Humans can track a scent, Shakespeare's linguistic constructions excite the brain, and Russia launches a national vodka project.

It’s a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World Except for Flora
Flora the Komodo dragon is expecting. She’s pregnant with seven little dragons and due in January. And the proud father of the newest additions to the family is…Flora the Komodo dragon. Yes, in a paper published in the journal Nature researchers reveal that both Flora and London-based dragon Sungai have become pregnant via parthenogenesis, an asexual reproductive process that does not require two parents. Flora, innocent lass that she is, lives with her younger sister Nessie and has never even met a boy. But apparently dragons don’t suffer for want of a mate: Flora fertilized her eggs herself and seven of them look like they’ll be carried to term. Sungai also self-fertilized early this year and gave birth to four dragon hatchlings in April. Afterwards, Sungai mated with a male and gave birth to one hatchling the old-fashioned way. The researchers say these cases may indicate that zookeepers should set up co-ed housing for their Komodo dragons. Currently, males are only shipped in for mating, but it looks as though dragons who’ve gone long enough without a mate will do the job themselves. To keep maximal genetic diversity in the Komodo gene pool, males should be available for the matin’ at all times, so the ladies don’t have to fall back on plan B.

Just Follow Your Nose
You may not have the fine odor detection abilities of the NYPD’s K9 unit, but if you can pick up a scent, you’re just as good as the hounds are at tracing it to its source. According to a new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, humans track smells the same way that dogs do and, with a little practice, can get pretty darn good at navigating by nose. Researchers created a 10-meter long trail of chocolate essential oil in an open field. They then took 32 Berkeley undergrads, and in a hazing exercise to inspire even the most creative of fraternities, the researchers blindfolded them, plugged their ears, and set them loose in the field to see whether they could find their way to the “chocolate.” Each subject got three ten-minute chances to track the chocolate scent; two-thirds of the students completed the task, and when four students practiced over three days, their performances improved significantly. Rats and dogs have many more genes for smell receptors than we do, but the researchers hypothesize that our large, analytical brains may compensate for this deficiency. Sadly, we still can’t smell as wide a range of substances as dogs, so we won’t have human sniffers on our bomb squads any time soon.

Give Me The Willies
The guy’s been dead for nearly 400 years, but we still can’t stop salivating over just how good William Shakespeare was at his craft. And now a study shows that Slick Willy has pulled another fast one on us: By employing a technique called “functional shift”—using a noun as a verb, or “verbing the noun,” for example—Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, which the researchers say may heighten the drama felt during his plays. The authors monitored the brains of 20 participants as they listened to Shakespeare. When they heard a functionally shifted word, the subjects experienced a positive spike in brain activity that indicates they were reevaluating the word. When you hear a functionally shifted word, the researchers report, you understand the word’s meaning before you understand its function in a sentence, so the brain has to work backward to figure out what the sentence means.

In other Bard-related news, a study published in the British Medical Journal shows that, surprisingly enough, Shakespearean characters experience severe physical symptoms when they have strong emotions. In Shakespeare’s 39 plays and three of his narrative poems, ten people die from grief, 29 are said to have died from emotional issues, and 19 people lose consciousness for emotional reasons. The author says that while medicine in Shakespeare’s time may have overemphasized emotion, these fictional plays should remind today’s doctors that emotions can modulate bodily functions.

Machine Nations
The British government has taken us one step closer to submitting to our inevitable robot overlords. A new “scan” (it’s like a study, but less rigorous) out of the Office of Science and Innovation’s Horizon Scanning Centre predicts that if we succeed in developing and deploying artificial intelligence, a robots’ rights movement will arise. The authors say that robo-rights would be balanced with robo-responsibilities such as voting, tax-paying, and military service, and increased robot rights could place strain on natural resources. The researchers suggest that the probability of robotic integration into society is small, but were it to happen, the impact would be huge. I say, if the robots can demand rights, they more than deserve them. It’s like what Jon Stewart said when Senator Brownback showed a poster drawn by an eight-year-old girl depicting sad frozen embryos who are afraid of being discarded: “If you have a talking embryo who is cognizant enough to wonder if you’re going to kill it, I say we don’t do research on those ones.” And if we have a robot angry that he didn’t get a job selling trendy clothing because he’s not made of flesh, give him his nondiscrimination clause. You’ll fare much better after the takeover.

Most Americans Get Free Milk (Cow Market Remains Strong)
At the end of October, the government clarified its abstinence-only message, announcing that these programs would not only target teens but also unmarried adults of up to 29 years of age. Now, the author of a new study on premarital sex in America says his research “calls into question the federal government’s funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for 12 to 29-year olds.” According to the study, published in the journal Public Health Reports, an overwhelming majority of Americans have premarital sex; 91 percent of women born in the 1960s and 1970s had premarital sex by age 30. This calls the government program into question? It’s shows all the more clearly why it’s necessary! A mere 75 percent of Americans have had premarital sex by age 20, meaning about 16 percent of Americans fall to the dark side sometime in their 20s. Luckily, while 95 percent of respondents overall had premarital sex by age 44, only 81 percent of those who made it to 20 pure and untainted gave into papally unsanctioned lust by age 44. With at least 95 percent of the population deviating from the Bush Administration’s, it would seem as though the government faces an uphill battle.

Ethical Ethanol
Mother Russia is taking care of her babies by doing something that would get any mother in trouble: Feeding her children lots and lots of cheap vodka. According to Russian statistics, more than 40,000 Russians die each year from alcohol poisoning, and many of the victims perish after consuming counterfeit alcohol or other drinks not meant for human consumption. Contraband vodka can contain methanol, which can cause severe poisoning, blindness, or death when consumed. So now the country has launched a “national vodka project,” in which Rosspirtprom, the state alcohol manufacturer, will produce cheap, quality vodka intended for the masses. Each half-liter will cost no more than 65 rubles, or $2.50. If the people bite, Russia will have swiftly solved a public health crisis. I’ll drink to that.

I Want My Baby Back
Every child deserves a mother and a father. Young, thin ones who aren’t deformed. Oh, and they should be wealthy. And have naturally high serotonin levels. This is the philosophy behind new adoption restrictions in China that may go into effect as early as May 2007. If the new restrictions go into play, single people, people older than 50, people on medication for depression or anxiety, people with a severe facial deformity, and morbidly obese people (BMI > 40) will no longer be able to adopt children from China. The government-run China Center of Adoption Affairs is also considering forbidding adoptions by people who make less than $80,000 a year or already have more than four children. The restrictions will not affect same-sex couples, as they are already unable to adopt Chinese babies. According to adoption officials, the demand for Chinese babies is currently exceeding the supply, so the China Center will tighten its requirements and improve orphanages so more kids are fit for adoption. Isn’t it more economically sensible just to tax the babies instead of putting on these arbitrary restrictions?

Originally published December 26, 2006


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