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Talk nerdy to me

This week, we take a look at how wasps’ nests help date ancient art, birds help spot illegal fishing, and cookies that are literally out of this world.

The sting of a lost culture

Whether it’s a cave in France or a the side of a subway car in New York City, humans love to decorate their environments. Art from the ancient world can tell us much about the lives of our ancestors, but we have to be able to date them first. 

<strong>The secret is in the mud.</strong> Scientists recently used organic material in mud wasp nests to date indigenous stone art in Australia. Courtesy Damien Finch. This is the problem scientists have run into when studying stone art in Australia’s Kimberly region. Because these paintings and engravings were made with inorganic material, researchers were previously unable to accurately date their creation – until now.

By studying ancient wasp nests below and on top of the pigment, one scientist was able to prove that the indigenous rock art can be dated back to 12,000 years ago. The wasps used charcoal from the surrounding landscape to line their nests, and the organic material helped date the paintings. 

Out-of-this-world cookies  

Astronauts on the International Space Station proved that it’s okay to have some fun with science by baking cookies in space for the first time. With dough in sealed plastic containers provided by the Hilton hotel chain, the astronauts baked five separate batches at different times and temperatures to understand how cooking in space differs from doing so on Earth.

<strong>All the comforts of home.</strong> Astronauts Luca Parmitano and Christina Koch successfully baked cookies in zero-gravity aboard the International Space Station. Courtesy NASA.What they found is that tasty treats baked outside our atmosphere take much longer than traditional cookies. The first cookie, baked at 300F, remained in the oven for 25 minutes and was still severely undercooked. It wasn’t until the fourth cookie, baked for two hours at 350F, when the astronauts confirmed the dessert was completely done.

Sadly, no one has eaten the cookies, as there’s no way to know if they are safe to consume. However, in the name of space history, one has been donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

Birds rat on fishing humans

That fish on your plate alongside those salty chips may have arrived there through illicit channels. Experts estimate that up to twenty percent of fish on the market may be the result of illegal fishing can cause lasting damage to our environment and threaten endangered species.

<strong>Sentinel of the sea.</strong> An albatross outfitted with a GPS tracker that will detect radar emissions from ships suspected of illegal fishing in remote seas. But the ocean is a really big place and catching wrong doers is a big challenge. That’s why scientists at the French National Center for Scientific Research have recruited birds to take up the task of surveillance. The researchers attached GPS trackers to nearly 200 albatrosses, who can glide at speeds up to 50mph and may spend years at sea without ever coming back to land. 

Capable of following fishing boats into remote regions out of reach of human monitoring, the birds’ trackers pick up radar emissions from ships and transmit their location. The collected data will help provide the first estimate of the extent of illegal fishing operations, and help track down those who exploit our oceans. 

Invisible traffic jam

Google Maps and other GPS apps make traveling so much easier, but they also might be hampering our ability to navigate ourselves around the world. Many people blindly follow Google Maps’ route advice, and a recent experiment shows how easily that system can be gamed.

Hacking Google Maps. Artist Simon Weckert created a virtual traffic jam by pulling a cart full of smartphones slowly through empty city streets. Courtesy Simon Weckert.

The Berlin-based artist Simon Weckert purchased 99 phones and equipped them all with Google Maps. Then, he walked down a nearly deserted street in Berlin with the devices in a cart behind him. To Google Maps, this looked like a huge cluster of traffic slowly trudging along, which made Google show the street as congested.

However, Google wasn’t upset with this experiment. In fact, they were delighted to have someone stress test their system. That said, this shows how easily widely used crowd-sourced tools can be fooled under the right circumstances. 

Predict your death

Even though you never see them, the microbes in your gut play a huge role in your life. We’ve found evidence that they can bring about symptoms associated with autism and may even contribute to depression. But a recent study discovered that these microorganisms might also play the role of psychic.

<strong>Gut instinct.</strong> A genetic study of a person’s gut bacteria is twenty percent better at detecting disease than analysis of that person’s own genes—though scientists aren’t sure why this is the case. Research from scientists at Harvard Medical School found that genetic study of gut microbes is twenty percent better at determining if a person is healthy than examining that person’s own genes. What’s more, gut microbial analysis is 50% better at predicting colorectal cancer than genome-wide association studies.

On top of that, an additional study utilizing stool samples found that an abundance of Enterobacteriacaea bacteria was linked to a 15% higher chance of dying in the next 15 years. Though it’s unclear why the microbiome is linked to disease, we need to study our own gut more if we want to continue to increase lifespans. Doctors involved in the study believe that combining analysis of both microbiome and human genetics could be used to improve patient quality of life.

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