ICYMI Weekly Science News (10/23/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

While the world seems to be getting crazier by the minute, it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing! In fact, those crazy innovations and discoveries in science just might be the good news you needed to kick start your new week! In case you missed it, here’s all the great science news that happened last week!

Wrestling Stars in Space Making Waves

In early 2016, gravitational waves were detected for the first time, finally giving definitive proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time that occur when two large and compact objects, such as two neutron stars, collide in space. In fact, on October 16, that’s exactly what scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced observing, which was big news in the science community all by itself. However, there was an added bonus with the collision – electromagnetic radiation that included visible light.

Why is that significant? Philip Cowperthwaite of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explained, “Imagine that gravitational waves are like thunder. We’ve heard this thunder before, but this is the first time we’ve also been able to see the lightning that goes with it.” Now that the waves can not only be “heard” but also “seen” in some cases, astrophysicists may now be able to study how various elements were created, the origins of gamma-ray bursts, and much more!

Bring on the space rain!

We are legion…

Drone operators currently operate a single drone at a time, using some kind of handheld device. But researchers in at Arizona State University’s Human-Oriented Robotics and Control Lab are developing a system that not only allows operators to control a drone with their minds. They want a single operator to be able to control a whole swarm of drones! Human participants learn to imagine various formations and movements they want from the swarm of drones, while an algorithm is established to interpret the brain areas that activate with those movements, thereby turning them into commands which can be transmitted using an electroencephalogram worn on the operator’s head. The hope is that the operation of an entire swarm may help in the future with search and rescue efforts, fighting wildfires, creating maps, or even monitor security threats. The power of many in the mind of one just might be the wave of the future in drone technology!

Shark vs Gator: The Battle for Survival

Sharks are generally at the top of their food chains, leaving them with little fear in the natural world. Or so we thought… According to a recent article by James Nifong and Russell Lowers, there have been four documented cases in which alligators ate a shark or a ray. While it’s clearly not a common occurrence, Nifong believes the findings are important to account for in population models. The surprising mix of saltwater and freshwater predators and who comes out the winner in a cage fight between them is certainly an interesting area for a biologist to explore. Or for the SyFy channel to make a movie from!

Your face says it’s been a “ruff” day…

If you absolutely swear your dog has facial expressions and they’re trying to communicate with you through them, science might finally back it up! In a recent study, it was found that dogs produce significantly more facial expressions when a human is facing them than when they are given no attention. It seems that dogs not only know when you’re paying attention to them or not, but they also know how to make voluntary facial expressions to communicate with (or manipulate) their humans. That means those big puppy dog eyes are made just for you!

Whew! Is that fear I smell?

On the topic of dogs, it turns out that they not only are in tune with our attention and respond to it. They are also aware of our emotions and respond in kind…but not because of visual cues; they follow their nose! Researchers elicited fear and happiness responses from dog owners and capturing their sweat. They then used the sweat as an olfactory cue later with the dogs and found that the dogs adopted behaviors and had similar stress responses as their owners, based on scent of the sweat exuded by their owners previously. Dogs really do seem to be humankind’s best friend!

Old McDonald had a wind turbine…

October 18 marked the launch of the world’s first floating wind farm, found off the coast of Scotland. While other offshore wind turbines have been in place, they require a firmly placed base that keep them within a certain distance of land. The new Hywind Scotland pilot park of floating turbines, however, can be found 25 kilometers from shore, in water depths up to 800 meters. Thus, floating wind farms have more space where they can be spread to produce power without getting in the way of other human activities or each other. Placement of the turbines in the North Atlantic means they can produce more electricity because of that space as well as unique weather patterns found only on the open ocean. The Hywind park will provide clean and renewable energy to almost 20,000 homes in Scotland, and with costs continue to lower to allow more to be built, their power production could spread across the world! Go, go power wind turbines!

Blood, blood everywhere but…

Dracula needs to be careful who he drains blood from this Halloween. Scientists with Sanquin Research looked at over 31,000 patients who had nearly 60,000 red blood cell transfusions from 2005 to 2015 in the Netherlands. When looking at the patient survival rates, they found something interesting; males who received blood transfusions from women who had been pregnant had higher mortality rates than males who received blood from other donors or females. The study hasn’t been replicated yet, and the causes of blood differences have yet to be established, but it might open some interesting research avenues.

Not just in your head…

While dyslexia has primarily been viewed as a neurological condition, a new study may have found another contributing cause to the learning disability. The cone cells in human eyes that detect color are arranged differently between those who have dyslexia and those who don’t. Those who can read, write, and spell without difficulty have different layouts of those cone cells in each eye, thus letting each eye take in a slightly different picture that the brain can then choose from. In those with dyslexia, the pattern of cone cells between the two eyes match! With matching patterns, the brain receives mirror images, and the brain cannot choose a best image from a dominant eye, and thus the confusion begins. While there’s clearly still some brain work at play, the new study shows that a physical issue with the visual sensory input might be the initial source of the problem – and that just might be a solvable problem!

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