Snowstorm on a Comet

We followed the adventures of the Rosetta spacecraft as it approached and sent the Philae Lander onto the surface of comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency (ESA) is just now releasing substantial data gathered during the expedition. And it's awesome. Twitter user landru79 combined that data into a gif, which Phil Plait converted to a video.

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Plait explains what we are seeing.

The landscape itself is the comet. Comets are lumps of ice — things like frozen water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia — and rock, mostly in the form of gravel and dust. Some orbit the Sun on long ellipses, and when they get close in the ice turns into a gas, releasing ice flakes and the gravelly bits. This surrounds the solid nucleus with a gaseous/dusty coma, and that can then blow away from the comet due to the solar wind and pressure of sunlight to form the tail.

67P is a double-lobed comet, looking more like a rubber ducky than anything else. It's very roughly 4 or 5 km across, and takes about 6.4 years to circle the Sun once. Rosetta was about 13 kilometers from the comet as it took these images, slowly moving around it so that our vantage point in the video changes slightly. Comets are very dark, and it was three times farther from the Sun than Earth is when these images were taken, so the lighting is fainter. Also, these were on the "dark side" of the comet, so the illumination you see is from reflected sunlight by the coma. The video represents about a half hour of real time.   

Phil has plenty more to tell us about the data from 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko at Bad Astronomy.


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10,000-year-old Tracks Document Battle Between Humans and Giant Sloths

At Alkali Flat, a site near White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, scientists are studying ancient footprints to reconstruct a hunting party of Pleistocene humans as they fought against giant ground sloths.

“Most of the time they are invisible. There is a lot of salt in ground, and when it rains, the salt dissolves. And, crucially, as it dries out, the fill dries at a different rate and the difference between the fill (footprint) and the surrounding sediment makes the track visible for a brief time while it dries out,” explained paleoecologist Sally Reynolds of the UK’s Bournemouth University, a co-author on the paper. The team, led by the US National Parks Service’s David Bustos, used aerial photography to spot the tracks and then selected a few groups for careful excavation and study.

The tracks reveal that ancient humans once hunted a group of giant sloths along the shores of Lake Otero. Several human footprints are clearly superimposed inside the long, kidney-shaped impressions of sloth feet, pointing in the same direction, as if the human was deliberately stepping in the sloth tracks. That would require real effort; the average human stride, according to Reynolds and her colleagues, is about 0.6 m, but a giant sloth’s stride was anywhere from 0.8 to 1.1 m, so the human tracker would have had to take bigger steps.

The Clovis people, even armed with spears, had to be really brave to hunt a group of three-ton sloths with giant claws. But even one could provide food for an entire community. Read about the research and what they've found so far at Ars Technica. -via Metafilter

(Image credit: Bustos et al. 2018)

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A Bad Lip Reading of Mark Zuckerberg's Congressional Testimony

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The people behind Bad Lip Reading have gotten really good at what they do. In this retelling of Mark Zuckerberg's (or Bojane Bugabe's) congressional testimony, the lips match what they're "saying" perfectly, while the dialogue actually make sense in that setting. And it's funny. They had a ton of material to work with, and they made the most of it. -via reddit

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The Mysterious Life and Death of Frank Meyer, the Man Behind Meyer Lemons

Frank N. Meyer had a passion for plants, and a passion for walking, which took him on treks across entire nations. He found his niche when the USDA's Office of Seed and Plant Introduction sent him to China to find plants that might prove to be good crops or at least valuable food imports for the US.

Meyer arrived in Shanghai in 1905 with the enthusiasm of a man at the peak of his life. He was employed by a rising nation and given a high-stakes assignment. And most meaningfully, he would be able to walk day after day, much of it alone, in search of new plants. He assembled a small team including a translator, a few porters, and a guard, and set off.

For the next decade, Meyer had adventures that seemed too outlandish to believe if he hadn’t documented every detail. He was regularly attacked, threatened, and robbed. He stared down angry bears, tigers, and wolves. People who had never seen a white man accused him of being the devil, and guest houses often shut their doors in his face. During one extremely cold night in October of 1905, he stayed in a guest house where a French man had written on the wall, “Hotel of 1,000 bedbugs.” Meyer had to choose whether to sleep in a freezing room or light a fire that would awaken and invigorate the bugs. He lit the fire.

Meyer sent back important plants such as soybeans and the famous Meyer lemon that was named for the horticulturist. While his work was a great benefit to America, Meyers paid a great personal price for his assignment. Read about the life and times of Frank Meyer at Munchies.  -via Digg

(Image credit: Adam Waito)

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True Facts About the Frog Fish

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It's been quite some time since we've seen a "True Facts" video from Ze Frank -years, in fact. He's back with an introduction to the frogfish, a tropical relative of the anglerfish. The frogfish is not only ugly, it comes in a variety of ugliness. You'd better believe that Ze Frank has plenty to say about that ugliness. They're kind of clumsy, too. -via Tastefully Offensive

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20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins

Today is World Penguin Day! Just ask Benedict Cumberbatch. He should just say "woggin." It's a good time to learn some things about penguins. For example, I knew that emperor penguins were the largest species, but I never thought about what a four-foot bird would be like up close. That's almost to my shoulder! So, in the picture above, piper Gilbert Kerr is about eight feet tell, or else that bird is some other penguin species. There are plenty of other things to learn about penguins, like

5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

See more facts about penguins at Mental Floss.

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Alfred Matthew Yankovic

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Michael William Hunter was impressed with "The Hamilton Polka" and came up with the idea of doing the opposite -a song about Weird Al, set to the tune of "Alexander Hamilton." It's the story of Yankovic's life, and it works really well. Enjoy his song "Alfred Matthew Yankovic." -via Metafilter

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Mitchel Wu Toy Photography

Mitchel Wu has a lot of toys. They are the subjects in his photographs, placed in unexpected settings in unexpected combinations that show us another side to life as a pop culture icon toy. See Kermit and Scooter swimming in a salad! See Woody battle a vacuum cleaner! See stormtroopers on the Planet of the Apes! The funniest are when franchises cross over, like Shaggy and Scooby meeting a dinosaur.

See more of Wu's work in a roundup at Geeks Are Sexy and at Wu's Instagram gallery.

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An Honest Trailer for The Incredible Hulk

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With Avengers: Infinity War coming out this weekend, Screen Junkies looked back in their records to see if there are any Marvel movies they haven't done an Honest Trailer for yet, and The Incredible Hulk drew the short stick. It was ten years ago that we met this incarnation of the Hulk, back when Bruce Banner was played by Ed Norton -remember that? A lot has changed since then. True Marvel fans won't be surprised by anything in this Honest Trailer, but they may enjoy a nostalgic look back that reminds us of how many movies we've watched since The Incredible Hulk.  

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Human Bone Daggers

A human bone dagger (top) and a cassowary bone dagger (bottom). Image: Hood Museum of Art/Dartmouth College, Dominy NJ et al. Royal Society Open Science, 2018.

Forget your puny pocket knives - the people of Papua New Guinea know that if you want your friends and foes to take you seriously, you need a bone dagger.

Bone daggers are often carved with decorative patterns and used for hunting, fighting and for ceremonial purposes, as well as to signify social status - and even though most are made from the thigh bones of cassowary birds, the Sepik tribesmen of Papua New Guinea know that the best are made from human bones. And not just from any humans. "Human bone daggers have to be sourced from a really important person," said study author Nathaniel Dominy to LiveScience, "You can't just take the bone of any ordinary person. It has to be your father or someone who was respected in the community."

Now, science has discovered the technical reason why human bones make for better bone daggers. Dominy wrote in a paper published in Royal Society Open Science:

"We found that human and cassowary bones have similar material properties and that the geometry of human bone daggers results in higher moments of inertia and a greater resistance to bending.

"Data from finite-element models corroborated the superior mechanical performance of human bone daggers, revealing greater resistance to larger loads with fewer failed elements."

All in all, human bone daggers are twice as strong as cassowary daggers.

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Play Saturn's Rings Like a Harp

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is an interactive closeup of Saturn's rings. The image was taken by the Cassini probe in 2017. Now it's been sonified with harp sounds, with the pitch of each ring determined by its shade -the lighter rings have higher pitches. You can pluck the rings with your mouse, either individually with a click or drag your cursor across for a lovely sound. If you have a touch screen, you can try playing it like a piano keyboard. Or just toggle the automatic mode to watch the spacecraft play on its own. You can also shift to a minor key if you like. -via Metafilter

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The Heart-Racing Drama of Dissecting a Beached Whale

Dr. Joy Reidenberg has a unique job -she collects whale organs for research. That means that she has to be ready whenever a whale carcass is available, and she must move fast, because authorities do not want whale remains to stay on the beach for any length of time. In 1987, she was informed of a beached whale in New Jersey, but she only had an hour to get there before it would be hauled off.   

There are many factors to consider once Reidenberg receives permission to dissect. Enough daylight to examine the specimen is one. Whale dissection is not an ideal night-time activity, but it can be done in the dark, with guts and all. Low tide and a potential storm are two other factors. It’s quite difficult working on a beached whale in knee-deep water while it’s raining. Will the whale lie belly up or down? Will there be construction equipment to move the heavy parts? Will it explode when opened due to gas build-up? These are the questions she grapples with. She could face all of these obstacles, some, or none at all. In the case of the Atlantic City sperm whale, there was one obstacle she didn’t factor in.

A police officer stopped her for speeding. Flustered, she stepped out of the vehicle in her white medical coat and complied with his instructions. He checked the back seat. “His face just turned ashen white, it was really weird,” says Reidenberg. A few moments before, she had heard on the radio that a body chopped to smithereens was discovered in plastic bags. Her rental car was filled with scalpels, hand knives, gloves, wood saws, and an array of gardening tools—equipment one would need to commit such butchery. The plastic bags in the back seat certainly did not help. She explained her situation and he decided to escort her to the stranded whale. Partly, just in case he was wrong.

That particular episode was worth the trouble, as she retrieved the whale's larynx and refuted earlier research about whale speech. You'll find out a lot more about the ins and outs of Reidenberg's work and whale dissection as a whole at Atlas Obscura. The article contains pictures of dead whales, but they are not grisly.   

(Image courtesy of Dr. Joy Reidenberg)

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A Spring Drive in Nepal

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Springtime in Nepal means that snow and ice are melting in certain elevations of the Himalayas, and the runoff will not be stopped by mere roads, even the infamously dangerous Besisahar-Chamé Road. The cascading water can take out what few guardrails there are. Meanwhile, people have places they gotta be, so a driver powers on through the treacherous path while a passenger films. Grab your armrests for this sequence. -via Laughing Squid  

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The Battle of New York: An Avengers Oral History

There have been 18 movies so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the 19th, Avengers: Infinity War, opening this weekend. It marks the tenth anniversary of the MCU, which began with Iron Man in 2008, and will be the second sequel to the 2012 film The Avengers. That film featured what is considered to be the biggest Marvel set piece ever, the Battle of New York.

When The Avengers premiered in 2012, there was nothing like "The Battle of New York," a nonstop, 30-minute finale fight between the super squad and an intergalactic battalion of Chitauri warriors, led by Thor's nefarious half-brother, Loki. Today, even with two Avengers sequels in the can, and a summer tentpole season that stretches from February to December, there's still nothing like The Battle of New York. After an hour-and-a-half of costumed group therapy, the kind of character-drama bedrock that risks losing the coveted popcorn-munching, action-junkie demographic, The Avengers crescendos without apprehension. Through BOOMS and ZAPS and POWS, the sequence -- part Independence Day, part Lord of the Rings, peppered with disaster-thriller vignettes, and bound with a New Yawk-movie spine -- exalts the heroes all while paying respect to the regular Joes on the ground. Scholars swore that comic-book moviemaking peaked with Christopher Nolan's lauded vision for The Dark Knight, yet here was an alternative, propulsive, prismatic, and thoughtful.

For a deep look into how the battle was filmed, Thrillist talked to a large contingent of professionals who worked on The Avengers: the writers, producer, director, illustrator, visual effects people, location manager, editors, and even the music composer about what went into making the Battle of New York for The Avengers. Any Marvel fan will be impressed with their efforts.   

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Veteran Receives Penis Transplant

When we first heard of hand transplants, it raised the question of how organ transplants could be justified when they aren't necessary to save a patient's life. We've come a long way since then, with limb and face transplants to improve the quality of life. When the first penis transplants were done, doctors knew that such experimental surgery would be an important achievement in caring for those wounded in war. And in March, the first American veteran received a penis transplant during a 14-hour operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The surgery was successful, and the penis is expected to achieve normal function within a few months. Researchers a the hospital developed a new technique to facilitate such reconstruction.      

One of the challenges from this type of injury is that transplants typically require patients to take strong anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives. Those drugs pose a risk, which must be balanced against the benefit of surgery that is designed to improve quality of life but is not essential to health.

To address that, doctors at Hopkins have developed a method to minimize the drugs required for these patients. That involves infusing some blood cells from the donor, to prime the recipient's immune system to recognize the foreign tissue as "self." Doctors at Hopkins say they can then treat the patient with a single anti-rejection drug rather than the usual cocktail of three.

Unlike previous penis transplants, this surgery included the scrotum and some tissue from the lower abdomen, in order to reconstruct a large wound. The patient was injured by an improvised explosive device. He also lost his legs below the knee as a result of the IED attack.

Read more about the transplant at NPR. -via Digg

(Image credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine)

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The Lost Voice Guy

(YouTube link)

Lee Ridley is a standup comic who doesn't speak. He has cerebral palsy and performs under the name Lost Voice Guy, even though he apparently never had one. Ridley's disability-themed routine is delivered by a synthetic voice machine. The machine itself, called a Lightwriter, is the focus for some of his jokes as he performed on Britain's Got Talent. -via Boing Boing

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When Don the Talking Dog Took the Nation by Storm

The vaudeville stage welcomed plenty of animal acts, but Don the Talking Dog was the tops in his time. Don was a well-known performer in his native Germany, where he displayed his ability to speak several German words. The dog show evoked curiosity in the US, and there was plenty of hype when Don finally crossed the Atlantic in 1912. Newspapers followed his every move, and crowds formed everywhere he performed.

With a vocabulary that ultimately reached eight words—all in German—Don had garnered attention in the United States as early as 1910, with breathless newspaper reports from Europe. According to some accounts, his first word was haben(“have” in English), followed by “Don,” kuchen(“cake”), and hunger (same word in English and German).

Theoretically, this allowed him to form the useful sentence: Don hunger, have cake—although most accounts say he typically spoke just one word at a time, and only when prompted by questions. He later added ja and nein (“yes” and “no”), as well as ruhe (“quiet” or “rest”) and “Haberland” (the name of his owner).

Don stayed in the US for two years, during which time he was treated as royalty, and made plenty of money, both from shows and from endorsing Milk-Bone dog biscuits. Scientists were interested in Don, too, and you can read about their conclusions at Smithsonian.

Love cute animals? View more at Lifestyles of the Cute and Cuddly blog

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The Art of Falling

If you want to be good at skateboarding, you have to put in lots of practice. To survive lots of practice, you need to become good at falling. That involves tucking your head so that any body part besides the skull hits first. Also, curling your body into a ball will make you more likely to roll instead of splat. Na-Kel Smith has perfected the art of falling, no doubt with lots of practice. He is an ace skater, so he also harnesses his sense of momentum, gravity, and direction to not only minimize the pain of falling, but to recover on his feet. You can see more of Smith's skateboarding skills at Digg.

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A Cat Walks Into a Deli...

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A cat walked into the deli-cat-tessen and admired the items on display at the meat counter. The clerk, who may be the butcher as well, went into his sales spiel and gave the cat a better look at a variety of offerings until the cat indicated what he most wanted. The cat probably thought he'd get away with not paying, but the deli got a viral video out of it.

Love cute animals? View more at Lifestyles of the Cute and Cuddly blog

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Products That Were Clearly Designed By Idiots

In the latest "pictofacts" post at Cracked, people contributed the design features of everyday products that bother them the most. Some have perfectly reasonable explanations, like the beeps that seems extraneous but help visually-impaired people, and Pringles, which are packaged for shipping and storage, not eating out of the can. The mouse that can't be used while you charge it bothers me, yet I understand that you shouldn't use a device while recharging. But as an old person whose kid lost the remote, this one really bothers me.

My TV isn't a Samsung, and the buttons do have faint labels, but I must keep a flashlight near the TV to see them. See the rest of the pet peeves about product design at Cracked.

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The Black Hole Bomb and Black Hole Civilizations

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Black holes are pretty cool to study, not cool to get close to, but did you know that black holes spin? You never thought about it before, but since everything else in space spins, it makes sense. What's really cool is that we could theoretically harness this energy. In reality, we are nowhere near having the capability of approaching a black hole, much less surviving such an adventure. From that point, this video from Kurzgesagt takes the theoretical possibilities to the next level by explaining how to make the biggest bomb in the universe. We know the science, but we are far from being able to do it the present time. -via reddit 

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Stories Behind 10 Of The Most Haunted Paintings In The World

Every once in a while, you come across a painting that creeps you out. Maybe it's because of the grim subject matter, or maybe it's because there's a face that seems to look right through you. It would be easy to become obsessed with such a painting, and if something bad then happens, you can connect the mishap with the painting, and you've got the beginning of an urban legend! These tales grow over time, until they are downright horrifying. Take the case of the painting above, titled The Dead Mother by Edvard Munch.  

The painting is inspired from the death of the artist's own mother, on account of Tuberculosis, when he was just 5-years-old. Aside from the fact that the painting is said to make people eerily uncomfortable, it has also been said that the eyes of the little girl follow you around and that you can hear Mother's sheets rustle.   

Read nine other such stories, all of them accompanied by variably disturbing paintings, at Flipboard.  -via Nag on the Lake

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The Cat Came Back

The steamship Fort St. George ferried fresh water and passengers from New York to Bermuda beginning in 1921. A cat named Minnie decided the ship was a good place to live. The ship's crew did not return the affection.

Minnie, the black-and-white cat of the Fort St. George, loved her home at sea, but she was also prone to flirting with the tom cats on Pier 95 in New York and at Hamilton Dock in Bermuda. In her years of service as the ship’s dedicated mouser, she was ejected from the ship at least 15 times. Not because she wasn’t loyal to her shipmates or good at catching rats, but because she gave birth to too many kittens.

Every time the sailors sent her packing with her kittens, she’d return as soon as her little ones were old enough to care for themselves.

One time a sailor reportedly took her all the way to Broadway and 72nd Street and bade her what he thought was a final farewell in front of the old Sherman Square Hotel. But when the ship entered Hamilton Harbor in Bermuda a few days later, Minnie miraculously appeared on deck. (My theory is that she hitched a ride to Bermuda on the sister ship, the Fort Victoria.)

You can read more about the Fort St. George and New York's Pier 95 at The Hatching Cat. -via Strange Company

Love cute animals? View more at Lifestyles of the Cute and Cuddly blog

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How to Speak Meerkat

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In this segment from the BBC Earth series Natural World, Dr. Marta Manser studies the language meerkats use to communicate with each other. Yes, she's scaring them with a fake jackal. Sir David Attenborough makes it sound wonderfully dramatic. -via Tastefully Offensive

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Eddie Putera's Custom Miniature Dioramas

Malaysian artist Eddie Putera creates wonderfully-detailed miniature dioramas of all kinds. And he's only been doing it for three years! Some of the scenes are from his childhood memory, and he also does custom-made dioramas to his customer's specifications. Others are completely fictional.

He even recreates crashing waves! See a roundup of Putera's work, including closeups of the fine details, at Bored Panda. See more of Putera's work at Instagram.

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The Sisterhood of the Mother Cats

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We posted about the TinyKittens birth watch webcam a couple of weeks ago, in which three feral cats awaited their litters of kittens. Black cat Ramona gave birth first, and now has four kittens. Rula, the other black cat, had three. Chloe, the ginger cat, just gets bigger every day.The cats have three private nest boxes to select from, plenty of toys, food, and even a TV to watch, but sometimes they crave each other's company. Here we see Ramona and her four kittens making a big fuss over Chloe earlier today. Is Ramona comforting Chloe? Is she trying to warn her what she's in for? Or is she just climbing on Chloe to get away from all those kittens? In a new video just posted, we see that they've settled down bit, and it appears that Ramona is comforting Chloe as her labor pains strengthen.

(YouTube link

Check out the live webcam to follow Chloe's labor and imminent birth. The livestream will continue until all the kittens are adopted.

Love cute animals? View more at Lifestyles of the Cute and Cuddly blog

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A Human Genetic Adaptation for Diving

How long can you hold your breath? The Bajau people of Indonesia are sometimes called "Sea Nomads," because they spend so much time in the ocean, hunting the sea creatures they live on. Bajau divers can spend up to 13 minutes underwater without scuba equipment! Melissa Ilardo, an American at the University of Copenhagen, went to Indonesia to find out what made Bajau divers so good at staying underwater.  

She took genetic samples and did ultrasound scans, which showed that Bajau had spleens about 50 percent larger than the Saluan.

Spleens are important in diving -- and are also enlarged in some seals -- because they release more oxygen into the blood when the body is under stress, or a person is holding their breath underwater.

Spleens were larger in the Balau people whether they were regular divers or not, and further analysis of their DNA revealed why.

Among the 25 genes that differed from other populations was one that regulates a thyroid hormone that controls spleen size. Read more about Ilardo's work at Yahoo. -via Boing Boing

(Image credit: Flickr user Austronesian Expeditions)

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These Six Stories Are as British as it Gets

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There's a royal wedding coming up, as Prince Harry will marry American actress Meghan Markle on May 19, and today Queen Elizabeth II turns 92 years old. Happy Birthday, Your Majesty! In honor of the occasion, we celebrate British culture with a compilation video from Great Big Story, in which we will learn about about swan uppers, beadles, jellied eels, the Queen's stand-in, the world's best taxi drivers, and the history of the British obsession with tea. The eels are last, so you can stop there if you're squeamish. I did.

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Looking Like a Flapper Meant a Diet of Celery and Cigarettes

The flapper culture of the Roaring Twenties was a revolt against the restrictions women lived under before World War I. Young women flaunted their sense of freedom by associating with men unchaperoned, riding in cars, drinking, smoking, and most of all, dancing. Fashions were adapted to the idea of freedom- and the corset was the garment women most wanted to shed. As trendsetters trotted out new clothing forms, a new beauty ideal took hold.  

Lighter, shorter dresses became ever more fashionable after World War I, as did comfortable clothing and relaxed social mores. Restrictions on dating, dancing, and sex loosened. The cosmetic changes reflected changing opinions on femininity, and the person who most epitomized the new era was the corsetless, cosmetic-wearing, free-spirited flapper.

Yet other restrictions surfaced. Designers such as Coco Chanel popularized a slim silhouette. The bathroom scale (patented in 1916) became a household staple. Books, magazines, and the media began depicting fat as the result of insufficient willpower. While people have always dieted to fit their era’s beauty standards, the new female silhouette was a departure from previous buxom ideals. “Though the flapper image minimized breasts and hips, it radiated sensuality,” writes historian Margaret A. Lowe. The slender silhouette seemed modern. Female curves seemed old-fashioned.

So flappers tried all kinds of new diets, such as the Hollywood 18-Day Diet, but there were plenty of trendy plans to choose from. Read about the flappers' weight-loss regimens at Atlas Obscura.

(Image source: Library of Congress)

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Government Officials Stick Together

Charlie Eilhardt noticed a perfect example of a crash blossom in a headline in Thursday's Alameda Sun. You can just picture the City Manager and the District Attorney trying to walk around with their heads taped together, presumably with duct tape. What we have is two words in a row, "tapes" and "head," that are both used as either a noun or a verb, and figuring out which usage is meant depends on the context. What is really happening is that secret recordings will be given to the prosecutor. You can enlarge the picture to read the story here. -via Dave Barry

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