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Talk nerdy to me

It’s time for another installment of Talk Nerdy to Me, and boy, do we have some good stories to share. If you’re late to the game, this series follows the coolest, nerdiest, silliest, and strangest developments in science and technology. This week, we consider how Vikings navigated on cloudy days, the science behind fake news, the purpose of human eyebrows, and many more delights of the scientific world.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy some of the most interesting stories you might have missed this week.

Viking GPS

<strong>Viking sailors</strong> ruled the Atlantic for 300 years and navigated to North America without a magnetic compass. Their secret may have been a sunstone. Courtesy CaptainOates (l.) <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>, ArniEin (r.) <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 3.0)</a>Modern travelers are spoiled by Google Maps and other navigational wonders. However, recent research has revealed that in the absence of GPS, Vikings relied on objects called sunstones.

A study published in Royal Society Open Science discusses the use of sunstones – crystals of calcite, cordierite, or tourmaline – to find the sun even on cloudy days. The idea is that the sunstone will shine when held in front of the sun, even if you can’t see its glow with your naked eye. The researchers ran 1,000 simulations of trips between Norway and Greenland and found that sunstones were successful navigational tools under cloudy conditions when the location of the sun was unknown.

The delusion of past and future

Time can be a weird concept. At work, a single minute at 3:45 in the afternoon seems to last a decade. But, on the other hand, when you celebrate your daughter’s 18th birthday, it seems only the blink of an eye since she was crawling around in diapers.

Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist and author of the new book The Order of Time, takes this one step further. In an article published by The Guardian, Rovelli explains that time is “part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space.” In other words, time is more a product of human perception than a scientific yardstick. In order to progress within the field of theoretical physics, we’ll have to relinquish the notion that time is a “one-way street” and open our minds to its intrinsic flexibility.

It’s alive!

Art that looks back. Living sculpture 'Amatria' responds to viewers movements with whispers, gestures, vibrations, and light. Courtesy Indiana University.

We’ve talked previously about Canadian architect Philip Beesley’s contribution to living architecture, but his new project at Indiana University’s Luddy Hall is simply too cool to ignore. The art installment responds to the humans interacting with it, by emitting light, sound, and even moving around. Call us fans.

The science behind fake news

Fake news has infiltrated every level of the electoral process from France to the US  and has influenced the decisions of countless voters. With so much false information muddying important topics, it’s clear someone needed to do the research. Dr. Eryn Newman of The Australian National University took up the challenge.

She found that, for most people, style beats substance. For example, audience perceived scientists as less intelligent if audio quality of a recording was poor.

Is your dog left-pawed or right-pawed?

<strong>Paw preference.</strong> The paw your dog uses to 'shake' may not be the one she prefers for other tasks. Courtesy Yann. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/'>(CC BY-NC-ND-2.0)</a>You’re probably using your dominant hand to scroll through this article. However, what you might not know is that man’s best friend also has a dominant paw – but they don’t use it in the same way.

Research published in Scientific American shows that dogs favor one paw or the other depending on what they’re doing. A dog may use one paw to reach for food, but another to bat away your cat’s advances. 

To thine own self be true

William Shakespeare’s genius has been championed by literary scholars for centuries, but now plagiarism software may give the world some insight into where The Bard found inspiration. The New York Times details the work of writers Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who used software written to catch cheating students in order to discover Shakespeare’s points of influence.

While no one is suggesting Shakespeare stole his work, the software found that George North’s 15th century A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels showed strong correlations with works such as King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, and many others.

Emotional eyebrows

<strong>Early emotions.</strong> As humans evolved, quickly conveying friendliness through expressions like an 'eyebrow flash' became essential to cooperation and survival. Courtesy Tim Evanson. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>(CC BY-SA 2.0)</a>Ancient humans such as Homo heidelbergensis had very large and in-your-face brow ridges. However, as we evolved, human brow ridges smoothed out and become more expressive and flexible.

While many have theorized that the prominent brows of our ancestors had something to do with chewing tough materials or simply filling in the space between our brain case and eye sockets, new research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests that our current eyebrows evolved so that we could display more subtle emotions.

Don’t lose your head

Have you ever thought about trading places with someone for a day? How about trading bodies for the rest of your life? That’s the end result two scientists in China are hoping for. Vox profiled Sergio Canavero and Xiaoping Ren’s work to create a method to successfully transplant a patient’s head onto the body of a dead or dying donor. Although the first human transplant hasn’t yet taken place, the team is currently working out the most successful method on a mouse, a dog, a monkey, and even a human cadaver.

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