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Monday Reads: The Laughter Edition

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View Shirley Hao's blog posts
25 April 2011, 4:41 AM
Have you ultrasonic vocalized today?
Cookie the Little Penguin is headed toward something good. Real good.

These days, it seems like the fossil fuel companies are the only ones having gigglefests.

BP checked off a tidy $9.9 billion tax deduction for its handiwork in the Gulf last year. A company calling itself “Making Money Having Fun LLC” is dumping 80 truckloads of coal ash a day onto Bokoshe, OK—a place where it’s become unusual not to know someone with illnesses like cancer or congestive heart disease. And in their rush to capitalize on the gas drilling boom, industry is exploiting loopholes in the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act that are large enough to drive leaky fracking wastewater trucks through.

Fortunately, the Internet has stepped in to reassure us that giggles have in fact not been monopolized by climate changing, water polluting, dirty energy enthusiasts. Cookie, a Little Penguin from Cincinnati, has his own set of giggles—which, with a little bit of help, he shares at the end of this video:

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has gleefully explored the topic of laughter in animals. By engaging in “heterospecific hand play” (don’t worry; that just means “tickling”) with lab rats, Panksepp discovered the rodents' own particular version of “ultrasonic vocalization” (aka, “laughter”).

I had the “insight” (perhaps delusion) that our 50 kHz chirping response in playing rats might have some ancestral relationship to human laughter. The morning after, I came to the lab and asked my undergraduate assistant at the time to “come tickle some rats with me.”

(Rats, apparently, are most ticklish at the nape of their neck.) Laughter has also been reported among gorillas, chimpanzees, dogs, and the 1.8 million YouTube viewers who’ve watched Cookie get ‘heterospecific hand played.’

Heterospecific laughter research is not without its own snickering detractors. But Panskepp and others see important unanswered questions, including peering into the unconsciousness (psychology professor Robert Provine: “We don't speak laughter the way we choose words in speech.”) and in uncovering treatments for hilarity’s dark twin: depression.

Cookie is having a good time in the video, but the long-term outlook for penguins isn’t so optimistic. Head over to our new Irreplaceable: Wildlife in a Warming World feature to learn more about their polar brethren, Emperor Penguins.

It may be a world full of grim news out there, but it’s never too late to balance things out with some ultrasonic vocalizations of your own. Here’s a suggestion to start—a light-hearted, easy primer answering what some of you may be wondering: Just what is ‘fracking’?

More Reads:

Shirley, you say: "...[The] industry is exploiting loopholes in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts..."

If I am not mistaken, one of Cheney's first acts as VP was to get all of those troublesome environmental bills exempted for domestic US gas/oil exploration and production. This was specifically to allow shale oil extraction, but the entire spectrum of the industry seems exempt now. Don't know that they need any loopholes these days.

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous! To elaborate on the Safe Water Drinking Act and Clean Air Act loopholes being used by the gas drilling industry:

The infamous "Halliburton Loophole" (section 322 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005) amended the Safe Water Drinking Act to exempt hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Act, unless the industry used diesel fuels for fracking. The very law that was designed to protect drinking water supplies from contamination by injection of liquid wastes into the ground, could no longer be used to regulate an industry that regularly blasts millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals directly into the earth.

Meanwhile, so many oil and gas wells fall into a Clean Air Act loophole—allowing them to escape air pollution regulation that other industrial sources must abide by—that areas in Wyoming now have poorer air quality than L.A. (Read more about this on Kathleen's post: "O Give Me A Home, Where The Skies Are...Oh Never Mind")

Fortunately, we now have a chance to close these loopholes with the proposed FRAC and BREATHE Acts. We'll keep you posted as these bills move forward in the House and Senate.

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