Internet Roundup – Trivial Science

The biggest recent story in science news has been, well, as big as things can possibly get: scientists manning the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole announced the discovery of gravitational waves, direct evidence of the inflation of the universe hypothesized to have occurred in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang. Yet most researchers work on problems far less cosmic. What follows is a collection of articles on topics more likely to arise around the dinner table then across the universe.

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize, awarded to achievements that “first make people laugh” and then make them think. Courtesy of the BBC.

Scientific American: Fact or Fiction?: The 5-Second Rule for Dropped Food – Whether in the kitchen or at an outdoor barbeque, many people rely on the “five-second rule” to determine if a fumbled foodstuff is still safe to eat. Larry Greenemeier talks with an array of microbiologists to learn just how quickly bacteria can hitch a ride on fallen edibles.

The Atlantic: Chemists Decree: Don’t Pee in the Pool – What your mother always told you turns out to be good advice, at least in this case. As Julie Beck explains, urine and chlorine mix to produce chemicals that are far more harmful than either component.

XKCD What If?: Today’s topic – Lightning – Randall Munroe, author of the webcomic “xkcd,” has quite a reputation for tracking down the answers to offbeat science questions, especially those regarding danger to life and limb. This collection of lightning-related responses is no exception; if you’ve ever wondered what happens if a bolt strikes a bullet, prepare to have your curiosity satisfied.

SIAM Blogs: Perfect Billion-Dollar Madness – As the men’s NCAA basketball tournament enters its “Sweet Sixteen” round, sports fans across the country are mourning the loss of their perfect brackets. Tim Chartier’s analysis of just how unlikely such a bracket is may help soften the disappointment.

Popular Science: Goats Found To Be Much Smarter Than Previously Believed – Primates and dolphins get the most positive press in terms of nonhuman intelligence, but scientists are finding out that the barnyard also contains some big brains. As reported by Douglas Main, goats display surprising spatial reasoning and memory abilities.

The Scicurious Brain: IgNobels 2013! Beauty is in the eye of the beer0holder – The pun in the title of this article is, surprisingly, sourced from the original research it describes. The winners of the 2013 IgNobel Prize in psychology, as discussed by the eponymous blogger behind Scicurious, took a careful look at the “beer goggles” effect that causes drinkers to perceive themselves as more attractive.

Dog Spies: Is DOGTV Right for Our Nation’s Dogs? – What seems like a silly concept—a TV station for canines—turns out to have serious implications. Julie Hecht ties DOGTV into the larger animal psychology concept of “enrichment” and examines whether the tube is really sufficient to engage a pet’s attention.


Bring In Your Dead – Neanderthal Burials

Over the past decade or so, the term “Neanderthal” has become much less of an insult. While some still may use the name of humanity’s closest extinct ancestor to denote stupid or “primitive” behavior, scientists have determined that the ancient hominids were much more similar to Homo sapiens than was previously thought. Neanderthals had larger brains than do modern humans and may have produced cave paintings before humans did; they also almost certainly interbred with the first people to emerge from Africa approximately 100,000 years ago. Where there are weddings, there are usually funerals, and the Neanderthals were no exception: recent evidence suggests that the hominids intentionally buried their dead.

Artist’s reconstruction of a Neanderthal man. Courtesy of the Telegraph.

The first support for this conclusion came from a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, an area in the southwest of France. In 1908, two brothers by the name of Bouyssonie with an interest in archeology  excavated the site to discover a Neanderthal skeleton, nearly 60,000 years old and almost entirely complete. The bones of the “old man of La Chapelle,” as he came to be known, showed signs of serious osteoarthritis and tooth loss, suggesting that he required the support of a family group for years before his demise. When that demise came, the Bouyssonie brothers hypothesized, it was reasonable that his family would have respected his death with a proper burial.

After over a hundred years, William Rendu and an international team of researchers have reexamined the evidence of La Chapelle to confirm the intentionality of the old man’s repose. The archeologists and anthropologists studied a number of aspects of the site, with particular focus on the soil around the skeleton and the status of the bones. By looking at the strata, or the layers of dirt in the burial pit, the scientists determined that its construction “cannot be explained by natural events.” The articulation, or relative positioning of the bones, was also mostly intact, and the bones themselves had few signs of weathering or scavenging. These observations show that the old man’s body was inhumed soon after death, as might be expected for an intentional burial.

Other Neanderthal skeletons have shown even more convincing evidence for funeral rites. For example, an entire family was found buried at Sima de las Palomas in southeastern Spain, each member with arms carefully folded and hands placed near their heads. In Iraq, at a site known as the Shanidar Cave, one skeleton was surrounded by the remains of flowers, perhaps the last tribute of the family towards the departed.

While it is impossible to know exactly what significance death held for our ancient ancestors, the research suggests that they grappled with the unknown much as we do today. Neanderthals offered respect for the dead, placed them in safety and security and may have given them tokens to take into the afterlife. Further research into these ancient burials promises to illuminate the beginnings of how we as humans learned to deal with the end.


Hulking Hemispheres – Training the Brain

Your local Planet Fitness might rack up significantly more members if it advertised workouts that could be done in pajamas. After all, that strategy has worked brilliantly for the San Francisco–based Lumosity. Admittedly, the company’s focus isn’t exactly pumping iron: Lumosity bills its services as providing a fitness center for the brain, complete with daily exercises and a “personal trainer” algorithm that adjusts to meet each member’s goals.

Lumosity claims that training with its games can improve five core areas of cognition. Courtesy of Lumosity.

Over 50 million people currently train with Lumosity, paying up to $14.95 per month for the privilege of accessing the company’s array of brain games. Each activity claims to focus on one of five mental skills, including attention, flexibility and problem solving. In “Waiter,” for example, the player must recall the names and orders of a string of animated customers to earn larger tips. After playing a few rounds of the game, I found myself remembering that the man in the tacky tracksuit was named Charles, while the smartly dressed brunette was Elizabeth. But do these improvements carry over from earning virtual coin to navigating the real world?

According to a recent meta-analysis (a study of other studies) conducted by University of Oslo education researcher Monica Melby-Lervåg, winning “Waiter” may only make someone better at winning “Waiter.” Study participants who played working memory games did show short-term improvements in this skill, but their abilities to recall words and visuals returned nearly to baseline levels after the training regimen. Additionally, the games had no effect on other cognitive skills, such as basic math and focus. Studies of popular products such as “Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training,” a game for the Nintendo DS handheld console, have also shown little evidence for “functional impacts.”

As might be expected, Lumosity’s in-house research team, the Human Cognition Project, has reported more positive results. In a 2011 study by Lumos Labs, adults who completed a daily 20 minutes of training for five weeks showed significant improvements in performance on working memory and visual attention tasks they had not previously faced. But some independent researchers have also found promise in the use of video games for enhancing mental fortitude. For example, a Nature paper by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, determined that a game called “Neuroracer” could boost multitasking ability, as well as a suite of untargeted brain functions. Impressively, these effects were strong in players aged 60 to 85, a demographic that Lumosity had previously identified as benefiting comparatively little from brain training.

In the words of Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, this kind of easy and effective intervention for older people represents a “holy grail” for neuroscientists. Mental diseases of the elderly such as Alzheimer’s have proven notoriously difficult to treat, and the prevalence of American patients with this condition is predicted to reach 13.8 million by 2050. Dr. Doraiswamy warns that the hype surrounding brain training products goes “beyond the data,” saying that the programs “need large national studies before you can conclude that [they’re] ready for prime time.” But although the scientific results to date have been mixed, the potential of games to improve the lives of the elderly (and beef up the brains of the rest of us) is certainly worth exploring.

Internet Roundup – IN SPAAAACE!

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of “Cosmos,” as I discussed in my recent review, relies heavily on blockbuster computer-generated imagery to ground viewers in the immense scale of the universe. However, humanity has acquired plenty of actual images from the cosmos that are no less inspiring. Moving outward from our own planet, here’s a small collection of thought-provoking shots from space.

Can you find one of the only personal homes visible from space? Courtesy of NASA.

Looking down from the International Space Station, astronauts can see Earth’s cities aglow with electric light. But one of the most interesting features in Tokyo is instead conspicuous by its darkness. The dark spot in the middle of this photograph represents the palace of the Japanese emperor and his household, set off from the urban sprawl of the city by a large park.

Not exactly Pink Floyd’s version, but the dark side of the moon nonetheless. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

If this picture of the Moon looks somehow off, it’s because this view is impossible to obtain from Earth. Because the Moon’s rotational period is exactly the same as its orbital period, only one of its hemispheres is visible on our planet’s surface. The Apollo astronauts, however, were able to snap this picture of the far side in the course of their mission.

A time-lapse of the death of Comet ISON. Courtesy of ESA.

The fame of Comet ISON was much like its lifespan: brief. As seen in this composite image of the comet’s path, it swung in from the outer solar system to pass barely over a million kilometers from the surface of the Sun, absorbing heat and being torn apart by gravity.

Neptune’s rings are a far cry of the famous ones surrounding Saturn. Courtesy of Universe Today.

While Saturn’s rings are by far the most famous in the solar system, others of the gas giants have their own systems of orbiting particles. Neptune has five rings, but they are so faint that their existence wasn’t definitively established until the flyby of the Voyager 2 probe in 1989.

This false-color image of the “Mystic Mountain” is one of Hubble’s finest images. Courtesy of NASA, ESA, M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team.

The Hubble Space Telescope, over the course of its nearly 24 years in orbit, has revealed unforeseen beauty in the outer reaches of space. This mountain of gas resides in the Carina Nebula, 7500 light-years from earth, and contains an array of young stars within itself that release the dramatic jets seen in the image. Yet the “Mystic Mountain” wouldn’t appear as beautiful to the naked eye; the colors of this picture represent different elements present in the nebula.

The Sombrero Galaxy, perhaps the most creatively named of all galaxies. Courtesy of NASA/ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team.

Earth’s location, as Carl Sagan so often discussed on the original version of “Cosmos,” is nothing particularly special. But it does afford us some spectacular vantage points of astronomical objects, such as this edge-on view of the Sombrero Galaxy taken by Hubble. The swirl of dust on the outside of the galaxy stretches over 300,000 light-years, and the galaxy itself is 28 million light-years from Earth.

TV Review – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Carl Sagan, famed astronomer and science communicator (and indirect namer of this blog), made perhaps his largest contribution to popular culture through the miniseries “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” originally aired in 1980 on the Public Broadcasting Service. The 13-episode program took viewers from the microscopic worlds inside their cells to the edge of the visible universe, sharing the science of the era in an easily accessible but still comprehensive fashion. Now, one of Sagan’s proteges, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is anchoring a reboot of the series titled “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on FOX and Mondays at 10 p.m. on National Geographic.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey reimagines the groundbreaking series developed by Carl Sagan. Courtesy of Slate.

The result, debuted last Sunday, is as much a reflection on current popular and political culture as it is a exploration of scientific knowledge. The most obvious way in which the new “Cosmos” is grounded in the present is its whiz-bang presentation: Sagan’s original “ship of the imagination,” the device that transports the viewer around the universe, is updated into a sleek, shining craft that has drawn comparisons to the latest Star Trek movies and Eve from Disney’s “WALL-E.” The rest of the graphics of space share that high-budget Hollywood blockbuster polish, as might be expected from a prime-time television series; executive producer Seth MacFarlane, better known as the creator of “Family Guy,” has a keen understanding of the modern viewer’s visual expectations.

Yet MacFarlane’s influence is also felt in an extended animated sequence discussing the 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno, one of the first men to explore the idea of a universe not centered around the Earth, that strays from the main thrust of the series. The story plays up the conflict between Bruno’s open-minded speculation and the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church of the era, making this personal battle the focus of roughly a quarter of the hourlong episode. The whole segment seems to magnify the supposed conflict between religion and science (perhaps capturing the spirit of the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation debate); although Sagan was a confirmed skeptic of the supernatural, he wrote brilliantly on the sense of spiritual wonder to be found in science and led efforts to unite religious leaders in environmental advocacy. Instead of uniting viewers in wonder, Bruno’s story feels like a dig at the portion of the audience for whom the program is arguably most important.

“Cosmos” finally hits its stride after returning to the conceit of the “Cosmic Calendar” used in the original series. By condensing all of time into a single year, Tyson effectively communicates the mind-blowing scope of the universe and the miniscule amount of it occupied by recorded human history (approximately 14 seconds). This reminder of the original program is followed by a touching tribute in which Tyson shares the story of his first meeting with Sagan. The human element of this segment, focused on the positive interaction of minds and the continuity of scientific exploration, is far more uplifting and powerful than the tale of Bruno and provides an example of the stories “Cosmos” should pursue moving forward.

News Flash – Greenpeace Protests Proctor & Gamble

CINCINNATI — Nine activists from the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace led a protest of consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble on Tuesday, charging the company with complicity in the destruction of Indonesian rainforests to establish palm tree plantations. The protesters rappelled down the twin towers of P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters, revealing two 60-foot banners reading “Head and Shoulders wipes out dandruff and rainforests” and “Head & Shoulders: Stop putting tiger survival on the line.”

Greenpeace activists unfurled two banners on the buildings of Proctor & Gamble’s Cincinnati headquarters. Courtesy of WCPO.

According to Greenpeace, the palm oil found in P&G products such as Head & Shoulders shampoo and Gillette shaving cream is often sourced from plantations grown in clear-cut tropical areas. This practice endangers the habitat of numerous vulnerable species, among them the charismatic Sumatran tiger. One of the activists dressed in a tiger suit during the action to focus particular attention on the threat posed to this animal.

P&G’s official materials claim that the company is “strongly opposed to irresponsible and/or illegal deforestation practices” and promise that all of its palm oil will be purchased from confirmed sustainable sources by 2015. However, Greenpeace researchers argue that the firm’s supply chain includes environmentally unfriendly companies such as BW Plantations, which was recently charged with the destruction of prime orangutan habitat in central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The nine protesters reportedly gained access to P&G “via a third party who shares a P&G office space,” according to spokeswoman Lisa Popyk. After climbing through the windows of the buildings and establishing the banners, the group maintained the action for approximately an hour before peacefully submitting to law enforcement. Each activist was charged with felony counts of burglary and vandalism, with possible indictment scheduled for March 14. The group is currently free on $50,000 cash bonds for each member, posted by Greenpeace.