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6 Unusual Members of Mother Nature's Bomb Squad

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Police, military, and security personnel have used dogs for years to locate explosives. In the last decade, homeland security and Middle East battlefronts have created an overwhelming demand for these four-legged finders that cannot always be met. Luckily, Mother Nature offers us a few other ways to detect things that go boom.

1. Bees

Bomb-sniffing dogs are great at their jobs, but they come with some drawbacks. It can take months to train a dog and his human handler, and keeping their skills sharp requires constant practice. Bomb dogs are also expensive, when you consider the costs of training, food, shelter, veterinary bills, and the salary of a dedicated handler. A UK company, Inscentinel, believes they have a cheaper, faster, but just as effective alternative: bees.

To train “sniffer bees," Inscentinel feeds the insects sugar water while exposing them to the smell of dynamite. After that, any time the bees detect dynamite, even in concentrations as small as a few parts-per-trillion, they'll extend their tongue-like proboscises, searching for a sugary treat. The training takes less than 10 minutes, but lasts for the bee's entire six-week lifespan. Although that is quite a bit shorter than the 10-year career of the average bomb dog, with these methods, Inscentinel can train about 500 bees a day, so there are always new sniffers ready to go.

Once the bees are trained, a few dozen are placed inside Inscentinel's handheld device, the Vasor136. Each bee is kept in place with a special bracket, and then monitored with an infrared sensor. If the sensors are set off by extended proboscises, an LCD screen alerts the human operator. Much like their six-legged partners, it only takes a few minutes to train a person to use the Vasor136.

With a quick training time, inexpensive food supply, and relatively cheap maintenance cost for a hive, bees can be a great alternative to bomb dogs. Best of all, in addition to bombs, bees can also be trained just as easily and quickly to sniff out illegal drugs or even some contagious diseases. And you thought they were only good for making honey.

2. Rats

Thanks to that whole Bubonic Plague thing, rats have gotten a pretty bad rap. But Bart Weetjens and his organization APOPO want to change all that with HeroRATS, a program that uses rats to safely and effectively clear minefields.

In case you're wondering, no, they don't just let the rats run across the minefield and see what happens. It typically requires at least 5kg/11lbs of weight to set off a mine, so even the African giant pouched rats used by APOPO, which weigh about 1.5kb/3.3lbs, can run through a minefield unharmed. To clear an area, the rats are accompanied by two human handlers who stand on either side of the danger zone with a wire running between them. The rat is tethered to the wire using a specially-designed harness, and the rodent runs back and forth across the area. If he stops to dig, it means he's detected the scent of dynamite. The mine is marked by a handler and the rat gets a piece of banana as a reward. With this technique, the team can clear a 300-square meter section of land in an hour. In comparison, two people using metal detectors would need two full days to cover the same area. Not only are the rats faster, but they can detect plastic-encased explosives that the metal detectors would miss.

Training HeroRATS takes about nine months at a cost of 6,000€/$7,400. But after that initial investment, they require very little medical care, are inexpensive to feed and shelter, and will live for up to eight years. In addition, they don't typically form tight bonds with specific handlers, a common occurrence with bomb dogs. This means that rats can easily work with any handler and still perform at a high level of accuracy.

Currently, APOPO operates in Mozambique and Thailand, with their headquarters and training facilities located in Tanzania. In addition to clearing minefields, the rats have also been used to detect tuberculosis, increasing the TB detection rates by 43% in partner hospitals. They’re also trying to train rats to enter debris left after an earthquake or other disaster to search for buried survivors.

The idea is catching on in America, too. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Army announced that it's working on a new program using bomb-detecting rats, called the Rugged Automated Training System (R.A.T.S.). Although they have no intention of replacing the military’s bomb-sniffing dogs, they’re looking at rats as a potential supplement animal to make bomb detection faster, cheaper, and more easily deployable to more units in the field.

3. Mice

An Israeli company, BioExplorers, is developing ways to train mice for use in public spaces like airport security gates, sports arenas, and even at drive-through toll booths to sniff out drugs or explosives. Similar to the handheld device from Inscentinel, the mice are housed inside an enclosure where they are monitored for signs of reaction to various scents. As a person walks past the enclosure, say just after they pass through the airport metal detector, the mice can get a whiff. If they react, the device beeps and red lights flash to warn a human operator. Training for one type of scent only takes about 10 days, with additional scents requiring a few additional days. But the mice can remember dozens of different scents, so they could become all-encompassing screeners in many different scenarios.

4 & 5. Dolphins and Sea Lions


Photo via the Official U.S. Navy Imagery Flickr account

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins and sea lions to detect and mark underwater mines. With the dolphins' underwater sonar capabilities, it’s been said they can detect the difference between a natural soybean and a man-made BB at a distance of up to 50 feet. When you consider that man-made sonar can’t differentiate between a rock and a mine, it’s pretty clear why dolphins are so useful in this capacity. Sea lions, on the other hand, use their excellent sense of sight – five times more powerful than man’s - to locate underwater mines. Once an explosive has been found, the animals point human handlers to the location by dropping an acoustic transponder or releasing a floating marker.

In addition to mines, the Navy’s dolphins and sea lions can also easily locate divers in places they shouldn’t be – say on the underside of a ship in a harbor. When an unauthorized swimmer is found, dolphins bump into the diver’s air tank and attach a strobe light connected to a buoy that floats to the surface so that sailors can apprehend the suspect. Similarly, sea lions clamp a special cuff around the diver’s leg. But instead of a strobe light, the cuff is attached to a line that runs back to a Navy ship, where the sailors aboard simply reel in the diver like the catch of the day.

Although the program has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became declassified. Since then, the Navy’s dolphins have mainly worked and trained in the waters around their home port of San Diego. However, they have been deployed to patrol for unauthorized swimmers in Puget Sound in 2010, and in the Persian Gulf in 2003, where they helped clear more than 100 mines during the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, they have been considered for a mission in the Strait of Hormuz after repeated threats by Iran to block the Persian Gulf’s only sea passage.

6. Plants


Photo via the Colorado State University Department of Public Relations

With assistance from Professor June Medford of Colorado State University, future bomb sniffers might not even have noses. Medford and her team in the Biology Department have genetically modified plants’ natural receptors to air and soil pollutants to detect explosives and other dangerous chemicals. If these bomb-sniffing plants absorb TNT from the air, an internal switch is flipped and they change color from green to white. Once the TNT has been removed, the plants return to their natural color.

Bomb-sniffing plants could easily become an early warning device for everything ranging from explosives to chemical and biological weapons or even environmental pollutants. The plan is to eventually have certain types of plants set up to detect certain types of dangers. For example, if the hydrangeas planted outside the airport are white, but the roses are still red, you know you have a bomb in the area, but not anthrax. Medford is working to make the gene “plug-and-play”, meaning this new gene sequence could be used on virtually any type of plant, like trees. This would make it possible to use an airplane or satellite to monitor the leaves in a neighborhood to determine the breadth of an area affected by a pollutant.

As of right now, the color change takes place over a couple of hours. While that’s still a great early warning window, Medford hopes to speed that up to only a few minutes in the future.

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Cotswold Archaeology
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Amateur Archaeologists in England Unearth Rare Roman Mosaic
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Cotswold Archaeology

For the past three years, amateur archaeologists and historians in southern England have been working side-by-side with volunteers to excavate several seemingly related local Roman sites. Now, just two weeks before the dig's scheduled conclusion, they've made a fantastic discovery: a rare 4th-century CE mosaic that is being hailed as "the most important of its type in Britain in more than half a century," according to The New York Times.

Dating to roughly 380 CE, the mosaic was unearthed near the village of Boxford in Berkshire. The project—which included a rotating assembly of 55 members—involved local interest groups like the Boxford History Project and the Berkshire Archaeological Research Group, and was overseen by Cotswold Archaeology, a company that helps builders preserve archaeological finds. Funding was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which gives grants to heritage projects across the UK.

In the project's first two years, the group members discovered a large Roman villa, a bathhouse, and a farmstead. In 2017, they began excavating the main villa, a site that yielded pottery, jewelry, coins, and other ancient objects. None of these artifacts, however, were as spectacular as the mosaic, which volunteers unearthed in a moment of serendipity shortly before funding for the dig ended.

Revealed sections of the artwork depict scenes featuring Bellerophon, a mythological Greek hero, along with other fabled figures. Bellerophon is famous in legends for capturing the winged horse Pegasus and for defeating the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail.

Citizen archaeologists in Boxford, England unearth a Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE.
Cotswold Archaeology

"The range and style of imagery is very rare in the UK, where simple geometric patterns are the norm," Duncan Coe, a principal heritage consultant with Cotswold Archaeology, tells Mental Floss. "The combination of artwork and inscriptions is unique in this country. The range of imagery is also unique, with at least two scenes from the story of Bellerophon, a character from Greek mythology, augmented by Hercules and the Centaur, Cupid and telamones [male statues used as a column]—and we only have half of the mosaic revealed so far."

Excavators uncovered nearly 20 feet of the mosaic, but ultimately reburied it to deter looters and prevent damage. Members of Boxford's local archaeological community hope to secure funding and return to the site—now dubbed the Boxford villa—to dig up the entire scene.

A Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE, unearthed by citizen archaeologists in Boxford England.
Cotswold Archaeology

In addition to teaching experts about the villa's owners—who were evidently sophisticated and wealthy—and Boxford's ancient heritage, the newly discovered mosaic isn't just any ordinary artwork, according to Coe: "This isn't just an isolated mosaic, but a small, but very important, part of a bigger jigsaw that advances our understanding of what was happening in southern England just before the Roman government abandoned Britain," he says.

[h/t The New York Times]

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15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination, even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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