June 23, 2012 - Brain Power * The Young and the Generous * Robust Robot * What Happened to the Harappans? * Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat

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On this week's program: With the London Olympics only five weeks away, we'll take a look at the science that lies behind cheating in sports, with a British biochemist who has written a new book on the controversy. Also we'll hear how generosity in humans begins with babies ; we'll find out how a clever flying robot manages to get up when it falls down; and we'll learn how a change in climate may have led to the collapse of one of the world's first great civilizations. But first - generating your own brain power.

 


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Brain Power
chip_pic.jpgSilicon wafer with several glucose fuel cells, courtesy Sarpheskar Lab

Electronic brain and nerve implants - that are being developed to help the disabled - need electricity to operate, but implanting batteries, or supplying power to them externally, is not an ideal solution.  Prof.  Rahul Sarpeshkar, a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and his team have developed a device that can generate power internally, using the same fuel the human body uses - glucose.  The device is a silicon chip containing multiple tiny fuel cells that oxidize the glucose to generate electricity.  The amount of electricity generated is small - some hundreds of microwatts - but it's sufficient to operate low-power electronics that can interact with the nervous system.
          
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The Young and the Generous

Humans derive great pleasure from giving.  Whether it's donating money to charity or simply lending a helping hand, it makes people feel good to be generous, especially when there is a cost involved.  For some time, scientists have wondered why this happens and at what age it begins.  Now a new study by Dr. Kiley Hamlin, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, has determined that giving makes babies, as young as 21 to 24 months old, feel very happy.  In experiments in which happiness was measured by facial expression, babies were consistently the happiest when asked to give one of their own treats away, rather than either watching a generous act or being generous with someone else's treat.  This study sheds light on the roots of both prosocial and cooperative behaviour.

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Robust Robot

In flying, we generally hope to avoid running into things.  Aircraft tend to be fragile, travel at high speeds, and collisions tend to end catastrophically.  Adam Klaptocz, a PhD candidate in the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and his group spent a great deal of time trying to find ways to have their small flying robots avoid collisions reliably.  But in enclosed or complex environments, crashes happened.  Their solution was to build a helicopter-like flying robot that could survive a crash, re-orient itself, and fly again.  It's surrounded by a carbon fibre cage, which can protect it from all but the most violent crashes.  They imagine it could be used in collapsed buildings or disaster zones, where crawling robots can't navigate.   

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What Happened to the Harappans?

harappan_map.jpgMap of ancient Indus and tributaries, courtesy WHOI
The Indus Vally Civilization, also known as the Harappan, thrived for a millennium, covering parts of what are now Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.  They developed great cities, sophisticated technology, and advanced arts and culture.  But about 4000 years ago, this once-great civilization began to decline and fade, and disappeared into the mists of time.  After a decade of work, under trying circumstances, gathering geological information in the areas once occupied by the Harappans, Dr. Liviu Giosan, a geologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and his colleagues think they might know what happened to the Harappans.  They've found signs of long term climate change that moderated the monsoon during the peak of the Harappan period, which meant agriculture was particularly productive.  When the system shifted to more arid conditions, they suspect agricultural production declined, and could no longer support a sophisticated civilization. 
 

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Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat

run_swim_cheat.jpg  
The Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games in London are only five weeks away.  Athletes from around the world are gearing up for the chance to turn the past four years of preparation into Gold, Silver or Bronze.  But scientists have also been working hard, behind the scenes, to catch those who may not be playing fair.  The new book, Run, Swim, Throw, Cheat, by Dr. Chris Cooper, a Biochemist and Head of Research in the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Essex in England, explores the science behind drugs in sport.  This includes banned performance-enhancing drugs like EPO, Human Growth Hormone and steroids, as well as a look at legitimate means such as carbo-loading, training at altitude and the latest craze, beetroot juice.  Although successful gene doping is a long way away, the book also explains the science and ethics of building designer athletes.  
 

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0