Field of Science


Year-End Roundup: Your Favorite Stories

With the end of a year--and, depending how you're counting, the end of a decade--upon us, top-ten lists are everywhere. Top ten science insights of the aughts! "Top 10 Everything"! Since this inkfish can only count to eight, here are eight of inkfish's most-read stories from 2010. (And since playing favorites is for vertebrates, they are in no particular order.)

Reasons for Short People to Gloat
How relativity is affecting your toes differently from your nose, and why tall people live in the past.

What to Say to Climate Change Deniers
A toolkit.

Do-It-Yourself Linguistics
Study whatever English-language trends you're interested in, from irregular verbs to Nazis to plate tectonics.

Scientific drama concerning a poorly understood illness.

I Think I Can! (Do Physics)
College professors use a simple exercise to disarm stereotype threat and boost female students' grades.

Muscle Memories
Your muscles are eager to return to their former glory. How this affects you, cheating athletes, and annoying people in your gym.

Daring to Discuss
New York Times columnist John Tierney argues that women are inherently, just a little, don't get angry now, dumber at science. I disagree.

Elevate Your Performance!
Seriously creepy shoes.

Bees and Other Stocking Stuffers

Happy holidays! Inkfish found some exciting goodies in its many-tentacled stocking this year (thanks, tipsters!), including:

Toys for chimpanzees
While observing a chimpanzee community in Uganda for 14 years, researchers Sonya Kahlenberg and Richard Wrangham saw the animals use sticks in several different ways. They poked narrow sticks into holes to search for water or honey; they threatened other chimps with sticks, or used them for hitting or throwing. Perhaps most surprisingly, they saw some chimps carrying branches or chunks of bark in a way that suggested carrying a doll.

The behavior was seen most often in young female chimps. Because the chimps sometimes carried their sticks into their nests or played with them in a maternal way, the researchers think the stick-carrying behavior is really play-mothering. And since adults don't carry sticks, the young chimps in this community are learning the behavior from each other.

Coyote cops
The city of Chicago is perfectly aware that several dozen coyotes are roaming the parks and streets at night (even, in this video, trotting down the center of State Street, in the loop). In fact, the coyotes are out with the government's blessing. 

Cook County has put radio collars on more than 60 coyotes and allows them to run around Chicago without interference. This lets the Coyote Project gather data about how coyotes travel, while the animals themselves get to kill all the rats they want. And, um, only an occasional house cat.

Adorable pocket-sized scientists (with bonus bees!)
A group of 8- to 10-year-old students at Blackawton Primary School in the United Kingdom are probably the youngest researchers ever to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

Teacher Dave Strudwick and neuroscientist Beau Lotto led the kids in an awesome classroom study about bees. The students wanted to study whether bees could use spatial reasoning to solve a puzzle. So they presented the bees with different arrangements of colored circles, some holding sugar water, and concluded that the bees did learn which patterns were the best "flowers" to visit.

The students' paper was published in Biology Letters. It includes many samples of the students' own language, such as the confusing statement, "We then put the tube with the bees in it into the school's fridge (and made bee pie :))...No bees were harmed during this procedure," as well as the heartening conclusion that "Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before." 

Volcanoes made out of ice
Based on images and data from Cassini, a spacecraft orbiting Saturn, scientists think that Titan (one of Saturn's moons) has Earth-like volcanoes on its surface. Unlike Earth volcanoes, though, these volcanoes might spew ice. Take that, Eyjafjallajokull!

A new family member
Did you ever ask your parents for a baby sister or brother for Christmas? How about a new cousin? In Denisova Cave in Siberia, researchers found a 30,000-year-old finger bone. They managed to sequence its DNA, and concluded that it belonged to a previously unknown human relative. 

These ancient people, the "Denisovans," were more closely related to Neanderthals than to Homo sapiens. Though the Denisovans lived at the same time as modern humans, they're long extinct, along with Neanderthals and the "hobbit" people that may have lived on the island of Flores. We still don't know what became of our ancient cousins, leaving us the only hominids around. But a tiny bit of Denisovan DNA seems to persist in the genomes of Melanesians--a gift they didn't know they'd gotten.

Images:,, NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS/University of Arizona

Do-It-Yourself Linguistics

You may have heard about a massive new database that Google has provided to academia. Happily, they've also shared their new toy with us armchair nerds. 

Over the past several years, Google and its university partners have been scanning every book they can get their hands on into the searchable Google Books resource. Despite the lawsuits, they've collected over 15 million books. Meanwhile, a team at Harvard led by researchers Jean-Baptise Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden has been digging through this immense trove of data and pulling out all kinds of gems.

For their first study, published last week by Science, the authors pared down the data set to only the most reliable books--excluding, for example, those with blurry scans or uncertain dates of publication. The resulting data set was 5 million books. By searching the database for words and phrases (n-grams), the researchers were able to track patterns and changes in the English language. You can read their whole study, and see all their graphs, at the link above (with a free registration). 

Among other findings, they showed how the number of English words has been steadily increasing...

When verbs with irregular forms were replaced with more regular words...

And how effectively the Nazis were able to erase Jewish artist Marc Chagall from public awareness.

Want to try it yourself? You can make your own word graphs with Google's n-gram tool. Here are a few things I've found:

While "men" vastly exceeded "women" until the 1980s, "boys" and "girls" have been better matched. The kids saw an increase in popularity in the mid-20th century, maybe when a lot of child-raising books were being written. But around the time "women" surpassed "men," "girls" also edged out "boys."

Genetics has been an increasingly popular way to explain our traits and tendencies over the past century. Before that, what did we have? Head bumps, for one thing.

Newly discovered scientific principles have a steep learning curve, then plateau once people have caught on. It remains to be seen where global warming will level off.

Luckily, we're not a generation that sits back and assumes that what happens on this planet is outside of our control.

Lost: One Solar Sail

Last week, Japan's Akatsuki probe, which was supposed to swing into orbit around Venus, missed the planet entirely and kept right on going into space. Japanese scientists may get another shot in six years, when the hapless probe loops back around the sun. 

Any NASA scientists who were secretly entertained by Akatsuki's accident will be feeling pretty embarrassed this week, since NASA has now lost one of its own expensive metal boxes: in this case, a very tiny probe called NanoSail-D that held exciting cargo.

NanoSail-D was, as often described, about the size of a loaf of bread. It was launched from another satellite called FASTSAT, short for Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite. (Really, guys? "Fast" is both part of the name and part of the acronym? As long as you're taking liberties, why not FASTASTSAT?) On December 6, NanoSail-6 seemed to successfully launch from the larger satellite. 

After three days in space, giving the miniature satellite time to get away from FASTSAT, NanoSail-D was supposed to deploy its fragile cargo: a square sail, 10 meters by 10 meters and made of a whisper-thin reflective polymer. It was a solar sail, designed to be powered by the sun. But on December 10, NASA acknowledged that they'd lost contact with the tiny satellite and its sail.

NASA isn't sure what happened--the sail may have gotten tangled as it tried to unfurl, or the satellite may have never launched from its parent satellite in the first place. Or (more mundanely) the satellite's battery may have died.

It's a disappointing development in a fascinating field. A solar sails is meant to be propelled only by photons from the sun. The energy of the photons hitting the big, ultra-light sail gives it momentum. The contribution of each photon is unimaginably slight. But because the sun is always sending out photons, the sail's acceleration is constant. According to the Planetary Society, another group working on solar sails, this means a solar sail could hypothetically reach 3700 kilometers per hour (2300 mph) after 12 days in space. This is the technology that might take us to Mars, or beyond.

Planetary Society Vice President Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) says: "We can sail by starlight. How cool is that?" Pretty cool--as long as we can keep track of our ships.

Image: NASA

Chocolate Sea Worms (a quiz)

Sharpen those digital pencils--it's quiz day!

1. The scientists who discovered this bizarre new species (above) swimming thousands of meters under the Pacific Ocean appropriately dubbed it the:
a) squiderpillar
b) squidworm
c) Worminator
d) tentipede

2. In one of these M&M-eating studies I am somehow never invited to take part in, researchers discovered that subjects ate fewer M&Ms after they:
a) saw pictures of insects
b) ate an insect
c) imagined being obese
d) imagined eating a bunch of M&Ms

3. Back in 2003, controversial "hobbit" bones were discovered on the island of Flores, leading some scientists to believe that a miniature hominid race once lived there. Researchers have now found evidence that these hobbit people (if they existed) lived alongside:
a) dinosaurs
b) regular-sized people
c) giant storks
d) miniature elephants

4. In a meta-analysis (a study of other studies), researchers found that a person's risk of death from several common cancers can be lowered by a daily dose of:
a) aspirin
b) fish oil
c) vitamin D
d) chocolate

5. In May, Japanese researchers launched a probe called Akatsuki toward Venus. Akatsuki was supposed to spend two years orbiting Venus and sending back data about its atmosphere and weather. On Monday, the probe:
a) crashed into the surface of Venus
b) was put out of commission by space debris
c) melted in the planet's intense heat
d) missed Venus entirely

Answers are in the comments. Image: Laurence Madin/WHOI.

Fruit Bats and Sexual Harrassment

In a sentence that almost certainly had never been uttered before, Irish professor Stephen Kinsella announced on his blog last spring, "As far as I'm aware, I started the #fruitbatgate tag on twitter."

Fruitbatgate, since you asked, has been a long and confusing drama involving University College Cork in Ireland, two professors, the internet, and a paper entitled "Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time." The paper was pretty silly, if explicit, and won an Ig Nobel prize this year. What happened between the two professors was not so silly.

A female professor at UCC accused a male professor, Dylan Evans, of sexual harassment in the fall of 2009. According to Evans, all he was guilty of was "showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article [sic] to a colleague." He had visited his colleague's office and shared the paper with her, he says, "as part of an ongoing debate...about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behavior." Or, more likely, because he thought it was hilarious. According to his colleague, Evans had a history of inappropriate behavior toward her, including sexually charged conversation and unwanted touching and kissing. The way in which he presented her with this paper was not hilarious, and she filed a complaint with the school.

An investigation found Evans not guilty--sort of. Actually, they found that "the incident fell within the definition of sexual harassment," but that Evans "had no intention to offend," whatever kind of verdict that is. Still, the university's president assigned Evans to counseling and two years of monitoring.

Evans, outraged, took to the internet. He spread his story around and began a petition online that read, "We the undersigned demand that...UCC change its policy on harassment so that it cannot be used any longer to limit academic freedom and stifle debate." Almost 3900 people signed it. Evans brought his case to court. Meanwhile, confidential documents relating to the case had been leaked online, and everyone knew the name of the "flamboyant Italian-born nutritionist" who had filed the complaint. The university started a second disciplinary investigation into the leak (Evans denies responsibility), but it was too late for the female professor to regain her anonymity.

A few days ago, a High Court judge passed down a ruling on Evans's case against the school. The judge agreed with the finding that sexual harassment had taken place. However, he found that the school's sanctions against Evans were "grossly disproportionate," and overturned them. Evans, ignoring that first part, claimed victory.

And so did Science magazine. "Biologist Prevails in Case of 'Fruit Bat Fellatio' Harassment Allegations," their Science Insider blog crowed:
Dylan Evans is breathing a sigh of relief. The biologist...was required by the school to attend 2 years of counseling for reading aloud from a scientific paper about fruit bat fellatio. Evans challenged the ruling, and a judge has now ruled in favor of him.

I get that people enjoy writing headlines about this because they get to say "fellatio." And I agree that the idea of a professor being censured "for reading aloud" is ridiculous. What I don't get is the parade of academics and bloggers--and Science magazine--assuming that's what really happened. Something complicated went on between these two professors, and none of us knows what that was. Yet writers are eager to join in the jokes about the humorless prude who wants to stifle academic freedom, rather than trying to understand the whole story. And that's not very scientific.

NASA, You're Such a Tease.

When NASA announced that they were going to hold a press conference about "an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for extraterrestrial life," I was pretty excited--especially when I read that the details had been embargoed (that is, people at the journal publishing the paper weren't allowed to talk about it ahead of time). To make sure we got the hint, NASA reminded readers that "Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe."

What would the discovery be? The odds that SETI had finally received their alien phone call seemed slim. But maybe researchers had spotted solid evidence of alien bacteria on Saturn's moon Titan, or some other rock in the solar system. After all, there have been some tantalizing hints in that direction recently.

The press conference was schedule for 2:00 ET yesterday, but a few hours earlier, the story leaked all over the internet. According to Gizmodo (whose story has since been updated), astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon had discovered an exciting new bacteria species in a weird California lake. These bacteria, the story said, were not made of the same buildings blocks as the rest of Earth's life. While all other known life is made of six primary ingredients (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur), these bacteria used arsenic instead of phosphorus.

Phosphorus is part of the backbone of DNA. The discovery of a life form that built its DNA out of different molecules would indeed be huge. Was it evidence that life had arisen on Earth not once, but twice? Or, since NASA was promoting this as an astrobiology story, did they believe that the bacteria had traveled to Earth from a meteorite--evidence for alien life?

When NASA released its own story a few hours later, the message was slightly different.

What Wolfe-Simon found was a bacterial strain called GFAJ-1, a member of a common bacterial family. Since the bacteria live in a lake that contains a lot of arsenic, and arsenic atoms are very similar to phosphorus (this is why arsenic is usually poisonous--it gets into the bodily pathways where phosphorus is supposed to be), she wondered whether these bacteria would be able to safely use arsenic as a substitute for phosphorus.

She cultured the bacteria (grew them in a lab) using sediment from their home lake and increasingly strong concentrations of arsenic. Over many generations of bacteria, she gradually replaced all the phosphorus in their food with arsenic. And they lived! She found evidence that the bacteria had successfully incorporated arsenic into their proteins, and even into the backbone of their DNA.

No one has ever shown before that a life form can swap out one of its vital building blocks (though arsenic-eating bacteria aren't new). But is this the earth-shaking discovery the headlines are claiming?

Wolfe-Simon did not show, and doesn't claim to have shown, that any bacteria function this way naturally. She did not demonstrate that bacteria in the lake actually substitute arsenic for phosphorus. To get her own plates of bacteria to work this way, she gradually weaned them off phosphorus and added arsenic. As writer Ed Yong points out, she may have artificially selected for arsenic-eating bacteria--that is, forced their rapid evolution by killing off the non-arsenic-eaters in each generation. And since the arsenic-users grew in exponentially lower amounts than the phosphorus-users, it seems impossible that any of them could exist in nature. They'd immediately be outcompeted by their phosphorus-using neighbors.

The link to alien life is tenuous, at best. "If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven't seen yet?" Wolfe-Simon says.

It's an interesting finding, but it's not about extraterrestrial life; it's about a quirky kind of bacteria created in a lab. It's too bad that NASA allowed the hype to drown out the reality.

I Think I Can! (Do Physics)

Mmmm. It's been a refreshingly long time since I've had to read any arguments published by the New York Times about the innate inferiority of women in hard sciences. I'm looking at you, John Tierney.

(I did, however, read an entertaining rant by Natalie Angier about STEM, the annoying new acronym we're supposed to use instead of saying "hard sciences." "Aficionados pronounce STEM exactly as you'd imagine," she says, "like the plant part, like the cell type, like what you do to a tide and I wish I could do to this trend, but it's probably too late.")

While Tierney was polishing his bro card, researchers at the University of Colorado were conducting a pretty spiffy study about women in physics. For their subjects, they used an entire entry-level college physics class of 399 students (283 male and 116 female). As in any good psych study, the students were unaware of what was going on.

The study examined "stereotype threat," the phenomenon in which certain groups underperform when they're reminded of negative stereotypes about themselves. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know whether stereotype threat was bringing down the grades of the women in the class. Twice during the semester--once at the beginning, and again before the first midterm--all students completed a 15-minute writing assignment. Whether male or female, they were randomly assigned to write about either values that were important to them ("values affirmation") or values that were important to other people (control group). The values-affirmation exercise had been previously shown to help close the achievement gap for minority middle-school students. Neither the instructor nor the TAs knew which writing assignment the students had done.

At the end of the semester, the researchers looked at students' test scores, both on the usual class exams and a standardized physics test. They found that the values affirmation exercise didn't increase men's test scores--if anything, it lowered them a tiny bit. For the women, though, there was a clear jump from the control group to the values-affirmation group. In the control group, men outperformed women. After the values-affirmation exercise, the gap was gone.

Researchers also looked at the grade distribution in the class. While the values affirmation, again, hadn't affected men's grades, it clearly shifted a group of women out of the C range and into the B range. Interestingly, the percentage of women with A's didn't increase--it seems that the exercise was most helpful to the women who were struggling a bit to begin with. And there was one more piece of data: As part of an online course survey, the students had responded to the question, "According to my own personal beliefs, I expect men to generally do better in physics than women" on a five-point scale. It turned out that the women who agreed with this stereotype got the biggest boost from the values-affirmation exercise.

These students weren't insecure, math-averse middle-schoolers; they were college kids who were voluntarily taking physics because they wanted to major in science. It's surprising to see that stereotype threat could still have such a strong effect in this group. But it's encouraging that researchers are finding simple ways to counteract it. Or, unlike some columnists, acknowledging that there's a problem in the first place.

Elevate Your Performance!

In my tradition of examining science-y shoes, I'd like to talk about these sneakers, the Gravity Defyers. I found this advertisement in a magazine called Invention & Technology, which seems (if all the ad space dedicated to commemorative coins is any indication) to be targeted at an older demographic.

The logo on the shoe is sort of like a Nike swoosh, but a little more...swimming.

Is this an accident? A joke? A tadpole? It's hard to say.

The ad's copy tells the tale of a man with a problem:
Low energy and laziness has got me down. My energy has fizzled and I'm embarrassed to admit that I've grown a spare tire (I'm sure it's hurting my love life.)...Gravity has done a job on me.
To counteract his saggy problem, the man's doctor recommends Gravity Defyer shoes, which "ease the force of gravity" with Veroshock Trampoline technology. (Springs, to the layperson.)

On receiving his shoes in the mail, our hero says, "Excitement swept through my body like a drug!"
Sturdy construction. Cool colors. Nice lines...I was holding a miracle of technology. This was the real thing.
He was understandably eager to experience all the benefits of Gravity Defyer shoes, which "Relieve pain," "Elevate your performance," and "Be more active."
I put them on and all I could say was, "WOW!" In minutes I was out the door...I was back in the game. Gravity had no power over me!
A pair of these amazing shoes can be yours for only $129.95 (energy drink pouring itself all over your foot not included).

Ladies, don't feel left out--there's something for you, too!
"Customer Satisfaction Speaks for Itself."

Are Dogs Smarter than Cats?

You may see a headline or ten today screaming, DOGS SMARTER THAN CATS! (Subhead: Scientists Say So!) It may not surprise you to learn that those headlines are a little overblown. But what the scientists actually say is pretty interesting, too.

Susanne Shultz and Robin Dunbar at Oxford University studied "encephalization," which is how much a species increases its brain size over evolutionary time. If your ancient ancestors had pea brains, but nowadays you have a giant brain (compared to your body size), congratulations! Your species encephalized. Since it costs a lot of energy to power a big brain, scientists assume that highly encephalized species are getting a big benefit out of those brains in the long term (say, by inventing tools).

Shultz and Dunbar conducted a statistical analysis that included 511 mammal species. Within groups of related species, they included fossil data from extinct species as well as data from living species. In all cases, they looked at how the size of an animal's brain, relative to its body size, has increased (or not increased) over time.

They found some groups of mammals that had clearly become more encephalized over time, and other groups whose brain size had stayed the same. The orders of primates (such as monkeys and apes), cetaceans (whales and dolphins), Perissodactyla (horses and rhinos), and carnivores (carnivores) all had increased their brain sizes, with primates increasing the most.

When the groups were divided into suborders, a few things changed. Among the carnivores, for example, the Caniformes (dog-like animals, which include wolves, bears, seals, and skunks) seemed to account for all the encephalization. The brains of Feliformes (cat-like animals) had stayed pretty much the same size over time.

So what separated the brain growers from the brain slackers? The mammals that had encephalized were social animals--they live in groups, packs, or herds. Those with solitary lifestyles had not encephalized.

Though relative brain size is connected to intelligence--big-brained animals do tend to be smart--it's not the only thing that matters. The study authors don't conclude that these animals are smarter than less-encephalized ones (horses, after all, are still dumb as rocks). But they do conclude that the brains of social animals have grown the most as they evolved. Something about living in groups, it seems, requires some extra equipment upstairs.

How does this apply to your dog and your cat? Housecats weren't actually included in the study. But they actually have slightly larger brains, relative to their bodies, than dogs do--even though their brains haven't grown over evolutionary time. As for dogs, they were just one of many dog-like species included here. And since domestication tends to shrink brains, cats and dogs are probably both dumber than their wild cousins. But we love them anyway!

Big Balls (a quiz)

Do you have what it takes to conquer this special-edition, oversized quiz?

1. Data from a NASA telescope recently revealed two giant balls of:
a. ice and rock, hurtling toward Mars
b. garbage, lodged in an air-circulation chute on the International Space Station
c. energy, sandwiching the Milky Way galaxy
d. gas and dust, blocking our view of the Orion nebula

2. Using an iPhone app called Track your Happiness, researchers at Harvard found that:
a. people who daydream the most are the happiest
b. 10% of people claim to never daydream
c. focusing on the task at hand makes people unhappy
d. daydreaming makes people unhappy

3. Last week, researchers reported that ozone depletion is causing:
a. sunburned whales
b. skin cancer in penguins
c. deeper tans among Brazilians
d. a reversal of global warming

4. Researchers in Vietnam discovered a previously undocumented, all-female lizard species...
a. on a menu
b. in a pet store
c. living in their luggage
d. after running one over

5. A British team has proposed a new design for a Mars rover. Instead of rolling across the sandy terrain like Spirit and Opportunity, their rover would:
a. crawl
b. walk
c. fly
d. hop

6. Meanwhile, a new study on pterosaurs says that the 500-pound flying dinosaurs may have launched themselves into flight in a manner similar to:
a. high jumping
b. pole vaulting
c. skipping
d. trapeze-ing

7. New research has revealed which of the following about parrotfish mucus?
a. Parrotfish trap their prey in spit-bubble nets
b. Parrotfish create elaborate spit castles as part of their courtship routine
c. Parrotfish spit contains a potent antiviral agent
d. Parrotfish sleep in spit cocoons to deter bloodsucking predators

8. Scientists at MIT built a robotic tongue in order to study the physics of:
a. dogs lapping water
b. cats lapping water
c. camels spitting
d. goldfish eating

9. Haven't you ever wondered how a fruit fly larva (also called a maggot) keeps its squishy little body from shriveling in the sun while it's munching on rotten fruit? The answer, scientists recently announced, is that the maggot:
a. has tiny eyes all over its body to detect the sun
b. creates a protective spit tunnel as it chews
c. excretes urine from every part of its body
d. ...I'm sorry, I grossed myself out too much to write a fourth option.

10. With testes weighing in at almost 14% of its body mass, the title of World's Largest Testicles has been claimed by a species of:
a. lemur
b. parakeet
c. cricket
d. primitive hominid

Answers are in the comments.

Are You an Efficient Walker?

I apologize. If you are one of those people who's most comfortable walking down the exact center of the sidewalk with your earbuds in, or a random left-and-right weaver, or a reckless swinger of pointy umbrellas, or someone who likes to walk your terrier tripwire-style, you may have heard me scuffing my feet behind you and making frustrated little noises. If you're simply slow, I may have alarmed you by zooming around your left shoulder like a maniac. I can't help it. I'm a speed walker.

Even if you're a more relaxed stroller than I am, though, maybe you've wondered why people walk the way they do. Is a super-slow walker conserving energy? Do little kids really tire out that quickly from walking, or are they just lazy? If I walk the 4.2-mile round trip to Bobtail for a cone of Cubby Crunch ice cream, is my expedition calorie-neutral?

Researchers in Texas addressed these questions by putting 48 people of assorted sizes onto treadmills. They observed people's strides, measured their oxygen use and carbon dioxide output, and calculated their metabolic rates. (None of the subjects were wearing Shape-Ups.) The subjects ranged from age 5 to 23. They had to walk at various speeds, from a very slow 0.4 meters per second (0.9 mph) to a brisk 1.9 meters per second (4.3 mph). A few of the young kids never figured out how to walk on the treadmill, footage of which I assume would be YouTube gold.

The researchers found that shorter people are less efficient walkers than taller people. That is, they use more energy to walk the same distance. And the reason is simple: since taller people have longer legs, they need to take fewer steps.

The findings were remarkably consistent. Thin people, obese people, and even little kids walk with essentially the same mechanics across a wide range of paces. The researchers infer that "humans establish mature walking patterns sometime before they reach six years of age."

You might view this as another advantage to being short (more exercise over the same distance!) or a point for tall people (we're so efficient!). Either way, if you care to know how many calories you're burning, the authors' rule of thumb is as follows:

At a comfortable pace, it takes about 1 calorie per kilogram of body weight to move forward a distance equal to your height. So if you know your weight in kilograms and the distance of your trip in, um, inches, you can calculate whether you burned off that ice cream cone. Or not.


ADDENDUM: Those would have to be calories with a little c, which are one 1,000th of what we usually call a "calorie." So you should divide by a thousand.

Michael Jackson Mind Control

Whenever you recognize someone or something--your mother, the Space Needle, an iguana--it's because certain neurons in your brain light up with activity almost exclusively in response to that one thing. You may pretend you don't know who Heidi Montag is, but somewhere in your gray matter, your brain cells are proving you wrong. Researchers at CalTech used this principle to create a spooky game in which subjects manipulated a computer screen with their minds.

The research, like previous work in this field, was done on epileptic patients who'd had electrodes temporarily buried in their brains to study their seizures. (Pragmatic researchers figure that as long as patients are sitting around the hospital with wires coming out of their heads, they might as well make themselves useful.)

For each of 12 electrode-implanted subjects, the researchers repeatedly flashed over 100 familiar images on a screen while monitoring the activity of their neurons. Then they chose four images that elicited a particularly big crackle of activity in one area of the subject's brain. For one subject, this meant they identified an area of Marilyn Monroe neurons, one of Josh Brolin neurons, one of Michael Jackson neurons, and a fourth area of Venus Williams neurons.

The actual experiment required each subject to sit in front of a screen, which would flash one of their four images: say, Michael Jackson. This was the "target." Then the screen would show Michael Jackson superimposed with one of the other four images. The subject had to look at the hybrid image and concentrate on their target. A nifty feedback contraption, hooked up to those electrodes in the subject's head, listened to the activity of their neuron groups and responded accordingly: the more the subject activated the neurons for Michael Jackson, the stronger his image would become on the screen. If the subject got distracted by Marilyn Monroe, her image would take over.

Amazingly, all the subjects figured out how to "win" the game, getting their target image to 100%--often on the first try. While seeing both images, they were able to increase the activity of one set of neurons and simultaneously quiet down the other set. This technology doesn't have a lot of (OK, any) immediate practical applications. But it's intriguing to imagine the computers of the future responding to commands in your head.

As long as it requires brain surgery, I'm guessing the image game won't catch on. But you can play a much less invasive biofeedback game at the Museum of Science and Industry.

In an exhibit called Mindball, two contestants don electrode-containing headbands, face each other across a table, and try to relax. As their brainwaves slow, a metal ball travels back and forth along a track between them. Whoever is the best relaxer (producing more alpha and theta brainwaves, as opposed to the more alert beta waves) eventually pushes the ball all the way to their opponent's side of the table, winning the game.

If you don't want to travel all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry, you can buy your own Mindball table from the Polish company that produces them. Why buy a pool table when you could outfit your den with a relaxing brain-reading game instead? The best part is that no one will be able to tell what celebrities you're thinking about.

Watch Out for Comets! (a quiz)

Facebook quizzes may tell you which Hogwarts house you belong in, which U.S. city is right for you, or what your Disney princess spirit color is--but only Inkfish tests your knowledge of polar research volunteers and space similes.

1. Researchers announced this week that which technology seen in the Star Wars movies is close to becoming a reality?
a. 3D holographs
b. Light sabers
c. Death stars
d. Doors that slide open when you wave your hand at them, Jedi-style

2. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a surprising statement regarding the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, going against what has been the usual policy in this country. It said that:
a. Genes should be patent-eligible.
b. Genes should not be patent-eligible.

3. A NASA spacecraft flew by a comet called Hartley 2 yesterday and returned a bunch of photos. All of the following are true about the mission EXCEPT:
a. The spacecraft is named Deep Impact--not to be confused with the movie about a comet heading toward Earth.
b. This comet is, eventually, heading toward Earth.
c. Those jets of light come from frozen materials on the comet's surface that are heated by the sun and shoot off as gases.
d. Hartley 2 was described by a NASA astronomer as "a cross between a bowling pin and a pickle."

4. Two recent studies found that this much-touted brain food did not slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer's patients; did not prevent postpartum depression when taken by pregnant women; and did not make their babies smarter.
a. Ginkgo biloba
b. Pomegranate juice
c. Fish oil
d. Snake oil

5. The Arctic waters of Baffin Bay are warming (no surprise there). To gather data on changing ocean temperatures, scientists recruited an unusual team of volunteers. They attaching their instruments to:
a. Illegal whaling ships
b. Polar bears
c. Penguins
d. Narwhals

Answers are in the comments. Image: NASA.

These Robots Are Ready for Liftoff

Liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery--the next-to-last NASA shuttle launch ever--has been delayed until at least Thursday (November 4). But one of the shuttle's postponed passengers to the International Space Station claims to feel no anxiety about the upcoming trip:
I'm not nervous--with my stomach full of brains, there's no room for butterflies.
That's from the Twitter feed of Robonaut 2, also called R2. No relation to R2D2, except that both are cute and helpful space-bots.

Once R2 makes it to the space station, it will take up permanent residence there. But it's not like robots will suddenly be running the place. R2 doesn't have much of a mind of its own, for one thing. It only carries out orders from human-nauts. And for now, it's a prototype. On the space station, humans will learn how R2 functions without gravity, and how well its extra-dextrous hands perform various functions.

For example, weightlifting.

Eventually, robonauts will use those hands, which NASA describes as "approaching human dexterity," to take over dangerous or boring tasks from human astronauts. R2 is already able to change an air filter, a trick which might get old fast. ("Mikhail! Stop playing with that robot; I told you the air filter is clean already!")

R2 is legless for now. It will stand on a fixed pedestal on the space station. But future generation might have legs--or even wheels. The "Centaur," currently being tested on land, is a robonaut torso attached to a four-wheeled rover.

Robonaut 2's dextrous and human-like hands are the pride of NASA, but other scientists have been working on a whole new model. Led by Eric Brown at the University of Chicago, a team created a "universal robotic gripper" that forgoes fingers altogether. Instead of bothering with all those complicated joints, the robotic gripper is just a round rubber sack filled with a granular material. When the sack comes in contact with an object, the grains flow around the shape (think of setting a small bag of rice on top of a pen). Then a vacuum quickly sucks a tiny bit of extra air out of the gripper. This changes the sack's volume by less than 1%, but it's enough to mold it around the object and grip it tight.

Here, you can (and should) watch a video of the robotic gripper pouring a glass of water and drawing with a pen. The gripper can pick up most sturdy objects, but still has trouble with porous or squishy things, such as cotton balls.

Brown says that amputees could one day benefit from prosthetic hands based on this technology. I have a hard time imagining that people would want their missing hands replaced by grippy blobs, but maybe I'm wrong. Either way, there are certainly plenty of robots that could use good hand technology. I wonder if the universal gripper works in microgravity...

Images:; John Amend

Spider Assassin and Other Costume Ideas

Still don't know what you're going to be for Halloween? Don't worry! Inspired by this week's scientific findings, I'm here to help.

Motion-capture ostrich

This ostrich is all ready to go door-to-door with its snazzy costume of reflective dots. Its outfit was created by a team of American and Australian scientists who wanted to analyze what makes ostriches such efficient runners. They found that the birds' secret is very springy tendons that allow them to store and release a lot more elastic energy than humans can.

(Another unstated conclusion of this paper is that you should never try to train an ostrich. Researchers note that after they hand-reared five ostriches and spent eight months training them 3-4 times a week, only "two animals were amenable to the procedures required for full three-dimensional gait analysis.")

If you are already an ostrich, this costume will require less work to prepare. But you will need help from someone with hands.

Spider assassin

Hate spiders? Dress up as Stenolemus bituberus, the assassin bug. These wily insects sneak onto spider webs and wiggle the threads to get the spiders' attention. When spiders come to investigate, the assassin bugs attack. Researchers recorded the web vibrations made by assassin bugs and compared them to the vibrations made by other things that might fall into a web: aphids, fruit flies, falling leaves, or male spiders that come a-courting. ("Recordings of courting males continued until the male copulated with the female.")

They found that the vibrations made by an assassin bug tapping on a spider's web were very similar to the vibrations made by a trapped meal (a fly or an aphid). The spider's response to the vibrations was the same, too: it snapped to attention and cautiously went to investigate. Just like all those candy-carrying folks will when you tap-tap-tap on their door in this awesome costume.

Implantable LEDs

Obviously, a costume incorporating implantable LEDs will make you the coolest kid on the block. This technology is meant to be used for medical devices--a light-up display under a person's skin could let doctors know whether something's working right. But it could also make sweet glowing tattoos. You'll just need to have some minor surgery first.

Actually, this might be a better one to keep in mind for next year.

Images: University of Western Australia/Jonas Rubenson;; Nature Materials/John Roberts

Severe Pretend Storm Warning

The newly constructed Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) Research Center is, disappointingly, not in Kansas. But it is able, within its six-story walls, to simulate a tornado. Or a hailstorm. Or a wildfire.

The insurance industry spent $40 million to build this giant facility in South Carolina. It contains a turntable that can hold 9 full-size houses, built to various safety standards, and subject them to almost any kind of severe weather condition. A water tank larger than an Olympic swimming pool makes the rain, which falls at up to 8 inches an hour. One hundred and five fans, each five and a half feet across, generate winds up to 140 mph. Burning embers can be made to fly through the air.

In this video, you can see a house go down like a pile of toothpicks in a simulated windstorm. Next to it, a specially fortified house sheds a few shingles but looks otherwise unbothered. Eventually, the IBHS plans to throw airplanes and tractor trailers into the mix. "There are all kinds of things we can fit in there," executive Julie Rochman says (with, one imagines, barely restrained glee).

It's a testament to how much money they lose in major disasters that the insurance industry is willing to spend $100,000 for just one hurricane simulation. The Wall Street Journal says that in the first half of 2010, insured catastrophic losses cost the industry $7.9 billion. And in a warming world, extreme weather events are expected to be more frequent. This kind of research will keep us at least a little safer.

In unrelated news, Paul, the octopus who was famous for predicting World Cup winners, died today. Farewell, inkfish friend!


What to Say to Climate Change Deniers

According to a New York Times editorial this week, out of around 20 Republican senatorial candidates "with a serious chance of winning next month," only one believes that humans are responsible for climate change.

(If this doesn't bother you, go ahead and move along. But know that you're making me sad.)

If it worries you that soon there will be even more people in the senate who believe that climate science is "malarkey," here is a handy toolkit of responses you can give to climate change deniers. Playing the role of the deniers will be actual commenters who posted replies to the Times editorial. (In the interest of brevity, most comments have been abridged.)
Global warming based upon man-made CO2 is a theory nothing more. Dems like any reason to raise taxes... [recommended 177 times]
Global warming is a theory, yes. So is gravity. In science, unlike in the rest of the English language, a theory doesn't just mean a guess. It means a principle that's supported by repeated testing and hasn't been disproven. I'm still pretty sure I know what will happen if I fall off a roof.
Those of us who choose to say - show us the data are vilified by the intelligentsia - the same group who mocked us over and over again throughout history for believing that the scientific method (not the preconceived notion method) is valid. [recommended 134 times]
OK! Here are some data.
- Thanks to fossil fuels, we've been putting CO2 into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Since the 1950s, we've been able to watch carbon dioxide in the atmosphere steadily increasing.
- There hasn't been this much CO2 in the atmosphere at any point over the past 800,000 years.
- The average global temperature has also been steadily rising during the past 100 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls this change "incontrovertible."
- So has sea level.
- Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice is melting.
- And glaciers are retreating.
- These changes cannot be accounted for by a change in solar activity.
The climate is always changing over time. [recommended 8 times]
In the distant past, the earth has seen both prolonged ice ages and toasty, dinosaur-rific periods. But these temperature swings were not random. Scientists have connected historical temperature changes to shifts in the earth's orbit, changes in solar activity, and giant volcanoes. Over the past 2,000 years, temperatures have been pretty stable. This is the norm for an "interglacial" period, which is what we're in now. Evidence suggests that no point in the last 1,100 years has been as warm as the present day.

Additionally, we know that CO2 in the atmosphere warms the earth--the greenhouse effect is the reason we're able to live on the planet comfortably in the first place.

Is it possible that a mysterious geophysical phenomenon is causing global temperatures to increase in exactly the way computer models would predict based on the extra CO2 in the atmosphere and, simultaneously, the greenhouse effect has ceased to function normally? Sure. But if I walk outside right now and fall on my face, I'm not blaming invisible malicious elves. I'm blaming gravity.
Like many (most?) other people, global warming, man-made or otherwise is actually a positive for me. [recommended 4 times]
It must be nice for you not to care about mass extinctions. But you should know that global climate change, while increasing the temperature overall, will not affect every place in the same way. Floods, droughts, tropical storms, or heavy precipitation might be more frequent where you live. (Don't worry; Republican senator Jim DeMint is confused by this too.)
This is just a ruse by China, Russia, and other countries to economically weaken the West. [recommended 14 times]
Well, I admit I hadn't thought of that.