Fascinating stories: supermassive black holes, pancake races, and mumruffins

Published 5:49 pm Thursday, February 29, 2024

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There are a lot of news sources available for people to choose from (including this very newspaper), and even more headlines to sort through when you want something to read. Those stories, of course, range from the tragic and heartbreaking to the wonderful and uplifting. And everything in between too, of course!

This week, I happened to stumble across a handful of articles that were simply fascinating or funny to me. As always, I wanted to share those stories with you all as well. Here’s what caught my eye this week:

Have you ever wondered how whales are able to sing? Perhaps not. (I’ll admit the details have never crossed my mind before.) But according to the Associated Press, scientists at the University of Southern Denmark are making progress on figuring out the mechanics of how whales are able to sing loud enough for their songs to traverse the ocean.

The answer is potentially a specialized voice box which other animals don’t have. The researchers studied the bodies of three kinds of baleen whales (including the famous humpback whale) to try to learn more about how they function. What I found interesting is that, even though baleen whales are mammals, they don’t have teeth or vocal chords like the rest of us. Instead, they’re shaped a bit differently, with a cushion of fat and muscle in the space where they breathe in air.

The study was a small one, so the findings aren’t exactly confirmed yet, but it’s a cool step forward to learning more about a species that is still a big mystery to us. And it could be helpful in the future to ensure that whales remain healthy and thriving.

Shifting away from the depths of the ocean, I was also intrigued by some space-themed science news this week. According to NPR, scientists in Australia recently discovered a supermassive black hole that is 17 billion times larger than our sun and the fastest-growing one ever discovered.

As someone who has watched and read A LOT of science-fiction over the years, black holes have always been an intriguing part of outer space. They’re the stuff of nightmares in sci-fi stories, an unstoppable force gobbling up everything in its wake. This newly-discovered black hole is so powerful that “it swallows the equivalent of one sun every day.”

This black hole is accompanied by a quasar, which is illuminated by all the matter that heats up as it gets pulled into the black hole. Shining 500 trillion times brighter than the sun, this particular quasar is the “brightest known object in the universe” now (though I would argue that LED headlights must be a close second).

Not to worry, however, because these fascinating space phenomena are located 12 billion light-years away. That’s quite a long trek!

I also read another space-related story that’s much closer to home. Another NPR article focused on a “dead” (as in no-longer-functioning) satellite that’s falling back to Earth this week. There are estimates of where it’ll land, but no one is quite certain exactly due to a number of factors like solar activity and the density of the atmosphere.

As with pretty much anything falling through Earth’s atmosphere, the 5,000-pound satellite is going to break into pieces on the way down and most of it will burn up in the process. Anything else that keeps going is mostly likely to fall into the ocean.

But a space debris engineer was quoted saying that there’s a “one in a billion” chance that a piece of satellite would fall on someone’s head. Yikes!

Even though it’s very, very, very, very, very unlikely, I sure hope someone isn’t THAT unlucky.

Yes, I will spend the rest of the week looking warily up at the sky anyway.

Turning our attention away from the heavens and back to solid ground, I was delighted to read a fun story from the Associated Press about a “pancake race” in England.

Imagine a bunch of ladies standing at the starting line, clad in running shoes and kitchen aprons. The aprons might be a bit weird to see, but the strangest sight is actually the frying pans in everyone’s hand, each containing a cooked pancake.

The annual race happens in the English town of Olney every year, based on a legend about a housewife in 1445 who heard the church bells on Shrove Tuesday (more commonly known as the day before Lent here in America) and dashed out of her house towards the church, with her skillet in hand.

The silly competition has garnered enough attention that copycat races have popped up elsewhere, even in Kansas.

The race is a 415-yard sprint, and the runners have to flip their pancake at the beginning and also after they cross the finish line. I can only assume that they get to feast on the pancakes after all the running is complete. I know I would have worked up an appetite if I was there!

Lastly, I can always count on the Merriam-Webster dictionary for some fun with words. A recent article on their website shared a list of “Bird Names that Sound Like Insults (and Sometimes Are).” I’d never heard of half of these birds, but a lot of them sound like they belong as a bit of dialogue in a Shakespeare play as a character snidely calls out someone they don’t like.

Take “Blatherskite,” for example, which is a kind of American duck with brownish-red feathers and a blue bill. It comes from the old Scottish words “blather” (meaning: foolish nonsense talk) and “skate” (meaning: a contemptible person). I’m not quite sure how the duck ended up with the insulting name, but it’s definitely a fun one to say.

There’s an Asian fantail bird species called the “Cranky Fan” (which is, personally, what I become when my favorite college basketball team has a bad game). But even though it sounds like it’s referring to a person, the “cranky” part refers to the birds unpredictable erratic flying style, and the “fan” of course is the shape of its tailfeathers.

Some other notable birds on the list include Pettichaps, Meatbird, Twit-twat, Swinepipe, and my personal favorite, Mumruffin.

I will remember all these names the next time I get into a silly argument with my brother!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.