November 3, 2012 - Math + Fear = Pain * Cracking a Cuneiform Code * Salt Marshes on Junk Food * Beetle Penis Gets Spiked * Man Behind the Masseys

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The CBC Radio Massey lectures have been a tradition for more than half a century, covering a range of subjects from literature to politics to economics. This year's lectures shift to science, as cosmologist Dr Neil Turok presents his lectures, titled The Universe Within. We'll speak to Dr. Turok later in the program. Plus, how do you shave a seed beetle's penis? With a laser, of course. We'll find out how and why. And how do you decode the world's oldest undeciphered language? With the latest imaging technology, and we'll hear how to do that as well. And we'll learn why feeding the salt marshes is a bad idea. But first - pain by numbers.

 

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Math + Fear = Pain
math_pain.jpgDo you feel our pain?  Copyright Averator 

As many as 1 in 5 people experience the anxiety that comes with preparing for a math test or exam.  Now a new study by Dr. Ian Lyons, a post-doctoral fellow from the Department of Psychology at Western University in London, Ontario, suggests that the pain and fear that comprise math anxiety are very real.  By monitoring the brains of students as they prepared for various mathematical tasks, he saw that the region of the brain that became active is the same area associated with visceral pain; a punch in the stomach, for example.  This relation was not seen during the actual performance of a the math task, only in the preparation stage.  This suggests that only the anticipation of math is painful, not math itself.  The researchers suggest that this anxiety can actually steer students away from careers related to math and therefore needs to be studied further.
          
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Cracking a Cuneiform Code

proto-elaminte.jpgProto-Elamite script on clay tablet, Cuneiform Digital Library 
More than 5,000 years ago, the ancient people of Iran, known as the "Proto-Elamites," developed a written language.  That language was inscribed on clay tablets, and more than a thousand of these have survived to modern times.  The problem is we don't know what they say.  This writing system has resisted 100 years of attempts to decipher it.  Now, Dr. Jacob Dahl, University Lecturer in Assyriology at Oxford University, thinks he might have a trick for cracking the code.  Dr. Dahl is using a new scanning technology to produce virtual models of the proto-Elamite tablets that are far more useful than simple photographs, and he will be making these available on the Internet to see if he can "crowd-source" the problem of proto-Elamite.

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Salt Marshes on Junk Food

salt_marsh_decayed.jpgSalt Marsh edges decaying and slumping into creek.  Credit: Christopher Neil
Salt marshes are incredibly rich and productive ecosystems, full of plants, birds, fish and invertebrates.  They sequester carbon, clean up run-off from land and help defend coastlines from flooding and storms.  So, of course, they're in trouble.  Development, sea level rise and pollution are all taking their toll on salt marshes.  But Dr. Linda Deegan, a senior scientist at the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and her colleagues, have found that a previously unknown threat is the equivalent of junk food.  Nutrients in run-off - including sewage and fertilizer - are undermining the structure of salt marshes, making them fat on the top, but weak in their foundations.    

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Beetle Penis Gets Spiked

spiky_penis.jpg Seed Beetle's spiny penis - courtesy Nature magazine.
The seed beetle is found all over the world, and lays its eggs on and in the seed of legumes.  But a new study by Dr. Michal Polak, a Canadian scientist who is Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, has looked at an unknown element of this beetle's evolution: the mysterious spines on the genitals of the male.  Previously, scientists have wondered why the penis of the seed beetle was equipped with these spines, resembling sharp pointed spikes.  In an experiment that involved removing some of the spines with a laser, it was demonstrated that beetles with fewer spines had much less success fertilizing a female.  Seminal fluid was found to enter the female more quickly after mating with long-spined beetles than those with spines removed.  The longer spines puncture the female's reproductive tract, making a more efficient transfer of fluid.  This provides an evolutionary advantage in the competition to mate with a female who may be also mating with many other males.
 

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Man Behind the Masseys

universe_within.jpg
The Massey Lectures are a tradition in Canadian Intellectual life, and engage with everything from philosophy to economics to literature and politics.  Science, too, is occasionally the subject of the lectures, as it is this year.  Dr. Neil Turok, cosmologist and theoretical physicist, and director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, is the 2012 Massey lecturer, and has entitled his series, The Universe Within.  Dr Turok explores the wonders of the universe, and how we've uncovered its secrets through history.  He also makes the case for science as fundamental to humanity, and one of the keys to our continuing cultural and intellectual development. The Massey lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio Ideas, beginning on November 12th, and are available now in a book version.   
 

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