Offbeat: So was your great great grand dad a worm?

Humans have evolved from a two-inch worm that lived in the sea more than 500 million years ago, scientists claim.

March 12, 2012

Itsy bitsy spider goes musical

A Japanese researcher has brought the applications of spider silk to an entirely different register, using thousands upon thousands of strands of spider silk to create a set of violin strings. Most impressive of all, however, isn’t that these strings are functional — it’s that they actually sound incredible.

Nara Medical University’s Shigeyoshi Osaki (who has made a name for himself by mastering the art of coaxing silk from spiders) used over 300 captive female nephila maculata spiders. According to Osaki, these spiders generate the so-called “dragline silk” necessary to create bundles with a tensile strength sufficient for mounting on a violin.

Each string was assembled from anywhere between 9,000 and 15,000 individual strands, twisted together in tightly wound trios of bundled silk. According to the BBC, each string was capable of withstanding even more tension than popular aluminum coated nylon-core violin strings (although they were not as strong as traditional gut string).

“Several professional violinists reported that spider strings... generated a preferable timbre, being able to create a new music,” Osaki told the BBC. “The violin strings are a novel practical use for spider silk as a kind of high value-added product, and offer a distinctive type of timbre for both violin players and music lovers worldwide.”

The researchers’ findings will be described in greater detail in a forthcoming issue of Physical Review Letters.


So was your great great grand dad a worm?

Humans have evolved from this two-inch worm, scientists claim.

The extinct pikaia gracilens lived in the sea more than 500 million years ago. Now scientists have linked it to humans, saying that it is a primitive ancestor of animals with spinal cords.

It gave rise to other backboned animals including fish, birds, reptiles and mammals.

Although pikaia was first discovered in 1911, scientists assumed it was only related to leeches and earthworms. But the spinal cord, paired with zig-zag patterned blocks of muscle tissue known as myomeres, relates it to humans.

Lead author Professor Simon Conway Morris, from Cambridge University, said: “The discovery of myomeres is the smoking gun that we have long been seeking.

”This study clearly places pikaia as the planet’s most primitive chordate. So, next time we put the family photograph on the mantle-piece, there in the background will be pikaia.”

Using cutting-edge microscopes and imagery techniques, scientists revealed fine details in the pikaia fossils.

Every specimen of pikaia discovered so far has come from the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Canada’s Yoho National Park. It is thought to have swum above the sea floor by bending its body from side to side.

Dr Jean-Bernard Caron, from the University of Toronto in Canada, took part in the research.

He said: “It’s very humbling to know that swans, snakes, bears, zebras and, incredibly, humans all share a deep history with this tiny creature no longer than my thumb.”


How tweet!

IT consultant Nat Morris, 30, uses an electronic system to give his border terrier Toby a ‘tweet treat’ by sending him a Twitter message to @FeedToby.

Mr Morris spends a lot of time working away from home and isn’t always able to feed four-year-old Toby by hand but, by using his new invention, he can send his dog a treat from anywhere in the world.

He said: ‘Toby absolutely loves it. At first, he didn’t know what was going on. Now he sits underneath, wagging his tail and waiting for the treats to drop.’

And Mr Morris has even rigged up an online camera so he can see Toby eating at his home in Milford Haven, west Wales.

He is considering patenting his system but one problem is that friends and family have been sending tweets to Toby. ‘People have been sending him food at all hours of the day — so I had to limit it to between nine in the morning and nine in the evening,’ he added.

When a tweet is sent, it is received by a mini-computer, and a buzzer sound alerting Toby. A motor from a small HP printer comes to life and pulls open a trap door which releases a serving of food down a tube and into Toby’s food bowl below.


The big one

An obsession with everything big has lead Australian farmer Phillip McCauley to grow a massive 385.1 kilogram pumpkin in his farm.

The dairy farmer from Cora Lynn, Victoria, says he has given up on gourds now after growing a piffling metre-long one, and quit with the huge tomatoes too.

In the extreme vegetable world, the Atlantic Giant pumpkin stands tallest. It is Phillip’s best shot at glory. And after growing Victoria’s biggest ever pumpkin, a 385.1kg monolith that has smashed the old record by 130kg, the Cora Lynn dairy farmer is ready to take on the world.

“The Australian record is 518kg, a guy from New South Wales. I’m breathing down his neck,’’ Phillip says. “I never thought I could get that until I grew this one.’’

A 200mm rain dump three weeks ago forced Phillip to pull up his pumpkin, dubbed “The Big One’’. It was a third under water.

“This was still growing. I reckon it would have gone close to 450kg,’’ he said. “I know if I put all the effort into it I can get the Australian record.’’


Robo — 007

Tiny flying ‘quadrobots’, or mini helicopters designed by engineering students in the US have been programmed to play the James Bond theme tune.

The agile robots have been developed by the students at Pennsylvania University, who are helping to create a new breed of smarter, faster, and more flexible robots that mimic the swarming behaviours of birds, fish and insects, The Telegraph reported.

In the demonstration video, which has become an Internet sensation, the nanobots are fitted with wireless cameras and infrared lights that help their pilots plot their exact position in a precise way.

One of the university’s robotics laboratory members, Vijay Kumar, presented the groundbreaking work at the TED2012 conference, an international gathering of people and ideas from technology, entertainment and design.

The team said that building robots that can move in unison without crashing into obstacles or one another is a critical skill for robot teams to develop, especially as they may one day be used to survey landscapes, build structures, or even play music.


The man who dug his own grave!

A Sri Lankan man died while trying to set a record for the longest time spent buried alive. A lesson for all to think twice before digging a grave for themselves!

Police said Janaka Basnayake, 24, buried himself over the weekend with the help of family and friends in a trench sealed with wood and soil in the town of Kantale, about 137 miles (220 kilometers) north of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. A local newspaper reported that the trench was 10 feet (3 metres) deep.

Basnayake was buried at around 9:30am. Police said that when he was brought to the surface at 4pm, he was unconscious and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Dr D G Costa of the Kantale hospital said a post-mortem could not determine the cause of death and further medical investigations are being conducted.

Basnayake’s mother, L D Leelawathi, said her son had enjoyed performing unusual acts since his childhood — a liking that grew after watching movies, the Lankadeepa newspaper reported.

It quoted her as saying that her son had been buried alive on two previous occasions — for two and a half hours and six hours respectively.

It was unclear whether there is an official world record for the longest time buried alive.


Stalker turkey

A US woman says she’s become a prisoner on her own property — because she’s being stalked by a huge turkey.

Edna Geisler, 69, of Commerce Township, Michigan, has nicknamed the bird Godzilla, reports the Detroit Free Press.

She says the wild turkey wanders onto her property each day from nearby woods.

He lurks in her front yard, screeching at her constantly, jumping out and attacking her whenever she dares wander outside.

“I’m afraid to go out of my house,” she added. “I have to go to the post office at 6 o’clock in the morning to avoid him.”


Reason enough to not litter

A male giraffe that died in an Indonesian zoo was found to have 20 kilograms of plastic in its stomach, officials said.

Kliwon, 30, was born at Surabaya Zoo, the biggest in the country, and was its last remaining giraffe, living alone in its pen for 13 years.

“We got the autopsy results last night. They found a plastic lump weighing around 20 kilograms and 60 centimetres in diameter in his stomach,” zoo spokesman Anthan Warsito said.

The giraffe was also found to be infected with tuberculosis. The plastic probably came from food wrappers the animal ingested after visitors tossed them into its pen over several years, Warsito said.

The incident comes after a spate of suspicious animal deaths at the zoo, including a critically endangered Sumatran tiger, and the disappearance of three baby Komodo dragons believed to have been stolen for the black market. AFP

Valley of the dolls

A girl who can’t have kids has spent £20,000 (Rs2.86 million) on a hoard of 97 plastic babies. At least they don’t cry and wake you up at night.

Vikki Andrews, 19, began buying them three years ago after doctors diagnosed her with a condition that doesn’t allow her to have children.

Now her bedroom is filled with “reborn dolls” — made with hand-moulded plastic and human hair.

Vikki — a student and part-time barmaid — said: “My first, Charlotte, cost £200 (Rs 28,603). I used money I had been saving since I was 14. Within a week I had bought her a brother. It was then I realised I wanted lots of them.”

Her fiance Warren Bone, 19, is not keen on them. And her parents have banned them from their living room in Newbury, Berks.

Vikki added: “If I take them outside I get funny looks. But I sometimes take them to work for bonding time.”


Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2012.


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