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Morgan Freeman and James Younger, Executive Producers of Through the Wormhole

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Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman tackles what we here at mental_floss often call "big questions": How did we get here? Are we alone? Is there life after death? Is a zombie apocalypse possible? The sixth season, which premiered last night on the Science Channel, continues that tradition, tackling topics like why we lie and whether we're here for a reason. We emailed some questions to Morgan Freeman, host and executive producer, and executive producer James Younger to get the scoop on the new season.

The show tackles some of the biggest questions humans have. What’s the process of deciding which topics to include? 

Morgan Freeman: We have a brain-trust involved in developing each new season. Producers who’ve worked on the show for years have ideas. Our great collaborating team at the network throws in ideas. And I always throw in an idea or two of my own. This year, it was on the origin of life. That ended up becoming quite a different show: Are We Here for a Reason?

James Younger: We aim to develop a mix of topics each season. We always cover hard science, like cosmology. But we also include more down-to-earth topics, and we particularly look for controversial subjects, like racism, religion, [or] evolution, where we think a scientific approach could shift long-standing debates.

What topics were you hoping to include this season that didn’t make the cut?

MF: We were looking into Infinity … but I guess we couldn’t figure out how to fit it all into one hour of TV!

JY: We’d also looked into areas like the paranormal. What are the scientific explanations for ghosts? Both in terms of physics, and the human brain? There are so many ghost shows on TV, but nothing that looks at the hard science of why we believe in them.

The show has certainly looked into controversial subjects before, but this season, you took on a topic that’s particularly resonant now—whether or not we’re all bigots. Why do you think it’s important to look at the science behind issues like this one?

MF: It’s important because the science tells us that we are all hardwired to be bigots. Our minds are riddled with stereotypes. We may not consciously believe them, but we use them every day to make quick decisions. So these prejudices are something we all have to work to overcome.

What do you hope people take away from the episode?

MF: I think that highlighting the scientific fact that our brains are affected by bias helps makes the question of bigotry and racism more personal for all of us. It gets it out in the open. We need to be conscious of it, and that’s the beginning of change.

Other topics tackled this season include why we lie, if time can go backward, if we live in the Matrix, and more. Which one is your favorite, and why?

MF: Do we live a computer simulated reality? That is such a fascinating idea: Our entire cosmos could exist inside the computer of an advanced alien. And scientifically, it’s entirely possible.

Do you have a favorite from the entire series so far?

MF: I don’t have a single favorite episode, there’ve been so many great ideas. But I did really enjoy one from last season back: Does the Ocean Think? Is the ocean not just full of life, but actually a single living, thinking, being?

In interviews, you’ve talked about how curious you are, and how much you like to learn stuff—and how the show is a great tool to do that. What’s the coolest or most surprising thing you’ve learned in the process of making Through the Wormhole?

MF: Zombies are real! There is a species of ant whose brain gets attacked by a fungus. And that fungus actually turns them into walking dead zombies, whose sole purpose is to spread the fungus to other ants.

Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel.

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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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