December 28, 2011
It’s that time of year when journalists and bloggers put together their reviews of the past 12 months. But the list below is unlike any other. You may have noticed that Surprising Science tends to cover science a bit differently than other blogs and publications do. Combine that with a diverse (and, of course, fabulous) readership, and you’ve got an interesting list of most-read stories for the year. (If you’re looking for a more traditional 2011 retrospective, we recommend the lists from Discover, Scientific American and Science.)
#10 Earthquake in Washington, D.C.: On August 23, the Smithsonian offices, along with a good portion of the Northeast, shook due to a magnitude 5.8 earthquake in Mineral, Virginia. In a weird coincidence, I had been researching earthquakes in unexpected places when the quake took place, and so people in my office jokingly blamed me for the incident.
#9 14 Fun Facts About Chickens: Following the earthquake and Hurricane Irene, we took a break from natural disasters with weird chicken facts. My favorite? That a female bird can eject the sperm of a rooster if she decides she doesn’t want his chicks.
#8 The Science Behind the Japanese Earthquake: On the morning of March 11, we woke up to news of a powerful earthquake off the coast of Japan. That shaking, however, would soon be overshadowed by the devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster that followed.
#7 Examining Telecommuting the Scientific Way: Unfortunately this post did not have the result I’d hoped, and I’m still not allowed to telecommute. (But if anyone has been successful in using these arguments, please let us know in the comments below.)
#6 The Secret Lives of Feral Cats: After a study in which scientists tracked feral kitties, we weighed in on the question of whether it was better to trap the cats, spay/neuter them and release them back into the wild or, as some advocate, euthanize any found. The blog came down on the side of catch and release, but we discovered many readers who have a serious hatred for these felines.
#5 The Curious World of Zombie Science: We examined an interesting trend in science, the study of human zombies, including computer models of the spread of the zombie disease, potential ways zombies could be created and how math could save you from a zombie attack.
#4 The Myth of the Frozen Jeans: Levi’s and the New York Times claimed that freezing your jeans would kill the germs that make them smell. Scientists who study bacteria disagree.
#3 Five Historic Female Mathematicians You Should Know: Our list, a companion to a top ten list of historic female scientists, included the creator of the world’s first computer program and a contemporary of Albert Einstein.
#2 Life Without Left Turns: A study that found that intersections constructed to eliminate dangerous left turns were more efficient than traditional intersections added to my convictions that getting rid of left turns would be a good thing. But not all my readers agreed.
And #1 The Glow-in-The-Dark Kitty: A story about Mayo Clinic researchers who created a fluorescing cat as part of their studies on feline HIV, which they hope would lead to insight on human HIV and AIDS, sparked a debate in the comments about the ethics of the research.
July 27, 2011
If there’s one downside to living in a city built on a swamp (not really—it just feels that way during D.C.’s muggy summers), it’s the mosquitoes. They hover just outside my front door, ready to take a bite from my face or, worse, follow me indoors where they can munch on me in my sleep. And then yesterday I read about how the West Nile Virus has been identified in samples of D.C. mosquitoes, which adds a layer of worry on top of the itching. After reading up on these pesky summer companions, I thought I’d share these 14 facts:
1 ) There are around 3,500 species of mosquitoes, but only a couple hundred feast on human blood.
2 ) If you’ve been bitten by a mosquito, it was a female. Male mosquitoes make do just fine with plants, but females need a blood meal before they can lay eggs.
3 ) The female’s saliva contains an anti-coagulant that lets her more easily suck up her meal. The saliva induces an allergic response from her victim’s immune system; that’s why your skin gets an itchy bump.
4 ) Females lay their eggs in shallow water or even damp soil that’s prone to flooding. Get rid of any standing water near your home to reduce the mosquito horde.
5 ) The best time to avoid mosquitoes is in the afternoon, when temperatures are hottest and the insects rest in cooler spots.
6 ) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists only four chemicals as being effective for repelling mosquitoes: DEET, Picaridin, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (or its synthetic version, called PMD) and IR3535.
7 ) Mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide, lactic acid and octenol found in our breath and sweat, and they also sense the heat and humidity that surrounds our bodies. They may also have a preference for beer drinkers.
8 ) Some scientists think that eliminating mosquitoes wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Others aren’t so sure, though, and worry about the effects on the ecosystem of the loss of an insect that is eaten by spiders, salamanders, frogs, fish and other insects.
9 ) Malaria infects around 250 million people each year worldwide and kills about one million, mostly children in Africa. About a fifth of those deaths can be attributed to counterfeit anti-malarial drugs.
10 ) George and Martha Washington both suffered from malaria. George contracted the disease when he was a teenager. In the second year of his presidency, he experienced severe hearing loss due to quinine toxicity.
11 ) Insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) that hang over a bed have been shown to reduce malaria incidence among children and pregnant women by up to 50 percent. The nets last only a few years before they have to be replaced.
12 ) The last time there was an outbreak of yellow fever, another mosquito-borne illness, in the United States was in 1905 in New Orleans. At the time, the city was trying to prevent the disease by fumigating all the ships that entered the city. However, a smuggler’s ship full of bananas avoided the quarantine and by June cases began to emerge among Italian immigrants who unloaded banana boats.
13 ) Birds were originally blamed for the spread of the West Nile Virus across the United States. But a 2010 study says that it was the mosquitoes themselves, which can travel up to 2.5 miles per day, that were responsible for the spread of the disease from 2001 to 2004.
14 ) The emergence of a worldwide outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease chikungunya can be traced to a 2004 drought in Kenya. The disease hasn’t made it to the United States yet, but scientists think that could occur at any time.
June 9, 2011
Ideas for scientific experiments come from all sorts of places (and fewer of them originate in the lab than you might think). A study on political orientation and brain structure, published in Current Biology, for example, got its start when the actor Colin Firth—credited as a co-author on the paper—was guest-editing a BBC Radio 4 program called “Today.” “This struck me as an opportunity to explore things which compel me…but about which I’m perhaps not sufficiently informed,” he told host Justin Webb. “I…decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it.” Or to put it a bit more nicely, to see if the brains of people with different political leanings were truly different.
Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees of University College London took that idea and ran with it. They performed MRI scans of 90 college students who had been asked about their political attitudes, and then looked at various structures in the brain. They found that a greater amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with liberalism and a greater amount in the amygdala was associated with conservatism. They confirmed the finding in a second set of 28 participants.
These findings are consistent with previous studies showing greater brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals. One of the jobs of that area of the brain is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. “Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views,” the scientists write.
The amygdala, on the other hand, processes fear, and previous studies have shown that conservatives respond more aggressively in threatening situations. “Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty,” the researchers write.
Still unknown, however, is which comes first, the brain structure or the beliefs. The researchers would have to expand their study to see if there are changes in brain structure before or after a person changes their political leanings.
Perhaps Firth could sign up as a volunteer.
May 31, 2011
Do feral kitties live good lives? The Washington Post asked that question last week in a story that examined the practice of controlling feral cat populations by trapping cats, spaying or neutering them, and then releasing them back into their former home environments (it’s often called Trap-Neuter-Return or TNR).
The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and other supporters say the nation’s estimated 50 million to 150 million feral felines often live healthy lives. They also say TNR has added benefits: After a cat colony is sterilized, nuisance behaviors such as fighting and yowling are reduced, and the feral population stabilizes. Feral cats can keep rats in check, too.
Skeptics, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and some veterinarians, argue the life of an alley cat is rarely pleasant. In many cases, they say it’s actually more humane to euthanize cats, rather than condemn them to a harsh life on the streets.
Some insight into the lives of both feral and owned kitties comes from a new study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, in which researchers set out to track free-roaming feral and owned cats by placing radio transmitters on 42 kitties in and around Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Twenty-three of those transmitters also had tilt and vibration sensors that measured activity.
The scientists found that the feral cats had home ranges that stretched across large areas; one male kitty’s range covered 1,351 acres (2.1 square miles). They roamed over a wide variety of habitats, most often in urban areas and grasslands, including a restored prairie. In winter, they preferred urban spots, forests and farmland, all places that would provide greater shelter from bad weather and help them keep warm. Cats that had owners, meanwhile, tended to stick close to home, with their range sizes averaging a mere 4.9 acres.
Feral kitties were also more active than cats that had homes. Unowned cats spent 14 percent of their time in what the scientists classified as “high activity” (running or hunting, for example), compared with only 3 percent for kitties with owners. “The unowned cats have to find food to survive, and their activity is significantly greater than the owned cats throughout the day and through the year, especially in winter,” says study co-author Jeff Horn of the University of Illinois.
In addition, the feral cats’ daily activity patterns—sleeping during the day and being active at night, which likely reflects the behavior of their prey, small mammals, as well as lets them better avoid humans—was very different from kitties with homes. Those animals were most active in the morning and evening, when their owners were likely home and awake.
Only one owned kitty died during the study, compared with six feral cats. Two of the feral cats were killed by coyotes, and the researchers believe that at least some of the others were killed by other cats, as the owned kitty was. Cats that live outdoors, even just part of the time, are at risk of death from other cats as well as diseases such as rabies, feline leukemia and parasites, the researchers note.
And of course there’s the fact that cats, owned and unowned, kill wildlife. “Owned cats may have less impact on other wildlife than unowned cats because of their localized ranging behavior, or conversely, they may have a very high impact withing their smaller home ranges,” the scientists write. “Free-roaming cats do kill wildlife and pose a disease risk; cat owners should keep pets indoors.”
But there’s nothing in this study that convinces me that feral cats are living such harsh lives that death would be better, as PETA and other TNR skeptics have contended. Feral cats do have harder and shorter lives than our pets. They have to find their own food and water and shelter, and this isn’t easy. But that’s what any wild creature has to do, and to imply that their lives are worthless because they are hard is, frankly, ridiculous.
May 16, 2011
Just a little while ago the Space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off into space from the Kennedy Space Center on its last mission, the second-to-last mission for any Space Shuttle. Like many people I watched the liftoff (from my computer at home) and was a bit wistful to see space exploration as I have known it since my childhood nearing its end. But I have to say, when I think about the end of the Space Shuttle program, I’m really not that sorry to see it come to a close.
Oh, it’s not that I’m not a fan of space exploration (I even made NASA-space-mission-themed cookies last week for my office), but the Space Shuttle never lived up to its original concept, and it’s been sucking up a lot of money over the years, money that could have paid for even more discoveries than have already been made.
When the Space Shuttle was conceived in the 1960s, before we had even landed on the Moon, proponents were making claims that a reusable space vehicle, one that could land like an airplane, could be cheaper to operate on a per-launch basis and could launch as frequently as once a week. But the reality was far different.
The Space Shuttle is expensive: Putting people into the unnatural environment of Earth’s orbit is never going to be cheap, but the shuttle is particularly costly. One analysis of the program pegged the cost per mission at $1.3 billion (I’ve also seen estimates of $1.5 billion), enough to fund almost 3,000 research grants at the National Science Foundation or pay for a big chunk of a spacecraft like Cassini that will be producing data for decades. Another way to look at this is the cost per kilogram of getting something into space: The shuttle averages about $10,400 per kilogram of payload while the Russians pay only about $5,400 using their Soyuz spacecraft. We’re overpaying for the service when it’s delivered via shuttles.
The Space Shuttle launches infrequently: Those dreams of once-a-week launches were quickly dashed by reality. Once-a-week became twice-a-month became less than once-a-month. It took months to turn over a Space Shuttle for its next mission, and frequently launching people, science experiments and satellites into low-Earth orbit has been impossible.
The Space Shuttle is not reliable: Shuttle launch delays are frequent and costly (good luck to anyone planning to go to Florida to watch the last liftoff next month). But even worse is the rate of catastrophic failure, about 1 in 65. My memories of the program are not the trip to the Kennedy Space Center my family took when I was a kid; they are of the images on TV of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Space exploration is never going to be risk-free, and if we’re going to explore our solar system and beyond, bad things will happen—just as they did for early Earth-bound explorers. We still need to decide as a society whether or not this is worth the risk.
When I was making the cookies for work last week, I realized how little our greatest space science has depended on the shuttle. Out of the five missions, only Hubble had depended on the Space Shuttle program, and it didn’t have to—its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, won’t. And without the shuttle program draining NASA’s limited funds, perhaps even more and better science will happen in the coming years.
Replacing one-time-use rockets with a reusable spacecraft is still a good idea, but we’re just not technologically ready for this. Our imaginations are far bigger than our abilities. That might seem like a sad realization, but it’s not. All it means is that we will keep inventing and striving to reach our sci-fi dreams, and that journey is a truly fascinating one.
(Think I’m wrong? That’s what the comment section is for.)