Original image

6 Unusual Members of Mother Nature's Bomb Squad

Original image

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.

Original image
15 Subatomic Word Origins
Original image

In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.


George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.


The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.


Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.


Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.


Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”


Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.


In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.


Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.


Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].


Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].


In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.


In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
Original image
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.


More from mental floss studios