Thursday, July 31, 2008

Heads Up, Eclipse!

There will be a total solar eclipse during tomorrow morning's sunrise (August 1). As seen from a narrow track crossing parts of Canada's northern islands, the eclipse is total. The path of totality then sweeps eastward across northern Greenland, across Siberia, and ends at sunset in China.

For those located in Eastern Canada, the last partial solar eclipse visible was 9 years ago, 1999 August 11, and it also occurred at sunrise. There was a more recent solar eclipse on Christmas Day 2000, but clouds and snow hid it. After tomorrow, the next partial solar eclipse visible from this area will happen on November 3, 2013.

To see tomorrow's unusual sunrise, be ready for an early wake up, as the period of total eclipse, or totality, will occur from 7:08am to 7:10am EDT. You will need a proper solar filter to avoid damaging your eyes, or use a pinhole mirror projector. But if you sleep through the alarm, fear not, NASA has you covered. They will be providing a live feed of the event. The coverage, originating in China and reliant on good weather, runs from 6:00am to 8:15am EDT. Follow this link to see it happen!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Montreal Anomaly

Two large tornado-like waterspouts were spotted over Montreal on June 23rd as a result of an approaching severe thunderstorm. Environment Canada confirmed that the first waterspout formed in Montreal's east end at 1:15 pm ET in the St. Lawrence River. Simultaneously, a second waterspout formed about 70 km northeast of the city.

This "waterspout" is a spinning funnel column of water and vapour that forms between a cloud and the earth. Generally they are weaker than a tornado, and usually occur in tropical regions. They are frequently reported in areas like Florida, off the coast of Key West.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lemur Emergence

A new population of lemurs has been discovered in the Torotorofotsy wetland region of east-central Madagascar. The extremely rare greater bamboo lemur, or Prolemur simus, is listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. This newfound group joins another isolated population of ~100 animals in Madagascar's northern bamboo forests, some 400 km away.

Scientists estimate that 30 to 40 of the lemurs live in the swampy region, where bamboo is plentiful. These wrinkly faced creatures are known for cracking open giant bamboo with their industrial-strength jaws. Perhaps a pocket population strayed south to escape habitat destruction from illegal logging, which is common in the north.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Fastest Of The Slow

Every year 300 snails compete in the annual World Snail Racing Championship, held in Congham, Norfolk. The snails race from the middle of a circle (radius = 13 inches) to the outside. The snails are put in the center and pointed in the right direction, as their Trainer starts the race by yelling "Ready, steady, SLOW!"

The picture above shows an overjoyed snail named Heikki, the 2008 World Champion, who won in a time of 3 minutes, 2 seconds. The trainer? 13 year old Georgie Brown. The World record still remains at a speedy 2 minutes flat, set in 1995 by the legendary snail Archie.

Peruvian Mummy

A team of archaeologists and anthropologists uncovered an ancient mummy wrapped in many layers of detailed textiles. This specimen, found in a remote northern region of Peru, was preserved very well. There were many unique elements to this find. His eyes were covered with metal plates and many unfamiliar artifacts were found between the layers of cocooning textiles. Watch the video for a deeper look:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fastest Muscle

No, that's a mussel! However, the fastest muscles known have been found in the throats of songbirds. Head researcher Coen Elemans and colleagues uncovered that zebra finches and European starlings have the ability to change their tunes at frequencies up to 250 hertz via direct muscle control. That's about 100 times faster than the blink of an eye.

By exposing the vocal muscle fibers to electrical stimulation, scientists clocked how fast the muscles expanded and contracted. Both female and male starlings moved at about 3.2 milliseconds per expansion or contraction. In zebra finches, females moved at 7.1 milliseconds, while males twitched at 3.7.

There are some competitors elsewhere in the natural world. Rattlesnakes come in a close second with the twitching muscles on both sides of their rattler. The muscles in swim bladders of certain fish also move strikingly fast.

"We had no idea muscles could work at these superfast rates," said Daniel Margoliash, a biologist at the University of Chicago. "That they can and do is just amazing."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Wet Moon

A study recently published in Nature magazine is making scientists rethink the theory of how the Moon formed. To recap, the theory states that the Moon was created during a violent collision between Earth and another planet-sized object. The heat from this impact would have vaporised all water. This new study claims that water was delivered to the lunar surface from the interior in volcanic eruptions approximately 3 billion years ago, implying that the water has been part of the Moon since its existence.

The US Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s successfully collected lunar volcanic glasses, pebble-like beads. Since then scientists have been determining the nature of the chemical elements in the glasses.

Using secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) technology, the team from Brown University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and Case Western Reserve University, were able to detect extremely tiny amounts of water in glasses and minerals.

"We were really surprised to find a whole lot more in these tiny glass beads, up to 46 parts per million," said Erik Hauri, from the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC.

They think that the water was contained in magma which erupted via "fire fountains" on the lunar surface more than 3 billion years ago. The eruptions themselves would have evaporated 95% of the water, but also leave some behind. Since the Moon's gravity is too weak to have an atmosphere, speculations indicate that some of the water vapour was likely forced into space. But some might have drifted towards the cold poles of the Moon, where ice may exists in constantly shadowed craters.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Baby In The Mail

Thirty four year old Thomas Beatie, the world's first pregnant man, has given birth to a baby girl in Oregon. How could a man be pregnant you ask? Well "Mr." Beatie was born a woman, but underwent gender realignment surgery, so now he is legally considered to be male. He was able to conceive because he kept his female organs during the sex change operation.

“Sterilization is not a requirement for sex reassignment, so I decided to have chest reconstruction and testosterone therapy but kept my reproductive rights,” he writes. “Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire but a human desire.”

As expected, this whole ordeal has garnered much attention. Mr. Beatie announced his pregnancy in April on the Oprah Winfrey show. He also plans to write a book about the entire experience. A hospital source said that the baby is healthy and the mother/father has been permitted to leave the hospital.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

That's Better

Don't worry it's not another too good to be true hydro car. This is Volkswagen's 282 mile per gallon (MPG) super fuel efficient car. It was around as a prototype model in 2002 and is known by metric system users as the '1 Liter car' since thats how much gasoline is needed per 100 km. Volkswagen has decided to make a limited number (in the thousands) of these vehicles, and will put them up for sale in 2010.

So just how good is this fuel efficiency? Lets compare it with the top selling cars in the US during January of this year: Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The Toyota Camry will squeeze out 35 MPG on the highway, while the Accord maxes out at 29 MPG.

So how do they do it? The 1 Liter car weighs only 660 pounds, and is made from a body of carbon composites. Due to its slippery shape, it has a coefficient drag of only 0.16 (the average car is about 0.30). The prototype was powered by a 1-cylinder diesel engine, but the soon to be released model should be equipped with a 2-cylinder, and perhaps a stop-start anti-idling feature.

Until we can produce a completely new method, we might as well improve on the one that's around now. It might not be available to the masses yet, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ant Killer

This is an ant infected by a parasitic fungus of the Cordycep genus. This fungus is interesting because it actually manipulates the behavior of its host in order to increase its own chances of reproducing. Once infected, the ant is forced to climb high up into a tree or nearby plant, where it attaches itself. This strange behavior assures a maximized distribution of spores from the fruiting body that emerges out of the dead insect's body weeks later.

In more detail... The fungus spores first attach themselves to the surface of the ant, where they germinate. They then invade the ant's body through the tracheae, allowing for fine fungal filaments called mycelia to start growing. When the fungus is ready to sporulate, the mycelia grow into the ant's brain, and produce chemicals which act on the brain to alter their perception of pheromones. This makes the ant climb a plant and, after reaching the peak, to clamp its mandibles around a leaf or leaf stem. This becomes the ant's final resting place.

The fungus eats through the brain, killing the host. The fungal fruiting bodies sprout from the ant's head, through gaps in the joints of the exoskeleton. When mature, the fruiting bodies burst and release capsules into the air. These explode on their way down, effectively spreading airborne spores over the area below. These spores infect other ants, completing the fungal life cycle. Depending on the type of fungus and the number of infecting spores, death of an infected insect takes 4 to 10 days.

This video is a clip taken from the BBC Planet Earth documentary: