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Ancient Looping Poetry

One of the great works of ancient Sanskrit poetry, the Kiratarjuniya, contains a masterpiece of linguistic looping. The epic poem believed to date from the 6th century, contains a verse which can be read forward, backward, up, down and diagonally. Continue reading →

Archived under Culture

Triple the Trickle-down Effect

There’s a mountain in Montana which claims an extraordinary impact on its natural environment over an area spanning many thousands of kilometres. Triple Divide Peak isn’t especially high (2,444m or 8,020 feet) but the water which falls on its slopes flows into three oceans: the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic. Continue reading →

Archived under Geography

How to Dazzle the Enemy

Trying to camouflage an aircraft carrier is about as hard as it gets. So do you make an enormous piece of military hardware ‘disappear’ into its surroundings? How about doing the exact opposite and cover it in an array of wildly contrasting colours and bold patterns, making it completely unmissable?

It’s a technique which was used on naval vessels in both World Wars, going by the unlikely name dazzle camouflage. Continue reading →

Archived under Man-Made

Pistol-powered Shrimp

What sea creature has lopsided claws, is barely as long as your little finger and yet is among the noisiest animals under the sea?

The evocatively named snapping shrimp or pistol shrimp can be found across a wide range of the world’s oceans and gives sperm and beluga whales stiff competition for the title of loudest marine animal. The noise comes from a claw snapping movement which is so powerful that it serves as a formidable blasting weapon.

Smooth Snapping ShrimpPistol shrimp, known to science as Alpheidae, are asymmetric: they have one small claw and one extra large claw which does the snapping (the enlarged claw reminds me of cowboy Woody’s overstuffed bicep after he is torn and repaired in Toy Story 2). The snapping claw closes forcefully, sending out a pulse strong enough to knock out the pistol shrimp’s prey. Wikipedia describes the claw snapping action in this way:

The animal snaps a specialized claw shut to create a cavitation bubble that generates acoustic pressures of up to 80 kPa at a distance of 4 cm from the claw. As it extends out from the claw, the bubble reaches speeds of 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) and releases a sound reaching 218 decibels. The pressure is strong enough to kill small fish.

As these bubbles collapse they grow very hot, briefly reaching a temperature which almost matches the surface of the sun and creating a tiny but intense flash of light which cannot be seen by the human eye. Not bad for a crustacean which is no more than 5cm long!

Photo credit:
Ria Tan www.wildsingapore.com/wildfacts/

Archived under Science & Nature

Passage to Pluto

If Pluto’s discoverer had lived to see the planet downgraded to a ‘dwarf’, he could have taken consolation from the fact that he will be the first person not only to have seen it but to travel through its orbit.

Discovery of a planet or celestial body must be a bittersweet experience. Unlike the Earth-bound explorers of history, space pioneers never get to visit the far-flung objects they’ve discovered in the seemingly endless darkness of the solar system and beyond.

Clyde TombaughHowever Clyde Tombaugh will come pretty close. Tombaugh first observed Pluto in 1930, when he was 24 years old and fortunate to have found work at the Lowell Observatory despite not having had the means to go to college. He died in 1997; nine years later NASA launched the New Horizons space probe bound for Pluto. On board is a sample of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes.

New Horizons is scheduled to come closest to Pluto (less than 10,000km) in July 2015 before heading past and eventually travelling out of the solar system, giving Clyde Tombaugh the most far-reaching space burial to date.

Photo credit:
Wikimedia Commons

Archived under Science & Nature

An Unexpected Pidgin Pair

We’re used to hearing about pidgin dialects combining English and another language (for example, Chinese, where the word ‘pidgin’ originated). Potentially any two languages could develop their own pidgin form of speaking. So if you could imagine the most unlikely pairing of languages to create a pidgin, what would it be? How about, say, Icelandic and Basque?

Whale Fishing Woodcut, 1574

Whale Fishing Woodcut, 1574

Surprisingly, this really did exist. Whalers from the Basque region of south-western France based themselves in Iceland from the beginning of the 17th century. Despite some conflict (including a massacre of 32 Basques by Icelanders in 1615) a pidgin emerged when their language encountered Icelandic.

Some efforts were made to record the vocabulary of the visiting Basques at the time. Two documents were discovered in 1905 in the University of Copenhagen, listing a collection of words commonly used by the group. It’s not known who the authors were, or why they created the glossaries, which date from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Eventually research on the pidgin was presented in a 1937 doctoral thesis by N. G. H. Deen, a Dutch linguist who complicated matters by publishing his thesis in Latin!

Why were the Basques in Iceland?

The Basques were the first community to develop a substantial and far-reaching industry from whaling. Historians record that they crossed the Atlantic to hunt Right Whales in Labrador and Newfoundland in the 16th century, before arriving in Iceland by 1605.

Image Credit:
Wikimedia Commons

Archived under History

Roald Amundsen, Pioneer at the Ends of the Earth

It’s one hundred years this week* since Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, becoming the leader of the first expedition to reach this inhospitable point on the Earth (and beating British explorer Robert Scott by a month). But it wasn’t the only—or even the first—time that the Norwegian explorer secured his place in history.

Roald AmundsenAmundsen’s South Pole expedition placed him at the forefront of the grandly named ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’, a 25 year period in which there was a flurry of expeditions to the southern-most continent. But he had previously spent years in Canada’s Arctic zone, carving a name for himself out of the ice-covered Northwest Passage.

The Northwest Passage had been a highly sought prize among ocean-bound explorers for centuries: a fabled northern sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans which, it was believed, would expand trade between Europe and Asia. Interest in finding the Northwest Passage dated back to the days when Christopher Colombus was crossing the Atlantic. Many attempts were made to find the Northwest Passage, and stories abounded of ‘ghost ships’ trapped in the Arctic ice for years, their crews frozen where they sat or slept.

Roald Amundsen set off on his attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1903, finally reaching the Pacific ocean in 1906. Incredibly, part of his route across the top of North America took his ship through waters only 90cm deep (in Rae Strait).

Dramatic Changes in a Century

Arctic and Northwest PassageIf Amundsen made his pioneering journey today, it would be less arduous. Satellite imaging has tracked a reduction in sea ice covering the Northwest Passage in the last few years, potentially making the waters navigable to more than just ice-breakers. The satellite image shows the 30-year average minimum ice coverage of the Arctic as a yellow line, and the Northwest Passage shipping route in red, along with the actual ice coverage in September 2011.

*At the time of writing: December 13, 2011. Amundsen reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911.

Image credits:
Roald Amundsen photo (1910): National Library of Norway
Satellite photo: NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualisation Studio

Archived under People

Deep Purple: Hard Rock with a Mild Mannered Name

How many hard rock bands have been named after the title of a song which came before? Probably hundreds. It’s the ultimate fan tribute, and immediately labels a band by style and musical influence. Deep Purple, on the other hand, was named after a song, but the resemblance to its namesake well and truly ends there. Continue reading →

Archived under Culture

What is the Opposite of a Blockbuster?

In movies, the opposite of a blockbuster is a bomb: no prizes for getting that answer right. But look a little further into the background of the word blockbuster and it gets more interesting. Continue reading →

Archived under Culture

Pi Degrees of Separation

Numbers games and mathematics make a logical combination. So it’s no surprise that the maths world has its own version of the six degrees of separation game. Like the Hollywood game (created around actor Kevin Bacon) this one features a mathematician known for his prolific output: Paul Erdős.

Numbered turbineErdős was a Hungarian mathematician who published more than 1,500 research papers in his lifetime (1913—1996), more than anyone else in his field. He collaborated with other researchers on several hundred of these papers, and it is this high volume of collaborative works that provides the foundation for the six degrees game known as the Erdős Number.

A person’s Erdős Number is determined by whether they co-wrote a paper with him, or with someone else who collaborated with him. Paul Erdős has an Erdős Number of 0. His co-authors have an Erdős Number of 1. Anyone who has collaborated with one of his co-authors has an Erdős Number of 2, and so on.

Helpfully, an online calculator has been created to look up someone’s Erdős Number (or their degree of separation away from any other mathematician).


Spyros Heniadis has alerted me (in the comments below) to a great Radio Lab podcast which talks about the Erdős Number and Paul Erdős in more detail. It’s worth catching to hear about this extraordinary character, his unconventional life, upbringing and introduction to mathematics. The section on Erdős starts about halfway through the podcast.

Photo credit: Robbie Sproule


Archived under Science & Nature
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