Among the most frightening developments in a world full of bad news at the moment: Ebola is running rampant through West Africa, and has reached both Freetown and Lagos, Africa’s largest city (where it was hopefully and quickly contained.) “This epidemic…can only get worse, because it is still spreading, above all in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in some very important hotspots,’ Janssens said…’we have never known such an epidemic.’”
Still, before you seal the locks on the underground shelter, the general scientific consensus seems to be that, even if the virus does reach here by plane — and it may well — ebola isn’t influenza circa 1918: “This is not a highly transmissible disease, where the number of people who can be infected by a single individual is high. You have to come into very close contact with blood, organs, or bodily fluids of infected animals, including people. If you educate people properly and isolate those who are potentially infected, it should be something you can bring under control.”
Also, as far as deadly mutations go, ebola “kill[s] so quickly that I don’t envision there’s going to be a major shift in transmission.” Some small comfort…unless, of course, you’re infected. As it is, per The Onion, a vaccine is “at least 50 white people“ away.
As written up by Aatish Bhatia at Wired, the winners of Princeton’s annual Art of Science competition are announced. “Among the entries are some wonderful ‘oops’ moments, where an experiment goes beautifully wrong, revealing art where you might not have expected to see it…But most of these submissions aren’t accidents. Many of these pieces reveal form, structure, and beauty hidden at a scale that our eyes can’t perceive.”
In an impressive breakthrough, biologists successfully expand the genetic alphabet of a living organism from four to six, opening up all kinds of possibilities for everything from pharmaceuticals to new life. “‘This is a very major accomplishment in our efforts to inch towards a synthetic biology,’ says Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution who was not involved in the study. ‘Many in the broader community thought that Floyd’s result would be impossible to achieve.’”
Sorry, Lenny: A new study finds a potentially problematic issue for decades of research: Mice are scared of men (or males of any species). ‘If you’re doing a liver cell study, the cells came from a rat that was sacrificed either by a man or a woman,’ Mogil says. As a result, ‘its stress levels would be in very different states.’ This, he says, could have an effect on the functioning of the liver cell in that later experiment.”
In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal unearths the amazing secrets, and industry, surrounding horseshoe crab blood. “The thing about the blood that everyone notices first: It’s blue, baby blue…The iron-based, oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules in our blood give it that red color; the copper-based, oxygen-carrying hemocyanin molecules in theirs make it baby blue.”
A glimpse of the future: A Penn State team manage to insert synthetic nanomotors into living cells for the first time. “We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs noninvasively to living tissues.”
In a long piece at The Atlantic, Robert Wright ponders recent arguments about the biological basis of morality. “If Greene thinks that getting people to couch their moral arguments in a highly reasonable language will make them highly reasonable, I think he’s underestimating the cleverness and ruthlessness with which our inner animals pursue natural selection’s agenda. We seem designed to twist moral discourse — whatever language it’s framed in — to selfish or tribal ends, and to remain conveniently unaware of the twisting.”
Some good news for a change, by way of Dangerous Meta: Scientists have developed (for mice, at least) what appears to be a breakthrough drug that could prevent Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s(!):
“When a virus hijacks a brain cell it leads to a build-up of viral proteins. Cells respond by shutting down nearly all protein production in order to halt the virus’s spread. However, many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of faulty or ‘misfolded’ proteins. These activate the same defences, but with more severe consequences…The researchers used a compound which prevented those defence mechanisms kicking in and in turn halted neurodegeneration.”
And now, IT HAS A FACE. Scientists program an old-timey robot to dramatize the electrical signals emanating from slime mold. In a 100,000 years, this is going to seem like one of those Skynet-level bad ideas. And the hat is particularly creepy touch — Very Something Wicked This Way Comes.
More Science of Sleep: In Scientific American, two Italian academics put forward their “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” (SHY) of slumber, whereby the brain weakens (not strengthens, as is usually assumed) synaptic links overnight. “In principle, SHY explains the essential, universal purpose of sleep…sleep restores the brain to a state where it can learn and adapt when we are awake…Most generally, sleep is the price we pay for the brain’s plasticity — its ability to modify its wiring in response to experience.”
Also part of SHY: the idea of “local sleep”: “Recently we have even found that prolonged or intense use of certain circuits can make local groups of neurons ‘fall asleep’ even though the rest of the brain (and the organism itself) remains awake…It seems that when we have been awake for too long or have overexerted certain circuits, small chunks of the brain may take quick naps without giving notice.” I believe in Internet parlance this is known as “haz-ing the dumb.”
Better living through chemistry: The NYT’s Gretchen Reynolds touts the potential medical benefits of caffeine addiction. “Participants with little or no caffeine circulating in their bloodstreams were far more likely to have progressed to full-blown Alzheimer’s than those whose blood indicated they’d had about three cups’ worth of caffeine.” Factor in all the taurine I consume to boot, and I’m disco.
To complement Calvinism: The NYT lays out a seven-minute workout that might actually work. “The exercises should be performed in rapid succession, allowing 30 seconds for each, while, throughout, the intensity hovers at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10…Those seven minutes should be, in a word, unpleasant.”
To kick off his new Slate column “Anything Once,” friend Seth Stevenson finds himself reveling in the sensation of sensory deprivation. “I emerged in a profound daze. I spoke slowly and quietly, like a smooth-jazz DJ, to the person at the spa desk who inquired how my session had gone. I felt more rested than if I’d slept for 16 hours on a pile of tranquilized chinchillas. Outside, colors were saturated; sounds were vivid. I had to try this again, as soon as possible.”
An online Harvard experiment tries to guess your age by evaluating your mouse-clicking ability. Hard to say how good it is, really. It deemed me thirty — eight years too young — but then again, with blogging and gaming both ranking high among the extra-curriculars, I probably use a mouse more than most people too.
A troubling GIF captures twenty-five years of expanding waistlines in America. “Meanwhile, through 2012, no state has met the CDC’s nationwide goal to reduce obesity to 15 percent.” Update: The states behind the curve? Everyone could be lying.
When you’re lying awake at night, it’s alright: BBC’s Stephanie Hegarty delves into pre-industrial sleep habits and discovers that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep may be a recent invention. “Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. ‘It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,’ Ekirch says.”
Happiness where are you? I’ve searched so long for you. A statistical analysis of states’ relative happiness, as determined by tweets. (Red states above are happy, blue states are not.) David Simon is 2-for-2: Next to the mouth of the Mississippi, the Maryland-Delaware area is apparently the saddest in the nation. Perhaps due to proximity to Washington DC? Definitely maybe.
In probably related news, a different map of the United States shows the most popular places cited in Craigslist’s Missed Connections. “The most popular place to spot potential love in Texas, New Mexico, Missouri, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida? Wal-Mart.”
Of course, this begs the question: Do people actually ever meet up on Missed Connections? Every time I’ve perused them, that section is overwhelmingly the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, just damaged, lovelorn people sending out messages in a bottle to lost exes who are actively ignoring them.
President Obama makes the case for federal investment in the Brain Activity Map Project. (You heard it here first, tinfoil hat people. The tyranny of the Kenyan socialist will not stop at your precious bodily fluids — He’s going to read your brainwaves too!) Seriously, though, investing in basic scientific research like this is, er, a no-brainer. It creates jobs while advancing the frontiers of human knowledge in all kinds of unanticipated ways. We’d be stupid not to support this — which means, of course, the jury’s still out on whether we will.
Update: “BAM is an acronym you’ll probably be hearing a lot in the weeks and months to come — so let’s talk about what the BAM project is, what it isn’t, and why it’s raising both interest and eyebrows throughout the scientific community.” Io9 has more.
A novel path of brain research suggests our immune system may play a key role in determining intelligence. “The same T cells that protect the brain from inflammation also work to keep us sharp; and in what appears to be a feedback loop, the mere act of learning reinforces the effect.”
Also in decoding-the-brain news, Japanese scientists visually capture the creation of a zebrafish’s thought. “[W]e shouldn’t play this down: this is a fundamental leap forward in our understanding of how brains work.”
“‘We don’t know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety, or if it’s that people who are depressed and anxious are turning to media multitasking as a form of distraction from their problems,’ Becker said in a statement.”
And here I thought Netflix and Warcraft went so well together: A new Michigan State study finds a correlation between depression and multi-tasking media. I wonder if the obverse is true also. One of the many reasons I love seeing a movie in the theater is that (ideally) nothing else but the film is impinging on my attention.
“‘The work shows that processes like placebo and nocebo happen without us being aware of the cues that trigger them,’ said Jensen. ‘We get these responses due to associative learning. We don’t need somebody standing there saying ‘ok, now you will feel less pain’. It’s being elicited naturally, and without us being aware, all the time.’“
A new study finds that subliminal cues help create the placebo effect (and its opposite, the “nocebo effect”)…although, reading the overview of the experiment here, the conclusion sounds more like: People will subliminally recoil from bad things that happen to them.
Developmental psychiatrist Nancy Maurer discusses her findings that playing first-person-shooters helps people born with cataracts to improve their vision. “I’m a reader. My husband and I don’t have children. So computer games wouldn’t be a part of our lives. I’ve never played one. I can’t imagine enjoying playing one.“
By way of Dangerous Meta, researchers figure out a way to manufacture embryonic stem cells without an embryo, thus clearing the path for future research in that direction unhampered by abortion politics. “The discovery could be the key to cure the incurable – from heart attacks to severed spinal cord to cancer—and open the door, some day, to eternal youth.“
To me, children of the atom: A scientific study suggests that progeny of older men are more prone to mutations like autism, schizophrenia, telekinesis, and whatnot. “A man aged 29.7 at the time he fathered a child contributed 63 new mutations on average to his offspring, the authors found, and a man aged 46.2 contributed 126 mutations — a doubling, the authors calculated.” My biological clock is ticking like this…
In their very first month back in power, Paul Ryan, Akin and the gang — 225 Members, in fact — were trying to define rape down — “House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed [it] a top priority in the new Congress.” — and that bill passed the House(!)
Yes, today’s Democrats have their own serious problems — our leaders prostrate themselves before the phantom deficit gods, look the other way on Wall Street malfeasance, and have been actively terrible on the civil liberties front, and our policy playbook (individual mandate, cap-and-trade) has too often been cribbed from the Republicans of the ’90s. But it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. Akin is not an aberration in the GOP — He’s the new normal. Not that anyone who comes around here still does this sort of thing, but if you vote Republican, have no illusions about what you are doing: Ayn Rand and Akinism is basically what you’re voting for. Seriously, these guys are cray-cray.
(By the way, the great facehugger pic above is from From Talking to Doctors — worth checking out.)
Less adventurous and more satisfying in its storytelling than Soderbergh’s last major film, 2009′s The Informant!, Contagion basically applies the Traffic technique of several separate, loosely interweaving tales told around the globe (albeit this time with a more subdued color palette) to spin a harrowing chronicle of a possible pandemic. The main reason the film works so well is because Contagion is actually not the end-of-times pestilence thriller the (spoilerish) trailers make it out to be. Rather, and much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s mainly a smart, well-told procedural, and it’s the grounded, matter-of-factness of Contagion that ultimately makes it so frightening.
Contagion telegraphs its unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach to the story in the first five minutes, when, after returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Macau (and a brief layover in Chicago), Gwyneth Paltrow starts having trouble breathing and [minor spoiler] promptly drops dead. Soon, her family (including a low-key, earnest Matt Damon) are in quarantine, and the CDC Director in Atlanta (Lawrence Fishburne) has dispatched an epidemiologist (Kate Winslet) to coordinate with local officials on plans for a possible outbreak. (FWIW, the Minnesota Department of Health is not amused with the film.) But, unfortunately for the world, the barn door is already open: This new MERS-1 virus — part-bat, part-pig — has already been unleashed, and not just in Minneapolis, but in cities all over. (Turns out, Oceans 14 in Macau was a terrible idea.)
As the situation worsens around the world, we start following more individuals on the frontlines in various locales: A CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure for this new plague. An academic biologist (Elliot Gould) trying to isolate the virus in San Francisco. A WHO official (Marion Cotillard) and Chinese doctor (Chin Han) looking to discover who was Patient Zero in Macau. Two homeland security suits (Brian Cranston and Enrico Colatoni) sent to determine if this is the work of the terr’ists. A blogger (Jude Law) firmly convinced of government conspiracies and homeopathic wonders. And all the while, even as secrets pass from person to person and fear mutates into panic, the virus continues to spread. Ain’t no Patrick Dempsey monkey gonna solve this one, I’m afraid.
There’re plenty of stars and recognizable faces flitting about this story — some have more to do than others. (The Cotillard subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me, to be honest, and the Jude Law one is basically just an extended screw-you to the vaccines-cause-autism crowd.) But, as I said, Contagion‘s killer app is its versimilitude. The movie never talks down to its audience, or has its scientists repeating expository information over and over again. (For example, it explains once what a “R-naught” is and assumes you can keep up from there.) It doesn’t have scientists (or Matt Damon, for that matter) running around trying to catch infected monkeys with helicopters — The excitement mostly comes from watching scientists and bureaucrats do their job well. And I liked the fact that, even though no one is safe here, Contagion doesn’t feature some kind of sci-fi-ish, humanity-obliterating virus. It’s a nasty bug with, iirc, a 25% fatality rate — In other words, a more virulent version of the 1918 influenza epidemic — making the story that much more plausible, and scary.
Speaking of scary, I should say that, back in the real world, I’m a pretty sanguine sort about germs, and so I found Contagion more unsettling than anything else. But if you’re at all of the germophobe persuasion, hoo boy — You’re going to have a tough time at this one. From infecteds hacking up a lung on a public bus, to waiters wiping down bar glasses with a dirty rag, to people endlessly and unconsciously touching rails, bannisters, buttons, and each other, Soderbergh does a great job here of intimating that human beings inadvertently leave a slime trail of germy death wherever we go — not the least in movie theaters, exactly like the one you’re sitting in. Point being, [cough, cough], OCD-ish folks will probably want to Netflix this one, instead.
On the subject of HIV, it looks like the enemy of our enemy is our friend: In a stunning feat of gene therapy, scientists have used a disabled version of HIV to successfully defeat leukemia. “Mr. Ludwig’s doctors have not claimed that he is cured — it is too soon to tell — nor have they declared victory over leukemia on the basis of this experiment, which involved only three patients…But scientists say [this] may signify a turning point in the long struggle to develop effective gene therapies against cancer…In essence, the team is using gene therapy to accomplish something that researchers have hoped to do for decades: train a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.”