Original image
Getty Images

Using Nuclear Bombs to Fight Wildlife Poachers

Original image
Getty Images

During the 1950s and '60s, the United States and the Soviet Union tested and showed off their shiny new atomic arsenals by detonating hundreds of nuclear weapons at above-ground sites. After each explosion, residual radioactive material, or fallout, was dispersed into the atmosphere and then spread around the world by the wind. 

Among these radioactive leftovers is an isotope, or variant, of the element carbon known as carbon-14. This same isotope is generated naturally by cosmic rays and normally occurs in small traces, accounting for just one part per trillion of atmospheric carbon. During the Cold War, though, scientists keeping tabs on the isotope’s concentration found a spike—a near doubling—in carbon-14 levels that coincided with the start of the weapons tests, and a slow, steady decline when the tests were moved underground. It was dubbed the “bomb curve.”

Most carbon-14, whether it’s natural or man-made, American or Soviet, oxidizes into carbon dioxide, and then gets taken in by the oceans and by plants. As animals eat these plants and other animals eat those animals, almost every living thing gets a share of carbon-14 incorporated into its teeth or tusks or hair or horns. 

Anyone or anything that was alive during the Cold War got to keep a small souvenir from it inside its body—not enough to do any damage, but enough to date it. If the carbon-14 concentration in some animal or plant tissue is the same as the known level in the atmosphere at a certain date along the bomb curve, that gives you an idea of how old the tissue and the creature it came from is. 

In a study led by doctoral student Kevin Uno, a team of researchers from the University of Utah chased down more than two dozen animal tissue samples that had been collected between 1955 and 2008. Previous studies on bomb curve carbon dating had mostly only looked at tree rings and enamel from human teeth, but Uno and company gathered everything from hair from a blue monkey to teeth from hippos and tusks from elephants to stems from various plants. They measured the carbon-14 levels in these samples and then plotted them along the bomb curve to estimate when the sample was collected (which is usually right around when the animal died). For some of the samples, including tusks from elephants that had died in a zoo and in a national park, they knew the animals’ actual ages, and found their estimations were accurate within a year. 

The Nuclear Response

That the technique worked so well in a variety of tissues might make it a useful forensic tool to battle poachers. 

Every year, an estimated 30,000 African elephants are killed illegally for their ivory tusks. With only some 400,000 animals left in the wild, this kind of slaughter could make the species extinct in just a little over a decade. Poaching and the illegal ivory trade are big business, and those trying to stop it are up against organized and well-armed criminal organizations, corrupt government officials and a quirk in the law. 

International treaties have banned the trade of Asian elephant ivory since 1976, and African elephant ivory since 1989, but the laws allow for some loopholes. In some countries, including the United States, any ivory acquired before ’89 is legal to buy and sell. Trying to distinguish legal, pre-ban ivory from poached, post-ban ivory has been incredibly difficult, and ivory traders can move ill-gotten product by claiming that it’s older than it really is. Carbon dating an ivory sample against the bomb curve, though, can date it and reveal how old and how legal it is. It’s science calling BS on poachers and their marketplace enablers. 

Uno’s work complements research done at the University of Washington, which uses DNA and isotope analysis to locate the origin point of ivory. Working out the “when and where” of confiscated ivory (and other animal parts, like rhino horns) can help shut down individual dealers but also identify poaching hot zones and guide decisions about where to spend conservation funds or send armed rangers to protect animals, and it’s all thanks to the atomic crumbs left over from the Cold War. 

Original image
London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
Original image

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]

Original image
Does Self-Control Deplete Over the Course of the Day? Maybe Not, Says New Study
Original image

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.


More from mental floss studios