By Lee Bowman
The guys in the white coats won’t admit it, but sometimes even the most serious science can draw a chuckle, whether the findings reveal things about ourselves, folks down the street or the natural world.
Here are a few gifts that keep on giving – a quick roundup of health and science studies that made us smile in 2013.
Dog dander is good for you. Allergy researchers working with mice found that exposure to dust from houses with dogs changes the community of microbes that live in the gut – and shape both immunity and protect the airways from viral and respiratory infections.
So is living around pigs. British scientists reported that allergies are up almost 200 percent in rural Polish villages since that nation joined the European Union in 2003. New agriculture policies made it uneconomical for many to keep cows and pigs on their land.
So cute you want to hug them to death. Literally. Yale researchers studying reactions to pictures of cute animals found the phenomenon of cute aggression – subjects so overwhelmed by cuteness that they became verbally aggressive and wanted to squeeze something. Similar reactions were reported when test subjects got bubble wrap to pop while exposed to cuties as opposed to funny or neutral slide shows.
Breathing better at night takes a slice off your handicap. Sleep researchers found middle-age golfers with obstructive sleep apnea treated with continuous positive airway pressure therapy shaved an average of 11 points off their golf handicaps. Oh, and they were also less sleepy during the day.
Texting with vodka, but with no garbles. Canadian and British scientists successfully sent the message “O Canada” using a chemical signal from evaporated vodka spritzed a distance of almost four yards to a receiving device with the aid of a tabletop fan. The idea is to control robots and gear underground, other places where wireless might not work.
The straight poop on Kopi Luwak. That’s Indonesian for civet coffee, the world’s most expensive brew. The beans are “harvested” from the feces of a cat-sized critter known as the palm civet. Since it often sells for upwards of $600 a pound, fake beans are common worldwide. But a team of Japanese researchers found chemical signatures unique to the coffee beans that have been “civet-processed.”
Fresh-picked isn’t enough, we need to know when. Researchers at Rice University found that post-harvest vegetables and fruits are still alive, or at least alive enough to react to light and follow a biological clock to change chemical signatures. On the plant, the changes help repel insects, but in the produce aisle, they could affect taste and other properties, such as anti-cancer effects.
None of us smell the same, either way. Scientists long have known each human gives off a unique odor print from our bodies. But the world of the nose is even more complicated. There are about 400 genes that code for receptors in our noses, and almost a million variations of those genes. Researchers at Duke reported new confirmation that no two people smell things the same way, with odor receptors at least 30 percent different between any two people.
The Barry White factor. Canadian researchers reported women listening to electronically altered men’s voices were more attracted to those with deeper, more masculine voices, at least for a short-term relationship. But they also viewed deep-voiced men as more likely to cheat and less desirable as marriage partners.
Run, duck or cover? There’s an app for that. Computer engineers at Vanderbilt University debut a module and software that can turn a smartphone into a shooter location system, or at least a device that might tell from which direction the shots were fired. True pinpointing still would require having several different sensors deployed among several people.
Swimming in anti-anxiety drugs makes fish break bad. Swedish scientists found that perch exposed to the drug Oxazepam responded by becoming less shy, breaking off from their normal schools to hunt for food independently. When they found food, they ate it faster than normal. Drug levels tested were similar to those of leftover pharmaceuticals found downstream from many sewage treatment plants.