November 5, 2013
In October 2012, a Duke University biologist named a newly discovered genus of ferns after Lady Gaga. Then, in December, Brazilian scientists named a new bee species Euglossa bazinga, after a catch phrase from a TV show.
“The specific epithet [bazinga] honors the clever, funny, captivating “nerd” character Sheldon Cooper, brilliantly portrayed by the North American actor James Joseph “Jim” Parsons on the CBS TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” they wrote [PDF]. Scientists weren’t done honoring dear old Sheldon: This past August, he also got a new species of jellyfish, Bazinga rieki, and was previously heralded with an asteroid.
These organisms and astronomical entities are far from the first to be given cute pop culture-inspired names. The tradition goes back at least a few decades, with bacteria named after plot elements from Star Wars, a spider named for Frank Zappa and a beetle named after Roy Orbison.
All of which makes an observer of science wonder: Why do we keep naming species after figures from movies, music and TV shows?
“Mostly, when you publish research about termite gut microbes, you don’t get much interest—even most of the people in the field don’t really give a crap,” says David Roy Smith, a scientist at University of Western Ontario who studies these and other types of microorganisms for a living. Recently, though, he saw firsthand that this doesn’t always have to be the case: His colleagues discovered two new species of protists that lived inside termite guts and helped them digest wood, and the group named them Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque, after the mythical creature Chtulhu, created by influential science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft.
“I remember Erick James, who was the lead author on the study, telling us that he’d named it something cool right before we submitted it, but we didn’t really pay him much attention,” Smith says. “Then, afterwards, day after day, he kept coming into the lab telling us he’d seen an article on the species on one site, then another. By the second week, we were getting phone calls from the Los Angeles Times.” Eventually, James was invited to present work on the protists at an annual conference of H.P. Lovecraft fans, and a search for Cthulhu macrofasciculumque now yields nearly 3,000 results.
The episode prompted Smith to take silly scientific names seriously for the first time—so much so that he wrote an article about the phenomenon [PDF] in the journal BioScience last month. For him, a scientist’s incentive in giving a new discovery this sort of name is obvious. “Science is a competitive field, if you can get your work out there, it’s only going to help you,” he says. Mainstream press attention for an esoteric scientific discovery, he feels, can also garner increased citations from specialists in the field: A microbe researcher is likely to notice a Cthulhu headline on a popular news site, then think of it when she’s writing her next paper.
But is naming species after sci-fi villains and TV catch phrases good for science as a whole? Smith argues that it is. “Scientists are perceived to be serious and stiff,” he says. “When you put some entertainment and fun into your work, the general public gets a kick out of it, and appreciates it a little more.” In an age when public funding for science is drying up, garnering every bit of support can make a difference in the long-term.
There are critics who take issue with the idea, though. It’s easy to imagine, for instance, that the vast majority of the people who shared articles about Lady Gaga’s fern focused mostly on the pop star, rather than the botanical discovery.
Moreover, species names are forever. “The media interest will subside, but the name Cthulhu will stay and plague the biologists who deal with this organism, tomorrow and 200 years from now. It’s difficult to spell and pronounce and utterly mysterious in meaning for people who don’t know Lovecraft,” Juan Saldarriaga, a research fellow at the University of British Columbia, told Smith for his BioScience article. “And for what? People saw the name on their Twitter account, smiled, said ‘Cool,’ and then went on with their lives.”
For his part, Smith feels that all species names inspired by pop culture are not created equal. The Cthulhu microbe, for example, is named after a legendary character with legions of fans nearly a century after its creation; moreover, the protist itself, with a tentacle-like head and movements resembling an octopus, calls to mind Lovecraft’s original Cthulhu character. This is a far cry from, say, a bee, jellyfish and asteroid all named for a catch phrase from a current (and likely to be eventually forgotten) primetime sitcom. “You can do it tactfully, and artfully,” Smith says. “Other times, people might be reaching, and just desperately want to give something a popular name.”
It’s also worth remembering one of the earliest instances of naming a discovery after heroes from contemporary culture: the planets, which the ancient Greeks named after their gods–for example, the gods of war and love. The planets were later rebranded by the Romans—and nowadays, the average person might have no idea that Mars and Venus were gods in the first place—but their names live on.
This blogger’s opinion? Long live Cthulhu.
May 3, 2013
Lipstick has seen a fair share of funky ingredients in its long history of more than 6,000 years, from seaweed and beetles to modern synthetic chemicals and deer fat
. In recent years, traces of lead have been found in numerous brands of the popular handbag staple, prompting some manufacturers to go the organic route. This week, more dangerous substances joined the roster.
Researchers at Berkeley’s School of Public Health at the University of California tested 32 different types of lipstick and lip gloss commonly found in the brightly lit aisles of grocery and convenience stores. They detected traces of cadmium, chromium, aluminum, manganese and other metals, which are usually found in industrial workplaces, including make-up factories. The report, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, indicated that some of these metals reached potentially health-hazardous levels.
Lipstick is usually ingested little by little as wearers lick or bite their lips throughout the day. On average, the study found, lipstick-clad women consume 24 milligrams of the stuff a day. Those who reapply several times a day take in 87 milligrams.
The researchers estimated risk by comparing consumers’ daily intake of these metals through lip makeup with health guidelines. They report that an average use of some lipsticks and lip glosses results in “excessive exposure” to chromium, and frequent use can lead to overexposure to aluminum, cadmium and manganese.
Minor exposure to cadmium, which is used in batteries, can result in flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and achy muscles. In the worst cases, the metal is linked to cancer, attacking the cardiovascular, respiratory and other systems in the body. Chromium is a carcinogen linked to stomach ulcers and lung cancer, and aluminum can be toxic to the lungs. Long-term exposure to manganese in high doses is associated with problems in the nervous system. There are no safe levels of chromium, and federal labor regulations require industrial workers to limit exposure to the metal in the workplace. We naturally inhale tiny levels of aluminum present in the air, and many FDA-approved antacids contain the metal in safe levels.
Despite the presence of these metals in lipstick, there’s no need to start abandoning lipstick altogether—rather, the authors call for more oversight when it comes to cosmetics, for which there are no industry standards regulating their metal content if produced in the United States.
After all, cadmium and other metals aren’t an intended ingredient in lipstick—they’re considered a contaminant. They seep into lipstick when the machinery or dyes used to create the product contain the metals themselves. This means trace amounts are not listed on the tiny stickers on lipstick tubes, so there’s no way to know which brands might be contaminated.
Concern about metals in cosmetics came to the forefront of American media in 2007, when an analysis of 33 popular brands of lipstick by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics showed that 61 percent of them contained lead. The report eventually led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which doesn’t regulate cosmetics, to look into the issue, and what it found wasn’t any better: it found lead in all of the samples tested, with levels four times higher than the earlier study, ranging from 0.09 parts per million to 3.06 parts per million. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead for humans.
So we’ve got cadmium, chromium, aluminum, manganese and lead in our lipstick. What else? Today, most lipstick is made with beeswax, which creates a base for pigments, and castor oil, which gives it a shiny, waxy quality. Beeswax has been the base for lipstick for at least 400 years–England’s Queen Elizabeth I popularized a deep lip rouge derived from beeswax and plants.
Lipstick as we know it appeared in 1884 in Paris, wrapped in silk paper and made from beeswax, castor oil and deer tallow, the solid rendered fat of the animal. At the time, lipstick was often colored using carmine dye. The dye combined aluminum and carminic acid, a chemical produced by cochineals–tiny cacti-dwelling insects–to ward off other insect predators.
That early lipstick wasn’t the first attempt at using insects or to stain women’s mouths. Cleopatra’s recipe for homemade lipstick called for red pigments drawn out from mashed-up beetles and ants.
But really, any natural substance with color was fair game for cosmetics, regardless of its health effects: Historians believe women first starting coloring their lips in ancient Mesopotamia, dotting them with dust from crushed semi-precious jewels—these lovely ancients were eating tiny bits of rocks whenever they licked their lips. Ancient Egyptians used lip color too, mixing seaweed, iodine and bromine mannite, a highly toxic plant-derived chemical that sickened its users.
From mannite to heavy metals, humanity’s quest for painted beauty doesn’t seem to have progressed far from toxic roots. The sacrifices we make for fashion!
March 28, 2013
In 1968, Andy Warhol—already famous in his own right—further added to his celebrity by creating a lasting cliché: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”
Prescient as Warhol might have been, it seems we haven’t reached that future quite yet, at least according to science. A new study, published today in the American Sociological Review, finds that true fame lasts a good deal longer than 15 minutes. In an analysis of the celebrity journalism nationwide, researchers found that the most famous (and most often-mentioned) celebrities stick around for decades.
To come to the finding, a number of sociologists each spent a multi-year sabbatical meticulously combing the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us” feature of UsMagazine. Several reportedly declined to return to the field of academia, apparently taking their talents to the analytical departments of the glossy magazine industry full-time.
Just kidding! In all seriousness, the sociologists, led by Eran Shor of McGill University and Arnout van de Rijt of Stony Brook University, used an automated search took a random sample of roughly 100,000 names that appeared in the entertainment sections of 2,200 daily American newspapers published between 2004 and 2009. Their sample didn’t include every single name published, but rather a random selection of names published at all different frequencies—so it wouldn’t be useful for telling you who was the most often-mentioned celebrity overall, but would be illustrative of the sorts of trends that famous (and not-so-famous) names go through over time.
The ten most frequently-mentioned names in their sample: Jamie Foxx, Bill Murray, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Naomi Watts, Howard Hughes, Phil Spector, John Malkovich, Adrien Brody and Steve Buscemi. All celebrities, they note, were relatively famous before the year 2000, in some cases decades earlier (Howard Hughes rose to fame in the 1920s). All ten names, additionally, are still fairly well-known today.
Overall, 96 percent of the most famous names in the sample (those mentioned more than 100 times over the course of a given year) had already been frequently featured in the news three years earlier, further dispelling the 15 minutes cliché. Furthermore, if a name was mentioned extremely often in its first year of appearing, it stood a greater chance of sticking around for an extended period of time.
There is, however, some truth to 15-minutes idea: Names of lesser fame (those less frequently mentioned to start) exhibit significantly higher amounts of turnover from year to year. The researchers say these names mostly fall into the category of people involved in newsworthy events—such as natural disasters and crimes—rather than people who readers find newsworthy in their own right. As an example, Van de Rijt mentions Chelsey Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who briefly achieved celebrity after successfully executing an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2011, but is now scarcely frequently mentioned in the press.
The list of the most famous names, though, stays relatively similar every year. “The vast majority of coverage goes to names that have already been in the news for several years, and new names rarely penetrate the higher strata of fame,” the researchers write in the study. The bottom of the fame hierarchy is filled with new names annually, but at the top, they write, is “a reshuffling of already familiar names and not rapid replacement of an outgoing cohort by an incoming cohort.”
Apart from the newspaper data, the team also looked at a much smaller sample of celebrity mentions on blogs and TV, and found a similar trend. New media, it seems, follow roughly the same pattern as old outlets—which is why you don’t see much about figures like the “balloon boy” across the web nowadays either.
Frivolous as the work may seem, the researchers say it bears important conclusions about our society. Upward mobility in the celebrity world is extremely scarce. Becoming famous requires some combination of talent and luck that allows a person to break into the elite class of being mentioned over and over by the press. But what is that combination–what makes a person famous? Or is it that the press has created a cycle that allows a person to remain famous, in some cases after his or her career has peaked, or even after his or her death?”
No word yet on whether scientists will someday be able to create a multivariable model to quantify celebrity “fierceness” over time as well.
March 6, 2013
Locusts have plagued farmers for millennia. According to the Book of Exodus, around 1400 B.C. the Egyptians experienced an exceptionally unfortunate encounter with these ravenous pests when they struck as the eighth Biblical plague. As Exodus describes, “They covered the face of the whole land, so that the land was darkened, and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left. Not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field, through all the land of Egypt.”
Locusts attacks still occur today, as farmers in Sudan and Egypt well know. Now, farmers in Israel can also join this unfortunate group. Earlier today, a swarm of locusts arrived in Israel from Egypt, just in time for the Jewish Passover holiday which commemorates Jews’ escape from Egyptian slavery following the ten Biblical plagues. “The correlation with the Bible is interesting in terms of timing, since the eighth plague happened sometime before the Exodus,” said Hendrik Bruins, a researcher in the Department of Man in the Desert at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. “Now we need to wait for the plague of darkness,” he joked.
While the timing is uncanny, researchers point out that–at least in this case–locust plagues are a normal ecological phenomenon rather than a form of divine punishment. “Hate to break it to you, but I don’t think there’s any religious significance at all to insects in the desert, even a lot of them, and even if it seems reminiscent of a certain Biblically described incident,” said Jeremy Benstein, deputy director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv.
In this region of the world, locusts swarm every 10 to 15 years. No one knows why they stick to that particular cycle, and predicting the phenomena remains challenging for researchers. In this case, an unusually rainy winter led to excessive vegetation, supporting a boom in locust populations along the Egyptian-Sudanese border. As in past swarms, once the insect population devours all of the local vegetation, the hungry herbivores take flight in search of new feeding grounds. Locusts–which is just a term for the 10 to 15 species of grasshoppers that swarm–can travel over 90 miles in a single day, carried by the wind. In the plagues of 1987 and 1988 (PDF)–a notoriously bad period for locusts–some of the befuddled insects even managed to wash up on Caribbean shores after an epic flight from West Africa.
When grasshoppers switch from a sedentary, solo lifestyle to a swarming lifestyle, they undergo a series of physical, behavioral and neurological changes. According to Amir Ayali, chair of the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University, this shift is one of the most extreme cases of behavioral plasticity found in nature. Before swarming, locusts morph from their normal tan or green coloring to a bright black, yellow or red exoskeleton. Females begin laying eggs in unison which then hatch in synch and fuel the swarm. In this way, a collection of 1 million insects can increase by orders of magnitude to 1 billion in a matter of months.
From there, they take flight, though the exact trigger remains unknown. Labs in Israel and beyond are working on understanding the mathematics of locust swarming and the neurological shifts behind the behaviors that make swarming possible. ”If we could identify some key factors that are responsible for this change, we could maybe find an antidote or something that could prevent the factors that transform innocent grasshoppers from Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll,” Ayali said. “We’re revealing the secrets one by one, but there’s still so much more to find out.”
A swarm of locusts will consume any green vegetation in its path–even toxic plants–and can decimate a farmer’s field almost as soon as it descends. In one day, the mass of insects can munch its way through the equivalent amount of food as 15 million people consume in the same time period, with billions of insects covering an area up to the size of Cairo, Africa’s largest city. As such, at their worst locust swarms can impact some 20 percent of the planet’s human population through both direct and indirect damages they cause. In North Africa, the last so-called mega-swarm invaded in 2004, while this current swarm consists of a measly 30 to 120 million insects.
Estimating the costs exacted by locusts swarms remains a challenge. While locust swarms reportedly cause more monetary damage than any other pest, it’s hard to put an exact figure on the problem. Totaling the true crost depends on the size of the swarm and where the winds carry it. To be as accurate as possible, costs of pesticides, food provided to local populations in lieu of wrecked crops, monitoring costs and other indirect effects must be taken into account. No one has yet estimated the cost of this current swarm, though the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) allots $10 million per year solely to maintain and expand current monitoring operations.
This morning, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture sprayed pesticides on an area of around 1,000 hectares near the Egyptian border. To quell a plague of locusts, pest managers have to hit the insects while they’re still settled on the ground for the night and before they take flight at dawn. So far, pesticide spraying is the only option for defeating the bugs, but this exacts environmental tolls. Other invertebrates, some of them beneficial, will also shrivel under the pesticide’s deadly effects, and there’s a chance that birds and other insectivores may eat the poisoned insect corpses and become ill themselves. Researchers are working on ways to develop fungus or viruses that specifically attack locusts, but many of those efforts are still in initial investigative stages. However, the company Green Muscle developed a commercially available fungus that affects only locusts.
Even better, however, would be a way to stop a swarm from taking flight from the very beginning. But this requires constant monitoring of locust-prone areas in remote corners of the desert, which is not always possible. And since the insects typically originate from Egypt or Sudan, politics sometimes get in the way of quashing the swarm before it takes flight. “We really want to find them before they swarm, as wingless nymphs on the ground,” Ayali said. “Once you miss that window, your chances of combating them are poor and you’re obliged to spray around like crazy and hope you catch them on the ground.”
In this case, Egypt and Israel reportedly did not manage to coordinate locust-fighting efforts to the best of their abilities. “If you ask me, this is a trans-boundary story,” said Alon Tal, a professor of public policy at Ben-Gurion University. “This is not a significant enemy–with an arial approach you can nip locusts in the bud–but the Egyptian government didn’t take advantage of the fact that they have quite a sophisticated air force and scientific community just to the north.”
Ayali agrees that the situation could have been handled better. He also sees locusts as a chance to foster regional collaboration. Birders and ornithologists from Israel, Jordan and Palestine often cooperate in monitoring migratory avian species, for example, so theoretically locusts could likewise foster efforts. “Maybe scientists should work to bridge the gaps in the region,” Ayali said. “We could take the chance of this little locust plague and together make sure we’re better prepared for the next.”
For now, the Israelis have smote the swarm, but Keith Cressman, a senior locust forecasting office at the FAO’s office in Rome warns that there is still a moderate risk that a few more small populations of young adults may be hiding out in the desert. This means new swarms could potentially form later this week in northeast Egypt and Israel’s Negev region. His organization warned Israel, Egypt and Jordan this morning of the threat, and Jordan mobilized its own locust team, just in case.
For those who do come across the insects (but only the non-pesticide covered ones!), Israeli chefs suggest trying them out for taste. Locusts, it turns out, are the only insects that are kosher to eat. According to the news organization Haaretz, they taste like “tiny chicken wings,” though they make an equally mean stew. “You could actually run out very early before they started spraying and collect your breakfast,” Ayali said. “I’m told they’re very tasty fried in a skillet, but I’ve never tried them myself.”
Sign up for our free newsletter to receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.
February 18, 2013
The Northeast may be prone to blizzards this time of year, but in Brazil it’s raining spiders. In a video that’s covered the Internet like an immense web, a local photographer captures images of thousands of spiders shimmying up and down silk threads attached to telephone pole wires. The footage gives the distinct impression of a shower–or perhaps light snow–of spiders sprinkling down on the shocked residents below.
Erick Reis, a 20-year-old web designer in Santo Antonio da Platina, a town about 250 miles west of Sao Paulo, captured the striking video that has since accumulated more than 2 million YouTube views over the course of the week. “I was shooting an engagement party for some friends of mine and I saw the spiders when I was leaving, now in the late afternoon,” he explained to TV450000, which posted the video. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
According to biologist Marta Fischer of the Pontifical Catholic University of Parana, however, the phenomenon is not so strange. ”This type of spider is known to be quite social,” she said. “They are usually in trees during the day and in the late afternoon and early evening construct sort of giant sheets of webs, in order to trap insects.”
Scientists have described around 40,000 species of spiders around the world, but only a handful of them are social. These 23 species are scattered around the world and sometimes swarm, like ants or bees. Females often outnumber males 10 to 1 in colonies that can exceed 50,000 individuals.
Around Sao Paulo and its neighboring cities, she said, it’s not an unusual site to see a sky speckled by spiders. The species, Anelosimus eximius, can be found from Panama to Argentina and lives in colonies sometimes comprised of thousands of individuals. Each spider is around the size of a pencil eraser. As Examiner reports, the species’ webs can stretch from the ground up to tree canopies or human constructions 65 feet high.
If strong winds come along, the web may detach from its anchors, carrying the spiders and their ruined home to new sites where they appear to “rain down.” Catching rides on the wind–en mass–was likely what happened in Santo Antonio da Platina. While the humans gawked below, the flustered spiders were simply trying to pull themselves together after an unexpected journey from some forest or park.
Before North American readers breathe a sigh of relief that this isn’t happening a bit closer to home, however, it’s worth noting that similar colonies live in Texas. In Lake Tawakoni State Park, just east of Dallas, Guatemalan long-jawed spiders construct enormous webs covering up to 600 foot stretches. The spiders build the huge webs in less than two weeks. Researchers think the spiders achieve such sudden engineering feats thanks to their “remarkable reproductive capabilities and ability to disperse by ballooning,” according to A Field Guide of Scorpions and Spiders of Texas.
So far, Dallas residents haven’t reported massive sheets of webs and their arachnid residents “ballooning” into backyards. But, as witnessed by residents of Santo Antonio da Platina, stranger things have happened.