A little Perspective

Published April 29, 2007

Tale of the dog's tail

There is a newly discovered feature of dog body language that may surprise even attentive pet owners. When dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps. When they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left. A study describing the phenomenon, "Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli, " appears in Current Biology.

Big city, fast walkers

Turns out, there is a scientific basis for the New York Minute. As a city grows, everything goes far faster, including the speed at which people walk. This is one of the findings of a provocative study with a dull title - "Growth, Innovation, Scaling and the Pace of Life in Cities" - published in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (read it in full at pnas.org). It's an important study now that more than half the world's population lives in cities.

Eggs for her 7-year-old

Slate reports that a woman is freezing her eggs so her daughter can use them to have a baby. The daughter is 7 years old and genetically infertile. Mom's rationale: "Parents are there to help (their) children, and if she would have needed anything else, an organ, a kidney, I would give it to her without hesitation." Slate predicts that by the time this girl is old enough to use her mom's eggs, our culture will no longer find it shocking.


The Irish Times reports that text messaging on cell phones may have begun to diminish writing standards in English. That worry comes directly from the Irish Department of Education's chief examiner in the subject, who laments how "text messaging, with its use of phonetic spelling and little or no punctuation, seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing." Reviewing higher-level or honors papers of Irish teenagers, he says the frequency of errors of grammar, punctuation, idiomatic usage and appropriateness of register was of concern.

A chicken in your tank

Top chicken and oil companies are teaming up to make diesel fuel from animal fat. Players: ConocoPhillips and Tyson Foods. The fuel will be in gas stations by year's end; the annual output target for 2009 is 175-million gallons. ConocoPhillips has been making diesel from soybean oil since last year; BP and DuPont have been trying to make fuel from sugar beets; Chevron has been trying to make biofuel from wood. Big picture: It's another step in the merger of energy with agriculture.

The heart in the brain

Neuroscience is discovering that the brain isn't a single organ but rather an assembly of modules that sometimes cooperate and sometimes compete, the New York Times reports. Often feel as though two parts of your brain are fighting it out? In fact, they are. Some of those fights are about morality. Emotion tells you one thing; reason tells you another. Often, the reasoning side makes calculations: For example, letting old people die is tragic, but medical dollars are better spent on saving kids. A new study in Nature shows what happens in a particular kind of brain damage, when the emotional side gets knocked out and the person becomes like Mr. Spock in the old Star Trek. Calculation takes over. Take a kidney? Kill your son? Push a guy in front of a trolley? If it'll save more lives, sure. No worries. The study's authors argue that emotions are necessary to produce "normal judgments of right and wrong."