A New Study Argues a Cat Parasite Might Make You More Ambitious

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iStock

We don’t normally associate parasitic infection with entrepreneurship, but a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B makes an argument that a common cat parasite could be connected to having business ambition.

When you come in contact with cat feces, you open yourself up to the risk of exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite also found in undercooked meat and contaminated water. (Half of infected humans in the U.S. get it from food.) Despite its rather dire profile—it’s a brain parasite that can form cysts in hosts—T. gondii typically doesn’t result in any noticeable symptoms. In fact, as the authors note, one-third of the world’s population may be infected. It's mostly of concern to pregnant women, because a new infection can cause potentially fatal birth complications.

The University of Colorado study looked at 1495 U.S. students who submitted a saliva sample and were grouped according to whether they tested positive for T. gondii. Those who did were 1.4 times more likely to major in business and 1.7 times more likely to place an emphasis on management and entrepreneurship. In another part of the study, they found that of 197 attendees at entrepreneurial events, those infected by T. gondii were 1.8 times more likely to have started their own company compared to those who tested negative.

They also looked at the past 25 years of data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor of entrepreneurial activity, and say that countries with a higher infection rate have more entrepreneurial activity and fewer people who cited a "fear of failure" as a reason to avoid starting a business.

It bears mentioning that filtering results of T. gondii through people at business events—a self-selecting group—will likely net results different than those collected among a general population, especially because T. gondii infections are so common. The authors note: "While correlational, these results highlight the linkage between parasitic infection and complex human behaviours, including those relevant to business, entrepreneurship and economic productivity."

While the effects of T. gondii on our brains and behavior are still being puzzled out, there's some evidence the microbe can influence the inhibitions and fears of its host. Scientists found that rats infected with the parasite lose their fear of cats, which are the microbe's natural host (it lives in cats' guts). In humans, T. gondii might also correspond with an increased risk of suicide, possibly due to an immune system response that can affect cytokines, molecules that affect various cells in the brain. It's possible it's not the infection but our body's reaction to it that prompts a change in behavior. Until scientists understand more about how this parasite affects our brain chemistry, it's probably best to keep washing your hands after cleaning the litter box—even if you're hoping to launch a startup.

[h/t New Scientist]

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

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iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

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iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

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