We humans are slowly starting to grasp the limits of our intellectual superiority, particularly with respect to chimpanzees. Just in the past year, scientists have caught chimps hunting with spears, passing on cultural traditions, displaying altruism, and beating college students (at least some of whom were sober) at memory games. Now, a new study in Current Biology shows they may actually have the capacity for a communication system far more complex than we thought.
Defining intelligence is highly problematic. Was Einstein smarter than Mozart? Are either smarter than Shakespeare? What about Gandhi and Buddha? Intelligence is a broad and complex entity—and nearly impossible for neuroscientists to study. We do know that there’s an area in the very front of the brain—the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—that’s important for the qualities most people associate with intelligence. The PFC is important for logic, rational thought, abstract thinking, concentration, planning, and impulse control—the latter colorfully demonstrated when a three-foot iron pole blasted through a man’s forehead in 1848, sparing his life but leaving him rude and irritable. But as important as the PFC is for intelligent human behavior, there may be one process that doesn’t really need it—creativity.
Robots build our cars, milk our cows, perform unassisted heart surgery, and, at least in Japan, take care of both the young and the old. Advances in robot technology in the home and workplace are impressive, but the best droids around (on our planet, at least) are out on the battlefield. For years, robotic soldiers have played considerable roles in performing the military’s most undesirable tasks: destroying and placing explosives, performing reconnaissance, and detecting and cleaning nuclear and biological agents—basically everything that gets left out when kids “play war.”
Last night DiscoBlog traipsed down to the fairly swanky headquarters of giant advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, where the British-based ad folks recognized 10 “world-changing ideas”—inventions to improve people’s lives in one way or another.
The winner among the finalists was the LifeStraw, a foot-long filtering tube that purports to let you (or your friends in the developing world) drink even the filthiest, most microbe-infested water without getting sick. We’re not sure what the criteria were for winning this award—the LifeStraw isn’t exactly new, having been named a Best Invention of the Year by Time in 2005—but it seems a legitimately great item. Wiley event attendees insist they knew it would win because it fit in with what Saatchi chose in the past.
Whereas LifeStraw may indeed be the most world-changing “idea” at the event, it did not have the most compelling presentation. (Perhaps it was handicapped in this regard by the fact that the plentiful Saatchi-provided wine seemed to be downright hygienic.)
Some other finalists’ presentations were both more future-looking and more exciting for the short-attention-spanned blogger in all of us.
The Bush era of federally funded science was a smashing success. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the southwestern bald eagle off of the endangered species list, the Bureau of Land Management endorsed cattle grazing regulations that would prove “beneficial to animals,” and the U.S. Forest Service recommended legislation to protect animals from wildfires, to name a few.
Mark Vargas of Santa Clara, California, has a plug-in electric car and $70,000 worth of solar panels. But there’s a serious threat to Vargas’s environmental efforts: his tree-hugging neighbors, Richard Treanor and his wife Carolyn Bissett.
Prius-owning Treanor and Bissett have eight redwoods in their backyard—towering, majestic beasts that shade the forest floor and, apparently, Vargas’s solar panels. Nature-hating Vargus wants the renewable energy-hating couple to cut down the offending trees, and the three have been engaged in legal battles for six years.
Tuna has been getting a lot of attention lately, but for all the wrong reasons. In January, a popular front-page article in the New York Times found frighteningly high levels of mercury in tuna from Manhattan sushi restaurants. The consumer’s response? It still tastes good (and it’s not like we’re eating thermometers). New Yorkers were wise to detect an element of sensationalist scaremongering in the Times article, but now there’s a genuine, urgent reason to avoid that succulent sushi: Tuna is facing regional extinction. Thanks to worldwide demand for “the chicken of the sea,” tuna populations have been plummeting despite efforts at sustainable fishing.
Kids in developing countries don’t drop out of school because they have to work the fields or care for their younger siblings, Nicholas Negroponte said in his plenary lecture at AAAS. They drop out because they’re bored. Just after he got laptops to all the kids at a rural schoolhouse in Cambodia–one of the inspirations for his nonprofit, One Laptop per Child–there was a 100% increase in attendance. No one dropped out. (Parents were fans, too, mainly because the laptop screens were the brightest light in the house.)
Why do some people smoke for a short time and develop lung cancer, while others who smoke for decades live to a ripe old age, cancer-free? And why do some women with BRCA mutations develop breast cancer, while others don’t? Our genes and our environment both contribute to our cancer risks, but exactly how these interactions work is a mystery.
Cheryl Walker of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center says that clues to the puzzle can be found in the environment we were in before we were born. Her work shows that while developing in its mother’s uterus, a fetus may be exposed to estrogen, which can greatly impact the way the cells of the body respond when exposed to estrogen later in life. Read More
Biofuels have their problems, surely, (competition with agriculture, a high carbon footprint, and incompatibility with gas engines, to name a few) but maybe that’s because we aren’t focusing on the right type of fuel. The answer lies in butanol, says James Liao of the University of California at Los Angeles in order to skirt many of the issues biofuels have brought to the table. By focusing on the technical and policy perspective on “Biomass-to-Biofuels Conversion” Liao establishes butanol as the non-agricultural, fast growing alternative within the alternative fuel industry.