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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Here's a glimpse: a medical breakthrough that allows your body to stay alive without breathing -- and proof your dog copies you when you yawn.
 
 
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It was champagne and top hats all around in the science world this week. First, if you were hip-deep in nerd news you’d have thought the July 4th fireworks were to celebrate the cautious announcement, which came on Independence Day, of the Higgs boson having been discovered (more on that later). Then, the very next day, dark matter was reported to have been found in strands connecting two clusters of galaxies, reports the LA Times’ Amina Khan (details in her story). The finding “catapults these filaments from sound theory to observable fact,” Khan writes. 

That’s a twofer! But rest assured, there were plenty of other exciting things afoot, all of them less than 2.7 billion miles from home.

1. High, how are ya?

Good news, jokers, smokers and midnight tokers! Marijuana may have been the only chemical found in the toxicology report on the late Rudy Eugene, who made headlines after he tried to eat the face off of Ronald Poppo, a homeless man in Miami, but doctors say it wasn’t the pot that did it. 

Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries quotes Dr. Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida who said that blaming Eugene’s behavior on pot is “outrageous and out of the question. Marijuana will not cause this type of behavior.” There has been a link between marijuana and the early onset of psychosis (here’s an NPR story from 2011). But Goldberger told LLM "This behavior exhibited by Eugene is well beyond the scope of someone suffering from acute psychosis.”

Instead, it might still have been a synthetic version of bath salts that went undetected. Patrick Kyle, director of clinical chemistry and toxicology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center told LLM that synthetic versions of the drug are being made so fast and in such variations that labs “cannot keep up,” and that it’s unlikely labs could screen against all such drugs. 

Meanwhile, a man high on a synthetic version of pot zombie-attacked and violently killed the family dog after trying to eat it.

Jesus. Doesn’t anyone just have a couple of beers anymore? 

2. Copy dogs

“Drug-addled, flesh-eating zombies are so last month,” you say with a yawn. You notice that your dog yawns in agreement. 

That might happen more often than you think.

Researchers at the Universidad de Porto in Portugal have found that humans don’t just catch yawns from each other -- dogs catch them from their owners. The researchers played different yawns for the dogs: the yawns of their owners and of strangers and yawns played backwards as a control sound. The dogs who responded yawned “significantly more often when they were listening to their owner’s yawns,” writes Jennifer Welsh of Live Science. Contagious yawning has been linked to empathy in humans as well as baboons and chimps who yawn in response to the yawns of those they’re close to. 

Considering the ways we interact with dogs, including service and therapy dogsKarine Silva, who lead the study, says “it could turn out a useful complementary tool for selecting the most appropriate dogs (in terms of empathic processing) for specific tasks."

The human-dog connection is so strong that this will feel intuitive to any dog lover. But one also has to wonder if the dogs were just bored and wondering why humans are forever doing studies instead of eating, playing and sleeping on the sunny spot of the carpet. 

3. Stayin’ alive (without breathing)

No one could yawn at this next discovery: the development of a particle that will keep you alive even if you can’t breathe.

And no, dammit, it has absolutely nothing to do with zombies. (Will someone please shoot the zombie craze in the head so it will freaking die already?)

Boston Children’s Hospital has developed a fatty oxygen particle that doctors can inject into a patient who has gone into respiratory failure that will put enough oxygen in their blood to keep the patient alive for up to 30 minutes. Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo describes it as a “seemingly magical elixir,” which can be easily carried and used by paramedics and other emergency crews. Injected right into the blood stream the particle, which carries up to four times the amount of oxygen as red blood cells, quickly oxygenates the body and allows doctors to work “without risking heart attack or permanent brain injuries to the patient.”  

Diaz writes that, “Similar solutions have failed in the past because they caused gas embolism, rather than oxygenating the cells.”This particle works because it’s oxygen contained inside a layer of deformable lipids that can “squeeze through capillaries where free gas would get stuck,” said John Kheir at the department of Cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital. He developed the particle after treating a little girl with a fatal lung hemorrhage who died before she could be put on a heart-lung machine. 

“We drew each other’s blood, mixed it in a test tube with the microparticles and watched blue blood turn immediately red, right before our eyes.” 

You don’t read the word “magic” in science or medical stories much, but Diaz uses it and it does seem apt in the case of this particle, which could save countless lives. 

See? Even your cat can’t act blasé about that. 

4. Brush-on batteries…  

While we’re on the subject of miraculous innovation, a team from Rice University and Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium have come up with a battery you can spray paint into objects.

Whatever you’re thinking, yes, it would probably work. The team tried it on ceramic tile and beer steins and “in one experiment they hooked a solar cell up to one of the batteries and powered an LED display,” writes Evelyn Lamb of Scientific American.

Batteries consist of five layers and the team had to come up with a way for each conductive layer to work “with various polymers to create a paint that could be sprayed onto surfaces.” Singh said research is shifting into batteries that could be built into a variety of objects and “her team's work is filling a need in the socially critical field of energy storage for new battery designs.” It may not be far off that with the “paintable solar cells on top of paintable solar batteries,” Singh envisions that, as Lamb writes, “Houses could become solar-energy capture-and-storage devices.”

5. …and rechargeable T-shirts? 

AND, it seems that Timbuk3 was right about the future being so bright you’re gonna have to wear shades. It looks like while you’re in your energy-capturing-and-storing house you could also be wearing an energy-storing T-shirt. 

Singh talked about batteries being incorporated into a variety of objects and Xiadong Li  and Lihong Bo of the University of South Carolina are working on making T-shirts that can store electricity. Taking a T-shirt from a discount store, they “soaked it in a solution of fluoride and baked it at high temperature,” Science Daily reports, excluding oxygen to prevent charring or combustion. The result: the T-shirt fibers had converted from cellulose to carbon, but you could still fold the darn thing. Using a swatch of the fabric as an electrode they showed it acted as a capacitator, which stores electrical charges. 

Li says the T-shirts can actually act as “supercapacitors” because they have high-energy storage densities and when they incorporated manganese oxide (details in the story) it became a “stable, high-performing supercapacitor,” which, when stacked up, should be able to charge cell phones. Moreover, Li says, it’s  a “very inexpensive, green process.”

This awesome development is the only reason in the world anyone should pay more than a few bucks for a T-shirt.

6. A cosmic gift

As long as we’re making huge technological leaps, let’s clone Seth MacFarlane.

Seriously -- as the creator of "Family Guy," Seth MacFarlane has already served us well by giving us Stewie Griffin. Now he’s gone himself one better: MacFarlane paid to have Carl Sagan’s personal papers -- 800 file cabinet drawers-worth -- put into the hands of the Library of Congress. 

Plus, CBS News reportshe will also be producing a reprise of the late, great Dr. Sagan’s TV show "Cosmos" hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

I’m dismayed at the rejection of science that’s reemerging in America. There’s nothing out there that glamorizes science the way 'Cosmos' did,” MacFarlane told Wired’s Thomas Golianopoulos.

And he’s not kidding. One example that comes to mind for me is the recent craziness in Virginia where the terms “sea level rise” and “climate change” were deemed to be “liberal code words” too odious for conservative activists and some politicians to bear, rather than facts associated with global warming when a proposed study on sea level rise was being debated. The language was changed to “recurrent flooding” and the proposal passed, reported the Virginian-Pilot. But, as Scientific American’s Scott Huler noted “they are not liberal code words; they are scientific terms.”

The pussy-footing around scientific terminology -- and thus around science --  is the kind of dumbing down we can’t afford.

Thankfully there are still many people on the side of smartening up. Here’s to MacFarlane and deGrasse Tyson’s new venture of following in Dr. Sagan’s footsteps.

7. Your flies are open…to reinterpretation

People reject science for various reasons, including religious conflict, scariness (i.e., cloning, robot armies) and what I think of as study exhaustion. We’ve all thought something like “Wait a second…coffee used to be bad for you. Now it’s good for you?” After a while you don’t want to hear another study. 

It’s important to keep double-checking information, though. An intriguing example of that is that a decades-old, iconic study concerning sexual selection which has recently been retested and found to contain a “fatal flaw,” according to one UCLA professor.

Red Orbit reports that in Angus John Bateman’s studies of fruit fly mating in 1948 he concluded that males have an evolutionary advantage in having multiple sex partners while females have an evolutionary advantage in being more choosy, a study that proved highly influential “for decades.” Professor Patricia Adair Gowaty, of UCLA recently repeated the experiment -- the first time the oft-cited study has been retested -- and came to different conclusions; enough that, she says, “what some accepted as bedrock may actually be quicksand.”

Bateman’s conclusions were based on the number of offspring of the fruit flies that survived into adulthood, but the only way he could determine parentage at the time was to mate fruit flies with severe enough mutations -- curly wings or deformed eyes -- to tell by looking at the offspring who they belonged to (modern geneticists would look at molecular evidence, RedOrbit says). Bateman only counted the offspring with mutations from both parents and so, Gowaty says, probably “got a skewed sample.” She also found that children with both mutations were more likely to die before reaching adulthood, which would bias the results. “Gowaty and her colleagues, by performing the same experiment, found that the data were decidedly inconclusive,” but, she said that for some Bateman’s results were “so comforting,” they just accepted it. 

“Paradigms are like glue, they constrain what you can see,” Gowaty said. “It’s like being stuck in sludge -- it’s hard to lift your foot out and take a step in a new direction.”

8. The buzz on reverse aging

If only we could turn back time, as Cher before us wished, and know whether things would have been different had that study been repeated earlier.  

But we can’t really go back in time. Only bees can do that. 

For now.

Science Daily reports that scientists at Arizona State University have found that older honey bees who do the work of younger honey bees reverse the aging process in their brains. The younger bees, who usually take care of the babies, were taken out of the nest so that when the older, foraging bees returned there was no one watching the kids. After a quiet period some of the older bees went back to foraging while others stayed to care for larvae. Older, foraging bees “age very quickly” when they begin that activity and especially lose brain function -- “the ability to learn new things.”

After only 10 days about half the babysitting bees had “significantly improved their ability to learn new things.” Also, a protein, Prx6, and a “chaperone” protein had changed in the bees who improved their learning ability as opposed to those who did not. The Prx6 protein is also found in humans.

My favorite part is that, the way SD puts it, the study by ASU and the Norwegian University of Life Science worked by “tricking” older bees into doing those domestic, social tasks. Seriously, when was the last time you punked a bee? Scientists have the coolest jobs.

More studies will follow, but in the meantime, this study points out avenues other than drug treatment to deal with age-related dementia in humans. Gro Amdan of ASU, who led the study, says, “Maybe social interventions -- changing how you deal with your surroundings -- is something we can do today to help our brains stay younger.”  

I vote cartoons.

9. From “yea” to zzzzzzz

We should all try to keep our minds sharp and not do things like poor Becky Carney did. Carney is a North Carolina state rep who mistakenly cast the deciding vote in favor of allowing fracking in her state. A bill requiring rules for fracking had passed, but the governor vetoed it. Carney meant to vote against the veto -- instead she accidentally voted “Yea.” Molly Oswaks of Gizmodo reports that Carney was exhausted and in her fatigue she hit the wrong button.

I certainly see how that could happen. But if a new study is correct, that excuse might not cut much ice anymore (which sucks because I use it every day). 

Morgen E. Peck from Scientific American reports that researchers have found that the sleep-deprived brain, when prodded, actually spikes in activity, more so than the wide-awake brain.

Marcello Massimini, a neurophysiologist at the University of Milan in Italy, found that the brain becomes more sensitive as the day wears on,” Peck writes. A noninvasive jolt of electricity was applied to the prefrontal cortex of test subjects who had been awake for two, eight, 12  or 32 hours (one wonders if they were tricked into doing this, like the bees). 

“I'm sure if you bump your friend when he's sleep-deprived, he's going to jump higher,” Massimini says and Peck writes that, in observing how the brain responded, Massimini saw that, “The sleep-deprived brain, it turns out, also gets jumpy, responding to the electrical jolt with stronger, more immediate spikes of activity.”

While we are awake, Peck says, “our neurons are constantly forming new synapses,” increasing brain activity, so it kind of makes sense (even though not all the connections are relevant and shutting down helps prune them). 

Wonder if this also explains the second wind we sometimes get late at night, the one that keeps so many night owls awake and productive. 

One thing though: no matter how tired poor Becky Carney was, betcha a dollar she didn’t sleep that night. 

10. The Higgs found (cautiously)

Finally, tadaaaaa! Just in time for July 4th, physicists with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) cautiously announced that they had, as rumored, discovered “a particle consistent with” the long-sought-after Higgs boson, the final missing piece of the Standard Model, “the physics framework explaining the interactions of all known subatomic particles and forces,” saysAdam Mann of Wired. “A particle consistent with,” means more analysis will be required but, Mann writes, “plenty of other physicists are willing to call the Higgs a Higgs.” 

Only particle physicists probably fully grasp this stuff, but as I understand it the Higgs field permeates the universe giving mass to particles, the lighter ones shooting through it quickly, the denser ones less quickly. Physicists at CERN found it by smashing atoms and looking at the aftermath, kind of like you might guess what happened at a party by how the house was trashed. 

Cara Santa Monica from Talk Nerdy to Me on HuffPo explains how physicists worked backward, the same way someone trying to figure out what kind of bomb just exploded would look at the aftermath -- the debris left behind to figure out how the bomb worked.

 

To help you better understand: This list of analogies and illustrations compiled by J. Bryan Louder on Slate includes an animation narrated by CERN scientist Daniel Whitestone and a helpful metaphor by Burton DeWilde, a Ph.D physics candidate. DeWilde likens the Higgs field to a roomful of physicists and how the composition of the room would change if Einstein, DeWilde, and a rumor passed through the room: Einstein causing clustering and moving slowly (more mass); DeWilde, being less well known, moving through easily (lower mass); and the rumor an “excitation field,” that causes particles to cluster on their own (that would be a Higgs boson).

The good news on the ground is that if they can figure out the universe, surely we can each feel more sure of figuring out our little worlds, each of us a particle, interacting with other particles under different circumstances, all of it making up the fabric of our lives. Which was previously theorized to be cotton.

See why you have to keep checking things

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
 
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