Weird Science in the News 190531

We haven’t done one of these posts yet this year. Below are several current news stories about weird science to entertain, educate, and inspire.


Researchers suggest that most of the solar system should be a protected wilderness, with one-eighth left for “mining and resource exploitation” (says Universe Today).

Air conditioner ‘in a patch’ provides portable cooling for personal use (says Nature).

Rescue ants “save the day for comrades” entangled in spider silk (says Nature).

Molecular cells in humans “‘hear’ messages with help from shape-shifting molecules” (says Nature).

Quadratic voting is “a new way of voting that makes zealotry expensive” in Colorado (says Bloomberg).

A type of popular polling indicates that up to six (6) percent of Americans claim to have experienced an alien abduction. “Space aliens are breeding with humans, university instructor says. Scientists say otherwise” (reports NBC News). This is perhaps because aliens replaced fairies (NY Times “Opinion”) as the distant Other in many Western cultures.


Weird enough for you? What else have you seen in science news of interest?

Urban natural setting

Weird Science in the News – 180818

This post starts with a warning. It’s a little depressing. Heavy, even.

I actually meant to publish it weeks ago but didn’t thinking about adults insulting infants, mass extinction, and animals stuffing their homes with human trash, and that only covers half of the topic!

Well, we are at Shadows in Mind. Here are the type of cold shadows that creep across your room in the nighttime.

Test Tube Babies

This first is a nod to what was considered weird when I was a child. The general public had not yet accepted the concept of “test tubes babies”. Forty years after the first in vitro fertilization, people continue to worry about what will come of the technology other than viable human children.

Human Privilege

Graph: The mass of living things on Earth. Humans account for just 0.06 of the 550 gigatons of carbon mass on the planet. The majority is made up of plants..
Photo by Elijah Wolfson

A study recently published in the United States’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) determined that out of the 550 gigatons of carbon in Earth’s known life, humanity makes up a tiny 0.01%. Another interesting finding was that the biomass of domesticated animals surpasses that of wild mammals and birds. Quartz reports that the study also shows human civilizations have drastically destroyed the world’s wildlife.

As an aside, I’ll share that the “scientists stumbled upon a plastic-eating bacterium—then accidentally made it stronger” (said PopSci in April). Apparently, humans impact the diets of the world’s life, as well.

Evolution Within Human Cities

Urban natural setting
© DadionHenrique

Even if we don’t weigh much, humans take up too much space. Wildlife has to coexist with us. However, I’ve noticed people are often surprised to learn how much wildlife exists within their cities.

The Guardian‘s “Darwin Comes to Town: How Cities Are Creating New Species” provides examples of non-humans adapting their behaviors to life in human-made cities.

  • Japanese crows using passing traffic to crack nuts
  • Tits (songbirds) in the United Kingdom opening milk bottle tops
  • Spiders in Austria known for weaving webs in darkness moving to sections of a bridge lit with fluorescent tubes to catch more prey
  • House sparrows and finches (birds) in Mexico using cigarette butts in their nests

What’s surprising more scientists is how animals adapt physically to our behavior.

The impact of cities is not just evident in the behaviour of animals – urbanisation has also changed the course of animal evolution.

In way, this is good news. While humans are destroying the diversity of complex life, fast evolution ensures that animals carry on beside us.

Jupiter’s Family is Larger than We Thought

Here’s silly news about the diversity of planets.

Astronomers looking for the mysterious Planet Nine discovered instead twelve more moons around Jupiter. One of the new satellites goes in the same direction of Jupiter’s spin, making it an oddball among the scores of other moons around the planet.

Image of Jupiter from a moon's mountain range
The gas giant Jupiter from a moon (artist’s rendering) © AlexAntropov86

Cars and Carbon Dioxide

Imagine converting carbon dioxide, which is the toxic, climate-changing gas we and many species on this planet exhale, into affordable gasoline.

Scientists have been working on converting air to gasoline for decades. (I hadn’t known that!) Now, the conversion not only looks possible, but a Canadian company called Carbon Engineering says air-produced fuels can be affordable.

CE’s engineering work shows that AIR TO FUELS™ technology can produce fuels for less than $1.00 /L once scaled up, making them cost competitive with biodiesels.

If we can shake the fossil fuel industry’s control on politicians, we can see this process put in place everywhere.

Speaking of taking modern technology in a new direction…

Intelligent Light-bending

Researchers from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have shown that a form of artificial intelligence can be solidified into 3D-printed layers of transparent material, imprinted with complex patterns, that “do to light going through them what the [probability] math would have done to numbers.”

That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? TechCrunch writer Devin Coldewey explained,

If that’s a bit much to wrap your head around, think of a mechanical calculator. Nowadays it’s all done digitally in computer logic, but back in the day calculators used actual mechanical pieces moving around — something adding up to 10 would literally cause some piece to move to a new position. In a way this “diffractive deep neural network” is a lot like that: it uses and manipulates physical representations of numbers rather than electronic ones.

The writer in me wants to twist this into a story about intelligent light.

Jellyfish glowing green © sgrunden

Weird Science in the News – 180622

Jellyfish glowing green © sgrunden

This is a glowing bonus post for Weird Science in the News! Another post with news from this month should go up next week. I think we could all use reminders today of the weird and wonderful in our world.

Glowing Bacteria

A team of biologists recently made the bacteria responsible for cholera glow to watch its behavior. Science Alert explained,

What the team did – and the reason those bacteria glow with an eerie green light – is develop a new method of painting both the pili [an appendage] and the DNA with fluorescent dye. When they stuck the whole kit and kaboodle under a microscope, they were able to see the process with their own eyes for the first time.

Using the fluorescent dye to see otherwise undetectable movement, scientists recorded one Vibrio cholerae fishing for pieces of the deceased to consume.

When bacteria die, they split open and release their DNA, whereupon other bacteria can snare and incorporate it. If the dead bacterium had an antibiotic resistance, the bacterium that caught the dead fellow’s DNA also develops that resistance – and spreads it to its own offspring.

The description on Science Alert sounds like the premise to a horror story, but it depicts one way that life adapts. Take a look at the glowing bacteria.

Glowing Sea Creatures

One of the inspirations for this post was a National Geographic presentation, See Amazing Ocean Creatures That ‘Glow’.

“Biofluorescence in the marine environment is like this constantly unfolding mystery novel,” says David Gruber, a marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer at Harvard University.

Lesson Flash: Biofluroescence vs -luminescence

Biofluorescence is technically different than bioluminescence, which occurs when animals use a chemical reaction to produce their own light.

If bioluminescence is the equivalent of glow sticks that you crack open on the Fourth of July, biofluorescence is more akin to fluorescent paint glowing under a blacklight, Gruber says.

Scientists are continuing to make fascinating discoveries from explorations with glowing biology. However, this is not a new area of research. The video below is a TED Talk from 2011 by the bioluminescence expert Edith Widder.

Isn’t it interesting how life can twinkle, sparkle, and flash?


Video: More Images and Explanations



painting of the yellow rat among dinosaurs, by Jorge A. Gonzalez

Weird Science in the News – 180601

The best science messes with our perceptions.

Here’s my first of the Weird Science in the News series for 2018!

Way back, I tried to maintain a monthly series of posts called Weird Science in the News. Each post took hours to research, draft, and edit. The majority of my drafted posts never made it through edits by the end of their month.

I’m now trying a simpler format. This month’s theme is “Life is Complicated“.


Animal farts lift researcher’s book to NYT bestselling list

[Update: Link to article on idahostatesman.com no longer working]

A Virginia Tech researcher and a zoologist from London Zoology Society co-authored Does it Fart? The Definitive Field Guide to Animal Flatulence, which is ranked eighth on the New York Times monthly best-seller list less than two months after its release.

My thoughts: One of the book’s author reportedly said, “We never thought anybody would read it other than our family and friends.” That’s the weirdest part of this news. They didn’t know the world wanted a book about animal farts? Publishing a publicly-released book just for family and friends is kind of strange.


Why did the human cross itself with a chicken?

Seriously… why?

http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/why-did-scientists-just-create-humanchicken-embryo-hybrids/

Hoping to take the first step toward recreating a human organizer, the Rockefeller team grew colonies of human stem cells using certain growth factors and a forced culture shape, causing them to adopt the features of an early embryo. These clusters were then transplanted onto chicken embryos[…].

My thoughts: A second nervous system developed in this embryos in the short amount of time that they existed as chimeras. I’m not actually what to make of that, but I’m tempted to write about accidental hatchings of two-headed human-chickens.


Utah fossil reveals global exodus of mammals’ near relatives to major continents

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180523133203.htm

painting of the yellow rat among dinosaurs, by Jorge A. Gonzalez

A small reptilian mammal dubbed Cifelliodon wahkarmoosuch (“yellow rat” in Ute) has moved a continent back by 15 million years.

My thoughts: The mockup looks as if the creature came out of Fantasy. I’m calling it a rattoon for my own purposes.


How stress echoes down the generations

https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2018/05/26/how-stress-echoes-down-the-generations

The Economist discusses how changes to sperm may transmit epigenetic changes to children. Emerging evidence suggests that mistreatment of children impacts the genetics of later generations, affecting even a victim’s descendants who experience no abuse themselves. My thoughts: This news might help shift the general perception that focusing only one generation of issues is enough to repair the damage to its members.


“Are Plants Conscious?”

https://gizmodo.com/are-plants-conscious-1826365668

Environmental scientists, philosophers, and a professor of “plant neurobiology” answered the question for this week’s Giz Asks. My thoughts: This is an important question to ask at this time, not only to open up discussion on human’s responsibility to the our environment, but to do help refocus how we’ll identify when artificial intelligence is conscious.


Weird enough for you? What else have you seen in science news of interest?