May 17, 2013 10:19 am
There are still some pretty annoying things about being left-handed. But in America, at least, we’ve mostly stopped forcing lefties to learn to use their right hand. That’s not the case everywhere, though. China, for example, claims that less than one percent of students are left-handed. If that were true, it would be strange: the global average of lefties comes in at 10-12 percent. A study in the journal Endeavor recently took on this question: Why are there no left-handers in China? The researchers also looked at India and Islamic countries and discovered that nearly two-thirds of the world’s lefty population faces discrimination.
There’s nothing special about the genetics of people living in China that makes them less likely to be lefties. Chinese-Americans are just as likely to be left handed as any other Americans. The lefties in China are actually switching their dominant hands. Why? Because it’s simply more difficult for them to stick with their naturally dominate hand than for people in Europe of the United States. Many Chinese characters require a right hand, says Discovery News.
Elsewhere, stigma against lefties still exists. Discovery News reports:
In many Muslim parts of the world, in parts of Africa as well as in India, the left hand is considered the dirty hand and it’s considered offensive to offer that hand to anyone, even to help. The discrimination against lefties goes back thousands of years in many cultures, including those of the West.
Even the word left comes from “lyft” which meant broken. The German words “linkisch” also means awkward. The Russian word “levja” is associated with being untrustworthy. Synonyms for left in Mandarin are things like weird, incorrect and wrong.
And for a long time there were all sorts of ways to “retrain” lefties. An article in The Lancet explains the “scientific” rationales used:
The methods used to obtain this result were often tortuous, including tying a resistant child’s left hand to immobilise it. Typical of the reasoning to justify such practices is a 1924 letter to the British Medical Journal endorsing “retraining” of left-handers to write with their right hands, because otherwise the left-handed child would risk “retardation in mental development; in some cases…actual feeble-mindedness”. As late as 1946 the former chief psychiatrist of the New York City Board of Education, Abram Blau, warned that, unless retrained, left-handed children risked severe developmental and learning disabilities and insisted that “children should be encouraged in their early years to adopt dextrality…in order to become better equipped to live in our right-sided world”.
While today in the United States and Europe, left handed kids aren’t punished and retrained, these same sorts of biases still exist in large parts of the world, proving that righties are just as capable as being sinister as lefties.
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May 16, 2013 11:16 am
In the small city of Timmins, Ontario, a town nestled half way between Michigan and Hudson Bay, there is a mine. Actually, there are many mines—it’s a mining town. But this story is about just one, a mile and a half deep, where there is water bubbling up from below that has been cut off from the rest of the world for at least a billion years—maybe as much as 2.6 billion years.
The longer end of that timeline, Ivan Semeniuk points out in the Globe and Mail, is about half the age of the Earth. This water hasn’t been in contact with the rest of the planet since before the rise of multicellular life.
But like the water trapped in frozen lakes below Antarctica’s massive ice sheets, researchers suspect there might be life in these flows.
“What we have here,” says Sherwood Lollar, a microbiologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, “is a plate of jelly donuts.” While she has yet to confirm whether the water is inhabited, she says the conditions are perfect for life.
The scientists don’t know whether there is any life in the ancient, isolated water. But they’re working on it. The water is young enough that it would have been locked away after life arose on Earth. But it’s been trapped for so long that any life that does exist would likely be unique—a relic of an ancient world. The CBC:
Some Canadian members of the team are currently testing the water to see if it contains microbial life — if they exist, those microbes may have been isolated from the sun and the Earth’s surface for billions of years and may reveal how microbes evolve in isolation.
One can’t help but be reminded of the Balrog: “Moria! Moria! Wonder of the Northern world. Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear.”
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May 13, 2013 2:15 pm
Why do we LOL? Is ROFLing an innate piece of human behavior? Does our tendency to LMAO say something about us—something that separates us from the non-kekekeing species who share our planet?
For Scienceline, William Herkewitz explores the evolutionary history of laughter, a story that shows us that maybe we’re not quite so unique as we’d like to think. It’s not just that we laugh at funny things. The roots of this behavior, scientists think, go back much further and actually play an important purpose.
Herkewitz finds that various theories abound, but that the current “best guess” says that humans laugh to tell other humans not to get too fussed over something that could otherwise be regarded as scary or dangerous.
If you’re an ancestral human, says Ramachandran, and you come across what you think is a dangerous snake but actually turns out to be a stick, you’re relieved and you laugh. “By laughing, you’re communicating: ‘All is OK,’” says Ramachandran.
Ramachandran believes the “false alarm” signaling purpose of laugher explains its loud sound and explosive quality. If you want to signal something to a larger social group, they better hear it. His theory also helps explain the contagiousness of laughter — a curious quality exploited by the laugh tracks of TV sitcoms. Strangely enough, hearing the sound of laughter, on its own, is enough to elicit more laughter in others. “A signal is much more valuable if it amplifies and spreads like wildfire in the group,” says Ramachandran.
People also laugh to show pleasure, to bond with other members of the group. And in this regard, humans’ laughter isn’t special.
Our laughter, the Tommy gun staccato sound of “ha-ha-ha,” is unique in the animal kingdom. Beyond scientific anomalies like Mister Ed or Babe the pig, if you visit your local zoo you’ll be hard-pressed to find any animals making a sound you’d confuse with human laughter. But do humans, in the vast gallery of life, laugh alone? Ask Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and veterinarian at the University of Washington, and he’ll tell you no. Panksepp studies laughter where you might least expect it, in lab rats.
“In the mid 1990’s we found [rats] have a sound — a high-pitched chirp — that they made most often during play,” says Panksepp. “It crossed my mind it might be an ancestral form of laughter.” And Panksepp, eager to investigate, dove hands-first into his theory. He tickled his rats.
What he found lead to two decades of research. “They’re just like little children when you tickle them,” says Panksepp. “They ‘love’ it.”
Dogs, too, laugh in their own way. As do primates. The work is a reminder that for all that humans are, and all the things we do, there’s actually very little that makes us special.
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May 13, 2013 1:38 pm
The carnivorous bladderwort plant is a small aquatic species with cheery yellow flowers. It uses tiny traps that act like vacuums (the “bladders” in its name) to suck up prey such as water fleas. It’s a complex little plant. But compared to, say, a tomato, the bladderwort has extremely short DNA—just 80 million DNA base pairs to a tomato’s 780 million.
Tomatoes, like humans, have long strands of DNA that don’t do much. Only 2 percent of the human genome codes for genes—the portion of DNA that contains instructions for building proteins and functional RNA chains. The rest is known as noncoding or junk DNA. Researchers still speculate about the role of this genetic matter, which dominates the genome of not only humans but many other organisms, too.
Not the bladderwort, though. The plant’s DNA might be shorter than the tomato’s, but both plants have around 28,500 genes. The bladderwort just doesn’t have the noncoding DNA. Researchers who sequenced the bladderwort’s genome were surprised to find that 97 percent of the plant’s DNA consists of genes and sections of DNA that control those genes. This shows that complex life is possible without all of the junk DNA, they write.
In a paper published in Nature, the researchers hypothesize that—unlike humans and other plants and animals—the bladderwort actively deleted its junk DNA over many years of evolution. Some species, like the bladderwort, may have a built-in mechanism for deleting noncoding DNA, while others, like humans, may favor DNA insertion and duplication, leading to extraneous quantities of junk DNA. Neither mechanism is likely preferable over the other; they simply represent different paths in life.
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May 10, 2013 11:44 am
There Are Just Three Males of This Endangered Fish Left, And the London Zoo Is on a Global Hunt to Find a Lady
There are just three Mangarahara cichlids left in the world, so far as we know, and they’re all men. Two are at in the London Zoo, one is in Germany at the Berlin Zoo. The species was wiped out in the wild when the Mangarahara River in Madagascar dried up because of dams built to block the river, says the Associated Press.
The Berlin Zoo used to have a female, but she has unfortunately passed away, along with the best chance to revive the species in captivity. Now, the Zoological Society of London says in a release, they’re on a global quest to find a lady friend for their male cichlids. If you or anyone you know has one in a fish tank somewhere, they would really, really like to hear from you.
Launching the appeal, ZSL London Zoo’s Brian Zimmerman said: “The Mangarahara cichlid is shockingly and devastatingly facing extinction; its wild habitat no longer exists and as far as we can tell, only three males remain of this entire species.
“It might be too late for their wild counterparts, but if we can find a female, it’s not too late for the species. Here at ZSL London Zoo we have two healthy males, as well as the facilities and expertise to make a real difference.
If a female can’t be found, this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to sit idly by and watch a the last of a species wait out its final end. Just recently, Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, passed away. And botanical gardens around the world feature the identical faces of the last E. woodii, each of them a clone of the same male plant.
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