Stories tagged Flow of Matter and Energy

Sep
19
2008

You'll never guess what's in the can: This isn't Sable Sheets, by the way. Just some other pro-sniffer.
You'll never guess what's in the can: This isn't Sable Sheets, by the way. Just some other pro-sniffer.Courtesy Thomas Hawk
Oops. I forgot y’all are too cool to read the word “poopy” now and again. Maybe next time I’ll drop an S-bomb on y’all. Or I could write “sulfurous compounds,” or skatole, or indole. But where would that get us? Nowhere very graphic, certainly.

So, how would you like it if it was your job to sniff out human feces?

Well, I’m sorry, but the job has already been taken. Taken, no less, by a member of a group whose mission in this country seems to be to take jobs from honest, upstanding Americans. That’s right: dogs.

This particular dog is named Sable Sheets, and he hails from Lansing, Michigan. (He doesn’t actually have a last name, being a dog, so I gave him one.) Sable is a professional sniffer of crap. If sniffing human feces were an Olympic sport, Sable would be a gold medalist, if it were a martial art, Sable would be a ninja. It is a serious pursuit—Sable sniffs for the government.

Since he was a puppy, Sable has been trained to recognize certain smells: the odors of water contaminants. Earlier this week, we went over just how great at smelling dogs are. Sable needs to be a great smeller, because not only does he have to recognize chemical contaminants, like those that come from household detergents, but he also has to be able to distinguish animal feces from human feces. A little animal feces in the water is gross, but if Sable can detect human feces it’s a sign that there could be a failed and leaking septic system nearby. Aside from the other obvious issues involved with poop in your water, leaking septic systems can lead to E. coli contaminating rivers and streams. And we don’t want that.

Municipal governments hire Sable and his handler, a former K-9 officer, to check out catch basins, outflows, and manhole covers. If Sable gets a hint of duke, he barks and looks at his handler.

E. coli bacteria can, of course, be detected without the help of a dog, but only with the help of laboratory equipment. To find and test all possible sources of E. coli contamination in a water system would take a tremendous amount of time and effort. A dog like Sable—who, at the moment, might be one of a kind—can speed up the effort greatly. He’s like a miniature, mobile, furry lab. Based on the sample’s that have been sent to the lab on account of Sable’s barks, the dog is about 87 percent accurate.

His handler adds that Sable is “getting better; getting more refined.” Sort of like a connoisseur of fine wines, really, but with… you know.

Sep
16
2008

Look, everybody!: A cat!
Look, everybody!: A cat!Courtesy justinleif
In a delightful reverse-Pepe Le Pew scenario, a Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, woman recently mistook a skunk for a cat and was blasted with skunk juice.

Supposedly the woman had mistaken the wild animal for her neighbor’s cat, and was petting it (or attempting to pet it?) when it sprayed her. The skunk then ran into the woman’s home. Police spent hours at the scene (seriously) although there has been no confirmation as to whether or not they were able to retrieve the skunk.

So… first of all: wow. I hope this woman wasn’t extraordinarily elderly, or suffering from some condition that prevents her from distinguishing cats from skunks, because then that would make me a bad person for making fun of her. And I’m surely doing that in my head right now.

Cats, after all, belong to the order felidae, skunks to caniformia. (Skunks technically aren’t mustelids any more—how about that?) Also unlike cats, skunks are characterized by short, powerful legs, long front claws for digging, and a unique black and white striped pattern. And, of course, their pungent anal scent glands, which brink us back to ol’ ma’am skunk.

Close enough to pet the animal, the lady was well inside what we in the skunk business like to call “the danger zone.” Muscles located around their scent producing glands, after all, allow skunks to accurately spray at ranges up to 15 feet. Her close proximity likely means that the woman received a full dose of spray, something around 3 ml. Skunks carry enough scent for about 5 sprays before they need to spend more than a week “recharging.”

If the spray catches you directly in the eyes, it can cause severe burning and eye watering, or even 10 – 15 minutes of blindness in some cases. Most of the time, however, the smell will be your main concern. As this site details, skunk spray is mainly composed of seven volatile molecules. The stinkiest three of them are called “thiols,” compounds that contain a sulfur and hydrogen group. Thiols are known for their powerful repellent odor and, uh-oh, they bond strongly to the proteins in our skin. The remaining four molecules in skunk spray aren’t as stinky initially, but they can be converted to thiols when they interact with water. This is why hair sprayed by a skunk can stink for months after the incident when it becomes damp. This is also why I hate my roommate’s golden retriever.

To deodorize these thiols, one must convert them into compounds that have little odor. Thiols can be changed into less stinky sulfonic acids by oxidizing them with baking soda or hydrogen peroxide, but this, unfortunately, can leave you looking a little fried.

Except for the possibility that there might yet be a skunk in the her house, the Pennsylvania woman may have gotten off pretty light, all things considered. Skunks will only expend spray if they can’t warn another creature off by posturing: they will hiss, stamp their feet, and raise their tails threateningly. These are not generally the actions of a happy cat. It could be that some additional mistakes and oversights were made on the part of the lady, or it could be that the skunk was behaving erratically. If this was the case, it raises another concern: rabies. The CDC states that skunks make up about a third of the reported rabies cases in all species in this country. There haven’t been any reported cases of skunks transmitting rabies to humans in the last couple decades, but it seems to me that this woman has something of the pioneer spirit, and would be a likely candidate for getting bitten by a rabid skunk. But not this time.

And so we salute you, skunk lady, for mistaking a skunk for a cat. I like to think that all of us are a little wiser for it.

Sep
12
2008

A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.
A mighty duke: and very powerful, although not a favorite at parties.Courtesy Albedo-ukr
San Antonio has made a deal with the duke. A particularly mighty duke, too, and one that has often been overlooked, despite this duke’s ability to deliver great power.

Aug
26
2008

Get used to this sight: it'll make your last moments easier.
Get used to this sight: it'll make your last moments easier.Courtesy chylinski marcin
Decades of the careful planning and strategic positioning of snakes across the world may have been laid to waste by the actions of one overeager python.

Twenty-nine year old biology student Erick Arrieta was killed and partially eaten by a 10-foot Burmese python at a zoo in Caracas, Venezuela. Working the night shift alone in the reptile section of the zoo on Saturday, Arrieta, for reasons that remain unclear, broke zoo regulations and entered the cage holding the python.

The next time Arrieta was scene, he was dead and wearing a snake over his face, so the details of the attack are not known. However, I think we can make some assumptions of just what happened on Saturday.

“Snake,” probably said Arrieta, “You’re the only one I can talk to. I hate biology, but I love snakes. What am I to do?” Arrieta then very likely proceeded to subject the python to the unfortunate details of his love life, academic career, and personal ailments. The snake, I imagine, endured this as long as it could, the details of its assignment running through its eager brain all the while. But when Arrieta mentioned that “nice guys finish last,” the snake could no longer restrain itself.

“Ha ha!” said the snake, and sprang into action, latching on to Erick’s arm with dozens of needle sharp, inward-curving teeth.

“Oh no!” thought Erick, but was unable to utter the words, as the snake had already begun to wrap around the man’s chest and neck. Instead of straight out squeezing Arrieta into jerky, the python, in the way of all constrictors, would have slowly asphyxiated the student, tightening its coils as the man struggled or exhaled, until it had fully wrapped itself around its suffocating victim.

When Arrieta finally gave up the ghost, the snake did its best to hide the evidence. Starting with the head.

This is how the other zoo employees found their colleague in the morning—with his head inside a snake. The python was then beaten until it released the body.

With these events, phases one through three of an ambitious and clandestine serpentine plan have been unveiled to humans. Phase one: get close. Phase two: attack! Phase three: eat.

The fourth and final stage is now all too clear: digest. I only hope that Arrieta’s brave sacrifice was not too late.

Aug
19
2008

A motorcycle race...: In the future!
A motorcycle race...: In the future!Courtesy Private Custard
A student in the transportation program of the < a href=http://www.artcenter.edu/>Art Center College of Design has invented a brand new paradox: a concept-motorcycle that is somehow simultaneously totally awesome and utterly, hopelessly dorky.

It’s a mega future tri-moto electro cyber transporto THX laser blade runner terminatrix rideable machine.

I guess they call it the conceptual exoskeleton motorcycle, Deus Ex Machina. But I think my name for it is still less dorky.

What? You want an actual description of the vehicle? Well, you could just click on the long link above, and leave Science Buzz forever, but we like you here. So at least read the rest of the post before you go.

The Deus Ex Machina is sort of a wheeled tripod, with straps and an integrated helmet to secure the rider. It parks in an upright position, but once it starts moving, the “arms” of the tripod extend forward, so the rider is in a sort of superman position. The motorcycle steers according to the rider’s body position, translating movement to 36 pneumatic muscles. Like, um, Robocop, I think.

The whole vehicle is powered with electricity, using fancy lithium ion batteries and ultracapacitors (check out ARTiFactor’s post for more on ultracapacitors), and is capable of reaching speeds of around 75 mph.

The Ultra Deus Mega Electromachina motorcycle is still very much conceptual, however. That is to say, while all the technological components exist (in some form) the vehicle itself only exists as a computer rendering at the moment. So it’s probably not very fun to ride. The designer maintains that it’s not a fantasy: “It’s a green vehicle,” he says, “and all of the numbers are based in the real world.”

The design itself seems more based in the Minority Report world, but whatev.

There’s a video here, too.

Aug
14
2008

"He wouldn't make a mouthful": said William, who had already had a fine supper, "not when he was skinned and boned."
"He wouldn't make a mouthful": said William, who had already had a fine supper, "not when he was skinned and boned."Courtesy Radha Blossom
Hey, everybody! Remember yesterday?

I sure don’t. The last thing I remember is TGIF programming, and feeling really angry about something (it wasn’t the TV I was upset with, that much I know), and the next thing I’m aware of is waking up under the sink…in the yard! It was my yard, but not my sink. Weird.

Anyway, the last week is a little blurry, to say the least. What happened in this week? I only have a few clues to go on: new tattoos (did I get my own name tattooed on me, or the name of someone else called JGordon?), a new t-shirt (it smells like burned hair, and it says “Try me, Lincoln!”), and some Science Buzz blog entries.

Bloody noses? Bigfoot? I thought this was supposed to be a science blog! I was clearly out of my gourd—there’s not a test tube or a lab coat to be seen in those posts.

And then there’s the kangaroo meat post. I might have been on to something there: it’s about the environment, and animals, and Paul Hogan. Whatever was going on in my head, I seem to have momentarily surfaced near enough to lucidity to string several paragraphs of real words together. Words about eating animals and environmental impact. And stuff.

Wherever I was (geographically) yesterday, I like where I was going (mentally), and I have decided to pursue that train of thought.

The word, then, is “patal-bageri.” I mean “words.” Words.

The Indian state of Bihar, unwilling to be out-crazied by Australia, may be pursuing a new meat industry of its own: rat, or “patal-bageri.”

Like the Aussies, the welfare ministry of this state is hoping to kill two birds with one stone (except one of the birds will actually be a rat, and they probably won’t use a stone—maybe a hammer instead). Hunting rats would reduce the amount of grain lost to the rodents (naturally) as well as provide a cheap and plentiful supply of meat. Rat meat.

The minister of welfare has pointed out that the Musahar caste, of which there are 2.4 million members, have traditionally eaten rats for a very long time (“Musahar” roughly translates to “rat eaters” in Hindi), hunting them in their rice fields. If the Musuhars—one of the poorest castes in the country—can eat rats, says the minister, why can’t everybody else?

Someone got to this rat already!: Nuts.
Someone got to this rat already!: Nuts.Courtesy erik langner
The ministry plans to set up rat meat stalls in rural fairs, to give people a taste of the protein-rich meat, and hopes to eventually have “rat meat centers” in urban areas. The Musahars could be engaged to start rat farms, hopefully empowering them socially and economically (I have a feeling, though, that some people might still look down on rat farmers).

The eating of rats obviously has kind of a stigma to it, but it’s certainly not unheard of—in cultures that don’t specifically forbid eating them (Islam and Judaism, for instance, have strict taboos against consuming rat meat), rats may be eaten as a crisis food, or regularly with other bush meats. Cane rats make up fully half of the locally produced meat in Ghana (check out this picture of a soon to be delicious cane rat).

I might eat rat meat, but it’s good that I don’t have to eat rat meat (it’s nice to have control over that decision). Should anyone be unable to wait for the patal-bageri industry to arrive on American shores, however, here are some recipes for rats (and mice):

Something Thai

Rat and mouse recipes

And some more

Aug
13
2008

Heyo!: The best day of my life.
Heyo!: The best day of my life.Courtesy JGordon
So, hey, get a load of this: my face is bleeding, y’all!

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s great, JGordon, but what good does it do me? How can my face be more like your face?”

Good question, Buzzketeer, but I don’t know the answer. Why not?

Because it’s a mystery!

So let’s look at the clues:
Clue #1) A fluid seems to be coming out of my face, via the nostrils.
Clue #2) The fluid has the color, taste, and temperature of blood, so it is most likely blood.
Clue #3) The episode began in the bathtub.

Not a lot to go on, but I’ve tackled trickier cases before. The Case of the Missing Mac & Cheese, for one, was almost entirely devoid of physical evidence, and yet I was able to confidently declare the perpetrator (and I will never forgive you, Brother).

Let’s start with what we have. Fluid from the facial region can result from any number of conditions. Sadness, for example. But I’m very rarely sad while in the tub, so that’s out. The fact that the fluid seemed to be blood (lab tests are pending, but I’m fairly certain that it was blood) indicates “epistaxis,” or the nosebleed.

The nosebleed, eh? But how could this have happened? Time for phase 2 of our little investigation: The Whys and Wherefores. Get the usual suspects together.

Suspect #1) A sharp blow to the face—Um, no, I think I would remember that. That didn’t happen.

Suspect #2) Nasal sprays, or nasal prong O2—No, no sprays were administered prior to face bleeding, nor did I have a nasal prong inserted.

Suspect #3) Co-co-cocaine!—Nope. I’m afraid that I don’t do coke. And I think that that might be a tricky proposition in the tub anyway. I’ll have to watch Scarface again.

Suspect #4) Nosepicking—Ho ho! Now we’re getting closer to home! But, no, I only pick my nose at parties. As fun as bath time is, it’s no party.

Suspect #5) Low humidity—I don’t know. I mean, I was in the tub, and it was full of hot water. Probably no.

Suspect #6) Intranasal tumors—Oh, goodness gracious! But a simple test confirms that I can still breath freely from both nostrils. Probably no tumors there.

Suspect #7) Inflammatory reaction—Hmm… like allergies? I don’t have much in the way of allergies, but I’ve been known to sniffle and sneeze now and again. What if there was something irritating in the house…like everything I own that is never dusted (everything I own)…and what if this natural irritant was combined with vigorous facial scrubbing. Perhaps that could cause the rupture of an anterior nasal blood vessel, and subsequent hemorrhaging.

Or it could be, as Wikipedia says, “a significant number of nosebleeds occur with no obvious cause.” Whatever.

Case closed? Just about. But how to get this thing to stop, how to shut off the blood faucet (as the doctors say)?

Just pinch the nose, okay? And if anyone tells you to tilt your head back, try to sneeze blood on them—tilting your head just ensures that the blood drains into your mouth and stomach, instead of onto their carpet.

Jul
17
2008

Doing it right now: just not venting yet.
Doing it right now: just not venting yet.Courtesy NASA
Fine. Be a jerk about it—apparently there are only two reasons I could be an astronaut. There are definitely plenty of reasons why I should be an astronaut—including, but not limited to, 1) people love astronauts, 2) when aliens come, you’ll want someone on the front lines with gumption and verve, 3) I’ve seen Apollo 13, like, twice, etc—but nobody seems to care about those. No, it’s always “but what are your qualifications? Are you a pilot? An astronomer? How do you handle heavy g-force? Have you a buzz cut?”

Numerous and impressive. No. Not technically. Pretty well, I assume. Not at the moment, no.

But let’s look at the important things: primarily that I have a fully functional renal system, and can pee with the best of them. And that’s an important thing at NASA these days. Or so I hear.

An internal memo from NASA, calling for donations of urine, has been, um, leaked to the public. It seems that during the last ten days of July, NASA will be requiring about 8 gallons of fresh urine a day (the output of about 30 people) for super-secret, awesome space tests. That is to say, to help figure out how to build a better space bathroom.

It turns out that while peeing in space is probably a little tricky (and hilarious), storing and getting rid of that pee is at least equally problematic. The Orion space capsule, which will help ferry astronauts to the moon, will eventually have to vent stored astronaut pee into space. This, amazingly, isn’t as easy as spitting out a mouthful of lemonade—urine has lots of tiny solids suspended in it, and those solids clog up the venting system. And you don’t want clogged vents. Not here, and not in space.

To test the space urinal, NASA needs pee. And, as NASA’s head of life support systems says, you can’t make fake urine.

But I can make the real stuff. And I don’t want to brag, but it’s actually pretty easy for me.

Unfortunately, NASA only wants NASA pee (the original memo was internal, after all). But I’ll be waiting by the phone, ready to do my duty for America. In return, I only ask that a seat be saved for me on the lunar lander.

Jul
07
2008

Snake power: It looks like an ordinary tube, but this device is a small version of the Anaconda, a snake-like tube that turns ocean wave power into electricity.
Snake power: It looks like an ordinary tube, but this device is a small version of the Anaconda, a snake-like tube that turns ocean wave power into electricity.Courtesy Atkins Global
Indiana Jones may hate snakes, but those looking for clean, renewable energy sources are loving the chances that a “snake” may be able to generate electricity from ocean waves.

It’s not a real snake, but an enormous rubber snake called the Anaconda. Stretching more than 600 feet long, the Anaconda produces energy as it is squeezed by the passing waves of ocean water that it is submerged in. The process is very similar to what happens with a windsock fluttering in the wind.

The Anaconda is filled with seawater and is sealed at both ends. The trailing end of the snake has turbines. As the ocean waves ripple by the Anaconda, the water inside is squeezed and pushed in bulges that move toward the turbines. When the bulges get there, their energy turns the turbines.

The idea is being developed by the British firm Atkins Global. This is all still in the testing stages, but if the research pans out, the Anacondas would be submerged in ocean waters at depths of 120 to 300 feet.

So far, however, researchers are testing their theory on smaller snakes in a wave tank. Seawater testing could begin next year and if everything is successful, the technology could go online commercially in five years. Estimates figure one full-sized Anaconda could generate 1 megawatt of electricity, about the same amount of power for 2,000 homes.

Jul
03
2008

After a hard day of hanging upside-down in the trees, you’d be exhausted, too: Wild sloths are more active than those living in zoos.
After a hard day of hanging upside-down in the trees, you’d be exhausted, too: Wild sloths are more active than those living in zoos.Courtesy guppiecat

Turns out sloths don’t really deserve their reputation for laziness. A new study shows that sloths in the wild are active up to six hours a day more than their cousins in captivity, where earlier studies had been conducted. I guess if you’re in a zoo and all your needs are taken care of, there’s just no point in moving around a lot.