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October 2012 Archives

A True Tale of Voodoo Zombification and Pufferfish

On a typical Caribbean day, natives of a small Haitian village were enjoying their weekly cock-fight when they looked up and saw a soiled, bedraggled boy standing in their midst. Shock instantly gripped the gathering. They all knew who the boy was; he was Wilfrid Doricent. But how could he possibly be here? There was only one logical conclusion.

Wilfrid Doricent had become a zombie.

shutterstock_82532254.jpgTen days earlier, Wilfrid had unexpectedly grown gravely ill. His eyes turned yellow and the skin of his extremities discolored to a pallid shade of blue. Dramatic convulsions shook his grossly distended body. These disturbing symptoms persisted on and off for eight days, until finally, he died. The local doctor could detect no vital signs, rigor-mortis had apparently set in, and Wilfrid's body reeked of rot and decay. Friends and family buried the corpse soon thereafter.

And yet, despite all that had transpired, here Wilfrid stood. Although he was incoherent, disheveled, and unable to speak. Just like a zombie.

After confirming that the human husk in front of them was indeed their son, Wilfrid's parents took him home. But their boy did not return to normal. Wilfrid remained mute and apparently unable to comprehend the world around him. Moreover, he was a danger to himself, thrashing around wildly. Family members resorted to keeping the boy in shackles to prevent him from hurting himself.

Pretty much everyone in the village agreed that Wilfrid had been zombified, and most blamed his uncle, who was a highly feared Vodou sorcerer. Zombification is actually somewhat of a minor staple in the Vodou religion, and the existence of zombies is widely accepted among the Haitian people. But had Wilfrid really been turned into one?

In a way, he had, though certainly not for the otherworldly reasons the villagers assumed. It was neither hexes nor spirits that had supposedly transformed Wilfrid into a soulless, incognizant wight. Instead, it was likely an agglomeration of insidious and unfortunate happenstances that sickened the boy and resulted in permanent brain damage. 

Wilfrid's original malady was probably induced by poisoning, potentially administered by his nefarious uncle. Vodou sorcerers employ a powdered drug cocktail to trigger zombification. It's composed of a hodgepodge of nasty ingredients. Human remains, poisoned frogs, and pufferfish are frequent elements.

The latter ingredient of that sinister trio contains tetrodotoxin, one of the most potent neurotoxins known to man. However, scientists examining the Vodou zombie potion have questioned whether or not the trace amounts of tetrodotoxin have any effect whatsoever.

Crafting the Vodou zombie concoction is an imprecise art, and the small cadre of scientists who have analyzed it have come to the conclusion that it's nearly impossible to precisely predict its effects.

But the best guess for our current story is that such a noxious mixture sent Wilfrid spiraling into a sickness that finally resulted in a death-mimicking coma. After being buried, the coma subsided and the boy managed to rise from the grave. While entombed underground in a closed, confine coffin, oxygen deprivation probably caused permanent brain damage.

Some time after Wilfrid's harrowing episode, he was examined by Dr. Roger Mallory of the Haitian Medical Society, who found brain damage consistent with oxygen deprivation.

We may never truly know what transformed Wilfrid into a variation of the walking dead, but if you're looking to go the extra mile to realistically dress as a zombie for Halloween, I'd stick to face paint and steer clear of Vodou zombie potions.

(Primary Source: arXiv:physics/0608059)
(Image: Blue Sky Road via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Haunted Hills Where Gravity Is Forsaken

There is a hill just outside of Moorpark, California where gravity seems to be forsaken. Set your car in neutral, and the vehicle will slowly creep up the slope.

Legend has it that in the 1940s, a group of schoolchildren was on a field trip when their bus broke down midway up the hill. Frazzled, and at his wits' end after hours of chaperoning unruly fifth graders, the bus driver ordered the children outside to push. Three-quarters of the way up their strength gave out, along with the bus's brakes. The kids were crushed as the bus rolled down the hill, and the bus driver fled the scene, never to be seen or heard from again. Today it's said that these children still linger at the base of the hill, lending a spectral push to any stopped vehicle.

That story is unique to Moorpark, but the peculiar gravitational anomaly is not.  There are hundreds of documented "gravity hills" across the entire globe, and each is accompanied with its own unusual explanation. The physics-defying characteristics of Spook Hill in Lake Wales, Florida are blamed on an epic, earth-shattering battle between a great warrior chief and a giant gator. In Bedford County, Pennsylvania, a natural magnetic anomaly is often indicted for Gravity Hill's strange powers.

640px-Spookhill.jpgIn all of these locations, cars seem to roll, and water appears to flow, uphill. But rest assured, supernatural forces aren't messing with the laws of physics. These sites are simply natural optical illusions -- just like the art exhibit called "Demon Hill #2," a 3-D optical illusion I wrote about previously.

What you experience at each of these locales has nothing to do with specters or magnets and everything to do with your sense of perception. GPS measurements prove that the slopes are indeed, ever so slightly, slanted downhill, yet the surrounding landscape tricks us into thinking that the descent is really an ascent.

To understand how this trick functions, you should first know that, as humans, we regularly utilize a few ubiquitous markers to gauge spatial orientation: trees, horizon lines, and buildings. Engrained within our brains is the knowledge that the horizon is always horizontal and trees and buildings are always vertical. Thus, where these references are absent or altered, we may misjudge certain physical features. In the case of gravity hills, the straight horizon is obscured by trees and hills, trees are often leaning slightly, and there are no buildings present. This misleading trio of circumstances prompts us to incorrectly assess the angle of the hill.    

Just like when you're looking at a painting, false perspective may also play a role. If trees gradually become larger or smaller in the distance, you'll think something is similarly larger or smaller than it really is.

As with most optical illusions, knowing that what you're seeing is a farce has no effect whatsoever on how you perceive it. You can tell yourself that the water is really flowing downhill, but that won't change your perception that the water is flowing uphill. This constitutes a lack of cognitive control that's just as spooky as the illusion, itself.

(Image: Spook Hill by Marc Averette via Wikimedia Commons)

October 2012 Archives

Clinical Vampirism: When You Think You're a Vampire

In 1979, Richard Trenton Chase committed a spree of sordid murders in Sacramento, California. In each of the six murders, he drank his victims' blood and cannibalized their remains. For these atrocities, he garnered a sinister nickname: "The Vampire of Sacramento." True to that moniker, he repeatedly asked for fresh blood in prison to drink for sustenance, right up until the moment he killed himself.

Clinical Vampirism, or "Renfield's Syndrome," is not exactly a malady you see everyday. I'd wager that most people are slightly more concerned with keeping blood confined to their own bodies rather than trying to imbibe the life force of another.

But for a select few folks, an undercooked steak doesn't satiate their cravings for the red stuff. Only real blood will do. So who are these loony few who fancy themselves vampires, and why do they do what they do?

shutterstock_115128718.jpgUnlike the fictional vampires of European folklore, clinical vampires are found all across the globe. Information is scant on account of the condition's rarity, but it's believed that subjects are primarily male, and often schizophrenic. Since schizophrenics frequently lack the capability to think symbolically, Dr. Philip Jaffé, a psychologist at the University of Geneva, surmises that "the ingestion of blood and/or body parts may be a way for the schizophrenic to literally replenish themselves."

Clinical vampirism starts early, often beginning with a pivotal event in which the subject takes a liking to the taste of blood or finds bleeding to be enjoyable. The syndrome is then thought to progress in three distinct phases.

Autovampirism, where the subject sips blood from his or her own wounds, typically develops first. As this stage progresses, the subject will start to self-inflict wounds or learn how to open major arteries. One 28-year-old man afflicted with Renfield's was so "skilled" that he able to direct blood spurts from his carotid artery straight into his mouth.

Zoophagia, or the consumption of living creatures, follows next. Insects, cats, dogs, and birds are common victims for the developing clinical vampire.

Vampirism, actually drinking the blood of another, is the final step. In order to sate their carnal yearnings, Renfield's sufferers may steal blood from hospitals, or worse, actually resort to violence against their fellow man.

Obviously, those suffering from clinical vampirism need to seek mental assistance straight away. Unfortunately, garlic supplements likely won't be of any help, nor will sunlight or holy water.

(Image: Vampire via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Rising early on a bright, autumn Saturday, the sounds of morning echo soothingly in your ears: birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind, construction crews hammering away... okay maybe not that soothing. As you shuck off the covers and rise from your bed, vestigial feelings of warmth briefly linger before melting away. The cold brings you to full alertness, and your mind instantly leaps to tantalizing thoughts of breakfast. Bacon, eggs, yum.

But minutes later, as you cradle an egg between your thumb, pointer, and ring fingers, ready to crack it on the edge of a mixing bowl, an inane notion takes hold: "I want to be a mother... of a flock of chickens."

With extreme care, you slowly set the egg back in its carton, then abruptly about-face and storm to your computer to perform some in-depth research. Excitedly glossing through Wikipedia, you learn that hens incubate a clutch of eggs for 21 days. You've been saving work vacation days precisely for a spur-of-the-moment, irrational decision like this, so the choice is an easy one.

shutterstock_113320810.jpgYou call in and hurriedly explain the situation to your boss. Your focused, one-minded mental state deafens his response, but you judge the loud, muffled tones emanating from the speaker to signify total uproarious, support. So, for the next 21 days you squat delicately over an egg carton, taking breaks only to go to the bathroom and eat potato chips. You sleep for a mere four hours a day, leaving the eggs wrapped in a thick, woolen blanket when you do. The immense discomfort of the ordeal is dulled by the desire to be totally dedicated to your brood.

After 21 days, nothing happens. But you figure that your chicks are just late hatchers.

After 25 days, still nothing. You start to worry a little.

After 30 days, you realize. This isn't going to work. Then you get a call from your work. You're fired.

What the heck went wrong? Did you not keep the eggs warm enough? Are you a failed would-be mother of chickens?

You saunter back over to your computer, still stiff from thirty days of squatting, and hop back on the Internet. Unhampered by the former all-consuming vision of little, adorable chicks chirping your name, you soon learn the truth.

Hens lay eggs - as many as 300 each year - regardless of whether they've been fertilized or not. Traditional store-bought eggs are all infertile, as the egg-laying hens aren't allowed to hang around with roosters. In other words, you can't simply sit on a carton of eggs and expect them to hatch.

Your job lost, your dreams of chicken motherhood in shambles, you do the only thing that makes sense. You make a dozen-egg omelet.

(Image: Cute Chicken via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Why I'm a Green and Shop at Walmart

I remember the first time I shopped at Walmart...

It was the summer before my junior year of college, and, on my first zoological internship, away from my home at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, out in the boondocks of Wisconsin, the omnipresent superstore was my only option. I was no longer in my cozy, confined progressive paradise, geographically isolated on a narrow isthmus and ideologically isolated by academia. I was in the real world. Yet as I slung Great Value pasta packages and frozen dinners into my shopping cart, I felt dirty, like I had surrendered my ideals, for deals. To me, Walmart was the biggest, most evil corporation, antithetical to the teachings of my conservation classes at Madison.

Since that original Walmart shopping excursion, I still bike almost everywhere. The lights in my apartment are still off, even when I'm home. The heat is still set in the mid sixties throughout bitter Midwest winters. "Incandescent" is still a four letter word in my view. And, even more to the extreme, air-conditioner use in my car is now strictly prohibited, as it reduces gas mileage by up to 20% (This is a rule which my friends aren't fond of). My green habits haven't changed, but my hate of Walmart has.

By ditching dogmatic ideology and doing actual research, I've learned that Walmart is perhaps the most efficient corporation on the planet. And for a dedicated conservationist like myself, efficiency is next to godliness.

Plastered on Walmart's website are three aspirational sustainability goals that any green would be enamored with:

  • To be supplied 100% by renewable energy.
  • To create zero waste.
  • To sell products that sustain people and the environment.
But it's one thing to make such claims, it's quite another to follow through. Walmart already recognizes this. "For us, it's not about setting lofty goals. It's about real and meaningful action," the company proclaims on its website.

10590785-large.jpgThe "real and meaningful action" has manifested itself in a variety of ways. For example, back in the 2000s, Walmart spent $17 million over three years developing an LED lighting system for its refrigerator cases, an investment that -- when it came to fruition -- cut energy consumption in Walmart's refrigerators by three-quarters and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 65 million pounds per year. With this noteworthy accomplishment, Walmart didn't merely carve out monetary savings for itself, the company also kickstarted a brand new market for LED lighting, one that other retailers and marketers could take advantage of.

As far as renewable energy goes, Walmart leads all U.S. companies in solar production, with 144 installed systems boasting a capacity of 65 Megawatts. In addition, Terry Tamminen, the former Secretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, details that the company "has nearly two hundred other renewable energy projects already in operation, including a 90-megawatt wind farm in West Texas that powers portions of over 300 Wal-Mart stores and Sam's Clubs; two dozen fuel cells and 100 solar installations supplying energy to stores in California; 348 stores in Mexico partially supplied by wind power and 14 more in Northern Ireland supplied entirely by wind power."

Moreover, Walmart has taken sterling steps to green its massive supply chain, asking 100,000 suppliers to answer and provide data on 15 environmental impact questions.

Just recently, Walmart applied the onus of conservation to its merchants as well, incorporating sustainability into performance reviews which determine pay raises and promotions. This is a huge step, and will produce tangible effects not only for the company, but for everyday consumers as well. As reported by the Harvard Business Review's Andrew Winston:

[Walmart's laptop buyer] discovered that only 30% of the laptops sold at Walmart ship with the advanced energy-saving settings in place... So the laptop buyer set a new goal for herself: to increase the percentage of laptops sold with the advanced power settings from 30% to 100% by this Christmas. This single product shift will reduce CO2 emissions by hundreds of thousands of metric tons and save customers money on their electric bills.

Critics deride Walmart for its size and success, but they shouldn't take this complaint to the company. They should take it to the hundreds of millions of worldwide consumers in free-market economies. Because it's they, by their purchasing choices, who've elevated the company to its current vastness. (It's the free market, stupid!)

Critics are right about one thing, however: Walmart is big. If the corporation was a country, it would rank as the 25th largest based on GDP. That's larger than Norway. What greens need to recognize is that Walmart, as a responsible global citizen, has done more to forward sustainable practices than most countries.

So that's why I'm a green and shop at Walmart.

(Image via Associated Press)

October 2012 Archives

Constant Vigilance, for Fifteen Days Straight

A new study shows that dolphins can remain alert and aware of their environment for up to fifteen days with no sign of fatigue.

We humans often muse about sleeping with one eye open, but for bottlenose dolphins, this is a regular facet of life.

Over thousands of years, natural selection has endowed these playful marine mammals with what's called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep, the ability to rest one half of the brain while keeping the other half alert. A vital evolutionary trait, it allows dolphins and certain other cetaceans to sleep while retaining the ability to surface and breath.

During unihemispheric sleep, dolphins will rest one side of the brain for approximately two hours then switch to the other side. If the right side of their brain is resting, the right eye will remain open. As highly social mammals, dolphins will group into tight pods while in their half-asleep state in order to watch for predators.

But even by themselves, dolphins are amazingly capable at remaining vigilant of their surroundings. A research team led by Brian Branstetter of the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California has found that dolphins can continuously echolocate for up to fifteen days straight with no signs of cognitive impairment. Their discovery is detailed in the Oct. 17th publication of the online journal PLoS ONE.

The research took place within a large, netted enclosure in San Diego Bay. Two dolphins, one male (NAY) and one female (SAY), took part. To test the cetacean's awareness, researchers simulated targets around the pen at distances of 98 to 302 meters. Each simulation lasted for two minutes, and they were generated randomly every two to thirty minutes for five days straight.

Screen Shot 2012-10-16 at 4.45.36 PM.png The dolphins' task was to continuously search for the simulated targets using echolocation. If the dolphin detected a target, it was required to press a response paddle to report the detection. The animal was then rewarded with fish.

Over three individual five-day sessions, both the male and female subject dolphins were able to continually echolocate accurately. Slight performance decreases were seen in the waning hours of the five-day sessions, possibly due to fatigue or a lack of interest. This was evidenced by an increase in missed detections, false detections, and response latency. However, these drops in performance were less apparent by each dolphin's third trial, an indication of learning.

Astoundingly, the female SAY's accuracy ranged between 96.3% and 99.6% for her three five-day trials. In light of her superior performance, SAY was selected to take on a thirty-day test. This was cut short to fifteen days due to a winter storm, but her performance was near perfect throughout the trial's duration, with no sign of fatigue at any point.

To we meager humans, who can become incapacitated if deprived of sleep for a mere twenty hours, dolphins' abilities to soldier on for weeks without sleep probably seem pretty spectacular, but it's actually relatively normal. Mother dolphins, for example, don't stop swimming for the first several weeks of a newborn's life, as they use their slipstream to buoy the calf. If they don't, the young calf, which is denser to to a lack of body fat, may sink.
Says Branstetter, the research team's leader, "...the apparent ''extreme'' capabilities these animals possess are likely to be quite normal, unspectacular, and necessary for survival from the dolphin's perspective."
"These majestic beasts are true unwavering sentinels of the sea. The demands of ocean life on air breathing dolphins have led to incredible capabilities, one of which is the ability to continuously, perhaps indefinitely, maintain vigilant behavior through echolocation."

Citation: Branstetter BK, Finneran JJ, Fletcher EA, Weisman BC, Ridgway SH (2012) Dolphins Can Maintain Vigilant Behavior through Echolocation for 15 Days without Interruption or Cognitive Impairment. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47478. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047478

October 2012 Archives

Think you know which way is up and which way is down? "Demon Hill #2," a life-sized, 3-D optical illusion currently on display at the Harris Lieberman Gallery in New York City, will turn that notion on its head.

An outside sign ominously forewarns of the madness within: "DH#2 is an interior space in which gravity appears to have been altered or suspended. As a result, visitors may experience disorientation, dizziness, nausea, and/or exhaustion."

The trick behind Demon Hill is actually somewhat anticlimactic compared to its profound, reality-altering effect. It's simply an enclosed room constructed of grainy, warped plywood, tipped at about a twenty-degree angle. But even though you are well aware of the ruse before entering, that doesn't help to suppress the mind-boggling disillusionment that you feel inside. While the room appears to be normal and upright, you, and anything you bring along, will appear to be moving or standing at a gravity-defying angle.

"I felt woozy. I felt really sick. I actually fell into the wall," Flora Lichtman said on Science Friday about her experience within Demon Hill. Lichtman and her colleague, Christopher Intagliata, even tried pouring water into glasses when inside the room. They couldn't do it.

So what makes Demon Hill so devilishly disorienting?

"It demonstrates that perception is an interplay between information that you're getting immediately from your senses, and prior knowledge that you use to interpret that information, Michael Landy, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, told Science Friday.

When inside Demon Hill, the vestibular system in your inner ear - the sensory system that monitors spatial orientation - tells you that gravity is one way. But prior knowledge instructs you that rooms are vertical, and this takes precedence over your immediate senses. It also really messes with you.

"You can know that what you're perceiving is wrong, but you'll still perceive it that way," Landy said.

After her experience in Demon Hill, Lichtman furnished a remarkably keen insight. "Experience depends not on what is true, but what we perceive to be true."

Ain't that the truth?

[Source: NPR]
[Image: Wood Illusion via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Computer Science Should Be Required in K-12

I, like the majority of Americans, rely heavily -- almost to the point of dependency -- on computer technology. Similarly in step with my fellow tech-toting countrymen and women, I possess only a scant understanding of how the gadgets I utilize on a daily basis actually work.

Buried beneath the bright and bubbly apps of our smartphones and computers is a vast, hidden underworld of code and programming, and it's composed in a language foreign to most Americans. If U.S. technological innovation is to continue on a meteoric trajectory, our students need to become fluent. For that, we need to revamp ashutterstock_114185434.jpgnd require computer science education in K-12 schools.

Despite the ubiquity of computers in society, computer science is glaringly absent from K-12 education. In 2010, only nine states counted computer science as a core graduation credit and none required it as a condition of a student's graduation.

This situation is not improving. To the contrary, there are signs of stagnation. According to a recent report by Microsoft, only 2,100 high schools offered the Advanced Placement test in computer science last year, down 25% over the last five years.

Plenty can be done to counter this decline, and action must begin at the top. Computer science education needs to be clearly defined at the federal level, and grants must be offered to aid in course implementation and teacher certification. At the state and local level, school officials and teachers should strive to develop creative courses and standards, as well as to attract new computer science teachers.

The public education system is a beast not easily altered. Encumbered by a glut of competing interests, there's simply no easy way for it to advance from its static position, no matter how positive and clear the direction.

With the future just around the corner, our K-12 schools are stuck in the past. Implementing and requiring uniform computer science education, a course that actively encourages modern age computational thinking, logic, reasoning, and problem solving, and leads to riveting, futuristic careers in video game design, robotics, cognitive science, cryptography, and computational physics, is a good way to catch up.

(Image: Technology Globe via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Political action committees and campaigns are churning out scary ads left and right.

Already we've seen Mitt Romney blamed for an uninsured woman's death and labeled as a life-sucking "vampire." The alarming insinuation here: If Mitt Romney is elected, he will deprive you of your livelihood. *Shudder*

On the other side, we've seen Barack Obama condemned for a "crisis of leadership" in a bulletin backdropped by disconcerting images of angry, anti-American protests, flaming city-streets, and gun shots galore.

All of this fear-mongering hearkens back to perhaps the most frightening political ad of all time, Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" commercial, which showed a young, innocent girl picking flower petals juxtaposed with the earth-shattering explosion of a nuclear bomb.

Politicians and their campaigns are not especially known for their scientific prowess. (Simple math often seems to elude them, for example, as evidenced by the federal government's outrageous budget deficits.) But they are unwittingly well-versed in one minor facet of psychology: They understand that eliciting fear is extremely effective in getting people to remember your message.

So why is fear so potent? It's based on the fact that humans are not hard-wired for logical thinking. On the contrary, we're "flighty, easily distracted and lacking in self-awareness."

For eons, humans evolved to make snap decisions based on fear. Your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great (etc.) grandparents survived and propagated because they could recognize danger and act swiftly to counter it. In other words, they saw a slithering snake or a snarling saber-toothed cat and decided to run away, very fast. 

Today, our keenly-attuned fear centers -- found in the almond-shaped amygdalae of the brain -- aren't as necessary as they used to be, as our lives are fairly well sheltered from danger. However, the amygdalae can still easily be bumped into overdrive when that scary political ad featuring frightening imagery and a deep, foreboding voice pops on the television, even though the viewer may be safely nestled into a cushioned couch with a furry dog at their feet and a bowl of chocolate ice cream in hand.

When afraid, we quickly grow more attentive, and the amygdalae induce the hippocampus to generate new neurons, leading to the creation of incredibly strong memories. Political campaigns across the country are banking on this ingrained fear reaction in the brain to make you remember their message just like you'd remember a giant, man-eating spider!

shutterstock_1798946.jpg(Image: Giant Spider via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Science: Too Much Information!

Sometimes you hear things that make you wish you had the power to purge memories. Maybe it's your lewd, blunt, and abrasive Uncle Harry talking about the build-up of smegma under his foreskin. Maybe it's your strange cousin Geninne, who won't shut up about the green fungus growing around her armpits. Maybe it's your over-the-top friend, who regularly reveals bare-all stories that soil your consciousness, like about the time he and his girlfriend fornicated in your bed... and on your couch... and on your desk.

You know the feeling that results from hearing these auditory indecencies: It's like you've been psychologically violated. Like you've been seeded, against your will, with a nauseating thought, a thought that's going to germinate within the nurturing and impressionable recesses of your brain.

Now, you might think that science would be above such vulgarity, but it's not. Science's most quintessential goal is the pursuit of knowledge, and that pursuit, as well as the knowledge it uncovers, can be supremely awkward. Studies abound that tell us things that we'd much rather not know, and that make us want to recoil and cry, "Geez, Science; way too much information!"

Without further ado, here are five of science's worst "TMI" offenders, expressed in the scientists' very own gauche writing:

5. Do Left and Right Armpits Smell Differently?  Human Axillary Odor: Are There Side-Related Perceptual Differences?"

"The aim of the present study was to test whether odor samples from the right and left axillae provided by right- and left-handed men were perceived differently by female raters. Participants were 38 males and 49 females, aged 19-35 years. Fresh odor samples (cotton pads worn underarm for 24 h) were evaluated for attractiveness, intensity, and masculinity, with left and right samples being presented as independent stimuli. A side-related difference emerged in left-handers only (no difference in right-handers): The odor from the axilla corresponding to the dominant side (left) was rated more masculine and more intense than the other side (right)."

shutterstock_104299313.jpg4. Cockroaches in Your Colon. "Caught on camera: an unusual type of bug in the gut."

Via Discoblog:

"During screening colonoscopy, a cockroach was encountered in the transverse colon of a 51-year-old woman with a history of schizophrenia.  It was <1 cm in size and had a green, aqueous substance sticking to its legs. Despite extreme caution during extraction, the cockroach disintegrated and was removed by using suction. The patient denied any knowledge of accidental ingestion or history of pica. The most plausible explanation was inadvertent intake of the cockroach while the patient was consuming green gelatin shortly before the procedure."

3. What's in Your Hot Dog? "Applying morphologic techniques to evaluate hotdogs: what is in the hotdogs we eat?"

"A variety of tissues were observed besides skeletal muscle including bone (n = 8), collagen (n = 8), blood vessels (n = 8), plant material (n = 8), peripheral nerve (n = 7), adipose (n = 5), cartilage (n = 4), and skin (n = 1)... In conclusion, hotdog ingredient labels are misleading; most brands are more than 50% water by weight. The amount of meat (skeletal muscle) in most brands comprised less than 10% of the cross-sectional surface area. More expensive brands generally had more meat. All hotdogs contained other tissue types (bone and cartilage) not related to skeletal muscle; brain tissue was not present."

2. Sex Histories of Catholic Priests. "Sexual and intimacy health of Roman Catholic priests."

"This study explores the sexual experiences and sexual health of Roman Catholic priests. The qualitative research design looked at priests' responses to the question, "Please share one or more sexual experiences in your lifetime..." The data were analyzed by frequency of responses and percentages within each of the seven categories. The results indicate the need for early intervention and education during seminary, ongoing education after ordination, and psychotherapy support for priests."

1. Prisons and Gay Pornography. "In the slammer: the myth of the prison in American gay pornographic video."

"The purpose of this paper is to discuss the significance of the prison scenario and its various permutations in the texts of American commercial pornographic video. The paper will identify the prison as a highly eroticised all male environment, an arena where the active/passive dichotomy of gay pornography is staged and re-staged... Prison scenarios take many shapes in gay pornography such as the American penitentiary, the military brig, and the fantasised dungeon of the leatherman. I see these scenarios as performing an important function within gay porn by offering idealised spaces for the acts of pornography: voyeurism, narcissistic display and active/ passive role-play." 

In searching for these "TMI" studies, Discover's Discoblog was an invaluable resource. Check it out!

(Image: Sweating Man via Shutterstock)

Follow me on Twitter @SteRoPo.

October 2012 Archives

Live Chat: New Therapies for Mental Illness

Via ScienceLive:

Psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia are an enormous cause of disability throughout the world. Yet most current medications are no better than drugs discovered more than half a century ago, and some pharmaceutical companies seem to be giving up. Why has progress in this area been so difficult? Are there any encouraging treatments on the horizon? What new approaches and technologies have the potential to break psychiatric medicine out of this rut?

Tune into Newton Blog on Wednesday, Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat hosted by Science Magazine!

October 2012 Archives

How Does Catnip Affect Humans?

Nickels was a hulking, gray, long-haired tabby, a gentle giant. She enjoyed eating, sleeping, cuddling, and general lollygagging. By any definition, she was your typical friendly cat.

That all changed one afternoon when she got a hold of the "Nip." At first, she rolled around in apparent bliss, purring like a V-6 engine. It seemed like she had simply become a more lubby-dubby version of her lovable self.

I moved to innocently pick her up, but suddenly she lashed out furiously with her bear-like paws, claws extended. They caught the supple flesh of my forearm and scratched deep. I recoiled in pain and surprise, shocked at what my feline friend had just done. She stared straight at me, growled, and then hissed. Nickels had transformed into a drug-crazed wildcat.

The effects of catnip (Nepeta cataria) on cats are well-documented, both scientifically and anecdotally. In response to nepetalactone, one of catnip's volatile oils, the majority of felines will sniff, lick, and chew the plant, then proceed to roll around and rub their heads and bodies on nearby surfaces. If catnip is ingested, some cats may foam at the mouth and grow drowsy or even extremely aggressive. They may also unleash guttural moans, an act interpreted as a response to hallucinations.

shutterstock_97765367.jpgBut what about catnip's effects on humans? Specifically, does it engender similar behavior-altering outcomes?

In the 1600's, catnip was commonly prepared in tea to remedy nervous headaches, hysteria, and insanity. But somewhat contradictorily, one historical reference stated that chewing the root will make even the "most quiet person fierce and quarrelsome."

In the 1960's, catnip was briefly popular as a replacement drug for marijuana. A couple of reports indicated that it can produce auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as produce feelings of euphoria and intoxication, very similar to marijuana. In 2001, one motivated experimenter smoked five bowls of catnip, intermixed with huffing cigarettes, and reported that it had "similar effects to pot, minus the high." He also documented that tobacco "easily doubled" catnip's effects, a statement which is actually corroborated by far more legitimate research.

On how catnip precisely alters human consciousness, uncertainty still prevails. Personal accounts abound, but large, substantive studies have not been conducted. Engaging in such research would likely be impractical, but it would certainly sate some curiosities and might even be a future frontrunner for an Ig Nobel.

Are there any willing researchers out there?

(Image: Catnip Cartoon via Shutterstock)

October 2012 Archives

Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Josef Mengele

Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world? Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their fictitious counterparts.

This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and recounts their surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge. Today, Josef Mengele:
The Nazi's "Angel of Death."

Earlier this week, I published posts about two other "mad scientists:" Vladimir Demikhov and Jack Parsons. I'd like to preface this post on Josef Mengele by saying that he took "mad" to an entirely different level. While Parsons and Demikhov both were batty in their own unique ways, they never rivaled the cold, callous, derangement of Josef Mengele.

Little is conclusively known about Josef Mengele's early life, but one might assume that he was an exceedingly bright young man. He received his PhD in anthropology in 1935 at the age of 24. Upon reaching this educational echelon, however, his life began to take a darker turn. Two years after graduating, he joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, an organization focused on forwarding Aryan racial purity through scientific means. Later that year, Mengele became an official member of the Nazi Party. In 1938, he joined the SS and served in the army as a medic, where he merited numerous awards for heroism. After being wounded in combat and declared unfit for active duty, Mengele was promoted to captain and eventually reassigned to Auschwitz, where he became chief camp physician in November 1943. Here, with unfettered power, in a place where ethics were absent, Mengele's madness flourished.

357px-WP_Josef_Mengele_1956.jpgOne of Mengele's primary tasks at Auschwitz was to determine who, of the incoming prisoners, would be retained for work or experiments and who would be exterminated immediately in the gas chambers. Desensitized by the horrors of war, he carried out this duty with a stone-faced, cold-hearted demeanor, which earned him his title: "The Angel of Death."

But far more disturbing were Mengele's inhumane and immoral scientific experiments. He would inject internees with all manner of diseases and would vivisect subjects without anesthesia. His overarching, reprehensible goal was to illustrate the "inherent" inferiority of the Jewish race. 

Mengele's position also freed him to carry out a number of perverse pet interests. Meandering around the Auschwitz train depot in his off-duty hours, he would "collect" identical twins from the incoming prisoners and house them in special barracks. Using these twins as subjects, Mengele performed twisted experiments where they would be injected with diseases or even surgically conjoined. He also utilized these twin studies to look for ways to artificially boost the Aryan birthrate. Mengele sported another fixation with heterochromia, a condition in which an individual's two irises differ in coloration. This interest led him to inject various compounds into subjects' eyes in an attempt to induce a color change. Mengele would also collect the eyes of murdered victims.

After the war ended, Mengele fled to South America, where, by one historian's account, he continued his crazed infatuation with twins and eugenics in the town of Candido Godoi in Paraguay. Residents believe that Mengele posed as a doctor in order to conduct experiments on unsuspecting pregnant women.

Mengele, perhaps in denial, would vehemently dismiss the charges leveled against him until his death in 1979. When his son, Rolf, traveled to Brazil to meet Josef, and confronted him about his actions at Auschwitz, Mengele exploded, insanely dismissing the claims as "propaganda."

Mengele's exploits as a Nazi scientist were both demented and pointless. Even a dedicated devil's advocate would be hard-pressed to discern any semblance of value. Still, there is an illuminating lesson to be gleaned from his example.

The scientific method is morally neutral. Technically sound science can be conducted for evil purposes, as well as good. But in a free, democratic society with unhindered access to information, the people can decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. The ethical controversies in which we are embroiled -- over stem cells, abortion, and animal research, for example -- they are occasionally irritating, but at the same time, heartening. These disagreements prove that American science has a conscience.

October 2012 Archives

Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Vladimir Demikhov

(Please note that there is a graphic image below.)

Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world? Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their fictitious counterparts.

This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and recounts their surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge. Today, Vladimir Demikhov: The father of heart, lung, and puppy head transplantation

Vladimir Demikhov, the experimental surgeon who created the "Bible of intrathoracic transplantation," was born in 1916 to a family of Russian peasants. His father was killed in 1919 during the Russian Civil War, leaving the complete care of Vladimir and his two siblings solely to his mother. She strove tirelessly to provide her children not only with nurture and sustenance, but also with a higher education. In this effort, she was successful.

Demikhov attended the University of Moscow in 1934, and it was here that his formidable scientific career began. In 1937, at the young age of 21, he designed the first ever cardiac-assist device, which was capable of taking over cardiac function for five and a half hours.

The next twenty years of Demikhov's career were filled with many other medical firsts. He was the first to perform a successful coronary bypass, the first to transplant an auxiliary heart into a warm-blooded animal, and the first to transplant a working heart and lungs into a living animal. But despite these historic accomplishments, Demikhov is today remembered for a transplant of a slightly more abhorrent nature.

Though Demikhov was not even the first to do so, he is most widely known for transplanting canine heads and upper bodies onto other dogs, effectively creating two-headed dogs. He performed these procedures on no less than twenty occasions, and all of his creations died in less than thirty days. In a tribute to Demikhov, Dr. Igor Konstantinov wrote:

The head transplantation... was arguably the most controversial experimental operation of the 20th century. It fomented waves of indignation in medical circles, and Demikhov--whose experiments were always an easy target for criticism--was accused of being a charlatan.
In the 1950s, a review committee of the Soviet Ministry of Health deemed Demikhov's work to be unethical, and he was instructed to cease his research projects. Despite the stern reprimand, Demikhov soldiered on. His work was his raison d'être. For this reason, he was commonly regarded as a fanatic.

396px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-61478-0004,_Kopftransplantation_durch_Physiologen_Demichow.jpgI write about Demikhov under the label of "mad scientist," but the truth is, he was far from deranged. By all accounts, he was exceedingly kind and sensitive to human suffering. While working as an army pathologist during World War II, Demikhov would frequently lie to his superiors -- at great personal risk -- about patients who had obviously shot themselves in order to escape the battlefield, telling his commanders that the soldiers' wounds were not self-inflicted. He knew that such an act was considered a heinous crime of cowardice, the penalty for which was death.

Demikhov's two-headed dog experiments, which most would deem abominable, constituted an insignificant portion of his work, but sadly, they are what he is most remembered for. His contributions directly enabled the first successful human coronary bypass surgery using a standard suture technique. If his reputation was not clouded by controversy and his work wasn't kept under a stifling Soviet shroud of secrecy, Demikhov may have merited consideration for a Nobel Prize.

Instead, Vladimir Demikhov, a surgical wizard far ahead of his time, left this world living in abject poverty. But he did leave the world a better place for the rest of us.

(Image from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons)

October 2012 Archives

Mad Scientists of the Modern Age: Jack Parsons

Think that mad scientists are confined only to the literary world? Think again. The annals of history are littered with kooky researchers and batty experiments, and many of their stories actually outdo their fictitious counterparts.

This week, Newton Blog tells the tales of some of the past century's most loopy scientists, and recounts their surprisingly profound contributions to modern knowledge.
Today, Jack Parsons: a brilliant rocket scientist, but a failed magician. 

No man may have done more to launch modern jet and rocket propulsion research than John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons. Born in 1914 to a wealthy, but dysfunctional family, Parsons began working with explosives at the Hercules Powder Company during his senior year of high school. He later suffered through only two years of college at the University of Southern California before dropping out, but his minimal education didn't stop him and a small band of reckless compatriots from engineering and testing rocket fuels at Caltech.

When World War II rolled around, the U.S. military discovered Parsons and his rebels of rocketry and generously funded their experiments. With such a monetary fertilizer, the group soon grew into Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the entity that is today responsible for an impressive host of successful treks into space, including the recent Curiosity Mars Rover.

207477main_p1-RocketBoys-516.jpgThe original "Rocket Boys." Jack Parsons is in the right foreground. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Amidst Parsons' explosive success, his relationship with the occult was a constant. At one time, he became the head of the California branch of a magical order called Ordo Templi Orientalis. He also attempted (unsuccessfully) via a mystic ritual to create a "Moon Child," which, as explained by Reason's Brian Doherty was thought to be "a magic being... who would usher in a new age of unfettered liberty and signal the end of the Christian era and its outmoded morality."

Parsons' life ended abruptly in 1952 at the tender age of 37 while he was working with powerful explosives at his home laboratory, a seemingly fitting, albeit unfortunate end for a scientist whose burning fascination was with fire and flame.

Sixty years later, Parsons' untimely death remains an intriguing source of unsubstantiated hearsay. Heretical American journalist Michael Hoffman II contends that Parsons may have been trying to open a doorway through which a magical being could come into existence, and it backfired. But a considerably less fantastical explanation is infinitely more likely. Again, from Doherty:

One close pal... noted that "Jack used to sweat a lot and [a coffee can in which he was mixing explosives] just slipped out of his hand and blew him up."
Parsons' devil-may-care attitude and his daffy beliefs undoubtedly contributed to his early death, but they likely also contributed to his success. "His science was built on intuition, and his magic on experiment," Doherty wrote.

Parsons was willing to believe that the impossible was possible, and because of this, brave explorers are now able to soar into space on rockets he pioneered.