If their goal were to frustrate fans, they couldn't plan it any better. Major-league baseball players reach a low point in their decision making in September, just in time for playoffs. Across all teams, batters swing at more and more pitches they shouldn't as the season goes on.
They may just need a nap.
"Consistently getting too little sleep—even if it's just [by] one hour a night—can lead to a state of chronic sleep deprivation that can compromise performance," says Vanderbilt University neurologist Scott Kutscher. "Specifically, things like judgment and reaction time."
Judgment and reaction time are just what a baseball player needs when a ball is hurtling toward his body at 90 miles an hour: he has to decide whether to swing, then react quickly enough to actually get it done. And sleep deprivation is familiar to pro ball players, who have a packed schedule and frequently travel back and forth across the country.
To see whether baseball players suffer the effects of sleep loss as the season drags on (or skips along for six non-tedious months, depending on your inclinations), Kutscher and his colleagues looked at data from 2011 back to 2006, after the MLB cracked down on steroid use. For each team, they tracked how often players swung at pitches outside the strike zone.
Over the course of the season, the researchers saw a steady increase in how many out-of-the-strike-zone pitches players swung at. These badly judged swings went up by about six-tenths of a percent each month.
Then Kutscher and his colleagues tested that model on the data from the 2012 season. When the numbers from all the MLB teams were pooled together, the model was a tight fit. Out of 30 teams, 24 were swinging at more balls in September than in April. Kutscher presented the findings at a recent conference on sleep.
Other factors aside from sleepiness may be at work. Pitchers might be throwing better curveballs as the months pass, for example. But Kutscher says pitchers threw pretty much the same ratio of balls and strikes throughout the season; if they were improving a lot, you'd expect to see them throwing more strikes. (Not to mention that batters, too, are practicing and honing their skills during the season.)
Since the researchers looked at whole teams rather than individuals, it's also possible that a change in the roster during the season—say, the addition of less experienced players who are called up from the minors—has an effect. Kutscher doesn't think this could account for all the deterioration he witnessed, though.
"I am hesitant to argue that fatigue is 100% of the story," Kutscher says. "But we have findings that are consistent with what we know about fatigue and chronic sleep loss."
Pro ball players, and other athletes, might see their performance improve if they could avoid sleep deprivation. So stop shouting at that guy on your screen who just struck out—he needs to go home and get some rest. Image: Ed Gaillard (via Flickr)
If you are a human reader, you've probably never seen your lunch put up an invisibility shield and perform an evasive maneuver just as you reached for it. But spare a thought for the bats. If your peanut-butter sandwich were anything like a tiger moth, you'd have a hard time finding a meal.
Several kinds of insects are able to detect the echolocation calls of a bat that's approaching like an enemy submarine. Moths may fly in another direction if they hear a bat nearby, or even drop into an escape spiral. Some species of tiger moth, while making their dramatic maneuvers, also make clicking sounds that jam a bat's sonar.
"Jamming is the most effective defense against bats ever documented," says Aaron Corcoran, a postdoc who studies echolocation at the University of Maryland. The moths generate "bursts of ultrasonic clicks" like machine-gun fire—as many as 4,500 clicks a second—and those clicks mix with the echoes from the moth's body that the bat is listening for. "This distorts the echo signature, effectively blurring the acoustic image in the bat's brain," Corcoran says.
In a study published in PLOS ONE, Corcoran and his coauthors examined the timing of that jamming signal: how does a tiger moth decide when to start clicking? If it throws around its sound effects too freely, the moth risks drawing attention to itself (usually a bad idea for a prey species).
The researchers secured Bertholdia trigona tiger moths in dark chambers and played recordings of echolocating bats, observing which bat signals triggered clicking from the moths. Then they went into the woods and hung the moths on tethers from a device not unlike a giant fishing pole. (After each moth was "hoisted into the air," the paper explains, "the pole was shaken periodically by the experimenter to add motion to the tethered moth and to keep the moth flying.") Also hanging from the pole was a tiny microphone, which let the researchers record the sounds of approaching bats--as well as bats snagging nearby, non-tethered moths.
In a bat's hunt, there are three main phases: the search, when the bat scans the area with sonar; the approach, once the bat has found a target and begins sending faster, more intense sound pulses at it; and the "terminal buzz" as it homes in to make the kill.
The researchers found that tiger moths, dangling from their fishing poles, liked to start their sonar-jamming clicks early in the approach phase. "This allows the moth the maximum amount of time to jam the bat," Corcoran says. It also lets the moth make sure the bat's sonar is aimed at itself, and not at a nearby, less fortunate insect. Corcoran says, "The interesting part to me is that the moths appear very well adapted for determining precisely when they have been targeted by a bat."
Once a moth takes action, the approaching bat is in trouble, Corcoran says. A tiger moth sending out a jamming signal is about 10 times more likely to escape its pursuer than it would be otherwise. In his study, moths that sent out jamming clicks and simultaneously made an escape dive "got away every time." It's enough to make a hungry bat wish it had packed a sandwich. Corcoran, A., Wagner, R., & Conner, W. (2013). Optimal Predator Risk Assessment by the Sonar-Jamming Arctiine Moth Bertholdia trigona PLoS ONE, 8 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063609 Image: by Aaron Corcoran. You can find more photos, videos, and other tidbits at his website.
Is your main problem with dieting that you have a whorish mouth? Instead of saving itself for the truly worthy suitors—the poached lean proteins and steamed vegetables with dressing on the side—does it open up for every corn chip and chicken wing that passes by?
Good news, tramp-trap! For only $2,000 plus airfare to Los Angeles, you can have a patch of spiky plastic mesh stitched onto your tongue.
Doctor Paul Chugay promises the procedure is quick and easy. You’ll be back at work the next day. And instead of snacking at your desk, you’ll be sipping a new all-liquid diet, because your lingual chastity garment makes it too painful to consume solid foods.
Patients can expect to lose 20 to 30 pounds in a month on his 800-calorie-a-day “liquid beverage plan,” Chugay says in a video* on his site, or as much as 50 pounds in two months. After that, according to a Time article, the patch will have to be removed; otherwise it may be absorbed into the flesh permanently. That tongue just can’t control itself.
*Website NSFW, thanks to perky plastic-surgery “after” photos everywhere.
It's 2013, and laboratory pigeons are demanding an upgrade. Well, maybe they aren't demanding so much as continuing to do whatever tasks get them their pigeon pellets. Nevertheless, switching from analog to digital testing could mean more rigorous studies, better statistics, and a chance for previously ignored animals to try their paws at cognition research.
One of the classic cognitive tests that psychologists like to give animals involves two or more strings. At the far end of one string, there's a treat. The animal has to figure out that tugging on the near end of this string will gradually bring the reward close enough to eat.
How classic is the string test? In a recent Animal Cognition paper, Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa and his coauthors list 74 different papers involving this experiment. Animals subjected to string-pulling tasks have includes apes, monkeys, birds, cats, rats, and Asian elephants. The experiments have been limited, though, to animals that can grasp and pull on a string or rope. Another constraint is the time it takes an experimenter to physically set up the strings and refill the food dishes over and over again.
Wasserman and his colleagues used a pigeon focus group to try out a new kind of string test with no string at all. The whole thing took place on a touchscreen, which you can see above. When pigeons pecked at the square on the near end of a "string," the "dish" on the other end moved a little closer. One dish was an empty black box; the other was a photo of pigeon feed. When a pigeon reeled the food dish all the way in, a tasty (non-virtual) pellet dropped out of a dispenser.
The four pigeons in the study quickly got the gist of things, learning to peck the end of the string attached to the food. They started off with simple tasks, in which the strings were short and didn't cross over each other. Then the strings got longer, appeared at various angles, and eventually crossed. These tasks were increasingly challenging to the pigeons. But even for the hardest tasks, the first string they pecked was usually the correct one.
Unlike in a real string test, there was no pulling—no physical weight of food to focus on dragging closer. Still, Wasserman thinks the touchscreen experiment is an accurate substitute for the real thing. In videos like this one, you can see the pigeons bobbing their heads along the strings as they work, seeming to understand the logic of the puzzle. The authors compare the experiment to a game of Angry Birds, which also simulates real physics (albeit with slingshotted cartoon animals).
Also unlike a real string test, the researchers were able to instantly change the length or placement of the strings. They put their pigeons through tens of thousands of trials without much trouble. All of this means better statistical analyses and more reliable results are possible. Using a touchscreen "allows us to conduct experiments with much greater rigor than would otherwise be the case," Wasserman says.
The new method could also let researchers try this kind of testing on any animal that can work a touchscreen, Wasserman says—"even those without dextrous appendages." For example, fish. He also suggests mammals such as dogs, horses, or cows, as well as birds that can't use their claws like hands. One aquarium has already demonstrated that its penguins can play an iPad game. From the aquarium's video, though, it's unclear whether the penguin is truly enjoying the app for cats, or if trying to nab an onscreen mouse is turning it into an Angry Bird. Wasserman, E., Nagasaka, Y., Castro, L., & Brzykcy, S. (2013). Pigeons learn virtual patterned-string problems in a computerized touch screen environment Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0608-0 Image: Wasserman et al.
Take a look at these neurons. Ignore the fact that several of the brain cells look like snowflakes and at least one looks like an avocado. Can you pick out the drawings done by experienced, professional neuroscientists? What about the ones made by undergraduate science students?
Researchers at King's College London gave a simple task to 232 people: "Draw a neuron." (Actually, being British, they said "Please draw a neuron.") Some of the subjects were undergraduates in a neurobiology lecture. A small group were experienced neuroscientists who led their own research labs at the college. And a third, in-between group included graduate students and postdocs.
The researchers saw marked differences in how the three groups drew their brain cells. To confirm what they saw, they also pooled the drawings together and asked a new batch of subjects to sort the drawings into categories. These subjects agreed: the drawings clustered into distinct styles. The results are in the journal Science Education.
Did you pick out the pictures in the top row as examples from undergrads? Student sketches had lots of detail and were often labeled. In fact, they mostly resembled this classic textbook drawing from 1899, which the authors describe as the "archetype" of brain cells.
Sketches made by lab leaders are on the bottom row. These highly experienced scientists were more likely to make abstract or stylized drawings. Instead of imitating a textbook picture, they drew from their own personal understanding of what a neuron is. (Or possibly, for the scientist on the bottom left, what a martini glass is.)
The graduate students and postdocs, whose drawings are in the middle row, seemed to fall somewhere in between. They didn't label their drawings like undergrads did, and they didn't include quite so much detail. Their neurons were more likely to bend, and the nuclei of the cells were often hidden—in other words, the cells looked more like they would under a microscope, rather than on a textbook page. But they weren't quite as simplified and abstracted as the lab leaders'.
Lead author David Hay says that the three drawing styles represent "different cultures." Undergraduate students spit out textbook images; scientists in training draw on their own observations; and more experienced scientists make "highly conceptual" drawings that represent their personal judgment.
This matters because "learning to reproduce the textbook images is NOT learning science," Hay says. Even postdoctoral researchers didn't seem to have internalized the concept as much as the lab leaders had. However, Hay thinks there are ways that experienced scientists can help students gain perspective.
One way might be by physically acting out scientific ideas. After Hay and his coauthors had students try a couple such exercises—for example, walking on different paths through a laboratory to mimic how neurons grow—the students produced drawings that were more creative and less like the textbook.
Hay thinks students need to internalize scientific concepts before they can play around with them and make their own hypotheses. "Scientists do not simply know information," he says; "they put information to work to discover something new." Failing that, they can create formidable Pictionary teams. HAY, D., WILLIAMS, D., STAHL, D., & WINGATE, R. (2013). Using Drawings of the Brain Cell to Exhibit Expertise in Neuroscience: Exploring the Boundaries of Experimental Culture Science Education, 97 (3), 468-491 DOI: 10.1002/sce.21055 Images: Hay et al.
At a McDonald's shareholder meeting last week, a nine-year-old girl accused CEO Don Thompson of sneaky advertising. Stop "tricking kids into eating your food," she demanded, saying that McDonald's ads tell kids to "keep bugging their parents" until they get that Happy Meal. In the world of fast-food chains, though, the golden arches may not be the sneakiest purveyor of excess calories. Diners in all kinds of fast-food restaurants underestimate the calories they're taking in—and the most dramatic underestimation happens at Subway.
Thompson may not have been swayed, but Jason Block of Harvard Medical School and a group of other researchers writing in BMJ do care what consumers think about their fast food. Specifically, they care how many calories people think they're eating. To find out, they went into the trenches: 80 fast-food restaurants in New England cities.
Researchers stood outside their chosen dining establishments (which included McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Wendy's, KFC, and Dunkin' Donuts) in 2010 and 2011. They asked customers on their way in whether they'd be willing to save their receipts and answer a few questions when they came back out. (Only a few restaurants kicked the researchers off the premises.) At dinnertime, they targeted adults, either eating on their own or with kids. At lunchtime and after school let out, they went to fast-food places within a mile of a school and talked to adolescents.
In all, more than 3,000 people participated. Across all the restaurant chains, the average dinnertime meal for adults was 836 calories, and the average afternoon meal for adolescents was 756 calories. Yet when asked how many calories they thought their meals held, people consistently guessed too low. And the bigger their meals were, the more severely they underestimated.
The researchers also asked subjects whether they'd noticed any calorie information indoors. "All of [the chains] provide information in some way," says Block—"on a wall poster, on napkins/cups, on sandwich wrappers and tray liners, and on 'special menus' that might present items that are below a certain number of calories."
Yet less than a quarter of adults said they'd even noticed this information. Those people didn't do any better at estimating their calories than others. Did they use the information to help them make menu choices? Only five percent of all adults said yes. Of adolescents, two percent.
Block says it's easy for diners to miss the calorie information provided by fast-food chains today. But soon, as part of the Affordable Care Act, all chain restaurants with more than 20 locations will have to post calorie information in a standard format. "The menu labeling regulation will require the calories to be up front and highly recognizable," Block says.
Even this kind of prominent labeling has had mixed results in past studies. However, Block adds, the new law will also require menus to post an "anchoring statement" pointing out that people only need about 2000 calories a day. This might make, say, the 970 calories in a Wendy's Baconator more meaningful to a customer.
Anchoring was effective in at least one small study, Block says. Other studies have looked at "traffic light" labeling (in red, yellow, or green), or listing calories in terms of how much exercise you'd need to burn them back off. "We'll be in a position to know much more after the federal law is implemented," Block says. His group is collecting data this year and next year to see how well the new labeling works.
If people do start noticing how many calories their favorite chains are offering, they may be surprised. When researchers broke down their results by restaurant chain, they found that people underestimated their calories more dramatically at some restaurants than others. At McDonald's, adults guessed too low by an average of 100 calories, and adolescents by a little more than 200. The guesses were off by a bit more, on average, at Burger King and Wendy's. At Subway, the errors were most extreme: adults underestimated their calories by an average of about 350, adolescents by close to 500.
Five hundred calories is equivalent to all the bread in a 12-inch sub (or, if you opt for multigrain, all the bread plus four American-cheese triangles). It's a lot not to know you're eating. This mistake, the authors write, may happen because people view Subway with a "health halo." After seeing TV ads featuring fresh vegetables, smiling Olympians, and Jared's old pants, consumers may think they're making a healthier choice than they are.
The new calorie labeling could help most in places like this. A fast-food chain that brands itself as healthy is even sneakier than someplace like McDonald's, which even little girls know is bad for you. Image: by Jeremy Brooks (via Flickr) Block, J., Condon, S., Kleinman, K., Mullen, J., Linakis, S., Rifas-Shiman, S., & Gillman, M. (2013). Consumers' estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observational study BMJ, 346 (may23 3) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.f2907
It's hard to keep your footing in a steep tunnel made of loose dirt while others are scrambling around and over your body. Harder still in pitch blackness. That's why fire ants build tunnels that will catch them when they fall—a strategy human engineers might want to steal.
"Slips and missteps are likely a constant, recurring feature of life underground," says Nick Gravish, a graduate student in Daniel Goldman's rheology and biomechanics lab at Georgia Tech. Yet ants have to traverse their tunnels quickly, especially when there's a colony emergency like a flood or destruction by a gardener's spade.
To study how ants engineer their tunnels, Gravish brought the fire ant Solenopsis invicta into the lab. Invasive to countries around the world and packing a nasty sting, these South American ants deal out plenty of hardship. But Gravish was interested in how they handle adversity themselves.
First, the ants were put into "laboratory soil" (actually tiny glass balls) to dig. Researchers took x-ray CT scans of the resulting tunnels and found that no matter the moisture of the "soil" or the size of the glass beads, ants dug circular tunnels of approximately the same diameter. That diameter was just a little bit more than the length of their bodies, not counting legs or antennae.
This suggested that the diameter of the tunnel was crucial to the fire ants. To see how well the ants moved within these tunnels, the researchers recorded video of them climbing as fast as they could. ("We startled them into climbing at high speed by exhaling gently into the nest," Gravish says.) They saw that ants were able to navigate their tunnels quickly, reaching speeds of more than 9 body lengths per second. They also saw that sometimes the ants slipped and had to recover their footing.
In addition to their tunnels, the researchers recorded ants climbing in vertical glass tubes. To get a better idea of how ants corrected their falls, the scientists jolted the tubes to knock the ants off the walls while they were climbing. (If you enjoy videos in the falling-bugs genre, this study generated several new additions. Here's one video of several ants falling and stopping themselves.)
Now the reason ants build tunnels so close in diameter to their own body length became clear. Ants responded to a fall by spreading all their appendages wide and waiting until they jammed to a stop. "One of the coolest things we found was that fire ants used their antennae to brace themselves," Gravish says. While falling, the ants turned these delicate sensors into extra load-bearing limbs.
When the glass tube width increased to 1.3 times the ants' body length, the strategy began to fail. The tunnels ants built themselves had an average diameter of just 1.06 times their body length, the authors report in PNAS. It seems fire ants put most of the responsibility for stopping falls on the tunnels themselves. After that, all a plummeting insect has to do is stretch out its limbs.
Gravish likens this strategy to the way humans build stairs. Steps are engineered to fit our bodies. If they're too tall or short, we struggle to use them (or maybe just fall down them). But with the right design, our environment works with us to get us where we're going.
This strategy could inspire how we design robots for confined spaces such as search-and-rescue zones, Gravish says. For instance, "falling is usually considered a failure mode for a robot." But fire ants seem to use little falls to descend more quickly through their tunnels. If engineers knew the size of the cracks and crevices in a disaster area, they might be able to send in many inexpensive robots designed to tumble through those spaces—rather than one very expensive robot built to keep its footing.
What about humans ourselves: would we benefit from building tunnels that were only as wide as our head-plus-torso length, like the ants? Gravish points out that fire ants often fall many body lengths before catching themselves, making this not such a great strategy for people. "Ants have a robust exoskeleton," he says. "We humans are quite soft in comparison." Images: ant in tunnel by Laura Danielle Wagner; ants falling by Gravish et al. Gravish, N., Monaenkova, D., Goodisman, M., & Goldman, D. (2013). Climbing, falling, and jamming during ant locomotion in confined environments Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1302428110