Tuesday, 20th February 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. On an unnamed mountain and unexplored region of one of the greenest countries on earth, the scientists arrived by helicopter, feeling like they were “the first humans ever to pass the night there.” Why were they there?

A. Situated on Suriname’s Grensgeberte Mountains on the border with Brazil, the 18 group members included ornithologists, botanists, “fish squeezers and snake grabbers,” all in search of new species, says science and nature writer Richard Conniff in “Smithsonian” magazine. As part of Conservation International, their goal was “to identify and protect biodiversity worldwide,” supported by a team tasked to transfer some 6600 pounds of equipment by water or land to the remote site.

Thus far, humans have identified about 2 million of the 10-100 million species awaiting discovery and naming. The process is painfully slow, requiring a specialized taxonomist to compare a promising species with already established ones and, if approved, to affix the new species with a commonly accepted scientific name.

All told, the expedition came back with some 60 species new to science. Conservation International will use this data to help inspire Suriname’s National Assembly to earmark 72,000 square kilometers of rainforest as a nature preserve, possibly a step toward making species discovery a powerful nation brand for Suriname.

Q. Imagine a hand poised over a book page, with one finger fitted with a tiny camera. What might come next?

A. With HandSight, a blind person could actually read more easily, says Aviva Rutkin in “New Scientist” magazine. Developed by University of Maryland’s Jon Froehlich and team, this tiny camera-—originally used for endoscopies—-fits on the tip of the finger, and as the wearer follows a line of text, a computer reads it out loud. Audio or kinesthetic cues gently nudge the finger into the right position. Eventually, Froehlich envisions “a smartphone-like device that blind people could use to discern other visual characteristics, like colors and patterns,” helping give them a sense of the non-tactile world around them.

Q. You’ll be lionized indeed if you can explain the origins of the following words derived from animals: “blackbird,” “chicken hawk,” “spread-eagle” and “dog days.”

A. Being “lionzed,” of course, puts you in the company of the king of animals, so you’re viewed as an object of great importance, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” web site. “Blackbird” is the term for someone from the South Pacific Islands who, “from the 1860s to 1904 was kidnapped to mine guano in Peru and work in sugarcane and cotton plantations in Australia and Fiji, and elsewhere.” Hence the word meant an indentured laborer or slave kidnapped from the South Pacific.

Another word from the birds is “chicken hawk,” drawing on the slang for both “chicken” (a coward) and “hawk” (someone favoring aggressive policy). Thus the phrase, first used in 1827, means “a person who favors military action yet has avoided military service.” And “spread-eagle” draws on the iconic representation of an eagle with outspread wings and gives us two meanings: “to position someone with arms and legs stretched out” and “to be boastful in a display of nationalistic pride.”

Finally, “dog days” are associated with the month of August, so named for the hottest period of the summer and suggesting a period of stagnation and lethargy. Its origin is from “Sirius,” the Dog Star, that rises and sets with the sun around that time of year, and comes from the Greek word “seirios” for “scorching.”

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