There’s a general guideline about the relationship between nature and horror fiction: if a horror author thinks up an incredibly creepy idea for a monster, nature has probably thought of it first.  A good example was provided today by io9, involving a particularly creepy parasite (and that’s saying a lot): 

Of course, it really should be said that the worm is stealing John W. Campbell’s ideas, as he wrote the original story “Who Goes There?" that "The Thing" was based on.  

Anyway, it’s creepy!

9 notes

Scientists have, throughout history, taken some ridiculously insane risks, and endured much pain, in the name of science.  For instance, we’ve talked previously about John Stapp, human crash-test dummy, Werner Forssman, who stuck a catheter into his own heart, and Stubbins Ffirth, who ate human vomit to better understand the contagiousness of yellow fever.  

It turns out that this tradition of risk in the name of science is alive and well today!  As Ed Yong reports at Not Exactly Rocket Science, a graduate student put his own unmentionables on the line to study exactly how painful bee stings can be:

Read the whole thing, and try not to wince!  I can’t help but imagine the research went something like this.

11 notes

One of the most bizarre and tragic episodes in Boston history is the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919.  A gigantic molasses storage tank burst, sending a massive wave of molasses through the streets, killing 21 and injuring 150.

This week, I was reminded of a post at Scientific American about why a flood of seemingly slow-moving molasses could overwhelm, and kill, so many people:

There are, broadly speaking, two types of non-Newtonian fluids: shear-thickening and shear-thinning.  Many people are familiar with oobleck, an easy to make shear-thickening liquid that becomes more rigid when a force is applied. In essence, oobleck acts like a solid when it is struck, allowing people to walk across a large vat of it.

Shear-thinning fluids become less rigid when a force is applied.  This also allows for some really odd effects; as I have shown on my main blog, it is possible to make shampoo, another shear-thinning fluid, bounce, a phenomenon known as the Kaye effect.  (Here are some slow-motion videos of the Kaye effect, and a video of using bouncing shampoo as a light guide.)

In the molasses disaster, the flowing molasses was shear-thinned, meaning it flowed very fast initially, sweeping up people.  Then, when it settled in place, it became rigid, trapping and suffocating its victims.

The Boston Molasses Disaster is another example of how physics can conspire to harm us in very unexpected ways.

16 notes

My previous post on the “Kentucky meat shower" involved some human beings doing incredibly stupid things in the name of curiosity: namely, they ate raw mystery meat that fell from the sky.

That was dumb, but it reminded me of an even dumber act: in 1874, a fisherman saw an unknown living creature in the water bigger than his boat.  Being an idiot, he decided the best thing to do would be to poke it with a boat hook.

What followed was pretty well near a disaster for him, but it resulted in the first specimen of a giant squid studied on land.

I wrote up the whole story, with plenty of squidly pictures, on my main blog a few years ago.  Check it out!

5 notes

The Kentucky Meat Shower of 1876

The world is a weird, weird place.  There are many things that happen here that, although not outside the realm of natural law, nevertheless cause a “WTF?” reaction when first encountered.

Via journalist and Twitter friend Robert Loerzel, I learned today of the “Kentucky meat shower” of 1876.  My first reaction? “I know what all those words mean, but together they don’t make any sense.”

The story, in short: in 1876, a shower of meat fell from a clear sky near a home in Kentucky.  Note that this is well before airplanes.  We’ll let the New York Times give the details, from their original March 9, 1876 report, quoting the Bath County News:

On last Friday a shower of meat fell near the house of Allen Crouch, who lives some two or three miles from the Olympian Springs in the southern portion of the county, covering a strip of ground about one hundred yards in length and fifty wide.

That is a pretty huge area to have meat fall over!

Mrs. Crouch was out in the yard at the time, engaged in making soap, when meat which looked like beef began to fall around her.

Because nothing is a better ingredient in one’s soap than raw mystery meat.

The sky was perfectly clear at the time, and she said it fell like large snow flakes, the pieces as a general thing not being much larger.

So, really, it was more of a “meat snowfall” than a “meat shower.”

One piece fell near her which was three or four inches square. Mr. Harrison Gill, whose veracity is unquestionable, and from whom we obtained the above facts, hearing of the occurrence, visited the locality the next day, and says he saw particles of meat sticking to the fences and scattered over the ground. The meat when it first fell appeared to be perfectly fresh.

So what could cause such a bizarre shower of meat?  According to Wikipedia, the likely culprit is a pack of buzzards flying overhead!

(“Hi.  I’m a turkey vulture, also known as a buzzard.” Via Wikipedia.)

Buzzards, more technically known as turkey vultures, feed on any dead carcasses they can get their beaks on.  That isn’t even the grossest thing they do, however: they are also known to poop and pee on their own feet! The evaporation of water from the waste helps cool them.

Most relevant for our purposes, though, is the vulture’s primary mode of defense: vomiting on threats!  To quote Wikipedia:

Its primary form of defense is regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest.  It will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes.

Vultures will also vomit to “lighten the load” if they feel threatened and need to make a quick getaway (skydivers like myself often joke about using the bathroom just before a jump for the same reason).  The most likely theory of the Kentucky meat shower is that a group of vultures barfed in flight, raining bits of freshly-eaten horse meat down on Mrs. Crouch.  Why did they vomit in flight?  It may be that one of them spontaneously vomited, causing the others to do so reflexively — just in case!

This isn’t even the worst part of the story, however.  The NYT piece ends as follows:

Two gentlemen, who tasted the meat, express the opinion that it was either mutton or venison.

Two “gentlemen,” encountering raw mystery meat that fell from the sky, decided that the best course of action was to eat it.  Now, turkey vultures have an incredible digestive system that has evolved to handle any sort of diseases carried by their prey.  People, however, do not.

Human beings doing demonstrably stupid things in the name of curiosity reminds me of another event that resulted in an incredible scientific discovery… that, however, will be the topic of another post.

17 notes

On last Sunday’s premiere episode of “Cosmos,” one of the most intriguing revelations was the existence of “rogue planets,” i.e. planets not tied to any star, wandering in the darkness of space.  Now, Nadia Drake at National Geographic’s “No Place Like Home” blog has given a detailed explanation of what we know, and don’t know, about these worlds:

The whole article is worth reading, especially for the intriguing possibility that such worlds may have inhabitable oceans between their freezing surfaces and molten cores.  Such a possibility conjures images of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth,” as featured in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” monstrous creatures residing on cold, dark Pluto, as well as images of William Hope Hodgson’s “The Night Land,” featuring the horrors of Earth in the far future when all the stars have burned out.

Not mentioned in the article, but a disturbing thought: if there are billions of these rogue planets out there, there is a very small but nonzero possibility of one coming through our solar system and wreaking havoc.

43 notes

The horrors of witch trials

This post, in a bit of departure from the usual themes of this blog, is more about the horrors that existed before science than horrors arising from science or nature.  On Sunday’s “Cosmos,” the story of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was presented, describing how he was (one of) the first people to envision an “infinite” universe with countless stars and planets, and how he was executed by the Church for heresy, at least in part for this belief.

As always, the story is a bit more complicated than presented (not surprising for a popular science show).  In a post at Motherboard, Becky Ferreira does an excellent job of explaining the complexities of the history while nevertheless praising “Cosmos” for their description.  In short: Bruno’s views of the universe were inseparable from his theology, and he was killed for going against the Church’s theology, not for his “science.”

These subtleties have already led Creationists to attack “Cosmos” and, in effect, indirectly serve as Church apologists:  ”Is it any surprise, then, that, as a defrocked Dominican friar denying essential tenets of Catholic doctrine and drawing strength from the closest thing to an atheist in the Roman world, he might have gotten in trouble with the Inquisition?” they say.

The problem with this, to me, is that it somehow implies that it’s okay that Bruno was killed!  In the period before people started looking at the natural world in a more scientific way, tens of thousands were killed in sham witch trials throughout Europe.

(Woodcut of witches being punished in 16th century Germany, via Wikipedia.)

Numbers are hard to appreciate; to really drive home the horror of witch trials, heresy, and the Inquisition, one should read the 1628 letter of Johannes Junius, who was accused and later executed for witchcraft.  The letter, written to his daughter, exposes the hypocrisy and insanity of witch trials.  A sample:

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God’s help I had to bear the torture… . When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: “Sir, I beg you, for God’s sake confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch. Not before that,” he said, “will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another.” …

This letter enrages me more than nearly anything I have ever read.  The witch trials were monstrous, horrible, insane acts that resulted in the torturous death of countless innocent people.

It is cold comfort, but some people saw the insanity at the time and worked against it using arguments and methods that are almost scientific.  Several years ago, I wrote a post about Reginald Scot, who in 1584 wrote a detailed book attacking the belief in witchcraft from theological, natural, and psychological grounds.  Scot’s work did not have much impact, other than earning the ire of King James (of the King James Bible), who ordered all copies of the book destroyed.  Thankfully, he failed.

Though science can produce truly dangerous things (like the Elephant’s Foot), it has also helped chase away even more awful demons of irrational belief.

7 notes

This is one of those stories in which medical conditions collide with medical science, in which over-hasty medical examiners may have in fact killed a man.

Read the whole thing — it is freaky.

6 notes

Yeah, I don’t think I need to say any more about this here.  Go read Ed Yong’s excellent post.

7 notes

The monster in Chernobyl’s basement

A monster was born in the Chernobyl disaster.  Lurking in the depths of the reactor ruins, the monster is one of the most dangerous things in the world.  In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, to spend a few minutes in its presence would bring certain death.  Even today, it radiates heat and death, though its power has weakened.  Nevertheless, it may break free of its prison and cause unspeakable horror yet again.

This monster, which is reminiscent of the Medusa of Ancient Greek legend, has a much more mundane name: the Elephant’s Foot.

(Picture by U.S. Department of Energy, via Nautilus.)

The Elephant’s Foot is a molten mass of radioactive lava, a mixture of radioactive fuel, fission products, molten concrete, and melted pieces of the nuclear control rods.  The material has been given the rather innocuous name of Corium, which doesn’t do justice to the true nastiness of the substance.  As the description suggests, The Elephant’s Foot formed from the meltdown of reactor number 4 at Chernobyl in 1986.

I first came across mention of The Elephant’s Foot the other day on Twitter, where an infographic suggested that simply looking at it would kill a person.  This isn’t quite true; at its “hottest,” the Foot would provide a fatal dose of radiation in 300 seconds, if that’s any comfort.  Today, it would take an hour to kill, but any exposure is still incredibly dangerous.  The original photographs of it were taken via a camera wheeled around a corner.

The best description I’ve found of The Elephant’s Foot and its history is an article published at Nautilus Magazine late last year; it is worth reading in its entirety.

The Foot is still dangerous — as it is still literally hot, it is slowly melting its way through the ground.  If it hits water, it could contaminate the surrounding area or cause another explosion.  Will it do so? Nobody seems to know for sure.

Like the Demon Core I have discussed previously on this blog, deadly radioactive elements take on a life and legend of their own, earning their own proper names and spreading fear.  They are the closest to real monsters that humanity has ever experienced.

55 notes