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494 - It's a Dog-nosed World: Accidental Cartography Revisited
Do you have to be religious to see a face in burnt toast? Probably not, but believers are more likely to attribute such a face to Jesus (1). Believer in this case mostly refers to christians,- even more specifically to catholics, who are steeped in the iconography of saints, and thus more adept at picking out holy faces from random places.
For our belief system colours our perception of the world, and this perception in turn feeds into our beliefs. Muslims, for example, have their own version of the Jesus-on-toast-style apparitions (2). Since they abhor the graven image as much as they venerate the Quran’s God-givenness, their epiphanies are mainly of the literate kind: Quranic quotes, often the written name of Allah or one of his 99 epithets, always in the flowing Arabic script of the original.
The general term for this phenomenon - finding meaning in patterns that have not been designed to convey any - is pareidolia. Our pareidolic tendencies are more common than we’d perhaps like to think; the Rorschach test, teasing out our inner thoughts by inviting our opinions on random ink blots, was designed to exploit them.
There is a specific subset of pareidolia that concerns us here: cartocacoethes - seeing maps in non-cartographic patterns. Do you have to be a map nerd to see the shape of a state or country in the fried chicken on your plate? No, but it helps. This blog has previously featured quite a few examples of this phenomenon - I prefer the term ‘accidental cartography’ - sent in by readers of Strange Maps (see #350 and #424).
The second entry was composed by the submissions generated by the first one. It seems the readers of this blog are predisposed to perceiving accidental cartography in their surroundings. This, then, is a third instalment of accidental cartography - featuring a multitude of maps (or rather: ‘maps’). This batch confirms a few findings from the previous two entries:
The following selection of accidental cartography is arranged by subject, not substance. Some images take a bit of a stretch of the imagination, others are spot-on. All were sent in by kind readers of this blog.
“For as long as I can remember, every fall I have hiked Monument Mountain (from which the photo was taken) with my dad and have always noticed how much [Agawam Lake in Great Barrington, MA] looks like the contiguous United States,” writes Sam Graulty. “The borders have shifted over the years (or maybe my imagination has atrophied some) and even though New England streams off to nothing, there are two short stubby Floridas and the Great Lakes region isn't perfect, I think it's pretty spot on.”
More American Water
“I just looked on my kitchen table this morning after spilling some water,” writes Daniel Wolff from Berlin, “and I found North America! Florida is there, and so are the Great Lakes, etcetera.”
Give Peas A Chance
This looks like a set-up, but Sean ‘S-Factor’ Owen, who sent this image in from Texas, claims: “I just happened to stop by the pea bowl for seconds and found them aligned like that! I had convince everyone at the house to stay away from the bowl until I got my camera.”
America In My Glass
“So I was at the local pub, and upon finishing my pint, lo, there was America in my glass,” says_ Scott Launius. “The Atlantic seaboard is pretty weak (unless maybe Cape Cod has been moved to South Carolina), but the other three borders are almost dead on. If you're curious, the beer was a Gonzo Imperial Porter brewed by Flying Dog Brewing based out of Frederick, Maryland, purchased at Ashley's in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
Trash North America
America apparent in a bit of paper towel thrown by the wayside. Sent in by Christopher Swasey.
Crackers and Cheese Northwest
Matt McMillion was eating cheese on crackers when he discovered a piece that looked exactly like Idaho, “especially on the northeast border. I then started looking through the other pieces and found a very good Washington state, Olympic peninsula and all - so I threw a cracker in there to represent Oregon and had a pretty good accidental Pacific Northwest map.”
“I was at happy hour (in Washington, no less) with some friends the other day and we got this square shaped bruschetta/pizza appetizer. As people pulled off chunks, I looked down and noticed that the shape of the still uneaten bruschetta, and the way it happened to placed at an angle on the plate, made it a pretty good likeness of our city-state,” says Alex Seitz-Wald. “It's missing the Anacostia River and Georgetown’s fallen into the Potomac, but I liked that there's a little bit of bread/land on the other-side representing Teddy Roosevelt Island or Arlington.”
A Slightly Pudgy Massachusetts
“When I spotted this street repair on a crosswalk in Palo Alto, California, I instantly said, My gosh, that's New York,” writes Rick Rubinstein. “My companion, without prompting, said the same thing when I stopped to take the picture. On comparison with an actual map, though, it's obviously a (slightly pudgy) Massachusetts.”
“I'd like to share a rock I found while hiking that is eerily similar to the shape of California,” says Stella Cousins. “Found it in Peters Creek, near the town of La Honda - in California. My favorite part is that a thin layer of rock has been worn away in the region of San Francisco Bay, making it look ever so slightly more like an actual map. Also, the dark part of the rock is the wettest part of the state, home of foggy redwood forests.”
Some years ago, Lisa Ofstedal was eating at a Chili’s restaurant in Eagan, MN. “In our bottomless bowl of chips and salsa, we discovered a tortilla chip that looked astoundingly like the state of Minnesota. We took it home and it became a running joke for awhile.”
“Well, for some holiday or other I decided to take the joke to the next level, so my dad built a tortilla chip-sized shadow box, which my mom lined with a small piece of velvet. I mounted the chip in the shadow box to be preserved forever and presented it to my boyfriend.”
“As it turns out, the chip outlasted our relationship, and he solemnly gave it back to me in the mist of a painful break-up. I display it to this very day. As a native Minnesotan and, more recently, a real Minnesota enthusiast, it's easily one of my most prized possessions.”
Bubbly New Jersey
Mark Goetz was fooling around with the plastic screen cover he got for his iPhone, “when I noticed that the part of the air bubble underneath it bore a resemblance to my beloved home state of New Jersey, in particular the Atlantic coastline and the Cape May peninsula. With a little coaxing, I managed to make a decent facsimile of the whole state and snap a picture of it.”
The Maine Carpet
Patrick Banks lives in Portland, Maine; “I was pleased to realize I have a tiny accidental map of my adopted home state on my carpet.” Let’s hope it ties the room together.
Not quite a case of accidental cartography, but too cute not to include here. This map of Montana is also a record. “In 1999, John Linnell of They Might Be Giants released his solo album State Songs,” says Wilford Nusser, who sent in this image. “The vinyl release of the single ‘Montana’ is shaped like the United States!”
Chicken, especially when fried, is an excellent medium for accidental cartography. Says the reader who sent in this nugget: "I found this very odd piece of chicken that bears a resemblance to the United Kingdom!"
"I stopped dead in my tracks and said to my wife, Honey? Look at this!" While out walking on Nellie Road in Walhalla, South Carolina, Daniel Wright picked up this rusty piece of steel, about 8.5 inches tall, which does bear a striking resemblance to the island of Great Britain. "When I got to the house I quickly got out my World Atlas and did a side-by-side. Wow! I have not removed, edited, shaped any part of it. This is indeed just as I found it."
This picture of the sky over the Italian town of Valdobbiadene, well known for its prosecco, is another image of Britain, this time in a cloud. (Clouds have a tendency to appear Britain-like, as discussed in #154.) "By the time I took my cellphone and activated the camera, the clouds had slightly changed their shape, but Great Britain and a hint of Ireland can still be recognised," says Ugo Frasson.
"Quite disgusting, I know, but my friend spotted this hunk of gob on the ground that looked (almost) like a map of Britain and Ireland," says Sarah Higgins. A spitting image indeed.
“So as I was walking in the hills near where I live during February's cold snap, I couldn't resist snapping this photo of what appears to be the UK, frost on a frozen Loch Glow,” writes Tom Nurick, from Perthshire in Scotland.
“So one day I was just enjoying my meal in the BYU-Idaho cafeteria and noticed my chicken looked exactly like Africa,” says Erin Heiden.” It totally made my day!” Accidental cartography will do that to you!
Africa in Rotterdam
“This looks just enough like Africa,” says David de Jong, writing in from Rotterdam.
This accidental map of Africa was sent in by Bill Bartelt. The Horn is pointing the wrong way, but otherwise uncannily accrate.
Africa in a Crumble
This map of Africa was found by John Cheong-Holdaway in Melbourne, Australia, more specifically, in Tin Alley at Melbourne University.
Oil Patch Africa
Jens Frank sent in this image of a small oil spill, taken on the dusty streets of Dushanbe, in Tajikistan.
Africa, Gall-Peters Towel
“Sat on the side of the bath contemplating the day ahead I noticed that a towel carelessly tossed on the rail bore an uncanny resemblence to Africa,” writes Carl Harris, specifying: “Gall-Peters projection!”
“A koo koo sabzi is, to put it in western terms, a type of Iranian omelette featuring fresh herbs and spices, much like the Italian frittata,” says Jordan R. Montgomery. “This one ended up looking like Iran. Fitting.”
Slovakia for Bee-eaters
“On a hill, a vertical fault let some European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) dig their holes to nest,” says Vlad Roman. “The fault looks very similar to Slovakia, whereas the holes correspond, from left to right, to [the capital] Bratislava, and [main cities] Poprad and Preov.”
On South American Street
Juan M. sent in this picture, showing a crown of tree leaves framing a street view with a remarkably accurate representation of the South American continent.
Rain on a bench, the drops conjoining to form something resembling India. And then there’s more drops, forming a Sri Lanka that’s wildly inaccurate - but at least it’s there. Thanks to Jacob Kalichman for sending in this picture.
Down Under in a Schnitzel
“I ate a piece of chicken schnitzel that looked like Australia. I admit I tore a piece off, but I did that while it was in the bag. Only after I put it on my plate did I notice the resemblance,” writes Kieran Easter.
“While cooking breakfast this morning I came across a sizeable chunk of Hormel Bacon that seemed to resemble Australia,” says Paul S. “I googled some maps and sure enough, it was a fairly good match, even having the peninsula in northern Queensland. I couldn't resist adding the Tasmania bit before photographing it on an ocean-blue Tupperware lid.”
“Sat at my desk one afternoon looking out at the cold, miserable day outside; life played a cruel trick and taunted me with an image of somewhere warm, exciting and very far away,” writes Ed Morgan from wintry Ireland.
World Map (Duvel Projection)
“One evening, while enjoying a nice Belgian beer (I believe it was Duvel), I found this rather striking image of the world map in my foam.” says Joep Klabbers. “Africa seemed to be missing, though.” Well, that saves us the whole Peters vs Mercator discussion.
Another World Map
Another ‘world map’, sent in by Matt Kreger.
It’s a Dog’s World
“My dog has a map of the world on her nose. Sort of,” writes Mililani Smythe. But of course: there’s the American continent, right in the middle!
Says Steve Wilson: “One day I looked up and saw a map of Albania hanging in the sky! The odd thing is that I was actually traveling in Albania at the time! Some kind of airborne nationalist reminder? (They're a patriotic bunch).”
Paris As A Horseshoe Crab
Paris has been called many things, most much nicer than a horseshoe crab. Yet that is what it, unmistakably, resembles. Thanks to Scott Kafarski for sending in this map.
This head looks like Chad. Not any Chad you would know personally, nor any of the hanging chads that proved so frustratingly inconclusive after the US presidential election of 2000, but the country Chad. Many thanks to Rory Beaton for sending this in.
(1) or Mary, depending on perceived presence or absence of facial hair.
(2) another example of the self-reinforcing circularity of belief systems is found among the druze, a Lebanese sect the tenets of which include a belief in reincarnation. This is supported by stories of young druze children remembering past lives, apparently corroborated by the families of the deceased. This phenomenon does not seem to occur in the neighbouring non-druze (i.e. christian and muslim) communities. Interesting, but nothing to do with maps.
Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
In February 1959, a group of nine hikers crossed through Russia's Ural Mountains as part of a skiing expedition. The experienced trekkers, all employed at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, were led by Igor Dyatlov. On the evening of February 1, all nine appear to have fled their tents into the Arctic temperatures, for which they were unprepared. None survived.
Six of the members died of hypothermia; three suffered from physical trauma. Some members were missing body parts—a tongue here, a few eyes there, a pair of eyebrows for good measure. According to reports, no hiker appears to have struggled or panicked. They were likely too quickly overtaken by the hostile environment in Western Russia.
All the members were young, mostly in their early twenties; one member, Semyon Zolotaryov, was 38. Good health didn't matter. Given the uncertain circumstances—what made them flee into the bitter cold?—the incident known as Dyatlov Pass has long been the type of Area 51-conspiracy theory that some people love to speculate about. A vicious animal attack? Infrasound-induced panic? Was the Soviet military involved? Maybe it was the katabatic winds that did them in. Local tribesmen might not have liked the intrusion.
Or perhaps it was aliens. Or a Yeti. Have we talked about Yeti aliens yet?
These theories and more have been floated for decades.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.
Finally, a new study, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.
This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain).
As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."
Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.
Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.
Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche:
- The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind
- A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab
- The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent
- Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure
Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.
For nearly two centuries, scientists have known that humans descended from the great apes. But it's proven difficult to precisely map out the branches of that evolutionary tree, especially in terms of determining when and where early Homo species first developed brains similar to modern humans.
There are clear differences between ape and human brains. Compared to apes, the Homo sapiens brain is larger, and its frontal lobe is organized such that we can engage in toolmaking, planning, and language. Other Homo species also enjoyed some of these cognitive innovations, from the Neanderthals to Homo floresiensis, the hobbit-like people who once inhabited Indonesia.
One reason it's been difficult to discern the details of this cognitive evolution from apes to Homo species is that brains don't fossilize, so scientists can't directly study early primate brains. But primate skulls offer clues.
Brains of yore
In a new study published in Science, an international team of researchers analyzed impressions left on the skulls of Homo species to better understand the evolution of primate brains. Using computer tomography on fossil skulls, the team generated images of what the brain structures of early Homo species probably looked like, and then compared those structures to the brains of great apes and modern humans.
The results suggest that Homo species first developed humanlike brains approximately 1.7 to 1.5 million years ago in Africa. This cognitive evolution occurred at roughly the same time Homo species' technology and culture were becoming more complex, with these species developing more sophisticated stone tools and animal food resources.
The team hypothesized that "this pattern reflects interdependent processes of brain-culture coevolution, where cultural innovation triggered changes in cortical interconnectivity and ultimately in external frontal lobe topography."
The team also found that these structural changes occurred after Homo species migrated out of Africa for regions like modern-day Georgia and Southeast Asia, which is where the fossils in the study were discovered. In other words, Homo species still had ape-like brains when some groups first left Africa.
While the study sheds new light on the evolution of primate brains, the team said there's still much to learn about the history of early Homo species, particularly in terms of explaining the morphological diversity of Homo fossils discovered in Africa.
"Deciphering evolutionary process in early Homo remains a challenge that will be met only through the recovery of expanded fossil samples from well-controlled chronological contexts," the researchers wrote.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.