Science Channel
Science Channel

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

Science Channel
Science Channel

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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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there is no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7-12 year olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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