News for Nerds - May 18, 2012

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 5/18/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - May 18, 2012

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we go shopping for dinosaur bones, we get to the bottom of why sugar is making us stupid, and we find a creative way to keep your cell phone battery at full strength. But first: if I see you do it, then I probably will, too.

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"We can put a man on the moon, but we do not understand what the function of yawning is."

So says the University of Maryland's Gary Hack. He's co-authored a new study that may finally have gotten to the bottom of the yawning mystery. Popular theories, such as fatigue and lack of oxygen, have not held up to scientific scrutiny. But Hack and his team may be on to something at last.

The answer, it seems, has to do with our brains and our sinuses. The theory goes like this: yawning causes the walls of the maxillary sinus to expand and contract like a bellows, pumping air into the brain, thus lowering its temperature. Hack notes that the brain is not unlike a computer in the sense that it is very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and must stay cool to work efficiently.

As with many of the stories I cover here in News for Nerds, this discovery could have broader practical implications beyond just the "ain't-it-cool" factor. In this case, it is hoped that understanding the cause of yawning will lead to breakthroughs for sufferers of migraine headaches, epilepsy and even insomnia.

Now if only someone could tell me why yawning is always so contagious. I suppose that's a mystery for another day.

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If you're frustrated by how quickly your cell phone battery wears down, fear not: someday soon, your phone -- and all sorts of other electronic devices -- could be powered by viruses.

A team from the University of California Berkeley has successfully harnessed a tiny virus called M13 bacteriaphage and used it to power a small liquid crystal display. (M13 is harmless in humans but is devastating to bacteria.)

How did they do it? Just exactly the same way you would have -- they genetically tweaked the viruses in order to increase the charge differential between the positive and negative ends of the proteins, then they stacked them 20 layers high as a means of enhancing the piezoelectric effect, leading to a higher electrical output.

It's, like, so obvious.

Anyway, all of this allowed them to create enough electrical energy to flash the number '1' on an LCD display. And the belief is that with large-scale production and a little creativity, this type of 'personal power generator' could be used to power hearing aids, pacemakers, and yes, even your cell phone.

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When it comes to the space race, the United States has always had a pretty healthy rivalry with Russia. In many ways we owe President Kennedy's 1962 declaration of lunar ambition to the early success of Russia's own space program.

Well, you can score another point for the Russians. This week, the Planet Earth website unveiled the highest-resolution photo ever taken of Earth -- and it comes courtesy of Elektro-L No. 1, a Russian weather satellite which flies in a geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above the Earth's equator.

At 121-megapixels, it's a pretty stunning photo. That's because Elektro-L No. 1 scans the Earth in visible and infrared wavelengths. By combining the different wavelengths, the lush features dramatic colors of our planet really pop.

And, as a bonus, we also get this video, which certainly reinforces the beauty and wonder of our planet:

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This just in: Sugar is making us stupid.

That's right. In addition to making us fat and sick, sugar now has been shown to hamper memory and slow brain activity. One recent study found that lab rats fed a steady sugar-heavy diet couldn't even properly recall the proper route when navigating a maze. And you know that's bad, because navigating a maze is a lab rat's bread and butter.

A huge part of the problem stems from high fructose corn syrup, which is six times sweeter than cane sugar and is also conveniently much less expensive. As such, it is a common additive in soft drinks and other sweet treats. Trouble is, says professor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla from the University of California, "Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information."

Gomez-Pinilla and his colleagues are quick to point out that naturally-occurring sugars, like those found in fruits, are not the issue. Those sugars are much more organic and also contain important antioxidants.

Speaking of which, one silver lining to emerge from this research is that eating foods that are naturally high in antioxidants -- things like nuts and fresh fish -- can counteract some (but not all) of the damage that high fructose corn syrup is doing. So if you're going to chug a pixie stick and chase it with a root beer, at least mix in some salmon and walnuts, too.

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And finally, if you've got a little extra spending cash burning a hole in your pocket, you might consider getting involved in this Sunday's Heritage auction in Manhattan. The prize item up for bid: a nearly-complete Tyrannosaurus bataar, fully prepared and mounted.

Tyrannosaurus bataar is a close Asian relative of Tyrannosaurus rex, and nearly indistinguishable from its more famous cousin to the naked, untrained eye. This particular specimen checks in at 8 feet tall and 24 feet long. It's in good shape, too -- experts estimate that 80 percent of the claws and 75 percent of the teeth are real. (The rest have been replaced by casts.)

It's extremely rare for a specimen like this to be available on the open market. That's because, in addition to being so rare and valuable, getting dinosaur remains mounted like this takes a huge amount of time and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The opening bid is $850,000, although it is expected to fetch upwards of $1.4 million when all is said and done. The last comparable tyrannosaur to go up for auction, in 1997, sold for a whopping $8.36 million and now lives at Chicago's Field Museum.

Ah, the heady days of 1997, when actual dinosaur remains dating back millions of years could fetch nearly 10 percent of what people pay for a Renoir.

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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