Posts Tagged ‘Real X-Files’

St Elmo’s Fire

// January 31st, 2010 // 5 Comments » // How Things Work

Some sailors regard it with fear and amazement, others see it as an omen of things to come, but when I see St Elmo’s Fire burning on the masts above I am struck with curiousity for this most bizarre natural phenomenon.

St Elmo’s Fire appears as a blueish glow gracing the tips of masts and other pointy objects (lightning rods, swords, staffs, unusually long noses) during thunderstorms. You may have heard of it before, it’s been mentioned in such classics as Tintin in Tibet, Terry Pratchett’s Nation, and Moby Dick.

Despite the name, it’s not fire. It’s actually plasma, just like lightning – except instead of travelling from a cloud to the ground it just… well.. glows. It works a bit like neon lights do – energy from stormy weather (rather than a powerpoint) collect on an object and discharge. When the discharge is strong enough, it ionises gasses in the air which makes them glow. It mostly happens on pointy objects because electric fields are strongest on curves – the curvier the object, the stronger the field.

The colour is blue simply because oxygen and nitrogen glow blue when they ionise (how’s that for a circular argument? I’m sure it’s got more to do with molecular spectroscopy *shudder* more than I want to go into tonight, but if you’re curious drop me a comment.) If our air was full of neon it would be all orange, and how cool would that be?!

St Elmo’s Fire was originally named for St Erasmus – the patron saint of sailors – but whoever came up with the name should get a prize because it sounds great. Off the top of my head I can think of three fantastic things which have stolen the name. It was the title of one of the Teen Power Inc books of my childhood. As a teenager I saw the awesome 80’s movie about the twenty-somethings who tackle life and relationships after leaving college. And lately I have been listening to the old song by John Parr… I can never pick up the words except for the titular line “in St Elmo’s Fi-yar!”… I have no idea what it means in this context but for some reason (probably the science) it really resonates with me. Click through to the lyrics.

I can see a new horizon
Underneath the blazin’ sky
I’ll be where the eagle’s
Flyin’ higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future’s lyin’
St. Elmo’s Fire

Ohhhhh YEAH! St Elmo’s Fi-yah!

The Freakiest Fungus on the Face of the Planet

// August 4th, 2009 // 2 Comments » // The Realm of Bizzare

This is the freakiest fungus I have ever seen, freakier even than the giant man-eating one in “Field Trip,” my favourite episode of the X-Files (Season 4). The story is a bit like an X-File too, so for the purposes of this blog picture me red-headed, scientifically rigorous and secretly in love with Mulder (that last one’s true.)

This class of fungus they call Cordyceps, and once released their spores drift down like gentle dew upon unsuspecting insects. If successful, the spore will ninja past the exoskeleton and into the host tissue where it begins to grow. And grow. And grow.

When it is big enough it infects the brain and kills the insect. Then, and this is the freaky part, it pushes out the fruiting body out of the insect like an evil seed germinating in fertile soil. And man does it look messed up. Check it out.

Cordyceps unilateralis cordyceps_tuberculata

Some species seem to direct the insect to find a place with the right humidity and temperature to encourage the growth of the fungus just before it dies. It’s discussed awesomely at The Loom, who I am forever grateful to for telling me about this horror-movie.

Speaking of horror movies, David Attenborough did a piece on this once, check it out below. It’s just about the scariest documentary I’ve ever seen, my skin is still crawling from it.

Is anyone else getting a flashback from Alien?

It’s not the only thing that feeds on insects and messes with their heads, the Gordian Worm infects grasshoppers and other insects as a larva, growing to immense sizes (relatively speaking) and then apparently making the insect commit suicide by drowning so that it can escape into the water and swim free as an adult. Reminds me of The Happening. Video below, but be warned, it is creepy.

Crazy, no? Have you ever SEEN anything like it? I… no pirate words can describe it.

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