Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Tip-toeing Spiders - New Scientist latest

Following on from  New Scientist monster flea fossil revelations, sit back and enjoy  some more snippets from the 10 March issue, courtesy of Mr GP:

·       Scientist in Japan has made violin strings out of spider thread. Thickest contains 15,000 filaments
·       A robot called Cheetah has set a new speed record for 4 legged robots, near 30 km/h
·       Seeds are being imported to Antarctica unwittingly. Every visitor there has an average of 10 seeds on their clothes, the worry is some of these may take root.
·       An eel like creature 550 million years ago looks like it was the forerunner to all vertebrates
·       Spiders have 3 tricks to avoid getting stuck in their own webs: hairy legs, anti-stick chemicals and elegant tip toeing.
·       SpaceX Dragon spaceship is scheduled for launch in April.It will be the first private shot to the international space station.
·       Mammalian tissue generates complex and sophisticated electrical phenomena similar to those used in computers. This opens up the idea of building complex electronic devices from tissue for use in medicine or other uses.
·       DNA from the last of the great apes, the gorilla, has been decoded.
·       Bonobos have been shown to demonstrate high levels of caring. A group was observed to go back and help a trapped male, behaviour quite different from other species who would abandon them. Speculation is that this is related to bonobos being matriarchal. The female leaders of the group put more emphasis on group unity.
·       Enzymes are capable of working at an incredibly fast speed, reacting at a femtosecond - one quadrillionth (1/1000000000000000)s. Understanding this process is leading towards new drugs that are capable of reducing virulence of pathogens without killing them. This should reduce the problem of pathogens becoming drug resistant.
·       Brown bears like a good scratch. They have been seen using barnacle encrusted stones to sort out an itch. This is first time bears have been seen to use a tool.
·       Snakes can exercise fine control over each of their scales to help them move and stick as firmly as possible to a surface. This explains how they are capable of moving up a smooth sloping surface. 
·       Exercise has been shown to have a direct impact on your genes. In a study sedentary males did an hour of exercise, afterwards the genes in their thigh muscles had changed from fat processing to protein production.
·        Video games special feature
·       An AI computer game designer Angelina has been developed. It can only create rudimentary games atm but may be a sign of things to come.
·       Prom Week trials the use of a social physics engine that captures rules about character behaviour/interaction to create games with more realistic interpersonal behaviour. 
·       Snake, the Planet is a new variant on the old game that allows you to project snakes and play the game on real world surfaces.
·       Outerra is a world engine. Capable of generating an entire world using fractal algorithms you can zoom in from space to walk around it. 
·       Expect new developments in virtual reality. The Kinect can now works with PCs and applications developed to take it beyond gaming e.g. video conferencing and virtual shopping. Next generation devices will be more immersive. Research shows that experience through virtual reality can lead to changes in behaviour.
·       A game controller using a bowl of water has been developed. Moving your hand in it passes signals to the computer that can be used to interact with it.  . 
·       Article on the very first digital camera. Built in 1975 it weighed 4kg and took 23 s to record a 0.01  megapixel black and white picture on a cassette. The cassette was then transferred to a custom television where it could be viewed.. The developer worked for Kodak but his colleagues were sceptical asking "why would you want to look at photos on a TV?"!
·       Wormholes: new research shows these may be easier to create than was previously thought. It is now theoretically quite plausible to imagine a wormhole that would allow instantaneous transfer between points in a universe or even between universes. However for this to be capable of allowing an object as massive as a human to travel it would need to be tens to hundreds of light years across. Nonetheless these wormholes may exist naturally and they are now being looked for, though will be hard to spot. 
·       Language: Two theories exist for why humans uniquely have language. One is the "nativist" idea that language is predetermined and has a universal grammar set by our genes. The other is that language is as much determined by culture as innate abilities. The former idea has been favoured but a study on the Piraha Amazonians shows their language lacks certain aspects that would be predicted if grammar was innate.
·       A new look on middle age. From an evolutionary point of view there is a strong argument to suggest that middle age provides a benefit to the species and is one of the reasons for human's success. Even in ancient hunter gatherer societies a number of individuals survived to middle age and these people were capable of being super providers (hunting/gathering far more than required for their own survival) and being master culture conveyors passing on learning and nurturing youngsters. So middle age is not a stumbling deterioration but rather a key part of human development, liberating women and their partners from the unremitting demands of producing children to do what they do best, live long and pamper. Without the evolution of middle age human life may never have existed. Hear hear!
Scientific thought existed pre Renaissance. In particular a remarkable man, Bishop Grosseteste, born in Suffolk, published a book in 1220 that gave a remarkably sophisticated analysis of colour theory that is consistent with our understanding today. (An interesting side note which illustrates the importance of going back to original evidence. Grosseteste's writing were disregarded because they seemed to have a basic error in saying there are 9 ways colours can be combined, while the correct answer is 14. Researchers tracked down an early version of the article and found that Grossetese had been an early adopter of the Arabic numeral system. He had written 14 but later transcribers, only aware of the Roman system, had seen 14 and misread it as IX so transcribed it as "nine").   

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