June 2, 2012 - The Day The World Discovered The Sun * Hooked On Flowers * Oldest Instruments * Fire-Finding Beetle * Science Fact, or Science Fiction: Aluminum Pots

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Today on the program we'll hear about the oldest instruments ever found in Europe - dating back to our ancestors' earliest arrival on that continent.  Plus - we're hear how bees and plants have evolved a Velcro relationship; why fire beetles run towards a fire, rather than away; and whether aluminum cooking pots are bad for your health.  But first - The Transit of Venus.

 


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The Day The World Discovered The Sun
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On Tuesday, June 5th,Venus will pass directly between the Sun and the Earth.  This is known as the Transit of Venus, and it only occurs twice a century, eight years apart.  The last Transit was in 2004 and the next one won't be until 2117.  Although they are a minor curiosity for today's astronomers, the Transits in 1761 and 1769 attracted the attention of leading astronomers of the day, who sought to measure the phenomenon for the first time, as a way of calculating the distance from the Earth to the Sun.  A new book by science journalist Mark Anderson - The Day The World Discovered The Sun - chronicles the adventures of three of the more successful expeditions to measure the Transit of Venus in optimum locations on Earth.  It was a race against the clock for British Naval officer James Cook, who led an excursion to Tahiti; Hungarian priest Maximilian Hell, who traveled to the Norwegian Arctic; and French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche, who navigated his way to the Baja Peninsula in present day California.
          
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Hooked On Flowers

Bumblebeee.jpg Bumblebee gets a grip on flowers.
Many common flowers have evolved characteristics to help bees with the pollination process.  This includes specific colour patterns and shapes that are attractive to bees.  Scientists wondered if the tiny pyramid-shaped cells on the surface of flowers, such as petunias, roses, and snap-dragons, were also somehow related to pollination.  New research by Dr. Beverley Glover, a botanist from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge in England, has discovered that these cells are, in fact, integral to the process.  The pyramid shape of the cells is the same scale as the claws on the feet of bees.  Much like Velcro, it allows bees to lock on to the flower petals, especially in the wind.  These findings suggest the interaction between plant and pollinator can be more subtle than previously thought.

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Oldest Instruments

prehistoric_flute.jpgBone Flute, courtesy Universität Tübingen
New dating of prehistoric musical instruments, found at sites along the Danube River in Germany, confirms that they are the oldest instruments ever found.  These bone and ivory flutes are similar to a simple version of a modern recorder, and were reconstructed from fragments found along with other artifacts, including tools, sculptures and ornaments.  New radio-carbon dating techniques employed by Professor Tom Higham, the Deputy Director of Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, has confirmed that some of these artifacts and instruments are more than 40,000 years old, and thus, roughly contemporary with the earliest migrations of modern humans into Europe.   

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Fire-Finding Beetle

fire_beetle.jpgFire-chasing beetle.  Heat detecting organs indicated by red arrow.  Courtesy H Schmitz
Melanophila beetles, also known as the black fire beetle or fire-chaser beetle, have a perverse reaction to forest fires.  While other animals run from fires, these beetles run to them - sometimes from tremendous distances - so that they can mate and lay their eggs in freshly cooked trees.  The larvae then eat the unburned wood, safe from predators and the defenses of living trees.  The beetles find fire using special infra-red heat sensors on their abdomens. And to find out just how sensitive these sensors are, Professor Helmut Schmitz of the Institute of Zoology at the University of Bonn, and a colleague, studied a famous oil-tank fire from 1925 that apparently attracted beetles from 120 km away.  By calculating the amount of heat the fire gave off, they discovered that the beetles can detect heat with far more sensitivity than should be possible.  They hope to emulate the beetle's sensor to make better heat-detection technology. 
 

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Science Fact, or Science Fiction: Aluminum Pots

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. 

Today's statement comes from listener Pooja Ghatalia, who says:  "Cooking in aluminum pots is bad for your health."  To help us with this issue, we contacted Dr. Martin Stillman, a Professor in the Chemistry Department at the University of Western Ontario in London. He says it is science fiction. 
 
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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0