Tag Archive | "Science"

Man Successfully Flies With Custom-Built Bird Wings

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Man Successfully Flies With Custom-Built Bird Wings

Posted on 21 March 2012 by admin

 

From Wired.com

Using videogame controllers, an Android phone and custom-built wings, a Dutch engineer named Jarno Smeets has achieved birdlike flight.

Smeets flew like an albatross, the bird that inspired his winged-man invention, on March 18 at a park in The Hague.

“I have always dreamed about this. But after 8 months of hard work, research and testing it all payed off,” Smeets said on his YouTube page.

Smeets got the idea from sketches of a futuristic flying bicycle drawn by his grandfather, who spent much of his life designing the contraption but never actually built it.

When Smeets began studying engineering at Coventry University in England, he realized the physics of a flying bicycle just didn’t pan out. Instead, he drew inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s wing drawings to build his flying machine. Along with neuromechanics expert Bert Otten, Smeets brought his design into reality

The design is based on mechanics used in robotic prosthetics. The idea is to give his muscles extra strength so they can carry his body weight during the flight.

Smeets (and his arms) did just that today with the help of a pair of 37-ounce wings made out of fabric, according to a press release.

Working with the fabric was difficult because it was very fragile, Smeets wrote on his blog. “It’s important to sew the seams carefully, and give the wing shape extra strength without making it too heavy. The top part of the kite will be folded around the ribs to create an aerodynamic shape. For extra lift and control I’ll stretch a piece of kite fabric between the legs, as some sort of tail wing.”

According to Smeets’ calculations, he needed approximately 2,000 Watts of continuous power to support his roughly 180-pound frame and 40-pound wing pack. His arms could only really provide 5 percent of that, so the rest would have to come from motors. His arms and pecs would basically serve to guide the device and to flap the wings.

He built his electronic, wireless wing set out of Wii controllers, accelerometers harvested from an HTC Wildfire Android phone and Turnigy motors.

When he landed after the 60-second flight, he said, “At one moment you see the ground moving away, and then suddenly you’re free, a really intense feeling of freedom. The true feeling of flying. A [bleep] magical moment. The best feeling I have felt in my life.”

 

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starlings

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Researchers Discover That European Starlings Flocking Patterns Behave Like Metals Being Magnetized

Posted on 15 March 2012 by admin

 

From FeelGuide.com

Scientists have long been captivated by the ability of large groups of animals to move in swift unison with one another — large schools of fish and flocks of birds to be most specific.  Now, new research set to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals a mindblowing discovery made by a European research team which studied the spectacular flocking abilities of European starlings.  As reported by Physorg, “The team noticed that some of the starlings’ abilities might be mathematically defined, and that the ability of the birds to change directions almost simultaneously follows the same model as metal when it becomes magnetized.”  The same research team had previously discovered that if just one single bird changed its speed, the change would propagate out to every other bird.  In their latest research they focused on orientation (i.e. how individual movements of birds in the flock caused changes in the direction of the flock as a whole.  Multiple cameras were set up around Rome, where starling flocks are legendary.  Both video and stereometric stills were taken in order to produce 3D imagery of the flock.  Two subsequent discoveries were made: 1) a change in path by one bird impacts precisely 7 birds surrounding it (regardless of the flock’s size), and 2) “changes in  for the flock as a whole happens very similarly to the way single electron spins within a metal line up when a  is created.”  To find out the fascinating implications of these discoveries be sure to visit Physorg.com

 

 

From PhysOrg.com

(PhysOrg.com) — Scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike have long been fascinated by the abilities of some groups of animals to move in lockstep with one another, most specifically with schools of fish and flocks of birds. Now, new research by a team of researchers studying the flocking abilities of European starlings has shown that some of their abilities might be mathematically defined, and that the ability of the birds to change directions almost simultaneously follows the same model as metal when it becomes magnetized. The team is set to publish the results of their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Prior research by the same team regarding the of the birds in a showed that if just a single bird changed its speed, that change would propagate out to all the other birds in the flock. In this new research, the team focused on orientation. They wanted to know how individual movements of birds in the flock caused changes in the direction of the flock as a whole.

To find out, they set up multiple cameras around Rome, where the huge size of starling flocks is legendary. They took both video and stereometric stills which produce 3D imagery to allow them to capture the positions of birds in a flock as well as to project where they were going and how fast.

In so doing, they discovered two things. The first is that a change in path by one bird impacts exactly seven birds surrounding it, regardless of the size of the flock. The second is that changes in for the flock as a whole happens very similarly to the way single electron spins within a metal line up when a is created.

The first finding demonstrates that birds having neighbors is what is important to the flock, not how close they are. The seven birds that are impacted by the movement of one bird, then cause a change in the seven birds around each of them and so on until the entire flock has changed its alignment.

The second finding demonstrates that at least some of the ways birds move in a flock can be defined mathematically, which means other models may be found as well. If so, they may lead to predicting how a flock will respond in various scenarios, which when combined with the way the birds impact their neighbors, may finally solve the age old mystery of how they fly in flocks the way they do.

More information: The study will be published in PNAS at DOI:10.1073/pnas.1118633109 (not available at this moment yet).

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Cloning and resurrecting the mammoth? Not so fast

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Cloning and resurrecting the mammoth? Not so fast

Posted on 14 March 2012 by admin

 

From ArsTechnica.com

Two teams of researchers have apparently gone on record as saying they plan on cloning the mammoth. In 2008, when the mammoth genome was announced in the journal Nature, we took at look at that possibility, and concluded it wouldn’t work. Given the recent press attention, we thought we’d rerun an updated version of the relevant section from our original report.

Given that the genome is often called the blueprint for an organism, Nature took the liberty of commissioning an evaluation of what it would take to rebuild the mammoth using that blueprint. The challenge is enormous: each one of the mammoth’s chromosomes are likely to be over 100 million base pairs long; the average surviving fragment of DNA we’ve obtained from mammoth remains is under 200 bases long.

That means the sort of cloning technique that we use on currently living mammals wouldn’t work, since it relies on a genome that’s largely intact. The cloned cells can undoubtedly repair some DNA damage, but nothing like the scrambled fragments we have from mammoths. There’s always the chance that some mammoth remains contain larger fragments of DNA, but basic chemistry indicates that we’re unlikely to ever find anything close to an intact chromosome.

So the piece suggests starting from scratch, using a process similar to the one that constructed the first artificial genome. Unfortunately, that bacterial genome is about three orders of magnitude smaller than a single mammoth chromosome, and the techniques used are simply unlikely to scale. Mammoths also had dozens of chromosomes, and we’d need to get two copies of each into a single cell, safely encapsulated in a nucleus. We’ve only got techniques that work for some of this, and we’ve never tried any of the ones that work on a task approaching this scale.

Assuming we have two full sets of mammoth chromosomes together in a single nucleus, advances in stem cell research suggest we could reset them to an embryonic stem cell state using molecular tools. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how to get these stem cells to develop into adult organisms without implanting them into a viable egg or embryo. That would mean we’d need the embryo of a closely related species to work with.

It would obviously be best to do this with elephants (as the teams of researchers have realized), both as egg donors and surrogates. But, apparently thanks to an aquatic lifestyle in the elephant’s evolutionary past, they have a baroque reproductive tract and an internal organ arrangement that makes laparoscopy to harvest eggs a non-starter. So, the elephant represents yet another technical hurdle.

There are a host of other issues that are relatively minor in scale—we’d need a Y chromosome and sequence from enough individuals to create a diverse breeding population—but resurrecting the mammoth faces some technological obstacles that we haven’t yet even started to try to overcome. A more likely solution, Natureconcludes, would be to identify the regions of the genome that have diverged most significantly between elephants and mammoths, and engineer the mammoth equivalent back into an elephant’s DNA. Depending how well we can identify these, the mammophant that we produce may be at least physically indistinguishable from artists’ renderings we’re all familiar with.

Overall, Nature’s analysis is pretty persuasive. Given the technology we have now, it’s tough to imagine putting a mammoth together, even given the complete genome sequence.

But it’s difficult to predict how technology advances will proceed. The article quotes one of the researchers who lead the efforts to sequence the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, Svante Paabo, as saying he doesn’t expect to see anything more than a mammophant in his lifetime. Of course, Paabo’s in his 50s, and I’d imagine that, in his 20s, he wouldn’t have expected to see a Neanderthal genome completed in his lifetime. He has done just that.

Nature, 2008. DOI: 10.1038/456310a

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The macabre concept of a ‘euthanasia roller coaster’ that thrills you… then kills you

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The macabre concept of a ‘euthanasia roller coaster’ that thrills you… then kills you

Posted on 02 March 2012 by admin

 

From DailyMail.co.uk

An engineer has come up with macabre rollercoaster concept where passengers are thrilled and then ‘killed’.

The chilling Euthanasia Coaster is a theoretical machine engineered to ‘humanely, with elegance and euphoria, take the life of a human being’.

It is designed to subject the rider to a series of unique experiences from euphoria to thrill and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness.

Chilling: The model looks like an ordinary roller coaster until you realised it was designed to kill you
Chilling: The model, designed by Julijonas Urbonas, looks like an ordinary roller coaster – but is designed to kill

Euthanasiaeuthanasiaeuthanasia

 

Ghoulish: A simulated face shows the process of going from consciousness (left), to becoming drowsy and finally dead (right) after succumbing to cerebral hypoxia, or lack of oxygen to the brain, during the ride

When travelling at 100m/s, the passenger would then pass away following a lack of oxygen reaching the brain.

The surreal structure is the brainchild of Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas.

 

Julijonas has been involved in the field of amusement park development since his childhood and describes himself as an architect and engineer whose work is ‘artistic and philosophical’.

He said: ‘Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant and meaningful.

Loop the loop: The force of going round and round continuously causes the brain to be starved of oxygen
Loop the loop: The force of going round and round continuously causes the brain to be starved of oxygen

Spiraling to death: The loops get tighter and tighter as the roller coaster progresses
Spiraling to death: The loops get tighter and tighter as the roller coaster progresses

Dizzting: Urbonas's creation is designed as more of an artistic creation than real possibility
Dizzting: Urbonas’s creation is designed as more of an artistic creation than real possibility

‘Celebrating the limits of the human body but also the liberation from the horizontal life, this ‘kinetic sculpture’ is in fact the ultimate roller coaster.’

Julijonas’ design is inspired by the words of John Allen, the former president of the famous ride maker, Philadelphia Toboggan Company.

Allen once said: ‘The ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead.’

However, the surreal concept has been criticised by a leading anti-euthanasia organisation which sees the ‘imaginative’ coaster as something which could be easily abused.

Madcap: The roller coaster's Lithuanian creator Julijonas Urbonas.
Madcap: The roller coaster’s Lithuanian creator Julijonas Urbonas.

Dr Peter Saunders from Care Not Killing said: ‘Whilst appreciating the artist’s sense of humour and light-heartedness, we also need to remember that the life a human being cannot ever be taken ‘humanely with elegance and euphoria’ and with this method the last sensation would more probably be one of overwhelming vertigo and fright.

‘Euthanasia rightly remains illegal because any law allowing it could so easily be abused.

‘Vulnerable people – the sick, elderly, disabled or depressed – would feel under pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death.

‘Let’s hope that this imaginative method never becomes legal.’

 

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Pendulum Waves

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Pendulum Waves

Posted on 21 February 2012 by admin

 

Fifteen uncoupled simple pendulums of monotonically increasing lengths dance together to produce visual traveling waves, standing waves, beating, and (seemingly) random motion.

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The Miraculous NASA Breakthrough That Could Save Millions of Lives

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The Miraculous NASA Breakthrough That Could Save Millions of Lives

Posted on 08 February 2012 by admin

 

From Gizmodo.com (Click for VIDEO)

There are no hospitals in space. The closest E.R. is back on Earth, and astronauts can’t exactly jump in a cab to get there. So what happens if the sun burps out a massive blast of radiation while an astronaut is space-amblin’ by?

The NASA Biocapsule—made of carbon nanotubes—will be able to “diagnose” and instantly treat an astronaut without him or her even knowing there’s something amiss. It would be like having your own personal Dr. McCoy—implanted under your skin. It represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of medicine, and yes, it’ll work on Earth, too.

Out of all the amazing things we saw during our NASA visits, nothing blew our minds as much as this tiny little bundle of carbon. The Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames creates medical technology for astronauts. They essentially provide healthcare for outer space. Dr. David Loftus is the man who invented the NASA Biocapsule and has been awarded a patent for it.

Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there’s a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut’s skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It’s outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it’s complete, the astronaut’s body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.

One of the primary threats in space is exposure to high levels of radiation. When astronauts travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (i.e., to the Moon or Mars), they are at risk of acute radiation exposure from “solar particle events,” sudden releases of intense radiation from the sun, which can damage bone marrow and wipe out someone’s immune system. That’s where the NASA Biocapsule kicks in: It could be filled with cells that sense the increased levels of radiation and automatically disperse medicine to help the body compensate.

This isn’t science fiction. We already use a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatment. So it was a very small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without G-CSF, an astronaut’s immune system might not recover; he or she could die of a massive infection.

The Biocapsules aren’t one-shot deals. Each capsule could be capable of delivering many metred doses over a period of years. There is no “shelf-life” to the Biocapsules. They are extremely resilient, and there is currently no known enzyme that can break down their nanostructures. And because the nanostructures are inert, they are extremely well-tolerated by the body. The capsules’ porous natures allow medication to pass through their walls, but the nanostructures are strong enough to keep the cells in one place. Once all of the cells are expended, the Biocapsule stays in the body, stable and unnoticed, until it is eventually removed by a doctor back on Earth.

While the treatment of radiation-effects in space is NASA’s no. 1 application for the Biocapsule, different capsules will be created to combat different threats. Heat, exhaustion, and sleep-deprivation are serious risks on an EVA (a “spacewalk”), and astronauts are usually on a very tight schedule. Different capsules can be created that contain unique triggers and treatments for different stress-factors. Naturally, DARPA has expressed a huge interest in the Biocapsules for potential military applications. But there are far loftier things planned for us Earthlings.

On our home planet, the NASA Biocapsule’s primary target is diabetes—specifically, patients who need insulin. Says Dr. Loftus:

The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.

In other words, diabetes patients might never need to give themselves another shot. They wouldn’t have to worry about remembering to bring medicine everywhere, and they might even be free of having to constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels. Plus, many diabetes patients lapse into comas or die during sleep because that’s eight hours every day when they can’t monitor their levels. The NASA Biocapsules would work automatically, regardless of whether you’re awake or not. As of 2010 there were an estimated 285 million people living with diabetes, so saying that this invention could potentially save millions of lives is not an exaggeration.

Secondary “terrestrial” applications include cancer treatment (especially brain cancer). A Biocapsule implanted directly into a tumor bed could deliver very high doses of chemotherapy right to the area where it is needed—and it would greatly reduce side effects by minimizing the amount of medication that gets to other sites in the body. There are also important applications in gene therapy.

Some children are born missing a gene, or are born with a defective gene. As a result, they can’t make a needed protein. Hemophilia is a classic example. These patients are missing an important blood coagulation protein. The biocapsule could be used to implant cells that are engineered to release the missing protein. Successful therapy would mean that the patients are spared the need to receive periodic injections. Patients would be safely protected by the protein released from the capsule, and they would be able to lead more normal lives.

During our visit, we asked Dr. Loftus if there could be applications for severe allergy sufferers. Many people have potentially deadly allergies (to bees, to nuts, etc.) that could send them into anaphylactic shock, and they have to carry a shot of epinephrine (an “EpiPen”) in case of exposure. He said that was very much a possibility, and implementing that technology into the biocapsule would be relatively very simple. He even credited us with coming up with the idea, so in the future when you get stung by a bee and don’t die, you’re welcome, from Gizmodo.

Given all of these applications (and there are many more), it’s not a stretch to say that the NASA Biocapsule could change the face of medicine forever. They are inexpensive and (as you can see in the video) extremely easy to create. The vacuum sucks carbon nanotubes into the mold, you slide the capsule off the mold, you fill it with cells, and then you cap it off either using more nanotubes or a protein glue. Easy as pie. They are scheduled to begin animal trials this year and next, and human trials would begin shortly after that. If all goes well we would likely see these implanted in International Space Station astronauts sometime this decade, and while it’s always a wild guess, Dr. Loftus thinks we could realistically see wildspread usage on Earth within 10 to 15 years.

The NASA Biocapsule I made now sits proudly on a shelf above my desk. It is almost certainly the coolest physical thing I have ever made. An artifact from the future. Every time I look at it I feel like I’m looking through a window into another time. Twenty years from now these capsules may be commonplace. We may all have them under our skin, keeping us safe on Earth—or maybe on Mars.

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nanoquadrobot

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Nano quadrotors: Watch a swarm of tiny robots fly in formation

Posted on 02 February 2012 by admin

From WashingtonPost.com

If you worry about the domestic use of drones, this video may give you nightmares.

The nano quadrotors flying in formation. (YouTube)

Since at least 2010, researchers at GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania have been working with nano quadrotors, managing to get them to fly aggressivelybuild a tower structure and now — fly in perfect formation.

The video posted by GRASP makes it clear the robots now know how to maintain distance from each other, shift positions when obstacles are in their way, and even fly in a figure-eight pattern. CNET reports that the research is a step toward coordinating robots for searching areas after a disaster, or for surveillance.

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With an Artificial Memory Chip, Rats Can Remember and Forget At the Touch of a Button

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With an Artificial Memory Chip, Rats Can Remember and Forget At the Touch of a Button

Posted on 02 February 2012 by admin

From PopSci.com

A new brain implant tested on rats restored lost memories at the flick of a switch, heralding a possible treatment method for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or amnesia. Such a “neural prosthesis” could someday be used to facilitate the memory-forming process and help patients remember.

The device can mimic the brain’s own neural signals, thereby serving as a surrogate for a piece of the brain associated with forming memories. If there is sufficient neural activity to trace, the device can restore memories after they have been lost. If it’s used with a normal, functioning hippocampus, the device can even enhance memory.

In the study, scientists at Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California trained rats to learn a task, pressing one lever after another to receive water. In a series of tests, the rats pressed one lever and were then distracted. They had to remember which one they’d already pressed and therefore which lever to press next, left or right, in order to receive their reward.

The team attached electrodes to the rats’ brains, connected to two areas in the hippocampus, called CA1 and CA3. Prior research has shown that the hippocampus converts short-term memory into long-term memory. The team recorded the signals between these regions as the rats performed their tasks, and then they drugged the rats so that the hippocampus regions could not communicate. The rats forgot which lever to press next, said Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineering professor at USC and lead author of the study, which is published in theJournal of Neural Engineering.

“The rats still showed that they knew ‘when you press left first, then press right next time, and vice-versa,’” Berger said. “And they still knew in general to press levers for water, but they could only remember whether they had pressed left or right for 5-10 seconds.”

Then, the team made an artificial hippocampus, which could duplicate the normal neural signals between the CA1 and CA3 regions. They turned it on, and replayed the previously recorded signal from CA1 — like a recorded message from the brain. The rats remembered.

“Flip the switch on, and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget,” Berger said.

Although this is a long way from being tested in humans, the research shows that if there’s enough information about the neural coding of memories, the signal patterns can be recorded and duplicated, and restored later through a neural implant. This could be difficult to do in patients with severely limited memory, as the New York Times points out — there needs to be a memory trace that can be recorded and amplified. But for patients with dementia, enhancing the memory-formation process can be useful — remembering where you put the keys, for instance, or where the bathroom is located. Simple memories like those could keep people independent for longer periods.

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The Pitch Drop Experiment

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The Pitch Drop Experiment

Posted on 01 February 2012 by admin

From the University of Queensland

The first Professor of Physics at the University of Queensland, Professor Thomas Parnell, began an experiment in 1927 to illustrate that everyday materials can exhibit quite surprising properties. The experiment demonstrates the fluidity and high viscosity of pitch, a derivative of tar once used for waterproofing boats. At room temperature pitch feels solid – even brittle – and can easily be shattered with a blow from a hammer. It’s quite amazing then, to see that pitch at room temperature is actually fluid!

In 1927 Professor Parnell heated a sample of pitch and poured it into a glass funnel with a sealed stem. Three years were allowed for the pitch to settle, and in 1930 the sealed stem was cut. From that date on the pitch has slowly dripped out of the funnel – so slowly that now, 80 years later, the ninth drop is only just forming.

The experiment was set up as a demonstration and is not kept under special environmental conditions (it is actually kept in a display cabinet in the foyer of the Department), so the rate of flow of the pitch varies with seasonal changes in temperature. Nonetheless, it is possible to make an estimate of the viscosity of this sample of pitch (R. Edgeworth, B.J. Dalton and T. Parnell, Eur. J. Phys (1984) 198-200). It turns out to be about 100 billion times more viscous than water! The picture above is of Professor John Mainstone, who currently maintains the experiment.

In the 80 years that the pitch has been dripping no-one has ever seen the drop fall. If you’re interested in trying your luck, or at least just having a look at the experiment, you can view it live below. You can also see students of The University of Queensland milling around outside the cabinet, so it is more exciting than watching grass grow!

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Forbes.com: Why We’re Party Animals

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Forbes.com: Why We’re Party Animals

Posted on 27 August 2011 by admin

 

Recently Forbes.com had an article about the recently released book “Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique” from Michael S. Gazzaniga.  The title is “Why We Are Party Animals” …

 

From Forbes.com:

At only 42 minutes old, we can mimic our mothers’ facial expressions. Few animals can ever do that. By age four, we are aliens, flamboyantly different from them, largely by virtue of what may be our most exceptional trait–our ability to pretend, prevaricate, play. We know more stuff than lesser animals, argues pioneering neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, but it may be our ability to make stuff up that most significantly sets us apart. One key reason we are so complex is simple: “We are party animals.”

Gazzaniga’s Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique is striking in its emphasis on the above and related notions. The often light-hearted, exuberant prose itself makes the point, which is unsurprising, as the writer is no ordinary talking head. He is chief of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, a President’s Council on Bioethics member and an alumnus of the Dartmouth frat on which Animal House was based. He convincingly claims advances in genetics, imaging and evolutionary psychology and biology are converging to give us an arresting new picture of the human brain.

Gazzaniga describes some of our unique qualities, and many we share with animals but express in a far more sophisticated way. Our brain has 100 trillion interneuronal pathways. It is constantly rewiring. Its neocortex is the best-connected.

But he contends that it’s our playful creativity that most dramatically distinguishes us. By age 18 months, we enter fictional worlds knowingly, understanding a banana is a bananaand a pretend phone. “How odd,” Gazzaniga muses, “this ability is not the sober culmination of intellectual development but instead makes its appearance playfully and precociously at the very beginning of childhood.” At this age, we also start curiously entering real worlds outside our own, revealing that we possess something adult chimps barely do: the start of empathy and theory of mind, the idea others have distinct brains with distinct thoughts.

By the time we are four, when the prefrontal cortex–a zone important to intellect–is growing exponentially, no animal or computer can mimic us. Our restless little minds are zooming about in “mental time travel,” unearthing feelings and thoughts from the past, then processing them into a biofuel that propels us ever more expertly into the future.

Conversely, by four we can also squelch our own perspectives and relate to those of others. The organic foundation is being laid for our unique ability to see “the almost infinite world beyond our present existence”; to toy with that vision, change it and revel in it via music, poetry, dance. Indeed, we can revel in the arts so intensely that our brains release dopamine, an opiate-linked pleasure chemical, which in turn propels us to explore more of that world to liberate more dopamine. Etcetera.

We end up with an ability to see, and find hypnotic, both the world’s science and its chaos. We interpret true and contingently true data; manipulate, mislead and feel the pain of others so effortlessly we “catch” contagious moods “in a single glance.” Citing computer scientist Jeff Hawkins, Gazzaniga says all this results in humans’ unique ability to make predictions about matters on stunningly diverse scales, from a child’s behavior to the fate of the planet; taken together, this is “the foundation of intelligence.”

Our creative flexibility is so fundamental to us it is clear “the arts are not frosting but baking soda.” Computers can’t compete since our brains “have a lot of hardwired systems, but unlike computers, the more software you load into them and the more internal connections that are forged, the faster and better they work.”

And we can of course out-reason any monkey or mackerel. But this quality owes much to our imaginations, which keep us fishing hungrily for the data on which reason thrives, from the tactile sensations of the world to the mechanics of how it works. He agrees with the founders of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides: “Children should live according to behaviorally imperative aesthetic sensibilities in an aesthetics-drenched world.”

Certainly, he says, we are animals. Children unaware of Africa often prefer landscapes of savanna trees, with spreading canopies, to their own–possibly an innate recognition that such trees meant “rest” to ancient ancestors.

He also notes our amazing mental gymnastics may undo us. If we genetically engineer people who aren’t anxious, is this good or bad? Suggesting anxious people may be “the canaries of the world,” he asks: “Are the things we consider problems really problems, or are they solutions for larger problems that we haven’t considered?”

Many artists will disagree with his contention that we like art largely because it is easily processed. (We won’t soon “put an end to long windbag discussions about art.”) The degree to which he believes ethical sensibilities seem hardwired may prove controversial.

And debate rages over whether our differences from other animals arose during one sudden phase shift, as he argues, or a series of logical steps. But the sheer number of solid and intriguing studies Gazzaniga eloquently presents–including some from his own highly impressive body of work–allow readers to celebrate, with him, our unique ability to celebrate the world, to party like no other animal in it.

Cynthia Fox is the author of W.W. Norton’s Cell of Cells: The Global Race to Capture and Control the Stem Cell.

 

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