Quirks and Quarks

Nov 11: Eating fossil fuels, sea stars get a head, right whale diet and more…

Music soothes pain and does biology suggest we lack free will?

Music soothes pain and does biology suggest we lack free will?

Slab of butter melting in a pan
Synthetically produced fats made directly from hydrocarbons could reduce the need for large-scale agriculture and limit its climate warming impact. (Steven Davis UCI)

In this episode of Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald:

Edible fats and oils could be synthesized from fossil fuels

Considering the amount of fossil fuels that go into modern industrial agriculture, some analysts have suggested that we are, in a sense, eating oil. Now, a group of researchers is suggesting we skip the middleman and do this literally. They say we can convert hydrocarbons, including coal and natural gas, into edible fats and oils, which scientists say will have a smaller environmental footprint than growing them. Steven Davis, a professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, was part of the team, and the research was published in Nature Sustainability.

Blue star shapes against a black background
By staining genetic material with fluorescent labels, researchers can examine how key genes behave across the sea star body. (Laurent Formery)

Sea stars lost their tails to get a head

A new study published in Nature has answered a question you may never have thought about: where is a sea star's head? By looking at the gene activity responsible for body development common to most animals, Christopher Lowe and his colleagues at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station have found out that sea stars have evolved to be pretty much all head – and don't bother building bodies or tails.

A whale is seen breaching the sea surface
An international team of researchers collected skin samples from southern right whales to analyze their feeding habits. (Rob Harcourt)

Southern right whale skin samples help tell the story of their history and future

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By combining two centuries of whaling records with modern analysis of endangered southern right whale skin that tells them where they're feeding now, researchers have been able to understand how the whales are changing their foraging patterns in response to climate change. Solène Derville was part of the team. She is a postdoctoral researcher in the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab at Oregon State University. This research was published in PNAS.

Black and white image of a young woman in profile wearing headphones
People may experience relief from pain by listening to their favourite music. (Shutterstock Moremar)

Music soothes physical as well as emotional pain

Music reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of some pain, and could ultimately reduce the use of pain-killing medication. In a study that subjected volunteers to a moderate amount of thermal pain, Darius Valevicius, a neuroscience student from the University of Montreal, found music that was both familiar to a person and bittersweet in style was the most effective at outcompeting pain signals to the brain. His research was published in Frontiers In Pain Research.

A close-up profile illustration of a person's head of red, orange and yellow dots is on a black background.
Behavioural scientist Robert Sapolsky's new book plumbs the depths of the science and philosophy of decision-making to build a scientific case against free will. (Penguin Random House Canada )

Does biology trump free will? A behavioural scientist argues we have no choice

Behavioural scientist Robert Sapolsky admits he's on the "lunatic fringe" when it comes to how strongly he pushes the idea that people fundamentally lack free will. But he still thinks there's a strong case that our biology, our history, development and biochemical processes determine our behaviour. He makes the case in his new book, Determined: A Science of Life without Free Will.

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Quirks listener question — Fires and oxygen

Paul Gateman from Port Elgin, Ontario asks: Are wildfires reducing oxygen in the atmosphere? 

For the answer we go to Sasha Wilson, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.