Posts Tagged 'Dracula'

Nothing to fear

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

It’s okay to be scared; but it’s never good to be afraid. What’s the difference? We like to be scared. It can be fun, and allows us to feel brave as we face our fears. Being scared can also lead to learning and experiencing new things. The unknown can be scary, but it drives us to that sense of discovery that so often leaves us wanting more.

Fear has its uses; it helps protect us from things that may be dangerous like, for example, the edge of a cliff. Fear makes us approach things with caution. Knowing the danger helps keep us safe – accepting it and working past it allows us to grow. Being afraid, on the other hand, paralyzes us, prevents us from acting, and keeps us ignorant.

Almost every culture has its own mythology, most of which is filled with monsters and supernatural beings. If you look below the surface of those stories you’ll possibly find something deeper in that most of these stories attempt to explain something. What that “something” is, varies from story to story. Subject matter ranges from natural phenomena to the complexities of human nature. At their core, however, they all serve the same purpose of helping us makes sense of the world around us.

As someone who teaches history and science to children (and adults, for that matter) I am occasionally quick to dismiss superstition and myth. When a second grader wants to know if any of the old buildings in the museum’s Heritage Courtyard are haunted, it’s kind of cute. When the same question comes from an adult, it’s a bit disconcerting. Perhaps, I should ask, “Are they serious, or are they simply looking for a good ghost story?”

Growing up a somewhat timid child, I don’t have to look beyond my own past to understand the power that the unknown and frightening can have. I remember feeling left out when all of my friends discussed the classic monsters of the films shown during Horror Week on the local Dialing-for-Dollars afternoon movie. (Trust me, this was a special event. It may be hard to imagine for anyone growing up in a post 1980’s, zillion-channel world of on-demand cable, Blu-ray disks, and YouTube, that there once was a time when you would have to wait for certain films to air on broadcast television. If you missed them, you missed them. Better luck next year.) I, alas, hadn’t missed the films, I had been too afraid to watch them.

I knew that characters like Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster were scary, but I didn’t know why. I decided to arm myself against the things that haunted my nightmares, not with the traditional garlic, silver bullets, and mob of villagers carrying torches and pitch-forks; but, with knowledge. My weapon of choice – books.

Soon, I was steeped in the history of the monsters of the silver screen from the original silent films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the Vampyre, to the appearance of the Universal Studio’s monsters in comedy films. Once they met Abbott and Costello, it was difficult to take these creatures of the night seriously, ever again. Along the way, I picked up quite a bit of information, ranging from history and geography (how many of you knew that Transylvania was located in Central Romania?), to mythology and science.

I also picked up some interesting skincare techniques and trivia. Did you know that Lon Chaney Sr. washed his face in bleach to achieve his ghastly appearance in the Phantom of the Opera? Closer to home, Lon was born on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If you’ve never seen Chaney as the Phantom, you owe it to yourself to do an image search. That’s not make-up. Lon Chaney not only bleached his skin, he inserted painful wire hoops into his eyes to make them bulge, and appliances into his nostrils and cheeks to make his visage more skeletal. Talk about suffering for your art.

I would have never encountered this information if I hadn’t decided at an early age to face my fears. The same also applies to real science, with similar motivation fueling my interest in dinosaurs, snakes, and sharks. Fear can be a powerful tool, knowing this I was able to turn my fear into understanding and knowledge of the things that once frightened me.

When dealing with the students that visit the museum, I encourage them to learn about things that might seem scary and to develop their own opinions. Many of them have gone on to dissect a squid, eat a bug, and enter an historic building; no longer haunted by the ghost of doubt, but moved by the spirit of discovery.

Embrace the things that are scary.

What’s the buzz?

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

(Ed. note: it’s been raining constantly in Fort Collins this summer, and the resulting boom in the mosquito population has driven us to a certain degree of obsession with the topic. But it’s been very educational!)

Summertime brings many pleasures and a few irritants, including the buzzing of insects. While some may find the lower register drone of a bee quite relaxing, the higher pitched mosquito is nothing if not annoying.

According to one West African tale, Mosquito was known for saying foolish things. Mosquito’s constant silliness drove Iguana to distraction; so much so, that Iguana placed sticks in his ears to drown out Mosquito’s constant prattle. Unfortunately, the sticks made it impossible for Iguana to communicate with any of the other animals, which leads to a series of misunderstandings and tragedies.

The end result is that Owl neglects her duty of waking up the sun and the world is plunged into darkness until the other animals unravel the series of events that have lead up to their dilemma. From this point on, the animals refuse to speak with Mosquito; who, in his loneliness, persistently buzzes in the ear of Man asking if the rest of the animals are still mad at him.

Apparently, they are.

Actually, mosquitoes and many other insects produce the buzzing noise as a function of flight. Some insects flap their wings slowly, like the butterfly (8 to 12 beats per second), and make no perceptible sound. The mosquito, on the other hand, beats its wings very fast – averaging 450 to 600 beats per second creating the distinctive, high-pitched whine.

Of course when it comes to mosquitoes, if the buzz is bothersome, the bite is beastly — but why? For starters, only female mosquitoes bite; the males lack the proboscis, the long, thin, needle-like mouth part required to penetrate an animal’s skin and ingest blood. As this occurs, a small amount of mosquito saliva is injected into the bite. The saliva contains an anti-coagulant, to keep the blood flowing through the proboscis as the female feeds. Afterwards, the body’s immune system responds to the residual saliva by forming a welt, or wheal, while the itching sensation is caused by the break down of the proteins contained in the mosquito spit.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “If all of this is true,” and I assure you, it is, “then what do male mosquitoes eat?” The answer is simple, the same thing that feeds the females. Yup, all mosquitoes, male and female, survive solely on the sugars found in plant nectar.

So, what’s with the Dracula routine? Two things — first, I say Dracula because when it comes to blood suckers, I’m old school. No self respecting vampire should ever sparkle, under any circumstances — period.

Second, and more pertinent to this discussion, female mosquitoes require the proteins in blood to develop their eggs. A single, blood rich meal can facilitate the production of as many as 250 eggs.

In addition to blood protein, female mosquitoes also require something else to reproduce. (Well, something other than the male, but we’ll get back to him in a moment.) Standing water is a crucial element for the reproductive cycle. Female mosquitoes can lay their fertilized eggs in pretty shallow environments; a half-inch of water is all that is needed. Soon, the eggs hatch into squirming little larva, which go through a series of four molts until they reach the pupa stage. A hard case is formed around the young mosquito, until it emerges as a fully formed adult.

Removing, or treating, standing water is still one of the most effective ways to combat potential mosquito populations, especially in rainy seasons like we’ve experienced in Fort Collins this summer.

Of course, if you think our mosquitoes are bad you should consider the plight of the folks in Karmarno, Manitoba. Not only are they the mosquito capital of Canada, the name Karmarno literally translates to “mosquito” in the Ukrainian language; and in 1984 the town erected the world’s largest mosquito statue, with a wingspan of fifteen feet.

Closer to home, New Jersey is considered “Mosquito Central,” with over 60 species of mosquito found there. It was also along the East Coast that the word “mosquito” was introduced into the English language. Translating as “little fly” in both Spanish and Portuguese, mosquitoes were simply referred to as “gnats” in England before the word made its way back from the colonies.

Getting back to the male, it seems that in addition to the obvious role he plays in fertilizing the eggs, he must first romance the female. Remember that buzzing we discussed earlier? Scientists have recently discovered that it plays an important role in attracting a mate. Males produce a sound within the 600 hertz range, while females come in somewhere around 400 hertz. When mating, the happy couple will harmonize reaching into the range of 1,200 hertz.

This new discovery changes what many scientists once thought about mosquitoes, including that the females had no sense of hearing. It also leads us to believe that before they mate, mosquitoes may spend time whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears.

Ah, romance.


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