Friday, December 30, 2005

Funny Science of 2005

It was a great year for science in 2005, and of course there were a few stories I just didn't get to. So now's a great time for me to end the year with a handful of funny science news that never made it to The Phoenix.

Shattering Spaghetti (September) French physicists have found why uncooked spaghetti can break into three, seven or even ten pieces, but rarely two. It's because of elastic waves travelling along the pasta when dry spaghetti is bent and suddenly released at one end. Try it at home. uncooked spaghetti will almost never break in just two pieces. Leave it to the French to do such useful scientific research! Actually, the researchers think their findings can be applied to civil engineering to make structures like buildings and bridges more stable. The French will begin construction of buildings made from uncooked spaghetti by June of 2006.


Superman in Serbia (August) Serbian authorities are bombarded with reports of a real-life Superman after people claimed to have seen a cloaked figure flying over their houses.
Hundreds of residents in Ljubovija described seeing a cloaked person flying above buildings. One local said: "It was like something out of Superman or Batman. No one has any rational explanation for what we all saw." There haven't been any official conclusions to these reports, but I suspect vodka is somehow related.


Menstruating Boy (June) A Kolkata, India doctor reports that a teenage boy patient of his has been showing symptoms of menstruation. The 15-year-old 'effeminate' boy's bleeding has been occurring in the second week of every month and lasts three days. During the period he experiences stomach aches, cramps, nausea and mood swings. "We examined the boy. Though he has male organs, his behaviour and traits are like a woman," said physician Sudip Mondal.
Question - where does the boy put the tampon?


Spontaneous Toad Combusion (April) Toads were exploding in Germany for weeks. According to reports from animal welfare workers and veterinarians as many as a thousand of the amphibians had perished after their bodies swelled to bursting point and their entrails were propelled for up to a yard or two. According to Werner Smolnik of a nature protection society in Hamburg: "You see the animals crawling on the ground, swelling and then exploding." Scientists finally concluded that crows were to blame, as they learned to peck out a toad's liver. The toad expands, but there's a hole near his abdominal cavity, and the blood vessels and lungs explode. In a related story, Hamburg residents report crows unable to fly because of their fat bellies.


Heart to Heart (February) Heart recipients report strange occurances after surgery. Bill Wohl was a Type-A, overweight, money-obsessed businessman pursuing a jet-setter life - until five years ago, when he got a new heart at Arizona's UMC. Today, at age 58, he works part time and spends most of his new-found energy winning speed and performance medals in swimming, cycling and track. Bill also started charitable foundation. And he surprises himself by crying when he hears Sade, a singer he'd never heard of. When Bill was able to contact the family of his heart donor, he learned his donor was Michael Brady - a stuntman for Universal Studios. Brady was climbing a ladder on top of a train when he fell and died instantly. Brady's parents wrote to Wohl, noting their son had done volunteer work with children and AIDS patients in California. Brady's brother also said the stuntman was a big Sade fan. Twilight zone music playing...


Sarcastic Brain (May) Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that comprehend sarcasm. They found the front of the brain was key to understanding sarcasm. Apparently, my 10th grade chemistry teacher had damage to the front part of his brain. An area called the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex then integrates the literal meaning with the social/emotional context, which will reveal any sarcasm. It seems to me that bloggers have the strongest right ventromedial prefrontal cortexes in the world.


Have a wonderful and safe New Year's everybody. Don't forget to add your extra one second to your New Year's countdown.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Didgeridoo to the Rescue!

Did you know in a study of over 5000 couples dealing with snoring, 80% of them will end up sleeping in separate bedrooms?!

There may be some hope yet for those suffering from this epidemic.

A recent Swiss study has found one possible cure for snoring...the didgeridoo!

What is a didgeridoo? It's an ancient musical instrument, native to Northern Austrailia's aboriginal people. It's made from tree limbs or trunks and hollowed out. The didgeridoo player blows into the instrument, and it produces this rhythmic low-pitched buzzing sound. If you've seen the movie "Crocodile Dundee," you would probably remember the sound of the didgeridoo playing constantly in the background, just to remind us that Paul's Hogan's character is indeed from Austrailia. Interestingly, the didgeridoo plays only one note. Click here to listen to a sample of a didgeridoo (mp3 format).

So what was the Swiss study?

The researchers examined 25 patients who suffered from snoring and moderate sleep apnoea to scientifically assess what impact didgeridoo playing would have on them. Half the group were given daily lessons in playing the Austrailian instrument. After being taught how to place their lips over the instrument and produce a keynote for 20 to 30 seconds, they learned the art of circular breathing. Circular breathing is a technique of inhaling through the nose while maintaining airflow through the instrument, using the cheeks as bellows. It's the same technique jazz musicians utilize while playing the trumpet. The participants had to practice at home for at least 20 minutes on at least five days a week.

I assume getting half nekkid and wearing body paint wasn't part of the didgeridoo experience.

Over a four-month trial period, participants noticed a significant improvement in their daytime sleepiness and sleep apnea. And their partners also reported less disturbance from snoring. The researchers say training the upper airways through the breathing techniques required to play the didgeridoo was behind the improvement.

"Our results may give hope to many people with moderate obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and snoring, as well as their partners," the report's authors said, whose research is being published in the British Medical Journal.

It's an interesting study, and perhaps similar exercises and circular breathing techniques can be developed and employed to help those with snoring and obstructive sleep apnea problems. I've heard rumors that these brillant Swiss researches are working on a new project for 2006:

Playing the Contrabass may help cure erectile dysfunction.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Scent of an Elephant

Thanks goes to Criminally Stoopid blogger, Siren Song for this story idea.

Go Dumbo, it's your birthday...go Dumbo, it's your birthday...

It seems female Asian elephants strongly prefer the smell of a more experienced, older male. According to brand new research by scientists of the Oregon Health and Scinces University, when males enter their period of heightened aggressiveness and sexual activity (called musth), they release a cocktail of pheromones to attract the ladies.

"This study reveals the precision and specificity of inter-animal signaling possible," co-author Dr. L.E.L. "Bets" Rasmussen (pictured right), research professor of environmental and biomolecular systems, OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering, said of the study published in the Dec. 22 edition of the journal Nature. "This is the first example, in mammals, of the use of this very precise signaling and ratio of enantiomers in signaling."

An enantiomer is one of a pair of chemical compounds whose molecular structures are mirror images of each other. Frontalin, a pheromone discharged during musth by male Asian elephants from a temporal gland located between the eye and ear, comes in two forms, each representing one half of the enantiomer pair and identified as either "plus" or "minus."

Adolescent males release more of the "plus" pheromone, adding more "minus" frontalin to the mixture as they age. When Asian males reach 20 years old, they make a perfectly balanced 1:1 ratio of the plus/minus pheromone...and it drives the females wild!

Researches examined ovulating females, and females that were either pregnant or in a non-reproductive "luteal" phase. They also tested young and old males. It found that low concentrations of frontalin, represented when the enantiomer ratio is more "plus" than "minus," was of mild interest to both young and old males, but when the ratio became balanced - equal amounts of plus and minus frontalin - males of all ages, as well as luteal-phase and pregnant females, were repulsed. Only ovulating females were attracted. Yeah baby! The study's results indicate that the ratio of frontalin enantiomers allows other elephants to distinguish both the maturity of male elephants in musth and the phase of musth. To humans, the balanced pheromone isn't so great. Imagine the smell of damp old socks with a hint of ripe ass.

How is this research beneficial? Research on sexual communication among elephants not only sheds light on animal behavior, but also may prove useful for "facilitating mating in livestock, horses, dogs [and other animals] by using odors for the arousal of males at appropriate times in the female cycle," Prestwich of OHSU says. The research contributes to "understanding the basic elements of odor perception in all animals, including humans," he adds.

Rasmussen says that by studying elephants, researchers can better understand how mammals in general utilize sex-attractant pheromones that affect behavior. In Asia, elephants are nortorious for raiding rice crops. Perhaps they will someday be able to devise a method of repelling elephants and prevent crop-raiding.

Also, elephants have matriarchal, multigenerational, stable societies in which 'cultural' information is passed from great-grandmothers to youngsters. Anthropologists and human behaviorists are interested in how elephants and other animals manage their societies so effectively and smoothly.

In the Asian elephant society, it seems the more mature man gets the girl.

Can this information be applied to humans? The study of human pheromones is really in it's infancy, but already we are just beginning to learn how pheromones dictate whom we are attracted to. As far as older male humans getting the girl, I'm not so sure. I think human society is different.

I just don't think the scent of an old man makes women swoon. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the smell of Old Spice mixed with Ben Gay and chili is NOT going to attract the ladies.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Phoenix's Christmas Gift Picks

It's that time of year, and perhaps you've got some last minute gifts to get for your loved ones. Here are just a few unique, interesting, useful, and useless inventions and gadgets that probably isn't on anyone's wishlist.

I'm sure it's every woman's dream to be able to pee standing up. The P-mate allows you ladies to do just that! This is not a really new invention, as Europeans have been using a version of this for years. It's just coming to America this year, and just females can pee their name into the snow this holiday season too.

Nuke Alert
This is no ordinary keychain. After a nuclear or dirty bomb explodes, you want to make sure you're safe from harmful radiation, right? This keychain can alert you to the radiation level in your environment by utilizing a series of chirps to tell you just how dangerous it is. Just make sure not to bring the Nuke Alert with you to Christmas dinner, as the high concentration of methane might set this thing off.

The PetsCell
It's exactly what it sounds like - a cell phone for your dog. You feel guilty spending so much time at work, away from your best friend? You can call your dog's cell phone number, and have an actualy conversation with your doggie. Isn't that great? You can also spy on Fido. If he's destroying your furniture, you can listen firsthand to the sound of ripping upholstry.

Are you like me and have this uncanny ability to strike the snooze button and fall right back into the heavenly abiss called deep sleep...only to find that you've been rapid firing on the snooze 12 times and you're now an hour late for work? Clocky is for you. When clocky's alarm loudly beeps you awake, it suddenly takes off - doing a 'Dukes of Hazzard' leap off your nightstand, and then careens across the room on off-road wheels. You're forced to get your lazy ass out of bed to turn this demon-on-wheels off. I think Clockly looks like a giant loaf of bread with wheels.

Faithful readers of 'The Phoenix' know how interested I am in psychology. Now you too can take psycho-analysis wherever you go. Imagine what a wonderful holiday you could have - big dinner, exchange of presents, and then do Rorchach Ink Blot Personality Tests with the family! What a great way to uncover why Daddy ignores you and why Mommy hates how pretty you are. Move over Freud!

Don't you wish you had telepathy? Don't you wish you were psychic? For those that are not born with the gift of psychic power, now you can have it. Taking this pill will "open the door to your 6th sense." Scientists have found that in animals that have uncanny sensory abilities (i.e. dolphins, homing pigeons), they had a high concentration of micro-bits of magnetite in their bodies. By taking Magneurol6-S, you will increase the levels of magnetite crystals in your body, and thereby make you more senstive to the extraordinary powers of the Earth's electromagnetic forces.

And finally...

The SmartKlamp
The future of delicate surgery is nanotechnology and robotics. Robots controlled by surgeons are beginning to perform procedures, and it seems the future of medicine is robotics. Here's another quantum leap in robotic surgery...the SmartKlamp! Why have a regular doctor or trained rabbi do your circumcision when the SmartKlamp can easily do it for you - with amazing precision and speed. Whether it's a religious purpose or some of you guys out there are tired of your "hood," the SmartKlamp is for you. There is a big market for this product, and I'm sure boys will have no problem sticking their penis inside a plastic tube filled with knives.

Merry Christmas! To those serving our country overseas and their families, may you find yourselves in the arms of your loved ones very very soon.

Best wishes, from The

Friday, December 16, 2005

Luck Be A Lady, Tonight...I Hope

The Journal of Gambling Studies will publish research by Drake University psychology professors that suggests the more mental mistakes gamblers make, the more they bet. In other words, gamblers are often raising the stakes when they really should be taking their money, going home, and paying their mortgage.

Professors W. Scott Wood and Maria Clapham say the two most common cognitive errors are the belief that the player possesses some sort of control over games of chance by their skills or through superstitious influence.

Wood said, "The first belief is an illusion of control. For example, they may believe that if they watch slots closely and see one lose over and over then the machine is 'due' for a payout." Also, the more "skill" the gambler believed was involved, the more the gambler is apt to bet, and continue betting.

In Ellen Langer's "Illusion of Control" study, they noticed gamblers would roll the dice really hard if they needed a high number, and rolled the dice softer if they need a low number. All of these behaviors border on idiotic, and how you throw the dice has nothing to do with the outcome. It's pure probability, but the gambler has this need to feel they have control, and they often believe they have that control.

The Illusion of Control phenomenon is supported by a well known group of misconceptions called The Gambler's Fallacy:

A random event is more likely to occur because it has not happened for a period of time;
A random event is less likely to occur because it has not happened for a period of time;
A random event is more likely to occur because it recently happened; and
A random event is less likely to occur because it recently happened.

Take the coin toss for example, if heads comes up 4 times in a row, people are apt to say, "Tails" because tails is due. This is incorrect, as coin tosses - like gambling - is based on only one thing...probability. Probability, like any math, doesn't bend for anybody. Even if "Daddy needs a new pair of shoes." If the coin comes up heads 100 times in a row, the probablility of it being tails on the next flip is still going to be 50/50.

The second cognitive error is superstition, Wood said. This is a belief that has to do with how lucky you are. Some call it "magical thinking," mojo, karma, or just plain luck. A wiseman once said, "In my experience, there's no such thing as luck" - Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Superstition is a strange thing to discuss, as it makes no sense, yet people hang onto these illogical beliefs. In some forms, the belief you are lucky is a good thing, as it's a form of positive thinking - and there is a correlation between people who feel good fortune continually is bestowed upon them and real success in life.

But when it comes to gambling, there are a couple things to keep in mind:

1) You do NOT have control over the outcome in games of chance, and luck won't make you a winner. It's all based on probability (some games, like Poker, have an element of skill involved). If you win at roulette, for example, the laws of probability say that it was bound to land on Red 33 sometime, and you just happened to have your chips in the "right place at the right time."

2) Overall, the House always wins. The more you play, odds are the more you're going to lose. It's funny how people kid themselves with this fact. You think the House doesn't do well? How do you think the Bellagio paid for that single $500,000 chandelier? Or how do you think Caesar's Palace was able to afford that incredible fountain? It's all built by the gamblers that have paid the price.

3) Numerous studies have shown that there is a correlation between problems in brain chemistry and problems with gambling. "A monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine,” reports Dr. Hans Breiter, MD, Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Center in the Department of Radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Addiction to drugs, food, sex, and gambling all have extremely similar natures, and science is working to discover in detail how all this works and how to help those with addictions.

If you're not addicted to gambling, you'll probably still cling onto one of these cognitive errors anyway. And if you ARE addicted, you're not paying attention to any of this anyway. However, I am one of those that still clings on to the belief in luck, and for those fellow superstitious people out there, here's a list of lucky charms that just might help you win big. Good luck!

From The Gambler's Luck:

alligator tooth
alligator foot
badger tooth
chamomile hand wash
five-finger grass
four-leaf clover
horseshoe plastic key ring from Mexico
Hoyt's Cologne
John the Conqueror root
magnetic sand
mojo bag containg gambler's lucky charms
money bag
money bags on an American charm bracelet
rabbit foot
raccoon penis bone
skull figural candle
skull as gambler's lucky charm
silver dime
slot machine key ring charm

Darnit, I seemed to have misplaced my lucky racoon penis bone.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Insane Video Game in the Membrane

A brain mechanism that links violent video games with aggression has been discovered recently, and now researches are working to see if there's a true relationship between this newly found brain phenomena and violent video games.

Bruce Bartholow (pictured right) and colleagues from the University of Missouri-Columbia have found that people who play violent video games show diminished brain responses to images of real-life violence. Interestingly, participants seemed to only become desensitized to images of true violence, but not other emotionally-charged images such as pictures of dying children.

The brain mechanism is being called the P300 response. It's a measureable signal seen in an EEG (electroencephalogram). "The P300 reflects an evaluation of the emotional content of an image," says Bartholow, "being larger if people are surprised or disturbed by an image."

The study:
The team recruited 39 experienced gamers of varying violent gaming experience. They then showed participants real-life images. Most of these images were considered "control" or neutral images such as a tree. But every once in awhile, researchers inserted violent and negative (but non-violent) scenes, while recording their EEGs.

Scientists found the P300 response within the individuals with the most experience with violent games was smaller and delayed. “People who play a lot of violent video games didn’t see them as much different from neutral,” says Bartholow. They had become desensitised, it seems. That's pretty chilling - the EEG readings when showing a frog on a log and some woman getting her head whacked off were pretty identical??? Wowzers. However, their responses were normal for the negative but non-violent scenes.

“As far as I’m aware, this is the first study to show that exposure to violent games has effects on the brain that predict aggressive behavior,” says Bartholow.

There have been many studies showing that people who play violent video games are more aggressive, more likely to commit violent crimes, and less likely to help others. Does Bartholow's study show this as well? Not really. However, it's a step towards showing a correlation between violent video games and real-life violent tendencies. However, could it be that all the other studies only prove that violent people gravitate towards violent games, not that games can change behavior?

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Modern technology has made video gaming so lifelike, however. More studies will be working to either prove or disprove that these very real games make people more violent. Back in the old days, our video games seem very tame and quite safe for kids. However, upon a closer inspection, perhaps even old school classics could bring out the violent tendencies of any gamer.

Pong: This game is downright ancient. Think about it, though. You've got two little sticks, and only one can win. This little ball is zooming around the screen, and you have to get your "paddle" to deflect the ball. You let the ball go past you, you've lost a point. I remember my palms getting sweaty...heart beat racing when playing pong. This might not be direct violence, per se, but it's a precursor to the future generations of excitement and competition in the video gaming world. This is violent video gaming in its infancy, I tell you!

Donky Kong: Here, you are Mario (an everyday plumber) and you are trying to save Pauline from the evil clutches of Donky Kong, a giant zoo escapee. You run up these different levels while jumping over barrels Donky Kong is hurling towards you. That's pretty violent, wouldn't you say? The barrels smash Mario, or if you do manage to make it to the top, Donky Kong just snatches Pauline and has his way with her, so you've got sexual assault. Geez, what was Nintendo thinking?

Pac-Man: This game seemed innocent enough back in the day - it even spawned a song "Pac-Man Fever" and a Saturday morning cartoon. Here, you are pacman, a big yellow mouth. Your job is to swallow as many pills as you can. Obviously, this game was trying to teach us that taking drugs is good. While you're trying to down as many prescription pills as possible, you've got these four ghosts trying to catch you. The four ghosts are Blinky, Pinky, Inkey, and of course, Clyde. They catch you, they will eat you up. You happen to swallow a super pill, you can eat them up. I'm seeing a cannibalistic message here.

Oh the hummanity!

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Science of Bats and Balls

A study by Dr. Scot Pitnick of Syracruse University has revealed that bats with bigger brains have smaller testicles than bats with small brains.

Isn't science fascinating?

Depending on any of the 300+ species of bats, testicle size in relation to total body weight varies. Testicles can comprise of .12% of body weight, up to a whopping 8.4% of body mass (yellow winged bat). How much wing power is needed to lug those cohones around? Ouch. In comparison, primate testicles only make up between .02% - .75% of total body mass.

Aren't you glad you're reading my blog today?

Here's what Dr. Pitnick (pictured left) and the others found: Bat species where the females were promiscuous, the males had evolved larger testes but had small brains. In species where the females were monogamous, the situation was reversed. Isn't that interesting? The bigger the nuggets, the smaller the noggins.

So why is this true?

Brain tissue and sexual organs require a lot of metabolic energy to produce and maintain. The different species appear to have evolved a preference for developing one organ more than the other, depending on which will help them produce more offspring. This does make sense. If the female is promiscuous, male bats will have to produce more sperm in order to compete with other male bats. It's one big competition to fertilize the female's egg. “And this may be especially true in some species of bats where the females store sperm for several months,” reports Dr. Pitnick.

So what about the monogamous bats? Pitnick and his colleagues had erroneously predicted that in a species with promiscuous females, males would require bigger brains in order avoid being cuckolded. They were surprised to find the opposite was true. Does having a bigger brain help the monogamous bat produce more offspring with his female companion? Maybe.

Perhaps being faithful just takes more brainpower.

This study is bad news for perhaps the smartest bat in the entire universe...

Holy tiny testicles, Batman!

Friday, December 9, 2005

"Talk to me Goose, talk to me!"

Rat brains fly jet!

Alright, not really...but almost, sort of.

Thomas DeMarse, 37, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida, has been working on training Petri dish-grown rat brains to fly an F-22 fighter jet simulator.


DeMarse and his fellow university scientists first grew a rat brain by extracting neurons from a rat embryo. The neurons then mulitply, and voila, soon you have 25,000 neural cells ready to take on Iceman and win the Top Gun competition, right? Not quite. They keep the rat neurons in a Petri dish with special liquid to keep the neurons alive. Soon, the neurons clump together, form neural networks, and become a real working mini-brain.

The 25,000 cells are on top of a grid of 60 electrodes inside the dish. "These electrodes allow us to literally listen to the 'conversations' among the neurons to find out how they are computing," DeMarse said (pictured right with one of his rat brain dishes). "By sending in [electronic] pulses to each electrode, we can also stimulate the network in 60 different locations."

DeMarse then connected the rat brain to a jet flight simulator via the electrode grid and a regular 'ol desktop computer. They activated the brain, turned on the flight simulator, and let the rat noggin do the rest. I feel the need for speed! And some cheese!

How well did the brain do?

"When we first hooked them up, the plane 'crashed' all the time," Dr DeMarse said. "But over time, the neural network slowly adapts as the brain learns to control the pitch and roll of the aircraft. After a while, it produces a nice straight and level trajectory." The brain even learned how to keep the jet fighter straight in mock hurricane force winds.

Does this freak anybody else out???

So what's the purpose of such experiements? Are we going to crush Iran with a squad of rat brains or something?

"We're hoping to find out exactly how the neurons do what they do and extract those rules and apply them in software or hardware for novel types of computing," DeMarse said. In other words, this research could possibly lead to the creation of sophisticated, real thinking computers. Imagine - a computer that could actually think, be creative, and be flexible enough to figure out more complex and open-ended problems. Even the most powerful computer lacking the ability to "think outside the box" wouldn't know the differnce between a dog or a cat if it had no previous knowledge of either. Giving a computer a "biological" component would enable it to figure it out. This type of thinking is what we humans take for granted, but it's currently impossible for a computer to do.

Of course the research has military implications. One day, they could install living computers in unmanned aircraft so they can be deployed on missions too dangerous for humans. This work also has medical breakthrough potential as well. Studying the nature of neurons might provide the basis for developing new drugs to treat brain diseases such as epilepsy.

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded DeMarse and his group a $500,000 grant to produce a mathematical model of how the neurons compute, and the U.S. National Institute of Health is financing research into epilepsy.

I see a lot of potential benefits from this research, but I can't help but wonder about the inherent risks involved. What if we take the next step and see if lab-grown brains can fly a real jet? I think that would be very dangerous. It could put thousands of pilots out of a job. What about the creation of thinking and self-aware computers? They could enslave humankind and take over the world! OK, sorry...I must be paranoid.

How dangerous could self-aware, living computers be? Seems harmless to me.

Or maybe not...