Israel Matters! – September 2023

More Israeli Weird Science!

In the February 2022 issue of Israel Matters we introduced you to a goldfish that could drive its fish tank around the campus of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Tel Aviv research that detected liars based on the movements of facial muscles, and 3D-printed meatless meat inspired by research at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. A year and a half later, and just in time for Rosh Hashanah when we should be inspired by fresh ideas and new thoughts, Israel Matters is proud to present an encore edition of Israeli Weird Science.

We begin with a novel study of urban heat islands in Tel Aviv.  It is well-known that large cities contain numerous microclimates with surprisingly large variations in temperature, humidity, and precipitation across different areas. Researchers wanted to locate and characterize heat islands in Tel Aviv, but there was a problem attacking this via traditional means. While standard meteorological stations are equipped to measure weather and climate-related indicators with precision, in Tel Aviv there are only four such stations (the stars in the map below), making it impossible to characterize other parts of the urban microclimate from those stations alone. The novel solution? Holy climate change Batman – the Bat Lab at Tel Aviv University (and yes there is such a thing) maintains a bat colony for all manner of bat-related studies. The researchers attached heat sensors to bats from the colony, and released the now data-collecting bats all over the city. As Prof. Yossi Yovel explained, “Bats are much better fliers than drones – they can fly 100 kilometers in a single night, and they are there when the urban heat island effect is at its peak.” But how were the data retrieved from the bats? Just like ET, bats want to go home! So, from wherever the bats were released, they flew above the city and had no trouble returning to their bat cave in Herzliya (top left-most dot in map). Along the way the bats collected sufficient data that, when pooled together, produced the most detailed map of Tel Aviv’s microclimate ever created. For example, the bats revealed that the temperature above the Ayalon Highway that slices north-south through Tel Aviv is about 5 degrees Celsius (or 9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in surrounding areas. Similar temperature differences were detected between parks and densely populated urban neighborhoods.

The researchers’ success using the bats suggests that animals can facilitate collecting data in other difficult terrain. Prof. Yovel volunteered another idea: instead of monitoring pollution in the sewage system via expensive (and failure prone) equipment, why not rely on moles that regularly frequent the sewers? That would be a whole new level of MOLE-cular science!   

From bats we switch to human hearing loss with the news that the Israeli startup Nuance, a company that focuses on hearing technology, has been purchased by the French-Italian eyewear group EssilorLuxottica. Why would a company best known for sunglasses like Oakley and Ray-Ban buy a startup focused on hearing loss? Here’s where the science gets weird – the idea is to produce eyewear that helps you, uhhhh, hear better. Now, there actually is a long history of baking hearing aids into glasses, as we at Israel Matters can attest from experience. Indeed, back in the days of bulkier hearing aids, it was commonplace for the tech in such aids to be encased in rather large, boxy-like temples that were the ultimate nerd glasses. Once upon a time, one of your faithful Israel Matters reporters slept through a friend’s banging on the bedroom door to wake up in time for a concert. Having failed to awaken, a second friend admonished the first for not having made enough noise with “You idiot, you think he sleeps with his glasses on?” But how could stylish Oakley’s like the shades shown here benefit from Israeli hearing tech? This is the beauty of Israeli weird science! Nuance specializes in beamforming technology that provides directional support for the hearing impaired. They provide a solution to what might be called the “cocktail party problem” (or perhaps the TBS Morning Minyan coffee problem) of picking out speech in noisy social situations (like Morning Minyan coffee), or classrooms for that matter.  EssilorLuxottica wants to seamlessly embed Nuance beamforming tech into their eyewear with a promise that the audio component will be invisible! By doing so, EssilorLuxottica’s CEO claims that “…as we did in the vision space, we will be the first to remove the stigma of the traditional hearing solutions, replacing it with comfort and style.”

We have one other innovation to report. According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease remains a leading cause of death accounting for roughly 15% of all deaths worldwide each year. Heart transplantation is often the only treatment available to patients at end-stage heart disease, but the supply of healthy hearts is understandably limited. It would be such a gift to the world if somehow this problem could be addressed.

Scientists at Tel Aviv University have achieved an important milestone in addressing this issue. Professor Tal Dvir and colleagues have employed 3D printing to successfully print a small human heart, replete with blood vessels, ventricles, and chambers.  This achievement does not mean that hearts can be printed on demand as needed. However, as reported in the journal Advanced Science, “…as a proof of concept…these results demonstrate the potential of the approach for engineering personalized tissues and organs…” Prof. Dvir added that “Maybe, in ten years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely.” You can view a video of the heart being printed here; the resulting heart is shown below.

That wraps up this edition Israel Matters. We wish all of our readers שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה — a good, happy and sweet new year to you all.