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A recent paper (available as a pdf file) by Vincent Hayward in Brain Research Bulletin lists more than twenty types of tactile illusions that can be experienced using very simple equipment available in any hardware store. Some of the descriptions of the illusions unfortunately are rather technical, but here's a summary of a few of them:

The Aristotle Illusion: Cross your fingers and touch your nose. You may feel two noses. (It didn't work for me.)

The Comb Illusion: Lay your finger on top of the teeth of a comb. With your other hand, run a pencil back and forth against the teeth. You should feel "the sensation of a raised object moving on the finger when, in fact, since the teeth have a constant length, the skin is sheared but indentation is invariant along the line."

The Curved Plate Illusion: Move a plastic card or match box back and forth across the pad of your finger. It should feel straight. But if you see-saw the object up and down as you move it across your finger, it should feel curved.

(via Developing Intelligence)
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 18, 2008
Comments (9)
With the Martian Bigfoot recently making headlines, Dr. Charles Lintott wrote an article for the BBC that traces the long history of Martian pareidolia.

Something about Mars makes us see things that aren't really there. It began with early astronomers believing that the surface of Mars was covered with canals. During the 1960s, some astronomers reported seeing signs of vegetation on the planet's surface.

The image below shows (on the top row) the Martian canals. The bottow row (from left to right) is the "face on Mars" taken by NASA's Viking spacecraft in the 1970s; the fossils that NASA researchers claimed to have found in a Martian meteorite in 1996; the recent Martian bigfoot; and the Martian smiley face (also recently photographed).

Categories: Extraterrestrial Life, Pareidolia, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 11, 2008
Comments (14)
Bob (aka Cranky Media Guy) sent me a link to an article about "Scientific Hoaxes" scanned from the Dec. 1931 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine. I love old popular-science magazines like this. They're a great source of strange information.

Unfortunately whoever scanned this article missed two pages, so you skip from a discussion of the Central Park Zoo Escape straight into a discussion of the Cardiff Giant. Nevertheless, the image of a "petrified foot" on the front page caught my curiosity. The caption reads: "A water-worn stone was once offered to the Smithsonian Institute as a petrified foot. Note the striking resemblance."

The article offers no more information about this unusual gift to the Smithsonian. So I did some research in the Google News Archive and was able to find a reference to the petrified foot in a July 18, 1908 Washington Post article titled "Nature as a Faker":

To the Smithsonian Institution not long ago somebody sent from the Bad Lands of Nebraska what purported to be a fossil ham. It did in very truth look like a ham, and, to render the verisimilitude complete, the bone was actually sticking out at one end of it. Nevertheless, an investigation showed that the alleged bone was in reality a "vaculite" -- an extinct mollusk's shell, rodlike in form -- and the rest of the "ham" was a mere accidental agglomeration of stony stuff.

One day, quite recently, a young man walked into the National Museum at Washington and presented to the anthropologist in charge a petrified foot. It was received with many thanks, though recognized at a glance as a water-worn fragment of rock which had accidentally assumed a shape resembling a foot.

Such chance imitations as these frequently occur in nature. Another one, deposited in the same institution, was supposed by the finder to be a petrified oyster. It looks as if on the half shell: all its parts are wonderfully distinct, and there is even a small pearl in it seemingly. Yet it is not an oyster at all.

Nineteenth-century newspapers were full of reports of animals and body parts found petrified in their entirety, perfectly preserved, which reflected a popular misunderstanding about the process of petrifaction. Soft tissue is almost never petrified, because it decays long before the petrifaction process can occur.
Categories: Pareidolia, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 04, 2008
Comments (12)
Dr. James L. Carter has a weird job. He manufactures fake moon dirt. His company, ETSimulants, produces tons of it every year. His primary customer is NASA, who needs fake moon dirt to test machines that might need to operate on the moon. In an interview with Pegasus News Dr. Carter explains:

"When you land on the moon, all this dry, dry dust blows into the space craft’s engines. The astronauts’ safety rests on this substance being correct. There can be no mechanical failures once you’re parked on the moon’s surface.”

I'm sure he could make some good money if he put his product in little glass bottles and sold it on eBay. After all, if eBay shoppers will buy genuine air from Loch Ness, they'll also buy fake dirt from the moon.
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 28, 2008
Comments (5)
In order to educate the bus-riding public about the physics of sneezing, Science World created a Sneezing Bus Stop. Watch the video to understand:

They also created posters that can be wrapped around trees to demonstrate how much beavers can eat.

Categories: Pranks, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 28, 2008
Comments (6)
Down in the Antarctic researchers are building an "ice cube telescope" to detect neutrinos. It's one of the stranger telescopes ever built. Popular Science provides this description of it:

Using a five-megawatt jet of hot water, technicians are melting two-foot-wide holes 1.5 miles into the Antarctic ice near the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Before the water refreezes, they insert a cable strung like a set of Christmas-tree lights with globular camera housings. By the time the technicians are done in 2010, Ice Cube’s 80 vertical strings will adorn a cubic kilometer of ice from a depth of 1.4 kilometers down to 2.4 kilometers. In other words, it’s an instrument of 4,800 cameras looking at solid black ice...
One in a million neutrinos passing near Ice Cube’s photomultiplier cameras will—just by chance—smash head-on into an atomic nucleus within the ice and produce a muon particle that will give off a blue glow called Cherenkov light. Unlike the ice in your freezer, Antarctic ice is stunningly clear, and the blue light travels more than 100 meters in the dark ice. Each muon’s glow will be picked up by several cameras, and its position and direction triangulated.

But, of course, the conspiracy theorists have some different ideas about what is really being built down there in the South Pole. One such theory has been posted in an unlikely place, -- a site that's usually devoted to news about the exploration community, not woolly conspiracy theories.

The theory was posted by Irish South Pole skier Kevin Dempsey. Here's the gist of it:

the so called Ice-Cube project is in fact the first of a new generation of ARC, as we believe it is now as internally. Think ARC, think Noah. But not in the same way. Noah used his arc to save all life forms from extinction. This new ARC is in a way a reversal of that process."
"ARC stands for..... ALIEN RECEPTOR CENTRE."

"They are bringing aliens in from outer space & other galaxies, processing & programming them for eventual release into countries, societies, cultures all over the planet, that they ultimately want to control. This is not a simple war on the battle for control of oil. This is total & ultimate control of the planet.

I'm not sure whether or not Dempsey's article is meant to be a joke. Supporting the joke theory is the unusual note that Explorerweb appended to the article: "Dempsey is not a scientist; his emails carry advertisements for stylish blinds and rugs."

(Thanks to CuChullaine O'Reilly of the Long Riders Guild for the link.)
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Extraterrestrial Life, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 22, 2008
Comments (7)
Ever since humans first made it into space, there have been rumors of sex-in-space experiments. Such rumors are doing the rounds again, and this time it's the Russians who are the focus of them. Russian officials decided they should go on record to deny them:

"There is no proof ... that on any mission cosmonauts had sex," the deputy head of the Institute of Bio-Medical Problems, Valery Bogomolov, told a news conference in Moscow.
"Cosmonauts, too, are regular people, but ... I have not heard about any sex in orbit," he said.
The Russian scientist referred to an experiment conducted by the institute, which researches space health issues by simulating flight conditions on a mission to Mars.
Six cosmonauts, including a woman, had spent two weeks isolated in a zero-gravity capsule, Bogomolov said, but "there were no complaints over the absence of sex."
Speculation over sex in space has been rife since a woman first joined the team of three boarding the cramped Soyuz rocket to the international space station in 1982.
In 1991, US sweethearts Jan Davis and Mark Lee married shortly before their joint space orbit, fuelling rumours in the United States.
The Russian institute appeared to be responding to a document widely circulated on the internet about an alleged 1996 experiment carried out by the US space agency NASA.
The experiment allegedly tested 10 different positions, including the help of elastic bands and other fastening devices, for optimal zero-gravity reproduction.
"We do not have such experiments in our country," Bogomolov said.

I like that last line. Apparently the Russians have no problem with experiments involving two-headed dogs or human-ape hybrids, but they draw the line at sex-in-space research.
Categories: Science, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 06, 2007
Comments (7) offers to help you sell a sample of your DNA to a research company, New Line Genetics, who will then obtain a patent for it. They pay $5000!

Better yet, you can even sell your friend's DNA, because once a cell leaves their body, it no longer belongs to them. From their website: does not condone the patenting of other’s DNA without their permission. However, what better way to surprise your loved ones for a birthday or holiday event than giving the gift of $5,000 and the knowledge that their genetic material is helping to enhance scientific research!

However is not a real company, as you can find out if you dig deep enough into it's site and come across the disclaimer: "these sites are a satirical “what if” pertaining to something that, for all intents and purposes, could be a reality in the not-so-distant future."

Wired's science blog reports that was created by Anthony Martin, whose myspace profile states, "I am striving to make the world a better place and usher in the new era of human evolution with the use of accelerated genetics techniques."
Categories: Science, Websites
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 05, 2007
Comments (0)
Last week Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao released the first photograph taken by the Chang-e 1 lunar probe. The picture showed the surface of the moon. Wen declared, "Chinese people's dream of flying to the moon for more than 1,000 years has started to materialize."

But then people on the internet started to point out that the picture looked an awful lot like a NASA picture from 2005. In fact, the two photos looked almost identical. So now the Chinese lunar probe programme is defending itself against charges of fakery.

To be fair to the Chinese, the two photos aren't entirely alike. The shadows are different, and the Chinese photo shows an extra crater. So the similarity is likely a result of the fact that both photos happen to show the same part of the moon. But it's nice to see that China has just as many conspiracy theorists as America does, ready to doubt anything produced by their government space program.

Below are the Chinese (left) and American (right) moon pictures side by side (from the Telegraph). The red circle indicates where the Chinese picture shows an extra crater.

Categories: Photos/Videos, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Dec 03, 2007
Comments (14)
Jose Halloy, a biologist at the Free University of Brussels, created little robot cockroaches that he programmed to behave in ways similar to real cockroaches. For instance, he could program the robo-roaches to prefer a light or dark shelter. The interesting part is that when he coated these robot roaches with roach pheromones, other roaches seemed to accept them as one of their own, and even would follow their lead:

Halloy initially programmed the robots to have the same darkness preference as the cockroaches, and they joined the cockroaches at whatever shelter the majority chose to rest in. Next, Halloy programmed the robots to prefer the lighter shelter. About 60% of the time, the robots tipped the group's preference in favor of the light shelter. "This is a true example of automated leadership," says David Sumpter of Uppsala University in Sweden. "Instead of the robots rounding up the cockroaches like sheepdogs, they lead through social attraction."

This reminds me of something. I'd like to go on record as stating that I completely deny the rumor that the real Alex drowned in Loch Ness some years ago, and that I am merely a "robot Alex coated with pheromones." Though, of course, if I were a robot Alex coated with pheromones, I would deny it, wouldn't I?
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 18, 2007
Comments (3)
National Geographic has an article about a "hotbed of deception" in the natural world. It involves the genitals of a small, reddish-brown parasite called the bat bug. In order to protect themselves from the unwanted advances of male members of the species, female bat bugs have evolved a region on their body similar to a fake genital:
Researchers have long known that male bat bugs ignore females' conventional parts and instead use their sharp penises to stab the females' abdomens, injecting sperm directly into the bloodstream. So the females evolved a defense: structures called paragenitals that guide a male's needle-like member into a spongy reservoir of immune cells.
It turns out that male bat bugs sport a similar fake genital area, because males often perform "the same injurious sexual acts on other males." All in all, the sex life of the bat bug sounds like a rather unpleasant affair.
Categories: Science, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 27, 2007
Comments (2)
Due to my ongoing computer problems and personal situation, this is again brought to you by Madmouse.

Peruvian Meteorite (eovti)
An apparent meteorite landing in Peru has led to reports of illness amongst locals. Original suggestions for the cause of the sickness included radiation poisoning, but that seems unlikely.

Sign Language Translator (Madmouse)
There’s been a lot of discussion in the forum about this story. A group of UK students have developed a system to translate spoken or written words into British Sign Language that is then displayed by an avatar. Suggested uses include translating for meetings and for phone calls. This seems like a very good idea to me, although a lot more development is needed.

Belgium For Sale on Ebay (LaMa)
A disgruntled Belgian, protesting about Belgium’s political problems, put the country up for sale on Ebay. He pointed out that, although the nation is second-hand, the offer included free delivery.

Bigfoot Revealed!!! (gray)
A prankster who has posing as Bigfoot to scare campers for the last two years was captured in Manitoba. Apparently the man was less intimidated by the police than he was by the telling-off delivered by his last ‘victim’.
Categories: Cryptozoology, eBay, Identity/Imposters, Pranks, Science, Technology
Posted by Flora on Fri Sep 21, 2007
Comments (0)
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