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Charles Darwin’s Barnacle Room

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getty images/istock

Barnacles latched onto a special place in Charles Darwin’s heart. By the time On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the father of natural selection had long since become a self-taught expert on these fascinating arthropods.

Why’d he start studying barnacles? As with many interests in Darwin’s career, it all began aboard the HMS Beagle. During the early 1830s, he served as her designated naturalist on a fateful, five-year voyage that took him around the world. One day, while exploring an archipelago near Chile, Darwin happened upon a conch shell riddled with holes. Back in his quarters, he placed the prize under a microscope and thus became acquainted with a curious little creature. Seated inside one of these holes was a tiny barnacle—invisible to the naked eye—whom Darwin nicknamed “Mr. Arthrobalanus.”

In those days, very little was known about Mr. Arthrobalanus’ spineless kin. As recently as 1832, barnacles had been widely misidentified as mollusks by those in academia. That they’re actually crustaceans was a fact scientists wouldn’t recognize until after the Beagle had already set sail.

Through focusing on barnacle studies, Darwin figured an up-and-coming naturalist could really make a name for himself. Besides, he felt that their classification was painfully unorganized. In his words, “literally not one species is properly defined… the subject is heart-breaking.” Obviously, someone needed to clear things up.

By 1846, Darwin had married, started raising a family, and taken up residence in the house he’d call “home” for four decades. He proceeded to spend the next eight years on what became a barnacle project of epic proportions. Day after day, Darwin would toil away in his study, dissecting and classifying his subjects. Soon, the room was overflowing with box upon box of barnacle specimens from all over the globe, delivered to his door by mail. As one might expect, this was hard, monotonous work. “I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before,” Darwin vented, “not even a Sailor in a slow-moving ship.”

Still, he managed to discover much about them. For example, Darwin refuted the notion that all barnacles were hermaphrodites—in some species, it turns out, males bury themselves within the shells of much larger females and essentially become sperm-spewing lumps. Also, by writing several much-needed compendiums on barnacle biology, Darwin established himself as a highly-respected naturalist. When the time came to finally publish his ground-breaking views on evolution, that credibility went a long way.

So, how did all this affect his private life? Well, a weaker marriage might’ve been sorely tested by the stockpiling of lord knows how many barnacles inside the house. But Darwin’s wife and children quickly got used to being around scores of dead crustaceans. Case in point, while visiting a friend’s home, Darwin’s son George was shocked to learn that the boy’s father didn’t have a study. Bewildered, he asked, “But where does he do his barnacles?”

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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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iStock
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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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