June 19, 2013
Chances are you’ve heard about the Texas company that recently announced it was able to produce a working handgun on a 3-D printer. After assembling the gun out of printed plastic parts, the firm’s founder, Cody Wilson, took it out to a shooting range and successfully fired some .380 caliber bullets. He calls his creation “The Liberator.”
Chances are you haven’t heard about the 3-D printed working bionic ear made by Princeton and Johns Hopkins scientists. Or the University of Michigan researchers who used a 3-D printer to produce a plastic splint that likely saved the life of a baby with a rare condition that caused his windpipe to collapse. Or the company called The Sugar Lab. It creates amazingly elaborate–and edible–sugar structures on, yes, a printer.
The truth is, almost any business that makes a product is probably weighing how 3-D printing–also known as additive manufacturing–fits into its future. Ford already is using the technology to print cylinder heads, brake rotors and rear axles for test vehicles. In fact, production time for some parts has been shaved by 25 to 40 percent. And engineers at Mattel are using 3-D printers to create parts of virtually every type of toy that it manufactures, from Hot Wheels cars to Barbie dolls.
If you’re still not buying into the notion that 3-D printing is finally, after 30 years, going mainstream, consider this: Last month Staples became the first major U.S. retailer to start selling 3-D printers. And one more tidbit: Amazon just launched an online 3-D printer store.
It’s easy to get carried away with the idea that 3-D printing will change everything, that one day you’ll never have to go to an auto parts store or a toy store or a hardware store since you’ll be able to print out whatever you need. Not so fast. For starters, think about the liability issues that would come with installing car parts you printed at home.
That said, Janine Benyus thinks that 3-D printing presents a rare opportunity to profoundly change how we make things. Benyus is founder of the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute--that’s a reference to the 3.8 billion years life has been adapting on Earth–and she knows as well as anyone how much can be learned from nature. So, asks Benyus, why not take advantage of this moment in technological evolution to see how products can be created to better mimic the natural world? And what would it take to ensure that everything made on a 3-D printer is recyclable?
They’re questions she and other scientists will tackle later this week at the first Biomimicry Global Conference in Boston. During that discussion, Benyus will likely spend some time talking about potato chips bags.
They seem so simple, but as Benyus likes to point out, every bag is actually seven distinct layers, each made of a different material–one for waterproofing, one for excluding oxygen, one for inking, etc. Altogether, a potato chips bag comprises as many as 350 different polymers. By contrast, notes Benyus, a beetle’s shell is made of one material–chitin–but it’s strong, waterproof, allows air to pass through it and can change colors.
The challenge now, she notes, is to get the 3-D printer industry look to nature for inspiration. Says Benyus:
“Nature works with five polymers. Only five polymers. In the natural world, life builds from the bottom up and it builds in resilience and multiple uses. What would it be like to use only five polymer classes to build everything?”
Benyus’ focus is on rallying experts in her field to design biomimetic digital structures for materials that when printed, will have the same kind of strength, toughness and flexibility so common in substances in the natural world. And once a product’s life is over, it could be broken down and fed back into the printer to take shape as something new.
“We rarely get opportunities like this. This is our opportunity to get very close to how nature works,” said Benyus. “Are we going to address this? Or are we going to build bigger landfills?”
Here are a few more recent 3-D printer innovations:
- Hold the toner: NASA has contracted with a Texas firm to develop a 3-D printer that can make pizzas in space. The company landed the contract, in part, because it has already built a printer that can print chocolate chips on to a cookie.
- It’s alive!: A San Diego company recently announced that it has created on a 3-D printer samples of liver cells that function just as they would in a human. The 3-D cells were able to produce some of the same proteins as an actual liver does and interacted with each other and with compounds as they would in your body.
- Go print up your room: Designers Benjamin Dillenburger and Michael Hansmeyer are building an entire room out of sandstone shapes created on a printer. The ornate room, which has been described as a “cross between an alien skeletal system and a cathedral on another planet,” will be unveiled next month.
- But why stop there?: A Dutch architectural firm has designed an entire house that will be built of plastic parts made on a printer. The architects plan to have the entire front facade of the house, which will be located on a canal in northern Amsterdam, constructed by the end of the year. The 3-D-printed kitchen, study, storage room and guestroom will be added next year.
- Imagine that: And in Chile, a team of engineers say they’ve developed software that enables objects to be printed in response to a person’s brain waves. In theory, users will be able to create and print 3-D versions of whatever their brains can conjure up. Chilean children will get the first crack at trying it out during a tour of schools later this month.
Video bonus: Janine Benyus talks about her favorite subject–the inspiration of nature.
Video bonus bonus: Listen to this violin for a few bars and you’ll see why some things probably shouldn’t be made on a printer.
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June 14, 2013
I like Father’s Day as much as the next father, but face it–it is and always will be a Mother’s Day wannabe. Sure, everyone loves Dad, in that quick man-hug way, but they gush over Mom. Mother’s Day became an official U.S. holiday in 1914; it took almost another 50 years before we got around to formally celebrating that other parent.
Just a few weeks ago, there was much ado and even spasms of outcry over the Pew survey reporting that in 40 percent of American households, the mother is now the sole or primary breadwinner. Meanwhile, an earlier report that the number of stay-at-home dad has doubled in the past 10 years stirred nary a ripple. So it goes.
Fortunately, there are scientists out there who still consider fathers a subject meriting further investigation. Here are 10 studies of dads that have been published since last Father’s Day.
1) And just when you’d mastered “Cause I said so”: Recent research suggests that it’s a good idea for dads to ask for feedback on what kind of job they’re doing. The reason, says San Francisco State psychology professor Jeff Cookston, is that kids, particularly teenagers, can read a father’s actions differently than how it was meant. Explains Cookston: “You may think that you’re being a good parent by not being harsh on your kid, for instance, but your child may view that as ‘you’re not invested in me, you’re not trying.’” The study also found that girls tend to attribute a father’s good deeds to his “enduring aspects,” whereas boys are more likely to see them as being tied to specific situations.
2) Like father, like daughter: Dads who are open-minded about sexual roles are more likely to raise more ambitious daughters. So concludes a University of British Columbia study, which found that the fewer gender stereotypes a father holds, the more likely his daughters will want to develop professional careers.
3) Testosterone is so overrated: A Notre Dame study published last fall claimed to find a correlation between how close a father slept to his children and his testosterone level. It concluded that those dads who slept nearer to where his kids slept tended to have a lower testosterone level than those dads who slept farther away. Previous research has found that dads with higher testosterone levels tend to be less engaged with their kids.
4) My stress is your stress: It’s only been found to occur in mice so far, but scientists at the University of Pennsylvania say that stress that a father experiences during his lifetime, even in his youth, can be passed on to his children in a way that affects how they respond to stress. The father’s stressful experience apparently leaves a genetic marker in his sperm that can cause his children to have low reactivity to stress, which may sound like a good thing to inherit from the dear old dad, but actually can lead to emotional disorders.
5) Thanks Dad, you shouldn’t have: While we’re on the subject of mouse fathers, another study, this one from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, determined that mouse sons with less affectionate fathers tended to be equally distant from their own children, suggesting that paternal behavior can be passed from fathers to sons across multiple generations.
6) What a little shot of love can do: Not only does a little dose of oxytocin help fathers become more engaged with their babies, it also makes the kids more responsive. So contends a study at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, which reported that after the dads were given a hit of the so-called love hormone, they were more likely to touch and seek out the gaze of their child. And the baby’s own oxytocin level rose in response.
7) Ripple effects: Research at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found that girls whose fathers weren’t around the first five years of their lives were more likely to struggle with depression when they were teenagers. Other studies have shown that the stronger negative impact of an absent father on the mental health of teenage girls could be because girls are more vulnerable to negative family events.
8) And now a word about happy teenagers: The more time teenagers spend alone with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, a 2012 Penn State study reported. It also concluded that the more time they spend with their fathers in a group setting, the better their social skills. The researchers didn’t see the same impact from one-on-one time with moms and speculated that it might be because fathers who choose to do things alone with their kids “go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them.”
9) Everyone’s a winner: According to research at the University of Houston, fathers who are more physically engaged with their children—they play with them, they read to them–are less likely to be depressed or stressed. Which, according to the researchers, reinforces the notion that a father being active in his children’s lives isn’t just good for the kids.
10) Surely you don’t mean Homer Simpson: The portrayal of dads on TV and in books as “feckless,” and “incompetent” and little more than “sperm donors” is damaging children’s perceptions of fatherhood, says a study commissioned by the British parenting site, Netmums.com. Almost half of those surveyed agreed that cartoons, in particular, show dads as “lazy or stupid.” Said Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard: “The type of jokes aimed at dads would be banned if they were aimed at women, ethnic minorities or religious groups.”
So cut us a break. At least for a day.
Video bonus: Luke and Darth share a Lego’s Father’s Day.
Video bonus bonus: Dads as hip-hoppers get real about being fathers. Don’t call them feckless.
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May 30, 2013
For all the misconceptions–both positive and negative–about what’s now known fondly and acridly as Obamacare, one thing that is clear is its focus on shifting the U.S. health care system from one in which doctors and hospitals are rewarded for ordering tests and procedures to one built more around preventive care and keeping people healthy.
As is often the case, technology is racing ahead of policy, finding ingenious ways to use little sensors or Big Data to devise early warning systems for health trouble. In fact, it’s fomenting medicine that’s not just preventive, it’s predictive.
Follow the behavior trail
One of the more innovative approaches is a mobile app called Ginger.io, from a company of the same name. It’s based on the idea that changes in a person’s behavior–perhaps something as seemingly mundane as a lull in making phone calls–may tip off the start of a spin into bad health or depression.
That may seem a bit of a leap, but research has found that people with chronic medical conditions, such as pain or diabetes or mental illness, tend to withdraw if their health deteriorates. They stop reaching out to friends and family, don’t go out as much, and lose interest in taking care of themselves. Often, that’s when they quit taking their meds.
So the app tracks how frequently someone uses his or her phone, how often they move and if they do go out, where they go. If it notices a change in patterns, particularly too much isolation and too little activity, it sends an alert to a designated person. It might be a doctor, it might be a family member.
Ginger.io has been described as a human “Check Engine” light in that it’s designed to flag potential trouble before a person breaks down. One of the app’s advantages is that it keeps a precise record of what a person has been doing or not doing, rather than depending on the often unreliable or skewed memories of patients.
A number of U.S. hospitals are now testing it with patients who have opted into the alert system, but it’s still not clear how effective it can be. There’s no way to tell, for instance, if a person’s been inactive because he’s depressed or just has a bad cold. Will doctors and nurses end up wasting time and money on waves of false alarms?
There’s also the question of whether patients, even though they’ve chosen to use the alerts, will start to feel they’ve given up too much privacy. For now, though, they seem to like the access the app provides to caregivers. They feel like doctors and nurses are actually keeping an eye on them.
The doctor will text you now
At the same time, patients are more in control of their personal health data than they’ve ever been. Increasingly, it’s in their smartphones, not locked away in a doctor’s office or a lab somewhere. And that, predicts Dr.Eric Topol, is going to forever change the role of doctors. They’ll still advise and treat patients, of course, but less as an authority figure and more as a collaborator, says Topol, the chief academic officer of Scripps Health and author of “The Creative Destruction of Medicine.”
As he told Forbes in an interview earlier this year:
“We are ending the era of medical information asymmetry, with most of the information in the doctor’s domain. The consumer is now center stage–he or she will drive this new medicine with a rebooted model of physician partnership. It is the consumer’s data, the consumer’s smartphone, and the consumer’s choice of who, when and how to share.”
Topol is equally evangelisitic about predictive medicine, although his focus is on early warning systems based on biology rather than behavior. He’s convinced that it won’t be long before scientists will be able to send tiny sensors into our bloodstreams that will be able to detect the first molecular signal of a heart attack or the development of the first cancer cell.
And yes, your smartphone will be the first to know.
Thoroughly modern medicine
Here are other recent health tech innovations:
- Tracking ticking brains: The Defense Department is doing a trial with a company named Cogito Health using software that tries to measure whether a soldier may be developing PTSD by identifying if he or she is withdrawing or becoming more manic.
- Stop making sense: Recently purchased by United Healthcare, a Boston firm called Humedica crunches the Big Data of patients’ electronic records so hospitals can get a much clearer idea of how often different treatments actually help people get better.
- So quit blaming the cat: An app named Asthmapolis uses a sensor attached to an inhaler that tracks where a person is and potentially what triggers are around when they have an asthma attack. And it saves that info on the smartphone.
Video bonus: Dr. Eric Topol went on “The Colbert Report” not long ago and actually managed to get in a few words about the future of medicine. He also examined Stephen Colbert’s inner ear. It’s not pretty.
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May 17, 2013
When art meets neuroscience, strange things happen.
Consider the Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art in Oregon which features rugs and knitting based on a brain scan motif. Or the neuroscientist at the University of Nevada-Reno who scanned the brain of a portrait artist while he drew a picture of a face.
And then there’s the ongoing war of words between scientists who think it’s possible to use analysis of brain activity to define beauty–or even art–and their critics who argue that it’s absurd to try to make sense of something so interpretive and contextual by tying it to biology and the behavior of neurons.
Beauty and the brain
On one side you have the likes of Semir Zeki, who heads a research center called the Institute of Neuroesthetics at London’s University College. A few years ago he started studying what happens in a person’s brain when they look at a painting or listen to a piece of music they find beautiful. He looked at the flip side, too–what goes on in there when something strikes us as ugly.
What he found is that when his study’s subjects experienced a piece of art or music they described as beautiful, their medial orbito-frontal cortex–the part of the brain just behind the eyes–”lit up” in brain scans. Art they found ugly stimulated their motor cortex instead. Zeki also discovered that whether the beauty came through their ears, in music, or their eyes, in art, the brain’s response was the same–it had increased blood flow to what’s known as its pleasure center. Beauty gave the brains a dopamine reward.
Zeki doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the essence of art can be captured in a brain scan. He insists his research really isn’t about explaining what art is, but rather what our neurons’ response to it can tell us about how brains work. But if, in the process, we learn about common characteristics in things our brains find beautiful, his thinking goes, what harm is there in that?
Beware of brain rules?
Plenty, potentially, responds the critics’ chorus. Writing recently in the journal Nature, Philip Ball makes the point that this line of research ultimately could lead to rule-making about beauty, to “creating criteria of right or wrong, either in the art itself or in individual reactions to it.” It conceivably could devolve to “scientific” formulas for beauty, guidelines for what, in music or art or literature, gets the dopamine flowing.
Although it is worth knowing that musical ‘chills’ are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbiturates is surely limited.
Others, such as University of California philosophy professor Alva Noe, suggest that to this point at least, brain science is too limiting in what it can reveal, that it focuses more on beauty as shaped by people’s preferences, as opposed to addressing the big questions, such as “Why does art move us?” and “Why does art matter?”
And he wonders if a science built around analyzing events in an individual’s brain can ever answer them. As he wrote in the New York Times:
…there can be nothing like a settled, once-and-for-all account of what art is, just as there can be no all-purpose account of what happens when people communicate or when they laugh together. Art, even for those who make it and love it, is always a question, a problem for itself. What is art? The question must arise, but it allows no definitive answer.
Fad or fortune?
So what of neuroaesthetics? Is it just another part of the “neuro” wave, where brain scans are being billed as neurological Rosetta Stones that proponents claim can explain or even predict behavior–from who’s likely to commit crimes to why people make financial decisions to who’s going to gain weight in the next six months.
More jaded souls have suggested that neuroaesthetics and its bulky cousin, neurohumanities, are attempts to capture enough scientific sheen to attract research money back to liberal arts. Alissa Quart, writing in The Nation earlier this month, cut to the chase:
Neurohumanities offers a way to tap the popular enthusiasm for science and, in part, gin up more funding for humanities. It may also be a bid to give more authority to disciplines that are more qualitative and thus are construed, in today’s scientized and digitalized world, as less desirable or powerful.
Samir Zeki, of course, believes this is about much more than research grants. He really isn’t sure where neuroaesthetics will lead, but he’s convinced that only by “understanding the neural laws,” as he puts it, can we begin to make sense of morality, religion and yes, art.
Here’s some of the latest news about brain scans:
- I see your pain: A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that scientists were not only able to “see” pain on brain scans, but also could measure its intensity and tell if a drug was helping to ease it.
- Don’t blame me, it’s my brain that hates calculus: A research team at Stanford University School of Medicine concluded that the size and connectivity of a child’s hippocampus, a brain area that is important for memory, is the key factor in how quickly he or she can learn math.
- There lies madness Researchers at Cambridge University in the U.K. say they will scan the brains of 300 teenagers and track how their brains evolve as they age. One thing the scientists want to see is how the brain’s wiring changes as teenagers become less impulsive.
- Trouble brewing: Brain scans may even be able to help detect if a recovering alcoholic is about to fall off the wagon. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry contends that alcoholics with abnormal activity in areas of the brain that control emotions and desires are eight times more likely to relapse and start drink heavily.
- Robots are people, too: And finally, German researchers say that based on their analysis of brain scans of subjects in a study, people reacted just as strongly to scenes of robots being treated kindly or being abused as they did to humans getting the same treatments.
Video bonus: Samir Zeki explains, in this TED talk, why he’s sure beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
Video bonus bonus: Brain scans can be funny, in a bizarre Japanese humor kind of way. And no, I have no idea why the men in this video are all dressed as female nurses.
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May 10, 2013
To be honest, I’ve never associated motherhood with science. I assume this has everything to do with the fact that I’m one of eight kids, and while I’m sure we were a study in chaos theory, my mother didn’t have much time to nail the concept and work it into bedtime stories.
That said, moms remain a subject of scientific inquiry because, no matter how constant they may seem to us, they’re always changing to keep up with the times.
Here then are 10 recent studies or surveys that give a bit more insight into the institution of 21st century moms.
1) Have I got a story for you: According to a study published recently in the journal Sex Roles, moms are better than dads at telling stories and reminiscing with their kids, and that helps children develop their emotional skills. The researchers observed that moms tended to include more emotional terms in their stories and were more likely to then explain them to their children.
2) But how many of the answers were “Because I said so”: A survey of 1,000 moms in the United Kingdom found that the typical mother answers up to 300 questions a day from their kids. Four-year-old girls are the most inquisitive, averaging a fresh question about every two minutes. The most questions are asked during meals–an average of 11–followed by shopping trips–10 questions–and bedtime–nine questions.
3) That magic touch: The skin-to-skin touch of a mother can make a big difference in helping preemies or other at-risk babies deal with the pain and stress of injections. Researchers determined that the touch of a father or an unrelated women can also help lower the stress of an at-risk baby, but neither had quite the soothing effect of physical contact with the child’s mother.
4) Even mom spit is special: A recent article in the journal Pediatrics recommended that mothers clean off their child’s pacifier by putting it in their own mouths. That’s right. What the researchers found is that infants whose mothers sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose mothers rinsed or boiled the pacifiers. The children of moms who gave pacifiers a mouth rinse also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders. The findings are in line with the growing evidence that some exposure to germs at a young age can be good for kids.
5) Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go: About 40 percent of working mothers in the U.S. now say the ideal situation for them would be to work full time. That’s according to the latest research on the matter from the Pew Research Center. It’s almost twice as many who felt that way in 2007, when 21 percent of the women surveyed said that would be their preference. The researchers speculated that this is probably a reflection of tough economic times. But working part time is still the top choice among working women, although the percentage of women who said that would be the best situation for them dropped from 60 percent in 2007 to 50 percent in the most recent survey.
6) Don’t do what I do: Just as moms generally can do more good for their kids than dads, they also apparently can do more harm. A 34-year study by the British think tank Demos found that the alcohol drinking habits of mothers can have the greatest impact on how their children consume alcohol. While at age 16, a child’s drinking behavior was greatly influenced by peers, the researchers found that that changed as children reached maturity. Then, the scientists more often discovered clear connections between alcohol consumption–particularly binge drinking–and childhood memories of how their mothers would drink.
7) Crouching tiger, failing children: So much for the power of Tiger Moms, the stereotypical demanding Asian mother depicted in the much-debated Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011. A University of Texas professor named Su Yeong Kim, who had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade, recently published her findings. What she observed didn’t quite match the stereotype. Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement–and more psychological problems–than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or “easygoing.”
8) Even in utero we know to take a vowel: According to a joint study of newborns in Washington State and in Stockholm, babies start learning language from their moms even before they leave the womb. The scientists said their research showed that the infants began locking on to the vowel sounds of their mothers before they were born. How did they know that? They studied 40 infants, all about 30 hours old, and they found that the babies–who were played vowel sounds in foreign languages and the language of their mothers–consistently sucked longer on pacifiers when they heard sounds different from the ones they had heard in utero.
9) Sure, but you’d know nothing about Legos without us: Judging by a bit of research done in Finland, boys, at least in times past, could take almost nine months off a mother’s life, compared to girls. The Finnish scientists analyzed the post-childbirth survival rates of 11,166 mothers and 6,360 fathers in pre-industrial Finland, between the 17th and 20th centuries. And they found that a mother who bore six sons would live on average another 32.4 years after the youngest son’s birth, while a mother who gave birth to girls would live approximately 33.1 years after her youngest daughter came along. The shorter life expectancy was the same regardless of the mom’s social or financial status. The researchers surmised that not only was bearing boys more physically demanding for the mothers, but also that daughters were more likely to prolong their mothers’ lives by helping with household responsibilities.
10) Putting it in words: And finally…this probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but a study just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that caveman didn’t just grunt, but actually had a decent little vocabulary that included the equivalent of words for ‘thou’, ‘you’, ‘we,’ ‘bark,’ ‘fire,’ ‘spit’ and yes, ‘mother.’
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