Archive for The Realm of Bizzare

Rare footage of the giant jellyfish

// November 12th, 2010 // Comments Off on Rare footage of the giant jellyfish // The Realm of Bizzare

A giant jellyfish, Stygiomedusa gigantea, has been filmed in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s tentacles are 10 meters long and the bell is over half a meter wide. Check out the video below of this denizen of the deep.

Hat tip to Deep Sea News.

Gold nanoparticles make plants glow in the dark

// November 8th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

Image by Yellowcloud

Imagine if instead of having sensor lights to illuminate a garden path, you could line it with light-emitting plants. You could stroll along bio-luminescent flower beds, dancing in dappled moonlight and delighting in eerily lit peace, free from the shackles of electricity.

It could be possible with sea urchin shaped gold nanoparticles. Seriously, every time I turn on my computer the world gets more random. Sea urchins, I ask you. In any event, they’re called nano-sea-urchins.

Taiwanese researchers made a solution of gold nano-sea-urchins and dipped into it an aquatic plant, Bacopa caroliniana or blue waterhyssop. The nanoparticles moved into the plant over a day or so, and stayed there for about a month.

When exposed to UV light, the nanoparticles produced blue-violet light which encouraged the chlorophyll inside the plant to make red light. The result? An awesome glowing plant, just add UV.

It’s exciting stuff, there are a lot of excellent uses for light emitting things that work inside plants or animals. If the particles could be attached to a drug we could track exactly where the drug goes over the course of a treatment. You could attach it to proteins and find out where they are located inside a plant. Or you could just have a sweet glow in the dark plant in your house or garden.

Of course, you still need to have that UV source. But what’s wrong with having black light in your house or garden? Just think of the possibilities… You could drink tonic water every day, that stuff glows blue in black light because of the quinine.

Also, if you’ve ever wondered if black light can cause sunburn (as I recently have) here’s the low down. Black light is made of UV light which is close in wavelength to visible light, so it’s quite low energy. This counts as UVA, not UVB which causes most sunburns. Large amounts of UVA (such as those found in tanning beds) can cause skin cancer or premature aging, but the small amount contained in black lights is unlikely to do much damage.

ResearchBlogging.orgSu, Y., Tu, S., Tseng, S., Chang, Y., Chang, S., & Zhang, W. (2010). Influence of surface plasmon resonance on the emission intermittency of photoluminescence from gold nano-sea-urchins Nanoscale DOI: 10.1039/C0NR00330A

Hat tip to New Scientist

How aqua regia saved Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis

// October 25th, 2010 // 12 Comments » // The Realm of Bizzare

Aqua RegiaIt was a brisk April morning in 1940, and George was in a fix. In his hands were two Nobel Prizes illegally smuggled from Germany, while outside the lab Nazi’s swarmed the streets of Copenhagen. Denmark was now occupied by the Germans, and it was only a matter of time before they entered the Institute of Theoretical Physics and searched the building.

The medals belonged to Max von Laue and James Franck, Germans who had won Nobel Prizes in Physics some years ago. Their names where on the medals, and taking gold out of Germany was almost a capital offense, carrying a punishment not to be sneezed at. George was certainly not sneezing, but his palms were sweating as if he had a fever and his heart was pounding like a drum. There might be only hours until Nazis found the medals, and his neck would certainly be on the chopping block along with theirs.

What to do? Hide it in a hollowed out book as children hide sweets? No, there was no guarantee the books would stay put, they could be sent away or burned for all he knew. Bury it then? There simply wasn’t time, a freshly dug grave would only attract attention. No, it had to be changed, made unrecognisable, hidden in plain sight. Somehow. Think George, think. To every problem there must be a solution. Keep at it until a solution appears.

A solution! Of course! The gold should be hidden in solution! To wait out the war in a nondescript bottle sitting on a shelf. The worst that would happen is it would be thrown away, and if that was to be at least there would be no tell-tale engravings to point fingers.

George looked around the lab for the ingredients to a potent cocktail. Only one thing would dissolve gold. Aqua regia, a mix of three parts hydrochloric acid to one part nitric acid. Alone neither of these acids could change gold, very few things could. Gold was considered such a rare and beautiful metal for exactly that reason, because it was unchangeable and very stable. It would not rust like iron or turn green like copper. Strong, concentrated acids would not burn a hole in gold as they would other metals. Unless of course that acid was aqua regia, royal water.

In a large flask George combined the two acids quickly, his hands now dry and mind focused. The resulting mixture was colourless for an instant before turning faintly peach and then bright orange. With one held breath he dropped in the two gold medals.

Chemistry had always attracted George de Hevesy since he had first worked on radioactive isotopes thirty years ago. His work on them had uncovered many mysteries of biology, such as what part of a growing plant captures poisonous lead to protect the rest of the plant (the roots.) He was still a mover and shaker in the field, which was growing rapidly and had even entered the realm of human experimentation. If a man was injected with a radioactive isotope, where did it go, how long did it stay there and how was it excreted?

He was, in certain circles, quite famous. Perhaps in the near future he would be holding a Nobel Prize of his own.

But for now, these two Prizes were all he had, and they were getting smaller. The magic of aqua regia was in the way the two acids worked together.

Nitric acid had the power to take small amounts of solid gold and put it into solution. On its own it wouldn’t make any difference at all, because it would only allow a tiny amount of gold to be in solution at a time, with the gold being in equilibrium between solid and soluble form.

Hydrochloric acid, on the other hand, could supply its chloride atoms to convert gold to chloroaurate. But by itself it did nothing because it couldn’t get a grip on the gold to start with.

In aqua regia, the gold was put into solution by the nitric acid, and then converted to chloroaurate by hydrochloric acid. It pushed the equilibrium across, allowing the nitric acid to pull more and more gold into solution, where it was quickly changed into another form.

Once the reaction was complete, George sealed the flask and put it high up on the shelf. There it would stay until the war was over, and perhaps in brighter years he would return and extract the gold out of the solution, and return it to the Nobel Foundation where it could be recoined and returned. If brighter days ever arrived.


This be fiction based on a true story. George de Hevesy is credited with dissolving two Nobel Prizes in aqua regia and storing them during the second world war, where they remained unnoticed despite careful searching by the Nazis. The gold was later recovered and recoined, and presented back to the two owners. George de Hevesy won the 1943 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on radioactive isotopes.

Platypus. Poisonous, egg laying mammal with ten sex chromosomes

// October 13th, 2010 // 7 Comments » // Recent Research, Science Communication, Sex and Reproduction, The Realm of Bizzare


Image by Urville Djasim

Ah, the elusive platypus. The water dwelling animal with fur, webbed feet and a beak. It may just be the strangest animal on the planet. Not only does it look weird, it’s poisonous, can sense electricity, lays eggs and secrete milk through their skin, and have an excessive number of sex chromosomes.

It’s poisonous.
It is SERIOUSLY poisonous. The males have poison barbs under their front feet which they mainly use during the spring breeding season. One scratch from these babies and you will be in terrible agony.

My friend studied platypuses (yes, that’s the plural I checked) in honours and her colleague injected himself with platypus venom in the name of science. For months he had excruciating pain for months which did not respond to any painkillers, including morphine. Because of this quality, platypus venom could help scientists develop drugs which work differently to our current repertoire.

Research into platypus venom is lacking because it is hard to come across samples. But just last month researchers identified 83 possible venom genes using DNA extracted from an active venom gland. Some of the genes are similar to those in snakes, pufferfish and starfish. Now the platypus hardly evolved from a starfish. Instead, it’s an example of convergent evolution, traits that arise separately in different species and give a selective advantage. Illustrious journal Nature says platypus venom confirms the convergent evolution theory for venom. (Research paper Whittington CM, & et al (2010). Novel venom gene discovery in the platypus. Genome biology, 11 (9) PMID: 20920228)

Electroreceptor bill
Sharks use electroreception to find prey by sensing the electricity animals have in their body. Monotromes (mammals that lay eggs) including platypuses and echidnas, are the only mammals with the same ability, and the platypus is the strongest. Closing its eyes and nose when it dives, the platypus relies almost entirely on electrolocation and touch to find the tasty crustaceans it snacks on. Sharks and platypuses are hardly related, making this another yet another example of convergent evolution.

Electroreceptors are located in rows on the bill, which might help it find prey by noticing which receptors pick up the electricity first. We do the same thing with our ears, hearing noises at slightly different times tells us which direction the sound is coming from. When the platypus hunts, it moves its bill side to side, which might reveal how far away the prey is. It’s similar to how pigeons bob their head for depth perception.

Image by TwoWings

Laying eggs
A female platypus has two ovaries, but only the left one is functional. Why? We don’t know.

Eggs spend 28 days developing inside their mother’s body and 10 days outside. The babies (often called puggles) are born with teeth, which drop out as they mature.

The mother produces milk, but she doesn’t have teats or nipples. Instead puggles lick or nibble on her skin to drink, gaining nutrients and probably an immune system. Living in mud, platypuses are born with no immune system, making them worse off than human babies which have immature immune systems at birth and rely on colostrum to boost their protection.

Sex chromosomes
Since the platypus genome was sequenced in 2008, we know a bit about these strange sex chromosomes. We know that they are more similar to birds than mammals, suggesting that our own mammal-like reptile ancestors might have had sex chromosomes like the birds of today. But there’s one big difference that makes the platypus unique.

They have ten sex chromosomes. Males have five X and five Y. Females have ten X. Humans, in fact, almost all mammals have only two. During platypus sperm production, the sex chromosomes pair up as X1Y1, X2Y2, X3Y3, X4,Y4, X5,Y5, so they can split evenly to make sperm that have 5X or 5Y. Phew. After all that, I’m surprised the males have any energy left for mating.

Did the CIA spike a bakery in France with hallucinogens?

// August 27th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Drugs, Poisons, Sex and Reproduction, The Realm of Bizzare, Unethics

On August 15, 1951 a small town in southern France called Pont-Saint-Esprit briefly entered the twilight zone. Hundreds of people reported acute psychotic episodes and physical symptoms such as nausea. They experienced traumatic hallucinations, and 50 of those affected were put in asylums. Five died. The event was later traced back to pain maudit – cursed bread.

In 2009 American journalist Hank Albarelli cited evidence that it was actually caused by CIA experiments into LSD. His book A Terrible Mistakesuggests the mass hallucinations experienced that day was a government funded field experiment into the newly found drug.

There would be potential for LSD to be used as chemical warfare – sprayed onto an army it would turn soldiers into… well… I don’t know but with guns involved I think it would be bad. I’m not sure if his conclusion is correct, but his article makes a compelling argument.

I have to say, conspiracy theories really do it for me. I think they’re great. Nothing like a little paranoia to keep you on your toes. There are, however, other opinions on what caused the Pont-Saint-Esprit madness.

One explanation is ergotism. Ergot is a group of fungi (most prominently Claviceps purpurea) which grow on rye, wheat and related grain-producing when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be-bread plants. The fungus produces a neat little cocktail of alkaloid drugs which cause spasms, diarrhea, nausea and hallucinations – similar to those experienced at Pont-Saint-Esprit that fateful day.

In fact, the psychosis could have been caused by ergot or LSD, both have similar symptoms. LSD was first derived from the ergot alkaloid ergotamine. Controlled doses of ergot poisons have been used to treat migraine headaches and control bleeding after childbirth. Accidental, and dangerous, ingestion of ergot was known as Saint Anthony’s Fire (not to be confused with Saint Elmo’s Fire) for the monks of Saint Anthony who were really good at treating it. Ergotism was also blamed for Agent Scully’s hallucinations in the episode Never Again, where she gets a badass tattoo with some red ink that could have been coloured with ergot.

Greek myth time! In Ancient Greece annual initiation ceremonies were held for the cult of Persephone and Demeter. Demeter was the goddess of grain, farming and plenty, a bit of an Earth mother goddess with rich wheat coloured hair and a flowing dress. She guaranteed a good harvest. She had a daughter called Persephone, who loved the flowers. One day when Persephone was looking at some flowers in a field, Hades the god of the underworld noticed her, opened up the ground and abducted her. When Demeter noticed her daughter was gone, she was stricken with grief and refused to bring the harvest.

Persephone was trapped in the underworld for months on end. Desperate for her hand in marriage, Hades would offer her food, but Persephone know not to eat the food of the dead or she would never be able to leave. However one day Hades offered her a pomegranate, her favourite dish, and she ate six seeds.

Up in the mortal world, the land was dying. People were starving, having never experienced such famine. No matter how they prayed to the goddess she would not bring the harvest. Seeing the despair of the people, Zeus the king of the gods went down to his brother Hades and asked if he could bring Persephone back to her mother. Awkward conversation ensued.

Hades finally agreed, but oh noes! Persephone had eaten the food of the dead! The six pomegranate seeds meant that she had to spend six months of the year in the underworld as Hades wife. The other six months she would live with Demeter her mother. That’s why we have the seasons – autumn and winter when Demeter mourns, spring and summer when Demeter is reunited with her daughter.

Anyhoo, to be initiated into the Demeter and Persephone cult was called the Eleusinian Mysteries, some mysteries including this myth with added details. I think some of the mysteries included the use of pomegranate as a contraceptive (the link between fertility and death, perhaps.) You also had to fast during the initiation, and afterwards you would drink a barley drink called Kykeon and great revelations would be revealed.

Kykeon, made of barley, quite possibly tainted with ergot. Revelation or hallucination, you tell me.

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