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The Strange Phenomenon Sailors Called "The Burning of the Sea"

Standing at the helm of the Santa Maria off the coast of Bermuda in 1492, Christopher Columbus was captivated by a faint light “like the light of a wax candle moving up and down” in the water. At first, he mistook it for a sign of land, but it wasn’t: It was the unexplained phenomenon that sailors knew as “the burning of the sea.” It had been known for centuries—Greek sailors attributed odd twinkles and eerie glows to the powers of the god Poseidon or one of his nymphs—but it wasn’t until the 18th century and the advent of microscopes that the true source was identified.

La Jolla, via Phillip Colla

Today, we know the phenomenon as tiny planktonic creatures that, when a wave or boat or swimmer disturbs them, twinkle blue, thanks to the same bioluminescent enzymes that give fireflies their glow. In the depths of the ocean, the only light available is the one these creatures create themselves; they use it to communicate, to find food, to find love, and to warn off predators. For us, it provides a stunning shoreside glimpse into the oddities of our oceans.

Alamy

Dinoflagellates are one of the most common bioluminescent organisms found in shallower water. They light up when a boat cuts through the ocean—in the past their light has exposed submarines and torpedoes. Bioluminescence almost never occurs in fresh water, but it’s such an important function for marine animals that live deep in the ocean that it’s evolved independently at least 40 times. Australia’s Gippsland Lakes aren’t always salty enough, but when enough seawater seeps in, the dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans thrives. These feed on phytoplankton; other bioluminescent bacteria consume rotting wood or dead fish, which, left long enough, can also start to glow blue. Bioluminescence can be visible on the beach in Vaadhoo, in the Maldives‚ but only when a passing ship disturbs the water.

Vaadhoo, via Corbis
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science
What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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History
Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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