Enjoy classic illustrations of the micro world, for free

This illustration of a flea comes from Robert Hooke's Micrographia — an amazing collection of illustrations drawn from microscope images, first published in 1665. Think of it like a proto-viral blog post that somehow fuzed Nature and Buzzfeed. Something with a headline like "15 UNBELIEVABLE IMAGES OF EVERYDAY THINGS!"

Micrographia — the whole thing — is now available in ebook form. For free. In several different formats. To give you a sense of why this is worth checking out, here's Carl Zimmer on the book's social/scientific impact back in the 17th century:

In January 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he stayed up till two in the morning reading a best-selling page-turner, a work that he called "the most ingenious book I read in my life." It was not a rousing history of English battles or a proto-bodice ripper. It was filled with images: of fleas, of bark, of the edges of razors.

The book was called Micrographia. It provided the reading public with its first look at the world beyond the naked eye. Its author, Robert Hooke, belonged to a brilliant circle of natural philosophers who--among many other things--were the first in England to make serious use of microscopes as scientific instruments. They were great believers in looking at the natural world for themselves rather than relying on what ancient Greek scholars had claimed. Looking under a microscope at the thousands of facets on an insect's compound eye, they saw things at the nanoscale that Aristotle could not have dreamed of. A razor's edge became a mountain range. In the chambers of a piece of bark, Hooke saw the first evidence of cells.

Hooke gave a lecture to the Royal Society about these investigations, and the members of the Society were so impressed that they urged Hooke to publish a book--a visual argument for the new scientific method.

Read the rest of Carl Zimmer's review, and check out links to the various ebooks of Micrographia

Why don't giraffes have necks as long as a brachiosaurus?

We think of giraffes as long-necked creatures, but compared to ancient sauropod dinosaurs (a family that includes the brachiosaurus and apatosaurus) even the longest-necked giraffe may as well be nicknamed "Stumpy". In a paper published online at arXiv site, two paleontologists analyzed the biology of sauropods in an attempt to figure out which features allowed the dinosaurs to grow necks six times longer than giraffes.

Turns out, there are some distinct differences — especially in the anatomical architecture of the vertebra closest to both animals' skulls — that really stand out. As this helpful slide shows, a sauropod with the vertebra of a giraffe would be in very bad shape, indeed.

This paper, by the authors' own account, began life "as a late-night discussion over a couple of beers", which means it's basically the paleontology equivalent of "Who would win in a fight: Darth Vader or Superman?" Which is awesome. Better yet, the paper is quite easy to read and the information is organized in a way that will probably make more sense to you than the typical scientific research paper. So dig in! It's worth it! Here's one short excerpt taken from a part discussing some of those differences in the cervical vertebra (the aforementioned vertebra closest to the skull):

Many groups of animals seem to be constrained as to the number of cervical vertebrae they can evolve. With the exceptions of sloths and sirenians, mammals are all limited to exactly seven cervicals; azdarchids are variously reported as having seven to nine cervical vertebrae, but never more; non-avian theropods do not seem to have exceeded the 13 or perhaps 14 cervicals of Neimongosaurus, with eleven or fewer being more typical.

By contrast, sauropods repeatedly increased the number of their cervical vertebrae, attaining as many as 19 in Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis. Modern swans have up to 25 cervical vertebrae, and as noted above the marine reptile Albertonectes had 76 cervical vertebrae. Multiplication of cervical vertebrae obviously contributes to neck elongation.

Read the full study at arXiv

Read a blog post about the study by one of the authors

Via Bora Zivkovic

Glaucus atlanticus: For once, the Internet is not lying to you

This is actually a real life animal.

I know. I didn't believe it either. When it turned up in my Facebook feed, via my Aunt Beth, I assumed that this had to be a hoax photo. Had to be. I mean, just look at it. This animal looks like it should appear in pretty photos forwarded to you by your aunt that later turn out to be the result of a photoshopping contest on Something Awful, right?

But then it was on Wikipedia, too. And I thought, "Okay, it's still the Internet. Somebody is clearly just getting really elaborate in their trolling."

And I suppose that's true. If by "somebody", what I mean to say is "natural selection".

This is the Glaucus atlanticus. It is a type of nudibranch—shell-less mollusks known for their extravagant shapes and colors. It is venomous. And I am now almost completely convinced that it's not a joke.

Read the rest

Hiking an abandoned hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls

Geology Ph.D. student and volcano blogger Jessica Ball recently took a detour away from volcanoes and into the world of awesome abandoned industrial sites.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE awesome abandoned industrial sites?

Ball went hiking around the former site of the Schoellkopf Power Station—a hydroelectric plant that once turned the force of Niagara Falls into electricity.

The ruins of this power plant were the second station built on the site, and were completed in 1895. Both buildings were constructed by Jacob Schoellkopf, who had purchased a hydraulic canal, the land around it and the power rights in 1877. The plant eventually became part of the Niagara Falls Power Company in the early twentieth century. But by 1956, water that had been seeping through the rock in the gorge wall behind the plant had weakened it. On June 7th, workers noticed cracks in the rear wall of the plant, and at 5 that evening a catastrophic collapse destroyed more than 2/3 of the station. One man died, several had to be rescued from the Niagara River, and debris from the collapse made it as far as the Canadian side of the Gorge.

Before the collapse, the plant was generating 360,000 kilowatts of power for the city of Niagara Falls; afterward plants on the Canadian side picked up the slack, and the destroyed plant was later surpassed by redevelopment of the hydropower infrastructure in the area, including the construction of the Robert Moses Generating Station farther downstream.

Check out her photo-filled tour of the site at the Magma Cum Laude blog

Watch the Sun "burp"

Check out this great NASA video showing a coronal mass ejection—a burst of plasma thrown off the surface of the Sun—from several different perspectives. It happened on August 31 and it's really gorgeous. It's also rather huge, as far as these things go. Luckily, it wasn't pointed directly at Earth. Coronal mass ejections can affect our planet's magnetic field. There's a risk of large ones screwing with everything from our electric grid to radio waves.

Read more about coronal mass ejections on Wikipedia

Building an indoor hurricane at the University of Miami

This is how Hurricane Isaac looked on Tuesday, as it made landfall on America's Gulf Coast. If you've never been to the Gulf of Mexico, here is a key fact you should know: The water there is warm. While Pacific coastal waters might be in the 50s during August, and the central Atlantic coast is pulling temperatures in the 60s and 70s, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is well into the 80s.

And that makes a difference. We know that water temperature affects hurricane strength. But we don't understand the particulars of how or why at a detail level. To learn more about this (and other factors that make each hurricane an individual), researchers at the University of Miami are building a simulation machine. When it's complete, it will be a key tool in improving forecasts.

Peter Sollogub, Associate Principal at Cambridge Seven, says the hurricane simulator is comprised of three major components:
The first is a 1400-horsepower fan originally suited for things like ventilating mine shafts. To create its 150mph winds, it will draw energy from the campus's emergency generator system, which is typically used during power outages caused by storms.

The second part is a wave generator which pushes salt water using 12 different paddles. Those paddles, timed to move at different paces and rates, can create waves at various sizes, angles and frequency, creating anything from a calm, organized swell to sloppy chaotic seas.

The third aspect of the tank is the tank itself, which is six meters in width by 20 meters in length by two meters high. It's made of three-inch thick clear acrylic so that the conditions inside can be observed from all sides.

Read more about the hurricane simulator at Popular Science

Seed artists support marriage equality

I've written here before about seed art at the Minnesota State Fair. Every year, Minnesotans glue thousands of tiny seeds to heavy backing material to create some surprisingly elaborate examples of portraiture and political commentary. Oddly, given that this is folk art at a state fair in the Midwest, most of that political commentary is solidly liberal.

I wasn't able to make it to the Minnesota State Fair this year, but Minnesota Public Radio's Nikki Tundel was there. At least four different entries in this year's seed art competition feature marriage equality themes—responses to the coming election when Minnesotans will decide whether or not to enshrine discriminatory marriage laws into our state constitution. It's safe to say: Minnesota's seed artists want you to vote "No".

You can see all the marriage equality seed art at the MPR News Tumblr blog

Via the Stuff About Minneapolis blog, and Andrew Balfour

Testing out a Star Wars-style hover bike in the Mojave desert

I really, really hope that this is real and not another cruel hoax by Robert Zemeckis*.

Popular Science says it's legit, and that you wouldn't need any special training to drive the thing:

Brought to you by aerospace firm Aerofex, the bike runs on a pair of powerful fans. It picks up on instinctive movements people make while riding a bicycle or motorbike, then moves in the same way (except, you know, flying), meaning anyone can have a go at it. For safety reasons, they've tested it at 30 mph and 15 feet high, although earlier versions of it went as fast as a helicopter.

Read more at Popular Science

(*shakes fist in the air* ZEMECKIS!)

The desert that creates the rainforest

This is probably the most amazing thing I learned all weekend. The Amazon rainforest—with all its plant and animal life, and all its astounding biodiversity—could not exist as we know it without the patch of African desert pictured above.

The rainforest is amazing, but the soil it produces isn't very nutrient rich. All the minerals and nutrients that fertilize the rainforest have to come from someplace else. Specifically: Africa. Scientists have known for a while that this natural fertilizer is crossing the Atlantic in the form of dust storms, but science writer Colin Schultz ran across a 2006 paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters that not only produces evidence for a much larger trans-oceanic transfer of dust than was previously assumed ... it also pinpoints the exact (and astoundingly small) location where all the fertilizer in the Amazon is coming from.

The research paper, itself, is pleasantly readable, as far as these things go, so I'm going to quote directly from it. One quick note before I launch into this quote. The authors are measuring the mass of the dust in teragrams (or Tg). As you're trying to wrap your head around this, it might be helpful to know that 1 Tg = 1 million tons.

A total of 140 (± 40) Tg is deposited in the Atlantic ocean and 50 (± 15) Tg reach and fertilize the Amazon basin. This is four times an older estimate, explaining a paradox regarding the source of nutrients to the Amazon forest. Swap et al suggested that while the source for minerals and nutrients in the Amazon is the dust from Africa, it was estimated that only 13 Tg of dust per year actually arrive in the Amazon. However, they pointed out that 50 Tg are needed to balance the Amazon nutrient budget.

Here we show a remarkable arrangement in nature in which the mineral dust arriving at the Amazon basin from the Sahara actually originates from a single source of only ~ 0.5% of the size of the Amazon: the Bodélé depression. Located northeast of Lake Chad (17°N, 18°E) near the northern border of the Sahel, it is known to be the most vigorous source for dust over the entire globe.

Basically, these 2006 calculations account for all the fertilization needs of the Amazon, while previous calculations left a weird gap in between the amount of dust the rainforest needed and the amount the scientists thought was getting there.

Also: The place the dust is coming from is a single, highly specific region. As Alexis Madrigal pointed out at The Atlantic, we're talking about a patch of desert only 1/3 the size of Florida supplying the nutrient needs of a jungle that is roughly the same size as all 48 contiguous United States. Mind, blown.

Read the full research paper at Environmental Research Letters

Check out The Atlantic's write up on this, including a satellite photo of the dust storms in question.

Follow the guy who started it all—the very smart, very entertaining, and very tall Colin Schultz

Via Bart King

Google Street View goes to Kennedy Space Center

I don't know what the best words ever written in the English language are, but I'm willing to put "Top of Launch Pad 39A, Address is Approximate" up there on the short list.

Among the images you can now explore online with the click of your mouse are the space shuttle launch pad, Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Firing Room #4. Gaze down from the top of the enormous launch pad, peer up at the towering ceiling of the Vehicle Assembly Building (taller than the Statue of Liberty) and get up close to one of the space shuttle’s main engines, which is powerful enough to generate 400,000 lbs of thrust. And even though they recently entered retirement, you can still get an up-close, immersive experience with two of the Space Shuttle Orbiters—the Atlantis and Endeavour.

I'm not sure when this went live, but it's seriously phenomenal. And it's part of a larger series of special Street View galleries with geeky appeal. There are sets for Antarctica (see Shackleton's shack!), historic Italy (wander around the Colosseum!), and UNESCO World Heritage Sites (includes Pompeii!). In general, discovering this could be a major time-suck for me, if I'm not careful.

See the NASA collection

Check out the other Street View Galleries

Science T-shirt is blunt, to the point

Have I mentioned how much I absolutely love geneticist (and occasional BoingBoing contributor) David Ng? The fact that he designs awesome T-shirts while procrastinating just seals the deal.

You can buy this T-shirt

How to: Build a living sea creature from spare parts

A couple of days ago, Rob told you about scientists who had built a "jellyfish" in the lab, using rat cells. Which is awesome. Naturally, it's not quite as awesome as it sounds, though.

The scientists haven't created life. Instead, they've built a little construct of cells and silicone. This construct—the medusoid—is interesting, in that, when you spark it with electricity, it moves in ways that are very similar to a juvenile jellyfish. But it's not actually an animal. It doesn't eat. It can't make more of itself. It needs that outside zap to move at all.

But despite all that it is not, the medusoid is a very cool first step towards doing some amazing things. At Scientific American, journalist Ferris Jabr looked at what the scientists have done, how living jellyfish work, and what it would take to build a for-real-real artificial jellyfish.

Whereas a real jellyfish generates electrical impulses to stimulate its muscle cells, a medusoid is entirely dependent on voltage generated by electrodes in its tank. Moon jellies have eight pacemaker cells scattered around the middle of their bodies (just about every jellyfish body part comes in multiples of four). Pacemaker cells keep the jellies’ muscles pulsating rhythmically. We have pacemaker cells in our hearts that do the same thing. So do rats. Janna Nawroth thinks it’s possible to weave pacemaker cells from a rat’s heart into the heart muscle tissue that makes up a medusoid, which might allow the artificial jellyfish to bob on its own, sans electrodes.

The upgrade would rely on a technique known as “co-culturing,” in which different types of cells are grown together. It’s often difficult enough to get one cell type to live happily in the lab, let alone a mixture of different kinds of cells. Think of them as high-maintenance houseplants that are fussy about their neighbors, withering if they do not like their circumstances. Although scientists have not yet mastered co-culturing, they have made impressive advances, cultivating little gardens of gut tissue and bacteria, for example, as well as epithelial cells and immune system cells.

Read the rest of the story at Scientific American

Pyura Chilensis, the living rock

This is not a geode. It's an animal. An apparently delicious animals with clear blood, whose body is accumulates surprisingly large amounts of a rare metal used to strengthen steel.

This is Pyura chilensis—an immobile ocean creature. Besides the other traits I mentioned, P. chilensis is also capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction. At the Running Ponies blog, Becky Crew explains the results of a 2005 study that detailed the creature's breeding habits for the first time.

The results showed that P. chilensis is born male, before becoming cosexual – having both male and female gonads – in its adolescence as it increased in size. The researchers also found that given the choice – that is, if situated around other individuals – these organisms prefer to breed via cross-fertilisation, writing, “Given that more events of natural egg spawning followed by successful settlement and metamorphosis were recorded in our paired specimens and in our manipulated cross trials … it appears that cross-fertilisation predominates in this species.”

Manríquez and Castilla also found that a greater number of fertilised eggs resulted from the paired specimens, which suggests that cross-fertilisation, or reproducing with another individual, predominates because it is more effective. This assumption was strengthened by the fact that individuals that had cross-fertilised before being put in isolation took at least two months before successfully producing offspring via selfing. However, they were careful to note that while cross-fertilisation was preferred, selfing did not produce inferior offspring. “No perceptible differences in fertilisation, settlement and metamorphosis success among self and outcross progeny were found,” they reported. This suggests that when stuck alone in the ocean, selfing provides an advantageous opportunity for loner P. chilensis individuals to still pass on their genes.

Read the rest of Becky Crew's post to learn more about Pyura chilensis

The perilous world of banana slug sex

Banana slugs are hermaphrodites. Every slug has both a penis (which pops out of a pore on its head, like you do) and a vagina. Or, rather, every slug should have a penis. The truth is that quite a few of them don't and the story behind that discrepancy is rather strange and horrifying. Since there's little I love more than strange and horrifying stories from nature, you get to hear all about it.

At The Last Word On Nothing, Cassandra Willyard tells the story of a nearly 100-year-old effort by scientists to understand why some banana slugs appear to be missing their penises, or have penises that are stunted. We have known since 1916 how those penises came to be missing. Willyard describes the situation, which you can also watch in action in the video above:

Banana slugs begin their mating with a few vicious love nips. Then the animals curl around each other, forming a bright yellow yin-yang symbol. Next, they insert their penises. (Remember, they both have one.) In some cases, one slug provides sperm and the other slug receives it. More often, the slugs swap sperm. Copulation can last many hours. Then, in most cases, the slugs withdraw and part ways.

Heath caught a couple of slugs in the act. He noted the biting and the insertion. And then Heath observed something puzzling. As the slugs were withdrawing their penises, “one of the animals turned its head and commenced to gnaw upon the walls of the organ,” Heath wrote. The biting was “unusually vigorous,” he added, “and within a very few minutes the penis was entirely severed.”

The confusing part is why the hell they do this to each other.

Willyard says the best idea so far is that the penis eating represents a sort of sperm competition—a way of ensuring that the slug you just mated with isn't going to get a shot at mating with anybody else. But that's really just an educated guess.

What I like best about this story (besides the shock and awe) is that it handily illustrates one of the difficulties inherent in scientific research. In many cases, it's quite easy to answer the question, "What happens?" A century ago, scientists could easily observe and document the penis-eating behavior. All it took was somebody with sufficient interest in the question that they were willing to spend time watching many, many examples of slug sex.

But the "Why" is sometimes trickier.

Read the full story at The Last Word On Nothing

Video courtesy University of California Santa Cruz graduate student Brooke Miller. See more of her work on banana slug sex.

Also included: Some fun with Latin vocabulary. Did you know that dolichophallus means "long penis"? You're welcome.

Via Ed Yong

The business end of a sea urchin

How's this for an amusing case of photographic mis-identification? Call it "Dueling Disgustingness". Last week, New Scientist posted this lovely image of a blue-spotted sea urchin, taken by nature photographer David Fleetham.

New Scientist identified the photo as depicting said sea urchin in the process of expelling its own guts out of its mouth. Which, gross, but okay. That's reasonable. A surprising number of underwater animals eat in this manner, using the acids in their guts to dissolve prey before they actually slurp it up as a slurry.

But, at the Echinoblog, Smithsonian invertebrate zoology researcher Christopher Mah makes a compelling case against New Scientist's interpretation. That's not actually the sea urchin's mouth, says Mah. In fact, it's the opposite. That's a (rare) photo of a sea urchin taking a dump.

Mah has a lot of good photos that make his case quite well. You should check them out. Then, join me in contemplating this thought: If Mah is right, doesn't sea urchin poop look a lot like Dippin' Dots?

The New Scientist blog post—featuring lots of cool info about sea urchins

Christopher Mah's analysis of the photo, explaining why he thinks it shows a pooping sea urchin, rather than one that is eating something.

David Fleetham's website—for more (less disgusting) photos of nature

Via Scicurious