Researchers Find a Way to Unboil an Egg

Consider this one of the fundamental truths as I was growing up and taking a number of courses in basic biology (and later, microbiology and chemistry): once you boil an egg, there is no way to unboil that egg. Proteins denature once subjected to heat, and do not re-fold back to their original shape/structure.

Turns out, based on most recent research, that may not necessarily be the case: According to findings published in the journal ChemBioChem,

University of California Irvine and Australian chemists have figured out how to unboil egg whites – an innovation that could dramatically reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other segments of the $160 billion global biotechnology industry.

To re-create a clear protein known as lysozyme once an egg has been boiled, he and his colleagues add a urea substance that chews away at the whites, liquefying the solid material. That’s half the process; at the molecular level, protein bits are still balled up into unusable masses. The scientists then employ a vortex fluid device, a high-powered machine designed by Professor Colin Raston’s laboratory at South Australia’s Flinders University. Shear stress within thin, microfluidic films is applied to those tiny pieces, forcing them back into untangled, proper form.

In a paper titled “Shear-Stress-Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies,” this is the abstract:

Recombinant protein overexpression of large proteins in bacteria often results in insoluble and misfolded proteins directed to inclusion bodies. We report the application of shear stress in micrometer-wide, thin fluid films to refold boiled hen egg white lysozyme, recombinant hen egg white lysozyme, and recombinant caveolin-1. Furthermore, the approach allowed refolding of a much larger protein, cAMP-dependent protein kinase A (PKA). The reported methods require only minutes, which is more than 100 times faster than conventional overnight dialysis. This rapid refolding technique could significantly shorten times, lower costs, and reduce waste streams associated with protein expression for a wide range of industrial and research applications.

Obviously, this is tremendous news that will seek other labs trying to replicate the study.

On People Who Don’t Derive Pleasure from Music

A recent study has found that some people don’t derive much (or any) pleasure from listening to music, compared to other worldly pleasures (such as money). From the study’s abstract, describing this as specific musical anhedonia:

Music has been present in all human cultures since prehistory, although it is not associated with any apparent biological advantages (such as food, sex, etc.) or utility value (such as money). Nevertheless, music is ranked among the highest sources of pleasure, and its important role in our society and culture has led to the assumption that the ability of music to induce pleasure is universal. However, this assumption has never been empirically tested. In the present report, we identified a group of healthy individuals without depression or generalized anhedonia who showed reduced behavioral pleasure ratings and no autonomic responses to pleasurable music, despite having normal musical perception capacities. These persons showed preserved behavioral and physiological responses to monetary reward, indicating that the low sensitivity to music was not due to a global hypofunction of the reward network. These results point to the existence of specific musical anhedonia and suggest that there may be individual differences in access to the reward system.

The study focused on recruiting college students, so I am not sure if the generalizations of the study can apply to people younger or older than the sample. Perhaps our affinity toward enjoying music changes with age?

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(via The Verge)

Can You Tickle Yourself If You Swap Bodies With Someone?

The short answer is no. According to latest research, summarized here:

A popular, long-standing theory posits that the self-tickle failure occurs because of the way that the brain cancels out sensations caused by its own movements. To do this, so the theory states, the brain uses the motor command underlying a given action to make a prediction of the likely sensory consequences of that action. When incoming sensory information matches the prediction, it’s recognised as self-generated and cancelled.

If this explanation is true, then any situations that confuse the brain’s ability to predict the sensory consequences of its own actions should scupper the sensory cancellation process, thereby making self-tickling a possibility. George Van Doorn and his colleagues have put this principle to the test in dramatic fashion. They measured the potential for self-tickling in 23 participants who underwent a body-swap illusion.

The experimental set-up involved each participant sitting opposite the experimenter. The participant wore a pair of goggles that displayed a video feed from a camera that was either placed forward-facing on the participant’s own head (giving them a conventional first-person perspective), or was positioned forward-facing on the experimenter’s head, thus giving the participant a view from the experimenter’s perspective and provoking a body-swap illusion.

During both of these camera arrangements, the participant and experimenter each held one end of a wooden rod with foam at each end. The participant either moved the rod rhythmically with their right hand, causing the foam to rub against their own left palm (potentially causing self-tickling), and the experimenter’s left palm. Or, the experimenter was the one who moved the rod, causing the foam to rub against’s participant’s left palm (i.e. potential for tickling by another person) and his own left palm.

During the body-swap illusion, the participants said they felt the sensation of the foam, not where their real hand was located, but at the position of the experimenter’s hand. Given the illusion, they perceived this to be their own hand, even though it looked like someone else’s. Crucially, even in this strange situation, the participants were still unable to tickle themselves if they were the ones moving the rod (they felt the foam, but it didn’t tickle). They felt much more of tickling sensation when it was the experimenter who moved the rod.

The classic theory for why we can’t tickle ourselves is unable to explain why tickling is still not possible even in such extreme illusory contexts when the brain’s ability to predict the sensory outcomes of its actions is thrown into disarray. Moreover, self-tickling was still not experienced even in variations of the experimental setup, in which the body-swap illusion was combined with the “rubber hand illusion” and the movement of the foam was felt in a baseball bat viewed from the experimenter’s perspective!

 

The Secrets of Snow-Diving Foxes

This is a super interesting article by NPR’s Robert Krulwich, who summarizes research on why snow foxes jump the way they do in hunting for prey:

When they looked at each other’s notes, the researchers saw a pattern: For some reason, Czech foxes prefer to jump in a particular direction — toward the northeast. (To be more precise, it’s about 20 degrees off “magnetic north” — the “N” on your compass.) As the video above says, most of the time, most foxes miss their targets and emerge covered in snow and (one presumes) a little embarrassed. But when they pointed in that particular northeasterly direction, Ed writes, “they killed on 73 percent of their attacks.” If they reversed direction, and jumped exactly the opposite way, they killed 60 percent of the time. But in all other directions — east, south, west, whatever — they sucked. Only 18 percent of those jumps were successful.

Here’s a video of a hunting fox in action:

The Best Longreads of 2013

This is my fourth year compiling the best longreads of the year (see the 2010 best longreads2011 best longreads, and the 2012 best longreads). There was so much incredible writing that I’ve read this year that I am expanding my usual list of the best five longreads to the best ten longreads of the year. They are:

(1) And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’” [New York Times Magazine] — more than six years after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, there were a number of things that the public had not known about. Fred Vogelstein’s piece that was published in October was incredibly revealing:

It’s hard to overstate the gamble Jobs took when he decided to unveil the iPhone back in January 2007. Not only was he introducing a new kind of phone — something Apple had never made before — he was doing so with a prototype that barely worked. Even though the iPhone wouldn’t go on sale for another six months, he wanted the world to want one right then. In truth, the list of things that still needed to be done was enormous. A production line had yet to be set up. Only about a hundred iPhones even existed, all of them of varying quality. Some had noticeable gaps between the screen and the plastic edge; others had scuff marks on the screen. And the software that ran the phone was full of bugs.

The iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called “the golden path,” a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order, that made the phone look as if it worked.

But even when Jobs stayed on the golden path, all manner of last-minute workarounds were required to make the iPhone functional. On announcement day, the software that ran Grignon’s radios still had bugs. So, too, did the software that managed the iPhone’s memory. And no one knew whether the extra electronics Jobs demanded the demo phones include would make these problems worse.

Jobs wanted the demo phones he would use onstage to have their screens mirrored on the big screen behind him. To show a gadget on a big screen, most companies just point a video camera at it, but that was unacceptable to Jobs. The audience would see his finger on the iPhone screen, which would mar the look of his presentation. So he had Apple engineers spend weeks fitting extra circuit boards and video cables onto the backs of the iPhones he would have onstage. The video cables were then connected to the projector, so that when Jobs touched the iPhone’s calendar app icon, for example, his finger wouldn’t appear, but the image on the big screen would respond to his finger’s commands. The effect was magical. People in the audience felt as if they were holding an iPhone in their own hands. But making the setup work flawlessly, given the iPhone’s other major problems, seemed hard to justify at the time.

This bit about the compromises that Apple took to make the demo iPhone work is phenomenal:

The software in the iPhone’s Wi-Fi radio was so unstable that Grignon and his team had to extend the phones’ antennas by connecting them to wires running offstage so the wireless signal wouldn’t have to travel as far. And audience members had to be prevented from getting on the frequency being used. “Even if the base station’s ID was hidden” — that is, not showing up when laptops scanned for Wi-Fi signals — “you had 5,000 nerds in the audience,” Grignon says. “They would have figured out how to hack into the signal.” The solution, he says, was to tweak the AirPort software so that it seemed to be operating in Japan instead of the United States. Japanese Wi-Fi uses some frequencies that are not permitted in the U.S.

You do not have to be an Apple enthusiast like me to appreciate this piece. As I wrote back in October, “From concept to prototype to Steve Jobs’s unveiling of the revolutionary device, this piece has it all. It is so much better than the section devoted to the iPhone in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.” And that ending to the piece? A tear jerker.

(2) “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” [The New Yorker] — reading this devastating account of a pregnancy gone wrong by Ariel Levy hit me like a brick. If you haven’t read it, it’s one of the best nonfiction pieces I’ve read the entire year. Just don’t read without a tissue nearby.

When I woke up the next morning, the pain in my abdomen was insistent; I wondered if the baby was starting to kick, which everyone said would be happening soon. I called home to complain, and my spouse told me to find a Western clinic. I e-mailed Cox to get his doctor’s phone number, thinking that I’d call if the pain got any worse, and then I went out to interview people: the minister of the environment, the president of a mining concern, and, finally, a herdsman and conservationist named Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who became a folk hero after he fired shots at mining operations that were diverting water from nomadic communities. I met him in the sleek lobby of the Blue Sky with Yondon Badral—a smart, sardonic man I’d hired to translate for me in U.B. and to accompany me a few days later to the Gobi, where we would drive a Land Rover across the cold sands to meet with miners and nomads. Badral wore jeans and a sweater; Munkhbayar was dressed in a long, traditional deel robe and a fur hat with a small metal falcon perched on top. It felt like having a latte with Genghis Khan…

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But itlooked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

(3) “Photoshop is a City for Everyone: How Adobe Endlessly Rebuilds Its Classic App” [The Verge] — Paul Miller takes us on a delightful path with everyone’s favorite photography tool, Photoshop. We learn how the company iterates on its products and its vision for the future:

For instance, Adobe obsessively documents color profiles and lens distortion data for hundreds of cameras and lenses, taking hundreds of pictures with each combo. It’s expensive, laborious, and seemingly quixotic. But Camera RAW used those specs to automatically correct aberrations — even for multiple body / lens combinations. Then some researchers used the data to design a feature for CS6 that allows a user to straighten warped objects in extreme angle shots.

The holy grail is to give Photoshop computer vision. The app should simply select “objects” the way users see, like a “beach ball” or a “tree” or a “head,” not as “blob of color one,” “blob of color two.” Then the user should be able to do what she pleases to the object, with the software filling in the details like what might’ve been behind that object — something that’s available in a nascent form in CS6. Content vision also means the software should know when you’re working on a family photo and when you’re working on a logo, adjusting color grading techniques accordingly. It means unifying many of Photoshop’s features — which, once again, its architecture is uniquely suited to do.

Screen Shot 2013-12-25 at 9.40.50 PM

(4) “Bad Blood: The Mysterious Life and Brutal Death of a Russian Dissident” [Matter for Medium] — an incredibly detailed (9,000+ words,  fascinating piece that looks back on the life of Alexander Litvinenko, who as a Russian dissident fled to the U.K., was poisoned via radioactive polonium-210 in a London bar in November 2006, and the subsequent investigation that followed:

Because it is so highly soluble, polonium-210 is easily ingested. And when Litvinenko started vomiting on the evening of November 1st, the radiation had already begun to destroy the lining of his gut.

The cells lining the walls of the stomach are among the first to react to the toxin. They start sloughing and breaking away minutes after contact. The intestines, and the soft, unprotected skin inside the throat and mouth suffer the same fate.

Polonium is hugely radioactive, firing off a massive bombardment of alpha particles — and without any screening, the delicate mechanisms of the body’s internal organs get the full dose. As the atoms try to stabilize, alpha particles crash into nearby body tissue, knocking electrons from the molecules they encounter. Each time they do, the trail of wrecked cells expands; the poison turns them cancerous, or kills them off entirely…

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice, a story on Matter.

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice, a story on Matter.

At its height… the Soviet Union had the largest biological warfare program in the world. Sources have claimed there were 40,000 individuals, including 9,000 scientists, working at 47 different facilities. More than 1,000 of these experts specialized in the development and application of deadly compounds. They used lethal gasses, skin contact poisons that were smeared on door handles and nerve toxins said to be untraceable. The idea, at all times, was to make death seem natural — or, at the very least, to confuse doctors and investigators. “It’s never designed to demonstrate anything, only to kill the victim, quietly and unobtrusively,” Volodarsky writes in The KGB’s Poison Factory. “This was an unbreakable principle.”

Murderous poisons come in three varieties: chemical, biological, and radiological. It’s believed that the first Soviet attempt at a radiological assassination took place in 1957. The target was Nikolai Khokhlov, a defector who had left for the United States a few years earlier. He became drastically ill after drinking coffee at an anti-communist conference he was speaking at in West Germany. After his collapse, he was successfully treated at a US army hospital in Frankfurt for what was believed to be poisoning by radioactive thallium.

This was a beautifully illustrated piece and marked one of the best posts on Medium this year (originally the longform journalistic startup Matter took down their paywall and began publishing on Medium, one of my favorite publishing platforms).

(5) “Did Goldman Sachs Overstep in Criminally Charging Its Ex-Programmer?” [Vanity Fair] — perhaps the best piece Michael Lewis published the entire year, this 11,000 word “second trial” held by Michael Lewis was thoroughly fascinating:

A month after ace programmer Sergey Aleynikov left Goldman Sachs, he was arrested. Exactly what he’d done neither the F.B.I., which interrogated him, nor the jury, which convicted him a year later, seemed to understand. But Goldman had accused him of stealing computer code, and the 41-year-old father of three was sentenced to eight years in federal prison. Investigating Aleynikov’s case, Michael Lewis holds a second trial.

(6) “7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living” [Brainpickings] — one of my favourite bloggers, Maria Popova, wrote a personal post on the things she’s learned maintaining her wildly popular blog on arts, culture, writing, history, books, and everything in between (in Maria’s words: “combinatorial creativity”) :
  1. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.

  2. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose todaydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking momentdictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  3. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.

Invaluable wisdom therein.

I try to support Brain Pickings with a one-time donation every year around the holidays. I recommend you do the same.

(7) “Slow Ideas” [The New Yorker] — Why do some innovations spread so quickly and others so slowly? That is the central premise that Atul Gawande answered in this enthralling piece:

Here we are in the first part of the twenty-first century, and we’re still trying to figure out how to get ideas from the first part of the twentieth century to take root. In the hopes of spreading safer childbirth practices, several colleagues and I have teamed up with the Indian government, the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, and Population Services International to create something called the BetterBirth Project. We’re working in Uttar Pradesh, which is among India’s poorest states. One afternoon in January, our team travelled a couple of hours from the state’s capital, Lucknow, with its bleating cars and ramshackle shops, to a rural hospital surrounded by lush farmland and thatched-hut villages. Although the sun was high and the sky was clear, the temperature was near freezing. The hospital was a one-story concrete building painted goldenrod yellow. (Our research agreement required that I keep it unnamed.) The entrance is on a dirt road lined with rows of motorbikes, the primary means of long-distance transportation. If an ambulance or an auto-rickshaw can’t be found, women in labor sit sidesaddle on the back of a bike.

(8) “Lost on Everest” [Outside Magazine] — Using never before published transcripts from the American 1963 expedition, Grayson Schaffer takes a deep look at an ascent to the world’s highest peak that many people (myself included) had no idea about before this piece was published:

By 1963, the golden age of Himalayan mountaineering was winding down. All but one of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks had been summited. Most of them were claimed by massive expeditions run like military campaigns, with siege-style tactics, top-down chains of command, and an emphasis on the collective over the individual. From an outsider’s perspective, the American expedition was no different. The operation required an army of men, including more than 900 lowland porters who carried 27 tons of equipment into Base Camp. And it was organized like a military detachment, with Dyhrenfurth in charge and the other men given ministerial titles like deputy leader and climbing leader.

On the other hand, the American expedition had a lot in common with modern climbing projects. It was laden with science experiments[2] that, like charity causes and awareness raising, have since become standard operating procedure for anybody who wants to get funding. Likewise, Dyhrenfurth’s desire for good footage of the trip for his film Americans on Everest was second only to his need to put somebody on the summit. (In 2012, you couldn’t find a climber on Everest who wasn’t making a documentary.) And as Dyhrenfurth admitted in his audio diary, the 1963 expedition was not run like those that came before it. “I am not a dictator,” he said. “We try to be as democratic as possible.”

This is a tour-de-force of an article, split into seven chapters, best read on your desktop (not in mobile).

(9) “I Am An Object Of Internet Ridicule, Ask Me Anything” [The Awl] — C.D. Hermelin’s personal story of how he brought a vintage typewriter and crafted stories for people on the spot made a deep impression of me:

When I set up at the High Line, I had lines of people asking for stories. At seven to 10 minutes per a story, I had to tell people to leave and come back. It surprised me when they would do just that. I never had writer’s block, although sometimes I would stare off into space for the right word, and people watching would say, “Look! He’s thinking!” Writing is usually a lonely, solitary act. On the High Line with my typewriter, all the joy of creating narrative was infused with a performer’s high—people held their one-page flash fictions and read them and laughed and repeated lines and translated into their own languages, right in front of me. Perhaps other writers would have their nerves wracked by instant feedback on rough drafts, but all I could do was smile.

Each time I went, I’d walk home, my typewriter case full of singles, my fingers ink-stained. Lots of people were worried about copycats—what if I saw someone “stealing” my idea? I tried to soothe them. If every subway guitarist had fights about who came up with the idea to play an acoustic cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” the underground would be a violent place. More violent than it already is. Others, perhaps drawn by the sounds of the typewriter, would stop and just talk to me, watch me compose a story for someone else. Then they’d shake their head and tell me that the idea and the execution were “genius.”

But then someone took a photo of him, posted it on Reddit, and the hipster-hating commenters flocked to the forums like a pack of wolves:

Of course I sat back down. Of course I read every single comment. I did not ready myself mentally for a barrage of hipster-hating Internet commenters critiquing me for everything: my pale skin, my outfit, my hair, my typing style, my glasses. An entire sub-thread was devoted to whether or not I had shaved legs. It was not the first time I had been labeled a “hipster.” I often wear tight jeans, big plastic-frame glasses, shirts bought at thrift stores. I listen to Vampire Weekend, understand and laugh at the references in “Portlandia.” I own and listen to vintage vinyl. The label never bothered me on its own. But with each successive violent response to the picture of me, I realized that hipsters weren’t considered a comically benign undercurrent of society. Instead, it seemed like Redditors saw hipsters and their ilk as a disease, and I was up on display as an example of depraved behavior.

But it was how C.D. chose to deal with the adversity that is worth highlighting (and the reason I pick this story as one of the ten best I’ve read this year):

The day after the first, un-memeified picture was posted to Reddit, I went out with my typewriter, very nervous. I tweeted on my “@rovingtypist” Twitter account that Redditors should stop by, say hello, talk about the post if they wanted. Someone responded immediately, told me that I should watch out for bullies—the message itself was more creepy than he probably meant it to be. I was nervous for nothing; a few Redditors came out, took pictures with me, grabbed a story. I was mostly finished for the evening when Carla showed up—Carla was the Brazilian tourist who took the picture of me and put it up onto Reddit. She was sweet and apologetic for the outpouring of hate, as bewildered by it as I was. She took a story as well, although I can’t remember what it was about. I messaged her when I first saw the picture posted with the meme text, letting her know that her picture had been appropriated. “I’m not concerned about it,” she said.

Hers was the position to take, and one I should have adopted earlier.

(10) “The Finish Line” [GQ Magazine] — it would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the most important events of 2013 were the Boston Marathon bombings. In a thoroughly researched piece for GQ, Sean Flynn profiles the harrowing minutes in which a “superhuman effort to help those injured” during that fateful day. The way the piece was written, in timeline form, only adds to the suspense of the piece:

10:00: Finish Line

Charles Krupa has photographed the Boston Marathon twenty-four times, every race since 1986 except for the three when the Associated Press posted him to the Philadelphia office. Krupa shoots a lot of things for the AP, but mostly he does sports. Boston’s a good town for a sports photographer: He’s shot the championships of all four major leagues, been there on the field or the court or the ice, been in the celebrations but not a part of them, the camera lens a small barrier that separates witness from participant.

The marathon coincides with a state holiday, Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April, so traffic is always light on the drive south from New Hampshire, where Krupa lives. He was at the finish line in Copley Square by eight o’clock for his twenty-fifth marathon. It’s routine by now. Like riding a bike, he says. He’ll shoot from the media bridge spanning Boylston Street a few yards behind the line, like he always does, and his AP partner, Elise Amendola, will shoot from the pavement. He set up a remote camera on a riser to catch the line from the side if the finish is close. He knows exactly what pictures he needs: the wheelchair, men’s and women’s winners breaking the tape, an emotional reaction shot for each if he can get it, the top American finishers. Then he’ll edit those images on his laptop in the media center in the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel and upload them to the AP’s servers. He might shoot a feature later, a runner crawling across the line or something like that guy last year who finished walking on his hands. Or he might call it a day after lunch.

2:49: The Blast
Inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Charles Krupa hears a tremendous metallic bang that reverberates and echoes. It sounds like a Dumpster dropped by a garbage truck in an alley before dawn. His gut tells him he’s just heard a bomb, but his head just as quickly tells him that can’t be true. He wonders if a forklift breaking down the staging might have dropped a scaffold.

Stephen Segatore hears a sound like a steel plate dropped onto cement from twenty feet. Then he feels the puff of a pressure wave that flutters the soft sides of the tent.

Michael Powers is talking to one of the physicians and another athletic trainer in the medical tent, remarking how good the weather’s been for the runners. He hears a bang, like a big firecracker, only an order of magnitude louder. He tells them, “That wasn’t thunder.”

Though the piece was published more than two months after the Boston Marathon bombings, I think it is the best all-around piece of journalism I’ve read on the topic.

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Bonus (Published by Yours Truly)…

I experimented with writing this year more than in the last few years. To that end, I wrote something personal that can be tagged with #longreads as well. It’s something that I am proud of having compiled in one place, after more than a year of data aggregation, taking copious notes, and flushing ideas through my brain. It’s about my goal of taking control of one aspect of my life: health and fitness.

“How Fitness and Becoming Quantified Self Changed My Life” [Medium]:

I promised my sister that I would join a gym. But this promise was secondary: more importantly, I was making a promise to myself to make a difference in my life. One of my core life philosophies has been this: “If you keep saying you want to make something a priority in your life but aren’t doing something about it, then you have other priorities.” Becoming healthier became my number one priority. This wasn’t a resolution because resolutions never last. But habits do.

When I arrived to the Athletic Club at City Club of Buckhead that morning, I was committed. Having read much research on our mind’s tendency to sway us from sticking to our habits, I made a major financial commitment: I paid for six months of membership at the gym in advance. Plunking down about $350 was meant to serve as a reminder that if I quit, it was going to sting a little. You could call it an insurance policy, but I likened it to an investment in myself. I was going to kick some ass in the next six months.

You can read the entire piece here.

The year 2013 has been another spectacular one for @longreads/#longreads. I can’t wait what 2014 will bring.

A New Species: The Clean Room Bacteria

A fascinating piece in Scientific American, summarizing how scientists discovered a new species of bacterium in two separate clean room facilities (one at the European Space Agency and the other at Kennedy Space Center):

The researchers named the bacterium Tersicoccus phoenicis. “Tersi” is Latin for clean, as in clean room, and “coccus” comes from Greek and describes the bacterium in this genus’s berrylike shape. “Phoenicis” as the species name pays homage to thePhoenix lander. The scientists determined that T. phoenicis shares less than 95 percent of its genetic sequence with its closest bacterial relative. That fact, combined with the unique molecular composition of its cell wall and other properties, was enough to classify Tersicoccus phoenicis as part of a new genus—the next taxonomic level up from species in the system used to classify biological organisms. The researchers are not sure yet if the bug lives only in clean rooms or survives elsewhere but has simply escaped detection so far, says Christine Moissl-Eichinger of the University of Regensburg in Germany, who identified the species at the ESA’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Some experts doubt thatTersicoccus phoenicis would fare well anywhere other than a clean room. “I think these bugs are less competitive, and they just don’t do so well in normal conditions,” says Cornell University astrobiologist Alberto Fairén, who was not involved in the analysis of the new genus. “But when you systematically eliminate almost all competition in the clean rooms, then this genus starts to be prevalent.”

Only the hardiest of microbes can survive inside a spacecraft clean room, where the air is stringently filtered, the floors are cleansed with certified cleaning agents, and surfaces are wiped with alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, then heated to temperatures high enough to kill almost any living thing. Any human who enters the room must be clad head to foot in a “bunny suit” with gloves, booties, a hat and a mask, so that the only exposed surface is the area around a person’s eyes. Even then, the technician can enter only after stomping on sticky tape on the floor to remove debris from the soles of her booties, and passing through an “air shower” to blow dust away from the rest of her. 

As always: life finds a way. Not only was this a discovery of a new species, it was a discovery of a new genus.

The full paper, for those of you interested, is here.

 

Schrödinger’s Clam: Scientists Kill World’s Oldest Living Animal Trying to Determine its Age

In one of the more bizarre stories I’ve read all week, scientists discovered the world’s oldest living animal but accidentally killed it trying to determine its age. Call it the case of Schrödinger’s clam:

The oldest animal ever known lived from 1499 until the day researchers cracked its shell open, killing it in the process.

Ming, an ocean quahog from the species Arctica islandica, was initially thought to be a record-setting 402 years old. But the scientists who found it on a seabed near Iceland in 2006 now say further analysis has revealed that it was an incredible 507 years old, reports CBS.

The researchers, who didn’t realize how old Ming was when they first found it, opened the ancient clam up to judge its age by counting growth rings inside its hinge ligaments. That’s because the rings are “better protected” there, scientist Paul Butler tells ScienceNordic, which notes that Ming was named for the Chinese dynasty that ruled when it was born.

But the rings were so close together that scientists ended up having to count the rings on the outside to be accurate, leading CBS to point out that Ming could have lived on, had scientists just started there.

“We got it wrong the first time and maybe we were a bit [hasty] publishing our findings back then. But we are absolutely certain that we’ve got the right age now,” says Butler.

The old, dead, mollusk still has a huge amount to offer science, reports the Herald-Sun. Scientists believe it will provide valuable data on changing sea temperatures over the last half-millennium—and maybe even some clues to longevity.

This isn’t one of those things you can confidently proclaim as: because, science.