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January 2013 Archives

Is Scientific Genius Extinct?

"Is scientific genius extinct?" That's the intriguing question posed by psychologist Dean Keith Simonton in Wednesday's publication of Nature.

It's a sweeping inquiry to be sure -- one open to dispute -- but if there's one person qualified to answer it, it would probably be Simonton. A distinguished professor at UC-Davis, Simonton has devoted more than three decades to studying scientific genius, and literally wrote the book on it.

In describing scientific genius, Simonton insists that while the creative scientist contributes ideas that are original and useful, the genius scientist tenders notions that also surprise. Instead of merely extending established knowledge, the genius scientist engineers novel expertise and provokes momentous leaps.

Sadly, in Simonton's opinion, scientific genius is in short supply, and likely extinct. In his Nature commentary, he writes:

"...in my view, neither discipline creation nor revolution is available to contemporary scientists." Our theories and instruments now probe the earliest seconds and farthest reaches of the Universe, and we can investigate the tiniest of life forms and the shortest-lived of subatomic particles. It is difficult to imagine that scientists have overlooked some phenomenon worthy of its own discipline alongside astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology... Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge."

shutterstock_121813126.jpgSimonton's thesis seems to hinge on the view that modern science is set; that through mankind's prodigious gaze, we have seen almost everything there is to see. The dots have been discovered, arranged, and numbered. All we have to do now is connect them.

But as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us in his book, Death by Black Hole, we've heard this before. In 1901, the preeminent physicist Lord Kelvin boldly stated, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement." Kelvin may have been right about the temperature of absolute zero (-273.15 Celsius), but he sure was wrong about that. (Albert Einstein unveiled the groundbreaking special theory of relativity a mere four years later.)

Much has undeniably changed in 112 years, but Simonton's praise for humanity's scientific prowess seems simply a rehash of Kelvin's misguided over-confidence. Yes, mankind has accomplished many amazing things, but given the bewilderingly monumental scope of creation, there are surely more revolutionary advancements to be made, and more surprises waiting.

Is "Big Science" Destroying Genius?

However, concerning "big science," Simonton makes a legitimate point. He states, "Natural sciences have become so big, and the knowledge base so complex and specialized, that much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors."

It's true: the manner in which the majority of science is conducted today is hemmed into a set system. Mostly, it revolves around attaining funding and working together in large groups. This large, publication-centered, interconnected system, with common knowledge and set rules, has its benefits, but it also turns science into a factory. Sure, it keeps the cogs turning, but it may also hamper true creativity and genius, which, as elegantly stated by Scientific American's Ingrid Wickelgren, "depends on an unfiltered view of the world, one that is unconstrained by preconceptions and more open to novelty."

Moreover, with such arduous competition for limited scientific funds, the pie-in-the-sky ideas that may potentially hide brilliance underneath, are often ignored, abandoned, or simply never undertaken in the first place.

Simonton's fear is that "surprising originality" is a thing of the past. We certainly aren't there yet, but we may be headed down that unfortunate path.

(Image: Boy Genius via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Intraterrestrials: How Deep Does Life Go?

As Star Trek has diligently engrained into our minds, space is the final frontier. But beneath our feet is another frontier that's equally unexplored.

Humanity dwells upon Earth's surface, atop the largest, most diverse layer cake this side of the solar system. Its first layer is a crust as comparatively thin as the skin of an apple. Below that, there's a rocky second layer -- called the mantle -- that's 2,890 kilometers thick and composed of oxygen, silicon, and magnesium, a mixture which flows like seeping asphalt. Deeper still, rests a liquid iron and nickel outer core. Finally, there's a solid, super-dense inner core comprised of the same materials as the outer core.

And in this expansive, unexplored layer cake, one must wonder: is there life? If so, how far down does it go?

These are two questions that still remain unsatisfactorily answered. The distance to the planet's center is, on average, about 6,371 kilometers, and the deepest we've bored is a relatively measly 12.26 kilometers, so we've got a ways yet to explore. In fact, humans have yet to reach Earth's second layer -- the aforementioned mantle.

Iron-sea07c.jpg In 2005, such a venture was planned, but it never got off the ground, or at least into it. Japanese researchers aimed to reach the mantle for the very first time by drilling into the bottom of the ocean.

"One of the main purposes of doing this is finding deep bacteria within the ocean crust and upper mantle," geoscientist Asahiko Taira told The Guardian in 2005.

The rocks in the mantle constitute a unique and fascinating ecosystem. "This is a system which we believe created early life. There may be a chance that we can catch the origin of life still taking place today," Taira said.

What a compelling concept: digging deep into the Earth's foundation to find the foundation for all life on Earth!

In 2010, scientists discovered life in the deepest layer of Earth's crust, the gabbroic layer. A team led by Oregon State University's Stephen Giovannoni drilled 1,391 meters below the Mid-Atlantic ocean floor and found bacterial communities feeding off methane and benzene.

Amazingly, the bacteria appeared to be sustained by organic molecules produced by interactions between water and rock, indicating that these bacteria were thriving in their subsurface environment without any help whatsoever from the sun via photosynthesis! Such a revelation means that life could exist deeper still!

To find out, humankind is preparing to go where no man or woman has gone before: Earth's mantle. A bold, $1 billion dollar mission, organized by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, is set to embark. Using the same drilling vessel that was slated to be used in the ill-fated 2005 endeavor, the team plans to drill six kilometers down to the mantle from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. If sufficient funding is obtained, the expedition could start drilling by the end of the decade.

If and when that project gets underway, who knows what strange intraterrestrial creatures we may find lurking in the deep?

(Image: Rob Lavinsky via iRocks.com)

January 2013 Archives

Sense of Humor Reveals Who You Truly Are

If you asked some of your single friends what they're looking for in a potential mate, you'd probably elicit a bunch of bashful smiles and receive scores of different answers. You might hear, for example, "tall," "wealthy," "nice," "good-looking," "intelligent," "a similar personality," "compatible likes," "ambitious," or even the occasional (and shameless) "dynamite-in-the-sack," but there's one item that's almost sure to appear near the top of everyone's wish list: "a good sense of humor." This is universal. In almost every culture, people want that special someone to make them laugh.

shutterstock_69135130.jpgAccording to Rutgers evolutionary biologist Robert Lynch, when such a characteristic is so highly sought after, "That tends to be a hallmark of an evolutionary trait."

Lynch theorized that humor may be pivotal in some way to human reproductive success and mate selection. To delve deeper, he conducted a number of studies. In one, individual subjects were placed in a room where they watched clips of HBO comedian Bill Burr, whose politically-incorrect brand of comedy is quite divisive: people often love it or hate it. While in the room, the individuals' reactions to Burr's jokes were filmed and recorded. After viewing the clips, subjects took an implicit preference test, which requires takers to rapidly categorize two target concepts with an attribute in order to determine inherent biases or attitudes.

Lynch found that "participants laughed more in response to jokes that matched their implicit preferences." For example, people who associated men and women with stereotypical gender roles laughed much more at Burr's jokes about women.

Genuine laughter arises subconsciously, so it's notoriously hard to fake. This fact, combined with Lynch's findings, suggests that sense of humor is an excellent indicator of a person's true personality. Thus, it would make sense for relationship-seekers to require a compatible sense of humor.

"I can lie about what I like, but when I laugh, I identify my real preferences," Lynch told PBS' Nova. "That would account for why [sense of humor] is so important in mate selection."

Laughter, itself appears to be all about sociality, and more specifically, relationships, says University of Maryland neuroscientist and laughologist Robert Provine. (Note: "Laughologist" is my made-up title for him.) For example, women tend to laugh more at men they deem attractive.

"A woman doesn't think I want this man to like me so I'm going to laugh a lot," Provine told Science Focus. "It just happens."

As evidence for laughter's social function, it has been gauged to be thirty times less frequent in solitary situations compared to social ones. This, you probably already realize. It's why comedies are far more enjoyable to watch with a group than by yourself. Laughter appears to be an innate signal of group cohesiveness, a way to identify with other individuals.

In summary, sense of humor may very well be a true indicator of character, with laughter as its mechanism. So whether you chuckle or chortle, guffaw or giggle, you'll probably find yourself drawn to individuals who regularly tickle your funny bone.

(Image: Couple Laughing via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Cooties at Epidemic Rates: What You Need to Know!

Newton Blog takes a serious look... at cooties.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Peabody. I've never seen a child this infected; I'm not sure there's anything that I can do."

"But doctor, you must do something!"

"Well, there is one thing your child can do. But it's drastic, and would involve transferring his infection to someone else."

"Oh dear... Well I don't... all right. Tell him."

"Timmy, pay attention, son. You must touch another person. That will rid you of the infection, but it will simultaneously give it to whomever you touch. Do you think you can do that? More importantly, do you think you can live with that?"

"Oh sure, no problem. Actually, I already gave them to you, doc."

"Wait. So I have cooties now?"



shutterstock_12130855.jpgA major source of cooties.

Cooties: it's an infection that's ravaged recess for decades, with little heed paid to it by anyone over the age of twelve. Is it time for that to change?

Nope. Cooties isn't a real disease. But it can teach us about epidemiology.

Cooties is a decent, albeit rudimentary, approximation for how disease functions, or as Sue Samuelson put it in The Cooties Complex, "an interesting synthesis of a child's conception of disease and the modern medical world." In a way, it allows kids to learn about infectious disease in a semi-sanitary, innocuous manner.

Cooties are often described as similar to germs or lice (the term once originally described head or body lice), but their infectiousness puts them more in line with leprosy or plague. The condition is passed on through any form of bodily contact with an infected person. In the process of transferring cooties, the original carrier is typically healed. Merely being in the proximity of a carrier can also spark an infection. Transmission rates are known to be much higher between children of the opposite sex. Indeed, girls and boys often accuse the opposite sex of being cootie-carriers.

Luckily, there's a vaccine. All a child has to do is trace two circles and two dots on another child's forearm while uttering this rhyme: "Circle, circle, dot, dot, dot -- Now you've got your cootie shot!" 

The vaccine has both pros and cons. A big plus is that it can function as an antidote, actually curing the disease. Another is that it doesn't utilize painful needles. On the other hand, the vaccine is largely ineffective at prevention and must be re-administered frequently, often at least once every recess.

Apart from imitating and resolving anxiety about the grown-up medical world, cooties also exposes children to certain social elements. Chiefly, it gives an excuse for boys and girls to mingle and touch one another in an innocent manner, especially when a game of "cooties tag" breaks out, in which the disease is transferred multiple times in rapid succession between a multitude of participants. According to Samuelson:

"Boys and girls are not supposed to touch each other, a reflection of both social codes restricting intersexual contact until maturity and also a general social wariness about touching at all. In some situations there is a definite restriction against boys and girls playing together, and this game is a way of circumventing that..."

While cooties are propagating throughout the nation's schools at epidemic rates, this is neither unsettling nor dangerous. The malady can occasionally be misused, say for the purpose of ostracizing a peer, but all in all, it's a harmless childhood game that facilitates learning about more complex, adult issues.

Most kids grow immune to cooties by the time they become preteens, at which point the disease only subsists amongst the "totally immature."

Primary Source: "The Cooties Complex." Sue Samuelson Western Folklore Vol. 39, No. 3, Children's Folklore (Jul., 1980), pp. 198-210

(Image: Pucker Up via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

In the early morning of April 18th, 1906, residents of San Francisco were shaken from their slumbers. Also shaken were their belongings, which tumbled from tables and shelves, and their homes, many of which were flattened. The Great San Francisco Earthquake had struck. Over 500 people lost their lives in the disaster and subsequent fires.  

Weeks later, the rebuilding process was in full swing, as was the quest to historically document the quake. In the midst of this mission, a curious story surfaced: 

Paine Shafter, a ranch owner living just outside of San Francisco reported that during the quake the ground suddenly and swiftly opened up and swallowed one of his milking cows whole, and seconds later, "the crack closed and left just her head and tail sticking out."  

A peculiar sight, indeed; but did it actually happen? 

shutterstock_73981624.jpgTo answer this question, one must first know a bit about fissures - long gaps or cracks in the ground. For starters, most fissures that result from earthquakes are not directly created by the quakes, themselves. They form due to associated landslides or slumps tied to the rapid withdrawal of groundwater.

"Most such cracks are on unconsolidated ground (as opposed to bedrock)," University of Utah seismologist James Pechmann told RCScience.  "They can develop from shaking, settling, and 'lurching' of the ground during an earthquake..." 

These common fissures take time to form and are often no more than a few feet deep. But occasionally, they can be quite large. A fissure five kilometers in length formed after an 1868 earthquake in Hawaii! But this fissure paled in comparison to another that developed in the wake of Mongolia's gigantic 1957 quake. This crack was over 250 kilometers long, as deep as 36 feet, and as wide as 10 feet! 

The fissure type perpetuated by Hollywood -- where the ground rapidly ruptures and swallows unsuspecting bystanders - is almost certainly a myth. When a normal fault slips, the soil near the surface can potentially rip apart, creating jagged cracks in the ground up to a meter in width. However, fissures of this variety aren't very deep or long -- you could probably safely stand in them -- and they definitely don't spew red-hot lava or seal themselves back up. 

This information renders the story of a dairy cow getting swallowed by the earth hard to swallow. It also does the same to an alarming U.S. army report filed in the wake of Japan's 1948 Fukui Earthquake. According to the report, soldiers witnessed a Japanese woman working on a rice paddy fall into a four-foot-wide fissure, which subsequently closed and crushed her. That could very well have happened, but it probably didn't. 

And by more recent accounts, the case of the crushed dairy cow definitely didn't happen. Many years after the 1906 earthquake, H.H. Howard, a cousin to Paine Shafter, sent a letter to the historian Robert Iacopi. In the message, Howard recalled a candid conversation between Paine and his father, Pax: 

"Look Pax," [said Paine], "the cow had died, and we had to bury her. That night along came the earthquake which opened up a big crack and tipped it in, with the feet sticking out. Then along came those newspaper reporters and... we weren't about to spoil a good story..."

(Image: Man over Earthquake Crack via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Imagine a world where objects can be in two different places at the same time and cats are locked in sealed containers with flasks of poison and objects that spew radiation.

In this counter intuitive fairyland, your intuition is false.

It's a world whose foundation is mortared by math that comes in two brands: abstract and mindbogglingly abstract.

The brilliant Albert Einstein didn't believe in this realm, and yet he won a Nobel Prize for playing in it.

This is the world of quantum mechanics, and it is %^$&#*@ weird. And yes, that is probably the most cogent description.

So what is quantum mechanics, besides weird? Well, it's impossible to sufficiently define in one, two, or even three sentences. Heck, even if you used dozens of sentences, describing quantum mechanics would still be a trick, but let's dash out a few basic tenets, anyway:

  • Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that explains stuff left out by normal physics, like why matter can behave like both particles and waves.
  • Quantum mechanics says that the act of observing a system actually has an effect on it. If you turn around, and look behind you, your computer might very well disappear. When you turn back around, it will (in all likelihood) be there. Your observance cemented that possibility into reality.
  • At first glance, quantum mechanics seems absurd, but it works really, really well. For example, it predicts the energies, the colors, and the spectral intensities of all forms of electromagnetic radiation.


I'll be honest: my own personal dealings with quantum mechanics began with Star Trek, and haven't advanced considerably past that. I can tell you, with certainty, that the U.S.S. Enterprise's quantum torpedoes are awesomely destructive (especially against the Borg), blue in hue, and much cooler than their normal counterparts -- mostly because they have the word "quantum."

But when it comes to truly understanding quantum mechanics, certainty ends and uncertainty begins. I devour information on the topic, load my brain with facts and discoveries, and listen to brilliant quantum physicists, all in an attempt to grasp the quantum world. Far from attaining understanding, all I get is a headache. Parts of quantum mechanics are so paradoxical that I simply can't wrap my meager brain around them.

But from this perplexing pain emanating from my forehead, I take heart. Because it means I'm on the right course, and in good company.

The brilliant physicist Niels Bohr, the man who laid the foundation for quantum mechanics, opined that anyone who thinks they can contemplate quantum mechanics without getting dizzy doesn't understand it.

Albert Einstein couldn't accept quantum mechanics (and remember he won a Nobel Prize for working on it) because, he said, "I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it."

"Nobody understands quantum mechanics," Richard Feynman bluntly stated.

But like the tiny electrons of quantum mechanics that can be both here and there, so can the field be both intangible and tangible. As, Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, told Science Friday:

"...if you look at all of our physical theories, with the possible exception of natural selection, [quantum mechanics] has the most number of pieces of confirming evidence... in the course of one second [the Large Hadron Collider] collects trillions of bits of evidence that quantum mechanics is the case."

Thanks to quantum mechanics, we have super-precise clocks, lasers, semiconductors, and may one day have quantum computers, which would be the ultimate in multitasking. (If you think opening three applications at the same-time is cool, just wait.)

Nevertheless, despite the ample amount of supporting evidence and real-world applications for quantum mechanics, I can't shake the conspiracy-esque notion roiling in the recesses of my mind. Is the field really just a gigantic ruse? Across the world, are physicists sitting in dimly lit lounges, smoking cigars and solving intricate brain teasers, laughing at the perplexed laypeople whose minds they've addled?

Alas, no. While common sense may compel us to disbelieve quantum mechanics, remember, that same intuition once told us that the world was flat. So who says the world can't be quantum?

Ultimately, quantum mechanics is just science: big, beautiful, baffling, science.

(Image: Atomic Model via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Why You Should (Almost) Never Clean Your Ears

Put down that Q-tip! You shouldn't stick any object smaller than your elbow into the ear, doctors say.

For decades, cotton swabs have been fixtures in the average American's medicine cabinet. Take a couple out, a quick dab in one ear, a quick dab in the other... what's the harm?

Admittedly, nothing overly harsh, but about 7,000 people are hospitalized with injuries from cotton swabs each year -- more than razor blades. To rub salt in the wound, all those ear-cleaning efforts are for naught! For the most part, swabs merely condense and impact the earwax further into the ear canal, where it can cause pain, pressure, and temporarily poor hearing.

"There's no need to clean your ears with a cotton bud," writes Dr. Rob Hicks. "The ear has its own internal cleaning mechanism. Fats and oils in the ear canal trap any particles and transport them out of the ear as wax. This falls out of the ear without us noticing."

Much of this cascade occurs while we eat. The movement of the jaw massages wax out of the ear canal. Along with the wax comes any particulates or dirt that were gumming up the hearing works.

And by the way, earwax, physiologically speaking, is pretty darn awesome. Composed of layers of shed skin, long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, and alcohols, it protects the inner ear from water and infections. At least ten antimicrobial peptides are present in the stuff, preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi.

In medieval times, earwax was used to modify the color and texture of pigments for illustrating manuscripts. Additionally, the 1832 edition of the American Frugal Housewife recommended earwax as a wonderful remedy for chapped lips. Considering that earwax contains a healthy amount of moisture-retaining lipids, it might actually work pretty well in this respect! Though I can't imagine that it would taste all too pleasing. (Just ask RealClearScience editor Alex Berezow, who admitted to eating it when he was a kid in our latest podcast.)

shutterstock_14075407.jpgSticking a flaming piece of fabric into your ear: what could possibly go wrong?

Occasionally, earwax can build-up in excess and harden. When this happens, it's best to head to your doctor for a brief cleaning. Be aware that lot of the do-it-yourself cleaners are relatively ineffective and may actually be harmful. (Ear candles, pictured above, are an example of the kooky, harmful variety.)

As an effectual home remedy to excessive ear wax build-up, the American Hearing Research Foundation recommends putting a couple tiny drops of clean olive oil or baby oil in your ear every other week or so.

All in all, earwax is a substance to be desired, not eliminated. So leave your ears alone!

(Image: Ear Candling via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Study Linking Pot with Reduced IQ up in Smoke?

Last year a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) touted a possible link between adolescent marijuana use and a later decline in cognitive abilities. Analyzing a longitudinal cohort study of 1,037 individuals from Dunedin, New Zealand, researchers from Duke University found evidence that heavy cannabis use beginning in adolescence was associated with a drop in IQ of as much as eight points by adulthood.

The study made headlines last summer, chiefly because it fit right it with common stereotype that smoking pot dulls the mind. Acutely, this is undeniable. Though weed smokers may think they're spouting sage wisdom and intellectual postulations in between munching on handfuls of jellybeans and flamin' hot Cheetos, they really sound more like Bill and Ted before they embarked on their excellent adventure. ("Okay, the lady in that car over there said that Marco Polo was in the year 1275. It's not just a water sport, I knew it!")

But, until last year's study was thrown into the fray, the collective evidence for marijuana-fueled cognitive impairment over the long term was insubstantial. On average, when not under the influence of the drug, marijuana users appeared just as cognitively inclined compared to non-users. This was demonstrated in both longitudinal and twin studies.

shutterstock_47271649.jpgLast year's fresh research re-ignited discussions on pot's safety. Moreover, the researchers even went so far to conclude that cannabis may have a "neurotoxic effect" on the adolescent brain that could permanently lower IQ.

However, an analysis published Monday in PNAS questions the findings of that study. Ole Rogeberg, a senior research fellow at the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Norway, believes that socioeconomic status likely confounded the correlation, causing the Duke researchers to overestimate the link between cannabis and a decline in IQ.

Using a computer model operating under the assumption that socioeconomic factors like education, income, and occupation affect IQ, Rogeberg ran 500 tests with a sample size similar to that from the Dunedin cohort. The model effectively reproduced the estimates from the original study, thus implicating socioeconomic status as a potential confounder.

The Dunedin Longitudinal Study -- which the original study drew its data from -- was created by recruiting 1,037 people born over the course of one year in Dunedin, New Zealand. The city itself is quite a diverse place, so people from all walks of life were recruited into the cohort. With such diversity, it does open the door to uncontrollable variables.

To illustrate his contention, Rogeberg pointed to a 2002 study that was drawn from a less socioeconomically diverse population. It reported no correlation between cannabis use and cognitive decline.  

All in all, Rogeberg's analysis raises a valid argument, but it by no means discredits the original study.

However, the original study isn't perfect either. For example, the 8-point IQ decline only materialized in heavy-users of marijuana who started smoking before 18 and reported being extremely dependent on the substance. Only 38 subjects fit this description -- somewhat of a small sample size. Furthermore, it doesn't seem surprising that those dependent on marijuana would show cognitive decline, especially if they had been under the influence around the time that the IQ-test was conducted.

The real takeaway message to be drawn from the original study is one that everyone should already know: consuming excessive amounts of mind-altering drugs is never a good idea, especially at a young age when the brain is in its prime stage of development.

There still isn't a conclusive body of evidence showing that recreational marijuana use causes long-term declines in intelligence, but now that it's legal in Washington and Colorado, the scientific doors are open to larger arenas of research.

(Image: Smoking Man via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Do Animals Tell Stories?

A litany of stories is told within the human mind each day. In a form of "mental time travel," we consciously reconstruct past events to help instruct our present actions.

For example, you might recall that Aunt Margie's garlic potatoes, served at your family's last holiday party, were a little heavy on the cream and butter. After devouring three helpings, you became bloated and gassy. Thus, if the dish is served again this year, you'll scarf only one helping, instead. (Okay, maybe two.)

The process of recalling past situations in narrative detail is called episodic memory. You remember when the event happened, where it happened, what was involved and other context-specific information. These facts come together to form an internal story of sorts.

As far as we know, most other animals do not have episodic memory. Endel Tulving, the influential cognitive psychologist who was the first to differentiate episodic memory from other types, says that animals can adjust, adapt, and learn, but they cannot "travel back into the past in their own minds."

But there are scientists who are working to build a convincing case to the contrary. In a 2006 review, German researchers at Heinrich-Heine-University agglomerated 30 studies examining episodic-like memory in numerous species. According to animal behaviorist, Dr. Patricia McConnell:

In one study cited in the paper (Menzel 1999), a language-trained chimpanzee observed a caretaker hiding a food beyond the fence of the enclosure, out of reach of the chimp. Sixteen hours later, the chimp recruited a different caretaker, who did not know where the food had been hidden, indicated the kind of food hidden and directed the caretaker to the food itself.
In this fascinating instance, the chimp was not only able to recall what it had witnessed, but was able to impart that information -- the when, where and what -- to a human.

More compelling evidence for animal episodic memory originated from a study on scrub jays (medium-sized social birds similar to bluejays). These birds are commonly known to store food in various locations within their territories, over elongated spans of time. Such behavior obviously requires excellent memory.

shutterstock_69249277.jpgIn a laboratory setting, researchers presented scrub jays with two different types of food: one perishable, one non-perishable. They found that the birds vastly preferred to eat the perishable variety.

Researchers then gave the birds the same two food choices within larger enclosures. The jays took the food and cached them in various locations. Once done hiding the food, the birds were removed from the enclosure and kept out for various durations of time. When released back into the enclosure, the researchers found that the majority of birds would choose to recover and eat the preferred perishable food if released back into the enclosure in less than 28 hours. But the jays would recover and eat the less-preferred, non-perishable food if they were kept out of the enclosure for more than 28 hours.

This shows that scrub jays can recall where food is hidden, what types of food are hidden and when the foods were originally hidden. Their actions satisfied the three staples of episodic memory.

However, since researchers can't actually delve into the psyche of a scrub jay or any other type of animal, the just-mentioned evidence really only scratches the surface. We can't -- at this time -- know for sure whether or not animals can tell stories within their minds, but perhaps one day, we will.

(Image: Bluejay via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Batman's Return Predicted in Weather Forecast?

batmanweather.jpgA good friend of mine works as a meteorologist over at Weather Nation. On Monday, he tweeted the above still-shot from the Rapid Precision Mesoscale (RPM) weather forecasting model. As you can see, the forecast called for five to ten inches of rainfall along Eastern Texas over a three-day time-span and also, apparently, the return of the Dark Knight.

Such a resemblance begs the question: what does this image really indicate? Do meteorologists know something that we don't? Is Batman set to return for yet another Christopher Nolan-directed sequel? Or, is he, in fact, really working as a weather forecaster by day and masquerading as the caped crusader by night?

The answer to all those questions (except, perhaps, the third one) is a resounding no. The image, while intriguing, doesn't mean anything beyond it's designed intent, which is to show precipitation totals. The Batman connection is merely an insignificant correlation drawn by the brain, a byproduct of its relentless search for patterns.

Abetted by thousands of years of evolution, your brain is constantly on the lookout for something meaningful. Why? Because noticing such details offers an advantage. Take this example: Imagine your great-great-great-great-great, etc. grandfather walking through a dark forest. Suddenly, he thinks he sees a vague, yet ominous shadow out of the corner of his eye. If he assumes the shadow is a vicious beast and decides to run away, he minimizes his chances of becoming lunch. But if he assumes the shadow is innocuous and continues walking normally, and the shadow turns out to be a saber-toothed cat, he gets eaten. Seeing, recognizing, and reacting to simple, patterns -- however irrelevant they may be -- was often a win-win for our ancestors. Thus, our brains evolved to be on the lookout for even the slightest hint of peril.

Additionally, the brain often invents patterns to deliver us a sense of self-control. In 2008, researchers at the University of Texas had subjects search for images in random television static. Subjects repeatedly reported seeing consistent images, though none were ever displayed.

The experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data is known as apophenia. At the extreme, apophenia can drive people to believing conspiracies and end-of-the-world prophecies. On a more basic level, it fuels superstitious behavior, like knocking on wood or crossing-fingers.

Or seeing bats in blobs of precipitation.

(Weather Model Image via Weather Nation / Batman logo via Wikimedia Commons)

January 2013 Archives

How to Make a Raging Elephant Bull 'Shoot Blanks'

The chase is on.

A helicopter flies low over South Africa's Kruger National Park, descending onto a herd of elephants rustling through the savannah. On the chopper, a man perches, wielding a dart gun. His weaponry resembles a sniper rifle. The gun is locked and loaded with ammunition containing ectorphine, a narcotic between three and eight thousand times stronger than morphine. Such a sedative would almost certainly kill a human being, but it's only just strong enough to tranquilize a 15,000-pound male African elephant.

The sharpshooter, seeing his target, takes aim and fires. He scores a perfect hit to a large bull, one of the dominant males. It's a skillful shot, but then again, it's pretty hard to miss the broad side of a barn, and an African elephant bull is about the size of a small barn.

As the sedative starts to take effect, the helicopter pilot deftly uses the chopper to maneuver the animal away from the rest of the herd. When the woozy pachyderm finally succumbs to the drug, he's loaded onto a large flatbed truck and then hauled to a nearby clearing, where a crew toting over-sized scalpels and a veritable toolbox of surgical instruments awaits.

Here is where the vasectomy will take place.

shutterstock_102111370.jpgThe awkward procedure begins with the surgical team properly positioning the massive animal, an act which, given the elephantine size of the patient, isn't exactly carried out with nimble precision. As roughly described by San Diego Zoo veterinarian Jeff Zuba to OnWisconsin, "We put a sling under each arm pit and leg pit and lift him into a modified standing position."

From here, IV lines go into the elephant's ear, and an endotracheal tube is inserted down the animal's throat. The IV will allow the veterinarians to monitor blood-oxygen levels, while the tube ensures that the animal can continue breathing under anesthesia.

Now the operation actually begins. The surgeon makes an eight- to ten- inch incision into the elephant's side. An air pump is then inserted into the opening to inflate the animal's abdominal cavity. This allows the surgeon room to stare inside and negotiate a large pair of scissors to the vas deferens, the tube that transports sperm from the epididymis to the penis during ejaculation. (For comparison, the human vas deferens is a single narrow tube, while the elephant's is a complex of twenty! Talk about virility!)

To find the vas deferens, you first locate the kidney, Zuba told OnWisconsin. "Find that, and the testes, and then the vas deferens, and cut out an eight- to ten- centimeter section so that, obviously, the piping is shut down."

With the main procedure complete, the surgical team performs a few housekeeping duties: stitch up the wound, take some DNA samples, affix a radio collar to the elephant's ear, and use an electric probe to force an ejaculation from the bull (his last, somewhat sadly for him). The semen that's collected will be frozen and brought to the United States where it may be used to artificially inseminate elephants in captivity.

Finally, a drug is administered to counteract the sedative, and everyone backs off, fairly rapidly.

"If we did all that right," Zuba says, "the big guy's back to normal, but shooting blanks."

Why Snip Them in the First Place?

Why go through all the trouble to vasectomize a large, wild, aggressive pachyderm? Believe it or not, they're overpopulated. Kruger National Park has a capacity of 8,000 elephants, and a population of 16,000. The mammals are raining havoc on the reserve's terrain, turning thousands of acres of forest into grassland, rendering it useless to countless other species.

There are a couple choices to solve this problem. One idea is to cull the herds. But most people aren't fans of killing elephants. The other avenue is contraception. Condoms are obviously out of the question, as they don't come in elephant size. So the best option is to render infertile the breeding males.

The effort is still in the early stages, but results are promising. Elephant Population Management Program, the nonprofit that handles the vasectomies, has performed fifty sterilizations. So far, every patient has returned to its herd with no overt changes in behavior or health, and the whole surgical process has been streamlined to under forty-five minutes. On the group's last three-day outing, they completed sixteen operations in only three days.

Snappy snipping, indeed.

Via OnWisconsin

(Image: Herd of Elephants via Shutterstock)

January 2013 Archives

Tremendous breakthroughs are often born out of military pursuits. In the past, military research has directly or indirectly led to technological innovations like the microwave oven, nuclear power, and the Internet.

You can also add M&M's to that list -- yes M&M's. Those delightfully crunchy and satisfyingly chocolatey candies that melt in your mouth (not in your hand) were originally intended for American troops in World War II.

Legend has it that Forrest Mars, Sr., while traveling in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, found soldiers eating tiny chocolate pellets coated in hard, sugar shells. Returning to the states in 1940, Mars perfected the candy and negotiated an amicable deal with the Hershey Corporation, which already had an agreement to provide chocolate to the army. When World War II rolled around in 1942, M&M's became an instant hit with the troops because the candies could travel well and withstand high temperatures without melting.

shutterstock_120239824.jpgToday, M&M's remain a troop favorite, but the battleground has changed. While the first rendition of the delectable candies could withstand the temperatures of Europe, Africa, and the Pacific fairly well, they were found to be no match for the incessant heat of the Middle East. So, in the midst of Operation Desert Storm, food technologist Tom Yang led a team that redesigned M&M's so they wouldn't turn into a "sticky mess."

"Regular chocolate is protein in the center coated with fat, so that fat can easily melt," Yang explained to PBS' NOVA. "So we came up with sort of a reverse phase chocolate, putting the protein on the outside and the fat in the center. And protein is not that easy to melt."

A Meat Roll-Up

Yang isn't solely focused on the sweet side of food, however. He's recently been investigating a method called osmotic dehydration for use in military MREs (meals, ready-to-eat). The process involves rolling meat into thin sheets, extracting water via osmosis, then running the product through a brine composed primarily of an oligosaccharide food additive called maltodextrin. The end product is a meat roll-up, very much like a fruit roll-up.

Yang plans to adapt osmotic dehydration to all sorts of foods. "The beauty of this technology is you can use beef, you can use pork, you can use poultry or you can even use fish or a combination of fruit, vegetable and meat together," Yang said.

Years of Freshness

An American army soldier's "meat and potatoes" is the MRE. Available in 24 different varieties, the meal must -- as described by Director of Combat Feeding Program Jerry Darsch -- have at least "a minimum shelf life at three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, six months at 100. It has to be stored, distributed for minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  It has to be able to be thrown -- free fall out of a chopper at 100 feet, and obviously airdropped with parachutes from about 2,000 feet and higher."

320px-MRE_20071124.PNGIt also has to be at least mildly pleasurable to eat. Military food scientists' constantly try to balance taste and longevity -- a difficult task -- but recently they made a breakthrough by creating a sandwich that can stay fresh for three years! The key to the near immortal sandwich was limiting moisture, which is necessary for bacteria to grow. The scientists utilized three surprisingly simple ingredients -- honey, sugar, and salt -- to retain moisture and seal it off at the same time, thus keeping the sandwich fresh and safe-to-eat. Oxygen, a primary cause of food deterioration, was also limited. A small package of iron filings placed within the sandwich bag traps the gas in a layer of rust.
Another part of the food pleasure equation is warmth. All MREs come equipped with a flameless heater. It's a small pad filled with magnesium dust, salt, and a little iron dust. Add water, and an oxidation reaction begins that releases a good amount of heat, which can be used to warm the food packages.

Military food scientists continue to push the envelope. During the Civil War, salted pork and hardtack was the faire du jour. Today, it's lemon pepper tuna, chicken pesto pasta, and beef roast with vegetables. Vast improvements have been made, but the work is never done.

Soldiers have been clamoring for pizza, but technologists have yet to master a version that fits to the MRE's stringent requirements.

(Images: MRE by Muttley via Wikimedia Commons, U.S. Marines via Shutterstock)