Friday, 30 May 2014

Sketchy Fact #42: Asteroids, Asteroids Everywhere

Since the year 2000, a total of 26 asteroids have struck the Earth with more force than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Is Your Cell Messing with Your Cells? The health effects of mobile phones

21st century technology is pretty amazing stuff. Over the past year we have explored a number of tech-topics (from solar power, to graphene, to Moore’s Law) that underscore just how influential new innovations can be on our day to day living. The drawback to all these new gizmos is that we are effectively living in a giant, uncontrolled experiment with respect to the health effects. Technology is moving forward at such a fast pace that we often adopt things as a normal part of our lives before we fully understand what impact those things can have on us. All you need to do is look at ads like this one from the 50’s, marketing the wonderful health benefits of using beauty products containing radium (the radioactive element that killed its discoverers) to understand that we often get ahead of ourselves when it comes to new science.

One topic that is beginning to attract some attention is whether or not cell phones are giving us brain tumors. Mobile phones are so convenient and so increasingly useful that we haven’t even begun to consider if they might not be too good to be true in the sense of safety.  In 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer unhelpfully told the world that the radio frequency fields emitted by cell phones were “possibly carcinogenic.” But the science remains unclear.

First off, the radio waves emitted by your cell phone are not even close to the same thing as the fallout from an atomic bomb, so you can put that out of your mind right now. Nuclear bombs, X-rays, and radium infused beauty products all emit “ionizing radiation.” That means that the energy they give off shakes up the atoms in your body enough to knock some electrons off of them. This creates atoms with a different charge than they usually have and wreaks havoc on things like DNA. Cell phones give off “non-ionizing radiation” meaning that the energy will still shake up your atoms, but your electrons will generally remain intact

Therein lies the first problem with the “cell phone mutating our brains” hypothesis. Based on what we know right now, there isn’t a mechanism for them to cause cancer. That means that pretty much any study you hear about looking at cell phones and cancer is relying hugely on correlation. That is to say, the researchers are looking at how often two things occur together and trying to make guesses about one causing the other. This can be a useful method when there are no other options, but it can also lead you to conclude that global temperatures are rising because the number of pirates in the Caribbean has declined dramatically since the 1700’s.

Even still, the correlational data from studies on cell phones isn’t entirely clear. One Danish study looked at over 400,000 cell phone users and found no evidence of increased cancer risk (Johansen, et al. 2000). Another study from Israel looked at cancer rates in a small community located very near to a cell-phone transmitter station and found cancer rates over 10 times the national average (Wolf & Wolf, 2004). Especially worrying, if you are a fan of healthy sperm, research from Hungary has linked cell phone use to deficient motility (AKA poor swimmers) (Zavaczki et al., 2005).

The only thing we can say with any degree of confidence right now is that excessive cell phone use probably isn’t a good idea. A number of studies, including a French one published a few weeks ago, have suggested that while normal use may or may not cause problems, using your phone for at least 30 minutes per day over a period of several years can triple your risk of brain tumors. Researchers compared high-intensity users (ex. people working in sales) to normal users and the results were bad news.

If you’re worried about your phone scrambling your brain there are a few things you can do. Don’t make unnecessary calls that last a long time, send text messages (who doesn’t love texting?), and use your speaker phone option to keep the phone’s antenna away from your grey matter. It might be a few years before we find out the truth about the health risks of constant connectivity. In the mean time, it might be an idea to use your head... Just in case you're inadvertently cooking it.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Sketchy Fact #41: Chromosomal Confusion

Humans have 46 chromosomes while gorillas and potatoes each have 48; proving that it's not the number of chromosomes, it's how you use them. Adders-tongue ferns can have up to 1260 chromosomes.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Eat Like an Aardvark: How Entomophagy Just Might Save the World

The world we live in is becoming an increasingly crowded place. As of this article, there are about 7 billion people living their lives; and by 2050 the number is expected to be as high as 9 billion. On one hand, that means that there will be more opportunities for making new friends, but on the other, it means that those of us who are already here are going to have to get better at sharing.

Most of us already know about the inequality that exists on Earth to some extent. This is especially apparent in the disparity of food available to the average westerner compared with the average villager in Sierra Leone. We are going to have to rapidly get better at solving problems like that one because we have 2 billion people coming for dinner and the cupboards are starting to look bare.

Fortunately, there is an untapped nutritional resource on our planet that is basically all around us. As many as 2 billion people outside of the western world already chow down on this delectable food source intentionally, and the rest of us indulge in this fantastical food without even knowing it. I am of course talking about the 6-legged creatures that make up 80% of all the animals on Earth: Insects.

If you don’t think you already eat insects, you are just in the segment of people who doesn’t know any better. Food guidelines in the United States - one of the most food obsessed places on the planet - make allowances for munching on bugs (scientifically known as entomophagy). Chocolate is allowed to contain 60 insect “parts” per 100 grams, peanut butter is allowed 30 in the same serving size, and pasta noodles can hold a surprising punch of extra protein with 1 insect part per gram of food. That’s basically one bug part per macaroni noodle. Trust me, you eat bugs.

So why should we bother to make the leap from accidental indulgence to purposeful insectivorous ingestions?  Well, it turns out that producing bugs for people to eat may be one of the simplest and most efficient ways to tackle the upcoming food crisis. Say you want to raise yourself some meat. You have 100 pounds (45 kg) of grain to feed to your animal of choice, in order to make it grow big and strong. If you give your grain to a cow, you will get (at most) 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of beef. That may be one heck of a steak, but consider the fact that the same allotment could get you more than 40 pounds (18 kg) of crickets!

On top of the added output per unit of input, insects require less water to live, less fuel to transport, and are better for your health than conventional meat. A 100 gram serving of your newly raised crickets would provide your body with 13 grams of protein,  75.8 milligrams of iron, and only 5 grams of carbs! If you chose to raise caterpillars instead, you would get an almost inconceivable 28 grams of protein per 100 gram serving, not to mention loads of vitamins B1 and B3. For comparison, 100 grams of steak provides you with 26.9 grams of protein.

The problem with eating insects is all in our heads. We are programmed by evolution to be grossed out my anything we weren’t fed by our mothers. Fortunately, we may be able to overcome what our parents and countless episodes of Fear Factor have taught us about eating bugs. Professor of Hygiene and Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Valerie Curtus, points to the example of lobster as a lesson in making the unpalatable, palatable.

In the late 1800’s lobster was not seen as food by the average westerner. Lobsters were so abundant and unusual that they were considered a poor man’s meal. 100 years a little reverse psychology later, and lobster is the most expensive dish on many restaurant menus. All we need are a few more chefs like London’s Shami Radia, whose restaurant “Grub” has experimented with dishing out gourmet insect meals for over $60 a plate to rave reviews.

There are certainly obstacles to overcome on the road in making insects a main course, but they are nothing new in the history of human diets. All it will take is the need to push things along, the right recipes, and a bunch of snobby foodies telling us we can’t afford it, before you find meal worms next to the chicken breasts at your local grocery store.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Sketchy Fact #40: Cruisin' Bat-Style

The Malayan Flying Fox is the largest species of bat in the world. It has a wingspan of up to 6 feet. For comparison, Tom Cruise is 5 feet 7 inches tall.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Food Guide Follies: How Brazil is Leading the Way to a Healthier World

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, one of the biggest challenges facing the world today is getting people to take care of their bodies. In a world of fast food chains and a seemingly infinite supply of gummy bears, our cave-people brains face temptations almost beyond description. In their attempts to help us on the path to choosing healthy options, the governments of most western countries have put together food guides.

Generally speaking, these guides try to take a complicated issue and present it in a way that the average person can understand. Unfortunately, they almost always fail miserably. Whether you are basing your recommendations on the four food groups (meat and protein, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and grains) or some kind of crazy pyramid scheme it is pretty easy to go off the rails describing serving sizes, individual differences, vitamins, and granting people the occasional candy bar out of sheer guilt.

Because of the complexity and inherent confusion that goes along with making dietary recommendations, it is pretty uncommon for doctors, nutritionists, and researchers to all come out in favour of any country’s food guide. However, that is exactly what has happened recently with the guidelines published in Brazil, a country with rapidly growing access to fast food chains and even more rapidly expanding waistbands. So why has Brazil’s new food guide met such universal acclaim? The reason is that the recommendations focus more on how people eat than what they are actually eating.

The full guide is an 87-page behemoth of a document that the authors knew no one would read all of, so they distilled the overall message down to ten simple rules for a healthier diet:

1.       Prepare meals using fresh, staple foods.
2.       Use oils, fats, sugars, and salt in moderation.
3.       Limit consumption of ready-to-eat foods and drinks.
4.       Eat at regular times and pay attention to your food. Don’t multi-task and relax while you enjoy your     meals.
5.       Eat with other people whenever possible.
6.       Buy your food from markets and shops that sell mainly fresh (not ready-to-eat) foods.
7.       Develop, practice, share, and enjoy your cooking skills.
8.       Share cooking responsibilities and set aside enough time for healthy meals.
9.       When you eat out, go to restaurants that specialize in fresh food. Avoid fast food chains.
10.    Be critical of food-industry advertising.

As you can see, rather than a rulebook of numbers and steps, Brazil’s new food guide is about a lifestyle. Even better, it seems like a pretty fun lifestyle. Cook and eat with friends? Develop cooking as a skill? Go to farmer’s markets? What’s not to love?

As much as we might like it, the true test of any food guide is whether or not it will actually encourage people to eat right. Fortunately, recent research might suggest that this new approach to healthy eating is just what the doctor ordered. Specifically, studies have shown that people respond well and adapt their behaviour when food is framed as part of their lifestyle.

Researchers have looked at the effect of labeling menus on people’s dietary decision-making. In a study comparing menus with no additional labels, labels with the number of calories in each dish, and menus displaying how much exercise would be needed to burn off the calories in the food, researchers found that people made the healthiest choices when they were told what they would need to do to cancel out their meal. More to the point, the prospect of 35 minutes of jogging makes people less likely to eat a chocolate bar than telling them it contains 240 calories. Even more promising, other research has found that people are more likely to eat at restaurants that label their menus with nutritional information.

It all goes back to the way we detach ourselves from our food. We so rarely know where things come from, what is in them, and how they are made that when we are presented with relatable information about how food affects our lives, we make smarter choices. Not having to chase down a live chicken for dinner has made us poor decision-makers. Maybe the combination of skillful home-cooking with friends and the threat of hours on a stairmaster can bring us back to reality.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Sketchy Fact #39: Ancient Roots

The oldest living tree on earth is a Norway Spruce named Old Tjikko. Its root system is 9,550 years old, its main trunk is much younger, though.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Living the Sin: The Strange Lives of Three-Toed Sloths

Special thanks to our good friend Kyle Empringham over at TheStarfish for suggesting this week’s topic. Kyle asked “What’s the deal with sloths?” Fortunately for us, vague questions often lead to interesting answers.

Very few people would envy the lives of three-toed sloths. Native to the rainforests of Costa Rica, these animals are famous for moving incredibly slowly (they climb at a maximum speed of 8 feet per minute), and sleeping up to 20 hours per day. What most people don't realize is that sloths are unique among mammals in a lot of ways that might explain their apparently laziness.

As a general rule of biology, large mammals don’t live their whole lives in trees. Sure, trees offer great protection from predators and give you a pretty solid view of what is going on in your neck of the woods, but the food stinks. Living on a diet of leaves alone usually limits mammals to about the size of a squirrel. Most animals you can think of that make their homes in forest canopies rely on insects, fruits, or other means of added nutrition to keep them going. Not three-toed sloths, though. The reason these furry tree-dwellers move so slowly is because their metabolism is the slowest of any mammal. Leaves offer them so little in the way of nutrition that they can’t afford to waste a single calorie.

Surprisingly, their dietary deficiencies may also help explain one of the weirdest things sloths do. For years, biologists have puzzled over why sloths risk getting chomped on by predators once every week when they leave the trees to poo. They would be easy enough targets if they used different locations as their toilets, but for some reason sloths go back to the same spot time and time again. It is the only thing in their lives that they willingly leave the trees for.

Surprisingly, a recent study from biologist Jonathan Pauli at the University of Wisconsin suggests that the reason for this peculiar bathroom behaviour might lie in the sloths’ disgustingly unkempt fur. One of the odd side effects of their moving so slowly is that algae actually grows in the fur of three-toed sloths. The algae makes them appear green during the wet season and brown during the dry, so the arrangement actually provides them with some added camouflage. The interesting part about what Pauli had found is that the ecosystems in their fur also help supplement a slothful diet. Studying the stomach contents of sloths revealed that they eat the algae when grooming, which provides additional fats and calories that they need to make up for eating all those empty leaf calories. 

That is all well and good but how does it explain sloths’ preferred pooing spots? As it turns out, algae isn’t the only thing living in a sloths' fur. Their follicle forests are also home to moths. Up to 120 individual moths have been found living in the fur of one sloth. By observing the sloths for weeks on end, Pauli developed a theory that these moths were laying their eggs in the sloths’ dung. When the slow-moving hosts returned to their bathroom spots, the eggs hatched and the new moths hopped aboard to keep the cycle going.

Apparently, when the moths die and decompose in the sloths’ fur, they provide nutrients that allow the algae to grow. As we have seen, the sloths benefit from the algae by way of camouflage and a handy snack. In short sloths, moths, and algae have worked out one of the strangest symbiotic ménage a trois in nature. This also explains why three-toed sloths living in cleaner captive conditions often aren’t as healthy as their wild counterparts.

The morale of the story? They may be cute and easy to catch, but you really don’t want to hug a sloth.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Sketchy Fact #38: Emotional Orcas

Scientists believe that Orcas (Killer Whales) are the second most cultural animals on Earth after humans. Scans of their brains show huge areas devoted to emotion and analytical skills. Separate groups have completely different hunting techniques and are even thought to have their own languages.