Vol. 1 / No. 5 — Smart Crows, Smarter Datasets, and a Comet Back from the Dead

Think Different

“Many functions are realized differently in birds because a long evolutionary history separates us from these direct descendants of the dinosaurs,” says Lena Veit. “This means that bird brains can show us an alternative solution out of how intelligent behavior is produced with a different anatomy.”

We’ve long known that crows and other corvids are highly intelligent. They’ve shown evidence of sequential tool use, and that they can recognize the faces of friendly (and unfriendly) humans. Now a new study published this month in Nature Communications reveals some insight into how they think — and in doing so, how brains, our and theirs, work. Crows, like all birds, lack a prefrontal cortex, a part of the mammalian brain that plays a large role in intelligence. The study, by University of Tubingen researchers Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder, reveals that crows can make use of a part of the brain called the nidopallium caudolaterale (or NCL) to perform some of the same functions. You can find out a little more here, or over at Nature Communications if you have a subscription.

Here’s a 2006 Oxford University video of a crow making use of sequentially longer tools to get a reward, in case you needed convincing:

50 Years of Doctor Who

The BBC science fiction television program Doctor Who turned fifty years old this week, and a number of scientists and science-writers tipped their hats in honour of the day. Scientific American’s History of Geology blog has a short read on silicon-based lifeforms, while BBC2 put out a program on The Science of Doctor Who hosted by the inimitable Professor Brian Cox, and the BBC’s sci-tech magazine Focus has an issue for those able to see it.

And from the department of shameless self promotion, I feel compelled (as the author of the chapter on the philosophy of time travel) to link to The Science Fiction Foundation’s 2011 book The Unsilent Library: Essays on the Russell T. Davies Era of the new Doctor Who .

Things to See

Besides comet-watching, there have been plenty of things to see this week online. The Atlantic has a beautiful photoset of the alien life of Socotra Island, Gizmodo has a series of shots from the island where the soviets left old nuclear rockets to rot, and Slate has a series on the scariest airport ever.

Plus, a cabin in the desert that seems to be made of wood, light, and air.

23andMe and the FDA

Earlier this week the FDA sent a somewhat harshly worded letter to genetics company 23andMe, setting the science world twittering. The company had at first sought FDA approval, but they broke off communications recently. While not entirely obvious what the thinking is over at the company, it seems like it may be a difference of opinion over what constitutes a medical “device,” though no-one is saying anything specific at this point. Given the definition cited in the letter, from the US’s Title 21.321(h): “The term “device” … means an instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent, or other similar or related article, including any component, part, or accessory…” It may be that the company is planning to fight in court on the basis that they don’t sell a device at all, but rather a service.

One thing is for sure: as Charles Seife points out over at Scientific American 23andMe’s business model isn’t about the selling of devices at all — it’s all about the data sets.

And speaking of data sets, have you heard of lumosity.com?

Going Solar

The US is coming back into its own in the world of solar energy, with the planned May startup of the first molten salt solar plant, the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project in Nevada. The plant will have 17,500 heliostat mirrors focusing the sun’s rays on a heat-collecting tower. Unlike other solar collection plants, like the PS10 plant in Seville, Spain, this plant can produce power all night. By storing the heat in vats of molten salt, it can be released during times when the sun isn’t shining. Wired has a piece this week on the industrial-scale solar plant of the future.

In other solar power news, you may find yourself buying your electricity (like your tickets to Mars) from Elon Musk —  people are now using Tesla battery backs to store a few days’ worth of solar power at the home level, and cutting the cord to the wider grid entirely.

And for a rather different kind of solar power, check out how NASA is planning to send plants to the moon, to see how (and if) they grow.

Some Say in Fire, Some in Ice…

It’s been an interesting few days for skywatchers following the so-called comet of the decade. ISON’s trip from the Oort Cloud at first looked as though it had ended in fire, with numerous sites calling its time of death shortly after it reached perihelion on Thanksgiving Day. But then something interesting happened: some viewers saw something continuing along ISON’s trajectory. While what exactly is left of the comet is still being debated, one thing is for sure: it’s going to teach us a thing or two about comets.

Lastly, Gizmodo has a video of the purported survival of ISON: go check it out.

New Gadgets

And it’s December 1, meaning two things: one, I’ll no longer threaten grievous bodily harm to radio stations playing Christmas music, and two, I have 24 days to get my hands on some presents to give to people. In that vein, here are a few things you might consider.

Gizmodo lets us know that the world is “running out” of wonderful things: chocolate, helium, wine, bacon. I guess you should get some while you can. Plus if you’re a fan of Sriracha sauce, you might want to stock up, because a shortage of that is probably coming too. In terms of things, Popular Science has a video demonstration of a pen that draws in 3D, and a non-Newtonian goop that can protect your stuff from impact, and if high tech is your thing, then you can either google “gadgets CES 2013” or check out some of the online rundowns here, here, and here.

Or, if you’re a government intelligence agency maybe you’ll be shopping with different companies this year.

Additionally, what counts as “high-tech” changes over time. So what happens when archaeologists identify a piece of technology that predates the human race?

Evolution’s Lost Children

Lastly, if you haven’t seen it, here’s a great video that’s been making the rounds that explains how many of the wonderful things we like to eat (avocados, mangoes, etc.) are evolutionary hangers-on, widows of flora-fauna relationships of days gone by.