Posts Tagged ‘research’

Photo: World Farmers.

Immigrants to the US, if they were farmers in their home countries or just want to grow food they can’t find here, may end up working in agriculture. And as this University of Rhode Island professor’s research shows, many are joining the new wave of urban growers.

Frank Carini reports at ecoRI News on John Taylor, associate professor of agroecology at URI, who recently received a $973,479 award from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for his research.

I had to look up that new-to-me field of study. The Soil Association says that “agroecology is sustainable farming that works with nature. Ecology is the study of relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environment – and the balance between these relationships. Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming. [It] promotes farming practices that mitigate climate change … work with wildlife … put farmers and communities in the driving seat.” Read all about it here.

Carini writes, “The $973,479 award from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was one of 12 to receive funding through the institute’s Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative. The agency’s $9.4 million in grants are part of a broad U.S. Department of Agriculture investment in urban agriculture, funding research that addresses key problems in urban, indoor, and emerging agricultural systems.

“The project will bring together Taylor’s research with immigrant gardeners and farmers in Rhode Island, Julie Keller’s agriculture-focused work with diverse communities, Melva Treviño Peña’s work with immigrant fishers, and Patrick Baur’s work on food safety and urban agriculture. …

“Although always a part of city life, urban agriculture has recently attracted increased attention in the United States, as a strategy for stimulating economic development, increasing food security and access, and combating obesity and diabetes.

“Food justice is about addressing access to healthy and affordable food for low-wealth and marginalized communities. It seeks to ensure the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown, accessed, distributed, and transported are shared equally.

“Many neighborhoods in metropolitan areas, including in Rhode Island’s urban core, have little to no access to fresh food or full-service grocery stores — a situation often referred to as living in a ‘food desert.’ Other marginalized communities are surrounded by ‘food swamps,’ areas in which a large amount of processed foods, such as fast food and convenience-store fare, is available with limited healthy options.

“One solution to this environmental justice problem is to encourage the growing of local food. Developing effective policies and programs demands as a first step the accurate mapping of existing urban agriculture sites, according to Taylor. He hopes to provide that template.

“Taylor and colleagues at URI, the University of Maryland, and the University of the District of Columbia will soon begin mapping the alternative food provisioning networks of immigrant communities and communities of color in three East Coast cities — Providence, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. — to better understand these networks.

“He hopes this transdisciplinary research will reap new information about alternative food provisioning networks in the Northeast, evaluating their impact on food system outcomes, and identifying opportunities for policy support. …

“At URI, Taylor’s ‘home garden’ is a quarter-acre plot at the Gardiner Crops Research Center [at] the bottom of the Kingston Campus. His plot, visible from Plains Road, represents in microcosm the immigrant foodways he will be studying for his research during the next few years.

“At URI’s Agrobiodiversity Learning Garden and Food Forest, he grows crops that are integral to the food traditions of Rhode Island’s diverse communities: South American sweet potatoes, Mexican tomatillos, Haitian tomatoes, Mediterranean herbs, Asian bok choy, and produce from an African diaspora garden. Taylor tends the garden with students in URI’s Plant Sciences and Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems programs and URI master gardeners, demonstrating how sustainable farming reinforces community-building.

“With the learning garden, he follows a lead set by generations of immigrants who moved to Providence and cities like it, bringing their growing practices, and sometimes seeds, with them. …

“A descendant of five generations of Pennsylvania farmers, he grew up on a 100-acre integrated crop-livestock farm near Pittsburgh. Taylor began gardening at the age of 6 and started a market garden while in high school. He left the farm to attend the University of Chicago … then managed federal education studies for 10 years before returning to school to study horticulture and practice landscape architecture.”

More at ecoRI News, here.

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From “The Ants Go Marching” song, via Kylie Van Dam.

When I was young, I remember being horrified and fascinated to learn that hospitals sometimes use live maggots in wound care because of their precision.

Maggots clear away gangrene and leave healthy tissue. The UK National Health Service says, “They also help fight infection by releasing substances that kill bacteria and stimulate the healing process.” It’s called biosurgery.

Now researchers are finding that ants also have medical uses. Dino Grandoni has the story at the Washington Post.

“The ant oncologist will see you now.

Ants live in a world of odor. Some species are completely blind. Others rely so heavily on scent that ones that lose track of a pheromone trail march in a circle, until dying of exhaustion.

“Ants have such a refined sense of smell, in fact, that researchers are now training them to detect the scent of human cancer cells.

“A study published []in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights a keen ant sense and underscores how someday we may use sharp-nosed animals — or, in the case of ants, sharp-antennaed — to detect tumors quickly and cheaply. That’s important because the sooner that cancer is found, the better the chances of recovery.

“ ‘The results are very promising,’ said Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany who studies animal behavior and co-wrote the paper. He added, however: ‘It’s important to know that we are far from using them as a daily way to detect cancer.’

“Stretching out their pair of thin sensory appendages atop their heads, the insects detect and deploy chemical cues to do almost everything — find food, swarm prey, spot colony mates, protect young. This chemical communication helps ants construct complex societies of queens and workers that operate so in sync with scent that scientists dub some colonies ‘superorganisms.’

“For his study, Piqueret’s team grafted pieces of a human breast-cancer tumor onto mice and trained 35 ants to associate urine from the tumor-bearing rodents with sugar. Placed in a petri dish, the silky ants (Formica fusca) spent significantly more time near tubes with urine from the ‘sick’ mice compared with urine from healthy ones. …

“The way we diagnose cancer today — by drawing blood, taking biopsies and conducting colonoscopies — is often expensive and invasive. Animal behaviorists are imagining a world in which doctors one day tap species with keen senses to help spot tumors quickly and cheaply.

“Dogs can sniff out the presence of cancer in body odor, past research has shown. Mice can be trained to discriminate between healthy and tumor-bearing compatriots. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even the neurons of fruit flies fire in the presence of certain cancerous cells.

“But ants, Piqueret suggested, may have the edge over dogs and other animals that are time-consuming to train.

“Piqueret conducted the research while studying at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord in France. During covid lockdowns, he brought silky ants into his apartment outside Paris to continue his experiments. He chose the species because it has a good memory, is easy to train and doesn’t bite (at least not hard). …

“Piqueret’s team plans to test ants’ ability to sniff out the markers of cancer in urine from actual patients. …

“If ants are ever used in cancer screening, Piqueret wants to make one thing clear: No, they will not need to crawl on you.

“ ‘There will be no direct contact between ants and patients,’ he said. ‘So even if people are afraid of insects, it’s fine.’ “

More at the Post, here. Interested in the wonders of ants? Follow this professor: @alexwild@mastodon.online.

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Photo: Wikimedia.
Above, the portrait of William Shakespeare that was long thought to be the only one with any claim to have been painted from life — until the Cobbe portrait was revealed in 2009.

A week ago I saw that the Globe Magazine had a cover story on a newly discovered source for Shakespeare, but I didn’t think I was interested. Like others who have read theories about Shakespeare, I thought, “Here we go again.” And I have an extra reason to roll my eyes. A great uncle I never met was known for trying to prove that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare. His theory was put to rest by his own codebreakers.

But then blogger Carol got in touch to tell me the article was about her brother-in-law, and I got interested.

Michael Blanding, a Boston-based journalist, has written a book about self-taught Shakespeare researcher Dennis McCarthy and his quest to uncover a possible Shakespeare source. The Globe article was an excerpt.

It seems that McCarthy, a polymath with no academic credentials but with expertise in deep internet searches, has identified a 16th century writer called Thomas North as the source of a lot of Shakespeare themes and even some phrases. North was already known as a writer, but his plays are no longer in existence. Nevertheless, 16th century references to his work are a treasure trove if you know what you’re looking for. No one else has done McCarthy’s deep dive into North. Blanding’s aim seems not only to cover the new ground but to make a sort of scandal out of it by using words like “plagiarism.”

Blanding recounts his first reaction to McCarthy: “Oh, he is one of those, I thought to myself — a conspiracy theorist who thought Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. But McCarthy hurriedly added that in fact he believed the Bard of Avon wrote every word attributed to him during his lifetime. He also believed, however, that Shakespeare had used the earlier plays written by Thomas North for his ideas, his language, and even some of his most famous soliloquies.” Blanding is eventually persuaded.

My reaction: Sure, why not? If the guy has proof of Shakespeare using similar language to North’s, so what? Proof is proof. The importance lies in its newness. Blanding’s emphasis on McCarthy’s — and Darwin’s — lack of standard credentials strikes me as irrelevant.

After all, this is what writers do. They build on previous writers.

Look. Here is T.S. Eliot writing “Ash Wednesday”:

“Because I do not hope to turn again
“Because I do not hope
“Because I do not hope to turn
“Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope …”

And here’s Eliot’s source, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: “Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope.”

Would anyone accuse Eliot of plagiarism for that? Just because so many centuries have passed and manuscripts have been lost, does that mean Shakespeare was hiding a deep, dark secret? And just because McCarthy has no PhD or scholarly cred, does that mean he can’t notice things?

I admit I don’t have a PhD either and I’m often accused of being gullible, but I have no problem with research into a possible inspiration for some of Shakespeare’s art, especially as no one is saying he didn’t write the plays and poetry himself. For me, the only problem that McCarthy and Blanding could have would be over-hyping and using words like “plagiarism.” I really wish them success getting the word out, though.

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: Jean Couch via The Lost Art of Bending Over
A man bends with a beautiful hip hinge in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.

Did you ever wonder why you have to work so hard at exercise when for millennia, humans did OK with whatever movement was part of their normal day? Some folks say we’ve been overdoing things.

At National Public Radio (NPR), Terry Gross interviewed Daniel Lieberman, a professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, about his new book on exercise. The interview relieved me of some preconceptions, but I didn’t see anything about getting the heart beat up.

“For much of history, human beings needed to be physically active every day in order to hunt or gather food — or to avoid becoming food themselves. … a professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard [says] that the notion of ‘getting exercise’ — movement just for movement’s sake — is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. …

“Lieberman says, ‘When I go to these [remote African tribal] villages, I’m the only person who gets up in the morning and goes for a run. And often they laugh at me.’…

“Lieberman has spent a lot of time with indigenous hunter-gatherers in Africa and Latin America, cataloging how much time they spend walking, running, lifting, carrying and sitting. He writes about his findings, as well as the importance of exercise and the myths surrounding it in his new book, Exercised.

” ‘If you actually look at what our ancestors do, they walk about 5 miles a day, which turns out to be, for most people, about 10,000 steps,’ Lieberman says.

“Lieberman notes that many people are moving less than they did before the pandemic. He says if 10,000 steps feels out of reach, it’s OK to shoot for less — just so long as you’re focused on movement. Even fidgeting can keep your muscles engaged.

‘The more we study physical activity, the more we realize that it doesn’t really matter what you do. You don’t have to do incredible strength training. … It’s all good in different ways.’

Prof. Daniel Lieberman

Interview Highlights
On the demonizing of sitting as “the new smoking”
“When I walk into a village in a remote part of the world where people don’t have chairs or a hunter-gatherer camp, people are always sitting. … Some friends and colleagues of mine actually put some accelerometers on some hunter-gatherers and found that they sit on average about 10 hours a day. …

“It’s not unnatural or strange or weird to sit a lot, but it is problematic if, of course, that’s all you do. As I started to explore the literature more, I was fascinated because most of the data that associates sitting a lot with poor health outcomes turns out to be leisure-time sitting. …Then the numbers get a little bit scary.

On the importance of “interrupted sitting”
“Just getting up every once in a while, every 10 minutes or so — just to go to the bathroom or pet your dog or make yourself a cup of tea — even though you’re not spending a lot of energy, you’re turning on your muscles. … It uses up fats in your bloodstream and sugars in your bloodstream, and it produces molecules that turn down inflammation. So the evidence is that interrupted sitting is really the best way to sit. In hunter-gatherer camps, people are getting up every few minutes, to take care of the fire or take care of a kid or something like that. …

“A seat back essentially makes sitting even more passive than just sitting on a bench or a stool because you lean against the seat back and you’re using even fewer muscles, even less effort to stabilize your upper body. And the result is that we end up having very weak backs. So there are a lot of muscles that we use in our backs to hold up our upper body, and those muscles, if we don’t use them, just like every other muscle in your body, they atrophy. And weak muscles then make us more prone to back pain. …

On the idea that running is bad for your knees
“There’s this kind of general idea out there that running is like driving your car too much, [but] study after study has shown that in terms of ‘wear’ — by which we really mean arthritis, degeneration of the cartilage in your joints — that people who run more are not more likely to get arthritis in their knees. … That said, it’s also true that the most common site of injury for runners is their knees. But a lot of those injuries, I think, are preventable by learning to run properly. …

On becoming frail with age
“One of the most important points about physical activity is that as we age, it becomes not less but more important to be physically active. Muscle atrophy is the perfect example. … We have plenty of evidence that older individuals in America are less physically active and they do fewer activities that involve strength. And one of the really sort of serious negative consequences of that is that our muscles dwindle, they atrophy. … That’s the bad news.

“But the good news is that it doesn’t take a huge amount of physical activity to kind of reverse that, turn it around. Think about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was celebrated for her vim and vigor, which meant that a lot of that came from the fact that she kept working out and as she got older, she went to the gym several times a week. Now, she didn’t do crazy. … She did a few rounds of weight training every week and that helped keep her marvelously active and vigorous up until her late 80s. “

Lots more advice at NPR, including how much sleep we actually need, here.

I better stand up now. I’ve been sitting more than 10 minutes.

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Photo: Acoustics Research Centre /University of Salford, Manchester.
Acoustical engineer Trevor Cox works with a scale model of Stonehenge in a sound chamber.

One day last week, I was writing a letter to Brandeis admissions to help Shagufa get a bit more support for grad school, and I used a thumbnail description of this blog to explain how I met her. I said it was tied to my daughter’s jewelry company, which I always say, but then I added something I’d just thought of: “my goal is to share inspiring stories.”

Is that right, Dear Reader? These stories are not always inspiring, but I didn’t think the university would care that they were merely topics some stranger calling herself Suzanne’s Mom finds interesting. I’d be grateful for your own thumbnail description of SuzannesMomsBlog.

Today’s story is in the interesting department. (I wonder if everything interesting is by its nature also inspiring.)

Sarah Cascone writes at Artnet, “We may never fully solve all the mysteries of Stonehenge, the monumental prehistoric circle of stones built on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. But a new study suggests that it may have been designed to amplify sound in very specific ways.

“To recreate the acoustic properties of the stone circle as it was originally built around 2,500 BC, acoustics engineers at the University of Salford in Manchester constructed a 1:12 scale model they called ‘Minihenge.’ The results of their research have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“ ‘Constructing and testing the model was very time consuming, a labor of love, but it has given the most accurate insight into the prehistoric acoustics to date,’ Trevor Cox, the project’s lead researcher, said in a statement. ‘With so many stones missing or displaced, the modern acoustic of Stonehenge is very different to that in prehistory.’

“Thanks to laser scans of the site conducted by the governmental research group Historic England, Cox and his team were able to replicate the exact dimensions and precise topography of the monoliths using a computer-aided model and a 3-D printer. Missing stones were replaced where they were believed to have originally stood — 157 in all, based on the latest archaeological research.

The simulated stones were treated to replicate the acoustic properties of the site’s actual materials, allowing for more accurate results than in past models. … Researchers then tested the model, placing speakers and microphones in and around it while working at the university’s Acoustics Research Centre, which boasts a specialist acoustic chamber. (To account for the difference in scale, all sounds were 12 times their normal frequency, in the ultrasonic range.)

“The study found that people who spoke or played music inside the monument would have heard clear reverberations against the massive standing stones. Testing on the model also suggests that the stones increased the volume on interior sound, kept exterior sound out, and made it hard for anyone outside the structure to hear what was going on inside. …

“The placement of the stones was capable of amplifying the human voice by more than four decibels, but produced no echoes. Music and other sounds would have been enhanced such that someone standing within the outer circle of stones would have heard conversations from the center with perfect clarity, even as the sound was obscured to those outside. …

“While sound appears to have been an important consideration for the ancient builders, researchers still believe that astrological alignment was the primary factor in the placement of the stones. And mysteries about Stonehenge’s musical properties still abound.

“ ‘Stonehenge hums when the wind blows hard,’ musicologist Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield in England, who has previously conducted acoustic research on the site, told ScienceNews.

“There is also speculation that some of the smaller stones used in the ancient site’s construction may have been chosen for their musical qualities. Making a sound much like a metallic gong when struck, they could have been used as percussion instruments, Cox suggested in the Guardian in 2014.

“That theory was tested in a 2013 study conducted by researchers from the Royal College of Art in London, who were able to ‘play’ Stonehenge’s ringing stones like a giant xylophone in a unique form of ‘rock’ music. According to their findings, published in Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, the stones’ musical properties were likely even more pronounced in antiquity, before they were set in reinforced concrete.”

More at Artnet, here.

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Covid-19 guidance seems to change every few days. In the beginning, we were very anxious about wiping down every little thing with Clorox. Now we are more worried about the droplets we breathe in and whether the kids’ schools have adequate air circulation.

Performers worry, too, which is why one European orchestra armed itself with facts before bringing in an audience.

Eva Amsen reports at Forbes, “Last week, violinist Daniel Froschauer was in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic, of which he is also the Chairman. The orchestra played at the Salzburg Festival the entire month of August, under strict regulations to ensure that the musicians and their audience are at minimal risk of catching or spreading the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. …

The Vienna Philharmonic was one of the first professional orchestras to return to rehearsals and performances since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t carried out their own small research study into the way droplets disperse on stage while musicians play. …

“The case of a choir rehearsal in Washington state back in March was a wake-up call for many musical ensembles. The choir thought they were prepared. They didn’t hug, they stood six feet apart throughout their two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal, and they didn’t share food during the break. Despite their precautions, 53 members of the 61-piece choir caught Covid-19, and two died.

“If such a spread could happen at a choir rehearsal, then an orchestra or band rehearsal – particularly one with wind and brass instruments – might pose a similar risk. The virus can be passed on through tiny airborne droplets called aerosols from an infected individual’s mouth or nose. …

“Until a few months ago, we knew very little about how wind instruments spread droplets. It was only since the Covid-19 pandemic that orchestras and other ensembles suddenly needed to understand exactly how singing or playing instruments could spread the virus so that they could mitigate the risk. …

“The Vienna Philharmonic enlisted the help of physician Fritz Sterz. Initially, Sterz and Froschauer hoped that the Vienna Philharmonic members were immune already. The orchestra had passed through Wuhan on a tour of Asia in late 2019, perhaps already encountering the virus there. But this didn’t seem to be the case: Only one member of the orchestra tested positive in an antibody test.

“The next step was to figure out how rehearsals were putting them at risk, by determining how aerosols were formed around their instruments. …

“Sterz and the orchestra found a creative way to visualise the aerosols’ movement. Each musician was placed in front of a dark background and wore a device up their nose to produce aerosols as they breathed.

While playing their instruments, the musicians dispersed the droplets, and a photographer captured images of the cloud of aerosols surrounding each musician.

“By measuring the dispersal of the droplets for each instrument, Sterz was able to get a sense of which musicians created the largest air flow around them. Unsurprisingly, it was the wind musicians. …

“In lieu of the traditional peer review process that follows most scientific studies, the Vienna Philharmonic worked with a notary to verify that they carried out the procedures as they said they did, and that the results were what they measured. It wasn’t the way research is usually done, but it was enough to convince the Austrian government.

“In May, Froschauer got a call from the Austrian Prime Minister. The Vienna Philharmonic was allowed to rehearse, record and perform again, albeit under very strict conditions. To make it work, the musicians are regularly tested, stay a safe distance apart on stage, wear masks when they have to be near each other in the hallways, and limit the size of the audience. …

“In the United States, the National Federation of State High School Associations and the College Band Directors National Association funded the Performing Arts Aerosol Study to determine the best recommendations for school bands, orchestras and other performing arts groups returning to practice this fall term.

Shelly Miller, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, is one of the lead researchers on the study. She explains, … ‘Once we knew what the flow looked like, we probed those flows to measure the particles in the flow.’ …

“From the preliminary results, the Performing Arts Aerosol Study concluded that certain safety precautions needed to be put in place before bands and school orchestras could return to rehearsals.

“It’s worth noting here that these various studies into the spread of aerosols between musicians nicely illustrate how the pandemic has changed the pace of scientific research. Normally, research is slow and the process of verifying, publishing and reviewing the work can be slower than the studies itself. But everything was different this summer. Music groups needed advice about returning to rehearsals and pushed for the research to be carried out, soon. …

“ ‘It’s really intense,’ says Miller.” More at Forbes, here.

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Photo: Carol and Brian Smith/Educational Passages
Brian Smith posed with a boat made from a kit at a Massachusetts school. He and his wife found it after it washed ashore on Dalyellup Beach in Australia.

How’s this for a school project? Following a boat you built as it braves the high seas for science.

Steve Annear (who in my opinion gets all the fun assignments at the Boston Globe) reported on the excitement of hearing that the first of several such research boats was found after more than a year.

“After spending 463 days on the unforgiving ocean, the ‘Sacred Heart Star of the Sea’ made its final landing on the shores of Western Australia late last month, plucked from the sand by an unsuspecting couple out for a sunset stroll.

“It was a long and closely watched voyage that began in the classrooms of the Sacred Heart School in Kingston last year, where students assembled the small ship as part of a class project before it was packed with a GPS monitoring system and a weighted keel, and [taken to a launch site] in the Indian Ocean with dozens of personal letters to whomever might discover it one day.

“Now, that day has come. And at its new home on the other side of the planet, the miniature research vessel is being heralded as something of a small-town hero, paraded around to schools and local offices as residents marvel at it.

” ‘This boat is a popular chat topic,’ said William Power, a geoscientist in Australia who had been tracking the boat’s final movements toward land, in an e-mail.

“On July 2, officials from Bunbury posted on Facebook about the vessel’s arrival at a beach in Dalyellup, a southern suburb.

“Though a search party led by Power had scoured the beach a few days earlier, hoping to find the mini-boat, it was Carol and Brian Smith who happened upon the ‘Star of the Sea’ first. …

“Carol Smith said in an e-mail, ‘What caught our attention was the sticker that said, “If found please e-mail” … We didn’t know at the time but groups were looking for the mini-boat.’

“The couple strapped it to their roof rack and took it home. After doing research, they learned the boat was part of an educational mission by students in Kingston, some 10,000 miles away.

The boat was put together by students at the Catholic school in January last year, led by Maine-based Educational Passages, a nonprofit that supplies students with kits to construct the ships, send them out to sea, and track them online. …

“When the 5½-foot boat eventually landed in Australia, its sail and mast were gone, and it was covered in barnacles, Smith said, a sure signs of an arduous journey that lasted more than a year. But the rest was spared, including the letters onboard.

” ‘It was so exciting to open up the waterproof compartment, and see all the intact letters,’ Smith said. …

“Winifred Dick, an English teacher at the school, [helped] get the boat kit from Educational Passages. Dick’s husband, Henry, is a chief scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and was the lead chief scientist on the cruise at Marion Rise, where the vessel was first lowered into the sea. …

“The boat first visited Australind Primary School, where Smith teaches, and is now on display at City of Bunbury offices. It will go on to visit other schools, and later Fremantle, a port city near Perth. …

“At some point the boat will undergo repairs. There’s also talk of sending it back out on the water for another adventure.”

More at the Boston Globe, here.

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Photo: Irena Schulz
This is YouTube personality Snowball the dancing parrot.

Internet videos of cute animals doing surprising things can sometimes lead to research that expands scientific knowledge. Such was the case with Snowball, better known on YouTube as the dancing parrot.

Ed Yong writes at the Atlantic, “Before he became an internet sensation, before he made scientists reconsider the nature of dancing, before the children’s book and the Taco Bell commercial, Snowball was just a young parrot, looking for a home.

“His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana — along with a Backstreet Boys CD, and a tip that the bird loved to dance. Sure enough, when the center’s director, Irena Schulz, played ‘Everybody,’ Snowball ‘immediately broke out into his headbanging, bad-boy dance,’ she recalls. She took a grainy video, uploaded it to YouTube, and sent a link to some bird-enthusiast friends. Within a month, Snowball became a celebrity. When a Tonight Show producer called to arrange an interview, Schulz thought it was a prank.

“Among the video’s 6.2 million viewers was Aniruddh Patel, and he was was blown away. Patel, a neuroscientist, had recently published a paper asking why dancing [was rare in animals.] …

“Patel reasoned that dancing requires strong connections between brain regions involved in hearing and movement, and that such mental hardware would only exist in vocal learners — animals that can imitate the sounds they hear. …

“In 2008, he tested Snowball’s ability to keep time with versions of ‘Everybody’ that had been slowed down or sped up. In almost every case, the parrot successfully banged his head and lifted his feet in time. Much like human children, he often went off beat, but his performance was consistent enough to satisfy Patel. …

“Meanwhile, Snowball was going through his own dance dance revolution. Schulz kept exposing him to new music, and learned that he likes Pink, Lady Gaga, Queen, and Bruno Mars. He favored songs with a strong 4/4 beat, but could also cope with the unorthodox 5/4 time signature of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ …

“In 2008, Patel’s undergraduate student R. Joanne Jao Keehn filmed these moves, while Snowball danced to ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ and ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’ And recently [she] she combed through the muted footage and cataloged 14 individual moves (plus two combinations). Snowball strikes poses. He body rolls, and swings his head through half circles, and headbangs with a raised foot. …

“His initial headbangs and foot-lifts are movements that parrots naturally make while walking or courting. But his newer set aren’t based on any standard, innate behaviors. He came up with them himself, and he uses them for different kinds of music. …

“Snowball’s abilities are all the more impressive because they’re so rare. Ronan the sea lion, for example, was recently filmed bobbing her head to music (including, again, the Backstreet Boys), but she was trained. And when [another researcher, Adena Schachner,] combed through thousands of YouTube videos in search of animals that could be charitably described as dancing, she found only 15 species that fit the bill. One was the Asian elephant, which sometimes sways and swings its trunk to music. The other 14 species were parrots.”

Are any of you owners of parrots? I wonder if you have seen dancing behaviors. Read more here. And be sure to note the videos of early and late Snowball moves.

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Photo: Kate Holt/Flickr
The joy on the faces of these performers in Kenya illustrates a universal truth: people love to dance. And it turns out, dancing informs our development in significant ways.

There’s something about being human that inclines one to dancing. Not necessarily ballet or hip hop or ballroom dancing, but dancelike movement that is part of everyday lives. The research on this may surprise you.

Kimerer LaMothe writes at Aeon, “Dancing is a human universal, but why? … What if humans are the primates whose capacity to dance (shared by some birds and mammals) was the signature strategy enabling the evolution of a distinctively large and interconnected brain, empathic heart and ecological adaptability? And what if dancing plays this role for humans not just in prehistoric times, but continuing into the present? …

“Researchers are discovering the vital role played by bodily movement not only in the evolution of the human species, but in the present-day social and psychological development of healthy individuals. Moreover, it is not just bodily movement itself that registers as vital in these cases, but a threefold capacity: to notice and recreate movement patterns; to remember and share movement patterns; and to mobilise these movement patterns as a means for sensing and responding to whatever appears. This threefold capacity is what every dance technique or tradition exercises and educates.

“According to the New York University neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás, writing in the book I of the Vortex (2001), bodily movement builds brains. A brain takes shape as it records patterns of neuromuscular coordination, and then remembers the outcomes in terms of pain or pleasure, emotional tags that help it assess whether to mobilise that movement again, and if so, how.

“In so far as bodily movements build the brain, every movement a human makes matters. Each repetition of a movement deepens and strengthens the pattern of mind-body coordination that making that movement requires; and the repetition also defines avenues along which future attention and energy flow. Every movement made and remembered shapes how an organism grows – what it senses and how it responds. …

“Humans have a unique capacity to notice, recreate and remember patterns of movement. More abundant in the human brain than any other mammalian brain, mirror neurons fire when a person notices a movement, recreating the pattern of neuromuscular coordination needed to make that movement. In this way, humans can learn to recreate the movement of others – not only other humans, but also trees and giraffes, predators and prey, fire, rivers and the Sun. As the neuroscientist V S Ramachandran writes in his book The Tell-Tale Brain (2011), mirror neurons ‘appear to be the evolutionary key to our attainment of full-fledged culture’ by allowing humans ‘to adopt each other’s point of view and empathise with one another.’

“Nevertheless, the term ‘mirror’ is misleading; it hides the agency of bodily movement. A brain does not provide a passive reflection. As eyes register movement, what a person sees is informed by the sensory awareness that his previous movements have helped him develop. He responds along the trajectories of attention that these previous movements have created. From this perspective, dance is a human capacity, not just one possible activity among others. …

“In this light, every dance technique or tradition appears as a stream of knowledge – an ever-evolving collection of movement patterns discovered and remembered for how well they hone the human capacity for movement-making. Most of all, dancing provides humans with the opportunity to learn how their movements matter. They can become aware of how the movements they make are training them – or not – to cultivate the sensory awareness required to empathise across species and with the Earth itself. In this regard, dance remains a vital art. From the perspective of bodily becoming, humans cannot not dance.”

This Aeon article came from the website Arts Journal, which brings together arts stories from around the world. Read more at Aeon, here.


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Photo: Steve Atwood
The wrybill uses its laterally curved bill to reach insect larvae under rounded riverbed stones.

I was intrigued by new research showing that some cells in nature have a left or right orientation and, when disrupted, are able to repair themselves. The Quanta Magazine article reposted at Wired is long and technical. I’m hoping to capture the basics here.

Tim Vernimmen writes, “In 2009, after she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, Ann Ramsdell began to search the scientific literature to see if someone with her diagnosis could make a full recovery. Ramsdell, a developmental biologist at the University of South Carolina, soon found something strange: The odds of recovery differed for women who had cancer in the left breast versus the right. Even more surprisingly, she found research suggesting that women with asymmetric breast tissue are more likely to develop cancer.

“Asymmetry is not readily apparent. Yet below the skin, asymmetric structures are common. Consider … how our heart, born from two identical structures fused together, twists itself into an asymmetrical pump that can simultaneously push oxygen-rich blood around the body and draw in a new swig from the lungs, all in a heartbeat. …

“In her early years as a scientist, Ramsdell never gave asymmetry much thought. But … after her recovery, Ramsdell decided … to start looking for asymmetry in the mammary glands of mammals.

In marsupials like wallabies and kangaroos, she read, the left and the right glands produce a different kind of milk, geared toward offspring of different ages. …

“Research from [the lab of Michael Levin, a biologist at Tufts University] suggests that communication among cells may be an under-explored factor in the development of asymmetry.

“The cellular skeleton also directs the transport of specialized proteins to the cell surface, Levin said. Some of these allow cells to communicate by exchanging electrical charges. This electrical communication, his research suggests, may direct the movements of cells as well as how the cells express their genes.

“ ‘If we block the [communication] channels, asymmetrical development always goes awry,’ he said. ‘And by manipulating this system, we’ve been able to guide development in surprising but predictable directions, creating six-legged frogs, four-headed worms or froglets with an eye for a gut, without changing their genomes at all.’

“The apparent ability of developing organisms to detect and correct their own shape fuels Levin’s belief that self-repair might one day be an option for humans as well.

“ ‘Under every rock, there is a creature that can repair its complex body all by itself,’ he points out. ‘If we can figure out how this works,’ Levin said, ‘it might revolutionize medicine. Many people think I’m too optimistic, but I have the engineering view on this: Anything that’s not forbidden by the laws of physics is possible.’ ”

The original story appeared in Quanta Magazine. Check the Wired reprint here.

Photo: SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC
The twospot flounder lies on the seafloor on its right side, with both eyes on its left side.

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Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A sponge the size of a minivan was found in summer 2015 in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off Hawaii.

One of Earth’s oldest living animals is a sea sponge. As big as a minivan, it has been growing for generations unnoticed and undisturbed in waters off Hawaii.

Elahe Izadi writes in the Washington Post that a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) “captured footage of the spectacularly large sponge during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deep-sea expedition, and the species was identified for the first time in a study published [in May] in the journal Marine Biodiversity. …

“There’s more to this sponge than its girth: It could also be among the oldest living animals on earth. … Sponges can live for hundreds or even thousands of years. ‘While not much is known about the lifespan of sponges, some massive species found in shallow waters are estimated to live for more than 2,300 years,’ the study authors write. …

“ ‘Finding such an enormous and presumably old sponge emphasizes how much can be learned from studying deep and pristine environments such as those found in the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument,’ Daniel Wagner, Papahānaumokuākea research specialist, said in a statement. …

“Christopher Kelly, NOAA research scientist and co-lead for the expedition, said the sponge ‘just appeared’ on the ROV’s high-definition camera, Australia’s Pacific Beat radio reported.

” ‘We were looking for deep water corals and sponges, and we had just gotten some close ups of some corals, then turned away to continue the survey and the sponge appeared out of nowhere.’ ”

I can just picture that cinematic moment of discovery.

More at the Washington Post, here.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou never know what you’ll find at Andrew Sullivan’s blog.

Today he notes research on the memory of toddlers. A new study has demonstrated that three-year-olds have memories of  seeing someone once, back when they were one.

Danish researcher Osman “Kingo and his team first renewed contact with parents and their children who’d taken part in an earlier study when the children were age one. That earlier research involved the infant children interacting with one of two researchers for 45 minutes – either a Scandinavian-Caucasian man or a Scandinavian-African man.

“Now two years on, 50 of these parents and children – the latter now aged three – were invited back to the exact same lab (hopefully cueing their earlier memories). Here the children were shown two simultaneous 45-second videos side by side. One video was a recording of the researcher – either the Scandinavian-Caucasian or Scandinavian-African man – interacting with them two years earlier; the other video showed the other researcher (the one they hadn’t met) interacting with a different child in the exact same way. …

“The children spent significantly more time looking at the video that featured the researcher they’d never met. … This result provides strong evidence that the children had some recognition of the researcher they’d met, and were drawn more strongly to look at the unfamiliar researcher.”

More at Andrew Sullivan, here, and at Research Digest at the British Psychological Society, here.

I am especially delighted that there’s a bit of proof for what I have long insisted was true. (No one ever believes that I remember taking my first steps.)

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“Elizabeth S. Spelke,” writes Natalie Angier in today’s NY Times, is a “professor of psychology and a pre-eminent researcher of the basic ingredient list from which all human knowledge is constructed.” She studies babies  to learn how much knowledge humans start out with. And perhaps not surprising, she finds that babies are intensely focused on … other people.

“Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,’ she said, ‘and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.’

“But the adult mind is far too complicated … ‘too stuffed full of facts’ to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born. …

“Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. …

” ‘Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this? … All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!’ ”

Read more.

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John sent me this heavenly video from a Public Broadcasting show called “The Human Spark.” Do watch it. It isn’t long.

It highlights research with both chimps and toddlers, showing what is apparently an innate impulse to help others. Interestingly, whereas the chimp will pass you something you are reaching for and stop at that, a toddler will go above and beyond — and seem to enjoy it.

All of which suggests to me that if you want to be around people who are truly human, hang out with the ones who like to help others.

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In a recent study of professions that involve intensive memorization, London cab drivers were found to have brains with swollen hippocampi. Not even doctors or so-called memory champions show that effect. Andrews Sullivan has the story.

Says researcher Eleanor Maguire, “We’re in a situation where people are living longer and often have to retrain or re-educate themselves at various phases in their lives. It’s important for people to know that their brains can support that. It’s not the case that your brain structure is fixed.”

A cabbie competes against a satellite system in a really cool video.

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