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June 17, 2024 30 mins

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 2 (00:09):
Hello, and welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind Listener Mail.
My name is Joe McCormick. My regular co host, Robert
Lamb is out today, so I'm going to be recording
this episode by myself, but Rob will be back with
me later this week. Right now, the plan for the
week is that I'm going to do listener mail solo today. Tomorrow,

which will be Tuesday, June eighteenth, is going to be
the last episode in our series of Vault episodes on Dreams.
Wednesday of this week will be a Monster Fact omnibus,
and then, hopefully, if we're able to get ready in time,
we should have a new core episode of Stuff to
Blow Your Mind for you on Thursday. If not, it'll

be another Vault and then we'll be with you for
Weird House on Friday. But either way, we should be
back with new content for you later this week. Okay,
I guess let's jump right into messages. We got a
bunch of great responses to our series on Cicadas. I'm
going to start with this message from Jim. I made

some edits for clarity when read aloud, I hope I
did everything here Justice Jim. Jim says, Hey, guys, hope you,
your families and your team had a nice break. When
I saw the title of this episode, I was excited
to hear that you were going to do a two
part episode on cicadas. The insect world is one of

my passions. By the way, great episode. I really enjoyed it.
Here in Canberra, Australia's capital city, we too experience every
couple of years a massive emergence of cicadas in some reserves.
If you don't have earmuffs on, it's impossible to work
or walk through the reserve. Is The noise that comes
from the cicadas is deafening. But halfway through the first episode,

I had a flashback of my childchildhood and I wanted
to share a memory from when I was about six
or seven years old, some forty years ago. I was
raised in Orange, a city in central New South Wales,
about twenty kilometers outside of Orange. There is a picnic
reserve in the middle of a pine plantation on a
creek called four Mile Creek. As kids, we would go

out there with the church group and on the way
out to four Mile Creek you would also go past
the agricultural department. I don't remember the environment that day
or the noise, but it must have been one of
those years when we had three species emerging. The most
common cicadas were the black ones, then the green ones
and the tiger ones, which were rare to come across. Now,

someone I think it was older teenagers of the church,
told my two older brothers and me that the tiger
cicada you could sell to the agricultural department for ten cents.
Ten cents in the eighties, that was a lot of
money for a kid. I don't remember collecting the higer
cicadas until we came across the white ones. We called

them ghosts and were told that they were worth five
dollars each, so believing them, I guess the older kids.
Believing the older kids, we started to collect the cicadas
emerging out of their shells, and they were all white ones.
We collected a very large number of them. Through all
these cicadas, still in their exoskeleton or half emerged into

the back of our father's Kingswood station wagon. Thinking we
made a fortune, we ran off to play and have lunch.
Some time passed and we were called time to go home.
Running back to the car, we found our very upset
father with the front door open. He was not happy.
Cicadas were flying out of the car door he had opened.

Inside the front of the car, there were lots of
black and green cicadas flying around the back of the
station wagon, and the back seat had a lot of
empty exoskeletons just sitting there. What a scene it was
with a very upset down who made us remove all
the live cicadas and all of the exoskeletons from the car.
But we were distressed too. Where were all of our

ghost cicadas? Our fortune all gone? I paused the episode
and had a bit of a laugh. We didn't know
then that when insects emerge out of their exoskeletons, they
are molting, and newly emerged insects are often ghostly in color,
having reduced or absent pigment. Thanks guys made my day.

And then finally, Jim has some notes about the probable
species identification of the Australian cicadas from his story, so
he says, FYI, the black and most common cicadas are
called the red eye cicada or saltota morins the green
cicadas are called green grosser cicadas. These are Cyclochila australacea

and I looked these up. According to the Australian Museum's
info page, they have like different color variants of the
species that are called You've got the greengrocer, but then
you get the yellow Monday, chocolate Soldier, and blue moon. Interesting.
And then Jim comes back and says, what we called
the tiger cicadas were actually called double drummers or sofa cicata.

All the best for now and keep up the great work,
looking forward to the next episode. Jim. Well, thank you
so much. Jim. You know this really got me thinking
not so much about insect biology, but about child psychology
and the difference between work and play with your story
about trying to collect all of the valuable cicadas for

the Agricultural department. So this story is kind of an
example of a genre of childhood experiences that I remember
from that age. Also that those experiences where you think
you have discovered a way to make lots of money
based on one or more mistaken or implausible premises. And

I remember these these schemes they often centered around to
gathering task like yours did, Like I remember deciding that
a certain kind of sparkly rock was actually a valuable
gym that you could sell, and I would like go
around digging them up and collecting them in a backpack.

There's an interesting thing about these like kid conceived cash
cow schemes, which is that the way I remember them,
in most cases, you're able to really believe in them
in the early stages, like it doesn't feel like you're
just playing pretend. You really think you're going to get
the money. But then at some point later on in

the scheme, it starts to feel less real and you
don't keep pushing forward as if you believe in it.
So Jim, in your story, if you hadn't gotten in
trouble with your dad and had to release all the bugs,
would you have actually insisted that your parents stop at
the agricultural department on the way home so you could
collect the bounties. I don't know in your particular case,

but my memory of these types of schemes is that
by that point later in the day, like the magic
of the idea probably would have worn off, And if
I'd been in a similar situation, I probably would stop
caring or believing that it was possible to get the
money by the time I was heading home. But what
causes that change? Why did I believe the rocks were

valuable gyms in the first place, and what changed my
mind about it by the passage of a few hours.
I don't know anyway. Now that I've got a toddler,
I think about this kind of stuff a lot, and
it's interesting and kind of mysterious to remember those states
of mind that you could get into as a child,
where you're like fully engaged in a task. It's taking

all of your effort and attention, but it's actually not
clear to you whether you're doing serious, goal directed work
or just playing a game. But either way, thank you,
Jim Okay. This next message comes to us from Sierra.
It is about our Vault episodes on the Moons of Uranus.

Cer says, hello, longtime listener and big fan here. I'm
loving the episodes about the moons of Uranus, especially the
discussion of its proper pronunciation at the top of the show.
It made me want to share a mental image that
was conjured years ago and linger still. In some astrology
book I read once, Uranus was referred to as a

planet that rules rebellion, flippancy, revolution, perhaps due to its
odd rotation, Oh yeah, sideways rotation. Cira says it made
me picture Uranus as the iggy pop slash sid Vicious
of the planets, proudly rocking his name with green hair
and double birds to the audience laughing emoji. I hope

you can enjoy that thought too. Thanks for sharing the
good humor, wit and wisdom over the years, Sincerely, Sierra,
Thank you, Sierra. All right, this next message comes from Chelsea.
This is another response to our series on cicadas, and
specifically this is about the etymological digression we took in
the episode looking into the history of the word bug,

which in its earliest use is in English referred to
a scarecrow. This is in an early English translation of
the Bible, or actually to a sort of deuterocanonical book
associated with the Bible. But so there's a scarecrow, or
it also referred to a hobgoblin like creature, a monster

of some kind, and then only later came to refer
to actual biological insects, and then later still came to
have this connotation of general problems like computer bugs and
so forth. Chelsea says, hi, guys. Fact, the use of

the word bug to describe a computer bug dates from
nineteen forty seven, when the Harvard computer science team found
a moth trapped inside the Mark two, which was messing
with the electronics. Early computer programming language. Pioneer Grace Hopper
was a member of the team. So computer bugs are
named for the creepy crawleys. Keep up the awesome work, Chelsea.

Thank you, Chelsea. Well, so I did some looking into
this story, and one thing I came across is you
can actually look this up. There is a picture of
it on the National Museum of American History website. There
was a log book that was used by the computer
science team at Harvard while people were working on the

Mark to computer, and they actually physically taped the moth
found inside the computer into the logbook, so it's taped
there on the paper. You can see images of this,
and then they write underneath it first actual case of
a bug being found. I was also reading some articles
about this historical incident, and apparently there are some common

misconceptions about it, Like, Chelsea, you certainly did not say this,
but a lot of people say that this was Grace
Hopper's personal log book, and from what I've read, that
seems to be not true, that it doesn't look like
her handwriting, and it's probably just said that because she's
a famous person who was there at the time working
with this kind of working with this technology. Another misconception

I've seen written about this was that this was the
first ever use of the word bug in a sort
of technical engineering context, which is certainly not the case.
There are instances of this going way back back to
Thomas Edison wrote about bugs in some of his inventions
and so forth. But it does appear that Grace Hopper

was a very enthusiastic early user of the term bug
in a specifically in a compute context. So it is
it's not the case that this was the first use
of bugs in engineering or in technology, as some people
have said. But I was reading about this misconception in

an interesting article for the for the I Tripole Annals
of the History of Computing. There was an article in
that journal by an author named Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, a
historian of science and technology. I just want to read
a paragraph from her paper. Kidwell writes, quote in summary,
the phrase computer bug has served several functions. Talking about

bugs rather than flaws appeals to the wit of programmers
and computer users. In the early days of computing, the
phrase was used primarily by a relatively small group of
experts marking their special status. At the same time, having
a short, general term that covers a wide variety of
flaws has been useful, particularly because the exact source of

the error was often unknown. Calling such problems bugs rather
than failures suggests that they are small faults that can
be corrected, not a general in thinking, and not a
general failure in thinking or design. This usage had long
been a refuge of US inventors and served the optimistic
nature of computer designers and programmers. So I think that's

kind of an interesting point about the psychology of engineering,
or the psychology of invention and technical work, that even
the language you select to describe the problems you face
in your work can color your emotions in how in
how you have to go about addressing it, and that
by using cute little terms like bug, which implied that

the problem is external, implied that the problem is small,
implied that the problem is you know, it's not something
that is wrong with the general approach or design of
the system. But it's just like a little little thing
that got in there and went wrong. Kind of helps
you maintain a positive attitude in addressing problems and fixing them.

So anyway, thank you so much, Chelsea. All right. This
last message is also in response to cicadas. This is
one that sent me down a bit of a research trail.
So this comes from Jeremy. Jeremy says, hello, Robert and Joe,

with reference to the recent rise of the cicadas episode
and the volume of their mating call. We thankfully don't
get cicadas in Europe, but we do have a contender
for the loudest insect and winner in the volume generated
in proportion to size category, the lesser water boatman or

micro necta. This is spelled scholt Zi. I don't know
if that's sculptz or schultzy. I'm gonna say schultze. The
micronecta Schultze is only zero points zero seven inches or
two millimeters long, yet can generate ninety nine point five decibels,

with peaks up to one hundred and five decibels. And
although this sound is created underwater, it can be heard
on the banks of the streams, rivers, and lakes where
it lives. Now, that in itself is amazing, and I
want to go into some more detail about that in
just a minute, but I've got a note on what
Jeremy is about to say in the email some context

to remind listeners. In the first Decade episode, we talked
about how insects like crickets and grasshoppers make sounds mostly
through a process called stridulation, which means rubbing, rubbing one
part of the body against another. So, for example, mail
crickets rub the edges of their four wings together their

front pair of wings. They rub those together using what's
called a file and scraper system. So basically, one wings
surface is like a stick and the other has a
series of ridges like the teeth of a comb, and
rubbing them together against one another produces a scraping sound.
Male cicadas, on the other hand, do not use strigulation.

They have dedicated sound producing organs called timbals, which are
these corrugated kiteness membranes kind of like drumheads, connected to
muscles and rib like structures underneath, and these are on
either side of the body under the wings, and the
cicadas make their sound by rapidly flexing and buckling these

organs and then allowing them to snap back into place anyway.
With that context back to Jeremy's message, Jeremy rites, in
contrast to the leg, wing or rib based sound generation
methods used by insects like cicadas, the lesser water boatmen
stridulates its penis against the ridged surface of its abdomen

to create the sound. And then Jeremy and some references
and also a paper, and he summarizes the paper by saying, quote,
it is theorized that a trapped bubble of air is
used to amplify the volume. Best regards Jeremy. Well, thank
you Jeremy for writing in and bringing up this amazingly

interesting animal. Now a couple of things to address at
the top here, I had to mention something from the
earlier part of your message about not having cicadas in Europe.
I double check to be sure, but there definitely are
cicadas in Europe. For example, multiple species in the genus Cicadeta,
like Cicadeta montana that's also known as the new forest

cicada is just one of the species found in Europe.
It's in England in places throughout continental Europe. But from
what I've been able to dig up, all of the
species of cicadas found anywhere in Europe are annuals, the
kind that emerge every year, as opposed to the kinds
we have in North America with broods on those thirteen
and seventeen year cycles. But also, I love your note

bringing attention to the lesser water boatmen, and it's incredibly loud,
stridulating penis. I had to know more, so I did
some investigation on this insect. So again, as Jeremy says,
the species is Micronecta schultzy. Like cicadas. The lesser water
boatmen are of the order Hymiptera, so they are also

the true bugs. Remember that's what the hymipterns are, the
true bugs, with the most distinctive body features being they're
piercing and sucking mouthparts. So hymipterans usually have a sort
of hinged needle called a rostrum on their mouth which
they used to puncture a food substrate which could be
a plant or an animal and suck nutrients out. In

the case of water boatmen, it seems they generally they're
not predatory. They generally suck nutrients from algae. So I
looked up the original paper that reported this stridulation miracle
and it goes back to the year twenty eleven. So
the paper is by Rome Sewer, David Mackie and James F. C. Windmill,
published in Plus one in twenty eleven, and the paper

is called so Small, So Loud extremely high sound pressure
level from a pigmy aquatic insect carrixiity micronectiny. So the
authors here begin with some context for their research and
noting some common difficulties in sound based communication among animals.
Sound producing animals often want to reach as many receivers

as possible with their sounds, and they also want their
sounds to contain as much information as possible. In order
to reach more receivers, a very simple strategy is make
your signal louder. But making a louder signal comes with
some difficulties. One problem, in the words of the authors
is that quote when considering acoustic communication, the production of

a loud and intelligible signal is not an easy task.
Even for human built sound systems. The system can be overdriven,
distorting time and frequency parameters and consequently impairing information transfer.
So in other words, selecting for loudness can harm the
clarity of the information being transferred, and you can think

about this like you know, turning a speaker up until
it gets distorted and it's hard to understand what's being said.
Another problem is that how loud you can get is
usually constrained by what the authors call morphological characteristics, the
size and the shape of your body and sound producing organs.
In short, a small object usually cannot produce a very

loud sound, and this is why if you look at
lists of the loudest animals, most of them are also
the largest animals, so you get like whales and elephants
as the largest animals. However, there's another way you can
look at sound production, which is not just purely what
is the loudest sound achievable, but what is the ratio

of sound production to body size. Animals are able to
produce the loudest sounds with the smallest bodies and the
smallest sound producing organs. So here the authors turn to
freshwater insects, many of which can communicate by sound. Since
sound is a useful way of transmitting information when visibility.

Visual visibility is low, such as in murky water Micronecta
schultzi is an example of an insect that uses sound
based communication for pair formation in mating, for males and
females to find one another, for males to attract females,
and to attract females to initiate mating. It's possibly also

used for male male competition competition between males for access
to mating. The authors of this paper collected specimens of
this insect from a river and from a pond, both
located near Paris in France, and measure their sound production
in controlled conditions. Apparently a lot of the research here

was just aimed at making sure they were getting accurate
readings about the sound production, and so, just as Jeremy
said in the email, the authors did indeed find that
these tiny insects were able to create shockingly powerful sounds
for their size. When measured at a distance of one meter,
the intensity of the sound was roughly a seventy nine

decibel sound pressure level, with peaks of ninety nine to
one hundred decibels. A BBC report writing this up compared
this to the approximate loudness of sitting in the front
row listening to a loud symphony orchestra, except that's kind
of hard to make as a comparison in your mind,
because the symphony orchestra is a large like composite system

with many different sound production points. I guess the case
here would be like you're listening to an orchestra that
is a hair sized sexual organ of a two millimeter
insect about a meter away from your head. The author
is right that while this is by no means the
loudest in the animal kingdom quote, when scaled to body
length and compared to two hundred and twenty seven other

acoustic species, the acoustic energy produced by Imschultzi appears as
an extreme value, outperforming marine and terrestrial mammal vocalizations. So,
according to these calculations, it is the loudest animal relative
to its body size. So, as the title of the
paper says, so small, so loud, if that's true, I

was wondering why don't we notice hearing them more often?
Like why do even if you know you don't necessarily
have these around where you live. Why don't you read
things of people just commonly talking about the sounds they make,
the way people talk about the sounds made by cicadas.
I think the answer is probably because they make these
sounds underwater and people are usually above water, and from

what I was reading, about ninety nine percent of the
intensity of the sound is lost when it crosses the
air water inner though, though that doesn't mean you can't
hear it again. People on the banks of waterways where
these animals live are still sometimes able to hear them,
which is just a pretty incredible thing in itself, given
how much reduction in the sound there is from crossing

up out of the water into the air above. So
it just indicates how loud the original sound is that
people ever hear it at all. Couple more questions, how
exactly does this animal make the sound? In one sense
the authors know the answer, and in another sense they
said they did not. So the known part is that,
as mentioned in Jeremy's email, the male water boatman rubs

a sexual organ against a part of its abdomen to
generate the sound. This organ is in many articles about
this called a penis, but the paper clarifies it is
actually the male's right side peramere rubbing against a lobe
on the eighth abdominal segment. Perameres seem somewhat equivalent to

a penis. They are paired sexual organs on either side
of the abdomen. The paper calls them genitalia appendages, which
I was reading about it seems like they often serve
as clasping devices during copulation. The unknown part, according to
the authors of this paper in twenty eleven, and people
have commented since then, was how exactly this genital sound

emission system, which they point out is no larger than
fifty micrometers, which is again about the width of a
human hair on the small side of the range of
a width of a human hair. How that was capable
of producing such a loud sound. I'll come back to
that in a second. Another question is why is the
sound so loud in an evolutionary sense. According to this

twenty eleven paper, a possible answer is sexual selection unconstrained
by predation risk. So the males of this insects species
make the sound to attract females and possibly compete with
and drown out other males. So if louder sounds lead
to more chances to mate, evolution will keep selecting for them. Now,

a normal expected limiting principle on the loudness of that
sound would be that it would also attract predators and parasitoids,
so you know eventually you're going to be putting out
your ringing a dinner bell when you're making that sound
saying come eat me. But the authors say, we don't
know that much about what predators and parasitoids are associated

with these water insects, and as possible, water boatmen just
don't have many natural aquatic predators or parasitoids, and thus
there is little external limitation on the selection for loudness
of the scraping penis or paramere. But the authors say
that basically not enough is known about the associated predator guild,

so this should be something study you know, needs further study. Now,
coming back to the question of how mechanically these insects
make such a loud sound, This has been looked at
in subsequent research. Some other insects that produce underwater mating calls,
such as carrixidy and microonectiny, have a strategy of resonating

their stridulation. So they like rub something underwater and then
they resonate it through a trapped air bubble that they
carry with them when they dive to breathe from. I
believe so a study by read at All from twenty eighteen,
which was linked by Jeremy in his original email, creates
a model suggesting that Schultze does the same thing resonates

through an air bubble, but with some efficiency improvements. And
I admit I tried my best to understand this paper,
but I was not able to decipher all of the
technical stuff about acoustics in play. I believe if I'm
understanding it right, I believe their claim is that the
specific orientation, size, and distance between the insects sound producing

surface and its air bubble resonator create what they call
a high coupling efficiency, allowing for a huge gain and power.
So according to these authors, it seems to be something
about the sort of the distance between and relationship and
physical relationship between the air bubble and the striated surface.

So anyway, I'm not sure I follow all the technical
details on that, but nevertheless, this is a fascinating animal.
It is amazing to think about how such a tiny
creature can produce such loud sounds. And yeah, if you're interested,
you want to read more, you go look it up
Micronecta Schultzi, And thank you Jeremy for writing about this.

We love to get emails like this, emails that build
on our episodes with sort of related but new trails
to run down. Okay, I think that does it for today.
If you are new to the show, Stuff to Blow
Your Mind is primarily a sign night's podcast with core
episodes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We do listener mail like

this episode on Mondays, a short form episode on Wednesdays,
and on Fridays we do a sort of subspecies show
called Weird House Cinema, where my co host Rob Lamb
and I watch and discuss weird movies. They can be
good or bad, big or small, well known or obscure,
as long as they are weird. To remind you all

about the rest of this week, we're going to be
back tomorrow with a vault episode, Wednesday with an omnibus,
and hopefully Thursday we will have a brand new core
episode for you. If not, we'll have another vault episode
then and we'll have Weird House Cinema for you on Friday.
But we're shooting to get you that brand new core
episode on Thursday. In the meantime. If you are not

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