Archive for May, 2007

Tiniest Teensiest Tortoise

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 23, 2007 5:59 pm

They grew ’em wee in Egypt.

Unintended Consequences Alert: Your Infection, Ma’am

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 23, 2007 12:20 pm

Scientists: We’ll put some salmonella inside your cancerous tumor and use a remote control to trigger the salmonella to attack the cancer cells. Don’t worry—we’ve known since the 19th century that the salmonella will attack the cancer before it virulently attacks your guts.

Skeptical DiscoBlog: Couldn’t we try this with a bacteria that doesn’t kill 580 Americans a year and hasn’t evolved multiple drug resistance?

What Won’t Keep People Slim: The Execucisor

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 17, 2007 6:56 pm

vertical workstationA few days ago DiscoBlog flirted with the idea that collective policy would do better at fighting the nation’s obesity “epidemic” than individuals’ pure willpower. In the search for an effective policy, we have to agree with the skepticism from Scientific American’s blog about the recently accounced “vertical workstation” that lets you exercise as you toil away at your desk job.

You could pick apart so many aspects of the idea—isn’t it hard to walk and type at the same time?—but Sci Am does a pretty good job of it, and the picture at right should quash any lingering doubts.

In fact, it’s a bit mysterious that people are still working on this idea even though it’s been well-ridiculed for decades now. Remember the Execucisor (or however you spell that) from Woody Allen’s Bananas? I could only find this fragmento of the movie in Spanish on YouTube, but you get the gist:

Of course, they wouldn’t put out the releases if some news operation didn’t pick this stuff up.

Already Recovering from the Great Global Warming Die-Off

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 16, 2007 7:51 pm

new rayThe Hortle’s whipray was
one of many species
discovered this year.

Last year Discover reported on ecologist Drew Allen’s research on how much energy it takes to evolve a new species (“1023 joules, more energy than is released by all the fossil fuels burned on Earth in a year”) and his finding that new species emerge faster in warm areas because of all that extra energy flying around.

In a similar vein, some researchers are now saying that global warming could speed up evolution worldwide, according to an article over at; even as human-caused climate change triggers the sixth great extinction, the subsequent rebound may already be starting.

Smithsonian’s Jen Phillips sensibly hedges her bets about whether climate change will necessarily be that good for life: “Of course, even the best chef can only handle so much heat in the kitchen. Tropical animals will do well, but only to a certain point.”

DiscoBlog vs Nature vs Nurture

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 15, 2007 7:31 pm

dr fatGina Kolata recently wrote an article in the NY Times emphasizing the genetic components of overweight and obesity; the headline—Genes Take Charge, and Diets Fall by the Wayside—pretty much sums it up. Kolata covers her behind by saying that behavior and environment do affect your build/weight, but it’s quite de-emphasized, and somebody looking to get a quick answer from the article might well miss that toward the end she does cite some researchers’ estimation that “70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance,” which leaves 30 percent of the variation to other factors.

Now John Horgan posts a response from Ellen Ruppel Shell, a science journalist who writes a lot about food and obesity. She disagrees with Kolata’s argument, or at least her emphasis, pointing out examples where cultural practices clearly affect rates of obesity. (Unfortunately, Shell doesn’t throw out a number for how much variation in people’s weights comes from genetics. I’d also be curious to see how different scientists answer this question.)

One interesting point that quietly emerges from this dispute is that Shell only mentions non-genetic factors that are cultural- or political-based rather than individual-based. Yes, it’s true that Americans of the same genetic stock have been fatter because of socio-political changes (sprawl, car culture, etc.), and it stands to reason that socio-political changes could make Americans skinnier again. But that doesn’t mean that individual people, in aggregate, have the willpower and control to diet their way to skinniness just because they want to.

So it seems I’m ending with a point in favor of an interventionist, paternalistic “nanny state.” People want to lose weight but they don’t have the willpower, so the state will step in and show them how it’s done!

(Full disclosure: Ellen Ruppel Shell was a professor of mine in J-school, and Horgan used to blog for Discover.)

Dancing, Karate-Chopping, Bomb-Defusing Robots

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 14, 2007 7:34 pm

bomb botThe US military is using specialized robots to disarm improvised explosive devices. With the bots providing such an important use, perhaps it’s not surprising that the soldiers can get attached to the little life-savers:

“Sometimes they get a little emotional over it,” Bogosh says. “Like having a pet dog. It attacks the IEDs, comes back, and attacks again. It becomes part of the team, gets a name. They get upset when anything happens to one of the team. They identify with the little robot quickly. They count on it a lot in a mission.”

The bots even show elements of “personality,” Bogosh says. “Every robot has its own little quirks. You sort of get used to them. Sometimes you get a robot that comes in and it does a little dance, or a karate chop, instead of doing what it’s supposed to do.” The operators “talk about them a lot, about the robot doing its mission and getting everything accomplished.” He remembers the time “one of the robots happened to get its tracks destroyed while doing a mission.” The operators “duct-taped them back on, finished the mission and then brought the robot back” to a hero’s welcome.

I would have scoffed at this reaction just two weeks ago, but I recently was at a friend’s house where we watched a Roomba clean the floor for about half an hour. At one point it got itself jammed between a chair and a counter, and we were quickly emotionally drawn into the li’l guy’s plight. It took the robot about 5 minutes to escape, at which time we celebrated. Heartily.

Humans Now Run the Garden of Eden

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 11, 2007 11:44 am

garden of edenA non-profit scientific group recently announced the creation an Encyclopedia of Life, an Internet-based database meant include all 1.8 million currently named species and, over time, many more of the millions that have yet to be identified. Scientists say the site will almost everyone on the planet access to amazingly complete and up-to-date info on biology around whole world, and could greatly help ecological research in every farflung area. It’s projected to cost $100 million and take 10 years, which frankly sounds like a pretty light cost for such a sweeping goal.

To me the most interesting thing about this project is what it says about humanity and our relationship with the natural world. Our understanding of—and power to control—the natural environment has been exploding over the past couple of hundred years, roughly since Linnaeus began methodically categorizing species. This encyclopedia may signal the soft beginning of a different phase for us as a species: rather than just isolated efforts to stack up bricks of information, we’re constructing an entire edifice of knowledge, one that might begin to approach a comprehensive listing of all of the biology on Earth.

Along with this next-level knowledge comes a widespread assumption—or at least hope—that we have the power, responsibility, and wisdom to protect the planet from, ironically, ourselves. If humans got kicked out of the garden at the beginning of our adolescence, could we come back to the garden at the beginning of adulthood, now as the gardeners of Eden?

Obviously, our species has an (ahem) checkered history with protecting the planet. Hopefully, we’re neither the inmates running the asylum nor the fox guarding the henhouse.

Which Cities Live Life in the Fast Lane?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 10, 2007 10:21 am

Psychologist Richard Wiseman surveyed walking speeds in cities around the globe. Singapore, Copenhagen, and Madrid were the speediest urban centers, with pedestrians in all three pounding out 60 feet in under 11 seconds. New Yorkers took a full extra second to cover the same distance–a respectable showing for the US, but us New Yorkers’ ranking of 8th overall was lower than I expected.

Walkers in Bern, Switzerland, and Manama, Bahrain, took a leisurely 17 seconds and change to saunter 60 feet, while in Blantyre, Malawi—the slowest city surveyed—even an expansive 30 seconds wasn’t quite enough time to make it to the finish. Good for you, people of Blantyre. At least somewhere in the world, people are stopping and smelling the roses (or whatever lovely endemic flowers might line the streets there).

Even more interesting, the researchers compared their results to a similar survey from the early 1990s and found that on average, walking pace around the globe is now 10% faster than it was then. Unfortunately, this trend hasn’t yet reached the guy who gets out of the subway in front of me every morning.

Check out the full list of 32 cities and their time scores here.

via itv

Real Reality TV: David Hasselhoff’s Very Public Intervention

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 9, 2007 2:02 pm

hasselhoffOne recurring theme in punditry on the Internet is how it’s changing the nature of privacy now that people are putting so much formerly private information onto the Web, the most public place in the known universe. New York magazine mulled over what the trend means about the young’uns; the New York Times looked at its limits and how it could affect your job prospects; and Wired sniffed out how it could make you (as the tech entrepreneur you are) really, really rich.

There have also been a lot of celebrities exposed—literally or not; intentionally or not—via the Internet, from a presidential candidate calling an opponent’s dark-skinned volunteer “macaca” to brainless celebutantes showing off their lack of underwear to get attention.

Nothing, I’d argue, shows the perfect overlap of these two phenomena so well as this video clip of David Hasselhoff, drunk out of his mind, filmed, sprawled on his bathroom floor, by his young daughter, trying to get him to stop drinking.

At first the video’s kind of amusing—another one of the thousands of silly videos all over the Web, this one especially notable for the celebrity of the main player. But not far into the video you get the feeling of being thrust straight into the middle of a fraught, sad, and very dramatic situation. Reality TV would die to have the intimacy that all of these viewers (623,267, as of “press time”) share with Hasselhoff and his daughter, trying heroically to parent her father.

The Internet takes a step forward in revealing everyone to everyone.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Bear Kills Moose, Eats Heart

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | May 9, 2007 10:45 am

Yeah, the title pretty much says it all: an Alaska couple was awakened by some strange noises in their driveway and looked outside to see a bear killing, dragging, and eating the heart out of a moose. Not only that, but they videotaped it and posted it on YouTube. Be warned: these three videos contain straight-up heart-eating—although I do find the chirping of the birds adds a leavening, almost sweet, touch.


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