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Brushes With Controversy

One of America’s best-known artists, John James Audubon (1785-1851) (famous for his Birds of America, which illustrates in stunning detail and artistry 435 species), was the bastard son of a Haiti slave trader. To paint the birds, he first shot them and then wired their dead bodies into lifelike poses.

The painter and sculptor Daniele da Volterra (ca. 1509-1566) was nicknamed “braghettone” (i.e., “putter on of pants”) because the Counter-Reformation pope Paul IV (1555-1559) employed him to cover up the most critical parts of the sacred nudes with decorous draperies, including Michelangelo’s nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The most faked and forged artist is probably Camille Corot (1796-1875). Over 10,000 fakes and forgeries have been recorded, and to complicate matters, Corot himself added his signature to copies made by his pupils. When Corot died, the demand for his works was quite extraordinary, and there was a big market for unscrupulous dealers, who sold dozen of forgeries to foreign buyers, notably Americans.

The cherub-faced aristocrat and Italian artist Piero Manzoni (1933-1963), who died at the age of 29, created as a work of art a series of 30-gram tins containing “artist’s shit.” They were labeled with the same name and “naturally preserved,” arranged in piles or randomly on a surface. Ninety versions were made, each designed to be sold for its weight in gold.

About Genes and Gene Expression

To use a construction analogy, genes are like blueprints for cellular parts. If you want to build a house (a protein) you go to an architect’s office (the nucleus), which holds a collection of blueprints (the genome made of DNA). A copy of one blueprint is made (transcription of gene into mRNA, or messenger RNA) and given to a contractor (the ribosome). The contractor uses the paper plans to build your three-dimensional house of brick (translation of mRNA into protein). The contractor may also make many other copies of that house (a subdivision) until the blueprint wears out. Every cell in your body contains the same genome, but not every cell has the same proteins. Just as branch offices of architectural firms can build subdivisions that too different, cells choose a subset of genes to express. The blueprints they pick determine what the cell contains and does.

X-treme Mating

The male platypus is one of only two known venomous mammals. The venom, however, is delivered not by fangs but by retractable spurs on the male platypus’s hind legs. Even more strange, these spurs aren’t really used on predators and prey, instead, platypus venom is reserved for battles with rival males during what must be an extreme mating season. In the very few documented cases where humans have been envenomed, the results were intense. Unfortunate victims reported tremendous pain that did not respond to morphine and lingered for months.

Exercising’s “Burn” Exposed

While “feel the burn” is the rallying cry of the exercise conscious, there are actually two burns. One signifies damage due to a muscle tear. The other indicates you’re in oxygen debt and shouldn’t overdo it. Muscles use oxygen as part of aerobic respiration, which consumes carbohydrates and produces cellular power. In times of exertion, even though your heart is pounding, power needs exceed the amount of oxygen your blood can deliver. When this happens, muscle cells use anaerobic respiration, an alternative power pathway that doesn’t use oxygen but isn’t as efficient. The burn then comes from the pathway’s byproduct – lactic acid. Lactic acid is a weak acid, but it is an acid. If the blood doesn’t remove enough and it accumulates in the muscle, it hurts. Too bad we don’t use the anaerobic respiration pathway that yeast does – its byproduct isn’t lactic acid but alcohol.

Ozone and Condoms

We think of ozone as a useful gas. And indeed it is, as long as it’s up there in the stratosphere where it belongs. Ozone forms when oxygen is exposed to ultraviolet light, and it’s a good thing because ozone’s a great absorber of ultraviolet radiation, thus protecting us from skin cancer. At ground level, however, ozone is a pollutant, forming as a result of internal combustion in our car engines. It’s also the characteristic smell you sniff around photocopiers or other electrical devices. While ozone irritates our lungs, it can also affect our sex lives. The most widely used condoms are made of natural rubber, a substance that degrades when exposed to ozone. In laymen’s terms, this means that your protection needs protection if you’re storing it around a photocopier.

The Stone Money of Yap

If you’re frustrated by the market and you’re looking for a currency that can stand the test of time, look no further. In the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific, there’s an island named Yap (or Uap). In 1903 an American anthropologist named Henry Furness III visited the islanders and found they had an unusual system of currency. It consisted of carved stone wheels called fei, ranging in diameter from a foot to 12 feet. Because the stones were heavy, the islanders didn’t normally carry their money around with them. After a transaction the fei might remain on a previous owner’s premises, but it was understood who owned what. One family’s fei, Furness was told, had been lost at sea many years earlier while being transported from a nearby island during a storm. But that stone was still used as currency, even though it was unseen and irretrievable beneath hundreds of feet of water.

Sexy Animal Facts

  • The strongest muscle in your body is the tongue.
  • A female ferret will die if it goes into heat and cannot find a mate.
  • A goldfish has a memory span of three seconds.
  • After sleeping for 17 years, a cicada will awake, mate, and then die within two weeks.
  • Dragonflies live for only 24 hours.
  • Humans and dolphins are the only species that have sex for pleasure.

Einstein’s Pickled Brain

While Albert Einstein’s cranium is now safely stored at Princeton Hospital, the genius’s cranium was actually kept in a mason jar in a Wichita, Kansas, laboratory for many years. The brain, which has been subject to plenty of postmortem study, measures surprisingly smaller than average brains. It is, however, markedly denser in some of the regions associated with mathematical ability, and neuroscientists disagree over whether these differences are significant.

Poor Places that Ain’t So Poor

Throughout most of the world there’s a close correlation between levels of economic and social development. Wealthy places, in other words, generally have healthy and well-educated populations, whereas poor places don’t. But there are some striking exceptions to the rule: Sri Lank, for example, has a per capita gross domestic product of $820, which is a fraction of that of Mexico ($5,840), let alone that of the United States ($34,900). Yet Sri Lanka, despite its almost interminable civil war, boasts almost universal literacy as well as an enviable average longevity of 72 years. Even more remarkable is India’s southwestern state of Kerala, an extremely crowded place with an average income even lower than that of Sri Lanka. Yet Kerala, with an average life expectancy of more than 70 years, has conquered malaria, boasts universal education, is virtually free of beggars and serious malnutrition, and is approaching population stability.

Ben Franklin Liked To Work In The Buff!

It’s true! Benjamin Franklin sat around naked, usually with the window open for the breeze. In a 1768 letter to a friend, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, Franklin described his “air bath” ritual in detail: “I rise early almost every morning, and sit in my chamber, without any clothes whatsoever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing. This practice is not in the least painful, but on the contrary, agreeable; and if I return to bed afterwards, before I dress myself, as sometimes happens, I make a supplement to my night’s rest, of one or two hours of the most pleasing sleep that can be imagined. I find no ill consequences whatever resulting from it.

Alexander The Greats Sweeter Side

It can’t be proved, but tradition says that after he died, Alexander the Greats body was preserved in honey. Why? As the most famous, most powerful person in the world, an elaborate funeral carriage was commissioned to escort his body from Babylon, where he died, to his birthplace in Macedon. This ornate hearse took two years to build – 24 months in a hot climate, 24 centuries before refrigeration. And that’s where the honey probably came in. the thick, sweet substance works as a natural preservative, admitting no oxygen, so the young conqueror’s body maintained that dewy-fresh look (as opposed to mummification, which involves drying). As it turned out, though, the corpse never got home. Ptolemy Sotor, Alexander’s appointed governor in Egypt, hijacked the funeral caravan to Memphis (not the one in Tennessee) and put his body on display before entombing it.

Writers Is The Craziest People

While living in a hotel room in Brussels, Belgium, French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) captured a bat in a nearby graveyard, brought it back to his room, and kept it as a pet, feeding it bread and milk.

Russian playwright and fiction writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) didn’t have long to live. His doctor bought a bottle of Champagne and poured Chekhov a glass. He drank it down with great appreciation and remarked: “It has been so long since I’ve had Champagne.” Then he rolled over, and Chekhov checked out.

One of the strangest novels ever written may be Gates of Paradise by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983). It is one-sentence long, unpunctuated, 40,000 words.

Speaking of strange, how about Pugna Porcorum (“Battle of the Pigs”), published by the Dominican monk Leon Plaisant (Placentius) in 1530? The poem extends to more than 250 verses, and every word begins with the letter P! Talk about pig latin. Playful priest produces porky poetry!

French poet Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) had a pet lobster that he took for walks, guiding it through the park of the Palais Royal on a pale blue ribbon.

Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) wore five wristwatches on his arm, each set to a different time.

Street-Fair Trivia

Brad Byers holds the official world record for the most swords swallowed. On august 13, 1999, he swallowed and turned ten 28-inch swords. In 2002 the first Annual Sword Swallowing Convention was held, and 19 delegates swallowed a total of 50 swords simultaneously.

Female hormones actually increase physical flexibility while male hormones reduce it, which may explain why many of today’s contortionists are women.

Due to their ambidexterity, Leonardo de Vinci, Michelangelo, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, and Michael Jordan all could have been master jugglers in addition to their other famed vocations.

Mime was one of the earliest mediums of self-expression, giving preverbal people a way to communicate.

Ventriloquism is thought to be the explanation behind the famous oracle at Delphi in Greek mythology.

How Waking Up Early Killed Descartes

They say getting up early won’t kill you, but that may not be true. Rene Descartes never had a real job. After college he traveled throughout Europe, much of the time as a gentleman volunteer in the army, a pretty cushy gig requiring no actual combat. In his thirties Descartes retired to the Netherlands, not for weed and hookers, but for peace and toleration. And he often spent his mornings in bed, philosophizing a little and sleeping a lot. Descartes enjoyed success as a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, his works drawing the attention of the powerful and the intelligent. One of the powerful who admired Descartes work was Queen Christina of Sweden, who repeatedly invited him to join her court and instruct her in philosophy. Descartes repeatedly declined the offer, calling Sweden “the land of ice and bears.” In 1649, finding himself flat broke, he finally broke down and accepted the queen’s offer. When he arrived, Descartes discovered to his horror that Queen Christina – who could stand barefoot in the snow – wanted philosophy lessons at 5 AM. Rising at the ungodly hour and trudging through the elements killed Descartes. The formal cause of death was pneumonia, but we all know the early wake-up call was to blame.

X-Treme Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a major figure in modern utilitarianism, may have taken his theory to the extreme. Utilitarianism holds that we should act in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So, for example, while not paying my taxes might produce the greatest good or happiness for me personally, it will not produce the greatest good for my fellow citizens. And so my selfish desire to evade tax payment is over-ridden by the greater good supporting the public welfare. The question does arise, however, What should a good utilitarian do with his body when he dies? While in most cases it may be best to cremate or bury them, Bentham had his own take, having his body embalmed and preserved at University college, London (though things went miserably wrong with his head, which has been replaced with a wax replica). Bentham’s motivations are unclear, but perhaps he thought that it’s tougher to engage the ideas of past philosophers when their bodies are absent. Although Bentham’s corpse never did inspire much further philosophical dialogue, according to rumor it does make an appearance at college council meetings, the minutes for which supposedly record Bentham as present but not voting.

Motion is Impossible – Zeno’s Paradoxes

The Greek mathematician Zeno of Eliea (ca. 485-ca. 430 BCE) attempted to show that space and motion were impossible. It would take too long to explain and examine all the paradoxes, but one will illustrate his basic argument. Zeno asks us to imagine a runner moving from point A to point B. If we assume that the line from point A to point B contains an infinite number of points, then the runner must reach the halfway mark before he reaches the end. But before he reaches the halfway mark, he must reach a point halfway to that, and so on. Between each of these halfway points, there are an infinite number of points. Her comes the paradox: How can the runner traverse an infinite series of points in a finite time interval? Using this same principle, Zeno showed that an arrow in flight does not move and that Achilles can never outrun a tortoise if the tortoise has even the slightest head start. In short, if we can divide something at all, we can divide it ad infinitum.

Avoid The Beans (And Other Pythagorean Theorems)

The name Pythagoras (ca. 580 – ca. 500 BCE) probably resonates in your mind because of distant memories of geometry or music class. He is known primarily as the person who connected mathematics to music; in fact, for Pythagoras, all is number. His passion for mathematics was expressed in a mystical way. For example, he thought that the number 10 was sacred, and he often had his disciples spend days contemplating a number or a geometric figure. His mysticism, however, included some strange taboos. Here is a partial list of the rules of the Pythagorean school.

  • One must not eat beans
  • One must not pick up what has fallen
  • One must not touch a white rooster
  • One must not break bread
  • One must not step over a crossbar
  • One must not stir the fire with iron
  • One must not eat from a whole loaf
  • One must not pluck a garland
  • One must not sit on a quart of anything
  • One must not eat the heart of anything
  • One must not walk on highways
  • One must not allow swallows to nest on one’s roof
  • One must not look in a mirror beside a light

Bertrand Russell called Pythagoras intellectually one of the most important men who ever lived and one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history.

The Most Expensive Material In The World

What’s the most expensive material per pound in common use by physics? Diamonds? Nah. Gem-quality diamonds cost only about $15 million per pound. It’s been estimated that Saddam Hussein was willing to spend $100 million per pound for weapons-grade uranium. But that isn’t it. Moon dust? Nope. Russian-retrieved moon dust (they had a robot return some) has been sold on the black market for less than $5 million per pound. The most expensive substance per pound is actually an ultra-high vacuum. Although it’s abundant in space, nobody has figured out a good way to bring it down to earth. The cost of making one is $4 followed by 21 zeros, so nothing else even comes close. And the price will only get more expensive per gram as the vacuums get better!

Facts and Physics

Chocolate chip cookies have 15 times as much energy as the same weight of TNT. (TNT is used as an explosive because it can release energy quickly, not because it has a lot.)

Compared to the rest of the atom, the nucleus is as small as a mosquito in a football stadium,’’

When you look at the sun, you aren’t seeing it the way it is. You are seeing it the way it was eight minutes age. If it blew up seven minutes ago, you wouldn’t know immediately. (It takes light, and anything traveling at the speed of light, that long to travel the 93-million-mile distance.)

The speed of light is only 1 foot per computer cycle (assuming you have a 1 GHz computer). That’s the same as 186,000 miles per second. That’s why computers have to be small – so they can retrieve data as fast as they can think.

A meteor carries 100 times as much energy in its motion as does an equal weight of TNT in its explosion. (That’s why an asteroid or comet hitting the earth had enough energy to kill the dinosaurs and most other life 65 million years ago.)

How The Quark Got Its Name

Two scientists independently came up with the idea for three tiny particles that make up the protons and neutrons. George Zweig called them aces and Murray Gell-Mann named them quarks, after the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark” that appears in James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. Nobody knows what the sentence means, but it was more intriguing than aces and the word had no other use, so Gell-Mann won.

A Man Walks Into A Bar

On September 13, 1848, Phineas Gage’s life changed forever. Gage, a railroad supervisor in Cavendish, Vermont, was blasting rock to make way for a new section of tracks when an accident sent tamping rod shooting through his skull. The rod was traveling so fast that it exploded through his left cheek and continued out the top of his head. Amazingly, Phineas survived the accident, but in may ways he was never the same. Before the accident Phineas was considered thoughtful by his friends and colleagues and was well-liked. But after the accident he became noticeably impulsive, foul-tempered, and rude. In fact, his friends commented that he was “no longer Gage.” The Phineas Gage case continues to fascinate scientists today because it provides insight into the relationship between the workings of the brain and personality. Sadly, Gage never fully recovered from that fateful day and was reduced in working as a circus sideshow.

The History of Frontal Lobotomies

Many of us remember Nurse Ratched from the book and move One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. This cold-blooded villain controlled the mental ward in part because it was understood that she had the therapies of shock treatments and frontal lobotomies at her disposal. Unfortunately, there was a time in our history when the use of frontal lobotomies to treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia was as much fact as fiction. During a frontal lobotomy, a sharp object was inserted into the frontal lobes of the brain and moved back and forth to destroy tissue. The 1940s and 1950s represented the heyday of frontal lobotomies, with nearly 40,000 people receiving the treatment in the United States alone. One man in particular, Walter Freeman, worked tirelessly – traveling the country performing lobotomies and preaching about their effectiveness (while reportedly driving his “lobotomobile”). The advent of psychotropic drugs as well as a recognition that most patients did not improve after their surgery produced a sharp decline in the use of lobotomies during the 1960s. In very rare circumstances more precise pyschosurgeries are performed today but generally only as a last resort.

Freud Fun Facts!

Sigmund Freud’s father, Jakob, was 20 years older than his young mother, Amalia. Freud had half-brothers very close to Amalia’s age and a nephew older than he was. In fact, there may have been intriguing dynamics between his young attractive mother and his older half-brothers, of which Sigmund was likely aware.

Freud was a gifted student who was barely 10 years old when he entered high school. He began his studies in law before becoming more interested in medicine, and enrolled in medical school at 17. He received his medical degree at 25, specializing in clinical neurology.

Patients who visited Freud reclined on a small couch during therapy. He sat behind them because he couldn’t bear to be stared at by his patients.

Freud never won a Nobel Prize in medicine or anything else for that matter. His only major award was the Goethe Prize for literature.

Freud was an unabashed cocaine advocate who regularly ingested the drug and gave it to his sisters, friends, and patients. He even published six articles describing its benefits. Freud avoided cocaine addiction but was clearly addicted to nicotine. He chain-smoked cigars, averaging 20 a day. He developed cancer of the palate and jaw at age 67 and underwent a series of 33 operations. He continued to smoke cigars until his death in 1939.

Baby In A Box

While Skinner’s work has been influential, one of his child-rearing ideas didn’t quite catch on. In an article for the Ladies Home Journal in 1945, Skinner described a special baby tender he designed for his daughter, Deborah. The special crib, enclosed with Plexiglass and temperature controlled, was designed to provide a healthier environment for his daughter. Rather than being impressed with his ingenuity, many people were appalled that Skinner would leave his daughter in this incubator-like crib for hours. Many people mistakenly believed that Skinner used the baby tender to conduct experiments on his daughter, and rumor circulated that she was severely traumatized by the experience. Fortunately, the rumors were false, and by all accounts Deborah grew up happy and healthy.