08/16/14

Mushroom Rings: Why Do They Grow Like That?

I saw this ring of mushrooms as I was walking through my neighborhood today. Have you ever noticed them growing in a circular formation and wondered why?

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You’re not the only one. Before the age of science, people were unable to explain some of the curious things that happen in nature. Many of them made up stories to try to make sense out of things they didn’t understand. The Greeks concluded that rain consisted of tears of grief from the Hyades, whose brother Hyas had been killed by a lion. Some Native Americans believed that the ocean was formed because Thunder and Earthquake wanted it to be there.

If you’ve ever seen a mushroom ring in an open, grassy or wooded area, you probably can imagine why people started telling stories about them. There is something very unusual about mushrooms growing in a large circle. Long ago, people in the United Kingdom and Ireland assumed that the mushrooms had been left behind by dancing fairies or leprechauns.  People in Germany said that witches met late at night along the edge of the rings. Scandinavian people told stories of elves skipping around mischievously at the site of a mushroom ring.

Then, the scientists came along and ruined all the fun. They figured out that it all starts with an underground organism that we don’t see, called mycelium (mī sēlē əm). This mass of hairy-looking tubes makes up the root of the mushrooms. It feeds on the rich nutrients in the earth and it continues to spread outward from the center, looking for more and more fertile soil. As the old mycelium dies and decays, the grass directly above it feeds on the nutrients it produces. This is why the grass is darker in color and healthier-looking inside a fairy ring than it is outside of it.

At some point, the mycelium decides to rise up to the surface and release spores in the form of mushrooms.  Scientists haven’t been able to completely agree on why it suddenly does this, because it hasn’t run out of food. If the nutrients are distributed equally across the lawn, the mushrooms pop up all around the center. Though it isn’t perfectly circular, it’s usually round enough to resemble a ring.

Although there is one edible mushroom commonly known as the “Fairy Ring Mushroom”, many different types can be found in these circular formations. Some of them are poisonous, so nobody should ever try to identify a type of mushroom based on the way it grows.

Mycelium can live for hundreds of years and grow to enormous sizes. One ring in France is about 800 meters wide and is estimated to be close to 700 years old! There are also many enormous fairy rings in southern England that have been growing for hundreds of years.

Mycelium

In a spot where mycelium thrives, the ring grows a little larger around each year, as long as the mycelium under the ground can still find nourishment in the soil. Once it runs into a barrier (which might even be another fairy ring), it stops expanding. It leaves behind an odd-looking circle of dead grass that may look burnt. Then, the same ring of grass grows tall and lush because of the nutrients the dead mycelium left behind.

It’s actually easier for a mushroom ring to grow in a well-tended lawn than in the forest because the nutrients under the ground are more likely to be distributed evenly in lawns. Fairy rings need water and warm temperatures to thrive, so they usually disappear when the weather becomes cold or dry.

Even today, some people try to explain mushroom rings with modern-day myths. Sometimes, people come across a spot where a ring of mushrooms has died and think that a U.F.O. landed there!

Have you ever found a mushroom ring in your yard? If you ever do, now you’ll know why it’s there, but it’s still fun to pretend that elves, fairies and leprechauns made it… or go ahead and make up your own myth!

08/7/14

The Diabolo in Overton’s Curios

diaboloThirteen-year-old Calyx is all business. Even when a cool new toy arrives at the curio shop, it doesn’t make much sense to him until he realizes that the people of Teversall will want to buy it for their own children:

Tyrone Overton’s face lit up as he held the door for the porter, who wheeled the crate to the back of the store. “Calyx,” he beamed, “look at these!” He pried open the box and pulled out an oddly-shaped, bulky iron object with one hand. It looked like two coarsely-made goblets fused together without any stems or bases. With his other hand, Tyrone remove two long sticks, connected by a long piece of twine, from of the crate. He held all of this out to Calyx.

“What are they?” Calyx inquired, taking them.

“It’s called a diabolo,” Tyrone replied. “This is a toy that is very popular in China, and people all over the world are trying to find them. We could just have it made, but the Chinese have perfected it, even including whistle windows in the sides.” He pointed at the holes at the widest part of each end. “These are the best you can get.”

Then, Tyrone fished around inside the crate until he found a sheet of instructions, which he commenced to read, holding it up so that Calyx could see the diagrams. “You twirl the diabolo on the rope like this, you see,” he said, motioning toward the picture.

Calyx wound the center of the rope around the area between the two goblet bodies and held the sticks in each hand, clumsily moving them upward and downward to make the diabolo spin. “What is the point?” he asked his uncle.

“It’s a toy!” Tyrone replied with a grin. “The point is to entertain yourself with it.”

Calyx spun it along the rope a few times, beginning to get the feel of it.

“You can do tricks with it, my boy. This will be all the rage when the children in Teversall see it. I want you to practice, Calyx, so that you can demonstrate it to them.”

Now it made sense. With realization dawning on Calyx’s brow, he studied the instruction sheet, which illustrated ways to fling the diabolo into the air and catch it again on the string. As he became more adept and was able to spin it faster and faster, it began to make a whistling sound. A clerk who had been working in the front of the store smiled brightly as he walked toward them. “That is wonderful!”

Although nobody knows who made the first diabolo, historians agree that it originated in China about 4000 years ago. European missionaries, intrigued by these strange objects, brought them back to England and France, where they quickly became fashionable novelties.

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For centuries, they had generally been made of bamboo, featuring openings at the sides that made a whistling sound when they were spun, but a French inventor named Gustave Pillipart redesigned the diabolo in 1906, creating a new version out of metal, complete with protective rubber casings on the sides. Today’s diabolo, which is usually sold with a set of sticks, rubber grips and an instruction booklet, is based on Pillipart’s design, and another popular toy also evolved from it: the yo-yo!

07/30/14

Thaumatropes in the Curio Shop

One of the popular toys in Overton’s Curios is the thaumatrope. As Calyx is looking through his inventory sheets one day, he decides to order more of them from London, projecting that they will sell steadily throughout the summer. What are they, exactly?

Look at something. Now look at something else.

The bird and cage, a common theme for nineteenth century thaumatropes.

For a fraction of a second, your eyes held onto the first image you looked at. That’s not long enough to make much of a difference to you in your daily life, but if you could move your eyes back and forth from one object to the other ten to twenty times a second, you would see both things at the same time, as if they were in the same exact place. This is called persistence of vision.

The thaumatrope, invented in 1826 by an English physician named John Ayrton Paris, uses that principle to trick your brain into thinking it sees two things at once. Paris took a disc and drew a bird on one side and a birdcage on the other. Then he attached string to each end of the disc and quickly spun it. While the disc was in motion, the two sides appeared simultaneously as a bird inside a birdcage.

Joseph Plateau’s phenakistiscope.

The word thaumatrope comes from two Greek words: thauma (wonder or magic) and trope (turn).

In the nineteenth century, these wonderturns became popular toys, commonly featuring simple sketches of the bird and cage or a bare tree on one side and its leaves on the other. Animation as we know it hadn’t been invented yet, but this sort of thing caught the attention of aspiring cinematographers of the day, who uses other principles of vision (along with this one) to invent more advanced toys. Just six years after the thaumatrope came about, a Belgian physician named Joseph Plateau invented the phenakistoscope, which was a rotating disc with a series of images that created the illusion of movement. Animation was officially born.

Here’s a modern adaptation of the “bird in a cage” thaumatrope:

And here’s a really creative, cool one of a… flying buzzard bat? This one can be spun a little more slowly to create the illusion of motion: