Thursday, 23rd November 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. When it comes to food sizing, when might more be less than it seems?

A. "It’s harder to evaluate increases in the size of food servings than to judge decreases," reports University of California Berkeley "Wellness Letter." According to several studies in the "Journal of Experimental Psychology," subjects who took part in a downsizing test were fairly accurate but when supersizing was involved, they "greatly underestimated" the numbers. Even professional chefs and servers who should have had a sense of food quantities were equally error prone.

Researchers hypothesize that "it’s easier to gauge a decrease in portion sizes because there is a ‘natural lower bound’" of zero, below which nothing goes, whereas when portions increase, there’s no upper bound to help determine how big something has become. Overall, "this may be why people are likely to notice when their favorite brands reduce the size of their packages, while being less aware when quantities increase." Yet it’s not just a matter of feeling cheated or preferring to avoid losses but, the research suggests, it’s also a matter of perception.

So not perceiving the supersizing of food and beverages, eaters may unwittingly consume more than they intended.

Q. Hoarding disorder - a reality TV staple - is estimated to afflict from 2-6 percent of US adults, with newspapers, magazines, plastic bags, photographs, household appliances, food and clothing being the most common items stashed. Though many of us have some such tendencies, clinically diagnosable hoarders are extreme. Thanks to recent research, including fMRI brain scans, psychologists have uncovered characteristic personality traits. What traits?

A. Hoarders tend to have perfectionist qualities. "They might intend to read all their magazines from cover to cover before getting rid of them, for example, or they might be hampered by their desire to dispose of objects in the best way possible," says reporter Elizabeth Landau in "New Scientist" magazine. They might "see beauty where others see mundaneness," or might "think of 10 different things to do with an old soda can," justifying keeping it. Or they may simply see their things as mementos, "even imbuing them with person-like qualities."

Psychologist David Tolin observes, "[Hoarders] seem like very intelligent, very creative people. But a strength can eventually become a weakness."

Q. Bats use sonar (echolocation) to navigate in the dark, avoiding obstacles and catching prey. Yet they are prone to crash into windows. Why?

A. Human alterations to the environment sometimes create "sensory traps" for animals, such as when a light bulb lures insects at night. Windows, it turns out, are a sensory trap for bats. "We found that bats can mistake smooth, vertical surfaces as clear flight paths, repeatedly colliding with them, likely as a result of their acoustic mirror properties," report Stefan Greif et al. in "Science" magazine.

Think of navigating a dark field with a flashlight. If you encounter a mirror-like wall, the flashlight beam will reflect off it, and unless the beam happens to be aimed so that it reflects right back to your eyes, you won’t see anything. Similarly, a bat approaching an acoustically flat surface at an angle receives no return echo, so it thinks it is flying into empty space - crash!

The prevalence of such incidents is not known. Yet, Greif says, "only if we identify and evaluate the real extent of collisions with acoustic mirrors can we avoid or mitigate potential detrimental effects on bat populations."

Q. Fish lovers, can you name the exceptional fish that set a record in 2013 at the Tsukiji’s New Year’s auctions, selling for US $1.76 million for a 222-kg fish, nearly $8,000/kg!

A. A bluefin tuna (in Japanese, "maguro" or "hon maguro," true tuna), the rarest kind, says Vaclav Smil in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. The familiar canned white tuna meat comes from the small and more abundant albacore, red meat from the skipjack, another small tuna. The majestic bluefin tuna, on the other hand, can grow to 3 meters (10 feet) and weigh more than 600 kg (1300 lbs.). It’s an outstanding swimmer, with near-perfect hydrodynamics and efficient propulsion; "the largest ones top 70 kilometers per hour, or around 40 knots - fast for a powerboat and faster than any known submarine."

The bluefin is Japan’s first choice for sushi and sashimi, and "Japan consumes about 80% of the worldwide bluefin catch, far more than its own allotted quota." To fill the gap, Japan now imports either fresh bluefin as air cargo, or else gilled, gutted and frozen solid.

Unfortunately, as the sushi craze has gained global status, demand for bluefin far exceeds supply and the fish has become endangered stock. As the magazine title aptly puts it, "Bluefin tuna: Fast, but maybe not fast enough."

Q. NASA is looking for a new planetary protection officer (PPO). Are you ready to defend Earth from alien attacks? You might want to read the job description first.

A. As given in the job posting, "’Planetary protection is concerned with the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration…’ In plain English, it’s about microbes," says Leah Crane in "New Scientist" magazine. NASA strives to avoid microbial contamination from Earth, since it might lead to confusion between relocated bacteria and extraterrestrial life, or even worse, it might result in Earth microorganisms overrunning the locals, "destroying our chance of making one of the greatest discoveries in history." Of course, protection must also be taken to prevent Earth from being contaminated by alien microbes.

But since no spacecraft is ever perfectly clean, the PPO must determine the number of microbes that are an acceptable risk, generally depending on where the mission is headed: An orbiter can have a large number of microbes since they’ll probably all die before it crash lands. But no rovers are allowed in "special regions," generally areas with water, "because they are the areas where extraterrestrial microbes are most likely to live and thus the spots most dangerous to contaminate."

In the future, tough decisions loom about whether to leave the most interesting areas in space alone, or to push ahead, probably contaminating them. For the new PPO, it will mean helping decide how much exploration to allow.

Q. Can you make a grammatically correct eight-word English sentence using only the word "buffalo"?

A. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Got it? Maybe this will help: Bison from Buffalo, whom other bison from Buffalo bully, themselves bully bison from Buffalo. Three distinct meanings of "buffalo" are used here: the proper noun "Buffalo" for the city of Buffalo, New York; the noun "buffalo" for "bison"; and the verb "buffalo" meaning "to bully." The creation of sentences from just the word "buffalo" has been known since at least the 1960s. Dizzying to contemplate is the claim that a "buffalo" sentence of any length is grammatically correct, assuming appropriate capitalization.

Other words with multiple meanings, such as "police," can also give rise to such bizarre multiple-same-word sentences.

Q. When we think of domesticated animals, we generally think of mammals, such as dogs and cats. But can one domesticate insects?

A. A species is domesticated when it has been selectively bred-–usually for hundreds of generations-–to live closely with humans. Honeybees and silkmoths are domesticated insects and have been for a very long time. Based on archeological evidence from ancient Egypt, the transition from collecting honey from wild bees to beekeeping happened at least 4500 years ago.

And genetic evidence suggests that the domestication of silk moths began as early as 7500 years ago in China. "People bred the [caterpillars] to produce more silk and to tolerate human handling and extreme crowding," says Erika Engelhaupt in "Science News." "For more than 2000 years, the Chinese kept their silk-making methods top secret, and smuggling silkworms out of the country was punishable by death." Silkmoths have now been domesticated to the point that they cannot survive without humans: they are flightless, require help mating, and the feeding of their caterpillars must be supervised.

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