The Light Side: Why Your "Selfies" Never Look Good

April 4, 2014

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Ellen DeGeneres' "selfie" (a self-taken photo alone or with others, for those uninitiated in pop slang) on Academy Awards night became the most retweeted photo ever. The shot seen around the world, which captured Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper (to name several), could have been crowned the most beautiful selfie ever, too.

Why do celebrity selfies look effortlessly good while yours never do? Well, first, it's because they're celebrities, but there are other factors, too. We turn to science yet again for an explanation.

Barring the lens distortion in your camera and the lens distance based on your arm length, what you see in your selfies is not your mirror image but actually you. Unless you're a hardcore self-photographer, chances are you see more of your mirror image -- in the bathroom every day, for instance -- than you see yourself. And unless you have the perfect facial structure of a supermodel, your face is asymmetrical, which means your mirror image and your true image don't match up. The unfamiliarity with your actual face can be a little disconcerting.

"We see ourselves in the mirror all the time," said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Center, in The Atlantic. "Your features don't line up, curve, or  tilt the way you're used to viewing them," she explained.

If you prefer your mirror image over your true image, you're not alone. Writer Nolan Feeney in The Atlantic article refers to a 1977 University of Wisconsin study where the majority of participants liked their mirror images more and rationalized that their true faces looked different because of camera angle and lighting, among other factors, even though the mirror images were just reversals of the same photographic film negatives.

Conventional photos of you, taken by others, might look slightly better because of the farther distances at which they're taken, which flatten your face to more of your true proportions, and because of better cameras. But your up-close camera-phone selfies warp your facial geometry because of lens distance and distortion.

So if your significant other tells you that your looks were what first made you attractive, consider yourself lucky because you might have thought you put your best face forward but you really didn't. Also, if you think you look better with your hair parted one way in the mirror, you will need to start parting it on the other side, since that's the way others see you.

On that somewhat emotional bombshell, the only way to start liking your selfies is to take more of them. You will get used to seeing yourself more from other angles. This might be the only instance where familiarity doesn't breed contempt.

A College Writing Exercise in Scientific Obscurity

Scientific journals regularly peer-review and publish odd-science research papers, giving straitlaced scholars print space to present examinations into things from crustacean mating rituals to the five-second rule with tongue firmly in cheek and dignity maintained. But the world of academic publishing is cloaked in intrigue, commanded by overlords wielding such immense power that they can dash the hopes and dreams of researchers looking to be published with a wave of a finger.

OK, that was a bit of an exaggeration, but, according to a Sky News article, third-year natural science undergrads at the University of Leicester in England were exposed to the publishing process of peer-reviewed science journals with a project: Choose a topic, draft a paper, and then get together and decide which papers deserve to be published.

Students at Leicester took the lesson in academic publishing to heart. They looked into questions society has pondered for ages and penned essays with the grace of Peter Medawar.

One student determined Pinocchio could only lie 13 times before his neck would snap from the weight of his lengthened nose and head. Wrote the young researcher, "Lengthy, extensive lies are advised against, for the health and well-being of Pinocchio."

Disney characters were popular research subjects, as another student proffered the theory that Winnie the Pooh likely had a vitamin B12 deficiency as a result of a honey-exclusive diet. "Such a condition is common in those with restricted diets... coinciding with [anemia] where the patient... shows a paling of the skin."

Miley Cyrus swinging on a wrecking ball into a room was deemed an impossible fantasy. (Please reference the study subject here.) "Decelerations in the area of the value calculated are well beyond known limits to a what a human being can stand without severe injury, hence it is unlikely that such a feat could be achieved under these conditions," a paper debunked.

It is obvious that these young scribes are primed and ready to be published for real.

Forget the Barrels. Use a Petri Dish for Rocket Fuel

Two scientists at Georgia Tech’s BioEnergy Institute have engineered a bacterium to produce high-energy fuel that can be used in rockets, missiles, and other aerospace applications.

Created by Stephen Sarria and assistant professor Pamela Peralta-Yahya, the new fuel-production technology leverages a strain of E. coli to synthesize pinene, an energy-dense hydrocarbon found in pine trees.

In their method, the two young scientists use E. coli as a carrier for two enzymes, three pinene synthases, and three geranyl diphosphate synthases (both of which are found in trees). By inserting these enzymes into the bacteria, they turned the biological mechanisms of the organism into pinene-producing factories that yield a high-energy precursor to a tactical fuel.

Currently, JP-10, the most commonly used rocket fuel, is fairly difficult to produce with only a minute amount available per barrel of oil. Any new method for creating addition fuel could be a boon to the aerospace industry.

While the researchers’ work has yielded fine results, there’s still a lot of work to be done if their fuel synthesis method is to be commercially viable. At this point the duo’s most vexing problem is overcoming a bottleneck created by their method’s natural, biochemical processes.

Credit: NASA

“We found that the enzyme was being inhibited by the substrate, and that the inhibition was concentration-dependent,” said Peralta-Yahya. “Now we need either an enzyme that is not inhibited at high substrate concentrations, or we need a pathway that is able to maintain low substrate concentrations throughout the run. Both of these are difficult, but not insurmountable, problems.”

Back in their lab, the two researchers are forging ahead with their bio-engineered fuel-creation method and looking to increase their pinene yields. In the distant future, Peralta-Yahya and Sarria believe they’ll be able to compete with the $25/gal price point pegged to JP-10 fuel.

If they can reach that point, rocketry could become a lot less expensive, and E. coli might become the first bacteria to make a direct contribution to space exploration.

Artificial Tissue Could Replace Animals in Drug Testing
los alamos, tissue, artificial, drugs, organs,

Credit: Los Alamos National Lab

Animal testing has long been a thorn in the side of the pharmaceutical industry. Not only is the process anathema to medical ethics, it ruffles the feathers of many humans. To eliminate this conundrum, researchers at Los Alamos Laboratory are developing a miniaturized set of living human organs to be used for toxicity screening.

Called the Advanced Tissue-Engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer (ATHENA), the system is essentially a living kit of functional, cellphone-sized organs. Interconnected by artificial arteries and veins, ATHENA will consist of tissues that behave exactly like a human’s heart, lungs, kidney, and liver. With this system, researchers hope to bring about new methods for preliminary drug testing while possibly reducing the cost and time of pharmaceutical development. ATHENA would also give scientists a more accurate view of how drugs and chemicals react with human tissues, alerting researchers to potential toxic concoctions.

“By creating a holistic dynamic system that more realistically mimics the human physiological environment than static human cells in a dish, we can understand chemical effects on human organs as never before,” said Rashi Iyer, a senior scientist at Los Alamos. “The ultimate goal is to build a lung that breathes, a heart that pumps, a liver that metabolizes, and a kidney that excretes -- all connected by a tubing infrastructure much akin to the way blood vessels connect our organs.”

While some may scoff that a system like ATHENA will never be created, researchers at Los Alamos say they’re closer than many would believe to making the biological testing ground a reality. In fact, Iyer’s team plans to connect ATHENA’s heart and liver this winter, with its lungs and kidney joining the fold shortly thereafter.

While ATHENA certainly isn’t a human itself, one has to wonder whether the creation of such a system won’t lead to even greater ethical quandaries. For now, however, the development of the system continues, and in the near future the drugs you and I take might just be safeguarded by a set of disembodied human organs.

This article and the preceding article by Kyle Maxey were originally published on Engineering.com and are adapted in their entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.
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