Boing Boing 

Don't touch that hot stove!

The complicated process that allows your brain to quickly cancel an order and replace it with another.

More thoughts on lab meat

Yesterday, Rob told you about the first public tasting of a burger that was grown in a laboratory, from strips of flesh built up from muscle stem cells. I found a couple of great links today that build on that news. First: The secret ingredient in lab-grown meat is fetal cow blood. (It's both a significant part of the high price of lab meat, and a reason why your vegan friend won't be eating lab meat anytime soon.) Also be sure to check out synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis' perspective — she tones down some of the hype while making it clear why lab meat is still pretty impressive.

Drunk Science: Charles Q. Choi explains speciation (and also orcs)

What is a species? That's not a simple question.

And it's even harder to answer after you've had a few.

Intrepid science journalist Charles Q. Choi takes inspiration from both the Drunk History series of videos and a really awful lot of whiskey to try and help you better understand a scientific concept (and also the finer points of orc biology). This was an idea I had, which came together with the help of several science journalist friends during the Science Online conference back in January. I'm still impressed with how accurate Charles was on the science while in that state. I can't speak to the Tolkien mythology.

Video Link (Note: This seems to play softly on some computers. If you're having trouble hearing it, plug in headphones or turn up your speakers.)

Thanks to Rose Eveleth, Colin Schultz, and Jennifer Honn — whose work on editing and producing this video was invaluable. Also thanks to John Rennie, Steve Ashley, Olivia Koski, Maki Naro, and Stephen Granade — whose input and assistance made this possible. And, of course, special thanks to Charles, who really was fully recovered by the next morning.

Image: Orc, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ton's photostream

Poverty does more damage to kids than crack

Researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have been following and studying the brains and lives of so-called "crack babies" for more than 20 years. Now, they're beginning to publish their findings, and what they're finding is not what they expected. The researchers saw few statistical differences between kids exposed to crack in utero and those who weren't. But they did find big differences between the exposed babies and the controls when compared to children who grew up in wealthier families. Now, they're coming to the conclusion that it's poverty — not crack — that may present the biggest risk to children's neurological development and their later opportunities in life.

Why do mosquitoes prefer to eat some people over others?

If you seem to be the target of bloodsucking attention, there are two biological systems you can blame — your microbial flora, and/or your immune system. Your particular mix of skin bacteria play a big role in determining how well mosquitoes can smell you (and whether you smell delicious). Meanwhile, your immune system controls your allergic response — or lack thereof — to mosquito bites. If you never get red welts to go with the biting, it's easy to think that you're not getting bitten as often as someone who does.

The history and anthropology of birth and parenting

I'm reading a ton of baby and pregnancy books right now, preparing both for the October birth of my daughter and an upcoming BoingBoing feature about evidence-based books for science-minded soon-to-be-parents. After reading this interview at The New Inquiry, I really want to check out The Motherhood Archives — a documentary about the ways culture shapes and reshapes how we understand the biology of birth and the growth of an infant. From the Marxist origins of Lamaze, to the early-20th-century feminists who pushed for pain-free birth, to the rise of the birth center, The Motherhood Archives sounds like a fascinating exploration of how different generations think and rethink the same ideas and an anthropological assessment of what "the right way" to give birth and raise children really means. (Thanks, Emile Snyder!)

The science of pink and blue

At The Conversation, neuroscientist Melissa Hines talks about what little biological basis there is behind the idea of heavily gender-coded toys for children. It's true that male and female fetuses are exposed to different hormones before birth and that might affect what kinds of toys they're interested in later. But it's also true that there is natural variability in both hormone levels and interests within the sexes and (intriguingly) human babies all prefer reds and pinks, regardless of their sex. (Meanwhile, human adults prefer blue colors, regardless of sex.)

Why chimpanzees don't play baseball (at least, not as well as we do)

Good news for humanity's sense of shiny special uniqueness! Sure, other animals use tools. Chimpanzees and bonobos might even have behaviors that can be classified as cultural. But those damn dirty apes still can't throw a fastball to save their lives.

Becky Lang at Discover magazine has an interesting story on this research, which centers around the biology that allows fast pitches to happen, and how we developed it, while our closest relatives did not.

Video Link

How an aborted fetus may have saved your life (and the lives of many other fetuses)

Cell culture lines are cells, taken from donor tissue, that have been divided and separated over and over and over — providing researchers with reliably identical "families" of cells that can be used to biomedical research. Some, like the now-famous HeLa line, are derived from cancerous tissue and replicate indefinitely. Others, like WI-38, will only divide a set number of times (in the case of WI-38, it's 50), but new cells can be frozen at any point and stored. When you thaw them out later, they'll pick back up dividing from the point in the 50-division cycle where they were when frozen.

WI-38 is a particularly important cell culture line. Used extensively in the development of vaccines, these are the cells that helped create the vaccine for Rubella, a disease that, just a few decades ago, used to kill and maim many fetuses whose mothers' became infected. Between 1962 and 1965, it's estimated that rubella infections caused 30,000 stillbirths and left 20,000 children with life-long disabilities.

But WI-38 is controversial. That's partly because the cells that founded the line came from the lung tissue of a fetus that was legally aborted during the fourth month of pregnancy by a woman in Sweden in 1962. At Nature News, Meredith Wadman has a fascinating long read about the moral and ethical issues surrounding WI-38. This isn't just about the abortion question. Also at issue: Did the fetus' mother consent to tissue donation? And are we okay with the fact that she and her family have never received compensation, despite the money that's been made off selling WI-38 cell cultures?

Medical Research: Cell Division by Meredith Wadman in Nature News

Iceland resumes whale hunting, endangered Fin Whale killed


"Kristjan Loftsson, CEO of the the company Hvalur hf." Photo: News of Iceland.

Icelandic news outlets are reporting that an Icelandic whaling company, Hvalur hf, "caught its first fin whale yesterday evening," after sailing out yesterday with two boats, both due back in port today.

Fin whales are the second-largest whale, and are classified as an Endangered species.

From News of Iceland:

Read the rest

Who are the greatest Armchair Taxonomists? The winners announced!

The Encyclopedia of Life announces the winners of the Armchair Taxonomist competition featured here at Boing Boing. Everyone gets a warm thanks for helping to fill an open-source database with information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria—but who gets to go on a tour of the Smithsonian?Read the rest

Duck penises: The saga continues

As we all know by now, ducks have penises. Rather epic penises, in fact. Chickens, though, are penis-less. In fact, most birds don't have them. In an important update in duck sex news, Ed Yong follows the work of several scientists who are trying to better understand how genitals evolve and why they differ so much between species and genuses. Bonus new fact: A dissected goose penis looks surprisingly like a less-colorful Man-O-War jellyfish.

Vein-shaped wine carafes

An example of fantastic, whimsical bio-tableware from sculptor Etienne Meneau. Holds a full bottle.

If it looks difficult to pour from or clean, Meneau has an FAQ for that.

Via the good folks at The Annals of Improbable Research

Two months aboard an Antarctic ice breaker, condensed to 5 minutes

Here's an incredibly cool video showing the prow of a massive ice breaking ship as it plows through Antarctica's Ross Sea. The footage is sped up, to pack two months of travel into five minutes. But, unlike a lot of time-lapse videos, this one also has a really informative audio track, in which marine scientist Cassandra Brooks waxes poetic about the many different kinds of ice and explains why she and her team were out there, breaking through the stuff, to begin with.

Bonus: At the end, you get to see the absolute adorableness that is penguins on high-speed fast forward.

Via Deep Sea News

Cell model cake


Canadian artist/photographer NicoleWilliam created this cell model cake for her BIOL330 class in 2010. I hereby grant her a retrospective A+. It even comes apart!

Biology Cell Cake (via Geeks Are Sexy)

Buildings built by bacteria

NewImage

Over at Fast Company, our pal Chris Arkenberg wrote about how advances in synthetic biology and biomimicry could someday transform how we build our built environments:

Innovations emerging across the disciplines of additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions. Construction itself may be handled by bacterial printers and swarms of mechanical assemblers.

Tools like Project Cyborg make possible a deeper exploration of biomimicry through the precise manipulation of matter. David Benjamin and his Columbia Living Architecture Lab explore ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing--the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.

"Cities Of The Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, And 3-D Printers"

Be an armchair taxonomist! A challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life

Trouble is, a lot of information about living things is hidden behind paywalls or scattered across random sources where the general public can't easily get to it. That's where you come in! Help fill the Encyclopedia of Life's open-source database with information about animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria.Read the rest

The fish with clear blood

Ocellated icefish live deep underwater in the cold oceans surrounding the Poles. They have clear blood. If you remember your childhood biology classes, you should remember that this kind of makes no sense. After all, blood is red because of hemoglobin — the iron-rich protein that carries oxygen around in your blood stream. No hemoglobin, no oxygen. No oxygen, dead fishies. Right? Popular Science explains how ocellated icefish get around this little conundrum.

And all the vaginas are well above average

At Double X Science, Jenny Morber has an excellent piece about the wide range of diversity seen in human lady parts. "Are you normal? Yes. Are you average? No. Most likely," she writes. What follows is a fascinating tour of human biology, from the different lengths and colors of labia to the wide range of shapes exhibited by the inside of the vaginal canal, itself. Even better, all of this can change over the course of an individual woman's life, rendering "average" even more meaningless.

Breast milk is weirder than you think

If you think about lactation too hard, it starts to seem a little strange — like the biological equivalent of saying the word "that" over and over until it's just a weird sound you're making. But, writes Nicholas Day at Slate, the sort of existential weirdness of breast milk is nothing compared to what's going on in the stuff at a chemical level. For instance, breast milk contains sugars that aren't actually digestible by human infants. That's because they aren't meant for the infant, itself. Rather, your breast milk is helpfully feeding your baby's intestinal bacteria. Freakier still: In monkeys, the chemical composition of breast milk can change, depending on factors like your baby's sex and whether your baby is showing signs of illness.

The power of the swarm

At Wired, Ed Yong has an incredible long-read story about the researchers who are figuring out how and why individual animals sometimes turn into groups operating on collective behavior. That research has implications far beyond the freakish, locust-filled laboratories where Yong's story begins. Turns out, bugs and birds can teach us a lot about the brain, cancer, and even how we make predictions about our own futures.

Why are we curious?

Another great ramble from the always-fascinating Venkatesh Rao entitled "The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal," considers several explanations for our species' curiosity, and asks whether our weird, ubiquitous artificial life-forms (corporations) share this trait, and why:

Alone among the curious animals (though this seems like a conceit that more research might invalidate), we seem to be curious about clearly useless things. Or at least, things that have no obvious and immediate use. Humans seem to frequently poke at things that yield returns, if at all, only generations later. And often in ways unsuspected by those who do the poking.

We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor.

This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations. So things like space programs or other pure curiosity driven efforts have to be justified by politicians on the basis of “will improve life here on earth through the discovery of new materials and advances in medicine.” This is probably the mother of all idiotic fictions. Fortunately, we don’t seem to require our institutional fictions to be credible. Merely sufficient to stop conversations we don’t want to have.

There is an interesting symmetry here. Organizations naturally try to avoid pain — the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline for instance – through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).

This has even been turned into a depressingly banal formula for innovation: what pain are you seeking to relieve?

For humans the reverse is true. Curiosity driven by pain-aversion is unnatural, but curiosity driven by joy-seeking is natural and requires no further explanation. Efficiency is the last thing on our minds when we are being curious. The concept does not even apply: efficiency pre-supposes a goal. Waste is pain in the efficient pursuit of goals.

The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal

Sucking up to shrimp

Say you're a marine biologist and you want to study the little bitty creatures of the sea — shrimps and worms and things like that. How do you go about capturing them?

Why, with an underwater vacuum, of course.

At the PNAS First Look blog, David Harris writes that this "SCUBA-tank powered vacuum, called an “airlift,” inhales shrimp, sand fleas, marine worms, and 'things that would swim away if they had the chance.'"

An appreciation of the Sawfish, one of Earth's most threatened fish

"The earliest sawfishes likely arose in the shallow Tethys Sea, that ocean surrounded by the ancient continents of Godwanda and Laurasia, during the Cretaceous period at least 60 million years ago," writes Dr. M. at Deep Sea News.

These "sole survivors of an ancient bloodline" now number only seven species which roam the muddy bottoms of coastal areas, bays and estuaries. 

All sawfishes can move easily between fresh and saltwater and often venture deep upstream into rivers. The sawfish lifestyle puts this both their size and saw near humans.  All seven species are considered critically endangered by the IUCN.  As much as we have impacted them, sawfish have also greatly influenced our culture.

And now, they're one of the most threatened species on our planet. Thanks, humans!

More: Exaltation to Extinction for Sawfishes [Deep Sea News]

Resurrecting the dead — one piece at a time

Thanks to Jurassic Park, we tend to focus on one use for the DNA of extinct creatures — resurrecting them, in full, to live here in the modern age. But it's not necessary to go that far to learn a lot about those animals, and the evolution of life, in general. At the Experimental Podcast, Stephanie Vogt talks about the paleophysiologists who are reconstructing the proteins of extinct animals using fragments of DNA found in long-dead remains. Those proteins, simple as they may seem, hold some amazing stories. For instance, reconstructed haemoglobin from wooly mammoths could someday help doctors get oxygen to the brains of high-risk human surgery patients.

Why your mixer matters

Getting tipsy is more than just a simple equation of "Insert booze, receive stupid behavior". There's some complicated chemistry at work — especially when you begin to factor in the stuff you mix your alcohol into. For instance, the sugar in soda actually prevents your blood stream from absorbing as much alcohol as it otherwise would. Which means, as Allison Aubrey explains at NPR, your choice of mixer could be the difference between a blood alcohol level that is within legal limits and one that is most decidedly not.

What does the world look like when you're color blind?













On the left is a picture of me with my bike, taken by my friend Laura Kling. On the right is the same image, as it would be seen by a person with protanopia — a relatively common (as in, still very rare) form of color blindness that affects the ability to see green, yellow, and red colors.

The Color Blindness Simulator will allow you to do this with your own photos.

Ads that depict the human body as a machine


On the Vintage Ads LJ group, the awesome Man Writing Slash has rounded up a series of old ads that use mechanical methaphors for the human body.

One of my favorite ad tropes is the Body=Machine/Body=Factory idea, because the imagery is often more detailed and also more hilarious than in most ads. As a kid I used to LOVE any illustrations of the body that depicted tiny workers inside, such as The Human Body, for example. :D This link to a book about Fritz Kahn's Der Mensch als Industriepalast is also fascinating (although not advertisement). Brief video version of that book HERE (well worth 3 minutes of your time.) This series of articles and illustrations in the same vein (XD) appeared in the Berliner Morgenpost in 1931 and is simply breathtaking.

Body = Machine: A Series

Utensils probably gave us all overbites

According to a new book, the human overbite developed at different times, in different places — and was always coincident with the widespread use of eating utensils. In Europe, for instance, evidence suggests that humans have only had an overbite for about 250 years.

Man vs. duck (or a bunch of little horses)

Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck? President Obama refused to address this pressing question. But science has the answer. (Via Tim Maly and kottke)