Archive for January, 2009

Weekly Science Blog Roundup

By Nina Bai | January 30, 2009 7:01 pm

Yee-haw! It’s the blog roundup.

• My, what a beautiful umbilicus you have! Survey says innies are hot, outies are not.

• Another week, another plan to exhume a dead astronomer. This time it’s Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe so historians can find out whether he was poisoned by a hired assassin.

 • All in the family: Three completely different looking fish—known as tapetails, whalefish, and bignoses—turn out to be the young, female, and male of the same species.

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MORE ABOUT: fish, submarine

Want the Most Accurate OCD Diagnosis? Visit the Zoo

By Boonsri Dickinson | January 30, 2009 6:57 pm

bears.jpgGot OCD? It may surprise you to know that three percent of all Americans do! Normally, when people display compulsive behaviors such as excessively washing their hands, psychiatrists give them a simple questionnaire to screen for OCD. But for the first time, researchers at Tel Aviv University have connected animal behavior to OCD in humans, after observing animals at the zoo.

It turns out that OCD patients respond the best to behavioral treatment when researchers videotape them behaving compulsively. But before this new program for humans was created, the researchers had to first watch animals at the zoo.

The researchers observed OCD in bears, gazelles, rats, and other animals, both in the wild and in captivity. In the wild, animals appeared to have automated routines. But when the researchers watched animals in the zoo, they noticed the animals had rituals of repetitious movements such as pacing back and forth. By looking for common (compulsive) behavior in different animals, the researchers were able to identify which repetitious behaviors were healthy, and which were not. As such, when psychiatrists apply the videotaping to humans, they can use the animal database to classify human OCD behaviors.

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MORE ABOUT: animals, OCD, zoos

Let Them Eat Dirt! It Contains Essential Worms

By Nina Bai | January 30, 2009 12:48 pm

dirtHere’s some medical advice kids will like and parents may be surprised to hear: “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” says Dr. Joel V. Weinstock of Tufts Medicial Center. (He also suggests having lots of cats and dogs around the house.)

And he’s not alone. Increasingly, medical researchers have come to believe that our current obsession with cleanliness is making us sicker. Eat a few worms, ingest some fecal bacteria, get a taste of dirt, they say.

Evidence supporting the hygiene hypothesis, which says that a lack of exposure to microorganisms at a young age prevents the development of a healthy immune system, is turning up in many forms. In one study, pampered dogs that had been fed only human food and bottled water developed eczema, but after they were given mud taken from a cowshed, the eczema disappeared. In another study, scientists were able to prevent Type I diabetes in mice by giving them an extract taken from tropical worms. In yet another study, Argentinian patients with multiple sclerosis who were infected with whipworm developed milder symptoms.

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MORE ABOUT: dirt, immune system, worms

Eight-Wheelers, Bamboo, and Bunny Slippers: The Oddest in Electric Cars

By Melissa Lafsky | January 29, 2009 4:40 pm

bamboo carThe car of the future may be no car at all, at least in the common sense of the word. Auto trailblazers have been hard at work coming up with designs for just about anything that will move us from one place to another on electricity, and some of the results are nothing short of remarkable. WebEcoist has a fantastic list of the most innovative electric cars that have appeared thus far.

A few of the highlights include a pair of moving pink bunny slippers designed by Tesla, a roadster designed by a Paris fashion house, a compact car made entirely of bamboo (a renewable resource), and a single-passenger electric coach that will protect us from the “post-apocalyptic wasteland” of toxic waste and pollution. There’s also the”Ecooter,” an enclosed scooter intended for short-distance driving in cities. We’re not even gonna touch that one.

Disco: Is Eco-Shame the New Political Correctness?
Disco: The Secret to Renewable Energy May Be Rotting in Your Trash Can

Image courtesy of JapanProbe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

The Curious Case of the Immortal Jellyfish

By Nina Bai | January 29, 2009 2:45 pm

hydrozoaIt’s official: the only thing certain in this world is taxes. That’s because death, for a tiny sea creature, is not inevitable. Turritopsis nutricul, a jellyfish-like hydrazoan, is the only animal known to be potentially immortal.

Once it reaches sexual maturity, Turritopsis looks like a tiny, transparent, many-tentacled parachute (only about 5mm in diameter) that floats freely in warm ocean waters. But when times get tough, Turritopsis can turn into a blob, anchor itself to a surface, and undergo a sort of reverse methamorphosis back to its youthful form as a stalk-like polyp. That’s like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar. Scientists, who first described this phenomenon [pdf] in the 1990s, believe Turritopsis can repeat its life cycle indefinitely.

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MORE ABOUT: immortality, jellyfish

“Sweating Robot” Built to Test High-Tech Athletic Gear

By Boonsri Dickinson | January 29, 2009 2:00 pm

2127994706_3e16e0b446.jpgThe best robots compete in RoboGames, just as the best athletes train for the Olympics. But anyone who plays sports in the winter knows that sometimes sweating underneath your clothes is unavoidable.

Now, Swiss researchers are using a specially-designed robot to test out new humidity-resistant gear that will maintain body heat for athletes training in freezing weather, by preventing sweat from soaking their clothes.

Called “Sam,” short for “Sweating Agile Mannequin,” the test robot can run, but more importantly, it can sweat. The robot, which took 5 years to construct, is built with 125 sweat nozzles from head to toe.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Attention "Cello Scrotum" Sufferers: Your Condition Doesn't Exist

By Nina Bai | January 28, 2009 5:31 pm

celloA doctor in Britain has finally revealed a medical hoax that she and her husband started 34 years ago.  In 1974, after reading a letter in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) describing a painful condition known as “guitar nipple,” Elaine Murphy and her husband John sent in a spoof letter describing an analogous condition they called “cello scrotum.”  Much as “guitar nipple” was caused by the edge of the guitar constantly pressing against the breast, “cello scrotum” was supposedly caused by the edge of the instrument pressing against a more intimate area of male cellists.

Of course, anyone who has ever seen a cello being played would realize the impossibility of “cello scrotum.”

Although the Murphys were hoping only for some laughs—perhaps assuming that the satire would be evident—BMJ actually published their letter in complete seriousness.

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MORE ABOUT: humor, jokes, music

No Love for Lucy: Hominid Fossil Put on a Good Show, But No One Came

By Boonsri Dickinson | January 28, 2009 4:45 pm

lucy.jpgLucy flew all the way from Ethiopia for nothing.

Seattle officials paid $2.25 million for the fossilized remains of the 3.2 million-year-old hominid known as Lucy to be on display at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. The problem is that no one wanted to visit the world’s oldest and best preserved human fossil, even though this is the first time she has ever traveled outside of Africa.

So far, Lucy’s been in Seattle for 5 months, and only 60,000 people have visited the exhibit (officials had expected more like 250,000). As a result, the science center has lost half a million dollars, resulting in layoffs of 8 percent of its staff and a wage freeze.

Lucy was supposed to go on a six-year, 10-city tour. The event started out strong: Visitors in Houston loved Lucy so much that officials extended her stay for a few months. By the exhibit’s end, Houston’s museum had clocked in more than 170,000 visitors. But a poor turnout in Seattle is making museums cancel their plans. The Field Museum in Chicago has pulled out, and the Denver museum of Nature and Science was apparently worried that transporting Lucy might damage her fragile remains.

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MORE ABOUT: fossil, lucy, museums, Seattle

Knock Knock! Bad Jokes Provoke Surprisingly Violent Reactions

By Nina Bai | January 28, 2009 1:49 pm

jokeAs any comedian will tell you, bad humor can be a dangerous thing. Comedians who flop have been known to be attacked on stage, or at the least, publicly ridiculed. While science has explored the underpinnings of successful humor, researchers have stayed away from bad humor (at least in their academic pursuits)—until now.

Nancy Bell of Washington State University recruited a team of brave volunteers to accost friends, family members, and complete strangers with a truly terrible joke:

“What did the big chimney say to the little chimney?

“Nothing, chimneys can’t talk.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?
MORE ABOUT: family, humor, jokes

Secret Mummy Formula Will Make You Look Young Forever

By Nina Bai | January 27, 2009 5:01 pm

mummyThe secret to everlasting youth may be an injection of formalin, alcohol, glycerin, salicylic acid, and zinc salts. Of course, you’d have to be dead first. Those ingredients, scientists now know, made up the embalming formula that has kept the body of a Sicilian toddler in nearly pristine condition for almost a century.

Known as the “Sleeping Beauty” for her still-life-like appearance, Rosalia Lombardo was only two years old when she died of pneumonia in 1920. Her grieving father hired innovative taxidermist and embalmer Alfredo Salafia to preserve her body, which to this day is on view in a glass-fronted coffin in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy.

Italian biological anthropologist, Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, finally uncovered the secret of Salafia’s expert mummification technique by tracking down his living relatives. It turns out that Salafia had written down the recipe he used to preserve Rosalia in his personal memoir.

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MORE ABOUT: embalming, mummies

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