Put it in the right place and sperm generally knows where to go. But researchers who use sperm in experiments have a harder time controlling where these swimmers end up. Put sperm onto a petri dish or glass slide, for example, and it’ll wander off in any direction it pleases. Today, researchers say they’ve worked out a way to control the direction in which sperm swims to keep it on the straight and narrow. Their discovery could lead to new ways of generating a uniform stream of sperm and perhaps even a jet of the stuff. [arXiv]
When Mary Ellis died in 1828, her family buried her in a peaceful patch of woods near a bend in the Raritan River. She’s still there, but the trees are long gone—her body now rests in the middle of a movieplex parking lot.
Why does life exist? Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life. [Quanta]
An agunah is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce – in Hebrew it means “chained wife.” Mark Oppenheimer reports on agunah in the Orthodox Jewish community.
Since 1955, The Journal of Irreproducible Results has offered “spoofs, parodies, whimsies, burlesques, lampoons and satires” about life in the laboratory. Among its greatest hits: “Acoustic Oscillations in Jell-O, With and Without Fruit, Subjected to Varying Levels of Stress” and “Utilizing Infinite Loops to Compute an Approximate Value of Infinity.” The good-natured jibes are a backhanded celebration of science. What really goes on in the lab is, by implication, of a loftier, more serious nature. It has been jarring to learn in recent years that a reproducible result may actually be the rarest of birds. Replication, the ability of another lab to reproduce a finding, is the gold standard of science, reassurance that you have discovered something true. But that is getting harder all the time. With the most accessible truths already discovered, what remains are often subtle effects, some so delicate that they can be conjured up only under ideal circumstances, using highly specialized techniques. Fears that this is resulting in some questionable findings began to emerge in 2005, when Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis, a kind of meta-scientist who researches research, wrote a paper pointedly titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” […] The fear that much published research is tainted has led to proposals to make replication easier by providing more detailed documentation, including videos of difficult procedures. […] Scientists talk about “tacit knowledge,” the years of mastery it can take to perform a technique. The image they convey is of an experiment as unique as a Rembrandt. [NY Times]
You prefer apples to oranges, but cherries to apples. Yet if I offer you just cherries and oranges, you take the oranges. […] New research shows that sometimes a decision like this, which sounds irrational, can actually be the best one. [Nature]
Psychoactive Plants in the Bible […] The holy anointing oil is essentially an anxiolytic-hallucinogen. The transdermal application of it led to its absorption and psychoactive effects, even in extremely low doses. […] Myrrh is a resin that is used widely in the bible. Myrrh contains the terpenes furanoeudesma-1,3-diene and curzarene which are Mu-opioid agonists. This opioid receptor is the same one that morphine activates. This means that inhaling or absorbing myrrh incense can cause a drug reaction.[NeuroBrainstorm]
Countries print 150 billion new notes each year, at a cost of about $10 billion. Cash attracts grime and dirt, gets stuffed into underwear drawers, is daubed with pens, and exposed to harsh UV light. In other words, money goes through a lot, with the result that 150,000 tons of it has to be destroyed annually. As a new paper explains, one of the main problems with keeping money in good condition is sebum, the substance the body produces to protect the skin. Waxy and oily, sebum builds up on the surface of the paper and then reacts with the air, eventually turning bills a nasty shade of yellow. The paper, published in an American Chemical Society journal, discusses a new process that might keep more notes circulating longer, and therefore cut the cost of printing and distributing new bills. It involves subjecting notes to supercritical CO2. [Fast Company]
Intricate mechanical and chemical separation is needed to extract and recover pigment from US currency. The ink is then re-stabilized, divided into individual doses and packaged into medical vials. [Diddo, The Cure for Greed ]
When a shopper enters Reebok’s flagship store in New York City, a face-detection system analyzes 10 to 20 frames per second to build a profile of the potential customer. The algorithms can determine a shopper’s gender and age range as well as behavioral and emotional cues, such as interest in a given display (it tracks glances and the amount of time spent standing in one place). Reebok installed the system, called Cara, in May 2013; other companies are following suit. Tesco recently unveiled a technology in the U.K. that triggers digital ads at gas stations tailored to the viewer’s age and gender. [Popular Science]
The news around shopping during the holiday season was dominated by two separate stories. One talked about how traffic to brick-and-mortar stores was well below expectations, and that these retailers were forced to discount tremendously to drive sales. The other talked about how an enormous late surge in packages coming from e-commerce companies overwhelmed the capacity of UPS and, to a lesser extent, FedEx, and caused many of these packages to arrive after Christmas. But, to me, these two stories are not at all separate, they simply reflect different sides of the same narrative: We’re in the midst of a profound structural shift from physical to digital retail. [Jeff Jordan]
This paper will explore how the Nazis tried to quell the demand for jazz music by creating a new, ideologically acceptable music. [PDF]
“I want you to know…” or “I’m just saying…” or “I hate to be the one to tell you this…” Often, these phrases imply the opposite of what the words mean, as with the phrase, “I’m not saying…” as in “I’m not saying we have to stop seeing each other, but…” […] Language experts have textbook names for these phrases—”performatives,” or “qualifiers.” Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as “I am writing to say…” At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow. […] Their use may be increasing as a result of social media, where people use phrases such as “I am thinking that…” or “As far as I know…” both to avoid committing to a definitive position and to manage the impression they make in print. [WSJ]
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