How To Listen To The Perseids

Reports of hearing meteors as they passed overheard were largely dismissed until about 20 years ago, when a scientist proved that very low-frequency radio waves could be picked up by certain objects, such as wire-rimmed glasses.

What's the Latest Development?


If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, and you happen to be viewing the Perseid meteor shower as it hits peak activity later this week and early next week, you might want to put on some wire-rimmed glasses...not to see better, but to hear better. Such glasses are among several objects -- including aluminum foil, dry leaves, and even frizzy hair -- that can receive, or transduce, the very low-frequency (VLF) radio waves produced by meteors as they pass overhead. The phenomenon, known as electrophonics, often results in observers hearing buzzing, hissing, or sizzling.

What's the Big Idea?

For centuries, people have reported hearing meteors as they moved through the sky, and up until 20 years ago, they were dismissed as fantasies. However, in 1992 physicist Colin Keay studied some of these reports and discovered that being near a transducer can allow sounds to reach human ears. And the effect wasn't limited to visible meteors: Many more that were invisible to the naked eye have been detected by their VLF signatures alone. NASA space physicist Dennis Gallagher says that Keay's research "[legitimized] the experiences of all those generations of people."

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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