The Mystery Lake of the Himalayas

Wikipedia
Wikipedia

Nestled in a valley high in the Himalayas in northern India is a small lake named Roopkund, known locally as Mystery Lake. The area around Roopkund Lake is uninhabited; at an altitude of over five kilometers, the lake is frozen for all but one month out of the year, and ice storms occasionally pose a significant threat. The mystery concerns the origin of the occupants of the lake: not fish or other common lake-dwellers, but hundreds of human skeletons.

Roopkund Lake, also known as Skeleton Lake, and its surroundings are littered with around 200 sets of human remains. The state of the skeletons indicates that they have been lying in and around the lake for many centuries, but their exact age and the cause of the mass death was unknown until 2004, when National Geographic sent a team of researchers to retrieve some of the skeletons for study.

The National Geographic team discovered that the skeletons dated from 850 C.E. Most of the previous owners of the bones originated in Iran, although a few were from the local Indian population. Fractures in the skulls hint at the cause of death: devastating blows to the top of the heads, from rounded objects roughly the size and shape of a cricket ball (or slightly larger than a baseball). There are no signs of injury to any other part of the bodies. The research team finally concluded that a band of travelers from Iran, traversing the mountains with locally-hired porters, was caught in a terrible hailstorm. Unable to seek shelter, they succumbed to the blunt trauma and their bodies tumbled down the steep slopes, eventually collecting in the lake.

Echoes of NASA

Echo 1
Echo 1

On 13 May 1960, a NASA Thor-Delta rocket carried the agency’s new Echo 1 satellite into a 1,000 mile orbit around the Earth. It was a 156.995 pound metalized sphere 100 feet in diameter, essentially an enormous, shiny balloon made of the same mylar as party balloons of today. It required forty thousand pounds of air to fully inflate the sphere at sea level, but in the rarefied atmosphere in orbit it only required a few pounds of gas.

Echo 1 was a passive satellite, used to reflect transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio, and television signals. It was so large and so reflective that it was easily visible to the naked eye for much of the Earth. It was expected to remain in orbit until sometime in 1964, but it survived much longer, and did not burn up in the atmosphere until 24 May 1968, eight years after its launch.

Its sister “satelloon” Echo 2 was even larger at 135 feet in diameter, therefore it was even more conspicuous while it was in orbit from 1964-1969. Both balloons were sufficiently large and lightweight that they experienced detectable pressure from the solar wind, providing support for the concept of a solar sail. They also secretly served as an early rudimentary GPS system, using the balloons’ positions and instruments to calculate the exact location of Moscow for America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Cracking the Case

A lengthy study of ‘crack babies’ born to cocaine addicts in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s ended in 2013 with an unexpected result. The average IQ amongst the ‘crack babies’ now in their early 20s was 79.0. However, the control group, who were socioeconomically similar but not born to crack addicts, had an average IQ of only 81.9. The cocaine exposure appeared to have only a small and non-significant detrimental effect on the average cognitive functioning of the children of addicts. But both groups were below the average range for the United States (90 to about 110). Further study led the team to a surprise conclusion: both groups had been unable to reach their full intellectual potential due to chronic poverty.

110 of the original ‘crack babies’ now in their 20s were followed through to the end of the study. 108 of them are still alive, but only 6 of them have graduated from college, with only another 6 working towards doing so. In the meantime, there have been 60 children born to them. Whether the next generation will grow up in conditions any better than the ones that held their parents’ cognitive functioning back remains to be seen.

Water Proof

In 1936, Russian scientist Vladimir Lukyanov was confronted with the problem of devising a system to improve the quality of Russian concrete and the efficiency of its manufacture. When furnished with a few requirements for the concrete, Lukyanov was expected to calculate the resulting concrete’s other attributes, such as load capacity, curing time, temperature limits, etc. This involved a lot of tedious manual calculations with partial differential equations.

Lukyanov’s solution was to build one of the world’s first programmable computers. Like all early computers, Lukyanov’s invention was a massive analog calculator, but one design element set it apart: it used water to perform its calculations. Lukyanov outfitted a room-sized array of glass tubes with a series of valves and plugs, and these constituted the data inputs. An operator would turn knobs and move plugs to correspond to the input values, then engage the pumps to slosh water through the intricate plumbing until the water settled into various tanks. The ultimate water level in each tank indicated the results of the calculations, and thus indicated the various properties of the resulting cement.

Lukyanov’s water computer was the first machine in the world capable of solving partial differential equations.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Begonias

An iconic sight in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the Kimjongilia. This hybrid begonia was bred by a Japanese botanist and presented to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il in 1988. It soon became part of the diplomatic toolkit. The North Korean government has sent the flower to a number of countries as a sign of friendship, and the Kimjongilia won the gold medal at the 1991 International Flower Show in Czechoslovakia.

The Kimjongiliia is displayed domestically as well. Like the Kimsungilia, an orchid clone presented in 1965 by Indonesian president Sukarno, the Kimjongilia forms part of an “international friendship botanic garden” in Pyongyang’s Central Botanic Garden. This garden also includes greenhouses dedicated to the Kimjongilia and Kimsungilia. And, as presided over by a 232-member Funeral Committee, Kimjongilia flowers were prominently displayed around the corpse of Kim Jong-il during his 11-day mourning period.

The North Korean state takes this flower seriously. As reported by the state news agency KCNA, the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Research Centre created a chemical concoction to extend the blooming period of the Kimjongilia by up to 20 days. And the DPRK State Administration for Quality Management notes that the Kimjongilia “is a rare bright and crimson flower that represents the personality of the energetic great man as dozens of corrugated evenly-arranged petals form a big, clear and lovely flower supported by heart-shaped leaves”. It’s not all flowery talk, however. The State Administration for Quality Management sets standard specifications for the plant – for instance, the female flower should have exactly four or five petals. Growers who deviate from these requirements are subject to legal penalties.

Apparently plans are afoot to breed a Kimjongunia. But, as with much that stems from North Korea, information about the new flower is nebulous.

Strange Brew

According to a 1957 US government study entitled The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, canned and bottled sodas and beers “could be used as potable water sources for immediate emergency purposes as soon as the storage area is safe to enter after a nuclear explosion.”

This information was provided by the Atomic Energy Commission, which placed caches of consumer beverages around the Nevada Proving Grounds then exploded one 20 kiloton and one 30 kiloton device there. The surviving beverages within a quarter mile of the blast were slightly radioactive, but “well within the permissible limits for emergency use.” As for the flavor, taste testers described the beers and sodas as “still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1,270 feet from Ground Zero.”

Buzz On, Buzz Off

By the 1840s the British Empire was at full tilt, operating colonies on every continent apart from Antarctica. Key for Britain’s domination of world trade was India, which provided cotton, lumber, and one of the most formidable foes the Empire had yet faced. For all of its mercantile successes, the British Empire was nearly brought to its knees by the humble, irritating mosquito.

Malaria was rampant in the tropical colonies. Its initial onset was marked by high fevers, chills, and vomiting. In extreme cases it lead to seizures, coma, and death. Left untreated the disease resurged in prior victims, incapacitating those who had battled through a first encounter. The causal link between malaria and insects had been observed as far back as the Roman occupation of Northern Africa. Despite this, the parasitic protozoans that the mosquitoes carried—and that ultimately caused the disease—were not discovered until the turn of the 20th century. What was known was an effective, if gustatorially unpleasant, treatment.

Quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree native to South America, was known to be an effective treatment for malaria as early as the late 16th century. The dried and powdered bark was shipped around the Empire to battle malaria and maintain British presence in the colonies. The unpalatable taste of the bitter alkaloid was a common complaint, and as a remedy, colonists began mixing the substance with water and sugar. This crude ‘tonic water’ took the colonies by storm. In short order the officers in the British military began adding this new, more pleasant dose of malaria prevention to their afternoon tipple. Gin, a favorite among the military elite, was the natural choice. And thus the gin and tonic was born.

It may never be known who was the first to mix anti-malarial business with pleasure, but the gin and tonic’s historical relevance should not be overlooked. So next time the summertime resurgence of mosquitoes proves to be too much, raise a G&T to your health. And perhaps add a wedge of lime to ward off that pesky scurvy.

[Ed. Note: We do not endorse gin and tonic as a sole means of mitigating mosquito related diseases. See your medical professional for more details.]

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