Blue Marble - May 2012

Men Find Vegetables Unmanly

| Wed May. 16, 2012 12:43 PM PDT

My mom likes to tell a story about how, after coming over for dinner to our vegetarian household, a woman from the neighborhood earnestly asked her how she had managed to persuade my dad to eat vegetables. Apparently this woman had the worst time interesting her husband in salad. Okay. So, just for fun, let's leave aside the troubling question of why exactly this lady's marriage involved this weird infantilization and turn to the much more hilarious matter: Seriously, why didn't this dude like veggies?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, it's probably because men don't consider them manly. For reals:

In a number of experiments that looked at metaphors and certain foods, like meat and milk, the authors found that people rated meat as more masculine than vegetables. They also found that meat generated more masculine words when people discussed it, and that people viewed male meat eaters as being more masculine than non-meat eaters.

Another rad finding was that in most languages that have genders, meat is masculine.

As a solution, the study's authors suggest that "reshaping soy burgers to make them resemble beef or giving them grill marks might help cautious men make the transition." See, ladies with veggie-hating husbands? It's that easy.

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As Austerity Falters, European Economists Say "Price Carbon!"

| Wed May. 16, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Greek anti-austerity protesters clash with riot police in Athens.

Turmoil over budget cuts roils Greek streets. France elects an anti-austerity president. Even Germany's Austerity Queen Angela Merkel faces electoral backlash. It appears Europeans are getting sick of tightening their belts. But when you can't cut any more, there's little else to do but hustle up more cash.

For governments allergic to raising income taxes, a European Climate Foundation analysis released yesterday shows there's a less painful way to slash deficits—one that could save the planet as it saves the economy: a carbon tax.

The report argues that reforming how Europe taxes energy could, by 2020, cut some countries' 2011 deficits in half. Spain, whose deficit reached $116 billion last year (the third-worst in Europe), could add $13 billion in yearly revenue under the recommended plan. As a bonus, the report found that carbon taxes improve energy security and can reduce climate-changing emissions by up to 2.5 percent. 

Clearly a Europe in crisis needs a new idea, says economist Max Krahe of Vivid Economics, which co-authored the report. "There are smart ways of doing it and less smart ways of doing it."

Krahe suggests starting with a tax on household emissions, which in the three case-study countries in the report (Spain, Poland, and Hungary), aren't taxed at all, despite accounting for a quarter of Europe's total emissions. Household carbon taxes are a bit of a hard sell, Krahe admitted, because politicians are loathe to add new taxes where none currently exist.

The fear, he said, is that without a safety net higher energy bills would devastate the families already hit hardest by austerity: "In Eastern Europe, you're going to push some old grandmothers into poverty." But the tradeoff is that revenue could be looped back to Granny in the form of increased social services; under a similar scheme about to commence in Australia, over half the money raised from taxing carbon will be sent back to households via tax cuts and other assistance.

Does Eating Corn Syrup Kill Your Memory?

| Wed May. 16, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

If you've ever experienced a cupcake coma (you know, the period of extreme lethargy that follows a sugar high brought on by consumption of one or more cupcakes), you might not be surprised by some recent findings on the effects of processed sweeteners. A team of UCLA researchers has observed that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) makes rats more forgetful, while omega-3 fatty acids—chemical compounds that research has shown can protect the brain's synapses—seem to have the opposite effect.

The researchers, whose paper will be published this week in the peer-reviewed Journal of Physiology, trained a group of rats to navigate a maze. Then, they randomly divided the rats into four groups, and for six weeks they fed each group a slightly different diet in addition to the usual rat chow: One group received HFCS in its water; another received omega-3 fatty acids. A third received both HFCS and omega-3s, and the fourth, a control group, received plain old rat chow.

At the end of the six weeks, the group that had been given omega-3 fatty acids but no HFCS was the speediest at remembering how to get out of the maze. The control group (no HFCS or omega-3s) was the second fastest, and the group that had received omega-3 fatty acids and HFCS came in third. The slowpokes of the lot were the group that had only received HFCS. The takeaway: HFCS seemed to impair rats' memory, while omega-3 fatty acids seemed to help it.

In addition to the memory effects, the researchers also noticed changes in the rats' metabolism. The groups that had been fed HFCS showed signs of insulin resistance, a condition that has been linked to diabetes and obesity.

So can you up your recall skills by cutting HFCS out of your diet? Hard to say, since a controlled rat study doesn't exactly count as proof that too much sweet stuff makes humans forgetful. But it's certainly something that merits more scrutiny: The study's lead researcher, biology professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, believes that insulin could affect the brain as well as the metabolic system. "Insulin is important in the body for controlling blood sugar, but it may play a different role in the brain, where insulin appears to disturb memory and learning," said Gomes-Pinilla in a press release. "Our study shows that a high-fructose diet harms the brain as well as the body. This is something new."

Which Kids' Sunscreens Should You Avoid?

| Tue May. 15, 2012 1:45 PM PDT

Ahhh, May. Time to don your sunnies, dig out the sandals, and head for the nearest beach or park for about the next four months. By now, you've probably been lectured enough about the perils of sunburn and skin cancer to bring a tube of sunscreen along, too. But while the stuff is important for staying safe from harmful UV rays, there are still enough confusing labels, dangerous ingredients, and misleading SPF designations in so many common products that you may want to opt for a day under the nearest tree instead. Or pay very close attention to exactly what's in your sunscreen, and how often you'll want to reapply. So says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which today released its 2012 Sunscreen Guide.

The guide comes less than a week after the FDA pushed back the compliancy requirement for a news set of guidelines (33 years in the making) meant to urge manufacturers to more clearly label their products and toss out misleading terms like "sweatproof" and "sunblock." But even the now-delayed FDA guidelines, says EWG, fall short in some important ways.

For starters, the FDA's new guidelines fail to address the risk of trusting a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50. For sunscreens that boast SPF 100, for instance, "there's no evidence they provide additional health benefits," says David Andrews, a spokesperson for EWG. The higher value "lends to a sense of invincibility, so that people spend more time in the sun longer," Andrews argues.

Poll: Americans Will Pay for Clean Energy

| Tue May. 15, 2012 7:02 AM PDT

A recent poll found that the majority of Americans want to take measures now to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. But one of the complaints you often hear from lawmakers in Washington is that when it comes to solutions like deploying more renewable energy, Americans aren't willing to pay for them—particularly during a time of widespread economic distress. But, turns out that's not actually the case.

A new paper published this week in Nature Climate Change finds that the average person in the US is actually willing to pay as much as $162 more each year for power in order to deploy more clean energy. The polling, conducted by researchers from Harvard, Yale, and the National Bureau of Economic Research, asked people about their support for a national clean energy standard (NCES). This type of standard would set requirements for how much of our energy portfolio should be generated from sources like wind, solar, and geothermal. More than thirty states already have some form of a clean energy standard, and the researchers found that implementing the policy nationally would probably cost households less than $60.

Creating some sort of "clean" or "renewable" energy standard has been a perennial topic for quite some time. Obama called for an 80 percent "clean energy" standard by 2035 in the last two State of the Union addresses. Meanwhile, Congress has proposed, then failed to pass, some form of the measure many times in the past 10 years. The exact percentages vary among the different versions of the bill, as do the types of energy that would qualify, with some including nuclear power or so-called "clean" coal as acceptable, and others just sticking with straight-up renewables. But the long and short of it is, despite trying to a decade, we haven't been able to pass this sort of measure.

The researchers found that the average household pays $1,250 in electricity bills each year. So, $162 more isn't an insubstantial sum, representing about a 13 percent price increase for them. They also found that respondents were willing to pay up to $199 more for a policy that only included renewables, but would only fork over $142 for a policy that included natural gas and $147 for a policy that included nuclear in the mix.

A Podcast for Caffeine Fiends

| Tue May. 15, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

If you are a slave to your morning coffee like I am, you might want to take a listen to the latest episode of the Field Trip podcast, which is entirely devoted to the fascinating backstory of your caffeine fix. Highlights include San Francisco's celebrated coffee makers Ritual Roasters spilling the beans on their rigorous taste testing process, and the Field Trip crew bravely sampling the most highly caffeinated coffee in the world.

Have a listen:

Play

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Human Languages Decline as Species Disappear

| Mon May. 14, 2012 11:23 AM PDT

Quechua woman and  child, Peru: quinet via Wikimedia Commons

Quechua woman and child, Peru: quinet via Wikimedia Commons 

Biologists estimate annual loss of species at 1,000 times (or greater) of historic rates. Linguists predict that 50–90% of the world's languages will disappear by the end of this century.

A new paper in PNAS finds that 70 percent of the world's languages are found within Earth's most biologically diverse regions.

Earlier studies suggested there was probably a lot of overlap between areas of high biological diversity and areas of high linguistic diversity. But data were limited.

In the new study, the authors used recently compiled global data showing the geographic locations of more than 6,900 languages compiled for geographic information system (GIS) applications by Global Mapping International. They used the locations of biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas compiled by Conservation International.

Their findings:

  • The languages in biodiverse hotspots are frequently unique to their particular regions
  • Many of these endemic languages also face extinction

 

Biodiversity hotspots map: L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

Biodiversity hotspots map: L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

Geographic distribution of indigenous and nonmigrant languages in 2009: L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109Geographic distribution of indigenous and nonmigrant languages in 2009. (Click map for larger version):  L. J. Gorenflo, et al. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

The researchers examined 35 biodiversity hotspots—locations with an exceptionally high number of endemic species, which have lost 70 percent or more of their habitat (top map, above). These hotspots comprise only 2.3 percent of the Earth's surface, yet contain more than half the world's vascular plants and 43 percent of its terrestrial vertebrate species. They also contain people speaking 3,202 languages—nearly half of all languages spoken on Earth (bottom map, above). 

"In the past, it was hard to get biologists to look at people," says Gorenflo. "That's really changed dramatically in the past few years. One thing that a lot of biologists and ecologists are now seeing is that people are part of these ecosystems."

The team also examined linguistic diversity in five high biodiversity wilderness areas—places whose remaining habitat covers ~6.1 percent of Earth's surface and contains about 17 percent of the vascular plants and 6 percent of the terrestrial vertebrate species. These biodiversity wilderness areas  are also home to people speaking another 1,622 languages. 

"In many cases it appears that conditions that wipe out species wipe out languages," says lead author Larry Gorenflo at Penn State Department of Landscape Architecture, and affiliated with Penn's Institutes of Energy and Environment. "I think it argues for concerted conservation efforts that are integrated and try to maintain biodiversity and cultural diversity."

From the paper:

Given the capacity of humans to dominate, and in many cases eradicate, other species on our planet, the importance of the relationship between people and the natural environments they inhabit cannot be overstated for biodiversity conservation. Unfortunately, the opportunity to enlist speakers of particular languages in biodiversity conservation is rapidly disappearing as languages are lost at an alarming rate. Although linguists have attempted to identify languages in danger of disappearance, no system of language ranking in terms of risk can claim the broad attention and authority enjoyed by the IUCN Red List, the main means of evaluating the conditions of species.

 

 Kutia Kondh woman, Odisha, India: PICQ via Wikimedia Commons

Kutia Kondh woman, Odisha, India: PICQ via Wikimedia Commons

As for why the coexistence between areas with high concentrations of endangered species and endangered languages, the researchers aren't sure. But possibly because indigenous cultures, supported by their languages, create conditions optimum to maintaining species and keeping ecosystems intact and working. 

The open-access paper:

  • L. J. Gorenflo, Suzanne Romaine, Russell A. Mittermeier, and Kristen Walker-Painemilla. Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1117511109

 

Are Virus-Powered Cellphones Around the Corner?

| Mon May. 14, 2012 11:20 AM PDT

Anyone who's had the flu knows viruses can be powerful. But scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are working on technology that will be able to harness that power to generate electricity.

Their research, published this month in Nature Nanotechnology, envisions a future in which viruses will help us take the energy from running, slamming doors, and climbing stairs and turn it into renewable energy we can use to power our gadgets. The project uses paper-thin generators covered in viruses (nice viruses, not the ones that make you sick) that can be implanted into places like our shoes. The viruses will take the mechanical energy generated by that motion, and convert to an electric charge. I'll let the scientists explain:

The scientists tested their approach by creating a generator that produces enough current to operate a small liquid-crystal display. It works by tapping a finger on a postage stamp-sized electrode coated with specially engineered viruses. The viruses convert the force of the tap into an electric charge.
Their generator is the first to produce electricity by harnessing the piezoelectric properties of a biological material. Piezoelectricity is the accumulation of a charge in a solid in response to mechanical stress.

Piezoelectricity is already used to power small devices like electric cigarette lighters, the scientists note. But the current products require toxic chemicals, which makes them less appealing. Using viruses like the M13 bacteriophage, which is benign to people, is a much better option, for a number of reasons:

Being a virus, it replicates itself by the millions within hours, so there's always a steady supply. It’s easy to genetically engineer. And large numbers of the rod-shaped viruses naturally orient themselves into well-ordered films, much the way that chopsticks align themselves in a box.

The scientists describe virus-powered generators that could be used to charge iPods, cellphones, e-readers, or other small personal devices. That would certainly bring new meaning to the term "going viral."

Here's a short video they made explaining the technology:

Wasted Milk Could Speed Climate Change

| Mon May. 14, 2012 10:22 AM PDT

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found that maybe we should be crying over spilled milk. The amount of milk that Brits waste every year—360,000 tons—is responsible for 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That's roughly equivalent to the output of 20,000 cars, and that's just in the United Kingdom.

The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, looked more broadly at food waste in the UK, finding that people could reduce their own emissions pretty significantly by changing their shopping and eating habits. From their release:

Researchers also say halving the amount of chicken consumed in the UK and other developed countries to levels eaten in Japan could cut greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 10 million cars off the road.
Figures show that if average chicken consumption in developed countries fell from the current level of 26kg each per year to the Japanese average of about 12kg each by 2020, global emissions from poultry would fall below current levels, despite increased output from the developing world. This would cut the predicted global output of nitrous oxide, a key greenhouse gas, from this source by almost 20 per cent, based on current growth rates.

Food waste is one of my pet issues. And the takeaway, according to the researchers, is pretty simple: Eat fewer animal products; buy only what you can eat; and when you buy food, eat it.

FDA Delays Sunscreen Rules. Again.

| Fri May. 11, 2012 12:08 PM PDT

If you've been following the epic saga of the FDA's long-awaited sunscreen regulations, you probably won't be surprised to hear that the agency has pushed back enforcement of its latest set of rules from this summer to mid-December of this year. The rules—you know, someday—will bar manufacturers from making outlandish claims on their labels (no more SPF 150). But that's not all. Last year, MoJo's Jen Quraishi summarized the regulations in a blog post:

--all sunscreens must be SPF 15 or higher if they claim to prevent sunburn, early aging, and reduce skin cancer risk. Anything under SPF 15 could only be advertised to help prevent sunburn.

--all sunscreens must provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) in order to be labeled as "Broad Spectrum."

--no more labels that market a sunscreen as either "waterproof" or "sweatproof." The label "sunblock" is also disallowed.

--any product that claims water resistance must also tell consumers how much time they can expect to get SPF protection for while in the water.

--no product can claim to offer immediate protection after application unless they submit data to the FDA and get the FDA's express approval

--sunscreens in the form of wipes, towelettes, powders, body washes, and shampoo cannot be marketed without approved application.

All of which would be a step in the right direction. But as Environmental Working Group pointed out, the new rules continue "to allow oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and several other ingredients in sunscreens despite scientists' concerns about their toxicity."