Archive for June, 2008

The Unicorn- Not a uniform myth.

Posted in Science Articles, UNDER THE APPLE TREE: with tags , , , , , , on June 15, 2008 by redshiftblue

How the myth of the unicorn came about, has been something of a mystery. While other mythical creatures appear to embody our fears as humans (from vampires to werewolves), the unicorn has been described as a peaceful animal, albeit with magical properties which would lead people to search the earth in the hope of finding one. Perhaps there was never anything to drive the beginning of this myth, other than a common perception of deer/horse-like animals as beautiful and noble. Maybe it just stemmed from a need for hope, the human need for the otherworldly, which gives us comfort in bad times, and allows us to believe that ordinary life is not all that there is.


The collective name for a group of unicorns is a “blessing of unicorns” so it’s likely the creature is mixed up another great source of hope, namely, religion. The single horn of a unicorn was believed to neutralize poison; it was the good to heal the bad. Another handy use for unicorns was in deducing whether a woman was a virgin or not. Only virgins could tame a unicorn (as we know virgins, and the Virgin Mary herself rate very highly in the catholic religion), and seemingly only a virgin could mount a unicorn. So if he kicked her off then you knew someone was telling porkies. Then again, perhaps this method of distinguishing virgins was about as accurate as the old floating witch trick (stick a suspected witch in a chair, put her in a lake, if she floats she’s a witch, if she doesn’t she’s normal but also sadly, recently deceased..).


According to the traditional medieval description of unicorns, they are like a horse, but sport a billy-goat beard, a erhm..lion tail and cloven hooves. And have that single horn in the centre of their forehead. However, according to Marco Polo, the famous explorer round the 13th century, unicorns were


scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.  (excerpt stolen from Wikipedia).


It seems Marco Polo had bumped into a few rhinos on his travels. It’s doubtful that these animals had anything to do with the unicorn myth. They are so unlike the graceful horse type creature we imagine a unicorn to be. A great deal of truth altering and creative blindness would have to be employed to turn a rhino in the classic unicorn. In the world of Harry Potter (the most recent representation of unicorns in popular culture) they are seen as pure, glowing white angel of a horse, with a noble spiraled horn and silver blood. Drinking the blood of a unicorn will prolong ones life, but it brings curse upon them (according to Hagrid). The only indication that a rhino may be the source of the myth, lies with the fact that a rhinoceros’ horn has an interesting property- it reacts with alkaloids by turning a different color .A majority of the medieval poisons were made from alkaloids (naturally occurring chemical compound which have a nitrogen containing base), which coincides with the myth that unicorn horns change color when a poison in placed within them.


As of last Wednesday (the 11th June 2008), a fresh idea has literally been born, regarding how unicorns came about. A deer with a single horn in the centre of its forehead was spotted in a nature preserve in Tuscany, Italy, much to the surprise of well..everyone. Previously, deer with one horn have been born but usually with the horn to either side of the head. The single horn is believed to be the result of a mutation, a genetic anomaly which occurred in just this deer (name Roe Deer) and not his twin i.e. it was not an inherited mutation, just one which arises as a “once-off” of sorts. A deer is a much more likely candidate to inspire a unicorn myth, being as it is like a smaller, graceful horse. If other single-horned deer were spotted back in the Middle-Ages, there’s no doubt they would have been named a unicorn and the shy, nervous and quick-to-bolt, nature of deer (when approached by humans) would have definitely fit the bill. As for Roe Deer, many have flocked to the nature preserve to catch a sight of him, but he is hard to coax into the limelight. Maybe it’s time to send in the virgin maidens?




Top 5 Sci-Fi Films

Posted in -Sci-Fi Films/Series/Books, THE RABBIT HOLE: with tags , , , , , , , on June 8, 2008 by redshiftblue

1.BLADE RUNNER: This dystopian vision of the future is by far the most favoured when it comes to sci-fi films, but Ridley Scott is the king when it comes to sending the eerie chill into our bones. Darkened alleyways, perpetual rain, and oily Chinese takeaways – it almost sounds like a typical Friday night out in Ireland but it is, in fact, the setting for Scott’s film, in which the Blade Runner (Ford) must tackle a bunch of resilient (not to mention philosophical..”tears in the rain”? What a line!) replicants.

2.GATTACA: This has a special place in my heart because it’s the only film which adequately explores the whole arena of genetic screening/designer off-spring. It is a sad, quiet ode to the nature of humanity, the strengths and weaknesses we acquire at birth and those we harbour in our soul. There is the resilient hope of one man, Vincent, who has never expected anything (as he is deemed inferior by his genes). And then there is the consuming despair of Jerome, a man who has lost everything as a result of an unforseen accident. It sounds a bit true-drama esque, but believe me its really not all that clichéd.

3.THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Luc Besson’s film is garnished with crazy costumes and features a disgruntled but amusing Bruce Willis. It’s a future I’d happily live in. Things to enjoy are Gary Oldman’s transparent half-plastic cap and Leeloo’s excellent fight scene intercut with the Diva’s operatic performance.

4.ClOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: After watching this, who hasn’t wished they could build such a monumental structure out of mere mashed potato? For me this is the film which really captures the unsettling thrill of discovering possible alien life. It’s the classic concept, full of memorable images, from the alien spacecraft to the shadowy hints of the aliens themselves. And who can forget that tune?

5.SUNSHINE: It received one hell of a mixed reaction but after watching it all I felt was an odd sense of awe at the craziness of the universe. We all know the sun is going to burn out some day, so I commend Danny Boyle for imaging how we’d solve the problem -with a giant bomb, that’s how! The film may steal aplenty from 2001: A Space Odyssey and numerous other sci-fi films, but it puts it all together nicely. Sometimes it’s good to fly so close to the sun (of copycatting) and not get completely burned.

So there’s my top 5. Many omissions but no concessions. Any additions you’d make?

Wolverine- A Frog Prince?

Posted in -Science News, UNDER THE APPLE TREE: with tags , , , on June 7, 2008 by redshiftblue

Havard biologists led by David Blackburn have discovered that Wolverine was not the only creature capable of extruding convenient claws from his body. A frog species, Trichobatrachus robustus has been observed to produce bony structures which burst from its skin in response to an outside threat. It seems that the end of the claw is attached to muscle so that a contraction of the muscle causes it to push through the frogs skin.

The mechanism cannot be understood fully, since Blackburn and his team have only studied dead specimens. The researchers, who work in the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, speculate that the claws (which are entirely bone and not coated by the usual keratin layer), would retract upon relaxation of the muscles. Like the famous X-Man himself, one would hope that the wounds produced by the claws can heal after retraction. In fact, tissue regeneration does not seem all that unlikely, considering it has already been observed in other amphibians such as salamanders.

In addition to this strange defence mechanism, the frogs also sport a hairy exterior during breeding times.


The hairs are actually a mix of skin and arteries sprouting from the skin, possibly in order to increase surface area available for oxygen update. Or who knows, maybe it’s just that the ladies love the hirsute look. God knows it worked for Sean Connery…