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. 
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