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    The Story of the Exploding Brain

    On our Halloween episode of Still Untitled, Adam Savage and Will Smith welcomed UCSF's Joe DeRisi, a biochemist specializing in molecular biology, parasitology, genomics, virology, and computational biology. His stories were so horrifying and amazing, we've isolated one here for your reading pleasure.

    Joe DeRisi: So ... can I tell a story?

    Adam Savage: Please.

    Joe DeRisi: So this all started with a 74-year-old woman here in San Francisco who came to the Chinese hospital with what looked like a UTI infection. She had a little altered mental status. They gave her a Z-Pak and sent her on her way. But then a couple days later she has complete blindness in one eye, but no wound, just vision stopped in one eye.

    Adam Savage: Wow.

    Joe DeRisi: So she went to St. Mary's. They got a look at her there, and they thought, "Okay, well, we don't understand what's going." They did an MRI. "Okay, it may be strokes, and you're of that age; it could be something to do with that." But she had a weird cough too. Anytime there's a weird cough ... and she emigrated from China like 12 years ago or something, so they said, "Go to the general, get a TB exam just in case." A couple days later her family wheels her into the general, and she's comatose. They actually wheel her in comatose.

    Visualizing Energy Inside a Microwave Oven!

    Have you ever wondered why your microwave oven has a rotating turntable, or what exactly makes water boil inside a microwave? This week, we're joined by Zeke Kossover from The Exploratorium to demonstrate an experiment that visualizes microwave energy in the form of a light show. Plus, we show how glass can absorb microwaves by melting a soda bottle!

    Steve Erenberg Collects Scientific Instruments of Yore

    From Science Friday: "For more than 30 years, Steve Erenberg has collected early scientific and medical objects and instruments. Packed with shelves and displays brimming with Victorian medical masks, surreal anatomical models, and futuristic test prostheses, Erenberg's store/museum in Peekskill, New York offers a whirlwind tour of long-forgotten devices. While some items were shams devised by quacks, others represent the best possible treatment for their time. Regardless of its actual function, each item in Erenberg's collection has a unique aesthetic value."

    Aging Suit Simulates Experience of Old Age

    Speaking of conceptual transhuman experiences, here's video of an "aging suit" that simulates the experience of being 75 years old. The Atlantic's James Hamblin tests this exoskeleton, which limits movement, impairs hearing, and blurs vision (to approximate cataracts). It's the latest invention of technologist (and ex-Imagineer) Bran Ferren's Applied Minds, and is intended to get people talking about issues around aging and long-term care.

    In Brief: Real Life Goat Simulator

    Our buddy and former writer Matt Braga reports on an experiment by English speculative designer Thomas Thwaites, who recently investigated what life would be like living as goat. As in, Thwaites donned custom limb prosthetics and lived among goats for a few days in the Swiss Alps. The bizarre experiment is more performance art project than scientific endeavor, but totally worth it for the surreal photographs.

    Fluid Dynamics and The Lollipop Hypothesis

    From Science Friday: "It's not just generations of children who have pondered how many licks it takes to reach the center of a lollipop. Mathematicians studying fluid dynamics at NYU's Applied Mathematics Lab designed experiments to watch how lollipops dissolve, and in doing so answered this epic childhood question."

    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.

    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.

    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.”

    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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    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.

    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.

    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.

    The Case for Leaving Shipwrecks at the Bottom of the Ocean

    For over 500 year historians have wondered: where in the world is Christopher Columbus' lost ship? The Santa Maria was the largest of three ships to sail across the Atlantic on Columbus' first voyage, but the only one to sink.

    In May, a well-known undersea explorer by the name of Barry Clifford announced he may have found the missing ship off the coast of Haiti. It's there that records say the Santa Maria hit reef and met its watery end. But if that turns out to be the case, don't expect to see the Santa Maria's salvaged remains on display in a museum anytime soon. Removing a wreck from the ocean floor – particularly a very old wreck such as this – is often the last thing that archaeologists and historians want to do.

    An artist's interpretation of the grounding of the Santa Maria.

    In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a document with the aim of strengthening the protection of so-called underwater cultural heritage sites – environments that have traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character, and have remained in water for at least 100 years.

    As far as wrecks are concerned, "The preservation in situ of underwater cultural heritage shall be considered as the first option before allowing or engaging in any activities directed at this heritage," the document states. The short version is that leaving the ship and its artifacts where they were found – in situ – might actually do more to preserve and conserve the site than raising them from the water. But there are and have been exceptions.

    "The principle is that, yes, you can still recover things if they're threatened," says Marc-André Bernier, chief underwater archaeologist for the government agency Parks Canada. "If there is a research question that you can only answer by excavation then it's justified. But the principle is that if it's somewhere, it has a sense in that place, so if you can, you should try to leave it there."

    In other words, context is important. And once you excavate a shipwreck, you lose details about its history and fate. "The site or the shipwreck has a story to tell. And when you excavate it's like reading a book, which is the story of a ship. But the pages disappear as you read them," Bernier says. "And if you don't take notes and record everything, you're only relying on your memory."

    But leaving a shipwreck in situ can sometimes be just as damaging as recovering the remains.

    Regenerating Plastic Grows Back After Damage

    "Professor Scott White discusses the research breakthrough that allows [damaged] plastic to not only heal, but truly regenerate. Self-healing materials have been around for about a decade. But they have never been able to heal damage much larger than the width of a human hair. Now, White and his colleagues Jeff Moore and Nancy Sottos have developed plastic that can regenerate damage as large as a bullet hole. The plastic regenerates when two chemical channels in the material mix at a damaged area. This reaction forms a gel which fills in the hole and eventually hardens, similar to blood clotting in a wound."

    Tested: Grinding Coffee at 2000 Frames Per Second

    We're testing high-speed cameras this week, and to kick things off, here's a test of the Edgertronic camera, shooting coffee being ground at 2000 frames per second. That turns a ten-second clip into 10 minutes of awesome slow-mo goodness. So grab a cup of coffee, put on your favorite adult contemporary album, and enjoy action.