10 Amazing Things the World Learned This Week

The naked face-eater in Miami stole the news, but there was a whole lot more going on this week. Here's a peek.

Photo Credit: siraphat/ Shutterstock.com

Usually we’re all kinds of optimistic about the cool discoveries science has made for the world this week. Even though we start off with a truly harrowing event, we still come away impressed with the ability of researchers to give us an idea of why we’re affected the way we are by things from drugs to smiling and how researchers are improving our lives to make them less scary and more filled with wonder for the world. 

1. The naked face-eater. Remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons and other old comedies where one desperately hungry character would hallucinate that the other character was a hamburger or a chicken?

That’s probably not what happened with the Naked Face-Eater, the story that made every writer or reporter covering anything else last weekend wonder why they were bothering. Rudy Eugene, a 31-year-old Miami man, attacked Ronald Poppo, a 65-year-old homeless man, on the MacArthur Causeway in Miami. Eugene gnawed off 75 percent of Poppo’s face before a Miami police officer shot Eugene…and then he still didn’t stop, but “kept chewing,” as Diana Moskovitz and David Ovalle of of the Miami Herald reported. The officer fired more shots, eventually killing Eugene. Miami’s WSVN showed some pieces of video caught by Miami Herald surveillance camera and the Herald itself offered a narrated timeline of the attack.

“Why?" is the first thought that comes to mind, as though there’s a satisfactory answer, but police and medical personal have theorized about two different drugs that might have caused Eugene to perpetrate such a savage attack. The first suspected condition is “cocaine psychosis,” as reported byGizmodo’s Mario Aguilar. It’s a subset of “stimulant psychosis,” which can be caused by any stimulant. Cocaine psychosis is usually suffered by chronic cocaine and crack users -- it’s an extremely addictive substance that “gives a boost to your sympathetic nervous system” and makes you feel good -- until you get too much in your system and end up with physical symptoms like seizures and psychological symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations. Aguilar writes that “in addition to messing with the delicate balance of neurotransmitters like serotonin, using huge amounts of cocaine scrambles your brain's capacity for executive function. That means your judgement and logic go out the window.”

(Click here for the best thing anyone’s ever said about cocaine.)

On CNN’s health blog, the Chart, Ann J. Curley reported that Armando Aguilar, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police,  suspected “bath salts” (also suspected by an ER doctor as reported in the first Herald story) a new line of designer drugs “sold as cocaine substitutes" or "synthetic LSD" and containing "amphetamine-like chemicals such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone, and pyrovalerone.” Once it gets to the brain, in addition to stimulating effects, empathy and euphoria it can also induce psychosis, panic attacks and hunger for more of the drug. 

And it’s getting more popular. The DEA’s forensic monitoring system had “two reports of MDPV in 2009” -- and 911 in 2011. 

I’m not trying to scare you into thinking there are going to be more zombie face-eaters out there. Just a heads-up.

Besides, everyone knows it’s the vampires you’ve really got to worry about. 

2. Research with teeth.While zombie comparisons were being made about Miami, a would-be vampire is causing a squabble among Italian scientists.

LiveScience contributor Charles Q. Choi wrote this week about the research of forensic anthropologist Matteo Borini and his colleague Emilio Nuzzolese concerning a corpse found in a mass grave of plague victims; a corpse they believed had worn a shroud and appeared to have had a brick shoved in her mouth in what might have been the first attempt to exorcise a vampire from “ravaging the city further with pestilence.” Monster myths were common in a region devastated by the horrors of plague, and the stages of human decomposition were not fully understood. 

But Simona Minozzi, physical anthropologist at the University of Pisa in Italy, doesn’t think that because some people bought into those myths back then that we should conclude that such a burial took place. The other researchers, she thinks, didn’t have enough evidence to support their hypothesis. Bricks, stones and tiles were found to surround the gravesite and sometimes objects fall into the gaping mouth of a skeleton, “for instance, they note a skeleton with a thighbone in its mouth was found in the cemetery of Vecchio Lazzaretto in Venice,” Choi writes.

Whichever side is correct it’s interesting to hear about the natural events that can disturb antique corpses and superstitions that might have caused people to fear the undead, especially now when the undead are a huge source of amusement to us. 

Besides, everyone knows it’s the werewolves you’ve really got to be afraid of. 

3. Don’t needle me.Cannibals and vampires might be scary, but unless you’re on a movie set you’re not likely to encounter one. They’re nothing like everyday fears people have including spiders, clowns or public speaking. Some people -- those who have trypanophobia, or fear of needles -- would rather fight a vampire than get an injection from a doctor or dentist.

Those who hate being needled could one day be far more relaxed about going to the doctor. In fact they can just pretend they’re on "Star Trek" and getting one of those air-puff injections from Bones because thanks to some researchers at MIT those needle-free injections could be closer than you think.

This new device, writes Jennifer Chu of the MIT News Officedelivers a speed-of-sound jet of medication through the skin without the use of a needle. The new jet-injector device can deliver various doses at various depths and is more easily controllable. Chu writes that the device is built around, “a Lorentz-force actuator — a small, powerful magnet surrounded by a coil of wire that’s attached to a piston inside a drug ampoule. When current is applied, it interacts with the magnetic field to produce a force that pushes the piston forward, ejecting the drug at very high pressure and velocity (almost the speed of sound in air) out through the ampoule’s nozzle — an opening as wide as a mosquito’s proboscis.” (There’s video and animation of the instrument and process on the Web site.)

There is an initial high-pressure phase of the injection to get it through the skin and then a lower pressure phase that delivers the drug inside more slowly so the surrounding tissue can absorb it. 

Needleless injections will cut down on accidental needle sticks (the CDC estimates that medical professionals accidentally stick themselves 385,000 times a year) and will also make it a lot easier for patients who have to self-inject medications like insulin. 

The new device doesn’t appear to have a name yet. We’d like to suggest "The Real McCoy."

4. The power of the smiley face.Once upon a time in a Kinko's in midtown Manhattan a clerk said to me “Where are you from?” 

“How do you know I’m not from here?” I asked.

“Because you smile at everybody.”

He had me there. Smiling randomly at strangers is a habit of mine, one sometimes remarked upon more than once when I visit larger, colder places than the one I live in. It never did me me any harm and may have done others a world of good. 

In “Why You Should Smile At Strangers,” LiveScience’s Stephanie Pappas reports that researchers at Purdue University did a sneaky experiment on 239 pedestrians in a busy area of the campus. The unwitting targets were passed by a stranger who either ignored them, or acknowledged them politely or with a smile. A fourth group didn’t pass any strangers. By having one person ignore them “the researchers were aiming to create a feeling the Germans call "wie Luft behandeln," or "to be looked at as though air."

Then the pedestrians were stopped by someone else asking them to take a survey on social connectedness. The people who were ignored reported that they felt less socially connected than the people who were acknowledged with politeness or a smile, while the people who passed no one fell in the middle. 

(What strikes me about this experiment is that if people ignored by a strangers felt socially disconnected, imagine how people feel when they are ignored or excluded by peers, colleagues and school mates. Do someone a favor and return their call, text or email, wouldja?)

Pappas acknowledges that location might have something to do with how one responds to those things, i.e., ignoring people is normal in Manhattan but not necessarily in a small community. Still, feeling excluded can lead to a weakened immune system and feelings of lower self-worth. Eric Wasselman, a social psychologist at Purdue put it simply: "Sometimes, colloquially, I like to say ostracism sucks. It's not a pleasant experience."

5. A villainous angle.Of course, if you have the face of a villain, smiling at people might actually scare them.

How does one have the face of a villain? Isn’t that a bit looks-ist? Couldn’t anyone be a villain? Well, when you look at some classic villainous faces -- Darth Maul, Malefiscent, the Devil -- their faces have a triangular shape with the triangle pointing downward, a shape psychologists say gives people a threatened feeling, reports Science Daily

“In a paper published in Emotion, a journal of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Derrick Watson and Dr. Elisabeth Blagrove have carried out a series of experiments with volunteers to find out if simple geometric shapes can convey positive or negative emotions,” SD reports. Research subjects were shown positive, negative and neutral faces and then “triangles facing upwards, downwards, inward and outward. This latest study shows that downward triangles are detected just as quickly as a negative face."

The study showed that downward-facing triangles convey negative emotions, making it understandable why the downward-slanted eyebrows instantly turn a smiley face into a creepy menace. 

It’s hard not to wonder, though: do we see those downward-slanted brows and pointed chins as evil because we’ve seen all those pointy-faced villains in childhood movies? Or did all those artists make their villains pointy faced because we instinctively find them unsettling? 

However it came to be thus, if this face smiled at you randomly you’d probably have less of a warm feeling than a heart attack.

6. But can they do the Robot? Even if you were ignored by everyone today, you have to be cheered up by a group of cute robots dancing to Thriller.

This instant grin is brought to you by researchers at MIT who are seeking out ways to easily get robots to perform “simple, small-scale synchronized activities,” writes Phys.Org’s Bob Yirkato “autonomously accomplish certain goals that have been defined by their human masters.” Dance routines being small-scale synchronized activities, they are a perfect fit for the research. So they made some choreography for them to do to Michael Jackson, as you would, if you had a small, cute robot platoon at your disposal.

MIT researchers Patrick Bechon and Jean-Jacques Slotine have been attempting to mimic something called “quorum sensing,” which is used by organic creatures. Bacteria and insects use quorum sensing: each group member emits a number of molecules and the other members sense them to know how many are in their group and when they’re supposed to do certain things. 

Previously roboticists have tried preprogramming robots or have them programmed to communicate with each other through a network but with both of those methods the robots can get out of sync. The robots, designed by Aldebaran, emit data, like bacteria emit molecules; the data is heard by a central computer which sends it back out again and all the robots try to stick to it. They do remarkably well. When one is removed from the routine he not only picks it back up -- in time with his companions -- but he gives a nice return wave to his human manipulator, which, as we know from a previous item, probably made the human feel more socially connected. 

True, the research is about getting robots to work in sync, not about charming us to the point where we think “I’ve just watched robots dance to Thriller so life must be okay.” But as byproducts of research go, the robot dance is one of the best.

7. Climate change and a Goldilocks moment.Having robots that can all dance to Thriller is pretty cool -- it’s not the jet pack we were promised in the future, but it’s still awesome, plus there are a lot of things we have now that people didn’t foresee back in the day. If you had told someone in the 1960s that one day you’d be able to watch any movie you wanted on a screen you carried in your pocket, they’d have slung you into the booby hatch. Some things we have are better than the futures that were predicted for us in the past…futures that included coming home to a dinner of elephantine radium-addled frog leg.

Zapatopi (via io9) discovered that’s what one newspaper mused about in October 1913 (Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 5 or Spokesman-Review, Oct. 4) -- and the writer was pretty stoked about it. British scientists had bred frogs three times bigger than the norm by treating the eggs with radium and this would be a boon to increasing the world’s food supply, since “the process can be applied to all the food animals, including beef creatures,” a phrase I’ll be using as a term of endearment in the coming weeks (“C’mere you big, sexy beef creature, you…”).

The writer does warn that the too-liberal application of radium tends to rather kill things…but judiciously used just seems to make them bigger. One French scientist used a little cellular manipulation, plus radium exposure, and bred a frog with an outsized body and two heads. 

And our reporter is psyched about this, not just that it’s happening but that it might be one day applied to humans: if you could breed people with two heads, he reasons, that means two brains and that means we’ll all end up smarter. He waxes poetic, imagining a two-headed person with one head containing the brain of Shakespeare and the other of Abraham Lincoln.

It’s impossible not to enjoy the Plastic Man-type reach of his optimism, but we all know that we’d actually end up with two reality show contestants on the same body, right? 

8. Where have all the Harrapans gone? And what are Harrapans?If you have that kind of view of the future -- slightly less rose-colored than the frog-leg reporter -- you probably have normal concerns about climate change. Hate to do anything to confirm your suspicions, but researchers have concluded that one early, extremely well-developed and sophisticated culture petered out for just that reason, though the cause was entirely natural. 

It was a simple, cyclical change in insolation -- the solar energy we get from the sun and which effects monsoons -- that was able to undo the Harrapans, the largest of the earliest urban civilizations, making up about 10 percent of the population about 4,000 years ago. LiveScience’s Charles Choi, reports on new discoveries about the Harrapans, an urban culture which had cities ordered into grids, “exquisite” plumbing, arts and writing and spanned “across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges.” 

So why did such a sophisticated culture seem to evaporate between 3900 and 3000 years ago?

"Our research provides one of the clearest examples of climate change leading to the collapse of an entire civilization," researcher Liviu Giosan, a geologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts told Live Science.

By analyzing satellite and geographical data the researchers found that the moonsoon-fed rivers that had once caused devastating floods also had a period when the monsoons weakened. That enabled agriculture and civilization to flourish in that area. When the monsoons lessened to too great of a degree, the rivers dried up, the “Goldilocks” moment for that civilization was over -- and, Choi writes, “Eventually, over the course of centuries, Harappans apparently fled along an escape route to the east toward the Ganges basin, where monsoon rains remained reliable.” When the large, concentrated urban culture dispersed into smaller, sustainable farming communities, much of its cultural aspects, like writing, went with it…though agriculture diversified.

So evidently it can happen even without aerosol sprays and carbon emissions. But is there any reason to rush it?

9. Keep looking at the stars.Climate change is just another one of those unsettling issues we’re faced with every time we open a Web site or turn on the news...there are so many of those here on earth it’s perfectly understandable why people would want to escape to space. At least there you probably don’t get any campaign ads. 

And the number of people who want to go -- who seriously want to go -- is, appropriately enough, way up. Asteroid mining has brought out the job seekers in droves recently. This week LiveScience reported that NASA received 6,300 applications from hopeful candidates for its astronaut training program, the second highest number of applicants it has gotten since 1978 when 8,000 applications were received. 

Think you’ve got what it takes to be an astronaut? The requirements are listed on the link…personally I missed it by, among other things, not having 1000 hours behind the wheel of jet aircraft (they have wheels, right?).

But I remain optimistic. One day there will be jobs in space that don’t require military fitness, jobs like robot choreographer, professional smiler and server of outsized frog legs. And on that day I will be sooooo ready….

10. Coming soon to a sun near you: The transit of Venus.It’ll probably be another 100 years or more before those space jobs are available…possibly at the next, next transit of Venus. 

The next transit of Venus, a once-a-century event that occurs when Venus passes between the earth and the sun, appearing against star as a visible black dot, will happen in just a few days, on June 5 and 6. 

Everything you need to know about an enjoyable viewing you can find here on Transit of Venusincluding safe ways to get a good look at it, and the history of the transit from its first recorded sighting through a telescope in 1639.

It’s not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s a chance to step back and get a sense of the enormity of the universe, and by comparison, the tininess of many -- not all, but many -- of the problems we have that feel so big. 


Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.