ICYMI: This Week’s Science News (7/17/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

There’s so much going on in the news, and we sometimes miss out on the good stuff from the STEM world. If you need some science sunshine in your life, look no further. ICYMI, here’s a rundown of some of the science news from the last week!

DARPA is building a better Terminator

This week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that it has set up contracts with five different organizations who will be tasked with working toward neural implants that might one day allow brain-computer interfacing, allowing for sensory performance restoration. Particularly focused on sight and speech, the teams will try to get to the nitty gritty of neural activity within the brain in order to understand sensory input. The ultimate goal is to design technologies and algorithms that might be able to not only interpret signals from the brain, but also send them. The projects are obviously in the beginning stages, so any kind of technology or human trials are far in the future, but DARPA is looking ahead!

Tesla down under…

Elon Musk’s Tesla won a bidding war this week to provide a Powerpack system to New South Wales, Australia, to ensure a more reliable power grid. The system will store the energy produced by the Hornsdale Wind Farm and is expected to be the largest lithium-ion battery storage project in the world, hopefully powering more than 30,000 households. The project is also looking at a December 2017 deadline, which is quite the cherry on top!

Mushroom risotto for the clergy, compliments of the chef

A new study at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland is pushing the boundaries of faith by gathering over 20 religious leaders to dose up with psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Giving the strong dose of psilocybin on two separate occasions in day-long contemplative sessions, the researchers hope to learn in follow-up sessions and questionnaires if the experience changes the religious leaders’ spiritual thinking and views of their life and work. The study is now in progress, so we’ll have to wait and see what kind of spiritual enlightenment comes from the research!

Rubik Record

There are humans who can navigate the 3D puzzle Rubik’s Cube in short order. But a machine can now do it about 10 times faster, setting a new record! The Sub1 Reloaded robot from German tech company, Infineon, solved a Rubik’s Cube in just over half a second (0.637 seconds, to be exact). A Rubik’s Cube can be solved with as few as 20 moves, from any configuration, but human hands aren’t capable of moving that fast just yet. (Wait until we’re all part robot and we’ll get it sorted out!)

A little love might go a long way

There’s been some hubbub over the past few years with studies administering oxytocin – the “love” hormone” – to children with autism to help them deal with the negative aspects of their condition. However, there have been some discrepancies along the way. To get to the truth of what’s really going on, Dr. Karen Parker of Stanford University conducted a study administering oxytocin, but first measuring each child’s baseline oxytocin levels. The results showed that those with the lowest baseline levels of the “love” hormone were the most responsive to the oxytocin treatment. Interestingly, even the placebo group had a similar response – with those having the lowest baseline levels experiencing the greatest benefits, even experiencing an increase of production of the hormone in their own bodies! The study is one of many being conducted on the subject, but may serve as a guide if oxytocin treatments become a thing of the future.

Covering up your sneezes won’t stop this contagion

While crimes rates in American continue to decline, the fear of crime is a roller coaster ride. A new study conducted at the University College London has lead researchers to believe that fear of crime may be “contagious.” Using an algorithmic model of a city with a population of 10,000, they divided the “city” into three groups – one group in an area with little to no crime, another with minor or infrequent crime, and a significantly smaller group that experienced a the majority of crime. While the group in the safest part of the mathematical city generally felt safe most of the time, even interacting with the high-risk crime group 5% of the time resulted in a 50% increase in fear of crime. The model seems to show that the fear of crime due to the highlighting of some crimes may disproportionately cause fear of crime to sharply increase, while the actual rates of crime remain low. Next time the terrible news comes on, it might help us all to remember that things might not be quite as bad as they seem.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star…

Scientists report having discovered the smallest star found to date. Only a little larger than our familiar planet, Saturn, the star is about 600 light years away from Earth. The star, being so small, is actually in orbit around another, much larger star. Barely holding enough mass to qualify as a star, EBLM J0555-57Ab is 2,000-3,000 times dimmer than our own Sun. What other tiny stars are out there, only time will tell!

Where is the battle of wits really taking place?

A study published this week appears to show where strategic thinking is occurring in our brains. The Swiss researchers conducting the study used an fMRI for brain imaging and a simple strategy game (called Work/Shirk) to find an area of the brain called the right temporoparietal unction, rTPJ, (behind the right ear) activates when subjects try to discern another person’s beliefs or potential actions. The researchers also found that disrupting the rTPJ resulted in subjects experiencing more difficulty predicting their opponent’s moves in the strategy game. The team hopes to explore the discovery further, perhaps to find how it may relate to those who have deficits in their abilities to “read” others, such as those falling on the autism spectrum.

Coffee is truly the nectar of the gods

If you’re looking to live a longer life, it turns out that drinking coffee might be a helpful factor. Two large studies, one in the U.S. and one in Europe, published this week found that people who drank coffee (caffeinated or decaffeinated) every day were less likely to die over the course of the 16 years the studies were conducted. The studies also seem to suggest that more coffee meant even longer life! Looking at various populations in both studies found that coffee drinkers had anywhere from an eight to 18 percent lower risk of death during the study than their counterparts who didn’t consume coffee. Drink to your health!

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