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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Restoring sight to the blind, hearing extinct animals, and why your dog is amazingly evolved are just a few of our stories this week.
 
 
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It was one of those rare TV moments that makes a person want to jump up and down and run around the house -- I couldn’t believe what I heard. Performing in the closing ceremony of the Olympics, Eric Idle sang "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," and included the line “Life’s a piece of shit/when you look at it.” It was a golden moment. The entire world had come together to celebrate athletic achievement, glorious British culture and the spirit of the games, and then out comes that line which, after all the fireworks are over, is how lots of people feel lots of the time. I thought, "Okay, turn off the TV, it’s not going to get better." 

Except that it did, because it was followed by video of Freddie Mercury, and later, Brian May and Jessie J. singing "We Will Rock You." Just goes to show ya -- shitty or not, might as well stick around, because you don’t always know what’s next.

1. Apocalypse not now

And you really don’t know what’s coming next, not even those of you who have been tapping your feet waiting for this 2012 apocalypse. You might have seen photos of this lake in France looking like a plague of blood and thought, “Well, it’s about damn time.” Just like the last apocalypse and all the apocalypses before that, it’s really nothing to get worked up about aside from being a staggering image probably like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The lake is in the Camargue, where the Rhone meets the sea, and it changes from its normal color to red from high concentrations of salt in the form of salt flats, reports the Huffington Post. In these amazing photos in the Daily Mail the salt looks like ice, or cotton, and the whole thing looks like a set from Lost in Space or like one big Bloody Mary. Brunch, anyone? 

2. Play it again, TVLand!

If you’ve ever felt like it was the end of the world because your favorite show was canceled and then felt silly for wallowing in reruns, the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute for Addictions has the best news ever: watching reruns is good for you! Far from being a waste of time, the researchers found that immersion in a “familiar, fictional world” (hello, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek etc.) gets us into a positive mood and replenishes our ability to resist temptation, writes Tom Jacobs in the Pacific Standard

The research, Jacobs writes, grows out of the idea that self-control is finite: exercise it in one part of your day (“I am not going to buy those purple platform shoes”) and it’ll probably be harder later on (“I’ll take the car!”). Improving our mood seems key to shoring up our self-control and mood improvement often involves interaction with friends and/or family. But sometimes those interactions are stressful; enter our fictional friends and family, providing what psychologist Jaye Derrick of Buffalo calls “social surrogacy,” which we find comforting.

Jacobs describes Derrick’s study, written up in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science. It’s a bit complicated but the bottom line is that in experiments demanding various levels of self-control and concentration in a written essay, people who wrote about their favorite TV show -- who engaged in their fictional world -- did and felt better on subsequent tests than those who didn’t. 

And frankly, I had to concentrate so hard when reading about that study that I should probably watch a little "Simpsons" now. Temptation lurks everywhere. Better to just be prepared.

3. If I could talk to the extinct animals...

So, if hearing voices from old '70s shows is good for us, what about voices from millions of years ago? 

Art and science are putting together the soundtrack to an earth long gone, the calls of ancient and extinct species, reports Jill Neimark of Discover Magazine. Scientists’ greater knowledge of the anatomies of ancient creatures, including our own ancestor Lucy, aka Australopithecus afarensis, have enabled the re-creation of their vocal tracts giving us an idea of what they sounded like. 

Lucy had "air sacs, balloon-shaped organs that attach to an extension of the hyoid bone," says Bart de Boer, an expert in the evolution of speech at Vrije University in Brussels. Humans don’t have those; our hyoid bone supports our tongue muscles which lets us make a lot of different sounds. Air sacs, though, make vocalizations that are lower and louder, the way a larger musical instrument is lower and louder, Remark says. Howler monkeys, de Boer said, sound like monsters because of their air sacs.

De Boer made a computer model of what vocalizations would sound like with an air sac; test listeners had difficulty telling vowels apart. (Here are some audio samples of how vowels sound with and without air sacs.) The notion that our ancestors might have sounded like this most of the time -- "Duh...duh...duh” -- will come as no surprise to many people.

One animal you can hear right now is the pretty, metallic clink of a katydid that existed 165 million years agoBeijing biologists re-created the sound by examining the wings of a well-preserved fossil. 

Artist Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC is designing what she says is her last memorial, “What is Missing,” including sounds of extinct and endangered species. “I also showcase the sounds of endangered species, ones we can still save,” Lin told Neimark. “We’ve even got the sound of an endangered coral reef, which sounds like Rice Krispies crackling in milk.”

4. What’s a parent is not always apparent

Our ancestors from the distant past are such unknown quantities…but for some of us even our more recent relatives are unknown quantities, too. Blended families and various reproductive technologies have changed our ideas about family, writes io9 editor Annalee Newitz, and in some cases have altered what we once took for granted as a stable proposition: what do we mean by “parent”?

A British ethics board has just approved an experimental treatment that results in babies with genetic material from two women and one man,” Newitz writes. The treatment has to do with avoiding passing heritable mitochondrial diseases from mother to child by taking healthy donor egg cells, scraping out the genetic material in the nucleus and replacing it with the mother’s DNA, so “a baby will be born with the donor mother's mitochondrial DNA, plus nuclear DNA from mom and dad.”

Newitz writes that babies born from donor eggs and sperm get genetic input from more than two parents and that surrogate mothers can influence the fetuses they carry; if, say, a surrogate smokes while pregnant that can effect the fetus’ “genetic expression.” 

5. Hair of the horndog

If you’re an expectant mother, you may be experiencing morning sickness. Gordon Gallup a SUNY-Albany psychologist, has a sort of hair-of-the-horndog remedy for that: ingest the sperm of the man who got you pregnant.  

CBS DC reports that “Gallup says in his findings that the woman’s body will initially reject the father’s semen as an infection and react to it by vomiting.” The best way to get used to it is to “build up a tolerance to what’s already in her body.” 

Note: this story did not come out on April 1 and didn’t have a byline of “Dixie Normus,” or “Jack Inoff.” 

It’s not the theory I find hard to swallow; it’s the mechanics. I’ve never had morning sickness but I have been really drunk and if sticking a finger down your throat induces vomiting, one imagines that something bigger could far too easily result in something like the pea soup  scene from The Exorcist. It just seems easier to let some moths out of your wallet and invest in a roll of Tums. Then sex, oral and otherwise, can just be the fun it was meant to be, and not another have-to. 

6. Snackrifice

The suckiest thing about many have-to’s i.e., have-to drink responsibly, have-to pay your bills, have-to take this medication, is that they’re usually good for you. 

Take the have-to of eating sensibly in order to maintain a healthier weight. Creating stricter rules on students’ access to certain snacks and sugary drinks seems to have done some good for students in states that have such rules. The New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernese reports a study published in Pediatrics “found a strong association between healthier weight and tough state laws regulating food in vending machines, snack bars and other venues that were not part of the regular school meal programs.” Researchers tracked 6,300 students between 2004 and 2007 and found that those in states with stricter policies on available snacks or “competitive foods” (so-called because they compete with school meals) gained about 2.25 fewer pounds (for a 5-foot-tall child) than kids in states with no laws.

Already-obese kids “in states with stronger laws were more likely to reach a healthy weight by eighth grade than those living in states with no laws.” The study did not say the policies directly resulted in the kids being a healthier weight, only that those outcomes happened in states with stronger policies.

Limiting access is actually the principle a lot of us adults use on ourselves when grocery shopping; if there’s junk food in the house I’ll eat it so I’m just not buying it. You don’t have to resist temptation that isn’t there. 

7. Gun violence as a social disease

It’s weird, but I feel the same way about guns as I do about junk food: if it’s not around, I won’t run afoul of it.

If you’re not a gun person and can’t help but wonder why our country is so trigger-happy and how that might change, check this out: Marilyn Marchione of the AP writes that public health experts are looking at gun violence as a social disease, i.e. like any other social problem that claims lives (smoking, drunk-driving and virus outbreaks).

"What I'm struggling with is, is this the new social norm? This is what we're going to have to live with if we have more personal access to firearms," says Dr. Stephen Hargarten, emergency medicine chief at Froedtert Hospital and director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Hargarten was treating victims of the Sikh temple shootings when the need for a new approach “crystalized” for him, Marchione writes. "We have a public health issue to discuss. Do we wait for the next outbreak or is there something we can do to prevent it?" Hargarten said.

Ways to approach gun violence as a public health concern include demanding national safety oversights of guns as with other consumer products; finding out who is more likely to be a shooter and keeping guns out of their hands; pressuring gunmakers to increase weapon safety; and studying the “disease pattern” of gun violence.

These are all thoughtful approaches but I wonder if we can’t take a cue from Australia, which has just enacted a law stating that cigarettes have to be put in generic packaging including graphic images of smoking’s consequences, like mouth cancer, alongside health warnings. It’s one thing to hear “X people were shot and killed,” on the news every day; it would be another to see the physical damage guns do. If you have a strong stomach, Google image-search “gun shot wound.” Hard not to wonder if such images might not change some perceptions. 

8. Shake it, baby

Eeeeeyuck. So after that we need something sweet and comforting, and there’s no better comfort than our best friend the dog. Not only are they caring and loyal, they’re marvels of evolution. That huge shake they do when they come out of the pool, the rain or the bathtub? It gets them 70% dry in a fraction of a second. David Hu, who studies biolocomotion at Georgia Tech, says that could help in creating self-cleaning and drying robotics, writes Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience

It’s essential for animals to get dry quickly especially in cold weather. A wet human can hold a pound of water and we hardly have any hair. A 60-pound dog would use 20% of its daily calories staying warm as it air dries, Hu and his team calculated. "Imagine you fell into the lake in the winter and had wet clothes all around you and couldn't dry," Hu told LiveScience.

Both water and dust can be problematic for autonomous robotics like the Mars Rovers so to see how dogs dried themselves, Hu and his colleagues measured the frequency of their shaking and set up “wet dog simulators” that shook tufts of wet fur. The bigger the animal the slower the shake, because their fur goes further and has more centripital force (force that makes things move in circles). This little video of different animals shaking themselves dry in slow motion shows a rat drying off at 18 shakes per second, and 4.5  for a medium-sized dog. Having loose skin is also a big help. 

"I don't think we're going to make a Mars Rover in the shape of a dog or anything like that," he said. "But if people can think about how animals do this so quickly, they'll get an idea of what is possible."

It’s certainly true that we can learn a lot from animals but we do like this whole idea of a Mars Rover shaped like Rover. Every kid and the 39% of Americans who own a dog would take waaaaay more interest in space exploration.  

9. Purrrfectly mysterious

From the loyal dog we come to the equally beloved but far more mysterious cat.  See, we can perfectly land a rover on Mars from millions of miles away and fiddle with cells in order to prevent heritable diseases…but we don’t know why or exactly how cats purr. Annalee Newitz of io9 looked into that luxuriously comforting sound and found some cool stuff including:

  • Purring is emotional and comes in different types; cats purr when they’re petted, which seems like contentment but also under stress, like during a vet visit.
  • There is no “purring organ” that specializes in making the sound.
  • Swedish linguist Robert Eklund is devoted to these animal sounds; you can hear his recordings of lots of different purrs on Purring.org.
  • Bioacoustics researcher Elizabeth von Muggenthaler has hypothesized that cats may purr to heal themselves because “cat purrs create frequencies that fall directly in the range that is anabolic for bone growth.”  

But the coolest thing of all is that something so common and domestic is still so largely mysterious. Maybe the Egyptians were right and the cats are gods, beyond the comprehension of puny humans. Ask any cat; they’ll purr in agreement. 

10. Vision-restoring glasses

Since the cats want to maintain their aura of mystery we’ll move onto something easier, like the miracle of restoring sight to the blind. Jeanna Smialek writes in Bloomberg that scientists have “cracked the code the retina uses to communicate with the brain,” paving the way for a prosthetic device that can mimic that signal. The researchers restored the vision of blind mice by helping their diseased retinas send signals to the brain, which interprets those lights signals as images.

Lead author Sheila Nirenberg, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and co-author Chethan Pandarinath first studied healthy eyes “to determine the set of equations that translate light received by the retina into something the brain can understand. Then, they used special glasses to create a similar code and deliver it to the eye, which had been engineered to contain light-sensitive proteins. The cells received the code through the light sensitive proteins and fired electric impulses, which the brain could interpret as images.”

The technology could be adopted for human use within a year or two, Nirenberg says.

I don’t know if I’d qualify, but having grown up wearing the classic Coke bottle glasses and feeling like my eyes get worse every day now that I’m in my dotage, I’m psyched about this. 

It’s easier to look on the bright side of life if you can see it. 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, Fla.

 
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