A Scientific Spirit: Sir Francis Bacon and the Ghost Chicken of Highgate

iStock.com/GrabillCreative
iStock.com/GrabillCreative

Most ghost stories involve suspense, evil deeds, and a terrifying specter, but this one is a bit different. This is a ghost story about a philosopher, an innovation, and a plucked chicken.

It was an unseasonably cold and snowy day back in April 1626 when the famed philosopher, statesman, and proto-scientist Sir Francis Bacon was driving through Highgate, north London, in a horse-drawn carriage with his good friend Dr. Witherbone, the king's physician. The learned pair was discussing the best methods to preserve food when, inspired by the snowy landscape, Bacon proposed that ice might be used to keep food fresh. So excited was he by this bold new idea that he demanded the carriage stop in Pond Square, where Bacon procured a chicken from a nearby farm. After it was plucked and gutted, he proceeded to pack it with ice from the ground—in effect creating the world’s first frozen chicken.

Sadly, Bacon never lived to see the results of his innovative experiment in refrigeration. His exposure to the freezing temperatures reportedly led to a case of pneumonia, and he died on April 9, 1626.

Sir Francis Bacon painted by Paul Van Somer
Sir Francis Bacon painted by Paul Van Somer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In a more typical ghost story, Bacon himself might come back to haunt the scene of his undoing. Instead, it was the chicken who returned.

Reports supposedly soon surfaced of a half-plucked chicken appearing in Pond Square, running madly in circles or sitting sullenly in a tree. When approached, the mysterious chicken would vanish into thin air. The sightings continued over the following decades: During World War II, an air raid warden patrolling Pond Square caught sight of the mangy bird and thought to catch it for his supper. He chased the fowl, but was thwarted when it disappeared before his eyes. In 1943 a man crossing Pond Square heard the sound of a horse and carriage before witnessing the squawking ghost fleetingly appear. In the 1970s a young couple was courting in the picturesque square when their romantic moment was ruined by the arrival of the ghostly chicken, flapping its plucked wings and charging around in indignant circles.

In recent years, sightings of the frozen ghost chicken have become less frequent, the specter of the fowl perhaps assuaged by the passage of time. Both the ghost, and reports of Bacon's experiment, have their doubters, but the story lives on. It reminds us of an important scientific development—and might prompt us to whisper a little thanks to the ghost chicken of Pond Square as we prepare our frozen chicken for dinner.

Archaeologists Uncover Infant Remains Wearing Skulls of Older Children

© Sara Juengst
© Sara Juengst

Archaeologists in Salango, Ecuador, recently uncovered two infant skeletons buried with "helmets" made from the skulls of older children, Gizmodo reports.

The discovery is the first of its kind, researchers write in a paper published in the journal Latin American Antiquity. To date, the Salango discovery presents the only known evidence of ancient people using juvenile skulls as burial headgear.

The two burial mounds where the skeletons were uncovered date back to about 100 BCE. It's likely that the skull "helmets" were cut and fitted to the infants' heads while the former were "still fleshed," the researchers write. One infant, estimated to be about 18 months old at the time of death, wears the skull of a child between 4 and 12 years old. The “helmet” was positioned so that the wearer looked “through and out of the cranial vault,” the paper reports (the cranial vault is the area of the skull where the brain is stored). The second infant, which was between 6 and 9 months old at death, is fitted with the skull of a child between 2 and 12 years old.

Images of infant skeletons covered with the bones of older children found in Ecuador
© Sara Juengst

But why? The archaeologists involved in the discovery aren’t totally sure. Ash found near the burial site suggests that a volcano may have impeded agriculture, leading to malnourishment and starvation. The skull helmets could have been an effort to offer the infants additional protection beyond the grave. It’s also possible, though unlikely, that the children could have been sacrificed in a ritual to protect the community from natural disasters. That’s less probable, though; none of the bones show any evidence of trauma, but they did show signs of anemia, suggesting that all four children were sick at their time of death. Researchers hope DNA and isotope analyses can offer more information on the discovery.

Whatever the reason is, it’s important not to judge with modern eyes, lead author Sara Juengst told Gizmodo. “Our conception of death is based in our modern medical, religious, and philosophical views,” she said. “We need to think about things in their own context as much as possible and try to keep our own prejudices or ideas about 'right/wrong' out of the analysis.”

[h/t Gizmodo]

Maine Man Catches a Rare Cotton Candy Lobster—For the Second Time

RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images
RnDmS/iStock via Getty Images

Just three months after a cotton candy lobster was caught off the coast of Maine, another Maine resident has reeled in one of the rare, colorful creatures.

Kim Hartley told WMTW that her husband caught the cotton candy lobster off Cape Rosier in Penobscot Bay—and it’s not his first time. Four years ago, he caught another one, which he donated to an aquarium in Connecticut. While the Hartleys decide what to do with their pretty new foster pet, it’s relaxing in a crate on land.

Though the chances of finding a cotton candy lobster are supposedly one in 100 million, Maine seems to be crawling with the polychromatic crustaceans. Lucky the lobster gained quite a cult following on social media after being caught near Canada’s Grand Manan Island (close to the Canada-Maine border) last summer, and Portland restaurant Scales came across one during the same season. You can see a video of the discovery in Maine from last August below:

According to National Geographic, these lobsters’ cotton candy-colored shells could be the result of a genetic mutation, or they could be related to what they’re eating. Lobsters get their usual greenish-blue hue when crustacyanin—a protein they produce—combines with astaxanthin, a bright red carotenoid found in their diet. But if the lobsters aren’t eating their usual astaxanthin-rich fare like crabs and shrimp, the lack of pigment could give them a pastel appearance. It’s possible that the cotton candy lobsters have been relying on fishermen’s bait as their main food source, rather than finding their own.

While these vibrant specimens may look more beautiful than their dull-shelled relatives, even regular lobsters are cooler than you think—find out 25 fascinating facts about them here.

[h/t WMTW]

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