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Talk nerdy to me

Talk nerdy with us one last time about sick birds, sexual attraction, lightning strikes, and more.

You don’t look so good

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that social distancing slows the spread of infectious diseases. Even animals in the wild such as lobsters are known to stay away from sick individuals. But for some species, being social is tied to survival. Can animals avoid getting sick while maintaining social behavior? A recent study shows how this might work.

<strong>Canaries such as this one</strong> seem able to unconsciously boost their immune system when they see a sick bird.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut in Storrs infected ten caged canaries with a pathogen that causes conjunctivitis and extreme lethargy, giving them the “sick bird” look. They placed nine healthy birds in direct view of the sick canaries but not close enough to catch the infection. Another group of healthy birds was housed in a location where they couldn’t see their sick brethren. The researchers collected blood samples from the healthy birds and measured indicators of immune activity.

Bloodwork of birds who could see the sick population showed a rise in CH50, a chemical that helps bursts foreign cells. White blood cell counts also increased significantly in this group. Birds in the group that could not see the sick showed no immune response.

The study indicates that canaries can stay healthy and keep the benefits of being social creatures.

What’s your favorite ratio?

It’s been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but does evolution dictate our preferences in a mate? Existing research shows that women prefer a man whose legs are about half his height. It is believed that the ratio indicates good health. For example, studies have suggested that short legs are linked to type 2 diabetes.

Researchers in the U.K. wanted to know if other proportions such as arm length to body height and whether the elbow and knee divide the leg in half also influenced women's preferences.

<strong>This study of 800 heterosexual women</strong> found that there are certain ratios in the body that matter more than others. While arm length relative to height isn't important, leg length relative to torso length made a huge difference.

They looked at the average body proportions of around 9,000 men in the U.S. military and created computer-generated images of male models. The scientists made the model’s arms slightly longer or shorter. They then asked more than 800 heterosexual women to rank the attractiveness of each model.

They found that arm length relative to height didn’t seem to matter. The women cared only a little about how the elbow or knee divided the limb. The subjects noticed (and didn’t like) if the legs made up more or less than half of the model’s height.

While the results suggest that proportions are an important factor when choosing a mate, the study’s focus on the United States and exclusion of gay men limit the findings.

Strikingly clean air

In a letter to Henry Ruoff in 1908, Mark Twain wrote, “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.” Little did Twain know that one day scientists would discover that lightning might produce air-cleaning chemicals.

Researchers knew that lightning produces nitric oxide which is associated with the formation of oxidants like hydroxyl radicals. Oxidants help clean the air by reacting with pollutants like methane to form molecules more easily expelled from the atmosphere.

<strong>Lightning strikes</strong> account for somewhere between 2-16 percent of atmospheric O.H.

The highest concentration of two oxidants (hydroxyl radical, O.H.; and hydroperoxyl radical, HO2) reached a few parts per trillion in previous studies. However, the scientists were surprised when new data showed the amount of nitric oxide was quite high. In 2012, measurements made by a NASA jet showed the combined concentration of the two oxidants generated by lightning was thousands of parts per trillion.

It is thought that about 1,800 lightning storms occur around the globe at any given moment. The researchers estimate that lightning could account for between 2 and 16 percent of atmospheric O.H. This area of research could become more important since climate change is making lightning a more frequent occurrence.

What happens in the vagus...

Wilder Penfield was a neurosurgeon who set out to map the human brain by touching electrodes to the exposed brains of awake patients. In the decades that followed, scientists have a greater understanding of how the body communicates with the brain and vice versa. The conversation between body and brain is called interception.

Recently, studies have shown that the vagus nerve plays a key role in interception. Fibers of the vagus nerve carry signals that help the brain interpret internal changes in the body. The brain, in turn, sends commands to fulfill the body’s needs.

<strong>This diagram</strong> shows the yellow paths of multiple nerves. The central nerve that makes its way to the stomach is the vagus, and the other two are the glossopharyngeal and accessory nerves.

Today, researchers are using new tools like single-cell RNA sequencing to map vagal function more accurately. A team of cell biologists at Harvard Medical School is using genetics to identify a “staggering diversity” of vagal cell types in rodents.

Other studies suggest vagus connections influence memory and learning. At the University of Southern California, scientists severed vagal connections between the stomach and hippocampus of rats. The result was an interruption of the animals’ ability to remember new objects and locations.

Other studies may lead to an understanding of comfort foods, addiction, mood disorders, and a great deal more.

Piecing it together

Foundation paper piece quilting is a technique for constructing fabric patchwork quilts using printed paper patterns. Mackenzie Leake is a Stanford University computer science graduate student who has been quilting since the age of 10. She wanted to create a digital tool that quilters could use to custom design patterns without working through geometry and other constraints.

<strong>The best quilts</strong> have fun patterns like the one above. Producing such a blanket requires some understanding of geometry.

Leake and her colleagues began with a graph structure called a hypergraph. This type of graph can accommodate overlapping relationships between many data points. They found that a pattern can be paper piece-able if it can be represented by a hypergraph whose edges can be removed one at a time and in a specific order.

Users of the software prototype begin by sketching out a design. Then the hypergraph algorithm determines the paper foundation patterns that can be used. Multiple pattern options are presented, and users can adjust the sketch to arrive at a pleasing design.

The researchers hope to make the software publicly available this summer!

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