Monday, February 21, 2011

Mad Science Monday, 2/21/2011

Sometime around the time it came out in 1996, I saw Project Grizzly, the documentary about Canadian inventor and awesomely crazy person Troy Hurtubise. Troy doesn't have a whole lot of scientific training, so he didn't immediately come to mind when I started Mad Science Monday... but I think he might really be a mad scientist (or at least a mad engineer with thoughts of mad science). I can't remember the exact quote, but he has a monologue in the doc about how his suit will let NASA study hibernating bears, which they can't do because the bears might wake up and rip the researchers to shreds. That argument made all of the madness he expresses in the rest of the doc, trying to build his bear-proof suit, seem worthwhile.

Today's research isn't as mad as Troy, but it enhances his madness (and has some mad applications of its own), so it fits the theme.

Mad Reference! "Hibernation in Black Bears: Independence of Metabolic Suppression from Body Temperature." Øivind Tøien, John Blake, Dale M. Edgar, Dennis A. Grahn, H. Craig Heller, and Brian M. Barnes. Science 18 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6019 pp. 906-909 (via National Geographic). That might not sound all that mad, but the National Geographic title made it more sensational: "Hibernating Bears Keep Weirdly Warm." Yes, that sounds deliciously mad indeed!

Mad Background and Observations! When most things hibernate, their bodies get cold, sometimes really cold. For example, when frogs hibernate in cold climates, parts of their bodies freeze solid under the snow. Even hibernating mammals allow their body temperatures to drop several degrees during their torpor.

Mad Hypothesis! Bears hibernate, so presumably they get chilly like everything else that hibernates, right?

Mad Experiment! This was the part that made me think of Troy. Surely to test this, the scientist had to suit up in a Mark V Anti-Bear Super Suit and get lowered by a crane into a hibernating bear's cave, ready to quickly read a well-placed thermometer and bolt, right?

It turns out it's much simpler than that. The researchers rescued four "nuisance" bears, which presumably had been stealing picnic baskets and/or making bad movies, and were slated to be euthanized. They rigged the bears up with various sensors to record their vital statistics, and placed them in artificial dens to hibernate. And that's all. I'm beginning to think maybe Troy was making up the whole "NASA would love this thing" explanation for his suit (or I guess it's possible nobody had thought to do things this way, since they didn't know until now how cool bears got while hibernating).

They All Laughed, But! This is one of the (many) cases where disproving the hypothesis is what makes things interesting. While hibernating, these black bears held their temperature between 30 °C and 36 °C (86 °F to 97 °F). To put that in perspective, normal human body temperature is 37 °C (99 °F, or, if you insist on too many sig figs, 98.6 °F). If you snuggled up against a hibernating black bear, it wouldn't feel particularly chilly. That's a big difference from the frogcicles hibernating near their dens.

Mad Engineering Applications! Troy wasn't completely wrong that NASA would likely be interested in better understanding hibernation. Hibernation for long space voyages is a staple of science fiction, because it's a good way to avoid many of the problems of long space flight. However, significantly cooling (or even freezing) tissues presents other challenges. If we can figure out how the black bears do it, we might not have to protect the astronauts' bodies from freezer burn (although we would, of course, have to spend a lot of energy keeping them warm in the coldness of space). To the terrestrial mad engineer, this could be even more useful. Cooling your clone armies for storage could be very expensive, particularly if your lair is hidden inside a volcano. Using the black bear hibernation techniques, you might be able to simply fatten them up for storage, and then let them hibernate at non-freezing temperatures.

Have you seen any other useful research for clone army construction and storage? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mad Science Monday, 2/14/2011

Happy Valentine's Day! I almost didn't get a post up today, but then I saw the perfect article to fit the holiday. Without further ado, I give you:

Mad Reference! "Extreme Aggression in Male Squid Induced by a β-MSP-like Pheromone." Hanlon RT, et al. Current Biology (online) February 10, 2011 (via National Geographic). Pheremones that induce aggression in a phallic animal during mating? Sounds like a Valentine's Day Mad Science Monday to me!

Mad Background and Observations! When longfin squid (Loligo pealeii) get together to breed, the females lay egg sacs. The males rush in and touch these sacs, and go into full-on pon farr rage.

Mad Hypothesis! A protein in the eggs acts as a pheremone, sending the males into this rage. Even without females present, this pheremone would set male longfin squid into gladiator mode.

Mad Experiment! The experiments are laid out really well in the apparently non-embeddable video at the top of the National Geographic article. They basically performed four trials (plus probably more trials with other proteins before they settled on the main candidate, but those aren't covered in this particular video and paper):

  1. Trial with no stimulus (to establish baseline behavior of a group of male squid in their tank)
  2. Trial with natural eggs (to establish what aggression looks like)
  3. Trial with flask streaked with recombinant Loligo β-microseminoprotein (β-MSP, their candidate pheremone)
  4. Trial with flask with no Loligo β-MSP (to make sure the pheremone matters in trial 3)
They All Laughed, But! β-MSP appears to be the thing that's necessary to piss off squid. The flask had eggs inside (to get the males to touch it), and I would've liked to see a trial without the eggs, but it'd be hard to isolate that it was the chemical doing the angering, not, say, poking them with a pheremone-tipped stick. The controls also established pretty well that β-MSP was the factor causing the aggression, although a sealed flask of eggs did produce a little more aggression than the stimulus-free control.

Mad Engineering Applications! This quote from the NatGeo article is what made me consider this research for Mad Science Monday: 
"We don't know of anything like this that exists in humans," Hanlon added. "But when we researched microseminoproteins in the literature, we found that they occur in mammal semen and, more importantly, that nobody has looked at what functional effect they have.

"We hope that our discovery stimulates research in that direction."
So they found a protein that turns male squid into gladiators, and a similar protein in humans... and they're hoping their research stimulates research. Clearly these guys are working on breeding their minion army.

Have any suggestions for Mad Science Monday (particularly articles published with full text in free online journals)? I'd love to read them in the comments!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Mad Science Monday, 2/7/2011

Ok, I really like writing these things. I think I'll try to do this weekly again.

Mad Reference: Josh Bongard. "Morphological change in machines accelerates the evolution of robust behavior." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. January 25, 2011 vol. 108 no. 4 1234-1239. (abstract)

A lot of my random reads come from "cool" via Recommendations, a Google Reader list of things that other people have shared. As far as I can tell, this one mostly made that list because the title was cool, but the research is pretty neat.

Mad Background: Evolutionary algorithms are just about my very favoritest of things. Basically, computer scientists, inspired by the simplicity and elegance of biological evolution, have started using reproduction (of code fragments), mutation (of the specifics of the code), and selection (of the code fragments that are most successful at whatever task the programmers give them) to evolve programs. Such evolutionary algorithms often find solutions that the programmer might not have thought of, and do so faster than would occur if the programmer directly designed the solution. In other words, evolutionary algorithms flip the bird to intelligent design "theory" (which is only a theory in the colloquial sense of "guess;" there's no science there to actually make it a scientific theory).

Evolutionary algorithms are often used to design robots, both real and simulated (as shown in the video above).

Mad Observations: Real biological systems don't start out even crawling; they go through various body plans through their lifetime, and through the many lifetimes that take them from one species to another. For example, life has, multiple times, gone from a snakelike slithering form to legged walking form, both over many generations and within the lifetime of single organisms.

Mad Hypothesis: A robot that starts in a snakelike ("anguilliform") body plan before progressing to a four-legged walker can figure out how to walk faster and better than a robot that starts out up on four legs.

Mad Experiment: This experiment was mostly virtual. The experimenter set up digital "robots," some of which started out with legs, and some of which started out down on their belly. He then allowed them to search for a control mechanism for their four limbs that would get them from one corner of the simulation to the other. He also ran trials in which the belly-walkers gradually stood up on their legs (by slowly increasing the angle between the legs and the body), and then ran trials where robots pre-loaded with the slithering programs started out up on their legs. He even built Lego robots similar to his digital creatures, which just makes it all cooler.

They All Laughed, But: It worked. Robots that started out up on their legs took several hours to figure out how to walk, while the slitherers (and their progeny) figured it out in seconds. Even the Lego bots, which were slowly changed from slitherers to walkers, were able to figure out how to walk in the real world really fast, much faster than their always-walking cousins.

Mad Engineering Applications: When you're building your robot death army, don't start them out as bipedal killing machines. Sure, give them arms and a desire to rip things to shreds, but start out forcing them to use those arms to slither, then walk, and then finally they can stand erect and use those arms for their intended purpose.

This would probably also be useful for less destruction-focused robots, but that wouldn't be nearly as Mad.