By Carrie Arnold
Those with a sensitive sniffer are treated to the pleasure of subtle differences between an ’84 Bordeaux and an ’87 Cabernet, or the ability to tell whether the diner down the street is having a special on onion rings or fries. Even the non-foodies among us can tell whether a carton of milk has expired with a single sniff. But new research hints that the function of taste and smell receptors go far beyond our gourmand aspirations. Scientists have found that the proteins we use to detect certain tastes and scents are actually an important part of our immune system.
Of all the classes of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami), humans are the best at detecting bitter, and for good reason. Many of the toxins found in food are bitter, and being able to sense these in minute qualities was a great evolutionary boon to staying alive and healthy. Not surprisingly, bitter taste receptors are found in large quantities on the tongue. But a 2009 study in Science also found these receptors deep in the lungs. Otorhinolaryngologist and sinus surgeon Noam Cohen at the University of Pennsylvania went spelunking through the nose—his area of expertise—to see whether it might contain the same receptors, and found that it did.
From the hidden life of microbial ecosystems, to cybercrime, to the long chain of consequences set into motion by not washing your hands after using the toilet, Thursday’s TED 2013 spotlight illuminated the unseen systems of our world that impact all of us, sometimes fatally.
“Diarrhea is a weapon of mass destruction,” declared Rose George on TED’s main stage Thursday afternoon.
George is on a crusade for better sanitation, which has brought her from India to Africa to the tony conference space at Long Beach, where she pointedly noted she’d washed her hands after a trip to the toilet. George told the audience that though diarrhea kills a child every 15 seconds and can be easily and cheaply prevented, it rarely receives the attention given to diseases such as malaria, which kills fewer people per year.
George’s book The Big Necessity wades deeply not only into the dangers of poor hygiene but the benefits of waste if managed correctly: “Waste is a resource that we’re wasting,” said George, who added fecal matter can be an “inexhaustible and infinite” energy source.
Spend a few minutes chatting with Taylor Wilson and three things will happen: You will feel old. You will feel dumb. You will feel like you’ve squandered your life.
Wilson, who first garnered fame as the kid who built a nuclear reactor in his Reno garage, told the crowd gathered to hear him Wednesday at TED2013 that he’s left his first love, fusion, for a fling.
“I’m really into fission now,” declared Wilson, still in his teens. “Is fission played out or is there something left to innovate there?”
Wilson’s fission flirtation has led him to develop a compact molten salt reactor that he says needs refueling only once every 30 years, and “loves to eat downblended uranium.” Because much of the reactor is buried and its uranium is not weapons-grade, Wilson added, it’s less vulnerable either to terrorist attack or misuse.
While his talk on Wednesday’s main stage in Long Beach was as polished as entrepreneurs three times his age, it was when I sat down with Wilson later in the day that I found myself thinking: I just hope he uses his powers for good.
By Pete Etchells
I was a gamer kid. Heck, I still am a gamer kid. And like any form of media, old or new, video games have had their fair share of negative airtime. Much like how comic books were vilified in the 1950s for corroding young and impressionable minds (although the research behind those claims is now in dispute), video games are similarly being scrutinized for their effects on development and behavior.
But a relatively new branch of science is focusing on the therapeutic aspects of video games. This new generation of researchers who have grown up with video games are starting to use their unique mix of skills to look into the possibility of improving people’s lives through gaming. And there’s three promising areas where games appear to have a unique leg up on traditional therapies.
A spark. A vision. A lightbulb over the head.
These are the ways we often define that moment of creative inspiration that puts us on a path of making something, whether it’s a knitted iPad case (see Etsy for more examples than you might expect) or something slightly loftier, such as a global education system.
Dr. Sugata Mitra, announced Tuesday as the winner of the 2013 TED Prize and the $1 million that comes with it, had that a-ha moment when he was watching children in a Delhi slum learn, and teach each other, how to use a computer he’d put in a kiosk on the street with no instructions. The Hole in the Wall experiment led Mitra to develop SOLE, Self-Organized Learning Environments, and, eventually, his current project, the School in the Cloud. Mitra believes children can learn even complicated ideas and find elegant solutions when they work collaboratively and organically, without rote exercises, unforgiving evaluation tests and guided adult instruction.
“The teacher sets the process in motion, then stands back and lets the learning happen,” said Mitra, addressing the Long Beach audience at TED2013 after his win was announced. “And then admires the answer.”
Asked to describe the five senses, most of us can rattle them off without hesitation: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But what do those words mean, and do they mean the same thing to every person?
Take sound, for example. Randall Poster, who has worked as a music supervisor on movies ranging from School of Rock and Velvet Goldmine to Moonrise Kingdom, believes the inherent audience experience of a score or soundtrack has changed.
While researching music for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Poster unearthed a treasure trove of “photoplay music,” sheet music written for the musicians performing live at local nickelodeons in the silent film era. The titles of photoplay compositions—“In a Merry Mood” and “Agitato Mysterioso,” for example—reveal the emotional response from the audience that the music would provoke. It’s a response, however, that makes assumptions about its audience’s culture.
“Music renders the collective psychology of the moment, of the human condition,” said Poster, speaking at a seminar Monday at the TED2013 conference in Long Beach, Calif. “But what sounded suspenseful in 1920 may not sound suspenseful today.”
By Jon Tennant
Fossils, as we typically think of them, tell us about the death of an animal. The teeth, bones, shells, fragmented pseudopods and other weird and wonderful bits of carcass all only ever reflect one thing: a permanent geological limbo. These types of fossil are known as body fossils.
The other major group of fossils, that are generally less common, less researched, less known about, but arguably more important for guiding our understanding of the history of life on Earth, are trace fossils. The study of trace fossils is called ichnology, and the fossils don’t represent death; they represent life, behavior, activity. Often trace fossils are actually found in or on body fossils—anything from boring holes from bivalves on other bivalves, to bite marks on bones detailing a poor creature’s last painful seconds as a living animal. Or, in this case, an ancient injury preserved on a dinosaur’s skin.
Dinosaur skin is one of the rarest treasures the paleontological record can reveal to us. We now have a pretty good idea about the texture and nature of dinosaur skin, thanks to a couple of exceptional “dinosaur mummies” and the occasional fragments of skin preserved not as a mold of skin impressed on the surrounding sediment but of the actual fleshy flesh.
By Eric Wagner
The first sign that we’re close is a sickly sweet odor among the otherwise clean scents of fir and spruce. Scott Fitkin, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, pushes through a thatch of branches. “Here it is,” he says, coming to a large brush pile.
We are near Castle Mountain in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, about ten miles south of the US-Canada border. The pile sits within a perimeter of barbed wire called a snare corral. The brush is meant to mimic a grizzly bear food cache and so pique the bears’ interest. To entice them still more, Fitkin has poured a slurry of fermented salmon guts and cows’ blood over it. Now, in late September, the pile is a shambles—a good sign. If the bears have taken the bait, then they’ve left behind something even more valuable.
Fitkin begins a careful circuit, examining each barb. On four he finds fur, varying from a few strands to a generous tuft. He tweezes each barb’s worth into an envelope. DNA analysis will tell him later what species the hair belongs to, but he isn’t getting his hopes up: all of them are black, and probably from black bears.
Fitkin wants grizzlies. He has searched for them in these mountains for more than 20 years and has yet to see one. But in this, the final year of a three-year survey, he and his colleagues have gone all out. They’ve set up dozens of snare corrals throughout remote parts of the Cascade Mountains, miles from anywhere. If there are grizzlies to be found, then they will find them. Or so they hope.
By Pete Etchells The Internet is a wonderful, terrifying thing. On the one hand, it gives us instant access to literally all of humanity’s collected knowledge, and connects us to those that we know and love. On the other, it all too often exposes an awful side to people who shroud themselves in anonymity in order to hurt others. When it comes to mental health, this darker reflection of the Internet can cause lots of serious problems. Thankfully though, an increasing number of people are exploiting the positive potential of the web, using digital tools in innovative ways to help both patients and professionals.
One such person is Kathy Griffiths. In the treatment of depression, “historically, peer-to-peer support has not been taken very seriously by professionals,” Griffiths says. She set out to change that in a recent study published in PLOS ONE, in which she and colleagues at the Australian National University in Canberra conducted a randomized controlled trial looking at the use of online support groups for treating depression.
Depressed individuals were assigned to one of four groups: an Internet Support Group, an online self-help program, both, or neither. The researchers found that the virtual support group on its own, and in combination with the web-based training tool, significantly reduced depression symptoms in participants up to a year after they’d taken part.
Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
These days, I can’t seem to keep straight which of his friends my son is hanging out with on any given day—was it Jason, Jaden, Hayden, or Aidan? Their names all have a way of blurring together. My confusion reflects a growing trend for American boys’ names to sound more and more alike, according to a recent New York Times piece reporting on data gathered by Laura Wattenberg of BabyNameWizard.com.
It’s not as if the pool of available names is shrinking though. Quite the opposite. A couple of generations ago, parents mostly stuck with a handful of tried-and-true classics (James, Richard, William); the ten most common names were shared by more than a third of boys in 1950. These days, only nine percent of boys sport the ten most common names. But this recent burst of innovation in names shows more restraint than variety when it comes to their sounds. For example, 36 percent of newborn American boys have names that end in “n”, as compared to just 14 percent in 1950.
This might seem paradoxical, but in fact, it’s a fairly typical aspect of name invention (as my co-author Greg Carlson and I have discussed in our book Sold on Language). When creating a new word of any sort, whether it’s a common noun, verb, baby name or even a brand name, there’s a tendency to gravitate toward known sound patterns. Truly original names, like Quatergork, or Ponveen haven’t yet made it into my son’s social circle. Novelty, it seems, thrives best when it’s a variation on the familiar.