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Hot and Scalding

Some organisms manage to harness extreme heat

We all know that dragons and other mythical beasts are frequently given the power of fire-blowing or fire-spitting, but I also know that fire and life don’t mix well and can therefore categorically rule out the existence of fire-producing creatures (with the exception of fire-blowing circus and stage acts). What I am less certain about, however, is what I am supposed to make of stories I heard in rural France, spending 7 months in Moulis, namely that gas production by cows in crowded and badly ventilated stables is said to have been responsible for the occasional explosion. OK, cows produce methane, but who would ignite it? Stranded and decomposing whales on a tropical beach build up gases inside their body due to bacterial activity and can, indeed, explode, but generating fire? No. —>

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Life on the Fast Track

Mayflies don’t have time

I once had to examine a fascinating German PhD-thesis; fascinating not just because of some real beauties of single-word monstrosities (you could find in the text words like “Windgeschwindigkeitsdurchschnittswerte” and “Trefferwahrscheinlichkeitsoptimierung”, but fascinating because of the topic: the visual behaviour of mayflies. Mayflies are an ancient order of insects and have nothing to do with ordinary flies, hence their spelling in a single word (if they were true flies one would spell them as “may flies”). —>

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Nobody Needs to Learn Any More

If all the knowledge is in the genes

All of us know what a slog it is for every new generation to memorise the times tables, history dates, and to learn how to read and write. Why can the acquired knowledge not be stored in our genetic code and then be available to our children and their children, and so on? After all, the skill how to walk upright and the fear of heights, some scientists claim even the fear of spiders and snakes, need not be learned. Mothering, nest building in mammals and vocalizations, i.e. singing in many (but not all species) of birds, are instinctive skills, but the times table in humans, to the chagrin of all the children of the world, ain’t. —>