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Science Roundup: Feb. 14, 2006

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Syrup Swimming Problem…Check (Hat tip: SciGuy)

It’s a question that has taxed generations of the finest minds in physics: do humans swim slower in syrup than in water? And since you ask, the answer’s no. Scientists have filled a swimming pool with a syrupy mixture and proved it.

‘What appealed was the bizarreness of the idea,’ says Edward Cussler of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who led the experiment. It’s a question that also fascinated his student Brian Gettelfinger, a competitive swimmer who narrowly missed out on a place at this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens.

Cussler and Gettelfinger took more than 300 kilograms of guar gum, an edible thickening agent found in salad dressings, ice cream and shampoo, and dumped it into a 25-metre swimming pool, creating a gloopy liquid twice as thick as water. ‘It looked like snot,’ says Cussler.

The pair then asked 16 volunteers, a mix of both competitive and recreational swimmers, to swim in a regular pool and in the guar syrup. Whatever strokes they used, the swimmers’ times differed by no more than 4%, with neither water nor syrup producing consistently faster times, the researchers report in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Journal1.

That is just fantastic. I want to know where they got it. Let me just tell you from personal experience that I would prefer not to discuss on this website that it is far more difficult to acquire things like syrup in swimming pool sized quantities than one might believe.

Take That, Hippies!

When explorers and pioneers visited California in the 1700s and early 1800s, they were astonished by the abundance of birds, elk, deer, marine mammals, and other wildlife they encountered. Since then, people assumed such faunal wealth represented California’s natural condition – a product of Native Americans’ living in harmony with the wildlife and the land and used it as the baseline for measuring modern environmental damage.

That assumption now is collapsing because University of Utah archaeologist Jack M. Broughton spent seven years – from 1997 to 2004 – painstakingly picking through 5,736 bird bones found in an ancient Native American garbage dump on the shores of San Francisco Bay. He determined the species of every bone, or, when that wasn’t possible, at least the family, and used the bones to reconstruct a portrait of human bird-hunting behavior spanning 1,900 years.

Broughton concluded that California wasn’t always a lush Eden before settlers arrived. Instead, from 2,600 to at least 700 years ago, native people hunted some species to local extinction, and wildlife returned to ‘fabulous abundances’ only after European diseases decimated Indian populations starting in the 1500s. (Emphasis mine)

Haha. Suck on that hippies. It was the imperialist invadors who brought the ecosystem back into balance.

You could interpret it that way…or you could just say that all people, Native American or otherwise, just sort of globally suck.

Department of Obvious: Sociology Edition

This study is compared people’s music preferences when people knew what other people thought about the song to when they didn’t:

They randomly assigned new participants to one of two groups. The first group picked songs to listen to just by title or band name, ranked them on a star scale ranging from one (the worst) to five (the best), and then were offered the opportunity to download the song. The researchers argue this gave them a measure of a song’s inherent quality.

The second group, however, saw the same song and band names but also the number of times other participants in the group had downloaded that particular song. This second group faced two experimental conditions: one in which songs were randomly presented and one in which they were presented in descending order of popularity. The subjects in this group were also divided into eight subgroups, called worlds by the researchers, in order to assess whether hit songs varied from world to world.

That is exactly what they found. Although popular songs remained relatively popular from world to world, they did not achieve the same level of success. The sociologists also found that a song’s overall popularity or disfavor was generally higher or lower in the presence of peer information than without it. In other words, hit songs in the groups that saw ranked lists were even more popular than in the groups working without any knowledge of what their counterparts thought.

The researchers argue that this means would-be impresarios (and sociologists) will continue to struggle to identify surefire hits. ‘Experts fail to predict success not because they are incompetent judges or misinformed about the preferences of others, but because when individual decisions are subject to social influence, markets do not simply aggregate pre-existing individual preferences,’ the team writes in the report detailing the findings in today’s Science. ‘In such a world, there are inherent limits on the predictability of outcomes, irrespective of how much skill or information one has.’ (Emphasis mine)

Above sentence decoded: Everyone, no matter how competent, will continue to scratch their heads in confusion about the absolutely puzzling popularity of Pink for years to come. Teenagers are fickle, fickle beasts.

Giant Squid’s Sex Life Revealed To Be Truly Freaky

The bizarre sex life of the giant squid is one of the topics at an international cephalopod conference in Hobart this week.

Marine biologists are continuing to unlock the secrets of the giant squid, saying the deep-sea monster may not be a cannibal as previously thought.

It was thought the species was cannibalistic when parts of a fellow giant squid were found in the stomach of a specimen caught off Tasmania’s west coast in 1999.

But New Zealand based marine biologist Steve O’Shea believes that was the result of some bizarre mating methods.

He says the creatures do not mean to eat each other but the females accidentally bite bits off of the males during mating.

OK that is still cannibalism! Even if the squid plans to do it, or if they are somehow into that sort of thing, it is still cannibalism.

That and really, really, really disturbing…

Company Invents Newer, Better Water…Uses It To Dissolve Newer, Better BS

In the Pipeline’s Derek Lowe reviews a company that claims to have invented a new type of water:

One of these in the December issue, though, is weird enough that you can hear the editorial staff wrestling with their better selves. Phrases like ‘The company claims. . .’ and ‘Company spokesmen maintain. . .’ keep running through the whole article. It’s titled ‘Water-Based Nanotech for the Life Sciences’, and profiles a small Israeli company called (oddly) DoCoop. What DoCoop is selling is water.

But not just any water. . .Neowater! (Trademarked, natch). This is ‘a stable system of highly hydrated, inert nanoparticles’, which supposedly have thousands of ordered hydration shells around them. This, the company says, modifies the bulk properties of the water. And what does that buy you?

Well, according to the company (there, I’m doing it, too), it will do pretty much everything except change the cat’s litter box for you. It makes reactions run faster, at lower concentrations. It improves all biochemical assays and molecular biology techniques – PCR, RNA interference, ELISAs, you name it. Brief mentions are made of delivering molecules directly into cells with the stuff. It has applications in diagnostic kits, in drug delivery, in protein purification, and Cthulu only knows what else.

Some of these claims would seem to directly clash with each other. In the space of a few paragraphs, we hear that Neowater behaves ‘like a strong detergent’, but somehow accelerates the growth of bacteria in culture. But at the same time it also prevents the formation of biofilms. And it increases the potency of antibiotics against bacteria, too. How it manages to do these things simultaneously is left, apparently, as an exercise for the reader.

No this is special water. Superspecial. It has things that water doesn’t even have like the ability to dissolve things…oh wait. Well how about hydrating everything and letting bacteria grow? Yeah…does that do it for you? OK, so I guess water does that too. But this is novel. I don’t think that you are focusing on how new this water is…

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