Artificial: Walk Like an Egyptian (With a Prosthetic Toe)

Two artificial toes from ancient Egyptian tombs are believed to be the world’s oldest prostheses, according to a study by University of Manchester researcher Jacky Finch just published in the Journal of Prosthetics and Orthotics (JPO). (A brief paper appeared in The Lancet last year, but it did not contain the data available in the JPO article.)

One toe, discovered in 1881 and housed in the British Museum, is made of cartonnage (a papier-mache like material, formed with plaster, linen and glue) and dates before 600 BC. The other toe, found in 2000 and housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, is made of wood and leather and dates from between 950 to 710 BC.

By testing out replicas of these toes on two present-day volunteers (each of whom was missing their right big toe) Finch concluded that they were not mere adornments for the afterlife, but functioning assistive devices. (Replicas of ancient Egyptian sandals were also used in the experiment.)

As reported in Heritage Daily,

The tests were carried out at the Gait Laboratory at Salford University’s Centre for Rehabilitation and Human Performance Research. Each volunteer was asked to walk on a 10 metre walkway bare foot, in their own shoes and wearing the replicas with and without the sandals. Their movement was tracked using 10 special cameras and the pressure of their footsteps was measured using a special mat. The 10 best walking trials were recorded for each foot, using their normal left foot as the control.

It was surprising how well both volunteers were able to walk using these devices although one volunteer performed much better than the other. The camera footage revealed that when wearing the sandals with the cartonnage replica, one of the volunteers achieved 87% of the flexion achieved by their normal left toe. The three part wood and leather design producing nearly 78%. Interestingly the ability to push off using the prosthetic toe was not as good when this volunteer wasn’t wearing the sandals. The second volunteer was still able to produce between 60-63% flexion wearing the replicas with or without the sandals.

via Archaeology News : Egyptian toe tests show they’re likely to be the world’s oldest prosthetics | Heritage Daily – Latest Archaeology News and Archaeological Press Releases : Archaeology Press Releases.


Ants: Enslaved workers revolt in their masters’ nests

Temnothorax longispinosus
April Nobile / © / CC-BY-SA-3.0


Don’t ant-agonize Temnothorax longispinosus. When the worker ants of this species are enslaved by the parasitic Protomognathus americanus, they fight back, according to this report in ScienceBlog, featuring the research of Dr. Susanne Foitzik of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany:

These ants become slaves when workers from the slave-making ant colony attack the nests of the host species Temnothorax longispinosus, kill the adult ants, and steal the brood. Back in the masters’ nest, which can be located in hollow acorns, nutshells, or twigs, the brood care behavior of the emerging slave workers is exploited to the advantage of the slavemaker species. As Susanne Foitzik and her work group have shown, the enslaved worker ants feed and clean the larvae, thereby raising the offspring of their social parasite – but only up to a certain point.

“Probably at first the slaves cannot tell that the larvae belong to another species,” explains Foitzik. As a result, 95% of the brood survives the larval stage. But the situation changes as soon as the larvae pupate. “The pupae, which already look like ants, bear chemical cues on their cuticles that can apparently be detected. We have been able to show that a high fraction of the slavemaker pupae are killed by slave workers.” The pupae are either neglected or actively killed by being attacked and torn apart. Several slaves at once may assault a pupa, which is unable to move or defend itself during the pupal stage and is also not protected by a cocoon.

via Slave rebellion is widespread in ants |

& Urine Wheels: Color Me Medieval

From Almanach, tabula festorum, mobilium ab anno 1364 usque annum domini 1462: manuscript [Physician’s belt book]. York, England, 1364. The Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia, MS 1004/29

A few relatives with more blogging experience than myself have gently suggested that I might want to reconsider my alphabetical approach to research coverage. After all, what am I going to do when I come across a compelling Z item and I’m up to my eyeballs in the letter B? That would be pretty frustrating, wouldn’t it?

I hear this advice, and it sounds very sensible. But I also am thinking: Don’t you take my alphabet away from me.

Then, while working on some A’s (and feeling absorbed in Arsenic and Attoseconds), I happened to come across the above picture of a medieval urine wheel. It’s beautiful. Sigh. Can’t I have my alphabet and eat it, too?

I can and I will, I’ve decided. I’ll simply use &, the ampersand symbol, for those nuggets of research that grab my attention and pull me out of my place in the alphabet. I’ll come right back. Promise.

Now on to that urine wheel with its colorful flasks and Latin descriptions. This particular image comes from a 14th-century almanac and medical reference book that’s in the collection of the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. As the museum’s website explains, the book would have been attached by a cord to the physician’s belt. Pretty handy.

I knew just the person to contact for a little more commentary: Dr. Steven Peitzman. He helped me with an article I recently wrote on Dr. Benjamin Rush’s 200-year-old mental health treatise, Diseases of the Mind, for The Pennsylvania Gazette. In addition to traveling around the country to give talks about the history of medicine, Peitzman is a nephrologist who teaches at Drexel University. Continue reading

Going With the Grain: A Celebration of Rice

While searching the Library of Congress website for public-domain images to go with my last post on arsenic in rice, I was intrigued by some photographs I came across of the 1938 National Rice Festival in Crowley, Louisiana. All were taken by photographer Russell Lee.

Rice Festival Princesses

The event, which was created in 1937 to promote the rice industry, included such festivities as “parades, a rice-eating contest, the selection of the prettiest girl for queen, the awarding of a prize to the largest family, and street dancing to the music of the Cajun and hillbilly bands,” according to Louisiana: A Guide to the State, a book compiled in 1941 by workers of the Writers’ Program of the Workers Progress Administration in the State of Louisiana.

“During the festival day Crowley is surrounded with people from the surrounding countryside,” the book states. “They arrive in all sorts of conveyances and various costumes, staying in the streets throughout the day and attending the dances until late hours of the night.”

A souvenir edition of the 1939 festival, posted on the website of the Wright Group, lists several other attractions, including “two deathly defying performances by ‘Seldon–the Stratosphere Man,’ who performs on a 130 foot pole.” I haven’t come across that image yet, but will keep looking.

Float with Large Bowl of Rice

Winners of the Largest Family Contest

Family Waiting for Parade

The event is still going strong. Crowley will celebrate its 76th International Rice Festival, later this month.

Ads: You may think you’re paying attention, but your body says otherwise

Zheng Wang, Ohio State University assistant professor of communication, demonstrates how she tested people’s physiological responses to campaign ads. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons.

A few months ago my husband and I decided to give away our only TV—a space-hogging, dust-topped analog set that we hadn’t bothered to convert for digital programming. No, I’m not a hermit. The distraction of television just doesn’t fit into our lives at this moment, and I can’t say that I miss sitting through the latest parade of political commercials.

But as irksome as I find some campaign ads to be, many political scientists and communications researchers are interested in them as perhaps “the only way to force people to be exposed to some kind of different opinion” in a polarized political environment, says Zheng Joyce Wang. (It’s a common claim, for example, that conservative voters flock to Fox News, while liberals favor MSNBC.)

Wang, assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University, wanted to know how much attention viewers were actually paying to those ads. As a classroom lecturer, for example, she knows that students might seem to stare at her thoughtfully while their minds wander back to last weekend’s party. “It’s important to take a look at what we call the black box—what’s really inside people’s minds.”

To do so, Wang used electrodes to monitor the physiological responses (heart rate, sweating, and facial-muscle movements) of 15 students while they watched a dozen thirty-second advertisements for Barack Obama and John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Continue reading

Welcome to the Curiosity Dispensary

Hello, and thanks for visiting my blog.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Nor am I a biologist, an historian, an economist, or an expert on contemporary Urdu literature. I am just a curious journalist who loves to interview smart people and to learn more about how our world works (today, two centuries ago, or in the Pre-Cambrian). When I first decided to create a blog featuring research findings that fascinate me, I wondered how I would select from countless developments in so many fields.  I simply can’t choose between neutrinos or vervet monkeys, between earthquakes and language acquisition. I also knew this couldn’t be an all-purpose news service. (I like to sleep.) So I have decided to try an alphabetical approach.  I will dispense what pleases me (and hopefully pleases you, the reader) as long as it’s current and I can find a way to fit it into my rolling alphabet. We’ll start with A, which alone offers too many possibilities (Alzheimer’s, Archimedes, Amoebas …) and proceed through to Ziggurat. Or Zygotes. Or Zucchini. You get the picture.

In a true dispensary (at least the 19th-century kind I have read about. See Charles Rosenberg’s chapter on “Social Class and Medical Care in 19th-Century America” in Sickness and Health in America, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt and Ronald Numbers), the transaction was often a limited one between a poor urban patient with nowhere else to go and a busy physician (or doctor in training) who doled out prescriptions from a restricted list of medicines. But in the Curiosity Dispensary, I will rely on my readers, other research bloggers, and the scholars I interview to supply wisdom of their own.

Together, we’ll keep the dispensary stocked.