Home grown science

| January 28, 2024

Wealthy Romans used to enhance the flavour of their wine and also to flaunt their wealth they dissolved pearls and other exotic substances in it. They found that bezoar stones counteracted the effects of poisons, specifically arsenic. These objects are not actually stones, but concretions of partly digested and calcified hair that bump and jog for years in the alimentary canals of antelopes, goats and other ruminants – in other words, hairballs.

Eliminating Arsesnic

When the aboriginals came to this country they experienced a similar problem. Much of the flora had developed or absorbed arsenic into its system. The fauna which had developed at the same time had become partially resistant to it which is why poisons generally used to eliminate exotic pests like rabbits, foxes, rats and feral rabbits tend to be arsenic based.

The original settlers found that some of the most abundant fruits and nuts were also lethal to humans. The cassowary plum (cerbera floribunda) is probably the most toxic closely followed by cycads. Leafy vegetables also store arsenic in their roots, but some is also stored in the stems and leaves. Lettuce and some members of the brassica plant family such as collards, kale, mustard, and turnip greens store more arsenic in the leaves than do other crops, but not at concentrations high enough to cause concern. The highest levels of arsenic (in all forms) in foods can be found in seafood, rice, rice cereal (and other rice products), mushrooms, and poultry, although many other foods, including some fruit juices, can also contain arsenic.

Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In utero and early childhood exposure has been linked to negative impacts on cognitive development and increased deaths in young adults.

The method the aborigines used to neutralise the poison in the cassowary plum was quite complex. First, the flesh was peeled from the nut which was then slow roasted in a camp-oven for at least four hours. The nut was then crushed and washed in running water for twelve to twenty-four hours. It was then ground into a flour and used for cooking. The cycad nut (large as a small pineapple) also needs to be retted before consumption for at least twelve hours in running water before being cooked as damper.

Arsenic poisoning is not immediately obvious, sometimes taking over a year to be symptomatic. It is therefore not obvious how the aborigines became aware of the problems and, further, how they overcame them. One can probably rule out the arrival of alien scientists landing at Wycliffe Well on the road between Tennant Creek and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (termed the UFO capitol of Australia).

Even the warlike bands would have run out of volunteers to try out differing production methods. It is possible that smell or taste were used, but the fact is that the cassowary plum supported at least three relatively large groups in the Daintree for many generations.

Unfortunately, most toxins do not have antidotes. Antidotes themselves can have serious adverse effects. They do not work in real life like they do in the movies (the patient is immediately better).

Old Wives Tales

Every country has a plethora of old wives’ tales, many of which are based on facts, although a lot have been either misunderstood or misrepresented. One such tale is feed a cold, starve a fever. Actually, the original saying was “feed a cold, stave a fever,” stave meaning “to prevent.” Fasting will weaken you just as you should be preserving your strength. Even if you don’t feel like eating, you should consider trying bland foods, such as chicken soup, toast, or other soothing foods. The key is to feed your body healthy foods in order to strengthen your immune system so you can fight infections.

The rhyme ‘red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning’ is a rule of thumb used for weather forecasting during the past two millennia. It is based on the reddish glow of the morning or evening sky, caused by trapped particles scattering the blue light from the sun in a stable air mass.

If the morning skies are of an orange-red glow, it signifies a high-pressure air mass with stable air trapping particles, like dust, which scatters the sun’s blue light. This high pressure is moving towards the east, and a low-pressure system moves in from the west. Conversely, in order to see “red sky” in the evening, high-pressure air mass from the west scatters the blue light in the atmospheric particles, leaving the orange-red glow. High-pressure air mass signifies stable weather, while low pressure signifies unstable weather.

There are occasions where a storm system might rain itself out before reaching the observer (who had seen the morning red sky). For ships at sea, however, the wind and rough seas from an approaching storm system could still be a problem, even without rainfall.

Because of different prevailing wind patterns around the globe, the traditional rhyme is generally not correct at lower latitudes of both hemispheres, where prevailing winds are from east to west. The rhyme is generally correct at middle latitudes where, due to the rotation of the Earth, prevailing winds travel west to east.

The moral here seems to be that although the ancients did discover and produce some amazing things like the Antikythera mechanism (an Ancient Greek hand-powered orrery – model of the Solar System – as the oldest known example of an analogue computer used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses decades in advance.

It could also be used to track the four-year cycle of athletic games similar to an Olympiad, the cycle of the ancient Olympic Games) we should be wary of old, or even modern wives’ tales – especially in an age where the internet is virtually unchecked and even the artificial intelligence language programs have been caught lying to us. It might be interesting to see Donald Trump and GPT4 having a discussion!