The Weekly Beaker: Where Science Fails Us
Published: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 18:02
Science in 2013: Sickness and the Brain, Disposable Penises, Selfishness, and More
The new year is already abuzz with surprising and exciting scientific findings. Consider the following stories:
Jonathan Kipnis of the University of Virginia has found a link between sickness and reduced brain function. We’re all familiar with that vague sense that you’ve lost your mental edge when ill—turns out this may be due to the altered functioning of the immune system in the presence of a pathogen. The brain is usually surrounded by T-cells, part of the body’s vital defense mechanisms. In health, T-cells secrete a molecule that helps keep the brain safe from immune system activity. In sickness, the T-cells are more focused on fighting off disease and don’t produce as much of the protective molecule. This prevents the neural process of learning from occurring as effectively as compared to a normal state, which could explain the lack of astuteness sometimes present in sickness.
Another study by international researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January connected a region of the brain, the basolateral amygdala, to the trait of selfishness. Three women with damage to this area of the brain were tested in an investment game, where they entrusted strangers with twice as much money as healthy people, and couldn’t give a good reason as to why. The results imply that typically the basolateral amygdala is important for acting selfishly.
At least our environment isn’t full of mysterious and harmful chemicals right? Ha, wrong. A Jan. 15 report for Environmental Health Perspectives showed that prenatal exposure to a chemical used in the abundantly produced plastic PVC, and ship paint promoted obesity in mice. Unfortunately, the chemical, tributyltin, wrought enduring effects: the mice’s grandchildren were also obese although never exposed to the chemical. The mice in the study were exposed to an amount proportionally similar to human exposure through house dust and other places. This confirmed results from an earlier study, which showed that tributyltin can reprogram stem cells to become fat cells rather than bone cells. It sounds like this is one chemical to keep your distance from.
On a more inspiring note, researchers in Colorado reported in Science News on Feb. 15 that they had demonstrated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says that there is no limit to how precisely one can know both the position and momentum of an object, on an object visible to the naked eye. This is significant because the principle is usually most apparent and exerts its strongest effects at the subatomic level, on particles like electrons and photons. These researchers were able to measure an uncertainty effect of a few picometers—a tiny distance, but a substantial one for scientists whose measurements require extreme precision—on a small drum which was hit by a laser shot of 100 million photons.
It seems that the unexpected meteor that impacted the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in the wee hours of Feb. 15 couldn’t have been expected. It was so small as to escape detection. Though it was relatively small, its aftereffects were not. As Andrew Grant writes for Science News, “it was streaking through the sky at supersonic speeds of about 18 km a second before exploding at an altitude of 15-20 km, creating a shock wave that shattered glass in a deafening boom once it reached the surface. Various news sources have reported hundreds of buildings damaged and about 1,200 injuries.”
In perhaps the most important news that has broken so far, a sea slug boasts a disposable penis, which simply falls off 20 minutes after copulation. Don’t worry: there are backups available if necessary. When the sea slug in the experiment, performed by Ayami Sekizawa of Osaka City University in Japan, was presented with another partner a day later, spare penile tissue emerged to answer the call of duty. “New tissue emerges like lead in a mechanical pencil,” Sekizawa said.
I can’t wait to see what else 2013 has in store.