'Did you Know' is contributed monthly by David Thorne
AUGUST 2022 Guest contributor: Vanessa Harvey
The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering in the billions. The common name was derived from the French word passager, meaning “passing by” in reference to the birds’ incredible migratory behaviour.
Passenger Pigeons roosted in huge hordes in the deciduous forests of the North-East and migrated constantly in search of shelter or mast (nuts and fruit). Sometimes when migrating flocks passed overhead it was reported to have “hidden the sun for hours.” Apparently as the flocks approached, the sound could easily be mistaken for thunder, or even tramping horses with sleigh bells!
Throughout the 19th century many Americans witnessed these massive migrations of millions of birds and in 1866 one such mass aerial migration reportedly took 14 hours to pass and was estimated as 1.5 kilometres wide and 500 kilometres long! In 1831 the American naturalist John Audubon even wrote, “The light of the sun was obscured as by an eclipse”!
By 1850, due to rapid loss of habitat and mass hunting with nets and shotguns, the pigeon numbers were in steady decline. (Simply shooting a shotgun upwards into a passing flock without really aiming could allegedly kill up to 6 birds.)
It was not understood or believed that this beautiful creature could ever be wiped out because of human actions, yet the Passenger Pigeon became extinct by 1914. Conservation attempts were far too little and too late.
Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, was aged 17 years when she died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
The Turing Test was first proposed by Alan Turing in 1950. It is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or at least indistinguishable from, that of a human.
The story behind Turing’s brilliance, his contribution to the Allied efforts in World War II by cracking the German Enigma code, and the personal tragedy surrounding his untimely death was made common knowledge by the 2014 film “The Imitation Game” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. (The film followed an earlier book and a television docudrama about Turing.)
These days when you attempt to subscribe online, complete an order for goods or a financial transaction, you are often challenged with a sort of Turing Test to try to weed out submissions generated by computer-based artificial intelligence. Even this M.A.L.A. website now confronts you with such a test if you wish to send through an email or apply on-line to be added to our mailing list.
To ‘prove’ that you are human, you may be faced with a simple challenge which ranges from “click here”, spell a word, do a simple calculation, or differentiate photographs depending on what you can identify in the images.
The most common of such challenges is called a “CAPTCHA” and I had always assumed that “captcha” was little more than a clumsy representation of the idea of “capturing” or maybe “catching” out sneaky attempts by a computer to make a pretence of humanity. After all, “captcha” is a little bit like “Aha, I got ya”!
It turns out that CAPTCHA is a totally contrived acronym standing for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.
(Without using this form of Turing Test, our M.A.L.A. website would run the risk of being swamped with unsolicited nuisance emails.)
Metamorphosis is the naturally-occurring transition from one life-form to an anatomically and physiologically different insect or animal. One of the most dramatic metamorphic changes is from a swimming fish-like tadpole to the familiar land-dwelling frog.
As early as 1912 the effect of thyroid hormones in triggering amphibian metamorphosis had been discovered.
A long time ago a precocious young school student was frustrated by not being able to take biology class in a country town where the school curriculum was limited by resources. In response to this prohibition the student borrowed and read the biology textbook in its entirety, and with further reading uncovered a claim that by combining Tincture of Iodine solution with some simple household ingredients he could synthesize a substance to mimic the action of thyroid hormone.
He surreptitiously added a few drops to the aquarium where the real biology class were observing and documenting the gradual and supposedly predictable development of frogs from tadpoles.
To the student’s delight, and the bewilderment of his schoolmates, the tiny tadpoles promptly and prematurely grew little legs!
Several years later the former biology saboteur became quite good friends with the biology teacher, but “Mr. Rogers” never did tell me how he had explained away to his biology class the unexpected emergence of the tiny froglets!
(Quite different hormones are involved in stimulating the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly.)
The face of the CPR dummy that nearly everyone around the world uses for CPR training, nicknamed “Rescue Anne”, or in Australia “Resusci Anne”, was modelled off the death mask of an unidentified young woman pulled from the River Seine in Paris in the late 1880s.
Her death was never really explained, but fostered by her ethereal smile and serene beauty, stories abounded of an assumed suicide because of unrequited love.
The death mask was created for public display to assist the police in trying to identify her. While she was never identified, the general public were so taken by her beauty that the mask was copied and distributed around Europe.
Eventually, in 1958, her face was used to model the CPR dummy still widely used around the world today. A wonderful irony that the face of death could be playing a part in saving lives well over a century later?
Last month we learned that the aboriginal word for fire, “wingen" was adopted to name Mount Wingen, also known locally as “Burning Mountain.”
Lake Wendouree, an artificially created and maintained shallow urban lake in Ballarat, was originally nothing more than a natural swamp, full of reeds.
It is alleged that when an early white settler asked a local aboriginal woman what the name of the swamp was, she replied, “wendaaree".
The area was subsequently surveyed and the name “Wendouree” recorded for it.
It turns out that “wendaaree” in the local aboriginal language simply meant, “go away”!
The swamp was turned into a shallow lake in the 1850’s and famously hosted the rowing and canoeing events in the 1956 Summer Olympics.
Mount Wingen in New South Wales is better known as “Burning Mountain”. (The word “Wingen” is aboriginal for “fire”.)
Burning Mountain is about 224km north of Sydney and takes its name from a smouldering coal seam running underground through the sandstone. It is located within the Burning Mountain Nature Reserve.
European explorers and settlers to the area believed the sulphurous smoke, coming from the ground, was volcanic in origin. Apparently, there was considerable excitement generated by a Sydney newspaper headline appearing in 1828 that Australia had its own active volcano!
A year later geologist Reverend C. P. N. Wilton identified it as an underground coal seam fire, which is now estimated to have been burning continuously for at least 6,000 years – making it the longest-duration coal fire in the world.
So, are there really any active volcanoes in Australia?
There are two active volcanoes located 4000 kilometres south-west of Perth in the Australian Antarctic Territory: Heard Island and the nearby McDonald Islands.
And for those with a long memory, the story of Burning Mountain was told towards the latter part of the very first episode of “Ask the Leyland Brothers”! Watch on YouTube
Last month we talked about venomous animals and insects on the Australian continent, but what about in the ocean? There are more venomous fish in the sea than there are venomous snakes on land, in fact, the 1200 venomous fish species are more than the sum total of all other venomous vertebrates. (We are not including venomous jellyfish here – jellyfish are invertebrates related to corals and sea anemones.)
The deadliest is the Stonefish. It is a well-camouflaged fish that rests among rocks and is notoriously difficult to spot. It has a row of 13 spines along its back, each incredibly sharp, stiff and shaped like a hypodermic needle connected to venom sacs in the back of the fish. The spines are so sharp they have been known to pierce right through the soles of shoes. Stonefish are said to survive out of water for up to 24 hours by absorbing oxygen through their skin, so the rock-like creatures exposed by the ebb and flow of the tide on our northern reefs may frequently pose a significant danger.
Human exposure to the venom causes intense pain, shock, paralysis and localized tissue destruction. The Reef Stonefish is widely acknowledged as the most venomous fish in the world and is believed to have killed many Pacific and Indian Ocean islanders.
Incredibly, no deaths have been recorded in Australia since European arrival (Underhill, 1987). An antivenene developed in 1959 further reduces the likelihood of death.
Despite this, many people suffer the intense agony of a sting every year. Very hot water (not scalding) can be used to relieve the pain, but prompt medical treatment should also be sought.
Australia has quite a bad reputation (especially in the U.K.) when it comes to the risk to humans from venomous insects and animals. Our wide brown land is estimated to have some 66 venomous species, though compare that with Mexico 80 and Brazil 79.
Data on admissions to hospital as a result of encounters with venomous Australians reveal you should be at least as concerned about bees as you are about snakes!
Over 41,000 Australians needed to be admitted for treatment in the years 2000-2013: 31% from hornets, wasps and bees, 30% from spider bites (mostly redbacks) and a far fewer 15% from snakes.
Stings from bees and wasps were the most frequent cause of hospitalisation, yet the fewer snake bites proved more likely to be fatal. While there were no recorded deaths from spider bites in that decade, bees and wasps were responsible for exactly the same number of deaths as snake bite – each recording 27 fatalities! Western Australia ranks second (after S.A.) as the riskiest state for fatal bee stings, and men are a far more likely to be stung than women. In most cases bee stings occurred in or close to the home. It might pay us all to bee more careful!
In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, there’s an iconic scene where the witches are concocting a special brew and reciting the ingredients.
While the ingredients all sound pretty horrific to us, only one is unusual. Additives like “eye of newt” and “wool of bat” are simply archaic names (in common use at the time) for old herbs and plants like mustard seeds and holly leaves.
The one unfamiliar ingredient is “blind-worm’s sting”. The blindworm, however, is a well-known name (even today) for a legless lizard Anguis Fragilis commonly found in the United Kingdom and across parts of Europe and Asia. It is also known as a slow-worm and is frequently seen in British back yards where it helps to control small pests. This very long-living lizard looks like, and can be mistaken for a snake, but it is not aggressive, and its bite is certainly not venomous.
So, Mr. Shakespeare, your “blind-worm’s sting” is non-existent.
For further information go to:
Identical twins share the same DNA profile and should therefore be indistinguishable from each other in all respects, shouldn’t they?
In truth, though a fertilised egg has split into two leading to the development of two ‘identical’ foetuses, from that moment of duplication some changes may start to creep in.
Genetic changes, and in particular expression of genes may vary between the two developing humans because of environmental differences in the womb, nutritional variations after birth, and by pure chance.
So, while identical twins do return exactly the same genetic profile there may be minor variations in their physical appearance and emotional characteristics.
Interestingly, one characteristic always different is the fingerprints! Your prints are not determined by your genetics, but by environmental stresses in the womb, which are different for everyone, even for those of us who might have shared a womb with an identical twin!
Only four animals are known to demonstrate displacement. Displacement is the ability to communicate about objects or events that are distant in both time and space!
Displacement (though you may not have thought much about it) is clearly something we as humans frequently do. We ‘imagine’ a person, object or space not where we are now, and how things may have been different in the past or will change into the future.
Do you know what three other species of animal have been shown to possess this capability?
Ravens are larger-bodied birds of the species Corvus, distributed in most parts of the world, including the Australian Raven found here in WA. They are widely acknowledged as intelligent, and display behaviours only explainable by acknowledging their capacity to plan and problem solve. Apart from sounds, ravens also communicate by using their beaks and wings (much like humans rely on our hands) to make gestures, such as for pointing to an object.
Bees perform a waggle-dance to communicate to other bees the location of the most recent food source they have visited. They have not clearly demonstrated the ability to communicate additional variations in time other than their most recent successful foray.
Ants have been observed sending out scouts to patrol for food items and coming back for other workers if the food found is too large to bring to the nest by the finder alone; for example, a dead caterpillar that is too heavy. The ants communicate using a system composed of olfactory or scent clues from several glands together with body movements.
Some other animals, like squirrels, mice and beavers, gather and store extra food to eat during the lean winter months, but without evidence of communicating where the food cache is, they fall short of a strict definition of displacement.
If you want to know more about our local ravens (and how they differ from crows) go to: https://www.waystonature.com.au/a-conundrum-of-corvids/
Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet are the colours of the rainbow. They are the colours we use to describe the natural sequence of wavelengths of visible light in our physical world.
So where does magenta come from and fit in?
What is the wavelength in the visible spectrum of light of the colour we call magenta?
Magenta has no specific wavelength on the spectrum; it is a ‘made up’ mixture of light of two different wavelengths, red and violet/blue (containing no green) that our eyes physically recognise and psychologically perceive as a distinct colour!
Magenta took its name from an aniline dye made and patented in 1859 by the French chemist François-Emmanuel Verguin, who originally called it fuchsine because it was the colour of the fuchsia flower.
It was renamed to celebrate the Italian-French victory at the Battle of Magenta fought between the French and Austrians on June 4, 1859, near the Italian town of Magenta in Lombardy.
If you have an ink-jet printer, the four coloured inks that allow it to print all the known colours of the visible spectrum are yellow, black, cyan (a bluish colour) and magenta!
Do you want to participate in the Olympics? The Google Chrome web browser has long had a “secret” dinosaur game that appears if you open the browser when you don’t have a connection to the internet. It’s a pretty simple game, more suited for the littlies really, but you might earn some “brownie points” (and credibility) by showing it to your grandkids!
If you want to try it (even when you might not be disconnected from the internet) you should open your Chrome web browser. Now type into the search window:
If you are on a computer, pressing the space-bar will set the dino running forward, and you tap the space-bar to “jump” T-Rex over obstacles.
On a phone or tablet, tapping the dino has the same effect.
What about the Olympics? Well, the fun-loving makers of the cactus-jumping dino incorporated a range of new obstacles and activities in keeping with the “2020 Summer Olympics” while they were being held in Tokyo in 2021. At the time, obstacles and the dino attire were tailored for gymnastics, surfing, track & field, swimming and equestrian sports. (The Olympics are now over, and we’re back to leaping cacti!)
You can still enjoy the dino with the grandkids…!
The very different metric and imperial systems of measurement are a common source of confusion.
Almost all of the world’s countries now use metric measures: centimetres, kilometres, grams, degrees-Celsius for temperature and newtons of force etcetera. One notable exception is the United States of America which still widely uses imperial units of measure: inches, miles, pounds, degrees-Fahrenheit and pound-force.
In December 1998 NASA launched its Mars Climate Orbiter intended to orbit Mars and report observations back to Earth scientists. As it approached the planet, course direction and speed were measured by the spacecraft and radioed to Earth in metric units, but the software in the US read the numbers as imperial units, performed calculations and relayed back course correction instructions that were ‘out’ by a factor of 4.45 times. The intended final rocket-burn on 23rd September 1999 was calculated on where NASA thought Mars Climate Orbiter should be, but it was really much closer to Mars, already nudging the Mars atmosphere.
What was intended to insert the craft into a safe orbit, instead pushed it into an atmospheric dive and resulted in its complete destruction! The end result was the total loss of a US $327.6 MILLION spacecraft and the mission! Not only embarrassing, but a very expensive lesson! This is not the only example of a disaster attributed to mistaken units of measure, but certainly is the costliest in dollar terms.
Postscript: Myanmar has recently announced it will adopt the metric unit system, leaving only Liberia and the USA holding on to the imperial system of measures…
JUNE 2021 Guest contributor: Helen Formentin
"Being on tenter hooks" actually reaches back to one of the processes relating to the cloth weavers of pre-industrial Northern England.
All Weavers' cottages had a third floor which was completely closed off from the main house by a large trapdoor, containing a large loom and used exclusively for producing cloth 'pieces'. These were then sent to the town's "Piece Hall" to be sold at weekly intervals; the larger the cloth, the more income they made.
In order to stretch these fabric pieces as much as possible, each weaver had, at the back of his house, a large "tenter frame" consisting of wooden rails on either side with iron hooks inserted at intervals for attaching the cloth. Each 'piece' would be dampened, attached to the hooks, and stretched out as widely as possible until dry.
So when we say that "we're on tenter hooks" we are usually stretched to the limit and in a state of suspense or agitation while awaiting the outcome of a future event.
Mother’s Day is celebrated on the 2nd Sunday of May in many countries around the world, though many religions have different calendar dates recognising and celebrating mothers.
The secular Mother’s Day was founded by Anna Jarvis in Virginia, USA in 1907 and she specified Mother’s Day be written as a singular possessive to denote each individual family recognising their own mother, not a plural possessive for all mothers around the world. She decried the commercialisation of the celebration and insisted that was never her intention.
In Soviet-era Russia the award of the “Order of Maternal Glory” was bestowed upon any woman who gave birth to and raised seven or more children! The order was divided into three classes. 1st (9+ children), 2nd (8 children) and 3rd class (7 children)!
My own mother (not Russian) was one of ten siblings, but the recent trend in Australia is for mothers to have fewer children. In recent decades the average number of children being born in Australia has fallen below that needed to maintain a stable population.
Happy Mother’s Day for 9th May.
'One bad apple spoils the barrel', is usually taken to mean that a bad person, policy, etc, can ruin everything around it.
Versions of this proverb can be found as far back as the early 16th century. In “The Cook’s Tale” from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, an apprentice chef named Perkin is asked to be let go from servitude on the rationale that his habits of drinking, vice, and debauchery will rub off on his colleagues.
Some would call the phrase an “idiom” – implying that its’ meaning is different from what the words suggest.
But it turns out that from an agricultural sense it is scientifically accurate: apples emit ethylene gas when they ripen, and an over-ripe apple will emit enough ethylene gas to rapidly over-ripen and spoil the surrounding apples.
February, thanks to its generally short length of 28 days sometimes misses out on having a full moon occurring within the month. It’s rare though, occurring only about four times in a century. Much, much rarer is a 29-day February (in a leap year) without any full Moon. According to Peter Macdonald (Journal of the British Astronomical Association, December 1998, page 324), this oddity occurred in 1608 and won’t happenagain until 2572. Don’t wait up for it!
And in case you were wondering, we certainly did have a full moon in February 2021 - on Saturday the 27th, the day I published this.
How long is it since you had a “light bulb moment”?
Did you know the use of an electric light bulb as a symbol for a great idea (typically a bulb turning on over one’s head) first appeared and was popularised by the animated character Felix the Cat.
Felix the Cat was created in Australia in 1919 by Pat Sullivan (Australian) and Otto Messmer (American) and then went on to become the most popular cartoon character of the silent-film era!
The light bulb emoji (used in modern-day electronic messaging such as SMS and email) is commonly used to represent ideas, thinking, and learning.
All very fitting for MALA in 2021…
Scientifically, starfish are classed as Asteroidea even though asteroids are certainly not stars; asteroids are small rocky objects that frequently orbit around stars or planets. Starfish are also not fish; they are echinoderms, closely related to sea urchins and sand dollars. The scientific community prefer the name “Sea Stars” to emphasize their non-piscine status!
The majority of starfish that we are familiar with have 5 arms, but some have more than that. There are species of starfish with 6, 7, 10, 20 and even more than 50 arms!
Here are a few more“Did you Know” facts to tell the grandchildren:
- Starfish have one eye on the tip ofeach arm.
- Starfish have no centralised brain, but they do possess a complex nervous system with a nerve ring around the mouth and extensions into each of their arms.
- Starfish have no blood but have a circulatory system that uses filtered seawater.
- Starfish are mostly carnivores!
- Starfish are usually able to regenerate a severed arm (and there are even several species capable of regenerating a whole new body from just a portion of a severed arm!)
- Starfish normally live up to 35 years in the ocean, butvery often die afterbeing handled by humans or taken out of water for even a short time…
The message should be tolook, enjoy, marvel, but please do not touch!
The word “Christmas” means “Mass of Christ,” later shortened to “Christ-Mass.” The even shorter form “Xmas” – first used in Europe in the 1500s – is derived from the Greek alphabet, in which X is the first letter of Christ’s name: Xristos, therefore “X-Mass.”
Today we know that Christ was not born on the 25th of December. The date was chosen to coincide with the pagan Roman celebrations honouring Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light), a form of sun worship. These celebrations came on or justafter the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, to celebrate that winter is not forever, that lifecontinues, and an invitation to stayin good spirit.
Happy Xmas all.
It’s not over until the race has been won!
In 1923, horse jockey Frank Hayes suffered a heart attack in the middle of a race at Belmont Park, New York. His horse, a 20-1 outsider named ‘Sweet Kiss’ finished the race with Hayes body still in the saddle and, in the process, made Hayes the only jockey in history to win a race posthumously.
Hayes was thought to have died of a heart attack; indeed, it was only realised he was dead when officials and the horse’s owner, Miss A.M. Frayling rushed up to offer congratulations! The horse never raced again; it is alleged the mare was subsequently nicknamed ‘Sweet Kiss of Death’!
You can re-live the experience from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz by typing its name into the Google search bar?
If you don’t have a Google search bar on your regular internet home page, navigate to google.com.au first. In the search box type “The Wizard of Oz”. Over to the right you should find Dorothy’s sparkling ruby red slippers. Click on them and you will be whisked away…
If you then click on the spinning tornado, Dorothy’s Home (and all the colours on your page) will return safely.
Though Dorothy’s magic slippers appeared ruby red in the movie, they were originally described as silver in the book from which the film was adapted!
If you are going to show this one to the grandkids, make sure the sound is turned on ;-).
The phrase, “comparing apples and oranges” is well-known to describe comparing two items that are so dis-similar that any comparison is invalid. It is natural to assume the two very different fruits are iconic, well-known and as old as the Garden of Eden! (I presume the apple was certainly that old!)
Did you know the orangeis not an original fruit at all? It turns out the orange (technically a “sweet orange”)arose as a hybrid between two original citrus species, the pomelo (a native of south-east Asia) and the mandarin. The first mention of sweet orange in literature was in China approximately 314 BC.
The orange has now become easily the most popular citrus fruit in the world.
On Friday April 18th 1930 the listeners of the BBC’s radio news service were treated to something a little bit different. The BBC simply announced that there was no news for the day and played piano musicinstead! Are there some moments during this troubled year when we might wish for a similar day?
Harry Selfridge pioneered the practice of placing perfume counters near the entrance to department stores….. way backin the 1900s?
He founded the iconic Selfridges Department Store on London’s Oxford Street in 1909 and the location of perfumery was partly to make the store attractive to customers, but more importantly to mask the smell of horse manure pervading London’s streets at the time!
By 1912 the number of motorised vehicles in London had surpassed the number of horse-drawn vehicles. The proliferation of motor cars over the next decade changed London streets, and the smell of them, completely. Yet the placement of perfumecounters at department store entrances remains quite commonplace to this day, including in many Australian cities.
A bit of history this month. The royal crown of Romania is not made of precious metals as are the crowns of many countries’ royalty, but of steel harvested from a cannon captured from the Ottoman Empire during Romania’s War of Independence (1877-1878).
Do you make a distinction betweentyposand misspellings, or is that just me? For example, “regualr” is a typo while “redfridgerator” is a misspelling. The former is a mechanical error while the latter demonstrates a lack of specific knowledge. These days many of ususe word processing software that should identify possible errors. In Microsoft Word for example, common typos may beautomatically corrected, and misspellings are highlighted by a red underline. No excuses then!
Antarctica is the only land mass on our planet not owned by any country. Ninety percent of the world's ice covers Antarctica. This ice also represents 70% of all the fresh water in the world. As strange as it sounds, however, Antarctica is essentially a desert; the average annual precipitation is only about two inches. Although covered with ice (all but 0.4% of Antarctica is ice-covered), Antarctica is actually the driest place on our planet with an absolute humidity lower than thatof the Gobi Desert.
Pen knives are diminutive pocketknives with small sharp blades. They derive their name fromtheir original purpose: to slice through quill tips thus turning them into writing pens.
An initialism is a type of acronym where you pronounce the letters individually instead of pronouncing them as a word. ASIO, MALA and ABC are all acronyms, but only ABC is an initialism.
The month of January derives its name from the Roman god “Janus”,associated with transitions, the passage of time, duality, passages, doorways, gates, endings and new beginnings.The latter is particularly applicable as we launch this new MALA website.