Good morning! An unusual perspective on Earth’s aurora - the Southern Lights, full circle over Antarctica.
What a trippy way to start the day!
History venerates the builders of great bridges, dams, and towers. But rare are commemorative plaques for the un-builders—those charged with the equally heroic task of dismantling those grand structures, once they become dowdy, obsolete, or downright dangerous. Herewith, five case studies in the art of mega-destruction—starting with the old, seismically shaky eastern span of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Also: remodeling NASA’s rocket assembly building, scrapping the world’s longest aircraft carrier, recycling a supercomputer, and moving a river to remove a dam.
If Finding Nemo taught us anything, it’s that we may as well rename the clownfish “that Nemo fish.” Beyond that, it’s a great study in marine ecology: Nemo’s rescue party casts off from the safety of the reef into the perilous open ocean, where one must be fast, inconspicuous or untouchably enormous to survive. Our heroes are none of these, and thus hijinks ensue.
Millions of years ago a small fish embarked on its own Nemo-esque voyage, abandoning reefs in favor of open ocean. Over the millennia it lost its tail and grew absolutely immense; today it can reach more than 10 feet in length and 5,000 pounds, thus putting itself beyond threat of all but the mightiest predators.
The bizarre ocean sunfish is the world’s biggest bony fish. The Germans call it “the swimming head,” the Chinese “the toppled car fish,” and taxonomists Mola mola — which, ironically enough for something that floats, is Latin for “millstone.” And unlike Nemo’s compatriots, it is beautifully adapted to the high seas.
[MORE - Absurd Creature of the Week: 'Pufferfish on Steroids' Gets as Big as a Truck]
TAMBOPATA, Peru — After six months of speculation, we finally know what’s building these bizarre silk structures in the Amazon: a spider! But its precise identity is still a mystery that scientists are scrambling to solve as I write this.
Last week we followed these spider-hunting scientists, led by entomologist Phil Torres, deep into the Amazon rainforest as they attempted to find the tiny silk towers and figure out where they came from. It has not been an easy case to crack.
“With a lot of other weird mysteries, once you make an observation of some sort, spend enough time out there, the pieces kind of fit together,” said Torres, a graduate student at Rice University. “I’m surprised by how difficult this one is to solve.”
The bizarre structures first surfaced on the internet late this summer, when graduate student Troy Alexander posted photos to Reddit and Facebook, hoping that somebody could tell him what the structures were. He had discovered them on a small island near the Tambopata Research Center, deep in the Peruvian Amazon.
Made out of silk, the intricate constructions have two parts: a tall, central tower, and a circular fence that’s about 6 millimeters across. Back then, we asked as many entomologists as we could find, but no one had any idea what the structures were, or what made them. Until now.
Missing Thanksgivukkah already? There’s always the next one…but by then, the world will be cold, strange, and ruled by super-turkeys.
The hunt for dark matter just keeps getting more confusing. Today scientists released findings from the first three months of the Large Underground Xenon experiment, which looks directly for the invisible particles thought to make up dark matter.
Many physicists hoped that the highly anticipated results would clear up the situation surrounding dark matter experiments, which have so far led to contradictory conclusions about the nature of the mysterious substance. Some thought that LUX might show them which way to go, narrowing the types of particles they might pursue. Instead, the experiment turned up empty.
“Basically, we saw nothing. But we saw nothing better than anyone else so far,” said particle physicist Daniel McKinsey of Yale, a member of the LUX collaboration.
It might appear strange to the rest of us, but a null finding is actually encouraging for physicists, who will use the results to set stringent limits on what kind of dark matter they might expect to find in the future. It also seems to rule out the results of several previous experiments, which had seen hints of what might be dark matter.
“Something that they had thought was in play is being kicked off the field,” said physicist Richard Gaitskell of Brown University, who also works on LUX.
But other scientists are not convinced that LUX has excluded their findings, and it’s likely the debate will continue.
When insect taxonomist Chris Carlton of Louisiana State University went on a collecting trip in Belize, he did what many travelers do: He picked up a souvenir. It was even free, which was pretty sweet. After spending a month in Central America, he returned home and unwrapped his gift to himself.
Unfortunately, the unwrapping happened on the top of his noggin. Carlton’s scalp had become home to a human botfly larva, a spiny parasitic maggot that digs into living human flesh, feeds on the inflamed tissue surrounding it, and grows to more than an inch long.
“I began to notice a sort of discomfort exactly in the very top of my head,” Carlton told WIRED, recalling his horrifying experience in 1997, “and I didn’t think much of it.” He’d known about botflies, what with being an entomologist and all. But he didn’t draw the connection until an intense pain hit him every 15 to 20 minutes. That’s when he remembered that when the larvae reach a certain size, they “rotate in their little burrows in your skin, and this creates this sort of intense shooting periodic pain. So at that point the typical reaction is that you know you have a maggot in your body, and you must get it out.”
In the rivers of China and Japan dwells a salamander so huge that it positively dwarfs its American cousin, the massive 2.5-foot “snot otter” (which, as it happens, is what they called me in high school). This is the giant salamander, a remarkable human-sized amphibian that has remained almost unchanged for millions of years, hiding on river bottoms and hoovering up fish into its gaping maw. It smells like pepper, it’s astonishingly quick, and it makes noises that sound a bit like a child. A really funny-looking child.
There are actually two species of giant salamander, one in China, which can clock in at 6 feet, and a smaller version in Japan, which grows to 5 feet. But how can an amphibian that typically fits in the palm of your hand get so astoundingly large? By being a big baby.
“They’re what we call neotenic animals,” said evolutionary biologist David Wake of the University of California, Berkeley. These creatures often grow huge because they don’t become sexually mature until they get very large.
“So what happens is that as they grow bigger and bigger and bigger, they approach more and more what you would consider to be a perfect stage, a full adult stage. But they never really get there,” said Wake.
More than a year ago, scientists found the Higgs boson. Yesterday, two physicists who 50 years ago theorized the existence of this particle, which is responsible for conferring mass to all other known particles in the universe, got the Nobel, the highest prize in science.
For all the excitement the award has already generated, finding the Higgs — arguably the most important discovery in more than a generation — has left physicists without a clear roadmap of where to go next. While popular articles often describe how the Higgs might help theorists investigating the weird worlds of string theory, multiple universes, or supersymmetry, the truth is that evidence for these ideas is scant to nonexistent.
No one is sure which of these models, if any, will eventually describe reality. The current picture of the universe, the Standard Model, is supposed to account for all known particles and their interactions. But scientists know that it’s incomplete. Its problems need fixing, and researchers could use some help figuring out how. Some of them look at the data and say that we need to throw out speculative ideas such as supersymmetry and the multiverse, models that look elegant mathematically but are unprovable from an experimental perspective. Others look at the exact same data and come to the opposite conclusion.
“Physics is at a crossroads,” said cosmologist Neil Turok, speaking to a class of young scientists in September at the Perimeter Institute, which he directs. “In a sense we’ve entered a very deep crisis.”