10 Interesting Things the World Learned This Week

Cool discoveries about music, Leonardo da Vinci and America's wolf population.

Here is a list of ten amazing things the world learned this week:

1. Alive with the Sound of Music

Sometimes the synchronicity with which stories emerge is practically musical. 

Even as the AFP reported that the number of dementia cases could more than triple by the year 2050, a Time magazine story by Aylin Zafar featured an astonishing video from the new documentary Alive Inside, showing a man named Henry, a ten-year nursing home resident who seems to "wake up" when he hears his favorite music on a tiny iPod shuffle. If watching Henry go from near-zombification to singing a sweet rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, your ducts are clogged (the video is a must-see).

Famous neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who is part of the documentary says “Music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can,” something to remember even if we’re just gloomy. Seriously, click this and see if you don’t feel just a little happier. 

Alive Inside documents that when patients with “memory loss and Alzheimer’s are given music, they have a strong emotional connection to — often music they grew up with.” Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, the AFP says.

Henry, who, remember, barely spoke before the music, says, “It gives me the feeling of love, romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing,” and then he goes on to talk about the beauty of music and about God. In fact, he’s right: A study from McGill University in Montreal in 2011 showed that listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the grand pleasures of love, sex, food and drugs. “These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain,” said neuroscientist Dr. Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. 

2. The da Vinci Post-It

None of our memories are so great, so we all make to-do lists. Even Leonardo da Vinci. Caroline Davis of the Guardian reports on an 86-page exhibition of the great inventor/artist’s anatomical notebooks, due to go on display May 4 at  Queens Gallery at Buckingham Palace and of all those pages da Vinci’s packing and ‘things to do today’ lists seem to have gotten the most attention. Fair enough. It’s nice to know that one of the world’s greatest geniuses wrote notes to himself just like we do.

Only his notes aren’t quite like ours. Consider his packing list for a trip he was taking 1510, a list which including comb, glasses, towel (Leo was a surely guy who always knew where his towel was) ... plus a fine-tooth bonesaw, a scalpel and a surgical knife. 

No wonder he was trying to make a one-man aircraft. Leo never would have made it through the TSA.

The trip, Davies reports was “to dissect corpses.”  

Then there’s the to-do list. Our favorite: “Get human skull. Nutmeg.” Only one of those might turn up on your shopping list and then probably on a holiday. 

Can’t help imagine the to-do lists of other scientists. Tesla: “Invent remote. Find remote.” Newton: “Buy helmet; harvest apples.”  Sagan “Make record for Martians. Buy weed.” 

3. Quicker autism diagnosis?

Harvard researcher Dennis P. Wall is hoping leaders in the field of autism will be open-minded about a speedier method he’s developed for diagnosing autism. Wall’s method, described by Bonnie Rochman in Time magazine, “combines computer algorithms along with a seven-point parent questionnaire and a home video clip to make a speedy online assessment of whether a child has autism.” Traditional diagnostic tests can take four hours or longer and require that the child be seen by a professional, which can mean a long wait. The wait means that children are diagnosed at an average age of 5.7, which is later than early intervention should begin, Wall says. He compared his test results to 2,700 results from people who had taken one of the longer tests, and his results compared favorably. 

Many autism experts are dubious of the "quickie," considering that it is a “complex diagnosis.” They say that that face-to-face interaction and observation by a physician are how symptoms are first noted, after which the child is referred to a specialist; some states have time requirements between referral, assessment and treatment. Wall hopes for open-mindedness toward his speedy assessment: “I think there’s a way for us to all play together.”

4. Pheromone parties

Scent has long been thought to be one of the zillions of things that  factor into the rules of attraction. New Scientistreports that “women seem to prefer the scent of men who have immune systems dissimilar to their own,” and now a new idea in dating — the pheromone party — is giving people a chance to literally sniff out romance.

Amanda Hess of The Daily Good offers a hilarious recount of her experience at one such event. To prepare, one procures a new white T-shirt and marinates in Eau de Self for awhile to “capture your odor print,” pop it in a Zip-loc and bring it to the party. The shirts are labeled with a number and the owner’s sex. Bags are sniffed. Hopefully matches are made.

Someone clearly read about Swiss researcher Claus Wedekind’s sweaty T-shirt studies and turned it into a nightlife event, and why not? One thought, though: If you attend a function like this, you clearly have a sense of humor, are slightly geeky and embrace novelty as would your fellow attendees. Having a similar sense of fun is probably as compelling as any scent.

Smell ya later. 

5. Nice genes!

Oxytocin, “the cuddle hormone,” and vasopressin are known for their ability to help us have empathy and to bond; In the words of Bill & Ted, to be excellent to each other.

But how you respond to those hormones might be in your genetic makeup. Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries (via LiveScience) reports on the research of psychologist Michael Poulin, which suggests that if you have a certain type of gene for a specific version of the receptor for those hormones, you are more likely to be a nice person than if you have another gene for another type of receptor. The genotype for niceness is represented by the letters GG, which means you inherited two guanine base pair genes from your parents. Joy! You got the happy oxytocin receptor. But if you have an AG or an AA type, you inherited an adenine base pair from one or both parents, and that, well … we hate to tell you this, because we know what a crab you can be, but you got the “less nice” receptor. 

The genotypes, however, do work in concert with worldview. People who were found to have a negative worldview, e.g., “People are inherently bad,” but had the nice receptor were still nice; if they had a negative worldview and other type of receptor, not so much. 

Giving further cred to the idea that genetics might play more of a role in kindness than experience, another study showed that identical twins were similar in their attitude about kindness, e.g., “civic duty and charitable activities,” than fraternal twins, who share only half the genes of their sibling as opposed to identicals, which share 100 percent.

So all those pious, saintly, do-gooders out there, it’s not that you’re so sweet. You can’t help yourself. Your charitable, loving attitude is no more your choice than your eye color. Triumph of the human spirit … feh.

Guess which genotype we didn’t get?

6. The good thing about the Big Bad Wolf

In most childhood stories, wolves aren’t very nicely depicted: they’re deceitful cross-dressing granny eaters who leave little pigs homeless and eat friendly ducks whole. 

With that cemented in our heads, when will we ever embrace the idea of the Big Good Wolf?

Not fast enough for the wolves, that’s for sure, and not fast enough to have kept a natural predator-prey balance in some Northern Hemisphere ecosystems. Researchers from Oregon State University looked at 42 studies spanning 50 years and found that in areas where there were fewer natural predators to keep the populations of large herbivores (moose and deer) in check, those populations increase, throwing the ecosystem out of balance and contributing “to deforestation and results in less carbon sequestration, a potential concern with climate change.” Areas without wolves had six times the number of “large mammalian herbivores,” as those with wolves. A combination of predators — like wolves and bears — helped keep herbivore populations in check and contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem.

Still, “In Idaho and Montana, hundreds of wolves are now being killed in an attempt to reduce ranching conflicts and increase game herd levels,” though human hunting, the research says, doesn’t keep game populations down as effectively as natural predators. 

7. “Cosmic cartographer”

Good news, everyone! Those who have been disappointed by the budgetary woes inhibiting space exploration have something to celebrate: NASA has granted extensions for nine space exploration missions “that were on the potential chopping block,” reports Time’s Michael Lemonick. Kepler’s mission of finding “Earth-size planets in life-friendly habitable zones of sunlike stars” is taking longer than anticipated, but, well … the results of moving toward the change of finding alien life are kiiiiiinda worth it. Planet hunter Geoff Marcy described it this way: “Like a cosmic cartographer Kepler will give us the exact coordinates to prospect for earthlike planets in the Milky Way.”  

8. Somewhere over the moonbow

If this piece had run nine days earlier, we’d have thought we were being April fooled.

Since it ran on April 10 we’re pretty sure Ted Thornhill and Claire Bates of the Daily Mail aren’t making chumps out of us with these dazzling photos of a moonbow, or lunar rainbow, taken at night. The rarely photographed moonbow was captured over Victoria Falls by photographer Charlie Hamilton James. James on “Cataract Island on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia.”

Sunlight refracted through water is what creates rainbows — moonbows utilize strong moonlight and in James’ photographs was provided by the falls, where the spray goes up to a mile highs. The moonbow may not be as vivid to the naked eye, James says: ‘The joy of photography is that we can keep the camera shutter open for a long time and reveal the true nature of the light that our eyes are simply not sensitive to see.” 

9. “Did you see that? Neither did I.”

If a fossil fuel leaks into the environment and no one sees it, does it make an impact? 

A leak on French energy company Total SA’s platform off the coast of Scotland is sending 7 million cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere daily, writes Bryan Walsh of Time magazine. You can’t see natural gas spilling into the ocean like oil, so it doesn’t it doesn’t seem so drastic and doesn’t have a “devastating” effect on marine life (the AP reports that taste testers have sampled fish in the area and found them “untained by hydrocarbons”). But natural gas is mostly methane, which “has 25 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.” If the leak takes the estimated six months to fix and all that methane reaches the atmosphere, Walsh reports, it would be “the equivalent of 300,000 cars on the road.”

Isn’t natural gas a cleaner burning fuel? Well, it’s cleaner than coal, but a lot depends on how much of it leaks into the atmosphere, and Walsh, in his detailed story, concludes that it’s worth gathering more information and taking its climate changing risks into consideration.  

10. Tennessee turns “Monkey Bill” into law

In order to see how a particular algae would react to ocean acidification researchers cultured the algae in a lab “under projected future CO2 conditions.” Over the course of 500 generations (produced in one year) the algae were shown to have adapted to higher CO2 conditions, reports Science Daily. They adapted to their environment. You might say they evolved.  

The research was meant to see whether the algae would adapt, not to show evidence of evolution itself. But having just read about this little episode, it seems helpful to bring this quiet little example to the table, especially since evolution is under fire in Tennessee. Again.

Tennessee has just passed a law that allows teachers to “point out flaws in current scientific thought on evolution, global warming and other accepted theories,” writes Jane Roberts of the Tennessee Commercial Appeal. Critics, who have dubbed the law “The Monkey Bill” (in echo of the Scopes Trial) feel it will hobble science education in that state. The new law doesn’t include teaching of creationism or intelligent design but’s Ars Technica points out, intriguingly,  “Teachers with a strong agenda will be able to bring up discredited arguments against the mainstream scientific understanding. And, should they ever do that in front of a student from a family with equally strong views, the result will inevitably be a lawsuit that will hold the local school district responsible.”

Thousands of people signed petitions against the bill, and organizations like the National Center for Science Education have spoken out against it. Didn’t matter. 

For some people no amount of evidence for evolution will alter what they believe. 

Funny how a unicellular algae can adapt to new stuff, but sometimes humans just can’t get the knack of it.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.
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