I Never Did Believe It Was Science
After nearly 30 years of operation, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory will be closing its doors forever. Researchers at the lab have spent their time studying the interaction between human consciousness and physical machines, investigating such phenomena as telekinesis and ESP. Some scientists have, perhaps unsurprisingly, called PEAR an embarrassment to both science and Princeton University. PEAR’s founder, professor emeritus of engineering Robert Jahn, said the lab is closing not because of the controversy it’s created, but because it has already generated all the necessary data. “If people don’t believe us after all the results we’ve produced,” Jahn told the New York Times, “then they never will.” One such result came from an experiment where people sat in front of a machine that would randomly generate numbers just above or below 100. Participants were instructed either to “think high” or “think low,” and researchers observed whether the numbers corresponded to people’s mental instructions. The study concluded that people could affect about 2 to 3 numbers out of 10,000. The results were not accepted for peer review; one editor apparently told Jahn he would review the paper “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.” Zing!

First Date
The date tree is named “Methuselah,” but while the Biblical figure died at age 969, this plant’s still alive and kicking nearly 2,000 years after its seed was tossed into a jar by an inhabitant of Ancient Rome. The seed was discovered during a series of excavations in the 1970s. Soloway revived it by soaking it in warm water and fertilizers and then planting it. In 2005, the seed was finally germinated, and last week Carbon-14 dating confirmed that it probably originated between 66 and 73 C.E. The seed is the oldest to ever germinate. While those who see the sapling claim it looks like any old palm tree, germinator Elaine Soloway notes that the first leaves it sprouted are unusually long. She does not yet know whether the tree is male or female, but if the tree is a female, within a few years she will be able to taste fruit nobody has known in thousands of years. She has reason to be psyched: Historical sources claim the dates were especially sweet and delicious. Soloway is also growing other Biblical plants, such as frankincense and myrrh. That’s cool and all, but until her green thumb turns up a burning bush, I remain unimpressed.

Not A Fairer Pharaoh
Of all the real people portrayed on film by beautiful stars, perhaps none has received as big a boost in the looks department as Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film baring the Pharaoh’s name. Researchers at Newcastle University have studied a Roman denarius depicting Cleopatra and concluded that the queen who much later came to be known for her beauty was actually, to put it tastefully, the ripest fruit ever to fall from the ugly tree. All right, she wasn’t that unattractive, but the coin does depict Cleopatra with a pointy nose, thin, tight lips, and a witch-like protruding chin. Antony doesn’t fare much better: The flip side of the denarius shows him with a hooked nose and a thick neck. Lindsay Allason-Jones, the director of the Archaeological Museums at Newcastle, noted that Roman writers describe Cleopatra as intelligent and charismatic and as having a seductive voice, but physical beauty isn’t on any of their lists. It was only centuries later that writers invented the gorgeous Cleopatra we imagine today.  Well, go, Mark Antony for being seduced not by her “wibbly, wobbly, wiggly dance,” but by the fact that she was smart and cool.

Sperm Wars II: Battle on the Human Front
The battle for fatherhood doesn’t end when a human male has unprotected sex with a human female.  Not only does the male’s sperm have to fertilize an egg, they may have to race a competitor’s sperm to the target. Post-mating sexual selection has been documented in other species, but now a new study out of Florida Atlantic University chronicles the solutions human males have evolved to “combat the adaptive problem of sperm competition.” While a totally monogamous species would hardly have to evolve competitive sperm, it seems that women are likely enough to have multiple partners that men’s reproductive systems are prepared to go head-to-head with their rivals’. The researchers mention that the human penis acts as a “semen displacing device” that can remove a rival’s sperm. Also, when couples spend time apart, the men have a higher concentration of sperm in their ejaculate. They note that the penis of the male damselfly has spines that can remove up to 99 percent of the sperm already in a female. In their conclusion, the researchers note that women aren’t “passive sperm receptacles” (thank God), and females have likely adapted to select sperm with preferred genes.

Asteroid Rage
We’re all going to die. Hopefully, we’ll live to ripe old ages and die individually of minimally painful causes. But we will not all die tomorrow when an asteroid smacks into Earth and turns our planet into a lifeless fireball. So a teacher at a Manchester high school probably shouldn’t have told 230 students that an asteroid on a “collision course” with Earth was about to wipe out all life here. After the 2004 incident, the teacher said he was trying to teach his 14-year-old students to seize the day and live to the fullest, but the students greeted the news of their imminent demise not with renewed vigor for life but instead with heart-gripping fear. He was kidding, of course: no doomsday-sized asteroids are going to be hitting us any time very soon. But asteroid impact is a valid concern. Smaller asteroids might be able to come in undetected and kill lots of people if they smashed into a dense city or caused a tsunami. And there are still a bunch of asteroids more than a kilometer in diameter that we aren’t closely tracking (NASA’s working on it).

That’ll Put Hair on Your Chest
We humans might have to wait patiently for puberty, but the green swordtail fish is more than willing to rush sexual maturation if attractive potential mates are available. According to a study recently published in the journal Biology Letters, visual cues can affect the timing of sexual maturation for this species of fish. When researchers showed young female fish pictures of males with sexy, long “swords,” the females matured up to four months earlier than the young lady fish whose innocent eyes were kept shielded from the photos. When young males saw pictures of these formidable opponents, however, they matured later than those males that saw pictures of less impressive rivals. The authors say that if visual cues can adjust the rate of sexual maturation in one species, they can probably do so in others, as well. Kids are growing up so fast these days; it must be those attractive people on them digital video discs.

Download podcast

Originally published February 19, 2007


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM