10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

In Florida, the Halloween decorations are arriving in Target. Other parts of the country are treated to colorful fall leaves, which might be coming with surprising speed this year. Douglas Main of Our Amazing Planet says that drought conditions in the northeast might cause stressed-out trees to stop producing chlorophyll early, allowing other lovely colors to come through. 

Not sure if pretty leaves are worth drought conditions, but that said, after this stupidly hot summer, all signs of fall get the thumbs-up.

1. In your face

That includes horror films. One that maintains its power to nauseate after 25 years is the scene in The Believers, when (spoiler alert) spiders hatch out of Helen Shaver’s face

Whether or not you have that disgust of insects and arachnids that makes you act like “wacky, waving, inflatable arm-flailing tube man,” everytime one comes near you, the idea of them inside your face is horrifying. And yet we all have them. Seriously. Teeny, tiny, itty, bitty spider-like mites live in our faces, and have done so forever, apparently. Only now, reports Debora MacKenzie of New Scientist, it has been discovered that the mites cause rosacea, a skin inflammation, including “ swelling, roughness and fine, visible blood vessels, usually in the central zone of the face,” which effects up to 20% of the world population. 

Kevin Kavanagh of the National University of Ireland believes he has discovered why some people get rosacea while others don’t. Those little mites, called Demodex, are more numerous in people with rosacea -- 10 times more -- possibly because stress causes their facial oil, or sebum, to change and be better for the mites to eat. Demodex don’t have anuses so when they die, Kavanaugh believes, the buildup of their feces releases all at once causing an immune system reaction and inflammation. 

That’s what you wanted to wake up to, right? Enjoy your breakfast, spider face! You’ll never look deeply into your own pores the same way again.

2. Now if only we could meet a nauseous whale…

Usually in this column when I present something of the life-imitates-art variety, the art isn’t horror films but science fiction, like the time in Futurama when Kif found himself  covered in precious whale vomit

In real life, it happened to little Charlie Naysmith, 8, who was walking on the Dorset shore with his dad when, reports National Geographic’s Joanna Rizzo, he came across a weird rock that turned out to be ambergris, a substance high-end European perfume companies value for its ability to “fix scent to human skin.” What is ambergris? It is an “intestinal slurry” sperm whales expel when something irritates their stomach -- often a squid beak. The irritant gets ejected, hardens in the ocean and turns up on beaches. Whales may not actually yak up the ambergris, as long thought: “As of now, the argument seems to be weighted toward the back end of the whale.”

We love Joanna Rizzo for being too ladylike to say “whale heinie,” and also for giving us a Phrase of the Year candidate with “intestinal slurry.”

Ambergris is illegal to use in the US because the sperm whale is endangered, but in other markets that rock Charlie found could be worth $63,000. Golden ticket, indeed. Lots of people are going to be looking for vomit on beaches now. Sadly, they’ll find it, but mostly during spring break in Daytona.

3. Their two suns

Another excellent example of real life awesomely imitating a sci-fi movie is the twin suns circled by multiple planets in the Kepler-47 system, very much like those on the home world of Luke Skywalker.

And one of the weird things is -- it isn’t weird. 

Charles Q. Choi writes on Space.com that our planet is a bit unusual in having only one measly sun -- most suns “come in pairs that orbit each other. Scientists had found planets in these binary systems, so-called circumbinary planets with two suns like Tatooine in the Star Wars universe.” One sun is about the size of ours and the other is much smaller (a third the size of the other) and 175 times fainter.

These circumbinary planets are named Kepler 47a and Kepler 47b and are huge: 3 and 4.6 times the size of earth. The Space.com story has great charts and a nice little animation of how the orbits work. The outer planet is in a habitable zone where liquid water might be possible but life likely wouldn’t be because it “is probably a gas giant slightly larger than Uranus.” 

Your fourth-grade self thought that was hilarious. 

4. A relaxing cocktail can cause anxiety

The Kepler-47 system is about 5,000 light-years away. If you’re seeing two suns from Earth you might have had one little drinky-poo too many.

That, according to some new research, could make you more vulnerable to anxiety problems. Science Daily reports on a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the University of North Carolina's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies that says heavy drinking can rewire the way the brain deals with anxiety, making it harder to recover from trauma.

The researchers studied two groups of mice over a one-month period, one of which got no alcohol, another which got the equivalent of double the legal driving limit for humans (no other animals, to my knowledge, have such limits). Mild electric shocks were used to "teach" the mice to “fear the sound of a brief tone. (Let's face it, that's cruel and it's the exactly the kind of anxiety that might make many of us humans think a tension-cutting drink sounds like a good idea.)

When they heard the tone without the shock, the teetotaling mice eventually didn’t fear it but the drinking mice continued to, freezing in place when it was played “even long after the electric shocks had stopped,” SD says. Nerve cells in the pre-frontal cortex of the mice which were given alcohol were found to be differently shaped than in the other mice; also “the activity of a key receptor, NMDA, was suppressed in the mice given heavy doses of alcohol.”

The research shows where in the brain alcohol does damage in our ability to overcome fear.

“Basically our research shows that chronic exposure to alcohol can cause a deficit with regard to how our cognitive brain centers control our emotional brain centers,” says lead author Thomas Kash. An impairment like that could make it more difficult for a person to recover from trauma and make them more vulnerable to PTSD. 

So it’s a sad irony that the self-medicating many of us have done with alcohol was probably doing more harm than good. It’s enough to make you want to order a cocktail…never mind. 

5. Curved beer glasses quicker to give you beer goggles? 

If you do find yourself with a drinking problem, maybe running through a few more beers than you intended to on a night out, there is a study confirming that it’s not your fault. You were mere putty in the hands of your glass.

CBS News’ Michelle Castillo reports on HealthPop that researchers at the University of Bristol asked 159 drinkers to drink either a soft drink or a lager from a straight-up-and-down or a curved glass. There was no difference in the time it took soft drink drinkers to finish, but those drinking lager out of curved glasses finished in an average of 7 minutes while it took the straight-glass drinkers 11 minutes. The researchers reported that was a slow-down time of 60% for straight-glass drinkers. The researchers thought people might have a harder time “pacing themselves” with a curvy glass and the study also showed it’s harder to tell how much is actually in one; when asked if a glass was more or less than half full they got the answer right more frequently if the glass was straight.

“The study only looked at the time to finish only one drink, so researchers are curious to see if the effect lasts throughout a night of drinking.”

Call me? 

6. Reach out and disconcert someone

You might think drinking helps cement bonds, but it can sometimes break them just as easily. Turns out cell phones have a similar irony. Yes, they help us to stay connected, but they can also make us feel more tenuous in our connections, writes Helen Lee Lin of Scientific American. A set of studies from the University of Essex shows that the mere presence of a cell phone in a room can make us feel less connected to others. 

The researchers, Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, had two strangers leave their personal belongings behind to talk in a private booth where they could see two items -- in one case, a book and a pocket notebook, in the other a book and a cell phone. In follow-up questionaires the “pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.” In a second experiment, each pair of strangers were assigned either a casual or a more meaningful topic (plastic trees and important recent world events, respectively), again with either the cell phone or notebook present. The casual pairs reported no difference in feelings of “trust and empathy” but there were marked differences concerning the deeper topic -- those pairs reported feeling like the quality of the talk was worse, their trust of the other person and the other person’s empathy for them was less. 

Lin writes, “The new research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect, inhibiting our ability to connect with the people right next to us. Cell phone usage may even reduce our social consciousness.”

Not only that, but with our myriad forms of communication, in every room and in our pockets, it’s just that much easier to be PO’d when someone never calls us back. 

7. Atto boy!

I try not to do that. If you call me, I will do my best to get back to you in an attosecond.

An attosecond is an “incomprehensible quintillionith of a second” and I bring it up because here on my home turf, at the University of Central Florida, a research team has created the world’s shortest laser pulse -- “a 67 attosecond pulse of ultraviolet light” reports CFN-13 News. It would take 15 million billion pulses of this light to equal one second. The effort was led by UCF Professor Zenghu Chang, who named the light pulse Double Optical Grating (DOG) and also made a super-fast camera to measure the DOG, the Phase Retrieval by Omega Oscillation Filtering (PROOF). 

The ultra-fast laser will be a huge step in helping with the study of quantum mechanics -- the movement of energy and matter on the tiniest, most microscopic level. “The technique could lead scientists to understand how energy can be harnessed to transport data, deliver targeted cancer therapies or diagnose disease.”

8. Eye eye

Talk about something happening in the blink of an eye. Actually, the blink of an eye lasts 400 milliseconds, so an attosecond is far shorter than a blink. A blink is how long it takes to change a TV channel. It’s also how you may one day be changing your TV channel.

Welcome, Eye-Control TV reviewed here by Brian Heater on Engadget. It’s not yet perfect, he says, but it's still pretty cool, using a good-sized black sensor that needs to be calibrated to the user in order to interpret various blinks and eye movements to change channels and adjust volume. Regular blinks don’t mess with it; you have to use a fairly definite I-Dream-of-Jeannie blink. Heater says there’s a “learning curve” involved with things like selecting pictures with your eyes in order to choose what video to watch, but though it might take a little more development to make it market-ready, it’s inarguably cool to think that one day “Where’s the remote?” will be a phrase no one understands.

Because I still have one of those TVs that sticks out in the back (kinda like I do) and on which I have to get up and adjust the volume manually, I feel more than a little Amish when faced with this kind of magical technology. Very curious to know what the eye-controlled TV does if you begin to weep uncontrollably. Hopefully it puts on The Muppets to cheer you up. 

9. Alternatives to animal testing

I cry all the time when I watch TV, not because it’s so bad, but because I’m a sap. I cry at sad shows and commercials and god forbid one of those PSAs about animal abuse comes on -- I know I’m going to lose all my mascara. 

The idea of animals suffering in lab testing is certainly no better. So it’s encouraging that George Dvorsky of io0 reports that technology is increasingly equipped to give us inanimate substitute subjects that will leave animals well out of the scientific testing equation.

Dvorsky also reported recently on a declaration signed by many prominent scientists supporting the fact that animals, including “all mammals, birds, and even the octopus” have consciousness just like we do. In that piece the author wonders “will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?” His followup story seems to suggest that technology is trying and in many ways, succeeding in that goal. 

This remarkable article is worth reading in full, but the gist is that for over 50 years efforts have been made to get animals out of labs. Just like we have the environmental slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle,” English scientists William Russell and Rex Burch have “Reduction, Refinement and Replacement” -- the goals being to use the fewest number of animals to greatest effect, reduce their fear and discomfort as much as possible, and use plants or non-sentient animals when possible.

That last bit -- replacement -- is becoming more feasable with, for example, MatTek's in vitro 3D human skin tissue,” used to test cosmetics and radiation exposure; “non-invasive brain-scanning techniques,” like MRIs replacing the need for vivisection; “microdosing, where volunteers are given extremely small one-time drug doses,” which “is allowing researchers to work ethically with humans”; and of course, computer models, which Dvorsky says is likely where the future of drug testing will go. 

By the way, it isn’t just the unspeakable cruelty of animal testing that makes it undesirable…it’s the lack of effectiveness. Dvorsky quotes a 2006 study in JAMA which said, "Even high-quality animal studies will replicate poorly in human clinical research."

10. The last supper (or breakfast or snack)

It’s entirely fine, however, to do research on an animal that has been dead for 120 million years, especially if your question is, “So, what was good on the menu back in the day?

The animal in this case is Sinocalliopteryx gigas, a wolf-sized, fuzzy, feathery dinosaur whose fossil was found in Liaoning, China. Charles M. Choice reports on LiveScience that the area is now mostly farmland but was once a warm, wet, volcanic, perfect spot for dinosaurs, hence a lot of the farmers having turned to “farming for dinosaurs,” according to Phil Bell, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative in Canada. 

Two Sinocalliopteryx gigas fossils found here were well preserved enough to tell what their last meal was. One had “a birdlike, cat-size feathered dinosaur known as Sinornithosaurus, judging by the partial leg found in its gut" (see images of the dinosaur guts). The other “at least two primitive crow-size birds known as Confuciusornis, as well as acid-etched bones from a dinosaur.”

Finding two of the same birds make it likely that the animal was a predator and not a scavenger, and the researchers think that “capturing flying prey points to a stealthy, capable hunter.” The cool thing about finding such an intimate detail of a dinosaur is the ability to make them real to us.

"A lot of people look at fossils as just dead things — it's hard for them to imagine them as living, breathing animals. When you get something like this, it really brings them to life,” Bell says.

So as an attosecond is an incomprehensibly short time, 120 million years ago is incomprehensibly long -- until you have something like this to put the creatures that existed back then into sharp relief (and sharp 2D imagery as well, which you’ll see if you click the “dinosaur guts” link). 

Imagine. Some day, 120 million years from now, all your hopes and fears may be lost to the ages, life may have changed in staggering ways, and some scientist, alien or time-traveler may be looking at your well-preserved gut remains, and in a tone of awed reverence announce to the world: “Ooooh, Pop Tarts!”

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