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    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.

    The History of the Triage Tag

    I really enjoyed this Fast Company article about the history of the triage tag. Triage is used to categorize patients, victims of a disaster, or injured soldiers based on the level of care they need. The triage tag is was designed during the Cold War to convey each patient's triage status between first responders at a disaster scene when there's no infrastructure in place.

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    Tested Explains: How Scientists Prevent Whales from Exploding

    Exploding whales are all the Internet rage right now--there's a beached blue whale at risk of doing so in a small Canadian town right now. And as much fun as it may be to watch giant, rotting corpses spew guts all over innocent bystanders, that’s not realistically how a dead whale usually goes out. Scientists in every ocean-facing state in the US very closely monitor all mammals that wash up on our nation’s beaches. Every time a whale hits sand, stranding teams with specialized educations and government permits head to the scene and, if the whale is dead, take quick action to necropsy it (autopsy on an animal).

    A blue whale carcass washed up last week in Trout River, Newfoundland, Canada. Credit: NTV News

    And there are two important facts about beached whales that have been left out of most of the stories you've read. First: You can vent a whale before it gets severely bloated, which scientists do all the time. Second: A whale is not going to explode unless you poke it.

    To get a better understanding of what really happens when a dead whale ends up on a beach I called up Ari Friedlaender, an assistant professor at the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. He spent six years coordinating North Carolina’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program. During that time Friedlaender necropsied about 500 marine mammals, roughly 60 of which were whales. He says the majority of the time, scientists take a whale apart before it has a chance to become too bloated. It’s important to necropsy a mammal within two hours of washing up on shore -- that’s when the organs are most intact and useful for science. After 24 hours of sitting, the carcasses have decomposed too much to be useful for research. At that point scientists will come in, measure and deflate the body, cut it up, and bury it so that people can get back to enjoying their beach. Of all the whales he’s necropsied, only about 12 were so far gone that they couldn’t be used for scientific purposes.

    It’s extremely unusual for a whale to explode without human intervention. “Whales don’t blow up unless we make them,” he says. “All the videos that you see isn’t a whale blowing up by itself, it’s someone poking it or putting pressure on it. Left to their own devices the whale will naturally deflate on its own.”

    So how do you degass a whale? It’s all about getting the right angle. But first, let's explain why whale carcasses explode in the first place.

    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.

    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.

    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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    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.

    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.