The Neuroscience of a Gunfight, Raising the Speed Limit, Taming Turkeys, Freeze Dried Beetle, Quantum Pond Scum, Science Fact or Science Fiction: Swallowing Gum

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The Neuroscience of a Gunfight

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It's high noon. Two grizzled cowboys are staring at each other, hands hovering over their Colts. Suddenly, one goes for his pistol, and a shot rings out. The question is - who's going to win? Is it the cowboy who decides to draw first, or the one who reacts to the draw? Dr. Andrew Welchman, an experimental psychologist at the University of Birmingham, decided to look at this problem in an experiment. Sadly, the university's ethics board wouldn't allow gunfights on campus, so the experiment was reproduced with button pressing. What he found was interesting. The person who initiated the action actually performed the task more slowly than they would if they'd been the person reacting. However, the delay in perception - the time it took to see that the other person was starting - was enough to usually allow the initiator to win. So, in a gunfight, it's better to be first than fast.

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Raising the Speed Limit

bolt.jpg Sprinter Usain Bolt, copyright Richard Giles cc-by-sa-2.0

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt smashed the world record in the men's 100-metre event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and then again a year later at the World Championship in Berlin. His amazing time of 9.58 seconds in Germany got many thinking about how much faster he, or any human, could run over that distance. One was Dr. Peter Weyand, and Associate Professor of Applied Physiology and Biomechanics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He believes Bolt's top speed of just less than 28mph could be increased to as much as 40mph. An elite sprinter like Bolt applies about 800 to 1000 pounds of force to the track with each step. Maximum speed was thought to be limited by this force, but Weyand's experiments show otherwise. Using athletes hopping on one leg on a high speed treadmill, the ground force increased by as much as 30 percent, which hypothetically translates into a similar increase in speed.

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Taming Turkeys

turkey.jpg Wild Turkey, copyright Wing-Chi Poon, cc-by-sa-2.5

Most domestic animals - sheep, goats, pigs, cattle - are from the Old World and were introduced to North America by Europeans. But North American native people did domesticate one animal, according to Dr. Camilla Speller, researcher in the Ancient DNA Lab in the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University. They tamed the turkey. Dr. Speller and her colleagues have found evidence that the Pueblo people domesticated the turkey in the Southwestern US, more than two thousand years ago - probably about the same time as the pre-Aztec people were doing the same thing farther south.



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Freeze Dried Beetle

cryo-larvae.jpg Larvae of the red flat bark beetle hibernating on ice. Photo by Jack Duman, University of Notre Dame

In the larvae stage, the red flat bark beetle of Alaska uses a freeze-avoiding strategy to survive extreme cold temperatures. As the temperature drops, the larvae begin producing antifreeze proteins called glycerol. That protects the larvae down to -20C. The larvae is protected down to -40C by reducing body fluids by 30 percent, and producing even more antifreeze proteins. Todd Sformo, a Phd student at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks, discovered that at -58C, the supercooled body fluids vitrify - the larvae becomes viscous glass - to avoid freezing. Some larvae in the experiment survived a temperature drop to -100C. Scientists believe this process in the beetle larvae could be helpful in learning more about vitrification of animal, vegetable and even human tissue.

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Quantum Pond Scum

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When physicists explore the quantum world, they use temperatures close to absolute zero to observe the uncanny properties of single electrons, or perhaps a small single atom, under the most carefully controlled circumstances. When Dr. Greg Scholes investigates quantum mechanical phenomena, he looks at green slime. Dr. Scholes is a physical chemist at the University of Toronto and he's found that a common marine algae uses the properties of quantum mechanics to help it suck sunlight. By using something analogous to a quantum computer, the photosynthesizing algae is making its solar absorbtion more efficient. What surprises Dr. Scholes most is that these quantum phenomena can work on such a relatively large scale in such a wet and messy environment.

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Science Fact or Science Fiction: Swallowing Gum

From time to time, we present a commonly held idea or popular saying - and ask a Canadian scientist to set us straight on whether we should believe it or not. And today's popular belief comes to us from Ann Piercy in Calgary, who says, "When I was young, I was told that if I swallowed my gum, it would stay in my stomach for seven years." Well, we tried contacting every mother who has issued that warning, but failing that, we reached Dr. David Armstrong, an Associate Professor of Gastroenterology at McMaster University in Hamilton. He says it is science fiction.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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