Research that matters

New Scientist reports on a year-long study to find the world’s funniest joke. The Internet-based project was coordinated by psychologist Richard Wiseman and colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, U.K. and involved more than 2 million votes on 40,000 submissions. The goal was to identify universal aspects to humor, which could one day allow computers to devise truly funny jokes. Before we get to the winner, an interesting aside is that the team found in the process the world’s funniest animal: the duck. “If you’re going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck,” Wiseman says. Now to the ultimate rib-tickler, which folks from Asia to Africa, the States to Siberia all seemed to enjoy. A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice, says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?” Thank you folks, I’ll be here all week.

Teeth Grinder’s Lament ? ‘E’ May Wound Brain

Results of an animal study published in the journal Science raise the possibility that the use of the rave fave drug Ecstasy ? methylene-dioxymethamphetamine ? can damage brain cells. The same cells, in fact, that are destroyed by Parkinson?s disease.
“We don’t know if human beings develop the same effects we describe in monkeys and in baboons,” Dr. George Ricaurte, a Johns Hopkins neurologist, told Reuters. “The broader issue is, are there hundreds of cases of unexplained parkinsonism in MDMA users? We don’t know because we haven’t looked.”
The Reuters article also contains the following quotation, reproduced below only marginally out of context: “[A]s you might imagine, it is not easy to get a baboon to take an oral dose of a drug.”

Bioterrorism: Inexpensive, and built to stay that way

The threat of bioterrorism is growing as more countries try to develop biological weapons, a CIA analyst told members of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Council on Public Health Preparedness. “Biological warfare is an attractive option . . . because it’s relatively inexpensive to develop,” said Kimberly Stergulz, an analyst at the CIA’s Weapons, Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center. A result, she said, is that countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria, and a growing number of non-state groups, are pursuing the capability. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the CIA employee told the council that developing a biological weapons program could cost about $10 million, compared with $100 million to develop chemical weapon capability or $2 billion for nuclear capability. Stergulz presented the information at the first meeting of the council, a group of 21 health specialists and scientists who will advise the federal government on different aspects of potential public health emergencies.

Brain tumors for early adopters

Something to think about tonight, in bed, alone. A Swedish study has found that users of early mobile phones face an 80 percent greater chance of developing brain tumors than those who did not use them. Granted, the phones in question ran on something called the Analog Nordic Mobile Telephone standard, popular in northern Europe, Russia and the Baltics. But the system is still in place in 40 countries. So let’s hope on that trip to Norway last summer you didn’t borrow your pal’s handset for a quick call to mom. By the way, is that your head pounding, or mine?

NASA, Northwest team on mind-reading tech

This is something that’s been talked about for years, though before Sept. 11 it was always in the context of a bank or high-security government facility, not Northwest Airlines. The upshot of this Washington Times article is that NASA and Northwest are teaming to see if mind-reading technology is feasible, and if so, can it be used to mass-screen airline passengers. Opinion is mixed, and no one in this article addresses the pharmaceutical countermeasures that could potentially be employed to calm a guilt- or panic-ridden brain and heart. Still, plenty creepy.

Space is the place … for Bass

Despite financial setbacks that threatened to keep boyish pop star Lance Bass from his life-long dream of traveling to outer space, Bass continues to train to join a Russian crew heading to the International Space Station in October. The cost of sending Bass into space is said to be about $20 million, and the mission, which Bass has been training for since July, became jeopardized when payments were not made on time. If he makes it there, the 23-year-old Bass would be the youngest person to travel to outer space.

U.S. got its e-bomb on

New Scientist says that a military attack on Iraq could see the first use of an e-bomb designed to destroy electronics but not harm people. U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq has moved much of its military infrastructure underground or beneath civilian buildings like hospitals. As such, the magazine says, the role of non-lethal and precision weapons would be a critical factor in any conflict. The U.S. reportedly has in its arsenal High Power Microwave (HPM) devices that produce an electromagnetic field so strong they can destroy electronic equipment in hardened command, control, communications and computer targets. One mechanism for achieving this sounds like something out of “Back to the Future”: An explosive pumped flux generator. That device is essentially a bomb which with a combination of explosives and electronics, sends out an electromagnetic wave of up to tens of millions of Amps. By comparison, a typical lightning strike — which can wreak plenty of damage on its own — carries just 30,000 Amps.

Avoid skeeter bites, says CDC

In response to outbreaks of West Nile virus throughout the eastern U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out that the best way to avoid infection is to avoid mosquito bites. West Nile virus is spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, and in addition to humans can infect horses, many species of birds, and some other animals. Fortunately, most people who become infected with West Nile virus will have either no symptoms or mild ones. But on rare occasions, infection can result in West Nile encephalitis, a severe and sometimes fatal inflammation of the brain. (The risk of severe infection is higher for persons 50 years of age and older.) Officials in Washington D.C. have been getting the word out about protective measures people can take after West Nile virus infected a 55-year-old resident, who is now hospitalized with encephalitis. As of Thursday, state health departments around the U.S. have released information on 113 cases of human illness related to West Nile virus this year, including 5 deaths.

Looks like some kinda smart rodent

A single gene change that boosts the amount of a certain protein in early brain cells causes mice to develop abnormally large brains, Reuters Health reports. Normal mice have smooth, flat brains. But tinker with the gene in question and suddenly the little furballs develop brains so big they fold in on themselves, forming the wrinkles, ridges and crevices found also in the human brain. Study author Dr. Anjen Chenn of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University in Boston said the finding might help researchers understand how humans came to develop brains so much bigger than those of other mammals. Whether or not more size means more smarts is uncertain, Chenn said. “It is quite an interesting question … and that’s something we want to look at in the future.”

More confusion in cell phone, tumor flap

Science Blog reported earlier this week on a study suggesting a connection between use of an early cell phone standard and brain tumors. A separate study announced today says that no link has been found between radio emissions from mobile phones and the growth of tumors in mice. The Australian study contradicts yet another, earlier investigation that did find a connection. No word on what sort of calling plan the recent mice were allowed in the three year experiment.