Category Archives: Weird Science

Gum chewing leads to teens’ higher math scores?

Researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, recruited more than 100 eighth grade charter school students (all 14 years old) to participate in a clinical trial of how gum chewing impacts student math scores. The students were divided into two groups: gum chewing (52) and non-gum chewing (54) and were nearly equally represented between boys and girls.  

The researchers found that students who chewed gum in math class and while doing homework for 14 weeks showed a 3 percent increase in standardized math test scores compared to those who didn’t chew gum.

The students who chewed gum also had “significantly better” final math grades than those who didn’t chew gum, according to a press statement released by the Chicago office of public relations giant Edelman.

The study was sponsored by (drum roll, please) Wrigley Science Institute.     

And what kind of gum did the students chew? Wrigley sugar-free.

“Today’s competitive testing environment has parents and students looking for approaches to improve academic performance, particularly as standardized test scores have become a mandatory requirement for assessing academic achievement,” said Wrigley’s/Edelman.

The study’s sponsors suggest that gum-chewing helps “reduce stress, improve alertness and relieve anxiety.”

The study, led by Craig Johnston, PhD., of Baylor’s Children’s Nutrition Research Center, was presented as a “late breaking” poster today at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) annual meeting taking place in New Orleans, La.


Johnston C A, Tyler C, Stansberry SA, Palcic JL, Foreyt JP: Gum chewing affects academic performance in adolescents. ASN Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2009, “Late breaking abstract” New Orleans, LA, April 2009.

Chimps beat college students in memory test

In a recent study a Japanese researcher used short-term memory tests to compare the cognitive abilities between chimps and college students. The chimps won. (video) 

Tetsuro Matsuzawa, director of the Primate Research Institute at Japan’s Kyoto University, has been studying chimpanzees and chimpanzee communities for 30 years.

In his official bio at the university he compares the genomic difference between humans as comparable to the difference between horses and zebras and suggests humans are “98.77% chimpanzee.” He has long made the case that humans and chimpanzees are close genetic relatives and that they should co-exist peacefully.

To demonstrate their cognitive strengths, Matsuzawa taught three chimps, ages one through five, to recognize numbers one through nine. The test involved random flashing numbers on a touch screen computer. After a fraction of a second, the numbers were masked by white squares. The chimps were able to remember the location of up to eight of the numbers, and touch the spot where they had appeared in the correct order. But the college undergrads who volunteered for the study could only accurately recall the location of up to five numbers.

Matsuzawa opposes the use of primates in biomedical research and helped launch SAGA (Support for African/Asian Great Apes) in 1998. SAGA promotes conservation of chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan natural habitats and supports non-invasive scientific inquiry.


Artist expounds on Expanding Earth Theory on YouTube

Expanding earth theorists believe that creation of new oceanic crusts causes continental mass to spread apart, increasing the Earth’s size.


Neal Adams, an award-winning comic book artist (Superman, Batman) and expanding earth proponent, has created a YouTube channel featuring 11 of his videos that illustrate his version of the Growing Earth Theory.


He calls the nearly universally accepted tectonic plates theory ”a conspiracy of science.”

Lipofat probably not what alternative fuels advocates had in mind

Those innovative Californians.

Until recently, Beverly Hills liposuction doctor Craig Alan Bittner kept his and his girlfriends’ SUVs running on fat sucked out of his patients’ bodies.

Bittner’s activities came to light after patients charged that he was letting his girlfriend and an assistant perform surgeries without a medical license. He continued to practice until last week but has reportedly left the country for South America. Bittner claimed his patients signed off on using their excess fat to fuel his cars.

Individuals, researchers and companies have been converting various types of vegetable and animal fats into fuels for years with varying degrees of success. While Bittner’s method may seem like an ecoefficient  way to dispose of a mountain of liposuction waste, there’s a law on the books in California banning the use of human medical waste to power vehicles.

A representative of the National Biodiesel Board said that animal and vegetable fats contain triglycerides that can be converted into biodiesel fuels. A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, Jenna Higgins of NBD told Forbes magazine.

Bees voted most ‘irreplaceable species’ in the world

For more photos of bees and other insects visit wolfpix’s photostream.

Bees were declared the most invaluable species on the planet at an Earthwatch-sponsored debate held last week at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

On November 20, the European Parliament adopted a resolution (485-13 with five abstentions) calling on the European Commission to increase research into the cause of declining bee populations and to take immediate action to reverse the decline throughout the EU and the rest of the world. Sponsors of the resolution warn that the decline in bees poses a threat to food production. The resolution also calls for research to establish whether there is a link between the use of pesticides, including thiamethoxam, imidacloprid, clothianidin and fipronil, on bee mortality.

George McGavin of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History convinced audience members that bees deserved the designtion because they play a crucial role in world agriculture. He noted that one-quarter of a million species of flowering plants depend on bees, and that without bees, the world would lose flowering plants, and many fruit and vegetables.  

Among the major causes of bee declines are habitat loss and fragmentation, increasing use of insecticides, and diseases.

“Bee populations are in freefall,” said McGavin. “A world without bees would be totally catastrophic.”

The other speakers at the “Irreplaceable – The World’s Most Invaluable Species” debate were Ian Redmond OBE, chair of the Ape Alliance representing primates, Kate Jones of the Zoological Society of London, arguing for bats; Professor Lynne Boddy of Cardiff School of Biosciences, representing fungi; and Professor David Thomas of the School of Ocean Sciences, University of Bangor, who was a close second in the debate, with his argument for plankton.

This was the eighth annual debate sponsored by Earthwatch with support from the Mitsubishi Corporation. Previous themes included endangered ecosystems and invasive species. 

Earthwatch, an international environmental charity, currently funds 61 environmental research projects in 31 countries in the areas of sustainable resource management, climate change, oceans and sustainable cultures. 

For more information visit The debate will be broadcast in Europe Christmas Eve at 8 pm on Radio 4.

U.S. researchers roll out fluorescent cat 2.0

At first glance, it seems a bit incongruous that the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species was a key partner in the development of Mr. Green Genes, a cat that glows under fluorescent light. The cat’s fluorescent attributes — eyes, gums and tongue — were created through manipulation of its DNA with enhanced green fluorescent protein.

When introducing Green Genes on national television. Betsy Dresser, director of the Audubon research center, said the team wanted to learn if they could harmlessly introduce a gene into the cat’s genetic sequence to create a transgenic cat.  Not surprisingly, transgenics, particularly in animals, comes with concerns.  Opponents of such manipulation view it as an unethical alteration of the natural order of the universe. But many scientific researchers point to the life-giving advances attained through animal research, and include transgenic research as one of many tools for enhancing human life, and potentially salvaging animal species that might otherwise become extinct. 

Audubon and its research partner, Louisiana State University Health Science’s Center, say the fluorescent gene will serve as a marker allowing researchers to study the cat’s biology on a cellular level and be a first step — in what is sure to be many — toward development of therapy for combating genetic diseases. 

Mr. Green Genes may be the United States’ first fluorescent cat, but South Korean researchers at Gyeongsang National University in Seoul first introduced the world to glow-in-the-dark cats in December 2007.  Korean scientists not only manipulated the genes of cats to make them fluorescent, they also claimed to clone them.  


The Turkish Angora kitten on the left appears green under flourescent light while the one on the right, with genes modified with green flourescent protein, appears red. Image: Gyeongsang National University

But the Korean cats carried the lingering stigma of a previous hoax by a prominent Korean researcher who had been exposed for faking a breakthrough in human cloning in 2005. 

In the absence of Captain Kangaroo and the original Mr. Green Jeans, the Captain’s frequent animal-toting guest, Mr. Green Genes the cat was rolled out nationally on the Today Show Oct. 23.

Robotics engineers endow flowers with animal-like behavior


At first glance, the Cyberflora flower display looks like a modernistic art installation. But when visitors come closer, the flowers respond to their presence by moving their petals, glowing colored lights and orienting their stems and flowers in their direction.

The Cyberflora were created by robotics designer Cynthia Breazeal, assistant professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The plants contain sensors that detect the presence of visitors and make the flowers respond in a certain way.

Cyberflora garden at MIT. Image: Sam Ogden, Science Photo Library

One species, called ‘Chromafant Blossom,’ responds to a hand placed over its petals by gently swaying and glowing in bright colors. The ‘Cobra Orchid’ was designed to detect heat from human bodies and respond by arching its stem toward the visitor. 

Breazeal’s most famous creation is ‘Kismet,’ a social robot head that was programmed to behave like a human toddler. Breazeal has also developed other robots, from small insect-like creations to interactive lamps, computers and expressive humanoids. 

Breazeal founded the Personal Robots Group at MIT where she studies the way humans and robots relate to each other.    

A video of the Cyberflora on the group’s web site shows four robot flowers responding to humans.

Weird government science policies

Here are some examples that suggest government science policies are indeed, weird.  

European Missile Shield: Scores political and media hits but experts say it’s not feasible

Turner Brinton, writing for Inside Science News Service commented on the intense media coverage on the proposed $3.5 billion European Missile Shield which the Bush administration wants in place in the Czech Republic and Poland by the end of his term — and which bitterly angers Russia.

Recent media coverage of the United States’ plan to install a missile defense shield in Europe has largely focused on the political implications of the shield, paying little attention to the technical difficulties it faces, experts say.

The 10 midcourse interceptor missiles the United States plans on installing in Poland are an unproven defense against a long-range ballistic missile attack, said Frederick K. Lamb, who co-chaired a 2003 APS study on boost-phase intercept systems for missile defense. The existing ground-based midcourse defense system has been tested fewer than a dozen times, scoring six intercepts out of 11 trials since October 1999.

“Not a single test of this system has ever been carried out under realistic combat conditions,” said Lamb, adding, “This system has no demonstrated capability, period.”

The Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan organization that supports effective arms control policies says the tests have been “scripted scenarios performed under operationally unrealistic conditions.” 

An Ottawa Citizen article calls the European Missile Shield: An expensive solution to an imaginary threat.” 

“With American spending on missile defence set to dwarf most countries’ military budgets, the profits to be made are massive. But weapons makers can’t bank on them yet.

Legions of experts think the American plan — particularly the European "missile shield" — is a mad waste of money. The technology is dubious. The strategic value is even more questionable."

Offshore drilling 

Offshore drilling needs more science, less politics, according to an editorial in the Beaufort (South Carolina)

“Earlier this month, President Bush repealed an offshore drilling moratorium, the same one his father signed in 1990. Congressional bans on offshore drilling were enacted in 1981, and Bush is urging Congress to lift them as well. The move is unlikely.

More than risking any environmental catastrophes or destroying critical natural habitats, attempting to open additional offshore drilling fields is a great way not to come up with a long-term solution to our energy needs and, if you buy the argument that it is, then it’s a great way to win the votes of an uninformed, politically blinded or desperate American people. The argument for new offshore drilling, however, is based more on election-year posturing and political brush-offs than science and logic. Americans who believe that drilling off the Eastern and Western seaboards will get us back to $2 or even $3 a gallon gasoline are in for quite a rude awakening.

Offshore drilling won’t even make a dent.”


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board says Bush administration policies on NW fisheries are “reckless.”

“The Bush administration has decided to propose a drastic overhaul of U.S. fisheries environmental procedures.

Under the update, “Regional fisheries management councils would assume new environmental authority, even though the councils continue to have members with commercial fishing interests.”

HIV: The Worst Kept Non-Secret in Public Health 

In July, David Ernesto Munar, vice president at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and chairman of the board of the National Association of People with AIDS, wrote in POZ Magazine about the growing speculation that government officials were delaying a release of HIV prevalence data in a deliberate attempt to shield the Bush administration from criticism for its failure to prioritize HIV prevention:

“For more than a year, U.S. federal officials have attempted—sometimes in vain—to quell rumors that the number of new HIV infections in the United States is on the rise. The Washington Blade first broke the story in November 2007, reporting that the CDC was poised to raise the official estimate for the number of HIV infections believed to occur in the United States to a range as high as 58,000 to 63,000 per year—a greater than 50 percent increase over the current estimate of 40,000 annual HIV infections.”

And now in August it’s finally being reported that the HIV infection rate in the United States is much higher than estimated. The numbers were released by the CDC at the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City this month.

According to an Aug. 2 NPR report:

Kevin Fenton, who heads the CDC’s AIDS prevention efforts, says the new data give the clearest picture yet of the U.S. AIDS epidemic.”

"What the data actually show is that the 2006 estimate of roughly 56,000 new infections is substantially higher — it’s about 40 percent higher than what had previously been estimated," he says.The old estimate had been 40,000 new infections a year, 16,000 fewer.”

Newsflash! Climate change does affect public health 

After withholding its findings about the public health and environmental health risks from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the public and Congress for seven months, the EPA finally and quietly released its mandated report, Draft Technical Support Document: Endangerment Analysis for Greenhouse Gas Emissions under the Clean Air Act in July.  

The Supreme Court in Massachusetts vs. EPA ruled last year that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act but the EPA doesn’t appear anxious or willing to work in that capacity despite its own findings: 

“The challenges presented by population growth, an aging population, migration patterns, and urban and coastal development will be compounded by changes in temperature, precipitation, and extreme climate-related events. Climate change will affect where people choose to live, work, and play. Among likely climate changes are changes in the intensity and frequency of precipitation, more frequent heat waves, less frequent cold waves, more persistent and extreme drought conditions and associated water shortages, changes in minimum and maximum temperatures, potential increases in the intensity and frequency of extreme tropical storms, measurable sea-level rise and increases in the occurrence of coastal and riverine flooding. In response to these anticipated changes, the United States may develop and deploy strategies for mitigating greenhouse gases and for adapting to unavoidable individual and collective impacts of climate change.”  

The public comment period for the report remains open until September 4.

The Bush administration keeps resisting science

J. Thomas Butler, Camden, Del., provides a litany of examples in his LTTE in 

“The Bush administration announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will not issue regulations to control greenhouse gases. [described in an entry above.] ….This is consistent with the Bush-Cheney approach to science. They insist on pouring money into abstinence-only sexuality education, despite research that shows it does not delay sexual activity, reduce disease or the number of teen sex partners, or increase the use of condoms.

The Bush budget annually omits funding for the Safe and Drug-free Schools and Communities program, which requires that most funding go to programs shown to be effective.

Bush has blocked research on stem cells from human blastocysts, on ideological grounds. The amount of death and suffering because of eight years of lost research is immeasurable.”

Endangered species 

In his blog Thin Green Line, Cameron Scott asked, with a hint of hope: Weird Science On The Wane?

“A federal judge granted environmental groups led by the NRDC issued a temporary injunction against the Fish and Wildlife’s plan to delist gray wolves as an endangered species. The ruling basically called bulls—t on the science the Bush administration relied on to justify the move. A key passage of the ruling [PDF] reads:

(1) the Fish & Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily in delisting the wolf despite a lack of evidence of genetic exchange between subpopulations;

and (2) it acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it approved Wyoming’s 2007 plan despite the State’s failure to commit to managing for 15 breeding pairs….” 

This can be an on-going list. Share your favorite. 

The Anima Project puts clairvoyance and precognition under mathematical scrutiny

A seemingly simple web-based card matching game might end the debate of whether paranormal phenomena exists, according to Keith Comito, project administrator and creator of The Anima Project.

“I created the site because the subject of the paranormal has always interested me, but the scientific literature on the subject was always lacking,” Comito wrote in an email to Flesh and Stone. “It seems that skeptics and believers are content to argue with each other blindly for centuries instead of settling the issue with definitive and mathematically sound testing, hopefully I can take a step towards altering that.”

Combining his mathematics degrees (a BS and an MS in applied mathematics from Hofstra University, Long Island, NY) and his programming skills, Comito did the site’s coding and design himself over a three-year period. “I did most of the mathematics myself but the PhDs at Hofstra gave me a few pointers here and there,” he said. Comito is employed as a lead programmer for a marketing firm.

Since its launch in April, The Anima Project has drawn more than 500 users who have participated in more than 24,000 trials but Comito still needs a lot more data to conduct a worthy analysis. He encourages participation from the general public; at least a few hundred trials (or guesses as to which match among five cards is hidden) per user is necessary. Once enough data is gathered from the trials, Comito will use mathematical tools to compare the overall user results to what is expected by chance and thereby determine the veracity of paranormal phenomena.

The Anima Project is unique in that it "plies the scientific method to a field commonly derided as pseudo-science, establishing a protocol for legitimate and reproducible analysis of the occult", says Comito. He believes his project is the first to bring clairvoyance and precognition under the lens of “rigorous science.”  His statistical techniques include goodness-of-fit testing and runs analysis. Comito says he’s also eliminated the potential for human error and bias.

Both believers and skeptics are invited to participate in the project. Comito has contacted the James Randi Educational Foundation, headed by skeptic James Randi, about including The Anima Project in its One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.

Does Comito believe there will be some statistically significant result?

“My hunch is that there will be some significant results, but that sophisticated statistical techniques will be needed to tease them out.”

Comito hopes to have a full analysis ready in 2010.

Electronic tongue distinguishes between top shelf and rip-offs

When South African manufacturers wanted to stave off knockoffs of their high quality brandies, they turned to a team of Russian chemists with some experience in the area. St. Petersburg State University researchers have developed electronic tongues and noses on a case-by-case basis for several multinationals. (The concept of the electronic tongue isn’t new, researchers at UT-Austin had a working prototype in 1998.) 

The chemists trained the device (consisting of several sensors, hardware and software), to differentiate between different varieties of brandy and cognac – the “young unseasoned drink” and the seasoned one.

While both brandy and cognac are aged in oak casks after distillation, the seasoned brandy contains tannin, which fundamentally changes the drink’s chemical composition, according to the chemists.  The device was also taught to distinguish between brandies produced in a laboratory and those made in a typical industrial process. Concerning the latter test, the researchers said the device made accurate hits 3 out of 4 times. “Coopers also make mistakes,” the researchers stated unapologetically. 

“It is not the first time that we worked with brandy,” Andrey Legin, the chemist in charge of the project at St. Petersburg State University, said in a statement. “Prior to the South African Republic we dealt with, for example, the French from the famous town of Cognac (Martell, Remy Martin), so we worked with cognacs…In general, we have worked a lot with wines. Besides France and the South African Republic, we dealt with Italy, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia.” 

The team has published more than 50 papers relating to electronic noses and tongues. Other applications for the electronic tongue as outlined on the teams’ website: 

  • Analysis of many types of food and beverages and food additives
  • Recognition, identification, classification and quality control
  • Determination of content of inorganic and organic nutrients
  • Correlation between electronic tongue and human sensory perception in food flavor evaluation
  • Basic tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami)
  • Prediction of human taste panel scores

Clients include Proctor and Gamble for “recognition and evaluation of coffee,” Pepsico for “taste evaluation of soft drinks,” and GlaxoSmithKline for “flavour evaluation, masking effect assessment of new chemical entities and drugs.”  

(Go here for a look at the electronic tongue, or ET for short.)