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A Little Perspective

Tweeting to tweak an adversary

Amidst a serious potential escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with evidence emerging that Russian troops are engaged in combat in the country, the good folks at the Canadian NATO delegation decided to go on the snark offensive, firing off this tweet (above left). While amusing, one might reasonably wonder if there are not better ways to spend a country's strategic resources than photoshopping a map to tweak an adversary. One might also have thought that Russia, involved in a pretty serious conflict on its border, might have either: (a) been too busy to notice, or (b) taken the high road. But, alas, even the high road has WiFi these days. The Russian NATO delegation, while not disputing Canada's founding of the state of "Not Russia," did take issue with its depiction of Crimea as still a part of "Not Russia." In response, apparently relying on the international norm of "annexers keepers," the Russians fired back (above right). There were zero reports of the two delegations resorting to wedgies to settle the dispute.

Elliot Hannon, Slate

They look alike but are not related

When twins have similar personalities, is it mainly because they share so much genetic material or because their physical resemblance makes other people treat them alike?

Nancy L. Segal, a psychologist who directs the Twin Studies Center at California State University, Fullerton, decided to find out — and enlisted an unlikely ally, photographer François Brunelle, who takes pictures of pairs of people who look alike, but are not twins. "I reasoned that if personality resides in the face," she said, "then unrelated look-alikes should be as similar in behavior as identical twins reared apart. Alternatively, if personality traits are influenced by genetic factors, then unrelated look-alikes should show negligible personality similarity." For 14 years, Brunelle has been working on a project he calls "I'm Not a Look-Alike!": more than 200 black-and-white portraits of pairs who do, in fact, look startlingly alike. Segal asked Brunelle to send questionnaires to some of his subjects, and she received completed forms from 23 pairs. As she expected, the unrelated look-alikes showed little similarity in either personality or self-esteem. By contrast, twins — especially identical twins — average high scores on both scales, suggesting that the similarities were largely because of genetics. Her results were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

David Levine, New York Times

Richard III or maybe Richard and a fifth?

Richard III, the 15th century English monarch memorably depicted by Shakespeare as a "poisonous bunch-back'd toad," has a new attribute to add to his reputation: a heavy-drinking glutton.

He consumed the equivalent of a bottle of wine a day, plus enough beer to total about three liters of alcohol, according to analysis of his remains published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. He feasted on a rich array of "luxury foods" including swan, egret and heron.

Researchers have been studying Richard's skeleton since 2012, when his remains were identified beneath a parking lot in Leicester, a city in England's Midlands. Early studies focused on the spine, curved by scoliosis in a profound S-shape that seemed to confirm Shakespeare's physical description. The new study looks at a femur, a rib and a tooth — bones that develop and renew themselves at different times of life — to evaluate how his diet changed once he became king.

"We know he was banqueting a lot more, there was a lot of wine indicated at those banquets and tying all that together with the bone chemistry, it looks like this feasting had quite an impact on his body in the last few years of his life," said geochemist Angela Lamb, lead author of the study.

Nancy Szokan, Washington Post

Creepy microbes

Your body is home to about 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes, known as your microbiome. We've come to appreciate how beneficial our microbes are, breaking down our food, fighting off infections and nurturing our immune system. It's a lovely, invisible garden we should be tending for our own well-being.

But in the journal BioEssays, a team of scientists has raised a creepier possibility. Perhaps our menagerie of germs is also influencing our behavior to advance its own evolutionary success — giving us cravings for certain foods, for example.

Some species of fungi infiltrate the brains of ants and coax them to climb plants and clamp onto the underside of leaves. The fungi then sprout out of the ants and send spores showering onto uninfected ants below. It looks as if parasites release molecules that can directly or indirectly influence their host's brain.

Our microbiome has the biochemical potential to do the same thing. In our guts, bacteria make some of the same chemicals that our neurons use to communicate with one another, such as dopamine and serotonin. And the microbes can deliver these neurological molecules to the dense web of nerve endings that line the gastrointestinal tract.

Different species of microbes thrive on different kinds of food. If they can prompt us to eat more of the food they depend on, they can multiply. "This is not a for-sure thing," said Mark Lyte, a microbiologist at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center who pioneered this line of research in the 1990s. "It needs scientific, hard-core demonstration."

Carl Zimmer, New York Times

A Little Perspective 08/29/14 [Last modified: Friday, August 29, 2014 6:06pm]
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