Moles : Why do we have them? – A theory

January 5th, 2017

Patient: “Doctor, why do we get moles in the first place?”

Physician: “No one has the foggiest notion why God gave us moles on our skin … and that’s the honest truth.”

common-moleThere are theories however – the most prominent being that the extra melanin produced in the moles’ melanocytes might help to protect against UV radiation. Not everyone agrees though – take for example Professor Craig Burkhart and colleague Professor Craig Burkhart who explain their ‘Mole Theory’ in the International Journal of Dermatology, 44, 340–342. They point out that in humans, extra deposits of melanin are often found in bodily areas where the sun very rarely (if ever) shines. Moreover, many nocturnal animals, “are highly melanized on their exterior surface.” In light of this the team offer another hypothesis :

“ […] melanocytes are not simply pigment-producing cells, but produce substances with a range of biological functions, including structural strengthening by cross-linking proteins, antimicrobial defense, photon shielding, and chemoprotection. Thus, God gave us melanocytic and moles to provide several physiologically significant functions, including the provision of communicatory links with several different systems, e.g. the skin, central nervous system, and immune/ inflammatory responses.”

See: ‘The mole theory: primary function of melanocytes and melanin may be antimicrobial defense and immunomodulation (not solar protection)’

Woodpeckers don’t get headaches. They give them.

January 4th, 2017

This Woodpecker Will Drill Into Your Skull And Eat Your Brains—If You’re a Baby Dove,” explains an article by Jason Bittel in Smithsonian magazine. It says:

In 2015, Harold Greeney [pictured here, horizontal] trained his camera on a mourning dove nest stitched into the crook of a cactus. As an ornithologist, Greeney studies the love lives of birds…

What happens next may upset you (and in fact, if you’re sensitive to bird-on-bird violence, you may want to stop reading here). Before the chicks even realize there’s an enemy at the gates, the woodpecker cocks its head back and starts to peck … their skulls. The Gila’s head moves like a pneumatic hammer, up and down, up and down, drilling into flesh and bone with the force of 1,000 G’s. Soon both chicks’ skulls have been opened up like coconuts. At this point, the woodpecker begins extracting brain and blood with its long, sticky tongue….

Greeney has a possible explanation as to what’s happening—but it probably won’t make you feel any better. When Gila woodpeckers get thirsty, he speculates, they crack open a couple of nestling heads like you or I might open a six-pack. “My guess is that these woodpeckers, like most birds in the Sonoran Desert, are fluid or water stressed,” he says. “This woodpecker appears to me to be clearly targeting the heads of the nestlings, and thus purposefully opening them to drink fluid—and this may be something that happens more often than is documented….

Here’s part of that video:

Other scientists have explored how woodpeckers can peck so stridently without (apparently, anyway) themselves getting headaches. The 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for biology was awarded to Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches. Their work is documented in these papers:

  • Cure for a Headache,” Ivan R Schwab, British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 86, 2002, p. 843.
  • Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, The Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7957, February28, 1976, pp. 454-5.
  • Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, The Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7973, June 19,1976, pp. 1347-8.

Umbrella Progress on a Crowded Sidewalk (podcast #96)

January 4th, 2017

What happens when lots of people with umbrellas walk in opposite directions on a crowded sidewalk? A research study explores that very question, and we explore that study, in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

SUBSCRIBE on, iTunes, or Spotify to get a new episode every week, free.

This week, Marc Abrahams discusses a published lotsa-people-walking-with-umbrellas study. Melissa Franklin, a Harvard physics professor who designed parts of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN — lends her voice, and her scientific expertise, and her opinions —with dramatic readings from a research study you may have overlooked.

For more info about what we discuss this week, go explore:


The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, on the CBS web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

How to prepare a moth to drive a car

January 3rd, 2017

Step-by-step, practical instructions for how to prepare a moth to drive a tiny automobile. That’s what this video shows, and the accompanying paper describes:

It’s all published formally as: “Insect-controlled Robot: A Mobile Robot Platform to Evaluate the Odortracking Capability of an Insect,” Noriyasu Ando, Shuhei Emoto, and Ryohei Kanzaki, Journal of Visualized Experiments, no. 118, December 2016, e54802. The authors are at the University of Tokyo. They explain:

“we have developed an insect-controlled robot in which a male adult silkmoth (Bombyx mori) drives a robot car in response to odor stimuli; this can be regarded as a prototype of a future insect-mimetic robot. In the cockpit of the robot, a tethered silkmoth walked on an air-supported ball and an optical sensor measured the ball rotations. These rotations were translated into the movement of the two-wheeled robot. The advantage of this “hybrid” approach is that experimenters can manipulate any parameter of the robot, which enables the evaluation of the odor-tracking capability of insects and provides useful suggestions for robotic odor-tracking.”

BONUS: Michael Price wrote it up for Science magazine, with the headline “Watch this moth drive a scent-controlled car.”

BONUS (somewhat related): The 2005 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie “Star Wars.” (They describe that research, in the study “Orthopteran DCMD Neuron: A Reevaluation of Responses to Moving Objects. I. Selective Responses to Approaching Objects,” F.C. Rind and P.J. Simmons, Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 68, no. 5, November 1992, pp. 1654-66.)


Haute-Cultural-Scientifical Direct-Brain-Stimulation of a Peak-Cultural (Proustian) Pastime

January 3rd, 2017

This newly published study may by the most impressive—in some senses—academic publication of our time:

The ‘Proust Phenomenon’: odor-evoked autobiographical memories triggered by direct amygdala stimulation in human,” Fabrice Bartolomei, Stanislas Lagarde, Samuel Médina Villalon, Aileen McGonigal, and Christian G. Benar, Cortex, epub December 18, 2016. The authors write:

Vivid memories triggered by odors were particularly well described by the French writer Marcel Proust in his novel Swann’s Way (Du Côté de Chez Swann). The sensorial input provoked by the madeleine cake’s odor, flavor and texture immediately transported him into a vivid and rich past childhood episode. Proust constructed a detailed literary description of psychological characteristics of the reminiscence….

A main characteristic of the Proust phenomenon is its unpredictability, rendering it particularly difficult to reproduce in an experimental setting. The present case is the first to analyze the induction of Proust phenomenon by focal electrical stimulation of the amygdala.

If you find yourself impressed by this study, perhaps you have learned something about yourself.

(Thanks to Neil Martin for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: Someone named Simon explains to you the cultural significance of madeleines.

BONUS: In this video, someone named Sonia instructs you on how to make a madeleine: