Something on Mars Is Producing Gas Usually Made by Living Things

Methane is often produced by living things, and it doesn’t persist long in atmospheres because it is quickly broken down by solar radiation. Yet satellites and rovers have periodically detected surges in atmospheric methane concentration on Mars, raising the question: where is that gas coming from?

The New York Times reports:

Methane gas periodically wafts into the atmosphere of Mars; that notion, once considered implausible and perplexing, is now widely accepted by planetary scientists. […]

The presence of methane is significant because the gas decays quickly. Calculations indicate that sunlight and chemical reactions in the thin Martian atmosphere would break up the molecules within a few hundred years, so any methane detected must have been created recently.

It might have been created by a geological process known as serpentinization, which requires both heat and liquid water. Or it could be a product of life — specifically methanogens, microbes that release methane as a waste product. Methanogens thrive in places lacking oxygen, such as rocks deep underground and the digestive tracts of animals.

Even if the source of the methane turns out to be geological, the hydrothermal systems that produce the emissions would still be prime locations to search for signs of life.

Check out the full story here!

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The year 2019 as predicted in 2009

Check out this slick video that Microsoft produced in 2009 to showcase their vision of 2019:

As Boing Boing points out,

They did well with the software aspects of touchscreen interfaces and machine vision, but overshot the runway on bezel-less devices and the general ubiquity of touchscreens themselves. There’s a touchscreen coffee mug! All the depicted applications (such as flexible high-FPS color e-ink) are shown without a batteries or other power sources. This is a mandatory omission in all such future fantasies.

Of course, they’re a bit nearer to the mark than many other portrayals of the present. Blade Runner, after all, is set in 2019 and features synthetic human replicants and space colonies. Although we’ve got more than eleven months still ahead of us…

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Antarctica’s unsettling blood waterfall

Blood Falls, Antarctica.
Iron oxides cause the blood-like coloring of this waterfall in Antarctica.

Nature’s marvels are boundless, and one of its most visually disturbing is a certain blood-red cascade found in Victoria Land, East Antarctica (aptly named “Blood Falls“). Fortunately for the squeamish, it’s not actually blood:

Blood Falls is an outflow of an iron oxide-tainted plume of saltwater, flowing from the tongue of Taylor Glacier onto the ice-covered surface of West Lake Bonney in the Taylor Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Victoria Land, East Antarctica.

Iron-rich hypersaline water sporadically emerges from small fissures in the ice cascades. The saltwater source is a subglacial pool of unknown size overlain by about 400 metres (1,300 ft) of ice several kilometers from its tiny outlet at Blood Falls.

The reddish deposit was found in 1911 by the Australian geologist Griffith Taylor, who first explored the valley that bears his name. The Antarctica pioneers first attributed the red color to red algae, but later it was proven to be due to iron oxides.

Surely a sight to see! Given the remote location of Blood Falls, though, it’s unlikely to appeal as a tourist destination to any but the hardiest and most well-heeled of travelers.

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Belsnickel, the crotchety fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer of German folklore

Belsnickel
Belsnickel might wear a long black or brown coat or robe, held together at the waist with a rope, and a fur cap or bear skin hat, decorated with bells.

Old St. Nick’s not the only traditional Christmas character who comes round every December to evaluate children’s behavior and dole out corresponding rewards or punishments. In fact, there’s a whole cast of such figures across European folklore. Some of them serve to supplement Santa Claus, while others supplant him; Belsnickel is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Originating in southwestern Germany along the Rhine (and preserved, among other places, in Pennsylvania Dutch communities in the United States), Belsnickel

is related to other companions of Saint Nicholas in the folklore of German-speaking Europe. He may have been based on another older German myth, Knecht Ruprecht, a servant of Saint Nicholas, and a character from northern Germany.Unlike those figures, Belsnickel does not accompany Saint Nicholas but instead visits alone and combines both the threatening and the benign aspects which in other traditions are divided between the Saint Nicholas and the companion figure.

Belsnickel is a man wearing furs and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. He is typically very ragged and disheveled. He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat naughty children, but also pocketsful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children.

With Christmas nearly upon us, there’s still time to get out there and do some ‘Belsnickling’!

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Massive chocolate spill closes German road

From the BBC:

“A ton of chocolate” has brought a local road to a standstill in Germany, according to local authorities.

The road was closed in the western town of Westönnen late on Monday after a tank of chocolate in a factory spilled and poured into the street.

The chocolate quickly solidified. About 10 sq m (108 sq ft) was cleared by 25 firefighters using shovels, hot water and blowtorches.

Left unanswered are many crucial questions, such as: does the five-second rule apply to spills of this magnitude?

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Happy Krampus Day

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, as you may or may not be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, then Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back! The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. According to Wikipedia, young men in these parts will traditionally “dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.” So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampus spirit! Just be prepared for some weird looks, if you’re not in Europe.

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Man paddles world’s largest pumpkin boat down Yorkish river

Happy Halloween! The BBC brings good tidings from York:

A man has paddled down the River Ouse in a giant pumpkin boat.

Tom Pearcy, who works at York Maze, claims it is a world record for the largest pumpkin boat, weighing 619kg (1364lbs).

As there is currently no recognised world record for the largest pumpkin boat, York Maze have applied to Guinness World Records to have this achievement recognised.

You can see video footage of this magnificent vessel here, or watch below:

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Bakezōri, the wandering sandal-monster of Japanese folklore

A Bakezōri, or wandering sandal.

According to Japanese folklore, sandals that have been mistreated by their owners can turn into a Yōkai called a Bakezōri. Per Wikipedia, Yōkai are “a class of supernatural monsters, spirits, and demons in Japanese folklore.” Japanese animism holds that “spirit-like entities called (among other things) mononoke […] reside in all things.” These spirits can be malevolent or merely mischievous; in some cases, they may bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Some inanimate objects — household tools, for example — can develop or acquire such a spirit over time, becoming Tsukumogami.

By and large, these spirit-imbued tools tend to be harmless, although they may play occasional pranks or band together to take revenge on those who treat them poorly. The Bakezōri, described as a wandering sandal with two arms, two legs, and one eye, belongs to this class of Yōkai.

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Alligator found swimming in Lake Michigan

A kayaker on Lake Michigan spotted something shocking early Monday morning: a 4-foot alligator paddling in the water nearby. The Chicago Tribune reports:

The kayaking fisherman, David Castaneda, reported the animal to Waukegan’s Animal Control, the Lake County News-Sun reported. The animal had its mouth taped shut, and initially reports described it as a caiman, but the Wildlife Discovery Center later confirmed it was indeed an American alligator.

Dave Bernier, a general curator at Lincoln Park Zoo, suspects someone brought it to the area recently and that the gator hasn’t had to endure a Chicago January.

“It would never be able to survive the winter here,” Bernier said.

You can see the kayaker’s video of the encounter below:

This isn’t the first time gators have been spotted in Chicagoland: another small alligator was captured in the Chicago River back in 2010. Given that these cold-blooded creatures can’t survive winters at these latitudes, it is likely they were pets that escaped or were released into the wild.

Alligators aren’t the only exotic animals that are purported to sometimes lurk in Lake Michigan. Persistent urban legends tell of occasional shark sightings (including a supposed 1955 bull shark attack). (None of these instances have ever been confirmed, of course, and experts consider the aforementioned attack unlikely to have ever occurred.)

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Astronomers observe the hungriest black hole in the universe

Black hole quasar NASA
Black hole quasar NASA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll keep this post brief, but these numbers are pretty mind-boggling: Australian astronomers have detected a black hole that is 20 billion times the mass of our sun, one which eats the equivalent of a star every two days. Not only that, it is 10,000 times brighter than the galaxy it lives in, because it is growing so fast — that’s as luminous as 700 trillion suns. (This may make “black hole” seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but as the article explains: “they can only swallow so much, depending on their size; the rest of the matter gets splashed out across space, producing […] fireworks.”) No need to worry about it, though — it’s 12 billion light years away.

Check out the NYT article here, and the original research paper here.

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