from the world's big
Something weird and wonderful is at a Paris zoo
The blob that's astonishing science gets its own exhibit.
- In recognition of its amazing traits, a zoo has just invited slime mold into its ranks.
- Neither plant, and probably not a fungus, slime molds may represent a major turning point in our understanding of intelligence.
- Of course, the French zoo is calling it "Le Blob."
It acts a bit like a fungus, but fungi are no longer considered plants, but rather exemplars of their own classification kingdom. Still, though, it's not that much like fungi. Current thinking is that its amoeba-like behavior makes it more like an animal, and a fascinating one that raises some profound questions. Though there's plenty of controversy surrounding the moral validity of zoos, earning its place in one must still be considered a promotion of sorts. So congratulations, slime mold, and welcome to Parc Zoologique de Paris!
Meet Le Blob
Image source: yamaoyaji/Shutterstock
Known informally as Le Blob, the Parisian ambassador of the phylum Myxomycetes is actually a sample of Physarum polycephalum. It's certainly among the park's most exotic inhabitants, and maybe the type of organism you'd prefer to become acquainted with in a zoo, rather than out in the world, where it can grow up to several feet in size. Slime molds are roughly as common as tardigrades, and like water bears, they're practically indestructible: Not only can one heal itself in a couple of minutes after being split in half, but it can also dry out and seemingly die, only to spring back to life upon re-moistening.
Slime mold isn't pretty, at least until one views it at microscopic scale, where its tiny "fingers," limbs called pseudopods, exhibit a definite delicacy. To our eyes, it's an amorphous, yellow, um, thing, that's been described as looking like dog vomit. It's only that color in its early stages, though: Slime mold later turns gray, and then dissolves into a brown powder.
The unicellular organism is something like a big bag of nuclei, merging as it does with other slime molds it encounters. One of its affectionate monikers is the "many-headed slime." Despite the fact that it lives sans eyes, mouth, or stomach, it moves to acquire its food, mostly bacteria, yeast, and fungi.
Another one of slime mold's headline traits is the manner in which it reproduces. Le Blob releases spores that develop into one of 720 types of different sex cells that pair off with genetically matching sex cells to reproduce.
The really mind-blowing thing about slime molds — even calling into question the meaning of the word "mind" itself — is that it can formulate strategies for getting past obstacles and to its meal, and it can learn and remember its routes despite having no brain whatsoever (that we know of) and no neurons. It's such unexpected behavior that some scientists suggest that it sets the meaning of the words "learn" and "remember" themselves tumbling down a semantic rabbit hole.
But wait, there's more. As the zoo's Bruno David says, "If you merge two blobs, the one that has learned will transmit its knowledge to the other." What?
Brainless and smart
We've written before about the amazing intelligence of P. polycephalum, a characteristic which alone makes it worthy of zoo visitor's attention, perhaps especially in France, where its smarts were discovered. "The blob is a living being which belongs to one of nature's mysteries," says David, in what may be an understatement.
The studies that revealed what Le Blob can do were performed at Toulouse University's Research Centre on Animal Cognition (CNRS). Scientists there, led by Audrey Dussutour, above, demonstrated slime mold's ability to exhibit habituated learning, and even to pass it to other slime molds.
In the tests, slime molds were blocked off from a favorite food, an oats and agar mixture, by barriers composed of three substances they find repellently bitter: salt, caffeine, and quinine. (Not harmful, just nasty to slime molds.) The slime molds, after a brief period of trying them out, soon learned they could safely traverse these barriers to no ill effect, and in a few days weren't even slowed down by them.
When the subjects were allowed to merge with other slime molds that had not been habituated to the contaminates, the resulting blob moved right across the barriers without hesitation. (During merging, a prominent vein between two slimes suggested a possible pathway for exchange of knowledge.)
As far as learning goes, slime molds were then allowed to dry out and "die," and demonstrated that upon resuscitation their food-acquisition strategy remarkably remained.
It may be that blobs are generally pretty great at brainless-teasers altogether. A separate study done at Keio University in Japan found that they're better than some computer algorithms at solving the "Traveling Salesman Problem."
Is it learning?
Image source: flickr user Björn S…
Obviously, an organism learning and remembering without a brain calls into question our assumption that brains and neurons are required. As Dussutour says, "that such organisms have the capacity to learn has considerable implications beyond recognizing learning in nonneural systems."
According to Chris Reid, of Macquarie University in Australia, "By classical definitions of habituation, this primitive unicellular organism is learning, just as animals with brains do." He adds, "Most neuroscientists I have talked to about slime mold intelligence are quite happy to accept that the experiments are valid and show similar functional outcomes to the same experiments performed on animals with brains."
Not surprisingly, not everyone is convinced. Says Tufts' University's Michael Levin, "Neuroscientists are objecting to the 'devaluing' of the specialness of the brain." Suggesting they might relax, he adds, "Brains are great, but we have to remember where they came from. Neurons evolved from nonneural cells, they did not magically appear."
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>