Strange But True: Clothes made with living bacteria

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Q: How is microbiology meshing with fashion to create a garment that's actually alive?

A: No, it's not leather or fur or wool or silk but fabric made with "Bacillus subtilis natto," bacteria that respond to body moisture, says Britt Peterson in "Smithsonian" magazine. "When a person wearing the fabric heats up (and begins to sweat), the bacteria expand and the flaps open, releasing heat from the skin. Once the skin dries, the bacteria contract, closing the flaps and retaining body heat."

The MIT research team made up of chemical engineers, computer scientists and designers selected natto for their project since it's also safe to work with. A biohybrid film produced by a printer lays down lines of the bacteria onto plastic or latex that is then cut into flaps and sewn into specialized cloth. For the finished product, picture a full-body garment that resembles a "Star Trek" uniform.

The next challenge — to make the cloth fully washable — needs a little background: Japanese legend has it that a samurai in the midst of battle forgot his steamed soybeans wrapped in straw; when he finally opened the container, he found the beans had fermented into a sticky and "deliciously pungent" palate pleaser. So, as Peterson concludes, researchers need to make the fabric washable, "because nobody wants to smell like fermented soybeans."

Q: Young Henry VIII of England, once seen as a charismatic king, was later described as a petty, cruel and capricious tyrant. How might scientists today explain such a dramatic change?

A: According to Arash Salardini of Yale School of Medicine and colleagues, "hard knocks from jousting, hawking and horseback riding may have left Henry VIII with traumatic brain injuries that muddled his thinking," says Laura Sanders in "Science News" magazine, drawing from the "Journal of Clinical Neuroscience." The monarch's memory problems, explosive anger and headaches could be explained by hard jousting knocks and a fall into a soggy ditch that left him dazed and unable to speak for two hours.

Though other ailments, such as syphilis and diabetes, have been advanced to account for Henry's erratic behavior, Salardini suggests that "traumatic brain injury seems to make the most sense."

Q: Just how astute are you at detecting BS when it comes your way?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines BS as "nonsense," but whatever you call it—"hooey," "drivel," "baloney," "balderdash," "blather"—it's not the same as lying," says Michael Shermer in "Scientific American" magazine, drawing on philosopher Harry Frankfurt's book on the subject. "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing BS requires no such conviction."

Psychologist Gordon Pennycook and colleagues set out to test the hypothesis that higher intelligence and superior analytical ability "lead to a greater capacity to detect or reject pretentious BS." They drew on the New Age Bullshit Generator for meaningless statements, such as "We are in the midst of a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself" and "Today, science tells us that the essence of nature is joy." In four studies of over 800 subjects, those measured to be more intelligent and analytical were less likely to rate such statements as profound. Revealingly, those most receptive to "pseudo-profound BS" were also more prone to conspiratorial ideas and paranormal beliefs, among others.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at sbtcolumn@gmail.com.


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