And all because he didn’t know HTML

We’re all familiar with the Google home screen, yes? That minimalistic, simple page with essentially nothing but the search box and the search button—seems like great design, doesn’t it? It seems like a well-thought-out decision on what should and should not be on the home page.

Well, guess again:

We didn’t have a webmaster and I don’t do HTML.”

That’s what Sergey Brin, Google cofounder, is said to have explained.

He put together the simplest web page he could to test out the search engine back when he was Ph.D. student,” Mayer told a Q&A audience at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. “The first version didn’t even have search button because the return button worked just fine. We just kind of stumbled into it.”

That iconic page design—and all because Sergey Brin didn’t care about HTML. (The article has some more tidbits; go read.)


Some birds have their own HUDs

This is an amazing discovery. It’s been known, of course, that some birds (and other animals) are capable of detecting the earth’s magnetic field. This is what gives them a sense of direction, and they seem to know exactly where they are going. Until now, exactly how this detection happened was not completely known, although it was guessed that vision was involved.

Here’s the latest:

This ‘compass’ sense must be associated with the eyeball, because the birds cannot detect magnetic fields in darkness.

But now Oxford University and National University of Singapore scientists have shown that birds may really ‘see’ the invisible force of magnetism, giving them a compass on top of their normal vision: rather like aircraft ‘head up displays’ which overlay crucial navigation information on a transparent screen in front of the pilot.

The ‘technology’, so to speak, involves a special molecule in the eye. When a photon of light enters the eye and hits the molecule, it causes an electromagnetic effect in the eye—and since this effect also depends on the surrounding magnetic field, the effect translates into a ‘map’ of the earth’s magnetic field. All this, right in the eye of the bird!

The next question, I guess, ought to be: is the absence of light the only reason that the birds can’t navigate at night? Would they do fine if there was artificial ambient light at night? What happens if they are fitted out with a ‘headlamp’ of sorts, that reflects light back into their retinas? Is there a minimum amount of light that would be the threshold? This is all very exciting.

In related news, a protein in the human retina has previously been found to possess magnetic properties. This is possibly remnants of the same system—which poses the question: did humans ever have the capacity to detect magnetic fields? Is this a rudimentary evolutionary leftover, or did we shed our sensing capabilities as we gave up our migratory habits and settled down to a life of agriculture?

Really—the more we find out about nature, the more amazing it all is. (Well, granted—the Earth has had a few million years to test and improve new technology, but you’ve got to admit, this is pretty cool.)


Guess why the Russian spacecraft failed…

Remember the Russian spacecraft—headed for Mars—that failed mysteriously recently not long after takeoff? There were a few suggested reasons for the failure—such as effects due to cosmic rays from the sun, and the result of exposure to US radars

Well, turns out the reasons were more prosaic than that–the craft failed due to a programming error! Two channels of the onboard computer rebooted simultaneously—which evidently they were not supposed to do.

Amazing how the most complex missions can be undone by relatively simpler errors—remember the NASA Mars mission that failed due to a mistake in the units used?


☛ Of the brain-eating amoeba

Be careful what you do with your tap water:

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals has issued a weird warning: if you have to irrigate your sinuses with water for some medical reason, don’t use tap water. The reason: your brains may get eaten by the Naegleria fowleri.

Water that you drink is quite all right—even if it contains the bacteria, it will be destroyed when it reaches the stomach and the body’s digestive juices.

But beware if you intend to put water up your nose! This channel is not intended for water (or other food), and does not have the same defense systems as our digestive system does.

The amoeba attacks your nervous system, and can pretty soon leave you dead! Fortunately, the way around is pretty simple: just boil the water to kill the bug!

(My gripe with the article: no source information! No links, whatsoever. Terrible.)


☛ The rat that’s ‘immune’ to acid

This is a very interesting article about why the naked mole rat can’t feel pain from acid burns. Apparently it was already known that they don’t feel the pain; their hypothesis about why it happened—that the acid sensing ion channels that tell neurons to transmit pain would be missing—was not true.

Because it turns out that mole rats — despite being the only known vertebrates that are insensitive to the painful stimulus of acid — have the same two fully-functional, acid-sensing channels regulating their pain receptors as the rest of us, and even produce the channels in similar quantities. And this is where things get interesting.

Now they know the actual reason. There’s another way neuron-firing can be controlled, and it is this (sodium) channel that is highly inhibited in the naked rat mole. Similar phenomenons are observed in humans too:

Furthermore — and this doesn’t happen often — humans lacking the Nav1.7 channel have been known to feel no pain whatsoever.

Very interesting, yes, but my question is this: the naked rat mole is insensitive to pain due to acids; but does that mean that it is in fact unaffected by acids? It does not seem so—the phenomenon is purely neurological, and there seems to be nothing physiological that would protect the rat against acids.

Does this not make this a counterproductive adaptation? Why would this adaptation survive? Is it because the natural environments of these rats are entirely devoid of harmful acids, thus making that pain sensation redundant? (Is this also why they’re “naked”, rather than furry?)

Intriguing.