Boing Boing 

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Where exhibits come from

Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.

This is actually a behind-the-scenes thing, submitted by Larry Clark, an editor at Washington State University's magazine. Clark made some videos about how curators at WSU’s Conner Museum prepare specimens for display.

In this video, curator Kelly Cassidy prepares a screech owl specimen. It is worth noting that this process involves flesh-eating beetles. Yes. Really.

Previously in this series:



"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Two nuclear bombs, slightly dented

An update in very important whale/dolphin friendship news

You guys! Remember yesterday, when we learned that dolphins and whales in Hawaii have twice been caught spontaneously playing together? Apparently, this gets better. Dolphins in a French aquarium seem to be "speaking" whale—making whale-sounding noises at night that mimic the actual whale noises they hear all day on the soundtrack to the aquarium dolphin show they perform in. These dolphins have never met real whales. But dolphins are known mimics and it seems that they're capable of practicing and improving on mimicked sounds hours after the sound has gone away. (Via Mindy Weisberger)

Volcano creates new island in the Red Sea

A month ago, one of these islands didn't exist.

On December 13, fishermen in the Red Sea reported volcanic eruptions shooting lava into the air. Just ten days later, the new island was visible. Volcanic island formation is one of those natural phenomena that most of us have known about since grade school. And yet, it never becomes not awesome. Smithsonian has a Q&A with volcanologists (still one of the most awesome jobs), that explains some of what's going on. Even if you already know the general basics, the specifics of this particular island are pretty neat.

The “new” volcano, of which you can see the very top, has probably been erupting episodically underwater for thousands of years. While its above-surface dimensions are roughly 1,739 feet east-to-west and 2,329 feet north-to-south we know the larger submerged shield it sits on is about 12.5 miles across—an edifice whose age is unknown, but the Red Sea may have begun spreading apart about 34 million years ago and the shield volcano could thus be tens of millions of years in the making.

... Keep in mind that this whole region has had many volcanic eruptions in the last five years. In 2007, for example, a sudden eruption on the nearby Island Jebel at Tair killed a number of soldiers stationed there. The process of plate tectonics seems to be going on a little faster, at a quickened rate in this area. Why? We don’t know. The general public needs to be reminded that volcanologists are often in the dark about these processes.

Fish mimics mimic octopus

This is a great find by Not Exactly Rocket Science's Ed Yong. A tourist and a couple of researchers from the California Academy of Sciences have documented an instance of Pacific-dwelling jawfish hiding from predators by blending into the stripes of well-known camouflage guru, the mimic octopus.

This relationship is probably a rare occurrence. The black-marble jawfish is found throughout the Pacific from Japan to Australia, while the mimic octopus only hangs around Indonesia and Malaysia. For most of its range, the jawfish has no octopuses to hide against. Instead, Ross and Rocha think that this particular fish is engaging in “opportunistic mimicry”, taking advantage of a rare chance to share in an octopus’s protection.

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Thanks, Atvaark!

Rooster tailin' on the Moon

This charming video combines everything you like about the Apollo program with everything you like about "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Thanks frycook!

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How To: Build a geologic time spiral cake

For Christmas, some Oxford geologists built an amazing cake based on the geologic time spiral—a way of visually representing the order and flora/fauna of the different stages of deep history.

It's a pretty damn epic cake. It's creation involved 32 eggs, 3 kg of marzipan, 7 people, and 30 hours of labor.

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Via Evidence Matters

Inside a British Cold War bunker

If Britain had been attacked by a nuclear bomb during the Cold War, its government would have survived by retreating to a massive, 35-acre complex buried beneath the county of Wiltshire. I call it a bunker in the headline, but it was more like a small town—large rooms linked by roads, built on the site of an abandoned quarry. Known as Burlington, it could house 4000 people and feed them all for 3 months. It was also home a broadcasting studio and hospital.

The whole thing was kept secret up until its decommissioning in 2004. You can take a tour in the BBC news clip above, or check out the photo galleries and interactive maps on the BBC's Burlington site. With few upgrades since the 1960s, the place looks like a time capsule. An awesome, gigantic time capsule. It's easy to understand why the news presenter in the video is rubbing his hands together gleefully as he's about to get on the elevator to go down. I'd be excited, too!

Thanks to grosmarcel for Submitterating, and to Retronaut for posting pictures from the BBC galleries!

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Merry Grotemas!: A celebration in honor of the greatest radiofan who ever lived

Between 1937 and roughly 1946 there was only one radio astronomer in the entire world: Grote Reber, an amateur from the Chicago suburbs. Reber was a HAM operator who worked in radio manufacturing. At night, he'd come home and tune into the stars, using a home-built telescope he erected in his backyard in Wheaton. It was the second antenna to be used for astronomy ever, after Karl-freaking-Jansky's. Truly, Reber was one badass Happy Mutant.

Grote Reber died in 2002. He would have been 100 years old today, and reader Bill Higgins has written him a lovely and awe-inspiring tribute. Here's a short excerpt:

[Reber] later wrote: "The astronomers were afraid of it because they didn't know anything about radio. The radio people weren't interested because it was so faint it didn't even constitute an interference. Nobody was going to do anything. So, all right, if nobody was going to do anything, maybe I should do something."

He designed and built a 31-foot dish in his yard-- the largest parabolic antenna in the world, pivoting on a Model-T rear axle. Wheaton had never seen anything like it. Neighbors were mystified by the bizarre device. Astronomer and historian Woodruff Sullivan wrote: "One can imagine the reaction of the townsfolk as the machine rose some 50 feet into the air behind the house at 212 West Seminary Avenue-- perhaps akin to those of Noah's neighbors when he started on the Ark."

But they got used to it. Children climbed on it, rhubarb grew beneath it, and Reber’s mom hung wet laundry on it.

Reber built and tested receivers sensitive enough to pick up the "noise" Jansky had detected at 20 megahertz. Over months, he swept the sky listening for emissions at 3300 MHz, expecting stronger signals at higher frequency. He detected nothing. He built a 900 MHz receiver, and spent more months listening. Nothing. He built a 160 MHz receiver. At last, he began to detect "cosmic static."

In 1940, he published his first results. He continued to sweep the sky, and by 1944 could publish a map of the radio sky.

Via Bill Higgins on Submiterator

Music to do lab work by

You should listen to this awesome song by Adam Warrock, called I Am An Action Scientist. It's guaranteed to make you feel like a badass, even if all you're doing is plotting data points. (Via Atomic Robo and bclevinger.)

Why the study of evolution matters

"Teaching science without evolution is like teaching sentence structure without the alphabet." That's a quote from Carin Bondar, one of the awesome scientists interviewed in this video about why evolution needs to be taught in public schools.

You'll note that all the scientists in the video happen to be female. That's because it's kind of a response, meant as a counterpoint to that incredibly obnoxious video of Miss America contestants' responses to the same question. Women who know science know evolution matters.

Thanks to scientists Matt Shipman, David Wescott, Jamie Vernon, Kevin Zelnio and Andrea Kuszewski for producing this awesome film.

One of the earliest known examples of math homework

It's stuff like this that makes me love archaeology. Turns out, we can trace the concept of math homework back to at least 2300 B.C.E., in ancient Mesopotamia.

In the early 20th century, German researchers found several clay tablets at the site of Šuruppak. (Today, that's basically the Iraqi city of Tell Fara.) Some of the tablets appear to be the remains of math instruction, including two different tablets that are working the same story problem.

A loose translation of the problem is: A granary. Each man receives 7 sila of grain. How many men? That is, the tablets concern a highly artificial problem and certainly present a mathematical exercise and not an archival document. The tablets give the statement of the problem and its answer (164571 men - expressed in the sexagesimal system S since we are counting men - with 3 sila left over). However, one of the tablets gives an incorrect solution. When analyzing these tablets, Marvin Powell commented famously that it was, "written by a bungler who did not know the front from the back of his tablet, did not know the difference between standard numerical notation and area notation, and succeeded in making half a dozen writing errors in as many lines."

That comes from a site set up by Duncan Mellville, a math professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He's actually got a whole collection of essays on Mesopotamian mathematics. I am certain, that by posting this, I've just ruined somebody's productivity for, like, a week.

Image is not THE cuneiform tablet in question. Just A cuneiform tablet. I couldn't find a picture of those specific ones:Marks and signs, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from nicmcphee's photostream.

Via John Baez

Octopus walks on land

Perhaps you've heard the tale of the octopus that broke out of its tank at the aquarium and walked across the room to break into another tank where it proceeded to eat other forms of sea life.

That story is kind of an urban legend. It's supposedly happened at every aquarium in the world, but can't be confirmed. And experts have told me that the hard floors in an aquarium would likely seriously damage the suction pads of any octopus that tried it.

But the basic idea—that an octopus could pop out of the water and move across dry ground&dmdash;is a very real thing. Here, an octopus at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in California hauls itself out of the water, and scoots awkwardly around on land for a little bit (while some apparently Minnesotan tourists gawk), before sliding back into the water. It's not the most graceful sort of travel. But it can be very handy. Octopuses do this in nature to escape predators, and also to find food of their own in tidal pools.

As an added bonus: Scientific American just started an all-octopuses, all-the-time blog called The Octopus Chronicles. Check it out!

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Behold: The world's largest Tesla coil

Electrical engineer Greg Leyh built the giant Tesla coil in this video, and wants to construct an even larger version: Two 10-story-high towers that would send lightning zinging across an area the length of a football field. New Scientist interviewed Leyh, to find out what the point of this is (besides the obvious inherent awesomeness):

Lightning can break down air up to five times more easily than normal electric arcs [between two oppositely charged rods in the lab], using tricks we don't yet understand. However, recent theories and a few tantalising experimental results suggest that normal arcs start to gain lightning-like abilities once they grow past about 60 metres in length. If we can build a machine this large, we'll very quickly arrive at a better understanding of what's going on.

A couple of weeks ago, Pesco pointed out that you can actually donate money towards making this project happen. Double awesome!

A better astronaut recruitment video

After watching NASA's astronaut recruitment video (which managed to make going to space sort of feel like applying for a lower-level management position at Wal-Mart), Gavin St. Ours made his own version.

Now THIS is what an astronaut recruitment video ought to be: Inspirational, a little tear-jerky ... it even acknowledges the current state of the American manned space program and makes that sound like an opportunity, rather than a crisis. Great work, Gavin!

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Read the rest

The problem with fecal transplants

Over the past few years, we've linked to a couple of stories about fecal transplants—a real medical procedure where doctors take a donor stool sample, dilute it, and inject it into the colon of a patient. It sounds gross. But it appears to be incredibly effective at treating certain intestinal issues.

Basically, the fecal transplant is really a bacteria transplant. A fresh set of healthy bacteria can fix problems that aren't reliably treatable any other way. On the other hand, most of this information comes from anecdotal evidence. Fecal transplants haven't gone through any large-scale, randomized clinical trials. Until that happens, most doctors won't offer the procedure and insurance won't cover it. That makes sense. We rely on clinical trials to separate treatments that work from treatments that just appear to work. The problem with fecal transplant, though, is that it doesn't fit into any of the bureaucratic categories necessary to get a trial like that approved.

Over on Scientific American, Maryn McKenna has a great feature about fecal transplants—their promise, what we don't know about them, and what's keeping them from becoming a mainstream treatment.

Marion Browning of North Providence, R.I., was at her wit’s end. The 79-year-old retired nurse had suffered from chronic diarrhea for almost a year. It began after doctors prescribed antibiotics to treat her diverticulitis, a painful infection of small pouches in the wall of the colon. The regimen also killed friendly bacteria that lived in Browning’s intestines, allowing a toxin-producing organism known as Clostridium difficile to take over and begin eating away at the entire lining of her gut ... In the fall of 2009 Browning performed the bowel-cleansing routine that precedes a colonoscopy, while her son took an overnight laxative. Kelly diluted the donation, then used colonoscopy instruments to squirt the solution high up in Browning’s large intestine. The diarrhea resolved in two days and has never recurred.

Browning is not alone in being a success story. In medical journals, about a dozen clinicians in the U.S., Europe and Australia have described performing fecal transplants on about 300 C. difficile patients so far. More than 90 percent of those patients recovered completely, an unheard-of proportion. “There is no drug, for anything, that gets to 95 percent,” Kelly says. Plus, “it is cheap and it is safe,” says Lawrence Brandt, a professor of medicine and surgery at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who has been performing the procedure since 1999.

So far, though, fecal transplants remain a niche therapy, practiced only by gastroenterologists who work for broad-minded institutions and who have overcome the ick factor. To become widely accepted, recommended by professional societies and reimbursed by insurers, the transplants will need to be rigorously studied in a randomized clinical trial, in which people taking a treatment are assessed alongside people who are not. Kelly and several others have drafted a trial design to submit to the National Institutes of Health for grant funding. Yet an unexpected obstacle stands in their way: before the NIH approves any trial, the substance being studied must be granted “investigational” status by the Food and Drug Administration. The main categories under which the FDA considers things to be investigated are drugs, devices, and biological products such as vaccines and tissues. Feces simply do not fit into any of those categories.

Image: Toilet Roll, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from smemon's photostream

Physics contest winners

Yesterday, I asked you to submit your physics questions for a chance to win either VIP tickets to see Brian Greene tonight in New York City, or a DVD set of Greene's new NOVA series. I did the drawing this morning and the winners are:

Kevin Harrelson — Proud new owner of a DVD set of Brian Greene's Fabric of the Cosmos!

r matt — You're going to see Brian Greene live tonight in New York!

Both of you need to contact me to claim your prizes. You can reach me by email at maggie (dot) koerth (at) gmail (dot) com.

Remember: Not being chosen as the winner of the drawing doesn't mean your question won't make it into Brian Greene's hand. I'm sending on all the great questions from yesterday's thread to the fine folks at the World Science Festival. Watch the live stream tonight, starting at 10:00 pm Eastern, to see if your question made it!

Image: Dark and ordinary matter in the Universe, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from argonne's photostream

Maggie on Dr. Kiki's Science Hour

I'll be the guest on the Dr. Kiki's Science Hour podcast today. The live show starts at 6:00 pm Central time/ 4:00 pm Pacific. Can't join us this afternoon? A recording of the show will be posted on Saturday.

What good is half a wing?

One of the most common arguments you'll hear against evolution (or, at least, one of the most common arguments I heard growing up amongst creationists) had to do with transitional forms. An eye is a valuable thing, this argument goes. But half an eye? That's just a disability.

Like many of the really common arguments against evolution, this one crumbles the minute you start to apply the slightest bit of fridge logic. Sure, half an eye is less useful than a full eye. (Or, more accurately, a clustering of light-sensitive cells don't have all the functionality of a modern eyeball and optic nerve system.) But, if most of the other creatures have no eyes, and you have a few light-sensitive cells, you've got an advantage. And an advantage is all it takes.

Now apply that to the evolution of birds. One of the cool things about this process is that it appears that feathers evolved before flight. In fact, feathers seems to have evolved rather independently of flight.

You might ask: What's the point of that? How are feathers an advantage if they can't help you fly? Is this just about looking pretty? Maybe. But on his blog, The Loom, Carl Zimmer presents another hypothesis. Feathers and wings, even without flight, might have given their owners a physical advantage over bare-skinned cousins. The birds in this video aren't flying. You can see that their feet don't leave the ground. But the act of flapping those feathers around helps them to walk up inclines that would otherwise be impassable walls. That's enough to escape a predator and live to breed another day. And it's also pretty damn astounding to watch. You'll find more footage at The Loom.

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Meet the pentastome

At the Thoughtomics blog, Lucas Brouwers has a really nifty post on a recent discovery about the biology of pentastomes. What's a pentastome? Oh, I am SO glad that you asked.

Every animal has its own parasites to worry about, but canivorous reptiles and amphibians have to deal with particularly gruesome ones. They can become infected with small, worm-like creatures called pentastomes that live inside their lungs, where they suck blood from ruptured blood vessels. Reptiles pick up the parasite when they eat infected prey.

Pentastomes are true escape artists. Once they realize they’ve entered a reptile stomach, they use their sharp hooks to claw themselves a way to the victim’s lungs. In an experiment where pentastomes were implanted in a gecko’s stomach, the parasites invaded the lungs in as little as four hours.

Fun!

BTW: The image above, of a pentastome called Kiricephalus coarctatus, comes from a student page on the life and pests of the Western Cottonmouth snake. It's worth poking around that site, too.

Great science lecture series in Minnesota

If you live anywhere near St. Peter, Minnesota, I highly recommend taking tomorrow and Wednesday off from work to attend the 47th Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College. Every year, the school brings in eminent scientists from around the country for a two-day public lecture series centered around a theme. This year, it's "The Brain and Being Human." Presentations will cover everything from the merging of mind and machine, to therapies for autism and depression, to everyday applications of neuroscience in the real world.

Chemistry of the future: 3D models and augmented reality

In a very cool video from Chemical and Engineering News, Art Olson of the Scripps Research Institute explains how chemists in his lab can predict how well the drugs they develop will work.

Olson's lab prints 3D models of molecular structures, both targets—like the HIV protease enzyme in the video—and the drugs they've made to bond to those targets. The models are rigged up so that when Olson holds them in front of a webcam, they instantly interact with chemical analysis software his team has built. The result is a system that allows researchers to see, physically, how well the drugs fit their targets, and simultaneously test how well the two are likely to bond on a chemical level.

Thanks, Aaron Rowe!

An Apollo astronaut on political quagmires

Thank you, Tim Lloyd. This made my day.