Somebody Studies That!

In our work at SciLine, we run into an amazing diversity of scientists driven by curiosity to understand the fascinating world in which we live. We regularly highlight a topic you might be surprised or delighted to know is the subject of scientific scrutiny.

Here are some recent Somebody Studies That! postings.

Ancient roam

Some specialists in evolutionary genomics study ancient human DNA to understand the origins of genetic variants that today increase people’s odds of getting multiple sclerosis—a disease caused by an overactive immune system. They’ve discovered that some of those immune-amplifying genes were introduced into Europe about 5,000 years ago when pastoralists arrived from Central Asia, who in those days may have benefited from the added protection those genes conferred against infectious diseases.

Polar cap naps

Some biologists measure the brain activity of breeding penguins that seem not to sleep during the months they vigilantly protect their exposed eggs and newborn chicks. Brain wave studies revealed that these penguins actually nod off about 10,000 times a day for an average of just 4 seconds at a time— totaling about  11 hours a day—suggesting that these birds reap the benefits of a night’s sleep from thousands of micro-naps.

Trading places

Some archaeologists study declassified spy satellite images to remotely examine the remains of second- and third-century structures scattered across Middle Eastern desert lands. They found that these architectural remnants are more numerous and widely distributed than previously documented, calling into question the longstanding assumption that they once constituted a line of defensive forts and suggesting instead they were trading posts or other friendly venues of cultural exchange.

Fog research that can’t be mist

Some scientists and engineers spend their days in a fog … on purpose. Their studies of fog promise a better understanding of how it forms from atmospheric humidity and how to more precisely predict its movements—questions of great interest to commercial shipping, air traffic controllers, and the military.

Housewarming party

Some meteorologists and public health researchers have together studied the atmospheric conditions inside inflatable “bounce houses” popular on summer days. They found that the heat index (a combined measure of temperature and humidity) inside a bounce house can be as much as 8 degrees F above ambient outside temperature, often reaching levels dangerous to health.

Terror incognita

Some psychologists are trying to find the factors that give “haunted houses” their signature sense of creepiness. They’ve assessed the number of mirrors and portraits on the walls and tested for toxic molds and magnetic fields, but so far they’ve found no scientific explanation for the psychological sense of hauntedness.

Disorganizing crime

Some mathematicians and sociologists, seeking ways to reduce the high rates of violent death associated with Mexican drug cartels, use computer models to quantify the factors contributing to those deaths. Their analysis concludes that reducing recruitment of new cartel members—by offering better jobs with higher wages—would reduce violent deaths more than increasing arrest and incarceration rates.

Driven to distraction

Some behavioral psychologists study whether electronic highway signs displaying the latest statewide traffic fatality numbers can motivate drivers to exercise caution and, therefore, help reduce vehicular crashes.  Surprisingly, they found that crashes were a little more common when and where such signs were  in use—perhaps, they conclude, because the signs are distracting.

Dialect disconnect

Some linguists are studying the evolution of the Georgia accent—a version of the U.S. southern accent that over the past century has measurably—and in recent years precipitously—been falling out of use among white speakers (research on Black speakers is underway). The work, based in part on recordings from a century ago, found that the shift is primarily a function of age, irrespective of education level.

On pins and needles

Some biologists study birds that have learned to build nests from the anti-bird spikes that people deploy to deter birds from roosting and nesting on buildings. They’ve documented crows, magpies, and other birds using bird spikes, knitting needles, used hypodermic needles and even barbed wire as nesting materials, and they predict more such architectural ingenuity as manufactured materials become ever more ubiquitous.

Non-stick in the mud

Some materials scientists study the outer surface, or “cuticle,” of springtails—insect-like critters that live in soil but who stay squeaky clean because of their natural, extremely effective non-stick coating. Staying clean helps springtails absorb crucial oxygen from the air, but scientists hope to learn from these uncannily pristine bugs how to manufacture better nonstick or self-cleaning surfaces.

Grow in the dark

Some chemical engineers and botanists have collaborated to develop plants that can grow just on sugar water and without any sunlight—an advance that could allow food production on spacecraft. To save energy, some of the crops, such as cherry tomato plants, have virtually no stems or leaves but only the edible fruits themselves.

Urine for a treat

Some veterinary behavioral psychologists have turned their talents to toilet training dairy cows, whose uncaptured urine contributes significantly to climate-disrupting greenhouse gasses. With the help of molasses treats, they’ve taught young cows to hold their urine until they get to a special room called the “moo-loo” where the waste can be recycled.

A view with a room

Some social scientists with an interest in marketing study Airbnb advertisements. In one study they found that background images of bedrooms drove customers away, while images of living rooms brought a 35% increase in bookings—perhaps, they propose, because those images remind prospective renters that living rooms are something competing hotels can’t provide.

Taking leaf of their senses

Some evolutionary biologists study the surprising ability of certain plants to make or respond to sounds. Some plants, for example, emit ultrasonic sounds outside the range of human hearing when they need water or have been injured. And some plants with flowers in need of pollination sweeten their nectar when they detect the telltale sound of a nearby buzzing bee.

Back into the wing of things

Some molecular geneticists are studying how skates developed their unique bat-like “wings” that allow them to so gracefully skim the ocean bottom. They’ve identified the specific genes in these fish that long ago mutated, causing their pectoral fins to grow extraordinarily large.

Eye have seen the light

Some molecular biologists study rhodopsins—the proteins in the retina that make vision possible by responding to as little as a single photon of light. Their work has revealed how these proteins literally snap back and forth to operate as “on-off” switches when light arrives—a simple trick for capturing energy from light, dating back to some of the earliest bacteria on Earth.

Twist and sprout

Some materials scientists have designed thin, twisted strips of wood that naturally drill into the soil when they get wet from rain—and which can be mass-produced with seeds attached to them. Dropped en masse from the air, these twirling, self-composting, seed-delivery devices might have a future in agriculture or for restoration of disturbed environments.

Moonlight saving time

Some metrologists are working to standardize time on the moon, where clocks gain 56 microseconds every 24 hours compared to time on Earth because, per the theory of relativity, time runs faster in low-gravity environs. International agreement on how to tell time on the moon is needed to coordinate pending moon missions and to synchronize several planned lunar satellites for what will be the moon’s first GPS navigational network.

Sugar buzz

Some evolutionary geneticists are studying a bit of DNA that mutated in hummingbirds 40 million years ago, which increased their flight muscles’ ability to extract energy from sugar. That enabled wing flaps of such high intensity that these birds, for the first time, were able to hover—a trait that to this day is not shared by any other bird.

Motor non-voter

Some political scientists investigate whether “lower-level” interactions with the criminal justice system reduce the likelihood that a person will vote in the next election. They found that getting a traffic ticket significantly reduces the odds of voting—a finding they say is worrisome given some localities’ increasing dependence on tickets and fines to cover their budgets.

Creature comforts

Some veterinary researchers study the potential therapeutic effects of wintertime hot-spring baths on the skin of capybaras— large rodents that suffer from seasonally dry skin. They found that daily dips in natural, alkaline hot springs improved skin condition and increased the animals’ apparent “comfort” levels, as indicated by their squinting eyes—and they suggest humans may enjoy similar salutary effects.

Divide and conquer

Some cell biologists are exploring the conditions that might explain why early one-celled organisms in some instances evolved into more complex multicellular organisms. They found that in some cases multicellularity provides an evolutionary advantage by reducing the odds of being eaten by predators.

A matter of fact

Some social scientists study the effect on politicians of having their statements scrutinized by fact checkers. They found that politicians stuck closer to the facts—at least for a couple of months—after being publicly fact checked, but they also increasingly fell back on ambiguous statements not easily subjected to verification.

Heavy sleeper

Some pharmacology researchers study whether weighted blankets are useful sleep aids, as widely advertised. One recent study found that heavy blankets (about 12% of body weight) do increase the body’s production of melatonin—a hormone that plays a role in the timing of sleep—but that users did not report higher levels of sleepiness and did not sleep longer than those who used light blankets.

The pursuit of hoppiness

Some yeast geneticists have for years been trying to solve the riddle of how Medieval European brewers made the switch from ale to lager, which relies on a strain of yeast whose lineage seemed absent from Europe. A recent discovery of that missing yeast strain in soil near Dublin suggests the needed strain has been in Europe all along, and that the lager revolution did not depend on yeast imported from other regions of the world.

Rice-cycling

Some agronomists are developing a variety of rice that is perennial—able to regenerate year after year. The benefits of not having to annually drain paddies and replant seedlings by hand would mostly be enjoyed by women and children, who in many of the world’s major rice- growing regions do most of this labor-intensive work.

Grass-fed beef

Some scientists are testing the value of feeding dairy cows hemp—which is cheaper than conventional feed but has varying amounts of the psychoactive compounds in marijuana. Cows fed high-dose hemp showed signs of inebriation, including unsteady gait and bloodshot eyes, and produced milk that might make people high—a possible buzz-kill for regulatory approval.

Betting the pharm

Some behavioral economists study whether financial incentives can get people to engage in health-promoting activities. Results have been mixed, but a recent test of incentivizing COVID vaccinations with a special lottery that enhanced the odds of winning tens of thousands of dollars had no overall impact on vaccination rates.

Ink wellness

Biomedical engineers are creating tattoo inks that change color in response to shifts in blood sugar levels and other health indicators—color shifts that can be precisely read with a cameraphone. The researchers envision a future in which people with chronic health conditions can have 24/7 monitoring of key blood measures–dermally displayed in the design of their choice.

Ancient kiss-tory

Archaeomolecular biologists studying 5,000-year-old human teeth have determined that the herpes virus that causes cold sores became especially prevalent around then. With no genetic change in the virus itself apparently responsible, they propose a change in human behavior to explain its sudden spread: the then-new phenomenon of romantic kissing.

Itsy bitsy dreams

Behavioral biologists studying jumping spiders whose legs twitch while they are apparently asleep have concluded that the spiders are probably dreaming. Spiders’ eyes can’t move, so they can’t display the rapid eye movement (“REM”) characteristic of human dreaming. But the light-sensitive retinas inside those eyes can move—and do, it turns out, during leg twitching—evidence they are indeed dreaming and that dreams may be widespread in animals.

Rocking the boat

Some physicists study “gunwale bobbing,” in which a person propels a canoe forward by pumping their legs up and down. They identified a kind of water wave formed by this vertical bobbing action that explains the translation of vertical action into horizontal thrust—a phenomenon they say could help competitive rowers shave seconds off their race times.

Circadian cells

Some scientists are measuring the daily biorhythms of cancer cells that travel through the body and can cause distant tumors. They’ve found that the cells become especially active when a person is asleep, suggesting that doctors “might need to become more conscious of when to administer specific treatments.”

Red hot chilly

Some physicists have been studying why warm fluids sometimes freeze faster than cold ones. Work on this poorly understood “Mpemba effect” is shedding light on the molecular steps that control the transitions between solids and liquids. (h/t Adam Mann)

Lighting bugged

Using multiple video cameras arranged in the woods, researchers have created 3D movies of firefly flashes to understand how these beetles synchronize their displays. The findings could help engineers coordinate group behavior of robots or other dispersed technologies. (h/t Vincent Gabrielle)

Bridging a yawning research gap

Some behavioral scientists are studying human and animal yawning, and why yawns are contagious. They’ve documented that yawning can enhance group cohesion, suggesting there may be hidden downsides to the cultural practice of suppressing yawns in public.

Chomping at the bot

Some engineers are developing “robotic chefs” that not only cook meals but also taste their creations repeatedly during a motorized mastication process that mimics the gradual release of flavor while a person chews. By parroting the way people perceive flavor while eating, taste technologists hope to enhance the palatability of prepared foods.

Trick or tweet

Some evolutionary ecologists are studying a ruse some birds use when spotted by a predator: They run from their nest holding one wing askew, as though broken. The illusion of injury and an easy meal distracts from defenseless eggs or chicks—and may offer scientists insights into the evolution of deceptive predator-prey behaviors.

Cracking the cocoa code

Some materials scientists are using 3D printers to create uniquely structured chocolate pieces that crack just the right amount when bitten, maximizing a positive “mouthfeel” experience. Their mouth-watering work has potential value in a range of applications where engineers want to control how materials fracture.

Bored certified

Some social psychologists study why certain people are perceived by others as boring, and the social consequences of being identified as a bore. Their work on why bores tend to be looked down upon and avoided could deepen researchers’ understanding of prejudice and discrimination more generally.

Leggo my gecko

Some scientists are studying the nanoscale structures that allow otherwise-secure lizard tails to detach when grabbed by a predator—and similar structures that allow some grasses to break away from their roots when grazed—ensuring the plant’s survival. The work could lead to machine parts that self-disengage in an accident, to protect surrounding components from damage.

Commode clouds

Some scientists study “toilet plumes”—the sprays of invisible but potentially contaminated droplets that become airborne during toilet flushes and can remain adrift for hours. Researchers aim to determine how big a disease risk these plumes may pose, and which kinds of toilets spray the least.

Bear minimum metabolism

Some biologists are tracking which genes become more or less active in grizzly bears before and during hibernation. The work could help explain why grizzlies, unlike people, don’t lose bone or muscle mass during prolonged inactivity—and could lead to bone- and muscle-saving therapies for bedridden patients.

Primordial soup in the loop

Some Earth scientists are studying why tiny ocean-dwelling organisms called coccolithophores experience population booms and busts every 405,000 years in sync with small cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit. The work could show how subtle orbital shifts can amplify changes in climate and biodiversity.

Second-generation smoke?

Some scientists are investigating why in certain cases men who start smoking before age 13 are more likely to have granddaughters and great-granddaughters who become overweight in adolescence. They suspect that harm from environmental exposures can be passed along to later generations.

Frequency hopping

In a swamp near the end of a Chinese airport runway, ecologists have been measuring changes in the calls of frogs during airliner take-offs. The work could inform ways to mitigate the negative impacts of noise pollution on animals that communicate through sound.

Starting from scratch

Some scientists are using electron microscopes to study, at spectacularly high magnification, a class of proteins in the body that appear to be responsible for the feeling of an itch. By looking at these proteins at an atomic resolution of billionths of an inch, they hope to design new and better anti-itch medications.

Fishing for longevity

Some biologists aim to unravel the mystery of human aging by studying Pacific Ocean rockfishes—some species of which live up to 150 years, largely because they are very good at repairing DNA damage that accumulates naturally over time. Their work suggests people might live much longer if scientists could boost the DNA repair systems in our cells.

Fit to be tide

Some scientists study the “personalities” of sea anemones to understand why some individuals react differently than others to various perturbations. The work could inform efforts to preserve species diversity in the face of climate-change-related stresses.

Toward painless pirouettes

Some physiotherapists are attaching artificial-intelligence-enabled motion sensors to ballet dancers to analyze body postures, such as thigh elevation and spine angle, during specific ballet poses. They hope the data they capture may help them understand the causes of hip and back pain among dancers and thus prevent and better manage it.

Fish step aerobics

Some fish physiologists study air-gulping, amphibious species that spend part of their life on land, to see if they have cognitive advantages over other fish. Their finding that these fish learn to navigate mazes more quickly suggests that living on land—with its great variety of environments—may help drive spatial learning and evolutionary success.

Fonts for funding

Some consumer science researchers have found that when charities communicate with prospective donors, matching fonts to the nature of the messages being conveyed—such as handwriting-style fonts when appealing to emotions—can make donations more likely.

Your tongue nose how to smell

It has long been known that the human brain perceives flavor by combining the stimuli of taste receptors in the tongue with smell receptors in the nose. Now some cell biologists have found odor receptors in human taste cells found on the tongue, which means the interaction between taste and smell may begin before reaching our brains.

Electronic dance mosquito

Some entomologists are investigating possible music-based protections against mosquito-borne diseases. They found that when exposed to the electronic dance music of Skrillex, certain mosquito species copulate less than when not exposed. This could potentially lead to new types of control measures against the diseases spread by this species of mosquitoes.

Jaws the two of us

Some marine scientists using acoustical tracking data to monitor the movement of sharks have found that, despite the “lone shark” stereotype, gray reef sharks in the Pacific form lasting social groups that continue for years, with many sharks showing clear friendship-like preferences for certain sharks over others.

Ant-i itch scheme

Zoologists have observed a mysterious “anting” behavior in crows and hundreds of other bird species in which the birds sit on top of an anthill and rub their bodies with ants. One explanation: when threatened, many ants emit formic acid, which may be soothing to molting birds’ skin and potentially helpful in controlling parasites.

Arachno-flow-bia

Some arachnologists, using leaf blowers to create various degrees of breeze, have studied how jumping spiders sense—and then perfectly compensate for—wind direction as they plan their leap onto unsuspecting prey.

Magnetic approaches to studying roaches

Some biophysicists are studying the minerals in cockroaches that may allow those insects to sense the Earth’s magnetic field—work that could shed light on the biological role of similar minerals in the human brain.

The bear necessities

Some bear biologists, using camera-enabled drones, have documented a dietary switch among polar bears from seals to common eider duck eggs—a change apparently prompted by climate-change-related melting of ice floes that once provided easier access to seals.

How birds in tuxes handle heat fluxes

Some physicists have studied the huddling behavior of Emperor penguins to inform mathematical models about the physical dynamics of heat distribution.

An examination of ant sanitation

Some myrmecologists study the special rooms in ant nests where the insects go when nature calls, and they are probing why ants—which are otherwise fastidious tenants—tolerate the buildup of waste from indoor toilets.

Braaaaaaains!

Some psychologists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of people watching horror movies—shedding light on the neuroscience of fear and its relationship to excitement.

Walk this way

Some paleontologists have attached heavy tails to chickens to shift the birds’ centers of gravity rearward, enhancing the scientists’ models of how two-legged dinosaurs walked.

That sparkle in your eye

Some neuroparasitologists study worms that take over crickets’ brains and drive the insects to drown themselves; caterpillars that compel ants to serve as personal bodyguards; and wasps that turn skittish cockroaches into couch potatoes—in each case an induced change in behavior that enhances the parasite’s survival.

Menacing mind melds

Some neuroparasitologists study worms that take over crickets’ brains and drive the insects to drown themselves; caterpillars that compel ants to serve as personal bodyguards; and wasps that turn skittish cockroaches into couch potatoes—in each case an induced change in behavior that enhances the parasite’s survival.

Cloudy with a chance of spores

Some mycologists track the tiny breezes that mushrooms can make— convective currents created by their release of water vapor—which help shrooms spread their spores even when the air is otherwise still.