10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week
Many people dream of escaping to Florida. I understand why, and typically I have little quarrel with the affable insanity of my home state, dangling out here in the Atlantic like a completely exhausted penis. This week, though, I’m dreaming of escaping from Florida. Between the heat and humidity, it’s like living in a dog’s mouth and between that and a few other things, frankly, it’s time for a vacation from vacation land.
1. Pipers and diapers
If I were going to run away, it would be to Scotland, long #1 on my list of dream destinations. The sweet-and-crunchy accents, the kilts, the sea monsters -- it’s all so exotic. And by the time I get to go there I may be able to sit on park benches made of old used diapers (it’s the little goals that keep one going).
Mother Nature Network’s Matt Hickman reports that Scotland is trying out a new recycling program in which “absorbent waste products” (diapers, tampons, etc). will be recycled into building materials like roof shingles and perhaps one day into other things like park benches. Knowaste, a Canadian company where such products are sanitized, sterilized, sorted and ground into plastic pellets, had first thought to source the products from institutions like hospitals. Now, however, Knowaste and Zero Waste Scotland will help the domestic sector recycle such things as well. Five Scottish councils -- Fife, Perth, Stirling, Kincross, and North Lanarkshire -- will be on a six-month trial program that encompasses 36,000 homes. If it works out it could go national.
Environmental Secretary Richard Lochhead said that 450,000 disposable nappies end up in landfills every day. A 2010 story on disposable diapers in LiveStrong reported that they take 500 years to decompose, contaminate ground water, and release methane and a variety of toxic chemicals into the air. Making them into clean, useful materials sounds like a win-win -- plus, who can’t think of some earth-conscious mamas who will be happy to have the convenience of disposable diapers that could be recycled?
“Just imagine,” Hickman writes, “that disposable diaper that baby Annabelle took an ungodly poo in could someday wind up in your backyard as a lounger.”
Now that we’ve come all the way to bonnie Scotland, let’s stay for a while and watch as this great land finally kicks the zombie fad to the scrap heap in a one-two punch combining mummies and Frankenstein in a hyper-creepy ancient real-life package.
Charles Choi of Live Science reports on an amazing story that began in 2001 when some mummies were first found beneath a 3,000-year-old house, part of the prehistoric village of Cladh Hallan (if you’re Scottish and can pronounce it Skype me), on Scotland’s West Coast. The area was populated between 2,200 BCE to 800 BCE. Two of the bodies discovered, a male and female, had been mummified on purpose (burial in the oxygen-free environment of peat bogs can naturally mummify corpses; as Choi explains the process, “essentially tanning them in much the same way that animal skin is turned to leather”). They were found in fetal positions wrapped up, Choi notes, like mummy bundles found in other places, plus carbon dating revealed that they had been buried 600 years after their death. Their skeletons were still articulated -- rotting flesh hadn’t caused them to alter from their positions in life: “they must have been intentionally preserved.”
Here comes the Frankenstein part: both mummies were composites of the body parts of more than one person. Analysis of the skeleton revealed, for example, that the neck vertebrae of the male skeleton had arthritis -- but the rest of the spine didn’t so it had to have come from another person. He was composed of at least three people. The woman’s lower jaw, arm bone and thigh bone all came from different people AND two of her teeth were missing and found placed in her hands.
But why pull a post-mortem mummy mash-up? Researcher Mike Parker-Pearson of the University of Sheffield said it could have to do with land-ownership which was communal in about 1500 BCE and depended on ancestry. Having the actual ancestor hanging around might have been “their prehistoric equivalent of a legal document.”
Choi’s full story is 100% worth reading, and Steven Spielberg better get in on it because I’m ready to see the movie version of all these amazing events this weekend.
3. Ovary a certain age
Moving from mummies to mommies, when I saw the Telegraph headline "Women Could Delay Menopause Indefinitely With Ovary Transplant," by Stephen Adams all I could think was “Why would anyone want to do that? No more fear of pregnancy? Are you kidding? Bring on the chin hair!”
Because I’m a little tocophobic I forget that some women actually want to get pregnant -- moreover some want to avoid doing it until they’re on solid professional, financial and emotional ground which can mean waiting until a little later in life. Soon more women may have the chance to do just that.
At the European Society for Human Reproduction for Embryology in Istanbul, details were presented about the procedures through which 20 babies have been born to women who had either a) their ovaries removed prior to medical treatments that would have left them infertile and then having them put back; or b) had ovarian tissue transplanted from a twin. Most of the babies were conceived without the use of IVF drugs.
“All the women who have undergone the procedure have had cancer, but doctors said it was now time to extend the procedure to others,” Adams writes. Should the procedure catch on, women wouldn’t really have to watch their body clocks and could become pregnant as long as they could physically withstand a pregnancy and give birth.
Because I’m 47 and can’t stand up without groaning like Marley’s ghost, such physical stress isn’t my cup of amniotic fluid. But the ability of more women to consciously choose and be well-prepared for motherhood is a tough goal to argue with.
4. Darwin's frogs: Dig ‘em
Since we’re discussing reproductions you have to check out the freaky, dream-like National Geographic video of the Darwin’s frog method of Xeroxing itself. The mother lays up to seven eggs. Some become tadpoles. The father keeps these safe from predators by catching them his mouth and storing them in his vocal sac until they mature into frogs whereupon he yaks them out. The cute frog you see in the beginning of the video is actually storing five other frogs in his face. Nature gets pretty David Lynch from time to time, but this is the Lynchiest. Pleasant dreams.
Have you ever stood next to someone whose breath was so bad that they might well have a mouthful of frogs? Someone with halitosis so horrifying that you remember it for years afterward? I certainly have. I remember thinking that this person’s teeth must have been decaying even as we spoke, and I figured what I was smelling was “rot” and tried not to faint.
Well, one day trapped conversationalists might not have to worry about such things. Researchers have discovered a molecule that stops bacterial attacks on tooth enamel -- meaning the decay that accompanies it may one day be a thing of the past. Christine Hsu of Medical Daily reports that Keep 32 (named after the 32 teeth in the human mouth) takes 60 seconds to kill Strepptococcus Mutans, the bacteria that turns sugar into lactic acid and wrecks the tooth enamel causing decay. It works for hours and can be put into toothpaste and mouthwash as well as gum and candy. Researchers José Córdoba from Yale University and Erich Astudillo from the University of Chile hope to bring their discovery to market 14-18 months from now after passing U.S. human safety trials.
Can you imagine if the dentist’s chair and cavities were a thing of the past? I have to admit it’s pretty amazing, but if it had happened a few decades ago -- before I got so many fillings my teeth are worth more than my car -- I would have really been able to smile about it.
6. Why we smile
Why do humans even smile in the first place? When other animals bare their teeth it’s a sign of aggression. Why do we always have to be so different?
Janice Porteous of Vancouver Island University who studies the evolution of humor and laughter (you just questioned your own job choice, did you not?) spoke to Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries about the evolution of the human smile. She says the “fear expression” of bared fangs that often happens when an animal feels threatened is different in higher primates. In primates like rhesus monkeys, flashing teeth at a higher-ranking member of the group is an expression of submission. If a high-ranking male wants the spot a lower one is occupying, for instance, the lower-ranking member will flash his teeth in a submissive gesture that gets him left alone by the high-ranking male.
This, in turn evolved into “fang-flashing between friends,” as in chimpanzees who will flash their teeth at an equal if, say, they haven’t seen that individual for a long time -- then, like us, they flash their teeth and embrace.
“So,” Porteous says, “it moves from showing non-hostility to showing affection or affiliation.”
Since then, Wolchover says, the human smile has evolved to having lots of meanings. “Like those rhesus monkeys, people still grin out of fear or nervousness,” as well as pleasure and joy.
7. A sonic screwdriver of your very own
Joy and happiness are probably the most common reasons we smile, so let’s talk about a couple of our pleasures, starting, naturally, with TV, music and gadgets.
Generations of nerds the world over exploded with delight over the news this week of the soon-to-be-available Dr. Who Sonic Screwdriver Universal Remote Control just rrrrrrrevealed (you have to roll the r for something this good) by BBC Worldwide and the Wand Company.
It’s as sexy a piece of tech -- using infrared technology, no less -- as one can imagine, and you can see it here on the BBC Worldwide page which includes a list of its tricks. It can control “all earth-based home entertainment systems,” TVs, iPod docks, DVD players and so on.
AND you can control them like the Time Lord uses the screwdriver. There are 13 short gestures, a la flicking, tapping, rotating, that operate the device, a replica of the one used by Matt Smith, the 11th doctor.
For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a few examples of the uses of the sonic screwdriver.
For those who are familiar, here’s a great QI clip of David Tennant -- sexy, Scottish and the 10th doctor -- doing an inadvertent parody sonic screwdriver operation (starts at about :47 seconds, but the whole clip is worth a look).
AND it makes noises: “The FX operational mode features a range of authentic vintage Doctor Who sound effects.”
Finally, I know I’m not the first to make note of this, but look at that thing: has no one made a vibrator based on this yet? Horny nerd girls...and gadgetry...and the Time Lord? That’s the best three-way since Who, What and I Dunno joined the baseball team.
8. Can pot help with weight issues?
Our next story, about two other things that make people smile -- getting high and eating -- begins in a secret greenhouse in the south of England. The facility houses cannabis plants that are being developed by GW Pharmaceuticals (which has a license to grow them) for all kinds of interesting medical purposes including one that’s very counterintuitive.
Richard Gray from the Telegraphreports that plants were bred to have different levels of cannabinoids, various compounds in the cannabis plant, from which drugs are being developed to treat multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Two of the cannabinoids -- THCV and cannabidiol -- were found, intriguingly to have an appetite-suppressing effect, though it only lasts for a short time.
GW is testing those two compounds in cannabis leaves that may help treat Type 2 diabetes and reduce cholesterol levels in the blood and fat levels in organs. In animal studies, “the compounds also had an impact on the level of fat in the body and its response to insulin, a hormone that controls the sugar levels in the blood. Tests in mice showed the compounds boosted the animals' metabolism, leading to lower levels of fat in their livers and reduced cholesterol in their bloodstream.”
Clinical trials are being conducted in hopes of treating “patients suffering from 'metabolic syndrome,' where diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity combine to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.”
I don’t have much experience with the munchies, never having needed pot to help me wipe out a bag of Funyuns, but it does seem kind of funny that a drug known for giving people the munchies could now help with weight-loss. It’s the kind of irony you could probably think about for many peaceful hours if you were really high.
9. A fishy tribute to Bob Marley
The gnathea marleyi was named by Paul Sikkel of Arkansas State University who said, “I named this species, which is a truly natural wonder, after Marley because of my respect and admiration for Marley’s music.” In addition, “this species is as uniquely Caribbean as was Marley,” as reported byJeanna Bryner of LiveScience.
Neat! It’s a big honor to get a species named after you...but it kind of seems a little incongruous that the namesake of the guy who wrote “One Love,” is a “parasitic crustacean,” and a “blood feeder” that “infests certain fish that live among the coral reefs of the shallow eastern Caribbean Sea.” Gnathids may be responsible for many diseases and Sikkel says that as the coral population degrades external parasites are more likely to go for host fishes. "And as the number of potential host fish decreases, each remaining host will become more heavily parasitized."
Eww. To be blunt (no pun intended) it doesn’t sound at all pleasant -- not at all like the fly with the golden tush named after Beyonce which Bryner notes in her list of celeb-named species.
10. Sneaky plants
That description of the Marley fish just goes to show that you never know what’s out there and you never know what’s gonna getcha.
Case in point: a super-sneaky carnivorous plant that doesn’t even put its fiendish flesh trap on the outside where you can see it, but keeps it underground where it snaps unsuspecting creatures that think it’s just another pretty face.
And it is quite pretty, as you can see in this picture that goes with io9’s story by Lauren Davis about the genus Philcoxia that has secret underground leaves with which to trap its prey.
Botanist Peter Taylor had seen structural characteristics in Philcoxia similar to other carnivorous plants, but no remains of the prey lying around and only recently did a research team from São Paulo's University of Campinas do a test and discover how the plants trap living things. The team put nematodes (worms) “labeled with a nitrogen isotope in the plants' soil, and found that, within 24 hours, the plants contained the nitrogen isotope.” The plant’s sticky underground leaves trap passing roundworms and leech out their nutrients, thus enabling the plant to live in nutrient-poor soil of its native Brazilian cerrado.
Davis ends her piece with my favorite line of the summer so far: “…just because you can't see where something keeps its mouth, that doesn't mean it won't try to eat you.”
If that’s not already the tagline for some kind of horror film...just wait.