Archive | January 2013

Puppy Games

A passel of puppies led to a picture of my daughter Bethany on the Washington Post website this week. The revered D.C. newspaper ran a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming Puppy Bowl. In Photo 16, Bethany cuddles not one, but two, adorable puppies. It was all part of a long day’s work in her role as an associate producer at Petfinder.

Another photo of Bethany ran when I wrote “Help Wanted: Dogs” for YES Mag. Beth09YESThe feature spotlighted different types of working dogs. I learned about acting dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, herding dogs, police dogs, and guide dogs. Yet the canine career that surprised me the most was scat sniffing.

Yes, you read that right. The University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology gives them the more dignified title of Conservation Canines. But basically, the pooches’ job is to point out poop.

Using their super senses of smell, dogs can detect droppings thousands of feet away. That’s very valuable when wildlife won’t otherwise wander near people. Plus, the scent lets them distinguish one species’ feces from another. That’s something we can’t always tell by sight.

Scat samples help scientists determine species numbers, genetics, diet habits, and more. The knowledge helps us understand animals that face environmental pressures. Thus, the dogs’ work helps save wildlife.

In turn, the Conservation Canines program rescues dogs. “All our dogs are rescued from the shelters,” program coordinator Heath Smith told me.

“Ball drive” is a huge job qualification. Smith said the program specifically needs “the type of dog that has the energy to want to play fetch all day long.” Both in training and out in the field, playing fetch is the dogs’ reward for spotting scat.

Now back to the Puppy Bowl: The annual Animal Planet show is a two-hour cuteness extravaganza. More importantly, it’s a showcase for adoptable animals from Petfinder member shelters and rescue groups.

This year Petfinder members brought puppies, kittens, and hedgehogs to the two-day filming. The puppies and kittens were all waiting for adoption. The hedgehogs had already found “forever homes,” but their original rescue groups hope that Puppy Bowl will encourage more people to look for hedgehogs at rescues and shelters. There are plenty more pets of each species at Petfinder’s thousands of member rescues and shelters, along with rabbits, chickens, horses, pigs, birds, and other pets.

“Our mission is to find homes for the 370,000 pets listed for adoption every month on Petfinder,” general manager Iain Langridge told me via email last fall. The Puppy Bowl helps get the word out while providing some fun entertainment before the Super Bowl (or during it, if you’re not a football fan). With luck, lots of adoptable pets will find new homes both before and after the game. Visit Petfinder to learn more, or check out Petfinder on Facebook.

Puppy Bowl IX airs on Animal Planet this Sunday, February 3, 2013, starting at 3 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time. Check it out before watching the other big game that’s taking place that day in New Orleans.

What kind of animal job do you find most intriguing?
What kind of pet would you want to adopt?

Trouble with the Curve

So, Major League is still my all-time favorite baseball movie. Nonetheless, we rented Trouble with the Curve this weekend, and I enjoyed the father-daughter drama. Some critics cast Clint Eastwood’s 2012 film as the antithesis to another good baseball drama, 2011’s Moneyball. Eastwood’s crotchety Gus Lobel disdains the statistics-rich Sabermetrics that helped get Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane to the playoffs. Yet Lobel still relies on the laws of physics.

In Trouble with the Curve, sound tells Lobel that a Grady Sizemore 7/7/06hot scouting prospect isn’t hitting a curve ball right. This makes sense when you consider the physics of baseball. In nontechnical terms, a bat’s sweet spot is the point where it will hit a baseball the farthest. Basically, the bat transfers the most energy to the ball upon impact. In the process, the bat absorbs the least vibrations. We hear sound when vibrations cause waves to move through the air in certain ways. Absorb fewer vibrations with the bat, and the sound of the ball-bat collision will vary.

In a later scene, Lobel’s daughter Mickey recognizes a gifted amateur pitcher from the sound of his pitches hitting a mitt. If any physics experts read this and can suggest a good explanation, please post a comment or email me, and I’ll do a follow-up post. Otherwise, to my way of thinking, the sweet dramatic moment doesn’t necessarily follow from the physics. Yes, a ball thrown harder should make a louder sound when it strikes a mitt. However, if someone threw amazing pitches for me to catch, the sounds from my end would be more like “Oops” or “Ouch!”

Physics comes into the picture again when the drafted hot prospect faces off against the amateur pitching phenom. Pitchers give the curveball a topspin instead of the backspin that a fastball has. The different spin makes the ball curve downward and drop more than you’d expect from gravity alone. SUNY Geneseo physics professor Charlie Freeman and research assistant Michael Canfield have demonstrated the effect with high-tech video equipment, computer analysis, and Styrofoam balls. Check out the diagrams at Freeman’s web page, http://www.geneseo.edu/geneseo_scene/physics-baseball .

The different spin also produces an optical illusion. The ball may seem to change direction, which makes it even harder to hit. American University’s Arthur Shapiro and his colleagues illustrate this “perceptual puzzle” at http://illusionoftheyear.com/2009/the-break-of-the-curveball/ .

In short, major league players have to be able to hit a curveball, along with a fastball, slider, and other pitches. All of us have to obey the laws of science. And movie writers should double-check their science stuff.

What are your favorite baseball movies and why? Do any of them raise science questions you’d like to see explored further?

Are You Smelly?

Lift up your arm and sniff. Do you have body odor?

Scientists at the University of Bristol say the answer to whether you really need deodorant is in your genes. The new study appears online this month in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.

The study focuses on a particular variation of the ABCC11 gene. Previous studies have linked the same variation to whether your earwax is wet or dry. Apparently, wet earwax people are more likely to have underarm odor.

Somewhat surprisingly, you’re more likely to use deodorant when you don’t need it than vice versa. Among white Europeans in the sample, only 5% of women with the bad body odor gene didn’t use deodorant. The figure jumped to 13% for men with the smelly gene variant. In short, 95% of the women who need deodorant in fact use it, while one in eight men don’t.

Meanwhile, 77.8% of nonodorous people in the sample use deodorant at least once a week. “[W]e believe that these people simply follow socio-cultural norms,” says lead author Ian Day. In contrast, most people in northeast Asia don’t need to use deodorant, so they don’t bother with it.

If people stopped unnecessary deodorant use, they could cut down on chemical exposures. They’d save money too. Before you ditch the deodorant, though, note that the non-smelly version of the gene is recessive. Unless you got that version from both parents, you’re likely to have body odor. The non-smelly version is also rarer among European and African populations than among Asian ethnic groups.

The study offers some interesting health insights for the future. To the extent personal hygiene needs depend on our genes, testing could eliminate unnecessary use for some people. Meanwhile, maybe those who need deodorant but don’t currently use it could take the testing results as a not-so-subtle hint. Then we’d all breathe easier.

You’ll Remember This Post—Really!

You’re more likely to remember Facebook posts and reader comments than people’s faces or lines from books. So says a new study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Warwick. “Major Memory for Microblogs” appears in the Springer journal Memory & Cognition.

Study participants were about 1.5 times more likely to remember Facebook status updates than sentences from books. Compared to a stranger’s face, status updates were roughly 2.5 times more memorable. And those were anonymous posts—not posts of the participants’ bosom buddies. Reader comments ranked high in memorability too.

“These kinds of gaps in performance are on a scale similar to the differences between amnesiacs and people with healthy memory,” notes lead author Laura Mickes. Posts’ social nature is one factor that seems to make them more memorable. Most status updates also form a complete thought.

The “mind-ready” informal style also seems to make a difference. Writers often wrestle to craft the perfect sentence. However, our brains may be better wired to remember pithy, chatty comments. One of Mickes’ co-authors, Nicholas Christenfeld, calls this a “casual, personal style of pre-literate communication.” English lit teachers are not so kind.

The study also provides yet another reason to think carefully before typing out the latest status update or comment. “Facebook is updated roughly 30 million times an hour so it’s easy to dismiss it as full of mundane, trivial bits of information that we will instantly forget as soon as we read them,” Mickes said. “But our study turns that view on its head….” In other words, post something tacky, and you’re unlikely to live it down soon.

Now, what about remembering those lines from books? Maybe social media should be used more in the classroom. Teach Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a series of status updates. Dissect Dickens’ classics through reader comments. But please, could classes stop studying “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson? That story always creeped me out anyway.

Are Your Hands Clean?

We all know that frequent hand-washing is the best way to keep germs at bay during cold and flu season, right?
Plus, we all learned to wash our hands after going to the bathroom, didn’t we?
Why, then, do I feel queasy about the results of a new study in the journal Human Communications Research?

The study started with a CDC statistic that 77 percent of males wash their hands when leaving a restroom. A survey of college-aged men at Michigan State University came close to that number, with 75 percent of guys self-reporting good hand hygiene habits. After researchers posted signs showing guys with MSU caps washing their hands, observers noted a change for the better. Priming the mental pump with relatable messages raised the MSU group of hand-washing guys to 86 percent.

So far, so good: Effective communication can change hygiene habits for the better. And the more men and women who wash their hands, the less likely it is that we’ll all swap crud germs. But what I want to know is this: What’s wrong with the rest of these guys?

Why are more than one-fifth of all guys walking around with unclean hands? That’s supposed to be a legal term—NOT a literal term for germ-spreading. And what’s wrong with the one-eighth who still won’t slather on a bit of soap and water even when signs remind them to do so?

Maybe we need to get more aggressive. We might perhaps speak up when we see people forgetting to wash their hands. Of course, that’s one thing when you know the person. It’s more awkward, and almost creepy, to say something like that to a total stranger. What if the person got angry or was unbalanced? Skip that idea.

Here’s another thought: Some tourist spots in Europe have these restroom monitors who won’t let you in unless you pay 10 crowns or something. Maybe those places could get rid of the fee for using the restroom and replace it with a penalty for people who won’t wash their hands. But then their coins would have extra germs on them, and they’d get circulated with the rest of the money supply. That would give new meaning to the term filthy lucre.

Weather Watch

Earlier this week, AccuWeather reported that mid-January could bring brutal cold waves across the United States from Canada. Evidence shows there’s been “sudden stratospheric warming” six to 30 miles above the Arctic region. When that happens, it generally pushes colder air down and then south. Brrrr!

After that chilling bit of news, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its State of the Climate report for 2012. Not counting Alaska and Hawaii, last year was the warmest on record for the United States. It also brought the second most extreme weather on record for those 48 states. Tornado activity was below average. However, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and other storms were all up.

The extreme weather from 2012 may be a taste of things to come. By 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipates that average global temperatures will rise between 2 and 11.5°F (1.1 to 6.4°C). Even small changes in average temperatures can boost the chances of storms, droughts, and other extreme events.

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground compares it to rolling loaded dice that have an extra spot on one of the dice. You’ll have more cases of extreme events like those from the past. Plus, some events could be even more extreme than what came before. “It’s just a couple of degrees warmer most days,” Masters told me. “But those extremes—they really can bite you.”

Even at its worst, Earth’s weather won’t get as bad as what NASA recently found out in space on a brown dwarf called 2MASSJ22282889-431026. (I’ll just call it 2M for short.) Made of condensing gas, brown dwarfs don’t get hot enough to start the nuclear fusion that would make them full-fledged stars. Nonetheless, 2M’s temperature is about 1,100 to 1,300°F (600 to 700°C). Some of its windy storms are as big as our whole planet. And its clouds include things like sand, iron droplets, and exotic compounds. Put it all together, and you’ve got quite a storm!

Fortunately, the weather out on 2M doesn’t directly affect us. In the short term, people in most of the United States should be ready to bundle up at any time over the next few months. It is, after all, winter.

Say It With Feathers?

“Best evidence yet that dinosaurs used feathers for courtship,” reads the headline from the University of Alberta’s press release today. Immediately, my mind’s eye saw a cartoon dinosaur holding a bouquet of feathers for his date. “Here, honey,” he’d say. “These are for you.”

Of course, dinosaurs did not stop at a local FTD or other florist shop before going courting. Nonetheless, the new discovery is a feather in the cap of University of Alberta researcher Scott Persons.

Persons’ paleontology studies focused on fossils for four species of two-legged, plant-eating dinosaurs called oviraptors. The final vertebrae (back bones) of the fossils were fused together as a pygostyle. That’s a ridged, blade-like structure. It occurs today only in birds.

Fossils found with one species, Similicaudiptery, showed that feathers came out from the tail tip. Based on the bone structure and studies of muscles on modern reptiles and birds, Persons concluded that they and other oviraptors would strut their stuff to attract a mate. Today’s turkeys and peacocks do this when they fan out their tail feathers in courtship displays.

So, what does this mean? Well, if you’re like me, you probably played with plastic dinosaurs when you were little. I felt pretty cool memorizing long names and learning about these ancient reptiles. Yet Persons and other paleontologists are still making significant discoveries about them. There’s lots more for all of us to learn.

My first impression upon seeing the press release is also notable, because it was wrong. Sure, this is an age of sound bites and instant information. Yet we all need to read beyond the headlines. Getting the whole story is important for science and for life in general.

And finally: Dinosaurs were cool when I was little. They’re still cool now.
Go oviraptors! Strut your stuff!