in 1936, sees a plane over a map featuring Thailand and Jordan: Thailand and Jordan were known as Siam and Transjordan back then.
Last summer saw much celebration of the first human setting foot on the Moon. All well and good but this is not really news. Here's the thing... Prior to this iconic 50th anniversary, Gaia happened to visit a former SF² Concatenation haunt in North Heath and was invited to its SF group's summer barbecue and there imparted the quip from the 2019 New Year news page's item on the year's forthcoming anniversaries: namely, that 2019 was to be the 50th anniversary of the first person landing on the Moon, without the use of Cavorite. Now, while this Gaia column may have a few thousand readers, these accrue over a number of weeks, if not month's, of SF² Concatenation seasonal edition going online. So it was with mixed feelings when Gaia discovered that one of the North Heath group's members had turned this verbal quip into a visual and put it on their FaceBook page with barely a hundred followers.
Within just 12 hours, their post garnered over 3,000 views and numerous likes and shares! Their Facebook page in hours had the reach it takes this annual Gaia column to have in a week! The power of Facebook.
How much does SF help inspire the science community? Gaia often wonders. One example last year came from a new item in the journal Science titled 'When robots sleep, do they dream of algorithms?' (Science, vol. 365, p1333). Was this perhaps inspired by a certain Philip K. Dick novel? Alas the article itself was not particularly SFnal and did not even relate to something like artificial intelligence as one might suppose: instead it was about biomarkers for brain health and neurological disease. Oh well.
Talking of biomarkers, if you are trying to minimise your digital footprint then going to the loo could become problematic! Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (US) have developed a toilet that analyses urine for markers that could signpost over 600 medical conditions including diabetes and cancer. It will even be able to let the user know how much alcohol and coffee they have drunk. They are now designing a toilet whose sensors will recognise an individual. Link that to the internet and people's doctors will be able to monitor their patients remotely. If the insurance companies get wise, they too may even demand access to the information for things like life insurance, and banks might want to know for long-term loans such as mortgages, or the police in cases of drink driving. The future could literally be taking the ρiss.
Beer festival excess methane not principally caused by farts! Past research monitoring the air at Germany's major Munich beer festival, Oktoberfest, showed that there were elevated levels of methane with methane levels up 100 parts per billion during it compared to after it. (For reference, the average atmospheric concentration of methane is around 2 parts per million, so we are talking an approximately 10% rise in concentration.) It had been thought that much of this excess came from beer drinkers burps and farts. Now new research, that measured methane concentrations at regular intervals throughout Oktoberfest, has revealed that methane levels peaked around morning, afternoon and evening meal times. Had most of this methane come from beer-soaked revellers farts and burps then late-in-the-day and evening peaks would have been expected. The researchers, from the Technical University of Munich, concluded that over 80% of the excess methane came from leaking cooking and heating equipment with only 22% coming from farts and burps. As methane is a greenhouse gas (more powerful than carbon dioxide) Gaia finds it a relief to know that drinking beer does not have that significant an effect on climate change. (See the Journal of Amtospheric Chemistry & Physics, vol. 20, p3,683 - 3,696.)
25 years ago: Do old men have big ears? A burning biological question that a quarter of a century ago that 19 members of the south east Thames faculty of the Royal College of General Practitioners asked. Why do old men have big ears? Some members thought that this was obviously true -- indeed some old men have very big ears -- but others doubted it, and so four of them set out to answer the question: "As you get older do your ears get bigger?" To do this, the four doctors measured their patients ears and plotted their size against the patients' age. They did indeed find a positive correlation. It seems therefore that as we get older our ears get bigger (on average by 0-22 mm a year). This begs the question as to why this is so? Alas, this last question has not been answered and has remained unanswered to this day. (See Heathcote, J. A., 1995, Why do old men have big ears? British Medical Journal, vol. 31, p1,668.)Which brings us neatly on to our never-changing end-of-Gaia column regular…
The 2019 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year shortlist and winner have been announced.
The 2019 shortlist included:-
And the winner… The Dirt Hole and its Variations by Charles L Dobbins. The book is reprint but as it was reprinted last year it is eligible for the prize. As to what this title is about, do not leave it to your imagination unless you have clean thoughts. 'Dirt Holes' are used in hunting.
See you in 2021 with more sciencey whimsicality and SF frivolity.