Archive for August, 2007

How Much Skinniness Can You Buy with $100,000?

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | August 30, 2007 6:30 am

Jeeves, you fool. What neighborhood do you think this is?

A new study found that a $100,000 increase in a ZIP code’s average home value gives a two-percent reduction in the area’s obesity rate. The obesity rate is five percent in the Seattle area’s ritziest neighborhoods; in the hood, it jumps up to 30 percent.
“Added sugar and added fat were not only good tasting and satisfying. They were also cheapest. And they’re available even in the lowest-income ZIP codes. The whole thing connects up, like it or not, through money,” says Adam Drewnowski, lead author of the study.

No-Sh*t Study of the Day: Lincoln May Have Had Facial Defect

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | August 14, 2007 4:40 pm

abraham lincoln faceLincoln, elated, at his first inauguration


Lincoln may have had facial defect

Honest Abe may well have been a great president and great man, but a handsome man he was not: “Fancy a man 6 feet high and thin out of proportion…..with a long scraggy neck, and a chest too narrow for the great arms at his side. Add to this figure a head, coconut shaped and somewhat too small for such a stature… a face furrowed, wrinkled and indented as though it had been scarred by vitriol… a few irregular blotches of black, bristly hair in the place where beard and whiskers out [sic] to grow… and a nose and ears which have been taken by mistake from a head of twice the size.”

Anywho, laser scans of plaster casts of his face show that “the left side of Lincoln’s face was much smaller than the right, an aberration called cranial facial microsomia,” and that condition may have caused his left eye to occasionally drift “upward independently of his right eye, a condition now termed strabismus.”

And if you think that’s all he had to wrestle with (he was in fact a good wrestler), he’s also been retro-diagnosed with smallpox, heart disease, and possibly Marfan syndrome.

Attack of the Robosquirrels

By Brittany Grayson | August 13, 2007 4:40 pm

ir squirrelIt seems stupid, even suicidal, to annoy something as dangerous as a rattlesnake. But squirrels, not known either for their wisdom or sensitivity to fellow creatures, seem to do it all the same. According to Aaron Rundus of the University of California, Davis, ground squirrels are regular snake menacers, biting their tails and kicking sand in their faces.

These particular squirrels have a blood protein that binds to rattlesnake venom and neutralizes it, so adult ground squirrels are immune to rattlesnake bites. The younger pups are vulnerable—though they have the magic protein, they don’t have blood for the defense to work.

So when a rattlesnake comes nosing around ground squirrel burrows, the adults are quick to react. Running toward the snake, raising a ruckus, and waving their tails like mad. Rundus initially assumed this motion is a warning sign intended to get the attention of other squirrels, much like the Bat Symbol: “Snake in the area!” But that didn’t make sense in light of other squirrel behavior: Once the community was alerted, the squirrels didn’t just protect the young ‘uns and let the snake slink off. Instead, they attack.

“They often confront [the snakes] very closely, often inches in front of their face. They pelt the snake with sand or rocks,” Rundus says. “They will also, if given the opportunity, often to try to run around and bite them, often in the tail because that’s a safer place to bite.” Rundus also noticed an odd quirk: When facing a rattlesnake, a pit viper especially sensitive to infrared radiation, the squirrels’ tails heated up, which would make the motion much more visible. Rundus theorized that the IR signal tells the snake to back off, making it less likely to attack squirrel pups. But testing the hypothesis was hard. Training a squirrel to heat up or cool down its tail on command is apparently not all that easy. So he did what any self-respecting scientist would do: He built a robosquirrel.

The robot—which occupies the skin of a dead squirrel—is built to have the core body temperature of the squirrel and to wave its tail around with sheer robotic exuberance. It was also interactive: The closer the snake approached, the more frantically the squirrel waved its tail, just like its living brethren.

And, true to Rundus’s hypothesis, when the robosquirrel’s tail heated up to taunt a rattlesnake, the snake was much less likely to attack than if the squirrel’s tail remained cool. The tail waved in front of the snake “Na-na-na-na-na-na!”-style apparently tells the snake both that it has been seen and that its continued presence in the area will result in bombardment with dirt wads and possible squirrel bites. The snake usually retreats.

“This study serves as a good reminder that when we working with animals, we need to enter their perceptual world,” Rundus says. ”If we could only jump into the squirrels’ head, that would be interesting,” says Rundus.

Note: There are no obvious connections between the robosquirrel and the mammals that have recently attacked the Middle East.

Note #2: In case you have some doubts about whether a rattlesnake can be one nasty customer, please consider that a decapitated rattler recently bit a man and nearly killed him.

Sci-Fi Died… But It Came Back in a Different Form!

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | August 9, 2007 7:31 pm

The Matrix goes as deep as a rabbit hole.

Yesterday JR Minkel argued on the SciAm Observations blog that Blinded by Science: Fictional Reality was fundamentally wrong, denying that science fiction has “suddenly and entirely ceased to matter,” as intimated by our own Bruno Maddox. Minkel advances a well-taken critique of the piece but I would—nay, will!—assert that Maddox’s main point was correct, but not exactly in the way he meant it (if I may try to re-educate the brain child of a bona fide Ellie nominee). And I’m not defending Maddox just because we get our direct deposits from the same routing number—Discover has an impregnable firewall like the one that separates the Wall Street Journal’s hard-news section from its hard-right editorial page (at least until Rupert gives them some hard knocks).

First off, Minkel is right that Maddox should not have Michael Crichton and the eccentric attendees of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (whose “median shirt type is -sweat”) stand in for the entire science-fiction world; there are some very good sci-fi writers out there, like Neal Stephenson, as Minkel points out. But will Stephenson and his ilk ever have the impact of Wells, Orwell, or Huxley? I don’t think so, and that’s the interesting thing.

Maddox says one of the genre’s problems is that “fiction—all fiction—finally became obsolete as a delivery system for big ideas,” and sci-fi is just going down with that ship. As for why fiction was dethroned from being the reigning medium, he says it might have “something to do with the Internet,” but I think it began much earlier than that—around a generation after the rise of the moving image. The real change is that mass culture has become primarily visual rather than textual: “[Insert pretentious McLuhan quote here].”

This change has hit fiction doubly hard because it by definition trucks in things no one has seen. As soon as some hack Hollywood director creates a picture of what fictional characters look like, our lovably predictable, vision-dominated hunter-gatherer brains will necessarily latch onto it (remember that reading is not at all “natural” for the human brain, unlike speaking or watching), which is why you should never see a movie before reading the book. Your imagining of a book can be ruined even by a single frame from the movie version that appears on the cover, especially because the humans pictured tend to be freakishly good-looking; The Unbearable Lightness of Being was thusly tainted for me (damn your sultry gaze, Daniel Day-Lewis!). When Bob Woodward writes a book about the Bush Administration, he can be pretty sure the reader will be able to imagine Dubya’s smirk, Rove’s Mr.-Potatohead head, and Cheney’s sneer. (By the way, if you put a top hat on our vice president and a cigarette holder in the non-sneer side of his mouth, he really does look like the Penguin, Batman’s nemesis, if somewhat less elegant. The picture’s worth a thousand.)

This phenomenon applies trebly to science fiction because it’s often set in fully imagined settings, and it’s a lot easier to look at a detailed, fantastic world on the screen than it is to visualize the entire thing. Science fiction beamed into the movies a few decades ago, and for most people that’s where it stays. Ask people who did War of the Worlds and they’ll say Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, and who the hell is Orson Welles [sic] anyway. Ask them about Minority Report and they think not of Philip K. Dick but of, yes, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg. Sci-fi movies do raise some big questions—as in Gattaca and The Matrix—but they’re unlikely to be as deep and lasting as classic mainstream but not-at-all-lowbrow books like 1984.

Meanwhile, Stephenson and his ilk continue to write deep, well-crafted stuff that for the most part remains in the sci-fi ghetto—at least until it gets made into an oversimplified, $100 million movie by… yup, those guys.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Don’t Worry About CO2, Just Slow Down Population Growth

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | August 3, 2007 12:55 pm

population growth global warmingOn Wednesday I trekked to the 12th monthly meeting of the Secret Science Club, an informal lecture series in the basement of Union Hall, a bar in Brooklyn. The speaker this month was William Schlesinger, a biogeochemist and the new president of a think tank called the Institute of Ecosystem Studies. (The special drink was a “climate cooler,” which was a pleasant if mild rum punch.) Schlesinger gave a good introductory-level talk on the basics of global warming: where the carbon dioxide’s coming from, what it does in the atmosphere (with the requisite inside-a-car-on-a-hot-day slide), how we might decrease our CO2 production, etc. Due to time constraints, he only got to briefly mention his recent research, which focuses on how trees and soil affect CO2 levels, and vice versa.

After the talk I had a couple of questions, and I posed one to him, but I don’t think he exactly got what I was getting at. During the talk, Schlesinger showed one graph that showed a fairly close correlation between GDP growth and the change in CO2 output from the U.S. for a few decades in the 20th century. Then he showed another graph that showed a very tight correlation between atmospheric CO2 and global population over the 20th century, if I recall.

So how do you reconcile these? I realize that these two constraints don’t inherently and necessarily conflict—what happens in the U.S. could be independent of what’s happening across the globe. But the spirit of the two graphs did seem to clash: one implicitly argued that CO2 output tracked with economic growth, and the other implicitly argued that CO2 in the atmosphere tracked with population.

The distinction seems important to me because most median population projections (whose accuracy is another question) for the 21st century say that population growth will flatten out around 10 billion people around 2050. And if atmospheric CO2 really does track closely with global population, does that mean that even if we continue on our current pathetic regulatory course, CO2 levels will also level off in 2050?

That level would still be high enough to cook us all silly, but if we want to respond appropriately to the problem we should pin down the projection as much as possible.

Any DiscoBlog readers know how to forecast the atmospheric conditions for our li’l planet 50 years out?

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