Firefighting Beetles, Polite Phones and Even More Polite Primates


Every roving bachelor has the fear that he's got a son out there. But hey, it could be worse. Just look at Genghis Khan, who spawned enough children that he is now related to 16 million men in Central Asia. The great warrior was legendary for having his way with women, but the scope of his exploits was never fully realized until now. A team of geneticists studying Asian men found that a number of them had similar DNA, which they managed to pin on Khan. From this they realized that 1 in every 200 Asian men is related to him. Just imagine that family reunion.

I'm floating on air

ulevitate.jpgLevitation has long been the stuff of magic shows and wild imaginations, but a group of scientists at the University of St. Andrews says it may soon be reality. They've managed to reverse the Casimir force, which normally attracts objects on one another on an atomic level. For now, the scientists say the discovery can be used on a small scale to create machines with frictionless moving parts, but could, in effect, be strong enough to lift large objects, even a person.

Sobering statistic of the week

Second Life is a virtual world, where people can spend (and lose) real money and make real friends. Unfortunately, network also uses real power, and a lot of it. Blogger Nicholas Carr crunched the numbers supplied by Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, and figured out that a Second Life avatar burns as much power as the average Brazilian. And people wonder why we're having conservation problems.

The phone that says 'excuse me'

Isn't it embarrassing when you're on the phone with your boss when an incoming call from a bored friend interrupts you? Well, scientists at Intel are working to make sure that doesn't happen by studying speech patterns to detect important conversations. They've tracked conversations for tone and length only to figure out what styles indicate importance. For example, a talk that's largely one-sided and serious likely indicates a professional discussion, while one that's casual and punctuated by laughter would be a friendly one. They say that this technology could be adapted to direct a phone to not interrupt during important calls, but for now we'll just have to stick with the stone-age method of screening our own calls.

Firefighting Beetles, Chivalrous Chimps and more after the jump!

Chivalry in Chimpanzees

chimpanzee-picture.jpgNext time you're in a pickle, you could count on a chimp to help you out. A study at a chimpanzee reserve in Uganda showed that chimps are inherently nice to each other and to other humans. They were willing to pick up a stick for a human who struggled to reach it, even when the chimp had to go as far as eight feet to pick it up and hand it over. This finding casts kindness in a whole new light- it's genetic rather than a culturally-learned custom. I guess that means chivalry never died; maybe it just skipped a generation.

Mission to sleep on Mars

Instead of counting sheep when you can't sleep, why not try going to Mars? Researchers in Boston successfully synced up the sleep cycles of some Earthlings to the 24.65-hour day of Mars, resulting in long-term changes in the biological clock. This proves for the first time that our sleep cycles are actually flexible and could spark some breakthroughs in curing some sleep disorders. At the very least, that's one less thing to worry about when we decide to colonize Mars.

Meet the Beetle

beetle.jpgWe may be the only ones who can prevent forest fires, but a plexiglass beetle may soon be able to help fight them once they start. The OLE is a device that looks like it came from some Star Wars/Harry Potter hybrid and can extinguish fires. Plans are for an army of 30 of the heat-resistant bugs to patrol the Black Forest, finding and putting out fires before they get out of control. Besides shooting flame retardant, the devices also move like real beetles and can even roll into a ball, if the need ever arose for them to stop, drop and roll.

Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
Getty Images
Getty Images

From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]


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