By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD
Q. Picture the scene, as described by “Discover” magazine: 18-time world champion Go player Lee Sedol was locked into fierce competition when his opponent made a move “so unorthodox, Sedol left the room to regain his composure.” Can you identify this formidable opponent?
A. Go, an ancient Chinese board game, is “elegantly simple yet wickedly difficult to master because of the near-infinite number of legal moves on the board’s 19-by-19 grid,” explains the magazine’s Carl Engelking. It was 2016, and Sedol’s opponent was AlphaGo, a program from Google’s AI research company that paired a traditional Monte Carlo tree search with two kinds of neural networks. Using these, AlphaGo analyzed “30 million moves made by human experts and then discovered new strategies by playing itself thousands of times.”
The result? AlphaGo executed Move 37, “a move a professional player would never make,” and went on to defeat Sedol 4-1 in the historic showdown in South Korea.
Q. The research video shows a shark stalking and then attacking an apparently defenseless hagfish. The shark bites the middle of the eel-like creature’s body, completely flattening it, but immediately relents, spitting out its victim and scurrying away. The hagfish swims away seemingly unfazed and unharmed. How can this be?
A. “Hagfish aren’t a typical fish - they have cartilage instead of bones and a primitive skeletal rod… instead of a backbone,” writes Elizabeth Pennisi on the website sciencemag.org. When attacked, they exude copious amounts of slime so unappealing to predators like the shark that they promptly spit the hagfish out.
But how could the hagfish come through the ordeal unscathed? When marine biologist Douglas Fudge carefully reviewed the video, he discovered that the hagfish’s skin is only loosely connected to its muscles and organs. Lab experiments using a guillotine-like machine topped with a shark’s tooth further revealed that a hagfish’s skin just folds around the tooth, giving the internal organs ample room to move out of harm’s way. The loose skin gives the hagfish the ability to slip through narrow openings only half their body width and to tie themselves into knots around rotting carcasses to strip off the flesh, making up for their lack of traditional jaws.
Q. When London technologist Thomas Thwaites wanted a break from being human, what did he do?
A. First, he needed to design the proper prosthetic legs and to practice the suitable physical movements, and then he was ready to adopt the posture of a goat in the Swiss Alps, reports “Science” magazine. This is how he lived for a few days (as the goats came to accept him as one of their own), “chewing grass and just trying to fit in with the herd. It’s crucial to have friends in the goats’ intensely hierarchical world.” Luckily for Thwaites, he found a goat “buddy.”
His hard work earned him Harvard University’s Ig Nobel Prize in biology, presented in the 26th year of the contest celebrating scientific studies that “make you laugh, and then think.” Sharing the prize was Oxford, U.K.-based ethicist and veterinarian Charles Foster, who lived as a badger for days at a time to better understand the nonhuman “worldview.” As a prize, each Ig Nobel winner received a $10 trillion Zimbabwean banknote “with little value as a result of hyperinflation.”
Q. In the basements of natural history museums, you are apt to find containers infested with hundreds of flesh-eating beetles munching away. And these are invited guests! What gives?
A. Many natural history museums maintain large collections of animal skeletons intended for scientific research. Specimens are prepared by removing every trace of flesh, and this is neither easy nor pleasant. Boiling, long-term burial in elephant dung and compost, or soaking in a vat of water and maggots are some of the techniques used. But they tend to damage the bones.
A faster and gentler de-fleshing approach is to let Dermestid beetles (derma = skin, este = to consume) feast on the carcass. The beetles - and their voracious larvae - are housed in temperature-regulated containers and provided a steady stream of specimens to “clean.” Ward C. Russell of the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, a pioneer of the use of “museum bugs” (as they are affectionately known), cleaned some 80,000 specimens this way during his 40-year career. That’s more than five specimens a day! Indeed, a vigorous beetle colony can clean a mouse in an hour.
Q. Considering health issues, what can happen when sibling rivalry really goes awry?
A. Just ask identical twins Marie and Katy Campbell, who as kids competed with each other to see who could become thinner, which alas they pushed to such an extreme that both of them developed anorexia nervosa, say David Myers and Nathan DeWall in “Exploring Psychology.” Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where people fear being fat. It typically begins as a weight loss diet, usually in adolescents and nine out of ten times with females, who may diet obsessively or at times exercise excessively. They maintain a “starvation diet” despite already being significantly underweight.
Those suffering from eating disorders often have “low self-esteem, set perfectionist standards, fret about falling short of expectations, and are intensely concerned with how others perceive them.” (Some of these same factors may also predict teen boys’ pursuit of unrealistic muscularity.)
As Myers and Dewall describe it, “A distorted body image underlies anorexia.” As twin Maria now puts it, “It’s like a ball and chain around my ankle that I can’t throw off.”