How a Virus Spreads, and How to Avoid It: A Former NASA Engineer Demonstrates with a Blacklight in a Classroom

The past few weeks have reminded us just why viruses have been such a formidable enemy of humanity for so long. Though very few of the countless viruses in existence affect us in any way, let alone a lethal one, we can't see them without microscopes. And so when a deadly virus breaks out, we live our daily lives with an invisible killer in our midst. Aggressive testing, as several coronavirus-afflicted countries have proven, does much to lower the rate of transmission. But how, exactly, does transmission happen? In the video above, Youtuber Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer and Apple product designer, demonstrates the process vividly by taking a blacklight into that most diseased of all environments: the elementary-school classroom.

You can't see viruses under a blacklight, but you can see the special powder that Rober applies to the hands of the class's teacher. At the beginning of the school day, the teacher shakes the hand of just three kids, touching none of the others, and by lunchtime — a couple of hours after Rober powders the hands of one more student during morning break — the blacklight reveals the "germs" everywhere.




This despite fairly diligent hand-washing, albeit hand-washing unaccompanied by the disinfection of surfaces, cellphones, and other objects in and parts of the classroom. "Even if a virus is spread through airborne transmission," Rober says, "those tiny droplets don't stay in the air for long. Then they land on surfaces, waiting to be touched by our hands." This leads him to the declaration that "the ultimate defense against catching a virus is: just don't touch your face."

Rober calls your eyes, nose, and mouth "the single weak spot on the Death Star when it comes to viruses. That's the only way they can get in to infect you." Hence, here in the time of COVID-19, the frequent urgings not just to wash our hands but to refrain from touching our faces as well. Increasingly many of us have become hyper-aware of our own "germ hygiene," as Rober calls it, but the other half of the battle against the pandemic must be institutional: school closures, for example, one of which was announced over the PA system during this very video's shoot. "Because of this virus, we are going to be closing school for three weeks," says the principal, not without a note of excitement in his voice — but an excitement hardly comparable to the subsequent explosion of joy among the third-graders listening. Challenging though this time may be, children like these remind us to take our fun wherever we find it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

Depending on how you feel about cats, the feline situation on the island of Cyprus is either the stuff of a delightful children’s story or a horror film to be avoided at all cost.

Despite being surrounded on all sides by water, the cat population—an estimated 1.5 million—currently outnumbers human residents. The overwhelming majority are feral, though as we learn in the above episode of PBS’ EONS, they, too, can be considered domesticated. Like the other 600,000,000-some living members of Felis Catus on planet Earth—which is to say the type of beast we associate with litterboxes, laser pointers, and Tender Vittles—they are descended from a single subspecies of African wildcat, Felis Silvestris Lybica.

While there’s no single narrative explaining how cats came to dominate Cyprus, the story of their global domestication is not an uncommon one:

An ancient efficiency expert realized that herding cats was a much better use of time than hunting them, and the idea quickly spread to neighboring communities.




Kidding. There’s no such thing as herding cats (though there is a Chicago-based cat circus, whose founder motivates her skateboard-riding, barrel-rolling, high-wire-walking stars with positive reinforcement...)

Instead, cats took a commensal path to domestication, lured by their bellies and celebrated curiosity.

Ol’ Felis (Felix!) Silvestris (Sufferin’ Succotash!Lybica couldn’t help noticing how human settlements boasted generous supplies of food, including large numbers of tasty mice and other rodents attracted by the grain stores.

Her inadvertent human hosts grew to value her pest control capabilities, and cultivated the relationship… or at the very least, refrained from devouring every cat that wandered into camp.

Eventually, things got to the point where one 5600-year-old specimen from northwestern China was revealed to have died with more millet than mouse meat in its system—a pet in both name and popular sentiment.

Chow chow chow.

Interestingly, while today’s house cats' gene pool leads back to that one sub-species of wild mackerel-tabby, it’s impossible to isolate domestication to a single time and place.

Both archeological evidence and genome analysis support the idea that cats were domesticated both 10,000 years ago in Southwest Asia... and then again in Egypt 6500 years later.

At some point, a human and cat traveled together to Cyprus and the rest is history, an Internet sensation and an if you can’t beat em, join em tourist attraction.

Such high end island hotels as Pissouri’s Columbia Beach Resort and TUI Sensatori Resort Atlantica Aphrodite Hills in Paphos have started catering to the ever-swelling numbers of uninvited, four-legged locals with a robust regimen of healthcare, shelter, and food, served in feline-specific tavernas.

An island charity known as Cat P.A.W.S. (Protecting Animals Without Shelter) appeals to visitors for donations to defray the cost of neutering the massive feral population.

Sometimes they even manage to send a furry Cyprus native off to a new home with a foreign holidaymaker.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Medical Student Creates Intricate Anatomical Embroideries of the Brain, Heart, Lungs & More

My first thought upon seeing the delicate, anatomy-based work of the 23-year-old embroidery artist and medical student Emmi Khan was that the Girl Scouts must have expanded the categories of skills eligible for merit badges.

(If memory serves, there was one for embroidery, but it certainly didn’t look like a cross-sectioned brain, or a sinus cavity.)

Closer inspection revealed that the circular views of Khan’s embroideries are not quite as tiny as the round badges stitched to high achieving Girl Scouts’ sashes, but rather still framed in the wooden hoops that are an essential tool of this artist’s trade.

Methods both scientific and artistic are a source of fascination for Khan, who began taking needlework inspiration from anatomy as an undergrad studying biomedical sciences. As she writes on her Moleculart website:

Science has particular methods: it is fundamentally objective, controlled, empirical. Similarly, art has particular methods: there is an emphasis on subjectivity and exploration, but there is also an element of regulation regarding how art is created... e.g. what type of needle to use to embroider or how to prime a canvas.

The procedures and techniques adopted by scientists and artists may be very different. Ultimately, however, they both have a common aim. Artists and scientists both want to 1) make sense of the vastness around them in new ways, and 2) present and communicate it to others through their own vision. 

A glimpse at the flowers, intricate stitches, and other dainties that populate her Pinterest boards offers a further peek into Khan’s methods, and might prompt some readers to pick up a needle themselves, even those with no immediate plans to embroider a karyotype or The Circle of Willis, the circular anastomosis of arteries at the base of the brain.

The Cardiff-based medical student delights in embellishing her threaded observations of internal organs with the occasional decorative element—sunflowers, posies, and the like…

She makes herself available on social media to answer questions on subjects ranging from embroidery tips to her relationship to science as a devout Muslim, and to share works in progress, like a set of lungs that embody the Four Seasons, commissioned by a customer in the States.

To see more of Emmi Khan’s work, including a downloadable anatomical floral heart embroidery pattern, visit Molecularther Instagram page, or her Etsy shop.

via Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Plants Emit High-Pitched Sounds When They Get Cut, or Stressed by Drought, a New Study Shows

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Are plants sentient? We know they sense their environments to a significant degree; like animals, they can "see" light, as a New Scientist feature explains. They “live in a very tactile world,” have a sense of smell, respond to sound, and use taste to “sense danger and drought and even to recognize relatives.” We’ve previously highlighted research here on how trees talk to each other with chemical signals and form social bonds and families. The idea sets the imagination running and might even cause a little paranoia. What are they saying? Are they talking about us?

Maybe we deserve to feel a little uneasy around plant life, given how ruthlessly our consumer economies exploit the natural world. Now imagine we could hear the sounds plants make when they’re stressed out. In addition to releasing volatile chemicals and showing “altered phenotypes, including changes in color, smell, and shape,” write the authors of a new study published at bioRxiv, it’s possible that plants “emit airborne sounds [their emphasis] when stressed—similarly to many animals.”




The researchers who tested this hypothesis at Tel Aviv University “found that tomato and tobacco plants made sounds at frequencies humans cannot hear,” New Scientist reports. “Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team say insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away.”

The plants made these sounds when stressed by lack of water or when their stems were cut. Tomato plants stressed by drought made an average of 35 sounds per hour. Tobacco plants, on average, made 11. Unstressed plants, by contrast, “produced fewer than one sound per hour.” The scientists used machine learning to distinguish between different kinds of distress calls, as it were, and different kinds of plants, “correctly identifying in most cases whether the stress was caused by dryness or a cut,” and they conducted the experiments in both closed acoustic chambers and a greenhouse.

Plants do not, of course, have vocal cords or auditory systems. But they do experience a process known as “cavitation,” in which “air bubbles form, expand and explode in the xylem, causing vibrations,” the paper explains. These vibrations have been recorded in the past by direct, contact-based methods. This new study, which has yet to pass peer review, might be the first to show how plants might use sound to communicate with each other and with other living organisms, suggesting “a new modality of signaling.”

The possibilities for future research are fascinating. We might learn, for example, that “if plants emit sounds in response to a caterpillar attack, predators such as bats could use these sounds to detect attacked plants and prey on the herbivores, thus assisting the plant.” And just as trees are able to respond to each other's distress when they’re connected in a forest, “plants could potentially hear their drought stressed or injured neighbors and react accordingly”—however that might be.

Much remains to be learned about the sensory lives of plants. Whether their active calls and responses to the stimuli around them are indicative of a kind of consciousness seems like a philosophical as much as a biological question. But “even if the emission of the sounds is entirely involuntary,” the researchers write (seeming to leave room for plant volition), it’s a phenomenon that counts as a form of communication: maybe even what we might someday call plant language, different from species to species and, perhaps, between individual plants themselves.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chill Out to 70 Hours of Oceanscape Nature Videos Filmed by BBC Earth

Those who harbor a deep-seated fear of the water may want to look for other methods of stress relief than BBC Earth’s relaxing 10-hour video loops, but everyone else is encouraged to take a dip in these stunning natural worlds, presented without commentary or background music.

All seven 10-hour playlists are salt-water based: coral reefscoastlinesdeep oceanopen ocean, frozen seasocean surfaces, and sea forests.

As in most compelling nature documentaries, non-human creatures loom large, but unlike such BBC Earth offerings as Creepiest Insect Moments or Ants Attack Termite Mounds, there’s a benign, live-and-let-live vibe to the proceedings.




Unsurprisingly, the photography is breathtaking, and the uses of these marathon-length portraits are manifold: meditation tool, sleep aid, child soother, social media decompressor, travelogue, and—less calmingly—call to action.

Science tells us that many of these life forms, and the ocean in which they dwell, are in serious danger, thanks to decades of human disregard for the environment. This is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in what we stand to lose while it’s still possible to do something about it.

If that thought seems too depressing, there’s also strong scientific evidence that nature documentaries such as these promote increased feelings of wellbeing

What are you waiting for?

Click here to travel the oceans with polar bears, jellyfish, dolphins, seahorses, brightly colored tropical fish and other creatures of the deep, compliments of BBC’s Earth’s Oceanscapes playlists.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Download 435 High Resolution Images from John J. Audubon’s The Birds of America

In our experience, bird lovers fall into two general categories:

Keenly observant cataloguers like John James Audubon …

And those of us who cannot resist assigning anthropomorphic personalities and behaviors to the 435 stars of Audubon's The Birds of America, a stunning collection of prints from life-size watercolors he produced between 1827 and 1838.

Our suspicions have little to do with biology, but rather, a certain zestiness of expression, an overemphatic beak, a droll gleam in the eye.

The Audubon Society’s newly redesigned website abounds with treasure for those in either camp:

Free high res downloads of all 435 plates.

Mp3s of each specimen’s call.

And vintage commentary that effectively splits the difference between science and the unintentionally humorous locutions of another age.

Take for instance, the Burrowing Owl, as described by self-taught naturalist Thomas Say (1787-1834):

It is delightful, during fine weather, to see these lively little creatures sporting about the entrance of their burrows, which are always kept in the neatest repair, and are often inhabited by several individuals. When alarmed, they immediately take refuge in their subterranean chambers; or, if the dreaded danger be not immediately impending, they stand near the brink of the entrance, bravely barking and flourishing their tails, or else sit erect to reconnoitre the movements of the enemy.

The notes of ornithologist John Kirk Townsend (1809 – 1851) suggest that not everyone was as taken with the species as Say (who was, in all fairness, the father of American entomology):

Nothing can be more unpleasant than the bagging of this species, on account of the fleas with which their plumage swarms, and which in all probability have been left in the burrow by the Badger or Marmot, at the time it was abandoned by these animals. I know of no other bird infested by that kind of vermin. 

The Common Gallinule, above, suggests that there's often more to these birds than meets the eye. His somewhat sheepish looking countenance belies the red hot love life Audubon recounts:

… the manifestations of their amatory propensity were quite remarkable. The male birds courted the females, both on the land and on the water; they frequently spread out their tail like a fan, and moved round each other, emitting a murmuring sound for some seconds. The female would afterwards walk to the water's edge, stand in the water up to her breast, and receive the caresses of the male, who immediately after would strut on the water before her, jerking with rapidity his spread tail for awhile, after which they would both resume their ordinary occupations.

Being that we are firmly planted in the second type of bird lover's camp, this ornithological cornucopia mainly serves to whet our appetite for more Falseknees, self-described bird nerd Joshua Barkman’s beautifully rendered webcomic.

Yes, Audubon’s Indigo Birdaka Petit Papebleu, “an active and lively little fellow” who "possesses much elegance in his shape, and also a certain degree of firmness in his make” was separated by a century or so from "Mood Indigo"—we presume that’s the tune stuck in Barkman’s bird’s head—but he does look rather preoccupied, no?

Possibly just thinking of mealworms…

Explore Audubon’s Birds of America by chronological or alphabetical order, or by state, and download them all for free here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 7 for her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Free: Download the Sublime Sights & Sounds of Yellowstone National Park

Moments before writing these words I was feeling a little stressed—a not uncommon experience for most everyone these days. Then I watched the 25-second video of a bighorn sheep, above, and something happened. Not an epiphany or moment of Zen. Just a momentary suspension of human woe as the animal silently munched, a creature so unlike myself and yet so motivated by the same basic needs.

How much better to observe the sheep firsthand, in its home at Yellowstone National Park? But perhaps we can, through our computers, touch into a little of the remedy Oliver Sacks suggested for our modern traumas. Nature gives us “sense of deep time,” the neurologist wrote, which “brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies of daily life… a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.”




Research has found that watching nature documentaries can bring on real contentment, confirming what millions of National Geographic devotees already know. Now, at the National Park Service’s site, you can immerse yourself in virtual visits with not only our silent bighorn sheep friend, but the song of a mountain bluebird, or choruses of howling wolves. The audio library contains dozens more such melodious and haunting sounds from Yellowstone’s biophony.

The video library is replete with not only short clips of animals doing what animals do, but also video tours like that above, in which we learn how park rangers capture and handle bison in their conservation efforts at the park. Then there are stunning landscape videos like that below of Lower Falls viewed from Lookout Point in the spring of 2017, with soothing natural white noise from the rushing water and blowing wind.

All of this content is available for download and free for anyone to use. Remix the sounds of falling snow, geysers, and mountain lions; make as many nature gifs as you desire. As you do, bear in mind that while humans might greatly benefit—both psychologically and culturally—from the digital preservation of the natural world, the true purpose may be to help us understand why we need to step back and preserve the real thing.

Just above see a (nondownloadable) video from Yellowstone on the importance of listening to and conserving the land’s natural soundscapes—a feature of the world that best thrives in the near absence of human involvement.

Enter the sound library here, and the video library here.

via Kottke

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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