Tag: science

Day 930: The Other Foo Fighters

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I admit it, I frequently dip into the tart, opaque candy bowl of skepticism, filled with lemon drops of doubt and sour-chews of crotchety fact-checking. That said, I like my sour sweets to end with an upbeat aftertaste, a smidgen of optimism that my aforementioned leeriness will be heartily disproven. Deep down, I don’t believe in the hibber-jabber of ghosts, of karmic energy tallies or Earth-snooping alien life, but even deeper down, I kind of hope I’m wrong.

If this miasma of rambling self-reflection seems like a hopelessly clunky introduction to a kilograph on one of the greatest rock bands of the past two decades… well, it would be. But while the caliber of Dave Grohl’s rocktastic ass-kickery certainly merits a lengthy diatribe of praise (hell, I could do a thousand words on nothing more than the rib-clenching, cerebrospinal-throttling bridge of “Monkey Wrench”), that’s not what today is about.

Today we look at the original foo fighters: no foot-swiveling grooves, no cinematic videos and no capital ‘F’s. These foo fighters transport us back in time, into the goose-feather fury of the second World War, then up into a nebulous sky filled with illusionary aberrations – gravelly bumps in the smooth road of logic and comprehensible reason.

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The word ‘foo’ was a popular nonsense word of the 1930’s, much like any of Doctor Seuss’s whimsical wordage or much of what you’ll hear on Fox News today (hey! A topical joke! Three points for me!). It grew from the work of popular Chicagoan cartoonist Bill Holman and his Chicago Tribune strip known as Smokey Stover. Foo was an anarchic dalliance into the lexicon of imagination. It functioned as a noun, an adjective, and a G-rated exclamation of disbelief. Did it morph into the 1940’s-era military term FUBAR? Perhaps. But it certainly held ground in the American military landscape at that time. Read more…

Day 928: Step Right Up – Polymelia Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!

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In choosing to part with a precious dollar in order to venture beyond the chalky flap into the freak-show tent, one must be prepared for what one is about to experience. If you’re the type whose cup gurgleth over with empathy, you’ll likely succumb to the fangs of your own guilt, having paid a pittance to merely gawk at the afflicted (a similar guilt may also strike as one sits and gapes in a strip club, though the desire to see boobies often trumps the hand of conscience).

If you’re a skeptic, you’ll spend your time deducing the construct of the visual trickery before you. In today’s post-Mos-Eisley world of latex costuming and SFX rigging we’re all a little harder to fool than our grandparents were.

Or perhaps you’re a pragmatist, and your concern lies with those who don’t pony up a buck to help get these poor souls a decent meal.

The Spider-Legged Woman is probably a fake. The guy who’s only a head with no body is probably perched above a carefully-placed mirror that conceals his other parts. But step forward if you dare, for these folks I present to you today were anything but a myth. For the most part, they made their living along the outskirts of the big top because that was all they could think to do. Prepare to have your mind blown and your eyes boggled – I’m not making any of this up. Probably.

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A prop leg? That’s a pretty simplistic gag, even for the early 20th century. But Frank Lentini was no scam artist; due to a partially absorbed conjoined twin, Frank boasted a completely functional, full-size third leg on the right side of his body. Part of his shtick involved booting a soccer ball across the stage to demonstrate the leg’s impressive capability. All three of his legs were different lengths: 38 and 39 inches for his primary legs and 36 for the extra one. Read more…

Day 918: The Historically Misplaced Colony Of Roanoke Island

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While I’m anything but the most amateur of amateur historians, I’ve got a feeling that people went missing all the time in the 16th century. You dig yourself into some serious debt, maybe sleep with a nobleman’s wife or abscond with the goodies from the church collection plate, making yourself scarce would be a pretty easy feat. Got yourself murdered? Bad news for you – forensics don’t exist and if your killer knows even a little about properly hiding a body, you’ll simply make the ranks of the missing.

But how do 115 people disappear? Ruling out a violent attack (since there would be some leftover evidence of such) or a sudden collective yen for new surroundings, a mass vanishing of this scale has to turn some heads. Some four centuries later, we still don’t know for certain what became of the residents of the Roanoke Colony.

There are theories, of course. And investigators are trying to use modern scientific gadgetry to uncover the mystery, but it’s not easy reconstructing an event when your only crime scene photos are a handful of 400-year-old etchings and there’s a good chance your archeological data may be presently sitting beneath a Walmart parking lot. But historians love a good challenge, so chances are this hunt will remain at the forefront of someone’s life’s work for the foreseeable future.

Sir Walter Raleigh: Quite a flowery collar for such a stupid git. (yes, that's a Beatles joke for you)

Sir Walter Raleigh: Quite a flowery collar for such a stupid git. (yes, that’s a Beatles joke for you)

In March of 1584, Queen Elizabeth I decided it was time to slap down some English tootsies into the North American mud and start earning a profit and staking out some land. England was at war with Spain, and she thought North America would be a good vantage point from which they could mess with the Spanish treasure fleets. She put Sir Walter Raleigh on the job, which he immediately subcontracted because hey, Walter was a busy Sir and he had other things to do. Read more…

Day 917: That Big Ol’ Salad Plate Known As Earth

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There are certain scientific truths which appear to be inarguable. Light travels faster than sound, an explosion is exponentially more bad-ass when someone is walking slowly away from it, and the consumption of alcohol makes me a scientifically better dancer. But we have come a long way since our ancestors cracked two rocks together and created a spark which they attributed to the Mistress of Dark Magic.

We no longer give props to the gods for changing the seasons, and rather than attribute those weird sores on our bodies to an infestation of demons, we get a shot of penicillin and stop sleeping with skeevy people we meet at the bus station. Also, we can hop aboard a boat and cruise into the sequined azure horizon without fearing that we’ll drop off the edge of the planet-disc and tumble into the intangible ether.

Well, most of us can. There still exists – and I have no idea just how deeply into their cheeks their tongues may be pressed – a Flat Earth Society. In theory, there are still dozens of dubious doubters who suspect that the so-called globe theory is little more than a ruse being perpetrated by the scientific community for the purposes of… well, I’m not sure why scientists would want us to believe the planet to be a sphere. Globe sales? Communism? Probably communism.

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In defense of the ancients, there was really no way for them to know the earth was round. Homer and Hesiod both depicted a flat disc, with the water surrounding the land and stretching to some mysterious edge. Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher whom Carl Sagan has credited with having performed the first ever recorded scientific experiment, saw us as living on the round top of a short, stumpy cylinder. Anywhere you went: India, the Norse lands, China… the earth was flat as a crepe. In fact the Chinese held on to their belief that the earth was flat and square (though the heavens were spherical) until they caught wind of European astronomy in the 17th century. Read more…

Day 915: The Titanic Conspiracy

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We all know the story – the RMS Titanic plows into an iceberg, everyone panics, and Leonardo Dicaprio dies because Kate Winslet isn’t willing to scooch over and give him some room. But that purportedly open-and-shut accident may have a little more squeak in its hinges, depending on how deeply one is willing to invest in conspiracy futures. Theories range from something other than an iceberg thwacking the Titanic upside its hull to the Titanic not even being present when those 1523 souls perished in the Atlantic.

The difference between the Titanic conspiracies and other such shady suspicions is that these would have required no elaborate government cover-up, and its secrets (if there were any at all) would only have needed to be known to a tiny group of insiders, which lends credibility to the possibility that there may be more to the story than that which James Cameron put on film. There’s no vast network of deception at play with any of these theories – this isn’t JFK being assassinated by the Cuban mafia or the mass-hypnosis that allowed Dances With Wolves to beat out Goodfellas for the Best Picture Oscar.

But as with any musings on the shadowy side of commonly-accepted history, it’s always wise to suspend one’s accusatory finger in mid-furl. 102 years have passed, and if there’s any more truth to be known about this tragedy it probably never will be. That said, it’s still fun to dig.

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First off, what if there was no iceberg? Captain L.M. Collins published his theory in 2003, asserting that it was a devious chunk of low-lying pack ice that felled the mighty liner, not a big Goliath of an iceberg. Collins points out that the two Titanic lookouts both reported a haze on the horizon at about 11:30 on the night of the sinking. Also, while various witnesses reported that the alleged berg of ice towered 60 to 100 feet above the water, this is apparently a well-known optical illusion when drifting through ice. Read more…

Day 913: Psychiatric Pseudo-Symptoms Take Aim At Science

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In more than one of his couch-quivering rants, Tom Cruise has expressed distrust and disdain for the science of psychiatry. Perhaps he believes Xenu and his intergalactic pals can do more for the struggling mind than can a branch of human medicine. I don’t agree – and I count that as a big win for my own sense of logic and reason. The science isn’t perfect but it’s progressing, and while the humans who administer its teachings are fallible, there’s still actual science there.

Psychologist and Stanford professor David Rosenhan also found the whole thing suspicious. It was the early 1970’s and psychiatric patients were treated somewhat differently than they are today, as anyone who read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest will know. Doc Rosenhan wasn’t convinced that patients were being properly diagnosed, and he wasn’t sold on the standard treatment procedure either. He came up with a devious plan.

What if someone perfectly sane were to talk their way into a psychiatric hospital, only to have their symptoms disappear once inside? What ensued was a damning criticism of psychiatry and psychiatric diagnosis, one which still resonates to this day. But was Doc Rosenhan’s experiment a genuine scalpel-slice through the pristine flesh of the science of mental health, or was it pseudoscience? His results were shocking, but in fact they need to be scrutinized beyond the knee-jerk swoop of an accusatory finger.

Dr. Rosenhan was also suspicious of the science of hair restoration.

Dr. Rosenhan was also suspicious of the science of hair restoration.

Doc Rosenhan drafted eight ‘pseudo-patients’ for his experiment, which included himself, a grad student, two other psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter and a housewife. The eight of them were to show up at ten different psychiatric hospitals around the country. Underfunded rural hospitals were targeted, as were revered urban university hospitals and one pricey private hospital. Everyone held true to their biographical details, apart from their names (which were changed to protect them) and in the case of those who were actually in the medical field, their occupations. Doc Rosenhan didn’t want any special treatment for anyone. Read more…

Day 894: Take A Journey To The Center Of Your Mind With Jose

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Over the last 894 days I have had the opportunity to gain a sparkly new appreciation for medical science, and for how far we have progressed over the last 150 years or so. Back then, doctors didn’t even wash their damn hands, and now we’re allegedly on the threshold of swapping brains with one another. That’s quite the leap. But where science gets weird, my fingers get a-tapping, and it doesn’t get much weirder than the work of José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado.

Dr. Delgado also worked with the human brain, though his concern was less with its relocation and more with what it does. Specifically, what he could make it do, using radio waves and cranial implants. Dr. Delgado was into some spooky shit.

Where the realm of mind-control has been traditionally left to voodoo practitioners, nightclub hypnotists and goofy faith-healers, Dr. Delgado believed that it could (and should) occur at the chemical/electrical level. He wasn’t looking to control minds as a parlor trick; he actually foresaw a practical and beneficial application for his work. I wonder if he was also aware how many people felt skeeved out by it.

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Dr. Delgado had wanted to follow in the footsteps of his eye-doctor father, but once he stumbled upon the work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the Nobel laureate who is considered to be the grand-pappy of neuroscience, he changed his mind. The eye is a goopy glob of curiosity, but the brain is a vast network of mysteries, with so much shadowy terrain left to uncover. This was where José’s passion was jolted to life. Read more…

Day 890: Put Your Head On My Shoulder, Neck, And Everything Else

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In honor of our species’ unending quest to concoct our own mythical creatures from the depths of our creativity and our most depraved scientific know-how, I give you the head transplant. I’m not referring to the overplayed movie trope in which Jamie Lee Curtis swaps minds with Lindsay Lohan in an effort to see if one another’s bodies could handle their respective addictions to poop-inducing yogurt and cocaine, but rather the physical exchange of crania.

It has happened. Not with humans – you didn’t miss out on some freakish sci-fi tale of weirdness in the news, but our able-handed doctors have performed some rather cunning re-assignments among the brain enclosures of the animal kingdom. Some believe it’s only a matter of time before we get around to a human swap.

We have the technology. Sort of. There isn’t a doctor alive who can reattach a severed spinal cord; full and complete functionality is not at play here. But some variant of this could happen within our lifetime. We just need the right alignment of desperate patients, extreme circumstance and a doctor who has nothing to lose. Sounds like a movie treatment if nothing else.

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American physiologist Charles Claude Guthrie’s work on vascular surgery with the Frenchman Alexis Carrel should have earned the guy a Nobel Prize. But Carrel won the prize by himself, likely because the weird experiments Guthrie was into probably freaked out the Prize committee. In 1908, Guthrie became the first to graft one dog’s head onto the neck of another, creating a two-headed beast. Unfortunately, too much time had occurred between the decapitation of the second dog and the restoration of circulation. It wasn’t a lively second head, but it was technically alive. Read more…

Day 889: Palming, Swinging And Sungazing Your Way To Perfect Vision!

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The day I acquired my first pair of eyeglasses – those big, clunky 80’s frames that cock-blocked so many teens in the throes of inescapable hormones. I was thirteen and wholly displeased. Sure, now I could read my Star Wars poster from across the room and I no longer had to squint at the TV to see which blur was Maddie and which was David, but at what cost? A life sentence of either sticking lenses into my eye socket or plunking a clunky plastic-glass-and-metal accessory onto my face?

If only I had known about William Horatio Bates and his patented (well, not really, but he wrote it down) method of eyeball therapy. According to Bates, no one needs eyeglasses. We merely have to train our eyes not to strain, and they will eventually obey us and restore our perfect eyesight. Bates was – pardon the pun – a visionary. Plus, he was a legitimate ophthalmologist.

Unfortunately he was also a notable peddler of theories that were so lacking in scientific merit and validation, you could probably get a decent shvitz from the steam rising off the bullshit in his teachings. But Bates had a golden shovel, and his theories received a wide swath of attention. If only he’d been right.

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Bates believed that our most common eye problems – nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia (the deterioration of close-up vision due to aging) – were caused by the tension of the muscles around the eyeball. These muscles were acting wonky because of our mental strain. If we could relieve our strain, our eyes could be cured. It’s all in the mind, you see. Even blood circulation problems, which Bates linked to glaucoma, cataracts, double-vision, as well as crossed and lazy eyes, was all mental. Read more…

Day 882: Smoking Your Smirnoff & Other Sciencey Drinky Things

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As an experienced recreational imbiber of liquid giddiness, I’d like to think I have evolved to the point where I’m ready to infuse a little science with my drinking. I have mastered my threshold of vomit-inducing over-consumption, and when the mood is right I’ll even remember to balance my ethanol intake with a hangover-quelching dose of water. I know my limits, and I seldom glide past happy-drunkenness into slobbering-wreckdom.

I’m already aware that rum is made from sugar cane, vodka is made from potatoes and grains, and beer is made from pure and unrefined liquid manna. I’m proud of the fact that I actually drink alcohol for the taste, though the accompanying enhancements to my charm and wit are nice too. But I want to know more.

Why does alcohol have this magical effect on our physical beings? What is the scientific community working on to enhance my drinking experience? Why did I have to drunkenly sing six Air Supply songs at the karaoke machine during my last office Christmas party?

It’s the weekend and I’m whetting my appetite on words about booze until the clock displays a less shameful hour to start drinking. I’d better hurry.

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The otolithic membrane is this sciencey glob of stuff in your inner ear. It’s filled with little hairs and a viscous goo called endolymph. When you tilt your head, the endolymph bends the hair cells, which transmit the info to your brain that your head is tilted. When alcohol begins tap-dancing in your bloodstream, that viscous goo gets less dense. This makes the hair cells bend a little easier, conveying false tilting messages to your brain-meat and messing with your balance.

This phenomenon can also cause your eyes to swirl around to compensate, thus providing the glorious bed-spins that haunted too many nights of my younger days. There are a few ways to prevent this – don’t drink alcohol, for example. If you aren’t ready for that kind of madness, try mixing your hooch with sugar soda instead of diet. Sugar slows down the emptying of the stomach, which slows down the walloping effects of drunkenness. Also, don’t light up a late-night, post-drinking doobie. The cannabis will smack those little hairs around even more and you’ll be spinning like a wobbly dreidel for hours. Read more…