Why Some of Us Love a Scary Movie (and Some of Us Watch from Between our Fingers)

It’s spooky season! When you watch a horror movie, do you watch it from the gaps between your fingers spread over your eyes?  Or are you the type to keep your eyes open and cheer for every gruesome and gory splatter?  Why do we like scary movies and stories at all?  Or for that matter, why do we put ourselves through things like haunted houses, eating super-hot chilis, and skydiving?  The science of psychology, aided by recent advances in brain imaging, has some biological explanations for why we seek thrills and chills. 

On the surface, we have what is termed a “hedonic paradox” here.  If humans generally tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, why do we sometimes welcome, or even enjoy, emotional pain and fear?  Researchers at the Department of Biology and Clinical Psychology at the University of Jena in Germany showed test subjects horror movies while the subjects were scanned in an fMRI machine.  They discovered that people who had already scored high on a quiz to identify the personality trait of “sensation seeking” showed brain activity in brain regions associated with arousal and visual processing when looking at horror scenes, but also less brain reaction to neutral scenes.  One conclusion drawn from this study is the idea that “sensation seeking” people are just not as stimulated by or interested in normal every day reality, so they seek out thrilling or scary departures from normality. 

Another study indicates that people who seek the strange, the unusual, and the frightening may be getting an extra dopamine hit from it.  When we are scared, our brains release both dopamine and adrenaline to prepare us for the fight or flight response.  People who enjoy being scared may lack a chemical “brake” on the release and re-uptake of dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain.  That means they experience more pleasure from scary or risky experiences because their brain is receiving more dopamine. 

As for people who watch horror movies under a blanket, through their fingers, or not at all because they know they’ll have nightmares, research indicates that this behavior is more common in individuals who score higher for empathy and empathic traits.  Another study from Germany found that empathic people are more likely to automatically put themselves in the victim’s shoes and so identify with the people being threatened and hurt.  They are more likely to try to distract themselves while watching by covering eyes or hunkering down to a smaller shape.  Their skin temperature even drops, a sign of negative or unpleasant arousal. People who have less empathic traits find it easier to believe “it’s just a movie,” and open up to enjoy the thrills as they watch.  Which one are you?  Whether you are empathic, high sensation seeking, or somewhere in between, we at High Touch High tech wish you the release of many feel-good chemicals this spooky season.  Happy Halloween!

Sources and Further Reading:

MRI study on Sensation Seeking Individuals and Horror: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19585588/

The Psychology of Fright: https://theconversation.com/trick-or-treat-the-psychology-of-fright-and-halloween-horrors-49800

Fear and the Brain: https://theconversation.com/scared-out-of-your-mind-halloween-fear-and-the-brain-33261

For Sensation Seekers who are Thinking a Scary Movie Sounds Great Right About Now: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls062655785/

The Rise…and Rise…and RISE of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the Greatest Scientists in the World

Sierra Exif JPEG

How many geniuses are truly out there in the world?  Whose brain has the most elegant solution to climate change?  Whose brain holds the secret to ending aging entirely?  Where in the world is the person who has the formula for interstellar travel? And of all of these geniuses, how many of them are lucky enough to be born into a life with few obstacles to education, in circumstances that allow them to reach their fullest potential? 

The story of Dr. Percy Julian, one of the greatest scientists of all time, illustrates this issue.  Dr. Julian was a Black American, born in Alabama as the grandson of formerly enslaved people.   All of humanity today is lucky that Dr. Julian was able to overcome the roadblocks he faced to reach his true potential.   Born in 1899, Dr. Julian came into a world where Black people like himself were usually only expected to go to school until 8th grade.  A Black person going to college or even high school was almost unheard of in the United States at that time, much less a Black person getting a PhD or working in a lab as a career scientist. 

Children study corn and cotton at the Annie Davis school near Tuskegee, Alabama, 1902.

Dr. Julian loved plants from a young age, and recounted that one of his earliest memories was walking in the woods at home, savoring the beautiful plants around him – when suddenly he came upon the body of a Black man that had been lynched.  This horrifying occurrence was a feature of life for non-white people in Alabama at the time, but fortunately, Dr. Julian was also blessed to have great influences in his life that guided him and counteracted the constant weight of poverty and racial terrorism.  His parents were both teachers and deeply invested in education.  They spent their small salaries to buy him a wonderful collection of books that allowed him to escape Alabama and find freedom in the world of ideas.  Without this guidance and encouragement at a young age, Dr. Julian may never have been able to rise from his circumstances and become one of the world’s greatest scientists.

Dr. Julian was a man of great talent, and people in his community recognized it. He was at last able to find acceptance to one of the only universities that allowed  people of color at the time, DePauw University.  Arriving at school, he found he was not able to stay on campus and the lodgings he could secure would not serve him food.  His first days at college were spent walking around a hostile town, trying to find a place that would serve him something to eat.  This was just the beginning of the cruel series injustices that Dr. Julian had to fight at every turn during his academic career.  Eventually he found work as a kind of butler at a campus fraternity house.  As he worked for the fraternity, he took the remedial high school classes he missed in Alabama AND took university classes.  Again in difficult circumstances, Dr. Julian received guidance and encouragement from his mentor, Dr. William Blanchard.  Dr. Blanchard took young Dr. Julian under his wing, and nurtured his growing love for chemistry.  This encouragement and support from one concerned mentor made all the difference in the world.  Dr. Julian went on to graduate as Valedictorian of his class.

However, after graduating in 1920 as Valedictorian, Dr. Julian’s road was not easy by any means.  He eventually went on to obtain a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Vienna, because no American schools would allow him to complete his Ph.D.  PhD in hand, many American schools were still reluctant to hire a person of color.  But Dr. Julian was determined to stand out, and took on huge challenges that eventually made him very successful and famous.  He became an expert in the field of “natural source chemistry,” which concentrated on unlocking the potent chemicals within plants.  Over his long career he discovered how to synthesize and produce steroid drugs on a mass scale.

His talent for elegant chemical solutions was unparalleled, and in his lifetime he synthesized medicines for glaucoma, several classes of steroids including cortisone, a miracle anti-inflammatory, and hormones like progesterone, used in treatment of miscarriage and also as a key ingredient of the birth control pill.  His scientific achievements are literally too many to contain in a single article, please see the links below for more about his incredible discoveries.  At the end of his life he was a millionaire who ran his own business synthesizing key compounds used in medicine for the masses, and yet hateful villains STILL tried to firebomb his stately mansion home.  At that time, the entire community in which he lived turned out in protest, surrounding his house with a human wall and insisting that he be able to stay in the Chicago suburb where he lived.  He stayed.

Dr. Percy Julian’s story is one of towering scientific achievement against all odds.  As anyone who has taken a steroidal medicine and felt it ease their pain knows, great scientists such as Dr. Julian are priceless gifts to society.  All though his life, however, Dr. Julian wondered what more he could have done if he hadn’t had to spend so much of his energy just trying to survive in a world so clearly bent on blocking him at every turn.  Dr. Julian was able to make it into the closed-off world of research science, and thrive there, in part because of the support he received from mentors, family, and his community.  In 2021, our world faces unprecedented challenges, and we need great scientists more than ever.  High Touch High Tech and our partner, Color of Science, believe that there is scientific genius all around us.  Together we share the goals of encouraging life-long scientific curiosity, encouraging the diversification of STEM, and providing equal opportunities for all students access to hands-on scientific experiences.  Here in 2021, we celebrate Dr. Julian’s legacy by working to assist the geniuses of the future to overcome systemic obstacles and unlock their true potential for the good of all the world. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Visit our Partners, Color of Science: https://colorfulscience.com/

An excellent documentary on Dr. Julian, highly recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSq__sdYNNk

In-depth exploration of Dr. Julian’s work in Chemistry: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/julian.html

An overall biography: https://greatblackheroes.com/science/percy-julian/

Happy Indigenous People’s Day! Time for a Paradigm Shift.

October 12th is Indigenous Peoples’ Day, once known as Columbus Day.  Why celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead?  There’s just so much more to celebrate! For starters, 529 years in the Americas is a mere blip on the radar.  If you want impressive numbers, how about FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS of surviving and thriving in the wildly diverse, super-challenging environments of the Americas? Sailing up somewhere with guns and armies and “conquering” it is easy mode. Walking (or paddling, as new science suggests) into the Americas with just stone tools and small bands of resourceful people, then managing to populate the entire continent, now that’s an accomplishment. 

In this undated photo, an Indigenous American family smiles for the camera

Indigenous people in the Americas or wherever they are found on earth are, and have always been, absolute masters of ingenuity, craft, courage, and resourcefulness.  For these reasons, among so many others, we celebrate them today.

Dignity,” a monumental sculpture in South Dakota, by Claude Lamphere. Photo: KlemdyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as we are re-writing the old narrative of Columbus Day, recent discoveries in archaeology and genetics are re-writing an old narrative of when the first Indigenous people arrived in the Americas, and how they arrived.  Narrow views are expanding dramatically, and what they are revealing is a world that is older, richer, and much more complex than was once believed. 

A powwow dancer, Milwaukee, 2008. Photo:
CC BY-SA 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Clovis First” theory was first formulated in the early 20th century, and rigorously defended as orthodoxy until only recently.  Clovis First states that during the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, a  few small groups of Siberian peoples walked across a dry land bridge that connected Asia and the Americas as they were following their favorite prey, the Mammoth.  Over the next few thousand years, they gradually migrated down the entire American landmass, leaving distinctive spear points, called “Clovis Points,” as they went.  For decades, Clovis First was THE Paradigm of Indigenous migration to the Americas, and archaeologists with possible conflicting evidence were often ridiculed as crackpots.

A fanciful recreation of an ancient American mammoth hunt from a children’s book of American history, 1885.

Then came the 1997 discovery of Monte Verde, an ancient Indigenous site in Chile.  Tools and artifacts found there were showing dates one thousand years before Clovis!  Monte Verde indicated the old picture was not complete, and that people were living in South America long before the Clovis arrival.  It also raised an interesting possibility that the population of the Americas was something that may have happened by people paddling down the coasts in canoes or other watercraft.  So much for the on-foot, on-land, single-origin paradigm of Clovis First?  Defenders of Clovis First hung on and subjected Vanderbilt University archaeologist Tom Dillehay to years of rigorous examination before the discovery was accepted as fact.

Tlingit women in their canoes, c. 1900, Alaska

Then came the incredible discovery at the Tapper site in Savannah, Georgia.  In 2004, after many years of very careful and methodical excavation, a team lead by Dr. Al Goodyear dug below where Clovis Points had been found and discovered artifacts conclusively dated to 50,000 years ago.  Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists like Goodyear, Dillehay, and Michael Waters of the Center for the study of the First Americans at Texas A&M, an old scientific paradigm has truly changed, and Clovis First has been laid to rest.  

Aztec Dancers in Mexico City, 2018. Photo:
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As this article is being written, another set of evidence has arrived in the public eye – fossilized footprints in White Sands, New Mexico that reveal people were walking on American soil 23,000 years ago.  When the evidence is indisputable, even old, long-held ideas have to change.  According to Michael Waters, the consensus now is that the population of the Americas “was a process with people probably arriving at different times and taking different routes and potentially coming from different places.”  The door is open for new questions, new avenues of research, and new understandings that truly do justice to the complexity of the Indigenous experience.  Happy Indigenous People’s Day.  

An Inuit Mother and Child Rubbing Noses, Alaska, 1950.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Orthodoxy of Clovis First: https://bradshawfoundation.com/america/clovis_first/

The Tapper Site: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041118104010.htm

The Paradigm Shift from Clovis First: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/native-people-americans-clovis-news?loggedin=true

The Monte Verde Site: https://anthropology.net/2008/05/08/earliest-known-archaeological-evidence-of-americans-found-in-monte-verde-chile/

The Story of an Early Challenge to CF and How it was Received: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/jacques-cinq-mars-bluefish-caves-scientific-progress-180962410/

The White Sands Footprints: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/science/ancient-footprints-ice-age.html

Invisible Forces: the Unknown Mothers of Space Exploration

It’s WORLD SPACE WEEK!  This year, the theme is Women in Space.  The history of women and space exploration is a huge topic – far from being “tokens,” as some might imagine, women have been absolutely integral to space exploration.

From astronomer Caroline Herschel in 1786, who discovered several comets…

….to the pioneering software engineer Margaret Hamilton. Ms. Hamilton wrote the navigation code that launched the Apollo 11 moon shot mission, guided it back safely, and “set the foundation for modern software” as she did so. Women have lead the way in space exploration AND its close cousin field, computer programming.

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software she and her team produced for the Apollo Project, 1969

It may come as a surprise that a woman was in charge of the software engineering that lead humankind to the moon in 1969. In fact, the very word “computer” was coined to refer to the women who were doing complex calculations in the field of astronomy as far back as the late 19th century. Women first served as “human computers” at Harvard College Observatory, calculating, measuring, and cataloguing thousands of images of stars taken on glass plates. The women were considered ideal for this work because they were thought to have a “large capacity for tedium,” were proven to be meticulous and accurate, and could be paid much less than a man. However overlooked and undervalued they were then, in 2021 we celebrate the fact that the work of these computers was the bedrock of modern space exploration and modern computing as we know it.

“Pickering’s Harem,” so-called, for the group of women computers at the Harvard College Observatory, who worked for the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. The group included Harvard computer and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Annie Jump Cannon (1863–1941), Williamina Fleming (1857–1911), and Antonia Maury (1866–1952).

By World War II, “computers” had become fully established at the vanguard of technology. They were a large, but secretive group of female mathematicians who painstakingly made the essential ballistics calculations that eventually allowed the Allies to win World War II. As the war ended, computers transitioned into the “space race” and with it, into modern computing. Women were deeply involved not just in space exploration but the development of the first computer hardware and software, including ENIAC, the first programmable, digital computer. The face of so much of the technology we use today is female!

The incredible contribution of women in space exploration is brought fully alive by the caption attached to this historical photo. It reads: “The women of the Computer Department at NACA High-Speed Flight Research Station are shown busy with test flight calculations. The “computers” under the direction of Roxanah Yancey were responsible for accurate calculations on the research test flights made at the Station. There were no mechanical computers at the station in 1949, but data was reduced by human computers. Shown in this photograph starting at the left are: Geraldine Mayer and Mary (Tut) Hedgepeth with Friden calculators on the their desks; Emily Stephens conferring with engineer John Mayer; Gertrude (Trudy) Valentine is working on an oscillograph recording reducing the data from a flight. Across the desk is Dorothy Clift Hughes using a slide rule to complete data calculations. Roxanah Yancey completes the picture as she fills out engineering requests for further data.”

U.S. Army Photo”, number 163-12-62. Left: Patsy Simmers (mathematician/programmer), holding ENIAC board. Next: Mrs. Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board. Next: Mrs. Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board. Right: Mrs. Norma Stec (mathematician/programmer), holding BRLESC-I board.

Although computer programming and space exploration are both seen as predominantly male endeavors today, rest assured both fields were established through the labor of women.  In fact, the first known computer programmer was a woman named Ada Lovelace!

Watercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace, writer and mathematician, 1840. Through her work on Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine,” she published the first algorithm designed to be carried out by a machine.

After the war was won these “computers” continued the hard, tedious labor of calculating the trajectory of space flight, a story recently made famous by the movie Hidden Figures.  Katherine Johnson and a team of women of color did the essential calculations for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 spaceflight, which was such a success it set the American space program on its fast path to the moon. Astronaut John Glenn was such a firm believer in the work of these women that he did not fully trust the digital calculations that were being produced my the new electric computing technology. Before his spaceflight in 1962, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good…I’m ready to go.”

Katherine Johnson, mathematician and physicist, at NASA in 1966

Everywhere you look in the story of space exploration, there is a tough, brave, intelligent woman.  However, because most people think of “astronauts” when they think of space exploration, and not the army of engineers, astronomers, and mathematicians behind them, space exploration can seem like more of a boys club than it actually is. 

Some of the Perseverance Mars Rover Team at work

If you want to understand just how integral women really are to space exploration, look at the incredible team that recently launched the Mars Perseverance Rover! The Mars Perseverance Rover was one of the most thrilling and complex achievements in the entire history of space exploration. We owe a debt to the many, many unrecognized mothers of space exploration who allowed us to reach such an incredible height.

Sources and Further Reading:

Caroline Herschel: https://www.famousscientists.org/caroline-herschel/

Margaret Hamilton: https://www.space.com/34851-margaret-hamilton-biography.html

The Computers of WWII: http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/02/08/women.rosies.math/index.html

The Computers of Harvard and NASA: https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa-women-computers/

Ada Lovelace: https://www.famousscientists.org/ada-lovelace/

The Perseverance Team: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/team/


Science begins with questions, and if science is done well, the answers to those questions, once discovered, lead to even more questions.  Where would we be if scientific thinkers from ancient times to today had not looked around and asked questions?  From the Ancient Greek Democritus asking what everything is made of, to Stephen Hawking asking what creates black holes, science is an infinite feedback loop of human curiosity. 

Sept. 28 is Ask a Stupid Question Day, but we at High Touch High Tech believe the same as your third grade teacher when we say… there are no stupid questions!  So instead, to celebrate the humble question and all it does for us, please accept this fascinating list some of science’s greatest unanswered questions, written entirely as questions.


Why, in all the vastness of space and its infinite possibilities for life, have we not yet been contacted by any alien species?  Are they all just very tiny?  Are they trapped under Ice, as on Jupiter’s moon Europa?  Is there a “great filter,”  a crucial point of survival that most Alien Civilizations do not pass?  Could Fermi’s paradox be true, and we ARE alone in this universe?


Is consciousness something that happens as a biochemical process, or is it something living organisms are built to receive?  Why is consciousness so incredibly difficult to explain?  What explains the “placebo effect,”  where people experience powerful physical healing just through belief?  Could the placebo effect indicate that consciousness is not a quality of the brain but a fundamental universal quality, like mass or gravity?


Will it be “The Big Crunch,” where everything collapses in on itself?  Will it be the “Big Chill” where everything freezes?  Perhaps it will burn up in the “Heat Death of the Universe?”  If none of those sound appealing, how about the “Big Rip” where everything tears apart?


Did it arise out of natural conditions on earth, and if so, how?  Was it perhaps delivered from space, and if it was, where did that life originate?  And while we’re at it, what is up with RNA and how it acts as both a catalyst and a mini hard drive of bio-information?  Was RNA truly the precursor to DNA?


AWM Graham at English Wikipedia
CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Isn’t it incredible that out there in the aforementioned vastness of space, there is a galaxy called LEDA (pictured above) that is shaped like a perfect rectangle?  Perhaps it was the result of two perfectly triangular galaxies colliding? 


We know a lot about how it acts, and its obvious role in the universe, but what IS this force?  Why is it so weak in comparison to say, nuclear force or magnetism?  If other known forces have opposites, than what is the opposite of gravity, and why does gravity only pull?


Goldstein lab – tardigrades
CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How can they live so long without water?  How do they survive temperatures from -328 to 304 F?  Even with our most elaborate gene sequencing, how is it that we still don’t know which phylum they belong to?  What’s your guess – are they insects, worms, or crustaceans?  Or did they come from the vastness of space?  Could THEY be the aliens we’ve been missing all along, trying to contact us? 

And with that question, we’re back where we began.  Science begins with questions, and if science is done well, the answers to those questions, once discovered, lead to even more questions. 




The OTHER Hobbit: You might know Bilbo and Frodo, but have you met “Flo?”

The Little Lady herself.
Elisabeth Daynès
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at High Touch High Tech we’re huge fans of The Lord of The Rings AND Paleoanthropology.  So, in celebration of Hobbit Day on September 22nd, we invite you, a human of the Race of Men, and all good citizens of the Shire, Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike, to meet your new cousin, the other Hobbit.  Her name is Flo, The Little Lady of Flores. She’s about 18,000 years old. Flo is the most complete skeleton ever found of the tiny hominin known to science as Homo Floresiensis, a mysterious, child-sized human relative that had big feet and a clever brain (predilection for second breakfast not yet confirmed).

Emőke Dénes
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in 2003 on the Island of Flores in Indonesia and immediately nicknamed “Hobbits,” the tiny hominins represent a jaw-dropping twist in the already thrilling tale of human evolution.  Showing behaviors found in other hominins such as Homo Erectus, perhaps their closest relative, these other Hobbits did what many of the human family were known to do – use tools, exhibit complex hunting behaviors, and possibly even use fire.  Except they did it all at only 3 feet tall, on an island populated with deadly Komodo Dragons that would have made Smaug jealous! 

The H. Floresiensis version of Sting.
M. W. Moore
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is just the beginning of the tale of these brave hobbits. Even more mysterious than the Elves sailing to the West, somehow H. Floresiensis undertook their own impossible journey to reside on Flores.  It was thought that H. Erectus was the first hominin to leave Africa about 1.5 million years ago, heading north towards East Asia and south through Indonesia over a series of land bridges.  However, the Island of Flores is on the other side of a major geographic barrier to migration known as “Wallace’s Line.” Wallace’s Line is large stretch of open ocean once thought too wide for human ancestors to cross, and was believed to have only been crossed by the more sophisticated Homo Sapiens about 50,000 years ago.  The Hobbits provided yet another twist to the story of human evolution when they were found living comfortably on the other side of Wallace’s Line.  How did they get there?  It remains, and perhaps will stay, a huge mystery. 

Wallace’s Line.
Gunnar Ries
CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only was H. Floresiensis clocking in at 3 feet tall, and on the other side of an impossible geographical barrier, incredible archaeological evidence found in the region of Flores indicates that some type of hominin was making stone tools there as far back as 890,000 years!  Yet little Lady Flo’s skeleton dates to only 18,000 years ago, introducing a possibility that these tiny Hobbits, much like their cousins in Middle-Earth, may have coexisted with other groups of hominins, and could possibly even have had passing encounters with Homo Sapiens.  People indigenous to Flores Island have long told tales of a tiny race of hairy people with flat foreheads. Could it be that there are actual folk memories of an early human ancestor? 

An H. Floresiensis with a favorite prey item, the Marabou stork.
I. van Noortwijk
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is so much yet to discover about Homo Floresiensis, and their place in the tale of human evolution.  What we do know for sure is that because of their miniature stature, unbelievable location, and mysterious time frame, these Hobbits are full of surprises, indeed.

An overview of H. Floresiensis: https://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

A Paleoanthropologist discusses the uniqueness and mystery of the Hobbits: https://humanorigins.si.edu/multimedia/videos/hobbits-flores-indonesia

Could modern Pygmy people living on Flores actually be related to H. Floresiensis? https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/news-homo-floresiensis-hobbit-genetics-dna-pygmy-flores-island?loggedin=true

Why is Southeast Asian Paleoanthropology so full of surprises? https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-dna-skeleton-woman-indonesia-peopling-southeast-asian-islands

Meet Your Microbes

You.  Yeah YOU.  Guess what?  You are positively crawling with microbes.  Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.   An average-sized human is host to approximately 38 trillion microbes, which is slightly more than the number of actual cells in the human body.  The vast majority of them, up to 90%, reside in your gut.  Microbes are on every patch of your skin.  They’re on your eyeballs. In your ears.  In your lungs.  Wait!   Before you reach for the soap, consider what science has to say about your own personal microbiome.  The field of Microbiome Science is a new one, just 15 years old, but its findings reveal that the bugs you are carrying around are not usually pests or invaders.  They are symbiotes living in harmony with you, and they just might play a bigger role than you think in making you who you are.

Oral bacteria. Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of mixed oral bacteria. The mouth contains a large number of bacteria, most of which are harmless or even beneficial. However, some bacteria can cause throat infections or cause the formation of plaque deposits on the teeth, which may lead to decay. Magnification: x10000 at 10cm wide.

In (and on) your body there is an entire ecosystem that you will never see.  According to scientist Richard Losick, there are thousands of different species of bacteria in the human body.  It appears that our own microbiomes are completely unique, too – it’s possible for two people to have absolutely no overlap in the microbes that inhabit their body.  There is evidence that our personal microbiomes have a surprising level of influence over us – from how much we eat, to how well we perform athletically, to perhaps even influencing our moods.  The new field of Microbiome Science has only begun and so far studies are small, usually involving studying stool samples from humans and then transplanting them into mice to study the effects.  If the idea of a fecal transplant turns your stomach, it might help to know that ingesting another person’s gut microbiome has been a proven therapy in humans to cure a severe antibiotic-resistant intestinal infection known as Clostridium Dificile.

Getting to know the world of microbes has occupied scientists ever since microbes were discovered, and there’s so much more to discover. This is a 19th century artist’s vision of “France in the Year 2000.” Jean Marc Cote(?), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How much influence do microbes really have over us?  And how do they do it? Gut microbiota have been the best studied so far.  It appears that different kinds of intestinal flora can release different kinds of chemical signals that, via nerve cells, immune cells, or the bloodstream, can signal directly to the brain.  For example, we get our sensation of fullness after a meal from our hypothalamus region in the brain.  The hypothalamus gets its signal from chemicals released by enteroendocrine cells in the intestinal wall.  But the enteroendocrine cells themselves are triggered by chemical signals from gut bacteria.  If there is an overgrowth of dangerous bacteria in the gut, other bacteria can send chemical signals to the dendritic cells of the immune system, beginning an immune response.  Some evidence even indicates that certain gut microbes can trigger enterochromaffin cells, the cells that contain the “happy chemical” serotonin.

Although pretty, these Streptococcus Pyogenes bacteria would probably elicit an immune-signaling response from your microbiome.

Can the tiny hitchhikers in your gut really influence mood and overall quality of life?  At the University of Turku in Finland, Dr. Anna Katariina Aatsinki and her colleagues took stool samples from 301 babies.  Babies with the highest proportion of Bifidobacterium were also most likely to exhibit a trait the researchers called “positive emotionality,” a.k.a, happy babies.  In one of the more extensive studies, researchers at Harvard took samples from marathon runners before and after they ran Boston Marathon, and compared them with samples from non-runners.  The marathon runners had a much higher proportion of a bacteria called Veilonella Atypica, which was quite an interesting discovery for the researchers.  Veilonella is a microbe that metabolizes lactate, the same kind of lactate that is produced by muscles as a byproduct of a vigorous workout.  In turn, Veilonella releases propionate, which helps with oxygen metabolism and heart rate.  When mice received a transplant of the runners’ stool, and were given tiny treadmills to run on, the mice who received it ran 13% percent longer than the control group! 

These Eubacteria from yogurt are the friends you want in your microbiome! www.mantis.cz/mikrofotografie

Microbiome science is a growing field with tantalizing promise. Could the detectives of the future take “microbiome prints” to identify a suspect?  Could there be a future in which a dose of the right probiotics change a person’s life?  Science is indicating that even though our microbes are tiny, our microbiome is MIGHTY!

A true story of a fecal transplant, discussed by a doctor and patient at the Mayo Clinic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Py3zJHeVGmk

Dr. Richard Losick on Human Microbiome Research: https://www.ibiology.org/microbiology/human-microbiome/

The Microbe Menagerie (Paywall): https://archive.nationalgeographic.com/national-geographic/2020-jan/flipbook/101/

Drinking the Beer of Eternity: Scientific Research Indicates that Beer was the Inspiration for the Earliest Human Civilization

Beer of Eternity.  Dark Beer. Friend’s Beer. Sweet Beer. Beer of the Protector.  Although these might sound like what you see on the menu of a local craft brewery, they are actually names the Ancient Egyptians gave to their beloved beers thousands of years ago.  In honor of Beer Lover’s Day, Sept. 7, let’s explore the scientific research that indicates fascinating links between not just beer and civilization, but between fermentation and human evolution itself! 

The traditional story of early human history (in a nutshell): about 5 million years ago, early human ancestors came down from the trees to hunt and gather new sources of food.  Then, about 5,000 years ago Hunting and Gathering humans needed more food. Hunting and Gathering Humans domesticated grain and invented agriculture.  Humans settled down to farm and BOOM! Civilization! Then came Beer. 

The beverage was likely discovered when someone tried to cook sprouting grain, not knowing it contained enzymes that liquify the starches in grain into sugars.  Add a little yeast from the air into the concoction, and yeast began to do what it does best: consume sugar and release ethanol alcohol as a byproduct.  No matter how it was discovered, beer was – and remains – a huge hit.  The oldest written recipe on earth is a Sumerian clay tablet praising the Goddess of Beer, Ninkasi, and describing how to make beer.

This 5,000 year old cuneiform from Iran is not the Hymn to Ninkasi but it IS about beer. It records who got payouts of beer and how much. No information about who’s getting the next round could be found.
Jim Kuhn
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, between the fields of Archaeology, Anthropology, Chemistry, Genetics, and Brewing Science, there is mounting evidence that indicates the human fixation on fermentation predates settled agricultural civilization by thousands, maybe even MILLIONS of years.  The chemical reaction by which yeast creates alcohol from sugar happens naturally in overripe fruit that falls from trees to the forest floor.  Steven Benner, a biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida, helped discover a genetic mutation that occurred about 10 million years ago in the last shared ancestor between humans and apes.  This mutation produced an enzyme that allowed our distant forbears to digest alcohol 40 times faster than any other animal.  It is the reason that only humans and great apes experience such a multitude of pleasant psychoactive effects from alcohol. 

Pankaj Boruah
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Benner and his team elucidated “The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis,” proposing that what actually nudged our ancient ancestors out of the trees and onto the forest floor was the search for delicious, nutrient rich, and pleasingly fermented fruit!  In Benner’s words, “You could say we came out of the trees to get a beer.”

Another challenge to traditional notions of early human history is the fact that archaeological and chemical evidence indicates humans may have been brewing up the good stuff long before Urban Civilization as we know it was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. An 11,000 year old site in Turkey called Gobekli Tepe is right in the area in which the first urban civilizations emerged thousands of years later.  The site is marked by several spectacular 16-ton pillars of mysterious origin, but it also contains many huge vats that contain a residue of calcium oxalate, which is released when beer is made.  Near the vats is also a hilltop covered with the bones of prime cuts of gazelle meat.  It’s unknown how the Hunting and Gathering people of the time were able to shape and lift the pillars, but German Archaeological Institute researcher Jens Notroff thinks the secret to gathering so many people for one muscular purpose was the beer. “If you need someone to help you move, you buy them pizza and a couple of beers.”

Gobekli Tepe, the oldest monumental architecture ON EARTH, and probably the site of some really fun parties too.
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bringing people together for beer and barbeque was – and remains – a huge hit.  Although it’s still not conclusive, evidence is gathering that it was beer, not bread that inspired our ancient ancestors to domesticate grains.  Harvesting wild plants simply couldn’t provide enough grain.  So our ancestors planted wild grains and over time bred them into higher yielding barley and wheat. This may explain why the earliest known domesticated grain, called einkorn, comes from a site only a few dozen miles from Gobekli Tepe.  Although the theory is not conclusively proven, there is a strong argument that humans did not settle down in large urban communities to farm for food.  They settled down to farm grain for BEER! 

The Oxford Companion to Beer: Definition of The History of  Beer: https://beerandbrewing.com/dictionary/UqfrcsPoAI/

An Anthropologist Ponders the Question of the Origins of Civilization while Brewing an Ancient Sumerian Recipe: https://www.morebeer.com/articles/Brewing_Ancient_Beer

The Drunken Monkey Hypothesis and Gobekli Tepe  (Paywall): https://archive.nationalgeographic.com/national-geographic/2017-feb/flipbook/30/

Cities in the Clouds: The Future of Skyscraper Design

Morning, 2050.  You’re looking out over the megalopolis of Tokyo from your apartment a mile up in the sky.  The waves of Tokyo Bay far below ripple peacefully against bright green hexagonal plots of algae being grown for fuel.  You take a sip of your morning tea made with cloud-harvested water, and smile.  It’s going to be a beautiful day. 

At the moment, actually living the mile-high life in a gleaming tower above Tokyo is still science fiction, but everything in the above scenario is rooted in engineering fact.  Since the days of Ancient Rome, people have constructed multi-story buildings, but it was only in the last 150 years that the modern marvels we call skyscrapers became possible.  With the combination of easily available steel for the frames, or “skeletons” of skyscrapers, and safety elevators to lift people without risk, multistory buildings began to reach for the stars.  In 1931, the 102-story Empire State Building was a marvel of the world at 381 meters tall.  Incredible leaps and bounds in engineering and architecture mean that now the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (pictured below), clocks in with 160 stories and an incredible 828 meter height.

Another building already in the works, the Jeddah Tower, is right behind the Burj Khalifa at 1,000 meters, but neither can match the awesome height and stunningly futuristic design of the Tokyo Sky Mile Tower, a 1,700 meter tower designed with stability and sustainability firmly in mind.  Located as it is in the “Ring of Fire,” a seismically active zone in the Pacific, Tokyo may not seem like the best place for an ultra-tall tower.  At only 44 meters above sea level, global sea level rise could also be a player in any future plans for Tokyo.  However, the nature of engineering is to find a way to make things work, and the Sky Mile Tower engineers came up with a stunning design that turns disadvantages into advantages, and makes the impossible possible.

In an awesome display of creativity and forward-thinking, engineers decided that the best place for Sky Mile Tower will be IN Tokyo Bay, where huge concrete pillars running through a man-made island will anchor the building deep in the bay.  Unshakable by waves, the resulting tower and its surrounding series of man-made islands could then act as a breaker for tsunamis, ship traffic, and even sea level rise in the bay.  Wind speeds in the sky will be tamed by the fact that the Tower is a series of seven aerodynamic hexagonal towers with spaces in between to channel wind.  Most impressively, the issue of pumping water to residents a mile up will be solved with the practice of “cloud harvesting,” a relatively low-tech practice in which water droplets from clouds are collected and condensed on mesh panels.  The building even includes a system to harvest, purify, and distribute water to the world’s tallest residents!  The Sky Mile Tower was proposed in 2015, and although at this time there are no official plans for construction, it represents the incredible future of urban engineering and planning.

Engineering is a branch of science that depends on creating and testing models and designs in a lab before they are executed in the real world.  Most of the amazing skyscrapers you see in the world today were once 3D models that were stress-tested, checked, and re-tested until they were perfect. Experimentation is key to great designs!  If you’d like to try your hand at building and testing a model, check out our “Build a Truss Bridge” video and create and stress-test your own bridge! 

Build a Truss Bridge Experiment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4_dEeCiYzg

The Proposal Paper on the Sky Mile Tower, by the Architects & Engineers themselves: https://global.ctbuh.org/resources/papers/download/2335-next-tokyo-2045-a-mile-high-tower-rooted-in-intersecting-ecologies.pdf

Up-close Views of the Tokyo Sky Mile Tower Design: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoFqbX19JLQ

More about the Future of Skyscraper Design:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTeaEU6hgCE

An open letter from our founder

Dear teachers, school and camp directors, and parents,

On behalf of all our High Touch High Tech scientists across the nation, and around the world, I would like to thank you all for boldly pursuing our science experiences for your students and children.

This has been a very challenging year for us all. Our passionate scientists will continue to inspire our children to become the next generation of scientists that will develop the lifesaving vaccines and medications that have made the end of this pandemic tangible.

The pandemic certainly changed how we engage with your students, driven by our desire to stimulate imagination and curiosity, we took our unique and inspiring programs and pivoted to deliver them as science kits to the students. Our scientist would then lead the science experience adventure by Zoom. While our fun scientists enjoyed the Zoom delivery of our programs, we are all anxious to work with students in person, and watch their faces light up with discovery. While this pivot is working well, we are all looking forward to bringing our hands-on science experiences back into the classroom.

As I have long said, our High Touch High Tech programs can be delivered anywhere learners are and can engage in exciting ways to learn. Because of this we can stimulate young minds, activate new curiosity, and nurture budding imaginations. This has been our approach for the last 29 years. We all have seen that following the science is bringing us out of this pandemic, and sparking curiosity among your students and future scientists assures us the world will continue to become a better place.

Scientifically yours,

Daniel “Dinosaur Dan” Shaw

Founder, High Touch High Tech

The scientist is motivated primarily by curiosity and a desire for truth.