10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

A new snake-like creature? Spray-on skin? Just two of the fascinating things the world discovered this week.

 

The Altamaha River in Georgia is said to be home to a fabled sea monster known as the Altamaha-ha. Altie, whom you can read all about in this excellent illustrated story by Creative Loafing’s Curt Holman via Cryptomundo), is said to resemble a plesiosaur.

A few years back, my friend Jim and I drove up to Georgia to see if we could spot it. The trip was a charmed one, a poor-girl’s substitute for Loch Ness, where I’ve always wanted to go. Did we see anything? I thought I remembered seeing something in the water, something pinkish silvery and a bit serpentine, but frankly I can’t remember if it was in that body of water or another one. (“If you go looking for monsters, eventually you’re going to see one,” says a lighthearted skeptic in Holman’s story.)

1. I want to believe….but c’mon.

So, l’d love for the recent headline-making photo of the Loch Ness monster, seen here in the Daily Record UK to be real, but…I dunno. The photo was snapped by George Edwards, a 60-year veteran of the Nessie hunting-and-touring trade. It looks like a living thing, but that doesn’t make it a sea monster and Edwards says it didn’t register on his deep scanning sonar. It’s kind of an unconvincing hump in the water and frankly, we’ve all had too many of those to get overly eager about another.

It’s intriguing that the same week Curiosity made a great and true stride for scientific exploration, a single blurry photo of the Loch Ness monster is still able to make headlines, albeit briefly. I mean, we’re exploring Mars. You’d think Loch Ness would be taken care of by now.

Benjamin Radford wrote on LiveScience about (among other things) the BBC’s big investigation into the Loch Ness in 2003 using sonar and satellites, which, for all its due diligence, found nothing unusual. The world is irritatingly knowable these days and that may be why Nessie and Altie endure. There’s a little fun in not knowing, and frankly, the power of that fun is what Edwards' picture proved. There are truly fantastic underwater creatures like this, and this, and this that show up for photos regularly and never get Nessie-level attention. Nessie leaves us wanting more, the saucy minx. I’d look for her any day.

2. Is that a snake-like tetrapod in your pocket, or…

Speaking of mysterious, serpentine creatures, more than one person sent me a link to the tale of the newly discovered African blind snake-like creature that everyone thinks looks embarrassingly phallic

“If this isn’t up your alley,” my friend Dave said, “I need a new GPS.” 

Geekosystem’s Sui Ying Teoh writes that when the Madeira River in Brazil was drained to build a dam, workers found about six of these tetrapods at the bottom of it, making the riverbed look like a Good Vibrations sale rack. They’re a rare species of caecilian, amphibians that look like worms or snakes, known as Atretochoana eiselti. They’re about 30 inches long and have no lungs so they breathe through their skin. You can almost hear it…can’t you? Pleasant dreams.

These actually have a leg-up on Nessie because we clearly see them but they are still mysterious, currently classified as “data deficient” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature “in view of continuing uncertainties as to its extent of occurrence, status and ecological requirements.” There are no other known populations and of the six found one died, two were kept for study and three were released.

Everyone thinks they look like penises and yeah, they do, but in the same way Don Knotts looks like Mick Jagger. I see the resemblance, but it’s hardly exact. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a penis that clearly had a mouth?

3. Spray-on skin?

Okay, if the blind phallic mouthy tetrapod didn’t prove to you that there are plenty of real-life things to be astonished by, can I interest you in some spray-on skin?  

The BBC’s James Gallagher reports on a study by US and Canadian researchers on 228 patients with leg ulcers showing that spray coating of “donated skin cells and blood-clotting proteins over the ulcer,” had great promise in healing the wounds more effectively than current treatment of compression bandages. Leg ulcers are caused by high blood pressure in leg veins that damage the skin and can develop into open wounds. With compression bandages, 70% of wounds heal in about six months. With the “spray-on skin” compound, developed  by Healthpoint Biotheraputics, “70% healed after three months compared to 46% who received other treatments.” 

The new treatment could lessen the need for skin grafts for leg ulcer patients but it won’t be available right away: ”Further studies will decide if it is a practical treatment for leg ulcers.”

So, if it’s spray-on skin, will it fill in wrinkles? If so, it’s going to have a zillion-dollar market before you can say “Cancel the Botox party!”

4. You’re not paranoid…they don’t like you.

It’s one of those weird, self-fulfilling prophecies that often occur, like when someone is feeling insecure about her looks and goes for the plastic surgery and ends up having real reasons to worry. People sometimes end up courting exactly what they fear.

It’s that way with social rejection, according to a study from UBC Sauder School of Business, reports Lindsay Abrams of The Atlantic. Researchers evaluated the subjects' MARTI levels -- "motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information” (i.e., how driven you are to find out who’s been talking smack about you) -- then measured the effects of that motivation on the subjects’ social relationships. 

“Basically, the researchers confirmed that people who are highly motivated to acquire relationship-threatening information exhibit paranoia and related behaviors,” Abrams writes. High MARTI people were 3.63 times as likely to be excluded from groups than people who wanted feedback and 16.5 times more likely to be left out than people who wanted to learn social interaction. 

So one guesses that if you hear your co-workers laughing in another room and you run in and say “You’re laughing at me, aren’t you? Just you wait! I’ll show you!" bang goes your invitation to the margarita-happy-hour-five-o’clock-rock-block after work. 

Maybe when they’re developing that spray-on skin, they can work on making one that’s a little thicker for people who are prone to those kinds of worries.

5. The wonderful world of color.

Happily moving on from MARTI to MARDI, the Mars Descent Imager and the first color photo it has sent home from Curiosity here on NASA’s website. The green dot is exactly where Curiosity landed early Monday morning.

Two weeks ago we talked about "awe therapy" -- the feeling of time stopping and related calm when you see something that is truly awesome. These NASA photos are a wellspring of it. My favorites are two comparative shots taken from the Hazard-Avoidance camera, first with the dust cover on, then without. It feels like the reveal on a makeover, showing Mars before and after the ladies from How Clean Is Your House? got to it. Plus, the clear picture has that feeling of "sunrise-on-our-first-day-of-vacation" -- and it’s on Mars.

And…break out the 3-D glasses! I’m told they should work on these 3-D images from the front and from the back of Curiosity.

What’s great about all these pictures, aside from the obvious, is having to wait them to come back; to be excited about something as simple as a color picture. Weird how this most thrilling feat of human progress is attended by a joy of the past that we don’t get much of now: antici…pation.  

6. Read before you pop.

Popcorn is one of the great all-time sources of anticipation. But keep this in mind next time you buy popcorn in whatever form: a study out of the University of Minnesota says that one of the ingredients that makes up the butter flavoring of some products may be as bad for you as it is delicious. Hanna Brooks Olsen of Blisstree reports that “prolonged or excessive exposure" to diacetyl (DA) which is used in margarine and as a flavoring for all kinds of snack foods, influences proteins in the brain. Clumping of these proteins, which diacetyl accelerates, is one of the signature symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Diacetyl was also found to cross what’s called the “blood-brain barrier,” a bodily mechanism that helps to curb the brain’s exposure to harmful substances. She  links to a New York Times story detailing various concerns about diacetyl, including a “life-threatening lung condition” sustained by some factory workers in flavoring factories.

Some companies have stopped using diacetyl (check out this statement by Jolly Time), but the story is a reminder that it pays to be careful about what you’re eating. You could always get naked popcorn and find an alternative to that butter flavoring, like, oh I dunno…butter?

7. Nature’s own.

Three more things presented themselves this week that underscore the advantages of going natural. My runaway favorite is family physician Emily Gibson’s declaration on KevinMD.com that “It’s time to end the war on pubic hair, and allow it to stay right where it belongs.” It’s there for a reason, Dr. Gibson says, namely protection from skin irritation and bacteria. Removing it leaves “microscopic open wounds,” which, combined with the clammy environment of the genitals, creates vulnerability to some very nasty infections, including “staph boils and abscesses, necessitating incisions to drain the infection,” and possibly even STIs (how’s yer breakfast?). Bottom line: adults aren’t supposed to be bald as an egg down there. Give your precious nether regions a break.  

Next are the natural boosts of beetroot and tart cherry juices that New York Times blogger Gretchen Reynolds says some Olympic athletes favor as performance helpers. Beetroot juice appears to “improve blood and oxygen flow to muscles” and improve performance in short bursts. Reynolds cites a representative study wherein cyclists who drank it half a liter before a specific time-trial were 3% faster than when they went without. For more long-term performance tart cherry juice “affects the body’s ability to recover from hard exertion,” so athletes who go through tough bouts of training or marathons experience less pain afterward. It also has "notable anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capabilities.” There are a few caveats, but it’s worth a read. 

Finally, Elizabeth Shogren of NPR reported that European hornets and paper wasps are responsible for the lovely, complex tastes of your favorite wines. Duccio Cavalieri, a professor of microbiology at the University of Florence and his colleagues found that when wasps bite the grapes that are still on the vines they begin the fermentation by leaving some of the yeast from their gut -- brewer’s yeast -- behind in the fruit. Yeasts can be added later but the wines don’t taste the same and the wasps “introduce microorganisms” that bring the wine more flavor. “Everything is linked,” Cavalieri says, in ways we humans don’t always see. 

8. Eye spy.

Wine, of course, is the drink of romance. You sip, you look deeply into the other person’s eyes, and you see…their sexual orientation? 

Chances are you already know that, but Cornell University just did the first large-scale study matching pupil dilation to sexual stimulus, Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience reports. Usually methods of measuring arousal include attaching instruments to monitor blood flow to the genitals while the subjects watch erotic films. That doesn’t work for everyone; some people can’t get aroused in a lab environment and some can suppress their reactions. Self-reporting isn’t always accurate. So they decided to look deeply into people’s eyes. 

Our pupils dilate when we see something that excites us, sexually or otherwise. It’s a sign, Pappas writes, that our automatic nervous system is “ramping up.” In the pupil-cam experiment subjects watched short videos of either a man or a woman masturbating in a landscape setting. The researchers used “gaze-tracking cameras” that picked up on and recorded minute changes in pupils; subjects were also asked to self-report feelings of arousal. The results matched those of genital arousal studies: straight men and gay women responded more to videos of women, gay men preferred men, bisexual men liked everybody and…so did women.

An interesting side note in this piece says that sex researchers don’t know why women respond to erotic images of both sexes, but one theory is that because women have historically been at risk of rape they “evolved to respond with lubrication to any sexual stimulus, no matter how unappealing.” That way those to whom it did happen would be less traumatized and more likely to survive and reproduce. 

Amazing for such an intriguing thing to have grown out of such a horrible one. 

9. Kinder, gentler bullets?

It's hard to imagine anything good coming from bullets, but at least one company is trying to make them less lethal. Angus Crawford of BBC News reports that Scandinavian armies are replacing lead bullets with more environmentally friendly ones and is encouraging the Brits to do the same. The new lead-free bullets would be just as deadly to their targets, but less so to the environment and possibly the shooter.

“Lead is toxic,” Crawford writes “and there have been studies that have suggested it can leach from firing ranges into ground water. The US Environmental Protection Agency provides guidelines for firing ranges to avoid lead contamination.”

Nammo, a Swedish arms manufacturer, is the maker of the “green” ammunition. Since the Swedish government requested alternative ammunition in 1995 Nammo has made 360 million lead-free bullets, which were available four years after the initial request. The unleaded bullets look like the old-fashioned kind but in addition to getting the lead out they’ve removed heavy metal from the gunpowder and the “core of the round is made of steel.” 

"Once you decide that weapons and ammunition is needed in the world as it is today, you have to design them in as environmentally friendly way as possible," says Urban Oholm of Nammo.

10. April flowers bring meteor showers.

Finally,  just as the Olympics are winding down you’ll be able to take part in yet another spectacle people have been watching for thousands of years.

The Perseid meteor shower is coming to a sky near you this weekend (August 11/12) and April Flowers of Red Orbit says the timing couldn’t be better. With the waning moon being only 25% full, visibility will be good and with the event coming on a Saturday night, more people will be able to stay up and watch. “You can expect to see somewhere around 80 shooting stars per hour between midnight and dawn,” Flowers writes.

Bonus: we know exactly where those shooting stars come from. They’re debris left from the Swift-Tuttle comet that passed over 135 years ago. We pass through it, or its remains, every August and these particular meteoroids are about 1,000 years old. Meteoroids are “bits of rock and ice streaking hanging around in space,” which burn up in the atmosphere and turn into meteors giving us a spectacular light show.

Flowers advises patience: “Sometimes the meteors won’t show for five or ten minutes at a time, then you will get a cluster.” 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.