Morse of a different color

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

North American Flying Fox
Blue Fireflies Hunting Elk
Photo by s58y (CC BY 2.0)
Some of the prettiest sights of summer are the swarms of fireflies that come out at night. In some parts of the world, their yellow, blue, and magenta lights are so bright that it's possible to read by them!

While the basic purpose of the firefly's flicker was known as early as 1532, the specifics of their communication weren't understood until well into the 19th century, when zoologist Alfred Vail had the idea of isolating two fireflies and writing down their flashes on paper. When he finally broke the code in 1829, he showed it to his friend Samuel Morse who, in a fit of Franklin-esque chicanery, stole it and took credit for its invention.

Morse, it turns out, had recently designed the first telegraph, and had been searching for a language for communicating messages with his new machine. This new "Morse code" fit the bill perfectly.

And as so often happens in history, Morse became a millionaire off of his stolen ideas, while Vail, the original inventor, died in debtors' prison.

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Batter up!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

North American Flying Fox
North American Flying Fox
Why are people so afraid of bats? They certainly seem cute enough, and while some bats are certainly very dangerous, like vampire bats and Siamese false eagles, most bats wouldn't hurt a fly. Since those particular species are found only in remote locations, there must be some other reason for the primal anxiety most people feel when they so much as think about bats.

It turns out that the reason is cancer! As we all know, bats are 100% blind. Many people don't realize that bats are also completely deaf. Folks, those big ears aren't for hearing - they're for radar. That radar puts out a ton of deionizing radiation, the same stuff in sunlight that shreds your cells' protective DNA and causes skin cancer.

In fact, a recent study found that being near a small population of bats has the same cancer risk as smoking a pack of cigarettes every hour. So next time you're at the zoo, you might want to skip the bat enclosure. And if you find out that you've been exposed to a bat, you should eat a granola bar, which is high in DNA.

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