Saturday, 6 August 2011
Picked Punks have been a part of every well stocked cabinet of curiosity and perhaps the most controversial of all sideshow exhibits. A ‘Pickled Punk’ is a sideshow term for a preserved human fetus, usually deformed and usually displayed as a specimen in a jar or other vessel.
The practice of preserving and displaying prodigious births is centuries old. In the 1600’s King Frederick III of Denmark has a personal collection of punks numbering in the thousands – a collection started in the 1500’s by Frederick II. and during that same timeframe Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist, had a collection consisting of eighteen thousand various specimens.
The deformities present in pickled punks are incredibly varied. As varied as the nature of human inflictions.
The earliest and most well documented pedigree for a deformed punk display dates back to 1582 when Mme Colombe Chatri died at the age of sixty-eight – and a twenty-eight year old fetus was removed from her womb. The Stone-Child of Sens should have been born in 1554, however labor came and went with no delivery and in the resulting decades the fetus was calcified and ossified within the womb – which actually formed a shell. Mme Chatri seemed to have lived a normal life, with the exception of regular abdominal pains. Following her death and the ‘delivery’ of the Stone-Child – naturalists clamored to claim the fetus and the right to display the tiny marvel. Jean d’Ailleboust wrote a detailed pamphlet in 1582 – complete with illustrations – about the case, which became an instant best seller. Pare featured the infant in his book Des monstres et prodiges and reveals that the child was sold to M. Prestesiegle, a wealthy merchant in the 1590’s. He sold it to a goldsmith named M. Carteron who in turn sold it in 1628 to M. Bodey, a jewel merchant complete with a sort of ‘certificate of authenticity’. In 1653, the Stone-Child came into the possession of King Frederick III as well as a handwritten copy of the d’Ailleboust paper. By this point, the child was heavily damaged, with both arms broken and the marble-like skin worn off in places.
The Stone-Child remained in the possession of the Royal Museum for decades, cataloged in 1696, 1710, 1737 and was transferred to the Danish Museum of Natural History in 1826. The Stone-Child went missing sometime in the late 1800’s – it is believed that is was literally scrapped by Professor Reinhardt when he was director of the museum as he believed it was not a ‘scientific display’.
Strangely enough, the Stone-Boy condition – known today as lithopedion – is not all that rare as some 290 cases exist in modern medical literature.
The classic pickled punk – floating in a jar of preserving fluid – became most popular during the golden age of sideshow and experienced a great resurgence in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During that era many punks were linked to drug abuse, at least in the banner lines outside. Several sideshows featured extensive punk displays – some authentic and others gaffed (faked). Following this era, laws began to restrict the display of punks. To complicate matters, laws differed from state to state – making traveling displays almost impossible. Furthermore, the question of whether punks qualify as ‘human remains’ further complicates the laws.
The great modern showman, Ward Hall, once had one of the largest punk shows in the United States. During one season he was fined due to the fact that the display of human remains was illegal in the state he had set up his show in. He replaced his punks with rubber replicas – called ‘bouncers’ – and continued his tour only to be fined again in another state for being a ‘conman’, displaying ‘fakes’ and ‘false advertising’.
While there are still a few stationary legitimate pickled punk shows in the sideshow tradition. Today the best place to find pickled punks is in research or university laboratories or medical museums – like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The world’s largest collection of pickled punks, once owned by Peter the Great, is currently on display at the Kuntskammer Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Friday, 5 August 2011
Scientists have identified the heat-sensitive facial nerves used by vampire bats to detect their next meal.The nerves allow bats to pinpoint where the blood flows closest to their prey's skin so they can feed more efficiently.
Vampire bats are among a handful of animals that use infrared sensors to locate their next meal, but are unique in the way they do it.
The findings are reported in the journal Nature.
- The Common Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus) is one of three species of vampire bat: The Hairy-legged Vampire Bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the White-winged Vampire Bat (Diaemus youngi)
- All three live in the Central and South America
- D. rotundus feeds mainly on domestic animals, using its razor sharp teeth to make small (5mm) cuts in their prey - most often around the neck or vulva - and secretes an anticoagulant into the wound so it can draw enough blood to the surface
- D. rotundus drinks its body weight in blood each night, secreting blood plasma in its urine as it feeds to lighten the load
- Scientists have developed a anti-clotting drug from the saliva of vampire bats that could help stroke patients
Native to Central and South America, the Common Vampire Bat, Desmodus rotundus, needs to take a sanguineous slurp every night to survive.Researchers believe that the bats rely solely on detecting their next meal in the dark by listening out for their prey's breathing.
Having located a prey individual the bats crawls along the ground and onto the animal.
Once atop their prey, the bats are capable of using their heat-adapted nerves in their upper lip and nose to detect blood up to 20cm under their prey's flesh.
The new finding has pinpointed the molecule that is responsible - heat-sensitive TRPV1. TRPV1, a protein, usually helps animals detect dangerously high temperatures (those over 43 degrees C), but in the bats, some of the TRPV1 molecules have been mutated into a version that is sensitive to lower temperatures, those around 30 degrees C.
Lots of blood-sucking animals search out their next meal using heat-detecting molecules, but they all seem to do it in a different way, said bat biologist, Brock Fenton from the University of Western Ontario, who was not involved in the work.
He said that perceptual world of bats undoubtedly has many more intriguing secrets.
Thursday, 4 August 2011
"They look a bit like a sabre-toothed sausage," says Dr Chris Faulkes, as we enter the naked mole rat laboratory at Queen Mary, University of London.Scuttling around in a maze of tubes are dozens of small rodents. They appear to be hairless, covered with wrinkly, pink skin and they have beady, black eyes. But the thing that really catches your attention is their enormous, protruding teeth.
At first glance, it's clear that Dr Faulkes' description is spot on.
"It's a really, really bizarre looking animal," admits the scientist, who has spent the past 20 years studying naked mole rats.
These rodents, which belong to the African mole rat family, are found in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.
They live in huge underground burrows, which goes some way to explaining why these creatures look like they do - they use their giant teeth to help them dig.
Dr Faulkes says: "They are amazingly well adapted to living underground."
Busy as a bee But it isn't just their unusual appearance that attracts attention: their behaviour is about as strange as it gets in the mammalian world.
For a start, these little creatures live in huge groups. On average, you will find colonies made up of 80-100 individuals, but sometimes they can grow to a 300-strong group.
More bizarre still is their social structure.
Dr Faulkes points to a mole rat that looks almost twice as large as any nearby. And it is clearly pushing around some of its punier companions."That's the queen," he says. "Even in these really huge colonies, there is only a single female that breeds. And she mates with one or two, or sometimes three, breeding males.
"And then the rest of the colony, of both sexes, have their reproduction suppressed and never ever breed."
But the sex-free mole rats have another job, he explains.
"The small ones tend to act as workers, so they carry out colony maintenance activities," says Dr Faulkes.
The larger animals seem to adopt a more defensive role, he adds, keeping predators, such as snakes, at bay.
And if this kind of set up sounds rather familiar, that's because it is.
Dr Faulkes explains: "They behave like the mammalian equivalent of a social insect - they have many, many similarities with bees, ants, wasps and termites."
Throw in on top of this the fact that naked mole rats also live for an unfeasibly long time for a small rodent - 30 years in captivity - and that they also seem to be resistant to cancer, so it is easy to see why scientists are so interested in them.
"There are so many aspects of their biology that are extreme," says Dr Faulkes.
He, working with neuroscientist Professor Clive Coen, from King's College London, and zoologist Professor Nigel Bennett, from the University of Pretoria, has used this as the basis to find out what lies behind the naked mole rats' behaviour, and in turn, to start to look at how this might relate to other mammals - including humans.
And one way that they have been doing this is to compare naked mole rats with another member of the African mole rat family, the Cape mole rat.
Where the naked mole rat is a highly social animal and forms long-term social bonds, especially between the queen and her select suitors, the Cape mole rat is solitary and aggressive, and sexually, rather promiscuous.
Dr Faulkes says: "They represent both ends of the spectrum in sociability."
Earlier research carried out on voles had suggested that differences in the way that receptors for two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, were expressed in the brain could make a huge impact on social behaviour, including determining whether a species was likely to be monogamous or promiscuous.
So the team decided to look at whether these hormones could also be linked to the differences in behaviour between the two mole rat species.
Dr Faulkes explains: "We found that the naked mole rats and the Cape mole rats had substantially different patterns.
"The solitary, highly aggressive Cape mole rats had their oxytocin receptors distributed in a different part of the brain to the naked mole rats, while the naked mole rats' oxytocin receptors were found in the same region as monogamous voles."
He added: "This is really telling us that these kinds of systems of differing patterns of distribution for the oxytocin receptors are an important part of what underlies different kinds of social behaviour across mammals."
And while this research has focussed on mole rats, other research groups have been looking at the effects of these hormones on humans, including a recent study that suggested men who inhaled oxytocin became as empathetic as women.
Dr Faulkes says: "It seems even in humans that such changes can actually alter human reproductive behaviour, such as how stable relationships are.
"Some people have even linked mutations in the oxytocin receptor gene to certain types of autism."
But scientists are not just looking at social behaviour. They also think that naked mole rats could help us to sniff out answers to a whole host of questions linked to the human condition.
Some researchers are trying to find out whether the animals hold the key to longevity; others are looking at the clues they might give us in the fight against cancer; while some scientists want to see if they can help us to answer questions about reproduction and fertility.
Dr Faulkes says: "Although it might seem a bit of a stretch of the imagination to go from a naked mole rat to humans, the underlying biology is very, very similar.
"And they are just so unusual and there are so many aspects of their biology that are extreme that they could help us to extend our knowledge across so many species and disciplines."
Wednesday, 3 August 2011
Foot binding was initially a rather mild and harmless practice, performed by women attempting replicating the look of imperial concubine practices – who danced with their feet tightly wrapped in silk. But, by the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911), feet were forcibly bound so tightly and so early in life that crippling deformations resulted. Due to the fact that these women were deprived of autonomy and required constant assistance, foot binding became something of a status symbol.
Beginning as early as age five, the process was long and painful. Due to the tight binding four toes on each foot would break and become highly deformed within a year. Eventually a high arch was formed; the foot would become concave and resemble a ‘lotus blossom’. The ideal total foot length was to be no longer than 10 cm (4 in).
The Xiaohuayuan Shoe Factory in Shanghai still occasionally takes custom tiny shoe orders to accommodate the aged population affected by foot binding. Quite recently, a 90-year-old woman in Shanghai received a new pair of shoes. The shoes were a New Year’s gift from her son and daughter-in-law.
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Smithsonian Magazine features a wonderful article on the ‘Tin Noses Shop’ of London. The London General Hospital’s Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, founded by sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, created astounding prosthetic faces for the wounded soldiers of World War I.
The prosthetic masks were actually fashioned of galvanized and lightweight copper and weighed as little as four ounces. The facial features were originally painted on with oils until artist Anna Coleman Ladd, who went on to head a similar facility in Paris, developed an enamel technique that was washable and had a highly realistic finish. She painted the mask while the man himself was wearing it, so as to match as closely as possible his own coloring. All skin hues and details were painstakingly done by hand and Details such as eyebrows, eyelashes and mustaches were made from real hair. Each mask was a quite literally a masterpiece and changed lives. As one soldier wrote to Ladd:
‘Thanks to you, I will have a home. The woman I love no longer finds me repulsive, as she had a right to do.’
It is truly a shame that today the only images of these men in their masks come from black-and-white photographs.
Monday, 1 August 2011
Tapping into drivers' brain signals can cut braking distances and avoid car crashes, according to scientists.Researchers at the Berlin Institute for Technology attached electrodes to the scalps of volunteers inside a driving simulator.
The system detected the intention to brake, and cut more than 3m (10ft) off stopping distances, the team report in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
The team's next aim is to check the system in a series of road tests.
The 18 volunteers were asked to keep 20m (66ft) behind the simulated car in front, which braked sharply at random intervals.
Scientists used a technique called electroencephalograhy (EEG) to analyse the drivers' brain signals.
The system was able to pinpoint the intention to brake 13 hundredths of a second before the driver applied pressure to the brakes.
The team reported that at a speed of 100km/h (65m/h) the braking distance was reduced by 3.66 meters (12 feet).
Computer scientist Stefan Haufe told BBC News: "We know that any intention is generated in the brain. So it's no wonder that such things are visible in the brain.
"We were surprised it is so predictive. That is the thing!"
Lead investigator Benjamin Blankertz added: "It's quite easily explained by the fact that we can tap the driver's intention at the source of the build up of intention in the brain.
"It's a longer process, from the very first upcoming cognitive processes and intention building, until finally the muscles start the movement."
The volunteers also had the muscle tension in their lower legs analysed to detect the first signs of leg motion before they released the accelerator and pushed the brake pedal.
This data enabled the scientists to analyse the EEG information to determine which parts of the brain are key to braking. They improved the detection system accordingly.
'Point of no return' The Institute of Physics says this is the first time that EEG has been used to assist in braking.
The technique is, however, already used to help paralysed people control computers, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs.
The researchers are planning to conduct road trials of their system to test its viability out of the lab.
But Benjamin Blankertz stressed that he suspects there may be some way to go before EEG can be used as a safety aid in real driving situations, not least because it requires the driver to wear a plastic cap with 64 electrodes covered in conductive gel.
This is uncomfortable, takes up to half an hour to fit, and the wearers have to wash the gel out of their hair afterwards. Smaller, more lightweight versions are in development.
The paper also mentions that wearers of EEG caps have to keep fairly still which is not always possible while driving, particularly when executing an emergency stop.
Dr Blankertz also said more work needs to be done on avoiding false alarms - to avoid the possibility that the machine could misread a drivers' brain signals and brake unnecessarily.
He said: "We need to investigate intention-building and decision-taking and self-initiated movement.
"Some recent research suggests that the outcome of free choices can be predicted from brain activity before the experimental subject is consciously aware of their intention.
"A technology that would make possible real time prediction of future decisions could be used to investigate how this relates to the so-called point of no return.
The team ultimately hopes to work with the automotive industry to combine their EEG technique with radar and laser systems that are used in some commercially available crash-avoidance systems, which detect obstacles such as walls, traffic signals and other vehicles.