MORE WEIRD SCIENCE

VIOLENCE DOESN’T SELL

College students who watch violent video clips on television do not recall the advertisers’ products as well as those who watch clips from nonviolent shows. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by a researcher at Iowa State University who tested college students’ recall of brand names in commercials. His explanation? Violent shows may leave viewers so angry that they are unable to pay attention to the commercial message.

Hint to advertisers: Maybe you should’ve bought air time on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, after all.

THE PATHOLOGY OF PLANE CRASH DEATHS

(an excerpt from GRAVITY)

When a plane crashes, or an automobile slams into a wall, or a despondent lover makes a suicide leap from a ten-story building, the same forces of deceleration apply. A human body traveling at great speed is abruptly brought to a halt. The impact itself can shatter ribs and send missiles of bone shards into vital organs. It can fracture vertebrae, rupture spinal cords, crush skulls against dashboards or instrument panels.

But even when pilots are fully strapped in and helmeted, even when no part of their body makes contact with the aircraft, the force of deceleration alone can be fatal, because although the torso may be restrained, the internal organs are not. The heart and lungs and great vessels are suspended inside the chest by only tissue attachments. When the torso comes to an abrupt halt, the heart continues to swing forward like a pendulum, moving with such force it shears tissues and rips open the aorta.

Blood explodes into the mediastinum and pleural cavity…

THE “HUMAN” DIET

(Information from: “Cannibals of the Canyon” by Douglas Preston, The New Yorker, November ’98.)

It has been a long-brewing controversy among anthropologists. Did human cannibalism ever really occur, or are native reports of it simply legend, not fact? Skeptics point out that there are no reliable fisthand accounts of cannibalism, and all reports of it have been hearsay.

The most recent academic squabbling has centered on Anasazi remains in the Southwestern U.S., where human skeletal remnants have shown marks of sawing near the joints (possibly due to dismemberment), as well as cut marks indicating the meat had been stripped from the bones. Skulls were found smashed and the brains removed, while other bones had marrow removed. In addition, signs of “pot polishing” indicate the bones had been cooked.

There are many folk tales of the Anasazi, Zuni, and Hopi cultures which mention human cannibalism, but as some experts point out, the skeletal findings do not necessarily mean the remains were actually consumed; dismemberment and stripping of flesh may instead have been some sort of bizarre mortuary practice.

Now there’s proof the flesh was eaten. That proof is found in human coprolites — otherwise known as dried-up feces.

Human muscle contains myoglobin, a protein found nowhere else except in skeletal and heart muscle. When human flesh is eaten, traces of myoglobin will appear in the diner’s excrement. Just such traces were found in human coprolites in Anasazi campsites where the bones of massacred people were scattered. It’s compelling evidence that cannibalism was real.

THE ANCIENT ONES

They sound like science fiction creatures, but they’re real. They swim in acid and thrive in superheated volcanic vents under crushing pressures in the deep sea. They’re found living in the polar ice, in oil wells, and in rocks thousands of feet below the soil surface. They are Archaeons (The Ancient Ones), and genetic analysis proves they are so old they are one of the three original branches on earth’s evolutionary tree of life — as old as the first bacteria! Archaeons are so hardy they will almost certainly survive any catastrophe befalling earth, whether it’s nuclear war or asteroid impacts. Long after man has vanished, these nearly indestructible creatures will be earth’s final inhabitants.

Discovered only twenty years ago, these amazing microbes have raised the possibility that life exists in places we never dreamed of. If creatures can thrive in such extreme conditions as boiling magma, why couldn’t life also thrive on other planets, or even on drifting bits of cosmic dust?

The hardiness of microbes in space was recently demonstrated when orbital debris, recovered after several years of circling earth, was found to be coated with a film of … well, fecal matter, probably from astronauts.

Author Arthur C. Clarke wryly notes: “This may solve one of the mysteries of life’s origin on earth… Organized life forms need have occurred only once in this galaxy, if the very first spacefaring civilization was as careless about the environment as we are. It’s a humbling thought that we may have arisen from (another planet’s) dumped sewage; the very first chapter of Genesis would certainly require drastic revision.”

In Tess’s new medical thriller, GRAVITY, a seemingly innocuous culture of deep sea Archaeons is brought aboard the International Space Station for observation in weightlessness. The experiment goes terribly wrong, and suddenly NASA has a biological disaster on its hands. The orbiting astronauts, trapped in quarantine, must race to find a cure… even as they sicken and die, one by one.

THE RAPUNZEL SYNDROME

(Warning: this is a gross-out.)

CASE HISTORY: a 12-year-old girl is brought to the school nurse complaining of abdnominal pains, nausea, and a feeling that her stomach is “full.” She has had these symptoms for four months. The nurse examines the girl’s belly and feels a soft mass in the left upper abdomen. Then she spots the vital clue that leads to the diagnosis: a large bald patch on the girl’s head.

Stumped? Here’s a hint: It’s something she ate.

The girl suffers from a rare but fascinating medical condition known as a trichobezoar. In laymen’s terms, she has a hairball in her stomach.

Bezoars are large masses of indigestible organic matter which are eaten and then get trapped in the stomach. They can be caused by vegetable or fruit fiber (phytobezoars) or by the ingestion of hair (trichobezoars). They are most commonly found in animals. The ancients, in fact, believed that such masses from the stomach of goats possessed magical healing properties, and the word “bezoar” comes from an Arabic word meaning “antidote.”

When gastric hairballs occur in humans, the patients are usually children or mentally disturbed women who yank out their own hair and swallow it. A partially bald scalp is an obvious clue. As in a plugged shower drain, the hairs get trapped and tangled in the stomach, accumulating over time, until they cause distension, bloating, and nausea. Long strands from the hairball may extend past the stomach, all the way through the small intestine, and may even reach the colon, a condition known as The Rapunzel Syndrome.

If you’ve ever fished out a hairball from a plugged shower drain, then you know just how disgusting and smelly they can be. The same can be said for trichobezoars. They are traps for undigested fat and havens for bacteria. That, plus the chronic exposure to gastric juices, makes the matted hairballs turn black and nauseatingly odorous.

Smaller bezoars can often be treated with drugs, digestive enzymes, or shock wave fragmentation. The big ones, though, will usually require the surgeon’s scalpel.

A CUSTODY FIGHT … FOR A FINGER?

The U.S. Interior Department and the University of California, Davis, are duking it out in court for possession of 1.5 grams of human bone. The fragment of finger bone was collected from 9000-year-old remains found buried in Washington State. UC Davis scientists had planned to perform DNA analysis on the bone, in hopes of learning more about ancient inhabitants of the Americas. After Native Americans laid claim to the remains, the U.S. Justice Department ordered the university to surrender the finger fragment. So far, it has not been turned over. For now it remains in a fireproof safe at UC Davis.

WHAT EL NINO HATH WROUGHT

Abundant rain and a mild winter, brought on by El Nino, has led to a booming rodent population in the southwest. Now health authorities are bracing for the possible aftermath: an outbreak of the deadly Hantavirus. First identified in 1993, the virus killed twenty people that year. The disease is fatal in about half the cases, and is spread through contact with deer mice droppings or urine.

Another possible consequence of El Nino has been a Pfiesteria outbreak in North Carolina rivers. The toxic microorganism causes skin lesions and stupefies the fish, killing millions of them. It may affect people in the same way. Heavy spring rains and a dry summer have led to thriving numbers of the microbe, which flourishes in sewage- and fertilizer-contaminated waters.

MORE SEX

Do humans have a sex organ up their nose? Scientists believe that a tiny nasal structure called the vomeronasal organ, or VNO, may be a primitive sensory organ used for detecting pheromones, a chemical that animals release to signal readiness for mating. The VNO consists of a pair of tiny indentations on either side of the nasal septum. In other animals such as rats and mice, the VNO allows animals to detect who’s ovulating and who’s ready to mate. Does this organ function similarly in humans? It has been known for decades that women roommates in college dorms begin to menstruate in unison after several months of living in the same quarters. One explanation is that women are sensitive to each others’ pheromones. Perhaps, like all other beasts in the animal kingdom, we can sniff out when someone’s ready for mating. So here’s some advice to guys on the prowl: better pop those decongestants before hitting the pickup bars.

LUMINESCENT SEX

Anything to get laid. That must be the philosophy of the Hawaiian squid, Euprymna scolopes. So desperate are they to advertise their availability to the opposite sex, they burrow in the mud and suck in colonies of bioluminescent bacteria (Vibrio fischeri). The bacteria produce a glow which helps the squid attract mates. And we thought humans invented the neon XXX sign.

THE EYES HAVE IT

Scientists in Switzerland have been fooling around with the genes of the fruit fly. The result? Baby fruit flies have been born with eyes all over their bodies — on their legs, their wings, their antennae. One fly had fourteen extra eyes! Now if only scientists could figure out how to grow extra brains.