Archive for January, 2011

NCBI ROFL: Groundbreaking study proves it's hard to see in the dark.

By ncbi rofl | January 31, 2011 7:00 pm

Recognizing faces in bright and dim light.

“32 undergraduates viewed 10 photographs of faces for 3 sec. each in a brightly or dimly illuminated room. Then they viewed 40 photographs in the same light, including the original 10, and identified each photograph as new or old. Read More


On Friendship Bracelets and Ninja Turtles: Wikipedia's Gender Gap

By Patrick Morgan | January 31, 2011 12:36 pm

Compare the Wikipedia entry for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the entry for friendship bracelets, and you’ll find a disparity: the sword-swinging reptiles have garnered far more words than the school-days token of friendship. The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, sees disparities like these as the outcome of a much more serious one: only about 13 percent of Wikipedia’s hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.

This gender gap was discovered in a recent study of Wikipedia entries (pdf). The average contributor, it turns out, is a mid-twenty-something-year-old male. To begin to close the gender gap, Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner has set a goal for the company: to increase the number of female writers to 25 percent in the next four years.

As the New York Times reports:

Her effort is not diversity for diversity’s sake, she says. “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be,” Ms. Gardner said in an interview on Thursday. “The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know…. Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table,” she said. “If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
MORE ABOUT: gender gap, wikipedia, women

An Entirely Possible Legend: Vikings Steered Ships Using “Sunstones”

By Patrick Morgan | January 31, 2011 10:59 am

You might think seafaring Vikings–who traveled hundreds of miles on rough seas between 750 and 1050 AD–would be adrift on cloudy days: not only did they lack compasses, but they were often traveling so far north that the sun never set, and thus couldn’t use stars to navigate. But scientists are finding new evidence to support the existence of what was once considered a mythical navigational tool: the sólarsteinn, or sunstone.

It all starts with an Icelandic legend about a man named Sigurd. As Nature News reports:

The saga describes how, during cloudy, snowy weather, King Olaf consulted Sigurd on the location of the Sun. To check Sigurd’s answer, Olaf “grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun.” In 1967, Thorkild Ramskou, a Danish archaeologist, suggested that this stone could have been a polarizing crystal such as Icelandic spar, a transparent form of calcite, which is common in Scandinavia.

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NCBI ROFL: An explanation for the shape of the human penis.

By ncbi rofl | January 28, 2011 7:00 pm

“The present form of the human penis, reached over several million years of evolution, was orchestrated by the vagina of the human female.  The multifunctional vagina serves as a birth canal, a component of the structural support for the internal pelvic organs, and as a coital organ. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NCBI ROFL, penis friday, Top Posts, WTF?

Happy Friday! Here's Your Jetpack Video Round-up

By Patrick Morgan | January 28, 2011 2:11 pm

Jet-heads rejoice: Starting in March, you can buy your own water-propelled jetpack, enabling you to soar over 32 feet into the air while traveling nearly 22 miles per hour.

Invented by Raymond Li, the JetLev works by shooting water out of two nozzles. Because the jetpack’s fuel and engine aren’t directly strapped onto the user–they’re housed separately on the water, and the flyer is connected via a long tube–the jetpack is not only safer than most, but also three times as powerful. As New Scientist reports:

“It’s the same reaction force a firefighter experiences when he points a water jet at a fire,” says Li.

But aside from the jetpack’s abilities, the price tag also sets it apart from your average fire hose: it costs $99,500. If resorts and outdoor rental companies snatch up this gadget, though, zooming along the waterfront via jet pack may soon be a common sight. Li hopes that it will have more practical applications, too, like search and rescue and–yes–firefighting. The task of creating a workable hydro-jetpack wasn’t easy. From New Scientist:

It’s the result of a decade of hard work and following a dream that most engineers thought was impossible. “No one had done anything like it before,” says Li. “Almost everyone thought I was crazy. It was hard to get quotations for prototype fabrication, raising capital, finding development partners and suitable venues to do the testing.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Devious Mating 101: The Lesson of the Fairy Wren and the Butcherbird

By Patrick Morgan | January 28, 2011 1:11 pm

You’d think birds would hush up at the sound of a predator, especially if that predator’s name is the “butcherbird.” But that’s not the style of the male splendid fairy-wren, and it turns out he has a good reason for raising a ruckus when the butcherbird calls: it helps him get a mate.

Researchers studied this wren-butcherbird interaction in Southern Australia by playing iPod bird songs for wild wrens to hear. As the press release reports, the researchers determined the the males were engaging in a form of “vocal hitchhiking”:

“We have shown that females do, in fact, become especially attentive after hearing butcherbird calls,” said Emma Greig, PhD, first author of the study and currently a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University. “So, it seems that male fairy-wrens may be singing when they know they will have an attentive audience, and, based on the response of females, this strategy may actually work!”

But how do you tell if a bird is paying attention? The scientists calculated attention by whether the female wren looked towards the call and responded with her own song. Female wrens responded overwhelmingly when the researchers played the male wren’s distinctive “Type II” call immediately following the cry of a butcherbird. From the press release:

“The most exciting possibility is that Type II songs have a sexual function, and that females are more easily stimulated by, or receptive to, displays after being alerted by a predator, such that the male’s song is especially attractive,” Greig said.

Their study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, should spur research into other bird species–like the white-throated magpie jay and the fairy gerygone–whose males display a similar post-predator call. And birds may not be the only ones who use fear as an aphrodisiac–anyone headed to a horror movie for Friday date night?

Related Content:
80beats: How Male Antelopes Lie to Get More Sex: With False Alarm Calls
Not Exactly Rocket Science:The Bird That Cries Hawk: Fork-Tailed Drongos Rob Meerkats With False Alarms
DISCOVER: The Best Ways To Sell Sex
DISCOVER: The Mating Game’s Biggest Cheaters (photo gallery)

Image: flickr / dicktay2000

NCBI ROFL: The planetary positions and relationships at the dates of birth of a cohort of Nigerian schizophrenics.

By ncbi rofl | January 27, 2011 7:00 pm

“Some astrological hypotheses related to predisposition to severe mental illness were tested by analysing the zodiacal signs, the interactions between planetary qualities (aspects), and the occurrence of full and new moon dates, on the dates of birth of 221 schizophrenics, compared with 112 normal subjects. The sun signs of the schizophrenics were significantly more likely to be in the signs associated with introversion, while those of the control population were significantly more likely to be in the outgoing signs. A significantly higher proportion of schizophrenics had their Mars (i.e., symbol of aggressiveness) in the outgoing signs than the normal population. Read More

Will Bomb-Sniffing Plants Guard the Airports of the Future?

By Patrick Morgan | January 27, 2011 1:27 pm

The future looks green, even for bomb-detection squads: Instead of a bomb-sniffing dog at the end of a policeman’s leash, you could soon have a bomb-sniffing petunia. Scientists are now designing plants that are able to detect trace amounts of airborne TNT.

Funded in part by the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, scientists from Colorado State University reported this week that plants can be modified to change color when they detect TNT. According to their study published in the journal PLoS One, these plants’ leaves lose their chlorophyll when exposed to TNT, changing from green to white.

“It had to be simple, something your mom could recognize,” said June Medford, a professor of biology at Colorado State, referring to the idea of linking a plant’s chemical response to its color, visible to the naked eye. [New York Times]

The bomb-sniffing plants can detect much lower traces of TNT–about one-hundredth the amount–than their four-pawed co-workers can. But a changing leaf color isn’t quite as obvious as a dog’s bark, especially if you’re colorblind. TNT-detecting plants have yet another hurdle to cross before you’ll see them on the streets:

“Right now, response time is in the order of hours,” said Linda Chrisey, a program manager at the Office of Naval Research, which hopes to use the technology to help protect troops from improvised explosive devices…. Practical application, she said, requires a signal within minutes, and a natural reset system back to healthy green in fairly short order. [New York Times]

Researchers hope to have clear-signaling and fast-acting bomb-detecting plants ready for duty within the next three to seven years. Until then, our top bomb-sniffers still have fur, play fetch, and appreciate a good belly-rub.

Related Content:
Discoblog: DOGS AWAY! Pups Go Parachuting to Sniff out the Taliban
Discoblog: Beware, Bomb-Makers: This Worm Has Your Number
Discoblog: Will Airports Soon Have Walls That Can Sniff Out Terrorists?
Discoblog: The Newest Experts in Landmine Detection: African Pouched Rats

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

U.S. Spies May Soon Make Smarter Decisions, Thanks to Video Games

By Patrick Morgan | January 27, 2011 12:02 pm

Even U.S. intelligence agents make decidedly unintelligent decisions at times. So it may not come as a surprise that the government is willing to invest in any project that could help agencies spot and correct their own decision-skewing prejudices–even if that project is a video game.

Dubbed “Sirius,” the anti-bias project is the brainchild of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a government agency whose mission statement might as well have come from a spy novel: to invest in “high-risk/high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.”

One of those overwhemlming advantages: clear, bias-free thinking. That’s why computer scientists, gaming experts, social scientists, and statisticians will descend on Washington, D.C. in February to discuss the program. The focus of the Sirius project is on “serious games,” or educational video games. As IARPA reports:

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NCBI ROFL: I sure hope these monkeys don't live in glass houses!

By ncbi rofl | January 26, 2011 7:00 pm

Stone-throwing by Japanese macaques: form and functional aspects of a group-specific behavioral tradition.

“Throwing is a major behavioral component of hominid evolution. Comparison of this behavior across a broad range of non-human primate species is needed to elucidate the phylogenetic constraints on throwing behavior. In this study of stone-throwing in Japanese macaques, we present a systematic multi-group comparison of the frequency and prevalence of this behavior as well as detailed descriptions and quantitative data on the form, context, and possible social transmission of stone-throwing. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fun with animals, NCBI ROFL, rated G

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