Tag Archives: weird science

RIP Alex

Alex, the parrot which (who?) has (controversially) changed perceptions of non-human language usage, has died, at the age of 31.

11parrot-600.jpgHis last words, to his trainer Irene Pepperberg (link contains links to video of Alex) of Brandeis University? “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”

Alex was an African grey parrot that Pepperberg bought in a pet store 30 years ago. By the time of his death last Friday, he had a confirmed vocabulary of more than 100 English words that he could apparently understand and use correctly, rather than merely ‘parroting’ them. Pepperberg has published dozens of scientific papers about Alex’s verbal, mathematical and cognitive abilities, and the two have appeared on a wide variety of television programmes and popular press stories. In the process, they have transformed people’s understanding of the mental abilities of non-human animals.

A necropsy performed over the weekend found no apparent cause of death. Alex had seemed in fine health the day before, and no problems were found in a checkup less than two weeks earlier.

Read more at Nature‘s website. Image nicked from the New York Times report on Alex’s death.

See also recently published research on the cognitive abilities of crows from New Caledonia.

UPDATE: Alex may well be the first bird to get an obit in The Economist.

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Hotmapping Haringey

Spy Planes Over North London

Haringey heat mapFunny how the US blogs often get the scoop on news happening just round the corner. Or maybe it’s just that the Haringey Independent doesn’t think Spy Planes Over Haringey is lurid enough to rate a headline. Anyway. The ever-excellent BLDGBLOG reports that the Borough has employed top-notch spook gear to create a street-by-street map of energy squanderers:

An aircraft, fitted with a military-style thermal imager, flew over the borough 17 times to take pictures of almost every house in the area. Footage of heat loss was converted into stills, then laid over a map of the area, before each house was given colour-coded ratings. Homes that were losing the most heat were represented as bright red on the map. The least wasteful households were shown in deep blue. Shades of paler blues and reds were used to show grades of heat loss.

Evidently, the process is called hot-mapping, which has a suitably CSI-meets-24 milspeak ring to it.

The maps are available online.

Call us suspicious, but the last time we heard tell of government using such technologies on their unsuspecting citizens, it was to track the infrared footprint of the local indoor dope farms. But I’m sure that doesn’t go on in Haringey. Ever. Especially in those oh-so hot terraces on Cecile Park (see above).

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Japanese Robot Knows Wines

NEC shows off its automated sommelier

wine robot
Business Week reports that developers at NEC have devised a new robot sommelier that can correctly identify wines and cheeses:

When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.

[NEC spokesperson] Shimazu said the robots could be “personalized,” or programmed to recognize the kinds of wines its owner prefers and recommend new varieties to fit its owner’s taste. Because it is analyzing the chemical composition of the wine or food placed before it, it can also alert its owner to possible health issues, gently warning against fatty or salty products.

The commercial application of such a robot may be to verify the authenticity of expensive wines on auction, or for automated inspection of food quality.

The machine isn’t perfect, however:

When a reporter’s hand was placed against the robot’s taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.

Shades of RoboCop! There’s no mention of what happened to the mis-identified reporter and cameraman, but the accompanying story is short on pictures. We fear the worst.

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More Drug-Related Fun

Portable cocaine detector invented.

A dream tabloid-sting device if ever there was one.

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Brain-mapping responses to Super Bowl advertising. No, really.

michelob.jpgLast night at the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Marco Iacoboni and his group used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain responses in a group of subjects while they were watching the Super Bowl ads.

EDGE is posting results as they come in.

Iacoboni has already sent a first report, with two winners and two losers, and an image. More information is coming in as we type…

Pictured is a ‘positive’ response to the Michelob ad.

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Pigeon Blog

Plans are afoot to release pigeons equipped with cellphones and GPS so that they can ‘blog’ air pollution data.

Although this evokes images of the remote controlled penguin bombers in Batman Returns, the folk at the University of California’s Digital Arts Research Network are apparently deadly serious. The plan is the work of Beatriz da Costa and will form part of the inter-Society for Electronic Arts’ annual symposium in San Jose this August.

“We are combining an air pollution sensor with a home-made cellphone,” da Costa told New Scientist. The team is planning to fit all the necessary components onto a single board small enough for the birds to carry in a backpack. The data they send back will be displayed on the blog in the form of an interactive map.

As the post on Slashdot notes, da Cosa has form in this area with work on RFID roaches. Whilst we applaud their initiative, we can imagine how the blog would read could those rats-with-wings actually type:

woke up, ate some sick…

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Dancers are Different

According to recent research, dancers are actually genetically different from the rest of us.

In a study published in the American journal, Public Library of Science Genetics, Psychology Prof. Richard P. Ebstein and his research associates have shown, through DNA examination, that dancers show consistent differences in two key genes from the general population. [...]

This finding is not surprising, says Ebstein, in view of other studies of musicians and athletes, which also have shown genetic differences.

Ebstein and his colleagues found in an examination of 85 dancers and advanced dancing students in Israel variants of two genes that provide the code for the serotonin transporter and arginine vasopressin receptor 1a.

Both genes are involved in the transmission of information between nerve cells. The serotonin transporter regulates the level of serotonin, a brain transmitter that contributes to spiritual experience, among many other behavioral traits. The vasopressin receptor has been shown in many animal studies to modulate social communication and affiliative bonding behaviors. Both are elements involved in the age-old human social expression of dancing.

So now you know. Evidently dancers are also ‘more spiritual’.

From Eurekalert

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Can Dogs Smell Cancer?

Study shows that dogs can distinguish people with both early and late stage lung and breast cancers compared to health controls.

The investigation was prompted the case of a dog alerting its owner to the presence of a melanoma by constantly sniffing the skin lesion. Subsequent studies published in major medical journals further confirmed the ability of trained dogs to detect both melanomas and bladder cancers — as reported by the BBC earlier this year. This new study, led by Michael McCulloch of the Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo, California, and Tadeusz Jezierski of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding, is the first to test whether dogs can detect cancers only by sniffing the exhaled breath of cancer patients.

Five household dogs were trained over a three week period to detect lung or breast cancer by sniffing the breath of cancer participants. The trial itself was comprised of 86 cancer patients — 55 with lung cancer and 31 with breast cancer — and a control sample of 83 healthy patients. All the cancer patients had recently been diagnosed and had not yet undergone any chemotherapy. The dogs were presented with breath samples from the cancer patients and the controls, captured in a special tube. Dogs were trained to give a positive identification of a cancer patient by sitting or lying down directly in front of a test station containing a cancer patient sample, while ignoring the control samples.

The results were astonishing: the dogs detected breast and lung cancer with a sensitivity and specificity between 88% and 97%. The high accuracy persisted even after results were adjusted to take into account whether the lung cancer patients were currently smokers. Moreover, the study also confirmed that the trained dogs could even detect the early stages of lung cancer, as well as early breast cancer.

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Mice Sing

Not quite as great as the news that rats laugh, but then what is?

singing mouse 2.jpgThe Guardian reports that scientists have discovered that male mice are melodic:

Research by a team of neuroscientists has revealed that male mice construct complex songs and sing them for minutes at a time when they come across sex pheromones produced by potential mates. The songs are not audible to the human ear because they are too high frequency and although scientists knew mice emitted ultrasonic chirps, recordings of the noises had never been fully analysed.

You also listen to the mice singing. The story about rats laughing when tickled is accessible via the BBC site.

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A mutant strain of mice has been discovered to miraculously recover from major tissue damage.

Wired reports:

Genetically altered mice discovered accidentally at the Wistar Institute in Pennsylvania have the seemingly miraculous ability to regenerate like a salamander, and even regrow vital organs. Researchers systematically amputated digits and damaged various organs of the mice, including the heart, liver and brain, most of which grew back.

The results stunned scientists because if such regeneration is possible in this mammal, it might also be possible in humans.

The researchers also made a remarkable second discovery: When cells from the regenerative mice were injected into normal mice, the normal mice adopted the ability to regenerate. And when the special mice bred with normal mice, their offspring inherited souped-up regeneration capabilities.

Obviously this is exciting news for the medical sciences. Maybe it’s just me, but the phrase ‘most of which grew back’ adds a certain Pet Sematary zombie flavour to the otherwise Utopian vision of a world free of permanent physical damage.

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