Friday Science Tintinabulation, May 24, 2013

Another week has flown past like a flock of tiny birds in a heck of a hurry, and that means it is time once again for our weekly dose of the Friday Science Whatever.

It was rough, picking just six to do, but I did it, and here they are.

First up : you know that old trope, seen mostly in cartoons, about elephants being afraid of mice?

Well of course, that is absolute rubbish. Not a word of truth to it. Pure fantasy.

It’s bees that scare them.

Research has shown that elephants are hella scared of bees, so much so that they have developed a very specific “OMG BEES” noise they make when they want to warn the rest of the herd that they are on Bee Alert Status for the foreseeable future.

This discovery has lead to speculation that bees might be the solution to the frequent conflicts between elephants and humans that happen in places like Kenya, where farmers sometimes kill elephants for trying to eat their crops, and elephants in turn sometimes rampage and kill people.

The idea would be to deploy enough beehives around your farm to keep the elephants way, which really sounds like the punchline to a joke to me.

Next up : News about printing your food!

The news is that NASA is looking into the idea as a way to provide astronauts with a compact, light, and multifaceted food supply while on long space voyages.

The idea is that the basic “building blocks” of food would be stored as powders in canisters like the various colored inks in an inkjet picture, and when you wanted something, you would just tell the printer to print it, which it would do just like any 3D printing process, a layer at a time.

I have my doubts. For one, I would be real real curious to know what those “building blocks of food” are. The idea that you could get meaningful variety in foodstuffs out of a limited number of powders seems inherently flawed to me.

Our food is made of highly complex organic chemicals that take more than that to “replicate”.

Next up, an extraordinary finding from the world of human optics : scientists have found a woman who can see 99 million more colors than the result of us.

The typical human eye contains three kinds of cone cells, and that gives us the ability to see around a million different colors.

But this one has four types of cones in her eyes, giving her a whopping 100 million colors. Compared to her, we are all colorblind.

For decades, people have theorized that people like this, called tetrachromats (you and I are trichromats), might exist. But this is the first time one has been found and verified.

The obvious question for us thoughtful types is : what on Earth does this woman see? The world must look radically different to her than it does to us. And yet, nobody can imagine a color they have never seen. So we will never know.

Now we get into the really good future-y stuff! Like how about this : scientists have found a way to get human skin cells to revert into embryonic stem cells.

If this can be developed and applied on a wide scale, it might just be the breakthrough that throws open the gates for the regenerative medicine future we all hope to live long enough to enjoy.

With enough pluripotent stem cells, in theory, we could patch up absolutely any damage to the human body by removing the damage tissue and flooding the void with stem cells, which will then turn into whatever kind of cell is needed to fix the damage.

Spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, organ failures, you name it. We could ifx literally everything. Not to mention the role stem cells can play in the future of tissue engineering.

These are exiting times!

Next up, let’s talk clean hydrogen.

If you are like me, you are saying “WTF is that? How do you get hydrogen dirty? Hydrogen is so clean it doesn’t even have protons!”

What is meant by the term is hydrogen that is produced by clean methods. Traditional ways to get hydrogen are messy, expensive, and have a big carbon footprint.

But a new method might change all that and give us a practical way to make all the clean, cheap hydrogen we need for a hydrogen future.

I am still not sold on a hydrogen future, mind you. I can’t see adding hydrogen to the equation as being a practical solution when we are doing modestly well with just plain old electricity. Electric cars grow more efficient every day, and do not require a massive infrastructure investment either.

But still, this is the sort of development that might, some day, change my mind.

Finally, the most mindblowing scientific newsbit of the week : this invention.

Yeah, sorry, it’s a video, not a news story.

If his machine can do what he says, that is nothing short of earthshaking. If you can turn plastic back into the oil from whence it came, then suddenly all plastics are not just recyclable but infinitely recyclable, and the future could be powered not by hydrogen or electricity but plastic.

What I would really like to see is his invention scaled up to refinery size and set up next to a landfill, where you offer to buy plastic from whoever brings it to you.

Pay them half of what you will get for the crude-ish oil you will produce (or even better, filter on sight and sell gasoline) and you will get a lot of people recycling a hell of a lot of plastic.

Of course, in terms of global warming, the ideal thing would be if it was simply turned right back into plastic. In that sense, the oil produced would be like the stem cells of the process, ready to be turned into whatever else we need.

That is such a huge jump in efficiency, it gives me goosebumps.

That’s all for this week, folks!

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