10 Cool Things the World Learned This Week

Fuzzy dinosaurs, coral with herpes, an autism gene? Here's a few stories you may have missed.

Didn't see Sarah Palin on "Today" this week....didn't really care about that. Or Levi becoming a dad, again. Or Bristol moving in with her boyfriend. There are always more fascinating things found in the heavens and on earth that don't get nearly as much air time as, well, other things, and we think they deserve some more. 

Here are 10 things you may have missed this week that are worth noting.

1. Mini-We’s

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If you want to lose weight you could exercise and eat sensibly. Or you could do something that’s going to work, like surgery.

That’s kinda what three researchers are proposing in regard to global warming. Since cultural and policy changes aren’t cutting it, human engineering might do the trick, though one researcher seems to suggest the idea be taken with a grain of salt.

“We might not be entirely serious that people should be doing this,” Anders Sandberg of Oxford University told Wynne Parry of LiveScience, but we should at least consider it. The article that will appear in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment suggests things like making humans red-meat intolerant, engineering us to be smaller, using drugs and education to make us smarter and oxytocin to make us kinder.

“Human engineering” might sound scarily sci-fi but, the researchers argues, vaccines amount to the same thing. Besides if we’re willing to use certain drugs to make ourselves temporarily dumber, why not a few to wise us up?

So, future humans: pint-sized vegetarian brainiacs? That wouldn’t be the end of the world…maybe even in a literal sense.

2. Google Goggles

The NY Times’ Nick Bilton reports that Google is sending some techno-explorers out into the world to test the company’s new augmented-reality glasses, i.e. “wearable technology.” The “Project Glass” prototype looks like lens-free specs, but it does have a tiny lens that streams information, uses voice commands to get and send messages and has a built-in camera. A video shows a man using a pair to message friends, avoid a closed subway station and find an alternative walking route to his destination. There may -- “hypothetically,” Bilton says -- even be Project Glass contact lenses one day (and yes, it does call to mind those contact lens cameras from Torchwood, potentially blurring that line between sci and fi).

Google wants to hear what the public wants from Project Glass and Gizmodo’s Mario Aguilar gave them his input on stylesaying “People might actually wear them if they can get over how nerdy they look,” an observation accompanied by photos of wearers. Uh-oh! If those models are nerdy, we’re Julius Kelp. Help!

3. Gene Mutations Linked to Autism Risk

For the first time scientists have identified several gene mutations that “they agree sharply will increase the risk of a child developing autism,” writes the New York Times’ Benedict CareyOne group found the mutations four times more likely to originate with the father and all three found the risk increases with the age of the parents (especially dads over 35). The gene mutations may account for a small percent of autism cases but the findings provide a way to proceed in understanding the biology of autism. According to CDC numbers released last week, autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome, affect one in 88 kids in the U.S.-- a 78 percent increase since 2002, reports Karen Weintraub of USA Today. 

4. Spit Smoothie Anyone?

Alicia Silverstone fa-reaked people out with a video of her pre-chewing food for her 10-month-old son Bear Blu and then feeding him mouth-to-mouth, like a baby bird. But Life’s Little Mysteries (via Newser) says that it’s not only safe, it was a common practice before kid food was sterilized and pulverized for us by modern helpers like Gerber and Cuisinart.

“Babies start requiring non-milk food in their diets at six months old, but they don't develop the molars they need to chew most foods until age 18 to 24 months,” LLM’s Natalie Wolchover writes, so “pre-mastication” was, and in some cultures still is, a way to bridge the gap. And, as with breast milk, it also exposes the little one to “traces of disease pathogens in the mother’s saliva,” which gets their antibodies working, making for a healthier immune system (though moms with some infectious diseases, like HIV, should avoid the practice). 

5. Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a…Dinosaur?

Just in time for Easter: the news that some dinosaurs may been as soft and fuzzy as spring chicks. 

Wired.com’s Brandom Keim reports on an eye-opening find from the Yixian Formation in Northern China: a 30-foot-long, 30,000-pound ancestor of the T-rex, Ytyrrannus huali, a Latin/Mandarin name meaning “beautiful feathered tyrant.” The paleontologists who discovered the fossil write about it in the April 5 issue of Nature. 

Y. huali was smaller than T-rex but is the biggest feathered dinosaur anyone’s discovered so far. Fossils found at Yixian are “so finely preserved that it’s possible to discern feather-like structures,” subverting the long-held idea that all dinosaurs were scaly. The feathers may have been for insulation or to attract mates: fluffy bling.

“Instead of giant lizards they were basically weird birds,” Mark Norrell of the Museum of Natural History said about dinosaurs (but certainly not to their faces). 

6. Coral Goes Viral

Remember Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the folks who wrapped those Florida islands in pink fabric? Maybe we can get them to take their large-scale wrapping expertise underwater and make some condoms for the world’s coral reefs.

The coral, it seems, have “numerous varieties of herpes infections,” reports Discovery.com’s Tim Hall and this spread “may be one of the reasons the world’s coral reefs are plummeting.” Microbiologist Rebecca Vega-Thurber from Oregon State University says, "We've identified 22 kinds of emerging disease that affect corals, but still don't know the pathogens that cause most of them," but viral infections may be among them; the cause is, as yet, unknown. 

Coral and herpes have both been around for a long, long time, Vega-Thurber notes, “evolving 500 million years ago,” and herpes is a virus that “can infect almost every kind of animal.” These old-timers, she says, may have evolved together. 

If someone tells you, “Oh, you can’t get it from coral sex,” don’t you believe it.

7. Bonobots and Ape Apps 

No disrespect to friends or colleagues, but if I could talk to anyone it would be a bonobo. Bonobos, you probably know, are the sex-mad branch of the primate family. They use sex to ease tension, strengthen relationships and to console one another, says the BBC, and we love ‘em. This is an ancestor we can really relate to. 

Now the Bonobo Hope/Great Ape Trust in Iowa has put up a Kickstarter campaign to help get the bonobos talking. This story on the Huffington Post features a video of Ken Schweller, who has built touchscreens for the apes to use and wants to provide them with mobile interconnected keyboards and an app for humans to download that converts the lexigrams -- keyboards using symbols representing words -- into English so the bonobos and their people can talk wherever they are.

The Bonobo Chat App would also allow the apes to control their environments -- use vending machines, open doors, watch movies, etc. Schweller also wants to provide them with bonobo robots, “robo-bonobos” armed with water guns…so they can play with guests. The video shows a baby bonobo, so cute your head will explode, trying to make better use of his iPad. 

Considering the bonob’s sexy rep what do you suppose a talk with them would be like? Sure, they’ll be limited to the lexigrams but these clever creatures will surely find a way to communicate exactly what’s on their minds at any given time, which may well be a primate version of “The Aristocrats!” 

Those who contribute at the highest level have a chance to Skype chat with an actual bonobo. We’re thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign in order to be able to contribute to their Kickstarter campaign. It’d be worth it, right? 

8. Alien Life in Our Own Backyards? 

Liza Minnelli once sang a song about Shirley Devore, who went on a worldwide search for love only to find it with her neighbor: “She traveled round the world to meet the guy next door." 

Finding what you’re searching for right on your own doorstep seems to be the happy fate of European astronomers researching 102 M-dwarf stars who found nine “super Earths” -- planets up to 10 times our size -- circling them. Two of these nine planets are in the “Goldilocks” zones where temperatures aren’t “too hot or cold but just right for liquid water and thus, conceivably, for the existence of life,” writes Time’s Michael D. Lemonick.

So, that was research on 102 M-dwarf stars. There are (cue Carl Sagan impression) billions and billions of M-dwarf stars -- 150 billion in fact -- right in our galaxy. Even eliminating those outside the Goldilocks zones, that still means “a huge number of potentially life-friendly planets,” Lemonick writes. “And that makes them perhaps the most promising targets in the search for alien organisms that the planet-hunting community is ever likely to find.” 

So while we’ve been wondering where, oh where, could those aliens be, maybe we’ll find extraterrestrial life relatively close to home. 

9. Lyre Lyre

The BBC reports that the discovery of the remains of a lyre more than 2,300 years old shows that people in Western Europe were playing and enjoying “complex music” 1,000 years before previously estimated, and with it song and poetry. Being made of wood, such instruments seldom survived and this lyre was indeed “burned and broken,” the BBC says. The earliest such instruments go back 5,000 years to Iraq, but this find on the Isle of Skye shows that creative expression has been part of human life for millennia. 

We know what you’re thinking. Scottish music was evolving 1,000 years longer than previously thought and they still stuck with bagpipes? Well ta heck wah ye. We’ll take some lively piping over, say, that Titanic song any day (Kate Winsletagrees). 

10. You Are the Dog

You’re only human. Ask your dog.

Actually you’re more alike than you think and there are studies to prove it. Just as we humans have less self-control when we’re exhausted or our willpower is spent (ask a smoker attempting to quit), your dog feels the same way. 

LiveScience’s Stephanie Pappas recently reported on the research of Holly Miller of the University of Lille de Nord in France, who found that dogs also more at risk after having to exercise self-control. In a study of 10 dogs the pooches first had to sit and stay of their own accord while a “hamster” (Zhu Zhu pet) rolled around on the floor. “In the other session, the dog was caged for 10 minutes, and so did not have to exert self-control,” Pappas writes. 

The dogs were then brought into a room with a cage containing a really PO’d, snarling, aggressive bull terrier. Depleted dogs, who had just done the sit-stay task spent 58.9 percent of their time closer to the cage with the Scary Dog, compared to the dogs who had been calmly caged: 48.1 percent. Being spent seems to have made them more likely to take a risk.

The results (which are published in the March 30 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review) certainly have pithy take-aways for us and our pets: if we snap, maybe it’s not because we’re jerks, but because we’re exhausted. Dog and people all need breaks. Dogs and people all need balance. Evidently we’re both only human.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.