* First Fire * Sailing on your Stomach * Jellyfish Breakfast, Lunch and Supper * Quantum Biology * Fact or Fiction - Teeth and Radio *

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First Fire
wonderwerk_cave.jpgWonderwerk Cave (Photo by R. Yates)

A team led by Dr. Michael Chazan, professor of Anthropology and director of the Archeology Centre at the University of Toronto, has found new evidence that human ancestors had controlled fire a million years ago.  Before this discovery, no good evidence of the human use of fire had been discovered predating the Neanderthals, so this evidence pushes back the use of fire by hundreds of thousands of years.  The evidence was discovered in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, and was quite difficult to identify.  The archeologists discovered ash from burned grasses, as well as burned bone and stone, but no defined fire pit.  This suggests the possibility that Homo erectus used fire differently from later humans species, and perhaps had not learned to fully control or utilize it.
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Sailing on your Stomach

victory_at_trafalgar.jpgHMS Victory at Trafalgar by Turner
Life on a British Navy ship two hundred years ago was brutal and perilous.  Sailors lived in cold, damp and overcrowded conditions, suffered from isolation and disease, and, of course, faced the possibility of violent death at the hands of the (usually French) enemy.  But according to Dr. Mark Pollard, a professor of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, at least the sailors ate well.  Dr. Pollard and his colleagues did chemical analysis of the bones of sailors, disinterred from British naval hospital graveyards, to determine their long term diet.   What they found was that their food was likely plentiful and included lots of protein, particularly a great deal of preserved beef and pork, which was unusual for ordinary people of the day.  This confirms contemporary records, not to mention many rollicking sea-stories.                

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Jellyfish Breakfast, Lunch and Supper

turtle_jellyfish.jpgVideo Camera mounted on a leatherback turtle.  Courtesy Canadian Sea Turtle Network
Leatherback turtles can grow as big as 640 kilograms.  They get that big on a surprisingly low protein diet.  They eat jellyfish and very little else.  Susan Heaslip, a PhD student in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax recently studied leatherbacks in the waters of Canada's East Coast.  Using cameras attached to the turtles with suction cups, she was able to determine that leatherbacks aren't picky about what species or size of jellyfish they eat, but that they eat an astounding number.  In order to fuel their 10,000 kilometre round trip migration from the Winter breeding grounds in the tropics to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, leatherback turtles eat as many as 700 jellyfish per day.  That's about 75 percent of their own body weight.  Leatherback turtles may not have changed their diet because jellyfish are so reliable and predictable.  

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Quantum Biology

quantum_leaf.jpgA quantum leaf?  copyright Krzysztof P. Jasiutowicz
Life is uncertain - perhaps much more than we might have thought.  That's because the strange and counter-intuitive principles of quantum mechanics, (such as uncertainty, the wave/particle duality of small objects, and other features), seem to be part of life itself.  Quantum effects are generally observed on the level of tiny particles like electrons, photons and individual atoms, and even then only under rigorously controlled conditions.  This has led most physicists to assume that quantum effects had little impact in biology, where conditions are rarely clean and controlled.  However, it turns out nature, as usual, has more ingenuity than we'd thought.  Experiments have demonstrated that quantum processes occur in photosynthesis, in order to help plants capture photons more efficiently.  There is also good evidence to suggest that our noses smell through quantum effects.  In fact, many of our senses, and much of our internal chemistry, may ultimately be governed by quantum mechanics.  And physicists are hoping that as they understand how nature can exploit quantum phenomena, we can copy a few tricks for our own use as well.  In this documentary, we hear from:
Dr. Seth Lloyd, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has been studying quantum physics for his entire career, and is now trying to use nature's quantum tricks to develop new green energy technologies.
Dr. Greg Scholes, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, whose group first demonstrated that quantum effects were happening in realistic conditions in algal photosynthesis. 
Dr. Jennifer Brookes, a research scientist at Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, who is studying whether quantum effects are important in the sense of smell.   

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Peer Gynt excerpt copyright Papalin. Scarlatti excerpt copyright Martha Goldstein

Science Fact or Science Fiction: Teeth & Radio Signals

This is another episode of our occasional feature, Science Fact or Science Fiction. From time to time, we present a commonly held idea or popular saying - and ask a Canadian scientist to set us straight on whether we should believe it or not. 

Here's today's statement:  Braces and tooth fillings can pick up audible radio signals.   To help us tune into the answer, we drilled down to Dr. Jacques Albert for his opinion.  Dr. Albert is Canada Research Chair in Advanced Photonic Components in the Department of Electronics at Carlton University in Ottawa.  He says it could theoretically be science fact - but no one has really studied it.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0