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Talk nerdy to me

This week we look at an app that could save your life, a robot that can help us study jellyfish, and exploded star dust in Antarctica.

A gentle grasp

Jellyfish are hard to study. Human divers can’t handle their deep-sea environment, which means we have to use submarines to find them. Researchers looking to take a live jellyfish back to the lab have to use a robot outside the submarine to catch the creature, which can damage it.

This ultragentle robot can grasp soft-bodied organisms like jellyfish without harming them. Courtesy SciNews.

But David Gruber, a marine biologist at the City University of New York, is working on a robot with soft tentacles that can grip the jellyfish without hurting it. The grabber has six noodle-like arms made of silicone and a nanofiber coating that gently cradles the animal. Says Gruber, “I always felt it was a little strange for me as a marine biologist to have to kill the animals that I love and study.” Hopefully now he won’t have to.  

The right genes for left hands

<strong>Code left.</strong> Genetic differences that affect regions of the brain can lead to left-hand dominance, which may help explain the association between left-handedness and verbal ability. Courtesy US Air Force.Since scientists fully sequenced the human genome in 2003, we’ve learned a lot about the genetic code needed to make a person. While many of these discoveries lead to life-saving techniques, some are simple curiosities that have intrigued humanity for millennia.

One peculiarity that we now understand better is left-handedness. Researchers from the University of Oxford have discovered the genetic differences that can lead to a person being left-hand dominant.

In a study of the brain images of 10,000 people, four genetic regions were associated with left-handedness. Three of those regions lead to differences in brain structure, possibly explaining the association between left-handed people and strong verbal skills.

Lost and found

Even though smartphones have completely changed how we navigate the world, we still run into problems. Addresses often aren’t where Google Maps thinks they are, and finding a specific meeting spot can be a chore. 

<strong>Where in the world.</strong> The What3words app makes it easier to find friends at a crowded festival or hikers lost in the woods. The new app what3words is trying to solve this problem—and save lives. Its developers have cut the world up into 57 trillion squares, each measuring three meters (10 feet) on each side. The squares are assigned a three-word name, which is easier to remember than a numerical string of longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates. 

While this can help a delivery driver bring pizza to the right house, it’s also a tool for public safety. A group of hikers lost in Hamsterley Forest in the UK were saved thanks to the what3words app telling rescuers exactly where they were. 

Getting squirrely

No one likes a snoop. Not all information is meant for everyone, and we tend to frown on people who can’t respect those boundaries. Sadly, it looks like eavesdropping isn’t confined to humans.

<strong>Natural born busybody.</strong> New research suggests that squirrels listen to birdsong to tell them when to relax after a threat. A recent study out of Oberlin College found that squirrels are able to listen to birds and understand the current threat level in the environment. Researchers set up an experiment where squirrels were subjected to the recorded screech of a red-tailed hawk—a forest predator. Afterwards, the scientists played relaxed bird noises that were not hawks, which caused the squirrels to relax their vigilance.

The study concluded that squirrels are able to understand that regular bird noises following a hawk’s screech means that the predator is now gone. This is unique, as most research in this area tends to focus on response to alarm calls rather than what happens after the threat has passed. This new research could point to a level of multi-species communication that we don’t yet fully understand. 

Star dust

When you look up at the stars, it can be difficult to think about the physical reality of the bodies behind those twinkles. Although they may be specks of flickering light to us, they are actually enormous celestial entities with their own cycles of life and death.

<strong>Remnants of an exploded star.</strong> Dust from a long-ago supernova was recently found in samples of Antarctic snow. Courtesy NASA.When a star explodes, it produces clouds of radioactive gas and dust that can travel billions of kilometers through space. Scientists have recently discovered some of this dust in Antarctica. 

After bringing 500 kilograms (~1,100 pounds) of snow back from a remote and untouched area of Antarctica, researchers found dust that could have only come from an exploding star. The samples contained the iron-60 isotope, while most iron on Earth is iron-56. 

The researchers are excited to continue further tests on the dust in order to find out more about when the supernova happened and to learn more about Earth’s place in the solar neighborhood.


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