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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Great stuff this week on the possible neurological origin of consciousness, bug-killing paint, free college classes and gorillas learning how to destroy poaching traps. Oh, and more squid sex.
 
 
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1. Eight arms to hold you tight

Would you be okay with a shorter life span in exchange for an exhausting, amazing, knock-down, drag-out sex life?

Duh! Squid sex is the sex in question and it must be pretty fab if it’s as depleting as a study by Amanda Franklin and her colleagues at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Zoology has found it to be. Paul Harper of the New Zealand Herald News reported on Franklin’s research that the southern dumpling squid engage in multi-partner sex in rigorous three-hour marathons and that their subsequent weariness might leave them unable to find food or swim away from predators. Their endurance was tested by putting them into flowing water in which they swam to see how long it took to tire them out. When put back into the flowing water after mating it took them 30 minutes to recover their original stamina. They live for a year.

Well, according to How Stuff Works.com “Many squid live fast and die young - their entire life cycle takes just one year.” So that year may be about par for the squid course. Also, I can’t swim away from predators or forage for food after good sex either but that’s never been enough to make me stop and reconsider having it. 

You can see the adorable dumplings on the Danna Staaf’s Squid a Day blog (Staaf became a favorite of mine after I wrote about her take on a freak accident of squid insemination).

Staff also writes about the issue of “the costs of sex” in physical terms and notes that their three hours would be our equivalent of a week. 

Okay…so that means their 30 minute recovery time would be about 28 of our hours. 

I now believe in reincarnation and I know what I’m coming back as. 

2. Free astrobiology class

Another thing I like about these squids is their polyamorous lifestyle. I’m fond of sharing and I like people who share. 

A most inspired example of sharing comes this week from the University of Edinburgh which is a member of Stanford University’s Coursera consortium and is offering a free five-week, ten lecture course called Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, which you can take even if you can’t commute to Scotland. Free.

The news comes to us from Lauren Davis at io9 (via HuffPo via The Mary Sue). Students won’t get college credit but  they will learn about what defines life, theories of how life on Earth began, the evolution of life on our planet, what might make other planets habitable, the prospects for life in other parts of the Solar System and how we search for them. 

Guess who just signed up? 

As one of the many, many, many people who would love to go back to school but are shock-blocked by the impossible cost, this is a major thrill and if you want to do the same you can click the course title above and/or check out more of Coursera’s classes and also Education Portal’s Guide to the Best Free College Classes. Just because our economy has been so dumb doesn’t mean you have to be. 

3. Slowing down time? Awesome.

Being moved to reflect on the complexity and beauty of the universe (and a free class) will be an awesome experience, and therefore a potentially therapeutic one.

I don’t mean “awesome” in the cavalier way it’s thrown around of late but in the true sense of the word, which means to inspire awe: something that makes your brain shut up for a second because what it’s processing is so unique and spectacular, like the Grand Canyon for example. Taking a moment to be awed is great therapy for our pressure-cooker world because it slows down time and makes you feel as though you feel like you have more of it, reports Melanie Rudd, a graduate student at Stanford University.

Rudd decided to study awe because not many people had, writes Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience, and because being out in nature gave her a break from the time-pressed life of being a grad student (art, music, nature and other people’s achievements tend to inspire awe in people; their own achievements inspire happiness). Participants in one of her tests were induced to feel pressed for time via a word scramble with time-oriented words and then shown a video designed to inspire awe (like waterfalls or astronauts in space) or happiness (like confetti and parades). Subjects who watched the awe videos subsequently felt time was more plentiful. 

Awe, it seems, gives us perspective, lets us see the big picture instead of the little nattering bits of it that so easily hijack our focus.

Awe therapy not only makes intuitive sense, but I have been told by friends that since I’ve been writing this column I’ve been happier: it’s become my job to seek out the awesome on a regular basis. So take a minute to look took at a website or two that makes time stop for just a second and get some free-and-easy therapy. 

Drawback: You might only feel like you have time to click after clicking. 

4. Nice hat

Even the tiniest bit of awesome can go a long way…for instance after you look at  these spiders with raindrops on their heads reflecting colors, plants and other bugs you’ll think about them off and on all day and be amazed all over again: not only are the images so bizarre they seem unreal but it’s the first time a spider has looked cute (animated spiders notwithstanding). They look like living snow globes. The photos appeared on Wired UK’s Aperture column by Nate Lanxon and were taken by photographer Uda Dennie of Batam Island, Indonesia in his garden, which makes it an awesome double-whammy in that the images are fantastic and the fact that someone noticed spiders with raindrop hats is pretty arresting as well.

5. Go, go gorrila

If that was a little awesome this is a big awesome that might not just make you stop and be amazed - it might make you jump up and cheer. Young Rwandan gorillas have learned to find and dismantle the traps set by poachers, protecting their clan from the deadly snares.

The first instance of gorillas dismantling traps was witnessed by trackers from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s Karisoke Research Center who search the forrest every day for traps, reports National Geographic News’ Ker Than. The traps are made by tying a noose to a branch and pulling it downward with the rope, holding it in place with a stick or rock so that when the prey moves the rock or brach, concealed with leaves, the trap will spring (it sounds like Homer’s rabbit trap only sadly more effective). They’re set for antelope but sometimes apes get caught in the snares; the bigger apes are often able to escape but smaller apes, who can’t, are simply left by the poachers to die.

Last week John Ndayambaje, a tracker saw a trap near the Kuryama gorilla clan and one of the silverbacks - Vubu - grunted, cautioning him to stay back. Soon two juvenile gorillas ran up and, as tourists watched, one broke the tree branch while the other dismantled the noose. They quickly moved on to destroy another trap that the tracker had missed. 

Just a week before the trap-destroying behavior was seen in these four-year olds, an infant gorilla had died of snare-related wounds. 

The endangered mountain gorillasface "a very high risk of extinction in the wild," the International Fund for Nature says. 

Though they were excited by the news gorilla experts weren’t surprised by the gorillas intelligence. Veterinarian Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, said "Chimpanzees are always quoted as being the tool users, but I think, when the situation provides itself, gorillas are quite ingenious." 

6. Frankenjelly

I’m not surprised either. Apes are our closest relatives and we’re both pretty smart. And if human achievements jack you up as much as ape achievements here’s a pretty major one for you. Researchers at Harvard University and CalTech have made a  bioengineered “jellyfish,” out of silicone and rat heart cells (as you do when you have such things laying around and need a rainy day project….right?) 

“Medusoid,” as they call their new creature, is not a living thing but it does have a “muscular structure” that closely resembles a jellyfish’s and it can swim freely through water, reports Gautam Naik of the Wall Street Journal. Medusoid is a start on scientists getting “really good at making tissue,” bioengineer Dr. Kevin Kit Parker told the WSJ, tissue for patients with damaged hearts, for example. 

Parker, who had been looking for a model for the human heart, noticed on an aquarium trip that the way a jellyfish propels itself through the water by pumping, like a heart. The team studied jellyfish propulsion, muscle arrangement, body motion and “the fluid dynamics resulting from their swimming motion,” and then created a tiny one centimeter version using silicone. They overlaid rat heart cells and “coaxed them to self-organize so that they matched the [muscle] architecture of a jellyfish precisely," Dr. Parker said.

(“What did you do today?”

“Coaxed rat heart cells to self-organize to match jellyfish muscle architecture. You?”

“Watched Fashion Police.”

“Mmm.”)

“Medusoid,” propels itself by responding to oscillating electrical salt water currents controlled by researchers, whereas real jellies eat: the nutrients enable it to “activate the muscular contraction.”

While the team works to make Medusoid more like a real jelly fish it can already serve as a model for the human heart to test drugs, among other things. 

"I could put your drug in the jellyfish and tell you if it's going to work," Dr. Parker told the WSJ.

7. “What color is that?” “Healthy.” 

A few other ailments maybe not have gotten their very own rat-jellyfish chimera mascot but did get their own paint - bug-killing paint, to be exact, may help fend off some insect-transmitted diseases more effectively than insecticide. 

The New York Times’ Jean Friedman-Rudovsky reported on a bug-killing paint that’s being experimented with in the Chaco region of Bolivia where a biting insect called the vinchuna, transmits a parasite that causes “the incurable, often fatal Chagas disease,” which is at world epidemic proportions with 10 million people infected. Seven thousand homes have been painted with Inesfly, a bug-killing paint made of “microcapsules” of pesticide within a water-based paint,” with time-released ingredient that increase its bug-killing ability for longer than insecticide application. In the Chaco region Inesfly has reduced rates of bug infestation from 90% to “nearly zero.”  Because of its small amounts of ingredients released over time, “it is much less toxic than the fumigation on which many countries rely for pest control.”

The paint hasn’t been evaluated by the World Health Organization yet but it is being tested in Africa against the breed of mosquitos that carry malaria and proving effective: it “had a kill rate of 100 percent for three months against mosquito populations. The paint remained 90 percent to 93 percent effective after nine months.” It has also been shown to decrease the population of dengue-transmitting mosquitos in Africa and scorpions and kissing bugs in Mexico. The small Spanish company that makes it, Inesba, is applying for FDA approval  and “hopes to market the paint here as a tool to control household pests like cockroaches or ants.”

Bring it ASAP! I just had a cockroach in my house that was big enough to move furniture. Insecticidal paint can’t get to Florida fast enough for me. 

8. The good kind of inflation

Since I’m petitioning for Florida to get bug-killing paint I might as well petition for one of these new inflatable heat shields from NASA because it’s 96 degrees in the shade, leading many of you to wonder why I don’t just move. 

It’s because all my stuff is here.

The inflatable heat shield is actually not some sun umbrella, it’s IRVE-3, the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3, designed to withstand intense temperatures and hypersonic speeds and which will further enable our ability to explore Mars…including missions with humans. The prototype of the heat shield was packed into a 22-inch nose cone but when unfurled it expands to ten feet. I have jeans that work exactly like that.

The entire thing consists of “a cone made up of inflatable rings wrapped in thermal blankets,” and weighs 680 pounds, reports Denise Chow of Space.com (if you click on the link you’ll see it looks like a perfect little mushroom). This week’s tests proved successful : the whole suborbital flight took 20 minutes and the shield proved able to withstand about 1000 degrees, speeds of up to Mach 10 (10 times the speed of sound) and 20 G’s of force (20 times the force of gravity). The shield would give more options for where to land exploratory vehicles, like higher altitudes, or, as NASA’s Neil Cheatwood, IRVE-3 principal investigator at NASA's Langley Research Center explained they can “use this technology for larger payloads, such as humans.”

Have never been called a “payload.” Have been called worse. Will take it.

Neat! Should we order one for Greenland

9. Why we are what we are

So far that’s a really impressive list of scientific findings but one of the most intriguing tasks of science is the brain trying to understand itself.  

Caroline Williams of New Scientst, wrote an amazing neuroscience story this week which focuses not just on why we do what we do but why we are what we are: sentient, intelligent, empathetic creatures. It feels all the more important to read about these highest aspects of our species after the nightmare story of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado wherein the alleged shooter, James Holmes, had, in a horrible irony, once studied neuroscience.

The key to “the  rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships,” Williams writes, might lie in a 90 year-old discovery of a particular type of brain cell called a VEN - Von Economo neuron - after its discoverer, Constantin von Economo. VENs make up just one percent of the “anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex,” areas that activate when we need to respond to social cues, “emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief,” when mothers hear crying babies, when we need to respond to pressing events and when we see ourselves in a mirror, “a key component of consciousness.” 

At first it was hoped that VENs would turn out to be something that made humanity unique but the cells are also found in social creatures with “advanced behavior” like elephants, dolphins and chimps - yet they also have been spotted in giraffes and manatees (fascinating side note: elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors).

This is a piece that’s well worth reading in it’s entirety, about how the VENs may have evolved, why they might be related to shared food in our social culture, how their locations might be different in the brains of social and less social creatures.

When it feels for a moment like civilization is unraveling, there’s something enormously comforting about peering into the tiny element that might have helped it to start.

10. Cheeses is Lord

And to keep the happy-note theme going: cheese. There’s a good chance it’s way better for you than you thought. 

Cheese. You already know it improves everything it comes into contact with. What you may not know is in a huge study done in 8 countries and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition researchers found that “people who ate cheese had a 12% lower risk of developing type-2 diabetes than those who shunned the food altogether,” reports Makini Brice of Medical Daily. “Mixed dairy intake also was associated with a similarly lower risk of diabetes, and included such fermented products as yogurt and fermented milk (and cheese).”

Good enough.  Gimmie the gouda. Hand over that havarti. 

It’s ironic that a food considered to be fattening is associated with a decreased risk of a disease associated with obesity, but the Telegraph reports that it’s the type of fat that’s improtant. Researchers think it may have something to do with the fermentation process in cheese or, the Telegraph reports, that “Although high in saturated fat, it may be rich in types of the fat that could be good for the body.”

The Telegraph also reports that “the charity Diabetes UK warned against eating more cheese until the results were confirmed in other studies.”

Wallace and Gromit and I are going to pretend we didn’t read that far down in the article. Cheese!

 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.

 
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