The Carboniferous Period – Coal and Giant Insects

Trees evolved the ability to grow bark at the beginning of the carboniferous period (360 million years ago) but fungi took 50 million years to evolve the ability to digest it. As a result, most of the coal we have today was formed in this period.

Conan the Bacterium – The world’s most resistant organism?

Deinococcus radiodurans is nicknamed “Conan the Bacterium” because, like Robert E. Howard’s Cimmerian hero, it can withstand and survive more than you would expect it to. It was first discovered in 1956 by Arthur W. Anderson at the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station. He was trying to sterilise meat by irradiating it with gamma radiation. He thought that if he could kill all the bacteria present, the meat would not spoil. However, our tiny little friend Conan survived and the meat eventually spoiled.

When coal mines ignite – The city on top of a fire and the door to hell

Centralia, PA When you first reach Centralia, Pennsylvania, it looks like a standard semi-abandoned town. Maybe one that had its major route of through traffic diverted, and slowly died. Then you notice the strange cracks in the roads and the smoke billowing from the ground. Because in fact, Centralia is not your typical abandoned town, it’s an abandoned town on top af a huge fire.

Kangaroos have three vaginas! and more weird Australian animals facts

How weird are platypuses? Why does Saudi Arabia import camels from Australia? Why do kangaroos have pouches? How scary are bulldog ants? Platypus When European naturalists first encountered the platypus, they thought it was an elaborate hoax. It had the bill of a duck, the feet of an otter and the tail of a beaver. But it was even weirder than that. The platypus is one of the few mammals (together with the rest of the monotremes, which include 4 species of echidnas) that don’t give birth. They lay eggs instead. That’s right, eggs. You can imagine the explorers’ confusion. …

Continue reading

How fast do you think? – The Two Systems that define us

“A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” If your answer was $0.10, then don’t worry, you join many thousands of people who have made the same mistake. More than half the students asked at some of the worlds top graduate universities answered this wrongly and as much as 80% at less selective universities.

Pie Cubed Podcast 24/04/2013 – Measles, Mars and Austerity

[audio] This week on the Pie Cubed Podcast we talk about the current rise in Measles cases and the media responsibility in promoting bad science, colonisation of new planets, the harshness of Venus’ atmosphere, CISPA, dark matter, austerity and much more…. Subscribe on iTunes or Subscribe to podcast feed Wringing a wet towel in space:

Do lobsters hold the keys to immortality?

It is inevitable that at some point you will die. We all will. The price we have to pay for being alive is death. It’s a certainty, like taxes. At some point our organs will stop working efficiently and we will go back to how we were before we were born. However, the humble lobster does not have this problem.

Balanced on a Blade of Grass – The World’s Lightest Material

A research team led by Professor Gao Chao of the Department of Polymer Science of China’s Zhejiang University in Hangzhou used a freeze-drying technique to create an aerogel – a “carbon sponge” – from a mix of graphene and carbon nanotubes. It is the world’s lightest material and it  can be balanced on a blade of grass. It weighs just 0.16 kilograms per metre cubed. For comparison, a metre cubed of water weighs 1000 kg and a metre cubed of styrofoam weighs 75 kg. It is also less dense than air (less mass per volume). A metre cubed of air …

Continue reading

Vaccines and Autism: Scientific Mis-Reporting in the Media

Repeat after me: Vaccines. Do. Not. Cause. Autism. It all started in the late nineties, when a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published a paper in the Lancet linking the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) to autism. In fact, the study did not make this claim at all, the link was announced at a press conference by Wakefield himself. If you know anything about how science works (with peer-reviews publications), you would know that a press conference is NOT the way to announce results, unless of course you want media attention (see the wikipedia article on ‘science by press conference‘). The media, …

Continue reading

Does a photon perceive time? and 4 more facts about time perception

How ancient are the ancient egyptians? Were woolly mammoths around when the pyramids were built? If the whole of time was compressed into a day, how many minutes would dinosaurs have been alive? Does a photon perceive time? Ancient Egyptians To us, the Romans and the ancient Egyptians are all quite old. However, Cleopatra, who lived at the time of Julius Caesar, is closer to us (and the moon landings!) in time than she was to when Egyptians started building pyramids. To the Romans, ancient Egypt was as ancient as the Romans are to us today.