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"Life," the New "Planet Earth," Premieres Sunday, 8pm

Premiering Sunday (March 21) at 8pm on the Discovery Channel in the US: Life, a new documentary miniseries from the producers of Planet Earth. Set your DVRs now!

Back in 2006, we were treated to Planet Earth, a BBC/Discovery Channel coproduction which was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC, and the first shot in full HD. It was a groundbreaking series, and for good reason -- four years of hard filming brought us spectacular photography and compelling narratives, making every one of its eleven episodes memorable. Now, four years later, the team is back with Life, a series that promises more of the same -- and boy, does it deliver. It took 70 camerapeople in 50 countries to shoot this thing. Here's the trailer:

Now, let me back up for a minute and talk about how documentary reviewing works, at least for me as a blogger. Media outlets (in my case, PBS and several science-related cable channels) send me their upcoming schedules, and I pick out shows that might interest the mental_floss audience. I ask for "screeners" (generally hand-burned DVDs, often not the final versions of the shows) which then arrive in the mail with a brief info packet, or a link to some website with PR info. I watch the DVD, and if I think it's good, I write about it. To be honest, a lot of the time the material isn't good enough to write about, and that's that. On those happy occasions when the material is good, I write it up right here.

So it was a big surprise when I got the Life press kit. Normally a press kit for a documentary is a DVD (sometimes two, if it's a two-parter) with a handmade label, and a few photocopied sheets of press info. Everything is stamped with "for press review only," has no commercial value, and so on. But the Life press kit is basically a gigantic coffee-table book with an embedded video playing device -- yes, a video screen inside the book, with speakers -- and screeners available both in DVD and Blu-ray. (See video of the kit here.) As soon as I saw the kit, I was suspicious: the kit was so elaborate that I thought either a) the film isn't that great, so it needs massive PR help; or b) the film is SUPER GREAT and Discovery is so psyched about it that they went a little nuts on the PR front. I'm pleased to announce that it's the latter -- actually watching five hours of the show (including some on Blu-ray), it is absolutely spectacular, and very much in the vein of Planet Earth. This is, hands-down, the best nature documentary you're going to see this year. It appears that the press kit is a further reflection of the focus on new technology and obsession with quality that went into the making of Life, like Planet Earth before it.

The Good News

All of the good qualities of Planet Earth are back: top-notch photography, full HD, lots of slow-motion (2,000fps, according to some producer interviews), excellent editing, and in every episode some new creature you've never heard of, doing unbelievable (and often nearly unfilmable) things. I was often left wondering how particular shots were done -- but I began to ignore that as I got sucked into the drama of events unfolding on-camera. See, Life is about living creatures, while Planet Earth was nominally about habitats (although it then focused on the creatures that live in those places, and how they've adapted -- really, the same thing is going on here, but the conceit has shifted to be animal-focused rather than habitat-focused).

For Life, the producers have found all sorts of bizarre stuff -- toads that roll into a ball and jump off cliffs to avoid being eaten by giant spiders, fish that live in underwater/underground tunnels, komodo dragons that kill water buffalo, monkeys who use tools to crack nuts. It's awe-inspiring. Here's a clip from the Reptiles & Amphibians episode -- note that this isn't the balling-up toad I mentioned; that one is shown later in the episode (yes, they found two different types of toad who use different leaping-from-heights techniques to avoid death):

Another huge bit of good news is that the HD really, really matters here. I watched several episodes on DVD and thought, yeah, that looks really good -- but then I saw one on Blu-ray and was blown away. This material shines in HD, finally giving you a good reason to have that expensive HD cable package and fancy TV.

Also, the series is family-friendly, at least for kids who are old enough to withstand scenes of animals in danger and some "light carnage" in the wild. While there are scenes of animal courtship (especially fish and birds), as well as plenty of animals eating each other, in general I think this is very appropriate for family viewing. The producers definitely have you on the edge of your seat, wondering who lives and who dies. I won't ruin it by telling you what happens -- but I will say that yes, some animals do die on-camera.

The Bad News

Like Planet Earth, Life uses different narrators for the Discovery and BBC versions. The BBC version features David Attenborough, and the Discovery version featured Oprah Winfrey. (Planet Earth used Sigourney Weaver in the US.) There was a lot of controversy and moaning about this last time around -- why not just have one narrator for both markets? (And why not have that narrator be Attenborough?) Having watched Planet Earth with both narrators and Life with just Winfrey, I have to say that Attenborough is awesome, though Winfrey isn't bad. The narrator thing isn't a dealbreaker, though I know many fans wait until the Attenborough version is available on Blu-ray to purchase the series. (I did that for Planet Earth, and plan to do so again.)

The only other complaint I can muster is that some of the material is just your typical nature documentary -- but shot in HD by some of the best photographers in the world. It's hard to say this is really a fault, but you do sometimes get into a state of overload, having seen some absurdly amazing scene of animals doing something you never expected them to do (a good example is the dolphins who create a "mud ring" to catch fish) -- after that, anything would seem plain. But so far, all the episodes I've seen have featured multiple "holy crap" moments, which make them very much worth watching. So my point is: expect a mixture of the astounding and the merely excellent; the latter bits are when you can go get more snacks.

Summary

Life is exactly what I think it should be: a continuation of Planet Earth in style, material, and quality. Given that Planet Earth was incredibly beautiful and wildly popular, you've got eleven hours of quality programming here. Add that to your Planet Earth Blu-ray set, and you've got a heck of a way to spend your weekend.

To whet your appetite further, here's a video of the producers discussing various "firsts" in the series:

Life premieres this Sunday, March 21, at 8pm on Discovery in the US. Two episodes are shown back-to-back, and another two-hour block airs a week later. Check out the full schedule on Discovery's Life site. Life has already been shown on the BBC (late in 2009), so if you want more info on specific episodes, check out that link for Wikipedia's rundown on the BBC version.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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