5 Ordinary Household Items That Led To Huge Discoveries
We tend to think of science as something done in a lab with test tubes, clipboards, and unwitting college students. But the tools of science are actually much more varied, and sometimes they're also much, much stupider. For example ...
We Can Study Big Cats Better Thanks To Calvin Klein's Obsession For Men
Obsession, the #1 cologne for awkward rich kids at high school dances, is advertised as having a "fresh citrus explosion" that's "harmonized with a floral sharpness," all of which adds up to some serious "sensuousness." At no point do any of the ads mention that the fragrance also contains synthetic civetone, which is derived from the pheromones produced by the rectal glands of civets (basically weasel-raccoons) to mark their territory and attract mates. Hey, don't be grossed out, that's the same reason humans wear fragrances.
It turns out humans aren't the only ones who go wild for Calvin Klein. Big cats are obsessed with Obsession, a fact that was first discovered in 1998 when a Dallas zookeeper sprayed some of her boyfriend's cologne into the ocelot exhibit in the name of "behavioral enrichment." (And yet we get thrown out of the zoo for giving the orangutans vodka. What a bunch of goddamn hypocrites.)
Anyway, further research found that cheetahs spend an average of 15 minutes checking out things that have been sprayed with Obsession (as opposed to a few seconds sniffing at other stuff), because they get curious about what strange animal marked the object and they have a natural impulse to put their own scent on top of it. With captive animals, Obsession and other scents can be used to encourage those natural impulses, because a happy big cat is a curious one that's rubbing its scent onto whatever it can find. Deep down, cheetahs and their ilk aren't any different from your house cat, except for the part where they could rip your throat out on a whim.
Out in the wilderness, scent lures are used to safely attract elusive jaguars to hidden cameras, where they tend to linger and investigate whatever smells like civet ass. Researchers get a chance to study the jaguar's behavior in detail, collect hair samples, and identify the specific animal based on its fur pattern. The only problem is that a bottle of Obsession can cost like 95 bucks, so if your clubbing days are behind you and you've got some leftovers kicking around, consider making a smelly donation to science.
We Can Study How The Earth Evolved With Corn Syrup
We have a pretty solid big picture idea of how the Earth changed from a giant clump of dust and gas into the rock we're all standing on today, but some of the finer points still elude us. Like, can anyone really prove where all those shifty giraffes came from? Also, the precise way that molten rock flows beneath ocean ridges, which would explain why the Earth has the geography that it does, is still mysterious to us. That's what this entry is about. We'll get to those giraffes another day.
Magma and plate drifting is hard to study, because the Earth is obviously not dominated by magma today. And because scientists have callously refused our repeated pleas to "make life like Star Trek already," we can't simply pop over to another planet in an earlier stage of development and observe it. We can run computer simulations, but those have their limits, as anyone whose PC started smoking when they tried to add more grass and shadows to their Far Cry game knows. So some University of Rhode Island researchers are using corn syrup instead. 165 gallons of it, specifically.
The syrup is the magma, and six rotating belts represent the Earth's tectonic plates. The belts move the syrup around, and one minute of syrupy flow represents a million years of time. If you need your own minute to get over the crushing feelings of cosmic insignificance this instills in you, we'll understand.
You good? Alright, so by observing the flow of syrup, the researchers get a sense of the effects that plate tectonics had over the course of billions of years, and what they're doing to the planet today. It's not going to fill every gap in our knowledge, but it's a new tool in the box that's already come up with a couple of theories, like the idea that volcanic lava comes from a shallower depth than we currently think. Just try not to think too hard about the implications of living on a planet that can be accurately simulated with a few tubs of corn syrup.
We're Studying Cosmic Rays With Phone Cameras
Cosmic rays are constantly entering the Earth's atmosphere, sometimes showering particles everywhere and presumably giving at least a few people superpowers that should emerge any day now. Scientists are especially interested in ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, which are the rays that get really enthusiastic about going to space brunch. We know that they emerge from supernovas and black holes, but many of their properties are still a mystery. To properly study them, we'd need a detector the size of a small country, but particle detectors use a lot of the same technology that phone cameras do. So scientists said, "What if we distributed this detection network across a ton of phones? And then what if we called it Particleville Saga?" And then for legal reasons, they only did the first thing.
It works by installing an app on your phone, then leaving the phone on and facedown overnight so the camera is pointed up. The camera then scans images at around 5-15 frames per second, and sends the results to the project's servers. From there it gets pretty sciencey, but roughly one in 500 images will have some evidence of cosmic ray interaction in the form of "weakly activated" pixels that are distinguishable from random background noise.
So far, the app has only been used as a proof of concept, but the dream is to build a network across the phones of millions of science enthusiasts. Then researchers will be able to develop stronger theories about cosmic rays, taking us all one step closer to becoming a nation of X-Men.
We're Learning About Epileptic Seizures With Apple Watches
One of the best ways to fight seizures is to find out what triggers them, since we've long given up "vengeful brain demons" as a theory. To that end, a ten-month study asked 598 participants to open a specially designed Apple Watch app whenever they felt a focal seizure coming on (focal seizures can be felt coming, others can't), which on the scale of augmented reality is slightly less fun than catching Pokemon. The app then used the watch's sensors to track the user's movements and heart rate, had them perform tests to see how responsive they were, and gave them a post-seizure survey on how they felt, what it had been like, and whether anything in particular seemed like it had triggered the event. We do the same thing for sexual encounters.
The benefits were twofold. Researchers collected data that helped them better understand seizures, and participants could map out a history of their seizures, medication use and side effects, etc. to see what was causing them trouble. Stress and a lack of sleep were the most common triggers, while menstruation, overexertion, diet, and illness were also factors. And while it may sound like obvious advice to eat well and get enough sleep, we were up until 3:30 a.m. eating pizza topped with wings last night, because self-improvement is easier said than done. But seeing a clear pattern between problems in your life and epileptic seizures can help cut down on the fundamental unpredictability of seizures, even a little bit.
Researchers hope that in the future, they'll be able to use wearable technology to predict seizures before they happen. Unfortunately, despite thousands of hours of study, they couldn't think of literally any other reason to own an Apple Watch.
We're Studying The Economic Impact Of Minimum Wage Increases With Yelp
Minimum wage, a topic guaranteed to inspire impassioned Facebook arguments between two groups of your friends who have never met in person, is a contentious issue. People opposed to increases argue that they could shutter businesses, while proponents point out that if you can't afford to pay your employees a wage that allows them to spring for the fancy instant ramen when they go home to their three roommates, maybe you're not running a very good business.
It's an issue complicated by countless variables, but the fact that some cities are increasing their minimum wage while others hold fast does give researchers some data to play with. In San Francisco, minimum wage went up 21 times between 2008 and 2016, because the cost of living in the Bay Area ranges from "What the?!" to "Nuh-uh."
One study also used Yelp data to see how restaurants fared as the cost of paying employees rose. What they discovered was that, while a restaurant with a perfect five-star Yelp rating was unaffected by wage increases, a restaurant with an average 3.5 rating saw a 14 percent increase in their likelihood of closing. They didn't say what the effect was on restaurants that had one-star ratings because something in their salads kept moving, but you can probably guess their fates for yourselves.
The conclusion was that minimum wage increases could be thinning the restaurant herd, as mediocre ones are forced to close while the popular ones survive without issue. Before you start writing your angry screeds, keep in mind that this says nothing about whether an increased minimum wage is generally good or bad for the economy. Researchers answered that question with a shrug, because research is complicated. In fact, their point is that it's too simplistic to say that a minimum wage law -- or any law -- is either good or bad for business. You also need to look at which businesses are affected, because there are huge differences between a beloved family restaurant and Sal's Roach Trap. And because this kind of research can be done with crowdsourced data like Yelp reviews, that time you got drunk and complained that a Mexican place wouldn't let you wear the hats they had on the walls could help shape public policy.
Mark is on Twitter and has a book.
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