Longevity: Cold Plays a Role in the Genes

If you’ve had to scrape ice off your windshield morning after morning, and are looking for a reason to appreciate winter, you may want to consider the research of University of Michigan scientists, which explains a link between cold environments and longer lifespans (published here in the journal Cell).

While it’s no secret to scientists that cold-blooded creatures (including worms and fish) experience greater longevity in cold places, U-M scientists have just discovered through a study of roundworms the genetic program that makes this possible. The same program is found in humans and other warm-blooded animals.

“This raises the intriguing possibility that exposure to cold air—or pharmacological stimulation of the cold-sensitive genetic program—may promote longevity in mammals,” said Shawn Xu, LSI faculty member and the Bernard W. Agranoff Collegiate Professor in the Life Sciences at the U-M Medical School.

via University of Michigan News Service | Stay cool and live longer?.

Love 2.0: It’s All in the Micro-Moments, Says Scientist

At the grocery store last night, I came across three young men in the card aisle picking out valentines for their partners. They were mocking the selections. But behind the snarky comments, I smelled panic: Which of the $3.50 sentiments lined up before them—drippy, steamy, cheesy, or downright Elizabethan—would lock in the love that they (and we all) crave? Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the biological effects of positive emotions, would have us adopt a healthier attitude toward Valentine’s Day and love in general. I spoke to her earlier about her new book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Hudson Street/Penguin).

“I think that this new perspective on love will help us cut through the parts of Valentine’s Day that seem kind of difficult and forced and focus on what love really is,” she says. It’s a myth that love is “a lightning bolt that hits you one day and forever you’re in that state.” Rather, love is made of “micro-moments of shared connection,” or what she refers to as “positivity resonance.” And rather than being exclusive to a romantic partner, she points out, these moments can be experienced with all kinds of people in our lives, from our neighbors to the coworker in the next cubicle. (No jokes about The Office, please.)

Some of Fredrickson’s ideas on love and interconnectedness would nestle nicely into long-established religious traditions, and she cites various teachings in her book. But with colleagues in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, Fredrickson goes on to measure the physical benefits of these shared micro-moments, which she likens to nutrients for the body.

In one study, published in Psychological Science and described here in The Economist, researchers taught volunteers meditation skills to help them generate more moments of positive connection. “When they do that, they experience more of them and objective [health] markers like cardiac vagal tone improve,” Fredrickson says. Now her lab is looking at gene expression and how positive connections can change the body at the cellular level to help fight disease. (See the lab’s publications page for links to more studies.)

If love is so good for us, I wondered, why do we often miss these moments of connection? Fredrickson cites our reliance on technology. These micro-moments start with trust and a real-time sensory connection. (You can’t make eye-contact when you’re texting someone.) “The other reason is time pressure,” she says. While she’s talking on the phone with me, she admits to packing her bag to get ready for work. “Having that frenetic pace of today’s contemporary society really gets in the way of slowing down enough to connect with what we could be feeling with another. It’s a casualty of our contemporary world pace. We’re racing around at the speed of the mind when it’s like we need to feel these things at the slower speed of the heart.”

To give an example of what the pace of love looks like, Fredrickson described a recent conversation with a friend who’s dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “And I was just encouraging her to slow down and take care of herself, and we were connecting over the understanding of what each other was going through—me trying to offer support and her receiving it. It was a meaningful emotional connection.”

In another example, she described a woman whose disappointments made her cynical about romantic love. “The next week she wrote me to thank me for my ideas, [saying] ‘They really freed me somehow.’” By changing her expectations about what love was, Fredrickson says, “She was able to connect with people in her everyday life.”

That’s not to leave romantic relationships out of the picture entirely. According to Fredrickson, “We all know we shouldn’t take our loving relationships for granted. We should be attending to them and trying to make our partners feel valued and cherished,” she says. “These micromoments of shared positivity [are also] the building blocks of a strong resilient marriage.”

Insect Navigation: Dung Beetles and the Starry, Starry Night

Panoramic image of the Milky Way.
European Southern Observatory/S. Brunier. Creative Commons.

Just as sailors once followed the stars to distant lands, dung beetles can use starry skies to navigate, according to an article published in the January 23 issue of Current Biology.

A research team led by Marie Dacke, a biologist at Sweden’s Lund University, conducted their experiments in the Johannesburg planetarium, which was fully darkened as well as illuminated with projections of the Milky Way and other stars.

As reported here in ScienceNews,

Dung-rolling insects are excellent for studying navigation because they collect their prized food source and single-mindedly roll it as directly as possible away from competitors and predators. Putting the beetles in weird get-ups during experiments doesn’t deter them. “They are so attached to their dung balls,” Dacke says, “that under all circumstances they just want to roll the ball in a straight line.”

via Dung beetles steer by the Milky Way | Zoology | Science News.

Dung beetle (Circellium bacchus.) There are thousands of species of dung beetles. Scarabaeus satyrus was the species used in the starlight experiment.
By Kay-Africa. Wikipedia Commons.

Goodall: Letters from “Chimpland”

Jane Goodall in 2006.Photo by Jeekc.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Jane Goodall in 2006. Photo by Jeekc. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

I recently came across this fascinating collection of letters by primatologist Jane Goodall: Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters. The Early Years (Houghton Mifflin).

Published in 2000, the correspondence begins with Goodall’s childhood in the London suburb of Weybridge. Full of curiosity for scientic subjects, Goodall rallied friends to take part in various nature clubs, including her Alligator Society. (In order to earn an alligator badge, each member had to identify at least 10 species of birds, dogs, trees, and butterflies or moths. “As I am the leader I will give my Aligator an eye and you must not,” she once wrote to her friend Sally Cary Pugh.)

The bulk of the letters, however, focus on the first several years of Goodall’s work in Africa–including her arrival in 1960 at the chimpanzee reserve now known as Gombe Stream National Park (in Tanzania) and her discoveries that chimpanzees eat meat and use tools.

As Goodall gradually earned the trust of the chimpanzees at Gombe and was able to observe them more closely, she regaled her family back home with detailed descriptions of the personalities in “Chimpland,” as she sometimes called it. Here are a few lines she wrote about a chimpanzee named William:

The odd thing is that he knows it’s evil, when he steals these things. I have a new haversack made in Kogoma. Three times already he has tried to take it. He always says “hoo” in an aggrieved way when I say no and hold onto it! Anyway, this morning after his bananas he looked so melting sitting there that I resolved to get him one from the bunch I had hidden in the tent. A shriek from Dominic who was making my bed warned me—too late. William had taken my haversack from the table and was dragging it off, bumpity bump, into the bushes. In it was my camera. Also the 300 and 150 mm lenses. Also exposure meter and my last 5 KII films. Well, I yelled at him and just charged after him. He dropped it just before getting to the bushes opposite the tent. Now this is the amazing thing. I told you he knows it is wrong—I quickly followed him with a banana, but was afraid that I might have scared him badly. Not at all. He came up at once, though he did pause and say “hoo” in a rather defiant way before taking it. And came out again, bold as ever, to try and push me off the box to see if there were more inside. Which proves most positively that he recognized my right to get my property back. He is a real menace—a real cleptomaniac.

–from a letter sent in early January 1963

Another volume, Beyond Innocence: An Autobiography in Letters. The Later Years, follows Goodall’s life and career from 1966-1999.

Diamonds Closer to Home

Diamond on matrix.
Photo by Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0.

In my last post, “Diamonds, Dinosaurs, and ‘Drunk’ Birds,” I linked to an article at National Geographic Daily News about the possible discovery of a diamond-studded planet 40 light years from Earth. As it turns out, conditions might be favorable for diamond oceans a bit closer to home–such as on Uranus or Neptune. An h/t to pussonalamp, who blogs at the Dead and Trying, for alerting me to  a post from Discovery News on this sparkling topic.

Diamonds, Dinosaurs, and “Drunk” Birds

Rough diamond. Source: United States Geological Survey. Public Domain.

It sounds like a jeweler’s dream-come-true: Scientists have recently discovered what appears to be a carbon-packed, diamond-rich planet. Trouble is, it’s 40 light years away and one of the conditions that makes diamonds possible—its proximity to its parent star—renders it uninhabitable at 3,900 degrees Fahrenheit. An article in National Geographic Daily News explains the discovery, made with the help of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope:

“Science fiction has dreamed of diamond planets for many years, so it’s amazing that we finally have evidence of its existence in the real universe,” said study leader Nikku Madhusudhan, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University.

“It’s the first time we know of such an exotic planet that we think was born mostly of carbon—which really makes this a fundamental game-changer in our understanding of what’s possible in planetary chemistry.”

via Diamond Planet Found—Part of a “Whole New Class?”.


Scientists have named a “new” dinosaur after an old villain–Sauron, the evil-doer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Morocco, not Mordor was the setting for this discovery: a skull fragment that appeared to belong to an unknown theropod. Scientists named it Sauroniops pachytholus, in a reference to Tolkein’s character and the dome on its head. An account  appears in the blog Dinosaur Tracking. Although Sauroniops pacytholus was a carnivore, there is no evidence to suggest that it possessed an all-seeing eye like its namesake.

Flying While Intoxicated


A juvenile Common Blackbird (Turdus merula).
Photo by David Friel. Creative Commons.

Eating fermented berries can cause birds to become “drunk”—sometimes with deadly consequences, according to a study published in the journal Veterinary Record and featured in this report on ScienceDaily.  Researchers examined a dozen young blackbirds found dead at a school in Cumbria, England. The birds showed no signs of infection, but each had consumed fermented rowan berries. An additional bird was found alive, but unsteady in its movements. The study’s authors suspect that some of the birds had been injured in “mid-air collisions.”

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Citizen Science: Finding my inner scientist on Zooniverse

Common pipistrelle.
Photo by Mnolf. Creative Commons.

I haven’t written much lately, because I’ve been busy transcribing ship logs, listening to bat calls, and squinting over ancient papyri on Zooniverse. It’s a virtual gathering place for more than 700,000 citizen-scientists and seasoned scholars. You don’t need an advanced degree to help one of a dozen research projects promoted on the site.

I originally went on this site to check out a project called Planet Hunters at the recommendation of my husband. An archaeologist who blogs at AmazonWalker, he knows more about ceramics from the Bolivian Amazon than astronomy. But he was excited to get an email this month announcing that Planet Hunters (a collaboration between several organizations, including Yale University, and thousands of volunteers like himself) had discovered its first confirmed planet. The gas giant, a little larger than Neptune and located 5000 light years from Earth, appears to orbit two stars in a four-star system.

Planet hunting sounded exciting. But when I logged onto Zooniverse, I got sidetracked by three other fascinating projects. Here’s what my experiences were like with each:

Bat Detective

I was afraid of bats as a child. Even the Count on Sesame Street scared me. As an adult, I’ve managed to put aside my fears of blood-sucking vampires (and pointy-eared muppets) to appreciate the real bats—some 1,200 different species—that populate our skies at night. So I was eager to join Bat Detective. This project of University College London and Bat Conservation Trust seeks to gather information from thousands of hours’ worth of bat calls recorded throughout Europe. The calls are picked up with ultrasonic microphones and turned into sonograms for analysis.

Because of bats’ sensitivity to climate, “Monitoring the status of bat populations can help tell us about the health of a natural environment as a whole,” the Bat Detective website states. “The bats serve as an early warning, like a canary in a coal mine.”

Being small and nocturnal, bats are hard to track visually. “More recently,” the website explains, “a growing number of bat surveys are being done acoustically because bats ‘leak’ information about themselves into the environment. This is because they use sound to find their way around, hunt for food, and to socialize.”

After a brief tutorial, I was ready to get started. I would need to highlight the sound I was classifying on the sonogram and decided what kind it was (or if it even belonged to a bat). Continue reading

Cold: Beauty and Death in Antarctica

A century ago, a group of British explorers led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out to reach the South Pole, only to find that a Norwegian team had planted its flag there several weeks earlier. Scott and his four men never made it back, succumbing to cold, starvation and exhaustion. But photographer Herbert Ponting, who accompanied them through much of their Antarctic journey, captured the region and its explorers in striking detail.

The Public Domain Review features many of Ponting’s photographs. An accompanying article by Max Jones, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Manchester, argues that those images are at least partly responsible for keeping Scott’s reputation alive for so long:

Ponting exposed around 25,000 feet of film and 2,000 photographic negatives in the Antarctic. Rarely, if ever, has an expedition been documented so thoroughly and so beautifully. Publishers and film-makers today can be confident of the availability of rich visual resources for any new Scott project, with striking photographs of the central characters, wild life and Antarctic environment. Ponting frequently juxtaposed awe-inspiring natural features with tiny human figures, presenting the Antarctic as a medieval fortress besieged by brave polar knights.

via Remembering Scott | The Public Domain Review.

Here are a few images and some of Ponting’s own commentary about the expedition:

Iceberg Grotto, “The Great White South; being an account of Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition and of the nature life of the Arctic” (1922), by Herbert Ponting. Public Domain Review. CC By -SA 2.0

In his 1922 book, The Great White South; being an account of Captain Scott’s South Pole expedition and of the nature life of the Arctic, Ponting recalls seeing the above iceberg grotto for the first time:  “A fringe of long icicles hung at the entrance of the grotto, and passing under these, I was in the most wonderful place imaginable,” he writes. “From outside, the interior appeared quite white and colorless, but, once inside, it was a lovely symphony of blue and green.”

Herbert Ponting. Public Domain Review. CC By -SA 2.0.

Ponting explains how he dressed the part of an Antarctic photographer: “I took every care to guard against cold myself. In zero weather I wore four pairs of woollen socks, and one pair of heavy goat-hair ski socks. I wrapped dried saenne grass round these, and over all wore a pair of finnesko, or Norwegian mocassins made from the leg fur of reindeer. I wore two suits of thick ‘Wolsey’ woollen underwear; thick corduroy breeches and puttees; a heavy woollen guernsey, a thick woollen coat and a flannel-lined leather coat; a woolen wrapper and a sealskin fur helmet. On my hands I wore a pair of woollen mits and thick dog-fur mits reaching almost to the elbows.”

Of course, such a snug wardrobe wasn’t always practical: “When working the camera I would remove both pairs of mits until my hands began to chill in the woollen gloves; then bury them again in the warm fur and beat them together until they glowed again,” Ponting writes. “But my fingers often became so numbed that I had to nurse them back to life by thrusting my hands inside my clothing, in contact with the warm flesh.

Protecting flesh and equipment were two key challenges in the cold. For example, wrote Ponting, “There was sometimes a difference of more than one hundred degreees between the exterior and interior temperature. To bring cameras inside was to subject them to such condensation that they became dripping wet as they came into the warm air.”

Photographer: Herbert Ponting. Public Domain Review. CC By -SA 2.0.

By November 1912 it was time for Ponting to say goodbye to Scott and the small crew that would finish the trek to the Pole.  “I was anxious to accompany the Polar Party as far as possible; but Captain Scott explained that it would be quite impossible to transport my heavy apparatus,” Ponting writes. “Every ounce that could be carried on the sledges, other than camping equipment, would be food.”

On that day, “It was very cold and a biting wind was blowing; and ice and sky mingled in the South, into which the foremost units of the caravan were rapidly disappearing. On the bosom of that vast wilderness of ice, I could think only of the unknown perils and hardships that lay ahead of them,” Ponting writes. “They were destined never to return from the heart of the Great Alone.”

Cuneiform: From the Museum Drawer to Your Computer

Sumerian inscription, 26th Century BC, Schøyen Collection MS 3029.
The text is a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple.” Wikimedia Commons

Just a decade ago, if you wanted to see examples of cuneiform, one of the earliest known writing systems in the world, you would have had to travel to a dusty museum storeroom in Philadelphia or London or Baghdad. But today, you can examine many of these ancient clay tablets online through the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). Based out of UCLA, this international collaboration brings together digital images of many of the nearly 300,000 tablets held in a score of public and private collections, including the Penn Museum, the Iraq Museum, and the British Museum.

Some of these tablets came into museums through rather interesting circumstances. See a 2003  article and sidebar I wrote for The Pennsylvania Gazette about  the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project for an introduction to Hermann Hilprecht, a melodramatic professor of Assyriology who brought thousands of cuneiform tablets back to Philadelphia at the turn of the last century.

Birdsong: There’s rhythm & news in this research project

Inca Dove. This bird species’ coos (and dozens more) have been converted into musical notation.
Copyright William F. Walker, http://www.birdwalker.com

When Nat Wheelwright listens to birdsong, he hears information—what a bird is communicating to a potential mate, rival, or eavesdropper. Robby Greenlee hears colors, rhythms, and melodies. They may not be birds of a feather, but the two Bowdoin College professors—one an ornithologist and the other a composer and music theorist—are teaming up to transcribe and analyze a variety of birdsongs. In the process they hope to uncover new evolutionary and musical insights.

To launch their project this past summer, they enlisted John Butterworth, a Bowdoin student and jazz saxophonist, to transcribe into musical notations more than 50 dove and pigeon coos from recordings contained in the vast digital collection of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. They eventually hope to move on to other bird species, such as Baltimore orioles and brown creepers, but they wanted to start with relatively simple vocalizations. “It’s extremely difficult to transcribe, because birds do such complex things,” Greenlee says.

An American naturalist named F. Schuyler Mathews may have been the first to attempt to put birdsongs into western notations in his 1907 guide, Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music. “He gave up when he got to the bobolink because it got way too complicated,” Wheelwright says. “His biology [in this book] is pretty bad, and he didn’t get the ecology,” Wheelwright says. “I think because it was a failed experiment in terms of being useful scientifically, it gave transcription to western symbols a bad name. I’m not aware of anyone who’s done it since.”

But Wheelwright and Greenlee saw a need for their transcription project after co-teaching a popular course called “Bird Song, Human Song,” which explored similarities in both kinds of music. Students learned everything from the mechanics and endocrinology of sound production to an appreciation for how the mourning dove’s syncopated coos match the refrain from The Beatles’ “She Loves You.”

“In that class we were asking more questions than we could answer,” Greenlee says. “We realized that nobody had explored this from a scholarly or academic perspective,” adds Wheelwright. “I’m not really aware of a collaboration like this between a musician and a biologist.”

Click here for a link to a recording of an Emerald Dove (Chalocophaps indica) from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Below is the Emerald Dove transcription by Greenlee, Wheelwright, and Butterworth:

Musical notation based on Emerald Dove. Greenlee notes: “”Meter is 4/4, and pitches are approximately G-F#-G, or later in the coo, G-G-Ab. Most notable is the use of articulation (a short note, indicated by a dot above the note) to assist in establishing a meter.”
The top figure is an oscillogram and shows amplitude (loudness) of different notes. The one below, aligned in time, is a sound spectrogram or sonogram, showing frequency (pitch), including harmonics and other overtones (which give a sound its distinctive timbre).

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