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    Weird Ways Your Brain Triggers Pleasure

    The brain is a fascinating thing. Over our lifetimes, it makes billions of unique neural connections to guide our behavior towards pleasure and away from pain. But pleasure is a fascinating thing, and some very unlikely stimuli can make us feel it. Today, we’ll explore nine things that scientists, doctors and mindhackers have done to give themselves good feelings.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Ann Ross, Forensic Anthropologist

    When someone is murdered, the medical examiner isn't always able to discover the cause of death. Sometimes, especially in cases where a body has been buried for a long time, they have to call in a scientist that specializes in understanding how bones work. Ann Ross is a forensic anthropologist and the co-director of the Forensic Sciences Institute at North Carolina State University. It's her job to help authorities find buried bodies and inspect their bones to help puzzle out what brought about their demise. Ross chatted with us about what it's like to adapt tricks of the archaeological trade to find success in her unconventional field work.

    What's a forensic anthropologist?

    That's a good question because I always ask people what they think it is and I get so many different answers! It's the applied discipline of biological anthropology or skeletal biology. We are experts on bones. A lot of skeletal biologists are dealing with prehistoric or past populations but we apply that to contemporary issues or issues of the law.

    What kind of law? Is it crimes that have happened recently?

    Not necessarily recent. A lot of time we're experts in the tools that make some kind of pattern on the bone or a trauma. The medical legal community, the medical examiner, or law enforcement need our help in identifying the class of weapon that make the wound. Or was the fracture made at around the time of death or post mortem.

    The skeleton can tell us so much. We can tell everything that you do in life--it's almost mapped on your bones.

    Where is your lab? Do you work out of police offices?

    Most of us work in the university context. Quite a few of us work in medical examiner offices. There are other government agencies that contract forensics or have one on staff. I work at North Carolina State and when there's a case I get a phone call or an email. It can be from a medical examiner's office or the sheriff's department or the SBI. Generally it's remains that I need to see. I either go pick them up or bring them to the laboratory. A lot of times we reexamine cold cases. So it can be as old as the 70s or as recent as a year ago.

    10 Weird Ways Inventors Want To Harness Energy

    As fossil fuels dry up and human consumption continues to increase, scientists are starting to get a little worried about how we’re going to power our civilization moving forward. Sure, alternative energy sources like solar and wind are already gaining a foothold, but we need more. Today, we’ll examine ten inventors who want to get juice from some very unusual sources.

    In Brief: The Mystery of Dancing Droplets

    Back in March, Stanford researchers announced that they had found an explanation for an interesting phenomena: droplets of food coloring on glass spontaneously move and interact with each other. From the Stanford Report: "A puzzling observation, pursued through hundreds of experiments, has led Stanford researchers to a simple yet profound discovery: Under certain circumstances, droplets of fluid will move like performers in a dance choreographed by molecular physics." Super cool, thoughtfully explained, and the video (below) is beautiful.

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    10 Upcoming Products That May Change Modern Life

    It’s an exciting time to be alive – the pace of human progress is faster than it’s ever been, with fantastic scientific innovations hitting the market seemingly every day. Just as the Internet and other technologies have changed the world in our lifetime, some upcoming products might just do the same. Here’s our guide to ten technologies that could be near-future gamechangers.

    10 Weird Things About Traffic And Your Commute

    Although more and more people are working from home, the telecommuting revolution hasn’t extended to everybody quite yet. Most of us still have to hop in our cars and commute to work every day. Today, we’ll dive deep into your daily drive to reveal some unexpected elements that influence your commute.

    The 10 Foods That Make Your Urine Smell The Most

    The human digestive system is a truly wondrous machine, capable of processing a wide range of inputs into just a few outputs. One of those necessary waste products is urine, a normally clear or yellowish liquid secreted by the kidneys that helps clear out the nitrogen and other byproducts created by cellular metabolism. Typically, urine has a mild odor, but your diet can affect it in a number of ways. Let’s take a trip through your kitchen to find the foods that do a number on the odor of your liquid waste.

    The State of Computer Vision Research

    At the recent TED conference, computer vision expert Fei-Fei Li explains how she and the researchers at the Stanford Computer Vision Lab are developing ways to teach computers visual perception by studying human vision. Her breakthrough a decade ago: instead of simply improving object recognition algorithms, her team increased the quantity and quality of input fed to the program to the tune of 15 million photos.

    Biomimetics: Studying the Striking Power of the Mantis Shrimp

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Not many folks would look at a shrimp and call it the “crown jewel” of their research, but that’s exactly how David Kisailus refers to the Mantis shrimp, a crustacean that’s famous for its ability to, well, punch stuff to death. The unique properties of the animal’s boxing glove-like claw make it the perfect subject for unraveling the complex problem of impact resistance.

    Kisailus, who runs UC Riverside's Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, explains: “The organism is smacking with more than 500 newtons of force and it’s only 4 inches long. It’s accelerating underwater faster than a 22 caliber bullet. It’s one of the fastest striking organisms on the planet. It impacts thousands of times. How can it do that and resist failure? That’s why we started studying it.”

    The mantis shrimp isn’t actually a shrimp, it’s actually a crustacean that earned its name from its shrimp-like body. The non-shrimp evolved 400 million years ago as a spear fisherman. It would hunt by shooting barbed spears at its soft-bodied prey. But its prey eventually evolved to avoid the dangers of the pointy killing method by growing shells and exoskeletons. So the Mantis shrimp had to evolve too, splitting off into a group that could use its elbow to smash open the prey that its cousins couldn’t spear. Though some still spear, the clubbing verson’s boxing glove (which still has a vestigial barb at the end) is made up of a series of highly complex and organized internal parts.

    Photo credit: Flickr user wwarby via Creative Commons.

    “It’s not your standard biological composite, which has just one component,” says Kisailus of why he is studying the material makeup of the shrimp’s punching claw. “Within the club are three separate regions and each has its own function.”

    9 "Lost" Inventions That Could Come In Handy Today

    The march of progress is fairly linear – scientific discoveries build on each other and life on Earth slowly gets better, or at least easier. But sometimes there are hiccups in this timeline. One thing that’s happened more than we like to admit is inventions and discoveries simply being lost, whether taken to the grave by their inventors or otherwise vanished to the mists of time. Today, we spotlight nine lost inventions that we’d really like to see rediscovered.

    Strange Things Buried In Time Capsules

    The experience of opening up a time capsule is unreal – it’s like your ancestors are reaching forward from the past to share what was really important to them. But, as more and more capsules are opened, we’re starting to find that what was important was also really weird. Here are some bizarre things that we thought were worth sharing with the future.

    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

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    In Brief: The Man Who Can hear Wi-Fi

    I'm deeply fascinated in the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia: the effect of experiencing one sense when another is being activated (eg. seeing colors in words or hearing music in colors). Equally interesting are the people who artificially augment their senses to simulate that effect. Artist Neil Harbisson is a notable artificial synesthete who implanted an antenna into his skull so he could perceive wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. He's also the world's first recognized cyborg. New Scientist has a story written by another artificial synesthete, Frank Swain, who built a system for converting the characteristics of wireless networks into sound.

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    In Brief: Why Do Most Pencil Erasers Suck?

    The Atlantic's technology blog recently tackled a question that I'm sure we've all thought about at some point--especially those of us who've taken Scantron tests in secondary school: why do pencil erasers suck? The little nubs we're familiar with started appearing on the end of graphite pencils in the US some 250 years ago, but the materials they've been made of have changed over the years. They used to be made of rubber, but were shifted to plastic polymers to lower cost. Those thermoplastics and synthetics just don't have the same abrasive quality of real rubber to scrape lead off paper. I was also surprised to learn that the eraser-tipped pencil is largely a US phenomenon. International readers--what did your school pencils look like?

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    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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    The Scientific Origins Of Monsters And Mythical Creatures

    Monsters aren’t real, right? As Halloween draws nearer, you might not be so sure – especially after you read this piece. Some of the most famous monsters of all time are actually drawn from real-life creatures and events. Let’s dig up some graves and find out where these creeps came from.

    In Brief: Death Valley's Sailing Stones Mystery Solved

    The mystery of Death Valley's famous moving stones has finally been solved. For almost a century, geologists have been puzzled by the movement of stoves along a dry lake bed called Racetrack Playa in the California desert. The moving stones, which weigh up to 700 pounds, travelled up to 3000 feet in their journey, seemingly without any human or animal assistance. To study their movements, geologists in 2011 tagged 15 rocks with GPS loggers and time-lapse cameras, and even buried magnetic triggers beneath some to test popular theories. They found the perfect combination of light wind and layer of thin ice on the lake bed was the cause of the movement. In the video below, Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris describes the discovery.

    Norman
    In Brief: The Science of Designing Slot Machines

    Among all the artifice and constructs in a Las Vegas casino, none may be more engineered to entrance visitors and suck their wallets dry than the venerable slot machine. The evolution of the one-armed bandit is the topic of this Vox feature, which chronicles the many innovations and psychological tricks that slow machine designers employ to keep players in those ergonomic stools. These games are another example of activities that tap into psychological "flow"--even the architecture of the casino floor is designed to make the most persistent players feel like they're holed up in a private nook, free from the outside world. It's pretty scary stuff. MIT cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, who was interviewed for Vox's report, has written a book about the ongoing manipulation of human-[slot]-machine interaction, and was previously featured in this 2013 episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

    Norman
    10 Dirty Secrets Of Big Cruise Ships

    Cruises are popular options for vacationers who like to get rid of the stress and uncertainty of traveling. But all’s not well below-decks on these massive cruise ships. Today, we’ll expose ten dirty secrets of the big cruise ships.

    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.