MySci Round-Up August 5: "Tis true my form is something odd"

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On this day in 1862, Joseph Merrick, who would become famous as the “Elephant Man,” was born in Leicester in the UK. Merrick began to develop his assortment of severe facial and bodily abnormalities in the early years of his life, and a childhood accident damaged his hip and left him permanently lame. After the death of his mother when he was 11 and the remarriage of his father, Merrick was set adrift, and at 17 was forced to live in a workhouse—a prison for the poor—to survive. To escape that brutal existence, for a time he allowed himself to be exhibited as a sideshow attraction, but was cheated out of his earnings by an unscrupulous manager and ended up in the London Hospital. There, he was befriended by a kindly physician, Frederick Treves, and by the hospital’s chairman, Francis Carr Gomm, who arranged for him to live at the facility until his death at age 27 in 1890. Today, scientists  believe Merrick’s deformities may have been caused by a combination of neurofibromatosis type 1 and Proteus syndrome, a disease possibly linked to a genetic mutation. Nearly a century after his death, Merrick became the subject of a hit play and a successful movie, in large part because beneath his misshapen appearance, he was an intelligent, kindly and deeply spiritual man who endured his difficult lot in life with impressive grace. The well-read Merrick was fond of quoting the Isaac Watts poem “False Greatness”, which contains the line quoted in today’s headline. But we should also share another passage:

If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.

And with that, here are the MySci stories of the day:

Mice and fleas are spreading deadly plague in prairie dog towns. The grasshopper mouse carries fleas bearing the deadly bacterial disease from one prairie dog colony to another. As a result, the once-vast population of prairie dogs is being decimated.

Oil spill dispersant could damage coral in Gulf. Lab tests suggest that the chemical may stop coral larvae from latching onto the surfaces where they usually mature. 

Can disease-causing capabilities of an organism be predicted from its DNA? Unfortunately, probably not, or at least not in the near future, a National Research Council panel has concluded.

Hazardous orbital garbage hangs around longer than expected. Atmospheric compression, a side-effect of global warming, will keep the nasty detritus aloft longer, a UK study warns.

Adding selenium makes solar cells more efficient. New research shows that adding even a small amount of selenium enables solar panels to capture significantly more energy. It could be a big help in making solar energy a viable alternative to carbon-based fuels.