• Dinner's Revenge: mealworms that survive in the stomach, then eat their way out of predators

    Photo: Gilles San Martin (cc)

    Can the eaten eat back?

    The darkling beetle, small and shy with an understated matte-black carapace, is better known as its adolescent self, the mealworm. Mealworms and their darkling cousins the superworms are popular "live feeders"—food for pet reptiles and amphibians that won't eat prey that's already dead. For years, a disconcerting rumor has bounced around the "herp" (as in, herpetofauna) community. Heed the words of Fishguy2727, posting on Aquaticcommunity.com: "I have talked to a number of people who have FIRST-HAND watched with their own eyes as the animal ate a mealworm … and within ten to twenty seconds the mealworm is chewing out of the animal's stomach." (more…)

  • Death in Space

    Death in Space


    The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China's space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

    Swedish ecologists Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Peter Mäsak are the inventors of
    an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation and burial,
    called Promession. The technique entails freezing a body, vibrating it
    into tiny pieces, and then freeze-drying the pieces, which can then be
    used as compost to grow a memorial shrub or tree. The pair recently
    collaborated with NASA and design students in Denmark and Sweden to
    adapt Promession for use on a Mars mission.

    The dead crew member's body would be placed in a container, called
    the Body Back, and moved into the airlock. Exposed to space, the body
    freezes in about an hour. A robotic arm then pulls the Body Back
    container out of the airlock, dangles it on a tether, and activates a
    vibration system. (The tether prevents vibration damage to the
    spacecraft's instrumentation.) After 15 minutes of vibration, the
    frozen corpse is reduced to small pieces. Water is evaporated from
    the remains using microwaves, leaving about 25 kilograms of dry powder
    inside the Body Back. The container is left outside the spacecraft
    until it's time to reenter the Earth's atmosphere, at which point the
    robotic arm pulls it back inside to keep it from burning up during
    reentry. The Body Back folds into a smaller shape that "will not
    unveil that there is a corpus inside."

    The following notes and illustrations are taken from an original presentation by Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup, describing how Promession could be used to help a long-term space mission withstand the death of an crew member — and offer dignified services for the departed and their family at home.

    Death in Space

    In which way is it possible to have a ceremony and to store a dead body — a friend — with dignity, during a mission to Mars?

    How is it possible to unite science and religion with a design that will not affect space, or the environment on Mars or other planets?

    A mission to Mars would certainly brings great risks to the crew. Beyond the obvious ones, there is no knowledge yet of how dangerous it actually will be with regards to radiation exposure. Then there are the psychological aspects — what is it like to be isolated from Earth for such a long period of time?

    In the event of a crew member's death, what could the mission do with the body? How do you store the corpse? How is storage possible with the crew having to remain in close proximity to the body? How will the crew stay psychologically and physically strong? Beyond that, there are ethical considerations: Do you bring back the dead body to the relatives on Earth?

    It would take 7 months to travel to or from Mars, and communication delays may be as long as 20 seconds. The temperature of space is -272 C, and on Mars itself, between -40 to -120 C. Space has no pressure and Mars less than 1 percent; gravity there is just a third that of Earth's.

    There would be strong radiation present throughout the whole mission, which could last almost three years if the mission is structured for a long stay. Putrefaction starts as soon as someone dies, and bacteria begins to effect the environment.

    Psychlogical Aspects

    Nobody knows how the crew might react under the circumstances. Anticipated reaction patterns could involve fear, loss, sorrow, responsibility and guilt. Individuals may take the blame, or be blamed for a crewmember's death. Death is a difficult situation which causes big problems in small groups: if the raw emotions are not enough to threaten a mission, the mistrust and isolation that may follow a death certainly will be.

    A testament or funeral is therefore very important, and must be trained for on Earth.

    The best place to keep a body is where others do not see it.

    Why bring the dead home?

    Relatives' sorrow, security reasons, respectful care, ethical correctness and political responsibilities may count among the many reasons a body would have to return with the mission. Even in war, the dead are returned to their relatives. It is important for friends and family that they have concrete and physical remains in order to deal with their sorrow.

    Why hold a ceremony?

    A ceremony provides guidance during a very difficult situation. It's a tool to handle the enormous sadness that follows death. In order to create an appropriate setting in a chaotic situation, the ceremony must be reminiscent of those held at home, incorporating familiar traditional elements.

    It takes time to accept that a person is dead, and in an isolated environment where there may be a small, tightly-knit team coping with the death of on of their number, there will an element of shock.

    Preferably, the ceremony would be flexible enough to become personal to those affected. It is important for the surviving crew members to arrange an opportunity to express feelings and thoughts about the situation / dead person to prevent disturbance of the further mission.

    After Death

    During the course of the mission, something goes wrong and a crewmember dies. Though normally there would be days or weeks to prepare the ceremony, in a spacecraft's closed environment it must be completed after 24 hours to prevent infection. Using formalin and other chemicals will make the environment worse.


    A "Body Back" — the capsule used for promession — is removed from storage and folded out.

    Powered by batteries, sticks made of an "intelligent alloy" stretch out the fabric into a form similar to a sarcophagus. Tests are run by the crew, and the body dressed in the indoor NASA space suit. Once in the Body Back, it is zipped and filled with air.

    The Body Back is fixed in the medical area, and may be allowed to enter zero gravity conditions if in space. If on Mars itself, it would remain on the medical table.

    A report would be completed on the circumstances of the crewmember's death. Any instructions from Earth would be received, and the victim's personal belongings stored in a safe, locked place. Only what is necessary would be kept. Some belongings must be stored as trash, and burned up in the atmosphere, as would otherwise have taken place during normal waste-disposal procedures. 

    Survivors must hold a debriefing, where all thoughts and feelings relative to their colleagu'es death must be discussed. If there is any question of guilt, it is important that the person responsible for psychological matters deal with it promptly and be assigned the authority to lead that process.


    A funeral in space would be an unprecedented event, which might well involve the involvement of government figures, media and the public at large. Bearing in mind communication delays of up to 20 minutes, speeches from the home nation, family members and the captain may be followed by last goodbyes from crewmembers, writing on the Body Back, celebrations, sonds and so forth.

    It will be possible to transfer data to the Body Back from Earth, delivering any final messages to the decedent that his or her family and friends may wish to deliver.

    Accordingly, the ceremony is held in an area able to maintain contact with Earth.


    The crew leads the Body Back to the air lock, where it is safely held to a 'robonaut,' who carefully lifts it out from the air lock and into space. Held there, it is frozen solid in an hour by the nitrogen.

    The back's vibrations begin, insulated from sensitive space instruments by the robot. Within 15 minutes, the body is reduced to powder. The robot then moves the Body Back to a final fixed point, on the exterior surface of the spacecraft, where it will remain. Microwaves are used to evaporate frozen water in the powder, prevented from escaping the body back by aluminum foil.

    A few days later, the batteries in the Body Back turn off and the 'intelligent alloy' frame begins to relax, folding up the Body Back into a smaller form. Before entering the Earth's atmosphere, the Body Back is returned into the space capsule.

    On Earth


    The Body Back may be carried by two persons using the handles underneath; the form will be clean and will not reveal the remains inside or any part of the process.

    CREDITS: Text by Mary Roach, Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup. Layout and edits by Rob Beschizza. "Launch" illustration by Rob Beschizza based on NASA/JPL/Cornell image. Promession illustrations by Promessa.


  • Space Food: The Best and Worst

     Books Apollo Resize-Jpg Fs6C1-3

    Astronaut foods during the Gemini and Apollo programs were highly processed, because "low-residue" food meant fewer encounters with the dread fecal bag. To prevent crumbs, which could float into eyes and instrumentation panels, many foods – even "sandwiches" — took the form of bite-sized cubes lacquered with waxy, congealed oils. Rarely has anything so cute been so loathed. The coating stuck to the roof of the mouth and the cubes had to be rehydrated by "holding in the mouth for ten seconds."

    Runner-up: dehydrated "astronaut ice cream." Only three astronauts (Apollo 8) ever ate it in space, and not very much of it. Without "the creamy, icy sensation of regular ice cream," writes retired NASA food scientist Charles Bourland, "it just wasn't popular with the crews."

    Space food has grown moister and more normal over the years, to the point where Emeril and Rachael Ray have gotten involved and Bourland (with science writer Gregory Vogt) has put out a cookbook: The Astronaut's Cookbook: Tales, Recipes and More (Springer, 2010). It is somewhat unusual for the genre, in that it includes sentences like: "The medical guy dropped to the deck and soaked up the emesis with a sponge so that it could be determined how much of the liquid Joe had actually consumed."

    Below is Bourland's recipe for the astronauts' all-time favorite space food. Astronaut Story Musgrave used to request it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


  • Human decomposition comics from Mary Roach and Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi

    Stages Of Human Decomposition 1

    Stages Of Human Decomposition 2

    Following up on the castration comics, here's another pair of panels by Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi, inspired
    by my books (in this case, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers). This one draws on the stages of human decomposition. Ariyana zeroed in on food images and references in the chapter, using a visit to a sushi bar to illustrate phenomena like "skin slip" and end-stage soupiness (not a technical term). Her work just floors me. More at www.feed-ariyana.com.

  • Castration comics from Mary Roach and Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi



    My last book, Bonk, has a chapter about penis transplants and
    reattachments. It includes the story of an epidemic of penile
    dismemberments in Thailand during the 1970s. In the wake of a
    well-publicized case, more than 100 angry Thai women hacked off the
    penises of their adulterous husbands while they slept. Often the
    women threw the severed organs out the window in disgust, attracting
    the attention of the livestock that hang out in the shade beneath the
    elevated homes of rural Thailand. (Oddly, it was ducks, not pigs,
    that went after the penises — often enough that there's a saying in
    Thailand now: "I better get home, or the ducks will have something to

    A couple months ago, a young Baltimore comic artist and
    illustrator named Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi sent me these amazing panels
    inspired by the story. "When I first read that passage about the
    epidemic I remembered thinking
    'Of course!'" she told me in an email. "Not just because I'm Thai,
    but because any reference to Thailand in American entertainment seems
    to be about either prostitution or transvestites."

    Click the images to view them larger. You can see more of Ariyana's work at www.feed-ariyana.com.

  • Styrofoam cup after 3,100 feet underwater


    The coolest thing I own is a Styrofoam cup that went down to the
    bottom of the Palmer Deep, off the Palmer Peninsula in Antarctica. It
    was in a net bag tied to an oceanographer's water column sampler. I
    don't remember the name of the researcher, but she or he let everyone
    on the research vessel, including hanger-on science writers, send
    down a cup. The pressure of 10,400 3,100 feet of water compressed the tiny
    air bubbles inside the Styrofoam and turned a grande cup into an
    espresso cup. More reasons not to go scuba-diving at the bottom of
    the Palmer Deep.

  • Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force

    A centrifuge creates excess gravitational force (G's) by spinning
    things, and sometimes people. (It's excess G's that press you into
    your roller coaster seat on those nauseating loops.) Aerospace
    medicine types spent lots of time in the 1960s documenting the
    unpleasant effects of excess G's. If a pilot starts spinning in a
    high-altitude bailout, for instance, the outward force on his/her head
    can rupture vessels in the eyes and brain and even, at spins in excess
    of 175 rpm, spin the brain right off its brainstem. La, la la.

    Seen here is an unusual example of excess G's being harnessed
    for the good. The patent holders, George B. and Charlotte Blonsky,
    contend that the centrifuge could be a boon to "more civilized
    women," who, they surmise, often lack the muscle strength needed to
    easily push out a baby. Centrifugal force would act as a sort of
    invisible midwife, lessening the muscular force required for birthing.
    Would it work, though? Could one create enough outward force on the
    baby to make a difference — without simultaneously making the mother
    lightheaded? I sent the patent to April Ronca, who used to research
    the effects of zero G on fetal growth and birth for NASA. "That is
    an interesting invention," she replied.


    As with so many U.S. patents — the "Decorative Penile
    Wrap" I stumbled onto while researching my previous book leaps to mind
    — one longs to know the back story. Did Charlotte undergo a
    difficult birth? Did the couple actually build and use the thing? Perhaps they'll read this and post a comment.

    Note the elasticized "pocket-shaped newborn net" – lest the
    baby shoot out and bump its head with double-G force.

    Patent No. 3,216,423: Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child
    by Centrifugal Force, Patented November 9, 1965