Jul 5, 2018
Today we begin our pivot towards doing more interviews on the podcast. And we could not have chosen a better person to talk with than our good friend and science outreach superstar Chris Ryu. We had a terrific time talking about the Dorset Science & Technology Centre and the Atom Club. Chris' passion is in science, technology, and coding and his mission is to share this with children and adults in some of the more rural areas of southern England. We applaud the hard work and dedication of everyone involved in this important science outreach development.
Last week a new study published in Nature Scientific Reports revealed further evidence for their cognitive abilities, and shows that these so-called “bird brains” can memorize tool shapes and even recreate them from memory. The subject of the research is the New Caledonian crow. They’ve been studied for quite some time now. In their native habitat they’ll fashion hooks to very precisely snag grubs and other tasty treats from holes and crevices.
Where does this behavior come from? Are they just copying other crows without thinking about it? Is this a hard-wired behavior that all of these crows possess as instincts? It also could be possible that these crows are memorizing tool designs, and recreating them.
This research was led by Dr. Sarah Jelbert, a post-doctoral research associate in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Jelbert and her team designed this experiment to see if this behavior, this cumulative cultural evolution, is happening with these crows. They had 8 subjects, and the first order was the train them to recognize what a proper tool looks like. The one that’ll “do the trick”. In this case the right tool for the job was a correctly sized piece of paper. The experimenters offered the crows differently sized pieces of paper that they could use on a specially made vending machine...one that dispensed meat.
The crows had to figure out if the larger pieces of paper would release the delicious treat, or a smaller piece of paper. When the correctly sized paper was put into the slot a hidden experimenter opened the hatch and a tasty treat would come rolling out. So the birds were conditioned to understand which size of paper would do the trick.
Here’s the best part.
The crows were then given larger sheets of paper. Instead of giving up they used their gray matter to figure it out. The crows began to use their bills and talons to tear and shape the paper into the properly sized tools. They were trained to know what sized tool was needed. This information had to be stored as memory. Then they had the ingenuity to take that information and create the right tool for the job.
This is just one experiment. But it has given researchers a lot to go on for further testing and also observation of crows in the wild. For instance, how long does this memory last? Can a completely different reward experiment be done, and would the crows remember how this one worked when presented with it later? But right now, it looks like one more unique human trait is falling by the wayside.
Maybe a glimmer of good environmental news, for a change!
First we go back in time 60 years, when London’s Thames estuary was declared ‘biologically dead’. The river was dirty and almost devoid of wildlife. Since then, things have turned around to some extent - and today we have 3500 seals in the Thames. There are two species, harbour and grey seals. Some of them are about to give birth, so scientists are doing a count to work out how they’re doing.
Thea Cox, conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London, says that "Knowing how many there are is a really good indicator of the health of the estuary, what habitat is available to them, what food source is available to them."
This good news story has a sting in the tail - although the river is generally less polluted, we naturally do have to worry about plastic pollution, in particular microplastics, both for our own health as well as that of the seals.
Do you know what the marshmallow test is? It’s a test that was first conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel to see if there is any correlation between early childhood self-control and later childhood success.
Here’s how it worked. The experimenter placed a marshmallow on a table in front of a preschool aged kid. Then the grownup promised to give the kid two marshmallows if they could resist stuffing the first one in their cute little face for 15 minutes.
They did these tests in the 1960’s on 90 children in a local Stanford preschool. Decades later they came back to their test subjects to measure their success over the years. And yes, there seemed to be a greater degree of success in kids who resisted marshmallow temptation, including higher test scores and a lower body mass index.
The results of this research were published in 1990 and has been a measure of children’s willpower since that time.
But a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that this test, the marshmallow test, may just be a lot of fluff.
The new study was led by Dr. Tyler Watts of New York University, and Dr. Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan, both of the University of California-Irvine. And these researchers made a few changes to the test. They increased the sample size from 90 to 900, and they also included a much greater diversity of kids. And these background factors were given consideration when they analyzed the results.
And according to Dr. Watts the results showed that once the kid’s backgrounds were factored in, any differences in delaying gratification didn’t result in any statistically meaningful increases in success at a later age.
The results suggest that a child’s ability to resist a marshmallow is more influenced by their socio-economic backgrounds. Think about it. If you’re growing up not sure about anything in your life, including when your next meal is happening...then you better grab any food while you can. Also, such a background is more likely to sow distrust in adults promising to give them something...like that second marshmallow. And their future success in school and in life is probably far more influenced by the economic disadvantages of their childhood than by any ability to resist a marshmallow, or other food reward.
Glioblastoma is a devastating form of brain cancer - it’s the most common type of malignant brain tumour and patients typically do not live for long after diagnosis - best-case scenario is around 20 months. A study published last month by a team at Duke University indicated that a modified form of poliovirus may have some benefits in prolonging life expectancy.
But how would POLIO help with brain cancer? The polio treatment is one of several “oncolytic viruses” being investigated as anti-cancer agents. So researchers have long viewed such viruses as potential tools for directly killing cancer - and the virus kills tumour cells and they now suspect that the viruses might be more effective at marshaling the body's immune system against malignancies, according to the National Cancer Institute. As I said, the virus has been modified, so it will not cause polio (this being a horrible disease, causing paralysis and possibly death). It’s modified as follows - the part of the virus that targets and kills nerve cells during a polio infection was swapped with a piece of the common cold virus.
Of 61 people with recurring glioblastoma who were treated with the modified virus, 21 percent were alive after three years. In a “historical” comparison group of 104 patients, who would have been eligible for the treatment but died before it was available, 4 percent lived as long.
The paper is in New England Journal of Medicine. It is an early phase trial and will naturally face much scrutiny in months and years to come.
Today in the Lounge, I wanted to step back from climate change per-se and talk about an interesting climate feature. DUST! Specifically, Saharan dust that gets transported thousands and thousands of miles across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, causing all sorts of issues.
Every year hundreds of millions of tons of dust gets picked over West Africa and blow west by the trade winds over the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the dust is born at the Bodele depression in north central Chad at the southern end of the Saharan desert. It is actually a dry lake bed that is the lowest point in chad. Winds get funneled through nearby mountains, accelerate through and pick up dry diatoms (microorganisms) left over from a time when the lake was an actual lake and transport them west with the prevailing winds.
Now this dust causes some unbelievable sunsets across the Caribbean but provides a gross hazy view during the day. The view is like when you mistakenly touch the lenses part of your glasses and then put the glasses back on. The dust is your wayward fingers.
But you might be thinking, I’ll deal with a hazy day for a good sunset. Well, the dust can also combine with the normal every day human-caused pollution emitted near cities to create extremely hazardous air quality days. In Dallas Texas, 7000 miles away from Africa, the dust combined with human pollution to cause levels of pm2.5 (particles that smaller than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches) which were highly elevated.
Why care? Outdoor air pollution, dominated by PM2.5, is responsible for around 4.5 million deaths a year (Landrigan et al. 2017), half of which are in China and India. These particles are such a danger because of just how small they are. At less than 2.5 micrometers, the particles are able to penetrate deep into lungs and even your bloodstream. Extreme exposure to a large amount of PM2.5 can lead to nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, and increased respiratory symptoms. In the most vulnerable—those with pre-existing heart or lung disease—exposure to PM2.5 can even lead to death.
But there are some positives, Saharan dust, specifically those diatoms, helps to fertilize the Amazon rainforest with nutrients and helps build beaches across the Caribbean. This dust also lives in what is known as the Saharan Air Layer as it moves across the Atlantic, a layer of air that is hot and dry. This hot and dry air mass also helps to kill off any potential tropical cyclone from developing usually leading to a reduced number of storms. Which is good!. And It’s part of the natural climate ecosystem with dust storms happening at the bodele depression about 100 days a year. But it still can cause issues, especially when combined with those non-natural parts of the climate ecosystem.
So the next time you watch a video that brings a tear to your eye and you want an excuse, don’t just say you have dust in your eyes, say you have diatoms from the bodele depression in your eyes. You’ll be super cool I promise.
Thank you Chris Ryu for sharing with our audience all the great things you’re doing at the Dorset Science and Technology Centre, and the Atom Club. This is true grassroots science outreach, and they deserve your support. So please check them out at Atom.club.
That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
If you have any suggestions or comments email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.
Our hosts today were Sophie McManus, Tom Di Liberto, and JD Goodwin.
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