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Talk nerdy to me

This week we’re looking at how coffee affects your ability to think, evidence that Earth was once a waterworld, and why math doesn’t matter when learning to code.

Caffeine buzz breakdown

The modern world wouldn’t function without coffee. Alarm clocks would be snoozed into eternity, emails would remain unanswered, construction sites left unfinished – in short, total anarchy.

<strong>Problem-solving with coffee.</strong> Caffeine might help you choose the right answer on a multiple-choice test, but it won’t fuel your creativity. While caffeine may be a wonder drug, a recent study from the University of Arkansas shows that it might not do everything we expect. Specifically, the researchers found that it doesn’t affect creativity much.

The study first breaks down the difference between “convergent” and “divergent” thinking. While convergent thinking has to do with looking for the “right” solution to a problem, divergent thinking has more to do with finding a variety of solutions that may work. The latter has more to do with what we would define as creativity.

The study found that while convergent thinking (finding the correct answer) is positively affected by a strong cup of coffee, divergent thinking isn’t. So, while your cup of Joe may sharpen your  focus for choosing the right answer on a test, it doesn’t actually help with creativity or idea generation.

The fountain of youth has fish in it

As the aches and pains of old age set in, it’s easy to dream about a magic cure for aging. While we’ll probably never be able to bring back your glory days, scientists are currently studying a fish to better understand how to slow the decline.

<strong>A pause button for ageing.</strong> The African killifish embryo can press pause on its development, sometimes for years. If scientists can figure out how this works, it might help delay human aging.Over millions of years, the African turquoise killifish has developed a trait called diapause. This allows killifish embryos to place themselves in a sort of suspended animation to basically sleep through periods of drought or other challenges.

Researchers from Stanford University have found that even those these periods of diapause can last for years, they don’t affect the overall lifespan of the killifish. The process is genetically programmed, and studying it may help us better understand our own aging process. 

The real Waterworld

Say what you will about the Waterworld movie, it’s an interesting concept. Climate change is already leading to rising sea levels, and while the whole planet probably won’t be submerged, extreme scenarios help us grasp the gravity of real situations. Anyways, how often do you get a chance to watch Kevin Costner drink his own urine?

<strong> Exposed ocean crust.</strong> Benjamin Johnson of Iowa State University examines a rocky outcrop in Western Australia—evidence that 3.2 billion years ago, Earth’s continents were entirely submerged by ocean. Courtesy Jana Meixnerova/Benjamin Johnson. That said, the planet has already seen a period of extreme wetness. About 3.2 billion years ago, Earth’s continents were likely entirely submerged in a vast ocean. What’s more, scientists from Iowa State University and the University of Colorado Boulder studied an exposed piece of ancient ocean crust in Australia to learn more.

They found that seawater from billions of years ago had about 4 parts per thousand more of a heavy isotope of oxygen than current oceans. This points to either a different form of water cycling within the ocean crust or a conclusion that water cycling from continental rock changed the amount of heavy isotopes found in our seas.

Octobot

A common design strategy is to look at what nature is doing and try to replicate it. Animals and plants have billions of years of natural selection behind their forms, and it would be foolish to ignore the results. A perfect recent example of this is a robot arm designed to function like an octopus’s tentacle.

<strong>This octopus-inspired soft robot</strong> can grip, move, and manipulate a wide range of objects—even in tight spaces. Courtesy Bertoldi Lab/Harvard SEAS.The arm, created by researchers at Harvard University and Beihang University, combines the flexibility of a tentacle with the gripping power of its suckers. The robotic arm can wrap around objects of varying shapes and pick them up.

The researchers first had to study real octopus arms to choose the optimum tapering angle and layout of suckers. The arm is controlled via two valves, one for bending and one to engage the suckers. The tapered design also allowed the arm to retrieve objects from small spaces.

If you can learn French, you can learn to code

At their core, computers are math machines. Consequently, programming is viewed as a skill open only to those with math aptitude. But research reveals this is a mistake.

<strong>No math, no problem.</strong> A specialized headset allowed researchers to measure electrical activity in the brains of people learning to code in Python. They found that language skills are a stronger predictor of programming ability than math knowledge. Courtesy Justin Abernathy/University of Washington. A new study discovered that being able to pick up a new language is a better indicator of success in coding than understanding math. When researchers at the University of Washington examined the neurocognitive abilities of those learning Python, they found that language aptitude determined who would make the fastest progress. 

Learning a programming language involves learning vocabulary and grammar rules one must learn, and the computer itself does the heavy lifting in terms of the math. If we take advanced math out of the pre-requisites for enrolling in a programming course, it could open this critical field to a much wider audience.

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