Category Archives: Science

The Surprising Social Habits of Crows

At Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner reports on the surprising social arrangements and habits of crows, who recognize and remember individual people and hold funerals to honor their dead — a phenomenon that is helping scientists like Kaeli Swift understand how intelligent creatures process death. Feed a crow and she will gift you with keys and candy as tokens of her appreciation. Treat her poorly and she and her corvid compatriots may mob you on sight.

But what if I were to tell you that the crows you spy in your yard are almost always the same individual crows? That those birds—usually two, a male and a female known as a territorial pair—don’t live there but fly in every day from 20 miles away? During the day urban crows rummage and build nests in a specific spot, in a specific neighborhood, then decamp for the evening to a massive, crowded roost outside the city—their own crow planet— and report back to the neighborhoods each morning. Like you, they commute to work.

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Sometimes You’re the Bug. Far Fewer Times, of Late.

Wasp on a Windshield

At my house, we’d noticed the lack of bees this spring, but we’d chalked it up to the late arrival of warm weather and a rainier-than-usual season. Turns out our anecdotal data gathering isn’t entirely off — there are fewer bugs. Of all kinds.

In Science, Gretchen Vogel asks why we’re spending less time cleaning the windshield, and what that means further up the food chain.

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”

Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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The Gun Barrel and the Damage Done: A Profile of Trauma Surgeon Amy Goldberg

What exactly does a bullet do to flesh as it careens through the body? At Highline, Jason Fagone profiles Philadelphia trauma surgeon Dr. Amy Goldberg, a woman on the front lines of gun violence as she attempts to repair the broken bodies that arrive daily at Temple University Hospital. Dr. Goldberg doesn’t only fix the damage, she’s also working to prevent it. After a patient died the third time he was shot, she worked with friend and coworker Scott Charles to create a social program, Turning Point, which has been instrumental in stopping gun violence before it starts.

More than 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds each year in America, around 75,000 more are injured, and we have no visceral sense of what physically happens inside a person when he’s shot. (Dr. Amy) Goldberg does.

“The creation of a person, you know. It’s the heart beating and the lungs bringing air. It is so miraculous.” Surgery, for Goldberg, was a way of honoring the miracle. And trauma surgery was the ultimate form of appreciation, because a surgeon in trauma experienced so much variety. She might be operating on the carotid artery in the neck, or the heart in the chest, or the large bowel or small bowel in the abdomen, or the femoral artery in the thigh, at any given moment, on any given night.

“As a country,” Goldberg said, “we lost our teachable moment.” She started talking about the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Goldberg said that if people had been shown the autopsy photos of the kids, the gun debate would have been transformed. “The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.”

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Unlocking the Genetic Code of Poverty

an abandoned warehouse in appalachia

Christian H. Cooper made his way from Appalachia to Wall Street, and from poverty to wealth. But is it because he worked harder than the family and friends still struggling in East Tennessee, or was it luck? In Nautilus, he digs into the emerging science of epigenetics to look at the way poverty actually changes our genetic expression, and therefore our physiology. If poverty has treatable physical aspects, what does that mean for economic policy, social policy, and politics? What does it mean for the American ideal of meritocracy?

Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease.

That word—disease—carries a stigma with it. By using it here, I don’t mean that the poor are (that I am) inferior or compromised. I mean that the poor are afflicted, and told by the rest of the world that their condition is a necessary, temporary, and even positive part of modern capitalism. We tell the poor that they have the chance to escape if they just work hard enough; that we are all equally invested in a system that doles out rewards and punishments in equal measure. We point at the rare rags-to-riches stories like my own, which seem to play into the standard meritocracy template.

But merit has little to do with how I got out.

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Opioid Addicts Are Losing Their Memories and Doctors Don’t Know Why

After two years of almost daily drug use, Max had the amnesia spell, and his life began to spiral out of control. Unable to remember what year it was or how to get around Boston, he dropped out of school. He had to quit the restaurant job after two dizzying shifts losing people’s orders and forgetting where his tables were.

“I remember feeling, just like, intense dread, because I didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “Because I thought I was going to be like that for the rest of my life. It made me act like a crazy person.”

The cluster of new cases in eastern Massachusetts, which began with Max’s case in 2012, appears to be growing in step with the nationwide opioid epidemic. Opioid overdoses have quadrupled in the last 15 years, driven largely by a rise in heroin use and, more recently, by fentanyl, an opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin. In Massachusetts, where overdose rates have doubled since 2012, 75% of people who died of an unintentional overdose last year had fentanyl in their system.

After overdosing, some opioid addicts are losing their memory and nobody really knows why. All doctors know is that each patient’s hippocampus — the area of the brain responsible for memory — becomes severely damaged. Are the opioids laced with an unknown toxin that targets the hippocampus? Does reduced respiration caused by opioid overdose damage the hippocampus? Azeen Ghorayshi reports at BuzzFeed.

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The Pitfalls and Promise of the Horseshoe Crab, Unlikely Biomedical Hero

dozens of horseshoe crabs come ashore on a beach

If you’ve ever gotten a medication injected or had a medical device implanted (think artificial knee replacement), you owe a debt of gratitude to the horseshoe crab, whose bright blue blood is a magic bacteria-finding beacon used to detect sterilization-resistant toxins in injectables and implantables.

How do we get all this crab blood? By catching crabs, draining a third of their blood, and tossing them back into the sea. Is this sustainable? No one really knows, yet — but hopefully, we will soon. Caren Chesler, in Popular Mechanics, explores the plight of the humble horseshoe and the researchers trying to help.

To that end, these two scientists are putting this strange catch to the test. The pair took 28 horseshoe crabs from the Great Bay Estuary behind their lab, left them out in the heat, then drove them around in a car for four hours and then left them in containers overnight to simulate what might happen in a bleeding facility. Then they bled half the crabs (so they’d have a control group that wasn’t bled). All of the crabs remained in containers a second night, as would likely happen at a bleeding lab. The following day, Owings and Watson put $350 transmitters on their backs, attached them snugly with little zip ties, and put the crabs back into the bay to see if they could make their way. What they find might have a lot to say about the future of this odd routine.

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Ending Depression With a Push of a Button, But Only For a Moment

a drawing of a human brain, made with streaks of red and white light

In the introduction to her story on deep-brain stimulation for Pacific Standard, Sarah Scoles tells the story of Liss Murphy, a woman with treatment-resistant depression—in her words, a “sepsis of the soul”—who saw deep-brain stimulation as her last opportunity to live a normal life. The moment doctors turned on the stimulating current was a life-changer. But then they had to turn it off.

The doctors installed the electrodes and turned them on.

For Murphy, the moment was astonishing. A warmth surged through her. Everything felt lighter, clearer. But then those sensations stopped. The doctors had cut the current so that they could finish wiring the circuit, close her cranium back up, and insert the permanent pulse generator into her chest

After the surgery, Murphy spent a few days in recovery, and then the doctors sent her home. She would need to heal for three weeks, they told her, before they could turn her device back on. Back at home, returned to the gray world of her depression, Murphy remembered that warm, light, clear feeling. I wish that could be forever, she thought.

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The Conservative Movement to Get the GOP on Board With Global Warming

That’s not how all hunters approach climate change. Randy Newberg, a hunter and advocate for hunting on public lands, has no qualms about acknowledging the problem. “If you spend as much time in the hills as I do, I don’t know how you could deny that climate is changing,” he says. Deniers exist, “but honestly, I call them the flat-Earth society,” he adds. Many hunters see climate change as a serious threat to the wildlife and public lands they want to protect for future generations. That’s what’s been driving the conservation movement for decades in the US, and it should not be a liberal or a conservative issues, says Newberg, who identifies as an Independent. “Maybe I’m naive and too idealistic for today’s political world,” he says, “but I struggle to understand how is it that clean air and clean water and productive lands are a partisan issue. To me, they’re an American issue.”

For now, the White House hasn’t been very responsive, but it might be just too early to tell, says Bozmoski. Some proposals coming out of Washington — like the carbon tax and the climate change resolution — seem to bode well. “It really stokes our optimism on the Eco Right, that our family has gotten bigger and more powerful,” Bozmoski says. At the same time, he says, it will take time for Republicans to come together and put forward a climate change policy — they will need to get over the divisions within their own party and develop an actual policy. That’s what groups like republicEn are there for, Bozmoski says. And he has high hopes. “The prospects for a coalition of lawmakers moving forward with a solution is better now than it has been in any point since 2010,” Bozmoski says. “There’s no more pussyfooting around climate change out of fear.”

At The Verge, Alessandra Potenza describes conservatives, young and old, who are working to rally Republican voters around the issue of global warming in a way that gets GOP policy makers to finally listen. They’re doing this on multiple fronts, addressing fellow conservatives’ concern for national security, economics, hunting and fishing, and trying to get them on the right side of history.

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In 1975, Newsweek Predicted A New Ice Age. We’re Still Living with the Consequences.

Antarctica

Jack El-Hai | Longreads | April 2017 | 6 minutes (1,500 words)

Last year was the hottest on record for the third consecutive pass of the calendar. Glaciers and polar ice melt, plant and animal species go extinct at a rapid rate, and sea levels rise. Clearly the consequences of climate change are immense.

Does anyone out there think we’re at the dawn of a new ice age?

If we had asked that question just 40 years ago, an astonishing number of people — including some climatologists — would have answered yes. On April 28, 1975, Newsweek published a provocative article, “The Cooling World,” in which writer and science editor Peter Gwynne described a significant chilling of the world’s climate, with evidence accumulating “so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” He raised the possibility of shorter growing seasons and poor crop yields, famine, and shipping lanes blocked by ice, perhaps to begin as soon as the mid-1980s. Meteorologists, he wrote, were “almost unanimous” in the opinion that our planet was getting colder. Over the years that followed, Gwynne’s article became one of the most-cited stories in Newsweek’s history. Read more…

Why Dylan Matthews Donated His Kidney to a Stranger and You Should Too

Dylan Matthews donated his left kidney to a perfect stranger, in what’s known as a “non-directed” donation. Dylan’s kidney initiated a donation chain in which four people received live-saving kidney transplants. Read his account at Vox.

On Monday, August 22, 2016, a surgical team at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore removed my left kidney. It was then drained of blood, flushed with a preservative solution, placed on ice, and flown to Cincinnati.

Surgeons in Cincinnati then transplanted the kidney into a recipient I’d never met and whose name I didn’t know; we didn’t correspond until this past month. The only thing I knew about him at the time was that he needed my kidney more than I did. It would let him avoid the physically draining experience of dialysis and possibly live an extra nine to 10 years, maybe more.

This is why getting a kidney is such a big deal: The recipient gains about a decade of life, on average. They get to see their children and grandchildren grow, to spend more time with their partner and their friends, and to escape a painful, exhausting procedure (dialysis) that would otherwise consume half their days. And the toll on the donor is tiny in comparison.

Before the surgery, one of the nurses told me that most patients get to a point, usually three to four weeks after the surgery, where they stop and realize that they feel completely normal again. I hit that point in my second week back at work. It was less that I felt something specific, and more that I didn’t feel anything weird or different anymore. My life was back to where it was pre-surgery. And it had happened really, really fast.

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