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The Disappearing Lake, Gecko Tape and the 5-Second Rule Debunked

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Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Lake: Scientists are on the hunt for a five-acre lake in the Andes (or not in the Andes, perhaps?) that's gone missing. The lake was last seen in March, but in May scientists only found a 100-foot crater with sheets of ice that originally used to float on the lake's surface. Some think the water from the lake may have leaked through cracks in the bottom of the lake into underground fissures, but they don't know where the fissures would have come from. My theory: David Copperfield. Just a hunch.

riverglow.jpgA Whole New Red Tide: It was 38 years ago this week that, in one of my city's proudest moments, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire, providing a startling visual reminder of how polluted the water had become. Now the WaterGlow project is giving us a more aesthetic and safe way to see how polluted our water is. Project creators Soo-in Yang and David Benjamin are installing pods in bodies of water to monitor how polluted the water is. The pods then signal LED lights to shine red if the water is unsafe or green if it checks out. The lights appear to float above the water and allow anyone to see how safe their H2O is. Not to burst their bubble, but I usually run when I see green water. Maybe that's just me, though.

Cow Dung alternative energy, reinventing the (intelligent) wheel, and how to walk on walls all after the jump!

More Fun Alternative Energy Sources: While the rest of the world works on generating energy from such drab sources like the sun and wind, some scientists are creating more innovative ways to power our lives. A few examples:
Cow Dung: Scientists are researching how to purify the methane gas present in cow excrement to turn feces into a feasible energy source. The theory simply proves that BS even has uses beyond writing papers.
Fruit: It turns out fuel made from fructose is actually better than fuel from ethanol.
Your Workout Routine: A gym in Hong Kong is placing generators in some of its machines, harnessing the power created when people worked out to power the fluorescent lights. It's only a little bit like being in a hamster wheel.

Reinventing the wheel: Speaking of wheels, it's not enough that cars can parallel park themselves now, butherbie.jpg a research team at University of Portsmouth in England is working on wheels that learn the routes you take and adapt to them. The microcomputers in each wheel communicate with each other and adapt to road conditions, tightening for familiar turns or adjusting the shocks for bumps in the road. The creators estimate that by 2012, a quarter of cars will be equipped with the technology. By my estimates, that means that by 2025, we can all be driving my dream car: Herbie.

Eat off the floor!: The 5-second rule, that old standby of nutrition, is off by at least five times, according to student researchers at Connecticut College. They tested a variety of foods to see how long it took for bacteria to infiltrate and found that wet foods took 30 seconds to attract bacteria, with dry foods taking even longer. Skittles are apparently a magical repellent, since it took at least five minutes for bacteria to show a bacterial presence. I'm still not sure this justifies me munching on the stray ones I just found under my bed, though.

Fighting Cancer, Fantastic Voyage-style: Chemo may be a thing of the past, as researchers have devised a new system of gold-coated glass nanospheres that can destroy tumors with bursts of heat. The nanospheres work like tiny Death Stars traveling through the blood stream and congregating near tumors. They then emit heat to destroy the tumors, reducing the time and toxicity of cancer treatments.
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Geckos do more than just hawk car insurance: By imitating the nano- and micro-scale structures on gecko's feet, scientists have created an adhesive that's strong enough to allow robots to walk on walls. The "gecko tape", which could also be used to create gloves for astronauts, is reusable because it doesn't use glues. Instead, the microtubes conform to the molecular gaps on a surface. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to hold off for a bite from a radioactive spider for my wall-climbing abilities.

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Does Self-Control Deplete Over the Course of the Day? Maybe Not, Says New Study
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For months now, I’ve been trying to cut out sugar from my diet. I’ve read about all the ways my sweet tooth will be the death of me, and I’ve resolved to give it up. And yet, even as I write this, my long-term goal to eat healthy is losing out to my eternal desire to eat M&Ms at my desk. Is it because it’s the end of the day, and I’ve been trying to make choices for eight hours already? Or is it something else?

A new study in PLOS One pushes back on the popular theory known as "ego depletion," which hypothesizes that self-control is a finite resource that depletes throughout the day, much like energy levels. Instead, researchers from the University of Toronto and the learning technology company Cerego found that people's self-control depletes when it comes to doing one task for a long period of time, but that self-control fatigue isn't a factor when you're switching tasks. In other words, it's hard to say no to the box of cookies all day long, but saying no to the box of cookies won't impede other acts of self-control, like your ability to focus on your homework instead of turning on the TV.

The study used data from Cerego, which publishes online study materials, examining the study behaviors of two groups of college students using the Cerego system as part of semester-long psychology courses. The researchers looked at data from two groups of users, one group of 8700 students and one of almost 8800, focusing on how long they worked during each session and how well they performed at the memory tests within the curriculum.

If self-control really is a finite resource, it should be depleted by the end of the day, after people presumably have spent many hours resisting their first impulses in one way or another. But the researchers found that this wasn't true. Overall, students didn't do any better if they used the program earlier in the morning. Instead, performances peaked around 2 p.m., and people logged in to use the software more and more as the day went on, suggesting that the motivation to learn doesn't fall off at night (though that may also be because that's when college students do their homework in general).

However, mental resources did seem to be drained by doing the same task for a long period of time. The researchers found that after a certain point, students' performance dropped off, peaking at about 28 minutes of work. They made about 5 percent more mistakes 50 minutes into the session compared to that peak.

When it comes to the idea that we exhaust our store of self-control, the authors write, "the notion that this fatigue is completely fluid, and that it emerges after minutes of self-control, is under considerable doubt."

The notion of ego depletion comes from a 1998 study in which researchers asked participants to hang out in a room full of fresh-baked cookies, telling them to eat only from a bowl of radishes, leaving the cookies untouched. Then, those volunteers worked on an impossible puzzle. Volunteers who had spent time avoiding the delicious pull of cookies gave up on the mind-boggling task an average of 11 minutes earlier than a group of volunteers who were brought into the same room and allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted. (Lucky them.)

Since then, the idea has taken off, leading to hundreds of subsequent studies and even influencing the habits of people like Barack Obama, who told Vanity Fair in 2011 that he only wore blue or gray suits in order to cut down on the non-vital decisions he had to make throughout the day.

This current study isn't the first to challenge the theory’s veracity, though. In 2016, a 2000-person replication study by some of the same authors (with scientists in 23 different labs) pushed back on the theory of ego depletion, finding that short spurts of self-control didn't have any effect on subsequent tasks. This study just adds to the evidence against the well-established idea.

So it's looking more and more like ego depletion isn't a good excuse for my afternoon vending-machine habit. Perhaps the true secret to excellent self-control is this: Just be a raven.

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