Thursday, October 15, 2009

Momma Was a Newt and Daddy Was a Weasel

Findings from the scientific community are leading some (mostly me) to wonder if perhaps legendary X-Man Wolverine might be half newt. That would certainly explain the fast healing, super immune system, and bone protrusion, although the abundant body hair is distinctly mammalian.

Pictured above: potential Wolverine genetic tree. Dare we wonder?

In 1879 a natural historian first noticed that Spanish ribbed newts (AKA sharp-ribbed newts) can use their ribs as a defense mechanism, piercing their bones through their skin to form super-sharp spines. More recently, Austrian scientists using scanning technology revealed that the newts are actually rotating their ribs forward up to fifty degrees away from their normal position against the spine.

The holes heal quickly thanks to fast regeneration, and a highly advanced immune system keeps the wounds from becoming infected. As far as researchers can tell, the newts are not particularly bothered by the protrusion of their ribs, despite needing to tear new holes each time.

The newts also have a secret weapon (as though concealed rib-shivs weren't enough). When the ribs protrude, the newts' skin secretes a poisonous substance that can cause severe pain, or even death, for the unlucky predator that tries to chomp down on it. Maybe this one skips a generation.

While the newt pictured above appears to be simply stretching its back, it is actually about to kick your ass. Arrows are pointing to the ends of ribs that are tearing through the skin.

"The combination of the poisonous secretion and the ribs as 'stinging' tools is highly effective," says Egon Heiss of the University of Vienna. The newts themselves seem to be immune to the poison, reabsorbing it once the threat is neutralized.

Scientists speculate that the rib-weapon mutation may be an adaptation that came from a more common lizard tendency: chest-puffing. Many salamanders have an ability to expand their ribs, puffing up to look larger and hopefully deter predators. The rib-joint mechanism for puffing-up is similar to that of the Spanish ribbed newts, suggesting an evolutionary relationship.

At the time of this writing, Zu's News is not aware of any studies done on the potential for wolverine-newt hybridization.

We were unable to find the original study to provide for our dear readers, but you can click here for Google's findings on this topic.

All drawings are (obviously) original creations and are the property of Zu's News. Images may not be reproduced without express permission from Zu's News, although you could just draw something better yourself.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Refute, Refuse, and Re-Justify

It seems that changing our minds is harder than we think, but only because we refuse to do so. A new study is suggesting that misinformation isn't just a result of government propaganda or media manipulation; people just get attached to what they think they know.

Pictured left: person attached to a false belief.

Human reasoning is not a perfect system (surprise!), and without careful supervision our minds can get caught in belief ruts that eventually disconnect us from reality. Many of us think that human reasoning operates in a fashion that scientists call "Bayesian updating," meaning that we incorporate new information into what we already know and change our minds accordingly.

The researchers behind a new study, published in the journal "Sociological Inquiry," beg to differ. They see human critical processes as a system they call "motivated reasoning," where people "ignore challenging information altogether, discredit the information source, or argue substantively against the challenge" when faced with contradictory ideas.

The new study is taking a closer look at how people (voters in particular) handle information that relates to things they erroneously believe. The researchers interviewed individuals about the notion that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, a relationship that has been officially negated by the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and eventually Bush himself, but remains popular for some reason.

So why do polls continue to show that people think there was a direct relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein? The findings of this study have much to say about human reasoning in general, and force us to reconsider some of the beliefs we stubbornly hold.
Polls continue to show that a significant portion of the US population holds the false belief that Saddam Hussein was directly or significantly to blame for the attacks of 9/11.

The study included interviews of various people who claimed they believed that Saddam Hussein was either partly or largely responsible for the attacks on 9/11. The researchers then presented the participants with evidence pointing to there being no relationship. Despite having the facts in their hands, including a quote from Bush himself saying that there was no relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda, all but one person insisted that the relationship must exist.

There were a few acts of mental gymnastics that the researchers noted among the participants that refused to change their minds. If any of these methods seem familiar, don't be surprised; they're ways that we all occasionally cope with cognitive tension, the name that scientists give to the discomfort that we feel when our view of reality is challenged.

One way participants handled the new information was through "counterarguing," or by disputing the facts themselves. One participant argued that there's not going to be evidence of a link between Hussein and al Qaeda because it's all very secretive. At least the believers in this category have a reason, but they are the exception.

The most popular strategy was "attitude bolstering," where the participants switched from answering the question of the link between Hussein and al Qaeda to other reasons that the Iraq war is justified. These participants answered that Saddam Hussein needed to be dealt with eventually anyway, or that Bush thought there were WMDs to worry about.

A third option was "selective exposure," where the new information was dismissed or brushed off. The participants refused to comment on it or consider it.
Study participants had various strategies for retaining their false beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.

A fourth way that participants maintained their positions was by "disputing rationality." These believers did not produce a reason for continuing to believe, but maintained that they had their own opinions.

Finally, participants surprised the researchers by creatively justifying their belief through "inferred reasoning." These participants used a backward chain of reasoning to argue that there must be a reason that we went to war with Iraq and remain at war with Iraq, and that reason must be because Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.

While it's easy to criticize, it's best to take this information and use it to assess your own thinking. Without vigilance and honest self-analysis, it's all too easy to get caught up in these types of justifications when something we personally want to believe is challenged. But being open-minded means being able to consider new information and critique your own mind. It's not always easy, but it's the only way to get smarter.

Read the actual study, "There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification."

All drawing are (obviously) original creations and are the property of Zu's News. Images may not be reproduced without express permission from Zu's News, although you could probably just draw something better yourself.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Marcia's Nose, or "The Subject Was Bruises"

Gather around everyone; it’s time for a family meeting. We had a bit of an incident earlier today, but let’s see if we can’t turn this accident into a learning opportunity.

Marcia, please come to the front of the room; don’t be shy. Marcia took a direct hit from a football today, smack in the nose. This type of injury, where there is nothing penetrating the skin, is called blunt trauma, and bruises are a very common physical response. If you look around the area of impact on Marcia’s nose, you can see where the skin appears discolored and swollen, and may be sensitive. Oh, sorry dear, I suppose it is sensitive, then.

The incident. "Oh, my nose!"

Can anyone tell me why Marcia’s face looks so funny? Oh, don’t be offended, dear, this is merely for the sake of science.

The force of the football hitting Marcia’s face broke blood vessels, causing blood to collect beneath her skin. Blood vessels run underneath every inch of your skin to provide blood to different areas, keeping your body healthy and alive. The tiniest of these blood vessels are called capillaries, and they are the closest to the skin.

The offensive instrument.

Blood vessels are generally pretty good at staying intact, but when that football hit Marcia in the face, it caused some of her capillaries to break. Blood spilled into the surrounding tissues, where it clotted and formed a bruise. The darker color of the blood is visible beneath her skin, and that’s why Marcia’s nose is a different color than the rest of her face at the moment.

All bruises have a shared cause: internal bleeding, during which blood escapes the vessels and collects inside the body. Don’t worry Cindy, your sister’s going to be fine. Marcia’s contusion, which is just a fancy name for a bruise, will clear up on its own in a matter of weeks.

The injury. She can't possibly go to the dance with Doug this way! She just can't!

Since the football whacked Marcia’s face recently, the escaped blood is still visible just below the skin and the bruise looks dark and reddish, but over the next couple days Marcia’s body will break down the bruise and reabsorb the blood. As this happens, the bruise will turn from the darker reddish color that it is now to a blue-ish or purple-y color. After about a week, the bruise will look green, a few days later it will be yellowed, and then it will disappear entirely. Marcia may even be healed in time for the dance! Don’t get too excited Marcia; I only said “may.”

At this point, the damage is done and Marcia’s body has already begun the process of recuperating. There is no way to “undo” a bruise, but if you act quickly you can minimize the damage. An ice-pack or cold compress can help keep down swelling and might slow down blood flow to the area so that the bruise won’t end up being as large. 

Any cold treatment should be applied immediately after the accident for about ten to fifteen minutes at a time, and only through a paper towel or cloth, as direct contact can cause frostbite. If possible, it’s a good idea to keep the injured area elevated above your heart so that gravity isn’t making the bruise bigger by helping blood pool there.

Now only time will heal these wounds, and Marcia’s nose will be a lovely mural of color for the next few weeks. Let’s all be sure to watch out for errant footballs in the future.

The lovely family, plus witty house-slave.

More information from MedicineNet
More information from Lady Sultry (don't stray from the bruises page...)
More on Marcia and her tragic incident 

editor's note: this article got me in A in class, and it didn't even include the awesome pictures. booyah.

All drawings are (obviously) original creations and are the property of Zu's News. Images may not be reproduced without express permission from Zu's News, although you could just draw something better yourself.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Force is Strong With This One

We say that astronauts in space are experiencing “zero-gravity,” but there is really no such thing, not in our universe anyway. The weightlessness that astronauts experience is actually a state of constant free fall, which is caused by the presence of gravity, not the lack of it.

Astronauts at the space station float around freely, seemingly unaffected by any sort of gravity, but it's an illuuuusion...

Yet we have images and videos of astronauts floating about in and around space stations; they aren’t being pulled toward the Earth and neither is the space station. One might be compelled to say, "How can anyone claim there is no such thing as zero-gravity when NASA has 'zero-gravity' simulations and testing for astronauts?" Many scientists regret the use of the term 'zero-gravity' for this very reason; it's misleading.

The astronauts and the space station are actually falling together, always at the same rate (equally accelerated by gravity), so they only appear weightless. It’s the same with satellites and celestial bodies; they are always influenced by gravity. In fact, there is no place in our universe where gravity does not exist, because gravity is a property of mass, not some disembodied force. Everything that has mass also has gravity, including you.

The space station is traveling horizontally, while also being pulled toward the center of the earth by the force of gravity. The result is the curved trajectory that we call "orbit." Objects are not drawn to scale. For a scale, see the next illustration.

Constant free fall works because objects in orbit (like the moon, the space station, and satellites) are traveling horizontally as well as vertically (relative to the surface of the earth). Imagine that you are up incredibly high (more than 200 miles up, so you don’t have to worry much about air resistance) and are moving forward with incredible speed (more than 17,000 miles per hour).

The force of gravity is constantly pulling down on you, but the earth is not flat, it curves away from you. As you’re falling, the Earth is literally retreating beneath your feet, so you never hit land. You're falling at an angle that matches the curve of the earth. This is constant free fall.

Imagine this (only imagine, do not attempt): You are going to jump off the edge of a cliff, riding on a bathroom scale (repeat – only imagine). You leap off the ground with the scale at your feet, and you try to read the little dial telling you your weight. Since you and the scale are both falling at the same rate (remember Galileo dropping things off of the leaning tower of Pisa to show that size makes no difference to how fast you fall?), the scale would register a whopping nothing! You have achieved the appearance of weightlessness.

A thought experiment where a person on a scale (there it is) falls off the edge of a cliff, demonstrating how the appearance of weightlessness is created while gravity is still acting on the body. This is not to be attempted outside of your imagination.

Although the term “zero-gravity” is thrown around with abandon, it is a really the opposite of what is happening to the space station and the astronauts inside. Without the force of gravity pulling objects toward one another, the space station, satellites, and even the moon would just fly off into space, never to be seen again.

More from the Physics Classroom
More from Dot Physics

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Can We Play Something Else Now?

You can stop holding your breath (unless you're still searching underwater), Waldo is safe and sound. The researchers at Mote Marine Laboratory received a signal from the misplaced robot early yesterday morning when Waldo casually resurfaced and made a call home.

Mote had spared no effort in looking for "the 115-pound, canary-yellow robot," spending "more than 10 days using side-scan sonar, VHF, hydrophones, airplane surveys, snorkelers and divers." Ultimately, Waldo was found about 50 feet from its last known whereabouts. Yes, five-zero feet.

This is very good news for Florida's Mote's marine biologists, as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had probably told them they would not be getting any new toys until they could take better care of the ones they have.
Pictured: A marine biologist (you can tell from the glasses) happily reunited with a favorite toy.

Read the full news release from Mote Marine Laboratory.

All drawings are (obviously) original creations and are the property of Zu's News. Images may not be reproduced without express permission from Zu's News, although you could just draw something better yourself.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Robot Goes Missing, Everyone Makes Same Joke

An underwater robot nicknamed "Waldo" has gone missing off of the Gulf Coast of Florida, much to the dismay of Mote Marine Laboratory scientists. As can be expected, statements made about the hilarity of the subsequent search for Waldo have been abundant and predictable.
Thanks, Every News Station in Existence, we saw that coming.

After nearly a week of fruitless searching which enlisted the help of other robots (it's like Finding Nemo, but in the future), the scientists are turning to the public. Mote Laboratory is offering a $500 reward in hopes that Labor Day boaters will keep an eye out for Waldo.

Waldo costs about $100,000 and is carrying a red tide detector worth another $30,000, so finding it is important enough to bring scientists out in the public eye to abashedly ask for help.

Prior to disappearing, Waldo had spent five days reporting on conditions in the coastal waters of Florida. Every two hours Waldo sent communication back to the laboratory as it sought out traces of red tide, an ocean phenomenon that has yet to be fully understood. On Monday, August 31st Waldo suddenly went silent, and has been missing ever since.

May currently be aimlessly floating, stuck at the bottom of the sea, or in the back of a pick-up.

Mote scientist Gary Kirkpatrick, inventor of the red tide detector, explains that the robot may have sprung a leak, causing it to sink to the ocean floor. If Waldo only had a failure in the communication systems, it may still be floating around at the surface.

The press release also mentioned that Waldo may have been picked up by "an unsuspecting boater who didn't realize the device was a scientific instrument." The lab added that the reward is offered "No-Questions-Asked."

If the robot remains elusive, scientists will likely try to find a cane, a cup, or three protruding tongues before moving on to something more fun.

If you have knowledge of robot-Waldo's whereabouts, please contact Mote Marine Laboratory at (941) 388 4441 x271.

Read the full press release from Mote Marine Laboratory.

Update to story, Waldo found!!

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nurture 1-Ups Nature in Bee Study

It's a classic debate: do we hold nature or nurture more responsible for the end result that is an adult organism? The findings of a recent study published through the University of Illinois suggest that long-term evolution in gene expression can be linked to more short-term changes that result from the environment. To put it plainly, maybe nurture can alter nature.

Pictured above: Bee

By looking at aggressive responses in different types of bees, the researchers were hoping to find some important relationships between behavior, the environment, and heredity. In short, they were looking for signs of behavioral evolution.

Researchers looked at two different types of bees: (1) European honeybees (EHB), the more common and docile variety, and (2) Africanized honeybees (AHB), a hybrid of African and European honeybees, notoriously known as "killer bees" due to their aggressiveness. To observe how aggression looks in the brain, the researchers exposed the bees to a pheromone that usually alerts the bees that there is danger to the hive.

This study suggests that forces in the environment may be able to stimulate changes in the genes that have long-term effects on the organism that may then be passed on to offspring. Let that sink in for a moment.

Among other things, the researchers noted that the resting brain state of Africanized honeybees shows heightened activity of certain genes:

Pictured above: EHB with resting brain state and AHB with resting brain state. The AHB innately has more activity in genes related to aggression, even when no danger is present.

More interestingly, the study showed that European honeybees exposed to alarm pheromones have brain activity that shows many similarities to the resting brain state of Africanized honeybees.
Pictured above: EHB with aroused brain state and AHB with similar resting brain state. The similarities suggest a common molecular basis between inherited aggression and stimulated aggression.

The researchers also noted that an Africanized honeybee living in a European bee colony will actually become less aggressive over time, and a European honeybee living in an Africanized colony will become more aggressive.

Pictured above: An AHB living in a EHB hive will become less aggressive over time.

We can't assume that these types of relationships translate the same way when it comes to humans and our social behaviors and genetic expressions of aggression, but this study helps us understand how behavior is influenced by both our environment and our genes.

Read the full paper, "Honey Bee Aggression Supports a Link Between Gene Regulation and Behavioral Evolution."

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Infection + The Undead = Math

Mathematical models are valuable tools for all aspects of life, from determining when it's safe to cross the street to creating supercomputers that map genomes. Mathematicians in Canada have just published a new model that may provide insight into a phenomenon that all of us have had to worry about at one time or another:


Pictured above: flesh-eating zombie.

Models of infectious disease are often used to determine rates of infection and the expected impact of intervention. This latest model takes into account a new variable: what if the infected-but-dead stay in the system, and can continue to spread disease?

The authors consider different scenarios and potentials for human survival, noting that the only real way to vanquish the disease is through "impulsive eradication." Quarantines are (ironically) unrealistic and vaccination will only allow a handful of uninfected to survive while the zombies grow in number. The only mathematically plausible solution is to "act quickly and decisively to eradicate them before they eradicate us."

While the paper seems to poke fun at math, it appears in a book that contains various models and case studies relating to infectious disease, the rest of which are more traditional and very serious. So why the zombie-models? According to the authors, "This demonstrates the flexibility of mathematical modelling (sic) and shows how modelling can respond to a wide variety of challenges in biology."

Think you're up to the math? See for yourself:

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Get More Than You Pay For

You often hear that “you get what you pay for,” but when you pay extra for brand-name drugs, what you’re getting in return is nothing more than the brand-name. According to numerous studies and the FDA itself, the only difference between the brand-name drugs and the generic drugs is the price, and there is no evidence that spending money has a positive effect on your health.

The FDA has officially stated that generic drugs are, in all important aspects, the same thing as their brand-name counterparts. The differences are really only in the inactive ingredients, things like coloring and flavoring that have become part of the trademarked image of the brand company, and which the generic companies aren't allowed to copy. According to the FDA's website, "Generic drugs work in the same way and in the same amount of time as brand-name drugs."

Still, there is the relentless notion that the more expensive item must be better; after all, it costs more! Well, here’s where the price difference comes from:

A Brand-name company spends tons of time and money on research and development of a new drug, which they patent. Drug patents currently last for 20 years.

Once the Brand-name company demonstrates that their drug is up to standards, they get permission from the FDA to manufacture their drug for the public. They will have the exclusive right of production for as long as their patent lasts.

The Brand-name company then shells out tons more money to market the drug to consumers,

as well as to doctors and hospitals.

The Brand-name company sells the drug at a relatively high cost to so they can pay for all the research and marketing and still try to make a profit.

When the patent expires, other drug manufacturers apply to the FDA to get permission to make the drug themselves. The FDA requires all the same standards from the generic manufacturers as they do from the original brand-name company. Generic drugs are required to be just as safe, strong, fast, and effective as the original drug.

Since the generic manufacturers didn't spend money on development and marketing, they can afford to sell their version of the drug for much less than the brand-name company. Competition among the generic manufacturers tends to drive the price down even more. For trademark reasons, the generic drug has a different look and a different name, but all the medicinal qualities are exactly the same.

In the end, the real difference in price exists because people are still willing to pay more for the brand-name drug. The brand-name companies can leverage their reputation to make it seem like their products are safer or more reliable. However, the FDA noted that half of all generic drugs are actually made by the brand-name companies.

The system is intended to allow the drug creators to compensate for the extraordinarily expensive process of development, but then allow for competition that will drive drug prices down. The generic label drugs are the result of a system that is meant to help the consumer. So let yourself be helped; next time you have the sniffles, go for NyCare or Sudacold. You'll get as much cough-suppressant and decongestant as you would from the more expensive versions, plus a bonus: saving money is a natural mood enhancer.

For more info:
FDA generic drug FAQ

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Monday, August 10, 2009

hello world

Thus I make my grand entrance into the blogosphere, light years behind the early adopters.

Yet here I am, because I care about science, and I care that other people care about science. Let's make that our impromptu motto: I want you to care about science. Because science certainly cares about you.

While this posting is primarily a test, it is also an introduction. I am introducing the web to me and introducing myself to the blogging experience. So far, so good.