Xenophilia (True Strange Stuff)

Blog of the real Xenophilius Lovegood, a slightly mad scientist

Archive for February 10th, 2012

The planet Venus is slowing down

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

Venus Express

ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft has discovered that our cloud-covered neighbour spins a little slower than previously measured. Peering through the dense atmosphere in the infrared, the orbiter found surface features were not quite where they should be. …

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Venera and Magellan orbiters made radar maps of the surface of Venus, long shrouded in mystery as well as a dense, crushing and poisonous atmosphere. These maps gave us our first detailed global view of this unique and hostile world.

Over its four-year mission, Magellan was able to watch features rotate under the spacecraft, allowing scientists to determine the length of the day on Venus as being equal to 243.0185 Earth days. .

However, surface features seen by Venus Express some 16 years later could only be lined up with those observed by Magellan if the length of the Venus day is on average 6.5 minutes longer than Magellan measured. …

This also agrees with the most recent long-duration radar measurements from Earth.

“When the two maps did not align, I first thought there was a mistake in my calculations as Magellan measured the value very accurately, but we have checked every possible error we could think of,” said Nils Müller, a planetary scientist at the DLR German Aerospace Centre, lead author of a research paper investigating the rotation.


Scientists, including Özgur Karatekin of the Royal Observatory of Belgium, looked at the possibility of short-term random variations in the length of a Venus day, but concluded these should average themselves out over longer timescales.

On the other hand, other recent atmospheric models have shown that the planet could have weather cycles stretching over decades, which could lead to equally long-term changes in the rotation period. Other effects could also be at work, including exchanges of angular momentum between Venus and the Earth when the two planets are relatively close to each other.

“An accurate value for Venus’ rotation rate will help in planning future missions, because precise information will be needed to select potential landing sites,” noted Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express project scientist. …

via ESA Portal – Could Venus be shifting gear?.

Posted in Space | Leave a Comment »

How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

The parasite T. gondii, [right] may be changing connections between our neurones, altering how we act and feel. (Dennis Kunkel Microscropy, Inc./Visuals Unlimited/Corbis Images)

Certainly Flegr’s thinking is jarringly unconventional. Starting in the early 1990s, he began to suspect that a single-celled parasite in the protozoan family was subtly manipulating his personality, causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways. And if it was messing with his mind, he reasoned, it was probably doing the same to others.The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii T. gondii or Toxo for short and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

An evolutionary biologist at Charles University in Prague, Flegr has pursued this theory for decades in relative obscurity. Because he struggles with English and is not much of a conversationalist even in his native tongue, he rarely travels to scientific conferences. That “may be one of the reasons my theory is not better known,” he says. And, he believes, his views may invite deep-seated opposition. “There is strong psychological resistance to the possibility that human behavior can be influenced by some stupid parasite,” he says. “Nobody likes to feel like a puppet. Reviewers [of my scientific papers] may have been offended.” Another more obvious reason for resistance, of course, is that Flegr’s notions sound an awful lot like fringe science, right up there with UFO sightings and claims of dolphins telepathically communicating with humans.

But after years of being ignored or discounted, Flegr is starting to gain respectability. Psychedelic as his claims may sound, many researchers, including such big names in neuroscience as Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, think he could well be onto something. Flegr’s “studies are well conducted, and I can see no reason to doubt them,” Sapolsky tells me. Indeed, recent findings from Sapolsky’s lab and British groups suggest that the parasite is capable of extraordinary shenanigans. T. gondii, reports Sapolsky, can turn a rat’s strong innate aversion to cats into an attraction, luring it into the jaws of its No. 1 predator. Even more amazing is how it does this: the organism rewires circuits in parts of the brain that deal with such primal emotions as fear, anxiety, and sexual arousal. “Overall,” says Sapolsky, “this is wild, bizarre neurobiology.” Another academic heavyweight who takes Flegr seriously is the schizophrenia expert E. Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, in Maryland. “I admire Jaroslav for doing [this research],” he says. “It’s obviously not politically correct, in the sense that not many labs are doing it. He’s done it mostly on his own, with very little support. I think it bears looking at. I find it completely credible.”

What’s more, many experts think T. gondii may be far from the only microscopic puppeteer capable of pulling our strings. “My guess is that there are scads more examples of this going on in mammals, with parasites we’ve never even heard of,” says Sapolsky.

Familiar to most of us, of course, is the rabies virus. On the verge of killing a dog, bat, or other warm-blooded host, it stirs the animal into a rage while simultaneously migrating from the nervous system to the creature’s saliva, ensuring that when the host bites, the virus will live on in a new carrier. But aside from rabies, stories of parasites commandeering the behavior of large-brained mammals are rare. …

After he read the book, Flegr began to make a connection that, he readily admits, others might find crazy: his behavior, he noticed, shared similarities with that of the reckless ant. For example, he says, he thought nothing of crossing the street in the middle of dense traffic, “and if cars honked at me, I didn’t jump out of the way.” He also made no effort to hide his scorn for the Communists who ruled Czechoslovakia for most of his early adulthood. “It was very risky to openly speak your mind at that time,” he says. “I was lucky I wasn’t imprisoned.” And during a research stint in eastern Turkey, when the strife-torn region frequently erupted in gunfire, he recalls being “very calm.” In contrast, he says, “my colleagues were terrified. I wondered what was wrong with myself.”

His bewilderment continued until 1990, when he joined the biology faculty of Charles University. As it happened, the 650-year-old institution had long been a world leader in documenting the health effects of T. gondii, as well as developing methods for detecting the parasite. In fact, just as Flegr was arriving, his colleagues were searching for infected individuals on whom to test their improved diagnostic kits, which is how he came to be asked one day to roll up his sleeve and donate blood. He discovered that he had the parasite—and just possibly, he thought, the key to his baffling self-destructive streak.

He delved into T. gondii’s life cycle. After an infected cat defecates, Flegr learned, the parasite is typically picked up from the soil by scavenging or grazing animals—notably rodents, pigs, and cattle—all of which then harbor it in their brain and other body tissues. Humans, on the other hand, are exposed not only by coming into contact with litter boxes, but also, he found, by drinking water contaminated with cat feces, eating unwashed vegetables, or, especially in Europe, by consuming raw or undercooked meat. Hence the French, according to Flegr, with their love of steak prepared saignant—literally, “bleeding”—can have infection rates as high as 55 percent. (Americans will be happy to hear that the parasite resides in far fewer of them, though a still substantial portion: 10 to 20 percent.) Once inside an animal or human host, the parasite then needs to get back into the cat, the only place where it can sexually reproduce—and this is when, Flegr believed, behavioral manipulation might come into play. …

via How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy – Magazine – The Atlantic.

Posted in Biology, Mind | 1 Comment »

Swiss Build the World’s First Solar-Powered Ski Lift

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

In the tiny mountain village of Tenna, a farming village in eastern Switzerland not far from resorts such as St. Moritz and Davos, big green ideas have been introduced.

Although larger, well-known ski resorts overshadow it, when their aging ski lift needed replacing, locals raised enough money to update it and then went a step further: They invested in building one of the world’s first solar-powered ski lifts. This tiny Swiss town with a population of about 110 inhabitants is now home of the world’s first ski lift powered by a chain of 82 solar “wings” that trail up from the base station to its mountain peak.

On sunny days, the lift produces twice as much power as it consumes, according to Andina. In the springtime when ski season ends, it becomes a mini solar power plant. The investment wasn’t cheap: $1.5 million, but the lift is expected to produce 90,000 kilowatt hours annually – well beyond the 21,000 kilowatt hours needed to run it during the season! So, about three times more solar energy than it needs to power the lift providing surplus power that is sold to the regional power company’s grid.

So what happens to the 82 solar “wings” when it dumps? Not a problem, because they rotate to follow the path of the sun in the sky and can be tilted to perpendicular during a storm, so there’s no load and the snow slides right off. …

via Swiss Tiny Mountain Village of Tenna Build the World’s First Solar-Powered Ski Lift | Holiday 4 U.

Posted in Alt Energy, Sports | Leave a Comment »

Iron Sky Movie Trailer

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012


Posted in - Video, Science Fiction | Leave a Comment »

‘Killer beast’ warning to North crofters

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

Andy McLachlan with the remains of the sheep.NORTH-coast crofters are being warned to be on the lookout for a “killer beast” which is rumoured to be prowling the fields of the Far North.

It comes after the carcase of a ewe was found stripped to the bone at Swordly, near Bettyhill, in north Sutherland.

Andy McLachlan (54), of Kirtomy, said a big cat has been spotted on the border between Caithness and north Sutherland on a number of occasions. He said the potential danger the animal presents was displayed last month when the sheep was killed.

The attack is thought to have taken place around Saturday, January 28, on livestock belonging to crofter George Mackay.

His son, Liam, was looking after the croft when he went to replenish the ring feeder. During the course of his duties he found the carcase of the sheep, which was left with nothing but its hide and skeleton.

Mr McLachlan said the carcase may have been around a week old, but claimed it would have taken a large animal, not native to the Far North, to kill the sheep.

“The carcase was lying right beside the ring feeder when it was found and nobody had seen it the week before,” he told the Caithness Courier.

“The kill was far too clean to have been done by a fox as they would have ripped the fleece and pieces of skin would have been scattered when eating the sheep. …

via John O’Groat Journal | News | ‘Killer beast’ warning to North crofters.

Posted in Strange | Leave a Comment »

Flaming Tampons Attack On Car: Pennsylvania Police Arrest Couple

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

http://i.huffpost.com/gen/471439/thumbs/s-FLAMING-TAMPONS-large.jpgPennsylvania State Police say Patricia Deshong, 25, and Quentin Deshong, 22, were arrested Jan. 7 in Metal Township, Penn., after allegedly attempting to blow up a vehicle outside of a bar using flaming feminine hygiene products, according to documents obtained by The Smoking Gun.

The incident took place outside the Hillside Tavern at around 2:50 a.m., after officers got a report that a man and woman were allegedly vandalizing a green 2006 Ford Fusion car in the bar parking lot, the website reports.

Police officers arriving on the scene say they noticed the hood of the Ford Fusion was up and numerous hoses were disconnected, Z6mag.com reports.

Police allegedly found the windshield, rear window and the driver’s side window shattered, as well as dents on the body of the car. Police also spotted blood on the front passenger seat.

In addition, the officers found ashes by the gas and oil caps and, upon further investigation, discovered a tampon in the engine compartment where the oil fill cap is located. Detectives said the tampon was “used to possibly ignite the gas tank,” according to the website.

A police document indicates a possible motive for attempting to set the Fusion on fire, Minyanville.com reports.

However, Minyanville notes that the vehicle belongs to 25-year-old Falon Clark, who counted Patricia Deshong as a Facebook friend, and that hours after the Fusion was trashed, she posted a status update that she was “lookin for some revenge…”

Police allege the Deshongs were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their arrest. They were booked on a variety of charges, including attempted arson, public drunkenness and criminal mischief. The officers also allege that Patricia was in possession of a license plate from the trashed Ford, as well as the vehicle’s registration card. …

via Flaming Tampons Attack On Car: Pennsylvania Police Arrest Quentin And Patricia Deshong.

Posted in Crime, Strange | Leave a Comment »

Study Reveals Possible New Key to Human Evolution

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

Structural and functional brain imaging analyses, combined with computational analyses, reveal highly connected, centrally located regions of the human cortex (front part of the brain) that form a “structural core” of the brain.  Liza Gross, Wikimedia Commons 

For the first five years of life, human cognition slowly comes to fruition, receiving and storing information and experience from the environment and enabling humans to advance beyond the capabilities of their primate cousins, according to a study published online in Genome Research. An international team of researchers have identified extended synaptic development in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain that sheds new light on the evolution of human cognition and suggests another reason why the human family diverged from other primates 4-6 million years ago.

“Why can we absorb environmental information during infancy and childhood and develop intellectual skills that chimpanzees cannot?” asks study author Dr. Philipp Khaitovich of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “What makes the human brain so special?”

To find answers to these questions, Khaitovich and his colleagues applied microarray and RNA-sequencing technology to explore the changes in how genes are expressed as the postnatal brain develops during the first years of life for humans, chimps, and the more distantly related macaques. The group found that the time duration of these changes in humans differed markedly from that of other primates. By sampling the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that scientists have long thought was much more highly developed in humans, and the cerebellum, a more ancient and basic brain region related to motor control, they found that the synaptic genes of the prefrontal cortex reached their peak expression after the first five years, in contrast to first-year-of-life peak expression for the other sampled primates. This was not observed in the cerebellum.

“Among all developmental changes specific to the human brain, one process – synaptogenesis – clearly stood out,” said Khaitovich. “Our findings suggest that the human brain remains extremely plastic and susceptible to environmental input during the first five years of life.”

Synaptogenesis is critical for learning and memory in the developing brain, a process that involves the formation, strengthening, and elimination of certain synaptic connections, providing the foundation for the more advanced cognitive (thinking) skills characteristic of humans. A synapse is a structure in the nervous system that permits a neuron to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell in the brain. …

via Study Reveals Possible New Key to Human Evolution | Popular Archaeology – exploring the past.

Posted in Biology | Leave a Comment »

‘Woolly Mammoth’ spotted in Siberia?

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

Mammoth, or just a bear carrying a fish in its mouth? Mr. Snuffleupagus perhaps? As with all anomalous videos, the questions that need to be asked are things like: what happened before and after the video? Did they follow it, or at least alert authorities who would be able to track it?

In short: fun video, but a lot more information and context needed from serious investigators before anyone should treat it seriously. In the meantime, here’s a tabloid report.

via Daily Grail Frontpage | TDG – Science, Magick, Myth and History.

Posted in - Video | Leave a Comment »

Zebra stripes evolved to keep biting flies at bay

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

Zebra (Equus grevyi) (c) Journal of Experimental Biology

Why zebras evolved their characteristic black-and-white stripes has been the subject of decades of debate among scientists.

Now researchers from Hungary and Sweden claim to have solved the mystery.

The stripes, they say, came about to keep away blood-sucking flies.

They report in the Journal of Experimental Biology that this pattern of narrow stripes makes zebras “unattractive” to the flies.

They key to this effect is in how the striped patterns reflect light. …

Prof Matthew Cobb, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Manchester pointed out that the experiment was “rigorous and fascinating” but did not exclude the other hypotheses about the origin of zebras’ stripes.

“Above all, for this explanation to be true, the authors would have to show that tabanid fly bites are a major selection pressure on zebras, but not on horses and donkeys found elsewhere in the world… none of which are stripy,” he told BBC Nature.

“[They] recognise this in their study, and my hunch is that there is not a single explanation and that many factors are involved in the zebra’s stripes.

via BBC Nature – Zebra stripes evolved to keep biting flies at bay.

Posted in Biology | Leave a Comment »

Steve Jobs’ FBI files question his honesty and morality

Posted by Anonymous on February 10, 2012

A photographer takes a picture with his own iPhone of a Steve Jobs tribute in London, United Kingdom in 6 October 2011The FBI files of Steve Jobs have been released, showing a man who commanded respect as an innovator but was questioned on his honesty and morality.The file was prepared on the Apple founder as he was considered for a presidential appointment in 1991 during George H W Bush’s time in office.Documents also revealed that Jobs had been the victim of an extortive bomb threat in 1985.Jobs’ files note, too, his conversion to Buddhism and admissions of drug use.The documents were made public on Thursday through freedom of information laws, and posted to the FBI’s website.

via BBC News – Steve Jobs’ FBI files question his honesty and morality.

Posted in Popular Culture, Technology | Leave a Comment »


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