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.

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.