Sunday, October 07, 2012

Wound-Healing Bandage, Male Ornamentation, Novelty Seeking in Bees

NEW BLOOD VESSELS FOR OLD. Any kind of tissue that can be wounded has blood vessels. One of the challenges in medicine is recreating or redirecting intricate vascular networks, sometimes from scratch. This January a bimolecular engineer and a computer engineer at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana together announced the development of a bandage that "stamps" the desired pattern of blood vessels onto skin, muscle, or bone. The bandage contains living cells that deliver growth factors in a defined pattern. According to the report in Advanced Materials, within a week the pattern of the stamp takes the form of newly generated blood vessels.

STAG WALKS INTO A BAR. Ever wonder why some male animals have bigger horns or other sexual ornamentation than others of their species? Working with rhinocerous beetles, zoologists led by a researcher at Montana State University demonstrated that male animals’ ornaments are insulin-dependent. According to a study published in  August 2012 issue of Science, growth to gargantuan size reflects excellent nutritional status in any male showing them off. If so, obviously “hunky” male animals are also probably strong and have good endurance. It’s probably an attractive quality to females hoping to mate.

BORN TO BE WILD. Every motorcycle movie ever made suggests that some humans are more adventuresome than others. Apparently, it's true of honey bees, as well. Some consistently “take it on the road” to new territory. According to a March 2012 study in Science, there are massive genetic differences that set territorially bold honeybees apart from their fellows. At least a few relate to the molecular pathways implicated in novelty-seeking in humans.

Sea Power, Autism, Ants, Clades, and Nuclear Waste

1—A BETTER SEA POWER TRAP. Wave Energy Converters (WECs) harvest the energy of ocean waves, and represent an enormous potential in the creation of usable alternative energy. But the utility of WECs is hampered by the unpredictability of waves—and by their occasional surprising violence, which can destroy WECs altogether. According to a study recently published in the journal Renewable Energy, a team of scientists at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Exeter have developed an algorithm that, when programmed into a control unit, can give WECs a one-second warning about wave height and force. This allows a WEC to react to each wave individually, collecting energy efficiently and surviving even the roughest assaults. In the lab, the new prediction algorithm improved wave energy collection by 100%, doubling the amount of energy collected. (Renewable Energy is not available online.)

2—HOGWASH TREATMENTS FOR AUTISM? The prevalence of autism is on the rise. But according to Vanderbilt University researchers reporting on August 27 in Pediatrics, every one of the interventions currently used for the growing numbers of adolescents and young children needing substantial support are based on insufficient evidence. The researchers examined 32 studies addressing medical, vocational, and behavioral interventions, and deemed all of them structurally flawed. In light of the current autism “epidemic,” the researchers have concluded that that more rigorous studies about care for adolescents and children with autism are urgently needed.

3—TALKING THROUGH THEIR NOSES. By creating a full map of the olfactory system of worker ants of two distinct species, a research team at Vanderbilt University has come to a new understanding of ant gender roles and ant communication. The map shows that females of the two species each have about 400 distinct odorant receptors. This is four to five times more than most other insects have, and about three times more than male ants of the species studied have. Reporting in the August 2012 issue of PLoS Genetics, the VU scientists speculate that smell is the probable fundament of ant communication. Chemical signals setting off specific odorant sensors would explain how ants live in a complex social system characterized by division of labor and the ability to collaboratively solve complex problems. The researchers suggest a reason that male ants have fewer odorant receptors than females. They are only responsible for fertilizing eggs. Females, it seems organize and do just about everything else.

4—STUMPING DARWIN. A “clade” is a group consisting of a species and all of the many species descendant from it. Given the glacial pace of evolutionary change, one of the most fundamental expectations in evolutionary studies is that species richness in a clade is a measure of its age. Now that central assumption has been thrown into question. Publishing this August in PLoS Biology, evolutionary biologists from UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and UCLA report testing the relationship between clade age and species richness across nearly 1400 major clades of multicellular fungi, plants, arthropods, and vertebrates that collectively account for more than 1.2 million species. The team found no evidence whatsoever between clade age and species richness. “This result appears to hold across the entire tree of life, for taxa as diverse as ferns, fungi, and flies,” the scientists report.

5—SOLVING THE NUCLEAR WASTE PROBLEM WHILE PRODUCING EXTRA ENERGY. Physicists at the University of Texas at Austin have been awarded a U.S. patent for a fusion-fission hybrid nuclear reactor that could someday be used to turn nuclear sludge into usable energy. Parts of the device are still in the conceptual phase. But a “tokamak,” which uses magnetic fields to confine super-high temperature nuclear waste and produce fusion reactions, has been manufactured and is being installed in the UK at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. CCFE, just south of Oxford, is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

This Week at Psychology Today: Would Jeffrey Dahmer Have Been a Good World Leader?

A new study correlates psychopathic traits with effectiveness in American presidents.
Certain legendary presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt among them—had the fearless dominance of psychopaths. Presidents whom history remembers as relatively ineffective—Jimmy Carter and Woodrow Wilson, perhaps—had considerably less of that Right Stuff. So say the authors of a study published in this September’s issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The team led by Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld points out that, although psychopathology is a huge risk factor for criminality and violence, certain psychopathic traits are tied to success in politics. Read more at Psychology Today.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

This Week at Psychology Today: Senator Stacey Campfield Out-Does Congressman Todd Akin

Why did the Tennessee senator get his facts on HIV/AIDS so hysterically wrong?

It’s old news, perhaps. Sorry to arrive on the scene late. But in January of this year the Huffington Post reported some troubling quotes of Stacey Campfield, a Republican in the Tennessee Senate. He is the sponsor of that state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits schools from discussing with students any sexual orientation other than heterosexual. According to HuffPo, on a radio show hosted by gay activist Michelangelo Signorile, Campfield said:

"Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community — it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall."

"My understanding is that it is virtually — not completely, but virtually — impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex...very rarely [transmitted]."

"What's the average lifespan of a homosexual? It's very short. Google it yourself."

Since last week when Missouri’s Republican Congressman Todd Akin said, “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [sperm fertilizing egg] down,” the country has grown another skin on its ever-hardening nub of understanding that politicians occasionally get their science wrong. But that’s no reason not to set the record straight. So, for the record, AIDS is only one of about 80 infectious diseases that humans are capable of acquiring from animals....

Read more at Psychology Today.

This Week at Psychology Today: Congressman Akin, Meet Genghis Khan and Your Evolutionary Ancestors

The DNA of 8% of men in the former Mongol empire prove Akin wrong.

"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing [impregnation] down,” Congressman Todd Akin, the Republican nominee in Missouri for U.S. Senate famously said this week.
Yeah? Well tell that to Genghis Khan.

And tell it to the chimps.

According to 2003 research by geneticists and biologists at universities across Europe and Asia, approximately 8% of the men now living in areas of Asia once occupied by Genghis Khan’s army are direct descendants of the legendary conqueror. This is roughly the equivalent of 0.5% of the world’s total population of adult men.

Testing the blood of 2,123 living men, researchers from the UK’s Oxford University, China’s Harbin Medical University, Italy’s University of Ferrara, ...

Friday, August 24, 2012

5000 Years of Air Pollution

Like politics, all epochs are local.

Iberia, a peninsula on Europe's southwestern reaches, has long been known as a prehistoric mining center, with metal resources that continue to be harvested. As reported in The Journal of Archaeological Science (corrected proof available online July 23, 2012) researchers from Spain and the UK have examined three Iberian wetlands for clues about human metal use over the ages.

These peat bogs were not themselves mines. Nor were they necessarily ever sites of metal use by humans. Still, in the peat is a record of metal use over the ages. The data are in the trace minerals present in the soil because they precipitated with rain out of polluted skies.

The metal use timeline that the researchers have constructed for Iberia coincides with much of what's known about the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, Celtic and Roman culture, and the industrial revolution both locally and globally. Uninhabited and even never-inhabited areas, it seems, can be an ongoing resource for investigations of early mining and metallurgy practices, and, hence, early culture.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

This Week in Psychology Today: Bad News, Bearishly Delivered

Bad things happen, and not just to good people. Which means that, in no small measure, hospitals, law enforcement agencies, downsizing corporations, and many other organizations are in the bad news business. Knowing this, many train employees in interpersonal sensitivity and compassion—and they don't just do it because they value kindness and consideration. There’s a huge financial cost to heartlessness. Morale plummets throughout a company, and absenteeism and employee thievery rise, as do lawsuits.

What is behind the chronic compassion deficits of some doctors, managers, police officers, school counselors, and other "bad news bears?" Why do they express so little appropriate emotion and invoke such costly wrath? Read more at Psychology Today.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

This week on Psychology Today: All Too Human?

Chimps, at least, really are.

Humans and chimps had a common ancestor 4-6 million years ago. Humans’ common ancestor with orangutans lived a far more distant 15 million years ago. This may be why chimps' personalities are like humans’ in many respects, and why orangs' personalities are like humans’ only in some.

Or not. How much like humans are chimps and orangs, anyway? Are they more similar to us than the puppies we dress in doll clothes so we can circulate cute pictures on the Internet? Are they more similar than cows that look pensive or chipmunks that “complain?”

Such are the questions that intrigued the University of Edinburgh's Alexander Weiss, lead author of a study in the journal Animal Behavior

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

This Month in Scientific American: Some Like it Too Hot

Why Extramarital Sex Can Kill

To be sure, death by copulation is rare. But the data suggest that when it happens, it usually happens to adulterers, and the cause is typically cardiovascular. Read more.

Monday, July 09, 2012

MURDERS MOST FOUL: And the School Shooters in our Midst

MURDERS MOST FOUL: And the School Shooters in Our Midst.
15,000 words.
Vook, Inc., 2012
Available as Kindle and Nook eBooks, and in the iBookstore.
$1.99 at and
More info at

Sunday, June 17, 2012

This Week at Machiavellian IQ

How Manipulative People Get Exactly What They Want.

In the game of Public Good, winning requires duplicity and the willingness to do harm. 


Friday, May 18, 2012

In Discover Magazine: 20 Things You Didn't Know about Allergies

Curing them by giving yourself hookworms, preventing them by putting RFID tags in your food, and avoiding them in Knoxville, the Allergy Capital of the country.

  1. Our immune system may be like those small bands of Japanese “holdout” soldiers after World War II. Not knowing that the war was over, they hid for years, launching guerrilla attacks on peaceful villages.
  2. With our living environment well scrubbed of germs, our body’s immune “soldiers” mistakenly fire on innocent peanuts and cat dander.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

This Week in Psychology Today: The Show Must Go On

And the Experiment Must Continue 

In the early 1960s, after the trial began in Jerusalem of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Yale social scientist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in pathological obedience. The setting was a fake (but convincing) language learning lab. On the basis of his scientific authority, the experimenter convinced test subjects to administer what they thought were brutal, even life-threatening corrective shocks to "learners" trying to memorize word pairs. Eighty percent of the test subjects obeyed, and they did so despite having voiced strong moral qualms about what was being asked of them.

Milgram wanted to learn whether it was possible that the millions of guards, police, and informers complicit in the Holocaust had merely been following orders, as many had claimed. He concluded from the ease with which he convinced people to be ruthless that it was, indeed, possible. "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." 

Fast forward about 50 years. A team from both Aix-Marseille University and Paris West University (Nanterre) recreated Milgram's famous experiment—only this time the experimenter had no scientific authority. The experiment's setting was a reality TV show shot before a live studio audience, and the experimenter was a fashionably attired game show host. Did the unwitting "contestants" follow orders? Was the host's authority significant enough to turn contestants into monsters? And what might the new experiment's results mean for reality TV, with the shows continually besting each other to be the most barbarous?

Find out at Psychology Today.

Friday, April 13, 2012

This Week at Psychology Today: One Country's Porn is Another's Pablum

Think of it as "Debbie Does Dallas" meets "I'm OK, You're OK." Ok, if that doesn't work for you, answer this question: Of Norway, the United States, and Japan, which country do you think shows more girls who wanna have fun (and get to)? The answer is in my "The Bejeezus Out of Me" column at Psychology Today.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

This Week at Psychology Today: Sh*t My Chimp Throws

And the Origins of Humans' Ability to Say Anything

What's in those disgusting balls of waste that chimps hoard and throw. Maybe—just maybe—the roots of human language. It's in my new "The Beejezus out of Me: Startling Behavioral Science" blog at Psychology Today.

Monday, April 09, 2012

This Week at Psychology Today: Social Media, WAY Past, and Present.

Q: What do ancient sacred sites in New Mexico and Facebook have in common?

A: Walls, the universe, and everything

See "Social Media, WAY Past and Present" in my new The Bejeezus out of Me: Startling Behavioral Science column at Psychology Today.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

In Discover Magazine This Month: 20 Things You Didn't Know about Clouds

1 When moist, warm air rises to a cooler elevation, water condenses onto microscopic “seeds” like dust, ash, or bacteria. Water + seeds + updraft = clouds.

2 If there’s more water vapor than places for it to condense, already-formed ice crystals can also serve as seeds. As the crystals take on moisture, they may become too heavy for updrafts to support. Time for the umbrella.

3 It makes sense, then, that adding seeds to thin clouds should make them rain out. Believing the theory, 37,000 Chinese peasants shot rockets filled with silver iodide (a widely used seeding agent) into clouds.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

When Bad Odors Happen to Clean People

Some people stink no matter how often they bathe. In August 2011 the American Journal of Medicine published a study of 353 people who had "malodor production" that couldn't be explained by poor hygiene, flatulence, or dental problems. They found that about one third of them tested positive for trimethylaminuria (TMAU), a genetically-transmitted disease that thwarts the body's ability to metabolize trimethylamine (TMA), a chemical compound common in eggs, some legumes, wheat germ, saltwater fish, and organ meats. When TMA is inadequately metabolized, it accumulates in urine, sweat, and saliva. The result is a gently radiating, fishy stench that is far from popular on the play-yard or at the water cooler.

TMAU was first identified as a disease in 1970, and the chemical test used to identify it is common. What is special about this study is that its researchers hail from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a flavor lab in Philadelphia. Monell's team paid its usual heightened attention to aromatic nuance. What they found was a rich and varied TMAU bouquet. Because the disease is classified as rare (fewer than 200,000 affected individuals in the United States), typically doctors sniff for the characteristic fishiness before authorizing the chemical test. The researchers in this study suggest that, by doing so, they may be missing positive cases. Which is unfortunate because, once TMAU is identified, the odor problem can be solved. A diet hygienically "clean" of the foods carrying high TMA concentrations clears the air.