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Bora’s Picks (November 30th, 2012)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Quite an embarrassment of riches this week!

Shifting sexes and sequential hermaphrodites: How sex is determined by Kate Shaw:

It is easy to regard sex as clear-cut, black and white. We regularly have to check the “male” or “female” box on various forms, we go to separate sporting events to see men and women compete, and we often choose baby clothes based on whether the bundle of joy is a boy or a girl. But in the natural world, sex is a very gray area—it is diverse, intricate, and often incredibly malleable. Our sexual configuration is just one of many in the animal kingdom, each of which has evolved over many generations to solve particular problems or to ensure success in challenging environments. Sex is simply another tool in the evolutionary toolbox. It allows animals with completely different lifestyles and demands to thrive in an amazing array of ways….

Blind often afflicted with rare sleep disorder by Alyssa Botelho:

When Jerry Berrier dreams, he hears and touches and smells and talks, but he doesn’t see. Blind since birth, he rarely remembers his dreams, however, because his sleep has been so poor. At 15, Berrier had both of his eyes removed and lost the little light perception he had as a child. Ever since, the Everett resident, now 60, has battled a vicious sleep cycle — a few days of sleep followed by weeks of hardly any. The bouts of sleeplessness come suddenly and subside without warning. When they hit, Berrier can’t sleep more than a couple hours a night, no matter how tired he is….

Caffeine-diabetes link still unresolved: study by Kathleen Raven:

Results of a large new U.S. study confirm that sugary drinks are linked to a heightened risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, but shed little light on whether caffeine helps or hinders the process. Among more than 100,000 men and women followed for 22 years, those who drank sugar-sweetened drinks were as much as 23 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those who didn’t, but the risk was about the same whether the drinks contained caffeine or not. And drinkers of both caffeinated coffee and decaf had slightly lowered diabetes risk…

The promises and pitfalls of carbon capture by Melissae Fellet:

Extreme weather events, like Superstorm Sandy that just drenched the northeastern coast of the United States, often refocus the public’s attention on climate change. With Sandy, there were no straightforward connections, partly because it’s hard to connect climate change to a single weather event. Nevertheless, the storm may leave the US public more willing to tackle some of the challenges of climate change….

Chimpanzee justice by Roni Jacobson:

By three years old, human children start to display empathy and will intervene in conflicts where they feel someone has been wronged. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, seem to be stuck in the terrible twos — like children in that notoriously selfish stage, they will only intercede when they have been directly harmed….

From “You are What You Eat” to “You See What You Eat”: Shedding Light on Ecologically Attuned Vision by Anne-Marie Hodge:

If you have ever been temporarily blinded by sunlight after emerging from a building, or have stubbed a toe in the middle of the night, then you realize first-hand that sensitivity to light is a key element of success in one’s environment. Animals vary dramatically in their visual abilities under different light conditions: birds and bees use UV vision to see colors that we cannot even perceive, some cave animals forgo vision completely, and the rest of us fall somewhere in between on the spectrum of color perception and visual acuity….

Getting the Prosthetic Is Easy, Compared to Getting It To Do What You Want by Rose Eveleth:

A growing number of soldiers are returning from duty with injuries that have stolen away their limbs. Thankfully, prosthetic technology is getting better, and many of these amputees are learning to live with new arms and legs. But while getting the prosthetic might be costly, it’s learning how to use it that’s the real struggle….

Q&A: The globalization of infectious disease: Science writer David Quammen talks about his new book “Spillover” by Nick Stockton:

David Quammen has made his career writing about nature. A former Rhodes Scholar and novelist, he spent 15 years writing the “Natural Acts” column for Outside Magazine, getting an on-the-job education in ecology, biology, and evolution. In 1997, he published his first non-fiction bestseller, “The Song of the Dodo,” an exploration of geography and evolution. We recently discussed his latest book, “Spillover”, about diseases that spread from animals to humans. This phenomenon is called zoonosis, and it is increasing as humanity seeps further into undisturbed habitats. …

This Robot Is a Better Dad Than Your Dad by Rose Eveleth:

Disney has long had a “dad problem.” Very few of its movies feature strong father figures, and the strong ones are often evil or power hungry. Now, Disney is remedying that by building a robot that can play catch….

Generalists and specialists can coexist by Kathleen Raven:

The University of Toronto began an interesting journalism school experiment this year: They recruited students already specialized in a field, and then began teaching them a few journalism skills. This and ascendance of New York Times statistician Nate Silver has caused renewed anguish for aspiring reporters who still attend J-school: to specialize or not?…

The Question of Code Revisited: I Think I Can, So Can’t I? by Erin Podolak:

“All of the true things I’m about to tell you are shameless lies.” Is it ever acceptable to walk into an interview with a mentality straight out of the Books of Bokonon from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? In addition to being what is possibly my favorite literary quote ever, I think the idea of telling true lies really epitomizes an issue that so many science writers trying to break into the business are facing: when asked what our skills are, is what we feel comfortable knowing, all that we really know? …

Chewing Caterpillars Causing Plant Evolution by Kate Prengaman:

A caterpillar chomping on a leaf. The aphids nibbling on your rosebushes. Wherever there are plants, you’ll find insects trying to eat them. But when you squash a japanese beetle with a satisfying crunch, you might be interfering with plant evolution. …

ER doctors at UNC Hospitals look for ways to relate, quickly, to patients by Kelly Poe:

Dr. Nikki Waller treats most of her patients in the emergency room with a common treatment: a rub to the shoulder, and often, a smile. “For emergency department doctors, it’s hard to connect with your patients. By definition you’ve never seen them before; there’s no existing doctor-patient relationship,” she said. “It’s very important to gain your patient’s trust, and we have to do that very quickly.”

Why PhD Students Should Blog: My talk at UK Science Blog Prize Evening (also, I won) by Suzi Gage:

….I’m Suzi, and I’m a 3rd year epidemiology PhD student (epidemiology being the study of population health patterns, rather than skin complaints). I’ve been blogging since Summer 2011. So I’m going to spend 5 minutes telling you how blogging has stopped me becoming a social recluse. I started my PhD in 2010, and despite its sexy topic (cannabis and psychosis? Yes please!) it soon became apparent that my move from experimental psychology to epidemiology would mean a whole lot less human contact. While I love working with the Children of the 90s birth cohort, it does mean there’s no data collection, so although I work with really interesting data, I don’t really get to meet the really interesting people behind it, I just get to spend all my time pulling my hair out looking at 1s and 0s in STATA……

Like Snowbirds Heading to Florida, Galapagos Tortoises Head to the Mountains for the Cold Season by Rachel Nuwer:

Birds do it, butterflies do it, and now, we know that Galapagos giant tortoises do it, too. Migration extends to animals around the world, but why the tortoises bother with this behavior remains a mystery. We do know, however, that only fully grown animals—most often the dominant males—migrate around 6 miles each dry season into their native island’s volcanic highlands….

Supersymmetry Fails Test, Forcing Physics to Seek New Ideas by Natalie Wolchover:

As a young theorist in Moscow in 1982, Mikhail Shifman became enthralled with an elegant new theory called supersymmetry that attempted to incorporate the known elementary particles into a more complete inventory of the universe…

Mysterious new SARS-like coronavirus came from bats by Susan Matthews:

Genetic analysis has confirmed that the cases of SARS-like viral disease that made headlines this fall—first killing a Saudi Arabian man in June and then sickening a Qatari man in September—were the result of a single coronavirus strain that made the leap from bats to humans….

Read My Hips by Emily Underwood:

On the reality television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the lucky recipient gets a first look at his newly renovated home. For a split second, his face contorts with—shock? Joy? During intense emotional experiences, there’s a fleeting moment when expressions of pleasure and pain are hard to distinguish. In fact, others read intense emotion more effectively by looking at a person’s body language than by watching his facial expressions, a new study suggests. …

Jupiter: Earth’s bodyguard or secret assassin? by Naveena Sadasivam:

When George Hall, an amateur astronomer in Dallas, went to bed on September 9, 2012, he didn’t know that the telescope he had left trained on Jupiter would, in the wee hours of the morning, capture the telltale signs of an interstellar object crashing onto the planet’s gassy surface….

Turn Your Favorite Mitts Into Gadget-Compatible Manipulators by Taylor Kubota:

Winter gloves and gadgets don’t mix. Most touchscreens use capacitive sensing to complete a weak electrical circuit through skin and locate our tapping. And while wool, cotton, and leather gloves insulate hands from the cold, they block the body’s ability to shuttle electrons. Strategic stitching with conductive thread, however, can prevent essential electronics from becoming unresponsive bricks the moment you bundle up….

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