Weird Science Weekly: Anti-terrorism tech now used to save British cakes


In this installment of Weird Science Weekly, I discuss more weirdness in the science world, and this week it includes cakes scanned with anti-terrorism tech, mutant worms and sheep-eating plants.

From bin Laden to Brit Larder

The state-of-the-art technology American navy seals used to track down Osama bin Laden is now being deployed on another mission: to save British cakes.

The navy seals used this technique to detect changes in the grounds surrounding bin Laden's compound, so using it for cakes might sound ridiculous on the surface, but the imaging technology being used by the University of Strathclyde could potentially prevent waste of spoiled products and, in turn, save bakeries a ton of dough (in every sense of the word). The imaging allows researchers to test the cake's chemical content just by taking a picture of it — no touching, smelling or tasting required; ideal for foodstuffs. Using this chemical fingerprint, they can tell how quickly the cake is spoiling — the breakdown of fats and sugars, for instance. Having highly detailed information about how fast a baked good goes bad can give food makers the edge in tweaking their recipes for the best shelf life. The tech could also be extended to work with other perishable foods, like fish and meat.

Horses give bloodhounds a run for their money

If it was a straight-up race, I know who I'd bet on. Police and animal trainers in Oregon may have come up with a new career option for horses — helping with search and rescue by using their noses.

The technique, called 'air scenting', is being revived by trainers Kate Beardsley and Laurie Adams, who've assembled a team of a dozen air-scent trained horses and riders. Most of us are familiar with a dog's sense of smell because it's been well-studied. Where humans weigh in with around 5 million scent receptors, dogs like Fox Terriers have about 150 million, and Bloodhounds have up to 300 million. Horses haven't been studied as thoroughly, but it's estimated most equines have somewhere between 25 to 100 million receptors, making them some good competition for the canines. Given that horses, like dogs, have a long history of working with humans, and that they may have better luck traversing the terrain of a back-country search (not to mention that they can carry their human coworkers), they seem like a natural addition to the search and rescue team.

The horse who provided the demonstration to Oregon law enforcement this week — an Appaloosa gelding named 'Joker' — took just 2 minutes and 20 seconds to nose out a hidden volunteer in a 13-acre, semi-wooded field. While not a widely-publicized ability, the technique has been used in the past. Teddy Roosevelt's biographer reported that he hired a hunting guide that made use of his horse's nose to track buffalo.

Mutant silkworms spinning threads for your next rave

Scientists in Japan have been tinkering with silkworms and generating some remarkable results. Traditionally, you can get coloured silk fibres by changing what your worm eats (usually by feeding them dyes), but researchers at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Ibaraki have gone one step further this time — actually genetically engineering silkworms that produce 'natural' threads that glow under fluorescent light. Borrowing genes from different species of coral and jellyfish, they were able to transplant them into the worms' genomes at the site that controls silk fiber production, and, bam; glow, little glowworm.

The team has shown that the silk, made by over 20,000 of the altered little worms, is slightly more delicate than normal silk, but retains its vibrant color for more than two years (so far). The researchers hope that their product might find its way into medical applications, but in the meantime, it's making some spectacular fashion.

Anyone for an ice cold slushie?

One of my favorite treats at the movie theatre or on a hot summer day is a slushie. Thanks to home science guru Grant Thompson, I'm going to be making one at home this weekend, and you can, too.

So, how does it work? Well, as Grant says in the video, when you shake the bottle, you increase the pressure inside. One common way to lower the freezing temperature of a liquid is by adding salt, but another way is to put the liquid under pressure. By shaking the bottle up before sticking it in the freezer, you're setting the soda up to maintain its liquid state longer than it would normally. Once you pop it out of the freezer and release the pressure by opening the cap, you've raised the freezing point back up above the temperature your drink is actually at. After that, it's a matter of getting the freezing going by introducing a freezing nucleus — in this case, the soda at the top of the bottle will have the easiest time freezing up when the bottle is opened. Tipping the bottle upside down lets that nucleus swoosh through the rest of the liquid, starting a chain reaction and turning the whole thing to slush. Science is delicious.

'Sheep-eating' plant blooms in the U.K.

Plants aren't all the good guys we think they are. The so-called 'sheep-eating' plant, Puya chilensis, bloomed this week at the Royal Horticultural Society's Garden Winsley.

An odd-looking plant, standing at 3 metres high and sporting spikes of neon yellow-green flowers, this is the first time it's bloomed since it was planted in the garden 15 years ago. The blossoms are huge - about 5 cm across each, and have enough nectar in them that they'd make fine little cups if you wanted to drink one. But what's taken it so long to bloom? Well, it might be that in the U.K. the plant is deprived of its usual diet.

You see, this strange giant has a grisley secret. In its natural habitat in the Andes, it uses the razor-sharp spines on its leaves to trap sheep that try to eat it. Once thusly trapped, the animal eventually starves to death and its carcass acts as fertilzier at the base of the plant, as it decomposes. An ingenious bit of evolutionary strategy. Creepy, but ingenious. Fortunately for anyone turning out to see the rare blossom, the RHS reports that their specimen is "growing in the arid section of [their] Glasshouse with its deadly spines well out of reach of both children and sheep alike."

[ More Geekquinox: Just how ‘super’ is this weekend’s supermoon? ]

Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Images courtesy: Getty, Iizuka et al., Wikimedia Commons)

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