Science Sunday 05-14-17

Baby Big Bird

After 25 years of cloak and dagger intrigue regarding the whereabouts and nature of a fossilized “baby dinosaur in the egg” known colloquially as “Baby Louie”, the dino has been identified as a new species of oviraptorosaur called beibeilongsinensis.

While small in its sarcophagal shell, feather-covered Louie would have grown up to be a metric ton, 1000 kg in mass or 2000 lbs in weight, a prehistoric version of our beloved Big Bird.

You Smell!

A recent study by John McGann of Rutgers University asserts that the human sense of smell is on a par with other mammals, including rodents and dogs.

We have been conditioned to think poorly of our noses, says McGann, because of research done in the 19th century, which doesn’t hold up to extensive modern experimentation.

An earlier estimate that humans can only distinguish between about 10,000 scents should be replaced by 1 trillion scents, eight orders of magnitude larger, says McGann.

You can read more about McGann’s study here.

Maybe if we were closer to the ground, we would do some more sniffing around:

In related work, researchers at the University of Chicago have determined that losing your sense of smell is a precursor to a more imminent death.  After testing a large number of people to see if they could distinguish the scents of rose, leather, fish, orange and peppermint, and rating the participants as good, medium and poor sniffers, they found that of these folks who had died 5 years after testing, those with the weakest sniffing abilities were 400% more like to die than those with the best sniffing abilities:

You can read more about this fascinating study here.  I’m off to buy some oranges!

The Metric System

Back in the 1970s, there was much talk about the Unite States going metric.  In particular, there was an oil embargo going on, and for a very short time, gas was sold in liters.

The reason this occurred is that OPEC caused per gallon pricing to exceed one dollar, and the mechanical pumps at that time couldn’t charge prices over a dollar.  Some stations went with per half gallon pricing, and some went with per liter pricing.

Americans couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the math, and were incensed that the gas stations might be cheating them, and so in pretty quick order, all the mechanical pumps were retrofitted to charge up to $9.99 per gallon.

At about the same time, pop (or perhaps you say soda) started selling by the liter and two liter, and today, we are quite used to this metric volume measure, at least for our sugary supplements.

Originally, the metric unit of mass, the kilogram, was defined as 1000 cubic centimeters (or 1000 milliliters) of pure water at 4 degrees Celsius, but consequent to the Metric Convention of 1875, the kilogram standard has been based on a solid platinum-iridium cylinder stored in Paris, two copies of which are stored here in the United States at NIST (our weights and measure lab).

Recently, the youtube channel Veritasium visited NIST to see these metric kilogram standard copies.  I was surprised to find out that the US is actually on the metric standard, and all the US-English units we use are defined in terms of their metric equivalents.

FYI, if you in the future choose to drive a car in Europe, you will have to buy gas by the liter, so remember that one liter is about one US quart.  Take the per liter price, multiply by four, and convert that four liter Euro price to US dollars to find out how much you are really paying per US gallon for gas.

Right now in France the price is surprisingly low, at $5.79 per US gallon.

BTW, Brexit enthusiasts, beer in England is still sold by the Imperial pint, which is about 1/6th larger by volume than the US pint.  Explains a lot about UK soccer hooligans!

Sponge Bob Clown Pants

I always liked topology, that area of mathematics which challenges you to see whether you can deform the shape of one shape into another, without using tearing or gluing operations along the way.

Mathematician Kelsey Houston-Edwards of PBS Infinite Series explores this fascinating subject.

Advertisements

Science Sunday

What Really Are Emotions?

Are emotions pre-wired into our brains at birth, or do we learn them, in the context of the norms of the society in which we grow up?  Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University explores this fascinating question in her new book “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” and concludes that emotions are definitely not built-in but learned.

The Guardian has a nice review of her work here.

 

GMOs Redux

Are genetically modified organisms, including common foods like corn, truly dangerous, or has worries about them been exaggerated?  Kurgesagt explores this question.

 

Short and Long Term Memories

Scientists from MIT’s Riken Institute for Neural Circuit Genetics have published a landmark study in the journal Science that shows that contrary to established theory, short term and long term memories of the same event are formed at the same time, but mature in a transitional sequence.

Mice mildly shocked in a particular environment formed a short term memory in the amygdala, and a long term memory in the prefrontal cortex, this known through brain scanning imaging.  Optogenetic technology designed to turn on one memory or the other was used to show that the short term memory fades (but is retained) even as the long term memory “matures” into existence.

While a beautiful experiment in its own right, there is hope that this research can be used on patients with dementia.

 

Always Get a Second Opinion

Veritasium explores Bayes Theorem, to see how probabilities can be used to determine how sure we should be about a particular conclusion, and how we humans need to experiment if we want to break out of our preconceived notions of what is really true.

 

The Loneliness of Perception

In science, it is very common to conflate human perceptions with objective reality.  We say that green laser light has a wavelength of 532 nm, but that light is not objectively green, only that we humans commonly perceive it as green.

Michael of V Sauce addresses this question in his usual insouciant style.

 

Antibiotics and the Microbiome

I’ve been writing about the microbiome for a while, and how we need bacteria in our gut in order to live a healthy life.

But taking antibiotics often clears out a substantial portion of our microbiome.  Now we learn that taking too many antibiotics can lead to a dramatic increase in polyps in the colon, a precursor to colorectal cancer.

 

 

Vulcanologists Arise!

220px-Cuexcomatl2

I was surprised to find out, from the Chicago Tribune’s funny pages no less, that the world’s smallest volcano is only about 43 feet high.  It is located in Puebla City, Mexico, and is called Cuexcomate.

You can read about it here.

The picture above shows a metal staircase descending into the (inactive) volcano.

For a good April Fool’s Joke, read about a volcano that is only 2 cm tall and grows on the side of a log.

 

Belief and Its Role in Science

I often speak in class about the wisdom of not trusting “common sense” in analyzing physical phenomena.  The classic example is believing that when two objects of dissimilar mass are dropped from the same height, the heavier of the two will hit the ground first.  We all should know that indeed they both hit the ground at the same time, absent air friction.

But certainly there is belief in science.  For example, I believe that if I jump out a second story window, I am going to fall, and probably hurt myself, assuming I do not execute my jump in the midst of a category V hurricane.

In the above video, Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine addresses this issue from the viewpoint of natural selection, that natural selection induces humans to believe that they see patterns in the noise of nature, even when such patterns are not actually there.

Enjoy.