Stories tagged halloween

OK, it's not Friday. But pretend it is, and I'll post a Science Friday video anyway, k? Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
In honor of Thanksgiving (kinda)....
"Visit Robert Sabin's pumpkin patch: he has been growing giant pumpkins for over ten years. But these pumpkins just aren't meant for the pie pan: Sabin says they're more like children than fruit to him. He raises his pumpkins for competition--the heavier, the better. Does his top pumpkin have the heft to win the Long Island Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off at Hicks Nurseries? We'll find out."

Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.
Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons
Halloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.

Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,

In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!

Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”

And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:

“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“

[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]

The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.

The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.

The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.

In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)

So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.

Happy Halloween!

Scientific Computing story
The Black Plague by Dr. Skip Knox, Boise State
Plague symptons and signs – in case you get it
Nifty Black Death quiz – thanks Liza!

It's Friday, so let's get right to it.... Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
"Carve first, scoop later--that's just one of the tips from Maniac Pumpkin Carvers Marc and Chris. Based in Brooklyn, these professional illustrators switch to the medium of pumpkin during October. Their pumpkins, which go for between $150 - $400, rarely end up on stoops. You are more likely to find them in Tiffany’s ads and in window displays. They gave us some tips for how to bring our pumpkins to the next level this Halloween."

Road trip!

by Liza on Oct. 28th, 2010


The Science Museum's mummy will be taking a little trip to Children's Hospital tomorrow afternoon to undergo a CT scan. We hope to come away from the scan with a 3D model of the mummy’s inner workings and new clues that reveal more details about his life, a more precise age and cause of death. The results will be developed into new interpretative tools that will make their debut in the months leading up to the opening of the King Tut exhibition.

Thanks to the cooperation of Ed Fleming, our collections services staff and the staff at Children's, we've been granted permission to invite media to photograph the mummy as he's prepped for scanning tomorrow. He's become quite a sensation already, with more to come:

The Science Museum mummy to get a CT scan

Science Museum mummy to undergo CT scan

Science Museum mummy to get CT scan

WCCO-AM will also be airing an interview with Ed Fleming about the project during news breaks today and tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
This week,
"Pumpkins of the Atlantic Giant variety can weigh more than 1800 pounds. For a mechanical engineer with an interest in plus-sized fruit, like Georgia Tech’s David Hu, this raises an interesting physics question: how can the pumpkin get so big without breaking?"

Jackalope 1
Jackalope 1Courtesy Joe
I moved recently. And I love my new neighborhood. Great neighbors, lots of kids for my kids to play with and my backyard is frequented by a real live jackalope.

I am obsessed with jackalopes. I don't know why. In the old Science Museum of Minnesota there was, at the end of the skyway, a rack of display cases and one held a jackalope. I would just sit and stare at that thing - for whatever reason it fascinated me.

Jackalope 2
Jackalope 2Courtesy Joe
And then a group of my coworkers gave me a mounted jackalope head that hangs in my cube.

And now one hangs out in my back yard. And it is awesome. Though a little camera shy.

Jackalope 3
Jackalope 3Courtesy Joe
Jackalopes don't have antlers like a deer or moose - in fact they are not meant to have the "antlers" at all. The growths are the restult of the Shope papilloma virus which causes tumors to grow on the rabbit’s head. Interestingly, Shope papilloma virus provided the first model of a cancer caused by a virus in a mammal and has been used to help develop the HPV vaccine and investigate antiviral therapies.

Here’s a link to a couple of photos of rabbits that have more severe cases of the infection.

JGordon hooked me up with this video of the Minnesota Zoo's grizzly bears taking on a 500-pound pumpkin. It's no contest: the pumpkin doesn't stand a chance. But the bears don't seem interested in eating the pumpkin, just destroying it. Why do bears hate pumpkins? :)


Quick! Someone get a brick in her!: Oh, Edvard...
Quick! Someone get a brick in her!: Oh, Edvard...Courtesy Edvard Munch
Halloween is right around the corner, and everybody has ghouls and ghosts on the mind, so naturally this story caught my eye today: “Vampire” discovered in mass grave.

You know how they could tell it was a vampire? Come on, guess.

Pointy teeth? Nope.

Moldering eveningwear? Not that the article mentions.

Batty features? Wooden stake in the ribs? Crosses and garlic?


So what, then?

A brick in the mouth. Duh.

Yeah, one of the skeletons in a Venetian mass grave of plague victims had a brick in its mouth, making it a vampire. And the age of the grave (the plague hit Venice in 1576) makes it possibly the oldest vampire.

Some explanation may be in order, but I’m afraid that I might not be able to offer up anything totally satisfactory. According to the article, at the time of the “vampire” woman’s death, it was thought that vampires didn’t actually drink blood, but spread the plague by chewing on their shrouds after death. I’m not sure how that spread the plague (maybe they traded shrouds afterwards?), but gravediggers at the time would put bricks in the mouths of “vampires” to stop them from doing this.

Something seems to be lacking in that explanation, but, still, it got me looking into vampire folklore, which is kind of gross and awesome.

Ghosty vampirey stories go way back into folklore, but when people started connecting them with actual dead bodies, things got to be pretty interesting.

Folks suspected a vampire when they dug up a body that didn’t appear to have decomposed the way it should have. (Don’t ask me why they were digging up bodies in the first place.) Bodies can decompose in all sorts of ways (check this post out for an icky example) depending on soil conditions, etc, so sometimes people might find a body that would be swollen, or starting to turn dark, or where tissue had contracted to give it a strange expression, or expose more if its teeth—that sort of thing. Blood (and blood-like stuff) might sometimes well up in a dead person’s mouth, giving the impression that they had recently been out eating something ghastly. If the body was jostled, trapped gas escaping through the mouth (or any orifice…) could make life-like sounds. And if any body tried to put a stake into the body, those same gases could cause a really exciting, messy situation.

Original descriptions of vampires follow this rotting-corpsey theme. Instead of being gaunt and pale, they were described as bloated and dark or ruddy-colored, and they walked around in shrouds causing trouble (which, I think, is way creepier than a guy in an opera cape).

Another archaeologist (back to the article here) pointed out that it’s a neat find, but it’s not necessarily the “first vampire,” as there have been similarly dated finds in other European countries.

I’m still a little confused about the brick-mouth and plague thing. Maybe the brick was there to stop general vampire mischief, and the fact that it stopped the undead from spreading the plague was a bonus.

Anyway, happy Halloween, everybody.


In St. Paul!: A rabbit exhibiting growths resulting from the Shope papillomavirus.
In St. Paul!: A rabbit exhibiting growths resulting from the Shope papillomavirus.Courtesy Liza
When I was a visitor to the “old” Science Museum of Minnesota my favorite exhibit, for whatever reason, was the case that had jackalopes in it. I would insist that we wait until the line to enter the Omnitheater got long enough so we would wait to enter the Omni right by the jackalope case so I could it and stare at it. Sort of weird now that I look back on it…but even today they for some reason fascinate me and I have a jackalope hanging in my cube.

Anyway, the cool thing is that while jackalopes are not real, there is an actual virus that infects rabbits that causes growths on or near the rabbit’s head, which may be the origin of the myth of the jackalope. And the super awesome thing, I think, is that a coworker, and fellow Buzzketeer Liza, has a rabbit with this condition living in her neighborhood and she got this amazing picture of it!

The jackalope in my cube.
The jackalope in my cube.Courtesy Joe
The virus that causes the growths, Shope papillomavirus, was discovered by Dr. Richard Shope in the 1930s. When the virus was sequenced in 1984 it showed substantial similarities to the human papillomavirus (HPV) and as a result has been used as a model to develop the HPV vaccine.

Yea jackalopes!


Pumpkin rot: It happens every year, and it's always sad. And gross.  (Photo courtesy of Orbitgal on
Pumpkin rot: It happens every year, and it's always sad. And gross. (Photo courtesy of Orbitgal on
I carved a jack-o-lantern this year. It was both elegant and understated, festive and expressive, a true tribute to the holiday we call Halloween. I would have replaced my own head with this carved pumpkin, were it necessary.

I carved this work of art only the day before Halloween, and left it at my mother’s house. I like to think of it as a gift, even though my mom bought the pumpkin. Come to think of it, I should have tried to sell it back to her. Anyway, I left, and the pumpkin stayed.

Early last week my mom left on a road trip (where to, I have no idea - she’s like the wind). She left my jack-o-lantern sitting in the kitchen, no doubt hesitant to throw out such a wonderful gift from her son.

Six days later, however, when I came back to water the plants and to check if the cat was still alive, the pumpkin was no longer the object of beauty it had been. It was saggy and blotchy, rubbery and slick. Its once bright eyes were blocked with black mold, and downy white mold feathered out from between its jack-o-lips. When I poked it, sticky pumpkin juice drooled out of its mouth, and spores puffed from its eyes. I hate to use the word for any of my creations, but it was gross.fig. 2: A JGordon original. Prints for sale soon.
fig. 2: A JGordon original. Prints for sale soon.

Being the good son that I am, I decided that I would take care the vegetable abomination myself (I’ll bill my mom for it when she gets back). The job required a shovel, because it was a little too, oh, fally-aparty to pick up with my bare hands, but, without too much trouble, I was able to bring my sad jack-o-lantern to the final resting place of all good pumpkins: the woods behind the house.

The whole situation was certainly rife with potential science projects on organic decomposition and fungi, but I was too focused on getting the thing out of the kitchen to think about it at the time (and, later, I was too focused on how fun it is to lob shovelfuls of moldy pumpkin at trees). Fortunately, I’m not the first person to become interested in the disaster that is a November 10th jack-o-lantern.

Here we have a science project that determines the best ways to keep your jack-o-lantern fresh and looking sharp, from soaking it in bleach to coating it with Vaseline. It’s complete with photos of the pumpkins at various stages of decay – very nice. There are some other interesting projects on the site as well, but some of them are not entirely family friendly, so the delicate among you might want to proceed with some caution. I’m sure you would anyway.

And this site features a do-it-yourself pumpkin mold project for any children who feel like the weekend is too long to spend away from science class.