10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Some good news: cows get to drink wine and we're close to eradicating some horrific diseases.

We’ve talked about this before. And I don’t mean to minimize your troubles. All I’m saying is that whatever problems you’re having this week -- if the miracle of technology is making you a mental case or if you were the embarrassed TSA agent who got the guy with the world’s longest penis in his line (I should have that person’s problems), tut tut. At least you don’t have a guinea worm and thankfully soon no one else in the world will either.

1. The worm has turned

This week saw a lot of encouraging news on the disease-eradication front: the FDA approval of Truvada, the first HIV preventative drug and the possibility that a peptide in spider venom -- specifically that of the Chilean rose tarantula -- could thwart the progression of muscular dystrophy. But for a blue-ribbon gross-out factor it’s hard to beat the guinea worm. This creature enters the human system through drinking water that has fleas in it that have guinea worm larvae in their system: “The larvae grow to maturity inside the human body,” reports Scientific American’s Roxanne Roberts. They grow to be up to 3 feet long in there and then escape…put down your coffee or you’ll spit it...through the leg or foot. 

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Did I lie? Say it with me: “Yes, things are bad but I’m not pulling a 3-foot worm out of my instep.”

Most cases occur in South Sudan and people who get it try to stem the pain of the exit by putting their feet in water -- and guess what happens? The water causes the process to start all over again. Jesus. 

But through the efforts of the Carter Center and other groups the guinea worm is on its way out…of the world. These groups are providing cloth water filters and larvicide for drinking water and there has been a 99% eradication of the worm, which is kind of a superhero thing to do.

“We are approaching the demise of the last guinea worm who will ever live on earth,” says former US president Jimmy Carter, namesake of the Carter Center. 

One thing’s for sure. Worms in real life are never, ever as good as they are on Futurama. Then again, what is? 

2. See how you are

So cures did well this week, but diagnostics not only leapt forward but got a thousand times cooler. We’re about to get glasses that can tell you the health and mood of another person just by looking at them. 

A2I Labs in Boise, Idaho has come up with a pair of glasses called 02AMPS. These "mood ring" glasses, reports Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysterie (she always writes about the coolest stuff) will enhance our natural ability to detect colors in a person's skin -- red, yellow, green, blue -- that tell us things about their health like whether their blood is oxygenated, has pooled or drained. It also subconsciously lets us know that person is, say, angry (red) or weak (green). Doctors “cite skin color when making about 15 percent of their diagnoses.” 

Mark Changizi, an evolutionary anthropologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs says that parts of the spectrum of color we see in skin are “noise” -- useless information. Get rid of the useless information and you enhance the ability to see useful information.

The glasses will come in three types -- “vein-finders,” which you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever had a nurse poking at your arm for 20 minutes saying “I can’t find a vein”; “hemo-finders,” which will help EMTs tell where blood has pooled or drained; and “health monitors,” which enhance the contrast between colors in your skin, i.e. red vs. green, yellow vs. blue, giving cues to both health and emotional reactions. 

Medical distributors can already buy them, but they’ll be available in wider markets next year. Finally, when you ask “What’s wrong?” and the other person says, “Nothing,” you’ll know he's lying.

Drawback: if he also has the glasses he'll know you’re lying too. 

3. “First cybernetic hate crime”

Another pair of high-tech specs caused what io9 calls “the world’s first cybernetic hate crime." 

University of Toronto professor Steve Mann was allegedly assaulted and kicked out of a McDonald’s in Paris because he was wearing his own “Eyetap Digital Glass” eyewear, which delays images and is meant to help with vision and memory (he’s been wearing them or something like them since the '80s). The device is attached to Mann’s head and can only be removed with tools, so  it was probably pretty uncomfortable when one of the employees allegedly pulled at the Eyetap to get it off him. It’s actually kinda steampunk as you can see in this story by Avram Piltch on MSNBC.com.

Initially when Mann came into the McDonalds with his family he was told there were no cameras allowed but he produced a doctor’s note stating that he needs the device and was allowed in with it. Later three employees tried to take the device, crumpled and destroyed his various documents and threw him out. Ironically, though the device isn’t meant to store images, once it was broken it did, so the incident was accidentally recorded. You can see pics on Mann’s blog post

The idea of cyborg discrimination is a pretty crazy one, considering that most of us might as well have our phones welded to our hands. 

And no one ever told us what we really want to know: what’s going on in that McDonald’s that they don’t allow cameras? Is it a nudist McDonalds? Anyone wanna McFlurry?

4. The cow says “Where the hell is that sommelier?”

It’s certainly an odd story and especially odd that it happened in France, which I think of as too sophisticated for that sort of nonsense. Even their cows have better taste in spirits than many people do.

At least the cows of Saint-Geniès des Mourgues do and supposedly they taste all the better for it. The most literal pairing of wine and beef in this region has resulted in beef with a luxurious texture that caramelizes as you cook it, reports Nick Carbone of Time Magazine. After reading studies that keeping animals happy makes their meat better, winemaker Jean-Charles Tastavy partnered with farmer Claude Chaballier, who tried feeding some of his cows first the pomace -- remains of pressed grapes -- and then real, locally produced wine from Saint-Geniès des Mourgues. The cows “appreciated the menu and ate with enjoyment,” Tastavy said.

Now they get up to two bottles a day, the cow equivalent of two or three glasses a human would drink.

The cost of feeding the cows tripled so this is a pricey steak. At about $122 for 2.2 pounds it should taste like heaven and come with a massage. I mean, at that price, who could afford wine with a meal? Luckily it’s already infused.

5. Present tense

I’m lucky that a little wine is all I need to help me relax. Such was not always the case. Ten years ago I went to see a doctor I didn’t know who, after a visit of about 15 minutes, put me on an anti-anxiety drug that was worse than any anxiety I’d ever had. I decided no meds for me.

Ten years later I went through a bout of illness, could not get better and test after test turned up negative. Finally my doctor put me on a different depression/anxiety drug and I was better within the week. I went off it after a year and have been fine since.

So I’ve been on both sides of Crazy Street -- the meds-suck side and the meds-are-brilliant side. 

It makes it a lot easier to understand the concern and controversy Sharon Begley of Reuters writes about in her story, “In the age of anxiety are we all mentally ill?” in which she reports that there has been an increase of more than 1,200% in reported anxiety disorders in America since 1980.

The story explores the question of whether the increase is due to better diagnosis or whether we are now casting normal anxiety as a mental illness. Those who believe the latter say that the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, doesn’t recognize that some anxiety is normal and adaptive and that “the DSM's description of anxiety is more about enforcing social norms than medicine.” A new edition, slated to come out next May, would go further to “lower the threshold for identifying anxiety.” 

At a guess the truth is somewhere in between. It is very easy to prescribe and to accept a label and a drug, but it’s also extremely easy to believe that we’re more stressed than our ancestors, who had their share of worries but also had a natural pace of life, something the Pacific Standard’s Mary Fischer explores in her interview with UCLA’s Dr. Peter Whybrowwho calls the computer “electronic cocaine,” and explains the chemical stress reactions it can put us under. 

Small wonder then that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the nation’s most common psychiatric complaint, affecting some 40 million people,” Fischer writes. 

Sure, our ancestors had to sleep outdoors and walk everywhere. But they didn’t have to worry about how many “Likes” their latest upload got. It’s a tough world out there these days. 

6. Garbage-seeking drone

Sounds like someone you know with bad taste in men, doesn’t it? Actually, the garbage-seeking drone is a pretty neat invention and a reminder that technology is like food and wine -- a little of the right stuff and it makes the world a way better place. 

This aquatic drone is doing its bit for the world by locating and hoovering up ocean garbage. Beth Buczynski of TG Daily says the undersea dustbuster was made by Eli Ahovi and his classmates at the French International Design School in response to the Pacific Garbage Patch and its buddies. 

It’s kind of like Wall-E without the shaping and stacking. It also reminds me of the robot fish we learned about a while back and, like them, has an “irritating” signal meant to repel living things so they won’t get sucked into the net, only trash will. So we’ll have a bunch of fish with temporary concert hearing but the world’s largest eco-system will be all the cleaner for it. 

7. Martian gardens

Sounds like something you’d get to buy in a geek monopoly game, right? But it’s another example of tech being put to good use. In its spare time, between discovering exoplanets and finding better ways to explore the moonNASA has been planning one long, weird dinner party. 

In fact, NASA has to plan meals for astronauts going to Mars for the 24 months it takes to get there, stay and return, writes Ramit Plushnick-Mast of MSNBC. It’s just too darn far to send a supply vehicle every time they run out of Tang. 

There is a little gravity on Mars, “allowing NASA to consider significant changes to the current space menu,” that feeds astronauts going to the space station a diet of bland, freeze-dried foods that stay good for two years. NASA senior research scientist Maya Cooper says the astronauts may even have a Martian garden -- not food grown in Martian soil, but in a hydroponic solution of mineral-laced water. 

"That menu is favorable because it allows the astronauts to actually have live plants that are growing, you have optimum nutrient delivery with fresh fruits and vegetables,” Cooper said. 

Plus it will embarrass us all into eating better because if they can go to Mars and still take the time to cut up carrots we have no excuse not to do the same.

By the way, beef and cheese don't have a long enough shelf-life so all the food will be vegetarian.

But wait…surely that wine-infused beef will hold up. Isn’t alcohol a preservative? 

It better be. That’s my entire anti-aging plan.

8. Puppy love

If you want to make every hour Happy Hour it’s simple: get a pet. 

Numerous studies have shown that our emotional and physical health are improved by our animal roommates. Amanda L. Chan of the Huffington Post reports on a study on 397 kids in Finland which showed that having a pet in the house in early life helps boost kids’ immune systems. Children who lived with a dog in the house in their first year had 31% fewer respiratory infections and 44% fewer ear infections than kids in no-dog households and needed fewer antibiotics.

Plus a slideshow with the story gives numerous links to HuffPo and other stories detailing studies about the health benefits of pets, including how they raise our oxytocin levels which give us a sense of well-being, help our hearts adapt to situations like stress, and stabilize the blood pressure of people already on ACE inhibitors. Also, living with a cat “is linked with a 40 percent lower risk of death after a heart attack and a 30 percent lower risk of dying from other heart problems, like heart failure, heart disease and stroke, Web MD reported.” 

Put simply: better living through cuddling.

9. What did he call me?

It’s probably not quite so healthy for your pet to be a chimpanzee, though. Chimps are not meant to be pets, as Jane Goodall tells us and besides, you might not want a pet that could learn to give you the finger.

Dr. Anna Roberts from Stirling University in the UK spent months in Uganda analyzing chimpanzee hand gestures and has found they use hand gestures much the same way we do -- they clap when they’re excited, wave their arms to drive others away, beckon them in a similar fashion and “at least a third of the chimps' gestures were similar to those of humans and meant broadly the same thing,” writes Alasdair Wilkins in io9. Dr. Roberts identified 20 to 40 gestures that convey complex things like nursing, fighting and sex. 

Roberts says, “We now know that these gestures must have been in the repertoire of our common ancestor and might have been the starting point for language evolution. Manual gesture in chimpanzees is controlled by the same brain structures as speech in the human brain." That common ancestor lived around six million years ago.

It’s not just the gestures, though; it’s the chimps ability, like ours, to infer what the other guy is trying to say with those gestures, a “mind-reading” ability we both have to figure out what someone means or wants. If chimps learn “the precise structure of their gestures from others,” then the cognitive skills required for language evolution are already present in our closest living relatives, Dr. Roberts says. 

And neither the report from Stirling nor Alasdair Wilkins’s io9 story told us what we all want to know: what are the gestures for sex? Do they eat bananas really slowly while staring one another in the eye?


Interestingly, a couple of years ago NatGeo reported that mandrills in a British zoo developed a gesture that looks like it means “Everybody, piss off,” but which NatGeo politely describes as a “Do not disturb” sign. After you see it you won’t be able to help counting how many times you do it in a day. 

10. You and the oobleck

There are some days when we all feel like those mandrills, when we just want to get away from everybody, and if we had too, we would walk across water to do it. And actually, it wouldn’t be that hard if the water had a little corn starch in it. 

This week, Bioscholar reports, researchers at the University of Chicago have figured out the problem of why it is that water with cornstarch, known as oobleck, behaves the way it does, including allowing adult humans to walk across without sinking if they do so quickly. 

If oobleck sounds familiar it’s because of the Dr. Seuss book Bartholemew and the Oobleck in which mystic magicians make a new, gooey substance fall from the sky. And oobleck is pretty gooey because it’s a non-Newtonian liquid that sometimes acts like a solid and can become either more resistant and tougher (like cream, when you whip it into whipped cream) or more liquid-y (like ketchup, when you bang the bottle to get it out) as pressure is applied to it. In the case of oobleck -- and the researchers suspected in other suspensions (“liquids laden with micron-sized particles") -- it becomes resistant enough that it holds people up, but for a long time no one knew why.

The Chicago researchers found that as pressure is applied to the suspension it builds up a mass in the suspension -- Scott Waitukaitis says it works like a snow plow: push a shovel into loose snow and a mass of snow “grows out in front of the shovel which makes it harder for me to push.” Driving a rod into the corn starch “initiated a shock-like, moving front that starts directly beneath the impacting object and then grows downward, transforming the initially liquid suspension into a temporarily jammed state.

“As the front of this jammed region moves forward, it transforms the liquid region directly ahead of it.”

So it “grows its own solid as it propagates,” researcher Heinrich Jaegger said.

And I’m thrilled to report that once again the only reason I knew jack about non-Newtonian liquids is because QI took the time to explain why Jesus could, indeed, have walked on custard. British TV. Is there nothing it can’t do?

BONUS: Last month we talked about Paul Gaylord, who contracted the black plague after getting bitten by a stray cat who was choking on a mouse Gaylord tried to take away, as the AP via Newser reports. Gaylord is out of intensive care and if you click the link you can see a picture (warning: it’s pretty gruesome): “One look at Paul Gaylord's hands shows why the plague is referred to as Black Death," the AP says. Doctors hope to be able to save part of his fingers. 

So in addition to guinea worms, you probably don’t have the plague. Go now and think of how bad things aren’t. 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.