Weird Science flees food poisoning, ends up in Hawaii
May 24, 2009
Let’s not eat at that island again: What prompted the greatest migration in human history? Food poisoning, if we’re to believe one recent publication. The Polynesians covered staggeringly vast distances in the Pacific using nothing but open boats, all with no guarantee that they’d wind up someplace that was any better than the one they left. The authors of a new paper show that there are indications of abrupt shifts in diet among the occupants of many islands, which they ascribe to algal blooms that made the local seafood inedible. According to the authors, "the celebrated Polynesian voyages across the Pacific Ocean may not have been random episodes of discovery to colonize new lands, but rather voyages of necessity."
When it comes to thieving whales, the data finds you: It’s been difficult to study the sperm whale, primarily because it’s hard to actually find them, given their tendency to spend much of their time at significant depths and away from shore. So, instead, a study of the whales took advantage of a case where the whales came to us. Apparently, the animals have figured out how to safely pluck bait of the lines of Alaskan fishing boats. Researchers were able to film this process, because the fisherman wanted to know how it was happening. It turns out the whales have learned to grab the line well upstream of the hook and shake it until the bait falls off. For their part, the researchers now have a better sense of how the whale’s vocalizations correlate with its body size, which may help them track these whales in the future.
Zeroing in on the wolfman gene: Lots of mythical creatures probably got their start in reality, and it turns out a wolfman may have been one of them. There is actually a genetic disorder that results in uncontrolled hair growth all over the body; there are some indications that this may have produced some of the bearded ladies famous from carnival shows. Now, researchers in China have tracked the gene’s inheritance through three different families and identified a stretch of DNA that’s missing in all of them. Oddly, some individuals with a sporadic case have an extra copy of this section of the chromosome (a situation known as a CNV, or copy number variation), suggesting it’s the dose of genes that counts. Apparently, there are at least four genes in this area, so we don’t know which is responsible yet.
Or maybe we’re just all going insane: I’m a little hesitant to post this item, because it’s based on someone’s PhD thesis which I haven’t had the opportunity to examine. Still, the press release is intriguing and provocative: the tests we used to perform to detect signs of impending dementia, for the most part, don’t work any more. If that holds up in further studies, it would suggest that, as the role of and expectations for the elderly have evolved, the behavior of the elderly has evolved as well, and it’s made tests based on their behavior functionally obsolete. The only thing that still works as a test, apparently, is forgetfulness. Definitely looking forward to a publication based on this work.
Think you never forget a face? You may be right: Apparently, a well-defined segment of the population is actually incapable of remembering whether they’ve seen a face before. The condition is apparently common enough to have picked up both a formal name—prosopagnosia—and the informal term "face blindness." Now, it turns out there may be an opposite condition, one where individuals have an uncanny ability to recognize when they’ve seen a face before. Researchers at Harvard put four individuals who claimed to have this ability to the test, and the people did indeed have an unusual ability, one that fell well outside the range of recognition seen in the general populace. So, the next time you hear someone claim they never forget a face, it’s just possible they’re right.
Testing psychologists’ backpack test: While searching for the paper in the previous item, I came across a different study that will be published by the same journal. The work involved is a bit meta—it’s using a subject population to test a test that’s normally performed with a subject population, if that makes any sense. In any case, I read it simply because I was curious about the procedure itself, called the "backpack test." Basically, researchers have used the test to show that, if you put a heavy backpack on someone, they exaggerate things like the slope of a hill or the distance between two places.
The new study suggests that this may be true, but it’s because the subjects realize they’re part of a psych experiment, not because the weight was influencing their perceptions. If you tell subjects that the backpack is being carried for a good reason—it’s filled with medical equipment, for example—the backpack effect goes away.
Tourists may be HIV’s best friend: Researchers have sequenced samples of HIV isolated from 16 European countries and used differences among them to track the spread of the virus across the continent. Among the many aspects of the spread that became apparent, the authors noted that some countries act as net sources of the virus: Greece, Portugal, Serbia and Spain. Three of these are notable for being major holiday destinations, leading the authors to suggest that "intervention strategies should also address tourists," among other populations.
This post has been written by John Timmer on May 23, 2009 2:00 PM couresy of arstechnica.com.