Archive for July, 2007

Mammals Attack the Middle East, Part II

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 25, 2007 10:45 am

badger squirrelIran’s news service recently announced that security forces… how do I say this… “captured” 14 squirrels on the suspicion that they were spying on behalf of a Western power (read: the Great Satan).

It was only a couple weeks ago that residents of Basra, Iraq, complained that British troops had released man-eating badgers to terrorize the city, which was already coping with militias that kill—if not eat—people. Judging by one admittedly unscientific report, the aggressive critters were something of a chimera: “My husband hurried to shoot it but it was as swift as a deer… It is the size of a dog but his head is like a monkey.” Just try to picture that.

Nevermind, look above at that picture of a honey badger, a more technical name for the “beast of Basra.” The British admit it’s feisty and perhaps not entirely attractive, but say it’s indigenous to the area and making a comeback because of an eco-sensitive effort to re-flood the marshlands that Saddam disastrously drained.

Back to the spy squirrels: Could the report be true? It does sound crazy at first—perhaps even crazier than the man-eating dog-monkey-deer-badger. But remember that during the Cold War, the CIA did carry out a project called Acoustic Kitty, in which they spent $20 million to train and surgically plant spy equipment in a cat. The first and only test run ended after five minutes because the program’s eponymous agent got run over.

In a report on NPR’s All Things Considered, an old CIA spook denounced the report as “complete idiocy” (more idiotic than Acoustic Kitty?); an outside intelligence expert said squirrel spies could be “very cost-effective” and mentioned other CIA projects like the Dragonfly Insect-o-Hopper and a robot spy fish called Charlie; and a squirrel biologist questioned the Iranian report’s claim that the squirrels weighed as much as 1.5 pounds—though it’s unclear if he accounted for the weight of any spy equipment. Or maybe it wasn’t the CIA at all but rather the British, they of the man-eating badgers. “I bet they were British squirrels, they are the most cunning,” says a Persian fast-food vendor.

PS: The music in the NPR piece comes from the 60s cartoon Secret Squirrel (picture above; watch intro). There’s also a song and album called “Acoustic Kitty” (listen).

Sunshine: Not So Bad, After All?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 24, 2007 2:48 pm
Setting sun

sunny dayEver since scientists convicted sunlight of causing skin cancer, many seemingly sensible people have been running around slathered in sunscreen, using hats and long sleeves to hide our skin from the sun as if we were vampires. Now it looks like we may have gone too far: We may be missing out on the benefits of sunshine.

A study (press release) released today in the journal Neurology indicates that children who spend more time in the sun may have a decreased risk of multiple sclerosis. In pairs of twins where one twin had multiple sclerosis, the MS-free sibling had spent more time outside, playing team sports and sun tanning. Scientists theorize that ultraviolet rays in sunlight trigger a protective response that protects the body from this chronic nervous system disorder, either by altering the immune system or by producing vitamin D. Twins that spent more time in the sun decreased their risk of getting MS by almost 50%, despite their genetic predisposition toward the disease.

Getting more vitamin D-drenched sunlight might be a good idea, regardless of your genetic risk for multiple sclerosis: Scientists say most people aren’t getting enough. Researchers at Boston University published a paper last week in the New England Journal of Medicine said that more than 1 billion people worldwide don’t get enough Vitamin D. Too little vitamin D for too long can result in dramatic results like rickets—a softening of the skeleton. But other dangers include Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a range of cancers, Crohn’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.

And unless you eat a big, heaping serving of oily fish—like carp or herring—almost every day (and we hope you’re not), you probably aren’t getting enough from your food. The scientists recommend sensible sun exposure as part of the solution, along with supplements. “Sensible” being the operative word after the discovery that sun tanning can be addictive.

Partial Face Transplants for Everyone!

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 19, 2007 5:38 pm

knightalieNow you don’t need to wait for the assistance of French plastic surgeons to have a partial face transplant—just some judicious use of Photoshop. The Natalie Portman/Keira Knightley hybrid is particularly smooth, while the Al Pacino/Alice Cooper one is inspired.

Thanks to reader ER for the tip.

Funniest Science Headline of the Day:

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 19, 2007 8:13 am

Group Therapy Helps Men with Impotence

No, this isn’t about the medical use of wild orgies. “Most men feel comfortable in the setting of group therapy because they can share their difficulties with other men who have the same problem,” according to the author of a recent paper on group therapy for impotence.

“Most people only wonder about the easiest and most rapid way to reach remission of erectile dysfunction,” Melnik said. “Group therapy takes more time than using medication, but in some cases dealing with psychological aspects is fundamental to achieving a successful outcome and maintaining the results.”

Someone bust out the bongos…

Gecko + Mussel = Geckel, One Fine Adhesive

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 18, 2007 10:30 am

spacing is important
In the rain, the Geico gecko
loses some adhesiveness.

Scientists have been trying to replicate the stickiness of a gecko’s foot for years, with varying success. Now researchers at Northwestern led by Phillip Messersmith have taken this to a whole ‘nother level by creating “geckel,” an adhesive that weds a gecko’s reversible stickiness with the mussel’s ability to remain effective when wet—an Achilles pseudopod for most adhesives. The researchers say geckel’s unique combination will make it a good water-resistant bandage or a suture that can work on wounds that refuse to stop bleeding.

The idea behind geckel is actually pretty straightforward: the researchers nanofabricated an array of tiny silicone fibers (geckos cling to walls using van der Waals forces in hair-like setae on their toes), and then smothered it with 3,4-L-dihydroxyphenylalanine (DOPA), one of the proteins that gives mussels their binding power. They say geckel can be used through 1,000 “contact/release cycles”—Messersmith says other gecko biomimetics only work for two cycles—and performs equally well in dry or wet environments.

DiscoBlog will happily dedicate a blog post to any reader who covers a unitard with geckel and climbs the exterior of a tall building. Photographic evidence required.

This Is What a Near-Death Experience Looks Like

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 17, 2007 7:53 pm

go toward the lightNewsweek has an interesting gallery of drawings of near-death experiences by the people who experienced them. (Click under “Crossing Over” in the upper-right to launch the gallery.) The drawings are from The Big Book of Near-Death Experiences, which is coming out in October.

Jane Bosveld’s recent story in the hallowed pages of Discover looked at the latest scientific research into NDEs, OBE (out-of-body experiences), and various other quirks of the human soul.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?

My Moment’s More Exciting Than Your Moment

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 17, 2007 11:53 am

The German Beer Purity Law
has been on the books
for 500 years. Thank God.

Last Thursday we published an article about the 7 Most Exciting Moments in Science. Since then a number of readers have written in to point out (politely) that I missed the boat on a bunch of fantastically exciting moments on the list, such as Neil Armstrong’s one small step, Watson and Crick’s double helix and (my favorite) the German Beer Purity Law. What I maybe should have disclosed were the three criteria we used to judge the reputed exciting moments:

First, the stories couldn’t be of dubious veracity. That excluded Isaac Newton staring up at the moon through the boughs of an apple tree and Kary Mullis’s PCR epiphany while driving down Highway 1. (One should be skeptical of anyone who converses with glowing raccoons.)

Each discovery had to be a bolt from the blue. This excluded situations where years, and even decades, of hard work culminated in one shining moment, like the moon landing or the invention of the radio.

Finally, we gave extra credit to discoveries proven in the real world as opposed to just theoretical ones. Einstein’s theory of general relativity was exciting, fast, and important, but it wasn’t confirmed in the real world until 14 years later, when Arthur Stanley Eddington showed that the Sun bent the light of stars behind it. Einstein lost some points because the excitement of that moment was split in two.


Antioxidants Are a Vital Life Force

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 13, 2007 9:12 am

great titThis great tit from Chernobyl
is neither large nor a breast.

The Journal of Applied Ecology recently published a study (pdf) about which birds are hit hardest by persistent radiation near Chernobyl. Most of the press on this focuses on the fact that brightly colored birds fare especially badly, but they’re not the only ones: Birds that migrate long distances and those that lay large eggs have also been hit especially hard.

The interesting thing is the researchers say this variation is all due to how the birds use antioxidants, the same group of chemicals that defuse free radicals and prevent cancer in people, including vitamin C and beta-carotene. All three susceptible bird groups use a lot of antioxidants for their distinctive behaviors and are therefore left with fewer antioxidants to fight off free radicals produced by radiation. The long-migrators use antioxidants in flying, the big-layers use them to make eggs, and the pretty birds use them to make bright colors. (To further prove the point about antioxidants, the researchers say the vulnerable bright birds tend to derive their colors from carotenoids—a group that includes beta-carotene—as opposed to other birds, which produce color with melanin or structural physical properties rather than pigment.)

This makes it sound like we have a bank of antioxidants cruising around our bodies and protecting us, but we only have a limited amount of them to allocate to various stresses. So eat your tomatoes, don’t flap your wings for too long, and stay the heck away from Chernobyl.

Worst Science Article of the Week: Shut That Mouth

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 9, 2007 11:55 am

bad article!There is a widely held belief that women, those chatty creatures, utter far more words per day than men. Last year in her book The Female Brain, psychology professor Louann Brizendine tossed out the figures 20,000 (womanly words) versus 7,000 (motes of manly monologuing), which became a kind of informal consensus. As with much Men-are-from-Mars psychologizing, there was never much data to back up what was essentially an old wives’ tale.

Last week, Science published a paper by some researchers who finally looked into the matter and delivered what one hopes—though suspects will not be—a knockout blow to this rumor. In the study’s fairly large (though admittedly homogenous) sample group, both men and women said about 16,000 words per day.

Just a few days before the media blitz over the debunking paper, The Times of India published an earnest, credulous opinion piece that not only accepted the soon-to-be-disproven rumor but tried to explain exactly why it is that women speak so much more than men: because they do more manual work and they have more cells dedicated to emotion and communication. Judging by what we know now, this logic train must have been derailed by terrorists before it ever left the station.

I do admit that giving The Times this booby prize is a bit of a raw deal; many publications repeated the exact same theory before. But this was one magnificent flourish of bad timing.

(Some publications deserve credit for trying to debunk the rumor last fall.)


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