Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for November, 2012

Heroes of Science: Action Figures

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Click for the full set on DeviantArt – sadly this is just a concept art, but one amazingly well-done by Russell “datazoid”.

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Multistable Architectural Perception

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A wonderful shot captured in Egypt: look again because the building you thought was in front is actually behind the other. Or actually not, but either way, one can easily switch between seeing one building or the other in front, a candid and very real example of multistable perception.

One bonus illusion after the jump.

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Extraordinarily Ordinary: The Fortean Vodka

“Red Lion Liquors has been in Burnsville, Minnesota, since 1978, and it’s occupied its current building for the past nine years. They have bulletproof glass to stop burglars and vandals from breaking in, but that couldn’t’ protect them from a problem that started inside. Surveillance cameras captured the slow-starting fire, which began with smoke billowing from a display of vodka bottles. Soon, a small paper sign on top simply melts away. Eventually, the heat got so intense that the tops popped off of the vodka bottles, spraying streams of steaming liquor. In the end, the display caught fire, sending some flames shooting up to 12 feet in the air. ‘We have shades on the windows. We’ll pull them down on sunny days to protect the wine on the shelves, never thinking it would ever start a fire,’ Hautman said. It turns out that sunlight coming through the window turned the vodka bottles into a magnifying glass, slowly starting the cardboard on fire while a ceiling fan above fanned the flames. ‘It was just this freak thing,’ Hautman said. Even the Burnsville fire marshal had never seen anything like it. ‘It was entertaining,’ Hautman recalled. ‘The firefighters were standing next to me like they were watching a new video game. They were going, ‘This is so cool!’” [Myfox9: Sun, vodka bottles start fire inside Burnsville liquor store – KMSP-TV]

The phenomenon is exactly as illustrated by this water bottle:

As Brazilian fellow Carlos Cardoso pondered, “sometimes the simplest explanation is extremely complex. The case of the incendiary vodka is a nice demonstration that sometimes even the simplest explanation still sounds improbable. Only thing is, the Universe hasn’t signed an EULA with us, it doesn’t have to abide by our common sense. Quoting Sherlock Holmes, ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’.”

Any reader of Fortean Times will find even more bizarrely improbable stories published monthly, and one of the great lessons I’ve learned researching and investigating extraordinary claims is that sometimes the ordinary explanations, improbable as they may sound, can actually be demonstrated! Take for instance the video that captured a meteor and an insect.

What were the chances? Certainly very small, and the idea of a meteor coming up exactly at the right time, alignment and position to overlap with the path of a wandering insect sounds preposterous. And yet, in this particular case the fact the video was rigorously captured and there were other, independent records of the meteor allow us to conclude that was exactly what happened. As in the case of the incendiary vodka, if there wasn’t the conclusive evidence, few would believe it.

The thing we often forget is that the ordinary, by definition, is so ordinary that by chance alone it not only can but will happen in extraordinary situations.

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Underwater Wonders

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Long time, no see! But here are some fascinating sea discoveries to kind of make up for some months without blog updates.

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First are the mysterious circles discovered by Japanese diver Yoji Ootaka in 2007. In Japan, crop circles are more commonly known as “mystery circles”, and these were genuinely mysterious ones! Made in regular patterns on soft sand, they would not last for very long, and for years Ootaka recorded them and asked in his blog if anyone else had seen them, and who or what could be behind them? Turns out nobody had seen those circles before, but the mystery would not last very long.

This year a team of marine scientists with the public TV station NHK program “Darwin has come!” found and recorded the culprit in gorgeous images. And the artist was a little blowfish!

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Working hard for up to six days to create these symmetrical constructions almost a couple of meters in diameter! What for? Well, as Jerry Coyne put it, “if you’re an evolutionary biologist, you might have guessed: sexual selection. A male sculpts this thing to attract females for mating”. In experiments the Japanese scientists determined the more grooves the pattern has, the greater the chance to attracts females. Because at the center of the pattern, there is the artist!

In the first posts about his discovery, Ootaka did mention he found small puffer fishes inside the circles, but they had to record the little fish actually creating the huge pattern to believe it. The pattern is not only aesthetic: the grooves and ridges help neutralize sea floor currents, further protecting the eggs.

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Crop circles are still made by humans, but mating hedgehogs may not sound so absurd after all.

 

Sponge Reception

At ten thousand feet below the ocean’s surface, scientists discovered yet another amazing creature: the harp sponge (Chondrocladia lyra).

“C. lyra is called the harp sponge because its basic structure, called a vane, is shaped like a harp or lyre. Each vane consists of a horizontal branch supporting several parallel, vertical branches. But don’t let the harp sponge’s whimsical appearance and innocent sounding name fool you, it’s actually a deep-sea predator.

Clinging with root-like "rhizoids" to the soft, muddy sediment, the harp sponge captures tiny animals that are swept into its branches by deep-sea currents. Typically, sponges feed by straining bacteria and bits of organic material from the seawater they filter through their bodies. However, carnivorous harp sponges snare their prey—tiny crustaceans—with barbed hooks that cover the sponge’s branching limbs. Once the harp sponge has its prey in its clutches, it envelops the animal in a thin membrane, and then slowly begins to digest it.”

The regularity of the sponge, which makes it look almost artificial, may have Forteans remembering the case of the “Eltanin Antenna”, a famous photo captured in 1964 of what looked like a man (or perhaps alien) made artifact at almost four kilometer deep at sea. In 2003 Tom DeMary did the basic research that no UFO buff had done until then and contacting the original researchers found out they had already identified the image as that of another carnivorous sponge, C. concrescens.

 

Moving Lilies

And last, here’s one which I first thought was the creation of some horror movie, but as you may guess, is actually a very real and yet completely natural creature. Here is Neocrinus decorus:

It’s a crinoid, a sea lily usually attached at the bottom of the sea by its long stalk, and yet in the video we can see that when needed it can move, and actually quite fast. Scientists didn’t think it could move that fast – though, before you start running to the hills, one must remember the distance between the right-most and left-most red laser dots is only 2 cm. That is, this is a pretty small harmless sea lily.

Creepy as hell, granted, I much prefer the puffer fish, but they are all amazing discoveries which fortunately have not been mystified with cheap fantasies. With the exception of that sponge antenna of 1964, of course.

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