10 New Discoveries That Will Blow Your Mind
Photo Credit: Nikita Starichenko/Shutterstock.com
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1. Get real
It was just a few hours after the uplifting spectacle of the transit of Venus that we got the news that the first thing some people want to happen when we go to Mars is a goddamn reality show.
Seriously. Where is that 2012 apocalypse I was promised and can’t it hurry up?
Slate’s David Sydiongco reports a Dutch company called MarsOne plans to start colonizing the planet by 2023 -- a decade before NASA hopes to reach Mars. It plans to send four explorers up with new teams following every four years after that. The CBC’s Andrea Lee-Greenberg writes that, “The project already has the backing of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerard 't Hooft and Paul Römer, a co-founder and executive producer of the hit reality show Big Brother.”
The astronauts’s lives “would be streamed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Here’s Sydiongco describing the astronaut selection process. Now remember, these are potentially the first humans to colonize another planet, so they should be some of the most venerated explorers in the history of the world. And their process begins “with what is essentially an open casting call. Eventually, 40 people will take part in a rigid, decade-long training program, to be narrowed down to the final four. The selection and training process will be broadcast via television and online to the public, with viewers voting on the final selected four.”
So, you endure a decade of arduous training in the hope of being part of a sublime and defining moment in the human story...but then Joe Douchebag calls in after his second six-pack of Hamm’s and votes you off because you remind him of his dad.
io9’s Robert T. Gonzales says of the prospect: “On one hand, it's hard not to get excited about the prospects of something as ambitious as deep-space colonization happening by 2023. On the other, does anyone else feel a little weirded out at the thought of the first Martian settlement being established under the banner of voyeuristic entertainment?”
Me! I do! The idea of the one of the biggest strides in exploration since the boat was invented being sandbagged with the submental ethos of reality TV is the most depressing thing I’ve heard since “Bush won...again.”
Good thing that by 2023 no one will even know what TV is anymore, much less reality TV.
2. Not guilty
If you weren’t already depressed, that should have done it. If you have a history of depression and suffer from inordinate feelings of guilt, researchers at the University of Manchester have recently discovered why.
And it’s not because you were brought up Catholic.
Stephanie Pappas of Live Science reported on the research showing that communication breakdown between two areas of the brain associated with guilt might be the reason for exaggerated self-blame or letting small mistakes snowball into terrible feelings of abject failure. They studied the relationship between two regions of the brain, the subgenual cingulate cortex and the adjacent septal region, “a region deep in the brain that has been linked to feelings of guilt” also called the SCSR and the anterior temporal lobe, also active during thoughts of guilt and other moral feelings.
They studied two groups of patients, one that had severe depression but had been symptom-free for at least a year and one with no history of the illness. Both groups underwent fMRI scans while being read statements designed to cause guilt or indignation.
During feelings of guilt the two regions failed to sync up in the brains of formerly depressed subjects; during feelings of indignation they worked fine as they did both times in the never-depressed subjects. Those most prone to self-recrimination had the most significant communication gaps between regions. Also, “Importantly, once-depressed participants didn't notice feeling any differently when they read the guilt and indignation sentences, suggesting that this breakdown in communication is not felt consciously.”
The good news is this tendency can be overcome by learning -- the Manchester researchers are collaborating with Jorge Moll, of the D'Or Institute for Research and Education in Rio de Janeiro, to develope a feedback program: patients will be able to watch their brain activities in real time and potentially see their brain process change as they try to change their feelings.
How cool would that be? If only the body could be transparent at certain times so we could see how it works maybe we’d treat it better or be convinced that certain efforts we were making were actually helping. A window on the brain and clearly one well worth looking into.
3. New glasses
A new window is always a good thing, especially if that window is as thin as a piece of paper and bendable like the new “Willow Glass” that was unveiled by Corning at a trade show in Boston this week, as reported by the BBC. Made with a process called “Fusion” in which the ingredients are melted in 500c heat and rolled out on a continuous sheet in a device “similar to a traditional printing press,” Willow Glass might one day replace Gorilla Glass. That was also developed by Corning, is used in 575 products, including mobile device screens and “was first spotted by the Apple founder Steve Jobs, who contacted Corning when the firm was developing the screen for its first iPhone in 2006.”
Other attempts have been made to make thinner, flexible displays like graphene, “a super-conductive form of carbon made from single-atom-thick sheets,” and “a millimeters-thick prototype flexible smartphone in 2011, made of a so-called electronic paper.”
Next up: George Glass. It’s so thin it isn’t even there. (If you got that you watched waaay too much Brady Bunch as a kid. It was better than Reality TV).
4. Book ‘em
Maybe one day that Willow Glass will turn up on your eReader, a snazzy new addition to an already wonderful product, though some eReader fans may sometimes miss certain aesthetics of old-fashioned paper books.
Enter Paper Passionby Steidl, a fragrance that smells like newly printed books. The scent was commissioned by Wallpaper* magazine, which got master perfumer Geza Schoen to invent a scent evocative of ink on paper. A package of Passion includes texts by several people including Karl Lagerfeld, whom the Web site quotes as saying, “The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world.” (Poor man. Must never have been in a bakery).
We especially like io9’s Lauren Davis’ thought of spritzing your eReader with some Paper Passion (though it is meant to be worn by people) so you’d feel more like you were holding an actual book, soothing the avid reader who still isn’t used to curling up with a good screen (Ray Bradbury didn’t like e-books and said they “smell like burned fuel” to him” -- see Item #10). At $115 a bottle it’s even more expensive than most hardbacks but it’s a charming idea. I hope, in fact, they will pair it with a perfume that smells like coffee. How cozy, especially on a winter’s day, for your eReader or study area to evoke the snug, comforting atmosphere of a Barnes & Noble?
5. Eau de Olde
Speaking of smells, everyone has one, some pleasant, some not, most rather neutral but all definitely evocative of that person. “Old-people smell” is a phrase often used to refer to a particular scent, one probably best described as the smell of medication and a long-closed room. Turns out, though, that while old-people smell may be a real thing it’s not a bad one, not by a long shot.
Amina Kahn of the Los Angeles Times reports on research by Johan Lundstrom, a neuropsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia published in the journal PLoS ONE wherein 41 volunteers, age 20-95, slept in T-shirts that had nursing pads sewn into the armpits. “Just before bedtime, the volunteers also showered with odor-free soap and shampoo and laundered their linens in odor-free detergent. They even avoided spicy foods, which can alter secretions from sweat glands.”
After the five nights the researchers cut out the nursing pads and put cut-up quarters of the pads from several people in the same age group in jars for the scent to be evaluated by another group of 41 volunteers.
“It turned out that the underarm odor of 75-to-95-year-olds was judged to be less intense and far more pleasant than the scent of either young or middle-aged adults. The most intense — and perhaps not coincidentally, the most unpleasant — odor came from 45-to-55-year-old men. Women in that age group, on the other hand, produced the most pleasant smell of everyone who wore the underarm pads.”
Men generally smelled worse than old women though not so when they got old which Lundstrom attributes to hormonal changes. "It's almost as if you're going back to what happened before puberty."
Smell ya later, indeed. Like in 20 years.
6. Mars' most famous citizen
Ninety-one should be an age you think of as old but some people, no matter how advanced their years, are difficult to think of that way. Ray Bradbury’s boundless imagination and vision made him one of those. The AP’s John Rogers relates in an LA Times story that Bradbury’s “chance meeting” with a magician named Mr. Electrico changed his life when he pointed at 12-year-old Bradbury and said “Live forever!”
“I decided that was the greatest idea I ever heard,” Bradbury said, “I started writing every day and I never stopped.”
Five hundred works later, including short stories, plays and novels like the classic Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, whom Steven Spielberg called “immortal,” died at the age of 91 on June 5...but is immortal nonetheless. He “anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational media events, including televised police pursuits — and not necessarily as good things,” Rogers writes. The visionary author -- who didn’t have a driver’s license or fly in a plane until 1982 -- had a moon crater and an asteroid named for him and a copy of his classic The Martian Chronicles “was flown into space in 2007 by NASA's Phoenix spacecraft, which touched down on the Martian arctic plains.”
“Mars Loses One of Its Most Famous Citizens - Ray Bradbury, 1920 - 2012,” is a touching tribute by Scientific American’s Michael J. Battaglia, who writes “The beauty of science fiction is born not simply of its predictive proclivities, but also of its festival of ideas, some fantastically outlandish, some horrifying, some now 'outdated'—but only because many have come true.”
7. “Flame Challenge” winner
Fahrenheit 451 got its title because Ray Bradbury was once told that it’s the temperature at which books go up in flames.
But what exactly is a flame?
Once you get past answers like, “That thing on the end of a candle,” and “fire,” and realize those don’t really tell you what a flame is you see that it’s not that easy a question to answer. Alan Alda’s teacher failed to answer it adequately for him when he was 11 and lucky thing for us. The question spurred Alda, renowned actor, science advocate and co-founder of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to put on the Flame Challenge, a contest to see who could best explain what a flame is to an 11-year-old (here’s Alda talking about the contest on Science Friday in March).
The NY Times’ Kenneth Chang reports that the contest drew 800 entries from 30 countries, was judged by 11-year-olds and the winner, Ben Ames, a native of Kansas City, Mo. explained it the way everything should be explained: with a cartoon.Not a dopey cartoon either -- here it is on YouTube-- but one in which the narrator is explaining to a man in hell what all those flames around him actually are. I’d try to translate it but there’s a reason Ames, a physics graduate student at the University of Innsbruck, won the contest so you should watch the animation. You will find yourself looking for reasons to use the word “chemiluminescence” when you’re done and feeling smart to the point of smug every time you look at a lit birthday cake.
8. Pot without the high?
Speaking of getting lit...or not...a group of Israeli scientists have cultivated a marijuana plant that doesn’t get you high. Perhaps next on their agenda: silent music, taste-free chocolate and a way to have sex without those nuisance orgasms.
The AFP reports that the new cannabis plant has none of the effects brought on by THC, tetrahydrocannabinol. Tzahi Klein, head of development at Tikkun Olam, the company that developed it, said it would bring about none of the “numbing sensations” that pot usually does. The Maariv Daily newspaper reported that the company sought to reduce the THC effect and increase the effect of “CBD, or cannabidiol, which has been shown to help diabetics and to ease various psychiatric disorders.” It also doesn’t give you the munchies.
So it sounds like the pot equivalent of Dayquil: all the effects, none of the bleariness. Okay, I get that. Some people like to take medication and still feel clear-headed. They might be piloting the Exxon Valdez or something. None of my business, really.
I’m a Nyquil girl myself. The slowing, sleepy comforts of some medications are bonus gifts, especially if you’re not feeling well. They’re the very definition, in fact, of the consolation prize.
9. Truly gifted
As well as wonderful, gifts can be weird. Awkward. A friend once gave me a gift certificate for a free massage but I was afraid to use it because I couldn’t afford to tip the masseur.
Some quandary, right? NASA must have gotten to experience it recently when, as Time’s Michael Lemonick reported, the space agency got the spectacular gift of not one but “two pristine, Hubble-class space telescopes still in their original wrappings” which were meant for the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency in charge of intelligence satellites.
Pretty fab, especially since one of the items on the Decadel Survey, an astronomer’s wish-list annually presented to NASA, is a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, WFIRST, which would have a wider field than Hubble’s and be sensitive to infrared light from new planets and galaxies. One of the gift telescopes could be re-outfitted with the right equipment to enable it to “capture images of Jupiter-like planets around nearby stars and possibly Earth-like planets as well — an achievement astronomers thought wouldn't be possible until late in the 2020s.” Using one of the new telescopes as a base would mean one third to half the cost of such a telescope would be already paid for.
Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics director, says it would cost about $1 billion to equip and launch a WFIRST and that’s cheap for such a thing. It’s still money NASA has to come up with so at the moment it might be a while before the surprise gifts are put to use. As Lemonick writes, “astronomers will just enjoy the improbable fact that they've been given two shiny, brand-new toys to play with — and Christmas is still half a year away.”
10. Transit of pizza
It felt like an impromptu holiday earlier this week, getting ready for the once-in-a-lifetime transit of Venus, when that planet passed between the earth and the sun. Here in Orlando, woolly gray rain clouds blanketed the sky too heavily to get a good look but that was okay. Plenty of other resources captured it spectacularly including these photos, 40 of them, from Space.com’s stunning and varied gallery of photos from Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory of the Transit of Venus.
The first photo shows the sun looking molten and alive like a ball of lava. The next, shot by astronaut Don Pettit from the International Space Station -- the first pictures of Venus transit to be shot from space, says Tariq Malik of the Christian Science Monitor -- shows the sun as a serene, russet ball with Venus in the lower left corner, like a beauty mark. In some it looks ellipsoidal, in some baby blue, in some like molten gold. Here’s video of the high definition view (as in image 4) of Venus traveling across the sun, and because it’s on YouTube, a myriad of other ways to see it. Photo 9 shows Oscar Martin Mesonero (right) and Pablo Gonzalez Pena, who came all the way from of Salamanca, Spain to California for the event.
My admitted favorite, though is number 19 -- the very artistic Olive Transit of Pizza. Because it’s nice to be reminded, as you look at the arresting perfection and enormity of the universe, that there are some things on Earth that make it okay as well.