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Thursday, August 15, 2013

From the world of science

Save the bees, kill the “crazy ants,” monster crabs and oysters with herpes, meet the Tick-Bot, surprising discoveries about money, peyote, and sweets, curing cultism and finally, putting things in perspective

Scientists zeroing in on cause of bee die-offs

Well, maybe. New research points to a toxic stew of pesticides and fungicides as a cause for massive bee die-offs called Colony Collapse Disorder where entire hives die off.This problem has been spreading worldwide and has farmers worried since bees are essential to pollinate the crops we count on to feed our society. 

The report points to farm chemicals that have contaminated pollen bees gather and bring back to the hives as causing the bees to be more vulnerable to a parasite suspected of cause colony collapse. These findings, if verified, make the battle to stop bee die-offs far more complicated and harder.

“Crazy Ants” invade Texas

There’s a new invasive species hitting Texas and spreading to a few locations in Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana called “crazy ants” for their erratic trail as they spread across the US South.

Originally from Argentina and Brazil, researchers believe the crazy ants hitch rides on human cargoes to spread. They are omnivorous and are good at wiping out native species, monopolizing food sources and altering the ecosystem. 

They even go after birds, cows, whatever they can sink their pinchers into.

They also attack electrical wiring and have caused $146.5 million in damage in Texas alone. According to ABC News, when one ant touches a frayed wire or transformer and is fried by the current, it releases a scent that draws other ants, until there are so many dead ants that it shuts down the system. 

That’s actually good news-bad news, as I see it. Since the ants are not susceptible to the usual Texas solution of blasting them with pesticides (see bee collapse story, above), perhaps the solution is to use strategically placed Crazy Ant Zappers® (actually, I just made that up, but think it’s a good idea) to stop their invasion.

Even Field and Stream is worried

Field and Stream Magazine columnist Bob Marshall wrote a bittersweet piece talking about how climate change hits us where we live in so many different ways.

He noted a couple of reports he came across that bode ill for two kinds of regional sea foods that practically define local culture. 

In one report that came onto his smart phone while at an oyster bacchanalia in Louisiana, researchers tied global warming to the increased incidence of the herpes virus in oysters. Talk about a downer at an oyster fest. 

The second article Marshall highlighted was one that climate change-driven chemistry changes in Chesapeake Bay were leading to a thriving population of huge crabs. But rather than be a boon for Maryland crab cake lovers, these jumbo crabs have very little meat, since they put most of their energy into capturing carbon for their over-sized shells. 

Plus, as an added surprise, these giant crabs are trashing efforts to revive the Chesapeake’s once thriving oyster fields.

A gleam of good news on the bug front

Tick-bot at work.

A team of cadets studying engineering at the Virginia Military Institute came up with an amazing ground drone that is remarkably effective at catching and killing ticks (gotta get me one of those!).

The ground drone, called an “Autonomous Tick-Collecting Robot” (I’m not making this up) is a remote guided mini-tractor that’s tricked out with carbon dioxide tanks connected to a small emitter at the front of the machine.

Ticks love the smell of CO2 – to them it means food – so the ticks are attracted toward the Tick-Bot as it slowly moves through a tick-infested area. 

The Tick-Bot (right) is dragging a couple of pieces of denim impregnated with tick-killing promethren (not dangerous to mammals). Tests show the Tick-Bot to be between 75% and 100% effective at clearing an area of ticks.

Money CAN buy happiness.

Switching disciples, we go to economics and sociology. Two University of Michigan economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, have recently published findings in the American Economic Review that there is “a robust, positive relationship between well-being and income across countries and over time.”

They dispute a long-believed principle called the “Easterlin Paradox” (after Richard Easterlin) that more money doesn’t make you are happier. That view has probably also been shared with every Progressive Charlestown reader by their grandmothers.

Further, Stevenson and Wolfers dispute a related theory that there is a point where increases in income produce no further increase in happiness. “"We find no evidence of a satiation point….While the idea that there is some critical level of income beyond which income no longer impacts well-being is intuitively appealing, it is at odds with the data.”

Magic Mushrooms can erase fear in mice

Stop the presses. Researchers at the University of South Florida have published their findings in the journal, Experimental Brain Research, that if you feed mice the hallucinogen psilocybin, the active ingredient in peyote, they lose their fear of loud noises associated with pain. 

While this may sound like a way to get your hands on your peyote buds, the potential practical application of this work is to help veterans alleviate some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly the reaction some vets have to loud bangs, as we’ve seen in the neighborhood abutting the Copar quarry in Bradford.

More messing with mice

A team of MIT researchers just published the results of their study in the latest edition of the journal Science by using a technique known as optogenetics. Using light and electric shocks, the researchers were able to manipulate the chemistry of that portion of the brain that creates memories. 

The idea of this research, apparently, is to try to figure out why humans so frequently come up with memories of things that never happened (e.g. UFO abductions, Wind Turbine Syndrome or bad witness testimony based on false memories).

Said MIT neuroscientist Susumu Tonagawa, "Our study showed that the false memory and the genuine memory are based on very similar, almost identical, brain mechanisms. It is difficult for the false memory bearer to distinguish between them. We hope our future findings along this line will further alert legislatures and legal experts how unreliable memory can be."

Why we can’t help ourselves

Even if you don’t particularly like the taste, or maybe even can’t taste it at all, some high-carbohydrate foods trigger sections of the brain that make you want more and more of it. 

According to a group of Yale researchers, even tasteless doses of maltodextrin triggered responses in the hypothalamus and nucleus accumbens that suggested risk of obesity. 

Researcher Dana Small ties their observations to evolved responses in the brain that come from survival needs: "From our research, it appears that those unconscious circuits that are caring about that energy are alive and well in our brains."
There’s hope.

Oxford University researcher Kathleen Taylor says that religious fundamentalism can be treated as a mental illness. She said her theory doesn’t apply only to "obvious candidates like radical Islam," but also meant such beliefs as the idea that beating children is acceptable. 

“Someone who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology -- we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance," While it may be too late for Pat Robertson, there might still be time for members of the Areglado Cult on the moraine.

Rhode Island is HOW big?

Here’s a great little website with a device that lets you see the size of things compared to other things. Easy to use – a simple sliding bar – and great graphics, it offers surprises each time you ratchet it up or down. Click here for The Scale of the Universe.

There's another great website that deals with that fundamental question of "how many Rhode Islands would fit into [whatever]?" Aptly, it's called How Many Rhode Islands. An example of what you can learn: it would take ninety-five (95) Rhode Islands to fill Italy. It would take 44 Rhode Islands to fill up Nepal.