You know what they say about huge animals, don’t you? They have huge balls… of earwax! Take blue whales, for example: according to this study, they carry around 10-inch long plugs of earwax. The earwax accumulates in concentric layers over the entire lifetime of the whale, with the oldest layers towards the center and the newest closest to the skin (see figure below). And because earwax is hydrophobic, it can absorb fat-soluble compounds, including some hormones and pollutants. These two properties allow scientists to “read” these earwax plugs and trace the life histories of the whales, including times of stress (via cortisol levels) and exposure to contaminants such as mercury. Although the earwax can only be retrieved from dead whales (the sample used in this study came from a whale who died after being hit by a ship), studying these plugs will allow scientists to learn about the pollutants that whales are exposed to. Come on–that’s probably the coolest thing about earwax you’ve learned today!
“Lifetime contaminant and hormonal profiles have been reconstructed for an individual male blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus, Linnaeus 1758) using the earplug as a natural aging matrix that is also capable of archiving and preserving lipophilic compounds. Read More
I don’t know about you, but I find Twitter to be the most frustrating form of social media. (Perhaps it’s simply because I’m just not pithy enough to limit myself 140 characters.) And on top of that, now we learn that Twitter might actually be bad for your mental health. If you are worried you might be in danger of “Twitter psychosis,” you might want to compare your Twitter activity to that of this patient: “Approximately 1 year before admission, she had started to “twitter” excessively. Sometimes, she would spend several hours a day reading and writing messages, neglecting her social relationships and, sometimes, even meals and regular sleeping hours.” The doctors treating this patient suspect that reading and trying to interpret hundreds of extremely short messages, many from spammers, induced the psychosis she experienced (see below for more details). #tweetatyourownrisk
“The authors believe that the amount of symbolic language (caused by the limitation of 140 characters per Twitter message), the automated spam responses with seemingly related content, and the general interactive features of Twitter might combine several aspects that could induce or further aggravate psychosis.”
“The authors report the development of psychosis in a young woman coinciding with excessive use of the online communication system Twitter and the results of an experimental account to argue that Twitter may have a high potential to induce psychosis in predisposed users.” Read More
Does the science world have its own version of the Kardashians? According to this article (written by a British geneticist Neil Hall, who himself has >1500 Twitter followers), certain scientists have way more Twitter followers than should be warranted by their publication records. To measure this effect, he invented the “Kardashian index”, which is a metric similar to the h-index; however, instead of productivity, it measures the “discrepancy between a scientist’s social media profile and publication record.” Certain scientists have very high “K-index” scores–that is, they’re “renowned for being renowned.” For those people, Hall says,”[the K-index] can also be an incentive – if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers.”
“In the era of social media there are now many different ways that a scientist can build their public profile; the publication of high-quality scientific papers being just one. While social media is a valuable tool for outreach and the sharing of ideas, there is a danger that this form of communication is gaining too high a value and that we are losing sight of key metrics of scientific value, such as citation indices. Read More
Everyone has their number — how many people you were “with” before your current relationship. This number is usually not revealed to one’s partner… for good reason! But even if you don’t tell, can it still impact your relationship? In this study, the researchers surveyed married, cohabitating, and dating couples to find out whether couples with different levels of sexual experience were more or less happy. As you might have guessed, many couples were pretty well-matched in terms of their sexual experience. However, those couples with very different numbers reported significantly lower levels of satisfaction with and commitment to their relationship. So, you might be wondering, how do most couples end up with matching levels of experience if they don’t talk about it? The authors speculate that “because sexual experience is correlated with religiosity, social–political attitudes, and other variables, it is possible that as couples match on these variables, they also indirectly are matching on sexual experience.”
“The present study examined heterosexual romantic partners’ number of intercourse partners prior to the initiation of their relationship to determine if a significant positive correlation (matching) occurred between partners, and if this matching was associated with their level of love, satisfaction with, and commitment to the relationship. One hundred and six couples who were dating, cohabitating, or married participated in this study. Read More
If you are one of the unlucky who get carsick, you probably know quite well that being the driver is much less nauseating than being a passenger. But why is this the case? Prior to this study, some scientists thought it had to do with mismatching information from different senses (your eyes may say you are not moving, but your body says differently), and some thought it was due to overstimulation of the inner ear. In this study, researchers from the Israeli Naval Hyperbaric Institute separated different aspects of the experience by having pairs of participants sit in a specially built “nauseogenic” rotating car. In some cases, the subjects’ heads were even yoked together using customized helmets (see Figure 1 below), allowing one person to control the head movements and rotations of the other. The scientists found that being in control of movement seemed to be important in reducing motion sickness — with all other stimuli being equal, the passengers still felt sicker. Teacups, anyone?
“The central hypothesis of the work is that the dimension of control-no control plays an important role in motion sickness. Although it is generally agreed that having control over a moving vehicle greatly reduces the likelihood of motion sickness, few studies have addressed this issue directly, and the theoretical explanation for this phenomenon is not completely clear. In this study, we equated groups differing in controllability for head movement, vision, activity, and predictability, which have often been suggested in the literature as explanations for the driver’s immunity to motion sickness. Read More
Lucid dreaming occurs when you become aware that you are dreaming, and if you can control your dream experience, it can be really fun. Sadly, while there are ways to improve your chances of lucid dreaming, including keeping a dream diary and testing whether you might be dreaming with “reality checks“, lucid dreaming can still be difficult to achieve. Fortunately, neuroscientists are interested in figuring out how to promote lucid dreaming because it offers them a unique way to study differences in brain activities while waking and sleeping. In this study, the researchers developed a method to trigger lucid dreaming in subjects that uses low-power electrical currents of specific frequencies applied directly to the head. Now all we need is a home-use version or DIY plans–but until then, we’d love to hear your favorite lucid dreaming tricks and experiences!
“Recent findings link fronto-temporal gamma electroencephalographic (EEG) activity to conscious awareness in dreams, but a causal relationship has not yet been established. Read More
As much as we would like to pretend we are a noble species, it seems that nearly every week another study is published that proves that we are sad, shallow beings. Take this one, for example. Here, scientists used recorded investment pitches to track which traits investors value most in entrepreneurs. Despite saying that they value experience the most, when tracked over many presentations, the single trait investors actually favored was the sex of the presenter. They like propositions pitched by men. Attractive men. Which, even if not surprising, is depressing. Thanks, science
“Entrepreneurship is a central path to job creation, economic growth, and prosperity. In the earliest stages of start-up business creation, the matching of entrepreneurial ventures to investors is critically important. The entrepreneur’s business proposition and previous experience are regarded as the main criteria for investment decisions. Our research, however, documents other critical criteria that investors use to make these decisions: the gender and physical attractiveness of the entrepreneurs themselves. Read More
Dung beetles are truly amazing insects. They roll giant balls of poop around (of which they have favorite flavors, of course); they often come with giant horns; they can navigate using the stars; and now we find out that some of them can gallop! Prior to this scientific report, it was thought that all insects moved using the “double tripod” gait, wherein the front and rear legs on one side move forward in concert with the middle leg on the other side (one tripod, see video above), followed by the remaining three legs making up the second tripod. However, these scientists have discovered three separate species of dung beetle that gallop using their front four legs. The two rear-most legs are used to attach to the dung ball (when there is one), but otherwise just get dragged along. It’s still unclear why these dung beetles gallop; they don’t move any faster than the more traditionally-moving dung beetle species. But that doesn’t make it any less cute!
“An estimated three million insect species all walk using variations of the alternating tripod gait. At any one time, these animals hold one stable triangle of legs steady while swinging the opposite triangle forward. Here, we report the discovery that three different flightless desert dung beetles use an additional gallop-like gait, which has never been described in any insect before. Read More
Just in time for the dog days of summer, when mosquitoes swarm at their thickest, we bring you this classic from our archives. Here, scientists hypothesize that ear cerumen (earwax), in addition to its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, would be a great insect repellent. You might be grossed out, but nothing says “summer fun” better than a nice even coating of earwax!
Earwax (cerumen) might be formulated into a safe and biodegradable insect repellent
“Some of the most common life threatening insect-borne diseases include malaria, leshmaniasis and yellow fever which can be prevented or treated with different non-therapeutic/therapeutic procedures such as use of mosquito net, insect repellent (IR), vector controlling strategies, vaccination and implementation of pharmaceuticals. Read More
You might think that in this day and age, we would be past seeing the heart–an organ that pumps blood–as a center of a person’s personality. However, the authors of this study regularly dealt with real patients who worried that their personalities would change after a heart transplant. In fact, they report that some patients refuse hearts from the opposite sex, and others experience anxiety about their sense of self after having a heart transplant. To get a better handle on this phenomenon, the researchers surveyed heart transplant recipients to find out whether they thought their personalities changed after the surgery. The short answer? No. (Except for three people, who reported a distinct change in personality that they did not attribute to the life-changing experience of getting a new heart.) But our favorite response is from this patient: “’I love to put on earphones and play loud music, something I never did before. A different car, a good stereo-those are my dreams now. And I have thoughts now that I never had before.’ (remark: patient: 45 year old man, donor 17 year old boy).”
“Heart transplantation is not simply a question of replacing an organ that no longer functions. The heart is often seen as source of love, emotions, and focus of personality traits. To gain insight into the problem of whether transplant patients themselves feel a change in personality after having received a donor heart, 47 patients who were transplanted over a period of 2 years in Vienna, Austria, were asked for an interview. Read More