The Rundown
9:44 pm
Sun April 6, 2014

Health, Science, Environment Rundown: Answering Questions We've Long Pondered

A confession: One of the things about science that I enjoy (and I’m not a scientist by training) is that it answers some really fun questions.

Stripes are always in fashion for zebras
Credit (Flickr/Corey Leopold)

This week, St. Louis Public Radio came across not one, not two, but THREE articles that tackled some of science's most perplexing and fun conundrums.

First, we now know how the zebra got its stripes.  Well, maybe we don’t know HOW, but this very engaging article in The Guardian explains the research behind why they have stripes.  The article first gives us a historic overview of earlier theories.

Charles Darwin, of course, looked for a solution that explains some kind of natural selection. Alfred Russel Wallace thought it was camouflage. But Tim Caro, from the University of California, Davis, has arrived at the latest -- and seemingly most plausible -- conclusion. Flies.

Biting flies, to be specific. Apparently, biting flies don’t like stripes.  In the article Caro is quoted as saying: 

“Again and again, there was greater striping on areas of the body in those parts of the world where there was more annoyance from biting flies. Where there are tsetse flies, for instance, the equids tend to come in stripes. Where there aren't, they don't.”

The scientists aren’t totally finished with their research to bear out their theory, but perhaps the takeaway for the rest of us is that rather than spraying on a can of repellent we should be wearing striped shirts.

Would zebras find that funny?

The next fun science story is about "the funny," as my comedian friends say. Or "humor," as I say.

People have been cracking wise for millennia. And recent research has even indicated that you can tickle a rat to the point of laughter, which might make them resilient to depression and anxiety. (Who knew there were so many depressed rats?) The New Yorker wrote about the latest scientific attempts to understand what makes things funny.

There are all kinds of scientific theories and they have great names to match: incongruity theory; superiority theory (Plato and Aristotle); the relief theory (Freud); the script-based semantic theory of humor; the general theory of verbal humor; the benign violation theory -- the list goes on. 

It's a fun article to read not only because of the amount of intellectual capital devoted to the subject, but also because it includes plenty of examples of humor to support the theories.

Art caught helping science. 

The third fun science story is more cool than silly. As our own Veronique LaCapra said, The New York Times article is about the intersection of art and science.

The article is about a Greek atmospheric physicist who looked at hundreds of high-quality digital photographs of paintings of sunsets. The paintings are from the years 1500 to 2000, a period that included more than 50 large volcanic eruptions around the globe. After a volcanic eruption, there is more debris in the atmosphere. The more debris, or pollution, in the atmosphere, the redder the sunset. The redder the sunset, the more artists would depict the sunsets as having more red in them.

The article doesn’t talk about any conclusions the scientist makes, but it does explain why this experiment is interesting:  "Using art to advance science is an emerging interdisciplinary field, he said. The first meteorological measurements were not made until the 1850s, so paintings could be an important source of information."

On a more serious note.

Two other articles crossed my desk this week that aren’t so fun, but I feel are worth sharing.

The first is another New York Times article about a little-mentioned change in Medicare laws that will help people with long-term, chronic illness get the long-term care they need.

Until recently, patients with chronic diseases like Parkinson's, couldn’t rely on Medicare to pay for the physical therapy needed to manage their care. Medicare used to stop payments for physical therapy and other long-term care, if patients failed to demonstrate any improvement.

According to the article, that changed in January when the agency’s policy changed to “erase any notion that improvement is necessary to receive coverage for skilled care.”  That’s a big deal for anyone who has multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer’s, where improvement isn’t going to happen, but with proper help, maintenance is possible.

Of course, the rule change came about because of a class-action law suit. But I think most people coping with these issues won’t complain about that.

From good medicine to bad drugs.

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion in the region about the heroin epidemic. A former St. Clair County judge was recently charged with two years in federal prison for heroin possession and Madison County has launched a multi-pronged task force to try to address the issue.

The widespread of abuse of heroine was brought to the nation’s attention when actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose in February.

Last week, The Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick enacted a series of executive orders to reverse the trend in his state.

Patrick declared a public health emergency in the state.  He also directed all the state’s police, firefighters and other emergency workers to have Narcon on hand at all times.

Narcon is the brand name of a drug that can quickly reverse heroin overdoses. Not only will first responders be trained in how to administer Narcon, but pharmacies have a standing order to allow the drug to be purchased by individuals.  The action also mandates physicians and pharmacies to monitor prescriptions of narcotic painkiller and other drugs linked to abuse.

It’s an interesting choice for a politician to make. Rather than equipping task-forces and studying the issue ad nauseum (which I’m sure is also happening in Massachusetts), the governor took one sweeping action to at least prevent overdose deaths from getting any worse than they have been.

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