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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Great stuff this week on the possible neurological origin of consciousness, bug-killing paint, free college classes and gorillas learning how to destroy poaching traps. Oh, and more squid sex.

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Bring it ASAP! I just had a cockroach in my house that was big enough to move furniture. Insecticidal paint can’t get to Florida fast enough for me. 

8. The good kind of inflation

Since I’m petitioning for Florida to get bug-killing paint I might as well petition for one of these new inflatable heat shields from NASA because it’s 96 degrees in the shade, leading many of you to wonder why I don’t just move. 

It’s because all my stuff is here.

The inflatable heat shield is actually not some sun umbrella, it’s IRVE-3, the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3 , designed to withstand intense temperatures and hypersonic speeds and which will further enable our ability to explore Mars…including missions with humans. The prototype of the heat shield was packed into a 22-inch nose cone but when unfurled it expands to ten feet. I have jeans that work exactly like that.

The entire thing consists of “a cone made up of inflatable rings wrapped in thermal blankets,” and weighs 680 pounds, reports Denise Chow of (if you click on the link you’ll see it looks like a perfect little mushroom). This week’s tests proved successful : the whole suborbital flight took 20 minutes and the shield proved able to withstand about 1000 degrees, speeds of up to Mach 10 (10 times the speed of sound) and 20 G’s of force (20 times the force of gravity). The shield would give more options for where to land exploratory vehicles, like higher altitudes, or, as NASA’s Neil Cheatwood, IRVE-3 principal investigator at NASA's Langley Research Center explained they can “use this technology for larger payloads, such as humans.”

Have never been called a “payload.” Have been called worse. Will take it.

Neat! Should we order one for Greenland

9. Why we are what we are

So far that’s a really impressive list of scientific findings but one of the most intriguing tasks of science is the brain trying to understand itself.  

Caroline Williams of New Scientst, wrote an amazing neuroscience story this week which focuses not just on why we do what we do but why we are what we are: sentient, intelligent, empathetic creatures. It feels all the more important to read about these highest aspects of our species after the nightmare story of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado wherein the alleged shooter, James Holmes, had, in a horrible irony, once studied neuroscience .

The key to “the  rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships,” Williams writes, might lie in a 90 year-old discovery of a particular type of brain cell called a VEN - Von Economo neuron - after its discoverer, Constantin von Economo. VENs make up just one percent of the “anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex,” areas that activate when we need to respond to social cues, “emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief,” when mothers hear crying babies, when we need to respond to pressing events and when we see ourselves in a mirror, “a key component of consciousness.” 

At first it was hoped that VENs would turn out to be something that made humanity unique but the cells are also found in social creatures with “advanced behavior” like elephants, dolphins and chimps - yet they also have been spotted in giraffes and manatees (fascinating side note: elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors).

This is a piece that’s well worth reading in it’s entirety, about how the VENs may have evolved, why they might be related to shared food in our social culture, how their locations might be different in the brains of social and less social creatures.

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