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Bora’s Picks (August 9th, 2013)

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


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Eyes Wide Shut by Rebecca Schwarzlose:

In the middle of the 20th century, experimental psychologists began to notice a strange interaction between human vision and time. If they showed people flashes of light close together in time, subjects experienced the flashes as if they all occurred simultaneously. When they asked people to detect faint images, the speed of their subjects’ responses waxed and waned according to a mysterious but predictable rhythm. Taken together, the results pointed to one conclusion: that human vision operates within a particular time window – about 100 milliseconds, or one-tenth of a second….

Hibernating Bears Run Hotter and Cleaner While Pregnant by Anne-Marie Hodge:

When it comes to feats of physiology, bears are among the superstars of the mammalian world. Their endurance is legendary. During hibernation, bears regularly survive up to six full months without consuming any food at all. Hibernating bears reduce their heart rates by over 80% and decrease their metabolic rates by 50-75%, yet they actually remain conscious during this time (Laske et al. 2010; Tøien et al. 2011). Bears also manage to avoid muscle atrophy and loss of bone density, despite remaining immobile for nearly half the year. If being a couch potato were a sport, bears would dominate the hall of fame….

Abusive mothers’ DNA and the economy could share the blame with Florida DCF for recent child deaths by Rebecca Burton:

The Florida Department of Children and Families has been under fire for the past couple of years for failing to stop child abuse and neglect, resulting in the deaths of seven children who the department said were in “no immediate danger.”….

Tardigrade: Hardiest Critter on Earth by Paige Brown:

Meet the Tardigrade. This microscopic, multi-celled invertebrate animal, also known as a water bear or moss piglet, has been launched into space on projects to see how spaceflight affects organisms on the molecular level. Famous for being a polyextremophile, the water bear has been reported to live more than 100 years without food and water, by assuming a dehydrated, hibernation-like state called cryptobiosis….

Superbugs vs maths: finding the path of least drug resistance by Adam Kucharski:

In a recently held poll, the Medical Research Council asked two questions. First, what medical advance from the past century has had the greatest impact? Responses ranged from MRI scanners and genome sequencing, but a good heap of the praise went to antibiotics. This is understandable, given how well drugs like penicillin have battered diseases like tuberculosis….

Why Scientists are Replacing Extinct Tortoises with Living Species by Erin M. Weeks:

Homo sapiens has a pretty spotty record when it comes to conserving the planet’s largest animals. In the geologic blink that it’s taken mankind to spread across the globe, a pattern has emerged: where humans dispersed out of Africa, there often followed crashes of megafauna. Scientists quarrel over the precise role of human hunting, habitat change, and climate change in each extinction event, but the phenomenon is well-studied and especially apparent in the Americas, Australia, and on islands. In the past 50,000 years, for example, over 70 percent of America’s largest species went extinct. The mammoths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, van-sized ground sloths and armadillos that humans first encountered in North America—all of these disappeared shortly after the arrival of Paleoindians….

Surprising brain scan of individual “living” with Walking Corpse Syndrome by Caitlin Kirkwood:

Graham spent his time at the graveyard. His visits would last so long that the local police would find him there, among the gravestones, and bring him back home. He had been suffering from severe depression and several months prior attempted suicide by bringing an electrical appliance into the bath. Graham believed that his brain was dead. He felt he had fried it in the bath. Now living a sort of half-life, stuck between being alive but having a dead brain, Graham’s trips to the cemetery served as the closest connection he could make with death….

Electric Lights Alter Daily Rhythms by Kate Yandell:

Long-term exposure to electric lighting has fundamentally altered humans’ circadian rhythms, according to a study published in Current Biology last week (August 1). But a week camping away from electric lights swiftly reset eight study participants’ circadian clocks….

Revolution in a Cake Factory by Tania Browne:

This year is a special anniversary for anyone interested in health care. Twenty years ago, in a former cake factory in a rather unlovely part of Oxford, 80 or so people gathered from around the world to devise a polite revolution. None of them knew exactly why they had been invited, what they were doing and how far their idea would go, but the organisation they formed in October 1993 is now synonymous with the topic of the third in our series on reviews – meta-analysis. The name they chose for themselves was The Cochrane Collaboration….

Whether e-cigarettes are a good idea remains a question by Jessica M. Morrison:

Electronic cigarettes – embraced by users as a healthy alternative to smoking or a good way to quit – are picking up steam. There’s little research on how safe they might be or whether they’re an effective strategy for kicking the habit, but more people are giving e-cigarettes a try everyday….

Bioplastics: Not all Plastics are Created Equal by Paige Brown:

In No Impact Man, a book about living eco-effectively by Colin Beavan, the author refused to buy water in plastic bottles in order to save waste and minimize his use of a product (plastic) that is usually derived from fossil-fuel sources. And while his article on 42 Ways to Not Make Trash recently inspired me to buy a reusable shopping bag from Whole Foods, begin drinking coffee ‘in’ at my local coffee shop (not Starbucks) when I can, and use a Brita filter instead of buying water in plastic bottles, many of his tips seem extremely inconvenient and discouragingly hard to turn into ‘good habits’ for the rest of us….

Machiavelli’s guide to conference poster design by Jaydeep Bardhan:

…Every visitor to your poster expects to have to accept something _else_ in addition to what they really want. Drive a hard bargain—give them what they want, but work to make sure they walk away with your message as well….

The Price of Anarchy: How Contagion Spreads by Tanya Lewis:

During infectious disease outbreaks, personal freedom comes at a price: the welfare of the public as a whole, a new study finds. In the research, scientists investigated whether, in the event of an outbreak, people should be allowed to move about freely or if authorities should enforce travel restrictions to halt the disease’s spread….

Supercomputers and Ice Cream… by David Ozog:

After telling many of my friends what I do on a day-to-day basis (parallel computing, essentially), I find many of them ask me why we need supercomputers in the first place. It can be hard to think of reasons they actually care about, though I think they should absolutely care about things like accurate climate simulation, nuclear reactor modeling, new materials research, drug design, etc… but we all know that over a few beers people rarely want to talk about that stuff unless they’re scientists or generally quite nerdy. So I was thinking the example shown in this video might be a particularly funny and interesting to talk about with anybody, though I’m worried the study could possibly be dubious and unfounded:…

What Science Tells Us About Adventure by Leslie Baehr:

Some go to therapy. Some blog. Others drink. Everyone’s got a different method for dealing with the bigger queries in life. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s that smell? For geeks like me—and probably you if you are reading this—we turn to science. Of course, it can’t answer everything, but I have found a lot of insight and comfort in the pages of scientific journals. I think every geek, and surely every science writer, has those topics they stalk, waiting for the next new study to come out. For me, that’s exploration, adventure and travel….

Leaders, fliers and foragers: the politics of being a pigeon by William Feeney:

One of nature’s most fascinating phenomena is the collective behaviour of animals. A shoal of fish, a swarm of locusts, and a colony of ants can all act as superorganisms, where the group as a whole makes collective decisions….

Explaining what I do to others: The trials and tribulations of a computational scientist by Josh Vermaas:

In the life of any scientist, there is a question that lurks in the back of their mind, one that causes more sleepless nights than any other. The question is simple, straightforward, and for some people, significantly easier to answer than for others. The answer dictates funding opportunities, job prospects, and how popular a scientist is at parties. What is this magical question? “How do I explain my science to my mother?”…

Nutrients in the Ocean: Why More is not Always Better by Jessica Carilli:

Ok, so I tried an açaí bowl. Açaí is one of the so-called “superfoods” that are highly nutritious and popular in health-obsessed places like southern California. But it comes all the way from the Amazon in a lot of plastic packaging, and there are some concerns over whether rainforest is indeed being preserved because of the new açaí economy, or turning into a rainforest monoculture. Also, just because something – like antioxidants, vitamins, or oxygen – is healthy/required for survival at a certain dose doesn’t mean it can’t be toxic at higher levels or in certain situations. …

Tools you can’t buy at Home Depot by Devin Matthews:

Sometimes, having the right tools can make all the difference. Of course, I’m not the first person to have this brilliant insight, but where it gets interesting is when those tools that you so dearly need don’t exist. Furthermore, you may not even realize that that particular tool (or any tool) would make your life so much better….

Marina Abramovic wants you to drive with your mind by Aviva Hope Rutkin:

Marina Abramovic, the “grandmother of performance art,” launched a Kickstarter today for the Marina Abramovic Institute. She says the Institute will be a hub for workshops, exhibits, lectures, artistic archives… and something called the “compatibility racer.”…

On Ångstroms and Femtoseconds: Ångstroms by Ahmed Ismail:

The title of this blog comes from the fundamental length and time scales that drive processes at a molecular scale. But what is an ångstrom and a femtosecond? How do we make sense of such small objects (and they really are very, very small!)?…

On Ångstroms and Femtoseconds: Femtoseconds by Ahmed Ismail:

In the previous post, we discussed what exactly an ångstrom is. The other part of the title is “femtoseconds.” But what are those? The prefix femto represents 10-15, so a femtosecond is one-millionth of a nanosecond. That’s a really, really short time interval, and is just about the shortest amount of time that has any real physical significance, unless you’re studying the Big Bang….

What’s for dinner? Island fish, brah: Study shows Hawaiian restaurant menus hold clues to reef health by Rebecca Burton:

Most of us look at menus simply to make a quick decision about what we are going to consume in the near future and at what price. We then give it back to our server and the menu is most likely forgotten. But, some people may ask to take home a menu to remember their stay at a special place, such as the islands of the Aloha state. Scientists from Duke University, Stanford University and Colby College in Maine are using menus from Hawaiian seafood restaurants to look at changes in Pacific Ocean fisheries. The menus were collected mostly from tourists who kept them as keepsakes….

Citizen Science Takes Flight: Benefits and Challenges in Data Collection by Kate Whittington:

The sun was blazing and the air was alive with insects when I visited a local nature reserve a couple of weeks ago in search of Chalkhill blue butterflies. My uncle had been there a week before and returned with tales of vast clouds of butterflies, claiming you could barely place one foot in front of the other for fear of treading on one! My uncle’s not one to exaggerate but even I had my doubts as to whether this could be true. Due to last year’s wet summer, and this year’s uncharacteristically cold spring in the UK, butterflies here are at an “historic low”. But I went along anyway, camera in hand, hoping to glimpse at least a handful of Chalkhill blues – a beautiful, iconic species of chalky grasslands – and I wasn’t disappointed…

This is a Hyrax. by Victor Minden:

For the past few days, I’ve been in D.C. (woo!) for the Department of Energy / Krell Institute Computational Science Graduate Fellowship summer conference (double woo!). The conference is designed as a place for those of us studying the interplay of cool science with big computers to talk about our current research and hobnob with DOE lab staff and folks on “The Hill”, which usually involves a fair number of TED-like, big picture presentations on modern science mixed with detailed in-jokes about the various going-ons in the scientific community and a civics lesson for the less governmentally-minded of us. One talk in particular from yesterday’s agenda drew my attention, due in no small part to the number of furry animal photos on the presentation slides (cf. Hyrax). This was Edward “Danger” Baskerville‘s summary of his PhD research thus far in ecology, which is a field I know very little about and thus am not qualified to discuss in a scientific manner….

ABHhealth: Search for doctors to join network gets underway by Katie Ball:

In a few months, Allie Chambers and Tracy Thompson will begin paying visits to physicians in the Athens area to try and sell an idea. They will be asking family doctors, internists, obstetricians, gynecologists and a host of specialists to join a bold effort aimed at making health care affordable for some of Clarke County’s 22,000 uninsured residents….

Xenoplague by Aurora Pribram-Jones:

I said in my first post that I’d talk more about density functional theory, which was likely a huge underestimate, since it is, essentially, my intellectual life for this particular six-year moment in time. We folks that work on density functional theory, as well its many, many thousands of users, call it DFT….

Parthenogenesis: A Primer by Alison Bruzek:

It’s late. Late enough that the neighbors in their multi-colored apartments have dimmed their living room lights, including the friendly man across the way who wheels his motorcycle out on weekend afternoons to impress the pedestrian traffic….

Are two heads better than one? The psychology of Pacific Rim by Pete Etchells:

What is it like to be a bat? That was the question posed in 1974 by the noted American philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel argued that if you were somehow able to transport yourself into the mind of a bat, you still wouldn’t really know what it’s like to be a bat; you would only have the experience of being a person inside the mind of one. Essentially, Nagel’s arguments rest on the fact that we don’t yet fully understand what consciousness is, and perhaps we never will….

Bacteria could shed light on how financial markets work by Josephine Lethbridge:

What do bankers and bacteria have in common? Finite resources, quick decision-making and an appreciation of trade-offs, according to a study in Ecology Letters. So could bacterial modelling ever help us avoid another banking crash?…

What makes a Snake Byte so dangerous? by Sci Bytes:

This morning, while I was gardening, I had a scary encounter. There, buried in the dark green grass, was a humongous, bright red and beige snake. Of course, my view of the snake was pretty subjective. Being afraid of snakes, I imagined the 1-foot reptile to be Godzilla reincarnated. After I got over my reaction (or overreaction), I began to wonder what it was that makes snakes so frightening, realizing that it was their toxic venom. What would have happened if that snake had bitten me? Would I have shriveled up into a raison? Would I have died instantly? After some research, I was able to learn a lot of great information about snake venom, how it is used, and the different types. …

Usernames are people, too by Aviva Hope Rutkin:

If you haven’t read Ernest Cline’s fantastic sci-fi novel Ready Player One yet, hang in here for one hot second while I explain it to you:

It’s the year 2044. The vast majority of human interaction takes place inside a lush virtual reality called the OASIS.1 OASIS is essentially a cross between the internet and the most souped-up haptic multiplayer video game that you can imagine. Every day, millions of people log onto OASIS and become their online alter-egos. You could conceivably go to school, get a job, shop, make friends, go out — all under the guise of the username you’ve selected, your appearance a carefully chosen mass of pixels on everyone’s screen.





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