LEAD STORY California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo has a huge, 350-student “viticulture and enology” program, preparing its majors for an industry critical to the state’s economy (and with a venerable international cachet) — but puritanical state law continues to hobble it. Many in Cal Poly’s four-year wine-making program must arrange for a fifth year — after they turn 21 — because, otherwise, faculty and administrators could be felons for “furnishing alcohol to a minor” when they assign students to taste their own class creations. The current California legislative session is considering allowing underage wine-making students to sip and spit.
Science on the Cutting Edge On dairy farms across the country, cows bizarrely queue up, without prodding, to milk themselves by submitting to $250,000 robots that have recently become the salvation of the industry. According to an April New York Times report, this advance appears to be “win-win” (except for migrant laborers watching choice jobs disappear) — more efficient for the farmer and more pleasant for the cow, which — constantly pregnant — usually prefers frequent milking. Amazingly, cows have learned the drill, moseying up to the precise spot to engage the robot’s arms for washing and nipple-cupping. The robots also yield copious data tracked from transponders worn around the cow’s neck.
• Argentinian agricultural scientists in 2008 created the “methane backpack” to collect the emissions of grazing cows (with a tube from the cow’s rumen to the inflatable bag) in order to see how much of the world’s greenhouse-gas problem was created by livestock. Having discovered that figure (it’s 25-30 percent), the country’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology announced recently that it will start storing the collected methane to convert it to energy. In a “proof of concept” hypothesis, it estimates that about 300 liters of methane could power a refrigerator for 24 hours.
Scientists Just Wanna Have Fun Bioengineers who work with Dictyostelium slime molds held the “Dicty World Race” in Boston in May for a $5,000 prize and intellectual adulation in August at the Annual International Dictyostelium Conference in Potsdam, Germany. The molds oozed down the 800-micrometer (0.0315 inches) track, lured to the finish line by ordinary bacteria that the molds normally enjoy. A team from the Netherlands beat out 19 others for the coveted prize. (Among the other “games” scientists play, mentioned in the same Nature.com story is the “Prisoners’ Smellemma,” in which players mix obscure samples in a test tube and smell the result to guess what their opponent used.)
• Artist Diemut Strebe offered his 3-D-printed re-creation of the famous ear of Vincent van Gogh for display in June and July in a museum in Karlsruhe, Germany — having built it partially with genes from a great-great-grand-nephew of van Gogh — and in the same shape, based on computer imaging technology. (Van Gogh reputedly cut off the ear himself, in 1888, during a psychotic episode.) Visitors can also speak into the ear and listen to sounds it receives.
• Researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences, writing recently in the journal Zoo Biology, reported witnessing 28 acts of fellatio by two orphaned male bears at a sanctuary in Kuterevo, Croatia — the first-ever report of bear fellatio and the payoff from 116 hours of scientific observation over a six-year period. In each case, the researchers wrote, the older male was the receiver, and the researchers speculated that the episodes were less sexual in nature than a reflection of the bears’ “early deprivation of maternal suckling.”
Defective Animals: (1) A black-and-white housecat, Lenny, was turned back to a shelter near Rochester, New York, in April, only two days after adoption because the new owner could not tolerate Lenny’s flatulence. (A braver second adopter, even though “warned,” has taken Lenny in successfully.) (2) When three parrots were stolen from a home in Saxilby, England, in June, the owner provided police with their descriptions, even though all three are African greys, quite talkative and look very much alike. One of the three, however, has asthma and is easily recognized by his chronic cough. (3) Miles Jelfs of Bristol, England, was seeking financial help in April to cover surgery for his hard-luck tortoise, Cedric, whose prolapsed penis (likely from a mating mishap) constantly drags on the ground, partially erect. [Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester), 4-9-2014] [BBC News, 6-8-2014] [Daily Mail (London), 4-18-2014]
The Fine Points of the Law Paul Stenstrom, 62, lived comfortably in his Palm Harbor, Florida, home from 2002-2014 without paying a penny of his $1,836 monthly mortgage bill, exploiting federal bankruptcy law that forces foreclosing creditors to back off once a debtor files for protection. Stenstrom and his wife filed 18 separate petitions in that 12-year period, according to an April Tampa Bay Times report, until a judge recently cut them off. The Stenstroms were spotted recently preparing to relocate — but Stenstrom said he was considering buying the Palm Harbor house back (since the price has dropped because of the foreclosure).