Tag Archives: social media

What are the average colors of the world? Data science offers a creative answer

In 1972, the Apollo 17 crew snapped one of the most famous photos ever taken, showing the Earth in all its glory for the first time in human history. The image has remained in the public consciousness as the ‘Blue Marble’ since it resembles the spherical agates we used to play with as children. Indeed, more than 70% of Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, reflecting a beautiful blue color.

The rest of terrestrial Earth, however, is much more diverse, from deserts to dense rainforest — and this shows in the richer color palette as seen from space. Data scientist Erin Davis creatively illustrated this color palette in a series of maps showing the dominant color of various regions across the globe.

Davis used a dataset from the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission, a constellation of two identical satellites in the same orbit, each equipped with a high-resolution multispectral imager capable of taking pictures of Earth’s land and vegetation in 13 different bands.

She then ran a script in the R programming language, which she coded herself, that assigned average colors to various areas, whether entire continents, countries, or states in the US.

In a short blog post on her website, Davis explained her process as follows:

  1. Wrote a script (in R) to find the bounding boxes of all the areas I was interested in
  2. In R, downloaded pictures of those areas from Sentinel-2
  3. In R, wrote a script that created a series of commands to:
    1. Georeference the downloaded image to create a geotiff
    2. Crop the geotiff to the borders of the area
    3. Re-project the geotiff to a sensible projection
  4. Ran that GDAL script
  5. In R, converted the geotiffs back to pngs, and found the average color of the png

In the same blog post, you can find all the R scripts she used for this project, which you can adapt for your own data visualizations. Contrary to popular belief, data isn’t boring. It can be creative and beautiful with the right mindset.

Welcome to the mesmerizing (and soothing) world of timelapse sheep herding

What if I told you the coolest thing you’ll see today is sheep herding? Well, brace yourself. Almost like a fluid, this herd seems to flow through the pasture following its own soothing rhythm.

https://vimeo.com/568430412

The video was captured by Haifa-based photographer Lior Patel, who has spent the better part of a year immersed in the world of sheep. He documented a single flock’s grazing process — a flock that has been managed by the same farmer and herder since 1985, and features over 1,000 sheep.

Shot with a drone, the timelapse footage shows the animals going through their daily routine of traveling 7 kilometers, through green pastures, dusty plains, or crossing a street. The shape-shifting flock is herded by a few border collies, which you can see circling the edges of the flock and making sure that no stragglers go awry.

“The first challenge is to understand the elasticity of the herd during the movement, its dispersal during grazing, and how it converges into one tight pack towards exit/return from pasture and crossing roads and paths,” Patel tells Colossal.

Patel told Colossal that he captured most scenes from a fixed camera position, with each shot showing around 4-7 minutes. He enjoys traveling through Israel, documenting not just the agricultural practices throughout the country, but also historic architecture.

For more of his aerial photos and videos, check out his site and Instagram.

The Pythagorean cup – the vessel that spills your booze if you’re too greedy

Pythagoras, an important philosopher, mathematician, and music theorist, was born on the island of Samos, probably in 585 BC. A lesser-known fact is that he enjoyed a good prank. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Known as one of the most enlightened minds of antiquity, Pythagoras of Samos left an invaluable legacy to the world. As a renowned mathematician, philosopher, and mystic, Pythagoras’ ideas were tremendously influential on the ancient world. 

Whilst the 6th century BC Greek philosopher is foremost known for his mathematical innovations, such as his study of the property of numbers and his well-known geometric theorem that relates the sides of a right triangle in a simple way, not many people know he was also an accomplished inventor.

One of his many inventions is the Pythagorean cup, also known as the greedy cup – a clever and entertaining vessel designed to hold an optimal amount of wine, forcing people to imbibe only in moderation — a virtue of great regard among ancient Greeks.

If the user was too greedy and poured wine over the designed threshold, the cup would spill its entire content. Imagine the dismay and stupefaction a glutton felt when his precious brew perished on the floor.

Indeed, Pythagoras was always a professor at heart, and his contraption may have taught a couple of fellows about the virtue of moderation. But the ‘greedy cup’ also gives a lesson in ingenuity.

On the outside, the 2,500-year-old design looks like any other cup. However, when you make a cross-section, it becomes clear this is no ordinary vessel. At the center of the cup lies a mechanism consisting of a hollow pipe-like chamber that follows an opening, starting from the bottom of the liquid-holding part of the cup, up to the top of the central column that makes up the cup’s core, and back down 180 degrees out the bottom.

pythagorean_cup_cross_section

As the pipe curls over the top of the U-shaped central column, its floor marks an imaginary line. If you fill the cup over this horizontal line, the liquid will begin to siphon out the bottom and onto your lap or feet — the entire content of the cup, even the liquid below the line.

A Pythagoras cup you can find in Greece or online.

cross_section_pythagorean_cup

Cross-section of a Pythagorean cup.

The siphon is created due to the interplay between gravity and hydrostatic pressure. Water tends to flow from the area of high pressure to the area of low pressure. When the liquid level rises such that it fills the U-shaped chamber, the liquid will start to fall due to gravity. As gravity pulls the water column down the pipe of the Pythagorean cup, the lower pressure thus created on the other end causes the liquid to be overpowered, subsequently allowing itself to be “dragged” along, stopping only when the water level either falls below the intake or the outlet. Some modern toilets operate on the same principle: when the water level in the bowl rises high enough, a siphon is created, flushing the toilet.

According to one account, which may be more myth than history, Pythagoras got the idea for his fabled cup while supervising workers or students at a water supply project in Samos island. There, he was troubled by the debauchery of the workers, so he came up with this ancient prank to ensure they only drank in moderation.

Today, Pythagorean cups can be bought all over Greece at souvenir shops and can even be ordered on eBay. If you’re up for pranks, this is a great gift. Be wary of wine though since it stains.

The relationship between social media and cryptocurrencies is not healthy

Social media platforms have long been seen as a “signal” generator for traders and investors of the crypto space. Due to the relatively small size of Bitcoin ($BTC) and other coins (in terms of market cap, compared to many other stocks or commodities like gold), public opinion can quickly and significantly move crypto markets. But things are going way too far.

Imagine if a few decades ago, you would have told one of the richest people in the world they can control the price of an asset, and make it rise and fall drastically, by merely writing a few words. Their eyes would have flickered and small, green, dollar signs would have appeared in front of each pupil. Well guess what — that’s kind of what’s happening now.

Oh Elon

Credit: Twitter, @elonmsuk.

Elon Musk, the billionaire behind Tesla and SpaceX, has the power. In the past few months, cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin and Bitcoin have fluctuated wildly based on Musk’s tweets. While the tweets may have not been posted for his own financial gain (and in truth, Musk doesn’t really need to tamper with the market, at a net worth of some $160 billion), they did send the crypto market on a wild rollercoaster.

Sometimes, the tweets were semi-relevant to the crypto market, like when Tesla stopped taking Bitcoin (after previously bragging that it does accept Bitcoin), or that time SpaceX launched a Dogecoin-funded satellite into orbit. But other times, it’s just plain silly — like when he posted a meme about breaking up with Bitcoin.

Dogecoin, essentially a meme cryptocurrency that somehow picked up a lot of popularity, was at one point 1,400% up compared to the start of 2021. Now, after a peak value right before Elon Musk hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL), the coin dropped by 75%, after the show failed to live up to the hype.

While Musk is the main exponent of the effect social media can have on cryptocurrency markets, he’s far from the only one.

Crypto and social media go back a long time

Crypto and online discussion boards go back as far as Bitcoin’s creation. Shortly after it was brought to the world, Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto founded the popular forum BitcoinTalk, where most crypto-related discussions took place.

Shortly after Satoshi chose to disappear forever in 2010, we saw a parallel between an increase in online mentions of Bitcoin and its growth and price. The more people talked about it, the more it seemed to be worth. The platforms that stood out in terms of community building and valuable information was Reddit and Twitter, which are also some of the most bitcoin-friendly social media platforms.

Later, Discord and Telegram caught up to the trend as well, since privacy-oriented discussions and closed groups started to increase in popularity. These platforms of course experienced quite a bit of volatility from users after their use in ICO scams deemed them less trusted as information sources.

For crypto traders, keeping an eye on social media became the norm — a way to track the overall market sentiment, but also anticipate scenarios based on Musk-type interventions and try to anticipate the ebb and flow of prices. When you see that the public starts to feel overwhelmingly positive about Bitcoin (to the points that you see Twitter accounts adding laser eyes to their profile pictures) it may be time to sell. When the same audience starts bashing Bitcoin, writing it off as dead, it might be time to buy bitcoin.

Of course, actually analyzing social media sentiment is not easy. You can scroll through Twitter or Reddit, but you just won’t have enough time for it. You can also harvest data and try to analyze it in bulk, but that may miss out trends. You can also look at all the things niche-related influencers are talking about and try to determine how the public will act based on this information, or even use specialized tools to aid your quest.

This is not what was promised

Bitcoin, and cryptocurrency in general, promised to change the world, but it kind of hasn’t. It’s made some people some money, it’s cost others some money, but the impact on society has been negligible. When you take into account the fact that mining and trading cryptocurrency produces emissions comparable to a medium country, the issue becomes even more thorny

Part of the problem stems from the fact that we’re not really sure how much Bitcoin (or any cryptocurrency really) should be worth. As long as the price runs on emotions, memes, and influencer whims, cryptocurrency will continue to fluctuate wildly and trust will dwindle due to this volatility.

In truth, the same can be said about stocks. The market isn’t perfectly rational and oftentimes, it’s anything but rational — we’ve seen this happen time and time again. But crypto is a relatively new happening, and no one is really sure just how high or low it will go.

In an ideal world, people like Musk would lose their power, and cryptocurrency, freed from such nefarious influences, would drift towards a realistic value. People would trust it more and use it more widely; it would become incorporated in humanitarian projects, where its decentralized nature can work best, and act as a viable alternative to existing currency. Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world, and who knows what Musk will tweet next?

The mystery of an abandoned village in England that can still be seen from the sky

Walk along the Lincolnshire countryside in eastern England, and you may come across a rather peculiar field. Look at it closely and you may get a feel that the site was inhabited once. Take a bird’s eye perspective — and you’ll be certain of it.

Image credits: English Heritage.

It is, indeed, the site of a village — ‘Gamelstorp’, as it is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. Domesday Book, “The Great Survey” ordered by King William the Conquerer when he took over England, recorded much of England and parts of Wales — offering us a window into what the country was like a thousand years ago.

Back in those days, the Lord of Gamelstorp was someone called Ivo Taillebois, a powerful Norman nobleman, sheriff, and sidekick to William the Conqueror. Taillebois was granted land in Lincolnshire for his services, as well as in several neighboring areas. But he set his base in Lincolnshire.

After that, though, not much is known. Land at Gainsthorpe was granted to the small priory of Newstead-on-Ancholme (a few miles northeast of the village) in 1343. Then, at some point in the late 14th and 15th centuries, the village was ruled by the Duchy of Cornwall, suggesting that at least some part of the village survived, even though it had likely shrunken in size. By 1616, the village was definitely deserted. A survey for the Duchy of Cornwall noted ‘neither tofte, tenement or cottage standing’.

The village as seen on Google Maps. Image is color amplified.

A den of thieves

Gamelstorp was long deserted when, in the 17th century, an antiquarian by the name of Abraham de la Pryme (1671–1704) passed through it. In two separate and somewhat contradictory descriptions from 1697, de la Pryme notes that there are about 200 ruined buildings in three abandoned streets.

De la Pryme mentions a local “tradition” of Tudor robbers to use the village as a base. As the story goes, these thieves were driven out by the inhabitants of other villages, leading to the complete abandonment of the villages. But de la Pryme himself doesn’t seem to believe this story.

“Tradition says that that town was, in times of yore, exceeding infamous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves [..]But I fancy that the town has been eaten up with time, poverty, and pasturage.”

It’s not really clear why or when the village was abandoned. It could be due to the Black Plague, which killed 20-60% of the English population during the 14th century, or it could have a more benign explanation: wool farming. Wool became a very profitable business during the 13th and 14th centuries and several arable villages turned to sheep farming.

Gainsthorpe today

Traces of houses, roads, barns, even a church are still visible to the careful eye. The deserted village is still preserved in earthworks such as raised ridges and sunken hollows, centuries later. Three or four roads are still visible as hollow ways, with the layouts of at least 25 buildings and 15 other enclosures visible, surrounded by earthen banks.

The site from ground level. Image credits: Historic England.

It’s very likely that other parts of the village (such as the chapel it must have once had) survive somewhere south and west of the village. Historic England, a public body of the British Government, describes it thusly:

“The village, comprising a small group of houses, gardens, yards, streets, paddocks, often with a green, a manor and a church, and with a community devoted primarily to agriculture, was a significant component of the rural landscape in most areas of medieval England, much as it is today.”

“The monument comprises part of Gainsthorpe medieval rural settlement and includes some of the remains of the deserted village site, two paddocks, and the site of the manor with a fishpond and two dovecotes.”

“The properties are divided by a system of sunken trackways and are broadly similar in that they each consist of a large enclosure sub-divided by internal walls, with one or more of the smaller yards containing a complex of buildings. In many cases, gateways and doorways are clearly visible. In some cases, two or more properties appear to have been combined into a single larger complex, probably as a result of piecemeal desertion.”

The medieval rural settlement of Gainsthorpe has not been excavated, and neither have geophysical surveys been carried out at the site — and so its origins are unclear. There were at least 19 fields surrounding the village, occupying 108 acres (44 hectares), and the village also had a chapel, a windmill, and a bridge — so there’s a lot still left to be discovered about the abandoned settlement.

Hopefully, at some point, research can clarify the origins and history of the village. In the meantime, it remains one of England’s most mysterious villages.

Freed of 1,000 years of grime, this Anglo-Saxon cross looks stunning

Image credits: National Museum Scotland.

“My senses exploded, I went into shock, endorphins flooded my system and away I went stumbling towards my colleagues waving it in the air,” recalled amateur treasure hunter Derek McLennan upon finding the treasure. He had been given permission to explore the area and was hoping for a nice find, but this surpassed even his wildest expectations. He and two friends had discovered a hoard of more than 100 gold and silver objects — one of the biggest troves of Viking-era artifacts ever found in the United Kingdom. It was called the Galloway Hoard.

It was truly a spectacular find, but after around 1,000 years spent buried, the artifacts weren’t in the best of shape. So when National Museums Scotland acquired the Galloway Hoard, they started work on cleaning and restoring the items.

Among the objects within the hoard is an early Christian cross thought to date from the 9th or 10th century. Image credits: National Museum Scotland.

The cross was cleaned with a porcupine quill — a tool that’s “sharp enough to remove the dirt yet soft enough not to damage the metalwork,” according to a statement from the museum. Cleaning the decorations took a lot of delicate work, but it was worth it, as the gold leaf and alloy decorations revealed a remarkable picture.

Each of the cross’ four arms bears an intricate engraving of one of the four Gospel writers in the Cristian New Testament: Saint Matthew as a human, Saint Mark as a lion, Saint Luke as a calf and Saint John as an eagle.

The silver spiral chain wrapped around the cross is also remarkably intricate. It’s made from wire less than a millimeter in diameter and wrapped around animal gut.

“The pectoral cross, with its subtle decoration of evangelist symbols and foliage, glittering gold and black inlays, and its delicately coiled chain, is an outstanding example of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmith’s art,” says Leslie Webster, former curator of Britain, prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, in the statement.

“Anglo-Saxon crosses of this kind are exceptionally rare, and only one other—much less elaborate—is known from the ninth century,” she continues. “The discovery of this pendant cross, in such a remarkable context, is of major importance for the study of early medieval goldsmiths’ work, and for our understanding of Viking and Anglo-Saxon interactions in this turbulent period.”

Researchers suspect the cross was stolen during a Viking raid.

Swallowed whole: lobster diver swallowed and spat out by humpback whale

Humpback whales are gentle giants who don’t enjoy interacting with humans — but it’s still advisable to keep a distance from them. Image credits: Flicker Photos.

Michael Packard has been a lobster diver out of Provincetown for 40 years, but he wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen.

“All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard recalled Friday afternoon following his release from Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.”

Packard’s vessel, the “Ja’n J,” was surrounded by a fleet of boats catching striped bass. He went diving when, without warning, he felt scooped up. Although he didn’t feel any injuries or teeth, he realized he had been swallowed and things were pretty bad.

“Then I felt around, and I realized there was no teeth and I had felt, really, no great pain,” he said. “And then I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth. I’m in a whale’s mouth, and he’s trying to swallow me.’ “

“I was completely inside; it was completely black,” Packard said. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys — they’re 12 and 15 years old.”

Still in his scuba gear, Packard started moving and struggling, until the whale began shaking its head. Packard felt the whale didn’t like, and after 30 seconds that seemed like an eternity, the whale finally surfaced and spat him out.

“I saw Mike come flying out of the water, feet first with his flippers on, and land back in the water,” Joe Francis, a charter boat captain who happened to be nearby, told WBZ-TV. “I jumped aboard the boat. We got him up, got his tank off. Got him on the deck and calmed him down and he goes, ‘Joe, I was in the mouth of a whale.’ “

“Then all of a sudden he went up to the surface and just erupted and started shaking his head. I just got thrown in the air and landed in the water,” Packard recalled. “I was free and I just floated there. I couldn’t believe. . . I’m here to tell it.”

Packard’s story was corroborated by his own crew, as well as Francis, and experts say that while extremely rare, this type of accident can happen. The whale doesn’t want to swallow people, but it can do so out of carelessness — much like a cyclist swallowing a fly. When a humpback whale opens its mouth to feed, it billows out and blocks its forward vision. This helps the whale scoop up more prey, but also makes it unable to distinguish what it’s scooping up.

Unlike toothed whales such as orcas, baleen whales such as the humpbacks cannot injure humans with their teeth; their esophagus is also too small to actually swallow a human. But whales can still cause a lot of damage to the unfortunate creatures they swallow. “He’s damn lucky to be alive,” Captain Joe Francis added.

Even so, what Packard went through is extremely rare. Whales don’t generally want to interact with humans, and it’s not uncommon for divers in the tropics to swim alongside them, enjoying a lovely experience. Experts generally advise keeping a distance of around 100 meters to avoid any potential accident.

Packard was released from Cape Cod Hospital Friday afternoon. He described his injuries as “a lot of soft tissue damage” but no broken bones. He said he’d return to diving as soon as he was healed.

Why zebras were never domesticated

Woman riding a tamed zebra named Bromar in 1923. Credit: Public Domain.

Zebras are more than just horses with stripes, which was something that European colonists would find out the hard way after countless failed attempts to domesticate them. While a few zebras were tamed here and there in the 18th and 19th centuries, as one can witness in historical photos showing zebras pulling carts or people riding them, it proved too much work and any subsequent effort to harness zebras for work alongside humans was abandoned.

Like horses and donkeys, zebras belong to the Equidae family (known as equids). The three species are so closely related that they can interbreed and form hybrids such as a zedonk (a cross between a male zebra and a female donkey), a zorse (the offspring of a male zebra and a female horse), and zonie (hybrid between a zebras and ponies). But unlike their cousins, zebras resisted submitting to humans. Why is that? After all, zebras are native to Africa, the cradle of humanity.

It may all have to do with natural selection. Zebras and horses diverged from a common ancestor around 4-4.7 million years ago, and each became adapted to their particular environments. Herds of wild horses in North America and Europe were initially kept as food animals, but later became accustomed to humans. After the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago, horses proved their worth in transportation and warfare, which prompted humans to invest time and effort into domesticating them by selectively breeding the tamest individuals.

A zonky: half zebra and half donkey. Credit: Ruth Boraggina/Wikimedia Commons.

But unlike wild horses, zebras in the open African savanna had many more predators to worry about, including fierce lions, lightning-fast cheetahs, and cunning hyenas. As such, natural selection forged zebras into very reactive animals that are ready to leap at the slightest sign of danger. Zebras are particularly feisty and will greatly resist getting captured.

Despite their poney-like size, some zebras have managed to kill attacking lions with a single back kick. They’re not less menacing from the front either, as they’re known to pack a savage bite. Zebras also have a hardwired ducking reflex, which greatly hinders their capture by lasso or other methods. Finally, zebras have no family structure and no hierarchy, unlike wild horses that live in herds and have a structured order.

People quickly recognized these highly unfriendly qualities, but they nevertheless tried to break the zebra to harness. For instance, in the 19th century, George Grey imported zebras from South Africa to New Zealand, where he was newly appointed governor and was fond of having a carriage pulled by the wild african equids. Victorian-era zoologist Lord Walter Rothschild famously drove a carriage drawn by zebras to Buckingham Palace. Later, in the early 20th century, Rosendo Ribeiro, the first doctor in Nairobi, allegedly made house calls on zebraback.

Lord Walter Rothschild, of the infamous Rothschild banking family, riding a carriage pulled by zebras. Credit: Public Domain.

The German army in its German East Africa colony was particularly interested in domesticating zebras in lieu of horses. They even implemented a program to cross zebras with horses to create hybrids that were resistant to disease that typically wiped out imported horses.

German colonial officer riding a tame zebra jumping a fence in East Africa.  Photo taken between 1890 and 1923. Credit: Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
A German soldier riding a zebra in Zanzibar, German East Africa, in the 1890s. Credit: Public Domain.

However, these were just a couple of instances of tamed individuals. Overall, zebras proved too stubborn to domesticate, despite the best efforts of European colonists in Africa who would have made good use of them. Even recent efforts have proven somewhat futile. In 2013, a teenager in Virginia, Shea Inman, trained a zebra to ride it. After many months of patience and reward-based training, she managed somewhat to ride the zebra, although Inman noted: “Some days it’s like he’s been riding for 30 years and other days he acts like he’s never seen a human being.”

So despite their horse-like appearance, zebras won’t submit easily to humans. They like to live life as nature intended: always on their own terms.

What is gympie-gympie: the poisonous plant whose painful sting can last for years and drive people to suicide

The gympie-gympie. Credit: Marina Hurley.

From afar, the leaves of the gympie-gympie (Dendrocnide moroides) look inconspicuous and even inviting judging from their soft and fuzzy appearance. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is one of the world’s most poisonous plants. A slight brush with its leaves is enough to deliver unimaginable pain that has been described as “like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.” To make matters worse, it can take months or, in some cases, even years before the pain completely goes away. Some have even killed themselves, finding the pain unbearable.

What is the gympie-gympie stinging tree?

The stinging bush, a member of the nettle family (Urticaceae), gets its name after the Australian town of Gympie, a gold mining hub settled in the 1860s. It’s native to the rainforests of northeast Australia and is also found in parts of Indonesia. You can find it in the rainforest clearings, as well as along creek lines and tracks.

These shrubs can grow to three meters in height with heart-shaped, serrated-edged, dark-green leaves that can grow from the size of a thumbnail to over 50 cm wide.

The gympie-gympie is one of four species of stinging tree or brush in Australia, all part of the nettle family, though the gympie-gympie is by far the most painful.

The tiny hairs covering the gympie gympie plant release a potent neurotoxin. Credit: hiep phamcong / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The notoriously painful toxin is delivered through tiny hairy filaments that cover the plant’s stems, leaves, and appetizing-looking fruits. The tip of filament has a small bulb containing the neurotoxin, which is easily broken off and sticks into the skin.

Electron micrograph of the stining hairs. Credit: Marina Hurley.

Tales of the gympie-gympie’s painful sting

The pain caused by the sting is legendary. A.C. Macmillan, a North Queensland road surveyor, reported to his boss in 1866 an encounter with a gympie-gympie that stung his packhorse. The horse “got mad, and died within two hours.” Local folklore is abundant in tales of horses jumping off cliffs due to the sheer agony or forestry workers drinking themselves to sleep to dull the horrendous pain.

Cyril Bromley, an Australian ex-serviceman, described his own encounter with the stinging tree during military training in World War II. Bromley spent three weeks in the hospital where he went through countless unsuccessful treatments. This entire time, the veteran was turned “mad as a cut snake” by the pain. But at least he lived to tell the tale. Bromley knew an officer who shot himself after an uninspired decision to use the gympie-gympie as toilet paper.

Speaking to Australian Geographic, Ernie Rider recounted one unforgettable day in 1963 when he was slapped in the face, arms, and chest by a stinging tree.

“I remember it feeling like there were giant hands trying to squash my chest,” he said. “For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower.”

“There’s nothing to rival it; it’s 10 times worse than anything else – scrub ticks, scrub itch and itchy-jack sting included. Stinging trees are a real and present danger.”

Marina Hurley, currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales, is one of the world’s foremost experts in stinging trees. In 1989, Marina’s passion for the rainforest led her to bury herself in the undergrowth of the rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland for three years where she performed fieldwork on stinging trees. It didn’t take long during this fieldwork before she got stung, an experience which she described in an article as “the worst kind of pain you can imagine.”

Immediately after a person is stung, a burning pain is felt. However, that’s just an appetizer since peak pain is reached after 20 to 30 minutes.

Although the pain is staggering, the most damning thing about this poisonous shrub is the fact that the toxic hairs can remain in the skin for up to six months. During this time, if the skin is pressed hard or washed with hot or cold water, the stings resurface. Good luck taking a shower.

“Not only do you feel pain from where you are stung, if it is a really bad sting, within about 20 minutes your lymph nodes under your arms swell and throb painfully and feel like they are being slammed between two blocks of wood,” Hurley wrote.

“The intense throbbing pain from both the sting and from your lymph nodes can last anywhere from 1-4 hours, depending upon what species you touched, the amount of skin that was stung, and how hard you came into contact with the plant.”

Marina Hurley wearing protective gear while doing dangerous fieldwork close to a gympie-gympie. Credit: Marina Hurley.

According to Hurley, who studied Dendrocnide plants for years, the structure and function of their stinging hairs is similar to a hypodermic needle. But despite quite a lot of research, Hurley and colleagues have yet to figure out the exact composition of the shrub’s neurotoxin.

What we know for sure is that the toxin is very chemically stable and heat resistant. This means that dried botanical specimens gathering dust in some museum collection from 100 years ago are still dangerous and can sting you.

Even if you aren’t in direct contact with the shrub’s leaves or stems, you can still get badly stung if you are in their vicinity without protection (i.e. gloves and face mask) since the tiny hairs are airborne and can be inhaled. This can cause runny nose, nasal bleeding, and throat irritation.

Some animals actually eat them

A partially eaten gimpie-gimpie. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Hurley originally embarked on her research in the late 80s and early 90s after she noticed some chewed Dendrocnide leaves. How is it possible that animals could eat such a painfully toxic plant?

Eventually, she found the culprits: a nocturnal leaf-eating chrysomelid beetle and many other leaf-chewing insects and sap-suckers, as well as small marsupials known as red-legged pademelons.

It’s not clear how these animals can devour the poisonous plant without getting stung or suffering an allergic reaction. Perhaps future research might uncover some biological pathways that may lead to an effective treatment.

The red-legged pademelon. Credit: Mark Gillow/Wikimedia Commons.

At the moment, there is no antidote for a gympie sting. Doctors advise victims not to rub the stung area since this can break the hairs even more causing them to spread further in the skin. Pouring a 1:10 solution of diluted hydrochloric acid over the sting can also help a bit with the pain. However, people will experience excruciating pain no matter what. For some people working as surveyors, forest rangers, and timber workers in Australia, the gympie is a serious occupational hazard.

It’s such a pesky plant that in 1968 a British biowarfare lab in the UK sent a team to Australia to collect specimens of stinging trees to ascertain their usefulness as a biological weapon. Fortunately, no such ghastly weapon was ever developed by the military interest itself serves as a testament to the gympie’s savageness.

How a deaf Beethoven discovered bone conduction by attaching a rod to his piano and clenching it in his teeth

On May 7, 1824, the legendary 9th Symphony premiered in the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna. When the masterful performance ended, 54-year-old Beethoven, who was stone deaf at this time, was still conducting along with the “official conductor” from the front row when he had to be turned around to face the thunder of an applauding audience.

Whilst Beethoven’s career was the stuff of genius, his personal life was marked by a struggle against deafness and constant suffering caused by an armada of afflictions. The German composer first noticed that his hearing was fading around the age of 28. By this time he was already an established figure in the Vienna musical scene and regarded as a rising star rivaling Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which only made everything worse.

One can only imagine how cruel a fate that must have felt like to such a musical mind. He, the great Beethoven, of all people, was going deaf! It’s as if Picasso lost his eyesight or Rodin had his arms cut off.

But Beethoven was a strong-willed spirit who didn’t give up easily. One of his celebrated phrases is: “I will choke on the throat of fate, it will never make me succumb.”

He was true to his word. Despite his rapidly deteriorating hearing, from 1803 to 1812, Beethoven composed an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, five string quartets, six-string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets, and 72 songs.

Beethoven… the inventor?

Despite living in pain, Beethoven did not give up. However, he had a helping hand. In order to continue composing and playing music, Beethoven stumbled across a physical phenomenon that is central to hearing: bone conduction.

At the time, scientists understood very little about how human hearing works. But despite the fact that his ears left him, he could still hear himself playing music by placing one end of a wooden stick onto his piano and clenching on the other end with his teeth. When notes were struck, the vibrations from the piano were transferred to his jaw, and from there directly to his inner ear. Miraculously, he could hear again! Bone conduction was born.

Sound is nothing more than acoustic vibration in the air. These juggling atoms vibrating at certain frequencies cause the eardrum to vibrate, which are transformed into a different kind of vibration that the cochlea, also known as the inner ear, can interpret. The cochlea then transmits the information about the sound to the brain via the auditory nerve where it is processed as hearing.

But there’s a second way that humans can hear besides air conduction. If the inner ear is directly exposed to acoustic vibration in the bones, then a person can still hear although the eardrum is bypassed. This is one of the reasons you can still hear your own voice if you plug your ears. It’s also how whales hear while diving deep in the ocean or how male elephants can listen for mating calls by stomping females several kilometers away.

Beethoven’s clever bone-conducting solution is used in some hearing devices today. A bone conducting hearing device, or BAHA, converts the sound picked up by its microphone into vibrations that are transmitted through the bones of the skull to the cochlea of the inner ear. Essentially, the bone conducting device fills the role of a defective eardrum.

Bone conduction hearing devices are also used by people with perfect hearing in certain applications. For instance, military headsets allow soldiers to hear orders relayed through a bone conduction device, sometimes integrated into the helmet, despite the background noise of enemy gunfire. Special bone conduction hearing devices also allow divers to both hear and talk underwater.

Beethoven’s final struggles with deafness

The way Beethoven dealt with his deafness is one of the great stories of humanity. The cause of his deafness, though, remains something of a mystery.

His diagnosis is made all the more challenging since he suffered from a plethora of other illnesses. The list includes chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea that might have been due to an inflammatory bowel disorder, depression, alcohol abuse, respiratory problems, joint pain, eye inflammation, and cirrhosis of the liver. 

This last item, a consequence of his prodigious drinking, may have ultimately killed Beethoven, who died in 1827. An autopsy showed signs of severe cirrhosis, but also dilatation of the auditory and other related nerves in the ear.

As a common custom of the time, a young musician by the name of Ferdinand Hiller snipped off a lock of hair from Beethoven’s head as a keepsake. The lock stayed in the Hiller family for nearly a century until it somehow made its way into the hands of a Danish physician called Kay Fremming. The physician is famous for saving thousands of Jews during the occupation of Denmark by Nazi forces by helping them escape to Sweden, whose border was closeby to a tiny fishing village Fremming called home. Some speculate that one of the Jewish refugees gave Dr. Freeming the lock of Beethoven’s hair in gratitude for saving their lives.

What we know for sure is that the lock of hair, consisting of 582 strands, was passed down to Fremming’s daughter, who put it up for auction in 1994. It was purchased by Alfredo Guevara, an Arizona urologist, for a modest $7,000. Guevara kept a few strands and donated the rest to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University in California.

At this point, scientists at the university thought of examining DNA from the great composer’s hair in order to look for clues as to how Beethoven became deaf.

The hair was put through a barrage of DNA, chemical, forensic, and toxicology tests. What immediately stood out was an abnormally high level of lead. During Beethoven’s time, people weren’t aware of lead poisoning and it was quite common to use plates for food and goblets for drinking made out of the toxic metal. Even the wine of that era, Beethoven’s favorite drink, often contained lead as a sweetener. This severe lead poisoning may have contributed to the composer’s lost hearing.

For a long time, Beethoven tried to conceal his deteriorating hearing, fearing that this may ruin his career if the word was out. But he couldn’t keep it up for too long. It was common for composers to also conduct and even perform their own music, and Beethoven’s condition eventually became noticeable. After watching one of Beethoven’s piano rehearsals in 1814, fellow composer Louis Spohr said “…the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate.”

At age 45, Beethoven’s hearing was completely gone, and so was his public life. In the final stretch of his life, the German composer became a reclusive, insular person who allowed only a select few friends to visit him. The music he composed during this time, which includes the famous Sixth Symphony, reflects Beethoven’s love for nature and his life in total silence in the countryside. Describing the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven said it is “more the expression of feeling than painting”, a point underlined by the title of the first movement. While completely deaf, Beethoven also composed Missa Solemnis, the solemn mass for orchestra and vocalists, and the opera Fidelio, among other major works.

It’s not clear if Beethoven’s inner ear was still functional in his later days so that he could continue using his bone-conducting stick to hear his compositions on the piano. Many experts believe he didn’t need to hear his pieces anyway since he was a master composer who knew all the rules of how music is made. Even in deafness, Beethoven was an unparalleled master of the language of music and an inspiration for resilience.

No green thumb required: Open-source robots can now grow a small farm for you

Image credits: FarmBot.

If you’ve always wanted to grow your own fruits and veggies but could never quite make the time for it — technology is here to rescue you.

At first glance, technology and farming don’t go hand in hand, but that’s old school thinking. In this day and age, technology and farming are a perfect match. With cheap sensors, simple phone apps, and available equipment, you can build your very own farming robot. 

FarmBot, enter the stage

Give it power, water, and WiFi, and it will take care of the rest. FarmBot can plant, water, weed, and monitor the soil and plants with an array of sensors. All you need to do is harvest the produce once it’s done.

Soil moisture sensor and watering heads are shown here. Image credits: FarmBot.

FarmBot is an open-source robot developed by the eponymous company. It runs on custom, extensible tracks, and uses game-like open-source software.

Everything is customizable and adaptable. You design your patch and drop plants onto a virtual map of your plot. The seeds are spaced automatically, and you can apply different growing plans. It can be controlled a phone, tablet, or computer.

Image credits: FarmBot.

FarmBot is an example of precision farming — a series of tools and techniques that enables farmers to optimize their resources and increase yield, while also being more sustainable. For instance, a soil humidity sensor that lets you know when it’s time to water the plants, or a nutrient detector that lets you know which areas (if any) need any more nutrients.

Back in the day, precision farming would require heavy and expensive machinery. But recently, the miniaturization of sensors, coupled with the advent of smartphones, internet, and apps, has made it much more accessible. FarmBot is taking that idea and applying it — no green thumb required.

The best part about it is that it’s open-source, which means that everyone from the community can customize it, adapting it for various setups and equipment.

The catch

I like the FarmBot idea. I really do — it’s great! But boy, it’s expensive! After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the design is sold for over $3,000 — which for a patch this size, likely means the patch won’t repay the cost for years (if ever).

Image credits: FarmBot.

If you’re buying something like this though, you’re probably not doing it to earn a buck. There’s a distinct pleasure in eating food that you’ve grown, and the pleasure is arguably even greater when the robot does most of the work for you.

Still, at this price, the likely target audience is restricted to well-off urbanites. However…

The counter catch

As previously mentioned — what’s really great about it is that it’s open-source. The folks at FarmBot have published detailed documentation on how to assemble and get the FarmBot working and augment or customize it to your needs.

“This opens up a world of opportunities for students to explore fields like coding, makers to modify their FarmBot with 3D printing, and scientists to take full advantage of the platform,” the website reads.

In other words, for someone with some maker experience (or simply who’s willing to dive into this world), you can build your own robot. In fact, there are plenty of resources online instructing you how to build a smart farming system. Here are just a few examples. The FarmBot itself uses Arduino and Raspberry Pi — two favorites of DIY makers.

Ultimately, this could be useful for a number of different communities, whether it’s students who would like to learn a practical application for coding or electronics, people who are really into growing their own produce, or those who just want to add a little pizzazz to their farming — to give just a few examples. Even for those whose livelihoods depend on farming, systems like this one can make a big difference, helping them manage their land a bit more effectively.

So, if you like FarmBot and can afford one, that’s great, go for it! If you can’t, you can still get into the world of maker precision farming with a far smaller investment. You can probably get started for around $100, and then decide if you want to explore it further.

Ukraine seizes spirit made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear site

Would you drink an “artisanal spirit” made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant? A group of researchers from the United Kingdom has just finished producing the first 1,500 bottles. They assure us the drink is completely safe and radiation-free and hope to get it soon on the UK market.

But there’s a problem. The Ukrainian government just seized it all.

Image credits: Chernobyl Spirit Company

The bottles are now in the hands of prosecutors who are investigating the case. The researchers argue they are wrongly accused of using forged Ukrainian excise stamps.

Atomik!

The Chernobyl Spirit Company aims to produce high-quality spirits made with crops from the nuclear disaster exclusion zone. This is a more than 4,000-square kilometer area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was abandoned due to fears of radioactive contamination after the devastating nuclear accident there in 1986.

The event is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster and exposed millions of people to dangerous radiation levels in large swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. Jim Smith, a UK researcher, has spent years studying the transfer of radioactivity to crops within the main exclusion zone, alongside a group of researchers.

They have grown experimental crops to find out if grain, and other food that is grown in the zone, could be used to make products that are safe to consume, hoping to prove that land around the exclusion zone could be put back to productive use. This would allow communities in the area to grow and sell produce, something that’s currently illegal due to fears of spreading radiation.

Image credits: Chernobyl Spirit Company

Smith and his team launched in 2019 the first experimental bottle of “Atomik,” a spirit made from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Since then, they have been working with the Palinochka Distillery in Ukraine to develop a small-scale experimental production, using apples from the Narodychi District – an inhabited area after the nuclear accident.

“There are radiation hotspots [in the exclusion zone] but for the most part contamination is lower than you’d find in other parts of the world with relatively high natural background radiation,” Smith told the BBC. “The problem for most people who live there is they don’t have the proper diet, good health services, jobs or investment.”

The drink was initially produced using water and grain from the Chernobyl exclusion zone but the researchers have now adjusted the recipe and incorporated the apples. It’s the first consumer product to come from the abandoned area around the damaged nuclear power plant, the argue, excited about the opportunities that it represents.

The aim of selling the drink, Smith explains, is to enable the team to distribute most of the money to local communities. The rest will be reinvested in the business, as Smith hopes to provide the team with an income to work on the project. The most important thing for the area now is economic development, not radioactivity, he argues.

The researchers are now working hard to get the shipment released. Elina Smirnova, the lawyer representing them in court, said in a statement that the seizure was in violation of Ukrainian law, and accused the authorities of targeting “a foreign company which has tried to establish an ethical ‘white’ business to primarily help Ukraine.”

How Tibbles the cat possibly caused an entire species to go extinct

By the time David Lyall, lighthouse keeper, moved onto Stephens Island, a small species of wren was already having a tough time. The bird’s last refuge was on Stephens Island. Less than two years after Lyall moved to the island, the bird went extinct; or rather, after Lyall and Tibbles moved to the island.

Image credits: John Gerrard Keulemans/Public Domain.

Extinct in a year

The year is 1894, and Lyall just started his new job as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of New Zealand, on Stephens Island. It’s a lonely job being a lighthouse keeper, and you could hardly fault the man for bringing his cat along for the ride. This would prove to be disastrous for the wren, which now ironically carries Lyall’s name.

Lyall’s wren was distinctively flightless — one of only four known songbirds that don’t fly. All of these four species were inhabitants of islands, where they were safe from predators — and all of them are now extinct… because they weren’t really safe from predators.

Living Lyall’s wrens were seen only twice. The lighthouse keeper described the ‘rock wren’, as he called it, as more fond of the night than the day, “running around the rocks like a mouse and so quick in its movements that he could not get near enough to hit it with a stick or stone”. Lyall, to his credit, was involved in biological observations and communicated his observations to leading researchers of the time.

But Tibbles was less into biology, and more into hunting.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

We don’t know what Tibbles looked like, but we do know that when she came to the island, she was pregnant. She gave birth on the island, and at least some of her kittnes survived. Tibbles, as many cats do, brought “gifts” to its owner — birds it had killed. As many a cat owner can attest, it’s a nasty habit that hasn’t changed much in recent years.

Often, Tibbles would bring the wrens it had killed. As the birds couldn’t fly, they were easy prey. Lyall sent specimens to England for study, where Walter Buller, a bird expert, recognized it as a new species and reported it to the British Ornithologists’ Union. But by the time that happened, the wrens were already doomed.

Around one year after he moved onto the island, Lyall writes to Butler: “…the cats have become wild and are making sad havoc among all the birds.” A few weeks later, the Christchurch newspaper The Press writes a somber editorial:

“There is very good reason to believe that the bird is no longer to be found on the island, and, as it is not known to exist anywhere else, it has apparently become quite extinct. This is probably a record performance in the way of extermination.”

It was indeed a very quick extermination of a species woefully unprepared for dealing with cats.

Over the following two years, several expeditions looking for specimens prove unsuccessful. Lyall is completely unable to find any more birds, and offers two specimens conserved in alcohol for the price of £50 apiece (over $5,000 in today’s money) — his yearly salary was £140 at the time.

Whether or not the birds went extinct exactly then or a few individuals lingered on for a bit longer is unclear, but they ultimately met extinction at the hands (or paws) of the newcomers.

Tibbles’ defense

The story of how a species was brought down by one cat spread far and wide, propagated especially by Walter Rothschild, a biologist who described the bird almost simultaneously to Butler. The two were fierce rivals.

But the account is likely not true, as New Zealand ornithologists found out. In a 2004 essay published by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, two researchers pieced together the timeline of what happened on the island. It’s likely that it wasn’t Tibbles alone that sent the bird to extinction, but rather a population of cats — either Tibbles’ descendants or other cats escaped on the island.

In fact, the cats themselves suffered a grim fate, as the timeline shows:

  • 1892: Work on building the lighthouse begins. Three lighthouse keepers and their families (17 people in total) were to move on the island. Construction worker F. W. Ingram makes the first observation of Lyall’s wren, as he mentions “two kinds of wren” (the other one was probably the rifleman).
  • 1894
    • 17–20 February: This is likely when cats were introduced to Stephens Island. At some point, a pregnant cat brought to the island escaped (probably Tibbles).
    • June: Lyall reports that his cat is bringing wren carcasses. He sends the birds to England.
  • 1895
    • April: Lyall writes to Buller: “…the cats have become wild and are making sad havoc among all the birds.”
    • November: no more wrens can be found on the island. Several subsequent expeditions are unsuccessful.
  • 1897: The principal lighthouse keeper, Patrick Henaghan, requests shotguns and ammunition to destroy the “large number of cats running wild on the island.”
  • 1899: The new principal lighthouse keeper, Robert Cathcart, shoots over 100 feral cats since his arrival on 24 November 1898.
  • 1905: Buller writes an article in which he quotes an anonymous source suggesting that lighthouse keepers stop bringing cats to islands: “And we certainly think that it would be as well if the Marine Department, in sending lighthouse keepers to isolated islands where interesting specimens of native birds are known or believed to exist, were to see that they are not allowed to take any cats with them, even if mouse-traps have to be furnished at the cost of the state.”
  • 1925: The last cats on the island were exterminated.

The cautionary tale is just as striking regardless of whether it was Tibbles alone or a group of cats that hunted the wren to extinction. Invasive species, even those who are cute and cuddly, can wreak havoc on native species.

The same problem, today

Whether she worked alone or not, Tibbles became an unwilling symbol of the damage cats can do — domestic cats included.

A 2013 study estimated that domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds (in addition to up to 22.3 billion mammals) every year — in the United States alone. This makes cats the most prolific killers in the animal kingdom by a mile. They are superpredators. In Australia, hunting by cats helped to drive at least 20 native mammals to extinction and continues to threaten at least 124 more.

While it may be possible that some of the birds killed by cats would be killed anyway, cats can put a lot of pressure on ecosystems, and many owners are not aware of this. The dangers are especially striking on an isolated island like Stephens Island and on a vulnerable bird like Lyall’s wren — but the damage is just as real in our cities and rural landscapes.

Predation by cats is a serious environmental problem, and it can’t be solved without the help of cat owners. Unfortunately, surveys of cat owners find they often view the depredation of wildlife as “normal”, and rarely feel an individual obligation to prevent it. Researchers are increasingly suggesting that owners should not let their cats roam outdoors, as this not only puts the cats themselves at risk (such as being run over by a car) but can also make the local environment safer. There are millions of Tibbles out there, and while we love them dearly, it’s probably best for everyone if they spend more time inside and less time outside.

Spanish companies team up to create the first paella-cooking robot

It’s better than your mom’s paella, the robot’s creators say, and while the purists out there will likely huff and puff, this robot could be of great help in the kitchen.

Paella is one of those foods with an almost mythical quality around them. It’s only the initiated that can seemingly whip up a delicious dish, masterfully blending the rice with the other ingredients. But two companies — robot manufacturer br5 (Be a Robot 5) and paella stove manufacturer Mimcook — beg to disagree.

It’s true, some skill comes into making paella, but it can be taught, not just to humans, but to robots as well. The two companies teamed up to develop the world’s first robotic paellero, revealing it at a food fair earlier last month.

It works like this: you set the program, load the rice, the sofrito, the seafood, the stock, and just leave the robot to do its thing. The robotic arm is hooked up to a computerized stove, and together, the two can whip up a reportedly delicious paella in no time.

The advantages of the robot are obvious: it does everything as planned and doesn’t get distracted. It’s easy, especially when mixing a rice, for a human to not pay enough attention or get distracted by some other task (or a text message) — resulting in burned rice or some other imperfection. The robot will do none of that.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to be stirring rice – especially because you’ll be looking at WhatsApp while you’re doing it and it’ll burn. That won’t happen with a robot,” said Enrique Lillo, founder of Be a Robot 5, to The Guardian.

The company specializes in food-making robots, and it emphasizes that this is not a ‘paella-making robot’, it’s a rice-making robot — a distinction aimed at preventing the anger of Valencians, where the dish originated.

The robotic arm makes paella because it’s connected to a specialized paella stove (after all, the paella itself is named after what it’s made in). You could connect to a different type of stove, and it would make burgers, pizzas, or croissants, which the company has already previously demonstrated.

The robot is already causing quite a stir, drawing the interest of many companies but also protests from people who fear the robots will take their jobs. But its creators argue that it’s not meant to take people’s jobs, just help them by doing the mundane things and allowing them to focus on what matters.

“At the end of the day, it’s an assistant. I like to say it’s a bit like the orange-juicing machines where you put oranges in the top and get juice out of the bottom. That’s a robot too – people just don’t realise it – and so is a coffee-vending machine. No one looks at those and goes: ‘Crikey! It’s stealing jobs from people!’ No. It’s elevating human capacity.”

The world’s donkeys are threatened by demand for Chinese traditional medicine

Some 5 million donkeys are slaughtered every year to satisfy the demand of eijao, a gelatin-based traditional medicine. If this trend keeps up, more than half of the world’s donkeys could be killed over the next five years.

Image credits: Anthony Rae.

The pressure that traditional Chinese medicine puts on wild animals is well known. Over the years, the growth in demand for traditional Chinese medicine has grown substantially, putting emblematic species such as tigers at risk of extinction. It’s not just wild or exotic animals, though — Chinese medicine is also hitting closer to home, threatening some animals which are very familiar to us: donkeys.

The donkey population in Brazil has declined by 28% since 2007, for no apparent domestic reason. In other countries with large populations, such as Botswana and Kyrgystan, populations have dropped even more, by 37% and 53% respectively. There’s no domestic reason for this. Instead, the reason can be found in China, where donkey populations have dropped by as much as 76% since 1992.

Unable to satisfy its demand for donkeys, China has turned to other countries .

The donkey hide is used to make a type of gelatin — a key ingredient of eijao. Eijao has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, due to its alleged healing properties against conditions like anaemia and poor blood circulation. The scientific evidence supporting these claims is limited, at best.

Consumption of eijao has increased significantly as more and more of China’s population can afford it and still desires it. China is incapable of supplying sufficient donkeys, so it is ‘outsourcing’ them from underdeveloped areas in South America, Africa, and central Asia. According to a recent report by the Donkey sanctuary, this practice is decimating donkey populations all around the world, essentialy creating the biggest ever donkey crisis.

The practice is also brutal. Donkeys (including pregnant mares and foals) are taken (or, according to some reports, stolen) from communities which rely on the animals for their livelihoods. The donkeys are often transported on long and cruel journeys, without access to food or water. Broken limbs are a common sight on these journeys, and around 20% of the animals never make it to the destination.

Those who do, however, are subjected to even more suffering. Dragged by their ears and tails, often with severed limbs, the donkeys are taken to be slaughtered. Their skin is removed and the hide is used to make gelatin. For donkeys, which are often kept in inhumane conditions to start with, it’s an unworthy and undeserved end.

This issue is doubled by the fact that donkeys are very slow to reproduce. A donkey mare carries a foal for over a year and, in farming areas, their fertility rate is low to begin with.

The booming donkey skin trade has made things much worse, and driven up the price of donkeys. In Kenya, the price has doubled over 3 years ($107 to $214 between 2016-19). For a country in which wages can be as low as $220, it’s a lot of money, and owners are struggling to be able to keep their donkeys or purchase new ones.

This is a tragedy for the donkeys, as well as the 500 million people who rely on them — often in the most impoverished areas of the world. Some countries are trying to take action against this: 18 countries have taken legislative action against the donkey hide industry. However, even where donkey slaughter is banned, the law is difficult to enforce and the practice simply continues, or the donkeys are shipped abroad for slaughter. Studies have noted that donkey trade is threatening people’s livelihoods as well as causing a potential health crisis. “The need for an immediate ban on the donkey skin trade in Kenya became explicit,” one report notes.

The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) in the UK said it strongly condemned the practice and believed it was unethical and unnecessary in modern Chinese medicine. In the UK it is illegal for herbal practitioners to prescribe animal products. It advocates ethical plant-based alternatives or the use of beef, pork or chicken gelatin as a dietary food supplement instead.

Image credits: Tim Mossholder.

It’s unclear what effect the pandemic has had on donkey trade. China came under intense pressure to ban or at least curb its wildlife trade, which is one of the plausible causes of the ongoing pandemic. China has issued a ban on wildlife trade, but it’s not yet clear how strongly the ban is enforced — or whether donkeys fall under the ban. Technically speaking, donkeys aren’t regarded as ‘wildlife’.

Still, the pandemic seems to have swayed public opinion in China against wildlife trade, but the demand for traditional medicine continues to grow in China, at an accelerated rate of about 5% per year. As long as demand continues to grow and humane practices aren’t enforced, things will get worse before they get better.

The Donkey Sanctuary does not disregard the traditional importance of the donkey hide ingredient in Chinese cultural heritage. They are calling for the eijao industry to accelerate efforts and find sustainable alternatives, such as artificially grown donkey collagen. For now, the donkey crisis remains as bad as it’s ever been.

Chernobyl in photos — what does the exclusion area look like 35 years after the disaster?

The plant and its concrete sarcophagus is in the background. The town of Pripyat is slowly reclaimed by nature.Image credits: Amort1939.

The 26th of April, 1986, marks a dark day in modern history. Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then USSR) exploded, marking what is, to this day, the worst nuclear accident in history.

It was a combination of a flawed reactor design and human error. The accident happened as a test was meant to be carried out. The test was delayed due to a problem with the electrical grid; a new shift came on, and the new shift didn’t know what to do. Lastly, the plant officials decided to violate safety procedures. Together, all these spelled disaster.

The plant was located near the town of Pripyat, which housed some 50,000 people, mostly plant workers. It was a fairly normal Soviet town, until the day of the disaster. Everyone was forced to relocate, as were 300,000 other people around the plant.

An exclusion zone was drawn around the plant, and Pripyat was abandoned. It’s now a ghost town.

Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.

The amusement park in Pripyat is especially striking. It was to have its grand opening on May 1, 1986, less than one week after the day of the explosion. Several rumors state that the park was opened on April 27th just before the announcement to evacuate the city was made.

Some theories state that the amusement park was opened earlier than expected to distract the people from the disaster that was unfolding nearby. Now, the park (and its ferris wheel especially) stand as a symbol of the Chernobyl disaster.

Image credits: Dasha Urvachova.
Image credits: Ilja Nedilko.

The event ejected 400 times more radioactive material than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The city inhabitants were most affected, with immediate reports of headaches, skin burns, and uncontrollable vomiting. The radiation levels around Pripyat have reduced substantially, but they’re still dangerously high.

When locals eventually evacuated, they were told to take only essentials. As a result, people left behind most of their stuff, and the town remained as if frozen in time — although recently, nature is starting to reclaim the town and its surroundings.

Image credits: Yves Alarie.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.
Image credits: Wendelin Jacober.

Soviet authorities have covered the plant in a concrete sarcophagus, but because it was leaking, they covered the entire thing in a new sarcophagus.

More recently, a large solar plant was opened near the site, producing a third of the reactor’s former electricity.

Two more reactors were also being constructed at Chernobyl, but construction was stopped after the explosion. Image via Pixabay.
The dome containing the radiation erected in 2017.

The popular HBO series about the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath led to a surge in attention and tourists in the town of Pripyat. Tourism was surging in Pripyat before the pandemic.

Some residents also returned to the ghost town, especially elderly residents who continued to live in their homes, making a living from a combination of state benefits and agriculture.

Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pixabay.

Ukrainian authorities are also looking to obtain World Heritage site status for Chernobyl — an unlikely outcome for what is essentially the tragic site of an abandoned town — but an outcome that could turn it into a valuable site.

“We believe that putting Chernobyl on the UNESCO heritage list is a first and important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind,” said Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian culture minister. “The importance of the Chernobyl zone lays far beyond Ukraine’s borders … It is not only about commemoration, but also history and people’s rights,” he said.

Some areas around Chernobyl look almost normal. Image via Pixabay.
… but many others don’t. Image credits: Amort1939.

Ultimately, Chernobyl looms as a warning of what can happen when risky design meets human error. Despite being one of the safest forms of energy nowadays, nuclear energy is still regarded with skepticism, in part due to Chernobyl.

As for Pripyat and the exclusion area, it has become a sort of haven for wildlife. The negative impact that radiation has on the ecosystem seems to be counterbalanced by the lack of humans in the area. In other words, as bad as nuclear fallout is, it’s not as bad for nature as human activity. It’s a saddening realization, on top of an already desolate chapter in human history.

Image via Unsplash.
European bison, boreal lynx, moose, and brown bear photographed inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Ukraine). Image credits: Proyecto TREE/Sergey Gaschack.

Google Earth’s new feature: a timelapse of the entire planet

What if you could take the entire planet, gather over 30 years of satellite data on it, and put it all together into a simple app that can even be used on your smartphone? Well… that’s exactly what Google recently unveiled. The new features for its Timelapse allow users to zoom in on any locations they choose, viewing more than three decades of imagery.

The world at our fingertips

It’s true that we now have the entire planet at our fingertips in more ways than one. Even some 20-30 years ago, most people would have had a hard time imagining this. The fact that you can use a common device most of us carry in our pockets and zoom in over any corner of the Earth and see how it evolved in the past few decades speaks a lot to how much technology and scientific observation have progressed.

You can browse your hometown, your favorite forest, a glacier, anything — in some areas, data is better than in others, but you can see a timelapse of every corner of the globe.

“In the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017, you can now see our planet in an entirely new dimension — time. With Timelapse in Google Earth, 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years have been compiled into an interactive 4D experience. Now anyone can watch time unfold and witness nearly four decades of planetary change,” wrote Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and outreach.

But the Google Timelapse feature also offers a sobering look at how much we are changing the planet.

Location after location, it’s the same story: the impact of mankind is changing the planet, whether directly (through deforestation, river management, building cities, etc), or indirectly (through climate change).

“Our planet has seen rapid environmental change in the past half-century — more than any other point in human history. Many of us have experienced these changes in our own communities,” Moore wrote.

More than just being eye candy (though it definitely is), Google’s project could help researchers interpret satellite data more easily, and could help citizen scientists find trends in their own communities.

Several recent studies suggest that time lapses are actually become useful tools for research, and the data could come in handy particularly in areas where local monitoring data is sparse.

To put this all together, Google used data from both U.S. Geological Survey/NASA Landsat satellites, as well as the EU’s Copernicus Program and its Sentinel series of satellites. They also worked with Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, which helped to process and display the approximately 10 quadrillion pixels in this database.

“More than two million processing hours across thousands of machines in Google Cloud to compile 20 petabytes of satellite imagery into a single 4.4 terapixel-sized video mosaic,” Moore explains — a process that used 100% renewable energy, in line with Google’s objectives to cut its own emissions.

Here’s a list of some of the most stunning timelapses (full engine here).

Japanese metallic tail can help keep the elderly upright

It’s not how we imagined our foray into cyborg life, but it’s impressive nonetheless: a research team in Japan has developed an artificial, robotic tail, whose primary goal is to help elderly or impaired people keep their balance, but could ultimately serve multiple purposes.

Image credits: Keio University.

Millions of years after human ancestors lost their tail through evolutionary processes, a team of Japanese researchers wants to bring it back — through science and engineering.

Having a tail can have numerous advantages, particularly when it comes to keeping balance. Fast-running creatures such as cheetahs use it to maintain balance and take curves more efficiently. Some species of climbing monkeys also use it for the same purpose, though in slightly different ways.

However, while having a tail can be an advantage, it can also be a disadvantage and get in the way. Humans lost their tail because it was almost useless for their lifestyles — it simply wasn’t efficient to use resources for a tail, given how few advantages we got from it. We still carry vestigial bones indicating that we once sported such a member.

For a team of researchers in Japan, tails may still have a lot to offer. It’s a simple concept, researchers say.

“The tail keeps balance like a pendulum,” said Junichi Nabeshima, a graduate student and researcher at the university’s Embodied Media Project, demonstrating the robotic device attached to his waist with a harness.“When humans tilt their body one way, the tail moves in the opposite direction.”

Of course, actually bringing the concept to life is a whole different challenge, but so far, results are encouraging.

Dubbed Arque, the one-meter device mimics the tails of animals such as cheetahs, which use their tails to steer and maintain balance while running and climbing. Even though the device’s wearers won’t be running like cheetahs, the principle is quite similar.

The robotic tail uses four artificial muscles and compressed air to move on eight axes. It’s still in the lab for now, as researchers test ways to make it more flexible, reliable, and robust.

As the country grapples with its ever-increasing population age, Japan wants to help keep the elderly active and safe. But in addition to keeping them up and about, developers also say the tool could be used in industrial applications, for instance to balance warehouse workers carrying heavy loads, or ease some of the load off their spine.

“I think it would be nice to incorporate this further developed prosthetic tail into daily life, when one seeks a little more help balancing,” Nabeshima said.

Watch a 3D printer produce an entire boat

Using a massive 3D printer, the University of Maine built the world’s largest 3D-printed boat. Here it is — it took more than three and a half days, but you can see it in half a minute.

The team set three world records in the process: world’s largest 3D printer, largest solid 3D-printed object, and largest 3D-printed boat. But the researchers didn’t build the boat for quirks and records — they built it to see if wood and plastic could work together for 3D printing.

If wood can be integrated into large-scale 3D printing, it could serve as a possible replacement for metal, becoming a more sustainable alternative. Normally, when building large things, you want metal because it’s so strong and rigid. But biobased materials like wood could offer similar parameters at a fraction of a cost.

“Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and now we have a 3D printer big enough to make use of this bountiful resource,” said Maine Senator Angus King, who attended the boat’s unveiling.

The 25-foot patrol boat is now tested with a wind machine and wave basin at an offshore facility, and if the approach is confirmed, it could mark a turning point for 3D-printed materials.

The key element that allows traditional 3D-printing polymers to “play nice” with wood is something called cellulose nanofibers, or CNF. CNF consists of tiny fibers that can be integrated with thermoplastic to make the resulting material much stronger. Cellulose nanofiber is lightweight, durable, and has thermal expansion parameters on par with glass. It’s also sustainable and has a low environmental impact. It’s not surprising that teams are looking to incorporate it.

“The UMaine Composites Center received $500,000 from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) to form a technology cluster to help Maine boatbuilders explore how large-scale 3D printing using economical, wood-filled plastics can provide the industry with a competitive advantage,” says a UMaine news release. “The cluster brings together the expertise of UMaine researchers and marine industry leaders to further develop and commercialize 3D printing to benefit boatbuilders in the state. By 3D printing plastics with 50% wood, boat molds and parts can be produced much faster and are more economical than today’s traditional methods.”

This is also a stepping stone for other, even more ambitious projects. 3D printing is entering a golden stage, and finding ways to incorporate sustainable materials with the desired properties into larger designs is already a major field of research. The University of Maine recently secured $2.8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a more eco-friendly method of 3D printing wind turbine blade molds, using the same printing system.  

Posting edited photos on social media could hurt your self-esteem

Credit: Pixabay.

It’s no secret that social media is a vapid place where people tend to obsesses over their self-image and how they come across to other people. This explains why image editing and retouching apps have become so popular in recent years, as users seek to upload the most flattering images possible. However, a new study cautions that this validation-seeking behavior may end up leaving people feeling worse and can even put them at risk of developing an eating disorder.

In a new study, researchers led by Pamela Keel, a professor of psychology at the Florida State University, surveyed 80 college students about how they feel about uploading photos of themselves on Instagram, the most popular photo-sharing app on the internet right now.

The volunteers were split into four groups, each with varying degrees of photo editing, including a group that posted unedited photos. This latter group proved the most revealing — by far.

Without having to employ any fancy statistical methods, the researchers could tell right away how anxiety-triggering these apps can be when they assigned participants to the non-edited selfie group.

“Nine people read that part of the consent form (informing them they might be asked to post an unedited photo) and said, ‘No, thank you,’” Keel said in a statement. “Another two participants consented, but when they learned they’d been assigned randomly to the group to upload unedited photos, they dropped out.” 

This means that 1 in 8 participants preferred to drop out of the study rather than post an unadulterated photo of themselves on social media. When asked about this objection, a volunteer simply rationalized their decision “because there is this anxiety.” 

“We were only able to study the people who were at least willing to post an unedited photo of themselves,” Keel added.

The results showed a “consistent and direct” link between posting photos that may look good on Instagram and negative thoughts about weight and shape. This can have behavior-modifying consequences such as increasing exercise, which is a good thing, but could also lead to food intake restrictions and elevated levels of anxiety.

The researchers added that even the simple act of uploading photos can exacerbate these factors and editing photos only makes matter worse.

“Just posting a photo, whether or not it’s edited, caused increases in body concerns,” Keel said. “But editing photos before posting caused an even greater increase in those concerns.”

The findings appeared in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.