October 27, 2012 - A Feathery First for Dinosaurs * Dung is Cool * Whales for the Killing * Electricity Likes it Hot * It Boggles the Mind

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Can time stand still? Or speed up, so it flashes before your eyes? Well, according to research in a new book, our perception of time is malleable. And that's just one insight into our brains, and our minds, that we'll discuss with two authors of new books about the brain, later in the program. Plus, we'll hear why you shouldn't pooh-pooh the dung beetle's ingenious air conditioning. We'll find out why so many whales are dying from human activity; And we'll learn about a clever new method for getting electricity from heat. But first - A fine feathered find.  

 

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A Feathery First for Dinosaurs

Until recently, dinosaurs with preserved feathers were found almost exclusively in China.  But Dr. Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist from the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary, has recently studied three skeletons of the ostrich-like dinosaur species Ornithomimus, found in 70-million-year-old rocks in the badlands of Alberta; two juveniles and one adult.  This discovery is significant for several reasons.  They are the first feathered dinosaur specimens found in the Western Hemisphere.  The discovery also demonstrates that feathers can preserve in sandstone deposited by flowing rivers, and not just muddy sediment in the still waters of lake bottoms, as previously thought.  Also, the fact that only the adult Ornithomimus had developed larger feathers on its wing-like forearms indicates that these feathers were not for flight.  Because the 150 kilogram Ornithomimus was too heavy to fly, its feathers were likely for reproductive behaviour, such as courtship display or egg brooding.
          
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Dung is Cool

Dung beetles are so named because they eat the dung of many different animals.  Most species take dung from where they find it on the ground to their nests, by way of underground tunnels.  But there are some species that choose to roll balls of dung away, above ground, to be eaten later.  The problem for the dung beetle is dealing with the scorching ground in places like the South African savannah.  But a new study by Dr. Marcus Byrne, from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of The Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has revealed how these dung beetles survive the heat.  As they roll the dung away, backwards, their front legs in particular get dangerously hot.  At this point, the dung beetles climb on top of the ball, as dung can be as much as 80% water and is much cooler.  Once on top, they can re-orient themselves, take in liquid form the dung, and cool off before setting out again.

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Whales for the Killing

tangled_whale.jpgDepartment of Fisheries researchers attempt to disentagle a Humpback whale from fishing gear. 
Commercial whaling was banned by international agreement in 1986. But even outside of the hunting that nations, like Japan and Norway, still pursue, human activity is still killing whales in large numbers.  Canadian marine biologist Julie van der Hoop, a PhD student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and her colleagues, gathered data on whale mortality on the North Atlantic coast over several decades.  What they found was that fully two-thirds of whale deaths were not due to natural mortality, but could be attributed to human activity - chiefly ship strikes and fishing-gear entanglement.   They hope that changes in fishing gear and regulation of shipping lanes and ship-speed may shrink this number in the future.    

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Electricity Likes it Hot

thermoelectric.jpg Thermoelectric material, courtesy M. Kanatzidis
Thermoelectric materials can generate electricity directly from heat, similar to the way photovoltaics generate electricity from light.  But like solar cells, thermoelectrics have historically not been very efficient - converting only a maximum of 5-10% of the available heat energy to electricity, which has limited their use.  However, recent breakthroughs by several groups, including Dr. Mercouri Kanatzidis's lab, have pushed that efficiency much higher.  In fact, Dr. Kanatzidis, a professor of Chemistry at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, now has a material that can be up to 17% efficient.  This means capture of energy from waste heat - from industry or combustion engines - could become a significant source of electricity in the future.
 

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It Boggles the Mind

brain_fmri_activation.jpg
Books about the brain are all the rage these days - possibly due to new insights from fMRI and other brain imaging technologies, or just due to our natural curiosity about what makes our brains tick.  We had the opportunity to speak with the authors of two new books about the brain at the recent International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

Claudia Hammond is an award-winning BBC Radio host, and a psychologist in London, England. Her latest book, Time Warped, looks at how our brains perceive time. She cites studies that show how time can speed up or slow down, depending on our emotional state, our environment, even our temperature.

Dr. Mario Beauregard is an associate research professor in the Departments of Psychology and Radiology, and the Neuroscience Research Centre, at the Université de Montréal. His latest book, Brain Wars, argues that the mind exists separate from the brain. And he looks to phenomena such as the placebo effect, near-death experiences, and hypnosis, to show that consciousness and the mind are more than just the result of physical activity in our brains.   
 

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