4 Science Headlines to Jumpstart Your Next Conversation

From giant prehistoric predators to the health benefit of cow manure, these science stories are great conversation starters at your next barbecue.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #161

Summer is ending in the northern hemisphere, which means gathering with friends to say goodbye to the warm weather and hello to fall. But what will you talk about? Here are some of the top science stories making headlines in case the conversation turns to science (or even if you want to steer it there yourself):

1. Farm living reduces allergies

We’ve all heard some variation of the expression “a dirty kid is a healthy kid,” which is meant to suggest that children exposed to more germs and bacteria end up building stronger immune systems. I can say from personal experience that this mantra also helps you feel better about your parenting skills—especially as you watch your child lick the window on the subway.

Research published in the latest issue of Science takes this idea a step further and highlights the health benefits of growing up on or near a dairy farm. The rates of allergies and asthma were already known to be lower on farms, but the exact cause was unknown. The new study found that breathing in dust triggers the activity of an anti-inflammatory enzyme found in the lungs. The specific molecule doing the triggering is thought to come from dried up cow manure.

The results of the study were based on studies of mice lung cells. There is still much work to be done to determine whether or not these results translate to humans. However, it is a promising start toward alleviating allergies on or off the farm.

2. Ancient monster scorpion found in Iowa

Researches scouring the shale in Iowan riverbeds have uncovered the remains of an ancient predator, which was an ancestor to modern day spiders. The creature would have resembled today’s scorpions but with a few major differences.

First, the hunter from half a billion years ago was more than 5.6 feet long. While it’s tail was not used for stinging, it allowed the prehistoric bug to whip around under water in pursuit of food. It also had many arms protruding from its head so that it can more easily grab and shove prey into its mouth.

The exoskeleton of the big, angry bug was found well-preserved and compressed on a rock, thus enabling detailed study. The paleontologists who found the creature believe it had 10 legs, but only walked on six, leaving the remaining four to be used for grabbing prey. I am certainly glad the only bugs I’ve got to worry about this weekend are the mosquitos.

3. More sleep helps prevent the common cold

We already know we should be getting more sleep (just ask Get-Fit Guy and Nutrition Diva) and here is yet one more reason to make sure you clock in for at least six hours a night. Researchers gave a group of nearly 150 people a nasal spray containing the rhinovirus (or the common cold) and then quarantined them to a hotel to see who would get sick.

Turns out a larger percentage of the group that were already sleep-deprived (those getting less than six hours per night) ended up with a runny nose, while the better rested group were more able to resist the cold.

4. Scientists search for the most adorable animal

In a slightly less rigorous study—OK, a lot less rigorous—scientists across the Internet began tweeting pictures of their adorable research subjects in an informal competition to find the world’s cutest animal. Check out the hashtag #CuteOff for some of the most snuggly, wide-eyed baby animals you have ever seen. Also be prepared to discover that some reptiles are pretty cute, too.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of Scott1346/Flickr.

Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.