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Talk nerdy to me

This week, we’re discussing how dogs count, what happens when you freeze LEGO blocks to near absolute zero, and the fact that scientists know what they’re talking about when it comes to climate change.

Counting like a dog

We humans tend to think our brains are special. While it’s true we’re probably the only animals to make it to the moon – except for those tardigrades – a lot of our abilities aren’t as unique as we might think.

Dogs spontaneously process basic numerical quantities, using a distinct part of their brains that corresponds closely to number-responsive neural regions in humans. Courtesy Emory University.

For instance, scientists at Emory University discovered that dogs are able to process numerical quantities—and they don’t need to be trained to do it. What’s more, both humans and dogs use a similar part of their brain when working on a problem involving numbers.

The researchers scanned dog’s brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and found that the dogs’ parietotemporal cortex automatically reacted to a change in the number of dots on a screen. Such skills help estimate the amount of food available for foraging or the number of predators approaching for an attack.

The similarity of neural mechanisms across species gives researchers clues about how human brains evolved, and how they function. One day, these insights could help reseachers treat brain abnormalities or improve AI. 

Would you endure an hour-long hug for science?

While that brain imaging study is going to the dogs, two other groups of scientists are working on something you probably never thought we’d need – fMRI machines built for two people.

<strong>Neuroscientists hope</strong> that an experimental functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine that allows the brains of two patients to be scanned at the same time will lead to insights about how we socialize and communicate. Courtesy Ray Lee.Because a standard fMRI machine is already a tight squeeze for one person, scientists who want to study the brain’s reactions to social and emotional factors have had to rely on showing subjects static photos or playing pre-recorded speech.

A new, experimental fMRI configuration allows two people to lie face-to-face with legs touching in a near-cuddling pose. Researchers want to use this to answer questions like: Does brain activity differ when listening to a live person versus a recording? What brain networks light up when people make eye contact.

Ray Lee, a neuroscientist at Columbia University believes that studying two subjects who are face-to-face in an fMRI will capture aspects of socializing that have so far been overlooked. Ultimately, the project could help scientists better understand the deeper inner workings of communication.

Cool new uses for LEGO 

LEGO are some of the most versatile toys on the planet. Their popularity—which contributes to the 75 billion bricks sold every year— is rooted in their ability to become anything a maker can imagine.

<strong>LEGO blocks frozen</strong> to near absolute zero may offer new options for building the next generation of dilution refrigerators, used for experimental physics and engineering. Courtesy Lancaster University. Physicists at Lancaster University  decided to take this creativity to the next level by cooling some LEGO blocks to near absolute zero temperatures.

The researchers placed a LEGO figure and four interlocked LEGO blocks into the most effective dilution refrigerator in the world, then brought the temperature down to -459.67 Fahrenheit (-273.15 Celsius)—200,000 times colder than room temperature.

Not only did the LEGO survive the deep freeze, but the clamping between the blocks caused them to behave as a good thermal insulator. If plastic structures such as LEGO could be used to create the next era of dilution refrigerators, it would bring the cost down enormously. Which is good news for the experimental physics that rely on the technology—including development of quantum computers.

Chomping through plastic waste

From our oceans to the air we breathe, plastic permeates every part of our existence. In fact, if you include what you inhale, the average person consumes more than 74,000 microplastic particles every single year.

Mealworms can eat polystyrene containing a common toxic chemical additive and still be safely used as protein-rich feedstock for other animals. Courtesy Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Along with limiting future plastic consumption, we also need to figure out what to do with all the garbage we already have. Scientists have suspected for a while that mealworms might help us solve this problem, but new research out of Stanford University is taking it a step further.

The Stanford scientists found that mealworms that eat polystyrene containing toxic chemicals are actually safe for consumption. Don’t worry though, it’s not humans that would eat the worms, but livestock, in the form of a protein-rich additive. This would not only allow us to reduce the amount of plastic in the world, but also cut down on the land required to feed the animals we eat. 

Reach for the stars

The US is notorious for its high rate of incarceration. In fact, the land of the free is home to around 2.24 million prisoners, accounts for about 22 percent of the global prison population.

<strong>Star students.</strong> Incarcerated students at the Rincon unit of the Arizona state prison complex attended a class led by University of Arizona astronomy professor Ed Prather. Courtesy Arlene Islas/University CommunicationsFor some professors at the University of Arizona, one way out of this predicament is to bring educational resources to the incarcerated. Prisoners at the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson who take part in the university’s Prison Education Project can take courses in English, anthropology, writing, and more.

But one of the highest turnouts has been for astronomy. Students learn about topics like the time it takes light from other galaxies to reach Earth and the birth and death of stars. You might think that people in prison wouldn’t care what is happening so far away. But one of the inmates says the classes are important to him because they give him something new to think about.

He and the other participants are discovering things they never previously thought they’d be interested in. So while one classroom contemplating the cosmos won’t fix the whole country’s prison problem, it just might change a few lives.

Science wins again

Surprise! Scientists were right about global warming. Who would have guessed that some of the most educated people on the planet could make accurate predictions about the topics they study? 

<strong>Told you so.</strong> A retrospective study evaluated the performance of all global climate models published from the 1970s to 2007. The result? We knew what was coming. More specifically, a recent study looking at all the global climate models from the 1970s through 2007 found that most past predictions on global warming were accurate. The major discrepancy the researchers found was that past models didn’t make the right assumptions about how bad future carbon emissions would be.

Emissions predictions are difficult – dependent upon population growth, and economic and energy landscape changes. But the relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming were spot on. When the updated emissions figures were plugged into the formulas, the models were correct.

So, you can count this one for the scientists. We haven’t been keeping track, but we think the score is something like 1,383,475,283 to 0 at this point.

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