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Talk nerdy to me

In this week’s Talk Nerdy to Me, we discuss the smell of Uranus, the rights of lab-grown brains, and the dangers of internet-connected fish tanks.

Uranus stinks (no, really!)

<strong>Space smells.</strong> False color image of Uranus taken by Voyager2. New research concludes that every fifth-grader's favorite planet really does smell like rotten eggs. Courtesy NASA.Uranus has been the butt of schoolyard jokes for years. The seventh planet from the sun’s unfortunate spelling has caused untold joy in schoolchildren across the world, despite actually being pronounced YOOR-un-us. That said, one favorite wisecrack has proven to be true: Uranus stinks.  

New observations from the University of Oxford found that Uranus has a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide gas whipping around the upper levels of its atmosphere. Of course, smell doesn’t conduct through space due to the lack of air, but if it did, you would smell rotten eggs and farts as you descended on the ice giant planet.

Water is weird

Water is one of those substances that doesn’t make sense if you think too hard about it. Unlike most other liquids, frozen pieces of water float rather than sink. This is only one of many unique features of water, which is why researchers at the Department of Fundamental Engineering at the University of Tokyo in Japan were interested in studying it with a supercomputer.

<strong>Why does ice float?</strong> Researchers in Japan tackle that and other peculiar properties of H2O with high-performance computational modeling. Courtesy Andreas Weith. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 4.0)</a>Using HPC technology, the researchers tweaked water’s computational model until it behaved like most other liquids. In this way, they were able to discover that water’s uniqueness may be a result of the arrangement of the substance’s molecules.

Do lab-grown brains have rights?

Scientific developments often stretch the boundaries of human ethics, but that doesn’t mean scientists shouldn’t stop and consider the ramifications of their actions. At least, that’s what Duke University law and philosophy professor Nita Farahany thinks. A recent story on NPR chronicles her opinions about using living brain cells for experiments, and their potential to develop consciousness. This is one discussion with big implications for the future.

Fish crash a casino

<strong>Ocean's eleven?</strong> Hackers used a tropical fish tank to infiltrate a casino. Just one more reason we need to get smarter about IoT security. Courtesy Janine. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en'>(CC BY 2.0)</a>The Internet of Things (IoT) is notoriously unsecured. There are a variety of reasons, but the core problem is that most people don’t think of IoT devices in the same way as traditional computers when it comes to security. Sadly, this can result in major data breaches, as was the case with one casino.

An article by Business Insider details how hackers targeted an internet-connected thermometer inside a fish tank residing in an unnamed casino. This allowed the cybercriminals to access a database of high-roller clients, likely worth a lot of money to other casinos. If establishments as deeply invested in tight security as casinos can get hacked, will people wake up to the need for more IoT security?

Do you have a right to DNA privacy?

<strong>Killer's cousins.</strong> Police matched crime scene DNA to relatives' DNA in a public genealogy database to catch the Golden State Killer. Courtesy West Midlands Police. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>(CC BY-SA 2.0)</a>Nearly 40 years after his first attacks in Sacramento, the Golden State Killer has been identified. 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. – who has officially been charged with eight counts of murder, according to the Los Angeles Times – was apprehended after police put DNA left at crime scenes into the public genealogy database GEDmatch.

These websites are meant to help people find long lost relatives, and GEDmatch requires users to affirm that the DNA they are searching with is their own. Therefore, there’s a good chance police illegally obtained this evidence, which could allow DeAngelo to walk free. This case is certain to lead to more discussion of the ownership of DNA and the rights of an alleged killer in the internet age.

Representation is crucial

We’ve talked before about how search engines can misrepresent minorities, and it’s no surprise that the problem extends into social media platforms. However, Pinterest is now taking direct action to rectify this situation.

<strong>Inclusive beauty.</strong> New skin tone search feature on Pinterest lets users find the fashion and beauty posts that suit them best. Until now, searches such as “hair ideas” on Pinterest regularly show tutorials on how to style white women’s hair. To fix this, Pinterest has added a set of skin tone options for users to choose from when searching beauty terms. They analyze photos of faces not by racial identification, but as digital values of color, and devised their own spectrum of 16 shades. Users can now view results that most closely match their own features and receive the content most relevant to them.

Pride cometh before the fall

Being self-centered might cost you friends, but a recent report shows that it could be much more dangerous than that. Researchers at the University of Geneva used neuro-imaging to study the brains of egotistical people, and found that they are unable to use the area of the brain required to think about long-term consequences. For people with egoistic tendencies, problems like climate change, which will have the most drastic effects on future generations, just don’t concern them. While for altruistic people, far-future concerns are as important as current ones.

Want to be popular? Go partisan

Most of us are now aware of how easy it is to surround yourself with like-minded people on social media. But a recent study of Twitter reveals that the problem is even worse than we thought. Researchers from Aalto University analyzed more than 2.7 billion tweets and discovered that users that try to bridge partisan divides pay a price, suffering loss of popularity and becoming less influential. Isn’t human nature great?


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