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Talk nerdy to me

The weather is warm, the sun is shining, and it’s time to focus on some fun and interesting science stories. This week, we’re discussing our plastic problem, taking a tour of a snot palace, using AI to tackle poverty from space, and so much more.

Tracking prosperity from space

<strong>Follow the money.</strong> Satellite data and AI can track prosperity indicators like road development and the prevalence of electric light in developing countries to provide more accurate measures of changing wealth levels over time. When attempting to combat poverty in developing nations, one of the most challenging aspects is understanding what works and what doesn’t. For instance, measuring tools like censuses and door-to-door surveys often fail in African countries for a variety of reasons.

To help gauge if communities there are thriving or continuing to struggle, Stanford scientists have turned to satellites and artificial intelligence. Specifically, they use satellite data to track things like road development during the day and the number of electric lights glowing at night. 

Both of these metrics, measured over a long enough timespan, can give researchers a sense of how financial circumstances are changing on the ground. A test of the method’s accuracy followed 20,000 villages from 2009 to the present, and found that it worked at gauging how wealth levels had changed over time.

Birds of a feather talk together (or do they?)

If you’re having a bad day, here’s something that may cheer you up – some scientists spend their careers studying bird dialects.

<strong>Say what?</strong> Some birds are born knowing how to sing, while others must learn language from their parents and community. For learners, copying sometimes leads to mistakes—and those mistakes become local dialects. This job, while being adorable, also serves a necessary function. Just like humans, birds want to find mates that “speak” like they do. What’s more, scientists have found that bird dialects parallel those of humans quite closely. For example, bird dialects shift over time, and certain ways of chirping can disappear as humans destroy natural areas. 

Some birds learn to sing from those around them, rather than innately knowing how. Scientists have found that these learning birds will copy their companions even if the other birds make a mistake. These slip-ups are then passed down through the generations, eventually forming a new dialect.

Shifts in dialects can happen quickly—such as during a single breeding season—or can take decades to develop. In some special cases, a dialect may remain steady for up to 40 years.

It's raining plastic

If you’re an informed person, you’re probably already concerned about that huge mass of garbage floating around the ocean. Turns out that’s nowhere near our only trash conundrum. Scientists from Utah State University have just discovered that more than 1,000 tons of miniscule plastic particles rain down on the American West every single year. 

Plastics everywhere. Microplastics are found in 11 national parks and wilderness areas in the western US, according to Utah State University researcher Janice Brahney. She estimates that more than 1000 tons of microplastics are deposited onto protected lands each year. Courtesy Utah State University.

For those keeping score at home, that equates to up to 300 million plastic bottles worth of trash—and that’s falling on just half of the US. The scientists found plastic in 98 percent of the samples they tested, and the material accounted for around 4 percent of the dust particles that they looked at.

What’s even more concerning is that some of their samples came from wilderness areas, which are supposed to be the least polluted areas of the world. 

Touring a snot palace

Not all of nature is as easy to love as birdsong. Sometimes it involves some pretty gross stuff. In this case, we’re talking about something scientists have named “snot palaces.”

Home snot home. Giant larvaceans build ‘snot palaces’ out of their own mucus. These temporary houses are 10 times bigger than the creatures themselves and provide protection from predators and help them collect food. Courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Like the name implies, these structures are built out of mucus by giant larvaceans, which are five-inch long invertebrates that live in the ocean. The larvaceans use these palaces for shelter and to capture food—and they build a new one almost every day. 

Scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute describe the snot palace construction like a balloon that is slowly inflated over time. Although giant larvaceans are small, snot palaces can reach sizes of up to three feet. In human terms, that’s like a five-story building.

These structures are too weak to be brought to the surface for study, so scientists used a robot with a laser attachment to create a 3D image of their internal workings. They found that  palaces have two layers, both of which help the giant larvaceans find and filter food particles.

Magnetic brain implant that won’t run out of juice

<strong>Smaller than a grain of rice.</strong> This magnoelectric film converts energy from a magnetic field directly into an electrical voltage, eliminating the need for a battery. The film could power neural implants to treat epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions. Courtesy Jeff Fitlow, Rice University.In certain cases, a tiny implant that stimulates the brain and nervous system can help treat diseases such as Parkinson’s, chronic pain, and epilepsy. But many of these implants run on batteries, which make them temporary solutions at best.

Rice University, however, has made a major breakthrough by creating a tiny implant capable of recharging itself via magnetic energy. This device is the first of its kind, and it’s able to generate the same high-frequency signals as previous battery-operated implants. 

The major development here was the creation of a “magnetoelectric” material capable of taking magnetic energy and turning it into electricity. The researchers have proved the effectiveness of this device in the brains of rats, and they’re excited to move forward.

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