Bottled water companies often brag about the purity of their drinks. Just imagine if they found a water source that's been cut off from the outside world for well over a billion years.
Well, scientists have discovered just that—an isolated reservoir 2.4 kilometers underground in Ontario. They examined fluids seeping out of fractures in a mine and found particular isotopes of the noble gas xenon. By comparing these isotopes to those known to have been in the ancient atmosphere, the researchers dated the slowly escaping water to be at least 1.5 billion years old, some of the oldest known. As the rocks around the water are 2.64 billion years old, the water may be too. The finding is in the journal Nature. [G. Holland et al, Deep fracture fluids isolated in the crust since the Precambrian era]
The liquid also contains dissolved gases such as methane and hydrogen, which in sunless environments support microbial life. The discovery of any microbes would support the hope that similar underground life might exist on Mars and elsewhere. In short, this ancient water could hold gas, microbes and hints about extraterrestrial life. So let’s forego finding out how it tastes.
Speed dating is a popular way to find love. But how can you make a good impression in just a few minutes?
With scientific analysis, of course. Because a study finds that people can form meaningful relationships quickly as long as they say the right thing and in the right way. The study is in the American Journal of Sociology. [Daniel McFarland, Dan Jurafsky, and Craig M. Rawlings, in press, Making the Connection: Social Bonding in Courtship Situations]
Researchers listened to audio from speed dates and reviewed results from nearly 1,000 dates.
Women reported a connection with men who used language to indicate that what she was saying was interesting. For example:
FEMALE: I played in the orchestra.
MALE: Oh that’s cool.
Daters also clicked if one interrupted the other to convey enthusiasm or interest in what was being said. For example:
FEMALE: They ought to just regulate at some point.
But things went sour if one participant asked a lot of questions, which women did to keep a lagging conversation going and men used when they had nothing to say.
The study confirms that people can hit it off with one another in a short amount of time. Just make sure you say all the right things before that buzzer sounds.
It’s tough to have a job where the boss is always riding you. That’s literally the case with a horse. Now a study finds that stress experienced by the equine spine can vary drastically with the style and skill of the rider. The findings are trotted out in the Journal of Experimental Biology. [Patricia de Cocq et al, Modelling biomechanical requirements of a rider for different horse-riding techniques at trot]
Your average riders have two basic choices when it comes to staying on a moving steed. They can clamp their thighs tight and try to remain seated, or they can bob up and down with the rhythm of the horse, standing in the stirrups as they rise off the saddle. But which is better for the horse?
Researchers filmed dressage riders as they trotted using both techniques. And they found that riders who use the more bouncy ‘rising trot’ actually keep their center of mass more steady when they stand—which reduces the force on the horse’s back.
Now, jockeys take this position to the extreme. By standing in the stirrups for the entire ride, a jockey’s center of mass follows an almost flat line. Makes for a faster race to the finish, and a less burdened beast.
The Arctic wasn't always covered in ice. Samples of sediment layers beneath a frozen lake show this region used to be a lot warmer—and may thaw out again in the future. The work is in the journal Science. [Julie Brigham-Grette et al, Pliocene Warmth, Polar Amplification, and Stepped Pleistocene Cooling Recorded in NE Arctic Russia]
El'gygytgyn, a Russian lake 100 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, contains layers of sediment that date back to the lake's formation 3.6 million years ago. Analyses of sediment cores have revealed that back then summers reached about 15 to 16 degrees Celsius, a good 8 degrees warmer than modern Arctic summers. These warm temperatures, which supported plants like Douglas fir and hemlock, lasted until about 2.2 million years ago.
Using a sediment core as a detailed history of climate change, scientists can see how the forested Arctic gradually became covered in ice and snow. These changes help us understand details about the development of Ice Ages. In addition, the sediment comes from a window of time during the Pliocene Epoch, when greenhouse gas levels were only slightly higher than they are today. Such sensitivity to small carbon dioxide changes hint at a warm Arctic future.
When summer hits, I dread jogging outside. But a study finds that elephants can be in true danger in the heat.
As creatures get bigger, they have smaller surface area to body volume ratios. Fully grown Asian elephants thus pack a lot of mass into a body with a relatively small surface area. And surface area limits how much body heat you can dissipate.
For the study, two female elephants in the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans walked around a half-mile track under various conditions. The outdoor temperature during these sessions ranged from a chilly 8 degrees Celsius to a scorching 35 degrees.
Clear, hot days were the worst. The already limited hide is now itself heated by the sun. With the equivalent of a busted radiator, the elephants retained 56 to 100 percent of their body heat internally. Which could make a mere 4 hours of exercise fatal. The research on elephant exertion is in the Journal of Experimental Biology. [M.F. Rowe et al, Heat storage in Asian elephants during submaximal exercise: behavioral regulation of thermoregulatory constraints on activity in endothermic gigantotherms]
Fortunately, elephants have ways to beat the heat: shift activity to after dark, and, of course, go for a dip.
Justin Bieber has nearly 39 million followers on Twitter—eight million more than the President. But for those of us who aren't as #blessed as Bieber, researchers have come up with a few tips to racking up more followers—based on an analysis of over 500 active tweeters and their half million tweets, over a 15-month period.
First, stop talking about yourself. Timely, informative tweets are 30 times more effective at snagging new followers than tweets about your pancakes. Sophisticated language also attracts followers, even within the short format.
Since Twitter is a web of very weak social ties—often people you've never met—spare them the bad news about your commute. Negativity drives potential followers away. Being guilty of "hashtag abuse" is another no-no—limit the use of hashtags so that they maintain some value. The researchers presented their findings at the recent Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Paris. [C.J. Hutto, Sarita Yardi and Eric Gilbert, A Longitudinal Study of Follow Predictors on Twitter]
Of course, one recent report claims that half of Bieber's followers are actually fakes, like spambots—and he gets most of his real followers simply for being famous. To increase your Twitter fan base, you have to actually be interesting.
Wanna help grandma keep her mind sharp? Consider throwing out her crossword puzzles and giving her a joystick. Because a study finds that elderly people who played a video game for at least 10 hours gained three years of protection from cognitive decline. Gamers also became quicker at processing information. The research is in the journal PLoS ONE. [Fredric D. Wolinsky et al, A Randomized Controlled Trial of Cognitive Training Using a Visual Speed of Processing Intervention in Middle Aged and Older Adults]
Almost 700 subjects were divided into two groups: those between the ages of fifty and sixty-four and people aged sixty-five and older. Members from each age group were asked to either work on a crossword puzzle or play a video game called Road Tour, which involves matching fleeting images of car types and road signs.
In both age groups, those who played the video game showed improvements on executive function—which includes memory, attention, problem solving skills and perception—when tested a year later.
Some of the gamers were given four additional hours of training with the game. And their cognitive improvement lasted an additional year. So video games might help ward off cognitive decline. Just don’t play Road Tour while actually driving.
It’s a common complaint, perhaps leveled by every generation about the ones that follow: kids nowadays are too materialistic, with their inflated sense of entitlement, and now flat screens and cell phones. Well, turns out this gripe might finally be true. Because today’s adolescents seem to want more in the way of worldly goods than did teens 30 years ago, and they don’t really want to work for it.
That’s according to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. [Jean M. Twenge and Tim Kasser, Generational Changes in Materialism and Work Centrality, 1976-2007: Associations With Temporal Changes in Societal Insecurity and Materialistic Role Modeling]
To do the analysis, researchers turned to a survey that’s been given to about 15,000 high-school seniors every year since 1976. Among other questions, the kids were asked to rate the importance of having “lots of money” and the stuff money can buy, like a house, a new car, or a “motor-powered recreational vehicle.”
Compared to the Baby Boomers that graduated in the ‘70s, Millennial teens place more stock in the trappings of success. And they also express less interest in working hard to obtain what they covet.
And can you blame them? In an advertising-heavy consumer economy, why wouldn’t you think that ‘the good life’ involves getting handed the goods?
What makes someone sound sexy? To get a scientific viewpoint, researchers gauged volunteers' responses to different voices. The conclusion: voices considered attractive send messages about body size. The work is in the journal PLoS ONE. [Yi Xu et al, Human Vocal Attractiveness as Signaled by Body Size Projection]
In the animal kingdom, sound indicates size and intentions. For example, a rough and low-frequency call suggests the vocalizer is large and aggressive, while a clearer, higher frequency signals a small, non-threatening animal.
In the study, researchers adjusted a variety of voices to correspond with different body sizes. To do so, they synthesized completely artificial voices, and recorded sentences before varying the pitches and resonance.
When volunteers listened to the sound samples, men preferred higher-pitched female voices like this one [voice clip], which suggest a smaller body size. Low-frequency male voices that signaled a large body size [voice clip], were attractive to females.
Interestingly, breathiness made both male and female voices more desirable. It certainly explains the enduring popularity of [audio of Marilyn Monroe singing to JFK].
When the first shots were fired at JFK's motorcade, police couldn't immediately locate the gunman based on sound alone. Today, the technology exists for them to it with their smartphones, less than a second after the first shot.
Here's how. Most bullets travel at supersonic speeds, generating a shock wave along their path. To track that path, researchers built a small bluetooth sensor for smartphones. The sensor uses four mics to measure the shock wave's angle, and its time of arrival. Then each phone networks with nearby phones to triangulate the sniper's location, mapping it on the smartphone screen within a second of the gun blast. Researchers tested the system with an AK-47, and were able to calculate the shooter's bearings with less than seven degrees of error, and get a decent estimate of his range. They presented the method at the Conference on Information Processing in Sensor Networks in Philadelphia. [János Sallai et al, Acoustic Shockwave-Based Bearing Estimation]
Since the system requires at least two phones to work, researchers say it would be ideal for a security force fanned out around a likely target—allowing them to respond to threats almost as fast as a speeding bullet.
Chimps show other chimps how to use tools. My roommate showed me some tricks to make better scrambled eggs. Group members teaching each other is called cultural transmission. And a study finds that cultural transmission is behind the spread of a hunting technique among humpback whales off New England. The research is in the journal Science. [Jenny Allen et al, Network-Based Diffusion Analysis Reveals Cultural Transmission of Lobtail Feeding in Humpback Whales]
It’s called lobtail feeding: a humpback whale slaps the surface of the water with its tail. The resulting bubbles pen in prey fish, which the whales gobble up. Researchers first saw lobtail feeding in 1980. Within 30 years, 37 percent of observed humpbacks had picked up the technique.
To create mathematical models for the spread of lobtail feeding, researchers used 27 years of data from whale-watching boats in the Gulf of Maine. And the models that included cultural transmission as a factor best matched the data. Those models assumed that humpback whales that spend more time with lobtail feeders were more likely to pick up the method themselves.
Clearly, whales are capable of sophisticated social interactions—and we've only seen the tip of the tail.
Can your heart bleed for a robot? In two experiments, people reacted to videos where a human appeared to either torture or coddle one of three subjects: another human wearing green, a small green robot, or an inanimate green box. And viewers had a definite emotional response to the treatment of the robot. The work will be presented at the International Communication Association's annual conference.
[Astrid M. Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al, Investigations on Empathy Towards Humans and Robots Using Psychophysiological Measures and fMRI, at conference in London June 17-21. Related publication: An Experimental Study on Emotional Reactions Towards a Robot]
Forty volunteers watched clips of the robot, which reacted to abuse with upset crying and choking noises and to affection with happy purring and babbling sounds. Viewers became physically agitated watching the abusive video, and afterwards they reported a negative emotional response.
In the second experiment, fourteen people watched the videos while undergoing a functional MRI brain scan. The scans revealed similar responses when either the robot or the human received affection. But the human's apparent abuse caused more concern than the robot's.
Understanding our emotional response to robots may help inform the development of robotic assistants. In the meantime, be nice to your Roomba.
A good “poker face” can hide the quality of your cards. But your arms might still be giving away your hands. That’s the finding of a study to come out in the journal Psychological Science. [Michael L. Slepian et al, Quality of Professional Players’ Poker Hands is Perceived Accurately from Arm Motions, link to come]
Volunteers watched videos of the World Series of Poker. The videos were edited so the subjects saw one of three different views of the players: the poker players’ entire bodies from the table up, or just the players’ faces or just the players’ arms pushing chips into the pot. “When participants were watching chips being pushed into the center of the table by the players, it was only then could they accurately perceive how good a hand was better than chance. They couldn’t do it for the whole body and if anything they were worse from just watching the face.” Michael Slepian, a psychology doctoral student at Stanford University, and a co-author of the study.
No pros were among the video watchers. But there’s some evidence that, as might be expected, they’d be even better at catching arm cues. “In one of our studies, the more participants were familiar with poker—even though they were all novices—the better they did.”
If you’ve ever tried to flirt it up at a party or a club or maybe a construction site, you know it can be tough making yourself heard above the din. One solution is to go home and text your love interest. But a more immediate one is to shout. And that’s pretty much the approach male grasshoppers take when the roar of traffic threatens to drown out their mating calls. The results appear in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology. [Ulrike Lampe et al, Staying tuned: grasshoppers from noisy roadside habitats produce courtship signals with elevated frequency components]
Lots of animals use sound to woo a potential partner. But what happens when an unnaturally noisy environment all but overwhelms such romantic entreaties?
To see how grasshoppers cope with vehicular clamor, researchers collected about 200 males, half from the scrub along the highway. Then they showed the lads a female and recorded the results. Turns out that, compared to males that lived someplace quiet, the roadside chirpers selectively boosted the bass notes in their love song, precisely the part that would have gotten lost during rush hour.
People with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other breathing disorders need fast relief when their airways tighten up. Unfortunately, the most commonly used medication has obnoxious side effects. But scientists recently discovered that a bitter taste can be a more effective treatment—and now they know why. The work is published in PLoS Biology. [Cheng-Hai Zhang et al, The Cellular and Molecular Basis of Bitter Tastant-Induced Bronchodilation]
When an asthma attack hits, the airway shrinks and makes breathing difficult. To keep air flowing, the sufferer must take medication to relax the passage's muscles and open it back up. But a couple years ago, researchers discovered airways contain bitter taste receptors like the ones on the tongue. After exposure to bitter substances, the receptors can expand the airway more quickly and more effectively than the most commonly used treatment.
Researchers examined airway tissue to learn why bitterness makes the muscles relax. During an asthma attack, calcium flows into the cells of the airway and contributes to muscle contraction. But bitter substances block the channels that allow calcium into cells, which relaxes the tightened tissue. And that's the opposite of a bitter pill.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast]