Article explores advances in prosthetic limbs; book examines unusual animals

September 24, 2012
Robotics
That old-time feeling
TheScientist, September edition

Prosthetic limbs have come a long way in recent decades. By using electrodes that can receive signals from nerve endings, for example, scientists have developed robotic arms that their patients can control using only their thoughts. But because prosthetic limbs cannot relay sensory information back to the user’s body, it’s difficult for people to use them for complex or delicate tasks. In this month’s issue of TheScientist, Megan Scudellari writes about researchers trying to develop a prosthetic arm that can give people a sense of touch. One provocative idea being tested: Rewiring a patient’s nerves. “When individuals lose a limb, no matter how high the point of amputation, they still retain the ends of the nerves that used to travel to that limb,” writes Scudellari. Scientists have developed surgeries that reroute those nerves into a patient’s chest muscles, which amplify their signals. So, if you were to touch that area of the patient’s chest with a needle, they would register the prick as if it were being applied to their missing arm. The next step will be to develop a mechanism that relays information from a robotic arm to that spot on the chest, imbuing a cold hunk of metal with a sense of feeling — a life-changing technology that for now, unfortunately, is still in the lab.

Biology
Weird wildlife
“Unusual Creatures,” Chronicle Books

There are the beautiful, majestic creatures of this world and then there’s the sea pig, a three-inch eyeless blob of flesh that lives in the darkest depths of the ocean. It’s hard to love but interesting to read about. In “Unusual Creatures,” Michael Hearst — a writer, composer and musician — provides a compendium of playfully worded profiles of the world’s most eccentric organisms from the axolotl (a salamander-type creature that can regenerate its lost body parts) to the yeti crab (which has hairy bristles on its arms). The weirdest: The giant Gippsland earthworm, an Australian worm that can grow up to 10 feet long. The grossest: The hagfish, a snakelike deep-sea invertebrate that fends off predators by secreting gobs of slime. Not all of Hearst’s critters are stomach-churners. A few, like the echidna (an Australian hedgehog) are cute enough that they might not even belong in the book. The illustrations and diagrams by Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright and Jelmer Noordeman provide a lot of the book’s entertainment, but Hearst does his best to cram the pages full of offbeat factoids, jokes and even a few poems. A companion CD, sold separately, features instrumental songs inspired by unusual animals and performed by such groups as the Kronos Quartet. Marketed to a middle-school audience, the book has a sophisticated goofiness aimed at hipster moms and dads, too.


Book cover, “Unusual Creatures” by Michael Hearst. (Chronicle Books/Chronicle Books)

Aaron Leitko

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