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Remembering Douglas Adams on His Birthday

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Getty Images

Author Douglas Adams was born on March 11, 1952. He died in May 2001, but had he lived, he'd turn 65 today. He left behind a pile of great books, most famously the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

Adams suffered a heart attack after working out at a gym in California. He was scheduled to give a commencement address at Harvey Mudd College just a few days later (he was hastily replaced by Joseph Costello at that event).

Just a few days before he died, Adams gave a 90-minute lecture at UC San Diego titled "Parrots, the Universe, and Everything," and in it he discussed his then-11-year-old book Last Chance to See, which he declared was his favorite. It's a book about endangered species, Adams says early on, "Virtually every author I know, their own favorite book is the one that sold the least." Sing it, brother.

I like to return to this lecture, because it shows a man talking about his passion. His message is timeless. Here's a sample quote from the lecture:

So just imagine if you will, this male kakapo sitting up here, making all this booming noise which, if there's a female out there—which there probably isn't—and if she likes the sound of this booming—which she probably doesn't—then she can't find the person who's making it! [Laughter.] But supposing she does, supposing she's out there—but she probably isn't—she likes the sound of this booming—she probably doesn't—supposing that she can find him—which she probably can't—she will then only consent to mate if the Podocarpus tree is in fruit! [Laughter.]

Now we've all had relationships like that.... [Laughter and applause.]

Get your towel ready, and watch this:

As Adams predicted in the talk, the Yangtze River Dolphin (also known as the baiji) became functionally extinct in 2006. On the bright side, the endangered kakapo is still hanging on.

If video isn't your thing, here's an annotated transcript of the entire talk.

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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technology
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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science
There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
iStock
iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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