Science Sunday 07-23-17

Quoth The Raven “No Problem!”

A study in the July issue of Science once again demonstrates the stunningly high intelligence of ravens, and other members of the crow family.

Ravens are part of a larger species called corvids, which include crows, jays and magpies.  Tests conclusively prove that these birds can solve problems better than four year old humans and some great apes.

Ravens have shown the ability to fashion tools to obtain food, to exchange tokens for food on a delayed basis, to hold grudges against fellow birds, etc.

If it’s been a while since you read Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”, click here.


Peering Into The Past

Don’t look now, but one of the largest ever scientific undertakings is occurring in the southern hemisphere, with strongest participation in South Africa and Australia.

Called the Square Kilometer Array, a massive number of radio telescopes will be deployed in two stages, called SKA1 and SKA2.

SKA1 is expected to be completes by 2023, and will consist of 64 mid-frequency range radio telescopes in South Africa (MeerKAT), as well as 2,048 low frequency range radio telescopes in Australia (Murchison Wide Field Array).

When this deployment is completed, this joint array of telescopes will be 10 times more sensitive than any current radio telescope, and will be able to look back to the earliest part of the illuminated Universe.  Many experiments will be performed, including ones designed to detect far away amino acids (a sign of life), to intercept possible radio signals from distant, advanced civilizations, and to explore the nature of dark matter.

To see this project from an Australian viewpoint, click below:


Rex, We Hardly Knew You

Recent studies demonstrate that it is likely that Tyrannosaurus Rex was not the speedy predator suggested in movies like Jurassic Park.

Instead of moving at the previously hypothesized maximum speed of 45 mph, these new studies suggest much slower maximum speeds.  In one study, the max speed given is about 17 mph, while the other study’s max speed is only 12 mph.


Plastic Twilight Zone

Plastics have only been around for about 65 years, but they seem to taking over the world, and not in a good way.

Roland Geyers of the University of California at Santa Barbara recently published a seminal paper on the problem of plastic waste, and its impact on the world’s lands and seas.

So far, humans have produced an astonishing 8 billion metric tons of plastic since 1952, with nearly half of that having been made in the last 13 years.  This total plastic production is the mass equivalent of 13 billion elephants.

Plastic can only be eliminated through incineration.  It is otherwise non-biodegradable.

Geyers estimates that if nothing is done, then by the year 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills, and 250 million metric tons of plastic waste in Earth’s oceans.

The big problem with plastics, says Geyers, is packaging, which gets used just once and is thrown away.  While some plastic will break down into smaller parts because of ultraviolet radiation, those smaller parts are still plastic, and if in the oceans, can be ingested by fish small and large, and ultimately end up on your dinner table.

Reminds me of the bread companies that 30 years ago put wood chips in their bread and claimed (correctly) that the bread was now much higher in fiber content.


Hidden Sounds in Microvibrations

Abe Davis and his fellow students at MIT are on to something truly amazing:  the retrieval of otherwise undetectable sounds from high speed “visual only” videos of objects that are apparently not moving but have nevertheless been affected by nearby ambient sounds, sounds of such low intensity that the objects are moving less than a micron (or one millionths of a meter) in lateral displacement.

In the Ted Talk above, we see how computer algorithms can take these incredibly small motions and cumulatively recreate what the original sounds must have been that caused the object to vibrate in the first place.