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Prof. A's Weekly Science Fix- December 16 2011 Edition

Science at Atheist Universe

 

“And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) in: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

 

This seems to be NEUROSCIENCE WEEK, the featured video deals with a freakish visual illusion, and we also have a post on another cognitive illusion, and a great post on forgetting and doorways.

 

VIDEO OF THE WEEK: Have you checked the Naked Ape Video Thread lately? Lots of really good stuff there! Like this creepy cognitive, visual illusion. It's a new scientific finding called the "Flashed Face Distortion Effect". 

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE CROSS IN THE MIDDLE! (don't cheat)

Now watch the video going from individual face to individual face. They are all absolutely normal! According to this website, here is a possible explanation: Although Murphy, Tangen and Thompson have yet to fully explain the illusion, it seems as if it happens because we’re only given a short period of time to examine the pictures. For some reason our brains want to differentiate the two faces that we’re seeing, and to do so under the time constraint it ends up exaggerating the features of each face. 


How the 'Thermal Grill' Illusion Tricks the Mind. I had never heard of this illusion before, and I find it fascinating. If you put some hot dogs in the freezer and some in the microwave to warm them up a bit, and you arrange them in an alternating pattern, when you put your hand on them, you feel a painful burn though you are not really burned and touching them independently would not have caused any burning sensation! The illusion has been known fir a century, but now neuroscientists have created a contraption that produces the alternating mild heat and cold, and have studied the brains of volunteers by fMRI. A very active thalamus was seen. The thalamus is a relay area for sensory inputs. They also detected activity in a region of the brain called the pain matrix (dealing with pain stimuli, as the name suggests). But why do we experience this illusion? I hope future research will explain how this happens.

 

Why Walking Through A Doorway Makes You Forget. Here is something that has happened to all of us, many, many times: arriving somewhere with the intention to do something, but realizing with annoyance that we forgot what we were going to do there. It is called the “doorway effect.”  University of Notre Dame researchers have investigated this phenomenon using a computer game that involved picking up objects, taking then somewhere else, putting the object down, and picking up a new one. The object was hidden from the participants view during the move (as if they were carrying it inside a virtual box). Sometimes they had to virtually walk across a room, other times, crops a doorway and go to another room. They were periodically asked to name the object they were carrying.  The question was asked right after they crossed the doorway. Interestingly, walking through doorways caused forgetting. Their responses were slower and less accurate than when they walked the same distance within the same room. The “doorway effect” was also tested in real rooms in their lab and the results held.  The researchers suggest that at least some forms of memory are optimized to keep information handy until its needed, then discarded when something new pops up. This type of memory representation is known as “event model.”  Walking through a doorway could be a good time to purge “old” event models because whatever happened in the “old” room may be less relevant in a new environment. Other changes (distractions) may induce a purge as well, for example, a knock on the door, or an interruption.  The reason to set up memory events like this is that we can’t keep everything in mind all the time. Most of the time, the system works really well. Sometimes, we get distracted and we forget. But these failures of memory are useful to give us insights into how memory works.

 

ZOOLOGY: Death and a tiny blue octopus. Did you know that there is a tiny octopus, called the blue-lined octopus, that lives in seaweed beds on the eastern coast of Australia, that is equipped with a venomous bite? Its poison is called tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin which is one of the most poisonous natural substances in the world. Tetrodotoxin is found in several animals, including the octopus in question, a newt, and the most famous of all, the pufferfish. It turns out that one day, a sea turtle washed up dead but intact and according to the necropsy, initially no known cause of death. But careful examination of the spiny throat of the turtle showed a whole bunch of seaweed, and among the seaweed, also dead, a tiny blue-lined octopus. The octopus normally uses tetradotoxin as a defense mechanism, and when it found itself with no escape in the maw of a turtle, it bit as a last resort, causing the death of both animals. Curiously enough, another turtle surfaced a year later, also dead from unknown causes, and it turned out this turtle, too, had swallowed the tiny but deadly creature with a hefty portion of seaweed. These were 2 out of 100 turtles found up dead, making it a not-so-rare occurrence. The deaths are presumed to have been accidental, since the turtles do not prey on octopus, but rather swallow them by mistake in a big mouthful of seaweed where the minute cephalopods were hiding.

 

AWWWW….ZOOLOGY: The world’s most romantic animals. Enjoy this wonderful post on animal mating rites that make the lovers look like hopeless romantics. Great photographs and videos, from fishes to birds.


PHYSICS: Hints of the Higgs boson detected by the Large Hadron ColliderThere is a lot of excitement in the physics world (and in science journalists, as well) because CERN has announced that they detected a signal which is the strongest evidence so far in support of the existence of the particle.  However, they have been cautious in reminding us that this not conclusive evidence and that more results are expected in 2012. There have been two groups working on different experiments, and one has  detected a perturbation consistent with a 125–126 GeV Higgs boson at a statistical level of ~3.6 standard deviations, while the other team reports a 124-GeV signal of ~ 2.6 standard deviations. In particle physics, you need a statistical different of at least 5 standard deviations in order to have definitive proof of the existence of a particle. The Higgs boson is a hypothetical particle, and the reason why it is so actively sought after is that its existence would resolve inconsistencies in the Standard Model of physics. This particle, if it exists, would give other particles mass. You can read more about the Higgs boson at the CERN site here

 

Science bits and news from other sites:


A nebulous snow angel.This is a two-lobed star-forming region, in our very own Milky Way, 2000 light-years from Earth, named Sharpless 2-106.  The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore took the image. The blue "wings" are made of hot gas lit up by a gigantic star that is forming in the center of this nebula. The dark bands in the middle are dust and gas that could one day form a planetary system; they act like a “belt” and this is why the image looks like an hourglass.


Meet the Agta, a tribe where a quarter of men have been attacked by giant snakes. Thomas Headland, an American anthropologist, lived in the Philippines for 24 years among the Agta, a small group of hunter-gatherers who live in the rainforest (there are only 600 Agta). Through his extensive work with the Agta, Headland has found that 26% of all the Agta men have been attacked by reticulated pythons. The reason that men are attacked more frequently than women (26% vs 2%) is that men spend more time in the rainforest. That has to be the biggest proportion of python attacks in the whole world. There are truly gigantic pythons (~167 pounds, ~23 feet in length) living in the rainforest where the Agta live, and they frequently visit them to eat their chickens. The Agta themselves are small, ~4.5 feet in height and <100 pounds, so they are a medium-sized morsel for one of these pythons. In spite of that, only 6 Agta have been killed and eaten by the snakes in a period of 40 years. The Agta actually turn the tables on the snakes and they are proficient snake-killer. Every Agta man has killed at least 1 python in their lifetime. Headland and his colleague have oublished a PNAS paper on Hunter-gatherers as prey and predators of snakes, and they have included in their analysis other primates that are frequently attacked by snakes, and also seen turning the tables on the reptiles and making a meal out of them.  The PNAS abstract can be found here. I find the last sentence I the abstract very intriguing and exciting: “These findings, interpreted within the context of snake and primate phylogenies, corroborate the hypothesis that complex ecological interactions have long characterized our shared evolutionary history.”

 

Mining molecular gastronomy. What could be more tantalizing than a study on combinations of flavors in different cuisines seen from a chemical perspective, carried out by a theoretical physicist and amateur gastronomist? Sebastian Ahnert from the University of Cambridge, UKhas just published an article on exactly that subject. He was intrigued by anecdotal evidence suggesting that the reason some foods go well together is because they contain the same flavor molecules. He developed networks to link flavor compounds with the ingredients found in online recipe databases, grouping recipes into North American, Western European, Latin American, Southern European or East Asian cuisines. He found that for North American and Western European recipes, this held true. For example, in shrimp scampi, the two main ingredients (shrimp and tomato) share 1-penten-3-ol, and the mozzarella, Parmesan and tomato used in the recipe all share 4-methylpentanoic acid. But in East Asian and Southern European recipes, the trend was the opposite: the ingredients were less likely to share flavor compounds.  So something else in those cuisines is creating the harmony of flavors. He now wants to check whether ingredients with similar taste or smell are combined, even if the flavor compounds are different. He is enlisting the help of chefs to find that out. He also thinks that his analysis could identify new flavor combinations that could work well together, even if the combination would sound strange, such as caviar and white chocolate, since both contain the flavor compound trimethylamine.   The combination that Ahnert is exploring right now is coffee and garlic, since they share several flavor compounds. He points out that coffee s often used as a replacement for stock (I had no idea). Does anyone want a garlic shot with their espresso?

 

Unusual playful interspecies interactions: humpback whale lifts dolphin. A great post on playful interspecies interactions. Most of us find these stories uplifting because if two different species find a way to communicate playfulness and have fun together, especially wild species, it instinctively makes us smile and think of all the ways creatures (including humans) can come together through fun rather than conflict.  The interaction described in the article is fascinating because it occurred in the absence of human interaction, and because the protagonists are aquatic animals that most of us love. The interactions (two separate occurrences) were described in a scientific journal last year. Both occurred off the coast of Hawaii (one in Maui, the other in Kauai). The first involved two dolphins that swam alongside a humpback whale and took turns lying on the whale’s rostrum when it surfaced to breathe. The whale then gently and slowly lifted one of the dolphins out of water. Both dolphins appeared relaxed. The dolphin balanced on the tip of the whales nose, and then went “whale-sliding back to the water and swam back to the rest of the dolphin pod. At the link, you can see a whole bunch of B&W photos documenting the interaction. The second occurrence involved a female dolphin that swam up to a mother humpback whale and her calf. All 3 dived underwater, and they resurfaced with the dolphin resting on the whale’s rostrum. This went on for 8 minutes, the whale lifting the dolphin six times. The dolphin was not stressed and seemed to facilitate the whale’s lifting it by lying on her side or stomach and maintaining its position. The authors of the scientific paper considered explanations other than play, and discarded aggression (because of the relaxed nature of the encounters) or response to dolphin stress on the part of the whales, since the dolphins never gave any sign of stressful behavior.  Apparently these are not the only times this type of interaction was witnessed between humpback whales and dolphins, since there is also a YouTube video showing a similar encounter.

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Comment by Adriana on December 18, 2011 at 9:40am

Well, there you go! I never met anyone who used coffee for their stock. The stock must have onions and other veggies like that, correct? So perhaps garlic would work. Share the recipe!

Comment by Neal on December 18, 2011 at 9:39am

Having a hard time with that thought. =)

I do use coffee in stock, depending on what the dish is. Usually stews that have long cooking times.

Comment by Adriana on December 18, 2011 at 9:01am

Damn, what did I come here to comment about? Oh, yes, yes, now I remember. Neal, I expect to start trying different flavor combinations and report back on how they taste. I suggest you start with garlic and coffee, there has to be something to it! My hunch is that café au lait with a dollop of garlic butter may be a hit :-)

Comment by Neal on December 18, 2011 at 8:01am

Too much coolness. The illusions, the, "damn, what did I come in here for;" damn, everything is cool this week.

Thanks for the read. How could anyone not enjoy whales and dolphins playing? 

Comment by Michel on December 16, 2011 at 3:56pm

I was just thinking if that'd been a visible feature in the sky...

Comment by A Former Member on December 16, 2011 at 3:07pm

What a great quote. Need to read that book, and soon.

Comment by Adriana on December 16, 2011 at 2:30pm

I'm willing to bet not too many Christians read my blog; and the christians who read Science are not the kind to re-package nebulas into religious drivel, I think. 

Comment by Michel on December 16, 2011 at 2:27pm

Wonderful job again this week.

The Angel nebula is very pretty.
Good thing it wasn't discovered by Christians - they'd have repackaged this as poison right away.

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