Snowball the dancing, Backstreet Boys-loving cockatoo is more than a web meme: he is a scientific conundrum. Bobbing in time to music is a shockingly rare behavior, and even monkeys, capable of learning very complex tasks, find it impossible to get down to the beat even after more than a year of training. It’s marvelous evolutionary serendipity that humans dance, thinks neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel, who has found that our hearing system and motor control are intimately linked. In DISCOVER’s 2011 special issue on the brain, Patel discusses his idea that that animals needed a vocal-learning brain in order to get their groove on:
The implication is that dogs and cats can never do it, horses and chimps can never do it, but maybe other vocal-learning species can do it. I proposed that idea, but it was purely hypothetical until a few years after, when along came Snowball [in 2007].
But more importantly (drumroll), he issues a challenge:
If your pet really does have rhythm, he wants to know about it. “If someone has a dog that can dance to the beat, it will totally refute my hypothesis,” he says, “and that’s progress in science.”
If you think your pet proves Patel wrong, collect some video evidence, upload it to YouTube, and e-mail the link to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will post the best videos on May 1 (along with footage of Snowball shaking his groove thang).
The game may be the same, but the gear is different: This Saturday, as NFL prospects try to impress coaches at the Combine workouts, a few players will don smart shirts–souped-up sports attire that measures everything from players’ heart rates to g forces of acceleration.
Designed by Under Armour and Zephyr, this sophisticated shirt is called the Under Armour E39. It weighs less than 0.3 pounds and boasts a load of sensors that sit just below the athlete’s sternum; the sensors include a triaxial accelerometer, a heart-rate monitor, and a breathing-rate monitor. As an athlete practices, trainers can follow the player’s vital signs on their smartphones, laptops, or any other device that can receive Bluetooth data. As Wired explains:
“What we have is something very close to the body’s center of mass that’s measuring the accelerometry data from that center of mass,” Under Armour vice president Kevin Haley told Wired.com.
Researchers hope to collect spit from someone who died more than 70 years ago: the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. By extracting the famous flyer’s DNA from old envelopes, researchers hope to finally put to rest one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries.
Earhart disappeared–along with her navigator, Fred Noonan–in 1937, when she was trying to become the first female to fly around the globe. Communication with her plane was lost as she flew near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. government searched in vain for the two adventurers’ remains, and on January 5, 1939, Earhart was officially pronounced dead. But speculation never stopped on whether the duo died in a crash at sea, or whether they survived for some time on a deserted island.
Just two years ago researchers from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery found bone fragments on Nikumaroro Island that could be part of Amelia Earhart’s finger. The finding is controversial because a dead sea turtle was also found nearby, raising suggestions that the purported piece of Earhart actually belongs to a turtle. According to National Geographic:
It turns out that the news reporter who suddenly began speaking gibberish as she covered the Grammy Awards wasn’t suffering from a stroke–doctors conclude that a migraine is to blame.
Serene Branson, a reporter for KCBS-TV, began speaking incoherently during her coverage of the annual music awards ceremony. “As soon as I opened my mouth I knew something was wrong,” Branson told MSNBC. “I was having trouble remembering the word for Grammy…. I knew what I wanted to say but I didn’t have the words to say it.”
Many internet viewers thought she was stricken by an on-air stroke, but physicians from the University of California at Los Angeles scanned her head and tested her blood, and discovered that she was simply the victim of a migraine. It all started with a strong headache, Branson told MSNBC, but then it escalated:
It will start with Robonaut 2, the humanoid maintenance bot that NASA is sending to the International Space Station next week. And now Japan’s space agency (JAXA) has announced plans to send its own bot to the ISS. JAXA’s humanoid robot will not only talk and Twitter, but it will also act as a space nurse, monitoring the health of the astronauts.
The researchers behind the project say the bot would have a number of attributes that would make it a valuable crew member. For example, they say, it would never have to sleep–so it could keep watch when the flesh and blood astronauts are in dreamland.
And then there are its conversational skills, which would make it a lively companion for those lonley spacefarers. “We are thinking in terms of a very human-like robot that would have facial expressions and be able to converse with the astronauts,” JAXA’s Satoshi Sano told the AP.
The simulated eagle has finally landed, and today, two men have walked upon the red sands of fake Mars. This jaunt along a sandpit in Moscow, the latest episode in the Mars500 project designed to test human endurance, gives the cosmonauts a respite from their past eight months of windowless confinement.
As the BBC reports:
“We have made great progress today,” commented Vitaly Davydov, the deputy head of the Russian Federal Space Agency, who was watching a video feed of the two men. “All systems have been working normally.”
Organized by Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems and the European Space Agency, the Mars500 project seeks to better understand how humans would endure the psychological and physical effects of the isolation and confinement necessary for a real mission to Mars. The ‘500’ in Mars500 indicates the mission’s time frame–the organizers estimated that it would takes 250 days to travel to Mars, and then allotted 30 days for surface exploration before a 240-day return trip. (Technically, the project’s name should be Mars520.)
Just as Beethoven suffered through hearing loss and Hemingway struggled with depression, an artist at New York University is also suffering for his art, but in a slightly different way: his body has rejected part of the camera that he implanted in his head.
Back in November, Wafaa Bilal, an NYU photography professor, embarked on a novel art experiment: he went to a Los Angeles tattoo shop and had a titanium base inserted behind the skin on the back of his head. Three posts that extended from this insert were then attached to a camera that snapped pictures once a minute, viewable to everyone on his website.
In the rainforest along the border between Brazil and Peru, an indigenous tribe is ignoring the 21st century and living life the old-fashioned way. Experts believe this “uncontacted tribe” has had no direct contact with mainstream society, but the Brazilian government has known about the tribe for 20 years and routinely flies above the settlement to check on the inhabitants’ well-being.
NOw, the BBC has released the first ever video footage of this tribe, which had previously only been seen in photographs:
The footage was filmed in cooperation with the Brazilian government, and was featured on the BBC’s Human Planet series. It was shot in the summer of 2010 along the Peru-Brazil border using a zoom lens that allowed the crew to film from more than a half-mile away.
This past summer, a crowdsourcing company called Crowdflower wanted to see if the wisdom of crowds could best ESPN pundits by making better predictions of the season’s best football players. Against the power of crowdsourced labor from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, the ESPN list didn’t stand a chance. The results show that the crowdsourcers beat the experts hands down, and the outcome is especially clear in the top 25 players’ ranking.
Before the season started, Crowdflower had 550 workers vote on which one of a pair of players would be the more valuable member of a fantasy league team. Stats on the players were available for those who wanted help, but complete novices were warned off. “If you think football is a game where you’re really only allowed to touch the ball with your feet, this probably isn’t the job for you,” read the advert.
But how exactly does crowdsourcing harness such soothsaying powers? From New Scientist:
“The simple answer is that we got answers from a large number of individuals, so the influence of one individual’s bias is smaller,” says Crowdflower’s Josh Eveleth. “People who were uninformed would tend to cancel each other out, so any significant trend would be meaningful. We had a much larger pool than ESPN did. And because our crowd responded independently of each other, they were less likely to be influenced by groupthink than the ESPN experts.”
We wonder if the NFL will get the memo, and start crowdsourcing its draft picks…
80beats: Crowdsourced Science: 5 Ways You Can Help the Hive-Mind
80beats: Crowdsourced Astronomy Project Discovers “Green Pea” Galaxies
80beats: Finally: N.F.L. Issues New Concussion Rules To Protect Players’ Brains
DISCOVER: What Happens to a Linebacker’s Neurons?
DISCOVER: Who Really Won The Superbowl?
Image: flickr / Ed Yourdon
For all those penny-pinching, world-traveling Facebook-users out there, you’re in luck: you’ll be able to check Facebook during your flight and not pay a dime if you fly during the short, sweet month of February.
Of course this means we all need to prepare ourselves for the inane status updates. Like: “I can see my house from here!” And: “Clouds… wow.”
Participating airlines–including American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, and U.S. Airways–are partnering with Gogo Inflight Internet and Ford to provide airline passengers with free Facebook access. As Mashable reports: