Small Wonders: June 22, 2012

After a long hiatus, Small Wonders finally returns! In this week’s edition: marsupial genitalia, sharks with laser beams, and doggie MRIs.

* Carl Zimmer wrote a lovely essay on hands.

* Rad photo collages made from National Geographic and encyclopedia images.

* Vegetables are just so girly.

* Kangaroos have three vaginas. Ed Yong explains.

* “The Killing Agency:” The Sacramento Bee‘s damning investigation of Wildlife Services, which has accidentally killed more than 50,000 animals since 2000.

* Time to don the nanotech clothes.

* How Ghostwatch haunted psychiatry.

* Finally! Sharks with laser beams on their heads.

* How Freud created his own mythology.

* Thomas Jefferson had an experimental garden.

* A breakthrough in imaging canine brains.

* Jennifer Frazer on a fascinating new theory on Kawasaki disease.

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And the Book Title Is…

Pardon my temporary absence. Suddenly got called back to book-land for some revisions, but I’m pleased to announce that my final manuscript is in! Now it’s off to copy editing and production at FSG.

The other bit of exciting news is that we’ve finalized the title and the release date. So, without further ado, the title is: Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts. Coming to bookstores near you in March 2013. Stay tuned for more details.

Thanks for indulging this brief interruption. I’m promise to return to substantive blogging later this week.

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Could Hot Sauce Save the Economy?

So this isn’t exactly a science post, but I’ve written before about food psychology and culture. And this is at least tangentially related. Plus I just thought it was interesting. So, without further ado:

Last month, IBISWorld, an industry research group, released a report on the U.S.’s top 10 fastest growing industries. In the midst of the recession, the report said, these 10 “standout” industries “aren’t just recovering – they’re flourishing.”

Some of the industries that made the list will come as no surprise; generic pharmaceutical manufacturing, for-profit universities, green and sustainable building construction, and solar panel manufacturing are all thriving.

But others are more interesting. I think the most intriguing industry on the list is “Hot Sauce Production.” Over the last 10 years, the report says, the industry’s revenue has grown by an average of 9.3% a year. As the report explains:

Demand for hot sauce has been driven by demographic consumption trends, immigration and international demand from Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan. As Americans’ palates have become more diverse, hot sauce has earned tenure on the dinner table. Demand from supermarkets and grocery stores has reflected the change in consumer taste, and food retailers are dedicating more shelf space to ethnic cuisine. Ethnic supermarkets – also growing rapidly – more prominently offer a variety of hot sauces than more traditional stores.

Rounding out the top 10: pilates and yoga studios, self-tanning product manufacturing, social network game development, 3D printer manufacturing, and online eyeglasses and contact lens sales.

You can download the full report here.

Category: Food, Money, Psychology | 2 Comments

The World’s First Bionic Elephants

Baby Mosha toddles around on her prosthesis.

Back in the fall, I wrote a short post about The Eyes of Thailand, a new documentary film about two elephants, Motala and Mosha, who were injured when they stepped on landmines. The pachyderms, who each ended up losing a front leg, came into the care of Soraida Salwala at the Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Hospital in Lampang, Thailand. The movie chronicles Salwala’s quest to build prosthetic legs for the elephants.

The movie had its world premiere on April 28, at the Newport Beach Film Festival. A few days later, I spoke with Windy Borman, the film’s director and producer. A lightly edited version of our discussion follows.


EA: What attracted you to this story?

WB: I’m sort of an accidental elephant person. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. I was traveling to Thailand in 2007, and I was actually there for a different video project. I wandered into the elephant hospital with camera and it just so happened that Soraida, the founder of the elephant hospital, was there. She sat down and talked with me for two hours, said “Come meet the elephants.” I just fell in love with Motala and Mosha, two elephant landmine survivors. And Soraida is just such an inspiring person. I knew I couldn’t leave the story.
Continue reading »

Category: Animals, Medicine, Q & A | 5 Comments

Back from Bookland

I am pleased to report that I am back from my long sojourn in bookland. The book isn’t quite done, but it’s almost there–as of early this week, my editor now has a complete, revised manuscript.

Many apologies for my long absence here. But I’m back now, and I hope to make it up to you all with some great posts. I’ve got a couple in the works, but to kick things off, I thought I’d keep it simple. As most of you probably know by now, the big book project I’ve been working on is about how biotechnology is shaping the future of animals. So over the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about species great and small. I thought I’d mark my return to blogging by sharing a short recommended reading list with you all. Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite pieces of animal-related journalism. They’re not all science related, but they are all great reads. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. And stay tuned for more posts here soon.

Recommended Reading: Animal Edition

* “Fixing Nemo,” by Rebecca Skloot, New York Times Magazine

* “A Death in Yellowstone: On the trail of a killer grizzly bear,” by Jessica Grose, Slate

* “Animals,” by Chris Jones, Esquire

* “The BP-Spill Baby-Turtle Brigade,” by Jon Mooallem, New York Times Magazine

* “The It Bird: The return of the back-yard chicken,” by Susan Orlean, New Yorker

* “Taming the Wild,” by Evan Ratliff, National Geographic

* “The Mouse Trap: The dangers of using one lab animal to study every disease,” by Daniel Engber, Slate

* ” ‘Eyes Gazing Into the Distance As If in Memory of Ages Past:’ The accidental poetry of American Kennel Club breed standards,” by John Swansburg, Slate

* “Can the Bulldog Be Saved?” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, New York Times Magazine

* “Minds of their Own: Animals are smarter than you think,” by Virginia Morell, National Geographic.

* “2 by 2, or Not, Zoo Animals Escape Flood,” by A.G. Sulzberger, New York Times

* “When Pets Attack,” by Rebecca Skloot, New York

* “Birdbrain: The woman behind the world’s chattiest parrots,” by Margaret Talbot, New Yorker.

* “Of Mice and Men: How the Inbred Lab Mouse Helps Reprogram the Human Genome,” by Gary Wolf, Wired

* “Wonder Dog,” by Melissa Fay Greene, New York Times Magazine

* “Animal Migrations,” by David Quammen, National Geographic

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Almost there!

My book is due in a mere two months! After that, I will return to blogging with much greater frequency–and attempt to make up for my woeful neglect of this blog.

In the meantime, the good people at PLoS are trying to find out more about our readers. So if you’ve got a few minutes, please take this five-question survey.

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Architecture and the Mind

There was an interesting little piece in The New York Times a few days ago about how architects are increasingly relying upon findings in cognitive neuroscience as they develop their designs. At least, that’s what it claimed to be about. The story begins:

“A revolution in cognitive neuroscience is changing the kinds of experiments that scientists conduct, the kinds of questions economists ask and, increasingly, the ways that architects, landscape architects and urban designers shape our built environment.”

The story presents some intriguing architectural examples, though the piece itself is long on ideas and short on actual science. But fear not, data seekers! I wrote a feature for Scientific American Mind a few years back about this very topic. It covers findings on how our bodies and brains are affected by building layout, outdoor views, room color and lots more. Read it online at Scientific American Mind [behind a paywall] or download a PDF here.

Category: Architecture, Design, Neuroscience, Psychology | 1 Comment

Yes, I Am Alive

By this point, I no longer need to tell you that I have been woefully remiss in my blogging duties of late. You have, no doubt, witnessed it with your own eyes. But I offer this quick post to provide four things:

1. An Apology
I’m sorry. I regret not blogging more frequently this fall. I do miss it, in fact, and have a list of ideas for posts I’d like to write. I’m sorry that my posts have been so few and far between.

2. An Explanation
Wither has my blogging energy gone? It’s simple–to my book. It’s been a busy fall, book-wise, and the deadline for my manuscript is now less than three months away. (Eek!) I’ve been working on the book pretty much nonstop over the last few months, and my frenetic pace of work hasn’t left much time or energy for blogging here.

3. A Warning
Things may get worse before they get better. With my deadline fast approaching, I think that my working life is about to even crazier. And I fear that my neglect of this blog will only grow.

4. A Promise
I will try and post when I can over the next few months. And as soon as I’ve wrapped up this whole book thing, I will return to blogging at full force. I love writing here, and I look forward to having more time to devote to it. This hiatus, will, I promise, be temporary.

Thanks for your patience and understanding. I can’t wait to meet you all back here in a few months.

Category: Housekeeping | 3 Comments

Meet Midnite, the Mini Horse with a Prosthetic Leg

Midnite, the miniature horse.

It’s been more than a month since my story on animal prostheses ran in Wired, and I continue to get mail about it. Many of the messages contain heartwarming stories that testify to the strength of the human-animal bond, but an e-mail I got last week, in particular, stood out. (And so, with the author’s permission, I am reprinting part of his e-mail here.)

The e-mail was from Billy Rountree, an orthotic and prosthetic practioner assistant in Texas and a former employee of a company called ProsthetiCare. In his e-mail, Rountree recounted how he came into contact with a miniature horse named Midnite, who was missing part of his back leg. The staff of Rand Hand Rescue, the animal sanctuary where Midnite lived, hoped that outfitting the equine with a prosthetic would keep him from having to be euthanized.
Continue reading »

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Small Wonders: Oct. 21, 2011

In this long overdue edition: the science of puns, the imaginative capabilities of canines, and vegetarianism as a mental defect.

* Scientists sequence the DNA of a woman who lived to be 115.

* The promise and challenges of sequencing patients’ genomes to search for the cause of disease.

* Pun-lover Virginia Hughes explains why such wordplay is funny.

* Advances in psychoacoustics are helping engineers “make dens and living rooms sound like concert halls and movie theaters.”

* Can dogs pretend?

* Just two chatbots, shooting the breeze–check out their somewhat surreal conversation.

* The EPA approves the first contraceptive for wild animals.

* Why some languages sound faster than others.

* When vegetarianism was a mental disorder.

* Haunting photographs of abandoned state mental institutions.

* The irony of police officers expressing uneasiness about having their DNA collected.

* Lessons in flirting, courtesy of the wild kingdom.

* Official “genius” Jad Abumrad discusses Radiolab.

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