Thursday, 20th September 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. We can generally tell whether a speaker is male or female by voice alone-–on a phone call, for example. Pitch (higher in women) and resonance (deeper in men) are important indicators, stemming primarily from vocal anatomy differences. But they’re not the whole story. What are some other, more subtle cues?

A. Beyond pitch and resonance is prosody (the fluctuations of pitch) and the emphasis and cadence of speech. The pitch of a woman’s voice changes continuously, in sing-song fashion, covering a frequency range about twice that of men, says speech-language pathologist Christie Block on the New York Speech and Voice Lab website. In comparison, men’s voices are monotone and louder.

And it’s not only the sound of speech which differs between men and women but also its content. Women are typically more polite and empathetic, less likely to interrupt, and more likely to disclose personal information and feelings. Women also ask more tag questions ("It’s nice out, isn’t it?"), which soften a declarative sentence. Research has established that the gender of a person using Twitter can be established with about 75% accuracy based solely on the content of a collection of their tweets.

Most of us are not consciously aware of these nuances. But for many transgender adults, mastering a new style of speaking is as important as any physical transformation.

Q. How might it be true that "wax in your lugholes hides your filthy secrets," as "New Scientist" magazine recently wrote?

A. Besides waxy compounds that protect the ear canal and kill off bacteria, as well as bodily cast-offs, cerumen (aka earwax) contains a unique chemical signature that could be used to extract plain old DNA, says the magazine’s Christie Wilcox. Engy Shokry and her Brazilian colleagues have used earwax "to detect drug and tobacco use and diagnose both types of diabetes."

Earwax offers several advantages: Collection is more straightforward and less invasive than blood or urine samples and requires little processing to be analyzed. Also, because earwax builds up over time, tests on earwax can detect drugs up to three months after they’re taken, so they can be used for both short- and long-term monitoring.

Yet currently, using earwax as a diagnostic tool remains problematic since it lacks the centuries of data that exist for blood and urine samples. Says Sweden’s Craig Wheelock, "Normalizing it so that earwax is earwax is earwax will be a challenge."

Concludes Wilcox, "For now, any confidential information will stay archived in your ear where nobody can get at it."

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."

(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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