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    Awesome Jobs: Meet Linda Gormezano, Polar Bear Poop Tracker

    Understanding the changing dietary habits of polar bears is the key to seeing how climate change and shrinking polar ice is affecting their lifestyles. And the best way to know what’s happening with their diet? Look at their poop, of course! Linda Gormezano, an ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has trained her dog Quinoa to help her find the best samples left by bears as they cross the frozen Canadian tundra. Gormezano chatted with us about why poop is such a useful scientific specimen and what it’s like to spend months living in a camp in the heart of polar bear country.

    A grouping of adult male polar bears along the coast of western Hudson Bay in summer (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

    What’s ecology and how does it apply to polar bear research?

    Ecology is the interaction between animals and the environment. What we’re studying is how polar bears behave on land with respect to available food -- what they eat and where they eat it. What I’m particularly interested in is how they hunt other animals and how the calories they gain from consuming them are going to affect their annual energy budget as their access to ice becomes more limited.

    We collect scat and hair samples non-invasively. After consuming food on the ice or on land some bears leave scat. Also some bears rest right along the coast, bedding down in sand and grass where they leave hairs behind, while others head further inland and leave hair in dens.

    Linda Gormezano and her dog, Quinoa. (photo credit: AMNH)

    What, exactly, is an energy budget?

    Nobody really knows how often polar bears in western Hudson Bay capture seals, but they get a certain amount of energy from consuming seals they hunt out on the ice and that energy allows them to survive on land for 4-5 months each year. If the ice melting earlier each year causes polar bears to have less time to hunt seal pups in spring, they may be taking in fewer calories over the course of the year.

    What we want to know is, now that they’re eating more of certain types of foods on land, what kind of energetic benefits might polar bears be experiencing? Up until now many have thought what they were eating on land wasn’t really helping them at all. To evaluate this, we are examining the energetic costs and benefits of capturing and consuming those foods as well as how often the behavior occurs. Only then can we determine whether these foods could help alleviate nutritional deficits that polar bears may come ashore with.

    Inside the Operations of the Cryonics Institute

    "We Will Live Again looks inside the unusual and extraordinary operations of the Cryonics Institute. The documentary short film follows Ben Best and Andy Zawacki, the caretakers of 99 deceased human bodies stored at below freezing temperatures in cryopreservation." The Cryonics Institute is one of only a handful of facilities in the world that offer cryonics services, in an industry estimated to have over 250 deceased humans currently cyropreserved. Wired explored those facilities in 2012. Cryonics is just one field of research being conducted by those to who hope to evade death; The Immortalists is a new documentary that follows the research of two scientists in search of a way to reverse aging.

    How Researchers Want To Help Humanity Live Forever

    The final enemy, as the saying goes, is death. No matter how many diseases and disasters human progress conquers, there’s still that tombstone at the end of the road. But for how much longer? Some scientists are working on ways to extend our lifespan, and today we’ll examine some of their more promising (or least the weirder) ideas.

    The Chemistry Behind Sriracha's Appeal

    Why do our taste buds crave the flavor of rooster sauce? Reactions--a YouTube channel produced by the American Chemical Society--breaks down the chemical ingredients of the popular condiment to explain how it affects our brains. Perfect timing to celebrate the ending of the great Sriracha crisis of late 2013, after the California Department of Public Health halted shipments of Sriracha from its Southern California factory for 30 days. But did you know that there are plenty of rooster sauce alternatives in supermarkets? That's one taste test we'd love to do.

    Photographing All of the World's Coral Reefs

    How do you understand global change of a system that’s underwater and impossible to photograph from above? Build a giant submersible camera system controlled by expert dive photographers, of course.

    The world’s reef systems are deteriorating. Corals are going away at a rate of about 1 - 2 percent every year. Some areas are harder hit than others. In the last 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost 53 percent of its corals and the Caribbean has lost 80 percent. That’s a big deal because reef systems are basically cities for fish. One quarter of all the ocean’s life makes their home there. If the ocean’s corals disappear then much of the life in the ocean disappears too. For humans, that means we can no longer depend on reef systems for food, protection from weather, tourism, and medicine.

    So, we know reefs are important. And we know they’re deteriorating. What we don’t have is a visual understanding of how these reef systems are changing and any capability to compare changes to themselves or each other over time. To change that, professional underwater photographers have gotten together with ocean scientists to create the Global Reef Record -- a world-wide Google Maps-like photographic index of all of the coral systems in the entire world.

    “We’re creating a global baseline,” says Richard Vevers, executive director of the survey. “We’ve been travelling around the world using a standard protocol for collection imagery, which allows us to do a global comparison.”

    In order to accurately capture every reef on earth with consistency and 360-degree panoramic views, Vevers, who has a background in professional underwater photography, had to engineer and build a special camera. “Initially it came from an understanding of underwater photography, which is very different. We looked at taking the Google Streetview camera underwater, but we needed much wider angle lenses and we needed to be able to take shots in low visibility and low light. We also needed change exposure as we were moving without having to access the camera.”

    The solution was to build the camera completely from scratch and then mount it on an underwater scooter. The entire $50,000 system is manipulated by a waterproofed tablet, with specially designed apps, that can be controlled by divers who move a magnetic mouse that operates a button inside the tablet’s glass box.

    The Science of Sleep Paralysis

    An oldie but a goodie. Educator Ami Angelowicz explains in this TED-Ed video why some people feel the sensation of sleep paralysis. Turns out it's a pretty common phenomenon caused by an overlap in your REM and waking stages of the sleep cycle. It's a likely explanation for alien abduction stories.

    The Magnified World, Up Close

    The human eye is an incredible biological machine, but it has its limits. One of them is scale. There’s a whole world of beauty and surprises lurking underneath our eyes, and all we have to do is blow it up a little. In this feature, we’ll share amazing looks at ten common and not so common substances magnified hundreds of times.

    In Brief: The Origin of Sherlock's Mind Palace

    Series three of the BBC's Sherlock has come and gone, and yes, it was fantastic. (Despite an uneasy relationship with fandom). This season of the show leaned heavily on the concept of Sherlock's "mind palace," which while ripe for pop culture adoption as a novel symbol of the titular character's quirkiness, also turns out to be a real memory technique. The Smithsonian explores the Greek origins of the memory palace, which was used by orators to recall long speeches. Cognitive psychologists have historically pegged human working memory as able to store around 7 (plus or minus two) objects. This TED talk by a winner of a US Memory Championship (a real thing!) covers similar ground, and offers more practical advice. Videos from these competitions is intense. I learned about the memory palace concept as part of my cognitive science studies in school, but have never found it personally effective. My preferred memorization technique: chunking.

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    Surprising Things Scientists are Learning about Memory

    The human body is relatively well-understood. The human mind? Not so much. That lump of gray matter sitting in our skulls has millions of mysteries waiting to be unlocked, and one of the biggest is memory. We have a general idea of how memory works on a macro level – individual neurons get connections strengthened or weakened – but there’s a lot going on under the hood. Today, we’ll examine ten fascinating new discoveries and theories in memory science.

    Jamie and Adam's Gates Foundation Video

    As we talked about on this week's episode of Still Untitled, Jamie and Adam visited the Gates Foundation to help Bill and Melinda Gates with a video to promote the 2014 Gates Annual Letter. The theme of this year's letter was exposing three myths that block progress for the poor, and it's an important read. Bill Gates, Bill Nye, and doctor Hans Rosling also starred in videos explaining each of the myths. You can find some behind-the-scenes photos from Jamie and Adam's trip here.

    In Brief: Google's Smart Contact Lenses

    A big story we didn't get to cover last week was Google's announcement of its smart contact lens project, being developed by University of Washington engineering professors Brian Otis and Babak Parviz as low-power biosensors to detect low glucose levels in diabetics. The technology, described in detail in this Re/Code article, squeezes a tiny tear-activated glucose sensor and chip between biocompatible materials to make up contact lens. As Re/Code states, it's an application of Moore's Law that utilizes shrinking transistor sizes to make the tiny embedded chip possible. But as cool as a "smart contact lens" may sound, Techcrunch notes that it's a technology that researchers have been developing for a while, including Parviz himself in a collaboration with Microsoft Research. In terms of how this technology may be applicable to non-diabetics, Otis and Parviz says they're exploring embedding LED lights in their lenses for visual feedback--research we've written about before. And Om Malik's pragmatic analysis of Google's announcement is an opinion worth reading--as someone with diabetes, he wonders why Google's researchers didn't take alternate approaches that may be more accessible, like a smart patch. Malik points out that diabetic patients are actually recommended to not wear contact lenses at all.

    What Science Prescribes for Your Love Life

    We're fans of the application of science in all aspects of live, even in non-traditional venues. But there’s not a single element of human existence that can’t be improved by the addition of a little logical thinking – even the very illogical art of love. Today, we’ll share ten prescriptions backed by scientific research to improve your love life.

    This Transparent Flexible Circuit Fits on a Contact Lens

    Silicon-based circuitry is so passé. Who wants to look at a circuit embedded in silicon when there are bendable, transparent, micrometer-thick circuits to gawk at? Such a thing exists, as a group of Swiss researchers have shown in their research paper "Wafer-scale design of lightweight and transparent electronics that wraps around hairs." As a proof-of-concept, the researchers have embedded a tiny transparent circuit in a contact lens. The circuit sits just over the pupil. You might need a magnifying glass to get a good look.

    Smithsonian Mag explains that the circuit embedded in a contact lens could help monitor intraocular pressure of those who suffer from glaucoma, but this is just an early implementation of the tiny circuit. In the future, the researchers hope to use it in other areas of biometric science, implanted in the body after surgery to track blood pressure or unobtrusively attached to the skin.

    Photo credit: Giovanni A Salvatore via Smithsonian Mag.

    The circuit's physical flexibility should make for wide-ranging implementations. The circuits "are printed on a one-micrometer thick layer of a substance called parylene" in a complex process, Smithsonian Mag writes. "To begin, the scientists deposit the parylene on vinyl polymer that provides support, then print the circuitry on top of the parylene. Afterward, the entire chip is placed in water, which dissolves the underlying polymer, leaving the ultra thin circuitry intact. The result is something that’s about one-sixtieth as thick as a human hair."

    It's so thin, it can wrap around a human hair. Or a finger, in larger sizes. Now here's the bad news about this circuit's flexibility: It can't do everything by itself. It's a circuit, not a sensor or a battery, which means it needs to be paired with those things to read your blood pressure or serve any other biometric function. Before the circuitry is useful, it'll have to be paired with other similarly flexible and thin components.

    That will take years. The good news, though, is those technologies are in the works, too. Remember that flexible battery we wrote about last year? Perhaps these two things are meant to be together. Converge faster, technology!

    How Archaeologists May Have Discovered the Origin of Domesticated Cats

    Kids learn a couple basic truths about cats from a young age. They always land on their feet after a fall; they purr when they're happy; they chase mice. That last bit of common wisdom about cats may actually be the key to their domestication more than 5,000 years ago in China.

    The setup: A new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences includes archeological evidence linking together a chain of events that led to the domestication of cats. In the beginning, we were but two species. In the end, we were united in a mutual war against the mice.

    "The story begins with agriculture," writes The Atlantic. "About 5,560-5,280 years ago in the Shaanxi region of central China, humans were experiencing an agricultural boom...They had small villages, with clusters of homes, cemeteries, and communal areas. They kept pigs and dogs and grew crops, primarily millet but a bit of rice, too, which they kept in ceramic vessels. Now, these farmers had a bit of a problem: rodents."

    Photo credit: Flickr user mharrsch via Creative Commons

    You can probably guess where this story goes. There were cats around, and those cats ate the rodents, which kept the farmers' millet safe. Humans realized keeping the cats around was advantageous, so they didn't kill them, and even began to offer them food and shelter.

    So that's the end of the story. It's logical, and unremarkable. But something about it is remarkable, if you ask this question: How did archeologists figure all this out? That story's more involved.

    Doing It Wrong: Hot Water and Antibacterial Soap Don't Help Kill Germs

    We all thought we knew how to wash our hands. We're taught the basics as young kids: Use hot water to help kill germs and bacteria. Use antibacterial soap to get your hands squeaky clean. And now it turns out that neither of those bits of advice are actually true. The world has just been turned upside-down, and its hands are dirty.

    First, that business about hot water. It's true that hot water will kill off bacteria, but only at temperatures that would seriously damage your skin. National Geographic, reporting on a Vanderbilt University study, writes "boiling water, 212°F (99.98°C), is sometimes used to kill germs-for example, to disinfect drinking water that might be contaminated with pathogens. But 'hot' water for hand washing is generally within 104°F to 131°F (40°C to 55°C.) At the high end of that range, heat could kill some pathogens, but the sustained contact that would be required would scald the skin."

    Cold water, is just as effective at washing hands as lukewarm or hot water. 40°F (4.4°C) cold water appeared to be just as effective as hot in Vanderbilt's study, carried out by research assistant professor Amanda Carrico. Carrico even points out that heating water to wash hands is incredibly wasteful.

    Photo credit: Flickr user skypream via Creative Commons

    Americans collectively wash their hands 800 billion times per year, and about 64 percent of the time it's using wastefully warm water. The waste adds up to create a few depressing numbers--six million tons of unnecessary CO2 emissions, aka two coal power plants or the entirety of Barbados' annual emissions. We should probably stop washing our hands with hot water.

    Now, the soap thing: AP reports that the results of some 40-year studies are in, and the government finally agrees that antibacterial soaps aren't doing much good. "After more than 40 years of study, the U.S. government says it has found no evidence that common anti-bacterial soaps prevent the spread of germs, and regulators want the makers of Dawn, Dial and other household staples to prove that their products do not pose health risks to consumers," writes the Associated Press.

    At the beginning of 2013, we wrote about studies concerning the antibacterial agent Triclosan. The antibacterial agent isn't just in soap, but in everyday household objects like pizza cutters. Scientists were worried that its overuse was creating resistant bacteria, and studies also showed it posing health risks to some people, aggravating symptoms of asthma and allergies.

    Those studies just got backup. The AP writes: "Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration announced Monday that they are revisiting the safety of triclosan and other sanitizing agents found in soap in countless kitchens and bathrooms. Recent studies suggest triclosan and similar substances can interfere with hormone levels in lab animals and spur the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. The government's preliminary ruling lends new support to outside researchers who have long argued that the chemicals are, at best, ineffective and at worst, a threat to public health."

    Plain old soap may be just as effective, and ultimately better for you, than the antibacterial variety. And hand sanitizers that use alcohol also avoid the potential pitfalls of antibacterial agents while still being effective.

    For their part, the antibacterial soap makers say they have sent the FDA data proving antibacterial soap is more effective at killing germs. Even if they're right, we should probably cut back on the use of triclosan in the objects we use to prepare and store our food. Potentially making bacteria harder to kill is still a bad idea.

    The Problem Isn't How Much You Sleep, It's When You Sleep

    In the mid-1800s, the United States was not divided up into four time zones, as it is now. It was divided into 144 time zones, each city setting its clock by the position of the sun overhead. You can imagine why this became a problem when railroads began to criss-cross the country. Who the hell could keep straight what time a train would arrive in Chicago when there were dozens of time zones separating it from New York? As crazy as that system of time may have been, though, it was likely healthier for our bodies. According to an article in The New Yorker, many of us sleep poorly, and have trouble waking up, because we're not actually sleeping when we should be.

    "The difference between one’s actual, socially mandated wake-up time and one’s natural, biologically optimal wake-up time is something that Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, calls 'social jetlag,' " explains The New Yorker. "It’s a measurement not of sleep duration but of sleep timing: Are we sleeping in the windows of time that are best for our bodies? According to Roenneberg’s most recent estimates, based on a database of more than sixty-five thousand people, approximately a third of the population suffers from extreme social jetlag—an average difference of over two hours between their natural waking time and their socially obligated one. Sixty-nine per cent suffer from a milder form, of at least one hour."

    Photo credit: Flickr user voglesonger via Creative Commons

    So we're often not sleeping when we should be. That's bad, right? According to Roenneberg's research, it's very bad. He's correlated every hour of social jetlag with a 33 percent greater chance of obesity, and claims that night shift workers suffer unusually high rates of medical issues due to their sleep schedules. She says social jetlag "could be the most prevalent high-risk behaviour in modern society." And it affects cognition, too--another study showed that med student performance was affected more by when they slept than by how much they slept.

    The New Yorker links the concept of social jetlag with another sleep concern called sleep inertia. Sleep inertia refers to that groggy period of waking up in the morning, which actually lasts longer than we think. It can take a couple hours after waking up for sleep inertia to wear off--the prefrontal cortex takes awhile to fully come on line--and memory, decision making, and other functions are impaired during that time. Even if we think we're awake after half an hour, our brain isn't necessarily firing on all cylinders just yet.

    It can take a couple hours after waking up for sleep inertia to wear off and memory, decision making, and other functions are impaired during that time.

    The good news, according to The New Yorker, is that dealing with social jetlag would likely deal with sleep inertia. Another experiment discovered that adjusting sleep schedules to more natural times saw a dramatic decrease in sleep inertia. Neuroscientist Kenneth Wright sent a group of subjects out on a camping trip, and concluded that displaced melatonin is to blame for our poor morning wakefulness.

    "In the days leading up to the trip, he had noted that the subjects’ bodies would begin releasing the sleep hormone melatonin about two hours prior to sleep, around 10:30 P.M," writes The New Yorker. "A decrease in the hormone, on the other hand, took place after wake-up, around 8 A.M. After the camping trip, those patterns had changed significantly. Now the melatonin levels increased around sunset—and decreased just after sunrise, an average of fifty minutes before wake-up time. In other words, not only did the time outside, in the absence of artificial light and alarm clocks, make it easier for people to fall asleep, it made it easier for them to wake up: the subjects’ sleep rhythms would start preparing for wake-up just after sunrise, so that by the time they got up, they were far more awake than they would have otherwise been."

    If we all adhered to our natural sleep schedules, we'd probably be far more productive over the course of a day. At the very least, we wouldn't go through the groggy snooze button ritual every morning as we convince ourselves a few more minutes of sleep is going to help us wake up.

    Prosthetic Hand Lets Its Wearer Experience Touch

    An experimental new prosthetic limb has given wearers the ability to experience the sense of touch from the prosthetic, reports Technology Review. Normally, prosthetic limbs can help amputees regain some of the abilities of a lost limb. But touch is not among those abilities, because the prosthetic doesn't interface with the nervous system like a flesh-and-blood limb. This prototype prosthetic hand, however, created by researchers at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University, can convey a sense of touch in 20 different spots on the hand.

    "It does this by directly stimulating nerve bundles—known as peripheral nerves—in the arms of patients; two people have so far been fitted with the interface," writes Technology Review. "What’s more, the implants continue to work after 18 months, a noteworthy milestone given that electrical interfaces to nerve tissue can gradually degrade in performance."

    The prosthetic is the first of its kind to create lasting nerve stimulation over such a long period, and may also have set a record for the number of distinct touch sensations it can recognize. It uses a piece of technology called a cuff electrode, which holds a bundle of nerve fibers. "A total of 20 electrodes on the three cuffs deliver electrical signals to nerve fibers called axons from outside a protective sheath of living cells that surround those nerve fibers," explains Technology Review.

    Other experiments with nerves penetrate the sheath to make contact with the electrons, which offers the potential for a "higher resolution" touch sensation, but is more likely to degrade the signal path. This experiment's approach proves the value of an alternative method, given its 18 months of functionality.

    One test subject was able to successfully pluck the stems from cherries without applying too much pressure to them, as seen in the video below. He also experienced a variety of sensations with the prosthetic that were produced by modifying electrical signals, ranging from the soft sensation of a cotton ball to the rough texture of sandpaper.

    The Mathematical Law that Predicts City Sizes

    Math is weird. Take, for example, Zipf's law, which io9 wrote about on Monday. Linguist George Zipf discovered, back in the 1940s, that if he ranked words by their popular usage, a surprising pattern appeared. The most popular word was used twice as frequently as the next most popular, and that word was used twice as frequently as the next most popular, and so on. Zipf called this the rank vs. frequency rule, though it's now known as Zipf's law. And Zipf's law doesn't just apply to words. It applies to the sizes of cities, too.

    Strangely, the population distribution among cities in many countries follows the pattern of Zipf's law. It doesn't work 100 percent of the time, but Zipf's law is surprisingly accurate when applied to cities over 100,000 population.

    "Just take a look at the top ranked cities in the United States by population," io9 writes. "In the 2010 census, the biggest city in the U.S., New York, had a population of 8,175,133. Los Angeles, ranked number 2, had a population of 3,792,621. And the cities in the next three ranks, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia, clock in at 2,695,598, 2,100,263 and 1,526,006 respectively. You can see that obviously the numbers aren't exact, but looked at statistically, they are remarkably consistent with Zipf's predictions."

    Photo credit: Flickr user c1ssou via Creative Commons.

    Economist Xavier Gabaix wrote a paper titled "Zipf's Law for Cities: An Explanation" that showed cities graphed very closely to a line representing Zipf's law. Gabaix writes that Zipf's law applies to countries like the US and China and India, even though their backgrounds differ enormously. He concludes that "cities in the upper tail follow similar growth processes," referencing Gibrat's law.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing about Zipf's law, though, is how it applies to what, exactly, constitutes a city. The urban sprawl surrounding a city may not technically be considered part of the city itself, but colloquially, it certainly would. New York city, for example, has a population of about 8.3 million. But the New York metropolitan area has a population of 23.3 million.

    Turns out, Zipf's law still applies.

    Glasses vs. Hearing Aids: The Gap Between Technology and Assistive Technology

    What separates a technology from an assistive technology? We use computers and smartphones every day to interact with others, make ourselves more knowledgeable and more productive. The wheel is instrumental in getting us, and our things, from one place to another. But assistive technologies usually fit into a narrower category: Crutches and wheelchairs and hearing aids, which assist the disabled. The Atlantic ran an interview on Tuesday with Sara Hendren, who runs the website Abler, challenging that notion.

    Hendren argues that all technology is, in fact, assistive technology, which is something some scholars have argued in disability studies. Hendren's goal is to bring that point of view into the tech world.

    What kind of technology is Google Glass?

    " 'Assistive technologies' have largely taken their points of departure from medical aids, primarily because in industrialized cultures, people with atypical bodies and minds have been thought of as medical 'cases,' not as people with an expanded set of both capacities and needs," she says. "So a lot of the design attention to things like crutches, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and the like have followed the material look and structure of hospital gear. And accordingly, designers and people working in tech have 'read' them as a branch of medical technologies and, usually, uninteresting."

    Hendren points out there's a big acceptance/interest gap between technologies viewed as assistive, and technologies viewed as, more or less, normal. Glasses are a prime example. "Eyeglasses have moved culturally from being a medical aid to a fashion accessory," she says. "People who use them are getting 'assistance' in a very dependent way, but their cultural register has no stigma attached to it, the way that hearing aids still do."

    The technology behind hearing aids may be advancing all the time, making them better and smaller, but they're still not viewed as normal in the same way that glasses are. There aren't fashion designers building thousands of varieties of attractive hearing aids, either.

    Of course, there are plenty of explanations for glasses' mainstream acceptance. They've been around far longer than hearing aids, for example. But Hendren makes a good point about their design, and the segregated field of assistive technologies could likely benefit enormously from an influx of great technology designers.

    That's what Hendren is hoping for. "What I’m interested in is seeing technologies that have thus far been labeled for 'special needs' get the kind of design attention that mainstream technologies do; I’m also interested in designers and technology developers seeing needs—interdependence—as a fundamentally human social state on a universal continuum."

    Scientific Mysteries We’re No Closer To Solving

    It seems like just about every day we read about a new breakthrough that shakes the world of science to the core. But, that said, there are some things that we’re still totally stumped on. Today, we’ll spotlight ten scientific mysteries that people have been working on for generations and we’re no closer to answering. It's stuff like this that keeps us curious about the world.