Thursday, June 25, 2009

Scientists Analyze Sunspots Up Close

Sunspots used to be very mysterious and vague. Sure, they look like dark spots against the brightness of the solar disk. But what do they really look like up close? In the set of video stills above, you can see how sunspots appear in close up. In the picture at the left, you can see how they appear in three dimensions. These views are now possible with recent imaging techniques and technologies used by astronomers. Click on the images to watch the associated videos.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How the Hemlock Water-Dropwort Plant Puts a Smile on the Faces of Dead People

Have you ever wondered what the Joker uses in his special toxic blend of compound that puts a smile on his victims' faces? Yes, it's purely fiction, but the writers of Batman may have hit on something that's very real.

In ancient times, assassins and murderers have used the hemlock water-dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) plant (above) to incapacitate their victims slowly through the poisonous Botox-like effect of the extract and then do their heinous deed. The result are corpses with a smile on their face - which was already a clue to what was used.

The Mediterranean hemlock water-dropwort, common in the island of Sardinia, is similar in appearance to the parsnip plant, which has carrot-like roots and is an edible vegetable. Anyone mistaking the hemlock water-dropwort for the parsnip can be lethally poisoned. Fortunately, the leaves of the hemlock water-dropwort taste terrible. The roots, however, although more pleasant, is no less toxic, and this makes them even more dangerous. The poison is an oenanthotoxin, which is related to the cicutoxin of the water hemlock.

Authorities became interested in the hemlock water-dropwort due to a string of smiling-corpse suicides that pointed to it's use. The ancient Phoenicians of Sardinia used the toxin in ritual killings of old people and those who broke the law. That's how Homer (of ancient Greece; not of the Simpsons) came up with the term "sardonic grin." Using the toxin is a gruesome way to go with a smile, which only takes three hours. Don't try this at home... or anywhere else for that matter.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Thor's Winged Helmet Seen In Space

Thor is the god of thunder and he's supposed to live in Asgard. But where is Asgard anyway? It's supposed to be up there somewhere in the sky and the fact is, this myth may have some truth in it because Thor's winged helmet is actually visible in deep space!

The nebula image above (from Wikipedia) is also viewable in a different and brighter photograph from Jean-Charles Cuillandre (CFHT), Giovanni Anselmi (Coelum Astronomia), and the Hawaiian Starlight site.

It's that of deep sky object, Thor's Helmet, an emission nebula also known as NGC 2359. By it's winged appearance, it's also called the Duck nebula. Now we know what happened to his helmet in the painting at the left - Thor misplaced it or it may have been stolen by his brother Loki and hidden among the stars in space! But seriously, it's likely most people might prefer to identify NGC 2359 with the Norse god of thunder, especially now that there's a Thor movie directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Fear not! You need not venture into Asgard nor outer space to find the winged-helmet of the god of thunder, Thor! It is here and all you have to do is click on the image to make it your own! Get it now before the god of mischief, Loki swipes it!

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Philippine Scientist Solves Termite Problem: Houses Made of Chicken Feathers

Termites are practically everywhere where there are houses and they cost homeowners thousands in house maintenance costs. Sometimes, the problem becomes too much and prompts the homeowner to relocate to somewhere less infested by termites. One scientist may have partly solved the problem of termites. The solution he gave? Chickens!

Chickens? Yes! But the chickens won't be eating the termites, if that's what you think. This scientist, professor Menandro Acda of the University of the Philippines, has come up with a construction board that's made of cement and chicken feathers. He says composite boards made from feathers are more fire-resistant than those made from wood chips and also termite-resistant because they are not eaten by them. The boards also help ease the problem of chicken feather disposal, which contributes a lot to landfill garbage.

Acda says the boards may be used for paneling, ceilings, and insulations but says much work needs to be done to make them feasible for other construction purposes. For now, they cannot be used for pillars and other support structures. But it's likely there will be houses soon that will be made of his chicken feather boards. Environmental scientists may be amenable to moving into such a home.

Also a hit in the Philippines and in Hollywood:

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Burden of Moving Eased for Scientists and Other Professionals

It’s a fact that professionals looking for a new home to rent or to purchase loathe having to look for financing, ask for quotes, and transfer services. Even writing change-of-address letters and emails can be a chore. More often than not, they would rather concentrate on their work instead of taking time out to ask for removal quotes and look for moving man and van services. They’re lucky to get things done without the help of services that can ease their burden.

A simple search will take you to It’s one UK-based site that will prove to be a favorite of professionals who relocate because it can potentially reduce their stress level. It’s a free service site that makes the task of moving easier by providing information and support necessary to complete the process. Such information is backed by practical resources which are all made available and easily accessed online through the company website.

By the looks of it, using services is like having a secretary who does most of the work, which may include, but are not limited to, selection of a removal company, connecting to gas and electricity utilities, insurance registration, legal consultations, and other grueling tasks. In fact, a real person can be ready to help clients through the phone. The website says this service is available on weekdays from 9am to 5pm. So that means clients will have to settle for the other online support services on weekends.

The phone support is really a service in the sense that the operators not only give you information—the website says they help out by doing most of the things you need to do like make arrangements with a moving company and preferred utility companies. says it will always recommend the cheapest or most convenient service for the client.

While there are removal companies that provide only a moving van or a man and van, can pick a professional removal company for you that provides both and even more if they’re available. You can monitor your moving schedule with the website’s Move Planner which is useful for fixing a timetable and for marking dates for urgent tasks.

Apart from the moving service, another aspect that can be attractive to professionals about is that it’s totally free, unlike others that charge fees upfront. That may be hard to believe but it’s true. The company earns money from referral payments from partner utility and moving companies. Thus, every time someone opts to avail of a utility or service from a partner provider, gets paid. It’s an arrangement in which they endorse utilities and other moving services and get referral fees in exchange and it all works to benefit the client. operates in the UK and is registered as The Moving Service. It’s located at 17 Beckenham Grove, Bromley, Kent, BR2 0JN. The website does not service non-UK residents. But if you’re planning to move to Britain for some professional work, it will prove to be very helpful.

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Secrets of the Calendar Stone of Besao in the Philippines Revealed

This is the post about the Agricultural Stone calendar of the Agawa people (left) of Bontoc that I transferred here from another blog. It answers many of the questions of astronomers and others who have heard about it and wondered what it's all about.

Regarded as a unique astronomical monument, Agricultural Stone calendar of the Agawa people is in Sitio Gueday in Besao, near Sagada in the Philippines. It is the local counterpart of ancient structures in other countries which also use the motions of objects in the sky to mark specific times of the year. The annotated material that follows is from Desiree Caluza, a correspondent of the Inquirer newspaper, and is reprinted from her web post with permission.

The Day of Linnapet
When the sun’s rays hit the protruding rock of Mt. Ambaon Bato (Mt. Buried Rock) every thirtieth of September, another life starts for the I-Agawa (or Agawa) people in this farming village, where life and times meet.

September 30 is a day for the people of the Agawa tribe to pound rice and to cook linnapet, a native rice cake, to signal the start of the festival to prepare the seedbeds for planting season.

This day, which is being observed by the I-Agawas annually, would always gather people from different walks of life to their mother dap-ay (a circular stone structure where the council of elders meet) to observe how the sun’s rays would project like a laser beam through the niche of a stone on Mt. Ambaon Bato to the stone calendar of the mother dap-ay in Sitio Gueday.

This marks the agricultural cycle and for I-Agawas to share the linnapet. "This occasion is the local people’s version of Christmas, wherein families celebrate together the spirit of linnapet festival," former Besao councilor Gloria Bantog, said.

On Sept. 29, all roads led to barangay Agawa as people go to watch the spectacular sunbeams and to cook, share and eat linnapet. Even the I-Agawas who are based outside the province and live in the lowlands celebrate the day to make the linnapet spirit alive.

Bantog said even the Agawa people abroad who are based in the United States, Hongkong and countries in Europe celebrate the Linnapet festival. "In Baguio you’ll find I-Agawas converging at Burnham Park sharing our native delicacy," she said.

Local journalist Joel Belinan of Zigzag Weekly who grew up in Agawa related that he would receive calls from friends abroad when he was a social worker in Singapore. "Friends would call me up every Sept. 30 and they would tell me: maglapet tako (let us eat linnapet)!"

Tablets of Stone

In Sitio Gueday, the stone calendar sits still among the tablets of stones in the mother dap-ay. According to the elders, the stone calendar bears inscriptions etched by their ancestors who offered alingo (boar) to the spirits.

The inscriptions are lines which are either long or short. Bantog said the short lines indicated that the villagers had butchered a small pig while the longer lines meant they had butchered the bigger ones.

The stone’s inscriptions though, also meant something else for the I-Agawas. According to Bantog, a certain Jewish scientist named Spiback, who accidentally discovered the place in 1956, told the villagers that they may have descended from the Shan Dynasty of China.

Because, like the ancient Chinese of the Shan Dynasty, the I-Agawas have chinky eyes and a stocky body structure, said Bantog, citing Spiback’s claims.

Citing anthropologist William Henry Scott, Bantog said that the inscriptions on the stone calendar showed stark similarities with the ancient form of writing in China.

The mother dap-ay which is called by the villagers as Awaw, determines the planting season in Agawa. Before the advent of the Gregorian calendar, during the Western colonization, the ancestors of the I-Agawas observed the sun’s rays that would hit the stones of Mt. Ambaon Bato and Sitio Gueday in a parallel projection.

The villagers said that in the 1920s, a man who would observe the movement of the sunrise had noticed that its rays would usually hit the stones every Sept. 30. That was when they decided to mark the date as "Linnapet Day."

Locals have noticed that as the years passed by, Sitio Gueday had been sinking. "Gueday" in local terms literally suggested the same meaning.

But this has not dampened the spirit of the I-Agawas to celebrate the Linnapet Day, even with the fact that the stone calendar had been vandalized and portions of it stolen by some "outsiders."

Bantog related that in 1986, the village discovered that the stone was vandalized. The top of the stone was chopped off and the I-Agawas could not trace its whereabouts. Most of the villagers thought that the act was politically motivated.

Leon Lonogan, an Agawa tribe member and author of the book "The Sunset at Sunrise, The History of the Agawa Tribe," said residents searched in nearby brooks to look for the missing relic. After a long search, they found only one-third of the stone.

Lonogan said the people returned the said portion of their stone calendar to its proper depository. "The people were gnashing their teeth for the loss of the stone calendar," Lonogan wrote in his book.

Lonogan said the elders had proclaimed three days of ngilin, a rest day set aside to solemnize a ritual. The elders performed a ritual at the Awaw to bring disease, epidemic and even death to the thieves.

Legend of the First Linnapet

When Bantog was an elementary school teacher in 1970 in Barangay Ambigew, an oral tradition was passed on to her by an old man who told her the legend of linnapet. "Since you are the one who could write, please write our own legend, I am afraid that the oral tradition might soon be gone," Bantog said recalling the words of the old man.

Bantog recounted that she immediately grabbed a pen to write the legend. She immediately transcribed her notes using an old typewriter. She has managed to keep the written legend until now.

According to the story, there was once a couple who lived in Ba-ang, Pedelisan who had a pregnant pig. When the pig was about to give birth, it disappeared. The owners found the animal’s footprints while searching for it.

When they followed the footprints, they arrived at a deep cave and were surprised to discover that the pig gave birth to seven fat litters. The couple named the place "Agawa" because it was where the pig "rushed to" to give birth.

The couple decided to settle in Agawa to take care of the pig. They started planting rootcrops such as gabi, camote and legumes. They did not plant rice. They were so discouraged that they feared that they were going to eat camote for the rest of their lives.

One day, when the man decided to go back to Ba-ang to learn the method of growing rice, he found an old man with shining robes on top of a big stone while he was on his way up the hill. He was so scared that he almost fell on his knees.

The man explained to the strange visitor that he wanted to learn the method of growing rice because he wanted his family to taste rice. The old man then gave him instructions.

"Tomorrow, go to that stone opposite to us and wait for the sun to rise. If the rays of the sun are parallel to the stone where we are now, go out and tell your neighbors that the time for preparing fields for planting rice has come," the old man said. "To remember this day, cook your best product using your best recipes, then share it to relatives, neighbors and friends. Being the oldest in the group, get your fattest piglet and bring it to the dap-ay and offer it as a sacrifice to the god of harvest who is in front of you now."

The old man also instructed the man to mark the stone with a line and to call the event "Linnapet day."

"The man who told me the story had a great imagination that I was really inclined to believe. But by looking at things now, I’m seeing the connection," Bantog said.

Bantog said the rice cake with a traditional recipe of water crickets, mudfish, and eels is now prepared using sweetened peanuts. She said other villagers are lamenting that their own delicacy is being marketed commercially.

"But there are others who prefer to eat linnapet which is traditionally cooked. For them, linnapet is tastier during this season because it is keeping our village spirit alive," Bantog said.
Desiree Caluza may be reached emailed at:
To view Desiree Caluza's art gallery, go to:
For a different account on the Calendar stone of Besao written by Vicente Sapguian for the Manila Times, go to:

The picture of the sun peeking above mountaintops is by Scott Gregory taken in Machu Picchu.

For a glimpse into the cultural past of the Agawa people by Leon Lonogan, writer of "The Sunset at Sunrise, The History of the Agawa Tribe" go to:

Take a journey across the night sky in the comfort of your own room with the Star Theater Se. It's a Stellarium interactive astronomy software home portable planetarium. Click here or on the image to order your own Star Theater SE home planetarium.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Strange Ice Circles in Lake Baikal Seen from Space

Strange things can be seen on the surface of the Earth from space. Here is a photo taken by astronauts onboard the International Space Station in April 2009. It is a circular formation made by thin ice in Lake Baikal in Siberia (map, left). The lake is the deepest known in the whole world and the formation pictured measures 4.4 km in diameter. It is listed as endangered due to proposed mining efforts.

The question that came up when people saw this picture is how the ice circle was formed. Images of alien spacecraft landing on ice come to mind, but no, scientists actually have an explanation for this. They say methane gas regularly wells up from beneath the lake, forming warm-water eddies in ring formation created by the Coriolis effect. Methane is a greenhouse gas and is toxic in large volumes.

Of course, we all know the Coriolis effect is produced by the Earth's rotation from West to East and it's the same force that makes our drain water turn either clockwise or counter clockwise depending on where it's draining above or below the equator. It's the same force that creates the Earth's hurricanes and typhoons.

Interestingly, a similar ring structure was observed and photographed in the Martian south pole environment (left). The picture of the Martian polar ice ring was first taken by the Mariner and Viking orbiting probes. High resolution images were taken later by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The ring is 4 kilometers across and has a hill-like feature in the middle similar to a pingo here one Earth. A pingo is caused by water upwelling from the bottom of a landscape with a underground permafrost environment. The high-resolution image of the Mars polar ice ring follows.

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