5 Intriguing Things: Friday, 12/6

Crazy ants, communications in post-apartheid South Africa, solar machines, Into the Wild pilgrims, and the connection between Roman lead and dark matter.

Augustin Mouchot's Sun Machine.

1. 'Crazy ants' (this is their real name) are overwhelming swaths of Texas. They horrify us because we see in them "the impression of life caught up in a senseless, formless surging,” and they like to go after electronics

"Entomologists report that the crazy ants, like other ants, seem drawn to electronic devices — car stereos, circuit boxes, machinery. But with crazy ants, so many will stream inside a device that they form a single, squirming mass that completes a circuit and shorts it. Crazy ants have ruined laptops this way and, according to one exterminator, have also temporarily shut down chemical plants. They are most likely climbing into these cavities to investigate possible nesting sites. But as David Oi, a research entomologist at the Department of Agriculture, told me, the science-fiction-ish theory that the bugs are actually attracted to the electricity itself can’t be ruled out."

2. An African National Congress policy report on the challenges of developing information and communication infrastructure in post-apartheid South Africa.

"The communications infrastructure and services, like all other aspects of South African life, had been deployed in a skewed manner to the disadvantage and exclusion from services delivery of the rural, peri-urban and township areas. The communications infrastructure was deployed primarily to serve the minority segment of the population, the repressive requirements of the security establishment and big business."

3. John Perlin, the most dedicated solar historian in the world, has a new book out, Let It Shine: the 6,000-Year History of Solar Energy.*

"The first solar steam engine was built and tested by Augustine Mouchot, a French engineer, in 1866. He focused a parabolic mirror onto a one-inch tube in which the water was turned into steam. He went on to use concentrators to produce ice and electricity. Mouchot’s work ignited a number of inventors to develop solar motors over the latter part of the nineteenth century."

4. Each year, dozens of people hike some dangerous miles to visit the abandoned bus where Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame died

"I’d always had mixed feelings about McCandless and his story, despite moving to the Yukon Territory in my 20s and enjoying a relatively unconventional life myself. I shared some of his beliefs and passions, but for me the sticking point had always been his refusal to contact his family during his journey. I could imagine the resulting pain and anxiety, and that, as much as anything, kept me from considering McCandless someone to emulate. But at the same time I understood the pull that his story exerted on people: Plenty of us dream, but few make those dreams a reality. What's more, the young men and women inspired by McCandless today live in a world more wired and connected than anything he could have imagined. Small wonder that some of them are seduced by the idea of chucking their iPhones and disappearing into the wilderness."

5. Lead from Roman-ship anchors is a key component of some dark matter experiments.

"On 14th May 2011 a 2000-year-old shipwreck’s cargo was used as a source for 
experiments in particle physics. Italy’s new neutrino detector, CUORE (Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events), at the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics, received from the National Archaeological Museum of Cagliari in Sardinia 120 archaeological lead bricks from a ship, which was built more than 2,000 years ago and recovered from the sea 20 years ago on the coast of Sardinia. This ‘Roman lead’ - mainly found in the anchors of sunken ships - was used because of its low radioactivity: for, being underwater for 2,000 years, the very low original radioactivity was reduced approximately 100,000 times.  The use of these objects as stock for experimentation had never been an issue  before, but now it is beginning to be deemed ethically questionable."

* I should note that I played a tiny role in helping this book come into being. I hooked Perlin up with an agent, after I discovered that his previous solar history, A Golden Thread, was out of print and exceedingly difficult to find.

More fun than a swarm of crazy ants.

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