The world is an amazing place where almost anything can happen. For instance, you may have never thought about conversing with pigs. Nor has Air Mail Pilot ever thought about conversing with pigs. But someone has: a professor at the University of Copenhagen. She not only thought about conversing with pigs, but then went and did something about it, compiling what The Times of London calls an “oink-tionary,” which “translates pig grunts into the emotions they represent.”
Elodie Mandel-Briefer is a biologist whose main field of research, according to her Web site, is “animal bioacoustics and behavioral biology, vocal expression and contagion of emotions in ungulates.” In other words, she studies how hoofed mammals like pigs, horses, camels, and sheep communicate with one another. “Pigs are very vocal,” she explained to The Times. They’re also famously smart and known to express emotion through sound, and thus made excellent subjects.
All told, Mandel-Briefer compiled and categorized over 7,000 sounds—squeals, oinks, grunts, whatever the porcine version of exasperated sighs are—from more than 400 pigs. “We cannot ask them to tell us how they feel,” she explained. (Like, What do they think about dopey puns like “oink-tionary”?) But her study began with the premise that some vocal emotions the pigs were expressing were obvious, because the pigs themselves were obviously happy. Or not.
“The positive emotions are usually the ones that are linked to situations that increase your chances of survival,” Mandel-Briefer said. “So, for instance, getting treats, suckling from the mother, reunion with the mother, these kind of things. The negative ones are the ones which would threaten the life, such as crushing, fighting.”
Generally speaking, shorter grunts were associated with happiness, longer grunts with unhappiness, and squealing with outright distress. Algorithms and artificial intelligence were then used to sort out pig sounds made in more ambiguous situations. Researchers also studied physical cues like heart rates to get a better sense of what the pigs might be feeling at any given moment.
The hope is that the research, aside from being cool, can be used to create tools to help pig farmers better monitor their animals and alleviate stress. All in all, Mandel-Briefer’s study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, claims 90 percent accuracy when it comes to translating what pigs are “saying.” If there’s a grunt that indicates, “No, ma’am, you’ve really only got things about 75 percent right,” it has yet to be recorded. —Bruce Handy
Spaceships have sent men to the moon and Jeff Bezos to the edge of space. As you read this, drones are collecting sand and dust on Mars. Despite these innovations, most astronomers are learning about the universe with the same instrument the Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus used to figure out that planets revolve around the sun: telescopes.
The telescopes that scientists use today are far more advanced than the ones from the 15th century. One of the greatest innovations came in 1990, when scientists launched the Hubble Space Telescope, which is 44 feet long, into space. The machine can detect light that takes 13.3 billion years to reach Earth. With it, scientists have created images of our planet that date back as much as 400 million years.
Over the last 25 years, NASA has teamed up with European and Canadian space agencies to create an even more powerful telescope. The monumental James Webb Space Telescope, which cost $10 billion to make, can look past gas and dust clouds to render crisp images of previously invisible stars. That range makes it “the ultimate time machine,” Roberto Maiolino, a professor at the University of Cambridge, told The Times of London.
Webb first launched on Christmas Day of 2021, and traveled to a part of space called L2, which is millions of miles away from Earth. The images it captured will be ready in June and are expected to reveal stars formed 70 million years after the Big Bang. While that sounds like a long time, it’s the cosmic equivalent of the time it takes to watch a TikTok.
Scientists around the world will use the images captured by the Webb telescope. Dr. Emma Curtis-Lake, an astrophysicist at the University of Hertfordshire, will use one of Webb’s instruments—the NIRCam—to “search for the very first stars,” she told The Times. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, Dr. Olivia Jones will figure out exactly how stars were first created. Other astronomers will search the universe for unknown planets that orbit sun-like stars.
“You may have heard the phrase ‘We’re all made of stardust,’” said Dr. Jones. Turns out, “it’s true.” —Elena Clavarino
Little kids will find any reason to avoid combing their hair. But no one has an excuse quite like Locklan Samples, a 17-month-old boy who lives in Roswell, Georgia.
Last summer, Locklan’s mom, Katelyn, posted a cute photo of her son, then 10 months old, on Instagram. In the picture, Locklan’s blonde hair looked the way it always does: wild, bolting straight up on his head. His locks look more like a mad-professor wig, or the aftermath of an electric shock, than a bad hair day.
Soon after posting the photo, she received a message from a woman asking if Locklan had been diagnosed with uncombable-hair syndrome (U.H.S.). Like most people, Katelyn had never heard of the disease. But her son’s hair was definitely uncombable. “It can’t be tamed,” she told The Washington Post. “Nothing can fix it.”
Concerned, Katelyn called her pediatrician. He hadn’t heard of the condition either, but referred her to a dermatologist in Atlanta, where doctors diagnosed Locklan with U.H.S., the result of a rare genetic disorder that affects the hair shaft. “When you look under the microscope, you can see that instead of having hairs that are cylinder shape… the shaft of the hair is actually more in a triangular shape,” Dr. Carol Cheng, a pediatric dermatologist at U.C.L.A., toldABC News.
“At first, you see ‘syndrome’ and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ like, is something wrong with my baby?” Katelyn told Good Morning America. “Is he in pain or something?” Luckily, discomfort isn’t associated with the condition. The main challenge is that Locklan’s hair is fragile and tangles easily. Because of that, Katelyn rarely washes it.
There are about 100 diagnosed cases of U.H.S. in the entire world. It’s only found in children with blonde hair, and kids between the ages of three months and 12 years. While there’s no known cure for the syndrome, it seems to go away with time.
In her search for more information about the little-known condition, Katelyn stumbled upon a Facebook group dedicated to kids with U.H.S. In it, members exchange tips, hairstyle ideas, and wisdom. (It was through this community that Katelyn learned washing her son’s hair less is actually better for it.)
With a nudge from her husband, Katelyn started an Instagram account, @uncombable_locks, to share photos of Locklan’s unruly tresses, and “to spread some joy on the Internet.” That account now has 43,900 followers, and has earned Locklan a huge fan club. (One follower wrote “I love him so much!!!” while another commented, “Loving his fuzz top and mullet in the back. Shall we just say he’s rocker chic?”)
Locklan’s hair gets attention offline, too. Strangers frequently stop the toddler and ask to touch his hair. It’s “extremely soft, like a little baby chick,” Katelyn told Good Morning America. It’s “fine with us, as long as people ask.” —Bridget Arsenault