Tuesday, 22nd May 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Training doctors. Treating anxiety. Traveling to the roof of the world. Dissecting a frog. Going on a spacewalk…. What remarkable technology advances all these disparate experiences?

A. The head-mounted virtual reality (VR) device, answers Clive Thompson in "Smithsonian" magazine. "Today’s VR emerged largely because the technology it requires-—LCD screens and tilt sensors—-was made suddenly cheap by the boom in mobile phones." Now VR is edging into mainstream, with more and more people peering into new realms. Surgeons use it to simulate operations. For fear of heights or fear of public speaking, VR is a new tool in "exposure therapy," where patients board a virtual elevator or address a virtual audience to diffuse their anxiety. "’Everest VR’ draws on a database of 300,000 images to take you from the base camp to the summit."

Using "VIVED Science," students can dissect a virtual frog. And with "Mission ISS," you can board the International Space Station and experience what it’s like to dock cargo and go on a spacewalk. Dubbed "an empathy machine" by one filmmaker, VR can also transport the viewer to the warming waters of Greenland ("Melting Ice"), to the mind’s eye of a factory-farmed pig ("iAnimal"), or to a prison’s solitary confinement ("6x9").

As VR proponents say, "By hijacking our entire field of vision, it has more persuasive power than TV, radio or any other previous medium."

Q. Millions of people worldwide live on floodplains, where rising waters could jeopardize their homes and even their lives. What Top Tech innovation of 2018 is trying to address the problem?

A. Called LifeArk, it’s a home that floats, says "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. Architectural firm GDS is working on "a prefabricated modular dwelling that is cheap to make, easily transported in shipping containers, and then quickly assembled on-site using standard tools." Bolt together the 6-square-meter-units to construct larger structures and connect them to the main power grid and sewer system. Units for off-grid sites come equipped with solar panels, rainwater harvesting and filtration, and waste management systems.

Later this year the first prototypes of LifeArk will be installed on a lake in Lindale, Texas, some 90 miles east of Dallas. More to come.

Q. As a person gets older, his or her likelihood of dying in the next year increases, doubling about every 8 years. For example, if at age 60 you have a 1% risk of dying per year, then at age 68 it’s 2% per year, 4% at 76, 8% at 84, and so on. The risk mounts quickly and few of us make it to 100. All mammals studied age this way, that is, all except one. What’s the exception?

A. Naked mole rats are a stunning exception to the rule, claims Rochelle Buffenstein and her colleagues in a recent online paper in "eLife." She started working with naked mole rats in 1980, says Kai Kupferschmidt in "Science" magazine, and over the years has maintained thousands of them in scores of colonies, keeping meticulous records, including births and deaths. In captivity they maintain a mortality rate of about 3% per year, independent of age, so no well-defined life expectancy exists. Instead, like radioactive atoms, they have a "half-life": a 50% chance of dying every 19 years. Many live beyond 30 years, unheard of for a mammal the size of a mouse.

Buffenstein now studies the biology of aging at Google spinoff Calico, a company dedicated to increasing human lifespan. Naked mole rats’ unusually low body temperature may inhibit cellular and molecular damage, and they have exceptional DNA repair and misfolded-protein disposal mechanisms. She says she hopes to identify a master switch controlling all these antiaging measures. "I would argue that most of our biggest discoveries in biology have been made using freak animals."

Q. When might a fake operation turn out to be a good thing?

A. When it reveals whether popular surgeries are truly effective, says Claudia Wallis is "Scientific American" magazine. In a recent British study, 200 patients with a blocked artery were randomly assigned a real stent operation or a fake one, where no stent was actually inserted. "The astonishing finding: there was no difference in how the patients felt six weeks after surgery. Both groups reported less pain, and both performed better on treadmill tests."

Before a new drug is approved, it must be shown to be more effective than a sugar pill. But the same is not true for a new operation, even though surgeries have a much greater placebo effect than drugs, meaning if patients believe they’ll get better, they just might. In a 2013 meta-analysis of 79 studies of migraine prevention, headache frequency was reduced 22% with sugar pills, 38% with acupuncture, and a "remarkable" 58% with sham surgery.

Understandably, sham surgery studies are rarely done, especially in the US, given the ethical issues involved. Yet these studies have helped reduce the incidence of useless operations. According to orthopedic specialist David Jevsevar of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, vertebroplasty-—injecting bone cement to mend a fractured vertebra—-experienced a 50% decline once it was shown to be no better than a placebo.

Q. If you were somehow able to choose the time of day you were going to be injured, what would be best? A. during the day B. at night C. it makes no difference.

A. Research points to (A) as the answer, since "wounds seem to heal in half the time if sustained during daytime hours rather than at night," reports "New Scientist" magazine. Nathaniel Hoyle and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, discovered that genes in fibroblast skin cells switch on and off during day-night cycles and that these cells help close wounds once skin has been cut. The team found that, on average, "daytime wounds healed in 17 days, while similar burns sustained at night took 21 days ("Science Translational Medicine").

Q. You might call this the story of a snail that wouldn’t stay dead. And speaking of snails, did you know that some of them can fly-—sort of. Explain please.

A. The story goes like this: In his travels to several Mediterranean countries in 1846, lawyer/explorer Charles Lamb collected various snails and sent them back to the British Museum, says Dan Lewis on his "Now I Know" web site. Among the specimens was a desert-dweller that died in transit. Nonetheless the museum decided to display it, gluing it to a piece of cardboard, "and there it stayed, like any good, dead snail would, for the next four years." But then someone noticed that the cardboard was becoming discolored, and the curious museum curator unstuck the snail and placed it in warm water. "After a few moments, a head popped out of the shell, and the snail, quite alive, began to move around" ("Mental Floss"). Apparently, because it was a desert species, the snail was able to go for very long periods without food or water. Provided with nourishment and housed in a jar with another snail, it lived another two years before dying for good.

As to the "flying" snails: No, snails don’t have wings but, according to the BBC, some snails may catch a ride with birds that eat the small animals and later deposit their droppings some distance away. Researchers discovered that "15% of the snails eaten survived digestion and were found alive in the birds’ droppings."

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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