From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Solar Sails

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for future spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

DNA Fingerprinting

Not just for crime fighting

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

From high-profile trials to popular TV shows, numerous events have imprinted on our collective psyche the fact that DNA evidence can be used to solve crimes. But the technique has extensive uses that go far beyond forensic science. You may even owe tonight’s dinner, in part, to DNA fingerprinting.

My curiosity about this subject was piqued when I came across a recent newspaper report that talked about how DNA fingerprinting is being used in India to identify different varieties of basmati rice. The report mentioned a hotel that buys around 200 tons of basmati rice per year. The hotel’s chefs found it difficult to cook the rice properly because each type of basmati rice has different soaking times and cooking properties. A visual inspection is of limited use because all the varieties look nearly the same. They decided to solve this problem by working with the rice’s producer to certify each bag of rice using DNA fingerprinting; the chefs then use the information to help them determine the proper cooking parameters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Solar Sails

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for future spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

DNA Fingerprinting

Not just for crime fighting

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

From high-profile trials to popular TV shows, numerous events have imprinted on our collective psyche the fact that DNA evidence can be used to solve crimes. But the technique has extensive uses that go far beyond forensic science. You may even owe tonight’s dinner, in part, to DNA fingerprinting.

My curiosity about this subject was piqued when I came across a recent newspaper report that talked about how DNA fingerprinting is being used in India to identify different varieties of basmati rice. The report mentioned a hotel that buys around 200 tons of basmati rice per year. The hotel’s chefs found it difficult to cook the rice properly because each type of basmati rice has different soaking times and cooking properties. A visual inspection is of limited use because all the varieties look nearly the same. They decided to solve this problem by working with the rice’s producer to certify each bag of rice using DNA fingerprinting; the chefs then use the information to help them determine the proper cooking parameters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Solar Sails

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for future spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

DNA Fingerprinting

Not just for crime fighting

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

From high-profile trials to popular TV shows, numerous events have imprinted on our collective psyche the fact that DNA evidence can be used to solve crimes. But the technique has extensive uses that go far beyond forensic science. You may even owe tonight’s dinner, in part, to DNA fingerprinting.

My curiosity about this subject was piqued when I came across a recent newspaper report that talked about how DNA fingerprinting is being used in India to identify different varieties of basmati rice. The report mentioned a hotel that buys around 200 tons of basmati rice per year. The hotel’s chefs found it difficult to cook the rice properly because each type of basmati rice has different soaking times and cooking properties. A visual inspection is of limited use because all the varieties look nearly the same. They decided to solve this problem by working with the rice’s producer to certify each bag of rice using DNA fingerprinting; the chefs then use the information to help them determine the proper cooking parameters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Solar Sails

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for future spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

DNA Fingerprinting

Not just for crime fighting

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

From high-profile trials to popular TV shows, numerous events have imprinted on our collective psyche the fact that DNA evidence can be used to solve crimes. But the technique has extensive uses that go far beyond forensic science. You may even owe tonight’s dinner, in part, to DNA fingerprinting.

My curiosity about this subject was piqued when I came across a recent newspaper report that talked about how DNA fingerprinting is being used in India to identify different varieties of basmati rice. The report mentioned a hotel that buys around 200 tons of basmati rice per year. The hotel’s chefs found it difficult to cook the rice properly because each type of basmati rice has different soaking times and cooking properties. A visual inspection is of limited use because all the varieties look nearly the same. They decided to solve this problem by working with the rice’s producer to certify each bag of rice using DNA fingerprinting; the chefs then use the information to help them determine the proper cooking parameters. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saffron

The ultimate culinary delicacy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a bit of a French food snob. Before Morgen and I went to France the first time, we did our homework—reading up on lots of French dishes, particularly regional specialties. The list of things we had to try included authentic bouillabaisse, an elaborate fish stew seasoned with saffron. Unfortunately, what constitutes “authentic” is a matter of strenuous debate among French chefs; there are many, many different recipes. But since the dish was invented in Marseille, a large Mediterranean port city, we decided we’d define “authentic” as “whatever they served us in Marseille.”

Based on what I’d read, I didn’t have much interest in Marseille apart from its food, and our schedule was tight. Our itinerary called for us to take an overnight train there from Paris and then pick up a rental car so that we could tool around Provence for a while. We’d have, at most, a few hours in the city, during which time we had just one task to accomplish. Our plan was to get in, get some bouillabaisse, and get out. After we got our car, we drove to the old part of the city where we’d heard we could find some great restaurants. Since it was still before lunchtime and they weren’t open yet, we walked around for about an hour, studying menus and building up an appetite. In the end, we couldn’t figure out which restaurant was the most authentic-looking, so we picked one at random. The waitress offered us menus, but we didn’t need them—we were on a mission. We dutifully ordered bouillabaisse for two, which turned out to be about five times as much as we could eat. But it was unbelievably good—a truly profound experience that made our visit to the city more than worthwhile. Ever since then, the smell of saffron has taken me back to that restaurant in Marseille. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Coelacanth

Re-historic fish

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Euskara

The extraordinary Basque language

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Emperor Norton

Monarch of San Francisco

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Coin Tossing

Putting a new spin on randomness

[Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Breathing Liquid

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). And in the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Kakapo Parrot

Staying alive despite its best efforts

I’ve always been a sucker for endangered species—especially cute and comical endangered species. There aren’t that many of them—at least not anymore. But you’ve got to feel for an animal that spent many happy millennia peacefully minding its own business until humans came along. In this case, we’re talking about a silly-looking bird that had the misfortune of evolving in such a safe area that it lost (or never developed) most of the traits that could have enabled it to defend itself. It’s called the kakapo, and apart from being silly-looking and endangered, it’s unique in a long list of other ways.

Look, Down on the Ground! It’s a Bird…
A native of New Zealand, the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, or “owl-faced soft feathers”) is a type of parrot, but only distantly related to other parrots. As its scientific name suggests, it looks somewhat like an owl (albeit with green or yellow plumage) and has exceptionally soft feathers. For decades, the world’s kakapo population has hovered near extinction, and that’s the only sort of hovering this flightless bird can manage. Besides having feathers that are poorly suited to flight, its bone and muscle structure have developed in such a way as to make flying infeasible. It’s also heavy for its size and wingspan; a full-grown kakapo is about two feet (60cm) long and weighs up to 9 pounds (about 4kg). Nevertheless, kakapos are good climbers, and can use their wings as a sort of parachute, to help them glide safely to the ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Nazca Lines

Peru’s mysterious geoglyphs

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

I like a good murder mystery now and then, and despite the violence inherent in the genre, often find these movies and TV shows fascinating. There’s something satisfying about following clues to reach the answers to those vexing questions—how, who, and why. The first two questions can be engrossing, but the last is sometimes the most consuming. Once the means and identity of the killer are known, knowing his or her motivation is the last piece to the puzzle. If no answer to that question is forthcoming, it can be maddening.

It’s human nature to want to know how the world works—and in the case of murder mysteries, to understand how another person thinks—when it is not obvious to us. This same phenomenon is at work when looking at history; there is no way, other than the evidence left to us, to know what was in the minds of those who preceded us. We see this gap in our knowledge clearly when we try to explain the existence of certain ancient human-made structures, such as Stonehenge or the statues on Easter Island. Another example is the Nazca Lines of Peru: a mystery 2,000 years in the making. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Project Habakkuk

Building aircraft carriers out of ice

H.L. Mencken has been famously quoted as saying, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.” Or, as the saying is often misquoted, “Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.” Either way, it’s true that simple solutions are often overlooked, and equally true that seemingly simple solutions often turn out to be infeasible. Such was the case with an ambitious project undertaken by the Allies in World War II: building gargantuan ships out of ice.

As silly as this may sound at first blush, the idea was meant to address a set of very serious problems. Supply ships on their way across the North Atlantic from Canada to the U.K. were frequently intercepted and sunk by German U-boats. Planes could protect the ships, but only within a limited distance from land, as there was nowhere to refuel in the middle of the ocean. Aircraft carriers would have helped, but they required enormous quantities of steel, which was in short supply. What was needed was a way to land aircraft in the mid-Atlantic without overtaxing the steel supply. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Engineering marvel of the Canal Age

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

If you’re like me, with just enough knowledge of engineering to set up a camping tent successfully, then you may have had the experience of nodding politely during a conversation about, say, cantilevered bridges. Sure, I’ve heard of them, but how do they actually work? Not a clue.

One category of those things about which I have a passing knowledge is aqueducts. I understand that they have something to do with transporting water, but what do I know beyond that? Being relatively ill-informed about these things, I would assume that an aqueduct would be used to bring water to an area in which there is very little. But, when I looked into it further, I found that is not always the case. In fact, aqueducts have been constructed in areas where there is plenty of water—such as a river valley. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Solar Sails

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for future spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

DNA Fingerprinting

Not just for crime fighting

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

From high-profile trials to popular TV shows, numerous events have imprinted on our collective psyche the fact that DNA evidence can be used to solve crimes. But the technique has extensive uses that go far beyond forensic science. You may even owe tonight’s dinner, in part, to DNA fingerprinting.

My curiosity about this subject was piqued when I came across a recent newspaper report that talked about how DNA fingerprinting is being used in India to identify different varieties of basmati rice. The report mentioned a hotel that buys around 200 tons of basmati rice per year. The hotel’s chefs found it difficult to cook the rice properly because each type of basmati rice has different soaking times and cooking properties. A visual inspection is of limited use because all the varieties look nearly the same. They decided to solve this problem by working with the rice’s producer to certify each bag of rice using DNA fingerprinting; the chefs then use the information to help them determine the proper cooking parameters. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Quiet Parties

Silent night out on the town

On our way home from the theater after seeing the most recent X-Men movie, Morgen and I kept finding ourselves surrounded by unusually noisy people—in the lobby, on the street corner, in the subway station. We were attempting to discuss the film, but we could barely hear each other. Every time this happened, I tried to move away to a quieter spot; noise has its place, but when I’m trying to think or carry on a conversation, I prefer relative silence. As we reviewed some of the fictional mutants and their super powers, I said, “If I were a mutant, they’d call me Silento. My super power would be the ability to create a large bubble of silence all around me.” In my book, that beats being able to throw balls of flame or have metal claws pop out of my hands.

I have always been baffled at the fact that people so frequently go to noisy parties, bars, clubs, and restaurants with the apparent intention of getting to know each other or spend quality time together. How is that supposed to work? How can you have a worthwhile conversation with someone when you must yell over loud music, not to mention all those other people yelling their own conversations at each other? Perhaps my telepathic powers are insufficiently developed, but as an ordinary human, it seems more sensible to me that if you want to talk to someone, you’d go to a place where you can hear and be heard. So I was delighted to learn of a relatively recent phenomenon sweeping the world: quiet parties, where the only rule is “no talking.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Highgate Cemetery

Toto, I don’t think we’re in London anymore

Guest Article by Jillian Hardee

London has hundreds of popular tourist spots that attract millions of visitors each year. I admit, I did the whole Big Ben to Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace to Tower of London circuit and I enjoyed it. I loved being able to walk out of the hotel and onto a street that contained a 500-year-old house right down the block from a modern tube station and an Indian curry restaurant. But the intricacies of this city, like any city, are often found off the beaten path.

Both my visits to London have included a hike up Highgate Hill and then a walk down the small, winding lane leading to Highgate Cemetery. Many are familiar with London’s abbeys and churchyards, but the real appeal of dead London is Highgate, often referred to as a Victorian Valhalla. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Beale Ciphers

Yet another story of secret codes and hidden treasure

Leaving aside religious symbology and questions of historical accuracy, The Da Vinci Code is just the latest in a long line of stories that follow roughly the same plot: someone discovers a series of mysterious clues (often with a code or a map thrown in) that supposedly lead to an absurdly valuable treasure. The hero undertakes a perilous adventure, outwitting villains who want to steal the treasure (as well as, perhaps, guardians who want to protect it), and eventually succeeds—only to discover that the treasure was not quite as it had been imagined after all. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to National Treasure, I’ve seen variations on this basic outline countless times. Few subjects ignite the imagination of the book-buying and filmgoing public as reliably as that of hidden treasure.

In the real world, stories of codes leading to buried treasure rarely have tidy endings—and indeed, even separating fact from fiction can be nearly impossible. Such is the case with one of the most intriguing cryptographic puzzles in modern history: a series of encrypted messages dating from the 19th century known as the Beale ciphers. These messages might lead to a hidden stash of gold, silver, and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, they might be genuine directions to a treasure that no longer exists, they might be a hoax or a joke, or, intriguingly, they might be a misunderstood charity fundraising gimmick. But whether or not the codes lead to treasure, what captivates and infuriates cryptographers is that despite more than a century’s worth of effort by the best minds and machines, the most important parts of the messages remain stubbornly opaque. [Article Continues…]

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