JULY 22, 2012
VOLUME CONTROL FOR WHALES
How whales show signs of coping with man-made noise underwater
ments expand their undersea activities. Researchers have linked the growing racket to deafness, tissue damage, mass strandings and disorientation in creatures that rely on hearing to navigate, find food and care for their young. Scientists at a research facility off Oahu are studying how dolphins and toothed whales hear. In nature, the mammals emit sounds and listen for returning echoes in a sensory behaviour known as echolocation. In captivity, scientists taught the creatures to wear suction-cup electrodes, which revealed the patterns of brainwaves involved in hearing. The discovery came in steps. First, Nachtigall and his team found that the animals could adjust their hearing in response to their own loud sounds of echolocation. The scientists then wondered if the animals could also protect their ears from incoming blasts. The team focused on a false killer whale named Kina and sought to teach her a conditioned behaviour similar to how Pavlov taught dogs to salivate upon hearing a bell. First, the scientists played a gentle tone repeatedly. Then they followed the gentle pulse with a loud sound. After a few trials, the warning signal alone caused Kina to decrease the sensitivity of her hearing. “It shows promise as a way to mitigate the effects of loud sounds,” said Nachtigall. In May, he and his colleagues presented the findings to acoustic scientists and groups meeting in Hong Kong, including the Acoustical Society of America. The team cited the protective deafening as a potential way to help sea mammals cope with noisy blasts from naval sonars, civilian air guns and other equipment. In the future, the team plans to expand the research to other species in captivity and ultimately to animals in the wild. Scientists say the extraordinary
WILLIAM J. BROAD ERHAPS we can save the whales—or at least their hearing. Scientists have long known that man-made, underwater noises—from engines, sonars, weapons testing, and such industrial tools as air guns used in oil and gas exploration—are deafening whales and other sea mammals. The U.S. Navy estimates that loud booms from just its underwater listening devices, mainly sonar, result in temporary or permanent hearing loss for more than a quarter-million sea creatures every year, a number that is rising. Now, scientists have discovered that whales can decrease the sensitivity of their hearing to protect their ears from loud noise. Humans tend to do this with index fingers; scientists haven’t pinpointed how whales do it, but they have seen the first evidence of the behaviour. “It’s equivalent to plugging your ears when a jet flies over,” said Paul E. Nachtigall, a marine biologist at the
University of Hawaii who led the discovery team. “It’s like a volume control.” The finding, while preliminary, is already raising hopes for the development of warning signals that would alert whales, dolphins and other sea mammals to auditory danger. Peter Madsen, a professor of marine biology at Aarhus University in Denmark, cautioned against letting the discovery slow global efforts to reduce the oceanic roar, which would aid the beleaguered sea mammals more directly. The noise threat arises because of the basic properties of seawater. Typically, light can travel for hundreds of feet through ocean water before diminishing to nothingness. But sound can travel for hundreds of miles. The world’s oceans have been getting noisier as companies and govern-
hearing of sea mammals evolved to compensate for poor visibility beneath the waves and to take advantage of the unique qualities of seawater. Sound travels five times faster than in air and undergoes far less diminishment. The heads of whales and dolphins are mazes of resonant chambers and acoustic lenses that give the animals not only extraordinary hearing but complex voices. The distinctive songs of humpback whales appear to be sung exclusively by males seeking mates. In recent decades, scientists have linked the human cacophony to reductions in mammalian vocalisation, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding. And the problem is poised to get worse: In May, the U.S.Navy disclosed draft environmental impact statements (Atlantic and Pacific operations) that said planned expansions could raise the annual hearing losses among sea mammals to more than one million. Nachtigall said the research was costly because sea mammals need high levels of care. “I’m pulling in money where I can,” he remarked. But he called it revealing and rewarding. “When it comes to whales and sound,” Nachtigall said, “we’re just starting to understand.” In September 2002, more than a dozen beaked whales beached themselves in the Canary Islands. Rescuers tried to water down the stranded ani-
mals and keep them cool. But all of them eventually died. Nearby, NATO naval forces were testing sonar devices meant to detect enemy submarines, and public knowledge of the deaths eventually came to strengthen suspicions of a link between whale distress and loud ocean noises. For decades, environmentalists have worked to reduce the undersea din—usually with little success, given the growing industrialisation and militarisation of the oceans. They have filed lawsuits and waged letter-writing campaigns, including a recent petition that asks the Navy to drop its testing of underwater sound equipment. The discovery by biologists in Hawaii that whales can decrease the sensitivity of their hearing to protect their ears from loud noise adds another dimension to the debate. “A lot more work needs to be done,” said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. “Could it be replicated in the wild? It’s a huge question.” “It’s important to understand that it’s limited,” he said of the proposed method. “It won’t be a silver bullet.”
A cool invention that changed the world
JAMES BARRON NEW YORK—July 17, 1902: It was another scorcher. The week before, seven deaths tied to the heat had been reported. The city’s public baths were jammed with people desperately trying to cool down. The newspapers, following President Theodore Roosevelt’s vacation on Long Island, said he had been out horseback riding when a thunderstorm rolled in. It was so hot, he did not mind getting soaked. What the newspapers did not report was that something had happened involving the second floor of a Brooklyn printing plant—something that changed everything. What happened was air-conditioning. Sort of. July 17 was the date on blueprints for newfangled equipment to temper the air. A junior engineer from a furnace company figured out a solution so simple that it had eluded everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to the naval engineers ordered to cool the White House when President James A. Garfield was dying: controlling humidity. “If you could keep humidity at a balanced rate,” said Marsha E. Ackermann, the author of Cool Comfort: America’s Romance With Air-Conditioning, “it would not seem so sweltering and things would not be dripping all over.” It was world-changing. “Air-conditioning, in the broad sense, had a profound effect on the way people lived and worked,” said Bernard A. Nagengast, an engineering consultant who specialises in the history of air-conditioning and heating. “It allowed industry to operate in ways it couldn’t operate before, in places it couldn’t operate before.” In time there would be window-mounted air conditioners to trol all across America.” A paper mill in 1906, a pharmaceutical plant in 1907, a movie-processing plant in 1908, a tobacco warehouse in 1909, a candy manufacturer in 1909, a bakery in 1911. As at the printing plant, humidity had made hot-weather work unpleasant if not impossible. “Carrier was not happy with the pipes,” Schultz said, and a couple of years later he had a brainstorm that Schultz called “one of Carrier’s essential genius insights,” a system that worked far better. “This is all leveraging off the work done at Sackett & Wilhelms,” Schultz said. “This allows him to say the principle is right. It allows him to say, ‘Instead of blowing across metal pipes which can frost, I can blow it through water,’ and that becomes the principle that they use at the Rivoli” – a movie theater on Broadway that was air-conditioned in 1925 – and “at Madison Square Garden.” Since 2008, the Sackett & Wilhelms buildings have been the headquarters of the International Studio and Curatorial Program and home to 100 foreign artists and curators in residency programs. The second floor, where Carrier’s invention was tried out, has been divided into studios and gallery space. There is no more central air-conditioning there now than there was on July 16, 1902, the day before Carrier dated his blueprints. More than a dozen airconditioners stick out from windows on the second floor. Andres Ramirez Gaviria, a conceptual artist, unlocked his studio one morning last week. The temperature inside was 82 degrees. His explanation was possible only because of what had happened in that place so long ago. “My air-conditioning,” he said, NYT “is not working.”
Early record of domestic animals
NICHOLAS BAKALAR ARCHAEOLOGISTS exploring a cave in Namibia have found evidence for the earliest domesticated animals in sub-Saharan Africa. The cave, in the northwestern part of the country, contains stone and bone tools, beads and pendants, pieces of pottery, and the bones of many animals— guinea fowl, ostriches, monitor lizards, tortoises, impala, rock hyraxes and various rodents. The researchers also found two teeth of either a goat or a sheep – the teeth were too worn to say which, but their form is consistent with that of modern African domesticated sheep and goats. There are no wild sheep or goats in sub-Saharan Africa today. Although some wild species probably became extinct around 12,000 years ago, there is no evidence of their presence in the western part of the continent. The researchers are certain that the remains they found belong to domestic animals. The teeth date from 2,190 and 2,270 years ago. Until now, the oldest radiocarbondated remains were of 2,105year-old-sheep found in South Africa. The study, a collaboration between the National Museum of Namibia and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, appears in PLoS One.
Cocktails may cut women’s arthritis risk
REGULAR moderate consumption of beer, wine or liquor may reduce a woman’s risk for rheumatoid arthritis, a new study reports. Researchers collected data from two Swedish national health registers on 34,141 women born between 1914 and 1948. They gathered information on alcohol consumption in 1987 and 1997, and then tracked the women’s health for seven years, from 2003 to 2009. During the follow-up period, the researchers documented 197 cases of rheumatoid arthritis. After controlling for a variety of factors, they found that women who reported drinking more than three glasses of beer, wine or liquor per week had a 52 percent lower risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis than abstainers. The kind
Illstration: C R SASIKUMAR
drip on people on the sidewalk below (or fall out and cause injuries). And there would be brownouts in the summer as airconditioners put a strain on power plants. But in 1902, there was a printing plant, and a problem. The plant, on Metropolitan Avenue in East Williamsburg, had just been completed, Nagengast said. It was built for a company that printed the humour magazine Judge, which carried fanciful illustrations. The printing company had to run each page of the magazine through the press once for each colour on the page. Sometimes one colour was printed one day, and another colour the next.
The problem was that paper would absorb moisture from the sticky Brooklyn air and expand by a fraction of an inch, enough so that the colours would not line up properly. Worse, he said, “the ink refused to dry fast enough.” And the printer could not wait. There was a schedule. There were subscribers who expected the next issue to land in their mailboxes, no matter what. “They were doing an issue a week,” Nagengast said. The junior engineer who tackled the problem was Willis Carrier, who went on to start Carrier Corp. The solution he devised involved fans, ducts, heaters and perforated pipes. Eric
B. Schultz, a former Carrier Corp. executive and author of a recently published company history, said the equipment, installed later in the summer of 1902, controlled the humidity on the second floor of a short building at Metropolitan Avenue and Morgan Avenue. That structure backs up to a taller building that the printing company, Sackett & Wilhelms, also used. Carrier’s plan was to force air across pipes filled with cool water from a well between the two buildings, but in 1903, he added a refrigerating machine to cool the pipes faster. American Heritage magazine called Carrier “a Johnny Icicle planting the seeds of climate con-
of drink consumed made no difference in the risk. The authors, writing last week in the journal BMJ, acknowledged that they had no information on family history of rheumatoid arthritis and that self-reports of alcohol consumption may not always be accurate.