In the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1000 square miles of surrounding territory were evacuated of all inhabitants and left fallow ever since. Despite high levels of background radiation, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (as it is known) has become a thriving haven for wildlife (funny how big a difference the total absence of human beings can make!). After being off-limits to humans for more than thirty years, today the area is thickly forested and home to wildcats, deer, and bison, among other large mammals.
Something similar has happened in the area around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan after the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster. From the BBC:
“Once people were gone, the boar took over,” explains Donovan Anderson, a researcher at Fukushima University in Japan.
His genetic study of the wild boar that roam in an area largely abandoned after Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster – has revealed how the animals have thrived.
Using DNA samples, he also discovered that boar have bred with domestic pigs that escaped from farms.
This has created wild pig-boar hybrids that now inhabit the zone.
Since just before Christmas, residents of eastern Colorado have witnessed mysterious swarms of drones — sometimes as many as thirty at a time — taking to the skies in the early evening hours. The first accounts of the drone swarms appeared in The Denver Post on December 23. Business Insider reports that
Since then, sightings have spanned six counties across Colorado and Nebraska.
Phillips County Sheriff Thomas Elliott had no answer for where the drones came from or whom they belonged to but did have a rough grasp on their flying habits. “They’ve been doing a grid search, a grid pattern,” he told The Denver Post. “They fly one square and then they fly another square.”
No one seems to know where the drones are coming from, who’s responsible for them, or what exactly they’re up to. So far, the Air Force, the DEA, the Department of Defense, the FAA, and a host of other institutions and agencies (including all private drone companies known to be operating in the area) have denied involvement. Complaints have prompted a federal investigation, but thus far no additional information has been released to the public. The altitude at which the drones appear to be flying is largely unregulated.
The American astronauts onboard the International Space Station are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving, and they’ve recorded a video message giving us a look at what their observations will entail. Check it out here, or watch below:
According to NASA, Thanksgiving was first celebrated in space aboard Skylab, the first American space station, in 1973. Since then, Thanksgiving has also been celebrated on space shuttles and the defunct Russian space station Mir.
Worried about getting into political arguments over Thanksgiving dinner? Consider talking about space instead! The Planetary Society last year compiled a helpful list of space-related conversation starters, covering topics such as:
We’re all readily familiar with that ubiquitous personification of the United States, Uncle Sam. What is largely forgotten today, however, is that he was hardly the first such national symbol. In fact, Uncle Sam had several predecessors — perhaps most notably the post-Revolutionary War-era character “Brother Jonathan.”
He was ill-mannered and ill-spoken—a boor, a braggart, a ruffian, a bigot, a hick, and a trickster. His name was Brother Jonathan.
Today he is all but forgotten—eclipsed by his upstanding uncle, Sam. But after the Revolutionary War, Brother Jonathan was the personification of the newly independent American people: clever, courageous, not all that sophisticated and proud of it. He was the everyman incarnate. It was the everyman who had led America to victory. And now America looked to the everyman to lead them out from the bloated shadow of Great Britain.
Brother Jonathan was a rustic New Englander who was depicted at various times on stage as a peddler, a seaman, and a trader, but always as a sly and cunning figure. He began to show up in political cartoons in newspapers and magazines during the early part of the 19th century as new and cheaper printing methods developed. It was at this point that American cartoonists transformed Brother Jonathan from a figure of derision into one of patriotic pride.
The term appears to date to the English Civil War, when it was applied derisively to the Puritan roundheads. […] It is probably derived from the Biblical words spoken by David after the death of his friend Jonathan, “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1:26).
A popular folk tale about the origin of the term holds that the character is derived from Jonathan Trumbull (1710–85), Governor of the State of Connecticut, which was the main source of supplies for the Northern and Middle Departments during the American Revolutionary War. It is said that George Washington uttered the words, “We must consult Brother Jonathan,” when asked how he could win the war. That origin is doubtful, however, as neither man made reference to the story during his lifetime and the first appearance of the story has been traced to the mid-19th century, long after their deaths.
It’s worth noting, of course, that even Brother Jonathan had predecessors: even earlier personifications of America include Columbia and Lady Liberty.
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.)
I’ll keep this post brief, but these numbers are pretty mind-boggling: Australian astronomers have detected a black hole that is 20 billiontimes 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.
But what is the most common vertebrate species on the planet? And how many of them are there?
The answer, it turns out, is the humble bristlemouth fish (Latin family name Gonostomatidae), and it numbers in the Hundreds. Of. Trillions. (And possibly, according to some estimates, in the quadrillions.)4 An unassuming family of fishes, the bristlemouths range in size from 1 to 11 inches5 and prefer the mid-ocean depths of about 0.5 to 1 mile down.6
“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” That’s how University of Hawaii astronomer Rob Weryk described the unknown object hurtling through our solar system.1 An object a quarter of a mile long and moving startlingly fast – faster than any comet or asteroid seen before, about 55 miles per second. An object with an open-ended trajectory – meaning that it came from somewhere outside our solar system. The first such object ever observed.
Scientists named the mysterious visitor ‘Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian.2 Intriguing not only due to its origin but also its properties – besides its unusual size, shape, and trajectory, the object has no comet tail and shows no trace of water ice, suggesting that it may be composed entirely of solid rock or even metal – astronomers are turning additional eyes on ‘Oumuamua to test some unsettling hypotheses. After all, given the characteristics of this unusual visitor, who can’t but wonder: is it more than just an asteroid? While likely formed by natural processes, astronomers are thus far at a loss as to what could produce the object’s unusual shape. Is it possible, however distantly, that ‘Oumuamua might be some sort of artifact? According to Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb, ‘Oumuamua has the optimal design… of a vessel meant to travel through space.3
That’s a proposition that a research initiative called Breakthrough Listen hopes to test. Breakthrough Listen, per their website, is a “$100 million program of astronomical observations in search of evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth” and “by far the most comprehensive, intensive and sensitive search ever undertaken for artificial radio and optical signals.” From NPR:
“The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility,” Andrew Siemion, a member of the initiative and director of Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, told The Washington Post on Monday.
[…T]hey’ll be checking on that hypothesis by scanning the object for possible artificial transmitters through a radio telescope at West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory.
As unlikely as this possibility may be, it certainly seems worth looking into. Before our extrasolar visitor leaves our system just as quickly as it entered, bound for distant reaches that for now we can only dream of.
While cranberries have been cultivated and consumed by Native Americans since pre-Columbian times – and have long been associated with Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States – the fruit’s position on our harvest table has not always been so secure.
Near the end of the second Eisenhower administration, fears of widespread chemical contamination prompted the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur S. Flemming announced that
The Food and Drug Administration today urged that no further sales be made of cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 because of their possible contamination by a chemical weed killer, aminotriazole, which causes cancer in the thyroids of rats when it is contained in their diet, until the cranberry industry has submitted a workable plan to separate the contaminated berries from those that are not contaminated.1
American consumers panicked: a “fifty-million-dollar-a-year business collapsed overnight [and] sales of fresh cranberries […] dropped sixty-three per cent from the year before.” Fearful of poisoning, cranberries vanished from Thanksgiving tables that year; even the Eisenhowers declined to serve them at the White House dinner.2
Afterward, two things became clear. First, that the contamination was not widespread, and that scientists had simply erred on the side of caution since there was no way for consumers to determine on short notice where their cranberries had come from. Second, the cranberry industry concluded that it could not depend on Thanksgiving sales alone – prompting the introduction and marketing of cranberry juices that could be sold year-round.3
3. Leap Year Capital of the World
In 1988, the town of Anthony, Texas, with a population of 8000, declared itself to be the “Leap Year Capital of the World.”
Its justification for this title was that two members of its Chamber of Commerce were born on leap year days. But in a moment of honesty a member of the Chamber also admitted that, “We just voted arbitrarily to name this as the leap year capital of the world because no one else has.”
As of 2016, the town of Anthony continues to pride itself on being the Leap Year Capital, with festivities planned for February 29.
I’m also partial to the notion of re-envisioning Leap Day as a “day out of time.”
Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung, a stratovolcano located in North Sumatra, has been dramatically erupting on and off since 2010. (Incidentally, I climbed this volcano in late 2011 — between eruptions, of course.)
Recent eruptions have been so sustained and severe that a number of nearby villages have been abandoned — declared by Indonesian authorities, as The Atlantic reports, “too dangerous to inhabit.” Numerous villages such as Guru Kinayan, Simacem, Kuta Gugung, and Sibintun now sit empty, covered in ash and rapidly being reclaimed by nature, as the images below show:
It’s a dream come true. Who doesn’t wish that there was some place they could go, as an adult, to dive into a giant pit of plastic balls without facing social judgment?
The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, last weekend opened a 10,000 square foot ball pit to the general public.
The installation, called “The Beach,” is literally two massive, gallery-white pools, built by Brooklyn design firm Snarkitecture, filled with plastic balls that fully grown adults can actually play in. It is reportedly very large and very fun, and is accompanied by a few dozen beach chairs.