Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year - A Christmas Carol TAG

Surely you all know “A Christmas Carol”, the traditional Charles Dickens tale that tells the story of an old man named Ebenezer Scrooge, obsessed only with money and without any sense of holiday, altruism or kindness, and how the visit of three spirits taught him the true meaning of Christmas. Since it’s one of those “must” traditions, I was watching one of the movie transpositions of the novel, and I got an idea. Why not sharing with you some aspects of my past, present and future life, with maybe getting rid of some of my heavy heart? No one has ever thought about this before, and so I present it to you for the first time ever. This is “A Christmas Carol Tag”.

You will be visited by three ghosts
Jacob Marley Ghost. The first spirit visiting Scrooge is his old business partner Jacob Marley, represented as a corpse who is forever cursed to wander the earth dragging a network of heavy chains, forged during a lifetime of greed and selfishness. The ghost threatens Scrooge he would suffer the same fate if he didn’t redeem himself. His representative question could be "Which one of your sins/bad habits do you repent of ?". For me the answer to this question is very simple: sometimes I am very envious. I can’t help it, it’s like my mind is forcing me to excel in everything, otherwise I should be envious of things other people can do and I can’t. Envy is a waste of emotions, but lately I have learned to bury this demon deep down and be helpful to those around me and start thinking of what I can do. And without a doubt this is such a more rewarding feeling.

"I told you these were shadows of
the things that have been," said the Ghost.
 "That they are what they are, do not blame me!"
Ghost of Christmas Past. This is a spirit surrounded by a ring of light that comes from its head, making it look like a candle and holding a hat-shaped extinguisher and a holly branch. The spirit wakes up Scrooge and brings him back in time to his forgotten childhood and youth. The question that best fits this ghost could be "Which one is the memory you cannot live without and Which one would you want to forget?". Personally, I cannot live without smiles. When I'm feeling down, I always think of my parents and friends’ smiles, as well as the times we've had together. I don’t think I would forget anything of my past. Misfortunes, sadness and sorrows have made me what I am today and without those things I wouldn’t have tempered my character.

“Come in, -- come in! and know me better, man!
I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me!
You have never seen the like of me before!”
Ghost of Christmas Present. Everyone thinks this ones the merrier ghost. It looks like a giant, with a green cloak trimmed with white fur, a holly wreath on his head and a torch-cornucopia in hand, sitting on a throne of Christmas delicacies. This funny character shows Scrooge how other people spend Christmas, showing him also the sad story of Tiny Tim, who you all certainly know (and if you haven’t felt bad at least once about the little boy you don’t have a heart). And the question is "What would you change in your today life and Who do have to thank for who you are today?". With all the problems that have overwhelmed me lately, the only thing I would like would be a slightly less hectic life ... a little more calm but not boring. For what I am today of course I have to thank parents, relatives and friends. But above all I thank all of you who follow me and read my blog, because nothing makes me feel better than writing on my little page on the Internet and without you my work would be useless. So thank you from the bottom of my heart.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed,
“I fear you more than any spectre I have seen”.
Ghost of Christmas Future. The most mysterious and ghoulish of all. The spirit closely resembles the Grim Reaper. A colossal figure, wrapped in black cloak and hood from which nothing emerges but a black hand protruding from the sleeve. The ghost is completely silent, but it guide Scrooge only with a finger. While visiting the Christmas yet to come, Scrooge realizes that if he didn’t change, he would die in loneliness without any comfort. Obviously the question is "What do you hope/expect from your future?". Obviously everyone hopes for a luck, successful and loving future and surely I would hope so. But there’s something else I really want from the future: I want it to amaze and surprise me. Remember me that the world is a place where people can still believe in miracles, going beyond daily life.
And that's it for this year. But since this is a tag now it's your turn!!! Anyone who’s reading this post is tagged. Nothing would make me happier. Oh, and you can do whatever you want: write a post, make a video, write it in the comments ... whatever you want. I wish ou all a magical new year and all the best in the world. Happy Holidays ... and never stop Snooping Around.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Santa’s Hallucinating Mushrooms

There’s no way of thinking about Santa Claus without involving magic. A sparkling sleigh towed by flying reindeers in the middle of the night with millions of presents for the good boys and girls of the world. Normal people should be completely drunk or worse to actually see something like that. Well, according to a strange theory, this possibility is not far away from the truth. What if I tell you the unlikely source of the story of Santa and his helpers could be hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Of course you are now probably wondering how could some perception altering mushrooms be connected with the good old symbol of Christmas? John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin (CA) said:

"Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world"

Therefore the legend of Santa would derive from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions who dropped a bag full of hallucinogenic mushrooms into locals' tents as presents in late December. This custom became a tradition during the winter solstice, when shamans used to collect some Amanita Muscaria (considered Holy Mushrooms even if it can be poisonous sometimes), dry them and then give them as gifts, using an opening in the roof of the tent through which people entered and exited, made because in that period snow is usually blocking doors. So this could be also an explanation of the reason why a big man like Santa should always pass through a tiny hole on the roof. Of course, a lot of scientists don’t believe in this strange connection, but there are more other coincidences that should be considered.

Mushrooms, like gifts, are found beneath pine trees. Even if this particular example could be seen as a pure coincidence, late author James Arthur, in his book “Mushrooms and Mankind”, points out that Amanita Muscaria lives throughout the Northern Hemisphere beneath conifers and birch trees. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the tree and the mushrooms, which are deep red with white flecks. This practice of the Christmas tree and the placement of bright red-and-white presents underneath could be partially explained. In his book, James Arthur wrote:

"Why do people bring pine trees into their houses at the Winter Solstice, placing brightly colored packages under their boughs, as gifts to show their love for each other … ? It is because, underneath the pine bough is the exact location where one would find this 'Most Sacred' substance, the Amanita Muscaria, in the wild".

Then, what about “flying” reindeers? Reindeer are common in Siberia and northern Europe, and seek out these hallucinogenic mushrooms, just like the area's human inhabitants have also been known to do. In Siberian legends the reindeer took flight each winter after ingesting the Amanita Muscaria. Shamans would join them on a vision quest, by taking the mushrooms themselves and then, climbing the tree of life, they would take flight like a bird into other realms. Donald Pfister, a Harvard University biologist who studies fungi, suggests that Siberian tribesmen who ingested the Amanita Muscaria may have hallucinated that the grazing reindeer were flying. Also Carl Ruck, a professor of classics at Boston University, said:

"At first glance, one thinks it's ridiculous, but it's not. Whoever heard of reindeer flying? I think it's becoming general knowledge that Santa is taking a 'trip' with his reindeer. […]Amongst the Siberian shamans, you have an animal spirit you can journey with in your vision quest, and reindeer are common and familiar to people in eastern Siberia. They also have a tradition of dressing up like the mushroom … they dress up in red suits with white spots".

Another strange connection that Pfister pointed out is the fact that tree ornaments shaped like Amanita mushrooms and other depictions of the fungi are also prevalent in Christmas decorations throughout the world, particularly in Scandinavia and northern Europe. If sneak a closer peak you’ll find mushrooms everywhere. That said, Pfister made it clear that modern-day Christmas and the ancestral practice of eating mushrooms are no longer strictly connected as they once were.

Talking about modern Christmas, this theory suggest that even the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore, is connected with the little mushrooms. The origins of Moore's vision are unclear, although Arthur, Rush and Ruck all think the poet probably used northern European motifs that derive from Siberian or Arctic shamanic traditions. Arthur wrote:

"At the very least, Santa's sleigh and reindeer are probably references to various related northern European mythology. For example, the Norse god Thor flew in a chariot drawn by two goats, which have been replaced in the modern retelling by Santa's reindeer”.

Last but not least, let’s talk about where Santa lives. Ruck said:
"Is there any other reason that Santa lives in the North Pole? It is a tradition that can be traced back to Siberia".

What do you think about this theory? Do you think it could be a funny interpretation of Santa’s origins? Maybe Rudolph has his little bright red  nose for a reason…

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Urban Legends - Krampus, The Christmas Shadow

Surely Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Life looks a little bit better with snow, lights and songs all over the decorated streets. And of course there’s Santa Claus (also known as Saint Nicholas) bringing joy and presents to all the good girls and boys. But there’s some parts of Europe, like Germany, Austria, and other parts of the Alps region, where naughty children needs to be very careful during the holidays because of a dark, mischievous and grumpy figure hidden in the shadows. This evil spirit is the Krampus, Saint Nicholas counterpart.

This creature is an anthropomorphic beast with fangs, fur, and horns. Dark and ancient spirit, Krampus announces his presence with loud bells and terrorizes the kids who have misbehaved during the year. In contrast with Santa giving the good ones gifts and joy, Krampus gives the bad ones whip beatings and nightmares. And if you have been particularly naughty, Krampus will drop you in a sack and whisk you away to his lair in the underworld and you’ll never be seen again. A fairy tale gone horribly wrong…

How did this creature come to be a part of the Christmas tradition? Scholars estimate that Krampus started appearing between the 11th century and the 13th century. The legend has probably started High up in the Alp countries, connecting this monster with witches and demons. The word “Krampus” is derived from the Old High German word krampen, meaning “claw”. According to Norse mythology, Krampus is the son of Hel, the goddess ruler of the underworld. There are also a few physical similarities between Krampus and Greek mythical creatures – like the horns and hoofs of satyrs and fauns. So it looks like Krampus has something to do with ancient myths and legends from all over the world.

The creature spread to other European countries such as Switzerland, Czech Republic and Hungary, with slightly variations in looks, names and practiced customs. In Tyrol (a state in western Austria), Krampus tends to look like a giant and sadistic, teddy bear. In western Germany, he actually arrives with Santa, sitting shotgun in his sleigh. In Styria (southeast Austria), the birch sticks used for his whip are painted gold and displayed year around, to remind kids of Krampus’s impending arrival. After entering in the Christmas tradition, Krampus was given chains showing him as an embodiment of the devil being bound by the Church.

Then, after being connected and altered in order to give him a more religious meaning, Krampus was attached to St. Nick, a Christian saint and the owner of his very own feast day on December 6th. St. Nick, himself, wouldn’t be closely associated with Christmas until early 19th century with the name Santa Claus deriving from the Dutch language. In many parts of Germany and Austria, St. Nick is still separate from Christmas and celebrated on December 6th.

The connection has its logic because Krampus was awarded his own night called Krampusnacht (Krampus Night) on December 5th, the day before St. Nick’s feast. During this night, Krampus wanders around making loud noises and scaring bad kids while good kids put a boot outside, hoping St. Nick to drop fruit and nuts into it). This night is still celebrated in the Alps region with run of celebrants dressed as the wicked beast and it is customary to offer Krampus a drink of warm schnapps, a "strong alcoholic drink resembling gin and often flavored with fruit".

Despite these connections to Christianity, Krampus is still a pagan origin and some traditions have survived and are still part of today’s creature. He continues to carry bells, which were customarily used to ward off spirits. As mentioned, the animal-like appearance of most Krampus’ also date to pagan times and hasn’t been changed at all.

As for Santa Claus, Krampus, along with other German pagan legends, started to regain acceptance and a following in the 19th century. This was partially due to the ancient German folk tales that the Brothers Grimm popularized in the early 1800s. In fact, Krampus gets a quick reference in Jacob Grimm’s 1835 book Deutsche Mythologie (translated to “Teutonic Mythology”). Art and postcards were also created that showed off Krampus and people began to exchange Krampus cards (with some saying “Greetings from the Krampus”) in Europe during the late 19th century as a rather peculiar way of wishing happy holidays. 

Krampus hasn’t been an accepted European tradition during the war neither. In 1934, four years before the Third Reich overran Germany and Austria, The New York Times published an article called: “Krampus Disliked in Fascist Austria, declaring the Krampus strictly forbidden. Same old political issues.

More recently, Krampus has become very popular all over the world. And if have never heard of him before...well, now you know. So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Beware the Krampus…

Friday, October 30, 2015

Halloween Special – El Día de los Muertos

La Calavera Catrina
We all know All Hallows’ Eve is a celebration that has all to do with death and honoring deceased relatives and, in this particular night, everyone has the opportunity to dress up as monsters, ghosts and skeletons asking for sweets. This is sure a funny way to exorcise the fact that we should never underestimate or forget the Grim Reaper is always chasing us. But what if I tell you there’s another celebration that is similar to Halloween but, at the same time, has nothing to do with it. In fact, El Día de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday, now also spread all over the world, that can be called “The Hymn to Life”. You celebrate death learning about the importance of life.

El Día de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is an opportunity for Mexican children to learn that life is brief and there’s a life circle everyone must face sooner or later. The important meaning of this day is “Don’t fear Death, appreciate every moment you have and live life to the fullest”. Just with these deeper life lessons, there’s no denying El Día de los Muertos cannot be compared with Halloween. Nowadays the latter is more of a commercial holiday for children than a celebration.

Instead El Día de los Muertos has ancient origins and is traditionally celebrated by everyone. The first example of this celebration can be found in pre- Colombian cultures. Rituals celebrating passed away ancestors are dated back 2,500–3,000 years. The festival that was the ancient version of El Día de los Muertos  fell in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. The festivities were dedicated to the "Lady of the Dead". The representation of the goddess was recently replaced with La Calavera Catrina ("The Elegant Skull"), a famous print created by José Guadalupe Posada as a parody of a Mexican upper-class female. The shocking image of a costumed female with a skeleton face is now one of the most popular figures of the celebration.

El Día de los Muertos allows the dead to live again. During this time it is believed that the deceased return to their earthly homes to visit and rejoice with their loved ones. Author Frances Ann Day in his book “Latina and Latino Voices in Literature: Lives and Works” summarizes all the Mexican celebrations, saying:

“On October 31, All Hallows Eve, the children make a children's altar to invite the angelitos (spirits of dead children) to come back for a visit. November 1 is All Saints Day, and the adult spirits will come to visit. November 2 is All Souls Day, when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives. The three-day fiesta filled with marigolds, the flowers of the dead; muertos (the bread of the dead); sugar skulls; cardboard skeletons; tissue paper decorations; fruit and nuts; incense, and other traditional foods and decorations.”
This is exactly what happens during these days. Setting up altars with offerings, cleaning and decorating graves, holding all-night graveside vigils and telling funny and touching stories about the deceased is the perfect way to remember the loved ones who unfortunately but inevitably left this world.

And If you like Halloween only for sweets, don’t worry. You’ll not be disappointed. You’ll never see a traditional celebration of El Día de los Muertos without Calaveras, sugar or chocolate skulls with complex and fantastic decorations. A perfect gift for both the living and the dead, this sweet skulls are now the “must have” food on the holiday table. Another holiday food include “el pan de muerto”, a sweet egg bread made in various shapes from plain rounds to skulls and rabbits, often decorated with white frosting to look like twisted bones. You’ll surely recognize it.

During El Día de los Muertos, the lights of graves brighten the night sky 
This colorful holiday should be celebrated everywhere to make people understand that death is not the end, it’s simply a new start. And now I would like to cite a quote of Albus Dumbledore that fits perfectly:

Do not pity the dead, pity the living. Above all, pity those who live without love.

Personally the main reason I love this period is because November 1st is my birthday. So, between pumpkins and skeletons, I’ll blow out some candles. Have a good life :)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Urban Legends – The Suicidal Dogs of Overtoun Bridge

There’s a lone bridge in Minton, near Dumbarton (Scotland), where something mysterious and heartbreaking happened. Without any explanation, in the past 50 years, about 600 dogs have jumped off of this secular structure, and almost 50 of them unfortunately died. But the most puzzling thing is that these poor animals have all taken the fatal jump from the exact same spot, located between the last two parapets on the right-hand side of the bridge. But why this mass suicide took place?

“This is an heartbreaking mystery. There are lots of owners whose dogs have died and who are trying to find out why they jumped.”

This is what the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said about this tragedy, and if you have a look on the internet you’ll find lots of sadly detailed witnesses of poor dogs who slipped away from the hands of shocked owners. But another strangeness was common to all of this dogs: almost all the incidents have taken place on clear sunny days and all the dogs were long-nosed breeds, like Collies, Retrievers and Labradors. So maybe the high sense of smell was responsible for the tragedy.

Several theories have been advanced to explain the bizarre effect the bridge has on dogs. Of course the first one who came out was: “Isn’t that obvious? The place is haunted”. If you’re a fan of paranormal places, the Overtoun Bridge is surely the place for you. The Victorian structure, 50 ft. (15 mt) in height, was built in 1895 by Calvinist Lord Overtoun. The whole structure runs over the Overtoun Burn stream below. Some creepy rumors said that in 1994 a local called Kevin Moy threw his baby boy from the bridge, calling him the Son of the Devil. Then he tried to commit suicide at the same spot. After his unsuccessful attempt, He yelled  the bridge was haunted.

Now a lighter explanation that could help supporting the theory of the haunted bridge. This has to deal with Celtic mythology. In fact, Celts believed that The Overtoun Bridge was a spot called “a thin place”, which is an area where heaven and Earth are at their closest. According to the commonly known fact that dogs are way more sensitive than humans, maybe they have seen or heard something strange caused by non-corporeal entities.

Strangely, this theory was completely discarded by Psychic Mary Armour, who decided to took her own Labrador for a walk on the bridge to test the ”haunting”  theory. Nothing unusual happened in her case. After the walk she said:

“Animals are hyper-sensitive to the spirit-world, but I didn’t feel any adverse energy.”

She felt “pure calmness and serenity”, but she did admit her dog pulled a little towards the incriminated spot.

Let’s now analyze the psychological theory. The question we need to answer is “If there is nothing supernatural propelling animals to their deaths, could they be picking up on suicidal or depressed feelings of their owners?" Of course, dogs are called man’s best friend for a reason. They sure have superpowers, and one of the most common is the great empathy with the owner.  And the Austrian Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s experiments are quite useful explaining this behavior. His studies have proved that dogs do pick up on their owner’s thoughts and intentions, even from a great distance. So they could have picked up on their owners’ suicidal thoughts and then jumped to their death. But the detail that ruled out the theory is that none of the owners whose dogs jumped from Overtoun Bridge had any suicidal feelings. After knowing that Dr. Sheldrake concluded:

“Human suicide is usually precipitated by a feeling that tomorrow will not be any better than today. But there is no evidence to suggest dogs have a sense of now and tomorrow.”

Finally the scientific theory. A canine psychologist, Dr. David Sands, was sent to Dumbarton to unsolved the mystery . He conducted a series of experiments, the first of which was to cross the bridge with the only canine known to have survived the fall, a 19 years old female dog called Hendrix. Once the deadly spot was reached, the dog began to tense. Something clearly caught her attention, but because of her advanced age she didn’t attempt to jump. After the experiment, Dr. Sands concluded that one of her senses – sight, sound, or smell – must have been stimulated. Sight was eliminated since the only thing visible from dog’s eye view at that point is the parapet. So it had to be either sound or smell, and to determine which one was guilty, a team of experts from a Glasgow acoustics company and an animal expert, David Sexton, were called for researches. After careful investigations, the acoustic experts found nothing unusual at all.

But Dr. Sands found something quite interesting. Hiding in the vegetation beneath the bridge he found mice, mink and squirrels. So the smell emitted by any one of them could have been the cause. To determine which one, he conducted another experiment. He tested the three scents on 10 different dogs and 70% made straight for the mink scent. And so far this has been the most plausible explanation. The strong musty smell emitted by minks, exaggerated on dry and sunny days, must have proved irresistible to dogs. Actually, minks are very common in Scotland (almost 26,000 in total). So there are other safer places to look for them. Why attacking them under this particular bridge? Dr. Sands said:

“Simple, when you get down to a dog’s level, the solid granite of the bridge’s 18-inch-thick walls obscures their vision and blocks out all sound. As a result, the one sense not obscured, that of smell, goes into overdrive.”

Sadly this sense overdrive caused lots of pain and suffering because losing a dog is losing a part of your family. And now if you go for a walk with your loyal friend on the Overtoun Bridge, you’ll find a sign left by one of the unfortunate owners who lost their dogs. On the sign is written:

Dangerous Bridge – Please keep your dog on a lead.

I don’t know which one of these theories is the most accurate, but one thing I know for sure is that these dogs will have a special place in my heart.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Discovery Central & ChEmIcAmAzInG - The Freezing Taste of Menthol

Menthol formula
Eating a peppermint or a slice of mint cake, especially during a hot day,  is such a pleasurable experience. Feeling that fantastic sense of cold is one of the reasons we love these sweets so much. And obviously the characteristic flavor is loved everywhere. But why mint tastes cold? is temperature really involved in this process or maybe is just a trick of our body? Let’s find out…

Menthol Crystals
Most of you knows that the responsible is Menthol, an organic compound normally obtained from all mint plants. Of course nowadays, with the extreme high demand and the huge amount of products is used in, menthol is synthetically produced in form of a waxy, crystalline substance that can be both clear or white. At room temperature is solid, but few degrees are enough to make it melt.

What happens when we eat a product that contains menthol? Well, our mouth contains some specific receptors that responds to this chemical compound. The receptor we’re talking about, which in this case is a protein called TRPM8 (the actual name is Transient Receptor Potential Cation Channel, Subfamily M, Member 8) tricks the brain into thinking that the area the menthol is applied to is cold. The truth is that there’s no actual change in temperature.

But if there’s no changing in temperature, why do we sense cold? The scientific explanation of  the process is the perfect answer. The protein TRPM8 is a “ion channel”, so you can easily imagine it as a sort of bridge for ions. When this bridge is open, it allows sodium and calcium ions to enter, causing an electrical signal down a neuron called  Action Potential. This is what happens when menthol is detected by the receptor.

Here comes the trick. In fact TRPM8 is also a temperature receptor that opens in response to low temperatures. When menthol’s around (to be specific a mix of Menthol and Menthone, another molecule strictly similar to menthol and vastly used in cosmetics), the TRPM8 channel opens, but this signal “hey, there’s menthol” is indistinguishable from the signal “I’m freezing in here”. The result is a mixed signal that triggers the brain and so, when it detects menthol, the receptor also signals cold, making mint feel cold even though temperature never changed.

So Menthol makes TRPM8  much more sensitive than normal and this is verified every time you breathe in deeply through your mouth after eating a peppermint. By introducing air inside, your cold receptors are reacting much more strongly than they normally would to the air. What you can physically feel is an extra freezing sensation. But the air is not cold at all.

But Confectionery Industry is just one of the lots of uses Menthol has. Mint leaves or mint oil containing high levels of menthol help repel and kill mosquitoes. Menthol is also very effective against muscle aches and pains and throat irritations (and this is why sometimes menthol is added in cigarettes), and the cooling sensation it provides is helpful to treat sunburns. And last but not least, menthol crystals can be used as an ice substitute for drinks.
A little encourage mint for you <3

You didn’t expect this pleasurable sensation was caused by menthol cheating on your brain, did you?

And now a little experiment for “The Fair of Molecular Cheaters” with Menthol and Capsaicin (if you haven’t read the article The Burning Taste of Capsaicin go check it out): Take a pepper, a peppermint and eat them at the same time. Capsaicin and Menthol have the same effects on the receptors (more or less), but who tried it felt a particular, unique sensation. Come on, try it for science. And Never Stop Snooping Around. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Discovery Central & ChEmIcAmAzInG - The Burning Taste of Capsaicin

Sometimes our brain is not completely perfect. All over the world there are tons of molecules that have the power of fooling our natural complexity. For example, using a part of us that never sleeps…our constant search for food. All you have to do is look up at the spices you have at home and, if you have a little bottle with the words “Spicy Pepper” written on it, you’ve been fooled more than you could imagine. This because we’re going to discover the secret of Capsaicin, the Spicy Cheater.

As some of you might have deduced, this molecule can be found in almost all kinds of peppers. Most of the capsaicin in peppers (which is a fruit, not a vegetable) is mostly focused around the seeds. The plant uses it as a defense mechanism against potential eaters and threats, and this clever method is actually more than useful. Except for specific animals, like birds, that eat seeds without destroying them, so they can spread them all around with feces. This means new plants and great advantage to the species. Interestingly, we should be repelled by Capsaicin. Instead, most of the people are attracted by the strong unique taste.

Capsaicin is able to bond with specific neuro-receptors in the mouth, affecting your senses and making you think you’re burning, even though there’s no changing in temperature.

Let’s be a little bit more specific, shall we? What is going on in your mouth is the bond between the molecule and the Vanilloid Receptor (TRPV1), which is a ion channel receptor (a protein, to be clear). That’s why the magic happens. TRPV1 is also a temperature regulator so, by binding to the capsaicin molecule, the  resulting signal to the brain is the heat perception we all know. This is why eating peppers makes your mouth feel really hot, even though it’s just a trick. The same process can be seen with another molecule called  allyl isothiocyanate, the pungent compound found in mustard and wasabi. The fantastic taste of spicy pepper is one of the most used flavor in the world, especially in the Indian and Oriental cuisine.

Even there’s no changing in temperature, this doesn’t mean the heat is not measurable. There is actually a scale for measuring hotness called the “Scoville Organoleptic Test”. This scale was developed by chemist Wilbur Scoville. The higher the number, the more water you’ll need to stop sensing the effects. But believe me when I say that water is completely useless. Try with some milk. Casein, a protein found in that product, has the ability to surround capsaicin molecules, hindering the burning taste. Maybe with the Ghost Pepper (Bhut Jolokia), the hottest pepper ever (here on the left), you'll need more than that...

But capsaicin is not just a substance that makes your food extra tasty. it is also used in the widely discussed Pepper Spray, one of the most effective defense against thieves or rapists. The contact with skin and eyes or if breathed into lungs, it will cause the same burning sensation.

Oh…before you go, a little fact. Did you know that Tarantula Venom activates the same neural pathways as Capsaicin? So getting bitten by a tarantula will feel the same as being exposed to a high level of capsaicin.

Well, now you know that eating something spicy is a complex mechanism of molecular cheating. But this doesn’t mean spicy food is not an extremely enjoyable experience.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Urban Legends - The Immortal Jellyfish

Turritopsis Nutricula, the Immortal Jellyfish
What if I tell you there is a species of animal that can age both forwards and backwards, making it an immortal living organism. And what if I tell you that the powerful creature with this incredible characteristic is one of the tiniest jellyfish ever seen. Well, in this case is completely fair saying that size doesn’t matter. After the Random Facts about Jellyfish and The history of the BlueDragon (click the links for more), here the immortality life circle of Turritopsis Nutricula, the Immortal Jellyfish.

Most jellyfish have a lifetime of between a few hours to a few months. Few species can also live for several years. But only the Turritopsis Nutricula have the unique ability to live forever. They can grow old like every other living thing, but then can reverse this process and turn young again.  Unfortunately, this kind of jellyfish can only grow to a maximum of around 1/5 of an inch in diameter, so they are an extremely easy food for lots and lots of predators. But, without this jinx of being an easy prey, this jellyfish has been able to achieve immortality.

Turritopsis Nutricula polyp stadium
The life circle of this creature is pretty simple.  The male jellyfish releases sperm into the water and it may unite with the egg of a female.  Eventually this will produce a free swimming larva, called planulae, that abandons the body of the female and float around until finally settling on the sea floor and attaching to something strong and sturdy like a rock. The next form of this creature is a polyp that look like a plant. This plant like animal feeds on various things like plankton and, over a certain amount of time, a colony of polyps will form from the single polyp, all connected with feeding tubes. Some years later, the colony of polyps will begin producing free swimming jellyfish, the immortal ones.

The life circle of the jelly

The Turritopsis Nutricula float away with the currents, gathering food as they encounter it. The real miracle happens when food is scarce or they are injured or various other environmental issues occur. These events trigger a unique mechanism within the animal that causes it to begin to grow younger.

In this process, called transdifferentiation, cells are able to change themselves into other cell. In this case (for the record, the Turritopsis Nutricula is the only creature in the world that can use this process to rejuvenate at any point of the jelly maturation) the jellyfish cells transform into the previous stadium of polyp cells. All the cells of the organism  grow young all the way to the point where they once again become a single polyp, starting the process all over again.

After some time, the polyp will be able to grow a new colony. Once again, other jellyfish are released from the polyp colony, each with the same genetic code as the original jellyfish that formed the polyp. It is thought that this process can go on forever, assuming the animals don’t die of some disease or aren’t killed by predator. This effectively makes them  biologically immortal.

This is not what normal people think when talking about immortality. But this can be considered as the nearest thing to never-ending life. So think about it. A jellyfish can last longer than humanity. Sometimes nature is wonderful, don’t you think?  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Did you know? - Plants can actually feel pain

Ouch…It hurts! Very common exclamation for most of us. But what if you could hear a plant saying this? Well, you won’t believe that but plants suffer everyday.  Simply we are not able to hear them. Yesterday I was minding my own business when, all of a sudden, I started hearing a noise out of the window. There were two gardeners cutting the grass. In my opinion there’s nothing better than catching a whiff of freshly cut grass. For us it could be quite pleasant. But for the grass that smell is pure horror.

The smell we associate with freshly cut grass is actually a chemical distress call used by plants to beg nearby critters to save them from attack. If you could be able to hear these call, it would be a horrifying scream.  After all, when there’s a threat, whether it's a lawnmower or a hungry caterpillar, plants can't run away. They must fight where they stand. And that is exactly what they do.

In  order to protect themselves, plants employ a gust of molecular responses. These chemical communications can be used to poison an enemy, alert plants all around of potential dangers or attract helpful insects. Sometimes, a plant's molecular defense has multiple purposes. For instance, plants that produce caffeine use the chemical as self-defense, but it’s also useful for bees’ pollination. The scent of caffeine constricts bees to carve for more. The result is a swarm of bees surrounding the plant,  letting the plant leave the pollen and ensuring the continuity of species.

But this can be just seen as a way of communicate . But does that mean they can feel pain? I’m sorry for vegetarians and vegans, but the answer won't be very pleasant.

According to researchers at the Institute for Applied Physics at the University of Bonn in Germany, after cutting or injuring a plant, some gases are released. These molecules are the equivalent of tears in human beings, so releasing these gases would mean crying out in pain for the plant. And using a laser-powered microphone, just to make things even worse, researchers have picked up specific sound waves produced by plants while releasing that gases. Although not perceptible by humans, the secret voices of plants have revealed that cucumbers scream when they are sick, and flowers whine when their leaves are cut. Speaking of crying plants, the Mandragora's cry (on the left you have some examples of this strange animal-plant hybrid) was believed to be extremely lethal for humans, but this sure is another story...

Today is the remorse fair. There's also evidence that plants can hear themselves being eaten. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found out that plants understand and respond to chewing sounds made by caterpillars or humans that are dining on them. As soon as the plants hear the noises, they respond with plenty of defense mechanisms.

To sum up, the combination of distress calls, releasing gases and emitting sounds….is actually pain!! Some researchers and botanists argue that pain is strictly connected with the brain. Without one, pain cannot be registered. But plants can actually demonstrate to be extremely intelligent without having a brain or conscious awareness. The actual feeling of pain would not be so far from truth.

After all, plants are able to communicate, and there’s no denying. Trees in a forest can warn their relatives of insect attacks. And, if they’re near enough to one another, there can be also a nutrients exchange. This biological network helps plants propagate, grow and survive. All these processes can be verified using injections of radioactive carbon isotopes. Within a few days, carbon is sent from tree to tree to all the nearby plants in the area. This complex network of roots, leaves and stems is also used by older trees to help the younger ones to collect the light until they’re strong enough to be completely independent.

Plants have a great sense of community…even more than humans. What do you think? Do you think plants sense pain? Have these scientific researches convinced you? After reading this, you might have changed your mind. When you’ll read “Please keep off the grass”, maybe you should follow the advice. Have a great life and Never Stop Snooping Around. 
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