Saturday, May 10, 2008

Don't mess with the anglerfish!

Deep, deep, deep in the ocean where there is total darkness, there are creatures who carry their own light sources. The female anglerfish, pictured here, is one of them. She has a bioluminescent organ floating over her head which she uses as a lure to catch her prey with those large, nasty looking jaws. With over 200 species of anglerfish, some of these ladies can grow to be over three feet long, though most are much smaller.

The male of the specie is considerably smaller than the female, has no “fishing rod” but still has sharp teeth which he uses to attach himself to the female for mating purposes. He is eventually absorbed completely into her body, forfeiting all his organs except his testes.

Some species of anglerfish live at depths of up to a mile in the Atlantic and Antarctic Oceans while other inhabit shallower tropical waters.

Reference: National Geographic, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Origins of Pizza

Though pizza has been immensely popular in the United States since veterans brought it home with them after WWII, the dish has been around for thousands of years.

The true origins are not documented, but it is known that Roman soldiers returning home from the Palistinian occupation brought back flat matzo bread which they topped with various comestibles. Other people living along the Mediterranean -- Greeks, Egyptians, etc. -- enjoyed a flat pita type bread (focaccia) that was often topped with oil and spices.

Pizza as we know it was first created by the Neopolitans. They were among the first Europeans to adopt the tomato, which had been considered poisonous when it was first brought over by the Spaniards. Another important import was the Indian water buffalo which provided the milk for mozzarella.

The definitive pizza, though, was created by a Neopolitan named Raffaele Esposito in the late 1800s. King Umberto I and Queen Marghatira were paying a visit to Naples, and Esposito wanted to prepare something for them that was both uniquely regional and patriotic. So he baked the flat bread and decorated it in the colors of the Italian flag: green (basil), white (mozarella) and red (tomatoes) for the royal visitors and named it after the queen (pizza ala Margharita). Apparently the King and Queen enjoyed it enough to give it a royal thumbs up and the dish's popularity spread quickly.

Italian immigrants brought pizza to the United States, and the first pizzaria was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi. It is still in operation today and uses the original Lombardi recipe.

Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza daily. That's about 350 slices per second, or 3 billion pizzas per year, or 46 slices per capita per year, adding up to about $30 billion in annual pizza sales.

Favorite pizza toppings vary, depending on where you live. In America, pepperoni is by far the favorite topping, (2.5 million pounds per year!). In Russia, the favorite is a combination of tuna, salmon, sardines, mackeral and onions, mmm. Ordering pizza in India? Try the pickled ginger, minced mutton and paneer. Or Curry in Pakistan. Eel and squid in Japan. This Australian favorite sounds good -- shrimp and pineapple. You're likely to find coconut on your pizza in Costa Rica, green peas if you're in Brazil, or bacon, onion and fresh cream in France.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Snake myths, snake truths

Snakes get a bad rap. Just because a few are dangerous doesn't mean they're all bad (in fact, many snakes are beneficial). Here are some common misconceptions about snakes that you may or may not hold yourself.

Snakes swallow their young to protect them. What actually happens is that some snakes (the garter snake, for example) carry their eggs internally until they are ready to hatch so that the babies are born live.

Counting the rattles on a rattlesnake will give you its age -- one rattle per year. Actually, rattlesnakes gain a new rattle each time they shed, which can happen several times a year. It is also not uncommon for rattles to break off. So counting rattles is not a reliable way of guessing a snake's age.

Snakes can only strike from a coiled position. Not true. A snake can strike from any position.

Some snakes hypnotize or "charm" their prey. There is no scientific evidence of this whatsoever. Some small animals do freeze when they're scared, so they may give the appearance of being 'charmed'.

Snakes are slimy. Snakes are dry and either smooth or scaly.

Hoop snakes make a hoop by fastening their tail in their mouth and then rolling. Believe it or not, there's no such thing as a hoop snake.

Snakes can jump up to two feet. Snakes can't jump at all.

Snakes always travel in pairs. Only during mating season will you see pairs of snakes.

Snakes suck milk from cows and goats. Milk snakes do go into barns, but they're looking for rodents to eat, not milk.

Reference: Ohio Public Library Information Network; texas; Davidson College

Thursday, October 12, 2006


Who doesn't love chocolate? Only about 1 in 10 people. What's not to love? Take a look at some of these ingredients in chocolate:

  • phenylethylamine (PEA), a mood elevator
  • cannabinoids, which have the same effect on the brain as marijuana
  • caffeine and theobromine, mild stimulants
  • protein, riboflavin, calcium and iron
  • flavinoids, anti-oxidants and stearic acid and oleic acid (which may actually raise good cholesterol)
  • anti-bacterial agents that fight tooth decay

OK, that's the good news. The bad news is that chocolate contains fat and high percentages of sugar. So forget about fighting tooth decay by eating chocolate. The fat and sugar make for a high calorie treat, so eating too much can definitely cause weight gain. But you knew all that. Here are some interesting bits that maybe you didn't know:

  • The Swiss consume more chocolate (approximately 24 pounds per capita per year) than any other nation in the world. American's consume about 12 pounds annually per person.
  • The Marquis de Sade had his wife send him chocolate in prison.
  • In the US, about $1 billion are spent each year for Valentine's Day chocolate.
  • The Dutch process the most chocolate in the world, but they consume less than Americans (the US comes in #9 on the chocolate consumption list).
  • The Chinese eat only 1 chocolate bar for every 12 consumed by the British.
  • The smell of chocolate can induce relaxation by increasing theta waves in the brain.
  • Cacao flowers are pollinated by midges (gnats).
  • Chocolate can cause seizures, cardiac irregularity, internal bleeding and even death in animals since they cannot process theobromine.

Reference: California Academy of Sciences

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Central Pacific Gyre -- World's Largest Landfill

'Twas brillig, and the slythey toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

You may remember these lines from your youth -- they're the first two lines of Jabberwocky from Through the Looking Glass. There aren't too many recognizably familiar words in those two lines but 'gyre' is at least a legitimate word.

So, what is a gyre? Simply put, a gyre is a swirling vortex.

And there's a big one in the north/central Pacific. How big? Oh, about 10 million square miles -- that's about the size of Africa. What causes it? Hot equatorial air descends in a clockwise rotation as it moves north toward the pole, producing circular ocean currents which actually spiral downward,creating a slight down-welling like the one you see when you empty your bathtub.

It's a place to avoid. There's no wind, so sailing through it is not recommended. It's singularly lacking in nutrients, so fishing is pointless. If that's not enough, then what makes it a particularly unpleasant place is that it has become a huge garbage dump for plastic products.

Much of the garbage that gets dumped, dropped or spilled into the ocean is biodegradable. Plastic, on the other hand, is not. And plastic from all over the world finds its way to the north Pacific gyre. It is estimated that about 3 million tons of plastic currently float in the gyre, and it is unknown how much has been sucked down as deep as 30 meters below the surface of the water.

While is doesn't biodegrade, plastic does photodegrade, meaning that sunlight breaks it down into smaller and smaller parts which never become small enough to digest. Confused plankton-eating fish and birds end up eating the plastic particles. Not only is there no nutrition, but the plastic acts as sponges, absorbing toxins such as DDT and PCBs which are not soluble in salt water, causing genetic damage to the animal's offspring. It is estimated that there are six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton.

Reference:; CBS news

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Suspension bridges

Suspension bridges are, arguably, one of the most artistic of civil engineering endeavors. Their simple lines and pleasing symmetry belie their strength and their ability to span long distances. (The world's longest, measuring 3,911 meters, is the Akashi Kaikyo bridge in Japan). Suspension bridges have been around for centuries and more primitive ones use vines or ropes for cables.

But how does a suspension bridge work? Typically, there are anchors on the extreme ends of the bridges. These weighted anchors serve as counterweights and hold the ends of the cables. Moving in toward the center of the bridge are the towers. The cables pass over these towers and attach to the anchors on either end. These main cables give the suspension bridge their beautiful curved lines. Vertical hanger cables are attached to the main cables and actually hold up the span of the bridge.

Obviously, the cables must be extremely strong but also flexible; and care must be taken to avoid extreme sway or vibration in heavy winds.

Some of the more famous suspension bridges include the Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco); the Brooklyn Bridge (New York); the Sydney Harbor Bridge (Australia); the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (Japan); and the Tower Bridge (London).

References: matsuo bridge co.;

Monday, October 02, 2006

Bat bombs

No, I'm not making this up. During WWII, the US military actually considered using bats to carry tiny incindiary devices into Japan's major cities. The bats would then, of course, roost in highly flammable places where the incindiary devices would ignite fires and reduce Japanese cities to ashes, thus ending the war in the Pacific. That was the plan, and the military proved that it worked -- they accidentally burned down an air base in New Mexico (pictured at left) during the research and development phase.

The plan was never implemented, however. It seems there was another project in the works at the same time -- the atom bomb -- which was finally designated the weapon of choice for ending the war, thereby saving million of bat lives, though of course, at a tremendous human cost.

Bat Bomb: World WarII's Other Secret Weapon by Jack Couffer