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Bora’s Picks (May 17th, 2013)

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


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Protecting South America’s Crown of Biodiversity by Anne-Marie Hodge:

Visiting a rainforest can be an exercise in challenged expectations. Everyone knows that rainforests are full of life: they teem with species, act as stages for unimaginably intricate food webs, and provide refuge for rare and even undiscovered organisms that exist nowhere else in the world. And yet . . . dense tropical forests can appear deceptively devoid of animals. One can spend hours and even days hiking through the Amazon’s cathedrals of green without spotting many animals beyond buzzing insects and snatches of birdsong from overhead. There are millions of organisms around, to be sure, yet they are all woven so tightly into their environment as to be almost indistinguishable from the forest itself….

Horsepower by Cristy Gelling:

We tend to think of nineteenth century cities like Pittsburgh as industrializing under the power of steam. But Joel Tarr argues that an older technology also drove the development of the great cities of the steam age. In 1775 James Watt patented the steam engine, a machine that would become a symbol of the industrial revolution. Forty years later, Benjamin Latrobe opened a steamboat engine workshop on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. The power source that Latrobe used to build his engines? Two blind horses…

The Lemur Underground: New Evidence for Primate Hibernation by Anne-Marie Hodge:

From bears slumbering through the winter in their dens to frogs sinking into muddy tombs of suspended animation, a wide spectrum of animals resort use hibernation to survive until spring. Just a mention of hibernation conjures images of snow-blanketed forests and ice-covered ponds, with animals hiding out from barren, dormant wintry landscapes. A group of small tropical primates is breaking the trend, however—recent research demonstrates that several dwarf lemurs in Madagascar undergo seasonal hibernation periods for up to eight months of the year. While it had previously been known that the western fat-tailed dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus medius) spends seven months of the year hibernating in tree holes (Dausmann et al. 2004), until recently there was no evidence for any other primate undertaking significant hibernation periods….

The rise of a frog-killing fungus pinned in part on global trade by Kate Prengaman:

It’s a tough time to be a frog. A fungal disease known as chytridiomycosis has been decimating populations across the planet for about a decade. Since its discovery in the late 1990s, it has already wiped out about 100 species. Although it seemed to appear suddenly, a team of scientists has now published the evolutionary history of the fungus, which suggests that chytridiomycosis has been killing amphibians for thousands of years….

Last laugh: What evolution can tell us about why we laugh by William Herkewitz:

Night falls and I’m still in bed. The sheets are hot and damp from two days of fever, and if I’m getting any better, I can’t feel it. When a good friend of mine calls and asks how I’m doing, I admit I am miserable. “Well, worst case scenario,” he jokes, “you’ll be dead in a few hours.” He laughs a deep and sadistic laugh, and I can’t help it, I laugh too. We talk for a bit longer, he wishes me well, and hangs up the phone. Still ill and not too happy about it, I am left alone in my room with the echo of my laugh and a question. Why do we laugh when we’re feeling awful?…

The Joy of Stats by Tania Browne:

You might not realise it, but statistics rule your life. Think about that for a minute. Because even if you claim you know nothing about maths, maths knows a lot about you. Consider what you did even when you woke up this morning. After you brushed your teeth, you might have put on some face cream that you bought because the TV advert told you 87% of people who used it reported an improvement in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. But did you also read the small print at the bottom which said it was 87% of 93 people, tested for a week?…

NIMH Won’t Follow Psychiatry ‘Bible’ Anymore by Emily Underwood:

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—slated for release this month—has lost a major customer before even going to print. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), declared last week on his blog that the institution will no longer use the manual to guide its research. Instead, NIMH is working on a long-term plan to develop new diagnostic criteria and treatments based on genetic, physiologic, and cognitive data rather than symptoms alone….

Re-conceiving the male “pill” by Andrew P. Han:

Since the advent of the birth control pill in 1960, new contraceptives have mostly been hormone-based products for women. But a recent push from researchers may lead to a breakthrough that for decades has seemed just out of reach: a male birth control pill….

How Many Weddings Will the Cicadas Ruin This Summer? by Rose Eveleth:

As the spring warms the earth in the eastern United States, one of the largest insect emergences on the planet is about to happen. Seventeen years after their last appearance, cicadas from this brood will wiggle out from the ground, shed their skin and take to the skies. This is what that looks like (GIF by T. Nathan Mundhenk):…

Slow Food Madison takes on stronger social justice focus by Emily Eggleston:

The Mexican-themed meal included a layered corn tortilla dish with shredded chicken and ancho chile sauce, a side of diced zucchini, corn, and roasted red peppers, along with a spinach salad dressed with garlic-stuffed olives and chickpeas. Many Goodman Community Center diners went back for a second serving of the meal prepared by Slow Food Madison, a meal that one diner called his “absolute favorite community food program.”…

Brain Is Command Center for Aging by Kate Yandell:

Inflammation in the hypothalamus may underlie aging of the entire body, according to a study published today (May 1) in Nature. Over-activation of the inflammatory protein nuclear factor κB (NF-κB) in the brain region leads to a number of aging-related changes in mice, from cognitive decline to muscle weakness. Unexpectedly, this process promotes aging at least in part by suppressing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates adult neurogenesis….

Erectile function: bats mop up nectar with “hairy” tongues by Kate Shaw:

As sweet as the reward is, it isn’t easy being a nectar-feeder. Bats, hummingbirds, and bees face the difficult task of sipping as much nectar as possible from a tiny floral tube, all while hovering delicately in the air. And since hovering is such an energy-demanding task, the more efficiently these animals can slurp up nectar, the better they do on each visit to a flower….

The laser-toting, secret Soviet satellite that never was by Amy Shira Teitel:

On the evening of Wednesday, March 23, 1983, Ronald Reagan delivered a televised address about defense and national security. “Let me share with you a vision of the future,” the president began in what was a last-minute addition to the half-hour speech. In Reagan’s vision, we would “embark on a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive.” It was the first mention of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the plan to change America’s nuclear posture from offensive to defensive. His goal was to render the Soviet nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.”…

Inoculation from the Internet: Synthetic biology and the World Wide Web are teaming up to modernize our flu vaccines by Taylor Kubota:

Four years ago, the H1N1 swine flu emerged, launching the United States into its first influenza pandemic in 40 years. By the spring of 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that at least 43 million Americans had been infected with the virus. Even after this landmark flu season ended, its impact inspired Dr. Philip Dormitzer and his colleagues to make some radical changes to the way we create flu vaccines. When the H1N1 season reached its peak in late October of 2009, the vaccines were only just becoming available. In general, vaccines aren’t obtainable until about five or six months after a virus is first identified. Now, Dormizter, the leader of viral research at the private pharmaceutical lab Novartis, is using downloadable DNA sequences and custom-made synthetic viruses to give vaccine production a long-awaited speed boost….

The Sunday morning special: Curing the painful and persistent hangover by Ben Guarino:

The smell of regurgitated margaritas is surprisingly pleasant — the room now has a fresh citrus scent, like a handful of orange Tic Tacs. The rest of your existence, however, is misery. You are enervated, dehydrated and in desperate need of a shower. When you pick up the trash bag filled with taco bits, orange margarita mix and too much tequila, the garbage feels as warm as a suppurating wound. Not for the first time, you promise you’ll drink less in the future. Not for the first time, you wonder what makes hangovers so difficult to get rid of….

Sensing Calories Without Taste by Francie Diep:

Scientists have engineered fruit flies that can’t taste sugar, and, at first, the insects will show no preference between sugar water and plain water. But after 15 hours without food, the flies start to choose the sugar water, seemingly sensing the fact that the liquid contains life-sustaining calories even though they can’t taste anything….

Mapping the Geology of Skyrim by Jane Rob:

If you have been following this project you will know that I am attempting to develop a mod for the popular video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The mod is meant to be educational – but not in a conventional sense. I want people to play it and not feel like they are being forced to learn something, rather for people to play it because they want to and in the process of the game realise that there is something useful here….

Mosquito-borne diseases: Fighting fire with fire by Markus Hammonds:

I have a decidedly “live and let live” approach to life. There are no animals in this world which I harbour any malicious feelings towards, regardless of how many of those animals would think nothing of poisoning, eating, maiming, or otherwise killing me (it’s a tough world out there). No animals, with one exception. I absolutely detest mosquitos – and not irrationally so…

How needing a wee affects your decision making by Neurobonkers:

A couple of years ago Dr Mirjam Tuk won an IgNobel prize for the paper “Inhibitory Spill-Over: Increased Urinating Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains” in Psychological Science. Tuk recently discussed her research at Imperial College Science Festival. You might think that your ability to do a task would be worsened by the feeling of needing to go for a wee, but a look at the evidence suggests the opposite might be the case. I’ll summarise the findings of Tuk’s research below:…

Bioengineers go retro to build a calculator from living cells by Akshat Rathi:

Scientists in the US have developed a calculator from living cells, using old-fashioned analog programming. Their hope is that the technology could be used in the future to program cells to kill cancer….

Misophonia: Enraged by Everyday Sounds by Jordan Gaines:

I consider myself to be a pretty tolerant person. I’ll eat just about any food you place in front of me. I’ll read any book genre. I’ll listen to any musical artist someone plays for me, even if I dislike it. But there’s one teeny little thing you can do around me that will set my teeth on edge. I’ll sit, transfixed, unable to pay attention to the task and hand, my blood boiling and heart racing. I want to run. I want to scream…

Male Black Widows Sniff Out Femme Fatales by Sarah Jane Alger:

Sexual reproduction is a costly affair, but the costs are not usually equal for males and females. Among animals, females generally produce larger gametes (eggs are way bigger than sperm), spend more energy gestating or incubating the young before they are born, and spend more effort caring for the young after they are born. It’s no wonder then that across animal species, females are typically more choosy of who they mate with than males are….

The Science of Earth and the Human Policies that Change It by Charles Ebikeme:

“The science of Earth and the human policies that change it.” This will be the tagline of the new Environment group blog on Scitable. The science is the easy part (he says without a hint of hyperbole). More and more we shall come to learn that the most difficult thing, the most complicated mechanisms, the most complex systems at play, lay quite firmly on the human side. On the human interactions and manipulations of Earth….

Frogs Swallow Using Eyeballs: Exhibit Reveals Creatures’ Quirks by Tanya Lewis:

Neon green, vivid orange, striped and spotted — the frogs are back! An exhibit featuring live frogs from around the world is returning to the American Museum of Natural History here in New York….

An innovative way to aid the uninsured while reducing ER costs by Julianne Wyrick:

In Athens, a city where 35 percent of residents live in poverty, many people can neither afford health insurance premiums nor pay out of pocket for services. As a result, hospital emergency rooms may be the only option that uninsured people see for themselves – even though they may have chronic diseases and not the sudden illnesses or injuries that emergency rooms are meant to handle….



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