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    Awesome Jobs: Meet Kevin Arrigo, Biological Oceanographer

    Kevin Arrigo studies some of the teeny tiniest organisms on the planet -- microscopic plants called Phytoplankton that scientists think might produce up to 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. To get at what makes these itty bitties tick he climbs aboard giant ice-breaking ships and heads out to the planet’s icy North and South where they are the most active. Arrigo chatted with us about what it’s like to work in the world’s polar regions and what it feels like to take a wrong step and get a boot full of freezing arctic water.

    Do you consider yourself a biologist?

    I’m a biological oceanographer. I study the biology of the ocean at a pretty large scale. I’m not a marine biologist. I look at really big ocean issues. One example is the organisms that are the base of the food chain, microscopic phytoplankton. They’re tiny plants that feed everything in the ocean and produce more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Most people think of trees, but it’s mostly the phytoplankton that are doing the work.

    They’re responsible for the coming and going of the ice ages, which is driven by changes in atmospheric CO2. When the winds pick up, the ocean gets fertilized by iron-rich dust blowing into it. This stimulates phytoplankton to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and then the planet starts to cool. After thousands of years, the temperatures drop so far that the planet goes into an ice age.

    The place I study phytoplankton is in the polar regions. They’re places we don’t understand very well. The North Pole and the area around Antarctica are very different. Most of the climate change is driven by phytoplankton in and around Antarctica. The ones growing in the tropics have very little impact on Earth’s climate.

    Around Antarctica, the ocean is a big watery place full of microscopic plants and they need nutrients just like your garden – mostly nitrogen or phosphorus. Luckily the Antarctic has lots of nitrogen and phosphorus, but not much iron. The ocean can become anemic too. Warm times like now, the ocean is really anemic - not much iron is being blown into it.

    In Brief: Why Scratching an Itch Makes It Worse

    Through a series of experiments with mice, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think they have figured out why people scratch an itch to the point of bleeding. According to Dr. Zhou-Feng Chen, who is actually the director of the school's Center for the Study of Itch (seriously!), the cause of neural crosstalk and the brain's release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. We scratch itches because the pain induced by scratching inhibits the itch, but the serotonin released to control the pain makes more scratching required to keep soothing the itch. It's a feedback loop that our brains are helpless to resist.

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    In Brief: Research Shows Plants Can Detect When They're Being Eaten

    Don't worry, this isn't about plants having consciousness or anything like that. Modern Farmer reports on a new study conducted at the University of Miami, in which researchers found that a thale cress plant was able to physiologically react to its leaves being eaten. In the study, the researchers mimicked the vibrations made by a caterpillar when it chews on the plant, which caused the thale cress to excrete extra predator-deterring oils. The revelation isn't that the plant is self-aware, but that scientists can look into ways to spur plants to activate their natural defenses on command--which may be useful for farmers to better prepare crops against the elements.

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    Snake Robot Helps Roboticists and Herpetologists

    Howie Choset's team built Elizabeth, a snake-like robot designed to explore parts of caves that were unsafe, or too small, for humans. Elizabeth performed really well in most situations, but it had problems climbing sandy slopes. As is often the case, the roboticists looked to the natural kingdom for engineering help. By mimicking the movement of sidewinder rattlesnakes, Elizabeth can now climb steep, sandy slopes. Ed Yong has a full writeup about the project.

    Octobot Doubles Its Speed with Webbed Arms

    From the Foundation for Research & Technology's Institute of Computer Science: "Adding a soft silicone web to a small robotic octopus helps the machine hit the gas. The first robot shown propels itself by snapping shut rigid plastic legs. The second bot uses flexible silicone legs and moves at about the same speed. The third robot zips along faster, using silicone arms and a web that helps it push through water." Material science and animal biology come together in this robot's clever mimicking of an Octopus. Read more at Science News.

    In Brief: Stunning Macro Photos of Animal's Eyes

    Photographer Suren Manvelyan has shot unbelievable macro shots of different animal's eyes and posted them on his Behance portfolio. The shots are absolutely stunning, but as you browse through the three galleries of images, you'll start to see the different evolutionary paths that have shaped the eyes of a variety of creatures. I'm partial to this shot of a basiliscus lizard's eye, which could double as a planet in an upcoming sci-fi movie. (via Laughing Squid)

    Will
    The Secret to Smarter Robots: Ants

    Your cat is stuck in a burning building too dangerous for rescue crews to go inside, so off go the drones instead – five little unmanned aerial models that hover and flit through fiery beams and door frames without any human control. They know to spread out to cover more ground, and know how to adjust their search patterns when the communication links with the other drones go down. Their algorithms find and retrieve your cat in what rescue crews tell you is record time.

    Or that's the dream anyhow, to one day build artificially intelligent, self-organizing robot systems that can collaborate on complex tasks – or, at the very least, rescue imperiled cats. We're not there yet, but researchers have been getting closer, thanks in part to what we're learning from the collective behavior of ants.

    Photo credit: National Geographic

    Look back through artificial intelligence literature from the past few decades and you'll find ant-inspired algorithms are a popular topic of study. Of note, Swiss artificial intelligence researcher Marco Dorigo was the first to algorithmically model ant colony behavior in the early 1990, and Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon published her own study on the expandable search networks of ants a few years after. Today, both have different but related ideas on how we might implement so-called ant-inspired swarm intelligence in robots – and perhaps soon, drones – outside of the lab.

    Consider, for example, how ants explore and search. Ants change the way they scour for things such as food and water depending on the number of ants nearby. According to Gordon, if there is a high density of ants in an area, the ants search more thoroughly in small, random circles. If there are fewer ants, the ants adjust their paths to be straighter and longer, allowing them to cover more ground.

    Photo credit: NASA

    This is all well and good in typical ant environments – but how do the ants adapt when interference is introduced, and their communication with other ants interrupted? To find out, Gordon sent over 600 small, black pavement crawlers to the International Space Station in January, and believes that studying how they react to the unfamiliar microgravity of space could help build better robots. Her research is especially prescient in the age of the drone.

    In a Stanford news release, Gordon likened the interference introduced by microgravity as "analogous to the radio disruption that robots might experience in a blazing building." Depending on how Gordon's space ants adapt, she thinks the results when applied to robotics and artificial intelligence could help us program more efficient algorithms for search and exploration – especially when our robots are faced with unfamiliar environments, and with little to no human control.

    In Brief: Why Your Best Thinking Happens in the Shower

    Wired Science has an interesting blog post about why our best thinking seems to happen when we're in the shower. According to psychologists, it's because the shower is a perfect situation for our brains to enter the "default mode network," a mental state in which the environment seems to fade and you become more aware of your internal thoughts. Kind of like an out-of-body experience. Activities like showering (or building LEGO!) engage a part of your brain to keep you just mentally active enough to be stimulated, but still allow for you to have an uninterrupted stream of thought for those eureka moments. It's also known in psychology as a state of "Flow." Earlier this week, we tested Birdly, a virtual reality apparatus that attempts to put your brain in that state of flow--by giving you the sensation of flying like a bird. We'll have video and a writeup recapping it soon!

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    In Brief: The Origins of the "10% Brain Power" Misconception

    Adam linked us to this good story on Gizmodo examining the origins of the common misconception that we only use 10% of our brains. Neuroscience and psychologists researchers in the early 20th century attempted to quantify how much of our brains (by mass) that we use for everyday activities, to find a correlation between brain mass and cognitive capacity. That line of thinking endures, as a means to explain latent cognitive potential. Of course, we actually use virtually all of our brain, and recent studies have shown that most of our brains are active over the course of a day, even if not all at once. Further reading on the topic here.

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    The Science and Mysteries of Booze

    We sit down with Adam Rogers, author of the book Proof: The Science of Booze, to discuss the what modern science and ancient history have to teach us about alcohol and humanity's complicated relationship with it. Grab a refreshing beverage and join us for a spirited conversation about society's favorite poison.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Martin Nweeia, Narwhal Expert (and Dentist!)

    Martin Nweeia knows more about narwhals than almost anyone in the world. More specifically, he’s probably the world’s foremost expert on narwhal tusks. But Nweeia is only sort-of a marine mammal biologist. He’s actually a practicing dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. This guy knows from teeth. So, while it might seem weird that he studies narwhals, if you think about it, there’s some sense to his in-depth knowledge of these whales’ toothy protuberances. We chatted with Nweeia about why the narwhal tusk is one of the weirdest teeth in the world and what it’s like to wade into the arctic waters of Canada’s Northwest Territories with Inuit guides to get a closer look at the real-life unicorn of the sea.

    What exactly is a narwhal?

    It’s an arctic whale with an extraordinary tooth.

    So, maybe it’s not so strange that you’re a dentist studying a whale...

    For everybody else it’s unusual. For me it’s OK. At the heart of things I’m a curious kid. As I went through my dental education I was equally fascinated by people. I had a very strong interest in anthropology that went parallel with my interest in science. These two fields would intersect. For a long time I was interested in dental anthropology, but I happened on the narwhal because I used to give talks and give examples of how teeth would express themselves in nature.

    The narwhal seemed like a good example of an unusual tooth. But it didn’t make sense to me. And the more I read about it the less sense it made.

    Why doesn’t it make sense?

    This is a whale that eats pretty big fish and when you look inside its mouth it has no teeth. If i’m eating large fish, that might require chewing and biting, why give up all those teeth and put all of the energy into growing one giant tusk?

    But there are also lots of the little things that don’t make sense. When you think of teeth, on both sides of a mammal's bite you’d expect them to be the same size and have a mirror image morphology or shape. In narwhals it couldn’t be more opposite. It doesn’t even fall within any parameter of any creature ever known on the planet.

    If you look at the narwhal’s, its tusk comes out of the left side. When you see photos of them, they angle their body so the tusk appears straight in alignment with the horizontal axis. But if you look at them still, clearly the tusk is coming from the left side. The tooth on the right side often stays embedded in the skull.

    You’ve got a tooth on one side that’s between a foot and a foot and a half and on the other side it’s 9 feet. Even in the rare instance when the narwhal has two tusks, the right is usually less in length from the left. The erupted tusk is on the left side or on both sides, or none. Never on the right by itself.

    10 Strange Features Of Sea Creatures

    For all of our scientific advances, the ocean is still a place of incredible mystery. The overwhelming biodiversity of underwater life has spawned a panoply of organisms that can do things no other living thing can. Today, we’ll spotlight ten ocean animals that have completely unique features.

    Put a Camera On It: How Scientists Use New Tech to Study Sharks

    Researchers are totally obsessed with understanding sharks right now. One of the major reasons why is that the world’s most successful hunters have been elusive and difficult to study. They’re constantly on the move -- some species migrate thousands of miles every year. But thanks to all sorts of new technologies, and some innovative scientists finding unconventional ways to use that tech, shark behavior is finally starting to come into the light. Here’s a look at some of the more innovative ways scientists are using tech to study sharks.

    Image credit: Carl Meyer

    Underwater Cameras

    Scientists may have captured and tagged some sharks, and observed their behavior from the surface of the sea, but very little is known about how they behave when no one’s looking. The least studied part of shark behavior, for example, is how they interact with each other or other species of shark. So Carl Meyer and his team at The University of Hawaii worked with Japanese company Little Leonardo to build cameras small enough to fit on a shark’s fin without hindering their movement.

    What they found once the cameras were in the ocean shocked them. Local reef sharks -- just a few miles off the coast of their own research base -- were mingling with all sorts of different shark species, including Hammerheads. The team was able to see feeding behavior and even some frisky swimming as sharks chased around members of the opposite sex.

    Above: Camera-equipped male sandbar shark swims in close proximity to the reef, startling reef fishes, before heading across open sand to find and pursue a female sandbar shark. Credit: University of Hawaii (Carl Meyer)/University of Tokyo (Katsufumi Sato)

    Meyer calls the cameras “data flight recorders for sharks” and says that thanks to the research they now have the first true sharks-eye-view of the ocean. Going forward they’re hoping to gain a better understanding of sharks eating habits by seeing the hunt from the sharks’ perspective.

    Why Do We Laugh?

    From The Atlantic: "Laughter is universal, but we know very little about the reasons we do it. Dr. Robert Provine has been studying the social and neurological roots of laughter for 20 years, and has come to surprising conclusions about how we operate as human beings." (h/t LaughingSquid)

    We Are Made of Dead Stars

    From The Atlantic: "Every atom in our bodies was fused in an ancient star. NASA astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller explains how the iron in our blood connects us to one of the most violent acts in the universe-a supernova explosion-and what the universe might look like when all the stars die out."

    Frank Reese Raises Heirloom Chickens

    Prior to the industrial food revolution of the last century, there were hundreds of chicken breeds. Now that a handful of companies produce the vast majority of chicken we eat, the diversity of poultry breeds has plummeted and many breeds are lost. Frank Reese is working to save rare breeds on his Kansas farm. (via The Plate)

    The Teddy Bear and Our Shifting Relationship with the Natural World

    "In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt legendarily spared the life of a black bear - and prompted a plush toy craze for so-called "teddy bears." Writer Jon Mooallem digs into this story and asks us to consider how the tales we tell about wild animals have real consequences for a species' chance of survival - and the natural world at large." Mooallem is the author of Wild Ones, a great book about the eccentric cultural history of Americans and our relationship with wild animals and the natural world. Mooallem also performed this lovely reading from his book in an episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

    Tested Explains: How the Bionic Ear Works

    They call it the bionic ear – an implant in the cochlea that restores the sensation of sound to those who have lost their hearing, or those who could never hear at all. There's certainly a cyberpunk ring to the term, like an upgrade for the ear. The device augments human ability by introducing (or re-introducing) functionality where there was none before.

    And realistically speaking, while the notion of do-it-yourself biohacking may still be a ways off, it's tempting to think of the bionic ear as a present day glimpse into the future of human augmentation. A recent, fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal teased such a future, where brain implants and neuroprosthetics "will graduate from being strictly repair-oriented to enhancing the performance of healthy or "normal" people" – calling out the cochlear implant by name.

    Photo credit: Getty Images

    "What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud?" co-authors Gary Marcus and Christof Koch asked. It's a good question. And who wouldn't want that? But Marcus and Koch's "next-generation" caveat is key. Present day cochlear implants are amazing devices, but they're not designed to heighten an existing ability to hear – only approximate what has been lost.

    Cochlear implants have been used since the late 1970s to restore the sensation of hearing to those born without, or who have lost their ability to hear in later years. An oft-cited figure is that more than 350,000 people have had the operation worldwide. The implant works by bypassing damaged or missing hair cells that typically transmit sound vibrations to the auditory nerves, and uses a bundle of electrodes to stimulate those nerves directly instead.

    The electrodes run to a receiver implanted beneath the skin, and connect to an external system outside of the body via magnet – typically a microphone and speech processor that turns sound into signals that the brain can understand. (Some cochlear implants actually allow the user to plug an MP3 player or smartphone's audio output directly into their processor, like jacking a digital audio source straight into your brain. How cool is that?)

    But the result isn't exactly hearing – at least, not as most people know it.

    In Brief: FDA Approves "Luke" Prosthetic Arm

    Last Friday, the FDA announced its approval of the DEKA Arm, a new prosthetic arm that is the first to respond to multiple electrical signals from the wearer's muscles to perform complex tasks. FDA approval--granted after a VA study in which 90% of testers were able to successfully use the device--means that the arm system is now allowed to be marketed and sold to amputees. The DARPA-backed arm, which is nicknamed "Luke" after The Empire Strikes Back, allows for wearers to perform six grip patters, which facilitate tasks like holding a cordless drill, picking up delicate fruit, operating key locks, and combing hair. It weighs as much as a natural arm, and is modular to be fitted to anyone who's suffered any degree of limb loss. DEKA research's next step is to find a commercial partner to manufacture and sell the prosthetic.

    Norman