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Unsung Science 2016

Unsung Science 2016

illustration by Emma Bailey

Each year we take a look at Unsung Science stories—not the best science, necessarily, or the biggest, or the most important, but the stories we think warrant a little more attention, the ones that struck us or made us go “whoa!” Herewith, this year’s stories.

Tickling Story: tickling lab rats for science

High-Dive Physics: why he didn’t go splat

A Brew for the Ages: toasting the afterlife

Thumbs Up for Germs: no-guilt parenting

Of Pigs and Kings: enchantment in the deep sea

World-Record Lightning: Xtreme weather

The Fault in Our Streets: an icon goes missing

Uncharted Realms: carbon hits a new milestone


Tickling Story

Where to start with the story of tickling rats? With the fact that rats even are ticklish? (They are, especially on their bellies.) That tickling a rat makes it squeal and jump for joy? That there’s an actual scientific term for joy jumping?  (It’s German: freudensprünge.)

Maybe the surprising story is simply that science is looking into such joy-laden behavior, turning its precise methodologies to illuminating the nature of happiness, or at least one aspect of it. The research question at hand was: Where in the neural map does ticklishness happen? To find out, the researchers tickled rats while recording their USVs (ultrasonic vocalizations, or rat laughter) and probing their brains to see which parts became active during the fun.

The resulting scientific report, chock-full as it is of terminology and daunting chartage, still manages to leak joy throughout. You can just see those test sessions, with the rats chasing the researchers gloved hand around, leaping and squealing as if to say “tickle me more!” like skittering little Elmos. I can’t imagine a better lab tech job.

Although after making the rats so happy, it must have been hard to test them in the “anxiogenic conditions”—on raised, exposed platforms under harsh lights that produced anxiety in the animals—to test if unhappy rats respond to tickling.

They don’t—and really, who would? Which is the take-home message of this research: tickling in rats and humans seems deeply similar. It may be wired into our mammalian selves, a happy, playful inducement to connect with one another.

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High-Dive Physics

Luke Atkins in July became the first person to survive a skydive without benefit of parachute or wingsuit—a spectacular feat that involved some spectacular physics. Starting from five miles up, where the air is so thin it’s hard to breathe, Atkins plummeted down spread-eagled. The position minimized his terminal velocity—the speed where you breathe a sigh of relief because at least you’re not going to fall any faster, because the upward force of the air on your body just equals the downward force of gravity. Falling spread-eagle also maximized his dynamic stability, the tendency not to tumble end-over-end like a rag doll.

Still, he hurtled downward at 120 mph toward a net not much larger than a baseball diamond. Guided by GPS, he made small adjustments to his body, altering the coefficient of drag, or air resistance, to glide forward and steer himself toward the net.

The job of the net was to reduce Atkins speed from 120 to 0 mph before he hit the ground, slowing him gradually so the landing impact didn’t fatally rearrange his innards. To do that, the net was suspended 200 feet above ground, supported by 4 hydraulic pistons. When Atkins hit the net, the force of his fall was absorbed by the pistons, which compressed to lower him to ground level, stopping his fall in a relatively gentle 1.7 seconds instead of in an instant.

Atkins and his team spent two years planning his feat, making exquisite use of physics and math to be sure—or, as sure as possible—that he walked safely out of that net to embrace his wife and child.

Want to get some idea of Atkins’ jump? Try this simulation.

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A Brew for the Ages

In the search for new flavors, craft brewers have been known to try strange things. Our own in-house brew crew, the Hoppenheimers, have flavored batches with coffee and oak chips. Other experimenters have used chocolate, chilies, various spices, and the inevitable fall pumpkin. Now a team of anthropologists and brewers has gone back to the Iron Age for a new taste.

Researchers from University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, excavating a German grave from 450 BC, uncovered a cauldron with a crust of its contents left at the bottom. Analyzing it, they found that the cauldron had held a beverage like mead, made with honey and barley and flavored with mint and a plant called meadowsweet. The personage, who had also been buried with his sword and spears, had been sent forth to his next life with an alcoholic offering that would have smoothed his entry.

What had it tasted like? Milwaukee is the right place to ask such a question. The anthropologists recruited a local brewery to concoct a batch based on their evidence, and three weeks later they held a tasting. Verdict: the quaff had a very forward mint flavor, followed by an astringent taste from the meadowsweet, and little evidence of the honey (which would mostly have been converted to alcohol). With an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 8%—midway between beer and wine—the brew would have been a fine way to celebrate the start of something new.

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Thumbs Up for Germs

It’s one of the mysteries of parenthood: How is it that those kids from the filthy house at the end of the road with the menagerie of pets—the little one who sucks his thumb, the older one who’s always gnawing on her fingernails—how is it that those kids never seem to be sick a day in their lives?

The mystery has been lifting in recent years with the growing understanding of our internal ecosystem of beneficial microbes, the microbiome. Researchers have found that children who live with dogs or on farms have a lower risk of asthma and allergies than children who don’t, seemingly because they are exposed to a greater variety of microbes and become in effect inoculated against later allergies.

Now comes another piece of evidence that it’s actually healthy to pick up a certain contingent of “germs” in early life. In a long-term study, patients who sucked their thumbs or bit their fingernails as children were less likely to have allergic reactions to dust mites, horses, dogs, grass, and other common allergens. This resistance has lasted the study participants into their thirties so far, and it may be lifelong.

I count this as good news. If I can refrain from vacuuming while my kids are rolling on the floor licking the dog’s nose, if I can be excused from nagging them about their ragged nails—well, I’m happy to think it’s all in the service of developing their health-giving internal biota.

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Of Pigs and Kings

We loved this reminder of the weird world that exists almost beyond our ken in the ocean’s depths. On a robotic dive to the flat, muddy bottom of the Monterey Canyon, researchers found a busy traffic of sea pigs wandering the seafloor.

Sea pigs are actually sea cucumbers, which aren’t cucumbers at all, of course, but are related to starfish. (Which aren’t fish, but that’s another story.) The sea pigs are the size of a toy football and look like a cross between a pill bug and a jellyfish. (Jellyfish are also not fish—you can see how perplexed we are about ocean life.)

The scientists noticed small king crabs peeking out from under the sea pigs, and once they started looking, they found the crabs riding under hundreds of them. These were not kingly crabs—more like princelings, just thumb sized. The crabs will be sizable and spikey as adults, but at this stage they’re vulnerable to being munched by hungry fish and octopuses. Apparently they take shelter under the sea pigs, staying hidden and safe until they grow large enough to survive in the open.

On land, very few places are as bare of structure as this deep-sea plain. Almost everywhere terrestrial, plants provide refuge for small animals. But in the pitch-black ocean depths, there are no plants, and this changes everything in ways it’s hard for us to imagine.

The dark Abyssal Plain is a fantasy world, where the safest roosting structure might pick up and amble across the landscape like a Tolkien tree-ent loosed from the ground, and where princes are protected by lowly not-pigs until they emerge in adult armor to claim their kingdom. Enchantment, it turns out, is real, and available at the bottom of the nearest ocean basin.

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World-Record Lightning

Record books keep changing as technology advances, and this is as true in science as in sports. The Guinness World Records book of weather, the WMO Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes, in September certified two new world records for lightning strikes: a distance record (in Oklahoma a 2007 horizontal strike covered 199.5 miles) and a duration record (in southern France a single strike in 2012 lasted 7.74 seconds).

Until recently, the WMO book didn’t even have a category for lightning, but new methods of remote sensing and 3-D mapping of lightning storms have made it possible to judge things such as distance and duration. 

For example, experts used to define a single lightning strike as happening within one second. But with the new tools, they’ve discovered that what looked like multiple strikes were often, in fact, single long lightening strikes. They changed the rules, opening the door for the new world record—a single strike lasting eight full heartbeats.

But remember, watching for world-record lightning is a not a good spectator sport. These new sensors watch remotely, and so should you.

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The Fault in Our Streets

The Earth giveth and the city civil servants taketh away, and that is the way of the world. For forty years, geologists in the San Francisco Bay Area made pilgrimages to a curb at the corner of Prospect and Rose streets in the East Bay town of Hayward. They’d marvel at the offset between the east and west sides of the curb, a sign of great forces below: the Hayward Fault, which runs beneath the curb and every year wrenches it a few more millimeters apart. They’d ponder the cryptic scripts indicating the extent of the movement. The humble curb, with its chipped paint and leaves in the gutter, was full of deep meaning.

But lo, this year a group of devotees arrived to find the curb in the midst of a transformation. City workers had torn out the iconic geology marker and were preparing to install a new curb cut and ramp. 

Earlier attempts to fix the curb had been forestalled due to the entreaties of local geologists, but the world moves on, city records are lost or never kept, and other forces—in this case, the need for an accessible sidewalk—prevail.

Geologists mourned. Still, prophetic signs are everywhere in this land of faults. If you know how to look you’ll find broken curbs, cracked streets, oddly angled streamcourses—all heralding the forces that will one day rend the ground in a rumbling apocalypse.

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Uncharted Realms

So, a milestone was passed in the fall with nary a whisper: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached its low point for the year, and that point was 401 parts per million (ppm). We may never see it fall below 400 again, for the first time in 800,000 years.

800,000 years. We weren’t even fully human yet, that long ago.

Observers have been measuring CO2 levels atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa mountain since 1958. The reading rises and falls each year as the earth breathes CO2 in and out. In during spring and summer, as plants pull CO2 from the air to grow; out in fall and winter when the plants die back and soils release CO2 into the air. But since 1958, the overall yearly amount of CO2 has climbed steadily as we burn oil, coal, gas, and wood, releasing their carbon into the atmosphere. The graph of this data shows with sobering clarity how our air is changing due to that burning—and how quickly.

In 2013, the summertime high reading of the year broke 400 ppm for the first time, and the publicity was widespread. Now, less than four years later, even the wintertime low is above 400—and the story qualifies as unsung science. Truthfully, though, CO2 has been off the charts for some time now, and every day could earn its own story.

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