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Friday, July 20, 2007The Pigeons
In October 1918, World War I was gradually drawing to a close in the Argonne Forest in northeastern France. Inch by inch, more than one million Allied fighting men slowly wrestled Europe from the occupying Germans, with considerable casualties occurring on both sides. Losses were particularly heavy amongst a battalion of Americans which had pressed too far into enemy territory, leaving 550 soldiers surrounded, outnumbered, and cut off from communications. For days the men valiantly deflected enemy attacks amidst a hail of friendly artillery, but rapidly dwindling forces and supplies soon led to a desperate situation.
Left with no alternative, a member of the US Army Signal Corps named Cher Ami was given the dangerous task of darting past the enemy forces with a message for the Allied commanders. The hastily scribbled note politely requested that headquarters increase the supply of men while decreasing the supply of red-hot shrapnel. As Cher Ami dashed from the forest, enemy gunfire left him with a gunshot wound to the chest and a badly mangled leg, but nonetheless he managed to traverse the twenty-five miles to the command post to deliver his message. As a result, the misplaced battalion was rescued within a few hours.
Cher Ami was awarded France's Croix de Guerre medal for his heroism, but due to his wounds he did not long survive. When he passed away several weeks later, his remains were placed in a crate and sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, where he was stuffed, mounted, and put on display. Cher Ami, the American war hero, was a homing pigeon.
Though their methods are rather mysterious, homing pigeons such as Cher Ami possess a remarkable ability to relocate their home roost from afar, even across hundreds of miles of unfamiliar territory. For centuries humanity has capitalized on this trait by keeping such pigeons at key locations, then sending a fistful of the feathery messengers along with anyone who might need to send back important information.
Today homing pigeons are mostly the stuff of hobbyists, but until the 1950s they comprised a significant portion of the world's communication networks. More than 3,000 years ago the ancient Egyptians and Persians took note of pigeons' tendency to fly back home after being moved, and enterprising pigeon fanciers began cultivating the trait. A portable pigeon roost from WW1A portable pigeon roost from WW1To ensure that only the most skilled homing pigeons were among the breeding stock, the birds were placed in covered baskets and transported to increasingly distant locations; those which returned home had the opportunity to mate, whereas those who lost their way were left to their own devices. Within a few dozen generations, the selectively bred birds had developed uncanny homing abilities, and they were soon pressed into service to relay messages regarding wartime victories and defeats.
Message-carrying homing pigeons remained in service throughout the world for the following three millennia, ferrying information over land and sea at speeds of 30-60 miles per hour. In the 1800s a man named Paul Reuter– later of Reuters Press Agency fame– employed a fleet of pigeons to shuttle stock prices between Belgium and Germany. These plucky birds also provided the world's first regular air-mail service well before airplanes were invented, linking Auckland, New Zealand with the Great Barrier Island fifty miles away.
During the "War to End All Wars," homing pigeons were often used alongside radio and telegraph communications. They were valuable as a redundant messaging channel, and prized for their ability to avoid interception and operate during radio silence. Around the same time, a German named Dr Julius Neubronner tinkered with aerial reconnaissance by fitting the birds with small, mechanically-timed panoramic cameras, but results were regrettably inadequate.
In the Second War to End All Wars, homing pigeons were once again drafted into service, this time by a shadowy arm of British intelligence known as Source Columba. Beginning in 1940, the organization airdropped hundreds of crates into occupied France and Holland under the cover of nightfall. Within each crate locals would find a spy kit consisting of 1) a small slip of lightweight paper, 2) a special pencil, 3) detailed instructions, and 4) a single homing pigeon. The instructions encouraged citizen-spies to anonymously jot down any useful tidbits regarding German activities, then stuff the report into the message capsule tied to the pigeon's leg. Aerial reconnaissance pigeonAerial reconnaissance pigeonMany of the pigeons returned to Britain carrying intelligence which proved immensely valuable in the war effort. In one instance, an enthusiastic informer squeezed thousands of words and fourteen hand-drawn maps onto the tiny message sheet, presumably with the aid of an industrial-strength magnifying glass.
Britain's Confidential Pigeon Service became such a rich vein of information that it was kept a closely guarded secret for years, but the Axis powers eventually became savvy to the scheme. As part of a clever countermeasure campaign, Nazis dropped their own doppelganger pigeon-crates over France, each designed to appear British. Along with the pigeon these contained a pack of English cigarettes and a request for the names of local resistance leaders, to ensure that the patriots could be "rewarded" for their heroism. Word of the stoolpigeons quickly spread, however, and French forces were advised to "smoke the cigarettes and eat the pigeons."
In spite of over thirty centuries of close contact with humans, the homing pigeons' methods are still somewhat mysterious. Biologists have antagonized the birds with countless discombobulating devices, but results have frequently been nebulous. Some have speculated that the pigeons possess extremely sensitive semicircular canals in their inner ear, allowing them to efficiently track the twists and turns of a journey to maintain a constant fix on their home. Tests using rapidly-spinning transport containers, however, seem to refute this theory. Other researchers have suggested that landmarks and/or the position of the sun are used for orientation, but experiments with blinders and fogged pigeon-goggles found that most subjects reached the general proximity of their homes despite severely limited vision. This outcome suggests that visual cues are necessary to find the exact roost location, while some other mechanism guides the bird during the longer segment of the journey. Other exercises included the modification of odors, low-frequency sounds, and lighting conditions in an area, resulting in varying degrees of disruption. Given that no single experiment entirely stripped the homing pigeons of their gifts, it is likely that the birds use a concerted assortment of sensitivities.
A man-made three-axis magnetometerA man-made three-axis magnetometerSome of the most intriguing experiments have involved the introduction of strong magnetic fields around pigeons' home lofts. These fields triggered significant navigational interference with many of the birds, thereby supporting a long-held hypothesis that pigeons possess some sort of natural magnetic compass. The theory was further reinforced by the observation that homing pigeons sometimes become disoriented during the magnetic storms caused by heavy sunspot activity.
In early 2007, a group of German researchers discovered some microscopic structures which may be the mechanism behind these natural compasses: a collection of tiny maghemite and magnetite particles embedded within the nerves of homing pigeons' beaks. These oblong crystals demonstrated an extreme sensitivity to magnetic fields, appearing to work together to form a three-axis magnetometer. Though biologists are still struggling to grasp the specifics of this mechanism, it seems likely that it allows homing pigeons to sense the relative strength and direction of magnetic north at all times, and thus ascertain their position anywhere on the planet. Considering that most bird species possess an affinity for aerial orientation, many researchers speculate that these natural compasses are a universal avian trait, and that homing pigeons are merely the electromagnetic bloodhounds of the bird world.
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As a planet, Pluto was a real dog. Now scientists say there may be something truly fishy about one the little world's three known moons.
Astronomers have announced they have evidence that, despite the bitterly cold conditions on the edge of the solar system, Pluto's moon Charon may have an underground ocean of liquid water, triggering speculation it could harbour marine life.
The water appears to be spewing up through cracks in the surface, producing spectacular geysers that instantly freeze, creating showers of ice.
Using Hawaii's giant Gemini Telescope, the astronomers found that the 1200 kilometre-wide moon is covered in patches of water crystals, and ammonia hydrates.
The crystals appear fresh, suggesting ice geysers, or ice volcanoes, must be erupting every few hours or days.
The observations point "consistently to cryo-volcanism, which brings liquid water to the surface, where it freezes into ice crystals," said Jason Cook, from Arizona State University. "That implies that Charon's interior possesses liquid water."
Radioactive materials could be melting Charon's interior ice, producing the water.
Another project scientist, Professor Steven Desch, said the ammonia hydrates may be stopping the water from re-freezing in a world where the temperature plunges below minus 230 degrees. "It is literally an anti-freeze."
University of NSW astronomer Michael Ashley, who has led Australian hunts for new worlds in the outer solar system, described the findings as "very interesting" .
"One might speculate that some sort of life could exist in an underground ocean, surviving on energy from natural radioactivity.
"The conditions on the surface of Charon, however, are bleak. Any 'Plutonian' penguins would be snap-frozen by the minus 230C temperatures."
Dr Ashley called the discovery of evidence pointing to an underground ocean on the solar system's fringe as "a classic case of excellent scientific detective work."
The Gemini astronomers said Charon's geysers "could be making this distant world into the equivalent of an outer solar system ice machine" and speculated that many other worlds in the outer solar system may also have water oceans beneath global ice caps.
Proof may have to wait until July 2015 when NASA's New Horizons probe, now on its way to Pluto, beams back close-up pictures of Charon.
Last year Pluto, dubbed the ninth planet on its discovery in 1930, was demoted to dwarf planet after international astronomers agreed that just 2300 kilometres wide, it was too puny to retain its status.
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It's official: Foreign men have more sex, with more women, than American guys. We traveled the globe to find out how they do it. (And no, it's not their accents.)By: Lauren Murrow
Sorry, dude, but guys in other countries are having more sex than you. Way more. We know, it doesn't make sense. Pop culture and the Internet would have us believe that American men are the most oversexed stallions on the planet, that every girl is 20, tanked, and topless. Plus, we have George Clooney and Matthew McConaughey. And has anyone tallied Tommy Lee's numbers?
Yet, there are the stats. According to a Men's Health survey of 40,000 readers worldwide, foreign men have sex up to 70 more times a year than you do. So much for our superpower status. But don't worry--we have a plan. We took a trip around the world to find out what makes men from other countries so attractive to the women they pursue. We also enlisted the help of sex experts around the globe to save you from another sexless night. Master their tips and soon you'll simply be able to say "G'day" and mate.
England : Take Her, Outside
Hugh Grant has typecast British men as meek and bumbling. But according to a 2005 Durex survey of 317,000 people in 41 countries, these blokes are so irresistible, their partners can't even wait to get back to the flat. Twice as many Brits as Americans report having had sex on public transportation and in alleyways and gardens. "Many a chap has fallen in love in the checkout line at the supermarket," says Vicki Ford, a British psychosexual therapist and the author of Overcoming Sexual Problems. And apparently they consummate it on the way home.
How To Do It: Arouse her temptation. Pull her into a side alley or a dark doorway and plant one while gently stroking her neck, suggests Emily Dubberley, a British sex expert and the author of Brief Encounters. "Fear of being caught stimulates her fight-or-flight response," explains Ford. "Adrenaline floods her system, making everything feel much more intense."
Australia : Drive Her Wild
We Americans love our cars, but Australians love in their cars. Almost 75 percent of Aussies have had sex on the road, according to Durex. "We can always find a private space to get it on," says Jan Hall, Ph.D., an Australian sex therapist. The car provides the ideal cover: "Sneaking away for a surreptitious shag or fondle says, 'I can't wait,' " says Gabrielle Morrissey, Ph.D., Australian author of A Year of Spicy Sex.
How To Do It: Heading to a party is the perfect opportunity to lure her over to the driver's side--the mood is up, and you're dressed to the nines. Playfully graze her inner thigh with your fingertips. Suggest that it's proper to be fashionably late--how should we fill the time?--and park on a secluded street for a quickie. "It's like sharing a secret all night," Morrissey says, "especially if you've promised each other an encore."
Romania : Play it Straight
Meeting women is easy, if you're not sidetracked by insecurity ("Is she looking at me?"), coy games ("Have our waitress ask her waitress what she's drinking"), or body-language interpretation ("Dude, her eyes say no, but the angle of her feet says olé!"). When Romanian men want a woman, they tell her. "The men here have a lot of self-confidence," says Felicia Abaza, sex editor of Men's Health Romania. "And the women are tuned to respond to it."
How To Do It: Tired come-ons will fall flat. Instead, lean in unexpectedly and whisper in her ear, "I just had to be near you." Be mindful of your tone. Brash: bad. Calm: good. "Caress her with your voice," says Patricia Cihodaru, Ms.C., a Romanian psychologist and sex expert. And when you've become friendly enough that you won't get a punch in the chops, "say she looks beautiful and tell her how much you want her," says Cihodaru. "Hearing your desire is the strongest aphrodisiac."
China : Build Tension with Technology
Forget the 3-day rule. In China, men follow up the day after a successful date--by e-mail. "Technology plays a big role in relationships here," says Yoyoo Chow, sex editor of Men's Health China. "Most couples meet over the Internet. So if a man doesn't take the initiative, she'll find someone else pretty quickly."
How To Do It: Send a short, suggestive note, says Chow. Something as simple as "Last night . . . wow! When can I see you again?" will incite her interest. If she feels the same way, she'll respond accordingly. As the sexual tension builds, resist the temptation to pour out your soul or create a list of your top 10 fantasies. At this early stage, short equals sexy--always. And remember: Use of emoticons will ensure that you spend the night alone.