Cygnus Loop Nebula

Taken by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer in ultraviolet, the  Cygnus Loop Nebula looks like some kind of deep-sea phosphorescent creature.

Published in: on 31 March, 2012 at 11:18 pm  Leave a Comment  


It’s now almost 20 years since the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch on the 31st of October 1992. It was banned for over 10 years by the BBC and received over 30,000 complaints about the scary nature of the programme. If you don’t have a copy of this classic feature, Amazon have dropped the price so it’s available at a bargain price right now!

Published in: on 31 March, 2012 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

South Carolina Beach Monster

  • marine mystery south carolina.jpg

    A bizarre creature that washed ashore last week in South Carolina. (Discovery News)

A bizarre creature that washed ashore last week in Folly Beach, S.C., sparked speculation in the area and on the Internet that a dead sea monster might have been discovered.

The tan-brown animal with greenish patches was strange enough, but what really baffled beachgoers was its massive size and the dinosaur-like bony plates on its sides. It’s not clear just how long it was, but photos suggest it exceeded 10 feet.

Like many washed-up carcasses it carried both a salty stench and an air of mystery. Speculation ran rampant, with commenters suggesting that the creature was everything from a dinosaurian sea monster to a toxin-spawned mutation to a chupacabra.

Scientists, however, were somewhat more skeptical.

One of the first to identify the monster was Dr. Shane Boylan of the South Carolina Aquarium. Two big clues allowed Boylan to identify the fish more or less immediately: the animal’s shape and distinctive bony plates.

The marine monster was in fact an Atlantic sturgeon. Part of the reason the giant fish’s identity was difficult to determine is that sturgeon are not normally the strange brownish tan color but instead lighter colored and silvery. The South Carolina monster’s flesh color had changed as it baked in the sun. The dinosaur identification was actually pretty close to accurate; sturgeon are among the oldest bony fish in existence.

It’s not surprising that the sturgeon scared and confused people; Atlantic sturgeon have been known to reach 15 feet long and weigh over 500 pounds; seeing the beasts close-up is not for the faint of heart.

The South Carolina monster was only the latest of several creatures to wash ashore in recent months. In early February a strange, seemingly mohawked toothy monster was found on a San Diego beach. It was soon identified as an opossum.

Other Fish Mistaken for Monsters

Other normal fish besides the sturgeon have been mistaken for monsters, including oarfish and gar.

Oarfish, which are long, serpentine, nearly finless fish with large round eyes, often average 20 or 30 feet but have been reported over 50 feet long. Earlier this year, in January a huge ribbon-like monstrous fish that washed ashore in Delray Beach, Florida, was identified as an oarfish.

Several sightings of gar (freshwater and marine fish which can grow over 10 feet long and reach over 350 pounds) have also been mistaken for monsters. In fact, some believe that “Champ,” the lake monster said to inhabit Lake Champlain (on the border between Vermont and New York), was first sighted in 1609 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain.

In his journal Champlain wrote of local Indians describing a fish with “a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray color.”

Though often claimed as an eyewitness report of “America’s Loch Ness Monster,” his description is clearly that of a sturgeon-like gar fish.

Another reason that the sturgeon seemed monstrous was that it’s an unusually large fish.

The fish most people (and certainly most urban dwellers) encounter are relatively small — goldfish perhaps, or aquarium fish. Sport fishermen, butchers and marine biologists are far more likely to recognize large fish such as tuna, sturgeon and gar, for example, which often grow to surprising sizes.

Even seeing large fish on television, in aquariums or in photographs does not necessarily prepare city-dwelling beachgoers for real-life encounters with a beached, smelly giant.

Discovery News

Published in: on 31 March, 2012 at 1:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Washington Swimming Pool Phantom

As far as ghost stories go, the one they tell at Arlington’s Overlee Community Pool is spine-tingling: A young girl in Victorian garb, appearing in the window of a 100-year-old house that sat on the property. Patrons sometimes hear odd bumps and noises or wander into inexplicable cold patches there.

Now, as construction crews are renovating the pool and razing the Victorian-era Febrey house, the so-called Ghost of Overlee was enough to send one construction worker home.

Just over a month ago, a group of construction workers was preparing to demolish the house, which served as the pool’s clubhouse for several years. Suddenly, one of them spotted something — a little girl peering from a window, he told his co-workers.

The man went inside to find the girl sitting silently on the basement stairs. He turned around, then turned back — but the girl had disappeared.

“He was really shook up,” said site supervisor Jeff Schreiner, who hasn’t seen the girl himself but says he “believes in apparitions” nonetheless. “He came in the next day and asked the supervisor if he could be relocated to a different project.”

For the residents of the Overlee neighborhood, these stories are nothing new, and by all accounts, they take their neighborhood ghost very seriously. Ask, and they’ll tell you the ghost girl’s name (Margaret Febrey), her age (she died at 14 in 1913) and her connection to the property (her family once lived in the house).

Margaret — rather, Margaret’s ghost — is a perennial character in the stories local children tell and, some residents speculate, a good-luck charm for the Overlee swim team. The area’s civic association in a recent newsletter reminded residents that it’s “important to be aware of all aspects of our neighborhood — even the supernatural elements.”

Members of the Overlee pool’s board of directors didn’t waste any time when construction crews arrived to tear down the Febrey house. They provided contractors with emails detailing the house’s history and warning that some workers might spot Margaret.

“We’re always cognizant of the fact that she was there. A big deal has been made out of it,” said Harry Braswell, the owner of the contracting company at Overlee. “We got an email that had pictures of her and her birth date and the family. They said, ‘Watch out — you may see her.’ “

Besides the single encounter with the ghost by the now-gone demolition worker, no other sightings have been reported. But some are concerned that renovations at the pool may have disturbed the Febrey ghost, and pool board members have visited her grave several times to assure her she’s “very welcome to come and live in our new house,” said Mary Bohan, a member of the board.

“I don’t disbelieve in her,” she said, laughing. “And I don’t think anyone has ever felt anything sinister. We really hope that we’re sending good karma to the ghost.”

Published in: on 31 March, 2012 at 12:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cyborg Snail Power!

Snails have joined the growing ranks of animals whose own metabolism can be used to generate electricity.

The dozen or so brown garden snails crawling around the plastic, moss-filled terrarium in Evgeny Katz’s laboratory look normal, but they have a hidden superpower: they produce electricity.

Into each mollusc, Katz and his team at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, have implanted tiny biofuel cells that extract electrical power from the glucose and oxygen in the snail’s blood. Munching mainly on carrots, the cyborg snails live for around half a year and generate electricity whenever their implanted electrodes are hooked up to an external circuit. “The animals are quite fit — they eat, drink and crawl. We take care to keep them alive and happy,” Katz says.

Self-powered cyborgs

Snails are just one of several living creatures to have been ‘electrified’ like this. Katz’s research, reported last week in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, comes hot on the heels of a January paper in the same journal from researchers led by Daniel Scherson at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who have implanted biofuel cells into live cockroaches. And in work yet to be published, Sameer Singhal, who directs a team working on biomedical and energy technology at CFD Research Corporation in Huntsville, Alabama, together with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, reports implanting biofuel cells into beetles. The insects survived the process and generated power for more than two weeks, the scientists say.

All of these efforts are aimed at helping to create insect (or snail) cyborgs, a concept that has attracted funding from the US Department of Defense. For at least a decade, researchers have been creating battery-powered microcircuits with sensors and radio antennae and implanting them into various bugs and creepy-crawlies so that the creatures could gather information about their surroundings for environmental monitoring or military purposes.

But batteries might be too bulky and short-lived to power prolonged missions — which is where the idea of tapping into the creatures’ own metabolism comes in. Katz has shown that in snails, biofuel cells could provide a steady dribble of power for months. “The truly impressive portion of [Katz’s] work is that the implantation provides such stable potential for such a long period of time,” says Shelley Minteer, who works on biofuel cells at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Small creatures, small power

Although very large biofuel cells can power mobile phones and other devices, it’s doubtful that the tiny, few-centimetre-sized cells in living creatures could self-power complicated actions — such as, for example, remote-controlled flight — points out Plamen Atanassov, a fuel cell expert who directs the Center for Emerging Energy Technologies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.In living creatures, the rate at which biofuel cells can extract energy — and, therefore, the amount of power they can provide — is limited by their electrodes’ size, and also by how quickly sugar and oxygen can be taken from the creatures’ blood (or in the snails’ case, not blood, but a related fluid known as haemolymph).

Katz’s snails, for example, produced up to 7.45 microwatts, but after 45 minutes, that power had decreased by 80%. To draw continuous power, Katz’s team had to ramp down the power they extracted to 0.16 microwatts.

Scherson says that he thinks he will be able to get a few hundred microwatts out of cockroaches (his biofuel cells feed on trehalose, a different sugar from glucose). Singhal reports similar results for beetles. Scherson, who is working with a large company to build microelectronics circuits for his cockroaches, points out that power need not be drawn continuously, but could be stored up in capacitors and released in pulses; he has already been able to produce and detect a radio signal from the cockroaches this way, he says.

Human implants?

Philippe Cinquin at the Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, and his colleagues are taking biofuel cells in a different direction — implanting them into rats. Their work, published in 2010, marked the first steps towards using biocompatible fuel cells in humans so that our own blood supply could run low-power medical devices such as pacemakers.

In these cases, the fuel cells must come with biocompatible membranes that ensure the implants aren’t rejected by the body, points out Cinquin. His team has already launched a company to develop artificial urinary sphincters, which require 300–500 microwatts of power and so could draw on glucose fuel from the body. Of course, batteries already exist for such applications — but smaller biofuel cells might, in theory, provide a more convenient, long-lasting way of powering such devices.

Adam Heller, a chemical engineer at the University of Texas at Austin, whose 2003 work kick-started much of the enthusiasm by showing how biofuel cells could generate power from a grape, says that implantable biofuel cells might be useful for low-power, low-energy applications such as stimulating single nerves. But, he cautions, these applications may be a generation away.

Meanwhile, Katz says that he aims to move on to animals larger than snails, as their metabolism will provide more power. Next up for him: cyborg lobsters.

Nature doi:10.1038/nature.2012.10210
Published in: on 28 March, 2012 at 8:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Shoe shop haunted by ‘ghost’ of Luftwaffe pilot

Sophie Dack-Stainer Rex

Scared Sophie Dack-Stainer has been left trembling by the spooky soul haunting the shoe shop she runs.

In November 1940 a German Luftwaffe plane crashed into Stainer’s cobblers in Poole, Dorset, killing the three pilots on board.

Now, 72-years-later, an estranged WWII Nazi called Heinz haunts the store, scaring workers and customers alike.

The shop, which is 100-years-old, has been owned by the Stainer family through five generations with Sophie, 21, the latest in a long line to take over the running of the shop.

Footsteps have been heard when nobody’s there, tins of polish have been seen flying through the air and the employees feeling like they are being watched when alone.

As well as that, the air-raid bunker at the back of the shop, which is padlocked, has eerily opened by itself, shoe boxes have been moved around the stockroom and workers have even seen the ghost’s shadowy figure.

Dack-Stainer said: “It can be a bit scary if you are here alone. We’ve had customers and staff see Heinz and some people have even had things thrown at them.”


Published in: on 27 March, 2012 at 9:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Phantom Sweet Thrower

Security cameras at the IGA supermarket in Adelaide caught a packet of sweets being thrown after the store had closed and no one was about. The shop owner, Norman Hurst, is convinced that a sweet-toothed ghost is to blame.

Mr Hurst said “I think it’s pretty cool actually – it hasn’t done anything nasty.” Mr Hurst had been warned about strange goings-on when he purchased the shop and had witnessed strange events since taking over.

Published in: on 27 March, 2012 at 9:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Australian Spider Invasion

After the recent severe floods, masses of spiders have been forced to seek new accomodation in and around Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. The normally solitary wolf spiders have congregated in their thousands and moved from their ground-based homes to seek higher, drier ground by spinning their webs above ground.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Published in: on 26 March, 2012 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Darth Burger – Can you handle the Dark Side?

This is the ‘Dark Vador’ burger (sic) produced by the French fast food outlet ‘Quick’ to cash in on the 3D release of the Phantom Menace.

Judging by some of the meals I’ve had in France, this actually looks comparitively appetising…

Published in: on 25 March, 2012 at 9:06 pm  Leave a Comment  


Very proud of my Son, David Markham and his work with the RSPB Phoenix Forum. Here’s his editorial from the latest issue of Wingbeat magazine.

Published in: on 25 March, 2012 at 12:58 pm  Leave a Comment